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 High Noon

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 17 February 2013.

After encouraging wins against Wigan Athletic and Sparta Prague, we were looking for our third consecutive victory in our F.A. cup replay against Brentford. The first game at Griffin Park took place three Sundays ago; somehow, it seemed even further in the past than that. At times, it has been difficult to keep track of what is happening in 2012-2013. This season seems to be lurching along, victories here, defeats there. The whole campaign seems to be as downright tortuous and convoluted as I can remember. Our involvement in seven individual competitions then became eight as we were eliminated from the Champions League and entered the Europa League. We took part in the World Club Championships, playing football in Asia during a regular season for the first time, but breaking up the flow of the league campaign. There have been two managers. There have been cup runs. Extra games everywhere we looked. In the Europa League, a potential seven further games wait should we get past Sparta. We have played in cities from Seattle in the west to Tokyo in the east. There was a visit to Monaco for the Super Cup. Should we reach the Europa Final in Amsterdam, we might well have to visit that stadium twice within two months.

It’s turning into a right old mess of a season

I set off for Stamford Bridge at 8am on a crisp, cold, foggy morning. This was another solo-trip east. I wasn’t worried. With coffee to hand and music on the CD player, I set off across Salisbury Plain. At times, the visibility was terrible. The fields were frosted; the fog and mist almost enveloped me as I drove through the thatched-roof villages of Chitterne and Shrewton. As I drove past Stonehenge, suddenly bathed in early morning sunshine and looking quite sublime, I received a quick phone call from The Fishy Boy himself, the Right Honourable Lord Tuna. He was over for a couple of weeks, staying in Northamptonshire, but on his way down to London with my mate Andy, one of the Nuneaton bunch.

I quickly realised that of all the Chelsea characters from the USA who I have been lucky enough to meet over the past eight years, Tuna was the very first. Way back in 2004, I attended the Chelsea vs. Roma game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. On that very memorable trip, I travelled up from North Carolina with some friends and, to be quite honest, we kept ourselves to ourselves. We watched the game from behind a goal, away from the main bulk of the Chelsea support, which was based along the sideline. Looking back at a photograph of the 150 – at very most – Chelsea fans in that section, it seems like a different era already. From that little group of enthusiasts, our support in the US – and elsewhere – has grown exponentially and it is difficult to put it all into some sort of perspective. Amongst that group, there were around 10-15 folk who I have got to know very well over the ensuing years. Tuna is one of them. I bumped into him on the walk out of the stadium; we only shared a few words at the time, happy with our 3-0 win. I remember thinking, confused by his mid-Atlantic accent, “is this guy an Englishman who has been living in the US for a while or is this American putting on a London accent?” I bumped into Tuna the next year outside “Nevada Smiths” in Manhattan and we have been friends ever since.

Looking back – I may have told this story before – I only really became involved with the CIA people just before the Chicago trip in 2006. Things have steamrollered since then. Friendships have been strengthened. Further trips to the US have been enjoyed. My horizons have been broadened and I’m very thankful. Amongst it all, there is a notch of friends who I know will be my friends for life.

You know who you are.

These days, writing “Tales” seems as natural to me as buying a match ticket, meeting up in The Goose, taking photographs of the match day experience or verbally abusing Lord Parky.

“It’s what I do.”

Anyway, enough of the life story bollocks, let’s talk about Chelsea.

By the time I had reached London, the fog had lifted and it was a beautiful sunny winter’s day. As I went “up and over” the antiquated Chiswick flyover I made a point of spotting the high arch of Wembley Stadium a few miles to the north. It appeared, fleetingly, just above row upon row of red chimney pots on the roofs of the terraced houses of Chiswick.

Wembley Stadium was the goal, of course.

The F.A. Cup Final will be played out beneath its crescent of white steel in May. It still remains an iconic venue, despite losing a lot of its historical mystique during its reconstruction between 2000 and 2007. However, since the eventual opening of the new Wembley, it is without a hint of exaggeration, our second home.

2007 F.A. Cup Final
2007 F.A. Community Shield
2008 League Cup Final
2009 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2009 F.A. Cup Final
2009 F.A. Community Shield
2010 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2010 F.A. Cup Final
2010 F.A. Community Shield
2012 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2012 F.A. Cup Final

Of the eleven visits, only the defeat to “those whose name need not be mentioned” in 2008 brought me any real sadness. The two Community Shield defeats against United were nothing in comparison.

At 10.30am, I strode into the already busy and noisy pub. I half expected a few rogue away fans, but they were elsewhere. I soon spotted Tuna clasping a pint of Guinness at the end of the bar. I eventually talked him into attending the game at Manchester City the following Sunday; Gill had a couple of spares. Job done. Chatter amongst my friends was mainly dominated by tales of Prague. Alas, I had not ventured to the beautiful city in the heart of Bohemia on this occasion, but everyone reported back with lovely anecdotes, mainly involving the crisp and pristine beer of which the Czech nation is famous.

Sadly, I had to make do with a pint of chemically-infested “Carlsberg.”

On the TV above the bar, we learned that Demba Ba was starting. The time passed way-too quickly. At 11.30am, Tuna and I set off for The Bridge.

Of course we are all used to Sunday (and Monday, and Thursday) football these days, but I can well remember that Sunday football was a novelty way back in the ‘seventies. In fact, in the programme for my first-ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge in 1974, several letters from fans were aired, discussing the relative merits of Sunday football. There was quite a considerable “no” lobby, with people concerned that the religious “day of rest” was being used for un-Godly acts, that families would not benefit from games tearing the fabric of their life apart, that it would start the end of civilisation as we know it.

Joking apart, I wish that there was less Sunday football. It still – even after all these years – doesn’t feel the same as “Saturday 3pm football.”

Old habits and all that.

The six thousand Brentford fans were settled in The Shed by the time I took my seat alongside Alan, still tired from the excesses of Prague, in the MHU.

In addition to the choice of Demba Ba in attack, complete with Zorro mask, there were other changes too. John Terry returned to the heart of the defence, with Gary Cahill alongside him. Ivanovic, as so often is the case, shuffled over to the right in place of Azpilicueta. David Luiz – another central defender – was alongside Frank at the base of the midfield five. Victor Moses, fresh from the Africa Cup of Nations triumph, was deployed alongside Oscar and Mata. It was a very strong Chelsea team. With David Luiz now playing more and more in his midfield role, we now have four very able players fighting for those two defensive-midfield positions; Mikel, Luiz, Lampard and Ramires. On another day, in a parallel universe, those four would make a pretty formidable midfield four, in a 4-4-2, in their own right. Our squad is OK at the moment. Adding Ba and playing Azpilicueta has given us more options. Generally speaking – taking away the grief of Benitez and all of that negativity – there are reasons to be cheerful about this transitional season. Benitez seems reluctant to change from his trusted 4-2-3-1 during a game, and lacks creativity in his substitutions, but I have to be honest and say that the same could have been said of Di Matteo, too.

We were treated to a couple of early exchanges from both teams in the first quarter of an hour. I was very impressed with Brentford in the first game – a match, let’s be honest, that they should have won – and they twice threatened Petr Cech’s goal. As is always the case when lower league teams visit Stamford Bridge, the first few forays by Brentford into our half were enthusiastically roared on by the 6,000 away fans. It was quite endearing really. I remember the days when Chelsea – as underdogs at home against Liverpool in 1982, for example – were similarly roared on every time the ball was played into the opposition’s half. These days, we hardly even clap, unless there is a dramatic one versus one break taking place and the match is tied and going into the last minute of extra-time.

