Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.

Tales From The Boleyn Ground

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2013.

As I drove in to London on the elevated section of the M4 motorway, I caught sight of the cluster of skyscrapers in the City, some five or six miles further east. London is neither Chicago nor New York, but I am always excited by the sight of the Nat West Tower, Canary Wharf, The Gherkin and The Shard. Within an hour or so, I would be beyond these monoliths to industry, trade and finance and I would be nestled in an East End hostelry. The journey to the nation’s capital had been quick and easy. The late autumnal gold and orange hues of the journey from Somerset contrasted with the light greys of the London afternoon. I was soon parked-up and quickly disappeared through the large and imposing art deco façade of Acton Town tube station. The District Line took me to Westminster, and from there the Jubilee Line snaked south, east and then north towards West Ham tube station.

A visit to Upton Park has never been an enjoyable trip for me; it is, undoubtedly, my least liked away game. Thirty years ago, the threat of violent acts was reason enough for me to be wary. The aura surrounding the tightly-knit ICF meant that a foray down Green Street was akin to walking the gang plank. Thankfully, those days have passed. Today however, there is still a general tawdriness about the locale which eats away at my enthusiasm on match days.  In the violent ‘eighties, the away end was the infamous South Bank, now the site of the Bobby Moore Stand and the home supporters. My first two visits were horrendous affairs; a 5-3 loss in the early months of 1986-1987 and a 4-1 loss in the closing stages of 1987-1988. The latter game effectively saw us relegated. It was gut-wrenching stuff. Since then, my visits have been relatively rare and I’ve only started visiting Upton Park regularly over the past five or six seasons. In the years when I could only afford to go to five or six away games each season, Upton Park remained way down the pecking order. This would be my ninth visit.

Of course, with West Ham United soon to de-camp to the former Olympic Stadium in 2016, there will only be a few more trips to the scruffy, down-at-heel streets around the Boleyn Ground left. I’m not convinced that many West Ham fans are too enamoured with a move away from their spiritual home. It would be trite for me to say that I am not going to waste too much time concerning myself with what West Ham fans think, but we should all be wary about teams moving out of their historic homes into new stadia. I’d imagine that, given the choice, most Hammers would prefer to see Upton Park redeveloped rather than move a few miles north-west to Stratford. However, I am sure that the board members of Chelsea Football Club be watching with interest once West Ham United move in to their new luxurious residence in August 2016. The dream scenario for me would be for The Irons to be opening up in The Championship. In such circumstances, surely gates of 35,000 rattling around inside a sterile new stadium will be a nightmare for West Ham fans who, at times, used to produce an intimidating atmosphere in the tightness of Upton Park.

I’ll watch with interest to see how this stadium move eventually works itself out.

At just after three o’clock, I alighted at Plaistow tube station. In the ticket hall, I looked back west towards those tower blocks and skyscrapers of the City of London, the mid-afternoon sky darkening by the minute but with the slight tint of the first few moments of an eventual sunset. I soon joined up with a few fellow Chelsea mates who were drinking in “The Black Lion.” This was a first-time visit for me. Just inside the long narrow bar, Rob, Gary, Andy, Daryl, Walnuts, Dave, Steve and I spent an enjoyable ninety minutes, supping lager and sharing laughs. It goes without saying that none of us were marked as Chelsea supporters. We were a small Chelsea enclave in a hot bed of West Ham supporters. The boozer was crowded and the bar staff busy. We were in enemy territory. We kept ourselves to ourselves. We blended in well. Contrary to popular belief, the locals were neither happy, smiling Cockneys, prone to singing “Bubbles” nor psychopathic hoodlums. They seemed quite – whisper it – normal.

At just before 5 o’clock, we threw our jackets on and walked the best part of a mile east towards the ground. There was time for the briefest of chats with Gary about how watching England now disinterests both of us. In fact, International breaks tend to bore us all to death these days. I made the point to Gary that, seasoned football follower that I am, I find myself picking and choosing what aspects of the wide world of football I choose to pre-occupy myself with these days. To be blunt, I’d rather watch my local non-league team than the national team. I’d rather read a good book on football than watch a game on TV. I’d rather plan the next away day than bother listening to another Premiership team on the radio.

