Tales From The Away Club

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2016.

Swansea away still seems fresh. It manages to tick a few boxes. I still count it as a new ground, in essence. I do not know, yet, every nook and cranny of the Liberty Stadium and its environs. And it is such a rare treat to have an away ground relatively close to home. It’s only around two hours away. Not as close as Southampton and now Bournemouth, but still an easy drive. And I also relish the chance to drive on roads other than the eastbound M4 and the northbound M5 and the M6 on Chelsea match days.

The day had started with bright blue brilliance in the skies overhead as I gathered the two Chuckle Brothers. We were on the road at 8am.

“Jack Kerouac” and on our way to Jack City.

However, typically, by the time we had crossed the River Severn, the skies had clouded over and rain soon followed.

There is nothing gloomier, nor murkier, nor more depressing than a rainy day in South Wales.

With memories of childhood holidays in Tenby and visits to relatives in Llanelli, I motored past the Celtic Manor hotel and golf course – site of a recent Ryder Cup and a more recent G8 summit, through the Brynglas tunnels, past Castle Coch. Actually, this is a familiar road after all, it just does not feel like it. It’s a decent road.

We made good time, and thankfully, just as the curve of Swansea bay was sighted – and then the towers and chimneys and pipes and foundries of the threatened Port Talbot steelworks – the sun had returned. We were going to be OK, weather-wise. Dave, who had left Paddington on an early morning train at 7.30am, was collected right outside the Swansea train station at just before 11am.

We were going to head down to The Mumbles and while away a couple of hours in a few pubs, but I happened to stumble across a sighting of “The Waterfront” pub, which overlooks the Swansea Marina, albeit not a very well established part of it. Elsewhere there would be yachts and boats moored, but our view consisted of an old dock bereft of pleasing detail, with new apartments on one side, but cranes and derelict land on the others. There were no boats to be seen, nothing to soften the blow, just the flotsam and jetsam that you often witness in such areas; a piece of wood, a plastic bottle, Radamel Falcao.

We spent almost three hours in the pub. It was quiet, save for the raucous laughter emanating from the Chuckle Brothers’ booth in one corner. Lord Parky was in especially rare form, leaving Dave curled up in a foetal position on the sofa at one stage, crying with laughter.

The bar reminded us of our pre-match get together along the coast ahead of the game with Cardiff City almost two years ago.

On the waterfront, in a bar, having a giggle.

We had heard that there was a snarl-up on the M4 around Swindon causing delays and consternation for many coming from the Home Counties. Al and Gary – on one of the club coaches – were being diverted via the M5 and would not be arriving for a while. There would be the usual jokes about the Welsh among the Chelsea faithful as they headed west.

“Whose coat is that jacket?”

The time flew past and, alas, it was time to leave the pub.

Sometimes – some might say most times, certainly this season – the football gets in the way of a fine day out.

Of course it has been a tough season. I would imagine that the, ahem, “newer” fans have found it particularly odd. But I think that as a whole, generally speaking, we have coped relatively well with this catastrophe of a season. There have been periods of rancour, but I think we’ve held it together reasonably well. Everyone copes in their own way. There are still huge doubts in my mind about the actual reason for our horrendous start to 2015-2016, but as the season closes, with a new and seemingly energetic manager waiting in the wings, I suppose that I should be looking forward and not back.

But the four of us have had a blast this season.

“Norwich away was superb, Southampton too. Arsenal was great. Palace was good. Enjoyed West Ham away, not the result. Even Everton was good to an extent.”

All away games.

The schism between home and away games grows ever wider.

You know the score.

Add trips for me to Newcastle, Porto and Haifa, and – yes – it has been a good season. The highlight of the whole season was my day trip to Jerusalem with Alan and Kevin. Memories from that day will last a lifetime. So, I don’t think that I will ever tire of away games. And we still have two enjoyable and fun trips coming up. There is the St. George’s Day beano to Bournemouth in a fortnight. And then Parky, PD and I are flying up to the Sunderland game too, when it certainly looks as though we might be saying a “so long, farewell, pet” to top flight football on Tyneside and Wearside. That will be a shame.

There is also a midweek trip to Anfield.

Sigh. Not so enjoyable that one, eh?

I was soon parked up at my usual place, but in typical Chelsea fashion only made it to my seat, in the front row of the upper block, with two minutes to spare. I noticed a few empty seats around me. Maybe some were saving their beer tokens for Bournemouth. After a very long and tiring coach journey, Alan and Gary were able to pop across the road for a portion of fish and chips, washed down with a can of lager. I couldn’t resist :

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

And then the laughter stopped as the game began.

What a let-down.

Guus Hiddink had certainly rung the changes and had given many of our supporters what they had requested; the kids were in.

Begovic – Baba, Ivanovic, Miazga, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Oscar – Pato.

On the bench were some new names to the Premier League.

Ola Aina.

Kasey Palmer.

Charlie Colkett.

Right from the very first moments, Swansea seemed a lot more dangerous. They are a team that I constantly need to check; one minute they can be flirting with relegation and the next minute they are in mid-league safety. Our four previous visits in the league to their neat Liberty Stadium had resulted in firstly two draws and then two wins. The five-nil win that we all enjoyed in January 2015 now seems like it came from a different team, a different club, a different world.

It was a very poor first-half from us, and the away support seemed unwilling to get behind the team. Maybe it was because we had such good, unobstructed views, but neither Gary, nor Alan, nor Parky nor myself stood the entire game. This is very rare in The Away Club. We usually stand all of the way through.

Asmir Begovic – not sure why he got the nod over Courtois – was called in to action and thwarted a couple of Swansea attacks. He looked alert and impressed me. Our attacks lacked focus, and we hardly threated Fabianski. Begovic saved well again, a fine block from Sigursson, then watched as Rangel sent one wide. We were on the ropes and the home fans – unlike us – were in full voice. On twenty-five minutes, dogged determination from Jefferson Montero on the Swansea left resulted in him getting a yard of space. His cross was meekly headed out by Miazga, looking a little nervous this week, and the ball fell for Sigurdsson to volley past Begovic.

The Swansea fans roared and we sat silently.

Although the noise does not boom from all sections of the Liberty Stadium, the two or three thousand in the adjacent east stand certainly get behind their team well. We were treated to the usual “Hymns and Arias” and also an extended version of “Just Can’t Get Enough” which seemed to go on for ever and ever.

Then – the cheeky buggers – in a deep and scornful accent :

“Yur for the Swansea, yer only yur for the Swansea.”

Begovic, by far the busiest goalkeeper, then reacted well to deny further Swansea attacks.

At the other end, just on half-time, Fabregas – so quiet – spotted Oscar – so quiet – who turned and managed to get a shot on goal. The ball rebounded to Pato – so quiet – but his stab was well wide.

There were hearty grumbles in the crowded bar areas below at the break.

“Rubbish.”

“No energy.”

“No intensity.”

There was a real surprise at the break. Off went Miazga, and Mikel slipped back to play alongside Ivanovic at the heart of the defence.

That was odd.

Had Miazga been that poor? Or was the move needed to instil more pace? Kenedy came on, with Oscar dropping alongside Fabregas. Kenedy then spent the second-half running into dead ends, blind alleys and falling over.

Loftus-Cheek, full of a more productive type of running, then went close, then Pato slotted home but was ruled to have controlled the ball with his arm rather than shoulder. It looked like handball to me. Pato looked neat and tidy to be fair. There were worse players on the pitch in Chelsea blue. Just after, our best chance of the game thus far fell to Pato, who was played in by Pedro – another one prone to falling over for no apparent reason – but the Brazilian’s deft flick sent the ball agonisingly wide.

Begovic made a magnificent save at full length from former Chelsea player Jack Cork.

The Swansea support was quiet at times. And then it would roar itself back to life.

Our support rallied a little towards the final quarter. We tried our best to inspire the players. There were mediocre, at best, performances throughout the team but I thought that Jon Obi Mikel was excellent in the unfamiliar role of central defender.

Bertrand Traore replaced Alexandre Pato.

Reuben Loftus-Cheek was replaced by Radamel Falcao, hooked up from Swansea Bay earlier in the day.

Swansea, their first attempt for a while, really ought to have scored a second but Montero headed over when it appeared easier to score.

At the end of the game, Falcao had a half-chance, but by that time the home fans were bouncing – “The Jacks Are Staying Up” – and there was no real threat of a Chelsea equaliser.

This was a poor performance, with a distinct lack of passion and desire. I lost count of the number of “50-50” tackles that we lost. I lost count of the number of “second balls” that were squandered. We only had a couple of shots on goal, damn it.

Bloody hell, Chelsea.

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Costa.

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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Tales From Planes, Trains And Cable Cars

Porto vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2015.

Our troublesome season was continuing and, after away games in the West Midlands and the North East, I was on my travels again. It was a heady time following The Great Unpredictables. There were three away games in rapid succession in the space of seven days in three different competitions. It was another case of “planes, trains and automobiles” in my support of the team and I was loving it. Chelsea and I were almost as one. In fact, on two consecutive nights, I slept in Newcastle and Porto. Never before have my sleeping arrangements been so intrinsically linked to the fixture list of Chelsea Football Club.

After returning from Newcastle on the afternoon of Sunday 27 September, I met up with Parky in the departure lounge of Bristol airport. We toasted our return visit to Portugal, almost exactly a year after our last one, with a pint of lager, and chatted to a few Chelsea fans that had been in Newcastle too. Bristol airport had acted as home for less than four hours.

Sunday was spent in Newcastle, Bristol and Porto, with no time to breathe in between. It had been one of the oddest days of my life.

The flight was slightly delayed, but the pilot made good time. We landed with a rather disconcerting bump at Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro (yes, really) airport at around 8pm. Outside there was mist and fog. We quickly caught a cab into town, not wishing to waste any time. After checking in to the Dom Henrique hotel – just to the north of the immediate city centre – we met up with Kev, who had been alongside me in Newcastle, and who had travelled out from his Edinburgh home earlier in the day. He had completed a quick “reccy” of the waiting city.

“Not much around here. The centre has lots of bars. And it’s all uphill from the city back to here.”

Throughout the trip, there would no doubt be frequent comparisons between the cities of Lisbon and Porto, especially since the three of us were together in Lisbon in September 2014. There were immediate similarities in my mind. Both on the north bank of a river. Both with historic centres. Both with many interesting tourist attractions. Both football cities. Both with modern stadia. Both with a famous footballing heritage.

Benfica, Sporting, Belenenses, Porto and Boavista.

As we tumbled down through ornate squares, past historic churches and civic buildings, it had the feel of a cramped version of Lisbon. There were notoriously narrow streets, with barriers and traffic lights, which mirrored those in the Portuguese capital. At the epicentre of the city, the small square on the river, Praca da Ribeira, we exited the cab. As we walked towards the river, the sight which greeted us was jaw-droppingly spectacular. Away to our left was the illuminated Ponte Luis I bridge, yellow-tinted and wonderful, with a monastery, also illuminated, above. The river gorge was deeper than I had expected. On the other side of the river were the reflections of several of the wineries which housed barrels upon barrels of the city’s famous port, waiting for consumption by the visiting Chelsea away support.

We sat in the small square, ordered some beer – Super Bock yet again, Lisbon all over again – and I quickly ate a plate of calamari.

We chatted, we laughed, we toasted a few fine days away from the daily toil. We saw no other Chelsea fans. It did not matter. On the walk away from the square, at just after midnight, we dropped in to a small bar, and decided to sample some of the city’s most famous product.

“Three ports, please.”

I immediately knew the error of my ways. This silly request is akin to going in to a pub and asking for “three drinks” or a supermarket and asking for “some food please.” We were given a small port apiece, with a waiter keen to widen our knowledge of the drink on one hand and rip us off spectacularly with the other. The first one – I am not sure if it was tawny, rose or ruby – was stronger than I expected. I called it smoky and fumy. The second one was crisper and lighter. We were in our element, giggling away.

Kev : “I’m getting blackberries. Tobacco.”

Chris : “I’m getting wet leather. Gravy browning.”

Parkao : “I’m getting…pissed.”

At the end, when we asked for our bill, we stopped laughing.

It was thirty-eight euros for just six small drinks.

“Fackninell.”

However, it had been a laugh. One of the waiters was a keen Porto fan and he spent a few colourful moments recreating the glory years under Jose Mourinho, the returning hero. His view was that Porto had seen the best aspects of Mourinho’s notoriously difficult character – imagine the complexities in texture, aroma and taste of one of the city’s stronger ports – while fans in London, Milan and Madrid had witnessed the more unpalatable nature of it.

One thing was certain in the eyes of the waiter.

Wherever he goes, it will always be about Mourinho.

A final nightcap in the hotel bar rounded off a fantastic first night in the city on the banks of the River Douro.

On the Monday, we had a whole day of leisure. The two other main protagonists from Lisbon 2014, Alan and Gary, were not arriving until the morning of the game on the Tuesday. This took the pressure of having to arrange a place to meet up later. Kev, Parkao and myself hunted out the nearest metro station, Trindade, and purchased a three day “Andante” pass for just fifteen euros. Each of the city’s train stations are ultra-modern blocks of concrete, sleek and stylish, and they contrast with the city’s older dustier buildings.

It was quickly evident that Porto was a beguiling and dramatic city, with an enchanting mix of old and new buildings tumbling down to the dramatic Douro River. We caught the metro over to the southern bank of the Douro, and the train passed over the top of the dramatic Pont Luis I bridge, designed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel, with the semi-circular arch so reminiscent of the tower in Paris.

Down below, the city was as dramatic as any that I have seen, with the wide river disappearing off to the ocean to the west and the ridiculously photogenic – “Portogenic”- city centre to the north, full of towers, tiled houses, churches, and a bewildering mix of pastel shaded buildings blinking in the sun. There was, of course, pure blue skies overhead. There were no clouds. It was already heating up. We caught a cable car down to the riverside, while I snapped away with my trusty camera to capture the ever-changing vista all around me. Down below were acres of wine warehouses, with EasyJet orange roof tiles, helping to create a tantalising mix of colours and forms.

Light blue skies, faded orange roofs, tiled walls and the deep blue of the river.

Get the picture?

We were falling in love with the city.

We followed this up with an hour-long river boat tour, which took us under several bridges of various shape and character to the inland east, then out to the rougher waters towards the Atlantic, where a sand bar could be spotted on the horizon. On the south bank, there were large signs announcing the various port wineries.

Sandeman.

Calem.

Taylor.

