Tales From Division Two, Serie B And The Champions League

Chelsea vs. Milan : 5 October 2022.

It honestly didn’t seem too long ago that Parky and I had pulled up at a Berkshire pub on the way to a mate’s wedding reception in August. It was here that we were to learn of our fate in this season’s Champions League draw. What with Milan and Inter (never Inter Milan, a moniker that befuddles every Italian; a name that sounds as jarring to them as Everton Liverpool does to us) both partaking in the competition this season, the likelihood of the UEFA Gods allowing me the chance to – at last – see Chelsea at the San Siro was a little stronger than normal. Much to my pleasure we were drawn in the same autumnal group as Milan. My wish had come true. And now here we were; on the cusp of two games against the rossoneri in less than a week.

It also, really, didn’t seem that long ago since our first ever game – if you dismiss the qualifier against the now defunct Skonto Riga – in the Champions League against Milan in September 1999.

But let’s go further back than this.

Our paths first crossed in UEFA’s Inter-Cities Fairs Cup competition in 1965/66. In the first game in Milan on 9 February 1966, Milan defeated Chelsea 2-1 at a game that only attracted 11,000 at the San Siro. This low gate has always surprised me. I found out this week why it was so low; it was played on a Tuesday afternoon due to the threat of fog in the evening. In the return match at Stamford Bridge a week later, over 59,000 – that’s more like it – assembled to witness a game that ended 2-1 too. This match was notable for producing the largest income from the gate that the club had ever experienced. It was also the first game that any British club had produced a programme with colour photographs. In those days, there was no “away goals count double” after a tied aggregate over both games, nor even extra-time after the second one. Instead, a third game play-off was used. Milan “won” the venue on the toss of a coin and so both teams reassembled at the San Siro on 2 March. This game ended 1-1 in front of a more reputable 40,000.  The teams still couldn’t be split. In the end, and as ridiculous as it now seems, the passage into the quarter final stage was decided by another coin toss. On this occasion, Ron Harris chose correctly and Chelsea advanced.

On the drive up to London in PD’s car, Parky wondered if Chopper had used a double-headed coin and we all had a little chuckle.

With Chelsea meticulously avoiding European competition entirely from 1971 to 1994, the thoughts of playing games against such an elite club as Milan would have been thought of as mere folly. Way back when we were in the old Second Division in two spells, such encounters were off the radar, another world away.

In 1998/99 we finished third and thus entered the following season’s Champions League. Our match at home to Milan, twenty-three years ago, is remembered with deep affection indeed. Although the match ended as a 0-0 draw, it was the most entertaining goalless game that I can ever remember seeing. But the thing that I recollect most was the heightened sense of occasion that we all experienced on that evening in SW6.

I remember getting to the ground early and waiting by the players’ entrance to see if anyone famous was loitering around. My diary, sadly, notes that the only person that I saw of note was Des Lynham. Alan and I got in early to pin my “VINCI PER NOI” banner on the wall at the back of the Matthew Harding Upper. I watched alongside Alan in the same seats that I would be watching the same two teams in 2022.

That Milan team included such Italian greats as Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Demetrio Albertini, plus the imported strikers Andriy Shevchenko, newly-acquired from Dynamo Kiev that summer, and Oliver Bierhoff.

The Milan players that night wore a shirt with thin red and black stripes – how ‘sixties – and this was met with my approval. I wasn’t a fan of the black shorts and socks though.

Milan always wore red and black striped shirts with crisp white shorts and white socks. In my eyes, it was a classic kit, so clean, so fresh. I especially liked the Kappa kit from the Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten era with Mediolanum as the sponsor. I am sure we can all remember Gullit, on joining us, saying how much he loved playing in kits with white socks. I was always the same; it always looked good. Maybe it was my Chelsea bias.

What Milan were doing in black shorts and socks that season is the stuff of nightmares. However, they were not the only giants playing silly buggers at that time.

I loved the kits of the top three Italian teams in the ‘eighties and further back.

Milan : red and white striped shirts, white sorts, white socks.

Inter : blue and black striped shirts, black shorts, black socks.

