Tales From Istanbul

Galatasaray vs. Chelsea : 26 February 2014.

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

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

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

That moment.

Would seeing him again spoil the purity of that memory?

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

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

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

“Jack Kerouaglu.”

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

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

“It’s what I live for.”

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

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

It was breath-taking stuff.

And I was loving it.

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

“Take it all in, Chris, my son.”

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

I had arrived.

Buzzing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah – good times.

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

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

I’ve never had roast chestnuts before.

“When in Istanbul.”

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

I slept well. I probably dreamed of roast chestnuts.

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

Never trust a nation which eats lettuce for breakfast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart jumped.

Asia. Bloody hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A city of contrasts? You bet.

Inside the Grand Bazaar, another world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I noted lots of Chelsea flags – and some new.

Away in the distance were three Chelsea Bulgaria flags.

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

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

Fcuk off.

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

The atmosphere was rising.

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

“Yeah, right.”

Then, a chant especially for us –

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

We replied –

“We Are Chelsea, Istanbul.”

Then, the teams entered the pitch.

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

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

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

The sulfurous aroma filled my nostrils.

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

Our team –

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

For them –

Number 11 – Didier Drogba, plus ten others.

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

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

YESSSSSSSSSSS!

What a joyous moment.

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

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

“Your Support Is Facking Shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pah.

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

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

It was so loud, it almost hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manchester City 0 Barcelona 2.

Arsenal 0 Bayern Munich 2.

Olimpiakos 2 Manchester United 0.

Galatasaray 1 Chelsea 1.

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

This year might be no exception.

IMG_5204

Photographs From Istanbul :

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

Tales From A Road Less Travelled

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 11 January 2014.

My seemingly never-ending trail around the highways and byways of England and Wales, after consecutive away days in Hampshire and Derbyshire, now had me heading up to Yorkshire for Chelsea’s lunchtime encounter with Hull City. I once described Hull as England’s forgotten city, but following Hull City’s promotion to the top flight in 2008, at least football fanciers are now aware of the city on the banks of the River Humber. This would be a long day, but one that I was relishing.

At 5am the alarm sounded and I was soon cobbling together my match day essentials. I noted that a few fans were already referencing an “Only Fools And Horses” episode on “Facebook.”

“To Hull and back.”

I soon collected Parky at 6.30am and we soon dipped in to McChippenham for our standard football breakfast.

Within minutes, we had crossed the M4 and were heading north on the straight-as-a-dye Fosse Way once again. This ancient Roman road, which stretches from Exeter to Lincoln, is especially picturesque in The Cotswolds, linking small knots of hamlets with larger market towns, each with dwellings built from the local golden stone. At around 7.30am, we saw the sun rise to the east. The road was quiet. The Cotswolds were as photogenic as ever, even in the height of winter. By 8.30am, there was nothing but a clear blue sky overhead.

“I love this time of the day, Parky. Dawn breaking, with a long trip ahead. Perfect.”

Our route eventually took us right through the heart of much-maligned Coventry. The inner-city ring road hurtled us past the two recent former homes of the city’s football team. I would imagine that most Coventry City fans are rueing the club’s decision to move out of Highfield Road, a perfectly fine stadium in the heart of the city, and then decamp to the now abandoned Ricoh Arena. Coventry’s football club now play at Northampton Town’s stadium and this is just a miserable state of affairs.

“This town is coming like a ghost town.”

Our F.A. Cup visit to the Ricoh in 2009 may turn out to be our solitary one.

Just after 9am, we collected Andy from his house in Nuneaton. I’ve been good mates with Andy for almost twenty years (Prague 1994). However, for almost ten years before that, his was a face that I often used to spot at various stadia. I recognised him at first from our travels back to the midlands from Euston station after Chelsea home games. For a spell, it seemed that I couldn’t help noticing him at home games – he used to stand in front of the Bovril Gate in The Shed – and most away games too. I even remember spotting him in Glasgow for a Rangers game in 1986 on a day when there was no Chelsea match.

“Bloody hell, I can’t get away from him.”

Twenty-eight years later, we were headed off to Hull City in the same car.  It’s weird how these things work themselves out.

We then stopped at a nearby village to collect Alan (aka “The Youth”) and his twelve year old son Seb (collectively known as “The Two Ronnies”). In the same way that my home town of Frome used to supply around six to eight fans for many Chelsea games, Andy’s home of Nuneaton used to supply even greater numbers. Whereas, Frome’s presence has dwindled to just a couple, many of the Nuneaton boys still go. On one memorable occasion in 1997, we arranged to play a Chelsea South (essentially Frome and London) versus a Chelsea Nuneaton six-a-side game at a sport centre off the King’s Road on the morning of a Chelsea vs. Manchester United match. The Nuneaton chaps were clear winners, winning 6-1 if memory serves. Good times. We’re long overdue a re-match.

For the second time in under a week, I was headed up the M42. Rather than turn off for Derby, I joined the M1. After all of my journeys up the west side of the midlands for games in Lancashire and Merseyside, this made a refreshing change. Due to the reluctance of both Sheffield teams and Leeds United to join Chelsea in top-flight football, this was certainly a road less travelled. A solitary game at Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006 has been our only league match at these two cities for ages. It is likely that some new Chelsea fans are completely unaware of the existence of Sheffield Wednesday – unwilling to look beyond the Premier League – such has their status plummeted over the past fifteen years. Maybe some fans believe Sheffield Wednesday to be a type of cake, or a breed of cattle, or a type of rifle.

As I drove north, we spoke of previous visits to see Chelsea play at Hull City.

“Didn’t we play them twice in the F.A. Cup years and years ago?”

“Yeah, 1982…and then again, when the third round was played before Christmas, in 1999.”

“There was that 4-0 League Cup win.”

“Two midweek league games.”

This would only be my second visit to the K.C. stadium to see us play.

“That Frank Lampard chip.”