Grahams.

Cockburns.

And the sun beat down.

We slowly walked along the riverside. It was an intriguing area. Souvenir stalls, leather goods, pottery, roasting chestnuts, port wineries, an Art Deco building looking rather the worse for wear, trees casting shadows, port boats bobbing up and down in the river, the water lapping at the river wall.

For three hours, we simply sat back in deck chairs outside a bar, and took it all in. Across the river, the city of Porto rested in the afternoon heat. It was a magnificent site. It will be, quite possibly, one of the sites of the season. Although obviously different in scale, it was almost as if Lisbon had been compacted, tipped on its side and gravity allowed to take its course, with all of the city’s important buildings now on show, teetering on the edge of the river. There was almost some sort of forced perspective. It was almost as if the view that we enjoyed of Porto was only in two dimensions. That there was no depth. That everything that Porto had to offer was now on show. It was as if there was simply nothing left of the city to see that could not already be seen. I almost expected to see the concrete of the Estadio Do Dragao peeping over the Archbishop’s Palace, keen to join in.

We dipped in to a cool restaurant above Praca da Rebeira and enjoyed some tapas with a beer in a frosted glass.

Black pudding, apple chutney, potatoes with chilli.

We returned to our hotel, and met up at around 7.30pm in the magnificent bar on the seventeenth floor. We sipped on lagers as we watched the night fall in every direction. The city’s lights were blinking at us. We could even see the distant ocean. It was a beautiful sight indeed.

The moon slowly rose into the night sky.

Super Moons and Super Bocks.

After alighting at Sao Bento metro station, we quickly dipped into a bar before descending further down towards the centre. We spotted a few familiar faces outside “Ryan’s Bar” and so dropped inside for one. It is one of the great ironies, and has been for many a year, that despite an antipathy among certain elements of our support towards Ireland – anti Irish, anti-Celtic, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Republicanism – the rowdier elements of our travelling army in Europe always tend to congregate in Irish bars.

We bumped into Chicago Michelle and Chicago Joe, and headed down to the bars in the central square. We settled at a table outside and spoke of Newcastle and there were laughs as we discussed all things Chelsea. The heaters outside were on, and the air was getting chillier. There were few other Chelsea fans in the city. Brighton Tony and his crowd, but not many more.

Back at “Ryan’s Bar” the place had filled up with more Chelsea. We chatted away in to the night. I was intrigued by a new song, unheard of until then.

“When we find ourselves in trouble, Jose plays the 4-3-3. He’s not quite Makelele, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.

Jon Obi, Jon Obi, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.

He’s not quite Makelele, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.”

Boozy photographs ensued, but this was a quiet night. I’d guess only around seventy were in “Ryan’s Bar” – Chelsea Central – on the night of Monday 28 September.

We returned back to our hotel at around 2am.

Game Day was a fine day indeed.

After a lovely breakfast, Parkao and I headed over to the designated hotel where we were required to show up with our “ticket voucher” and passport in order to collect our sacred match ticket. We headed up past a line of art deco buildings – lovely, most unexpected – and spotted a few Chelsea fans encamped outside a bar at the bottom of the hill. None other than Alan and Gary, newly arrived, joined us. We had heard that Chelsea had sold 1,100 tickets. Not a bad show, to be honest, though slightly less than against Sporting in 2014.

A grand total of around twelve – twelve! – suited Chelsea officials met us in the hotel lobby and we were soon handed our tickets.

“Phew.”

Kev was on the lookout for a match ticket, and we constantly reassured him that there would be touts at the stadium at least.

We then spent the rest of our time at leisure – and pleasure – in the charming central area. A drink outside Sao Bento, then a walk down to the Pont Luis I once again, where more photographs of the city ensued.

The area by the river was now far livelier than on the Monday. Chelsea flags were draped over walls and from balconies. A few Chelsea shirts were worn, but in the main it was the usual Chelsea dress code of polo shirts, Adidas trainers, Stone Island badges, various shades of Lacostery, and suchlike. We bumped into what seemed like hundreds of friends. There were Chelsea songs, and these drew inquisitive looks from tourists, if not locals, who are surely used to their bars being taken over on European matchdays.

There were songs in praise of former players and the mood was of great fun and enjoyment. Bottles of Super Bock were able to be purchased for just one euro. Alan purchased a small bottle of port and we all had a small nip.

“Under the hot sun, Englishmen drinking lager and port. What could possibly go wrong?”

Tons of laughs and giggles. There had not been a single mention of the game by anyone (and woe betide anyone who did.)

A few battle-hardened Chelsea fans could not resist harking back to the 1940’s with a couple of dirges. Why the local populace had to be treated to “if it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts” is beyond me.

An elderly woman had volunteered to tie a Chelsea flag – John, Ben, Charlie and the wonderfully titled “Micky Foreskin” – to her high balcony overlooking us all, and at the end of the afternoon, she was asked to lower a basket from her vantage point. In it, the Chelsea fans below placed a bottle of port for her, as a token of thanks.

This was a lovely time. The hours sadly raced by.

Kev, Parkao and myself needed sustenance so excused ourselves.

Steak for Parkao, chicken for Kev, chicken for me. Beers for all of us.

Heaven.

Porto and Chelsea. Two clubs undeniably linked and only, really, since Jose Mourinho swapped clubs in 2004. I thought back on players that had played for both sides.

Carvalho, Ferreira, Maniche, Deco, Quaresma.

Was that it?

Kev and Parkao were stumped.

A friend in the US texted me with some more.

Falcao….oh dear, of course…Bosingwa…Hilario.

Quite a few in only eleven years.

At around 6.30 pm, we headed up to the stadium, the air cooling, and thoughts of the match beginning to emerge. We changed trains at Trindade. At the next stop – Bolhao – more Chelsea fans boarded the already crowded train. There was a large push from outside and a commotion. A familiar face from many a Chelsea game, Wycombe Stan, suddenly appeared in front of me, no more than two feet away. Next, a few shouts.

“They took my wallets.”

There was an almighty commotion and a couple of Chelsea fans gave chase. Then, a heart-breaking moment.

Stan exclaimed “they took my wallet too, and passport.”

I felt sick.

The doors closed before Stan could move. We told him to report the robbery to the local police as soon as possible. The mood had changed. The locals were devastated that we had been abused in their city. We were gutted for Stan and the two others. At the stadium, at around 7pm, we had quickly heard that one of the Chelsea fans had successfully caught up with one of the assailants and had even rescued Stan’s passport. I tried to get a message to him. Within ten minutes, we had heard that the passport was with Goggles, one of the Fulham Police who accompanies us on away escapades.

We had a moment to ourselves.

Of course, in the drunken fumes on a foreign metro, a football fan in an alien city, distracted, is an easy target for those who haunt the subway stations in search of easy prey. I was lucky. Both my passport and wallet was in my back pocket, too. It could so easily have been me. Though I am not belittling the infamous Paris metro incident in any way, I knew that the robbery that I had just witnessed at close hand would not be reported in any newspaper anywhere in the world the following day.

It did not help, let’s admit it, that many Chelsea fans similarly traveled around Porto with passports in back pockets throughout the day, since the new collection procedure required passports to be shown. This is unfortunate, at least, and quite worrying for future pick-ups in Kiev and Tel Aviv, where British passports are surely gold on the black market.

Something for Chelsea Football Club to think about for sure.

Outside the clean and light concrete curves of Porto’s fine stadium, Kev spotted a ticket office. While we chatted to fellow fans about the metro incident, Kev disappeared. He returned so quickly that I presumed that he had been quickly knocked-back. But no. He presented us with a fifty euro ticket, in the northern home end, job done.

“Superb, mate. Makes a complete mockery of us having to show passports to pick up our tickets though, eh?”

At the line to enter the stadium, an over-zealous steward spotted my camera. I quickly remembered that in Lisbon, I was allowed to take my wide angle in, but had to leave my zoom lens at an office. In Porto, despite pleading, I was not so lucky. I had to hand everything in.

Bollocks.

Inside, we were located in the upper deck of the stand opposite the main stand. Sadly my phone died after just three photographs. The last time that I was at a game and without a camera? Moscow in 2008 (…the battery died) and I quickly realised that there was a bad vibe about this.

I had also forgotten to bring my glasses (originally there was a plan to head back to the hotel, but the drinking session on the banks of the Douro put paid to that…) and the scoreboards were out of sight. I was left to work out the team by myself.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta.

Mikel, Ramires.

Willian, Fabregas, Pedro.

Diego Costa,

So, no John Terry. I was amazed to be honest. Surely the manager realised that the defence needed to be shored up with the presence and wise head of our captain? And no Eden Hazard, either. Nor Nemanja Matic, the hero in Lisbon.

The usual mosaics before the game and long shouts of “Pooooorto.”

With the ends open to the elements – though under a high roof – the city below could be seen in the huge space between fans and roof support at the south end.

The Chelsea support was in fine form all of the way throughout the first half with heavy rhythmic clapping accompanying the constant “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army – We Hate Tottenham.”

Chances were not too plentiful but we enjoyed a fair share of the ball and matched Porto for goal attempts. However, with only around five minutes of the first-half remaining, Brahimi toyed with the back-peddling Ivanovic. The under-fire Serbian seemed reluctant to challenge, allowing a rising shot to be struck goal wards. Begovic did well to get a strong palm to it, but the ball fell to the ridiculously named Andre Andre. Where is Micky Foreskin when you need him?

I turned and shouted “Ivanovic. Again.”

We reacted well, though. The effective Ramires was cut down outside the box. I was right behind the flight of the ball as Willian, also impressive, struck a curler past the motionless Casillas.

The away support roared.

It was the last action of the first-half. At half-time, the mood on the concourse was suitably buoyant. We had deserved a share of the points. The Willian song was being repeatedly sung, along with some impromptu dancing from a few. I don’t think they noticed that their lagers were alcohol free. It is one of the strangest ironies that Heineken are one of the Champion League’s biggest sponsors, yet cannot be consumed on match days. I was concerned, though, that I had not managed to spot Alan and Gary anywhere within our ranks.

The second-half was a different story. We soon conceded a weak second when Maicon rose to meet a low corner at our near post. It silenced us and our support. For the rest of the game, as we watched from high as Chelsea struggled everywhere, our singing slowed to almost a stop.

A fine strike from Diego Costa rattled the bar, and this was tough to see. A goal then would have spurred us.

Hazard replaced Mikel and soon went close.

Matic and Kenedy came on for Ramires and Pedro.

Porto, to be fair, looked more like scoring and a header hit our woodwork with Begovic beaten. Our play was slow and Porto easily matched us. Agonisingly, a last minute move found Kenedy roaring through, but his stretched touch was defected away. The final whistle blew right away.

How disappointing it had been.

At the end of the game, a few minutes after the last of the Chelsea players had disappeared in to the tunnel opposite, I meandered down to the concourse under our section. The mood was quiet and sombre. At half-time, the mood had been much different. I bumped into a few friends – Tim from Bristol, Orlin from Bulgaria – and we shared a few bleak words. Then, I heard some singing and chanting from those supporters that had remained in the seats. From their words, it was obvious that John Terry, the exile from the night’s battle, was out on the pitch. I immediately wondered if others were warming down alongside him. I clambered back up the dozen steps, with the songs ringing his praises continuing. What greeted me was a rather odd, surreal and peculiar sight.

Alone in the vast emptiness of the Dragao, a lone figure dressed in 1986 Chelsea Collection jade jogged slowly inside the nearest penalty area, then stopped to stretch by the goal. John Terry was there, alone with his thoughts for several minutes. There were no home fans left; I had commented to Parkao how quickly they had left once the celebrations had ended. There was only 50,000 empty blue seats, a man in a light green tracksuit top, and around one thousand Chelsea supporters, high above. The songs continued.

“John Terry, John Terry, John Terry.”

“And the shit from the Lane have won fuck all again. John Terry has won the double.”

And then this one :

“We want our captain back.”

I watched intensely to see if our captain would acknowledge this telling statement from the Chelsea hard-core. In a way, it did not surprise me that John chose not to wave or clap, though I am sure he heard us.

My immediate thought was that his acknowledgement of our song demanding to see him return to our starting eleven would be incorrect in the current climate. It would create an extra dimension to the possible rift between him and the manager. I admired him for that.

Instead, he continued his stretching, with no show of emotion.

I have no idea why JT chose to go through his post-match stretches out on the vast pitch, alone. Had there been words with other players? Did he chose to do so out of the way of the immediate post-mortem taking place in the changing room? Did he want to be close to the fans and not anyone else? Had there been an almighty tiff with Mourinho? I was puzzled.

As John Terry turned to head inside, there was a final singing of his name. He jogged away from us. I was left with my thoughts. Was there nothing to worry about here? Was this the simple act of John Terry choosing to go through his stretches away from those who had been taking part in the game, not wishing to get in the way? Or was this a stage-managed “I am the victim” moment from our captain, chosen for impact, like a Chelseaesque version of the famous Princess Diana photograph of her on that marble bench outside the Taj Mahal in 1992?

I suspected that the truth would eventually materialise at some stage over the next few days, weeks, months.

We were not kept waiting inside the cool concrete of the stadium for too long. I collected my camera and we slowly walked down to the adjacent metro station, past a line of police standing under the now waning super moon. We had spoken about heading back to Praca da Ribeira, but our mood had changed. Instead, we alighted at Trindade, and slowly retraced our steps to our hotel. There was time for a couple of ice cold beers and a bite to eat up in the stunning bar on the seventeenth floor, with Porto’s beguiling orange lights providing a magnificent panorama all around us. There was, in a moment honouring the fun that was had almost exactly a year ago in Lisbon, time for a morangoska cocktail.

I summed things up.

“Porto is a great city, very dramatic, but Lisbon is grander and I give it the edge. It has it all. But Porto is a fine city, we have enjoyed it, but – if nothing else – we won in Lisbon and we lost in Porto. So, Lisbon for me. And the morangoska cocktails were better in Lisbon.”

The day after the game, we were up early. We enjoyed one final breakfast and Parkao bought a couple of famous Pastel de Nata custard tarts in a nearby café. We caught the subway out to the airport and met up with a couple of others who were on the same flight back to Bristol. The post mortems continued. Our four day escapade in Porto was coming to an end. We were going home.

As soon as we landed at Bristol, my phone brought some very sad and disappointing news. There was a reason why my usual match day companions Alan and Gary had not been spotted at the stadium. In the rush to get up to the stadium from the riverside, Alan had been robbed, with the assailant taking his wallet and both of their match tickets. My heart sunk. For a few moments, my view of Porto deteriorated further.

