Tales From The Final Shot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 24 January 2019.

This season has, thus far, been quite the mixed bag hasn’t it? Our last three games perfectly exemplify this; an encouragingly optimistic performance, but a loss against Tottenham at Wembley, a very dull home win against Newcastle United and then a limp and depressing defeat at Arsenal. Overall, in these three games, we would be scored as “must do better – much better” and the mood of the Chelsea support was in negative territory. How would we perform against Tottenham in the League Cup semi second leg? Would our play take us back into the positive for the first time in a while?

When we realised that we had been drawn against “that lot” – it seems ages ago now – my thoughts were this.

“At home, a one-off tie, we could beat them. But over two legs, I don’t fancy our chances.”

But things change. Our spirited first game a fortnight ago swung the balance our way. I sensed we’d beat them. When we heard that our bitter rivals had lost Kane and Ali to injury and Son to the Asia Cup, our spirits were lifted further.

As I left work at 3pm, my mood was worryingly optimistic.

It was a typical midweek pre-match. PD had driven Parky and little old me to London, and we had enjoyed the North End Walk, which links The Goose and Simmons Bar. There were tons of familiar faces in both and even the same faces in both; it seems a common choice on match days to combine drinks at the two hostelries. There was a noticeably buoyant and expectant air in both pubs. It felt fine. It felt good. Guest of honour was Pete, originally from North London, but now living in San Diego, and lucky enough to get his hands on a ticket at the last minute for the game. I last saw him in DC for the Barcelona friendly in 2015. I am sure Pete will not mind me mentioning that he is Jewish, and he soon showed me – rather coyly – his Chelsea kippah, which he produced from his breast pocket.

We both laughed.

“…mmm, best not wear that tonight mate, might get the wrong reaction.”

We laughed again.

I reminded him of the flight I took to Tel Aviv in 2015.

“I looked up and saw that the chap sitting in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. Fucksake. Then I spotted a woman to my left, across the aisle, one row ahead, was breastfeeding her infant. So I had a tit in front of me and a tit to my left too.”

Pete gave me an old-fashioned look.

“True story.”

There was just a little team talk.  I wasn’t confident that Maurizio Sarri would begin with Olivier Giroud, and neither was Simon but Daryl thought that he would.

In the build up to the semi-final against Tottenham, I was well aware of our two previous encounters with them at the same stage of the competition.

Our 1971/1972 semi-final was just before my time, not as a Chelsea fan per se, but I certainly can’t recall the build-up nor the two games themselves at all. After all, I was only six. I since learned that we overcame Tottenham, and that the first-leg was quite a game. A poke-in from Ossie followed by The King giving the away fans a “V”, a first-ever goal in our colours from Chris Garland and a Johnny Hollins penalty. We drew the second-leg 2-2 and progressed to the final. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7m68Fvvlyk

In 2001/2002, we beat Tottenham 2-1 at Stamford Bridge with a brace from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the first one a prod past Kasey Keller down below me, the second an absolute screamer at The Shed, and I certainly remembered that match. We then reconvened at White Hart Lane two weeks later and I was able to hook up a portable TV to watch while I worked the evening shift at a portakabin in Trowbridge. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2drkUtSCj4

Two other games are worthy of note I think.

In 1990/1991, this time at the quarter final stage, we again drew Tottenham in the League Cup. This was a classic game, but only insomuch that it is, without doubt, the most one-sided 0-0 that I have ever seen. I watched from the West Stand seats, a bit of a treat really since I was on the dole that season, but towards the Spurs fans in the curving North Stand. Graeme Le Saux was absolutely on fire that night, and I had a prime position to see him roast the Spurs defence time after time. It was one of those games when you thought “we’ve got a real talent here”. Even though I travelled back by train that night, and therefore would not have seen the TV highlights anyway, this game has gone down in Chelsea history because the scheduled TV programme was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Gulf War and action from the game was never aired. That night, Baghdad came under a horrendous attack, but it paled into comparison to the blitzkrieg we had rammed into Tottenham a few hours earlier. It’s likely very few have seen these rare highlights, recently unearthed by a chap on a Facebook group that I am in. I love the involvement of the crowd and the noise from this game. Just 34,000 were officially present, but it was a common view that Ken Bates massaged the crowd figures in those days. Just what we needed, really. From a period that opposing fans refer to when lambasting our historical attendances, the bloody Chelsea chairman was making out we had less fans at games than we actually did. Nice one, Ken, you silly old duffer. Anyway, fill yer boots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwqOjP2s58c

One more Chelsea / Tottenham midweek memory. With the signing of Gonzalo Higuain – never saw that one coming, cough, cough – and the thought of him possibly starting the game, many of us remembered the signing of George Weah in the 1999/2000 season. On a memorable evening, he had jumped off a plane at Heathrow and then appeared a few hours later to score the only goal of the game against Tottenham in the league. It was very much a case of “mmm, how shall we beat Tottenham this time?” It was fantastic. George Weah and his white boots, what an impact player for us in those last few months of that season. In 2019, we have witnessed another Milan to Chelsea loan signing, but alas there was no chance of another “Hig-Whea-in” winning goal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egOgvkpHgF4

For this game, Tottenham had around four thousand in The Shed. This meant Parky was forced to buy a seat elsewhere. I decided to swap with him so he could watch alongside Alan and PD, while I took his seat in a central area of the same tier. As I took position, I realised that it was the first time that I had watched a game from behind the goal in the MHU since Bruges at home in 1995. It cunningly gave me a new vantage point for my photographic endevours.

And it was some view.

I loved the team that Sarri had chosen. In came Emerson, Barkley and Giroud.

Kepa

Dave – Rudi – Geezer – Emerson

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Peds – Olivier – Eden

I got chatting to Vince, a season ticket holder for decades, who was with two friends, sitting to my immediate right. I warned him of my habit of taking photographs and hoped it would not spoil his enjoyment of the night. Surprisingly, the seat to my left was empty. It looked a full house, but if you looked hard enough there were odd seats not being used.

More dimmed lights and firework and flames. At night games, it adds to the drama, but what next I wonder? Thank God the club hasn’t implored us to turn our phone torches on prior to the entrance of the teams. You heard it here first, sigh.

The teams came on. I love the sense of drama as they walk across the pitch to the West Side. No Premier League flag getting in the way this time. A straight and purposeful walk to the other side of the pitch. And I was staring down the four thousand Tottenham fans. They were, awfully, in our Shed, but somehow the sight of a solid block of away fans – flanked by several hundred empty seats on each side – gave the evening a proper “Us Versus Them” feel.

Whisper it, but it gave the game an added drama. Three stands us, one stand them, just like the old days, but swung around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.

There was not one single Tottenham flag on show.

The game began.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Spurs were weakened on paper, and they began weakly on the grass too. We began well, bossing it, and got better. A divine full body shimmy from David Luiz suggested that he was full of confidence, and I only hoped that the others shared his positivism. We absolutely dominated the first five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. We moved the ball quickly, but into danger areas with more urgency than recent memory. For once, I noted that Jorginho was not hogging the ball. For once, it was not solely about him. We moved the ball long and short, and runners were hit. Once or twice, Eden played deep-seated playmaker and propelled lasers to the feet of a wide man. This was good stuff indeed, and the crowd – that vital component – were involved from the off.

I was enjoying my little chats with Vince. We delved into a few previous games. Bruges in 1971 and in 1995. That Le Saux game in 1991. The flat semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday – which followed the Spurs tie that year – at noon on a Sunday when we were undone by the same bloody free-kick routine – John Sheridan? – on two occasions. Another infamous game. Fackinell Chelsea.

Throughout the first-half, there were no end of rugged and miss-timed challenges on our players, which the referee Martin Atkinson shrugged off, and the home crowd bellowed and roared our disapproval. Each time the referee chose not to card a Spurs player, the otherwise quiet and bespectacled lad to my left exploded with a tirade of abuse; top notch swearing in fact. It was the sole time he seemed to get involved. There was no roaring of support for any of our players from him. He seemed an odd character. But more of that later.

Tottenham’s main song of the night was clearly one intended to entice a response from us, or at least some in our ranks.