Surprisingly, I spotted no other Chelsea cars headed north. In addition to the smoke billowing out from the cooling towers of several power stations, there were many wind turbines on the hills to the distance. Here was evidence of the changing face of England in 2014. We swung around, passing Sheffield and then Doncaster, before heading due east on the M62. The sky was still a brilliant blue. Eventually, the Humber Bridge – once the World’s longest single span suspension bridge – came in to view. It’s quite striking, to be honest.

Then, the city of Hull.

A while ago, this grey city ranked “numero uno” in a list of “Crap Towns of Britain” but I can’t honestly comment, since my visits have been such short-lived affairs. If the football club remain in the top flight for more than one season, and if the kick-off slot is more conducive, I promise to take a walk around the recently rejuvenated dock area and try to eke out some worthwhile sights. In 1973, on a family visit to nearby Grimsby, we spent a day in Hull and I remember a visit to the William Wilberforce Museum, devoted to the man who is most credited for abolishing slavery within the British Empire.

Back in the early ‘eighties, one of my favourite bands were formed at Hull University, taking their name from a slogan used by a furniture shop.

“For all your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.”

Hull, like Wigan, is a rugby league town. I’d imagine that Hull would be quite content to emulate Wigan Athletic; in the top flight for eight years with an F.A. Cup and European football thrown in for good measure. Our approach into the city was along Clive Sullivan way, named after one of Hull’s favourite rugby league players. Very soon, we spotted the white floodlight pylons of the K.C. Stadium and we were soon parked-up.

It was 11.45am.

The cold wind was a shock to the system, but we were soon inside, amongst familiar Chelsea faces within the concourse behind the northern goal. There was just time for a pint and a pie. A proud banner reminded us that the city had been awarded the title of the U.K. City of Culture for 2017.

I reached my seat a few moments before the teams walked out. I’d imagine we had around 2,500 tickets for this game, together in one tier behind the goal. It was clear that the “gobby” element of the home support were adjacent, to our left, just like at Wigan in fact.

Still clear blue skies.

As the game commenced, I quickly scanned the team and approved.

Luiz in midfield alongside Ramires? No complaints.

However, despite my liking of the Cole/Terry/Cahill/Azpilicueta defensive line, Ashley Cole was continually tested in the first period of the game by several Hull City bursts. We seemed to take a while to get out of the traps and the home team managed a few efforts on Petr Cech’s goal.

The banter on the terraces had started early. The home fans in the corner were firing some bullets our way.

“Here for the culture. You’re only here for the culture.”

“You’re soft. You’re southerners.”

“We support our local team.”

…bollocks, you were all Leeds fans ten years ago.

John Terry gave the ball away right in front of me, but thankfully Sagbo snatched at his shot and the ball flashed wide of the far post. Soon after, our first real chance was provided by an excellent piece of attacking play by Cole and Hazard. Our Belgian maestro crossed the ball to the waiting Oscar and the entire Chelsea end expected a goal. The Brazilian’s shot, though powerful, was right at Alan McGregor, who ably deflected the ball over. I turned away, mouthing “great save” and noticed a few others saying the same.

The home fans were again singing.

“Silverware, we don’t care. Hull City everywhere.”

In truth, there was little noise emanating from the Chelsea faithful as the first-half wore on. Maybe it was the early kick-off which affected our quietness. A late free-kick from David Luiz forced another fine save from the Hull ‘keeper, but there seemed to be a general malaise from team and supporters alike in the lunchtime sun. Both Alan and Gary, who had travelled up from London by train, were of the same opinion as me; we needed to up the tempo, create space, move for each other. Very often, Hull were able to smother our play.

“Bloody hell, we can go top today. That should be all the motivation the players need.”

“I’m sure Jose will sort it at the break.”

Soon after the restart, a ridiculously high and wide effort from Luiz almost reached the corner flag.

“Bloody hell.”

Thankfully, our pressure steadily increased. We were awarded another free-kick and again David Luiz took control. With Gary Cahill standing in the wall, he turned and broke away, allowing Luiz to aim for the space he had vacated. In truth, the dipping ball was easy for the ‘keeper to shield.

A gorgeous dribble from Hazard right into the Hull penalty area, but his shot was smacked wide. Just after, a fine interchange between Luiz and Cole set up Eden Hazard. What happened next was pure joy.

Hazard advanced at speed, sold the defender the most delightful dummy by feinting to shoot, then slammed the ball in at the base of the left post.

Get in!

The Chelsea end roared and Hazard ran to milk the applause, with a knowing smirk which shouted “yeah, I know, that was the bollocks, wasn’t it?”He was soon mobbed by his team mates. We were on our way.

At the birthplace of Everything But The Girl, Eden had registered a hit.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea choir soon greeted our goal with the most obvious chant of the season –

“We are top’o’the league. Say, we are top’o’the league.”

Is it me, or does anyone else think that this chant always seems to be carried out in a Geordie accent?

The noise from the Chelsea fans clearly upset the home fans, who responded with the dreary “City Till I Die” dirge.

Chelsea then responded –

“Hull City Tigers – You Know What You Are.”

Ouch. That must’ve hurt. However, I have a feeling that this particular ditty must have been sung at Hull on many other occasions this season because their response was quick, loud and most definitely to the point.

“I’d rather be a tiger than a cnut.”

A few Chelsea smiles greeted that one.

Chelsea again tested Hull with a few more efforts and Hull were fading fast. However, Mourinho replaced Oscar with Mikel and we expected a tightening of our play.

A 1-0 victory would do for me.

With the game heading towards its conclusion, Willian – who had enjoyed another all-action display – played the ball through to Fernando Torres. Torres had toiled hard all game, but had been fed just scraps. Here was a chance for him to excel, enjoying the exact type of ball with which he so often thrived at Anfield. He pushed the ball forward, drifted past his marker and once inside the box quickly dispatched the ball low with his left foot. McGregor was beaten and the net rippled.

No smirking from Nando. Just relief that his weaker left peg had not let him down.

2-0, game over.