In the ranking of all of these great European cities that I have visited with Chelsea over the years – I think that my current favourites are Prague, Seville, Munich, Lisbon and Turin – Porto was losing ground quickly.

“You could have been a contender, Porto, you could have been a contender. But you blew it.”

Lisbon 2014 was definitely better.

Especially on the pitch.

These are strange times at the moment. As many Chelsea supporters said to me in Portugal, “something is definitely up.” The problem is that nobody is really sure what. On Saturday, against a tough Southampton team, we will continue the search for the answers.

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Tales From Tinsel Town

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wor now like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

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

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

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Tales From The Road To Berlin

Chelsea vs. Sporting Lisbon : 10 December 2014.

With our advancement into the knock-out phase of the Champions League already assured, the home game against Sporting Lisbon was another one of those rarities; a match which was, on the face of it, of no consequence. Not only were we through, but we were also guaranteed first place in our group. Some of my friends were already well advanced in planning potential trips to cities in February. Return visits to Basel, Leverkusen, Turin and Paris loomed.

Having missed-out on the 6-0 drubbing of Maribor in October, my last Champions League night was the tetchy 1-1 draw with Schalke in September. That draw meant that our trip out to the Portuguese capital became an important “must-win.” On a sultry night at Sporting’s home stadium, Chelsea triumphed in a very entertaining match. We haven’t looked back since.

PD took a turn to drive to London for this one. I commented to Parky –

“The weather will be a bit different tonight compared to the T-shirts and shorts weather in Lisbon, mate.”

Ah, Lisbon 2014 was a great trip indeed. Was it already over two months ago?

On the elevated section of the M4, with the night having fallen, and with neon advertising signs and a smattering of impressive new buildings welcoming us once again to England’s capital, I summed up my feelings from the back seat of PD’s car.

“I always feel like this road, from Heathrow in, seems like we’re entering London through the front door.”

They agreed.

It felt like we were getting the red carpet treatment – for us Chelsea fans, maybe the blue carpet – as I spent a few seconds lost in thought. I dwelt on the number of dignitaries, politicians, world leaders, heads of state, film stars, pop stars and rock stars who have entered London via that same route.

It was definitely an “in through the front door” moment. And Chelsea was just around the corner. I experienced a slight tingle of excitement.

There were lit Christmas trees lined up outside the Fuller’s brewery at Chiswick.

Another tingle.

We were inside The Goose just before 6pm. It didn’t appear to be particularly busy. This was another sell-out though, for a game which would be inherently bereft of high drama, due to the very nature of the game. Whether or not the 40,000 fans would be “the right type of fans” – think noise – is another matter of course.

We heard through the grapevine, while supping pints of lager and cider, that both Nemanja Matic and Jon Obi Mikel were starting. My first thought was  –

“Ha. Good old Jose. A Mourinho masterclass.”

Following our narrow defeat at Newcastle – another game I missed – I felt that too many fans throughout Planet Chelsea were too quick to criticise our much-maligned Nigerian midfielder. To be honest, I felt that we played pretty well in the first-half and, over the entire game, I agreed with the manager’s view that we deserved more. It wasn’t a time to studiously re-evaluate “what went wrong.” It was, simply, one of those games. However, too many fans were too quick to jump to the “Matic Good, Mikel Bad” conclusion in my view. If Jon Obi Mikel is good enough for Jose Mourinho, then he should be good enough for plasterers in Peckham, graphic designers in Guildford, warehouse workers in Wichita and dentists in Dallas.

That in the very next game Mourinho decided to play them both was just delicious.

While I was lining up at the turnstiles, I glimpsed my match ticket.

Chelsea vs. Sporting Clubbe De Portugal.

It took me by surprise even though I had seen a similar sign at their stadium in Lisbon.

Not Sporting Lisbon, then?

This was evidently another example of us, the English, getting the name of a famous European team completely wrong. Go to Italy and talk about “Inter Milan” and you will be met with puzzled looks from locals, maybe similar to those which greet Americans talking about rest rooms to the English. “Inter Milan” do not exist; if anything, it sounds like a clumsy amalgamation of the two clubs, like “Rangers Celtic” or “Liverpool Everton.” So, neither does “Sporting Lisbon” exist. From henceforth, I will seize the moment and call them “Sporting.” Until I forget.

As a tube train rattled by, just beyond the boundary wall outside the Matthew Harding, I thought back to the times of my youth when I travelled up to games with my parents and we would take the District Line from Earl’s Court to Fulham Broadway. The train would plunge underground after leaving West Brompton, swing west, then emerge in the day light and the scruffy embankment – festooned with litter and weeds – supporting the north terrace, would appear just yards away. I always used to edge over to the left-hand side of the train compartment, just so I could set eyes on Stamford Bridge – my mecca – for a few fleeting moments. I remember the base of that floodlight pylon, then a quick view of the West Stand roof, then the buildings of the Oswald Stoll Foundation. The Bridge was gone in a flash, but the memory is etched in my mind.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was immediately impressed with the three thousand away fans who had made the trip, but I had momentarily overlooked the fact that Sporting were still in with a shout of progressing. We had been promised an appearance by Ruben Loftus-Cheek at some stage during the game; I had seen him play at Yankee Stadium in 2013, but this would be his official debut. The pairing of Matic and Mikel meant that Fabregas was playing in a more forward role. Maybe this wasn’t a game of no consequence after all. Maybe these fine-tunings might come to fruition come May, or June. Elsewhere, Kurt Zouma was alongside Gary Cahill, Petr Cech was back between the posts, Dave was playing right-back, Filipe Luis was at left-back and Fabregas was alongside Salah and Schurrle. Diego Costa was up top.

We were blessed with two early goals.

After just eight minutes, we were awarded a penalty when Filipe Luis was bundled to the floor just inside the Sporting box. Cesc Fabregas struck the ball home. On sixteen minutes, a fine move involving Matic picking out Schurrle, resulted in our recently-overlooked German exquisitely firing a low shot home.

We were 2-0 up and we were coasting.

Alan made a remark about the Brazilians, possibly in shock after their World Cup humiliation in the summer, doing well so far this season. Oscar has been in good form and I like Willian, though some don’t. Ramires has been OK, though not often used. Schurrle, the World Cup victor, however has been less successful. In some respects, the reverse might have been expected. Fair play to our Brazilian three; well done to them for digging in and bouncing back well.

We traded chances for a while. It wasn’t a bad game. The three thousand visitors from Lisbon kept singing, though it wasn’t one of the loudest away supports I have ever witnessed on these European nights. One of their songs surprised me; a Portuguese version of “Take Me Home Country Road.” I know that there is a bit of a link between Sporting and Manchester United – Nani, Ronaldo, Rojo – but I honestly didn’t know that it included the exchange of songs.

Nemanja Matic came close with a rising volley from twenty-five yards. I was behind the course of the ball all of the way; I’m still waiting for the net to ripple. I joked with Alan :

“Mikel would have scored that.”

I soon received a text from a good mate in the US who said :

“Mikel would have scored that.”

More efforts on goal were exchanged as the game wore on. In the stadium, there didn’t seem to be any atmosphere, as such, at all.

In the match programme, there was a feature on Vienna 1994, John Spencer and all that.

In the second-half, Schurrle soon fired over from a free-kick. Sporting quietened the docile Stamford Bridge crowd further when they nabbed a goal back. A crisp shot from Silva was fired low past Cech.

Game on? Not really. Only a wonderful finger-tip save from Patricio – their hero in the away game – kept Mo Salah from scoring with a fine shot. On fifty-five minutes, Cesc Fabregas sent a dipping corner into the box. Both Zouma and Cahill rose, but the latter managed to get his head to the ball. It was undoubtedly goal-bound, but none other than Jon Obi Mikel was on hand – seemingly not offside – to touch it over the line.

He scores when he wants, you know.

Mourinho rang the changes in the last fifteen minutes with Remy, Ramires and Ruben all coming on. There are high hopes for our Ruben. He was involved in a few moves during his ten minutes of debut action. Let’s hope that he becomes a part of our history at this club.

It had been a reasonable enough game. Another Chelsea win. Mustn’t grumble.

In 2015, more foreign fields await.

The story continues.

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Tales From The 5,500

Derby County vs. Chelsea : 5 January 2014.

After a few days of depressing weather, Derby County away in the Third Round of the F.A. Cup was just what the doctor ordered. Despite the protestations of the Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert – did he honestly say that the F.A. Cup was a hindrance and that his players would rather be rewarded with money rather than silverware? – over five thousand Chelsea fans had happily bought tickets to follow the boys in royal blue in our first game of the 2014 competition.

And heaven knows we have owned this trophy in recent years.

2007 Manchester United.

2009 Everton

2010 Portsmouth

2012 Liverpool

Four out of four.

In 2014, let’s make it five out of five at the new Wembley.

I had driven up to Derby with Parky and his son-in-law Kris. At just after midday, I pulled in to the car park at Derby’s Midland Station after avoiding the match-going traffic headed for the car parks around the Pride Park Stadium. From what I had seen of it, Derby looked to be in reasonable health. Rolls-Royce (jet engines in addition to cars these days) and Bombardier (trains and planes, but not automobiles) are still located within the city. There were new shopping centres and signs that the recession had not bitten too painfully. This was only my fifth visit to the city; all four previous trips were, unsurprisingly, for football.

The first of these came in 1986 and – shock horror – did not involve Chelsea. Three college mates (Steve – Derby, Bob – Leeds and Pete – Newcastle) and I bumped into each other at college in Stoke on a Friday afternoon and made the quick decision to travel over to Derby by train that evening to see the Rotherham United game. If Derby won, promotion from the old third division would be gained. I have much respect for fellow Chelsea fans who only watch Chelsea, but I used to be partial to the occasional non-Chelsea game in my younger years. Looking back, during my time at Stoke, this didn’t happen too often, though. I remember the odd match at Stoke City, Port Vale, York City and an aborted trip to Crewe Alexandra, but nothing excessive. Chelsea, then as now, was the main drug of choice. However, on that rainy May evening twenty-eight years ago, the four of us squeezed our way into the side terrace at the old Baseball Ground to watch a Derby County team, which I am sure included Steve McClaren, rather nervously defeat Rotherham with a late winner to win 2-1. There were wild scenes in that ridiculously packed mosh-pit of a terrace, underneath the upper tier. I’m so lucky to have experienced the madness of packed terraces back in those days.

It was a different world.

The Baseball Ground, irregular stands, double-decked behind the goals, squeezed in amongst iron foundries and tight terraced streets was a classic football ground. The pitch was always muddy. The atmosphere was first class.

My second visit took place in 1987, when I again made the trip by train from Stoke-on-Trent to Derby. This time, I had returned to my college town for my graduation ceremony on the Friday and had stayed in town until the Sunday for the televised game with Chelsea. This was a poor match which we lost 2-0. The only two things that I can remember from the game is the appearance of some Chelsea pensioners, guests of Ken Bates, on the pitch before the game, and me getting pushed against a crush barrier so badly that I ended up with bruises around my waist.

A different world indeed.

Then, with Derby County now playing at Pride Park, two further games; a 1-1 draw in 2001 and a 2-0 win in 2007. Strangely, of the two matches, the draw was a better contest. The latter win was as dour a win as I can remember.

We dropped into the “Merry Widow” pub, one of a few “Chelsea only” pubs in the city centre, but the place was packed and the beers were served in plastic glasses. Despite the appearance of many old black and white photographs of former Derby players adorning the white brick walls, which on another day I would have like to have studied, we soon moved on.

A few hundred yards away was the “Mansion Wine Bar.” This was also packed with Chelsea, but was a far more pleasant environment. We chatted with Burger and Julie, just arrived from their home in Stafford, and it was lovely to bump into them once more. We enjoyed their company for an hour or so and then set off – in the drizzle – for the stadium.

We had heard, through texts, that Nottingham Forest had walloped West Ham 5-0 in the lunchtime match.

Happy Chelsea fans, fed-up Derby fans.

They hate Forest.

Pride Park – sorry, iPro Stadium – is located amidst car dealerships, superstores and themed restaurants. Its location is pure 21st Century, especially compared to the more intimate surrounds of the old Baseball Ground. Welcoming the spectators outside the main stand is a bronze statue of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, holding the 1972 League Championship trophy. The statue isn’t great; the figures are more like caricatures than anything else. Derby County play a minor role in the story of the European Cup in my life; their match with Juventus in 1973 is the first European Cup match that I can ever remember seeing on TV. Those were the glory years for Derby County; how strange that a statue of Brian Clough also exists in the town centre of their most bitter rivals, Nottingham Forest.

Inside the packed concourse, there was a little confusion. My ticket was printed with “Turnstile 51-54, Stair 5” but it seemed these numbers were incorrect. After painstakingly studying a book of logarithms, a slide rule, a calculator, a heart monitor, an air-pressure gauge and a thermometer, the steward advised me to use “Stair 58.”

I think that the presence of 5,550 away fans had caused the ticketing department at Derby County to throw a wobbly.

Anyway, with minutes remaining, I was in.

“Stoke at home in the next round.”

“How boring!”

I fancied a new ground, like all 5,499 others no doubt.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, I couldn’t help but notice the Derby mascot sprinting around the pitch, pumping his fists, geeing up the crowd. It didn’t seem right to me. This chap – in a ram’s mask – was just wearing a Derby kit, but with no extra “padding” around his waist. Surely mascots should, by nature, be slightly rotund, just like Stamford, for example…thus increasing their comedic value. This wasn’t very good. This wasn’t very good at all.

May I suggest a mascot for the modern age? An overweight mascot, beer in hand, wheeled out on to the pitch on a sofa, where he just sits in the centre circle for ten minutes before getting up out of his seat and falling, head first, on to the floor?

That would appease me more than this super fit, super lean Derby County numpty.

On several occasions before the match, the announcer had implored the home supporters to get involved and make some noise for the players.

“Show us the black and white.”

This resulted in a rather lukewarm response, with only a small percentage twirling their bar scarves, in the style much beloved on Tyneside a few seasons ago.

Unlike the 14,000 down the road for the Forest versus West Ham game, I was very pleased to see a near 32,000 full house. The teams appeared. There were a few surprises, no more so than the return of Michael Essien, the captain for the day. No room, still, for Juan Mata.

With Oscar, Ramires, Willian and Luiz all playing, it was almost like watching Brazil.