Against a lower level team, I wondered if it really was necessary to play with two defensive midfielders. However it was soon apparent that although Luiz and Lampard were based in front of the defence, both were looking to play the long ball or raid individually via penetrative runs from deep.

Headers from Ivanovic and Ba went close, but a loose shot from Luiz soared high on its way towards Battersea. A falling Oscar managed to guide his shot towards the goal, but the bouncing shot struck the outside of a post. We were treated to a huge slice of good fortune when a Luiz foul on Forshaw was called back by the referee even though the Brentford attack kept going and the ball was struck past Cech. The resulting free-kick struck the wall. Lampard uncharacteristically fumbled a shot from close in. We could hardly believe our eyes. These days, I feel cheated if Frank doesn’t score during a match that I attend. It was, in truth, a mediocre first-half. The Brentford fans, though not as loud as the northerners of Scunthorpe United or Huddersfield Town in similar cup games, out sung us throughout. Victor Moses was out of sorts and Ba hardly touched the ball. There were a few – only a few – boos at half-time.

The banana skin was still there.

Thankfully, we only had to wait eight minutes into the second-half for a breakthrough. A long punt up field from Cech was aimed at Ba. The ball broke to Juan Mata a good twenty yards out. He quickly unpacked his theodolite and rapidly surveyed the terrain, consulted his compass, took measurements of the prevailing weather conditions, did a quick geological assessment, including grass moisture content, and then cleaned his boots. As the ball bounced, he caressed the ball once and then struck it firmly, with an exact aim, right into the corner of the goal.

1-0 to the F.A. Cup holders and Juan Mata raced away to the far corner, smiling in that impish way of his.

Phew.

Our play was a little more pleasing to the eye in the second period, but the crowd still struggled to get behind the team. A great move resulted in our second goal of the game. Eden Hazard had replaced the lacklustre Moses and soon stole the ball from a Brentford midfielder who was obviously caught thinking about what he was going to have for tea later that evening. He spotted the magnificent lung-busting run from Ivanovic and the ball was played perfectly for our charging Serbian to run onto. His perfect pull back was aimed at Oscar. He executed a Zola-esque flick with his trailing foot to guide the ball towards goal. The ball crept in between the legs of a mesmerized Brentford defender, who was obviously wondering “steak and chips or a Chinese take-way” to himself.

2-0.

Phew again.

Alan emphasised what a magnificent run Ivanovic had made in order to create an option for Hazard. I had to agree. It was quite magnificent. Ivanovic is a much-loved part of our team these days. Those two errors against Swansea are long forgotten. We love him to bits.

Five minutes later, a nice move down the left resulted in Juan Mata – always involved – spotting the onrushing Frank Lampard who took great delight in smashing in goal number 199. My only dismay is that I didn’t catch the strike on film, unlike number 198 against Wigan Athletic. At least I caught his joyous celebrations on film immediately after.

3-0.

The icing on the cake – or the salt on the celery – was the fourth goal. A magnificent cross from the increasingly formidable Oscar found the head of John Terry, whose perfect leap dumbfounded both keeper and defender (as they were both going out for an Indian with their respective wives, they were just discussing whose turn it was to drive). I snapped away as John rushed over to the far corner and embarrassed himself with a cringe-worthy celebratory jig. It was, if my memory serves, not unlike the jig that he chose to celebrate his first-ever goal way back in 2000 against Gillingham (and for which he was lampooned amongst his team mates at the time.) At least the ensuing leap and punch was a bit more acceptable.

4-0.

Gary Cahill almost made it a nicely-rounded 5-0 but his shot was blocked by at least nineteen Brentford players a mere eight yards out.

As I drifted out of the stadium, the Brentford fans were applauding their players, but folding up their flags. It was not to be their day. John Terry was soaking up the adulation from the Matthew Harding. “Blue Is The Colour” was being played on the stadium PA system. The shoot-out at high noon had resulted in Chelsea advancing to the fifth round yet again.

Job done.

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Tales From The North Circular

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 October 2012.

On Friday evening, with the arid desert of the two week long international break thankfully behind us, I felt like an excitable five year old on Christmas Eve. We all remember that feeling. On any other night of the year, as a child, it was typical to eke out as much time in the evening as possible before it was time to head up to bed. I can well remember the glee when my parents relented after persistent pleading to have “ten more minutes” outside (to play football in the street usually, with light fading), before being herded inside and then taken upstairs to bed. Christmas Eve was different; get to bed early, try to get to sleep quickly, it will soon be Christmas Day, with presents and jollity and fun.

At 6.30am, the alarm sounded and, unlike weekdays, there was no need for me to utilize the snooze button.

This was Tottenham Away.

Bearing in mind the rivalry between the two clubs, the magnificent denouement to last season, which of course resulted in us elbowing Spurs out of the Champions League, and the added frisson of Andre Villas-Boas as Spurs’ new manager, I regarded this as the most important away game of the domestic season.

Love it.

At 8.15am, I had packed my match day essentials – ticket, wallet, camera, coffee – and I was on my way. Within a minute of driving through the misty village, I had disturbed some pigeons as they sat idling in the middle of the road. Feathers flew, but I didn’t have time to check if there had been fatalities. I think they had a lucky escape. I wondered how we would fare with our feathered friends from Tottenham later in the day. Would the cockerels be quite so lucky?

The early morning was shrouded in mist as I headed east. As I drove along the quiet country roads to the north of Frome, a huge lock of birds suddenly appeared to my right. They swooped down and across my field of vision and the sight was rather impressive, if not slightly spooky. I let my imagination run away with me for a few seconds and I chuckled as I wondered if the pigeons had been in touch with the starlings after the incident five minutes earlier. As I drove on, I looked back and saw around twenty black birds sitting, ominously, on an electric wire, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

Gulp.

I took a swig of coffee and told myself to pull myself together.

Pigeons, starlings, cockerels, Hitchcock.

What did it all mean?

Thankfully, the next hour or so was devoid of similar incidents. In fact, the drive through Somerset, into Wiltshire and on into Berkshire was simply fantastic. Back in my childhood, my father used to take this route on his drive up to London for our twice-a-season pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge. For games at White Hart lane, I usually drive into London and then take the tube up to Seven Sisters. For a change, I had decided to drive all the way in and chance my arm with a parking spot near the stadium. The first hour was spent driving along the idyllic roads of Wessex, through towns such as Devizes and Marlborough. While thoughts of previous games at White Hart Lane flitted in and out of my mind, all was good with the world.

Slender church spires piercing the monotone grey sky, prim thatched cottages hugging the road, trees peeking out over valleys of low-lying fog, delicate Turneresque smudges of light as the sun attempted to burn its way through the grey clouds, red brick farmhouses, the surreal lunar landscape of the chalk down lands, the first tints of autumn on beech trees and the dull purr of my tires on the road below.

As my little capsule of contentment headed east, I was happy with my lot.

And Chelsea’s game at Tottenham was only a few hours away.

Seriously, what else are you going to do on a Saturday?

Typically, my mind wandered back to my youth; my first ever two visits to White Hart Lane during the early weeks of the 1986-1987 and 1987-1988 seasons.

In September 1986, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day out in N17. After a far from impressive start to the season, we travelled to White Hart Lane and triumphed 3-1. The weather was dreadful, I got drenched on that long walk back to Seven Sisters, but I was euphoric. Only five months earlier, my first ever visit to Old Trafford had resulted in a Chelsea win. Two debut wins at my most despised opponents’ home stadia was just perfect. Although unmemorable in the main, 1986 at least provided me with those two excellent away days.