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

We sing in the sun and we sing in the rain.

They’ve tried to stop us and look what it did.

Cos the thing I love most is being a ***.

Being a ***.

Being a ***.

The thing I love most is being a ***.”

But we are made of stern stuff and we did not lower ourselves.

There was no Y-Word-Nonsense from Chelsea’s three stands.

Well done us. Again.

However, as the game progressed, I was rather worried that for all of our dominance, we had not really tested their ‘keeper Gazzaniga. But Tottenham had rarely ventured into our half.

“Where’s Chris Garland when you need him?” I chirped to Vince.

On the half-hour mark, a Hazard corner from our left ended up bouncing towards Kante, some twenty yards out. He steadied himself, arms balanced, and did well to keep his shot down. Somehow it squeezed through a packed box, and we were 1-0 up and level in the tie. The crowd roared and the players quickly raced back to our half.

Game on.

From Alan : “THTCAUN”.

To Alan : “COMLD.”

A replay would show how the ball had miraculously travelled betwixt the legs of three opposing players.

I wonder if the French word for “nuts” or “megs” was uttered by our man.

I turned to Vince : “The mention of Chris Garland did it.”

The Bridge was buzzing now.

The crowd roared N’Golo’s song at a home game for the first time that I can remember.

“Ngolo – ohh!

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believe in.”

Pure gold.

There was a close chance for Giroud, but his legs seemed to become tangled.

Ten minutes after the first goal, a fantastic move involving crisp passes from Barkley, Hazard, Pedro and Azpilicueta meant that Spurs were a little slow to spot the movement of Hazard, who appeared in the box as if by magic – like Mr Benn –  to calmly steer the ball home.

More wild noise, bloody fantastic.

I turned to Vince :

“Spurs are not bloody singing now.”

The game opened up further. A heavy Pedro touch meant that a fine run was wasted, and there were blocked shots as we piled on the pressure. There were only rare Tottenham attacks. Luiz played the ball out to his wide man Emerson with aplomb on many occasions. In the last moment of the first-half, Hazard was tackled from behind by Alderwiereld – I was not convinced – but befitting the rest of the first-half, no action was taken.

Vince : “one of the best halves of football we’ve seen down here for ages.”

The second-half began with “Where’s Wally” to my left nowhere to be seen. However, he eventually ambled back to his seat and – I am afraid that I am not exaggerating here – for a good eighty percent of the second-half he stared at his phone as he reeled off text message after text message, rarely looking at the game for minutes on end. And it really wound me up. It shouldn’t, should it? But it did. It is a miracle of self-restraint that I chose not to bite and say something bitterly sarcastic to the prick.

The first few minutes passed and – just as I thought to myself “mmm, Eriksen has been quiet, bet he misses his usual targets”- the ball was whipped in by Danny Rose, an early substitute, from their left and Llorente prodded home.

The away fans roared now, and a Star of David was spotted being fluttered like a red rag to a bull in the Shed Upper.

The game opened up again. This season, there would be no extra time if scores were level over both games and the game would go straight to penalties. We begged for a third goal on the night. And to be fair, we certainly gave it our best shot, if not one that hit the target.

Over the next forty minutes there was shot after shot. Giroud wriggled free and lashed an effort low but Gazzaniga saved at the near post down below me. Giroud, – undoubtedly under threat with Higuain on board – had not created much for himself up until then, but his presence had allowed others to make use of space around him.

The home crowd urged the players on. I will be honest, I was especially loud – “rasping” – and aimed my voice towards Wally to my left, but there was no reaction from the twat. He had the sort of face that was begging out for a slap, glasses or no glasses, and even though I am not a violent person…mmm, my voice fades into the ether, best not say anything, I’m honestly not a violent person, but…

Unbelievably, Jorginho and Kante were booked despite the rotten Tottenham challenges, and the reaction of Sarri to a bad tackle resulted in him getting a yellow too.

“Good lad.”

Llorente messed up a great chance from close in, and there was much wailing at the Tottenham end.

We attacked again. Great play from Hazard and Emerson. A shot from Pedrio.

Moura then hit the side netting and the away fans roared just as the Chelsea fans roared when Kerry Dixon hit the side netting in 1991 (have you watched the clip yet? Go on…)

And then Dave was carded too.

Three Chelsea players carded. And not one opposing player. This seemed bloody ridiculous. This brought Wally to life and he again spewed out some fuckwords into the evening air at the referee.  But there were still no signs of support for his team.

Back to your texts, lad.

Willian replaced Pedro, who had stretched his marker all night.

My favourite part of the game, in one way, took place on the East Stand touchline. There was a foul on a Chelsea player – Kante I think –  but many players continued, and Kante himself had clearly not heard the whistle (or maybe he had, wink), and he made a firm but fair tackle, leaving a Tottenham player on the floor and clasping his shin. It was sheer poetry. This certainly galvanised our support further.

At last a Tottenham booking; Sissoko, and much sarcastic cheering.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

Hazard pelted one in from outside the box and it missed the target by inches. He repeated this shortly after, but another chance went begging. Mateo Kovacic replaced the tiring Barkley, who had begun well but was fading. We still pushed on. There were further chances though. Another messy effort from Giroud at the far post had us all frustrated, but worse was to come.

Emerson, finding great energy from somewhere, flew past Aurier and sent over a peach of a cross towards a leaping Giroud. His effort cleared the intersection of post and bar. I actually turned around and double-stamped in absolute frustration.

…”mmm, I haven’t done that before” I self-consciously thought to myself.

So, penalties.

I said to Vince :

“Simple. If it is up there, we’ll lose. If it is down here, we’ll win.”

Thankfully, it was at the Matthew Harding.

Great for us, great for the fans, great for me, great for my camera.

We waited.

Tottenham :  Eriksen – IN.

Chelsea : Willian (currently one of the boo boys, please don’t give them extra ammunition to have a go at you) – IN.

Tottenham : Lamela – IN.

Chelsea : Azpilicueta (didn’t like his over-enthusiastic run up) – IN.

Tottenham : Dier – OVER.

Chelsea : Jorginho (that stop, like at Huddersfield) – IN.

Tottenham : Moura – SAVED.

Chelsea : Luiz (a hero from the spot in Munich, another long run up, initiated by a Jonny Wilkinson-style stop, sorry about the rugby reference) – IN.

Stamford Bridge roared once more.

GET IN.

It was the final shot.

The final shot of the game.

A shot to get us into the final.

And my final shot of the action.

The penalties had taken place and we had done them four by two.

Phew.

Hugs with Vince.

“See you at Wembley.”

David Luiz had been featured on the programme cover and it was fitting that he had brought us home. He had enjoyed a great match along with Hazard, Rudiger, Pedro and – of course – the loved Kante. But Luiz was the centre of attention as “One Step Beyond” boomed around Stamford Bridge. I glanced over to The Shed, and many had quickly disappeared.

It was a beautiful sight indeed.

I slowly made my way to the exit and outside the West Stand one song dominated.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

And indeed it fucking had.

It had been…clears throat…a great night.

On Sunday, another cup competition awaits.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Banks Of The Chao Phraya River

Thai Premier League All Stars vs. Chelsea : 24 July 2011.

Day One : The Madness.

From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok …my flight landed at around 1.15pm on Friday 22nd. July. No time to dwell too much on the muted team performance the previous night in the cauldron of the Bukit Jalil stadium. Another city to explore and, on Sunday, another Chelsea match. But first, some fun.

I quickly made my way through customs at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport – sleek, slick and functional – and I soon met up with my mate Adie, who had just arrived on a domestic flight from his home city of Chiang Mai. Adie was in the same year as me at Frome College from 1978 to 1983 and was one of the stars of the school team. Adie played with distinction as a covering centre-back in a back four and had lovely positional awareness, close control and tackling ability. I played on the right wing in the 1978-1979 season, but soon fell out of the first team the following year. Adie went on to play many games for the school first eleven, but my football career fell away as my support for Chelsea grew and grew. Adie went out to Thailand in 1996 as a VSO worker, met his wife Waraya (who was his Thai language teacher) in Bangkok and moved north to Chiang Mai a few years ago. Adie visited Frome last year just as our championship season was concluding and attempted to sway me into visiting his new home in the near future. Well, as we all know, our tour of Asia was announced a while back and so I quickly decided to go ahead and book flights to encompass football and friends. Rather than follow the team on to Hong Kong, I wanted to visit Adie and Waraya in Chiang Mai instead.