I pulled out of Hull bang on 3pm and I then battled the falling sun as I headed due west. There was a small amount of reflection on the game. In truth, we were hardly troubled. The concern at half-time soon disappeared as the second-half developed and Chelsea’s superiority told. Another three points, top of the league, having a laugh.

It was a tiring drive home. I fought the yawns with copious supplies of caffeine. There were plenty of laughs as we headed south.

We bade our farewells to Alan and Seb :

“It’s goodnight from me.”

“And it’s goodnight from him.”

And then Andy :

“See you next Sunday, God bless.”

As so often happens, I inevitably contrived to get lost in the Bermuda Triangle just south of Coventry. Every damn time, this happens. If ever I go missing over the next few years, I suggest they send a search party out to search the roads around bloody Warwick, bloody Kenilworth and bloody Leamington bloody Spa.

As we headed south on the Fosse, Parky played a couple of CDs from the ‘eighties. We passed Moreton-in-Marsh to the sound of ABC, Stow on the Wold to the sound of The Beat and Cirencester to the sound of Bauhaus.

I eventually reached home at 9pm, fell asleep on the sofa, missed “Match of the Day” and awoke at 4am. I turned over and fell back to sleep.

Top of the league, I’m having a kip.

IMG_4376

Tales From Kensington And Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 27 October 2013.

There was a small but steady flow of fellow match goers walking past the rows of gravestones within the confines of Brompton Cemetery. Most spoke with local accents but there were a few rogue Northerners too. There was the occasional royal blue and white bar scarf of the home team. Just the merest hint that a football match was soon to be taking place nearby. However, the light grey steel of the roof of Stamford Bridge’s East Stand was clearly visible above the western boundary wall and the intrusive sounds of the stadium public address system echoed off the surrounding buildings and disturbed the otherwise quiet calm of a Sunday afternoon in England’s capital city. This approach to the home of Chelsea Football Club was a break from the norm for me; I had only ever walked through this central pathway, flanked by military-like ranks of grey gravestones of various sizes and shapes, on one other occasion. Much to my consternation, I had been unable to locate the gravestone of Chelsea founder Gus Mears when I paid the cemetery a visit on a winter evening in 2006. In 2013, the same stone was proving to be just as elusive. Many of the tombstones had subsided and the script on many had faded. In some ways, the cemetery was frozen in time; apart from a few exceptions – new gravestones with fresh flowers – most were dated from 1875 to 1915. I wondered how many of the resting souls had witnessed football at Stamford Bridge during our inaugural years.

The weather was mild; we had been warned to expect rainstorms and thunderous gales, but the day had not brought forth the expected deluge. The sky was cloudy and grey, but the autumnal air was dry.

Let me explain why my approach to Stamford Bridge involved a slow perambulation past the final resting places of many of West London’s most notable Victorian and Edwardian residents. On Friday and Saturday, I had been laid low with a sudden and searing back pain. I came to the quick conclusion that it would not be beneficial for me to be imprisoned in The Goose before the Chelsea vs. Manchester City game; instead, I wanted to embark on a walk through the streets of London and – hopefully – enable my ailing body to keep supple and to recuperate. The last thing I wanted was for it to seize up, mid-pint, in a packed and claustrophobic pub.

So, I was on my own. I had left Lord Parky, Young Jake and Young Kris to head off to the boozer at 12.45pm, while I slowly walked to Earl’s Court. My travels then took me to Knightsbridge and I dipped into a couple of famous shops. It is a part of London that I know well. Famously, our former chairman Ken Bates often used the tagline that Stamford Bridge was “only one and a half miles from Harrods” in his prolonged fight to keep football at our only home. In short, he meant that Stamford Bridge was London’s most centrally-located football stadium and that this key fact should be cherished and protected. In one of Harrods food halls, I had spotted a young boy wearing a Chelsea shirt and I managed a little chuckle to myself about this particular lad’s pre-match routine compared to the crowded interior of The Goose that I am so familiar with.

I had then left the tourists and the shoppers in my wake as I slowly headed west, my back now healing fast; I had made a wise move, I was improving with every step. I walked past the perfectly maintained town houses of Kensington and Chelsea on my slow march towards Stamford Bridge, located in the adjacent borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Parts of the two neighbouring boroughs are quite dissimilar.

The North End Road is not Eaton Square.

Finally, on Fulham Road, more spectators appeared and suddenly the buzz was there. This was a match day; a big match day at that. Although results went against us on the Saturday, here was a chance to put ourselves right back into the mix at the very top of the division. On “Match of the Day” the previous evening, I had bristled with excitement when I heard Alan Hansen summarise this season’s championship race.

“Some people say the race is wide open this year. I don’t think it is. I think it’s between Chelsea and Manchester City.”

I had to agree. Although both Arsenal and Liverpool have begun their respective seasons with surprisingly fine results, I simply don’t see their strength of squads being able to withstand a thirty-eight game onslaught for the title. Manchester United, struggling under a new manager, seem uncharacteristically brittle. Tottenham show promise, but there are question marks. Southampton and Everton are fine teams, but way off a title challenge.

Chelsea and Manchester City however, appear to be best set for a sustained title bid.

As I skirted past the programme sellers by the main gates, I knew that City would provide a very stern test for us. They did, after all, have our number in all of the games – all six of them – we played last season. We only had one measly draw (0-0, Benitez’ first game…) to show for our efforts against the light blues of Manchester. Chelsea were treated to nothing but defeats in Birmingham, Manchester, Wembley, St. Louis and New York. Physically strong in midfield, potent in attack, they were formidable opponents. If anything, despite the loss of Tevez, their team has improved since 2012-2013. And yet…and yet…should Chelsea inflict a defeat on Manuel Pelligrini’s team at Stamford Bridge, City would be staring at three defeats out of just nine league games.

I bristled with excitement again.