Juventus : black and white striped shirts, baggy white shorts, white socks.

I had seen Juve versus Fiorentina in Turin in the May of 1999 and the sight of them playing with black shorts and black socks just did not seem right; in fact, it looked atrocious.

Ah, that match in 1999 was wonderful. Our team was jam packed with crowd favourites such as Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet, Gianfranco Zola, Marcel Desailly, Dan Petrescu and we paraded new signing Didier Deschamps. My diary from 1999 notes that Zola, the little maestro, hit a post and Bierhoff a bar – “similar to Peacock, ’94 Cup Final – and that it was “a superb night of football.”

The return leg, in late October 1999, is of course the stuff of legend, and inspired one of the most well-loved chants of the modern era. I am still gutted – traumatised – that I wasn’t there to witness it. I was on the wrong shift at work and unable to switch.

I hoped that my time would come again. Seeing Chelsea at the Giuseppe Meazza is right up there.

There had been, incidentally, a mid-season friendly at the San Siro in February 1997 – a 2-0 Milan win – that a few die-hards attended.

Since those days, the two clubs have met but only in a raft of pre-season matches in the United States. Milan are, surely, Chelsea’s most frequent opponent in such tours.

The seven games are listed here.

2 August 2004 : Chelsea 2 Milan 3 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

24 July 2005 : Chelsea 1 Milan 0 – Foxborough, Massachusetts.

31 July 2005 : Chelsea 1 Milan 1 – East Rutherford, New Jersey.

24 July 2009 : Chelsea 2 Milan 1 – Baltimore, Maryland.

28 July 2012 : Chelsea 0 Milan 1 – Miami, Florida.

4 August 2013 : Chelsea 2 Milan 0 – East Rutherford, New Jersey.

4 August 2016 : Chelsea 3 Milan 1 – Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I was lucky enough to attend three of these.

The game in 2005 at Giants Stadium wasn’t particularly enthralling, but I was able to witness Didier Drogba’s goal at close hand. The main Chelsea supporter section was up the other end. Milan then equalised. I must admit it felt special to be touring the US with the reigning English Champions. This was a fine weekend for me. New York Yankees on the Saturday, Chelsea on the Sunday. Perfect.

The match in 2009 at the Baltimore Ravens’ NFL stadium was probably the best quality match of the seventeen that I have seen in the US. Unfortunately, I was still waiting outside for a friend to arrive at the start and thus missed Drogba’s fine opening goal. A Yuri Zhirkov goal gave us a 2-1 win after Milan equalised. For many, Baltimore was a high water mark of our many US “summer seasons.”

The encounter in 2016 was the first sporting event to take place at the state-of-the-art Minnesota Vikings NFL stadium. This was another decent game. Bertrand Traore scored for us but Milan equalised. However, two late goals from Oscar gave us a fine 3-1 win in a game that marked N’Golo Kante’s first outing in Chelsea colours.

Back to 2022.

We were parked up as early as 4.20pm. It was time for another act in the Chelsea and Milan story.

There was a fair bit of time to kill. I had a wander. I chatted to the usual suspects at Steve’s programme stall and Marco’s “CFCUK” stall. I didn’t mind admitting that I was a little fearful going into the evening’s game. We had amassed just one point out of six and now faced the two hardest games of the group in quick succession.

“Deep down, we need four points from the Milan games but this will be a tough, tough ask.”

I popped in for a pie and chips on Fulham Broadway, then met a few more of the even-more-usual suspects at “Simmons” which was quiet when I walked in at 6pm. It grew busier but not with the football set. Instead, there were young Londoners on a night out. I bumped into a chap from Louisiana, quite by chance, who had been at the Palace game on Saturday.

The music blared. I supped a couple of pints. In the back of my head I was still fearful of getting turned over.

We all set off in good time to reach our seats by about 7.30pm.

The ground slowly filled. There didn’t seem to be anything like the sense of occasion that had accompanied the game in 1999. However, the “half-and-half” scarf grafters on the Fulham Road had evidently done quite a trade. I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many scarves. Most, it saddened me to see, were folded with the red of Milan visible. I presumed that there would be around 3,000 from Lombardy in the designated away section, but knew that there would be other Milan fans dotted around.