Less than a year later, we had got off to a flier with two wins from games against Sheffield Wednesday at home and Portsmouth away. The Chelsea hordes travelled in our thousands for this one. The attendance for the 1986 was just 28,000, but the 1987 one drew 37,000. I travelled up by train with Glenn and it felt like we were part of an invading army. We bought tickets (Glenn bought his from a tout) for seats in the upper tier of the Park Lane End and watched as our ranks were swelled with each passing minute. As I thought about the current limit of 3,000 away fans at all Premier League games, I became misty-eyed for those distant times. On that day in August 1987, I’d say that we probably had 10,000 fans at White Hart Lane. Those were the days my friend; for a moment, I was transported back in time. As kick-off approached and the terraced areas in front of our seats became swelled to capacity, there were calls by the Chelsea fans for the police and stewards to open up extra sections in the lower tier of The Shelf terrace, which ran along the side of the pitch and housed the Tottenham hardcore.

Eventually, an extra pen was given to the away fans. The Chelsea fans charged into the section, much to the chagrin of the Spurs fans above. It was all about territory in those days. It was all about how many you took to away games. It was all about numbers. These days, it’s difficult to gauge the size of various clubs’ travelling support because the limit is always 3,000. Back in those days, it was the size of our away “take” that was in many ways as important as the result on the pitch. In 1987, we travelled to White Hart Lane not because we were in the hunt for silverware. We just travelled to make a statement and to support the team.

Sadly, a last minute goal by Nico Claesen gave Spurs a 1-0 win, but the over-riding memory of that day twenty-five years ago was the fearsome size of our travelling support.

At 9.30am, I flicked on a Morrissey CD as I joined the M4. The next hour, save for some familiar tunes making me chuckle, the driving was rather monotonous. The fog thickened. It wasn’t so much fun.

Heading into London, the fog was still thick and the Wembley Arch to the north was not visible. Ah Wembley – memories of that 5-1 annihilation in April.

I exited the M4 and began a clockwise circumnavigation of inner London via the fabled North Circular. I don’t often travel on this road; the last time, in fact, was with Beth on our return from Leverkusen via Stansted airport last November. Before the advent of the M25 in around 1986, the North Circular – and the South Circular – was the main road used to traverse the great city of London. It acts as a ring road. It was and it still is notoriously busy.

As I drove through Ealing Common, with the road at its narrowest, I easily thought back on the years from 1975 to 1980 when my father would park on an adjacent side road and we would travel in by tube to see games at Stamford Bridge. My father was terrified of the London traffic and Ealing was as far as he could manage. Ah, how excited I was on those walks to Ealing Common tube station. My father’s last ever Chelsea game was against Everton on New Year’s Day 1991 and I’m pretty sure he parked at Ealing Common on that occasion, too. My mind became full of memories of match after match. They were layered one on top of another, just like the piles of bright autumn leaves on the Ealing Common walkways.

After Park Royal, from where we travelled in by tube for my very first game in 1974, the road broadened to three lanes. I had an eye on the clock and an eye on my speedometer. The traffic slowed to a halt on a few occasions. The road cut through inter-war housing estates, industrial areas and small parks. Signs for Wembley, Neasden, Finchley, Barnet and Wood Green. North London proper. It didn’t seem like Chelsea territory and, of course, it wasn’t. Sure we have pockets of support in this vast section of England’s capital, but this area of suburban sprawl belongs to the two North London teams. A large advertisement hoarding for an Arsenal shop at Brent Cross shopping centre emphasised the point.

I continued on. As I neared my destination, the traffic crawled along and my frustration was rising. How I’d hate to have to do this every two weeks. The only place to be every other Saturday certainly isn’t driving around the North Circular.

At last, I turned off at Edmonton and, via yet more slow moving traffic and a rather circuitous route, I eventually parked on Wilbury Way. It had taken me three and a half hours to cover the 125 miles.

Phew.

It was 11.45am.

I walked along Bridport Road and then Pretoria Road, past small industrial units, past the Haringey Irish Centre, where Cathy sometimes stops for a drink at Tottenham. I was soon outside White Hart Lane. Land was evidently being cleared for the construction of their new stadium which is planned to be built directly to the east of the current site. A computerised image of the new stadium appeared on a few hoardings. It looked impressive, but eerily similar to Arsenal’s new pad. This is no surprise; most new football stadia look as if they have been taken from the same blueprint these days.

Lower bowl, two tiers of executive seats, undulating top tier.

There is nothing special architecturally about White Hart Lane from the outside. It’s all rather dull to be honest. What makes it special are the memories of past matches and past players.

I shuffled past a heavy police presence in the south-west corner and entered the stadium. It was 12.15pm. While I waited for the kick-off, I spoke with a few acquaintances. It’s amazing how slow it takes for grounds to fill up these days. With fifteen minutes to go, the place was only half full. The team was the same as for Arsenal, apart from Cahill in for Terry. We heard that Gareth Bale wasn’t playing. Alan and Gary joined me just before the teams entered the pitch. There had been a few Chelsea songs in the pre-match build-up, but nothing from Tottenham.

As the match began, we soon serenaded the home fans of memories of Munich.

“We know what we are…Champions of Europe…we know what we are.”

Two lads arrived with a twelve foot long banner, obviously nicked from Munich, which we tied to the barrier right in front of us.

This was the Champions of Europe section.

Happy days.

Down on the pitch, Chelsea were in the ascendency and were pushing the ball around intelligently. The sun briefly broke through the grey sky and White Hart Lane looked a picture. It is a very neat stadium.

The songs continued.

“We won 5-1 – Wembley.”

“We won 6-1 – at The Lane.”

“We are the champions – the Champions of Europe, we are the champions – the Champions of Europe.”

“That song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song.”

“Ashley Cole’s won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup.”

“You got battered, you got battered, you got battered – in Seville.”

“Love the Old Bill – in Seville. Love the Old Bill – in Seville.”

We were certainly in good voice and our team were responding well. Our midfield maestros Oscar and Mata were soon probing away and we looked calm and relaxed, often finding room on both flanks. A corner to the far post was headed back across the box by Gallas. Gary Cahill had peeled away from his marker on the near post and met the dropping ball on the penalty spot with the sweetest of volleys. As a planned corner it could not have worked better if Gallas was still a Chelsea player. The ball thundered into the net. It was a volley which reminded me of the strike by Ivanovic in the Norwich game.

I captured Gary’s joyful run back towards us in the southern Park Lane end on camera. He was being chased by his gleeful team mates and their happiness was matched by ours.

Get in.

Our excellent play continued, but we didn’t carve out many chances. Tottenham tested Cech a little, but the defence held firm. Mata should have made it 2-0 as the interval approached but he shot over after he followed up his own shot after it was parried by Brad Friedel.

With memories of that night in Naples, Ashley Cole was able to scurry back and head a dipping cross off the line. Two fantastic blocks in quick succession – I think by Cahill and Ivanovic – told me all I needed to know about this new Chelsea team. Both players flung themselves at the ball with no respect for personal injury. It was magnificent to watch. Fantastic stuff.

At the break, talk was all about us playing well, but we were all rueing the lack of a second goal.

Well, the opening period of the second-half was a nightmare. Our concerns about that missing second goal came to fruition. Within ten minutes, defensive lapses had presented Tottenham with not only an equaliser through Gallas but a second goal via Defoe. The home crowd roared both strikes and the sight of all the gurning Spurs fans goading the Chelsea fans to my left and right was sickening.