I was inside the stadium with time to spare. Manchester City had again sold their full allocation of three thousand; it isn’t always the case. As I have said on numerous occasions, I’ve never really had much of a problem with Manchester City. Their old stadium deep in the heart of South Central Manchester, nestled alongside the red brick houses of Moss Side, was a favourite away ground and their supporters, inflatable bananas and all, always seemed to be able to take the piss out of themselves, which is a trait that I admire. It was always Ken Bates’ boast – sorry, him again – for Chelsea to be the Manchester United of the South. However, for many seasons, as Chelsea lunged and lurched from one near-miss to another, I couldn’t help but think that we were more like the Manchester City of the South. Both clubs had massive potential, exuberant fan bases, but limited successes. Both clubs lived in the shadows of others.

In 2013, the two clubs have been twinned once again; new money, an expanding fan base, success.

If I’m honest – brutally honest – I’m finding it hard to develop much of an antipathy for them. Chelsea has obvious long-standing loathing of Tottenham and Leeds, maybe even Arsenal and Manchester United. We have nurtured a relatively new dislike for Liverpool since 2005. Is there room for another club to hate?

“Only if City are successful” I hear the cry.

My usual match day companion Alan was on holiday in Spain and so I chatted to Tom, who was concerned for my safe passage back to Somerset later in the day in light of the threat of gales and rain.

The teams entered the pitch. After Tuesday in Gelsenkirchen, it was no surprise that Fernando Torres got the call. Elsewhere, Juan Mata had missed out in favour of Andre Schurrle. At the back, Gary Cahill continued to partner John Terry. Jose Mourinho again favoured Ramires and Sir Frank. It was reassuring to witness the return of Ashley Cole.

City’s team of superstars included the excellent Toure, Aguero and Silva.

Game on.

We were forced to attack the Matthew Harding in the first-half.

We began well and Gary Cahill squandered a great chance within the first few minutes, but Manchester City soon rose to the challenge. After a while, the youngsters Kris and Jake sidled in next to me.

“Good time in the pub, boys?”

“Oh yes.”

Throughout the match, I was constantly annoyed to see that Toure was afforded yards of space. His was a brooding presence, pacing around the midfield, waiting to pounce like only he can do.

Then, Torres had a couple of chances to strike. Although he looked offside on the second one, he shot wildly over with only Joe Hart to beat. Instead of yells of abuse, the crowd were seemingly sympathetic.

In the far corner, the City fans were quiet, rousing only occasionally.

“We’re Not Really Here.”

I have to be honest, despite a 4pm kick-off (code for “more beers”) and a top-of-the-table clash, the atmosphere was pretty quiet. Then, the game changed. Torres picked up the ball around thirty-five yards out and decided to run at Clichy. On some occasions, Nando appears to be running in quick sand. On others, he glides past players. With his turn of pace catching Clichy on the back foot, he easily outpaced the former Arsenal left-back. He drilled a low ball across the six yard box and the trailing Demechelis was unable to stop the ball reaching the onrushing Andre Schurrle.

1-0 Chelsea and The Bridge awoke in a crescendo of noise. Schurrle pumped his fists towards the MHL and then pointed towards Torres. It had been a superb run. Torres’ earlier miss was soon forgotten.

Next, Torres on fire, down below me, teasing a City defender before striking a rasping shot which curled enticingly on its trajectory toward goal. The ball thundered against the bar. It was a fantastic shot. How unlucky. City issued a warning signal in the dying moments of the half as Aguero shot at Cech from an angle but our ‘keeper fought away the strike with the minimum of effort.

It had been an interesting game of football in the first-half. I sensed that it had been bubbling along nicely and that, as so often is the case, the game would provide more adventure in the second period.

Sadly, Manchester City soon struck in the second-half. Samir Nasri sent through a slide-rule pass to Aguero, with our defence unable to match his movement. With hardly any back lift, the striker unleashed a bullet which beat Cech at his near post.

1-1.  Game on, again.

Although I think we edged the first-half, Manchester City now seemed to step up a gear and were on the front foot. Our defence, previously well-marshalled by the excellent Terry in the first-half, appeared vulnerable. In midfield, there was little bite. However, with the indefatigable Ivanovic charging up and down the right flank with all of his old spirit, we managed a foot hold in the game. A header from Torres was aimed straight at Hart and a Terry effort was touched over. Cech saved superbly from Silva. This was brewing up to be quite a game. The mood inside the stadium was of nervous concern though; here was evidence enough that the home supporters viewed City as an accomplished team. The atmosphere again struggled to get going.

Mourinho rang the changes. A clearly tiring Lampard was replaced by the steadying calm of Mikel and Schurrle was replaced by Willian. A few chances were exchanged and then Samuel Eto’o was chosen to replace Hazard. I was still nervously expecting a City goal at any moment. A free-kick from Willian flew past the far post at The Shed End.

The minutes ticked by.

Then, with not long to go before the final whistle, a Willian header was lofted high into the City half. Nastasic was being chased by Torres and headed the ball goalwards, but his touch was heavy and cleared the on-rushing Hart.

The stadium gulped.

We watched, breathlessly, as Torres continued his run and then stabbed the ball in from an angle.

Mayhem. Absolute mayhem.

2-1 Chelsea.

The place was pumping now alright.

Torres raced over to the corner and was soon mobbed by team mates. I was so pleased for him. Please God let him enjoy these moments of salvation. Under the astute man management skills of Mourinho, there is a bright future ahead. I’ve certainly noticed a greater show of strength from Torres this season; he looks more robust, his chest seems more muscular, his body more tuned for the rigours ahead. If his head stays positive, goals will follow.

In the ensuing thirty seconds, I still expected City to score.

We all did, right?

The ball was pumped into the Chelsea box one last time.

It was cleared.

All eyes were on the much maligned Howard Webb. I punched the air as he signalled the end of the game.

Manchester City – one of the title favourites – had now lost three out of nine league games.

Chelsea – on a roll – were up to second place.

The future looks fine.

And back ache? What back ache?

IMG_2791

Tales From The High Road

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 28 September 2013.

