Tales From A Slow Start

Rapid Vienna vs. Chelsea : 16 July 2016.

By the time that the Austrian Airlines plane had touched down at Vienna’s Schwechat airport at 9.30am on Saturday 16 July, I had already been awake for nine hours. Day one of season 2016-2017, my forty-fourth year of attending Chelsea games, would undoubtedly be a long one. With Chelsea sadly not competing in either of the two European trophies this season, I was easily persuaded to attend the season-opener a week or so ahead of a trip over to the US later in July. European travel would be sorely missed by myself, and thousands of others, this season, but here – at least – was a chance for me to do what I love best; a couple of days in a foreign city following The Great Unpredictables.

I had woken, ahead of my alarm, at 11.30pm on the Friday night. What a ridiculous time to be waking. I set off at 1.30am on the Saturday and headed east. I had arranged to park my car at my friend Michelle’s house in Bracknell, and then her boyfriend Dane would then drive the three of us to Heathrow ahead of our 6am flight. We were checked in at 4.30am and we spotted a few fellow Chelsea on our flight. We grabbed a coffee and a bacon roll, and were soon on our way. “The Blue Danube” – that soothing Strauss favourite – greeted us as we took our seats on the plane. It set the tone nicely. I settled back in my seat and reminisced about previous visits to the Austrian capital.

Back in my early ‘twenties, newly graduated from college but with no idea of where I wanted my life to be headed, I often travelled around Europe by train on various Inter-Railing adventures. My fourth such trip, in the late autumn of 1987, doubled as a chance for me to make a little money on the side by selling British football badges at some European games. A few weeks were spent zig-zagging – if not zigger-zaggering – between Europe’s great cities, sleeping overnight on the trains, and waking up the next morning with that wonderful thrill of exploring a new city, and possibly – who knows? – even making the acquaintance of a mysterious European female with high cheekbones and low morals. These were my wanderlust years for sure. I had visited Austria for the first time on a family holiday with my parents in 1977 – Seefeld, in the Tirol – but my first visit to Vienna was ten years later. On a cold and misty November morning, I alighted at Vienna’s Westbanhof station and headed off for an early morning visit to the wonderful Schonbrunn Palace. There was a certain dark austerity about those grey streets and I wondered if I was in a city further east, such as Belgrade, Budapest or Prague – still under communist law – rather than the sprightlier and more cheerful Austrian capital. I later visited the stunning buildings of the city centre and was immediately impressed. There was a certain class to the whole city. Vienna had certainly left its mark on me.

I would return some seven years later, and this time with the love of my life.

With Chelsea having qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994/1995 (despite only finishing FA Cup runners up to double winners Manchester United), and after seeing off Viktoria Zikkov in the first round, we were paired with Austria Memphis. I had attended the Zizkov game in September 1994 – which had taken place in the small town of Jablonec rather than Prague due to concerns about crowd trouble – and I soon booked myself a return visit to that part of central Europe for the game in Vienna in November. A rather fractious first game at Stamford Bridge had ended 0-0 and there was nerves aplenty as I traveled out to the game in Vienna.

One of the nicest memories that I have of that particular trip was the couple of hours that I spent in a quiet bar, adjacent to the canal that cuts through the city of Vienna as an adjunct to the Danube, where I was able to relax with a few beers, and have a really lovely chat with two lads who I had not met before; Ally and Barney. We bought each other some beers, and enjoyed each other’s company, speaking of our love of the club, our personal stories, and how much fun we hoped to have on a potentially long European campaign in 1994/1995. Remember this was Chelsea’s first European adventure since 1971/1972. It was therefore the very first time that the thousands of fans who had been lured to the club after the twin cup triumphs of 1970 and 1971 had ever experienced such extravagance. That often overlooked European campaign of 1994/1995 is fondly remembered by myself and my friends as our great reward for sticking with the club through a dark period of our history. There had been three depressing relegations, financial calamity, the threat of moving away from Stamford Bridge, a flirt with relegation to the Third Division, hooliganism on the terraces, and much gloating from fans of our rivals. As I sat in that bar in Vienna in 1994, laughing with fellow Chelsea fans among the wooden panels and shining beer pumps, with the game taking place just over the canal, just out of sight, in a few hours, the excitement was tangible. It was just a lovely moment in my Chelsea life.

I would also visit that same bar on a visit to Vienna in 1997 – this time alone, but still savoring the moment – ahead of a game against Slovan Bratislava, just over the Slovakian border. It was, and still is, one of my favourite bars of any city that I have ever visited.

After checking in to my hotel on the Saturday morning, not so far from where I stayed in 1997 in fact, my first priority was to hunt out that bar, sit and reflect on how far my club has come over the past twenty-odd years, and to raise a toast to Antonio Conte as he took charge of his very first Chelsea game later in the day but also to the memory of Barney, who sadly passed away in 2011. I used to bump in to him quite often at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere – Ally not quite so often – and there would always be an outstretched hand and the “hello son” greeting. He was a nice guy. I miss his cheery smile.

For an hour or so, I searched east and west and then east again, but the bar was proving as elusive to pin down as the racketeer Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s atmospheric post-war classic “The Third Man.” As I roamed the streets, I hummed the film’s classic refrain to myself. I looked hither and thither to the sound of the zither but was so disappointed to realise that the bar was no more. As with many cities, there has been much riverside development in Vienna, and the quaint local bar was nowhere to be seen. I was genuinely dismayed that my first pint of the season – last season it was in Newark, New Jersey – could not be on my third visit to “my bar” in Vienna.