White Hart Lane came to life. The uber-slow dirge “Oh when the Spurs…go marching in” echoed around the white tub of the old stadium. I hate it because it reminds me of that 2008 Carling Cup Final, but the Spurs fans certainly love it. It’s the one time they all get behind the team. The noise was deafening and we were momentarily quiet and subdued.

We were staring our first league defeat in the face. We hadn’t won at Tottenham in the league since 2005. Our unbeaten run of thirty-two league games against Spurs from 1990 to 2005 suddenly seemed like a distant memory. It was time for us to buck that trend. It was time for the players to respond. It was Roberto di Matteo’s first real challenge of the 2012-2013 league season. There was a niggling doubt that our three marauding midfielders would not be able to offer the two holding midfielders enough cover and assistance. Not just for this game, but throughout the whole campaign. I sat and wondered if our new playing style might be one-dimensional and too fragile. I looked at the Spurs midfielders – Sandro, Sigurrdsson, Huddlestone – and I looked at the slender Mata, Hazard and Oscar.

This was a big test alright.

To be truthful, Hazard had been the least impressive in the first-half. Suddenly, the overwhelming good vibes at the break had turned into feelings of worry and concern. There were cat calls amongst the away support. Fernando Torres, though neat in possession, seemed to be unwilling to run and test the Spurs defence. Too often, he stayed still, rather than exploit space.

Tottenham fired a few long range shots at Cech, but thankfully they tended to be straight towards him.

We need not have worried.

With Mikel and Ramires starting to re-exert themselves in the middle, the rhythm of the first-half soon returned. We enjoyed watching some wonderful flowing football. A loose clearance by Gallas – it was turning out to be his afternoon after all – fell at the feet of Juan Mata on the edge of the box. With ice cold blood in his veins, he took a steadying touch and calmly drilled the ball into the goal, with just inches to spare by the post.

YEEEEESSSSSS!

We were bouncing again. The Chelsea corner exploded with joy.

This was turning into some game. Remarkably, Defoe forced a supremely athletic save from Cech with a dipping shot. Then, a magnificent move resulted in more joy for the three thousand royal blue loyalists. Mikel played the ball to Hazard, who was now a lot more involved. His delightful first-time ball cut straight through the Spurs defence and into the path of the advancing Mata. It was the pass of the season.

Mata clipped the ball past Friedel and we were 3-2 up.

YYEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS!

Oh boy.

What a game.

I found myself yelling awful abuse at the Spurs fans in the distance and I somehow felt cleansed for the experience.

Spurs had a couple of half-chances. Juan Mata could have scored another. He then played in Torres, but his studied strike towards the far post narrowly missed the target.

To our surprise, Daniel Sturridge took the place of the magnificent Oscar when we all expected Torres to be substituted. I commented that Jose Mourinho would have brought on at least one defender with us being 3-2 up. The days of narrow pragmatic wins were now a distant memory.

Attack or be damned.

With Spurs pushing for an equaliser – amid horrible memories of Robbie Keane’s late equaliser in the ridiculous 4-4 draw in 2008 – Walker was robbed by Mata on the far touchline in front of The Shelf. He painstakingly passed the ball across the six yard box for Studge to almost apologetically prod home from four yards. Behind him, Torres.

It was one of those days for Nando.

We roared again, though our screams of delight were mixed with howls of laughter too. We turned to the intense figure on the Tottenham bench for one last bout of piss-taking.

“Andre – what’s the score? Andre, Andre – what’s the score?”

Mr. Villas-Boas was not available for comment.

This was a stunning game of football. Not only did we play some wonderfully entertaining stuff, but the nature of our recovery was emblematic of the new found confidence running through this team. Although Mata deservedly garnered all of the attention, and Cech kept us in the game, I need to mention Mikel and Ramires, our two quite dissimilar bastions at the base of our midfield five. They were quite simply magnificent. Who could have possibly thought that our movement away from a physical style of football to a more entertaining variant would be so easy?

Transition season? What transition season.

On the walk back to the car, all was quiet among the Tottenham fans. There seemed to be an air of sad acceptance that Chelsea had prospered. I hate to say this, but I’m genuinely starting to feel sorry for them.

Wink.

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Tales From Munich : Part Two – Arms Were Linked

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

The walk to the Allianz Arena on the evening of Saturday 19th. May 2012 probably took around fifteen minutes. At the start, we were together as a group, but occasionally we splintered away to talk to a few fellow fans, faces from home, as we marched north. I spotted many fans – of both teams – holding rather pathetic looking home-made cards with phrases such as “Need Ticket Please” on them. I brushed past them, feeling no guilt. There were Chelsea fans singing still. Bayern were relatively quiet. I then realised that most of the Bayern support was probably already within the stadium a few hundred yards away.

Onwards we marched. Glenn was still struggling with the basic concept of putting one foot in front of the other and he occasionally lurched and swayed to the left and right. It was time for me to have words with him. In the absence of an adjacent naughty step, I grabbed him by the arm and read him the riot act. I had visions of him being pulled at the gate by an over-zealous policeman.

“Listen mate, sober up. We’ve come this far. You have your ticket. Don’t fcuk it up at the last minute.”

Not every Chelsea fan was in colours. Amongst our little group, only the John Bumstead T-shirt being worn by Daryl and the black and orange Chelsea gear being worn by Gal gave a clue to our allegiance. Elsewhere there was the usual smattering of new Chelsea shirts, current Chelsea shirts, old Chelsea shirts and retro Chelsea shirts. Packs of lads without colours – typically the faces I see at most away games – were similarly attired as us. The forty-something dress code of trainers, jeans, polo shirts, designer tops and occasional baseball caps. Most Bayern fans were wearing replica shirts, though an alien from another planet might have been bemused by the obvious variety of colour schemes adopted by Bayern over the years. I always think of the classic Bayern team of the mid-seventies – Maier, Breitner, Beckenbauer, Muller – wearing the all red Adidas kit. This is how it stayed for years until the design gurus at Bayern decided to foist all sorts of strange designs on FC Hollywood’s fan base. The first bizarre kit to appear featured a red and blue striped shirt and I think this was a nod to the blue of the Bavarian flag. For a connoisseur of football kits like me, this was a bizarre choice. Since then, Bayern have had a variety of kits and even special Champions League variations. Some of the most recent variants have been red and black shirts and also red and white hooped shirts.

It made me wonder what Adidas have in store for us.

I spotted Dutch Mick and shouted across the grass verge. He was wearing the new shirt and I wondered if Chelsea would do the same for this last game of the season. We wore a new shirt in Moscow remember; I didn’t want us to follow suit.

Callum raced past and we shook hands. He was buzzing and said something to the effect of “the night is ours.”

As we neared the stadium, I heard Alan talk to Cathy and so I reeled around and had a very quick word while Alan took our photograph.

“It’s a long way from the Rum Jungle, Cath.”

I had enjoyed Cathy’s company in Kuala Lumpur way back in July on our Asia tour. Of course, in reality, it seemed like last week. These football seasons certainly race by.

Ahead, a young lad was perched on his father’s shoulders, and they were carrying a fifteen foot pole, bending under the weight of a large St. George’s Cross flag, with two smaller chequered Chelsea ones above and below. I took an iconic photograph of them with the pristine white of the stadium now only fifty yards or so away in the background. It was a defiant statement of intent and captured the mood precisely.