Up front, Samuel Eto’o made his F.A. Cup debut.

The skies were grey and the rain still fell.

The Chelsea section, amassed in one bank in the south stand, was soon making their presence felt with tons of noise. I was right behind the goal. Just behind Parky and Kris, just in front of Cookie, Scott and Andy from Trowbridge. Familiar faces everywhere I looked.

The Derby support tried its best to rally against us; in particular their lads to my right were soon getting behind their team. Soon into the game, they made me laugh. I guess this is their “signature chant” but they soon picked out one unfortunate Chelsea fan and, as one, began their routine by clapping and pointing –

“You!”(point)…”TWAT!”…pause…“You!”(point)…”TWAT!”…pause… “You!”(point)…”TWAT!”… pause…“You!”(point)…”TWAT!”…pause… “You!”(point)…”TWAT!”

We were laughing along at that.

I was wondering if this was the modern day version of a song that Derby fan Steve used to mention back in the ‘eighties. In those days he said that the DLF – usually located in the C stand at the Baseball Ground – used to sing this at away fans –

“Sing something simple, you simple TWATS.”

The first-half was often an even affair. Derby certainly caused us a few problems early on with their blond haired starlet Will Hughes getting a lot of the ball. Our defence held strong. We seemed to find it difficult to get behind the Derby defence and our main form of attack tended to be shots from distance. A low raking shot from Ramires which bounced off the post was the nearest that we came to scoring.

The Chelsea songs kept coming, with the “Willian” song and the “Mour-in-ho” (eliciting a wave from Jose) the most popular.

“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea, you make me happy when skies are grey.”

On the pitch, there were green boots, pink boots, orange boots and a pink ball.

I had visions of Brian Clough turning in his grave.

No goals at the break. A replay was the last thing we wanted.

As I departed down the stairs at the half-time break, the same weary voice that had endeavoured to get the crowd going before the match was once again asking the home crowd to get involved. This time, it seemed that a camera was roving the stands and picking out supporters, with their image appearing on the “jumbo” TV screen. The whole sorry affair seemed to be a tad embarrassing.

“Come on, look at the camera. See your face on the screen. That’s it, the person in the purple jacket, well done. Give us a smile.”

I silently groaned.

Of course, this sort of crowd participation gets a much different response on these shores compared to my experience of watching baseball games in the US. Even when home teams are getting slaughtered, the roving cameras tend to garner a much more positive response from home fans, with people smiling, waving, acting the fool and even dancing. In the UK, we’re a lot more apathetic about this type of activity.

“Get that camera off me, you bugger.”

We are as awkward with cameras being pointed at us as Americans are with cutlery.

The Chelsea team were attacking us in the away section for the second-half. The noise levels soon resumed. Mourinho soon changed things, with Eden Hazard replacing Essien, with Rami moving back alongside Mikel. We had more of the ball and the pressure began to tell.

Just after an hour, Eden Hazard was clumsily fouled on the left. Willian sent in a lovely cross towards the nearpost where Mikel jumped unhindered to head in.

Yes, Mikel had scored again.

Mikel is rarely a threat at corners and so it was with joy and amazement that I saw him reel away and become smothered by his happy team mates. The away end roared.

The two chaps next to me who had been calling out Mikel were strangely silent.

Then, a massive disappointment.

A blatant, stupid, brain dead, humiliating dive in the penalty box by Ramires.

I think that the Derby fans had a ready-made chant for him.

Torres replaced Eto’o and Chelsea pushed for a second, calming goal. The Chelsea fans, way too prematurely for my liking, began singing about the final.

…”we’re going to Wemberlee, que sera sera.”

Thankfully, after a Torres pass, Oscar was able to dispatch a swerving shot past Grant in the Derby goal.

2-0, that’ll do, happy days.

In a matter of seconds, Fernando Torres – superbly backed by the 5,500 – worked two good chances for himself to no avail. Willian was my man of the match, full of endeavour and enthusiasm. He gets better with each game.

In the closing minutes, Jose Mourinho gave a first team debut to midfielder Lewis Baker.

The bloke next to me muttered “never heard of him.”

There was just time for Steve McClaren and Jose Mourinho to share a laugh and a warm embrace by the side of the pitch before the referee signalled Chelsea’s safe progression into the next round.

It had been a good day.

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Tales From The Twilight Zone

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 21 September 2013.

There was a fleeting moment, at around 1.30pm – a good four hours ahead of the kick-off between us and near neighbours Fulham – when my mate Glenn and I found ourselves walking past the main entrance to the Fulham Broadway tube station. We were directly opposite Mark Worrall’s “CFCUK” stall and Bob the Tee-Shirt son’s “Half & Half Scarves” stall. I’m not really what made me think of it, but I recollected both of us, aged 18 and 16, walking those same steps almost thirty years ago; our first game of travelling up from deepest Somerset, by train in those days, was against Newcastle United in November 1983. How nice it would be to travel back in time and to be able to show ourselves – young and innocent versions of ourselves – a little clip of us together at Chelsea in 2013. I wonder what we would have made of it.

Firstly, I am quite sure that we would have been utterly amazed that our friendship was still going strong after all of those years. At school, our paths crossed occasionally, but only through stunted conversations about Chelsea. At school, I was so shy while Glenn was always more gregarious. We were quite different; calcium carbonate and cheddar. There was a bond through Chelsea, but we were never close enough to be called “mates” per se in those days. Since then – that storied 1983-1984 season has so much to answer for…we met Alan during that campaign too – our friendship has stayed strong and buoyant. We have shared a treasure trove of laughs and memories;  Newcastle United away 1984, Anfield 1985, Tottenham 1987, Wembley 1994, Wembley 1997, Seville 1998, Stockholm 1998, Rome 1999, Barcelona 2005, Bolton 2005, Munich 2012. And all games and places in between. Of course, apart from receding hairlines and the horrible aging process, what would we have noticed about 2013? The new tube station, replacing that little row of charismatic shops which included the famous Stamford Bridge café and the Chelsea souvenir shop, would have been noted for sure. The new modern church, which has replaced the red brick edition, with its little café down below – which we sometimes visited circa 1996 – would have been noted. The old Chelsea Supporters Club – at 547 Fulham Road – has long since been demolished, to be replaced by apartments. I’m sure the 1983 Chris and Glenn would have been intrigued to hear how our footballing fortunes had fared in the ensuing thirty years.

The answer, of course, is the stuff of dreams; two promotions, one relegation, six F.A. cups, three League titles, three League Cups, a European Cup, a UEFA cup and a ECWC cup. If we had known that all of these trophies would eventually come our way in 1983, we might well have dived into The Britannia pub – now a tiki cocktail bar, whatever that is – and chanced our luck in nervously ordering two pints of lager, knowing that our Chelsea life would be just fine.

“Cheers Chris.”

“Cheers Glenn…here’s to the next thirty years.”

After I collected my away ticket for the Steaua Bucharest game at the box office – just £19, I think I’ll like Romania – the two of us spent an hour in the foyer of the hotel. In a repeat of the last game of the previous season, we were privileged to spend a precious few moments chatting to Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti and Bobby Tambling.

What the Glenn and Chris of 1983 would have made of this, I can’t imagine.

Bobby Tambling, now full of colour and fully recovered from his awful illness of the past eighteen months, was able to chat to us for a few moments about his miraculous recovery; he now walks at least two miles per day, has lost a lot of weight and looks magnificent. Glenn and I – plus Parky – first met Bobby at an event in Wiltshire in April 2011 and I can’t praise him enough. He is a lovely, humble man and one of the nicest Chelsea players that I have been lucky enough to meet. I also briefly chatted to former Chelsea player and manager Ken Shellito, who was visiting from his home in Malaysia; there was a reunion of the 1962-1963 Second Division promotion-winning team at the Harris Suite on Thursday. Ken is another lovely man.

Glenn and I backtracked to meet the rest of the boys in The Goose. The place didn’t seem too packed. I spent an hour or so in the bosom of my Chelsea family, chatting away about all sorts; it was lovely to see Daryl’s Mum for the first time for a while and we caught up with a few things.

Lacoste Watch :

Daryl – yellow.

Alan – orange.

Parky – lavender.

There was chat about Simon’s film, Rob’s son’s foray into writing about the sport of boxing, tickets for Swindon, tickets for Norwich, plans for Bucharest, but little talk pertaining to neither our team, nor the perceived crisis at Chelsea since Wednesday’s defeat. Glenn and I had got all that out of our system on the short drive to collect Parky a few hours earlier.

In a nutshell, we trusted Mourinho to sort it out. It might take a while, but so be it. I’m the first one to realise his faults, but I’d rather have him in charge at Stamford Bridge than anyone else.

I decided to leave for the stadium earlier than usual and I spent a while slowly walking up to the main entrance. The analytical part of me wanted to gauge the mood of the Chelsea support base. In truth, all was relatively quiet. The one exception made me roll my eyes to the sky. I do a lot of that at Chelsea these days. To my annoyance, on passing the West Stand entrance, I saw a group of knob heads playing up for a TV camera, and mysteriously singing “Blue Army! Blue Army!” while struggling to stand up straight.

Since when has this been a Chelsea song?

At least they didn’t start singing “I’m Chelsea Till I Die” – another non-Chelsea song which I am yet to recollect hearing at either home or away matches yet seems to be spotted on various Chelsea social media sites with increasing regularity. If I have heard it, I must have consciously deleted it from my memory. It is a bland generic chant, mainly sung by followers of lower league teams, and as far as I am concerned is neither Chelsea, humorous, tuneful or relevant.

This, of course, would be a game played at 5.30pm; a strange time for football, in the twilight zone between afternoon and evening. It was mild. Rain threatened, but there was only mist and a grey stillness.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that the rumours were true; Fulham had failed to sell all of their 3,000 away tickets. There were gaps in the upper tier…a seat here, a seat there…but a large swathe of empty seats in the lower tier. Above, a limp Fulham flag sagged in the damp early evening air. I’d hazard a guess that they only sold 2,500.

Only 2,500 for an away game at their biggest – and closest rivals…or so they would have us think.

Quite pathetic.

Even more pathetic was their oh-so original chant, soon into the match –

“Where were you when you were shit?”

Bloody hell.  The irony.

“You’re not even here when you’re good.”

Despite my pre-game comments about Mourinho, the first-half was bloody awful. There was no room for Juan Mata, even on the bench, and I just knew that the pro-Mata/anti-Mourinho brigade would use this as continued evidence that our manager sees Mata superfluous to our needs. Mourinho, to be fair, has continually stated that he rates Mata and wants to integrate him into our team. I think this one might run for a few weeks yet. The sad thing is that Juan Mata is surely one of the most genuine, ego-free, and pleasant and charming players we have seen at Chelsea for a while. He’s in the mould of Gianfranco Zola and that is praise enough. Inside, he must be hurting. I was personally surprised that Eto’o was starting, but I guess he needs games. In the Fulham side, former Chelsea players Steve Sidwell, Damian Duff and Scotty Parker lined up to face our midfield of Ramires, Mikel, Schurrle, Hazard and man of the moment Oscar.

Highlights of the first-half?

A wicked cross from the industrious Ivanovic was met by Eto’o at the near post – a great run – but his touch was heavy and the ball flew away from the goal rather than towards it. A lovely defence-splitting ball set up Darren Bent, who broke away with only Cech to beat; his shot was low and Cech cleared with a mixture of hand and foot. A sustained period of Chelsea pressure ended when the ball broke to Ivanovic but his shot was easily blocked. There was another shot on goal from Eto’o but chances were at an all-time low. The mood inside Stamford Bridge was of depressing concern at our lack of pace, creativity and penetration. All was quiet. There was an audible barrage of boos at the end of the half; supporters began gesturing and pointing among themselves, annoyed at the booing, annoyed at the lack of support. Please, not another civil war like last season, please.

I chatted to a couple of mates at the break. I hate to try to pretend to be the tactical analyst simply because I am not that great at understanding the nuances of modern day football. However, I got dragged into an analysis of the current state of our team.

My point was this –

We all know that Jose Mourinho leaves no stone unturned in his pre-match analysis of where his teams can take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses. I imagine Don Revie-style dossiers on opposing players, flipcharts, DVDs, Powerpoint presentations and training sessions to replicate possible game day situations. Practice, practice, practice. Detail, detail, detail. The 4-2-3-1 formation is merely the skeleton on which Mourinho adds body.

I just wonder if he over-manages. Is he too much the puppeteer? Other managers may have left that vital 10% – the off-the-cuff, the irrational, the personal, the spontaneous, the ludicrous, the tantalising – to the players themselves. I imagine Ruud Gullit saying to the Chelsea team –

“You boys are great footballers. Go play for each other.”

I just wonder if the current players, at this juncture in the team’s growth, are not allowed that personal freedom. There definitely seems to be a lack of bohemian creativity in the team just now, save for an occasional Hazard back-heel. And then I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge and the rather prosaic and pragmatic approach to our games in the first few months of 2004-2005; defence first, clean sheets, win at all costs, kill the game, then build. That season ended in just one defeat, just fifteen goals conceded and our first league title in fifty years. I hoped for an enigmatic Mourinho pep talk at half-time. In order to make that omelette, it was time to turn up the heat.

During the interval, Neil Barnett spoke –

“As Chelsea fans, we certainly believe in miracles.”

Bobby Tambling, in a mid-sixties retro shirt, walked unaided around the Stamford Bridge pitch and was serenaded by all. I had warned him that he might well be a blubbering wreck during this, but he appeared to be holding it together well. His shirt bore the words “thank you” and his convalescence was due in no half-measure to the love he has received from us all.

Thankfully, we only had to wait five minutes into the second period for a much-needed goal. Persistence from the fitful Andrea Schurrle down below us in the Matthew Harding Upper resulted in a cross come shot which Stockdale only parried. A prod from Eto’o was blocked, but the ball spun out to Oscar who struck home.

The place roared. A jig from Oscar in front of the Chelsea fans in the corner. Phew.

There was a Tommy Trinder-eseque “THTCAUN/COMLD” from Alan and myself and all was well with the Chelsea World.

1-0 to Chelsea.

It was autumn 2004 all over again.

In truth, we completely dominated the second period. Apart from a Steve Sidwell miscued header at the far post, Fulham were on the back foot, rarely troubling us.

Mourinho rang the changes. Eto’o, who was starting to show good movement, was replaced by Torres. The volume of support for the boy from Fuenlabrada surprised even me; the Chelsea fans clearly haven’t given up on him. I am dreadfully worried where goals will come from this season, but all we can do as supporters is to support and encourage them all.