There was slight drizzle outside as we quickly hopped into a – wow – pink taxi cab. In the 45 minute drive to our hotel in downtown Bangkok, we soon updated each other with news from both our lives. Over to our right, I spotted the curves of the Rajamangala Stadium where the game against the Thai League All-Stars would be played on Sunday. I quickly realised that Bangkok was on a different scale to that of Kuala Lumpur. KL had its share of skyscrapers, for sure, but they were in that condensed area of the Golden Triangle. Bangkok’s skyscrapers were all around. Adie pointed out the tallest one as we sped west. We curled round, off the elevated freeway, then down into the craziness of the city itself.

Our hotel – the Ibis Riverside – was nestled in a curve of the Chao Phraya River as it flowed south through the western part of central Bangkok. We checked in and I pulled the curtains in our room back.

“Oh wow.”

The view that greeted me allowed me another one of those “moments.”

Below me was the fast-flowing river, visible over tropical tree tops, and there were several small boats navigating their courses. On the eastern bank, there were several high-rises to complete the scene. It was a real jaw-dropper. It was another sight which will be saved forever in my memory bank of images. I could have stayed there, nose pressed against the window, for hours, or at least until Nando scored again. Adie was the person to thank – or rather his wife Waraya, who had booked the room on the back of her previous stay at the hotel as a VSO employee.

At 4pm, we headed out, the whole night in Bangkok ahead of us.

Here we go.

We managed to locate a small ferry boat to take us across the river. While we were lining up at the ferry pier – which was typically surrounded by a fast food and drink stall – Adie pointed down to the ground, just to my right.

It was a pig, sleeping in the afternoon sun.

“Bloody hell, mate. A pig!”

We made our way across the river on a little flat boat and the fare was just 7 baht, or just 15p. I snapped away like a fool, capturing every riverboat we passed. I didn’t want to miss anything. We had heard that Chelsea were to stay at the Shangri La Hotel – just across the river from us – and so our first port of call was in this hotel. Two beers, some nuts, plus more chat about our personal lives. Adie had visited Frome back in April, but there is always gossip to share. No sightings of any CFC personnel, so we decided to move on. We were headed into town on the monorail. However, just as we were queuing up for our tickets at the Saphan Taksin stop, Adie quickly advised me to stop talking and to stand still. The Thai national anthem is played over tannoys at every public space at 8am and 6pm and so we stood still for thirty seconds, along with everyone else on that platform.

Another “moment” for sure.

Three stops away, we alighted at Sala Daeng and I was ready to breath in whatever Bangkok had to throw at me. For thirty minutes or so, we wandered the close streets of Patpong 1, 2 and 3, right in the epicentre of the fabled Bangkok show bar area. Street stalls, open air cafes, fake DVDs, fake designer gear, locals eating noodles and rice, fake football shirts, noise, colour and a little sleaze, with a few chaps hustling us to enter the various show bars which opened up onto the streets. I peered inside and wondered “shall I, shan’t I?” I bought a “Clockwork Orange” T-shirt for just 200 baht from a busy stall under the monorail. I spoke to Adie about one of Juve’s firms being called “Arancia Meccanica” and the real world, the football world and my world overlapped once again.
And still the street hustlers wanted us to pay a visit to the local delights…

“One Night In Bangkok” indeed.

Adie fancied some food and so from about 7pm to 9pm, we sheltered in the relative calm of an Irish pub – “O’Reilly’s” – and had three pints of Singha…they are Chelsea’s beer sponsors after all. We ordered some food – chicken in satay sauce and some spring rolls – and had a great time. We spoke about our school days and our time in the same school and cricket teams. A few other topics were aired, but we kept coming back to football, the game that ties so many of my mates together. We spoke about Asia’s particular love of English footy, way ahead of any other league, way ahead of Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga. Adie kept asking me why English football was so loved and I did my best to respond. I guess I used the words “history, passion, humour, noise and tribalism.” Dotted around the bar were several western male tourists “of a certain age” sitting with local Thai boys. The pub was busy and I half-expected a familiar Chelsea face to appear…maybe Saturday night. Sitting in a bar in a foreign land, I was reminded of one of my favourite jokes, which I shared with Ade : –

“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman were shipwrecked and found themselves on a deserted island. Within a few weeks, the Irishman had found a way to ferment the local fruit to make alcohol and had opened a pub. The Scotsman had got into a fight with the Irishman and had been banned from the pub. And the Englishman was waiting to be introduced.”

Next up was the appearance of The Better Band, a local Beatles tribute band, and they played many Beatles’ songs. In their wigs and suits circa 1964, they did a good job to be fair. Paul McCartney even sang with a slight Scouse accent, which I guess is no mean feat. I spoke to Ade about the reports that I have been writing for CIA and we tossed a few ideas about what the Bangkok edition should be called. Adie suggested “Tales From The Big Mango” in lieu of the city’s modern nickname. It would certainly be better than “Tales From The City Of Angels, The Great City, The Residence Of The Emerald Buddha, The Impregnable City (Of Ayutthaya) Of God Indra, The Grand Capital Of The World Endowed With Nine Precious Gems, The Happy City, Abounding In An Enormous Royal Palace That Resembles The Heavenly Abode Where Reigns The Reincarnated God, A City Given By Indra And Built By Vishnukarn”. Bangkok has the longest place name in the world, allegedly. Feeling on top form, we then continued our walkabout and we ended up outside, and then inside, “The Finlandia” show bar. Twenty minutes later – and after just one beer, costing a couple of quid – we were back in the crowded streets and our lives were richer with another Bangkok moment.

For the record – ‘cus I know you all want to know – there were no table tennis balls but just 30 pretty bored Thai girls a-dancing on stage.

It had to be done, though. Tick that box, so to speak.

Next up, some more food and Adie sat us down at a cheap and cheerful café, with me just kicking back, enjoying some banter and aiming plenty of puns at poor Adie. We had a few local delicacies, including a crab which had been fragranced with a selection of Thai spices. I haven’t eaten too many crabs in my life and I was getting more and more frustrated as I toiled away, attempting to get as much flesh out of the little sucker as possible. At least the Singha beer was going down well. As I finished the meal, I spotted a local Thai gentleman in a Liverpool shirt and so I quickly showed him video film on my phone from the 3-1 game at Anfield in 2008. He growled and so I blew him a kiss and his little group of friends roared with laughter.

We crossed the roared and flagged down a tuk tuk, that funky three-wheeled vehicle which is such an iconic part of Asian life, and gave the driver instructions on how to reach our next attraction. I had pinpointed the open air bar on the 63rd. floor of the State Tower as a “must-see” attraction on this first night. Well, the tuk tuk drive was magnificent, a real adrenalin rush, with the exhaust roaring behind us and the traffic whizzing past. Waves to fellow tuk-tukkers, smiles to cab drivers.

“One Night In Bangkok.”

As we stepped out onto the roof terrace, my mind went ga-ga. What a sight – a clear dark night, starlit, with the illuminations of a million city lights stretched out to the horizon. Car lights, street lights, hotel rooms, reds, yellows, whites. We stepped into the crowded circular Sky Bar, itself illuminated, and tentatively ordered a couple of expensive beers. The barman was an Italian and so I decided to introduce myself –

“Sono tifo di Chelsea.”

He then told me that Didier Drogba and a few other Chelsea players had been up at the bar two hours earlier. If anything, that validated us being there, two mere mortals from Frome. We took it all in. Deep breathes. Photos of the vibrant Bangkok night down below. We sipped at the beers, wanting them to last forever. It really was a magnificent end to my first night in the Thai Capital. Pigs, river boats, Thai Beatles, Pat Pong’s vices, beer and Thai food, the city below from the Sky Bar above.

Chelsea in town.

There was still time for one more surprise.

“Chris Axon – what the fcuk are you doing here?”