The team was announced.

Kepa

Kouilbaly – Silva – Fofana

James – Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Chilwell

Mount – Aubameyang – Sterling

It looked a decent set-up.

The Milan team of course included former Chelsea players Olivier Giroud and Fikayo Tomori, plus their big hope Rafael Leao.

The Milanese – a good many had been plotted up at Earl’s Court – were now beginning to make some noise. Their flags were out. The boys of the Curva Sud were ensconced in the southern end at Stamford Bridge, though the twin tiers of The Shed must have felt miniscule compared to the towering tiers at the San Siro.

A certain song was heard before the kick-off…

…”in the San Siro, with ten minutes to go.”

I remember watching the highlight’s on a mate’s TV in a portakabin – the traffic office – where I worked at a warehouse in Trowbridge, not knowing the result, but celebrating wildly when Wisey scored. The portakabin was rocking that night in deepest Wiltshire.

The teams arrived on the pitch. I still miss that walk to the West Stand across the pitch; that added drama.

The players soon lined up.

The anthem.

The players broke but were then called in so the pour souls who lost their lives in Indonesia recently could be remembered in silence. Again, Kepa had to race from his goal mouth to make the start. The minute’s silence was meant to commence with the referee’s whistle, but there wasn’t one. By now, the crowd were stood in complete silence. After a good few seconds the referee’s whistle blew. With that, the home fans began singing “Chelsea” while the players looked befuddled. I didn’t know what was going on. It was the most poorly executed silence I had ever seen.

Milan were in white shirts with a slight red trim, white shorts and black socks. At least they were in their club colours. Seeing Milan in bright orange, dayglow green or a jarring yellow just would not have seemed right.

Milan had the best of the opening five minutes with a couple of free kicks being swung in from their left. I immediately liked the look of Leao. We coped well with defending these and then built our presence as the game developed.

On just five minutes, a super move. Silva to Aubameyang to Mount, and a fine save from distance by the Milan ‘keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu.

The Milanisti were in fine voice.

“Forza Meelan ale ale, Foraza Meelan ale ale, Forza Meelan ale ale, ale ale ale.”

There was a magnificently-timed slide by Silva to rob a Milan attacker on the half-way line. I wish we had seen him earlier in his career. I had seen him in Baltimore in 2009 playing for Milan; if only we had picked him up at that time.

The defender then rose well at a Chelsea free-kick from Mount on our right to force a fine save by the Milan goalkeeper. Soon after, his diving header at goal from a corner on our left caused all sorts of panic and mayhem in the Shed End goalmouth. Milan never seemed to be in a position to clear the ball and, to this observer at least, a goal seemed on the cards. There were a few stabs at the ball, but after a some swipes, a Chelsea leg – and boot – tucked it home.

GET IN.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

Wesley Fofana had pushed it home.

Huge celebrations.

That anticipation of the goal was magical. I just knew we’d eventually put it away.

Alan : “like a goal in weekly parts.”

Chris : “love that mate, that’s going in the blog.”

Alan : “be even better if it had been scored by a player called Marshall Cavandish.”

Bloody hell, despite my pre-match fears we were 1-0 up. We really grew in confidence and dominated the rest of the half. On the half-hour, I wondered if Giroud had even touched the ball. A shot from Mount was deflected wide. There was a fine move and an even finer lob from Mount but the goal was disallowed for offside.  Sadly, Fofana was injured and fell to the floor twice. On the second occasion, he did not recover and was replaced by Trevoh Chalobah on thirty-eight minutes.

I was very happy with all this. We were absolutely dominating play and the away team had not carved out a single effort on goal. With a few minutes remaining in the half, Leao produced a powerful run between two defenders down below but was beautifully shepherded out by Chalobah.

There was a strong run from Sterling but it came to an anaemic ending as a block halted his shot. We all wondered why he hadn’t shot earlier. Then, just before the break, the best attack of the half from the away team. There was another strong run from Leao but the resulting shot from Charles de Ketalataere was blocked and the rebound was slashed over by Rade Krunic.

