Tales From An Evening Of Cat And Mouse

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 April 2017.

There is no need for a fanciful and overly-elaborate scene-setter for this one.

The loss to Crystal Palace on April Fool’s Day was an unwanted shock to the system. As a result, Tottenham Hotspur were – if not breathing down our neck, yet – then at least shouting abuse at us from a shorter distance than before. The home game with Manchester City was a – cliche #418 – must-win game.

If Tottenham were to win, out west in Wales, and we were to lose to City – God forbid – then our once impregnable lead at the top would be cut to just four points, with eight games left. Even a draw against City, in my mind, would not be enough.

“Three points or bust, Chelsea.”

Before the possible dramatic events at Stamford Bridge were able to unfold, I was embroiled in my own little moment of drama at work. As the day rolled on – with work piling up – I wondered if I would be able to get away on time. At just after 2pm, I called over to see PD and LP who were just about to launch into their traditional pre-Chelsea home game gammon and chips at “The Milk Churn.” I passed over Glenn’s season ticket to PD so he could in turn pass it on to Bournemouth Steve. Reluctantly, I had to tell PD to make his own way up. There were severe doubts that I would be able to make kick-off, at best, or the game itself, at worst. Thankfully, things fell in to place during the next two hours and, with a big chunk of onerous work being able to be delayed for others in the morning, I was able to leave for SW6 at 4pm. I could relax a little, even though I would now hit all of the traffic going in to London. A journey that usually takes two and a quarter hours would now take three. And it felt odd to be driving to a game alone. It unsurprisingly felt like a potentially seismic Champions League night. A massive game, for sure.

As is so often the case, I noted one car – a red mini – that I constantly passed on the tedious last ten miles, as we accelerated and then slowed, passing each other every few minutes, and I wondered if this was a metaphor for the final stage of the season. Would one team slow right down, allowing another to catch up, before their positions changing over the very final stretch? I remembered a similar instance a few years back when I played one particular bout of cat-and-mouse with one car on the last few miles of the M4, before eventually seeing it lose me at Chiswick. It rather freaked me out when I saw it was parked up just a few yards away from my usual parking space at Chelsea. As I saw the little red mini disappear over the Hammersmith flyover, I waited with baited breath to see if I would spot it again in the streets that surround Queens Club. Thankfully I didn’t. My own little bout of football madness was over. And in any case, the girl who was driving the red mini was unlikely to be a Spurs supporter, right?

Bloody hell, relax.

It still took me a further ten minutes to find a parking spot in the usual areas. At around 7pm, I was evidently one of the last ones to arrive. Bramber Road, Normand Road, Chesson Road, Archel Road, Turneville Road were all chocker. I eventually parked up on Star Road, a good few hundred yards from where I saw PD’s car.

I briefly met up with the troops in The Goose. Time for a bolted “Peroni” and the briefest of chats. Bournemouth Steve eventually arrived to collect the ST card. Rush, rush, rush. A few US pals were still in town and I wanted to meet up with them briefly in “The Cock Tavern” before they disappeared into the ether of international travel. They were leaving just as I arrived; perfect timing. No time for a beer, the time was racing on. We walked to the stadium together.

The Chelsea team had been re-arranged by the manager since the previous game.

Courtois.

Zouma, Luiz, Cahill.

Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Kante, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

My first worry – perhaps there were many – was that the guile of the slight Aguero, Silva, Sane and De Bruyne might be too much for the tall trio at the back. A big test for Kurt Zouma. He just needed to stay tight to his man and do the simple stuff. I was concerned.

My second worry was that I would be suffering an intense migraine by the end of the night after being blinded by the shocking orange of the Manchester City kit. Bloody hell, if that is an indication of our upcoming life with Nike, I might even pine for the days of the Chelsea Collection of 1986/1987. Kevin de Bruyne, the strawberry-blonde and rosy-faced winger, must bloody well hate it, in exactly the same way that David Hopkin must have detested wearing the tangerine and graphite debacle of 1994 to 1996.

Shudder.

City had three-thousand away fans. As they should. One poxy flag : “Kidderminster.” Must do better.

The atmosphere was buzzing at the start. Ripples of noise grew louder as each chant enveloped the stadium. This felt like a proper game of football.

I wondered if Chelsea would spend the entire night confirming one of modern football’s oxymorons –

“The Manchester City defender.”

City had the infrequently-used Kompany alongside the maligned Stones, with the attack-minded Clichy and Navas on the flanks. Going forward, they looked fearsome. But our team looked top-heavy too, with Cesc in place of Matic. It looked like N’Golo would have his work cut out.

I whispered to Steve : “Never mind, if any man can, Kante can” and immediately sounded like Suzi Quatro.

Almost astonishingly, we heard that Swansea City were 1-0 up against “that lot.”

I wondered if this might, just might, turn out to be a legendary night.

We certainly began well. I soon spotted that we kept hitting early balls out wide in an attempt to stretch their defence. After just ten minutes, the ball was worked forward by Azpilicueta to Pedro on the right. Pedro held the ball momentarily, but Dave had pushed on and Pedro slipped the ball through to him. A quick look up, and the ball was ably played into the path of Eden Hazard. Much to my surprise, his low shot ended up flashing past Caballero.