I was cutting this one a bit fine. Despite leaving home in good time, I only reached Seven Sisters tube station at midday. The Tottenham vs. Chelsea game was due to start in just forty-five minutes. I ascended the elevators and steps and soon found myself on the Tottenham High Road. The warm September weather surprised me; I threw my rain jacket behind my shoulder and began walking north. This was a well-travelled path for me. And for thousands of Chelsea fans like me.

One of my favourite passages of Chelsea prose over the years came from the pen of the venerable Chelsea scribe Scott Cheshire. After another F.A. Cup Semi-Final replay defeat against Arsenal in 1952, closely following on from the same scenario in 1950, I remember his words as he described the long and painful walk south from White Hart Lane, a Wembley Cup Final appearance having just evaporated in the spring air once more. In 1952 remember, Chelsea had not one item of silverware to our name while Arsenal were the great London rivals with trophies aplenty. Scott Cheshire spoke of the depressing familiarity of Chelsea failure as he trudged through puddles alongside hundreds of other typically disheartened Chelsea fans. The sense of longing and the yearning for a trophy struck a chord as I read his evocative words in the mid-‘nineties. It seems that every time I repeat my walk to White Hart Lane, past the Turkish cafes, the colourful Asian clothes shops, the hardware stores, the supermarkets, the pubs and the eastern European convenience stores, I am walking with Scott Cheshire and all of those hopeful Chelsea fans from a greyer time over sixty years ago.

The day had begun with a cursory flick through a few Facebook updates. The match in London N17 was clearly the main event. There were a few references to the publicity in the media about the continued presence of the “Y” word at Tottenham games. A couple of classic lines from a Nick Love film were popular too. I wonder why.

“Up and at em! Early start for Y word away!”

“Time to rise and shine. Spurts away beckons, see some of you at that wonderful part of London!”

“What else are ya gonna do on a Saturday. Tottenham away. Love it!!”

“Off to cheer on the only London club to win the European cup.”

“Off out to catch a rattler to meet up with some of the chaps for a couple before going on to cheer on London’s first and finest against the Ys.”

“What else ya gonna do on a Saturday? I know what I’d rather do! Tottenham away… luv it!!”

“En route to Three Point Lane.”

“Very soon I’ll be off to our biggest away of the season. Tottenham away.”

“Tottenham oy vey. Love it.”

I entered the fray –

“The Biggest Away Game Of The Season. Why? Tottenham. That’s Why.”

After the faux rivalry of Fulham the previous Saturday, this was the real deal, the main event. I have detailed our ridiculous dominance over our bitterest rivals since 1990 many times before; to go over old ground seems pointless.

Just like Tottenham.

As I headed north – “head down, avoid eye-contact, be wary” – police sirens wailed and a phalanx of police vans raced past. I wondered what was going on a mile or so to the north. A Tottenham versus Chelsea encounter, even after all these years, still has an edge. Old habits die hard. There may not be the widespread violence of the ‘eighties, but the intense dislike – yes, hate, even – is still there. It is now standard form for the main body of Chelsea to meet at The Railway and The Hamilton Hall down at Liverpool Street and then travel up to Northumberland Avenue. For me, travelling up from Somerset, the early kick-off made this a non-starter. I wasn’t worried. On the drive to London, my head was full of thoughts of Swindon last Tuesday, the War Zone at Tottenham and Steaua Bucharest away on the following Tuesday, to say nothing of the game in deepest Norfolk the following weekend.

Four consecutive away games; tick, tick, tick, tick.

I reached the corner of the High Road and Park Lane at 12.25pm. There were a few familiar faces in and amongst the Spurs fans, but I had no time to dwell. I skirted past a couple of police vans and soon joined the short line outside the entrance to the away section of White Hart Lane; prison blocks have been more architecturally appealing. Tottenham, of course, have been given the green light to build a new stadium just a hundred yards or so to the north of their current stadium. My conscience was pricked slightly; that’ll be three London team with new stadia, while Chelsea will be limited to 41,500. Will we be left behind, struggling to compete against the larger, potential, attendances at Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham? In October 2011, should I, and the other CPO shareholders, have meekly surrendered our certificates to the club so that they could earnestly begin a search for a new home? The answer is still no. I hear rumours, just whispered at the moment, of the Hammersmith & Fulham council desperately trying to entice the club into redeveloping the Stamford Bridge site and the club, again, whispered rumours, being slightly more willing to listen than in the past. I have a feeling that this one will run and run, like a Jesper Gronkjaer dribble. My stance on this has not wavered.

I, like many more Chelsea fans – as per the recent Chelsea Supporters Trust survey – believe that tradition and history, and that difficult to describe notion of “community and brotherhood” are just as important as an overpowering lust for silverware. Staying at Stamford Bridge is wrapped up in all of this.

I soon met up with Alan and Gary and we took our seats. There was little time for chat. The players soon appeared on the pitch. Chelsea, for the first time in a while, were back to wearing white socks at White Hart Lane. Spurs have changed their kit yet again. Last year’s all white kit has now given way to white / navy / navy. As a kid, it was always white / navy / white. Every two or three years, it seems that Spurs try a different combination. It would drive me crazy. What was I saying about tradition?

We reviewed the team. Would Ramires be playing wide right with both Lamps and Mikel starting? The three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice as the match began. I always remember White Hart Lane, back when they longed to beat us, as having a very hostile atmosphere. In truth, the Spurs support before the whistle seemed subdued. I commented to a fellow fan that it is ironic that Fernando Torres is now many Chelsea supporters’ favoured striker.

“It’s a case of addition by subtraction.”

With Lukaku out of the picture, Torres’ stock has now risen.

The match began.

Down on the touchline, in the technical area, Jose stood, hands in pockets. He ignored the home fans’ shouts of “sit down Mourinho.” Villas-Boas, so often the fidgeting, crouching figure while at Chelsea, was nowhere to be seen. At times, it is hard to believe what has happened to Villas-Boas since the summer of 2011. He was lauded at the start. He looked the business. We were behind him. His demise was catastrophic. I still think he’ll be a good manager; hopefully not at Tottenham. Going in to the game, I was concerned. Spurs have been performing well – one of the form sides. We, however, had undoubtedly struggled. In reality, I would have been content with a point; Alan and Gal agreed.