This was much better fare from Chelsea now, with Fulham tiring and our passing improving with every move. Ramires’ movement and drive spurred others on, Mikel was breaking up play, Hazard and Oscar were linking well with Torres. Fulham simply were not in it.

A corner was met by a lovely jump from Torres. His downward, goal bound header, was parried by the Fulham keeper. Frank Lampard, on for Schurrle, swiped the ball in. A header from Terry kept the ball alive and Mikel twisted his body to connect and slam the ball in from eight yards. I snapped a photograph, but the image is too blurred – maybe I was in a state of shock – for sharing.

Again, the Stamford Bridge stadium roared. Thankfully, Mikel ran straight towards Frank right down below me. I was able to take a succession of photographs of his beaming face, tongue cheekily poking out to one side, before he was engulfed by smiling team mates. I noted that JT stuck his head right into Mikel’s chest and I can only imagine what words of encouragement our captain gave our massively underrated midfielder. At last, he had scored his first league goal.

A song was soon forthcoming from the Matthew Harding Lower –

“Jon Obi Mikel – He Scores When He Wants.”

At the final whistle, Neil Barnett was soon keen to point out that Chelsea, the crisis club as always, were top of the league.

It had been the strangest of days.

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Tales From The Banks Of The Royal Blue Mersey

Everton vs. Chelsea : 14 September 2013.

At last the universally despised international break was over and I had my sight set on a Chelsea away day. Over the last few seasons, I have eventually concluded that a trip to Everton’s Goodison Park is my favourite of them all. As increasing numbers of stadia that I grew up with fall by the wayside – The Dell, The Baseball Ground, Highfield Road, Maine Road, The Victoria Ground, Highbury, Ninian Park – or become modernised, and sanitised – Upton Park, Villa Park, White Hart Lane, St. Andrews – there is one old school stadium that defies logic and continues to shine. I have shared my love of Goodison Park on many occasions before, so without going over old ground – no pun intended – I will only say at this stage that Goodison Park, or as the Old Lady as Evertonians refer to it, was dominating my thoughts as the build-up to our first league game in almost three weeks drew nearer.

In addition to seeing the boys play – oh, how I have missed them – I would be wallowing in my own particular and personal slice of football history once again.

The 5.30pm kick-off allowed me plenty of time to plan my day. The intention was to park-up near the Pier Head, where ferries departed in decades past, and amble around the Albert Dock area. I’ve visited both the Maritime Museum and Tate Liverpool on previous football expeditions to Merseyside; I was hoping for a relaxing pint in a pub or bar overlooking the revamped riverside, rather than the usual pint of fizzy lager in a plastic glass in “The Arkles” opposite Anfield, which is my usual routine for Everton.

At just after 10.30am, I was on my way; on the royal blue highway once more. This would be my thirteenth visit to the stadium at the bottom of the gentle slope of Stanley Park. I missed last season’s encounter. In 2011-2012, it was a terrible performance under Villas-Boas. The defeat on the last day of 2010-2011 was remembered for the brutal sacking of Ancelotti.

At 11am, I collected Lord Parky. It was a lovely moment – and long overdue. For all of last season, my away trips were solitary affairs. Apart from the pre-season friendly at Brighton and the Community Shield game at Villa Park, the last time Parky accompanied me to a standard away game was in April 2012 at Arsenal.

Back in the days when England’s capital city had no European Cup to its name.

This would only be my fourth trip the north-west during season 2013-2014. In recent years, the area was very well represented; Premier League regulars Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic were augmented by single-season stays from Burnley and Blackpool. It seemed that I was heading north on the M6 every month in those days. Now, only the big hitters from Manchester and Liverpool remain. In fact, during this season, there is perhaps the largest spread of cities for decades within the top flight; Swansea and Cardiff to the West, Liverpool and Everton to the North West, Newcastle and Sunderland to the North East, Hull and Norwich to the East and Southampton to the South. We only need Plymouth Argyle and Carlisle United to join us and all extremities within the football landscape will be covered.

I backtracked through Bradford-on-Avon, skirted Bath and then headed north. It was brilliant to be back on the road alongside His Lordship once again. However, once on the M4, we were held up for a good thirty minutes as the traffic was reduced to a crawl. After stopping for a coffee at Strensham, and with signs on the M5 warning of even more delays on the M6, I soon realised that our trip down to the banks of The Mersey before the match were probably needing to be curtailed. This was a shame, but there is always next year…and the year after.

Throughout the previous week, one song kept bouncing around my head. It had acted like a constant reminder of where I would be on Saturday, a football metronome, ticking away, keeping me focussed. Let me explain. After a New York Yankees game last summer, I got chatting to three Evertonians in my favourite bar on River Avenue in The Bronx. It was my last night in NYC, my beloved Yankees had walloped the Red Sox and I was in no mood to retire to bed. The beers were flowing and the chat soon turned from baseball in the US to footy in England. The father had been living in Manhattan for twenty years and his two sons were over to visit him. The youngest lad was typically wearing a Lacoste polo. After a while, it was decided to continue the drinking session in a bar down on East 23rd Street, way down in Manhattan. We hopped into a cab – there were five of us in total, including a bemused local, struggling to understand our quick-fire conversations in unfamiliar accents – and the chat turned to football songs. I made the point – as politely as I could – that Everton were not known for their wide and varied songbook. I remember serenading them with “The Shed Looked Up” and they responded; I was expecting “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For.”

Instead, the father belted out a song which was completely new to me, and the two sons joined in with gusto.

“Oh we hate Bill Shankly and we hate St.John.

But most of all we hate big Ron.

And we’ll hang those Kopites, one by one, on the banks of the royal blue Mersey.

To hell with Liverpool and Rangers too.

And we’ll throw them all in the Mersey.

And we’ll fight, fight, fight, with all our might for the boys in the royal blue jersey.”

This was rounded off, nicely, with a rousing –

“Kopites are gobshites, Kopites are gobshites!”

I approved. As the drinking continued, we spoke continually about our two favoured teams, buoyed by beer and a mutual dislike of Liverpool. The big moment in the lives of the two sons was the 1995 F.A.Cup win versus the equally despised Manchester United. I sensed a tone of jealousy in their voices when they heard me talk of our recent successes, but I kept telling them – probably to the point of exhaustion – that there really was “no need to be jealous of others. Your team is your team. Relish every goal, every win.” It was a lovely night. One more thing; the father kept referring to me as “Chris, la” which I found to be particularly endearing and authentic. They were good people.

After turning off Queens Drive and up Utting Avenue, with the bright stands of Anfield at the top of the hill, I deposited £8 in the hands of a local at the official car park in Stanley Park. It was 3.45pm. The journey north had taken me over five hours. We avoided “Arkles” and headed towards Goodison. Lord Parky soon disappeared inside for a few beers and to his seat in the lower tier of the Bullens Road.

With my trusty camera at the ready, I had other ideas.

I took a leisurely hour to slowly circumnavigate the four stands of Goodison Park. I was in my element. The sun was out, the sky perfect. The clamour of a match day gave the late afternoon a buzz all of its own.

Goodison Park. So, why do I love it?

Firstly, the location; surrounded by terraced houses, a proper football locale. Secondly, the history; Everton have played here, since uplifting from Anfield, from 1892. Thirdly, the gargantuan main stand; when I first spotted it in 1986, I could hardly believe its scale, towering over the other three edifices. Next, Archibald Leitch; the venerable stadium architect was responsible for the design and construction of three of the original four stands, two of which – the Gwladys Street and the Bullens Road – remain to this day. The signature Leitch cross-trusses at Goodison, which are still on show on the balcony wall of the Bullens Road, are only present at two other stadia. The others are at Fratton Park and Ibrox. Yep, you’ve guessed – two of my other favourite grounds. Next, my imagination; my late father’s first ever football match took place here at Goodison Park, during the grey years of World War Two while he was stationed on The Wirrall. Lastly, another first game; I took football-mad James, then an eleven year old boy, to his first ever football game at Goodison in 1998.

So, yes, Goodison Park ticks a lot of boxes.

My tour began behind the new Park Lane stand; constructed in 1994, it is a banal and insipid single-tiered structure which adds nothing to the overall feel to the stadium.  I noted that the statue of Dixie Dean had been moved from its original location; maybe it has been moved inside the stadium. Dean was an Everton legend who once amassed a Babe Ruth-like haul of 60 goals in season 1927-1928, and who died, at Goodison, during the 1980 derby. A “fan zone” was in operation behind the Park Lane stand; I avoided it like the plague. I noted a six-piece samba band, dressed in Brazilian yellow and green, parading outside on Goodison Avenue, which was met by blank stares from the locals. It was as incongruous a sight as you will see. I shook my head, tut-tutted and moved on.

On Goodison Avenue, my senses were going into overdrive. Unlike at Anfield, Everton have made a conscious effort to spruce up the walls of the stadium’s once grim exterior. Long banners depicting current players adorn the main stand, which now looks bright and welcoming. The “Everton timeline” wraps itself around 75% of the current stadium, beginning above the away entrance on the Bullens Road in 1878 and ending on the southern side of the main stand in 2013. It depicts key events, photos of record buys, famous games and Everton trivia. As I found myself walking clockwise around the stadium, I found myself going back in time.

Quite apt.

Opposite the main stand, towering high, were a couple of basic cafes. One sight saddened me though; The Winslow Hotel, which my father may well have entered around 1942, was boarded-up and empty. The sign depicting Dixie Dean had faded. How sad. I once drank at this pub in 1994, when I parked outside the stands of Goodison before walking up the hill for a Chelsea game at Anfield. There is always something rather spooky about being outside a stadium with no match taking place; the ghosts of thousands of supporters, the silence, the stillness.

I once watched a game from the upper tier of the main stand; season 1992-1993, front row, brilliant view, awful retro collars with red laces, Robert Fleck scored, we won 1-0, shortest match review ever.

As I took a selection of photographs of the bustling street scene below the vertiginous structure, I noted Romelu Lukaku being driven slowly towards the main reception. At first, the locals were unaware of who the young man in the passenger seat was. Eventually it dawned on them. With the car halted, the window lowered and the Everton loanee kindly signed a few photographs for a few youngsters. I took a few photographs of his smiling face and then seized my moment. I leaned in and shook his hand.

“Have a great season here. Then come back to us next season. God bless you.”

Romelu smiled.

I hated to see look of pure desolation on his face after his nervy penalty miss in Prague. I also hated to see some puerile comments on the internet by some Chelsea fans immediately after. Oh boy.

The red-brick St. Luke’s church sits right on the junction of Goodison Avenue and Gwladys Street. Back in the ‘eighties, it was still possible to see the whole of this modest place of worship from inside the stadium. It has since been hidden by extra cladding on the Gwladys Street stand and the addition of a large TV screen. Like the cottage at Fulham, it adds to the sense of place that makes Goodison so unique. Still the photographs continued; a turnstile, the angle of two stands joining, a streetside café, Tommy Lawton on the timeline.

There is a rather patronising TV advertisement for Barclay’s at the moment; thanking us match-going fans for our continued presence at games. It strongly features a smiling pensioner, possibly photographed at Goodison, certainly wearing Everton blue; his knowing eyes telling a thousand stories, his slight smile indicating past glories and hope for the future. As I walked behind the Bullens Road – getting close to the formidable Chelsea presence outside the away gates now – I spotted his female equivalent. A lady in her ‘eighties – tight perm, blue and white scarf – was being driven in to her personal parking space in a small car park. The sight of this spritely Evertonian made me smile. For those who bemoan the negative aspects of football – the richly-paid players, the out of touch directors, the price of tickets, the occasional presence of racism and loutish behaviour, the commercialisation, the deadening of atmosphere – here was a reminder of what the game means to a lot of people. She must have thousands of great memories from her time supporting her team.

I wonder if she remembers Tommy Lawton, his hair Brylcreamed, leaping high at the far post, or that dashing young man in his RAF uniform at Goodison Park during the Second World War…

I chatted to a few friends outside the away turnstiles. We had heard that Samuel Eto’o was to start. There was confused talk of how Lukaku had been loaned out – again – when most of us supporters would have preferred to see him in Chelsea blue throughout this season. I guess we will never know the full story of the club’s decision to keep Torres and Ba, though I presume that the former’s wage demands have played a part in possible thoughts of moving him on.

At least Juan Mata was starting.

I looked up and spotted Burger, the erstwhile Toronto native now transplanted into the heart of England. He quickly introduced me to his father – his first visit to these shores, his first football match, his first Chelsea match. I repeated my father’s story about Everton and he smiled. Burger Junior and Burger Senior had been drinking, with Cathy and others, since 10am and I was impressed. I wished them well and hurriedly took my place alongside Alan, Gary and 1,500 others in the Bullens Road upper tier. There were a similar number down below us.

The Farm’s “All Together Now” was on the PA as I scanned the scene around me. Goodison’s capacity is 40,000 now and I spotted a few empty seats, namely those behind the roof supports in the Gwladys Street. Another Goodison favourite – “Z Cars” – was played as the teams entered. Chelsea were in black once more.

Cech – Brana, JT, Luiz, Ash – Mikel, Rambo – Mata, Schurrle, Hazard – Eto’o.

The game began brightly enough. Ramires was full of energy and we dominated the early few minutes. All eyes were on our new striker though; as he moved around the pitch, my mind played tricks on me. I imagined Eto’o to be taller. He seemed willing, but his first few efforts were poor. One header over with Tim Howard untested and another which ballooned into the top tier. At least he was getting in to position. Gary, standing alongside me and already “venting,” made me chuckle with his pronunciation of our new striker’s surname.

Only a Londoner could attempt to pronounce Eto’o without sounding the letter T.

“Cam on E’o’o.”

Oh boy.

The best chance of the first-half came when Howard fluffed a clearance and Andrea Schurrle pounced. He played the ball into the path of the advancing Eto’o and the 3,000 Chelsea away fans inhaled a breath of expectation. Out of nowhere, a leg from an Everton player – Gareth Barry – blocked the shot. We were in disbelief.

On the subs bench, Fernando Torres was heard to utter “even I could have missed that.”