All was well at the break, then. There were happy faces all around.

Apart from, well it pains me to say it, the atmosphere was pretty poor. I am not sure if this was because many of the usual match-goers had decided to give it a miss. The tickets were only £35. Maybe the mix of spectators had caused it. I always note a far more cosmopolitan crowd – dare I say the word “tourists”? – at European games. The only section of the crowd that was bothering were the Milan fans in the far corner.

Sigh.

Modern football, eh?

The second-half began. By now I was chatting away to a young Chelsea fan from Kent – hello Jack, hope you like the blog – and he seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about modern tactics and the strengths of our players. But then it made me a bit misty-eyed for the days when our collective understanding of tactics – no “high press”, no “low block”, no “between the lines” in 1999 – was not that great but we just used to sing our hearts out and get behind the team.

Another sigh.

There was a very optimistic overhead kick from near the edge of the box from Trevoh Chalobah that didn’t bother anyone. I was reminded of a chant that my mate Tommy from LA invented for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel at the Milan game in Minneapolis in 2016.

To the tune of “she fell over!“ :

“He’s Chalobah!”

It has potential, eh?

We were dominating everything about this game. On fifty-six minutes, Ben Chilwell was in acres of space but his cross was too long, laughably so. Not to worry, the loose ball was collected by Reece James who sent over an inch-perfect cross into the six-yard box. Tomori tangled his limbs and Aubameyang struck from close in.

GET IN.

Chelsea 2 Milan 0.

There was a summersault from the scorer that was just too quick for me. He loved that goal and so did we. At last a poacher. Hallelujah.

I turned to Jack :

“It was if Chilwell thought to himself” –

“Well I can’t cross a ball but let’s give it to a bloke who can.”

Not long after, a slide-rule pass from the excellent Sterling found Reece on the overlap. There was a touch to move the ball onto his right peg. At this stage, I again knew a goal was coming. I love those moments.

BOSH.

Chelsea 3 Milan 0.

What noise now.

“Reece James. He’s one of our own.”

Stamford Bridge was temporarily on fire.

Phew.

The rest of the game? Not sure. I think I was just too surprised to take it all in.

I turned to Jack : “I suppose in some ways we will honestly feel a bit cheated if we don’t score another one.”

Some substitutions followed.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

Gallagher for Aubameyang.

Havertz for Mount.

Broja for Sterling.

All was good in the world. Well, apart from the noise which soon reached its old levels after the burst of energy and commotion that followed the second and third goals.

Only sing when we are winning?

Yep.

Even in the last seconds, the Milan lot were still singing, still bouncing up and down, still putting on a show.

At the completion of the game, the PA played “One Step Beyond” and even that was met with a muted reaction.

What a comparison

1999 : no goals but surely a bristling atmosphere.

2022 : three goals yet a muted atmosphere.

Another sigh.

To complete this Chelsea and Milan history lesson, let’s look at 1982/83 once again.

On Saturday 2 October 1982, Chelsea beat Grimsby Town 5-2 at Stamford Bridge. This game was watched by another 10,000 crowd and the scorers were David Speedie with another two goals and also Micky Droy, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery. We were unbeaten at home with two wins and two draws.

On Sunday 3 October, Milan played an away game at Campobasso, not so far from Naples. The surprising thing here is that this match took place in Serie B after the once mighty Milan team, European Cup winners in 1963 and 1969, had been relegated for the second time in three seasons in 1981/82. They won 2-0 and the only “stranieri” – foreigner – in the squad (Italian teams were allowed only one, how times change) was Joe Jordan, who nabbed one of the goals. Milan’s 1982/83 season ended more gloriously than ours. They were promoted as champions and have not been relegated since.

Grimsby, Campobasso.

Fackinell.

We made our way back to the car and PD made good time on the return to our little part of the Chelsea Kingdom. I reached home at around 1.30am.

See you on Saturday against Wolves.

1999.

2005.

2009.

2016.

2022.