This was the ultimate away game. Let me run through some numbers. Here we were, an English team in Germany; plenty of history there. This was arguably our biggest game ever in 107 years. It was supposedly a neutral venue but fate had conspired for this to take place in the home stadium of our opponents. Sure, we took around 25,000 to the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm in 1998. Sure we took 25,000 to Old Trafford for the 2006 F.A. Cup semi-final against Liverpool. We have taken similar numbers to Cup Finals at Wembley. But, despite the folly of a neutral venue, make no mistake; this was an away game. This was our biggest ever show of strength for an away game since we swamped Highbury in August 1984, when close on 20,000 squeezed into the Tick Tock and hundreds more took residence in the home stands. In addition to the 17,500 in the stadium, Munich was being swelled to the tune of an extra 10,000, maybe 15,000, maybe 20,000 auxiliaries. We were a Chelsea army in Germany for the biggest prize in World football.

In 107 years, there has never been an away game like it and perhaps there never will.

The Allianz Arena stands at the northern end of a ridge of land, bordered by train lines and autobahns. Access is only at the southern end; the Bayern end. We hurriedly entered at the gate – there was a minimal search and I immediately rued my decision to leave my trusty zoom lens at home. We were in. I hugged Glenn and then began the short walk up to the Nord Kurv. I stopped to take a photo of the setting sun, disappearing behind clouds to the west.

Daryl stopped to have the quickest of chats with Terry, who was originally going to be sat alongside us, but had since wangled a seat in the press box. Terry is one of Chelsea’s iconic names from a distant past. I last saw him in Moscow.

We aimed for the gate to section 341. It was now 8.30pm and kick-off was but fifteen minutes away. There was a long ascent up a hundred or more stairs; these wrap themselves around the stadium but are hidden from view by the translucent plastic shell which gives the stadium its unique identity. My limbs were aching by the time I had reached the upper level. Behind me, several Chelsea fans were singing about Auschwitz. Ahead of me, I battled the crowds to force my way into the concourse and then the gents’ toilets.

An incoming text at 8.33pm – “atmosphere?”

I replied – “still not in yet. Typical Chelsea.”

And this was typical Chelsea. We are so used to leaving it late at home games – the ubiquitous mantra of “one more pint” was made for the pubs which envelope Stamford Bridge – and here we were, leaving it late in Munich.

Typical Chelsea.

I quickly found my way to my seat as the home fans were unfurling their impressive banner of the Champions League trophy in the Sud Kurv. Their end was a riot of red. In row 10, there was a nasty altercation between Glenn and a fellow Chelsea fan and I had to act as peacemaker. A few words were exchanged. The plan was for Glenn to sit alongside Alan and myself, but Glenn – still wobbly with alcohol – was despatched to the other end of our row. Although Daryl bought tickets for ten of us, such is the ineptitude within the Chelsea box office, Simon and Milo’s tickets were not with the rest of ours.

Blue flags were waiting at our seats and the Champions League anthem was echoing around the stadium.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OkWI…&feature=g-upl

From the left; Alan, Glenn, Gary, Daryl, Neil, Ed, Chris.

The magnificent seven.

Simon and Milo was ten yards behind us. Callum and Dunc were spotted. Dutch Mick too.

In the rush to get ourselves inside, hardly a thought had been paid to the game. The rumours were true; Ryan Bertrand was playing out wide. I immediately thought back to Danny Granville at Stockholm in 1998. Clearly, di Matteo was taking a risk on the youngster but I did not have time to dwell on this. Thank heavens the two centre-backs were playing.

So, what were my thoughts as kick-off approached? There was no doubt that we had reached the final due to a healthy share of luck, especially against Barcelona when woodwork and a missed penalty aided our formidable rear guard performance. I was in no doubts that this luck could easily run out – if only due to the laws of probability – and I can remember quietly warning Gary in that serene Munich beer garden that “you do realise we could get thumped here?” He was in agreement.

And yet. And yet there was a positive air in the Chelsea end. In the back of my mind, there was unrelenting belief that – yes – despite the odds, or maybe because of them, we would prevail in this most hostile of situations. In our 107 years, there has never been a more unlikely story than our assault on this magical trophy. A team in disarray in early March, a team in decay, a team divided, now only ninety minutes from glory.

Without time to dwell, the teams appeared down below me and I spent a few minutes trying my best to juggle photos, texts and songs of support. It will surprise nobody to know that I had no plans to sit. In Moscow, I had stood for – what was it? – six hours, from bar to tube to stadium, to game, to bus. I envisioned the same in Munich.

The scene was set. The stadium seemed huge and yet compact at the same time. I was a fan. The cool grey concrete steps of the concourse and the aisles were mirrored by a similar colour for the seats. If only Wembley had decided on something similar – a cool cream maybe – rather than a brash ugly red. The Chelsea end was keen to cheer the boys on but I knew we would be in for a tough battle to be heard over the tumultuous support being handed out by the Bayern faithful. I spotted pockets of Chelsea blue in the lower tier to my left, but the neutral areas were predominantly red. There were three rows of unused seats in front of the line of TV studios in the east stand. To my right, I noted a ridiculous number of seats in the press box; maybe 3,000 strong. This was a sure sign that football was eating itself. Elsewhere in this lovely city, 100,000 fans were without tickets yet 3,000 seats were being used by gentlemen of the press. Beyond, in the corporate areas of the stadium, pink and yellow lights were shining in the many restaurants and suites. The blades of a solitary wind turbine, high on a hill, were able to be seen in the thin slither of sky. Bayern flags hung on every square inch of balcony. Chelsea flags countered.

I quickly spotted one which is often seen, away to my right –

“If I Had Two Lives I’d Give Them Both To You. Forever Chelsea.”

The 2012 Champions League Final began.

It was clear from the first few moments of play that Bayern were going to have most of the possession. It was galling to see Arjen Robben having so much of the ball. There was a consensus when he left Chelsea in the summer of 2007 that, due to his glass ankles, we had seen the best of him. Would he now have the last laugh? I feared the worst. Ribery, of course, was the other major threat and it was clear to me that the game may well be won or lost in the wide areas. It was key for Kalou and Bosingwa on the right and Bertrand and Cole on the left to close space. I soon realised, and it shames me to admit it, that I was not au fait with many of the Bayern players. The wide men Robben and Ribery, Gomez, Schweinsteiger, Nauer, Lahm, Boeteng…who were the others? I had little idea.

At least I was in control. Unlike Barcelona, fuzzy through alcohol, I was able to take everything in. It was my biggest fear that I would be drunk beyond words in Munich, unable to play a significant role in supporting the boys. Despite many beers in the afternoon, I was fine…it had been perfect. I looked over several times to check on Glenn; phew, he was still standing, not slumped in his seat.

Bayern dominated the first half with only rare advances by Chelsea into the Bayern defence. In truth, we were playing a wholly subservient role in this game. Our plan was of containment. Wayward shots from a number of Bayern players rained in on Petr Cech’s goal and I began wondering if our luck was going to hold out once more. The first “heart in the mouth” chance fell to Robben way down below, but Cech managed to deflect his shot onto the woodwork for a corner. Bosingwa then fluffed an easy clearance, only for the spinning ball to end up in an area devoid of red-shirted attackers. Lady Luck was in the building and sporting Chelsea colours.

All eyes were on the clock.

15 minutes.

30 minutes.

In a rare attack – our best of the game – the ball was worked to Salomon Kalou, but his shot hardly tested Nauer at the near post.

In the closing minutes of the first period, a Bayern chant petered out, but its familiar melody was picked up by the Chelsea hordes.

“Oh Dennis Wise
Scored A Fcuking Great Goal.
In The San Siro.
With Ten Minutes To Go.”