Our support was OK. The home fans, though, resorted to type and hardly spoke, let alone sang. Everton rarely threatened; Naismith shot wide, but chances were rare down below us. At the other end, Mikel and Schurrle shot over. Our chances were being squandered and the away support grew frustrated. During the closing minutes of the first-half, Everton turned the screw. During one attack, two Everton players were completely unmarked at the far post and we were lucky to escape unpunished. Right on half-time, sloppy defending allowed a cross to be headed back across the goal by Jelavic to allow Naismith to leap unhindered and nod home from a yard out.

At half-time, I chatted briefly to Tim from Dublin.

“We should have been three up.”

Straight after the whistle, Andrea Schurrle was played in and inexplicably missed from an angle. It took me a few, puzzling seconds to realise that he hadn’t scored. Eto’o lunged at a cross and failed to make contact. At least he was getting into the right positions. Right?

Jose Mourinho then surprised us all and made a double substitution, taking off Mata and Schurrle. On came Oscar and Frank Lampard. In truth, neither player produced in the remainder of the match. A Ramires toe-poke went wide. The general consensus was that we wouldn’t score even if the game continued until November. In reality, such was our mood, we expected Everton to increase their lead on their rare forays into our half. Luiz was lucky to stay on after a tangle on the half-way line. We were riding our luck. Then, the last throw of the dice; Ashley Cole off, Torres on, three at the back, but with Mikel playing very deep alongside Lamps. Where other players were faltering, Mikel was having a great game…reading attacks, breaking-up play, turning, playing it simple. Top marks.

Two last chances summed our day up. Firstly, an attempted flick from Eto’o from close in, but he missed the ball completely. Secondly, a poor shot from Torres’ weak left foot which looked as ugly as it gets and meekly spun off for a goal-kick. Thankfully, Leighton Baines clipped the junction of post and bar at the other end from a free-kick on ninety minutes. Although it was a far from adequate performance – too many personal errors – we barely deserved to lose.

At the final whistle, we shuffled out as the Evertonians – at last – made some noise. I glanced at Tim, but his face was disconsolate. No words were needed. I glowered back.

On the walk back to the car, Parky and I caught up with Chopper, Jokka, Neil and Jonesy. There were a few mumbles and grumbles and this was to be expected. However, it was a difficult game to summarise. Everton weren’t that great. They did enough. If our players had played 10% better – maybe just 5% better – we would have won 3-0. Our play suffered with just too many silly errors at key times. I spoke with Jokka and offered some home-spun philosophy.

“Maybe another set of supporters would have been quite content with that sort of performance – we created a few chances, we weren’t dire – but us Chelsea fans have higher expectations. High expectations make for bad losers.”

On Wednesday, we have the chance to make amends when our European campaign kicks off.

Let’s go.

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Tales From The Match

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2013.

There was every reason to suggest that the trip to Old Trafford for our F.A.Cup quarter final with Manchester United would be a tough one. Our season seems to have taken a downward trajectory in recent weeks, culminating in that dire ninety minutes in Bucharest, one of the worst Chelsea performances in living memory. One phrase kept resonating in my mind on Sunday morning.

I was travelling in blind faith.

I’d try to make the most of the day – of course I would – and I already had a visit to the Lowry Art Gallery planned to take place before the match, but there were negative vibes running through to my core. I chose a black Henri Lloyd polo to wear to the game and I did wonder if it might be an ominous sign for the day ahead.

The man in black.

Gulp.

This would be my seventeenth visit to Old Trafford to watch the boys play Manchester United. I have only visited Anfield – eighteen – on more occasions. Of course, there have been good and bad memories. There were two previous F.A. Cup games that I had attended; in 1988 and in 1999. In truth, we have only been totally outclassed on a few of those seventeen occasions. Who remembers the surreal atmosphere and the false dawn last season under Andre Villas-Boas? We lost 3-1 but left the stadium singing “we’re gonna win the league” – and meaning it. Of course, there was a Torres goal, but also the career-defining Torres miss, too, both in front of the Stretford End. Somehow the Rooney penalty fluff seems to have been forgotten. Such is life.

I left home in Somerset at 9.45am. This was yet another solo away trip, this one. Not to worry. Music was soon blaring – Robin Guthrie, then Depeche Mode – as I drove north and onto the motorway network. It was mightily cold outside, but at least the grey skies were not issuing forth some of Manchester’s finest rain. No doubt that would come later.

I texted Alan – due to set off from Chelsea on one of the club coaches – to tell him that I was now “on the road.”

“Spring-Heeled Jack Kerouac.”

He soon replied “Ian Dury.”

As I headed north, I tried not to ruminate too much about the game. However, one topic kept dominating my thoughts. Ron Gourlay had recently reconfirmed the club’s priorities for the rest of the season; that of securing a Champions League place rather than silverware. Now, I’m no fool, and I understand the pure economic reasons behind that thought process. His view has probably placated some of our fans. But what a sad indictment on the modern game that my beloved Chelsea Football Club would put finishing fourth higher than winning the F.A. Cup.

“If that is the case, Ron…why the hell am I bothering with this eight hour return trip to Manchester?”

At just after 10.30am, I received a text from Californian Andy Wray, evidently over for the game.

“Kerouac.”

I had seen on “Facebook” that he was meeting up with Cathy and was travelling up by train. It would be his first-ever match at Old Trafford.

Then, an hour later, I received the exact same text. This time it was from Burger, the transplanted Canadian, and now living in Stafford.

“Kerouac.”

At 11.45am, I spotted the first United coach – from Devon, I believe – as I drove past West Bromwich.

Just after, I again texted Alan to let him know my progress.

“Five Goal Gordon.”

On the CD, Depeche Mode sang about a “Black Day.” In my mind, things were starting to take shape. A theme was definitely starting to evolve here. Would the day be black or would it be white? To be truthful, I expected a black thumping. The chances of the opposite seemed desperately remote. When snow started to fall, fleetingly, at around Stoke, the white flakes brought a smile to my face.

I changed the music and chose The Stranglers.

The men in black.

This was a proper black and white day. At that exact moment, I glanced to my right and spotted a herd of black and white Friesian cattle. Around thirty minutes earlier, I had spotted a large flock of both black and white birds suddenly take off from a field adjacent to the M6. This seemed an odd occurrence to me.

Yep – black and white…the theme for the day.

As I headed north through Staffordshire, there were the first few spots of rain. And then I saw some snow on the highest parts of the Peak District to my east. However, I was making good time and – I’ll be honest – I was in my element.

“What else ya gonna do on a Sunday?”

I’m rather familiar with the sights of Manchester now. It was, after all, only two weeks since that dire trip to Eastlands. Away in the distance, in the city centre, I spotted the tall hotel where Real Madrid had recently stayed. Further beyond, the desolate moors. More snow.

At 1.15am, I had parked-up, just three-and-a-half hours after leaving home. This was probably a personal best for Old Trafford. But my goodness, the wind was bitterly cold. I briskly walked through Gorse Park, with the European-style floodlight pylons of the Lancashire cricket ground to my right and the local council office block where Morrissey worked in his first ever job to my left.

Welcome to Manchest’oh. The home of Unih’ed.

Outside the stadium, the “half-and-half scarves” sellers were busy, as were the lads selling the two main United fanzines (“United We Stand” and “Red Issue”). Not many Chelsea were on the forecourt. I had a look around. The Munich memorial always looks classy. Without further ado, I headed north and soon found myself at the Salford Quays. Originally, this busy inland dock area allowed the products of the world’s first industrialised city to be transported west on the Manchester Ship Canal and out into the Irish Sea and beyond. The deep-seated rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester was, if not initiated, deepened by the building of this canal by Manchester’s entrepreneurs, who were unwilling to pay the expensive dock fees at Liverpool. The area has been revitalised in recent years, with the BBC having moved many of their staff north from the TV centre in London to the Media City complex at Salford Quays. In addition to waterside apartments, there is the Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry Art Gallery on either side of one of the widest channels.

I visited the Lowry once before, on the day that Avram Grant made his bow as Chelsea boss, and I could hardly believe that it was over five years ago. As I walked over the gently swaying footbridge, the wind was bitter as it came off the choppy waters of the former docks. Away to my right, the hulking structure of Old Trafford dominated the view.

I spent a very enjoyable hour and a quarter inside The Lowry. I made a confession to the rosy-faced chap on the information desk.

“I’m a Chelsea fan and I’m here just to take my mind off the game.”

He smiled and replied “oh, I’ll be a fan for you today.”

“Are you City? Ah,good man.”

What is it that they say about your enemy’s enemy being your friend?

L.S. Lowry was one of England’s most revered painters of the twentieth century, with his heavily stylised images of urban life in the industrialised centres of northern England. A short twenty minute film, including black and white film of him at work, was utterly fascinating. It was wonderful to hear his voice, too, matter-of-factly explaining how he went about his daily painting routine. He seemed a very complex character. A loner. Possibly autistic. In love with his work.

I then spent a while viewing a selection of his work in four or five rooms. His home in Pendlebury – in Salford, no more than a couple of miles to the north – afforded him easy access to the streets and mills, the bustling city-scapes, the desolation of urban blight, which became the focus of his work.

His trademark was of simplistic pencil-thin figures made famous in a 1978 song which I found myself constantly singing to myself –

“He painted Salford ‘s smokey tops.
On cardboard boxes from the shops.
And parts of Ancoats where I used to play.
I’m sure he once walked down our street.
Cause he painted kids who had nowt on their feet.
The clothes we wore had all seen better days.”

His famous painting “Going to the match” – based not on Old Trafford or Maine Road, but Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park – drew this comment from Jack Charlton, the brother of Bobby –

“This is just like it was when I was young; wooden open stands, cinders underfoot, terrible conditions in the toilets…it’s fabulous.”

Some script alongside the photo told its own story –

“Lowry’s interest in football was partly in the crowd itself and how a match brought them together. It is this, rather than the match itself, that he depicts.”

As I left, I looked over to Old Trafford and took a few photographs of the 21st Century equivalents of his Bolton spectators heading over the bridge, the skies now clear and blue, their eyes set on the stadium.

Adjacent to the art gallery, there is a large shopping outlet – surprisingly, I did not venture in. There were a couple of restaurants nearby and these were full of singing United fans. However, as I myself headed back over the bridge, I heard a defiant “Oh Dennis Wise” and then “Carefree.”

Accents from all parts of England were being spoken by the United fans going to the match. There was even a voice from Yorkshire. Now, even to my ears, that didn’t sound right. Yorkshire and Lancashire have animosities far out-reaching those of Manchester and Liverpool. For a Yorkshire native to support Manchester United was surely the oddest marriage. I immediately thought of my college mate Bob, a Leeds fan from Bramley in West Yorkshire, a few miles from Elland Road. He memorably once announced to me that “I’ve hated Manchester United longer than I’ve liked Leeds.”

I thought back to the cup game in 1988. On that day, Bob attended the game alongside me and some eight thousand rabid Chelsea fans. Of course, that 1987-1988 season eventually resulted in relegation via the dreaded play-offs (we are the only team to finish fourth from bottom and still get relegated – imagine how I felt that summer. Black ain’t half of it.)

However, in January 1988, we had not yet reached the relegation places, though manager John Hollins was under considerable pressure. I had just eleven days previously seen us lose 4-0 to Swindon Town in the Full Members Cup. Things were getting grim. Yet on that day some 25 years ago – and despite gates averaging only around 20,000 – we were roared on by almost half of our home crowd…the equivalent today of 16,000 away followers.

My diary from the day tells the story…

”pink Lacoste, Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, Aquascutum scarf, leather jacket, Reeboks…caught the train from Frome…there were ten familiar faces – all MUFC – who were on the train too, but they got off at Bath (probably to catch the supporters’ bus to Old Trafford)…sat with a young Chelsea lad from Bath…chatted to two girls from Cardiff who were Spurs fans on the way to Port Vale…missed our connection at Birmingham, so had to go via Stafford…a can of Grolsch…Chelsea lads joined at Crewe…got to Piccadilly at 2pm, a raucous bus to Old Trafford…pleased to see Bob already present…we had all of K Stand…we played poorly…Freestone saved a 7 minute McClair penalty…but Whiteside (42) and McClair (71) sealed our doom…no confidence in our team…we hardly had any attacks at all…brightened up when Nevin and Hazard came on…alas no fat copper to take the piss out of this time…a bloody long wait in the mud to catch the train back to Piccadilly…a row at the station, but not severe…eventually back to Bristol at 10.40pm…Dad picked me up…Spurs lost too…so much for Wembley.”

I was soon outside the away entrance. Unlike 1988, our “allowance” was 6,000 but I had heard that we had only sold 4,500 or so. I hoped that there would be no gaping holes in our section. The last thing I wanted was to hear the “WWYWYWS” nonsense being sung at us by 70,000 United fans.

In the bar areas, Chelsea were in good voice. I noticed the DJ Trevor Nelson, quietly stood to one side, and caught his eye. He nodded back. I suspect that his work for the BBC brings him up to Salford quite often. I bumped into Alan and Gary, then the Bristol lads – fresh from Bucharest – and then Burger and Julie. It would be Julie’s first ever game at Old Trafford. I said to one of my Chelsea acquaintances “well, we need to keep them out for the first twenty minutes…hell, no…the first five.”

I got to my seat…row 12 of the large upper deck, right in line with the penalty spot…the roof overhead afforded little light and there was a dark and gloomy atmosphere inside Old Trafford. For the first time ever at Old Trafford, I was able to see the outside world; a thin sliver of land above the lower main stand roof and the high roof overhead. Old Trafford is huge. The three-tiered North Stand was immense…the upper tier wasn’t even in view.

I took a look at all of the United flags and banners which decorate the balconies. They add so much character to the stadium in the same way that those at The Bridge add to our match experience.

The surprising news was that Van Persie was on the bench for United. As for Chelsea, there were masses of team changes since Bucharest.

The main one; Axon in.

As the two teams entered the pitch, the Stretford End unfurled a large banner featuring a photograph of the Busby Babes…black and white…but with bright scarlet shirts…from the fateful game in Belgrade, prior to the crash.

A Ba effort went wide and I commented to the bloke to my right “well, that’s one more shot than I thought we’d get.” I wasn’t smiling for long, though.

Before we had time to settle, Carrick pumped a great ball through to Chicarito. There was indecision from Cech and Cahill was lost at sea. A softly cushioned header from the little Mexican sent the ball looping up and over the stranded Cech and into the United goal. The stadium erupted. I looked at the clock to my left.

We hadn’t even lasted five minutes.

For Fcuk’s Sake.

Within five more minutes, a Wayne Rooney free-kick was played towards the far post and – how often do we see this in modern football? – the ball evaded everyone’s lunge and bounced past Cech into the goal.