The weather was a little overcast and cloudy as I now turned and headed for the city centre.

I walked past a small neighbourhood bar and peered inside. There were a few locals inside, but also the strong smell of cigarette smoke. I turned to leave, but then looked up to see a large poster of former Rapid Vienna and Austrian international Hans Krankl – quite probably the nation’s most famous footballer of all time.

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I then noticed the photographs of a local, lower league, football team adorning one wall. I spotted the green wallpaper and upholstery, hinting at maybe a Rapid allegiance.

“I think I’m staying.”

I ordered a pint of Weiselburger and relaxed. The locals were amazed that I had traveled over for the game. The bar owner – not present – was the president of the local team featured. The locals were Rapid fans. It was great to chat to them. I love a local bar.

I headed on. The streets were remarkably quiet. Only around St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the main shopping area of the old town were busy. I crossed a road but heard a “Chelsea” song being faintly sung. I turned and spotted a few Chelsea flags draped outside the Match Box bar on Rotenturmstrasse. For an hour or so, it represented base camp. I bumped into a few friends and relaxed some more. After only two months after the last game of 2015/2016, we were back on it again. I suppose there was around twenty of us huddled outside the bar. It was not a huge figure. Some had spent the previous night in Bratislava, and had travelled down the River Danube to Vienna by boat. The talk turned to the game. We had officially been given four hundred tickets for the match, which was to mark the opening of Rapid’s revamped stadium, and a fair few had traveled out without tickets.

A few odd-looking characters suddenly arrived on the scene, obviously not English, wearing Harrington jackets with both “Chelsea Headhunters” crests woven into the backs, and with Stone Island patches on the arms. A couple had “Chelsea Headhunters” scarves draped around their waists.

File under “trying too hard.”

They looked, and sounded, totally unsavory. It was time for me to move on.

I headed off at just before 3pm in order to meet up with Emily, a Chelsea supporter from Atlanta, but who has been living in Vienna for a few years, and George, a Chelsea fanatic from the Czech Republic. Both were “Facebook friends” but there had been much communication between us ahead of the game. I was also hoping to meet up with my good mate Orlin, who often gets mentioned in these dispatches, who was desperate for a match ticket. A few days previously, Emily had sourced a spare for him, but it fell through at the last minute.

I walked in to “Flanagan’s” on Schwarzenbergstrasse and was expecting it to be busy. It was very quiet. If we had four hundred tickets, and four hundred fans, we were certainly spreading ourselves thinly throughout the city. I soon spotted the ever-present Cathy, with Becky and Emma. George, with two Czech mates, soon arrived. Emily too. For an hour and a half, we supped a few ales – Weiselburger and then Stiegl – and chatted about all things Chelsea. A few others arrived – Neil and Dave – and we pondered options of how to reach the stadium, which sits on the western edge of the city. We ended up catching an Uber, and off we went through the city’s streets.

The sun-bleached frontage of the Schonbrunn Palace was spotted to my left and I wondered if I would have time to visit it again on this trip. I had recently seen a concert from its grounds a few weeks earlier and it certainly brought back memories of my childhood. Often my father would tune in to some classical music on the radio and he especially liked the music of Strauss. I think his favourite was the Radetzky March. I had been reminded of another memory from the game in 1994; the day after the match, I enjoyed a leisurely walk in the autumn sun. I happened to chance upon a band playing music in celebration of the Austrian president Thomas Klestil’s birthday. For a few moments, I watched as the music whirled around in the Viennese morning air. I had lost my father only eighteen months earlier and I do not mind admitting that the sounds of some of his favourite tunes made my eyes moist. It was a lovely moment for me.

Outside the stadium, we soon spotted a bar, so we quickly decided to have another beer before the game.

With another Italian in charge of the team once more, I was keen to welcome Antonio Conte to our club with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner, which I hand-crafted some twenty summers ago in celebration of the twin signings of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto di Matteo. At the time, who could have possibly have guessed that those two players would go down in Chelsea legend as the managers of twin European triumphs in Stockholm and Munich?

I hastily gathered some troops and we had a photograph.

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Time was moving on.

Emily had a ticket in the home end, so we went our separate ways. With typical Chelsea protocol, I only made it in to the stadium with mere minutes to spare. The away end didn’t seem particularly full. We had been allocated the corner section, and it was clear to see that many locals – or at least non-English, if not wholly Austrian – were in our section. If I was expecting to see many familiar faces among the “400” (now seeming a mythical figure invented by Chelsea), I was to be disappointed. I bumped into Les from nearby Melksham, and maybe a few more, but there were strange faces everywhere. I didn’t spot my good pals Alan and Gary, who would be staying over for the second game in Klagenfurt. There was an odd feel to the mix of supporters. Of course, the big clue that not too many were from England was the predominance of Chelsea shirts in the away end. Emily, George and myself had touched on this subject in the bar beforehand; that Chelsea, specifically at away games, simply do not wear club colours to any great extent.

I made my way to the very last row, overlooked by a row of a bored dozen Austrian policemen. Alas there was nowhere to pin “Vinci.”

The home fans were in the midst of displaying a huge banner announcing “Weststadion” as opposed to the official, and ultra-corporate Allianz Stadium. Like the Allianz Stadium in Munich, I spotted a hill outside, wooded, and with houses.

“Tales From The Vienna Woods” anyone?

OK, the game.