I quickly turned around and a work colleague bounded across the bar to greet me with an outstretched hand.

“Batty – what the fcuk!”

Batty has worked with me at Herman Miller for eight years and, unbeknown to me, had just arrived in town the night before with his girlfriend Jo. He had spent a few minutes on the other side of the circular bar working out “is that Chris Axon???” The penny suddenly dropped…”must be him – Chelsea are in town.” Well, what a small world…what a cliché, but how true. We spent the next thirty minutes rubbing our eyes, sharing a few stories and wallowing in the absurdities of this crazy world. He had just visited Hong Kong and was only in Bangkok for three days. That our paths should cross in a bar 63 stories up in the Bangkok sky is surely a magnificent impossibility.

But, no – nothing is impossible in Chelsea World.

We called another tuk tuk – though it’s all a little blurred – and we raced back to the Ibis, our backsides only a foot or so from the ground, across the bridge over the Chao Phraya River and we collapsed into our beds at about 2am.

Day Two : The Tourist.

Adie was clearly not used to such an alcohol intake and was rather delicate first thing. I felt fine and, after a lovely buffet breakfast, we were out and about at just after 10am. The day was spent fizzing up and down the Chao Phraya River, visiting a few of Bangkok’s must-see sights. Of course, it had to happen; we bumped into Batty, not once, but twice on the Saturday…once on the ferry boat as we headed up to the Grand Palace and once inside the temple which housed the famous Emerald Budha.

“See you in about two hours, then.”

The Grand Palace was magnificent. It was another jaw-dropper. I was surrounded by gold-leaved temples and chedis, or pagodas, and while I snapped away, Adie secretly took a few photos of me. Adie loves his photography, like me, and taught me a few tricks about the art while I was with him. Being surrounded by all of that gold, especially on such a hot day, was almost hypnotic. For a few moments, I experienced what it must be like to be Roman Abramovic. We had to take off our shoes and caps to enter the revered temple of the Jade Buddha and for a few reflective moments, I sat in silence.

We then aimed for the temple which housed the Reclining Buddha or Wat Pho. This was another mesmeric sight. This Buddha is around 50m in length and is again gilded in gold. The toes are festooned in mother or pearl. It’s quite magnificent. With all of this gold around, I dubbed my visit to Bangkok a “gilt trip” and Adie groaned once more.

Death by a thousand puns.

Outside, more street markets; DVDs, Budha mementoes, second-hand toys, second-hand books, sex aids, plastic flowers, fresh fruit, pineapples and bananas, wooden phalluses, dried fish, coconuts, fake T-shirts, fake handbags, tat of every description, West Ham season tickets.

We caught the ferry boat back to the pier by the Shangri La Hotel and I decided to see if any players were hanging around. I waited in the reception area for a good hour or so. I spoke with an ex-pat, who had travelled down to Bangkok from Northern Thailand. He told me that he had paid the equivalent of £35 to attend the so called “High Tea With Chelsea FC” at the hotel on the Friday. He was far from impressed as he was one of around 250 fans and only the manager and four players attended, away on the top table. It was a bit of a farce, according to him. Bruce Buck and his wife arrived and I slowly walked over and greeted him with a memory from last season –

“The last time I saw you was at Frankley Services on the M5 after Stoke away.”

He looked a bit guarded and his response surprised me –

“Did you abuse me?”

I laughed it off and said “no, not at all.” We chatted a little and I asked his wife to take a photo…I had my trusty Yankees cap pinned to my belt and he noted it and patted his chest, saying “ah, close to my heart.”

Soon after, a minibus dropped Josh, Alex and Graeme Le Saux off and I had the smallest of chats with Berge as he raced through the foyer. I knew that the Chelsea squad were off to the stadium at around 5pm for some public training. I spotted Cathy and a few others arrive, back from a hot day visiting the sights. They had plans to visit the training session, but I was giving it a swerve. I lounged around and spotted a few CFC personnel – names unknown – and wondered what their roles were in the grand scheme of things. What were their names? What were their roles? Their motivations? Their qualifications? Their impressions of Andre Villas-Boas? Were they enjoying the trip? Were they missing their loved ones? It made me think. I asked one of them about the team’s departure time for the training session and the fact that he was an American surprised me. Not sure why, though.

I got the nod that the team would be boarding the coach from a tucked-away service bay to the side. For about 45 minutes, with rain clouds threatening, I hung around in the hope of getting some good photographs of the players as they boarded the coach. In the end, the photos were disappointing and I questioned my sanity on more than one occasion. I felt, ridiculously, like a school kid at a pop concert and was tempted to head back to the Ibis. I stuck it out though – and was rewarded when I spun around to get a good shot of JT giving me the thumbs up from his seat. I also made him chuckle when I said “Beth from America says hi!”

On the ferry back across the Chao Phraya, the rain cascaded down and I hoped that Cathy et al had decided to forego the training session.

Saturday night was quieter than Friday – I swam in the hotel pool, while the rain came down and there was occasional sheet lightning which lit up the sky. The boats on the river were still floating past and it was another lovely moment. The rain lashing down on my skin, the swimming pool warm, the smile on my face constant. The rain increased in intensity and it was gorgeous.

“I’m going to swim underwater, Adie – I’m getting wet here.”

Day Three – The Game.

Of all my time supporting Chelsea Football Club, attending games and watching my heroes, the pre-match of Sunday 24th. July 2011 was unlike no other. We were up nice and early and began the morning with a pre-breakfast swim at around 7am. After a hearty breakfast – nice to know that pork sausages, fried eggs, fried potatoes and baked beans have found their way to Thailand – we set off for a walk around the Chinatown area of downtown BK. Across the river once more, then up a few miles on the ferry boat. From about 10.30pm to around 2pm, we slowly walked through street after street, bazaar after bazaar, delicately avoiding oncoming traffic and pedestrians alike.

I knew that I was in for a treat when Adie lead me down a slight passageway which got narrower and narrower until we turned a corner and ended up almost entering somebody’s house. There was a blurring of space – “Adie, is this a shop, a private kitchen, or a shared area between several families?” – and it felt like I had entered another world.

In fact, of course, this is just what I had done.

Every spare inch of alleyway was devoted to commercial pursuits. Here comes another list of products, but this could go on forever; food of every description, including raw and cooked fish, exotic fruits of every shape, colour and size, textiles, mobile phones, walking sticks, electric drills, fishing rods, bags, fake DVDs, radios, car engine parts, batteries, toys, shoes, fake designer gear, nuts, vegetables, magazines, old toy cars, bags of fried fish stomachs, hats, caps, jewelry, furniture, mirrors, incense sticks, electronic goods, dried flowers, football shirts, car stickers, anything, everything.

And every few yards, locals were sat on the floor, crouching over little stoves cooking their meals. Bowls and bowls of rice, meat, noodles, fish, vegetables, fruit and a thousand variations. There was a blurring again of what I saw before me; is this a stall selling food, or just simply a worker cooking up their own food?

Adie had taught me a new way to photograph, slowing to a standstill, spotting a subject and shooting from the hip. I took several photos like this and the results were OK. I remember the intense look of concentration of one very small Chinese gentleman who was delicately folding pieces of gold to make intricate origami displays. The look of a bored young girl texting a friend while sat behind textiles and ribbons. A woman devouring some food. A chap sat at a café, smiling with a passer-by.

With every step, a hundred different sights. With every breath, a different aroma.

I said to Adie – “and in four hours time, we’ll watch some millionaires play football.”

We stopped off at a couple of street-side cafes and guzzled some drinks in the heat of the day; an iced cappuccino, a lime cordial, a lychee yogurt smoothie.

And the streets got narrower and narrower. At times it was impossible to move as the people slowed to gaze at the goods on sale. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but at times I just wanted to break free and find some clear space.

Eventually we broke free of Chinatown and headed north, over a canal and towards the Golden Mountain, which was another golden temple on the highest piece of land in central Bangkok. We quickly ascended the steps, took a few photographs and spotted a few skyscraper landmarks. Time was moving on and we needed to head over to the game. We caught a cab – thank heavens for air-conditioning – and soon witnessed another taxi ploughing into a poor woman and her cart of fresh fruit, sending them sprawling onto the road.