Ten minutes gone.

2-0 down.

This could be a long day. With thoughts of a score resembling that of a rugby match, I sighed a million sighs. The Chelsea crowd, originally quite buoyant, were now resorting to the chants which have trademarked this season.

“We don’t care about Rafa…”

“When Rafa leaves Chelsea…”

“Roman Abramovich – is this what you want?”

“We want our Chelsea back…”

United were singing their songs too, needling the benched John Terry.

“Viva John Terry…”

“Where’s your racist centre-half?”

To be honest, I wanted to hide. We seemed to be on the end of a leathering both on and off the pitch. We had a few half-chances, but shots from Moses and Lampard were wasted. Cech made a sublime double-save, first from Rooney and then from the rebound which Luiz inexpicably headed back towards him. He rose, like Gordon Banks in Guadalajara in 1970, to tip it over. It was a sublime save.

We did manage to create a few more attempts on goal. I began talking to the two chaps to my left. Face Familiar Name Unknown #1, Face Familiar Name Unknown #2 and I agreed that although United had been on top, the first half had not been without chances. But then we agreed; United didn’t really have to attack. The mood was mixed…there was derision from some quarters, but I was ever hopeful. It was gratifying to note a few seeds of optimism amongst my two neighbours. To be honest, amongst the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the away section, it was lovely to chat with two lads who were forever cheering the team on – like me – and who were intelligent in their comments. There had already been an altercation further along the row which almost ended up in a fight. It was another example of near Civil War in the Chelsea ranks this season.

I chatted with Tim at half-time and we mulled over the game…”they don’t have to attack…they can just wait for us to attack and exploit our gaps…”

We expected more goals.

Soon into the second-half, I almost wanted the referee to blow up such was my fear for conceding more goals.

In the end it was the clichéd game of two halves.

One black, one white.

Soon into the second period, the manager made two key substitutions. Firstly, Mikel for Lampard. To be truthful, Frank had not enjoyed a great game and I thought that he gave Rooney far too much space. Secondly, Hazard – not the 1988 version – for Moses. Again no complaints.

In the upper tier of the East Stand our support increased.

Out of nowhere, a goal. Hazard picked the ball up on the edge of the box and, with hardly a moment’s thought, curled an exquisite shot past De Gea into the United goal. It was the same corner that United’s two goals had ended up.

Oh boy. The Chelsea support went crazy, jumping up and punching the air. I felt the sharp plastic of the seat in front cutting into my shin as I jumped and cavorted like a drunken fool.

Game on.

From then on, we dominated the game in a way that I have rarely seen. It was certainly our best 45 minutes this season and our best ever 45 minutes that I had ever seen at the home of United. With every passing minute, United’s support diminished.

Van Persie replaced Hernandez.

Worried? Of course.

“She said no, Robin, she said no…”

As I remember it, the increasingly confident Luiz won possession deep in our box and the worked the ball through. It found Oscar and he played in Ramires. Our little Brazilian dynamo wriggled inside Evans and found himself inside the box. With the entire Chelsea support roaring him on – “go on Rami!” – he coolly slotted the ball past the goalkeeper.

We went berserk.

Pandemonium.

Complete madness.

Arms up, bodies bouncing, screams of ecstasy, bodies falling, noise.

It was a Munich Moment all over again.

Ouch, my bloody shins.

The game now opened up further with Van Persie wasting several chances. However, United’s midfield gave us so much space that we were able to run at them each time we were in possession. Oscar and Mata twisted and turned, rarely losing the ball and Hazard provided much-needed thrust. A special word, though, for Mikel who continually broke up play in that indomitable way of his and provided the de facto defensive shield for Luiz and Cahill. Cahill, who had suffered badly in the first-half, grew with each minute. Luiz was very good.

With United fans starting to stream out, we chided them –

“Race you back to London – we’re gonna race you back to London…”

We roared the team on.

Torres replaced Mata. After last season’s game, could he be the saviour?

With the time running out, one amazing chance. Mata, stretching to take control of Luiz’ pass, and miraculously holding on to the ball despite appearing to run out of pitch in which to play, stayed on his feet, then twisted inside before prodding the ball towards goal. I immediately thought of Gianfranco Zola against United in 1997. I’m sure I saw the bloody net bulge.We jumped up as one, but turned aghast as the ball flew off of De Gea’s boot for a corner.

Phew.

The referee blew soon after and the Chelsea crowd roared their approval.

The United support was full of moans as I hot-footed back across Gorse Park. I was back at my car at 6.45pm…warmth! The incoming texts had provided me with a few moments of satisfaction on that walk back to the car.

From United fan Mike –

“Well done mate. Can’t see how you didn’t win that though. We were awful second half, mediocre in the first.”

From United fan Pete –

“Unlucky mate. The best team drew. Great pressing and control from your lot. Never seen us give the ball away so badly, so often.”

From me to them –

“Proud as fcuk.”

From United fan Pete –

“Rightly so.”

From United fan Mike –

“You should be mate. Showed great team spirit and were the better team over ninety minutes.”

I got back to the M6 in super-quick time. However, detours through Stoke and then the Black Country meant that I didn’t get home until 11.20pm. I was still buzzing when I got home…still buzzing as I trawled the internet at 1am.

Still buzzing at 1.30am…

Buzzing now…

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Tales From Two Nights In Turin

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2012.

The church bells of my local village church struck three o’clock and a few minutes later I was away on my latest European adventure with Chelsea Football Club. I had been awake since 1.30am, but only had a couple of hours’ sleep to my name.

At three o’clock in the morning all is quiet. Thankfully, the roads were dry and the sky was clear of rain. I soon texted a small gaggle of friends on the west coast of America – the only ones that were still awake…

“Giacomo Kerouac.”

Up on Salisbury Plain, near Shrewton, I passed an owl, sitting still in the middle of the road. It reminded me of the owl that I drove past up on the Mendip Hills on my way to Bristol Airport for the game with Barcelona last season. I hoped for a similar result. I was evidently grabbing at straws and looking for any good fortune. Make no mistake; Juventus away was a stern test for our faltering team. It was the game of the season thus far. A draw would be fantastic. A win would be phenomenal.

I covered the 125 miles to Gatwick in two hours. The roads had remained dry and clear of traffic. On the journey, there was time for me to filter through all of the previous European trips that I had enjoyed during the past eighteen years. This second trip to Juve would be my twenty-fourth such trip with Chelsea. I quickly ranked the top five trips (Munich 2012, Barcelona 2012, Stockholm 1998, Turin 2009 and Seville 1998 ) and then thought about worst trips. To be honest, apart from a couple, all have been fantastic and I didn’t bother ranking the worst ones. Of those twenty four excursions, I had been to Spain six times, Germany five times and the Turin trip would be my fifth to Italy.

There were a few familiar faces on the 0700 Easyjet flight to Milan Malpensa. I thankfully managed an hour of sleep. Every hour counts.

We landed in Italy at 9.45am. Milan Malpensa was last visited by me in 1980 and 1981 on family holidays to the Italian Riviera. I quickly recognised the forests which surrounded the runway. Through passport control, the instant aroma of coffee was overpowering – “benvenuti in Italia!” – and I just had time for the first cappuccino of the trip before I boarded the Sadem bus at 10.30am which took us to Turin. While the other coach passengers either slept or listened to music, I was taking note of everything. Maybe it was the caffeine inside me, but my eyes were everywhere. In truth, the road was rather bland, but I did not care one jot. The mountains of The Alps were our constant companion to the north and I kept scouring the rural Italian landscape for iconic images. Old farmsteads, woodland copses and the amazingly flat Po valley laid out to my right. Overhead, there were blotchy clouds. The Alps kept getting closer. They were snow-capped, of course, and quite beguiling. We passed by the town of Vercelli, home many years ago to one of Italy’s great teams in the early years. Pro Vercelli had won the First Division, in all its guises, seven times before Juventus had their first “scudetto” to their name.

Ah, football. Football was back in my mind again. As we approached the outskirts of Turin, I was sitting bolt upright and my arms were hugging the seat rest in front, attempting to gain a good vantage point of the twin sights which were dominating my thoughts.

On my last visit to Turin in 2009, my match report closed with the phrase –

“As I walked out to catch the airport bus at about 7am, I just wanted to put my arms around the city one last time. The Alps still looked stunning to the west and there was Superga, to the east, ready to welcome me back next time.”

After a few moments of uncertainty, there it was.

Superga.

The famous basilica which overlooks the entire Piedmont capital, was sitting high and proud on its very own hilltop. It was midday and the sky suddenly lit up with a bolt of sunshine. After around twenty minutes, I just glimpsed the other iconic sight which I had hoped to see. The two roof supports – the sole remainders of around twelve such structures from the old Stadio delli Alpi – of the brand spanking new Juventus Stadium were spotted a few miles to my west. While everyone else on the coach was still slumbering, I had welcomed myself to the city. To be honest, I wanted to leap to my feet, grab a microphone and become a tour rep for a few minutes.

“Of course, there is a big dichotomy in the city. The Torino club is supported by more of the locals than the more illustrious Juventus club.”

At 12.20pm, we had been deposited outside the Porta Sousa train station. I decided to walk the mile or so to my hotel. The Turin streets, some cobbled, were quiet. There was a slight chill to the air, but – “che bello” – it was fantastic to be back. I texted my friend Tullio, who I first met on that 1981 holiday in Diano Marina – that I was in his city.

“Welcome. See you soon.”

While I waited for my hotel on Via Saluzzo to allow me to check in at 2pm, I walked around for a few moments, taking in the familiar surroundings around the Porta Nuova station. I popped into a nearby bar and ordered a couple of small beers – “un piccolo birra per favore” – and attempted to pick out pertinent points from the footballing section of “La Stampa.” The little plate of free nibbles that the Toro-supporting barmaid gave me went down well. At 2pm I checked in at Hotel Due Mondi, but the beer had made me drowsy. I had already been awake for eleven hours. I decided to have a famous “Chelsea On Tour Power Nap.”

At 5.45pm, the night was falling and I gathered myself together and headed out. I had arranged to meet Tullio around a mile to the east, right outside the church where he married Emanuela in 1999. The air had chilled further and the rush-hour traffic was thudding over the cobbled streets. As I walked over the bridge, I noted that Monte dei Cappuccini was lit with blue lights. Was this another good sign? I was desperate for good omens. The River Po, with lights reflecting along its western edge, was magnificent. I was so happy to be back in the city once more. This would be my seventh trip to Turin for a Juventus game. Those waters run deep.

Tullio arrived, his car lights flashing, and I clambered into his car, almost too excited for words. We shook hands and then embraced. It was, of course, wonderful to see him once again.

I first visited Turin in 1987 – early November – and I can well remember walking the three miles from Porta Nuova to the old Stadio Communale for a Juve vs. Panathinaikos UEFA cup game. With each step on that cold, dark night, my excitement rose, with memories of Anastasi, Rossi, Boninsegna, Bettega and Zoff racing through my mind. It was, in fact, my first ever UEFA game of any description. How excited I was to turn a corner and finally set eyes on the Juve supporters crowding, three hours before the kick-off, outside the Curva Filadelphia. On that particular night, I sold my first ever football badges – “emblemi inglese, due mila lire” – before disappearing into the Curva Maratona to witness the bianconeri at play for the first time.

Just one memory of Turin. There are hundreds.

Tullio’s wife Emanuella welcomed me into their apartment and the two girls, Sofia and Lucrezia, soon arrived on the scene, though their gaze soon returned towards the cartoons on the TV screen. Of course, just under a year ago, I was with my other Italian friend Mario – from 1975 this time – in Germany when Chelsea played Michael Ballack’s Bayer Leverkusen. Was it really 1985 when the three of us were last together, playing football on the beach outside the Hotel Gabriella in Diano Marina? How time flies.

Emanuela, who is just starting up a fledgling catering company with a friend, served up a lovely Italian feast, alongside a couple of lovely local wines. We chatted and caught up and – to my surprise – the football talk was kept to a minimum. We ran through our two teams. I told Tullio that I liked the diminutive Giovinco.

“But he never scores. Only the third or fourth goal. Once the game is over.”

We spoke about the possibility of meeting up to see a Depeche Mode concert at the San Siro in Milano during the summer. Tullio has Mario to thank for exposing him to the music of the boys from Basildon. I had to comment –

“Of course, the best thing is…Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are Chelsea fans.”

Tullio drove me back into the city and we said our goodbyes. Tullio would be attending the Chelsea match on the Tuesday with some friends; he had managed to get hold of a ticket from a friend whose brother is a presenter on the Juventus TV channel. Last time, in 2009, Cathy managed to get Tullio a ticket via a contact at Barclay’s in Turin.

I met up with Alan, Gary, Daryl and Neil in the “Murphy’s Six Nations” pub on Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II, the main east-west road in the city. They had arrived in the city from Genoa. A couple of pints there were followed by a few more at “Zilli’s Bar” on the other side of the road. A few more familiar faces; Rob, Pauline, Peter, Callum and Digger. I spent time talking to a couple of Chelsea friends. Rob was waxing lyrical about the time that he went to that infamous game in 1975 at White Hart Lane. It was, actually, his first ever Chelsea game, but he was locked out. He only got in towards the end of the game when Chelsea were losing 2-0 and the gates were opened to let the early-leavers depart. He went into great detail about parts of the day, but memories of the game were scant. I joked with him that he was able to remember what he had for breakfast in the café on the Tottenham High Road beforehand, though.

“Any mushrooms, Rob?”

“Nah. Fried tomatoes, though, Chris.”

To be honest, I expected this main drag to be busier. I was worried that we would only have around 1,500 out of our allotted 2,400. I decided to head back to the hotel at 2.30am after the bar was invaded by some youngsters who were intent on singing songs which I found to be unacceptable. I don’t appreciate songs lauding John Terry’s alleged racist nature. Things got a little heated. I soon left.

On the day of the game, my plans were already sorted. I had a fantastic lunch arranged for 12.30pm at the “La Pista” restaurant which sits on top of the old Fiat Lingotto factory where Tullio’s grandfather worked all his life. I had a lie-in, but left the hotel at 11.45am. Unbelievably, as I stepped out of the hotel, glimpsing up at the cloudless sky, I heard my name being called.

“Chris!”

It was Tullio’s mother! She was with Tullio’s father. What a joy it was to see their faces! I had not planned to see them on this trip. Their house was only a mile or so away and they had walked up to my hotel to leave a little present for me in reception. What an amazing coincidence that I should chose to leave the hotel at that exact time. We were all full of smiles and we gave each other big, big hugs.