Do I have to?

Clearly, Antonio Conte has only been at the club for a ridiculously short time, and was unable to select a free choice of players since some were still on an extended break. Nevertheless, the team looked like a Chelsea team from a parallel universe, or maybe even last year’s odd start. It could easily have been the team that played Walsall last September. It was a mixture of old favourites and fledgling youth.

Begovic.

Ivanovic.

Terry.

Djilobodji.

Rahman.

Mikel.

Matic.

Willian.

Loftus-Cheek.

Moses.

Diego Costa.

It seemed to be the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 of recent memory. It was lovely, at least, to see John Terry still with us after the conjecture of the last week of the previous campaign.

Like so many fellow Chelsea fans, I was impressed with Antonio Conte during the recent European Championships. He is quietly spoken, but has eyes of steel. He is plainly a passionate man. It remains to be seen whether or not he can repeat that sense of camaraderie and teamwork so evident in his Italian team, overachieving through togetherness, at our club, which has been beset with power struggles and divisions within the changing room over the past few years. My good friend Mario, the Juventus supporter, told me that he is more of a leader of men through his emotional bond with his players, rather than through his tactical nous. This goes against the quickly-gained view by many in France that Conte is a fine tactician. If I heard the phrase “tactical masterclass” emanating from the media and fellow fans alike, I must have heard it a hundred times.

We’ll see.

I certainly wish him well.

“Win For Us” indeed.

Chelsea were in all blue – I still dislike seeing us in blue socks after all these years – with Rapid Vienna strangely choosing away stripes.

The game was dire. We let in a soft goal, allowing a nice one-two to cut us open on just seven minutes as Joelinton rounded Asmir Begovic before coolly side-footing home, and then celebrated down in front of us. Green flares were set off, and the home fans – wearing a lot of scarves despite it being the middle of summer – made a lot of noise. It was quite a din from their sections throughout the game.

We struggled to put anything of note together and – let us not be surprised – looked several yards off the pace against a team that seemed to be at a further advanced stage in their pre-season.

A few shouts of Chelsea support at the start soon gave way to periods of quiet in the away end as the game continued.

Suddenly, Emily appeared next to me. She had explained that she was a Chelsea fan to a steward in the home areas and had been allowed to join us. That she found me so easily was proof that our end was not full.

Willian buzzed around and Diego narrowly shot narrowly wide, but the Chelsea fans in the away section were not impressed.

“Shite, eh?”

At halftime, I made my way downstairs to purchase some beers. It was one of those games where beer was certainly a welcome addition. We were even allowed to bring them back to our seats.

It was more painful stuff in the second-half. Changes were made, with Aina, Oscar, Chalobah, Traore, Kenedy, Atsu and Remy all coming on.

We shuffled the ball from one side of the field to the other, but with little thrust or incision into the Rapid area.

It was slow.

Out of nowhere, Orlin appeared below me. He too had been lucky and had found, miraculously, a ticket. This was all very strange though. There were gaps in our section throughout the game, yet Chelsea had sold four hundred. Answers on a postcard.

Ola Aina played a ball in from the inside-left position, aiming for some onrushing attackers, but the ball avoided everyone before hitting against the left-hand post. The keeper was beaten, but watched as the ball rebounded away to safety. That this unintentional strike on goal would be our best attempt on goal the entire game summed it all up.

Sigh.

With ten minutes left, a defensive error between Ivanovic and Terry allowed the home team to strike. The ball was played out wide, and a shot on goal followed. An attempted clearance only set things up for Tomi to follow up.

Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

More flares and flags.

The game ended.

We shuffled off, with our hands in our pockets, and with faces being pulled.

“Bloody hell, that was crap.”

I suppose I am spoilt. I have seen so many enthralling and entertaining games with Chelsea over the years. This was just a friendly, just the first in a long season, just a training session in reality.

Outside in the drizzle of a Viennese evening, we waited for transportation.

“Bloody hell, this seems like Wigan in the rain in November not Vienna in July.”

Our spirits had taken a bit of a knock, but I must admit to being so pleased to have made new friends with some good people.

George kept shouting “Vinci Per Noi” and I smiled.

We caught two trams back to the centre of Vienna, and I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza. It would be my only sustenance since the bacon roll at Heathrow. I chatted, solemnly, to Emily and aired a concern that I have had, and shared here, for a few years; that my passion is waning, that things might never reach the heights of – when? Vienna 1994? Wembley 1997? Stockholm 1998? Bolton 2005? Munich 2012? – but then I smiled as the thought of another campaign entered my head. We dropped in to “Flanagan’s” once more but my lack of sleep and the first glut of beer of the season suddenly took its toll. At around 9.30pm – yes, probably as early as that – I made my way back to the hotel. I was so tired.

For me, at least, it was a solemn case of “goodnight, Vienna.”

I awoke on the Sunday, miraculously with no hangover. My flight back to Blighty was not until 8pm, so there was plenty of time to explore Vienna on day two.

The first part of my day would be a personal homage to that game in 1994 against Rapid Vienna’s cross-town rivals. Vienna’s two main teams have monopolised the trophies in Austria, with Rapid winning 32 championships and Austria Vienna 24. Back in 1994, Austria Vienna were known as Austria Memphis, after a short-lived sponsorship deal with a cigarette manufacturer. There is a third team, First Vienna, but they have suffered in recent years. Another club, even smaller, Wiener Sport Club, played us in the Fairs Cup in 1965.