“Been there, seen that, got the replica shirt with number and player’s name.”

There was a brief “meet and greet” outside the away turnstiles with a few friends and this resulted in me missing the kick-off. By the time I had squeezed my way in to row N behind the goal, I’d missed the entrance of the teams and all of that “Pretty Bubbles In The Air” bollocks. I find that the away end at West Ham – formerly the Centenary Stand, now the Trevor Brooking Stand – is particularly shallow.

The first thing that hit me was how good we looked in the white / blue / blue. Next, I realised that Mikel and Ramires were in the holding positions and so this must mean that Frank Lampard was one of “the three.”

I’ll be honest; Frank has looked a little tired of late and so maybe Jose was risking it a little. Alongside Frank were Oscar and Hazard. At the back, JT was paired with GC again. After a couple of fine performances, Dave retained his place at left-back.

A quick scan of the West Ham team and it soon became obvious that Sam Allardyce was playing with no obvious striker.

The first-half began and it was a scrappy affair. A few Chelsea half-chances and a block from John Terry denied former Blue Joe Cole. Then, a silly and clumsy challenge by Jaaskelainen on Oscar resulted in a penalty to Chelsea.

At moments like that, how I wish I had put £20 on Frank to score first. True enough, with camera poised, up-stepped our leading goal scorer to blast high into the West Ham net. Frank couldn’t resist; he ran towards the spectators in the Bobby Moore, right arm lifted, and no doubt muttered a few personal epithets to the watching thousands.

Alan : “They’ll ‘Ave Ta Cam At Us Nah.”

Chris : “Cam Own Moi Li’ul Dimons.”

I even did a Cockney – arms in braces – victory jig.

To my right, the blue smoke from a flare billowed in and around the celebrating hordes.

Our play became more focussed and our goal scoring chances increased. We moved the ball intelligently and Frank Lampard found himself in acres of space in the middle of the park. He in turn moved the ball on to Eden Hazard, who flicked the ball into the path of a raiding Oscar. The away end were on tip-toes as our little Brazilian dribbled forward, with no West Ham defender able to shackle him, and we watched as he dispatched the ball into the goal, tucking it neatly just inside the left post.

We roared again.

The Chelsea fans around me had been in good voice for all of the first-half and we goaded the home fans further :

“We’re the only team in London with the European Cup.”

How I love that song…it was sung over and over and over.

And then, a song especially for West Ham’s most successful former player :

“Frankie Lampard – he’s won more than you.”

Just before the break, a sad sight. Joe Cole was substituted. I watched as he raced off the pitch. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea fan who remembers Joe being hooked off at Fulham in 2006 after just twenty minutes by Jose.

A few hundred West Ham fans in the East Stand to our left decided to take on the might of the Chelsea away support by initiating a few songs aimed at us. One rather rotund West Ham fan was singled out and taunted :

“Gone for the salad. You should have gone for the salad.”

The first-half had been all Chelsea. There has to be one special mention for a great piece of defensive covering by Cesar Azpilicueta, who raced over from his left-back position to quell a rare West Ham attack. Top marks. The boy is doing well at the moment.

Soon into the second-half, a thunderous Gary Cahill header was hacked off the line by Mark Noble.

Then, a fine flowing move which involved an improving Eto’o, found Oscar unmarked on the far post but he volleyed over.

With the match seemingly safe, the three thousand Chelsea fans – all standing, of course – dipped into the pages of the travelling support songbook and created a roll-call for an assortment of much-loved former players. We began, as so often is the case, with a song – almost seasonal now – for Peter Osgood.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star, scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.”

Then, in a five minute period, the songs continued, praising several other Chelsea legends.

“Oh Jimmy, Jimmy – Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink.”