It was easily our loudest chant of the evening and I was comforted that we, as fans, could impact upon the night’s atmosphere.

A text from the US confirmed this –

“Heard the Dennis Wise song loud and clear on the TV coverage in the US!”

Just before the teams re-entered after the break, around ten red flares were let off in the top tier of the Bayern end. It was an impressive sight for sure. The smoke drifted to the east, then hung in the air for ages. The second half told a similar story. Tons of Bayern possession with Chelsea players – all defenders now – scurrying around and closing space. I was particularly enamoured with Mikel, whose stature rises with each big match appearance. Elsewhere, Cahill, Cole and Lampard were magnificent. Luiz caused me a few worries. Bosingwa had his moments too. Juan Mata, the one midfielder who had the tools to unlock any defence, was struggling. Didier Drogba’s main job was to continually head away corner after corner; a job he has done so well in these last eight amazing seasons.

Ribery’s goal was flagged for offside and thankfully I wasn’t perturbed. What is the German for “calm down?” Bayern shots rained in on our goal, but our brave defenders threw themselves at the ball and blocks were made.

60 minutes.

Bayern’s support was now getting frustrated at the quality of their finishing and the Chelsea support grew and grew. Songs of old rolled around the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. I was heartened by the noise. It clearly galvanised the team. Still Bayern shots missed the target. Was I the only one thinking that a force field had been set up around Cech’s goal frame?

Ryan Bertrand, non-existent offensively, gave way for the much-maligned Florent Malouda. We stood and watched. We sung. We hoped. A few half-chances way down below gave us renewed sustenance. The songs continued. I was so proud of our support.

On 83 minutes, our world collapsed. A cross from the left and a leaping Bayern player – Muller, a name from the glory years –out jumped our defenders. In one of those moments that happens in football, time seemed to slow to a different speed. The ball bounced down. The ball bounced up. The ball flew past a confused Cech. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar.

The ball was in.

The previously quiet Sud Kurv bellowed and roared. It was a horrendous sight. We stood silent. What could we do? The PA announcer then, shamefully in my opinion, announced the scorer to the spectators in a rousing tirade which seemed to last for ever. For a supposedly neutral venue, I thought this was a poor show…he ended his belligerent outburst with the word “Thomas…”

…and the Bayern fans responded “Muller!”

That sickened me almost as much as the goal.

We were losing 1-0 and Lady Luck had seemed to have packed up her belongings in a suitcase and was heading out of town. My thoughts were of sadness; that this iconic Chelsea team, forged under Ranieri, fine-tuned under Mourinho, cajoled by many managers since, were now going to disband over the summer without that most desired of prizes, a Champions League victory. For this, make no mistake, was their – our – last chance. There would be no return for a while. I sighed.

Callum – you were wrong mate and I was foolish enough to believe you.

Immediately, di Matteo replaced the ineffective Kalou with Fernando Torres.

Torres, with a thousand points to prove despite his goal in Barcelona, seemed to inspire us. His darting movements breathed new life into our attack. In turn, the Chelsea support responded. It was his endeavour down in the corner which gave us a corner. It was our first of the entire game. Juan Mata trotted over to collect the ball. I lifted my trusted camera from around my chest and zoomed in as best I could. I held the camera still – constantly focused, the button half-depressed – and waited for the corner. I looked up and trusted that my camera would do its job.

88 minutes had been played. This was it, Chelsea.

Death or glory.

Juan Mata blazed the ball in towards the near post. In a moment that will live with me forever, two players in blue rose to meet the ball.

I clicked.

The ball cannoned into Nauer but then flew into the roof of the net.

The Nord Kurv thundered. I clenched my fists and roared from deep inside my body. Tears of joy soon started flowing. We were back in it.

Chelsea – I fcuking love you.

I was soon aware that my glasses had flown off and so I tried to steady myself and search for them, but I felt my head spinning, imploding with joy. I feared a blackout. It happened when Torres scored his first goal last season. Steady Chris, steady.

I tried my best to find my glasses – but they were gone.

The Chelsea fans were yelling, shouting, clambering onto seats, pointing. I looked down and in to the row in front. There, miraculously perched on a seat, were my glasses. I reached down to retrieve them just before a lad stepped on them.

Six seats away, Alan had smashed his sunglasses at this moment. There was carnage in the Chelsea end, but devastation in the Bayern end.

Advantage Chelsea. Bayern had already taken off Muller. The home fans were on the ropes. We were going to do this.

We were going to win.

My head was still spinning, the Chelsea end was buzzing, my world was perfect.

In the short period of time before the extra period of thirty minutes began, we roused the team by singing “The Blue Flag.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9X8N…&feature=g-upl

Our confidence took a battering soon into the first period of extra time when Didier Drogba, back defending, tripped Franck Ribery inside the box.

Oh Didier.

I just turned my back to the game and sighed. This was virtually a carbon copy of the penalty he gave away in Barcelona. Didier messed up our chance in Moscow. He redeemed himself in Munich. And now this.

We stood and hoped. Cech looked large and impressive. Robben approached the penalty spot. I wasn’t sure if I should tempt fate by taking a photograph of a potentially match-losing moment.

What the hell.

Robben shot.

I clicked.

Cech saved, then gathered the loose ball.

Destiny.

It was going to be our night.

Much to our joy, Ribery was substituted. Good work Didier, I take it all back.

The rest of the period of extra time was truly a blur, though. Torres had a few runs at the Bayern defence. Luiz and Cahill miraculously held out. Our players were strong. As the minutes ticked, I was happy for the game to be decided on penalties.

My main reasons were probability and destiny.

We lost on penalties in Moscow.

We’ll win on penalties in Munich.

It’s our night.

Simple as that.

We weren’t sure about the rules for determining the ends at which the all decisive penalties were to be taken, but there was a certain grim inevitability that, like in the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, they would be at the other end.

I wasn’t sure if I should take any photographs.

I took a photo of Philip Lahm scoring past Petr Cech, with the other players, arms linked in the centre circle.

I didn’t take a photo of Juan Mata. His penalty was poor – too close to Nauer – and we fell silent.

I had my hands in my pockets, I was still stood. So here we go, Chelsea – another loss on penalties. How brutal this game of football can be. I consoled myself that at least I would not be as distraught as in Moscow. Nothing, surely, could be as bad as that.

Mario Gomez made it 2-0 to Bayern. The home fans roared.

David Luiz took a ridiculously long run up. Death or glory. I had horrible visions of his shot not only clearing the bar, but the third tier. His hair bounced as he raced towards the ball. Goal. A gasp of relief from Chelsea.

To our surprise, the goalkeeper Nauer took his turn and he scored to make it 3-1. I felt the weight of probability slipping away.

Frank Lampard simply had to score. Memories of all the others. Liverpool 2008. Go on Frank. Get in.

Frank scored.

Then it was the turn, not of Ribery, but of the substitute Olic. He looked nervous. I sensed that this could all change in an instant. Probability versus practice.

He still looked nervous. I sensed he would miss. A poor penalty was swatted away by the diving Cech and we were back in it. The whole stadium was on edge now. A tightrope. Sudden death. Sudden life.

Ashley Cole – a scorer in Moscow – was next up. The Chelsea fans were buoyant now. We sensed the momentum had changed. Ashley dispatched the perfect penalty.

Back in the beer garden, Gary had asked Michaela if Schweinsteiger meant “pig fcuker” but Michaela had dismissed this as a myth. It meant “pig climber.”