When I left that bar in 1994, I walked over the river towards the Ernst Happel Stadium and memorably heard shouts of “Carefree” from the huge Ferris wheel – the Wiener Reisenrad – at one end of the Prater park. In 2016, I rode on the Ferris wheel for the first time. It is a fantastic experience, and offers lovely panorama views of the whole city. I remembered a famous scene from “The Third Man” between the two main characters which took place on the wheel. As in 1994, there is an amusement park at the Prater, and I recreated my long walk that evening twenty-two years ago, ending up underneath the stadium. There has been a new roof canopy slung on top of the concrete bowl since 1994, but being there brought back lovely memories. It has hosted some memorable European finals in its day. Back in 1994, it was used for our game rather than Austria Memphis’ smaller Favoriten stadium. It was recently the home of Rapid, too, while their new stadium was built. I was able to peer in and spot that the seats were now Rapid green, rather than the multi-colours of yesteryear.

There is something very dramatic, in my mind, about a resting football stadium.

My mind raced back to 1994.

Such were the rules with UEFA then, that only two or three “foreigners” were allowed in the ECWC. With injuries to other players, this meant that manager Glenn Hoddle’s hand was tied. His team selection on that memorable night tells its own story –

Kharin.

Hall.

Barness.

Johnson.

Spackman.

Newton.

Rocastle.

Myers.

Shipperley.

Spencer.

Wise.

I remember Nigel Spackman was forced to play as a central defender. Young Neil Shipperley lead the line. I had a seat, among home fans, but with other Chelsea too, along the side, with an army of around four thousand away fans in the middle tier of the end to my right. It was one of the greatest nights of my life until that point. We went ahead in the second-half after a memorable breathless run by John Spencer – it seemed to go on forever – resulted in him dropping his shoulder, edging wide of the ‘keeper and slotting home.

“Get in.”

What wild celebrations.

I remember falling arse over tit on the Vienna fans next to me.

I was so new to European football, that even when the home team equalised, it took me a few seconds to realise that we still held advantage. The Chelsea fans were in great form that night; it was a proper old school following, and the songs echoed around the half-full stadium. I remember “God Save The Queen” and even “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – a rugby song – being sung with gusto. At the end of the game, with Chelsea through to the next round on a brilliant European night, I bounced out of the stadium and walked south to the nearest U-bahn station, almost too excited for words.

It was one of the very greatest of feelings.

At last, at the age of twenty-nine, I had a European adventure all of my own to tell fellow friends about.

Chelsea were back.

It was fucking brilliant.

I took a few photographs of the Ernst Happel Stadium, then retraced my steps south again.

Throughout this trip, 1994 would be forever on my mind.

“Vienna. 1994. It meant something to me.”

Later in the day, I visited the palatial majesty of the Belvedere Palace – a mini Schonbrunn – and met up with Emily once more. We sat in the al fresco bar outside the Palace and spoke about all things Chelsea. Emily was keen to hear some of my stories and some of my tales. There was talk of US tours, football fan culture, rivalries, past games, the entire works. It transpired that one of Emily’s relatives – her grandmother’s first cousin – played for Manchester United in the 1940’s, and I laughed that many United fans living in the UK would give their right arm for that kind of lineage to Manchester. If you ask them why they are United fans, you often get them looking away, avoiding eye contact, before they utter some unconvincing tripe about their relatives coming from Manchester. What a load of old rot. Emily has visited Stamford Bridge twice before, 2011, and promised to make a return visit as soon as she could. I look forward to that.

I walked back to the hotel – time for one last curry wurst – and I met up with Michelle and Dane before we returned to the airport.

It had been a long two days in the Austrian capital.

We heard that there would be another pre-season game in Bremen, another lovely city, on a spare Sunday in August. That would be for others, though, not for me. My next game is in Ann Arbor, college-town USA, against Real Madrid.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From The Chelsea Square Mile

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 23 August 2014.

So, the 2014-2015 home opener against Leicester City on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday weekend. A time to meet up with a few more Chelsea mates; I bumped into quite a few among the four thousand at Burnley on Monday, but here was a chance to chat to a few more. Monday’s game showed glimpses of a fine season to come. There were plenty of plusses, no more so than from the new starters Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. Leicester City, another of the promoted teams, would be full of fight but, surely, most Chelsea supporters would be hoping for a maximum six points from our first two league matches. Let’s begin strong. Let’s try to amass as many points against the lesser teams before we lock horns against the big four, five, six or seven.

It would be time for me to continue to get my juices flowing for the season too. I have to be honest though; the final home game of last season, against Norwich City, was so lackluster, with a disappointingly subdued atmosphere too, that my memory of it left me wondering if I’d have trouble in getting “up” for the home opener of 2014-2015.

This is a familiar theme here, isn’t it?

I can only tell this Chelsea story from my perspective.

Whatever will be will be, as the song goes.

After the tiring pilgrimage to Burnley on Monday, my mate Glenn took a turn to drive for the Leicester match. It was a quick and easy drive east. We were soon parked up on Greyhound Road, just a mile or so to the north of Stamford Bridge. It is a strange fact that although I attend around twenty-five matches at The Bridge every season, my meanderings on match days do not extend far beyond a square mile of terra firma centered on the green sward of Stamford Bridge. From the North End Road heading south towards Fulham Broadway – the old Walham Green – then east along Fulham Road, past the stadium, up to Redcliffe Gardens, on to Old Brompton Road – just touching the southern boundary of Earl’s Court – and then west along Lillee Road, past the cluster of pubs around West Brompton.