“He’s here, he’s there, he’s every fackin’ where  – Frank Leboeuf, Frank Leboeuf.”

“Eidur Gudjohnsen, Eidur Gudjohnsen.”

“Super, Super Dan – Super Dan Petrescu.”

“Oh Dennis Wise, scored a fackin’ great goal.”

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one Di Matteo.”

Then, a song which brought a smile to my face.

“He’s here, he’s there, he’s every fackin’ where – Joey Cole, Joey Cole.”

Although Joe has completed a full footballing circle now, from West Ham to West Ham, and although he joined Liverpool with a few disparaging comments aimed at Chelsea Football Club, he is still in our hearts. This was, to use the oft-quoted phrase, “Proper Chelsea” – singing the name of a rival player. In light of the abuse that Frank Lampard has received at the hands of the bitter followers of his former team, this made a refreshing change. I sincerely hope that Joe, showered and changed, was sitting within the stadium and was able to hear the words aimed towards him. As if to rub it in further, there was just time for one more.

“Joey Cole – he’s won more than you.”

The game continued on with Chelsea in the ascendency. Eto’o curled one just wide of the post. There was an air of relaxed calm in the away end, but I feared a West Ham goal might change things dramatically. West Ham substitute Maiga fluffed his lines at the far post and steered the ball wide when it looked easier to score. After an Eden Hazard shot was blocked, the ball fell invitingly for Frank to effortlessly guide the ball low and into the West Ham goal.

“YES!”

Frank raced over to celebrate in front of the celebrating three thousand and I hopped up on to my seat.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

In one photo, Frank seems to be looking at me right in the eyes.

West Ham United 0 Chelsea 3.

Get in.

We quickly walked out into the cold East London night with a bounce in our step. The home fans, some with claret and blue bar scarves wrapped around their necks, were mute. Alan and Gary decided to wait in line at the back of the large queue at Upton Park tube, but I decided to retrace my steps back to Plaistow. The “clip-clop” of a couple of police horses accompanied a few stragglers as we hurriedly walked the mile west. Once at Plaistow, there was a further wait on a crowded platform, but eventually the train took us back to West Ham tube station. I can well remember the journey on this District Line that my friend Gill and I took just under a year ago, our beloved team humiliated 3-1 by West Ham amidst turmoil, unrest and acrimony in the Chelsea end with Benitez at the helm. At the time, we sincerely hoped that it wouldn’t get any worse in 2012-2013.

Actually, it didn’t.

From my perspective, Upton Park 2012 was a recent low-water mark for Chelsea Football Club.

In 2013, Upton Park provided a far rosier picture. I texted Gill and she was able to share the moment.

By 9pm, I was back at Earl’s Court, knee deep in penne arrabiata in my favourite Italian restaurant, watching Benitez’ new team lose 1-0 at home to Parma.

And we were back in the hunt for the title.

Happy days.

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Tales From Pompey

Portsmouth vs. Chelsea : 24 March 2010.

They say that baseball is a game of inches. Well, getting to midweek Chelsea games is a game of seconds. I wanted to get away from work by 5pm at the absolute latest in order to reach Portsmouth by 7pm – maybe time for just one pint in the “Good Companion” outside Fratton Park. I sat in my car at 4.59pm and reached my seat in the away end at 7.46pm. Needless to say, there was not any time for pre-match festivities. Instead, I endured a stressful two-and-a-half hours fighting the traffic on the M4, A34, M3 and M27. Lord Parky had been on the ale all day and was therefore in an especially jovial mood. To be truthful, the time flew.

I was parked up at 7.25pm and it was no surprise that there was drizzle in the air – there always seems to be so in Portsmouth. It’s a shame we have never enjoyed an away game at Pompey at any other time than in the depths of winter and usually mid-week. A game in September would have been lovely. With Pompey’s demise, I wondered when our next visit would be. Let me just declare an interest here – I’ve developed a slight soft spot for Portsmouth of late. They’re a real old-fashioned club with a quintessential old-school stadium. It is rough around the edges, but it oozes character, wedged into the tight terraced streets of Fratton. Their fans are pretty passionate. I tip my hat to them. Some clubs you just naturally loathe…some clubs, not so.