On the thirty minute cab ride out west, we sped past a massive advertisement for Singha beer, which used the tagline “Spirit Of Champions” with four Chelsea players’ faces and the CFC badge. It was a remarkable sight, thousands of miles from West London. As we approached the stadium, the traffic slowed, Chelsea shirts were beginning to be spotted and the expectation levels began to rise with each minute.

We were dropped off outside the main – and as far as we could ascertain, the only – entrance to the stadium. The heat was now getting more intense, but my Yankee cap was doing a fine job. After a little confusion about choosing the correct line at the busy ticket booth, I quickly picked up our three tickets. I spotted Aggie from the Cyprus Blues and had a little chat. Thankfully, Cathy, Jim and Jayne soon arrived and I could relax. We decided to head inside and get out of the sun. Cathy and I posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” flag once again. The atmosphere outside was of excitement, but it was quieter than Kuala Lumpur. There were a few tents nearby containing various products, including a Chelsea FC stall, a Coke stall and a local radio tent, with a loud DJ creating a din. The game was dubbed the Coke Super Cup and there was a twenty foot tall Coke “running man” statue outside the stadium. Quite a few locals appeared to be selling tickets and I wondered if the gate might fall way short of a full house. Adie had seen Leeds, Arsenal, Manchester United, Barca, Real and Brazil over the years at the stadium…I hoped and prayed that we would fill it.

Thankfully, we had great seats under the cover of the sweeping roof of the west stand. Middle tier, right on the halfway line. These tickets were 2,000 baht or around #45. There was a cooling breeze and we were fine. Opposite, on the east terrace, thousands of Chelsea fans were sweltering in the late afternoon sun and I noted hundreds of multi-coloured umbrellas sheltering the poor souls. It was time to play spot the Chelsea flag. The lads from Weymouth were sat a few rows in front of us and I am sure their flag was close by. Opposite, we spotted the two Bletchley Blues flags, a Walton On Thames flag, a Pattaya Blues flag, an Indonesia Blues flag, a Singapore Blues flag, a Melbourne flag and a Rising Sun flag. It was a good show. VPN was missing – I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.

The Chelsea players came onto the pitch and went through their choreographed pre-match routines.

The Snappy Dresser –

Chris – pink.

Again, thousands of CFC flags had been draped over some seats and these were waved with gusto. The stadium took a while to fill up. Still the sun beat down.

There were fireworks during the pre-game show and then a Thai couple appeared high above the north terrace on a platform. They were suspended from two cables and slowly made their way to the running track, as if floating on air. Let’s see something similar at Chelsea next season, with maybe Cathy and Dog floating down from the West Stand roof with five minutes to go before kick-off.

The teams appeared down below us and the crowd roared. Difficult to gauge the attendance, but – like KL – the crowd kept arriving deep into the game.

Great to see Petr back between the sticks for the first time this season.

The game began but it was a poor opening thirty minutes or so, with the Thai team showing more spirit and know-how than the Malaysian team a few days earlier. Soon into the game, all was quiet in our section and I shouted out –

“Come On Chelsea!”

…and, much to my amusement, this was met with a few “oohs” and “aahs” and even a few claps from the locals around me. Cathy and I spoke about doing some ZZs later.

Cech did well to get down and block a Thai shot on 31 minutes. That man Torres, still looking leggy and distant, skewed wide on 37 minutes and we all groaned. At times, the atmosphere was very quiet. Then, the ball broke to Frank Lampard and he adroitly despatched the ball low into the goal from over 25 yards out. It was a typical Fat Frank Goal and the crowd roared their approval.

Cathy disappeared at half-time and didn’t re-appear until later in the second-half. I suspect that she was off on the hunt for some Strongbow. Adie asked me how I thought the top six would finish up in 2011-2012 and he was quite shocked when I predicted that the title would go to Manchester United. My top six were: Manchester United, then Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.

I caught both of the next two goals on film. Jose Bosingwa’s cross-cum-shot evaded the despairing, and comical, efforts of the Thai ‘keeper and bounced in off the far post. Soon after, a burst through the middle of the park by Ivanovic and a lovely ball through by Young Josh. He kept his cool and dispatched the ball with aplomb and the entire World and his Dog made cynical comments along the lines of “good job it wasn’t Torres.”

One of the highlights of the game for me was a crunching tackle by John Terry on a Thai player and I suspect that the said player is still having recurring nightmares about it. Josh looked busy and impressed. The star of the show was Hilario, on for Petr at the break, who made a succession of fine saves around the hour mark. Top marks. Ivanovic charged around all over the place and didn’t seem to be affected by the heat, though I am sure it was very humid and draining. Rather them than me.

The place was still quiet, though.

My “Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea” chant didn’t stir the locals and so I left it at that. A couple in front of Adie and I were annoying the hell out of me. They virtually ignored the game and instead kept taking photographs – and sickly ones at that – of each other. It was just as well that Cathy wasn’t around to witness such a pathetic sight. Just after Cathy returned to her seat, Florent Malouda lashed high into the net and it was 4-0 to Chelsea.

Job done.

JT looked rather embarrassed to collect another cup, but all thoughts were quickly forgotten as a glittering array of fireworks lit up the Bangkok night. It was a spectacular end to the night’s entertainment and provided a fitting end to my two Chelsea games in Asia. This was a much better performance than the game in KL and the team looked more at ease. I hoped that the man with the clipboard was starting to make an impact.

Adie and I let the crowds subside and were some of the last to leave the stadium.

I collected twenty plastic cups from the terraces which were all logo’d up with “Coca Cola Super Cup Thailand 2011” and had the images of Didier, Frank, JT and Nando on them. They will go to a few close friends.

Outside, the crowds were still to disperse. There was a noisy atmosphere out in the streets, with buses and cabs racing past us as we walked a few miles west to get away from the congested area. Adie also pointed out motorbike taxis, but that would have to be a Bangkok experience for next time. Lots of smiles with fellow Chelsea fans as Adie and I marched on, walking at pace away from the stadium. It felt, actually, just like a walk away from a game in Europe. Maybe Rome or Barcelona. Lots of shouts, lots of noise, lots of colour. I had to keep reminding myself that – no – this was Bangkok.

I said to Adie “at least there’s no chance of getting whacked out here.”

I also commented that although Bangkok was a wilder city than Kuala Lumpur, the atmosphere was not half as good.

At around 9am, sirens wailed behind us and the Chelsea team coach – also logo’d up in the colours of Coca Cola – raced by. I punched the air as the coach drive by and realised what a lucky soul I had been. The next time I would see the boys play would be in Stoke, but that seemed a lifetime away.

We dipped into a 7-Eleven for a bottle of ice-cold green tea and then luckily nabbed a cab back to our hotel. Time was running out for a Thai buffet, so instead, I devoured a burger and fries, along with two bottles of Singha. Not until now do I realise that these were the only beers that I had to drink the entire day. And what a day. That wonderful day in Chinatown and Chelseatown.

That wonderful day in Bangkok.

Postscript :-

After Bangkok, I had a relaxing time in Chiang Mai and one moment brought a smile to my face. On the last day, I was busy visiting a last few sights and was just about to leave a temple when a local lady in her ‘sixties approached me. I think she was aiming to get me sign up for a local tour. She asked me where I was from and as soon as I said “England” she was keen to ask me another question.

“Ah – which football team do you support?”

It made me laugh…one world, one game, one team anyone?

IMGP3703

Tales From The Bukit Jalil Stadium

Malaysia XI vs. Chelsea : 21 July 2011.

Day One : Lift Off.

I left my home village in Somerset at about 7.30am on Sunday 17th. July. I would be heading east once more but this excursion would be taking me well past Portsmouth, the location of the Chelsea game the previous day. For a change, I chose a classical music CD and so had a cool and calm drive up the A303 and beyond. I sent a quick little text to the only friends who I knew would be awake. Four fellow Chelsea fans out in California were the recipients of the simple “Jack Kerouac” text, my way of saying that I was on the road. Quite fitting really – Kerouac, heading west in that iconic road novel, eventually found his home in Northern California, where three of those recipients were residing. For me, the excitement was palpable. After five summer tours to America with Chelsea, I was turning 180 degrees and heading east, following the club to Malaysia and Thailand.