This marks the territory of my usual Chelsea match day experience.

And it would be the path that I would take on this particular match day Saturday.

At 12.45pm, I was patiently waiting at the bar in The Goose, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to my left and saw Eric, with his good lady Megan. They are both from Detroit and in town for the best part of a week. Eric is a keen footballer and plays regularly. Crucially, he has been a Chelsea fan for a number of years. I first met him in New York City ahead of our game with PSG in the summer of 2012. Thankfully our extended Chelsea family was able to secure a match ticket for the game. We retired in to the beer garden which was predictably busy on this sunny lunchtime.

Our usual gaggle of Chelsea devotees stood in a small circle, sipping lagers, chatting, sharing jokes, laughing at Parky. It was a typical scene. It was just lovely to be sharing it all with Eric, who – I am sure – was looking forward to a Goose pre-match just as much as the main event at 3pm.

My good friend Andy was able to regale the two Detroit natives of his visit to the city way back in 1987. I must visit Detroit one day – home to the Motor City Blues, of which Eric is a member – as it is one of the few major North American cities, along with Montreal, Phoenix, Nashville, Memphis, St. Louis and Badgercrack, Nebraska, that I am yet to visit. Eric and Megan had been enjoying a fine time in London since their arrival on Wednesday. On their first evening, despite being undoubtedly tired with jet lag, they embarked on a bespoke tour of a half a dozen gin bars, which took them through several different parts of the capital city.

“Yeah. We have a similar scene in Somerset. Gravy bars. A bit different.”

Visits followed to Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Churchill War Rooms below Whitehall. These are just the sort of attractions that I could or maybe should be visiting on my London excursions. While Eric would be watching the boys play, Megan was off shopping.

We met up with Darren outside the CFCUK stall and the all-important ticket was handed over to Eric. He had a prime seat; second row of the Matthew Harding Upper, right behind the goal. Despite our plans to get Eric in to the stadium in good time, so he could experience a little of the pre-match atmosphere, we still found ourselves outside the MH turnstiles at 2.55pm.

“Typical Chelsea.”

Eric laughed.

I was in, alongside Alan, Glenn, Tom and Joe, with a couple of minutes to spare. Stamford Bridge, with a sky full of small bursts of white cloud and stands full of sun-kissed spectators, looked a picture. It wasn’t easy to tell where home fans met away fans in The Shed. A thin line of stewards marked the boundaries. Leicester City would be backed by a healthy three thousand. Not too many were wearing replica shirts. I remember three specific games against Leicester City at The Bridge; the Erland Johnsen game in the 1996-1997 F.A. Cup run, a last-minute blooter from Frank Leboeuf in 1997 and Steve Guppy killing our championship campaign with another last minute goal in 1999.

I had bought a match programme on the walk past the towering West Stand and the cover, design and layout is generally unchanged from previous years; well, since 2004-2005 anyway, when a new design was used. I’d suggest a new look. I’m getting bored with it. Throughout this season within the pages of the programme, there will be a retrospective on that 2004-2005 season.

Was it really ten years ago that we assembled at Stamford Bridge to see how the new manager Mourinho would begin his Chelsea career in that game versus Manchester United? How time flies when you are winning trophies. Come April, it will be a decade since Bolton. Oh my. Incidentally, during that summer of 2004, I watched my five-hundredth Chelsea game (the Gianfranco Zola testimonial versus Real Zaragoza) and it had taken me a full thirty years to reach that mark. In the following decade, ten seasons, I squeezed in a further five hundred. Realistically, I doubt if my support for Chelsea will ever again reach such heights of fanaticism; these have been my roaring forties. It’s been magnificent.

The first-half was a rather frustrating affair. Despite home advantage, the finer players, the more experienced manager, the most expensive signings, Leicester City – the new team at the top table – matched us. As the first period wore on, the exuberant Chelsea support began to quieten. And this disturbed me. I always wonder how many of the thousands at home games are first time visitors, like Eric, who have been drawn to our football and Chelsea in particular by the promise of a white hot atmosphere and associated boisterousness, only to be saddened by the quietness in the stands. It is always a concern. I’d hate every person’s first experience of a Chelsea match day to be underwhelming. I felt for Eric as the game progressed. Our play was not only slow and without focus, but Stamford Bridge was in one of its “can’t be arsed” moods.

Despite the continued probing of Cesc Fabregas, who constantly attempted to thread a variety of balls in towards our attackers, and the earnest runs of Andre Schurrle, and the physical presence of Diego Costa, it was the away team who had just as much of the ball and just as many attempts on goal. Would this be the day that would be remembered for the individual performances of the two ‘keepers Courtois and Schmeichel? A fantastic tackle by John Terry on Mahrez was almost the most memorable moment of the first thirty minutes. Diego Costa began to be rewarded for his movement with a couple of half-chances, but his efforts were thwarted.

As the half-time whistle blew, I envisaged Jose Mourinho waiting in the home dressing room with his smart phone and eleven ice bucket challenges.

Certainly there was a need for a concentrating of mind and body. Mourinho needed to inspire and cajole, or – at worst – give the team a bollocking.

At half time, John Spencer, our little Lion of Vienna, was walked around the pitch with Neil Barnett. What a night that was; when Spenno’s little legs dashed seventy yards before dispatching the ball past the Austria Memphis ‘keeper. That was almost twenty years ago. Another “oh my.” He was given a fine reception:

“One Johnny Spen-cah, there’s only one Johnny Spen-cah!”