In my mind I was thinking “how the hell did that go in?” but outside I was shrieking a loud and sustained roar of pleasure. I soon turned to Alan and said “of course, on bloody Saturday, that would have been deflected wide.”

In the replay, it was unclear to me that the slightest of deflections off Kompany’s shiny pate had edged the ball away from Caballero’s sway to his left. Football games are often won and lost by inches.

However, I turned to Alan and admitted my worry : “You know it won’t stay 1-0?”

The crowd were roaring, but Manchester City began working the defensive three, five, seven. Their movement impressed us all. It seemed that everyone of their attacking players were never seen in the same place twice. They tested Thibaut a few times.

A pass from the excellent Hazard to Fabregas resulted in a shot which deflected high off a defender and dropped on to the crossbar. This was such an open game. Sadly, on twenty-six minutes, a dithering Courtois hacked a clearance away, but it fell right at the feet of the neat and tidy David Silva. We groaned the hugest groan. He advanced and shot straight at Courtois. The ball travelled only a few yards from Thibaut’s block and now ended up at Aguero’s feet. He easily dispatched the ball home.

Luiz comforted the ‘keeper with a slapped handshake, but Thibaut must have been hurting.

It was an equaliser that, if I am truthful City, warranted. I remembered that their play in the opening segment of our 2-1 win against them in 2011/2012 was as good as I could recall by an away team at Stamford Bridge over the years, and this was an updated version of it. Constant movement everywhere. On the touchline, the two suited Europeans Guardiola and Conte were stood the whole game.

Courtois shifted his feet well to tip over a Leroy Sane lob. We were under the cosh alright.

For a few fleeting moments, the City fans could be heard.

“We’re not really here.”

With thoughts of keeping it tight and reaching half-time – a Conte half-time masterclass from us to counter a Pep-talk from them – the ball found Pedro inside the City box. A crude chop by Fernandinho made referee Mike Dean quickly point to the spot.

“Nailed on penalty, that.”

Without any need of a prompt, Albert – who sits in front of me – upped and visited the gents. We have lost count of the number of times over the years that we have scored when he has disappeared off to turn his bike around.

Eden placed the ball on the spot. We waited. His shot was low and saved by the ‘keeper. Thankfully, the ball rebounded right in to the path of Eden and as Caballero dived to his right, the ball was stroked to his left.

GET. IN.

Albert returned to his seat, beaming.

“Job done, saahn.”

A few more City attacks were thwarted. After a few dodgy moments by both, both Luiz and Zouma defended well.

It was still Swansea City 1 Tottenham 0.

At the break, Neil Barnett spoke of the recent passing of former goalkeeper John Phillips, who played 149 games for us in the days of my childhood. In fact, he played in goal in my very first game : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 1974. You could argue he is the first Chelsea player I saw play. He is certainly the first-name entered in the 48,762 cells of my ever-increasing “Chelsea Games Spreadsheet” which sits proudly in my computer at home.

Garry Stanley – he of the US Tour this summer – toured the pitch as images of three players from the ‘seventies were featured on the TV screen.

John Phillips.

David Stride.

Ian Britton.

There was clear structural changes to our team at the break. Simply put, Nemanja Matic replaced Kurt Zouma, but the pack was significantly re-shuffled.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahil,

Pedro, Kante, Matic, Alonso

Fabregas, Costa, Hazard.

And what a half of football. Chelsea chances were at a premium as City swarmed at us throughout the forty-five minutes. I seemed to spend the entire period clock-watching. Thankfully, the Chelsea defence was proving a tough nut to crack, but that didn’t stop everyone’s’ nerves from jangling.

The first major worry involved a header from a deep City free-kick that bounced on to the bar with Dave right underneath if needed. We heaved a sigh of relief, but City kept us worried. For all of their possession, however, they did not pepper our goal. As tackles crunched, Fernandinho volleyed ridiculously wide and Stones headed right at Courtois.

We were nervy in the stands, but there was a great reaction to a Marcos Alonso pass to Eden which was miss-hit and went off for a throw-in. Rather than howls of derision, the Matthew Harding replied – loudly, with encouragement – “CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

It warmed my heart.

But generally we were too nervous to sing constantly. There were great “Carefree” moments when the whole ground were together, but the nerves were in control alright. I watched the clock, tick-tock.

A rare Chelsea chance but a David Luiz free-kick went to waste.

Then, a gift-wrapped chance after a fine move, starting with a break from the inimitable Hazard down our left. The ball was moved across the pitch, several players involved, and eventually played back by the intelligent Pedro towards the central Hazard. He kicked through the ball, but it flew over. It was the hat-trick goal that never was. Bollocks.

Sadly, it got worse.

Late on – FUCK – we heard that Spurs had not only equalised at the Liberty Stadium, but had scored two and then three.

That car in the rear view mirror – white, navy trim – was getting closer.

A ten-point gap had shrunk to seven within minutes.

Whether or not it was because of Pep Guardiola’s reappearance again at Stamford Bridge, but as City kept searching for a late equaliser, I kept thinking of that Iniesta heart-breaker in 2009. The linesman on the far side continually flashing the red and yellow flag of Catalonia clearly did not help.

It was evident I was suffering. We all were. I have never seen Alan look so nervous.

Willian replaced Cesc.

Tick tick tick tick.