I didn’t care. I saw him place the ball on the spot and saw his Germanic features on the TV screen. In my mind I called him a pig fcuker. He again looked nervous. His approach proved this. He stopped, mid-run, and I again sensed a miss. His shot was hit low, but it hit the base of the diving Cech’s post.

Oh boy.

Advantage Chelsea.

The Nord Kurv, the watching thousands in the city centre, the fans at Fulham Broadway, in Malaysia, in Nigeria, in Australia, in Singapore and in North America were one kick away from glory.

Who else but Didier Drogba? It had to be him.

I got the call from Ed.

Arms were linked.

Alan linked arms with Glenn, who linked arms with Gal, who linked arms with Daryl, who linked arms with Neil, who linked arms with Ed, who linked arms with me, who linked arms with Steve in Philly, who linked arms with Mario in Bergisch Gladbach, who linked arms with Parky in Holt, who linked arms with Danny in Los Angeles, who linked arms with Rick in Kansas City, who linked arms with Walnuts in Munich, who linked arms with Tullio in Turin, who linked arms with Bob in San Francisco, who linked arms with my mother in Somerset, who linked arms with JR in Detroit, who linked arms with Dog in England.

I took a photo of us together; the magnificent seven.

I turned the camera towards the pitch.

Wide angle.

Approaching midnight in Munich.

Didier placed the ball on the spot.

A small run up.

No fuss.

Impact.

I clicked.

I saw Neuer move to the right.

I saw the ball go to the left.

It was in.

Pandemonium ain’t the word for it.

The Earth tilted off its axis for a split second.

We were European Champions.

In a split second I turned the camera to my left and clicked again; I caught a blurred mass of unreal and simply unquantifiable happiness.

It was no good.

I was overcome with emotion and I crumpled to the floor.

For what seemed like ages – it was probably no more than ten seconds – I sobbed tears of pure joy, alone in a foetal position.

A football position.

For that moment, I was alone with only my thoughts, my emotion, my journey, my life.

Seat 18 in row 10 of section 341 in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Arena will always be mine.

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Tales From A Lucky One

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 7 April 2012.

Another Saturday, another Chelsea home game. I collected Young Jake in Trowbridge just before 9am and we were soon on our way to collect Lord Parky. As I have said, my mind is full of the Spurs and Barcelona cup ties at the moment and I soon commented to Jake that I expected that the rest of the crowd at Stamford Bridge would be thinking along similar lines. I reluctantly added that I expected that there would be a resultant poor atmosphere. Parky was still suffering with his cold and the drive up to London was a little quieter than usual. I was pleased to be able to give Glenn’s semi-final ticket to Jake and he was very thankful. Jake is a new acquaintance and is full of youthful enthusiasm for Chelsea. Parky and I were asked for our opinions on all sorts of Chelsea-related subjects as we headed towards London. Jake wondered how many miles all of these pilgrimages to Stamford Bridge equate to. Although I wasn’t able to answer him there and then, the game against Wigan Athletic would be my 579th Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. That adds up to over 127,000 miles of travel.

This would be my 47th. Chelsea game of the season and Parky was keen to add that he is not far behind; Wigan would be his 40th. The 1-1 draw up at the DW stadium before Christmas was one of only two leagues game in which he was not alongside me, riding shotgun and talking nonsense.

The weather was nondescript, but the traffic quiet. I slapped on the Depeche Mode “Sounds Of The Universe” CD and the familiar tones of Dave Gahan and Martin Gore provided a nice backdrop as I drove on. Approaching the Hogarth roundabout, I was expecting traffic arriving for the Oxford and Cambridge boat race which would soon be taking place on the nearby River Thames. I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to drive on through unhindered. I was parked up at 11.15am.

The three of us walked straight down to the ground and soon met up with Gill and Graeme on the walk underneath the old Shed wall. I commended Gill on her refreshingly upbeat report on the Benfica game. We spent about two hours in the hotel bar and the time absolutely flew past. We shook hands with Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti and waited for a few more friends to arrive. Mick the Autograph King was already there, to be soon joined by Beth and her friend Terri (!) – her first game at Chelsea – from Texas, then Jesus, then my good mate Alan. This was Alan’s first ever visit to the hotel bar on a match day as far as I could remember; he was with a friend called Richard and Richard’s young son Jake. This was a big day in Jake’s life – his first ever Chelsea game. He was bedecked in the white away shirt and had a lovely beaming smile. Alan had arranged for a photo of Jake to appear in the match programme and he soon had his photo taken with Chopper. Mike from NYC soon arrived and we chatted very briefly about Tour 2012 “logistics.” I spotted Kerry Dixon over by the bar and we all sauntered over to meet him and get photographs taken with the great man. By this stage, Trowbridge Jake had thanked me five times for getting him up to this area; he was clearly thrilled to be about to meet three of our greatest ever players. Jesus, too, loved it, though he admitted to me that he needed to sharpen up his Chelsea history. Jesus was relieved to be able to buy Graeme’s Arsenal ticket; Jesus had been busy at work when the tickets went on sale and hadn’t been too happy with himself.

All of us were trying to avoid Jesus / Easter jokes, but a few slipped through. I think we got away with it.

Jesus and the two Jakes descended to watch the Chelsea players walk through from their team briefing room to the Centenary Room. I stayed upstairs with Parky, but caught a few of the players from above –

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

It was 1.30pm now and we needed to move on. As we waited for Parky to join us, I noted two Chelsea fans wearing replica shirts over undershirts and I had a little conversation with Trowbridge Jake and Jesus about cockney rhyming slang.

“If my mate Rob was here, he’d say those two blokes had no Plymouth.”

“No Plymouth?”

“Yeah – Plymouth Argyle…style. No style.”

Jake’s late father was a Londoner and so knew exactly what I meant, but Jesus was left wondering, I think, what on Earth I was talking about. We dropped in for a very quick stop at the CFCUK stall, then plotted up at The Maltsers as none of us could be bothered to walk up to The Goose. Time was against us. One last pint, then further acknowledgement of what a lovely pre-match it had been. During the previous few hours, we had made plans for the meet ups for Fulham and Spurs. It was still surprisingly cold on the quick walk back to The Bridge.

Wigan wore the exact opposite of our home kit. Around 200 had made the journey down from Lancashire. I have no real catalogue of previous Chelsea vs. Wigan games to draw on, but there is, of course, one game which sticks out; the title decider on the final day of the 2009-2010 season.

Chelsea 8 Wigan Athletic 0.

One of the most joyful days in our history and our biggest ever league win. Magnificent. No more words are needed.

A quick scan of the line-up revealed many changes. Gary Cahill in for JT, Ryan Bertrand starting at left-back, with Essien, Meireles and Malouda in the midfield, Sturridge and Drogba recalled in attack.

After a nondescript start, the first real moment of interest took place on 19 minutes when the ball broke to Gary Cahill some 30 yards out. It seemed that thousands shouted “shoooooot” and our new defender soon took heed. A fine rising shot was ably palmed over by Al Habsi, one of the most under-rated ‘keepers in the division. In a matter of seconds, first Raul Meireles won a tackle and then Daniel Sturridge passed the ball to a team mate.

“Miracles never cease” exclaimed Alan.

“Well, it is Easter” I replied.

Wigan had two long range shots which didn’t really trouble Petr Cech. Soon after, a delightful turn from Didier Drogba had us all salivating, but his finish ended up just wide. Chances were rare and the atmosphere was eerily quiet.

In fact, I will go further. The atmosphere in that insipid first-half period was the worst I can remember in those 579 games.