At half-time, whispered words with my mate Rousey. One of his friends, Nick – who watched a mere ten feet away from me – had passed away a mere three weeks ago. His was a face that I recognised, though we never ever said more than a few words to each other. He will be missed by me and others.

The second-half was a different story, thankfully. There was a more vigorous approach from the off. Soon into the half, a fine effort from the previously subdued Oscar rattled the woodwork, and then the forceful Ivanovic forced a fine save from Schmeichel. Schurrle was scythed down, but referee Lee Mason didn’t see red. Our World Cup Winner then came close. Approaching the hour mark, the home support was buoyed by this greater urgency and rewarded the team with a wall of noise from the Matthew Harding. At last! I hoped that Eric’s nerves were tingling.

The Leicester ‘keeper was enjoying a fine game; his finger-tipped save from a rasping drive from Ivanovic, now very involved, was exceptional.

Then, our hearts were in our mouths, as David Nugent – who seems to have been around for ever – broke with the entire Chelsea defence caught short. Miraculously, his low shot was deflected wide by the outstretched shin of Courtois, who had quickly advanced off his line as soon as he realised the severity of the situations. His angles were perfect. As the shot flew off for a corner, we roared.

A penalty shout was waved away, and Schmeichel foiled a Fabregas effort. Our chances were piling up. Ivanovic was again involved with a bursting advance down the right. He found Diego Costa lurking centrally on the edge of the six yard box. A quick touch to bring the ball down and then a delicate prod past Schmeichel. I jumped up on to the steps to my left and roared. I don’t always do this; only for a “big” goal. Here was proof that this one was important. This was no run of the mill goal. This might just win us the points.

GET IN!

Diego Costa was two out of two and he reeled away down below me with his arms outstretched. I instinctively grabbed my camera and snapped as he was engulfed by his new, thankful, team mates. As they eventually untangled themselves, I caught his double point to the skies. I noticed Didier doing this at Burnley after his fine touch and volley. It must be the new craze. I hope we see a lot more of this.

Ramires and Willian came on for Schurrle and Oscar. What a squad we have this season. Leicester City, although clearly second best in this half, were still threatening. I told Alan that we needed a second to make it safe. With that, Eden Hazard, weaved in from the left down below me and hit a low shot towards goal. It was a move that we have witnessed on a few times before. I snapped a photo as he shot. A slight deflection sent it past the Leicester ‘keeper. Another roar. I watched as Hazard jogged over towards the Chelsea bench in that square-on style of his.

2-0. Phew.

With the game safe – I checked and Steve Guppy wasn’t playing – Jose had a little treat up his sleeve. With ten minutes to go, the crowd roared as Didier Drogba replaced Diego Costa. I’m still trying my best to rationalise the reappearance of Didier in the royal blue after two years away. I joked with Alan :

“How about next May, in Berlin, he scores another penalty and then leaves for good?”

“I’ll go with that.”

Willian, as willing as ever, tested man of the match Schmeichel one last time.

The whistle blew.

We were top.

“See you at Goodison, Al.”

Outside at the Peter Osgood statue, Eric was all abuzz. I could tell that he had experienced a magical afternoon. He wasn’t physically shaking, but he wasn’t far off it.

“Buzzin’, man.”

The night was still young and so we set off on a mini pub-crawl after picking up Dave and Jake. We called in for a drink at The Finborough Arms after a quick shower of rain and then The Pembroke, before we met up with Megan, post-shopping, for some pizza and Peronis at Salvo’s. On the adjoining table were ten Chelsea fans from Sweden. We all watched aghast as Arsenal equalised late on against Everton.

Parky, however, hit the nail on the head.

“Fcuk’em.”

There was just time for one last pub and one last pint; The Imperial, just along from West Brompton underground station, where the post-Chelsea home game ska night was coming to a close, but where a smattering of a few famous and infamous Chelsea faces would be drinking long in to the night.

“Definitely a part, now, of the Chelsea match day experience these days, Eric.”

“Fantastic.”

We said our goodbyes. It had been a fine day.

Dedicated to the memory of Sir Richard Attenborough.

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Tales From An April Evening

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 4 April 2012.

Chelsea went into the return leg with Benfica nursing a 1-0 lead from the first game the previous week. The advantage was clearly with us. However, during the day, I commented to a few friends that I was strangely subdued about the game in the evening. We were clearly in a great position to advance to the semi-final, but maybe it was the daunting task of facing the Barcelona colossus which was weighing heavy on my mind. I was also uneasy with us being in a relatively good position. We are usually faced with greater struggles on the path of that elusive first-ever Champions League trophy. I commented that it would certainly be a very odd evening if, for example, we glided into an early lead and then added another security goal in the second-half. As a Chelsea fan used to hardships and heartbreaks, that sort of scenario would be most surprising. I even had a title for my match report worked out; “Tales From UnChelsea.”

Well, I needn’t have worried. If ever there was a “typical Chelsea” performance, this was it.

I collected Parky from The Pheasant car park just before 4pm, just as a passing rainstorm had deposited a few drops of rain. He quickly scrambled inside, we shook hands – “here we go again, son” – and we departed. Parky was clearly under the weather; he had a bad cold and was suffering. There was even a slight risk of him not attending.

We chatted relentlessly on the drive east and the trip to HQ followed a typical pattern. We made good time until the approach into London, but then the traffic slowed. I eventually pulled in at 6.45pm. It had taken us almost three hours to travel 95 miles.