Parky and myself joined the back of the line at the antiquated turnstiles. It was moving so slow I presumed that Michael Ballack was ahead of me. I note that a souvenir stall was selling pink and burgundy scarves, Pompey’s original colours, and I guessed this was a sad copy of United’s Green & Gold protest. I ascended the steps behind the terrace, underneath a twisted mess of roof supports and beams. Mike Oldfield’s “Portsmouth” was being played on the PA system – the home crowd were joining in with the clapping – and I saw the Chelsea players in white, preparing for the start. I must have just missed the kick-off. At least I made it. I sidled up alongside Alan and Gary, right next to the mesh between us and a small section of Pompey fans. Parky and Steve Azar, plus other friends, were dotted around amongst the 2,000 away contingent.

I was very happy that Petr was playing. Petr Cech for us, Bouncing Cheques for them.

Prior to departing from work, I was hardly enthused about this game – I knew it would be a toughie and that our form had dipped. I think the fans around me shared this view as I haven’t heard quite so much blatant moaning at a game for quite a while, especially in that meandering first period. We had tons of possession with little end product. It was a typically frustrating game, just as I had expected really. However, there were moments. After ten minutes, Frank let fly from well outside the box. I was right behind its flight and it swerved wickedly. James arched to his right and touched it over.

Great football.

I noted that Sturridge was playing deep, playing wide…not involved. Deco was quiet, too. The home fans in the Fratton End provided the first score update of the night…they chanted “1-0 to Fulham” and I approved. Of course, Portsmouth would meet the winners of the Spurs vs. Fulham cup replay taking place in North London. Rocha was laid out by an errant arm from Malouda and the home fans near me weren’t happy. They sang about the referee not being fit to do so. JT was getting the usual barracking too. We replied with chants about their perilous financial straits.

“Harry’s got your money.”

Riccy was injured, to be replaced by Alex. It was a rough old game, with tackles flying in. I noted the ball bobbling quite badly on a few instances. A lot of our play went down the left in front of the old Leitch Stand, but invariably all of this ended up with a miss-placed cross or a variety of shots from distance. I noted a few excellent cross-field balls from Jon Obi Mikel – most unlike him. Alan and myself chatted about this…his distribution is usually limited to square balls over ten yards. The frustration was increasing when a loose ball was completely missed by James as he raced out to clear. Drogba had the easiest chance of his Chelsea career. We celebrated, but it was difficult to shout too loudly when laughter was the first impulse.

Ho ho ho.

At half-time, Joe Cole warmed up right in front of me and I got my telephoto lens out to take a succession of shots of his close control, including one of that “reverse cross” that he likes. As we waited for the game to recommence, we noted a fan in the North Stand being led out on a stretcher. It looked serious. Fans and players alike were dropping like flies. Right – as at Blackburn on Sunday, we needed that second goal. We knew that one was not good enough. Joe continued to warm up alongside the side stand and we serenaded him

“We want you to stay, we want you to stay – Joey Cole – we want you to stay.”

Soon after, this morphed to –

“We want you to play, we want you to play – Joey Cole – we want you to play.”

We enjoyed a purple patch in the first twenty minutes or so of the second period. A sublime ball from Lampard, enjoying more space, was played to Florent Malouda in the inside left berth. I thought he had taken it too far, but as James came out, he drilled it high into the net, no more than ten yards away from me. It was a superb finish. The players raced over and I tried desperately to shout some yelps of support and take some snaps of the players at the same time. Never easy!

Joe came on for the increasingly absent Sturridge and he joined in the fray with his usual vigour. Frank was in his element and soon set up Joe with another perfectly-paced through ball right in front of us. A strong shot, but James did well to save. Just after, our third goal came after Malouda pounced on a James fumble of a Lampard effort. Three-nil and coasting. This was quite a stunning turnaround. More photos of the celebrations. This was good stuff. The Chelsea crowd got into the game.