A long searching ball towards the far post was ably reached by the lunge of Aguero. We could not see if his toe-poke was saved by ‘keeper or post.

“Not long left now, Chelsea, keep going.”

Loftus-Cheek replaced Hazard, our best player on the night.

One last corner was swung in. The ball evaded everyone at the front post – all it needed was a nod – and Stones stabbed at it from a few yards out. Ridiculously, miraculously, the ball thumped against the turf and ballooned over. It was another of those “clasp the back of your neck with your hands” moments.

“Phew.”

The three minutes of added-time were running out. The ball was deflected for a Chelsea goal-kick. My eyes, and camera, was on referee Dean.

I snapped at the moment he blew up. It seemed the most significant moment of the entire night.

“Thank fuck for that.”

Another “phew.”

“One Step Beyond” boomed around The Bridge, but I let others bounce up and down. I was just grateful that it had ended in our favour.

As you were. Seven points. Catch us if you can.

Big John looked up and smiled.

“Didn’t enjoy one bit of that.”

I knew what he meant.

Outside, Andy admitted City had been impressive. Over the past two home games, we bossed one yet lost, and were dominated in another yet won. Such is football, such is life. We even spoke about how Spurs don’t give up; they deserve a little praise from us for that. Ugh.

“But imagine how gutted they must feel. Coming back to score three late goals to win. Get inside the dressing room. Wait twenty minutes for our result. And then hear that we hung on. Ha.”

Outside, as a trip to a curry house was aborted, I waited to hear from a few US friends. I spotted Claudio Ranieri brush past and I seized the moment. We posed for a selfie. I don’t know who was more embarrassed, him or me.

I was able to meet up with a few pals – Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania – in “The Butcher’s Hook” for a while. The place was packed and buzzing at first, but eventually thinned out a little. The visitors had enjoyed two varying games at Stamford Bridge from the supporters’ club section of the Shed Lower over the past few days. They had seen both of our goals at The Shed tonight of course. They loved the atmosphere. It was reassuring to hear. Neil Barnett popped in and we had the first real chat since Minneapolis in the summer. Like me, he did not predict us to win the league this season. I had us finishing third behind City and United. Neil had us finishing sixth. This season has fooled us all, eh?

Late on, I scoffed down a late night kebab with Frank from Queens, New York and Taryn from Reading, Pennsylvania. It had been Taryn’s birthday and what a lovely result for her. I soon realised that the premises of the kebab shop on Fulham Broadway were the same as the “Wimpy” restaurant where my parents and I stopped for burger and chips after my very first game all those years ago.

At 1.30am, I left London. At 3.45am, I reached home, tired but contented.

Eight games to go, four at home, four away.

Keep it tight Chelsea.

On Saturday, this busy week finishes with the jolly to Bournemouth.

I will see some of the very lucky ones there.

IMG_3991

Tales From A Twin City

Chelsea vs. Milan : 3 August 2016.

I drove from Ann Arbor in Michigan to Minneapolis in Minnesota in one ridiculous hop. It totaled out at 672 miles, took me over eleven hours and became the longest car journey of my life. There have been some long road trips for me watching Chelsea in the US (North Carolina to Pittsburgh, North Carolina to DC, North Carolina to Chicago, LA to Palo Alto, New York City to Charlotte, Charlotte to DC), but this one was the grand-daddy of them all. I only stopped four times – once for fuel, once for lunch, once for a drink and once at the Minnesota welcome centre – and thankfully the time went OK. I didn’t feel tired at all. The American Road kept me happy. I delved into a selection of FM radio stations to reduce the boredom, but you can only hear Chicago and Peter bloody Cetera so many times without going insane. I therefore hopped around some different stations a bit when things got tedious. I stayed clear of “Culvers” butter burgers, and all was fine.

The landscape was pretty flat around Michigan, but I noted many vineyards and wineries, which surprised me. I then swept wide and west past the suburbs of Chicago, my first port of call on this, my nineteenth trip to the USA. The Sears Tower, or whatever incarnation it is known by these days, was away in the distance. After I stopped at a down-at-heal “Hardees” for a burger and fries – can’t get more American than that – in Roscoe, Illinois, the scenery slowly changed and became more stimulating. The hills broadened, the fields turned greener, the sky opened up a little. Even the clouds looked more interesting. It became a lovely car trip.

I crossed the state line in to Minnesota as the rush-hour traffic was beginning to fade. My final approach seemed to electrify me. I shot past the little nest of downtown skyscrapers of St. Paul, the lesser of the two Twin Cities, and then continued on a further ten miles towards the far more impressive skyline of Minneapolis.

I genuinely knew little of the city to be honest. Cathy and myself had stopped for a few hours at the city’s airport on our long flight to Los Angeles in 2007, but I had not visited it in its own right. It was the home of Prince, bless him. It was the home of the Minnesota Twins, who were the opponents for my very first New York Yankees game in 1990. It was home to the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. The area was settled by many Scandinavians. There was a huge shopping mall in its suburbs. The city had skyways to keep people off the cold streets of winter and the scalding streets of winter. That was it.

For a geography graduate, I should have known more.