Inside The Goose, things were relatively quiet, but my closest Chelsea mates were gathered together. Time for a single pint. Jesus arrived late but we had just enough time for a small chat. I set off ahead of the rest as I wanted to get in to pin up the “VPN” banner. As I passed Fulham Broadway at 7.30pm, there was a lovely match day buzz taking place, with paces quickening, voices chattering. There were a few stray Benfica fans darting in and out of the moving mass of Chelsea supporters, but nowhere near the number of Napoli supporters in the previous round.

The façade of the West Stand was adorned with two large Champions League banners and, down below in a central position, the statue of Peter Osgood was standing out clearly.

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There was no line at the MHU turnstiles; remember the capacity of this stand is cut by around 4,000 for Champions League knock-out games. I sidled past a young couple and overheard the girl say in a broad London accent –

“Oh, I hate these scanners. I had trouble with them when I went to The Arsenal.”

I turned around just as her bloke gave her an old-fashioned look. I rolled my eyes and commented –

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

I got to my seat at 7.40pm and I scrambled up to the back wall of the upper tier to pin up “Vinci.” Steve gave me a hand and then went down to assist Daz with the unleashing of the flag. I reached my seat just as the teams appeared onto the pitch. We were all given free flags again and for a few fleeting moments, Stamford Bridge was a picture. Benfica’s fans were bristling with noise and colour in the opposite corner. I noted how bright the Benfica shirts were; almost a pink hue to their shirts. Benfica brought more flags than most other European teams to The Bridge. There was a Union Jack and a flag of St. Georges; clearly the London branch of their supporters club was out in force. I took a few photos; Champions League Nights are so photogenic, what with the teams walking past the fluttering CL flag and then the formal line-up, the stands rippling with colour. The balconies were festooned with Chelsea flags and banners; we had clearly made a special effort. The game was live on national television and we needed to make an impression. The match kicked off and I quickly scanned the line-up; I presumed we were keeping the 4-2-3-1 formation. Brana fit, Lamps in, Kalou in, Torres alone up front.

We began the match attacking “my” end, the Matthew Harding Stand, and it again felt strange. Benfica began strongly. However, a lovely volley from a lurking David Luiz was smashed in from an angle, but a Benfica defender blocked it. We hoped that further attacks would be soon cascading down on the Benfica goal. Just after, Juan Mata was clearly offside before he shot home and I really couldn’t believe how many fans in close proximity had cheered the goal. I quickly checked on the linesman, raising his flag, when I saw Mata break . Who are these people?

On twenty minutes, Ashley Cole raced on to a lofted ball, deep in the Benfica box, and was sent sprawling. Ashley threw up his arms in protest, but I wasn’t convinced from my angle. It looked like a confluence of bodies to me. My friend Alan had already taken an immediate dislike to the Slovenian referee, but we were both smiling when we saw him purposefully point to the penalty spot. As always, I thought back to the “four penalties that weren’t” against Barcelona and had a little chuckle to myself.

Amidst protests from the Benfica players, there was a long delay. The ‘keeper made a point of not retreating to his line and had a little staring duel with Frank Lampard, the anointed penalty taker. Frank dispatched the ball and the net rippled once more. He very rarely lets us down on Champions League nights from that penalty spot, does he?

David Luiz attempted a typically elaborate turn just inside his own half, but an extra touch lost him the ball amidst groans and jeers from the watching thousands. I pictured the scene in living rooms throughout the UK, from Penzance to Peterhead, from Bexleyheath to Barrow, with millions of armchair viewers berating our Brazilian centre-half.

On the half hour, a well-worked Benfica free-kick resulted in a John Terry clearance off the line. We take this sort of behaviour for granted at times – our captain’s positional sense has always been one of his very strongest skills – but it is always wonderful to see his blue shirt appear at the right place at the right time again and again. We breathed a massive sigh of relief as Brana hacked away the loose ball.

Benfica were in the ascendency, no doubts. I was too busy taking a photograph to see the “studs-up” challenge by Pereira on Mikel. The crowd were soon letting the referee know it was his second yellow and off he went. So much for the “UEFA Hate Chelsea” conspiracy-theorists, we had been given a penalty and Benfica were now down to ten men. Amongst all this, the noise wasn’t great; we could sense that Benfica were still capable of scoring. However, in the closing seconds of the first-half, Ramires sent over a tempting cross which avoided the ‘keeper, but also missed the run of Torres by a few feet. It was only one of a few chances we had crafted in that first forty-five minutes.

At half-time, Alan and I chatted about the half. We had been out-shot by Benfica and had ridden our luck. We spoke about an incident which had taken place mid-way through the half. Juan Mata had been strongly-tackled and the ball ran out for a throw-in, but Mata had been sent sprawling down below us. The crowd roared for a free-kick and Mata stared hard at the referee. It seemed to me that the referee didn’t really think it was a foul, but bowed to crowd pressure and the earnest reaction of Mata, who is not a diver, and gave us the free-kick. It was an insightful piece of play which taught me how difficult it must be to ref at such a high intensity game. Rather them than me.

At the break, Neil Barnett posed a conundrum. The half-time guest was a player, a centre-back, from the early-sixties who had since gone on to manage Benfica. I was stumped. I knew that Alan Harris had been with Terry Venables at Barcelona, but didn’t know he had been involved with Benfica.