We played well in the first quarter of an hour. What this really means is that we had more of the ball than I had expected. We weren’t subjected to raid after raid of home pressure. The home crowd were quiet. The away fans not so.

“We won 5-1, Wembley.”

“We won 6-1, at The Lane.”

“You got battered, in Seville.”

The Willian song, repeated again and again.

It was seemingly going well.

Then, a quickfire break by Tottenham down their left. A pass from Eriksen to Soldado, who played in Sigursson. He took a touch and I willed John Terry, slightly out of position, to get a block as he lunged forward. The Spurs player rode the tackle and delicately flicked the ball past Cech.

Groan. Here we go again. We always seem to concede first at Tottenham. The home crowd came to life. All four parts of the ground soon joined in with a rendition of “Oh When The Spurs.”

It was loud. Very loud.

An Ivanovic block from Paulinho saved us further blushes just after.

Spurs dominated the rest of the half. We just didn’t gel. Oscar was particularly poor, with awful first touches and wayward passes. But the whole team seemed to be off the pace. The one highlight of the first-half was an exquisite chipped pass, with perfect fade, from David Luiz into the path of a raiding Ramires down the right flank. A Hazard shot – I was right behind it – was goal bound, but a home defender blocked. Tackles were starting to test the referee and Townsend was booked for diving. It was turning into a predictably tetchy affair. Spurs again cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter but Paulinho – I last saw him in Tokyo, the bugger – scraped the near post from inside the box. At the break, time for quiet contemplation.

I wished that we had played the ball earlier to Torres. I explained to Gary –

“Not hitting it at his chest, Gal, but just hit it into the space behind the central defenders. We haven’t done that once yet.”

Over to you Jose. Work your magic in the away dressing room.

Either Hazard or Oscar, in my opinion, could easily have made way for Juan Mata. Instead, Mikel was substituted, with Ramires dropping in alongside Frank.

Soon after the restart, Fernando Torres did ever so well to turn and beat a couple of Spurs defenders down the right flank – running towards us in the Park Lane – before sliding in a low pass, which unfortunately Oscar just failed to reach. The Spaniard soon became embroiled in a personal duel with Vertongen. He was soon booked for a foul, though I presumed that the referee Mike Dean had shown him the yellow card for placing his hands on Vertongen’s face.

Torres was now on fire and a gorgeous jink and strong run past Dawson meant that he only had Lloris to beat; his shot was blocked. Soon after, a long ball from Luiz was expertly chested down by Torres into the path of Mata who shot home, but the goal was disallowed for offside. A daisy-cutter from Frank soon followed. We were playing well, with intelligent passing making life difficult for a faltering Spurs team. Mata was heavily involved.

A horrible tackle by Vertongen on Ramires brought us all to our feet. He was easily becoming the villain of the piece. From the resulting Mata free-kick, played with perfect strength and position, the Spurs back line seemed to freeze, allowing John Terry to launch himself and guide the ball in past Lloris at the near post.

Pandemonium in the Chelsea section.

I pumped my left arm continually, then glanced down to see the Chelsea players following JT into the near corner.

My camera was ready; click, click, click, click, click, click. A lovely mess of fans’ fists and ecstatic Chelsea players’ faces.

Mourinho brought on Schurrle for a quiet Hazard. Torres again did ever so well to shimmy away from markers and lay the ball into the path of the German substitute, but Lloris again thwarted a near certain Chelsea goal. This was evolving into a cracking game of football.

With around ten minutes remaining, with Chelsea well on top, the on-going feud between Vertongen and Torres came to a head. A ball was pumped towards Torres and the two protagonists leaped for the ball. From my viewpoint, there seemed to be little contact, save for the flailing of arms, which is to be expected in any airborne challenge. If anything, Vertongen’s right arm seemed to catch Torres in the face. Both players went down, but the Spurs defender stayed down. Both sets of fans were baying. We knew that both players were on a yellow. When Alan suggested that Torres was in greater danger, I could hardly believe my ears.

What had he done? I had witnessed nothing untoward.

Mike Dean brandished a yellow towards the crowd of players. Some of the away fans presumed that it was for Vertongen. Fearing the worst, I knew that it was aimed at Torres. It soon became a red. We howled our displeasure. Fernando could not believe it. He took ages to slowly walk off the pitch. There was a genuine level of support for our number nine from the three thousand away fans. I think that this was his best game – OK, his best 36 minutes – in a Chelsea shirt by far.

However, it still irked that our hopes were dashed so cruelly.

“Well, we won’t score now Gal.”

Thankfully, two long range efforts from Sigurdsson and substitute Defoe blazed wide and over Petr Cech’s goal. A loss would have been unbearable. A draw was, in the circumstances, well deserved.

Walking south along the High Road once more, there was an overwhelming feeling of pride in that second-half performance. Our team is still evolving, but here was a great standard for us to aim for in all subsequent games. I was soon heading home, listening to the demise of both Manchester teams on the radio, and I was quick to reflect that an away point at the league leaders (yeah, I know) was becoming greater and greater by the minute.

It had been a good day.

IMG_2319

Tales From The Top Three

Chelsea vs. Everton : 19 May 2013.

Room 907.
Brookshire Suites.
East Lombard Street.
Baltimore, MD.

Tuesday 21 May 2012.

Dear all,

I realise that this is the only match report of some 250 plus that I have written for the Chelsea In America website while actually in the US. Hope you like it. If not, don’t blame me. Blame Rafa.

I travelled up to the last league game of the season with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. We’ve known each other since 1977. We’ve been travelling up to games together since 1983 (when we beat Newcastle United 4-0, since anyone is wondering) and it was a pleasure to have his company again. His last game was the 8-0 mauling of Villa in December. Although we never expected anything like the amount of goals against Everton, deep down I thought we’d get the requisite win to ensure a third place finish. It’s some time since we lost a last league game of the season at Stamford Bridge; a 3-1 defeat against Villa in 2002 if memory serves. These games are usually played out in lovely sunshine, we usually get a win and we usually have Cup Finals to anticipate. I can remember well the closing game last season against Blackburn Rovers and JT’s rallying call of “see you in Germany.”