Ah, but there was also an Everything But The Girl song called “Twin Cities” from their 1991 album “Worldwide” and I loved it to death. It came out just after I had visited the US for the first time. This particular song was an ode to travel throughout that vast continent. It seemed to strike a chord for me. That particular band often wrote about travel, of foreign cities, of wanting to be elsewhere, and a few of their songs get me dreaming of foreign lands.

“And now I’m standing in a city that’s as pretty as an ocean in the night.

And we are twin cities. And we are that ocean. From the standing still. We are set in motion.”

At about 6.45pm, Minneapolis opened up before me and I-94 threw me right into the heart of the city. As I took a broad curve down over the river, the incredible black irregular block of brick, steel and glass of the US Bank Stadium greeted me. It was a definite jaw-dropping moment. Of course, I had done my homework – I knew we were opening it up, as we did with Dallas’ new pad in 2009 – and I had studied images of it from inside and out. But the stadium looked incredible. Its irregular surfaces defied rational description. Was this a mere stadium, or some sort of space-ship about to take off into the night?

For the second time in five days, I had a feeling that a stadium would prove to be the star of the show.

I met up with a few friends down at the anointed pub – “Brits” – on Monday and Tuesday evening, and it was a pleasure to bump into a few old friends for the first time on this trip. On the way to the pub on the Tuesday, I had spotted a young lad with a Chelsea shirt in my hotel and so I spoke to him and his mother about the game. They were from Kansas and this would be their first Chelsea match. Soon after, we were sharing a cab down to “Brits” and Erica and Cooper – only seven – were soon meeting up with a roomful of Chelsea fans from all over the US. However, not long into the night, with Neil Barnett and both Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers turning the air blue with some of their tales from the past, I noticed that the two of them had disappeared outside in the warm summer evening air. I hope that we had not scared them away.

On both nights, I didn’t get back to my hotel, no more than a five-minute walk away from the stadium, until 2.30am. Thankfully, on the mornings after, there was no hint of a hangover.

Minneapolis seemed a fine town, but devoid of too many pedestrians. I suspect that the skywayss have a lot to answer for. I noted a fair bit of quirky architecture and the usual smattering of corporate skyscrapers.

On the day of the game, I started off with a pint of Leinenkugel’s summer shandy in a bar near my hotel. It was 1.30pm. There were still seven hours until kick-off.

“Blimey, that’s like me having a pint at 8am on a Saturday matchday.”

I’d enjoyed a similar grapefruit shandy from the same company at the Detroit Tigers vs. Houston Astros game on the Sunday. What a refreshing drink. The summer shandy was cloudy and not half as refreshing. I walked to “Brits” and bumped into ex-pat Kev / Clive (old joke, ask Parky) on the way. He had travelled by 650cc motorbike from Detroit for the game and we swapped stories. Things were pretty quiet in “Brits” to be honest. I met up with Bob and Danny, both from California, and Phil from Iowa. A few more pints went down well. Bob and myself moved on to another bar called “Cuzzys” which was a fantastic place. Its floors sloped, and its walls were festooned with dollar bills hanging from every surface. It reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar in Key West “Sloppy Joe’s.”

Back at my hotel, we met up with Danny, Mike, Tim and Eugene, lads that I have met over the years on my travels around the US. More beers, and a few more laughs. Time was moving on and so at just before 8pm, we walked towards the spanking new stadium. Throughout the past few days, we had hardly seen any Milan shirts. There was also a gnawing realisation that the good people of Minneapolis were out in force to witness the opening of the stadium rather than to see a football match. In a few bars, we had even seen fans – presumably going to the game – with the violet of the Vikings jersey on show. We envisaged another quiet night in the Chelsea section and the stadium as a whole.

There seemed to be a little confusion about access into the stadium and the most direct way was unable to be followed due to fences blocking our path. This was evidence that the stadium’s immediate areas were still requiring attention. Bob and myself took a lift to a quiet, air-conditioned, carpeted walkway – a skywalk, I suppose – which took us into the stadium midway up. In all honesty, at this stage, it all seemed a little too alien for me. It did not seem like a sports stadium. It seemed like an airport. There were wide concourses, and signs pointing here, there and everywhere. It did not seem right.

Then, we came out onto a viewing area – again, lots and lots of space – and we were able to see inside the stadium for the first time. Outside, the irregular shape of the stadium is said to resemble a Viking long-boat (for some reason, I used to love drawing those at school) with its angled lines and suchlike. Inside, the stadium appears huge, almost too huge, or at least too high. It was another jaw-dropping moment for me.

IMG_8564

I have been inside a few NFL stadia over the years – though I am yet to attend a game, no surprise there – and the last one that I visited which was equally stunning was the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. This one in Minneapolis though seemed almost perfect. At the Cowboys stadium, there are layer after layer of executive boxes where the corporate world can watch in air-conditioned isolation, but this leaves less seats for the common fan (if one exists in the NFL – it certainly seems a working class sport attended by the rich middle-class). This one seemed to have a larger proportion of general seating, even though the seats at the very rear of both side stands seemed to be so high as to be needing oxygen masks. It certainly ranks as the highest stadium I have seen. Probably higher than Dallas, probably higher than Camp Nou, certainly higher than the North Stand at Old Trafford.

At each end were massive TV screens. Everywhere, the violet / purple of the Vikings.