It was John Mortimore, who briefly appeared on the pitch for a rousing reception.

Neil Barnett 1 Chris Axon 0.

The second-half began with a superb save from Petr Cech after Cardozo’s effort was heading towards a top corner. The artistry and athleticism from our great ‘keeper in that one moment was just amazing to watch at close quarters. Aimar was narrowly wide just after.

At the other end, the previously quiet Kalou sent a low ball across which was met by an unrushing Ramires. From my vantage point, some 100 yards away, all I saw was a blue shirt and the ball then somehow bouncing away from the goal. My immediate thought was –

“Oh God, that wasn’t Torres was it?”

A Benfica player speculatively struck a lob from way out which didn’t trouble the Chelsea goal. At the other end, Fernando Torres nimbly turned and worked the ball so he could caress the ball in to the left-hand side of the goal. We held our breath, but the shot was deflected for a corner. Just after, a nice little move involving Mata playing a “one two” with another Chelsea player but the shot was saved.

John Terry was substituted by Gary Cahill. Like for like.

Benfica still enjoyed a lot of the ball and had a flurry of chances. Sturdy challenges and well-timed blocked from the Chelsea rear guard stopped an equaliser. Kalou missed a great chance. We grew tense.

The Benfica fans were not the loudest European visitors, but I noted a chant midway through the second-half which struck a chord. I couldn’t, of course, decipher the chant completely, but the words “Michel Platini” rang out clear. I filled in the dots…I guessed that it was something like “Michel Platini – You Got Your Wish” or “Michel Platini – You Only Like Big Teams.” It seems that Platini is disliked by fans all over Europe. It made me smile when I realised that Benfica felt aggrieved too. Platini ranks as one of the very best European players of all time; he was certainly a magical touch player at Juventus, wearing that number 10 shirt, helping to define the role of a “Number Ten” player in fact. However, despite his strengths as a player, he is clearly disliked these days; I still laugh when I think of my Juventus mate Tullio now calling him a “son of a bitch” in his UEFA role.

I commented to Alan that I could rarely remember the time dragging like this one. Sixty minutes played…seventy minutes played…we were a man up, but it certainly seemed that Benfica were playing with a spare man. The clock ticked slowly on…Meireles on for Mata.

On 84 minutes, that man Cech stretched again to prevent Djalo scoring, but the resultant corner ended with a goal. The ball was swung in and Garcia ran unmarked to leap unhindered from a central position. It was a truly shocking goal to concede. The Bridge grew nervier still. Going out was now a distinct possibility and we all felt our emotions being intensified. I leaned forward and concentrated further.

“Come On Boys.”

At last there was noise. The Bridge responded with great bellows of “Chelsea Chelsea Chelsea Chelsea.”

Didier Drogba replaced Fernando Torres. If only he had been on the pitch to head away that corner as so often is his role. There was a very nervy moment when Benfica broke through the offside trap on 87 minutes – it looked offside to me – but a weak shot didn’t trouble Petr Cech.

Deep inside stoppage time, the ball was cleared towards Raul Meireles. I watched his dramatic run from deep through the lens of my camera…I took two snaps as his strong run continued and as he unleashed a goal bound strike, I snapped again. I hardly saw the ball slam into the net, but I certainly heard the roar.

Get In!

I saw Meireles run towards Parky Corner and the Chelsea players joined him. Around us, we were roaring.

We were safe.

That run must rank alongside the cherished John Spencer run and goal against Austria Memphis in the autumn of 1994. It was truly a phenomenal strike. It reminded me, in its timing and execution, of the famous Geoff Hurst goal in 1996 too.

“It Is Now.”

There was a lovely feeling as I bounced down the Fulham Road. We darted into The Goose to celebrate with Jesus, from Mexico, and Rob, from Wiltshire. The air of contentment was tempered slightly by the fact that we were now due to face our old Catalan foes FCB once more. Parky was still feeling ropey but finished off his pint as Rob and his mates chatted about flights to Barcelona. Jesus’ face was a picture; he’s a lucky lad. He’ll be there in Barcelona.

We meet Tottenham on the Sunday and we play Barcelona on the Wednesday. My immediate view would be for us to prioritise the Spurs game. We have a 50% chance of beating Spurs. I’d say we have a 20% chance of beating Barca. In a nutshell, I can stomach losing to Barca, but I cannot – and will not – contemplate losing at Wembley to Tottenham. If di Matteo is mulling over his team selection options for Wembley, my advice to him would be to play his strongest eleven against Spurs. With any luck, Spurs will struggle and we’ll easily dismiss them. Then, on the Wednesday, play whoever is fit and up for it…don’t plan for two games Robbie; plan for Tottenham, then see what state of fitness and mind we are in for the Champions League game.

But then again, who am I? I’m not the manager.

We made great time on the return home to a sleeping West of England. Although Parky was still very groggy, we chatted about our crazy season. Never in my wildest dreams, back in August, did I think we would reach the Champions League semi-finals this year. For our games with Barca, we need a repeat of our performances against Valencia and Napoli. If anything, our faltering performance against Benfica should at least remind us all that we must not be complacent.

It’s a tough ask, isn’t it? I’m just glad we are at home first and I hope we can scramble together a foot-hold in the tie. If we were to play away first, maybe the tie would be all over too soon.

We return to the seemingly mundane league over the Easter Weekend with two games in three days at venues just two miles apart. I have a feeling that our collective minds will be elsewhere, but six points will do very nicely.

Let’s go.

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