I was buzzing. This city was endearing itself to me all over again. I caught the metro down to Lingotto at midday. For film aficionados, Lingotto is famously featured in the 1969 film “The Italian Job” when a bank heist takes place in the city. The famous car chase ends up on the test-track on top of the Lingotto factory. It is not far from the old Campo Filadelfia stadium and the Stadio Olimpico, former and current homes of Torino.

Lingotto remained disused for many years when Fiat’s production moved to the sprawling Mirafiori works further to the south, but has been rejuvenated by architect Renzo Piano in the past twenty years. It now houses a hotel and a shopping centre. Inside, there was a small Christmas fayre and there was music being played. The first song I heard was “One Step Beyond.”

Yes really. Another good omen?

I spent well over an hour in the fantastic restaurant at Lingotto. I’m not a foodie at all, but decided to treat myself. I had a table overlooking the old test track. The view was simply stunning. The Alps to my left, the hills to the right and the dramatic curve of the banked test track ahead of me. It was a perfect day. The food was exceptional. I typically spent the time people-watching; an elegant couple to my left were having the Full Monty, around eight courses, and I watched as truffles were weighed out on some scales. Ahead, a noisy table of sixteen, one of whom was wearing a Chelsea sweatshirt. Maybe he was a Torino fan. They all stopped to listen as the patriarch spoke; there was hushed reverence. I almost expected Roman Abramovich and his entourage to arrive and use the vacant table away in the distance. I wasn’t used to such decadent surroundings, but I loved every minute. I spent a while mulling over my love affair with Italy. It was a time for quiet introspection. There was a time, circa 1988, when I had no concrete career plans and I semi-seriously mulled over the idea of living in Turin and attempting to make a living through selling football badges at games in Italy. I’d attempt to learn the language. Maybe six months in Turin. Six months in England. La Dolce Vita and all that.

Dream on. It never happened. I didn’t have the self-confidence to go for it.

In the restaurant at Lingotto, I daydreamed of a life that could have been.

I smiled to myself. I wasn’t bothered.

“Things are good mate. Things are good. Salute.”

After the meal, armed with my camera, I circumnavigated the test-track. Ever since I have been coming to Turin, visiting it has been my own personal holy grail. And here I was, walking the famous banked curves for the very first time. My camera went into overdrive and I loved it. Thankfully, there were no clouds in the sky. The snow-capped mountains to the west were clearly visible. To the north, the ornate tower of Il Mole Antonelliana was magnificent.

Click, click, click.

I was in my own little world and I loved it.

If only I had a mini…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrNCGdtdIRc

With sadness, I left the roof area and descended into the shopping centre. I popped into the Juve store, but neglected to buy anything; I was in Turin for Chelsea. It didn’t seem right to buy a Juve item. In a boutique, I was warmed to see the appearance of some Henri Lloyd pullovers, sweatshirts and trousers alongside the more typical Italian names such as Armani. There was also a Clarks shop nearby.

England fights back. The Italian Job all over again.

I made my way back into town and met up, briefly with Josh (theangryintern) who was outside “Murphy’s” with Cathy. I set him off on a quick walk of the city to give him an idea of its charms. I then returned to the hotel to recharge batteries; my mobile phone, my camera, my body. At 5pm, I was back out again. Camera in hand, I shot a few memorable photos of the area around Via Roma, the street which houses the up-market shops such as Fendi and Boss, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. This street runs north south from the Porta Nuova up to Piazza San Carlo and beyond. Although I love it, its architecture is brutal and easily recognisable from the facist years of Benito Mussolini. In the city from November to January, there is a “Festival of Lights” and I captured a few iconic images. It was 5.30pm and the city was calm. Juve fans were hardly visible. I popped into a gorgeous bar on Piazza San Carlo and enjoyed a crisp beer, then helped myself to the plates of “free nibbles” which were piled high on the bar.

La Dolce Vita indeed.

As I departed I said “buona note e forza Chelsea” to the cashier. She smiled. Maybe she was Toro, too.

I zipped into “Zilli’s Bar” again. Rumours were confused about transportation to the stadium, some four miles to the north-west. Cathy and Josh, now joined by Beth, had rumours of getting a tube to Bernini and then coaches would be waiting. I then crossed the road and met up with Daryl, Alan, Gary and Neil in “Murphy’s” for a pint of Birra Moretti. There was a nice “Welcome Blues” banner outside this cosy bar and a Chelsea DVD was playing. I took a couple of photographs of Roberto Di Matteo in around 1997. The lads had enjoyed themselves during the day; a bus tour, a visit to Il Mole, some nice memories to take away with them. Alan had seen on the official Chelsea website that we had to muster on Corso San Maurizio to wait for buses. At around 7pm, we set off for this anointed point, but on our arrival, buses were nowhere to be seen. A plan B was called for and so I nipped into a Chinese restaurant and asked the owner to ring for a cab – “lo stadio, per cinque persone, per piacere.”

At 7.45pm, we were hurtling through the evening traffic. Fifteen minutes later, the cabbie – at last, a Juve fan – dropped us off at the north-eastern corner of the stadium. Pulses were racing now. Good times. On the cab ride, I had mentioned to Daryl that I remembered talking to him when we first met up in 1992 about my travels around Europe selling badges and the trips to Italy to see Juventus in particular. I remembered him commenting that, in all seriousness, he was a tad jealous, since all he had done was “watch Chelsea.” At the time, the remark made me wince since I was surprised anyone would be jealous of me. Since then, Daryl – plus all of my other mates – have had a merry dance, following our beloved team all over the continent. Daryl remembered the comment and smiled.

“We’ve been lucky. Other fans could only wish for what we’ve done.”

I was last on this spot in May 1999, the weekend of Tullio and Emanuela’s wedding, when I awoke bleary-eyed on the Sunday and made my way, again by cab, to the old Delli Alpi for the weekend’s other major attraction; Juventus vs. Fiorentina. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had been in town, memorably defeating Juve 3-2 in the CL semi-final after being 2-0 down. It was, allegedly, Roy Keane’s best ever game for United. It was United’s version of our draw at Barcelona in 2012 I guess. I was pretty delicate after the excesses of the wedding reception – I memorably awoke with bloodshot eyes – but watched a Juventus team including Didier Deschamps, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane defeat the hated Viola 2-1. Current manager Antonio Conte scored the winning goal way deep in injury time and then infamously ran towards the away section in the north-east corner and pulled the black and white corner flag out of the ground and waved it victoriously at the Fiorentina fans. I have this all on camcorder film somewhere.

The others were keen to enter the stadium, but I excused myself and took a few moments to let things settle, to take it all in. Outside, there were many souvenir stalls selling Juve gifts. There was also the ever-present smell of wurst being grilled. A German food being sold at an Italian game? Sure. The smell took me back to nights selling badges in Turin, Milan and Verona. There was a heavy police presence outside our gate, but I was quickly through the security checks. My camera hung around my neck, but I was allowed in. At each of the three checks, I sweet-talked the stewards.

“Sono tifo di Chelsea, ma – sono un piccolo tifo di Juventus.”

There were smiles at each of these interjections.

I took some atmospheric shots of the stadium, with the moon high above. The stadium sits on the exact site of the Delli Alpi. Because the lower bowl is below street level, it doesn’t look too imposing from the exterior. It is a very photogenic stadium though. The twin roof supports are painted white, red and green, mirroring the Italian flag, but the design reminded me, bizarrely, of the 1990 World Cup mascot, too. Strangely, Google Earth still shows the Delle Alpi stadium in all its unloved glory.

Yes, this was the site of the wonderful, but eventually heart-breaking, England vs. West Germany semi-final. I heartily recommend the film “One night in Turin” by the way.

I slowly made my way up the entrance tunnels and the white light of the arena beckoned me ever closer. Within a few steps, there it was. The terraces were so steep. Never has a 40,000 stadium looked so large and impressive. I’ve been keeping an eye on the progress of the building of this new stadium for quite a while. To my knowledge, it is the first-ever publicly funded stadium in Italy. I even watched the official opening in August of last year in a special 45 minute “Juventus / Facebook” link. It was a magnificently choreographed evening. And here it was, in the flesh. It was more spectacular than I had hoped.

“Fantastico.”

The Chelsea fans were strong in number. Thank heavens. I’m not sure where they had all been hiding during the day, but it was stirring to see so many had traveled.

It was soon time for me to become reacquainted with the Juventus anthem which I have been “YouTubing” for ages. The flags were waved, the music boomed out. Out came my “pub camera” to record it all for posterity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz68T…&feature=g-upl

I must admit to being just a little dewy-eyed at this moment. I am sure that Tullio, over on the far side, was singing along to the words.

“Juve, storia di un grande amore.
Bianco che abbraccia il nero.
Coro che si alza davvero, solo per te.
E’ la juve, storia di quel che saro’
Quando fischia l’inizio.
Ed inizia quel sogno che sei.”

Juventus in black and white shirts, white shorts and white socks. Chelsea in all blue.

So, this was it then. The night of destiny in Turin. I prayed that we could withstand the onslaught in the first twenty minutes. We had heard that the team would be without Fernando Torres. Eden Hazard to play centrally. Having Cesar Azpilicueta play wide in the midfield brought back memories of Ryan Bertrand in Munich.

We could only hope.

Early Juventus pressure was not a surprise. A wonderful save from Petr Cech at his near post had us all applauding. The home team kept attacking, but a break by Oscar on eight minutes gave us hope. It was a very strong run and he drew a defender before feeding in Eden Hazard. A low shot was deflected by Gianluigi Bufon into the goal’s side netting. This gave us hope. The old favourite from 2009 was aired.

“We are Chelsea, we are Chelsea, we are Chelsea – in Turin.”

Juventus came again and another fine save denied Marchisio.

Chances for Ramires and Hazard gave us hope. In truth, Juventus were enjoying most of the ball. At least we were creating some chances, though.

On 37 minutes, a speculative shot from Quagliarella took a wicked deflection and Cech was beaten. The tifosi roared and our hearts sank. As if to rub it in, the Juventus DJ played a short burst of “Chelsea Dagger” after the goal was scored.

A dagger to the heart.

Although Juventus had most of the ball, the thoughts among my little group of friends were that we had played reasonably well in the first period. Mikel was our best player I thought. Oscar showed good strength.

Our play seemed to deteriorate with each passing minute in the second-half. We all thought Cahill had fouled Vucinic inside the penalty area and we breathed a collective sigh of relief when the referee didn’t agree. Juventus attacked at will and some of our positional play was worrying. Azpilicueta, who had been fine, was replaced by Moses. Soon after, Juventus went further ahead when the ball was played back to Vidal. His shot was deflected again, this time by Ramires and Cech was beaten.

Another dagger to the Chelsea heart.

Torres came on for Mikel. A surprise that. He tidily played in Oscar to no avail. We were hoping for a miracle to be honest. The news from Denmark had been to our favour in the first-half with Shakhtar losing; they were now winning 5-2.

Things were bleak.

Giovinco broke through and beat the offside trap. Petr Cech did all he could to block, but the little Juventus attacker stroked the ball into an empty.

Pure misery.

I texted Tullio –

“He always scores the third goal.”

At the final whistle, we stared an exit from this year’s competition straight in the face. I went down to have a quick chat with my friend Orlin, who I previously met before the Arsenal away game last season. He is a Bulgarian, currently living in San Francisco. He remembered my quote of being a “1% Juventus fan.”

“Chris, are you 1% happy?”

I grimaced.

“No. I’m zero per cent happy.”

This was truly a grim night. Kev from Bristol did some calculations; it transpired that we have to hope for Shakhtar to defeat Juve while we win our last game against Nordsjaelland. We shuffled out of the stadium while some young oafs took their frustration out on some persplex glass which kept us separated from the locals, beating it constantly. We waited in silence. The mood was of solemnity. I wasn’t happy. We then boarded a fleet of coaches to take us back to the city centre. We were packed in like sardines. The mood was very similar to the mood after the game in Naples in February.

Back in the centre, the Chelsea fans dispersed into the night. The five of us sat outside “Murphy’s” for a few more drinks. After a few moments, the mood lightened. The famous Chelsea gallows humour helped us through. Behind me, an unknown Chelsea supporter was talking to an Italian about the club and its manager –

“Di Matteo is the new manager, yes. We will hope he can build a team this season. We want him to stay and do well.”

The boys had to be up early in the morning, so at about 1.30am we all returned to our respective hotels.

There was no need for me to get up too early on the Wednesday. At 10am, I was slowly coming around. The defeat was heavy in my mind. Should we fall into the Europa League, how will we cope? How will I cope? Big questions.

At 10.13am, my work colleague Mike texted me –

“What a joke! Di Matteo should have been treated better than that! Shocking!”

I looked at the text with blurry eyes. What did this mean? Had he been sacked? No. Surely not. I replied –

“What? What’s the news?”

Mike replied –

“Been sacked.”

In one single moment, I was angry, saddened, crestfallen, bewildered, upset, confused and heartbroken. The texts started flying around. It was true. How could my club dismiss the services of one of its greatest ever heroes so easily – and with the absolute absence of dignity – in such a despicable manner? This man had won us the FA Cup and the European Cup in May. This man had taken charge in dire circumstances and yet had got the team to respond admirably. Only a month ago, we had followed up a 2-1 win at Arsenal with a 4-2 win at Tottenham. Only recently, we were top of the league. Do we know judge our managers over just six games?

My brain was numb for the rest of that day in Turin. I disappeared over the bridge and had a morning cappuccino in a café in Piazza Crimea, then had a conversation in Italian with two locals as I bought the pink “Gazzetta” sports paper. I likened Chelsea to an Italian club, changing managers every six months. I only really know “football words” and “swear words” in Italian, but my vocabulary allowed me to talk for quite some time.

“Cambio, cambio, cambio! Bastardi!”

I walked up to Monte dei Cappuccini to take the last few photographs of my most recent trip to Turin. The city was oblivious to my sorrow. I guess that it was almost inevitable, knowing how the hand of probability works, that on one visit there would be sadness. Turin has certainly known its share of footballing grief, what with the twin tragedies of Superga and Heysel. Those two disasters have formed part of the collective psyche for the respective supporters of Torino and Juventus. Without wishing to be disrespectful, impolite or churlish, the city of Turin has now become a black spot in the history of my beloved Chelsea Football Club too.
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