We took an elevator down a level and found our seats among the Chelsea section in the western side of the stadium, directly behind the goal. I looked around; just beyond our section, which continually stood for the duration of the game, there was the usual mixture of Real / Milan / Juve / Inter / Barca / Arsenal / Manchester United shirts. However, Chelsea was in the majority.

Back in 2005 – at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey – I attended another Chelsea vs. Milan game, but on that occasion, Chelsea were outnumbered by four or five to one. I know the demographics of the New York area are so different to that of Minnesota, but that just shows how far we have traveled in such a short period of time.

I spotted a few familiar faces in our ranks. Gary Chivers and Garry Stanley were a few rows below me.

IMG_8578

The players finished their pre-match routines and the clock ticked-down. The US flag fluttered as a tattooed girl sung the national anthem. The teams entered the now jam-packed arena. The players appeared so close to us.

IMG_8596

Antonio Conte’s team was again strong.

Courtois.

Aina.

Terry.

Cahill.

Azpilicueta.

Matic.

Fabregas.

Willian.

Traore.

Costa.

Moses.

The 4/4/2 aligned Costa and Traore for the first time.

It was good to see Diego back in the team.

Milan – playing in virtually an all-black kit – attacked the end where the Chelsea supporters, numbering possibly no more than five hundred at most, in a little tight block, were stood. Of course, there were Chelsea fans elsewhere, but this was the equivalent of an away section, the notion that movers and shakers in charge of these tours are only vaguely acquainted.

My friend Steve Rea, from New Orleans – who writes blogs on the official website – had asked me about my thoughts about my travels over to the US for these tours. I shared a few things with him, and included a moan about “other” fans getting tickets in apparently Chelsea-only sections. Things can often get a little tetchy in some cases. I remember getting annoyed by some Barcelona fans standing right in front of me in DC last summer. My closing comment to Steve for his article was – knowingly controversial – “sometimes segregation is a good thing.”

It didn’t surprise me that this line was cut from the final edit.

But certainly, for football games, it is surely key.

Who wants to be stood next to opposing fans?

Get us all together, one block, one voice, one song.

Us and them.

Make some noise.

Milan were the first to cause problems when Abate was able to ghost in at the far post to connect with a cross, after drifting inside a dozing Dave. Milan looked quite sharp and I hoped for better things from us.

We had torn shirts as Traore and then Diego were manhandled. Diego headed over from a Traore cross. Milan then broke well and we had to rely on a fine Courtois block, with his legs, to avoid us conceding.

The noise in the Chelsea section was not great and I had rolled my eyes as a couple of “waves” were attempted around the stadium. Thankfully, they did not get far, unlike at Ann Arbor on Saturday. On that particular afternoon, I found it so ironic that the only section of fans not joining in with this loathsome and tiresome activity were the ones that had been trying to sing all afternoon. Sometimes I come away from games in the USA and think “yes, you’re getting it” but on that day, in The Big House, I marked America down.

After one wave faltered, I thought “enough of this shite” and bellowed out twelve “Zigger Zaggers” (a personal best, thank you very much) and the Chelsea support around me rallied a little.

Chelsea played a little better and had a few attacks on goal. Victor Moses, as is his wont during these games, had a forceful run out left. Another of his runs ended with a shot which rebounded nicely for Bertrand Traore to head home from close range.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

It pleased Minneapolis-native Tom, standing in-front of me, that the PA played “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince to mark the first goal scored in his city’s sparking new stadium.

Dave drove hard at the Milan goal but his shot breezed past the far post. We seemed in control.

Sadly, before the break, we conceded a free-kick just outside the box, and Bonaventura – pet detective – curled a stunning shot over the wall and past Thibaut.

Chelsea 1 Milan 1.

Milan started a little stronger at the start of the second-half. By now, the Chelsea support was quite pitiful. Hardly any songs were heard. The manager then shook things up a little, bringing on N’Golo Kante for his Chelsea debut – how small he looks, so reminiscent of Claude Makelele – and then there was a huge cheer for the introduction of Eden Hazard. They replaced Moses and Traore. It was lovely to see Kante dart around, but first he posed for a photo. Bless him. Welcome to Chelsea, N’Golo.

IMG_8654

Hazard was immediately involved. Willian’s shot was well saved by the Milan ‘keeper. Thankfully, the Chelsea support got behind the team a little more.

More changes ensued, with Ivanovic, Oscar and Batshuayi in for Aina, Fabregas and Costa.

The songs continued and we urged the team on.

A silly handball by a Milan defender allowed Oscar to fire the resulting penalty home.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Chelsea 2 Milan 1.

Eden seemed to be elbowed in the jaw and stayed on the floor for a while. His new jersey did not display a number and the Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were excited to the point of collapse.

Chalobah and my mate Cuadrado were introduced late on.

We lustily sang a chorus of “fackemall, fackemall – United, West Ham, Liverpool” and one middle-aged woman turned around in an adjoining section and gave us the dirtiest of looks.

In front of me, Tommy had his finest moment.

To the old chant of “She fell over!” he sang “He’s Chalobah!” and gained a few credibility points.

That deserves to catch on next season.

You heard if first in Minnesota.

Four minutes from the end, we added to our lead when my boy Cuadrado did ever so well to supply an onrushing Oscar with a deft pass. He tucked it home well.

Chelsea 3 Milan 1.