No Cup Final to anticipate this year…that box was already ticked on Wednesday in The Dam.

So, all should have been sweetness and light as I drove up the A303 with Glenn alongside me.

However, there was of course the niggling spectre of the play-off against Arsenal at Villa Park on Sunday 26 May. Should we draw 0-0 and Arsenal win 2-1 at Newcastle, my season would end in complete tatters. I would be in the US, there for the game with Manchester City in NYC, but that would be cancelled. I’d be three thousand miles away for a Chelsea game that would be cancelled and unable to get back in time for the last game of the season.

It didn’t bare thinking about. So I tried not to.

I just hoped for the dream scenario…

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur

Not only top dogs in London, but able to relegate Spurs again to a fifth place finish.

At Fleet Services, the place was crawling with the green and white of “little old” Yeovil Town; their supporters knee deep in flags, scarves, banners, curly wigs and air-horns. They were off to Wembley for their play-off game with Brentford. Newly-promoted to the league in only 2003, they were looking to play Championship football. I wished a few of their fans well. Superb stuff. A mini-bus full of Spurs fans from Weymouth were not given such treatment; I had my trademark withering stare of disdain for them.

For those who know these reports well, they may want to fast forward at this point.

This will be my “meet up with an ex-player at the hotel, chat to several US Stamford Bridge ‘virgins’ and head down to The Goose” section.

Glenn accompanied me to the hotel, and we arrived at the doors just as Beth and a gaggle of eager CIAers were leaving to go down to a pub called “The Rose” off the Kings Road. We just missed Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, unfortunately, but it was lovely to be able to meet Bobby Tambling once again. Glenn, Parky and I had spent a lovely evening in the company of Bobby, Peter and Ron around two years ago in a Wiltshire pub. The photo I have of the six of us in a row is, I think, one of my absolute favourites. Bobby, despite the recent problems, remains as cheery as ever and it was lovely to be able to put my hand on his shoulder and wish him words of encouragement.

Gill and Graeme then arrived full of smiles and full of talk about the game at Yankee Stadium. Their visit will be even more “whirlwind” than in the summer…they arrive at lunchtime on the Saturday and leave Sunday. For me, the games in NYC will provide the most ridiculous bookends of a season ever. My first game of this long and tumultuous season was in Yankee Stadium…my last game will be. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur.

I managed to get a photograph of myself with Wednesday match winner Branoslav Ivanovic as he drifted through to a meeting room with JT. That was perfect. His smile was beaming as I thanked him for Wednesday. Top man.

Glenn headed back to The Goose, while I rushed down to The Rose. This was a first-time visit for me. I have only visited the Kings Road pubs on match days on a few occasions. It was a lovely pub, if not a bit pricey, with a gorgeous beer garden. It felt strange though – very strange, in fact – not to recognise anyone. The CIA section was spread over three tables. I sat next to the Beltway Blues section and enjoyed a pint of Peroni – £4.85! – and a chat about all things Chelsea. I was particularly keen to meet Kathryn and Tim, who I chanced to meet on one of the yellow school buses which took us from Philly to Chester way back in the summer. This was their first visit to London, but Kathryn had previously travelled extensively around Europe in her youth.

“Saving the best to last, then.”

Kathryn had first become a Chelsea fan way back in 1988, so I tipped my hat to her. We had a good old chat about her trip so far; she was still buzzing from the CPO fundraiser on the Friday, where a cool and relaxed Frank Lampard was the guest. It seems that Jason Cundy, the host, managed to elicit some particularly “frank” answers from our much-beloved midfielder.

I collected Jason from the table of North Texas Blues and we headed up to The Goose, with me babbling away – sometimes coherently – about various sights and sounds that we encountered on the way, making sure that every second of Jason’s first-ever match at HQ was full or memories for him. We called into the stall and a copy of “CFCUK” was purchased. I first met Jason back in the summer too. I could tell he was bristling with excitement. We reached The Goose and it was predictably overflowing with match-day buzz. Unlike The Rose, here I knew many. There were handshakes and laughs from the moment I entered. In the far corner there was a flag honouring the life of Blind Gerry, who so sadly died a few hours after the 2-2 draw with Spurs. Without wishing to be overly-sentimental or mawkish, I hope he was able to look down on the Amsterdam Arena on Wednesday and witness our latest European triumph in full Technicolor glory. Bless him. Fiona and Rob arranged a collection and a raffle for his widow. It was a pleasure to fleetingly meet Hugh Hastings out in the packed beer garden; he was the club’s official photographer in the ‘eighties.

Glenn was enjoying back in the bosom of the club again. We have missed him.

We heard that Yeovil were winning 2-1. Good stuff.

Jason was pleased to have made it to The Goose. Another box ticked for his first Chelsea game at The Bridge. We walked down the North End Road and it was a strange feeling. This particular part of London has been such a part of my life these past nine months, yet this would be my last walk along these familiar streets for three months. Jason had a ticket in the West Lower, so we bade our farewell outside.

All of us were inside early in order to see the pre-match presentation involving Bobby Tambling and Frank Lampard. That Frank should break Bobby’s record at this particular time is perfect; Bobby, I am sure has loved the attention and the love which has been shown towards him. I think it has acted as a perfect tonic for him. It was a lovely moment.

Yeovil had won at Wembley. Fantastic. I might be tempted by a game or two down there next season.

For once, Everton brought down the full three thousand away fans. Even before the game began, a couple of blue flares were thrown onto the pitch. Much to my chagrin, the club had marked this last game of the season – and effectively the final game in which fans could bask in the glory of Munich – by giving us all “noisemakers.” Now, I’m all for encouraging fan participation, but I wasn’t happy that we have now fallen in line with teams like Fulham, who themselves have these bloody irritating noisemakers. They have thundersticks too. I scowled at the sight of our fans “clapping” the cardboard together and had a few jokey words with a few supporters.