Foreign fields, new experiences, chasing some magical moments.

I dropped my car at my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton. Russ and his two mates Frank and Steve sit two rows in front of us at HQ and it was with some sadness that he told me that none of them would be renewing their season tickets in 2011-2012. That’s a real shame. The grim realities of football pricing out fans once more. Russ quickly drove me the five miles to Heathrow, where Terminal Three was waiting for me. Back in around 1971, a Canadian relative stayed with us for about a week and we took her back to LHR for her to return home to Toronto. My Dad had a little treat for me that day; an hour or so perched up in the airport observation deck, watching the planes coming in and taking off. It is a memory which is still very clear, forty years on. Who would have guessed that my love of foreign travel, plus the obvious love of Chelsea Football Club, would constantly intertwine themselves, enabling me to combine these two passions so perfectly?

I’m a lucky man.

The flight to Bangkok was as near perfect as I could ever have hoped. Fine food and fine company. I soon got chatting to a young Australian lad, Brett, who had been in Europe for two months. He was a budding pro-golfer and had just been watching the Open at Sandwich. Brett was an avid sports fan though and we spent several hours discussing Australian rugby, Aussie rules football, the Australian national team, English football, London rivalries, the New York Yankees and American sport in general. Brett was a keen baseball player, too, and had met the Australian pitcher Graeme Lloyd (NYY 1996) on a few occasions. He was a fan of the Anaheim Angels, or whatever they are called these days. Brett had visited Kuala Lumpur a few times and was able to give me some travel tips, too. So, with all of these common interests to talk about, I was amazed I managed to fit in four of five hours of quality sleep on the plane.

The eleven hours…ahem…flew past.

Day Two : This One Didn’t Want To End.

Touchdown at Bangkok airport early on Monday morning and a three hour wait for the onward flight to KL. One international airport is much the same as the next – adverts for HSBC everywhere, Starbucks, the English language on signs…one world, one world. I waited for the flight to Kuala Lumpur.

As we lifted off into the sky, my window seat afforded me a sight which knocked me sideways. Down below were fields upon fields, acres upon acres, of flooded paddy fields and I quickly realised that I was a long way from home. The view down to my left would live with me forever. It would be one of the moments of my life, just like my first sightings of Rome as I approached on an Italian train in 1986 or the views of Manhattan as our plane circled before landing at JFK in 1989. The view was stunning. As we lifted further, we flew over the bay to the south of Thailand, with the sea full of container ships and barges being pulled by ridiculously small tug boats. Another amazing vista. I spotted the resort of Pattaya, and I knew that Cathy was down there somewhere, staying at a hotel near the fabled “Dogs Bollocks” bar, once owned by probably the most infamous Chelsea fan of them all.

Cathy would be meeting up with me in KL on Tuesday, ahead of the practice session.

The two hour flight from BK to KL was fine. I caught a little sleep, but was soon wide awake, peering through the ridiculously cute and fluffy clouds at the lush green mountains below us.

On arrival at Kuala Lumpur, I quickly collected my checked baggage (always a potentially tense moment) and I had a little chat with the immigration official on the passport desk about Chelsea Football Club. His smile warmed my soul.

“Welcome To Malaysia.”

Then, the 35 ringit (£7) express train to KL Central station and another of those moments. My nose was pressed to the train window as we ripped through Malaysian countryside…plantations of massive palms…and then into suburban KL. Lots of tall apartment buildings, lots of wealth. My preconceptions of Asia were changing with each new sight. I kept looking out of the window, scanning left and right, my head not stopping for one second. My obsessive desire to note everything reminded me of the final contestant on the “Generation Game” who had 60 seconds to remember everything they had seen on the famous conveyor belt.

“Hotel complex, palm trees, mountains, overhead cables, a BMW dealership, a six lane freeway, road signs, more palm trees, tower blocks, pastel coloured housing blocks, shops, malls, natives out in their back gardens, poor houses, more palm trees.”

And then, away in the distance, the first sighting of the twin Petronas Towers, with the less famous KL Tower too.

Snap, snap, snap.

Another of those moments.

At KL Central, I left the mollified air of the air-conditioned train and paced across the tidy station forecourt. I was expecting a wall of heat to hit me, but the temperature was bearable. I spotted the first fake Manchester United shirt and I knew there would be more. Into a waiting red cab and the short 13 ringit drive to my hotel. There was an American country song on the cab radio and all around me were western logos, brands and products. The cab driver said he was a Chelsea fan.

This world is shrinking fast.

Now, I’m usually happy to stay at the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to holiday accommodation; hostels, budget hotels, places to lay my head…in my wanderlust years in the ‘eighties, I slept on trains and at train stations so I know how to rough it. Kuala Lumpur would be different. We had heard whispers that the team would be staying at the Shangri La in Bangkok, so I gambled on staying at the Shangri La in KL. To be fair, it was only £85 a night and I paid that on the North End Road in Fulham last November.

I checked in amidst scented air conditioning, girls in reception in lovely silk dresses and hotel quality that I am simply not used to. My room on the seventh floor (memories of the Squeeze song “Goodbye Girl”) was fantastic and I quickly unpacked and showered. Heaven. On Facebook, I spotted that a local Malaysian fan had posted pictures of the Chelsea team booking in at their hotel and I quickly realised it wasn’t the Shangri La. Drat. No to worry – maybe our paths would cross later.

At 4.45pm, I set off on a comprehensive three hour and four mile circumnavigation by foot around the city centre. Those who know me will know my camera was going into overdrive. From the hotel, I headed south-east past the western-style hotels on Jalan Sultan Ismail. Every so often, the glistening silver of the Petronas Towers would appear, then disappear again behind another tall hotel. I followed the route of the monorail down to the Bukit Bintang area, the rowdy and commercial area of KL, full of shopping malls, street vendors, noise and colour. I noted some massage parlours along Jalan Bukit Bintang. From there, a right turn into Jalan Pudu and a quick succession of various architecture styles, from classic art deco, to modern blocks, from mosques to skyscrapers. My senses were reeling. The heat was bearable still and I was so relieved. I headed down to the old ancient part of the city, where I knew there were a few colonial gems from the days of the British Empire. I quickly found myself headed towards the famous Petaling Street, where Chinese street vendors are packed into a vibrant area. Here, my senses went into overdrive and I was so joyful to be able to see such a cauldron of life. Fake goods were everywhere of course – no surprises there – but it was the unknown fruit on sale which left a special impression.

I followed my instincts through to the Central Market – and the buildings in these few blocks are remnants of the colonial era. Flaking pastels, tattered windows, at times a little depressing. But then, ahead, the clean lines of the art deco Central Market and all was good with the world. A beautiful building and a real treasure. Lots of arts and craft stalls inside there, but I kept moving. I headed across the river and onto Merdeka Square, a lovely open space, lined with Malaysian flags to one side and a mock Tudor building to the other, the famous Royal Selangor Club. There was a feeling of calm amidst the noise. I noted that there was a large TV screen in the south-west corner showing action from the Copa America, but nobody was paying too much attention.

The last part of my early evening stroll took me through the Islamic quarter, full of carpet shops and tobacconists. As I crossed the road by a massive mosque, the wailing on the loudspeaker of a cleric calling for the locals to join in prayer was mildly hypnotic and took me, momentarily, to another place. For a few seconds, my mind took a tangential leap and I was lost in thought.

There were days when I would have been overjoyed that my hotel room contained a TV or maybe pay-per-view film channels. In Kuala Lumpur in 2011, I was very contented that I had access to an ironing board. The passage of time, eh? The changing priorities. Shirt and linen trousers ironed, out into town. I stopped at a “TGI Fridays” and watched a quick press CFC conference on the TV above the bar. The only problem was that a pint of Paulaner was £8. Ouch. From there, the rest of the night was spent in a variety of bars (Paradize – deserted, Sky Bar – expensive, but unbelievable view of the Petronas Towers, Rum Jungle – relaxing and fun, Beach Club – noisy dance music, a mixed crowd of westerners, locals, and working ladies from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Mongolia.)