This was a much better performance from us and I hope and pray we can build on it in Bremen on Sunday.

At the end of the game, it was lovely to see JT head over to sign some shirts before clapping us and heading up the tunnel. I said my goodbyes to a few and at that point my plan was going to head on back to “Brits” for a couple of hours. There were five of us left – Brian (Texas), Danny (California), Josh (Minnesota), Tommy (California) and me (Nebraska) – and we were some of the very last to leave. We posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner and left the stadium.

IMG_8736 (2)

And what a stadium it had been.

Sadly, the lure of my hotel bed, a mere five-minute walk away, proved too tempting.

It was time for me to call it a night.

IMG_8697 (2)

 

Tales From The Big House

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 30 July 2016.

It could have easily been a typical Saturday morning back home in England. As I lay in bed, the sheets almost covering me completely, I buried my head deep inside the covers and tried to sleep on for a few more minutes, and endevoured to ignore the depressing sound of the rain lashing down outside the window. It sounded bleak. Following Chelsea during the summer in the US wasn’t meant to be like this. I hadn’t packed a jacket for the trip, that’s for sure. And I knew that there was no cover at the huge University of Michigan stadium. With the tightening of stadium security, I also knew that bags were not able to be taken in to the game.  If the rain continued to fall at the same rate over the next few hours, there was a strong chance of the upcoming game against Real Madrid becoming the worst viewing experience of my life. No roof. No jacket. No bag for my camera. Possibly not even my camera; there was an unclear description of the type of camera which would be allowed inside when I had checked on the stadium website earlier.

“Less than six inches.”

On reading this, I had glanced down at my camera and sighed.

“Looks bigger than six inches to me.”

There was, I suppose, if the occasional thunder cracks continued too, even a slight chance of the game being cancelled or postponed and obliterated from the record books.

Bollocks.

I slept on for a few more minutes. The room had top notes of disinfectant, mixed with a slight aroma of marijuana. Its base notes were of misery. I wondered if this would set the tone for the day.

The rain abated slightly and I became a little more optimistic. I showered, chose jeans over shorts, Moncler over Lacoste, Adidas over Nike, and headed out for the time-honoured tradition of a McBreakfast on the morning of a Chelsea match. This one was not in Melksham, or Chippenham, or at Fleet Services, though; this one was at Ann Arbor, Michigan, a lovely college town situated at arm’s length from the urban sprawl of the troubled city of Detroit. As I finished my coffee, I chatted briefly to a father with two teenagers – the girl wearing a Chelsea shirt, the son wearing a Real Madrid one. It was their first Chelsea game. I wished them well. I wondered if we’d get to see Real’s famous all white kit. It would be a shame to come all this way and not be treated to that. Instead, some ludicrous away kit catastrophe. I have only ever seen Real play once before; in Monaco in the 1998 UEFA Super Cup Final. It was all white on the night for them, but more so for us; a Gustavo Poyet goal gave us a 1-0 win, and prompted my good mate Andy to memorably comment :

“Right now, in Madrid, there’s an old bloke in a bar, saying ‘They always beat us, Chelsea.’ “

Of course, we had beaten them in Athens in 1971 too.

Two games, two wins.

Our paths have rarely crossed since; certainly not in official European campaigns.

On the walk past the motel reception, I spotted a lad wearing a Willian shirt. As I ambled past, I couldn’t resist singing “he hates Tottenham, he hates Tottenham” and this drew a wide smile from the Chelsea fan. There was a spring in my step now. This would be a good day.

My friend John, from Ohio, had kindly volunteered to pick me up in his truck and head in to town for pre-match beers. It was fantastic to see him once again. John studied at Reading University for a few months during the winter of 2008/2009 and I was able to get him tickets, usually alongside the Chelsea legend Lovejoy, for some games. He saw the Juve home match and also took in a game at Anfield. I last saw him at the Baltimore match against Milan in 2009; still widely-regarded by many as the best Chelsea matchday-experience in the US of them all.

On the drive in to town, we caught up with each other’s lives, and John spoke to me about the town’s university, and its myriad sports teams. That John was a “U of M” fan, made this game even more worthwhile for him. I had driven in to town myself on a few occasions since arriving on the Wednesday, but the streets and parking lots were so much busier now. The town was gearing itself for an influx of over one-hundred thousand footy fans.

I had flown in to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on the Tuesday afternoon. I had decided to miss the opening tour game in Pasadena against the Scousers. Los Angeles is not my favourite place, and I wanted to stretch out and unwind a little bit rather than rush between three games. The matches in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis would be just fine. There would be no fun, in my eyes, travelling all of the way out to California to see bloody Liverpool.

“LA?”

“No, la.”

I spent Tuesday night with a few good friends in Chicago, where we spent a few hours hitting a few bars, sharing plenty of laughs, eating Mexican food, and reminiscing about the previous time that I had been in town; the memorable weekend of July 2006 – ten whole years ago, good grief – when Chelsea played the MLS All-Stars, the only game of our US tour that year. I had travelled to the US the previous two summers with Chelsea and had mainly kept myself to myself. In 2006, though, because everyone met up in one pub – “Fado” – and because everything was so well organised (a quiz night, an evening with Charlie Cooke, a practice session, a tour around Chicago in three double-decker busses before heading down to the game), everyone made a special effort to socialise. For me, it was a watershed moment. I met so many friends during those three days of Chelsea in Chicago. Not long after, Chelsea In America asked me to write about a trip to Bremen with Chelsea for their monthly newsletter, and I soon began posting ad hoc match reports on their bulletin board. Ten years later, I am still scribing away with thoughts about what supporting Chelsea means to me and many others.