I had to laugh when I noticed Didier Drogba and Herman Hreidarsson tussling inside the box, off the ball. They were pushing and pulling each other, then they realised the opportunity for a comic moment and appeared to be dancing – maybe a waltz – and smiling. I don’t think anyone else noticed it. It made me giggle.

The only downer was the news filtering through that Spurs were 2-1, then 3-1 up.

Van Aanholt, the youngster, came on for Zhirkov and there was a conversation amongst us about his “52” shirt number. Surely the highest ever. The bloke behind me thought it was too. He then asked me the old favourite –

“Who had shirt number 25 before Zola?”

With the home team fading fast, another superb ball from deep from Mikel found Drogba who advanced on the goal from an angle. This was Didi at his best, forcefully holding off a challenge and slamming into the net. There was a roar from the Chelsea fans, but Drogba ignored his usual celebratory posing and raced back to thank Mikel for the sublime through ball. Neither Alan nor myself could believe it – Mikel as a quarterback, anyone? Just after, a superb run and low cross from Malouda was skied over from just six yards by Drogba. How did he miss? Portsmouth’s chances were few, but a late header should have tested Cech more. It drifted, rather pathetically, past the post. Portsmouth’s support was quiet – not surprisingly – but the trademark drum and bell kept sounding throughout the game. The noise is usually louder at Fratton Park, so I don’t often hear these. There was a bit of banter between the sets of fans, but nothing serious.

A Frank Lampard header from close range after an initial parry gave us a 5-0 win and I, for one, could hardly believe it. David James, who hadn’t had the best of nights ( ! ), kicked the ball away in disgust and the referee decided to book him…presumably for some sort of “physical dissent” as it surely couldn’t have been for time-wasting. This seemed churlish in the extreme. The referee was poor all night and this crazy booking just about summed it up. So – we won 5-0. A fantastic result, but Portsmouth were very poor. We will have far greater challenges in our remaining games in 2009-2010. However, this equalled my highest ever away win, on a par with Wolves 2003 and ‘Boro 2008. My mate, Rick – from Frome, now residing a mere mile away from his beloved Pompey – had been watching from the North Stand, but had not been in touch since pre-match. I guess he was hurting.

In the last few minutes of the game, my ears registered a new song emanating from the rowdy fans to my right. It didn’t take long to work out that it was a few lines from a Bob Marley song. More and more Chelsea joined in as our brains deciphered it. It had been an easy night, so we needn’t get carried away, but the song provided a nice uplift…a positive vibe for once.

“Don’t worry – CLAP CLAP – about a thing…CLAP CLAP CLAP – ‘cus every little thing – CLAP CLAP – is gonna be alright.”

What a great song…incredibly slow, but everyone was joining in. Let’s see if it shows up against Villa on Saturday.

On leaving the ground, I glimpsed across at the deserted light blue seats in the North Stand, row after row, and it reminded me a little of Fenway Park, all roof supports, dark corners, row upon row of seats and little legroom. Good old Fratton Park. I wondered if Chelsea would ever be back…

I met up outside with Parky and spent £2.50 on the worst burger ever. We then decamped back to the pub to wait for the Chelsea traffic to subside. We agreed that Portsmouth is a quite unique city and its club has a strong character all of its own. We wished them well. As we set off for home at 10.30pm, the floodlights of Fratton Park still lit up the night sky. We were surprised – a club in their position should be saving energy, not wasting it.

It seemed like we were the last Chelsea fans to leave Portsmouth.

“Can somebody turn off those flippin’ lights?”

There was terrible weather on the drive home. I drove, Parky slept, I stopped for junk food refills, Parky slept. Eventually, he woke up and we pondered the chances of Chelsea and Pompey meeting for one last time this season.

Stranger things have happened.

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