“Noisemakers. For Chelsea fans who just can’t be arsed to clap.”

Of course, Alan and I were taking great delight in the fact that Glenn, the perennial six year old, loved them.

Glenn : “They’re cool.”

Alan : “Thing is Chris, you know what it’s like with kids. If a parent doesn’t like something, they’ll just do it more.”

Chris : “Oh boy.”

On the card, was written the totemic words –

“WE KNOW WHAT WE ARE.”

It’s ironic that a phrase first used by Chelsea fans to subtly mock Anton Ferdinand out on a cold night in Genk in 2011 was now being embraced by the club in 2013. There were a few supporters wearing the new shirt, but not many. To be honest, I was surprised that we chose not to wear it for the game. I like the new kit, mainly because the blue is of a more traditional hue than the current one.

For once, Benitez started with Ba and Torres. Thankfully, the noisemakers were only used on rare occasions. Typically, the usually quiet sections of the West Upper were the ones who chose to use them most. And that, I think, just about sums it all up.

The first-half was an even affair. Everton wore an exact negative of our colours; white, white, blue. I caught the Ba shot on film and I caught the follow-up from Juan Mata too. One-nil up and we heaved a sigh of relief.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur.

Everton then worked a fine goal after a David Luiz mistake. Naismith finished off a nice move and the away fans roared, lighting up several more flares in the process. And then, the worry started. With us drawing 1-1, if Arsenal won 3-2, the game at Villa Park was “on.”

“Don’t do this to me, Chelsea.”

The highlight of the first-half was a perfectly-timed Gary Cahill tackle. Who says there is not beauty in destruction? At the break, things took a turn for the worse when around twenty Delta Airlines cheerleaders appeared on the pitch and did a routine. Big John, noisemaker in hand, looked up at me and smiled –

“It’s all gone wrong, Chris.”

To be honest, the gyrations a high-kicking of the cheerleaders were ceremoniously ignored by most of the spectators. I really don’t know why clubs bother.

We played better in the second-half, with Oscar playing a little better than of late. Nathan Ake played very well alongside Frank. It was very heartening. The kid with the number 57 on his back looked full of beans. The substitute Yelavic missed an absolute sitter for Everton. Arsenal were winning, Spurs were drawing. The nerves were fading. We scored with a fine move. Victor Moses cushioned a ball down in to the path of Torres, who smashed the ball in with a dismissive slash of his right foot.

“YES!”

Yep, I captured this one on film too…that’s five in a row now…Lampard at Villa, Torres and Ivanovic in Amsterdam and Mata and Torres versus Everton. It was, of course, Torres’ 22nd goal for us this season. I hope he is with us next season and scores 25. Paolo Ferreira came on as a late substitution and he received a lovely reception. It is an over-used expression, but he really has been a model professional.

At the final whistle, relief.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur

It was, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion, party-time. Firstly, Paolo appeared with the UEFA Cup – sorry, the Europa League Trophy, old habits die hard. That was a lovely touch by the club. Then, Frank appeared with the trophy, with his two daughters flitting around him. Then JT and the twins. With everyone on the pitch – the players, their children – Frank, John and Paolo said some nice words for us supporters.

Many of the young children raced down to score goals at the Matthew Harding end. The sons of Ross Turnbull and Fernando Torres were especially good. What fun.

“Sign them up, Roman.”

There was a loud chorus of “Jose Mourinho” during the past-game party, but no Benitez boos. That Benitez did not participate in the post-game celebrations was probably a wise move. I don’t hate anyone, but I am just grateful that Benitez will soon be no more than a mere foot-note in our 108 year history.

2012-2013 has been another emotional ride. It has been tough going at times, but some of our play under Di Matteo and – yes – Benitez has been simply wonderful. I have one game left.

Thankfully, it will be at Yankee Stadium.

I’ll see some of you there.

Cheers,

Chris.

IMG_0353

Tales From Three Days In May

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 15 May 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The bird 5hit worked!”

The relevance of all this…er, 5hit?

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

A fresh dollop.

Oh boy.

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

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

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

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

It was Pav. He was right behind me.

“Alright mate!”

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

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

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

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

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

Happy daze in Amsterdam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t worry, they couldn’t afford us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still almost five hours until the game; lovely.

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

Yes, it was good.

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

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

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

Just like Munich.

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

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

Proper Chelsea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sent a text out at half-time :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GETINYOUFCUKINGBEAUTY.”

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

Phew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

The north end exploded.

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

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

PLEASE

CHELSEA

DON’T

FCUK

THIS

UP.

The chance was cleared. Oh boy.

The whistle blew.

YES!

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

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

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

Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic – we salute you.

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

You know how the song goes, eh?

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

Munich 2012 and Amsterdam 2013.

Two steps beyond.

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

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

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

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

“Blue Is The Colour.”

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

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

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

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

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

Happy daze.

Then, a new song.

“Strippers And Whores. Ivanovic Scores.”

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

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

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

“Read all about it.”

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

Perfect.

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

Did we have a blast?

Dam right.

…and, yes, Pav made it in.

IMG_0071 IMG_0099 IMG_0283

Tales From The Only Place To Be Every Thursday Night

Chelsea vs. Rubin Kazan : 4 April 2013.

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

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

Outside, the weather was unforgiving and cold.

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

Chelsea makes us do irrational things, eh?

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

United. City. Familiarity. Contempt.

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

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

It looked quite pitiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1-0 to Chelsea.

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

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

2-0 to Chelsea.

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

2-1 to Chelsea.

Oh dear. The dreaded away goal.

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

It is what it is.

If we’re in it, let’s win it.

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

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

Alexander : “Is there line at kiosk?”

Sergei : “No. You want beer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergei : “I eat cabbage for ten days.”

Alexander : “You the cabbage.”

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

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

Sergei : “You need work on lyrics.”

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

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

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

3-1 to Chelsea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8923