It has been quite a ride.

I drove from Chicago – sad it was just a fleeting visit – to Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I made the big mistake of stopping by at “Culvers” for a butter burger. It is not a good sign for my future health that the sound effect that accompanied me biting down in to the burger was “squelch.”

But I loved the trip to Ann Arbor on the American road. I find it quite beguiling. The scale of everything is so different to back home.

On Thursday, I drove over to visit my friends Erin and JR, and their three-month old boy Harry, who was born just a few hours after our game at Anfield at the close of last season. It was lovely to see them again. It’s such a shame that simple geography keeps me apart from so many of my closest Chelsea mates. We headed in to Detroit for a few hours. Of course, everyone knows how that city has suffered over recent decades, but I was encouraged to see green shoots of renewal in the city centre, which seemed very chilled and relaxed. I love the way that the city’s sport stadia have remained right in the middle of everything. We relaxed at a great little restaurant. I just fancied a “light snack” and so asked for a Reuben sandwich. However, I was presented with a slab of food so huge that if it had been served in the UK, it would have needed planning permission. JR had shrimp tacos, while Erin had a very healthy salad and rice bowl. The server, a particularly irritating fellow who enjoyed regaling us with a far-too detailed description of the menu, made a point of asking Erin if she required “any protein” with her salad. Perhaps he thought she might soon wither away without added nutrients.

He turned to me and asked if I wanted any fries.

The fucker.

On Thursday night, in Ann Arbor, the Chelsea portion of my holiday kicked-in. Sometimes, I find it a little difficult to focus on events at the start of each season. Because I have witnessed so many games, and have seen us win so much – “things I never thought that I would hear myself say #542” – I usually take a while to get going each season. In “Conor O’Neils” in Ann Arbor, meeting up with a few friends, plus former players Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers, gave me the kick-start that I needed. We spoke about the current team, but also about little parcels of our history. I see Gary Chivers at Stamford Bridge quite often as he works on the corporate hospitality these days. I last saw Garry Stanley at Ian Britton’s funeral in Burnley. We watched Didier Drogba score against Arsenal in the MLS All-Star Game.

Too funny.

Jesus, Brian, Beth and Carlo from Texas were there. The omnipresent Cathy, with Becky, too. Neil Barnett ran through his player ratings – not many high scores, I have to say – from the Liverpool match, which I was unable to track in my motel room, but which we won 1-0. I had my photo taken with Garry and Gary. These were good times.

On the Friday, despite a slow start, the afternoon turned into an evening of additional Chelsea fun. I walked over to the pub at around midday, and spotted two mates – Tuna from Atlanta and Simon from Memphis – who I see on the US tours and also back home at games. They were outside enjoying a pint and a breakfast. They would be the first of many old friends – and a smattering of new – that I would happily meet over the weekend. We had taken over the whole pub – large, cool, roomy – and I spent my time chatting away with many Chelsea faces, clutching a bottle of Corona, and occasionally taking a few photographs to capture the mood. For a while, those outside the pub sang a selection of Chelsea songs, and this resulted in many locals using their cameras to record the moment. I don’t think Ann Arbor was prepared for it. The city centre is a quaint mix of antique shops, brew pubs, eateries, diners, pubs and shops. It is a very typical college town. For a couple of days, Chelsea fans invaded it like a plague of locusts, drank beer, and turned the air blue.

At around 12.30pm on the day of the game, John parked his truck in a multi-story opposite “Conor O’Neils” and we dived into the pub. The rain soon returned, and the University of Michigan store opposite had a run on ponchos. More beers were guzzled, and the pub absolutely roared to Chelsea chants. On the drive in to the city from my motel three miles to the south, the number of Chelsea shirts greatly outnumbered those of Real Madrid. This was a very positive sign indeed. At just after 2pm, thankfully the rain cleared and we began the twenty-five-minute walk south to the stadium. It was very pleasant indeed. The rain had freshened things up a little. We were allocated the northern end of the stadium, and it soon appeared before us. Touts – or scalpers – were doing their best to get rid of spares. Knock-off kits, virtually all Madrid, were being hawked on grass verges. Time was moving on, and the line at the gates were long. I thrust my telephoto lens down into my pocket and hoped for the best. Thankfully, there was a very minimal search and I was in.

“And relax.”

In time-honoured Chelsea tradition, the call of “one last pint” (or in this case “one last poncho”) had been honoured without jeopardising our ability to get in on time.

The stadium, which holds around 110,000, sits on a hill, but does not look large from the outside. Like so many stadia though, the entrances are towards the top of the vast bowl, and the pitch is down below. As I walked in, I was blown away by the scale of it all. It is immense. It is not called “The Big House” without reason. There are rows upon rows of blue metallic bleachers which wrap themselves around on one never-ending single tier. The very last twenty rows are a relatively recent addition. Along the sides are two huge edifices – darkened glass, quite sinister – which house hundreds of executive and corporate suites.