On the short walk back to the hotel, several ladies made themselves known to me, but I was not interested.

“I’m only here for the Chelsea.”

Day Three : The Practice.

A lazy morning, overcoming the alcohol, the late night and the jet-lag. I was in no rush to vacate my plush five-star King sized bed.

“I’m on holiday.”

I uploaded some photos on FB in the afternoon and then met Cathy in reception at around 4pm. We needed to use the monorail to get down to the Bukit Jalil stadium, around ten miles out of town to the south. The trip was a breeze, the trains were air conditioned and it was great to chat to a familiar face. I told Cathy how odd it felt at Pompey, knowing that she was in Dubai, watching with some Chelsea ex-pats. I shook hands with the first two Chelsea fans I saw, but soon gave up on that idea when I saw how many replica-kitted out locals were alighting at the stadium stop. The immediate area between the station up to the stadium was full of souvenir and local food stands. Lots of air horns and damned vuvuzelas were on sale, plus souvenirs of the Malaysian team, too.

We had a couple of hours ahead of the session. We took a few photos of the scene outside the impressive stadium, then headed inside to pin up Cathy’s Kalou flag, a gift from the Feyenoord firm in 2006. We spoke to a few locals, then took our seats in the lower tier and waited for the Chelsea team to appear. The self-proclaimed “Malaysian Blues Army” was over in the green gate section, making some noise and waving some impressive home-made banners. We were sat next to a couple with their 7 year old daughter, a big Frank Lampard fan. They shared some sunflower seeds with Cathy and I, but it seemed a lot of effort with little in return. Maybe akin to an Arsenal midfielder feeding in Nicolas Bendtner.

The players came on to the pitch at about 7.30pm and stayed for an hour. A few games involving one-touches, teams of four attackers against four defenders and Villas-Boas at the centre of attention, clipboard by his side, stopping to talk to players every few minutes. One game was played involving the entire width of the pitch, but only half the length. Two normal goals, but two small “hockey” goals out on the wings. I can only surmise that it was two points for a normal goal, one point in the unguarded small goals. I’ve never seen this before and I guess it hints at the emphasis on the importance in width in our play next season. It was odd, though, seeing Anelka dribble past a small goal (they were positioned 5 yards from the goal line) and then put in a low cross. Like something out of the NHL, maybe. I can confirm that Fernando Torres volleyed in a great goal during this practice session, but just missed snapping it. Double drat. Would be worth a few bob, that.

Around 6-8,000 fans were in attendance, but there was no real chanting apart from the MBA on the far side and a solitary “ZZ” from some locals. I so wanted to start singing, but Cathy advised me to “save it for the game.” After the session, I stumbled into Cathy’s nemesis, Chelsea fan-liaison officer Graham Smith, bedecked in CFC casual wear and handing out tour programmes. I told him that Cathy wasn’t far away and suggested that I bring her over for a few words.

“No, you’re OK, mate.”

Well, by the time I had rescued the Kalou flag from the fence, Cathy and the afore-mentioned Mr. Smith were in deep conversation and I know Cath loved that.

We then headed back to Jalan Ramlee and stayed in the Rum Jungle for three hours, knocking back some Carlsberg and a few sambucas. It was only going to be a quiet night, but I don’t think Cath knows the meaning of the word. In a large fish tank above the bar, two baby sharks were swimming and I christened the one with the biggest fin Colin Pates.

Day Four : Relaxing.

After the late night – getting to sleep at 4am – I realised my body clock was still on UK time. Another lie in, but I spent a lovely relaxing time out in the shaded hotel pool area. Time to catch up on some diary days, a read of the paper and to collect my thoughts. There were photos of Chelsea players in the local “Strait Times” (as opposed to what? Wink) and also a very good article about Sir Alex Ferguson. The impression I was getting in Malaysia was that the locals loved their football and the English version especially. On that very first day, I noted that I spotted around eight pieces of Manchester United clothing and one Chelsea…no others. Since then, I had still to see a Spurs shirt and this pleased me. Back up in my room, I belatedly spotted that the MBA had organised a Chelsea gathering by the fountains outside the Petronas Towers, but this had not been pre-advised at all. This annoyed me a little. I had brought over 20 old Chelsea programmes – the same ones I took to the US in 2007 in fact – and I would have liked to have spoken to some of the local Chelsea fans about lots of things. Show them the programmes, dating back to 1947, talk about the tour, talk about KL, maybe even talk about the team. A chance lost. I compared this to the intense planning that went with the CFC USA tours since 2004 and wished that a little Western organisation could have been in evidence. Oh, I also spotted that Chelsea had arranged a “meet and greet” at their One World Resort Hotel on the Tuesday and – of course – nobody in the UK knew about this. How easy would it have been for CFC to politely post on the CFC website that UK fans heading to KL (and let’s be honest, we numbered around 15 to 20) could apply for a pass to this event. A little payback for our efforts. I bet nobody at Chelsea even thought of this as an option.

I spent an hour or so atop the KL Tower – rather similar to Seattle’s Space Needle – which was conveniently located just a few minutes’ walk from my hotel. Again, tons of photos as the sun set to my west, out over the mountains. I located Merdeka Square a mile or so to the south-west and was amazed at the volume of skyscrapers nestled in the central area. As the night fell, all eyes were centered on the Petronas Towers and yet more photographs were taken.

From there, a cab ride into the Bukit Bintang area. I was deposited in Jalan Alor and what a sight. Open air cafes, street vendors, every colour known to mankind, pigs roasting, flumes of smoke wafting across the street, the clamour of street-hawkers. I decided to sit down and have a three course Chinese meal and a large bottle of Carlsberg. The Szechuan hot and sour soup was the star of the show. This all came to 99 ringit or about £23…not cheap, but who cares? It was a fantastic meal and the Chinese waitress was impressed that I had eaten almost everything. I then walked a block onto Jalan Bukit Bintang and paid 25 ringit for a 30 minute foot massage (incidentally, while semi-watching the Uruguay vs. Peru Copa America game above the head of the masseuse next to me). Well, the massage was fantastic, if at times a little painful, and I was impressed that the two nearest masseuses had heard of Chelsea Football Club.

“John Terry, John Terry!!”

I then caught a cab to the Rum Jungle and awaited for Cathy to arrive at just after 11.15pm. We had a great night and were the centre of attention once it became apparent that our waiter was a Chelsea supporter. I showed him video clips of various Chelsea games on my antiquated Sony Ericson phone and Cathy started waving her small CFC flag. The locals wanted their photos taken with us and it was all just lovely. The DJ was an Arsenal fan, from just around the corner from Cathy in Wood Green.

“A big shout out to the Chelsea fans in the house tonight, all the way from London.”

Even a Milan fan from Italy wanted his photo taken with us.

The night wore on – lagers, sambucas and even neat vodka. It was a blast.

In a quiet moment though, Cathy and myself talked business. The business of Chelsea Football Club. It’s easy to poke fun at our legions of fans out in the exotic countries of Asia. I think most of them love the players with a passion that would shame us cynical British. Their enthusiasm at the practice was amazing. I commented to Cathy about Chelsea’s raison d’etre for these tours to far flung places. It has been said that football support within the UK has reached saturation point, everyone one has chosen a team, the colours have been tied to the mast. For heavens’ sake, even people who clearly don’t like football in the UK even get caught up supporting England in tournaments. And these people then get hooked into supporting teams and it’s usually Manchester United. You know the score.

Look how many people are in the UK – maybe 60 million. This isn’t a huge figure. There are billions worldwide. Billions and billions. With the internet and media world getting even slicker by the minute, I am sure there will be a time when the button will be flicked for pay-per-view live streaming of games and new TV contracts. Chelsea wants to be at the very forefront of that race. Hence the desire to – and I apologise for using the phrase – “grow the global brand.” But here, in Kuala Lumpur, here was a city where global brands were on every street corner…McDonalds, Samsung, BMW, TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Café, Manchester United, Burger King, Starbucks, Chelsea Football Club. And make no mistake, we have surfed the internet boom more than most over the last ten years. Without the internet, Chelsea’s support in these exotic locales might well be limited to ex-pats and not the flesh blood of today.