Our section was right down the bottom and it took a while to reach it.

I located my seat, alongside Brij, an Ann Arbor student from San Jose attending his first-ever Chelsea match, and Neil, who was with me in Vienna, just as the national anthem was being played on a trumpet.

I looked around and took it all in.

The guy with the Willian shirt at the hotel in the morning was stood right behind me.

What a small bloody world.

Mosaics were planned and with a great deal of condescension, the announcer painstakingly explained what the spectators needed to do. Thousands of multi-coloured paper panels were held aloft, but I found it odd that the folks in and around me in the Chelsea section held up cards depicting the Real Madrid crest, whereas over in the southern side, the Chelsea crest was visible. Actually, the sections were not cut and dried. To my annoyance, the Chelsea sections of 33,34 and 35 were populated by not only Chelsea supporters, but by those of Real Madrid and many other teams too. The lower sections housed those from the various supporters’ clubs though – New York Blues, Shed End Dallas, Chicago Blues, Beltway Blues, Motor City Blues, Shed End Seattle, Atlanta Blues, Badgercrack Blues – and this lower level housed the bedrock of our support. However, a pet peeve of mine, noted here before, is that it would have been much better to allocate a solid block of one thousand or two thousand just to Chelsea. Over the course of the game, getting the disparate sections, split up and spread more thinly than I would have liked, to sing together was almost impossible.

Elsewhere, there were colours of many teams. If the opposite end was officially the Real Madrid end, there were no noticeable hardcore sections among it. There were no banners, no flags, no “capo” stuff. In fact, if I am blunt, the only section in the whole stadium that tried to get anything going the entire game was in the lower sections of our end.

Real Madrid were in all white, but it was Chelsea that had let me down.

It was black and white, not blue and white, this time.

Antonio Conte had chosen a strong team.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta.

Terry.

Cahill.

Aina.

Matic.

Oscar.

Willian.

Pedo.

Loftus-Cheek.

Traore.

I am so used to seeing a 4-2-3-1 that it took me a while to adjust.

The match began and the support around tried desperately to get behind the boys.

I got my rasping “Zigger Zagger” out of the way early – on around six minutes – and it left me gasping for a sip of beer at the end. I almost didn’t make it. The last “ZZ” almost caused my head to explode in the warm Michigan sun. I turned to Neil and said –

“That’s it. That’s me done.”

As I said, sections of those in blue did their very best to get things going but it wasn’t great.

Sadly, the first-half was truly awful.

Willian had a free-kick which failed to live up to its hype. An ill-judged back-header from Matic caused Begovic to scramble and save. Real Madrid started to dominate.

Two relatively similar goals were scored by Marcelo as our defence opened up before him. This was not going to plan. A third goal from Diaz, whipped in, dipping, but almost straight at Begovic, left us all with concerned faces. I had visions of a 6-0, a cricket score. I had visions of folks back home, at work, waiting to pounce.

“Bloody hell, mate. You went all that way and your lot lost 6-0.”

Neil disappeared at halftime in search of beer, but was never seen again, until later, much later, in the pub.

The manager made widespread changes at half-time.

On came Courtois, Chalobah, Cuadrado, Batshuayi.

Things genuinely improved a little in the second-half.

“Not difficult” I hear you say.

I liked the look of Cuadrado down below me on the wing. At last he looked a little more confident on the ball, and his first touch seemed to be fine. He looked “up for it” and I have a feeling that the manager might well be regarding this as his “special project” this season. He saw him play in depth for Juventus last season. Maybe he can coax something out of his frail shell.

Shots from Chalobah and Batshuayi went close.

The Real ‘keeper Casilla raced out of his area to gather a ball, but Traore pounced, only to see a defender block his shot.

There was a pitch invader, and I – perhaps with a little too much heavy satire – said “shoot him.”

Brij, next to me, told me that there were snipers in the stadium. He pointed up to the two opposing top corners of the roofs of the sky boxes. There were two darkened figures.

I actually felt a shiver go down my spine.

Is this crazy world of ours spiralling out of control so much that we require snipers on stand roofs? I wondered back to the days of the police observation area in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I bet in those days, the only things on display were a pair of binoculars and a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Real Madrid made massive changes and the game drifted on.

Victor Moses, back for his annual pre-season run, was fouled and Hazard went close.

Soon after, with eighty minutes on the clock, Hazard gave the score line a little more respectability when he latched on to a Chalobah ball and rounded replacement ‘keeper Yanez to slot home. My boy Cuadrado looked good, and created a few chances down below us. With an almost copy of his first goal, Eden Hazard was played in by Batshuayi and again rounded the ‘keeper to score a second. As bizarre as it sounds, we all thought that we might salvage an unwarranted draw. We had a little spell right at the end, but with the ball out for a corner, the referee blew up.

3-2 is a lot better than 3-0, but this was not great.

I will make the same comments, though, as I did against Rapid Vienna.

These are just games for us to get our fitness levels back and for the manager to look at options.

Time is moving on though.

We need to improve.

After a slow walk back to the bar, I said a sad farewell to John. After a few more beers, in the bar, we were all chilled and the result was glossed over. The drinking continued. On Wednesday, the locusts descend on Minneapolis.

I will see some of you there.

IMG_8212