So, Cathy and I chatted about that.

“The bigger picture” Cathy called it.

So, as Chelsea Football Club is supported by hundreds and thousands of new fans with each new Premier League game across the five continents, where does that leave the fans in the UK?

I remember the crazed egotist Silvio Berlusconi saying back in the days when he was just the owner of a new TV company, just setting foot in the corridors of power as Milan chairman, that there would be a time when football clubs would actually pay fans to fill their stadia each week. His point was that 99% of club revenue would come from commercial pursuits and specifically pay-per-view TV. However, the supporters in Singapore, Seattle and Sydney would not want to watch a football game if the local fans had been priced out, resulting in low crowds and little atmosphere. To many, the game is not the whole story. This certainly hit home when I attended my first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

So, think on that, Chelsea. By all means grow the brand, capitalize on the camaraderie and sense of belonging that us UK fans bring to the name of Chelsea Football Club, but please look after your own. If you price us loyal fans out – the singers, the shakers, the celery takers – you might end up with a sanitised Stamford Bridge which does not fit the model that the overseas fans expect. They expect noise and colour, they expect passion, they expect integrity. Not a stadium full of tourists and moneyed middle-classes.

With that, Cathy took a cab back to The Equatorial and I walked 50 yards to the Shangri La, happily avoiding a Lady Boy who resembled Freddie Starr on an off-day.

I chatted on Facebook and went to sleep at 6am. I was still on UK time.

Day Five : The Game.

I rose from my heavy, alcohol imbued, slumber at 2.30pm and headed down to the pool again. Another swim, another read of the paper. Aguero to Manchester City (oh dear) and Eidur to AEK Athens. A comment from JT saying that AVB has inspired him to become Chelsea manager one day.

It is reassuring to know that it took me just as long to decide what to wear to the game in Kuala Lumpur as it does on a normal match day in dear old Blighty; I eventually chose a light cream polo. Down to meet Cathy outside the hotel and she had chosen a light colour too, with her trusty CFC flag tied over her shoulders. We changed trains at the Hang Tuah monorail station and, of course, the trains were flooded with Chelsea fans. I suddenly realised that I had not spotted one single North American baseball cap of any type (NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, NCAA, NASCAR) in my four days in Kuala Lumpur. It ratified my view that there is truly only one global sport. We had been informed that the game was an 84K sell out – bearing in mind Liverpool drew this figure on Saturday – and all thoughts were now on getting to the stadium and getting hold of the match tickets. We alighted at Bukit Jalil at 6pm and I was sent off on a goose chase to locate the ticket pick-up booth. I spotted a familiar face as I navigated my way between vuvuzela blasting locals and souvenir sellers: a chap from Weymouth with two mates and he proudly displayed his famous “Chelsea Dorset” flag for a quick photo.

Tickets thankfully secured, I walked back to join Cathy, who had been joined by two chirpy members of the CYF. They had visited the local “7 Eleven” and offered me an ice-cold beer. Cathy and I posed with “VPN” and tried to get the locals to join in with –

“We Are The Famous, The Famous Chelsea.”

The kick-off was at 8.45pm and we had a long walk to get to the correct turnstile entrance. We bumped into Jayne and Jim from Spain, friends of Cathy’s from way back. A miniscule bag check and we were in. We had tickets for the unreserved seating area of the middle tier, on the premise that we could – if needed – chose to move around a little. We quickly pinned the Kalou and Vinci Per Noi flags up to the fence and took our seats in row one. This plan back-fired because we were forever politely and then not-so-politely asking fans to move on out of our way. It was a hot and humid evening, my shirt was clinging to me and there were people everywhere. When we entered the stadium at 7.30pm, the stadium was barely half-full and my immediate thought was “oh dear – embarrassing.” I had read in the paper that Liverpool had drawn 35K to their practice session, whereas we had drawn less than 10K. I wanted to see a packed Bukit Jalil. I wanted to at least tie Liverpool’s attendance.

The Bukit Jalil stadium was a three-tiered super structure. The stands were far from the pitch and it had the feel of a Maracana. I have heard that it can hold a cool 100,000. There were a few Chelsea flags dotted around – the MBA flag was up – and the Indonesia group had a big flag, too. Our seats were above the corner flag to the right. Chelsea had arranged for those blue and white chequered flags to be placed on seats and these were waved with gusto. The colours of the Malaysian team – yellow and black – were in evidence. There was a group of fans way down to my right with drums. Air horns and vuvuzelas. The constant flow of spectators walking past us.

“Plenty of seats at the back, mate.”

And that was the polite version.

In truth, spectators kept arriving all through the game. Around us, every aisle and every walkway was full, people sitting on steps, people standing, cigarette smoke, noise, the humidity causing me to gasp.

At last, the game.

It was difficult to concentrate. I was exhausted, hot and bothered. There were people in my way. The balcony fence had horizontal bars which made taking photographs a little difficult. Lots of fans nearby were wearing Chelsea shirts and scarves. Ah, the scarf. That symbol of European football loyalty. Do you really need to wear one in Kuala Lumpur with temperatures soaring? A few other shirts of note – Real, Barca, Inter, Milan…even one Newcastle fan breezed by (no doubt on a look out for a pie.) Thankfully hardly any United or Liverpool shirts. Not tonight anyway.

A young lad – 8 years old – was sat in the aisle no more than two feet away from me…clad in a complete Chelsea kit, with “El Nino – 9” on his shirt. His Dad took a call on his moby and at the end, there it was – his screen saver…

A Tottenham cockerel.

Mark it up – the first Spurs fan.

The game, with two completely different Chelsea teams in each half, was not memorable. Yossi Benayoun – the Jew amongst a country of Muslims – was booed every time he touched the ball. Still no Petr Cech. Torres had a couple of half-chances but skewed them wide. Malaysia did not appear to be a threat. Every time they managed to move the ball over the halfway line, the crowd roared their approval. I imagined how manic it would be should they actually score. The best move of the first half, down our right, and a little ball played into Frank, who just couldn’t quite get his toe to it. It reminded me of Gazza against Germany in 1996. How those football memories get replayed time and time again. The ball was bouncing ridiculously high on the bone hard pitch. Tough conditions. Patrick Van Aanholt, I think, crashed a shot against the upright. I noted that Kalou and Malouda, the wide players, swapped over midway into the first period.

There were no songs from Cathy and I. Our cries would have been lost in the constant din.

More of the same in the second period. Sturridge was clean through, but shot at the goalkeeper. A rip-roaring run down from their nippy winger down the Malaysian right got the decibel levels rising, but the move petered out. A few Chelsea shots, a couple of towering John Terry headers.

Then, a free-kick thirty yards out and cameras poised.

Kick. Snap. I caught the exact moment Didier connected.

The ball curled goal wards, hit the post, hit the goalie, the crowd roared, the goalie shoveled the ball out and I didn’t think the whole ball had crossed the line. I quickly glanced at the linesman and his flag was raised. Thank the Lord. The shame of a 0-0 draw was avoided. Very fortuitous, though. In the closing moments, a Malaysian broke through – one on one with Ross Turnbull – but he dragged the shot wide and will probably regret that moment for the rest of his life. By now, many fans had decided to leave and the stadium’s coloured seats were now peeking through.

At the final whistle, relief we had no players injured. Not a good performance, but let’s give everyone time. A moral victory to the Malaysian team, in my book.

As we slowly descended the ramp from the seating bowl, we overlooked a TV studio and there was Graeme Le Saux, no more than 15 feet away, analysing the poor performance for CTV, no doubt. We then breezed past security and waited outside the press-conference in order to quickly snap a subdued AVB. I blagged an official match programme and Cathy blagged two. Then, out into the noisy KL night. We were approached by two chaps and we did an impromptu radio interview for them. We spoke of the club, the trip and the city but then became unstuck; the reporter asked Cathy and I to rattle off a few choice words in Malay, but that proved pretty difficult.

I ended my piece by saying “celery, celery” and not even I knew what I was talking about.

It had been one of those nights.

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