Three late chances fell to Chelsea but we couldn’t capitalise. Juan Mata wriggled free to receive a ball from Drogba but shot at the ‘keeper. The rebound reached Drogba, but Didier’s header lacked both power and placement. It came straight at him though; he did well to connect in the first place. Then, a header from Drogba and a shot from Studge did not trouble Al Habsi.

It was hardly inspiring stuff and The Bridge remained morgue-like.

Alan quipped “we don’t need cheerleaders, we need a medium.”

The second-half began and the noise level increased a little. Alan and I always try our best, but it gets totally dispiriting after a while. One of these days, I may just give up completely and watch like the thousands of others.

Please take a gun to my head if this happens.

On 54 minutes, Mata worked the ball to Didier but his shot was saved from close in. Fernando Torres, a real crowd favourite now, came on for Malouda, despite Sturridge not really enjoying a great game. Just after, our first goal relieved some of the building tension inside The Bridge. A free-kick was cleared but an intelligent chip by Meireles was met by an on-rushing Ivanovic who poked home from close range. His first reaction was to glance at the linesman, but no flag was raised. He ran down to the corner flag below us and his team mates soon joined him. Texts from Philadelphia and Guernsey told us that we had got away with that goal. Phew.

A minute later, our talismanic Serbian saved the day when a rapid Wigan break resulted in a shot from former Chelsea starlet Di Santo being cleared off the line by Brana.

It was annoying to see an advancing Fernando Torres twice slip in almost the same place when clear of a defender. At no time did the crowd get on his back though; if anything the “Torres Torres” shouts grew louder. Didier Drogba set up Daniel Sturridge in the inside-left position, but his shot was slashed wide when the youngster really ought to have taken an extra touch.

What then happened really sickened me; Sturridge was booed.

His own fans in both tiers of the Matthew Harding booed him.

This hardly surprised me; it was noticeable that there were vast periods of the game when the Chelsea fans around me chose to sit on their hands and barely talk to each other, let alone actively cheer the team on. They were sat there like dummies. Then, as soon as an errant pass or miss-timed tackle took place, these same people were audible and noisy. It did my nut in.

Rather than move our support up a few notches, The Bridge reverted to type. With eight minutes remaining, Diame enjoyed an unhindered dribble at the heart of the defence and unleashed a fine shot which left Cech static.

1-1.

Moses came close for the visitors, the industrious Torres set up Kalou but the shot was wide.

With four minutes of extra time signalled, the crowd were buoyed. Could we go again?

Mata found Drogba down below me. Despite a packed penalty area, he lofted the ball delightfully to an unmarked Torres. Thankfully, he stayed on his feet this time and volleyed at goal. It was a beautiful thing; the timing was perfect as Torres kept his eye on the ball dropping before him, then hitting through the ball, keeping it down, following through perfectly.

To our disgust, the ball hit the base of the far post.

To our joy, the ball bounced up into the path of Juan Mata and the ball flopped over the line. Al Habsi’s desperate swipe was in vain.

2-1.

Torres could have added a goal at the death, but 3-1 would have flattered us further.

This was clearly a pretty poor performance against a surprisingly spirited Wigan team. We’re limping from game to game at the moment, but the last three games have produced three wins, engineered in a similar style; ahead, level, ahead. At least that shows spirit and desire.

Fulham on Monday evening, on the banks of the River Thames, will not be a walk in the park.

See you all there; we’re meeting at The Duke’s Head in Putney.

Mine’s a Peroni.

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Tales From Curva A

Napoli vs. Chelsea : 21 February 2012.

There is no doubt that Italy is my favourite European destination; I have been a huge fan of its charms since my first visit in June 1975. Despite numerous trips – 5 family holidays, 6 Inter-Rail trips, 3 Juventus trips and 3 Chelsea trips – I was more than happy that Chelsea were drawn against SSC Napoli in the quarters of this season’s Champions League competition.

I have some history with Napoli.

Way back in the summer of 1981, on holiday on the Riviera di Ponente, I treated myself to a superb magazine which reviewed the 1980-1981 football season. The publication – a thorough review of all games, goals and goalscorers – contained hundreds of action photographs and I can remember being enthralled at the sight of exotic players and stadia alike. At the time, I was well aware of the top teams in Italy; Serie A was dominated by the northern teams Juventus, Torino, Milan and Inter, plus the two Rome powerhouses Roma and Lazio. I was aware of Fiorentina, Sampdoria and Genoa. But one team intrigued me. The photographs of Napoli, playing in front of vast crowds in their mammoth stadium struck a chord. The team had no “scudetto” to their name, yet regularly drew crowds of 50,000 and above. The Dutch master Ruud Krol was their most famous player in that team. Their stadium resembled the Maracana. I daydreamed of how intense the match day experience would be in the heat of that infamous Italian town.

When the club signed Diego Armando Maradona in 1984, I knew only too well that the locals would idolise the little Argentinian maestro, who was still smarting from two largely unremarkable seasons with Barcelona. In Maradona’s third season – 1986-1987 – Napoli won their first ever championship. I can well remember the fleeting glimpses of a troubled city celebrating a league win like nobody else. The TV footage showed a cauldron of fanaticism I had hardly witnessed before. I was suitably impressed.

While travelling around Italy in 1987 and 1988 by train on month long Inter-Rail passes, I saw a game in Milan and two in Turin. However, in November 1988, I flew out to Turin for my first ever trip to Europe for a football match and a football match alone.

Juventus vs. Napoli.

One of the vivid memories of this trip took place thousands of feet above Turin. I had just woken from a short nap. The plane was turning and circling around on its approach into the airport at Caselle. A piece of Italian classical music was playing on the plane’s radio. Down below, the lights of the city’s grid-pattern streets were shining. It was a moment that has lasted to this day. To say I was excited would be a massive understatement.

My good friend Tullio and I joined the ranks of the bianconeri on the distinti terrace in the old Stadio Communale. Although I was – and am still – a follower of Juve, there is no doubt that I was lured to Turin on this particular occasion to witness Maradona in the flesh. Juventus boasted Michael Laudrup, Luigi D’Agostini, Rui Barros and Alexander Zavarov, but the little Argentinian was the main attraction. One of the vagaries of Italian football is that teams do not go through their pre-match routines on the pitch. They perform their pre-game rituals and drills in the changing rooms, away from the madding crowd. This heightened the sense of drama for me. With five minutes to go before kick-off, the caterpillar-like tunnel was extended out in front of the baying Juventini in the Curva Filadelfia.

The two teams appeared.

And there he was. Diego Maradona. I was in awe.

At the time, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan team was changing the way that football was being played in Italy. The defensive stranglehold of catennaccio was slowly giving way to a more liberal form of football, but goals were still a premium in Italy. Games tended to end 0-0, 1-0 and 2-0.

Much to Tullio’s consternation and my shock, the result of the game on that day 24 years ago ended Juventus 3 Napoli 5. It was a stunning result. Napoli were 3-0 up at half-time and Tullio wanted to go home. Thankfully, I made him stay and Juve got it back to 2-3, before the game went away from them. Away to our right, in the Curva Maratona, thousands of Napoli fans held their light blue scarves aloft. Another one of those memories.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhE0voYR-uU

I visited Naples, albeit very briefly, either side of that game in Turin. In March 1988, I used it as a stopping-off point on the way down to Pompei . On a wet and cold afternoon, I virtually had all of Pompei to myself. It was one of those moments when I was able to let my imagination run riot, fantasising about life in a Roman town centuries ago. On my return into Naples, I remember having a very quick walk around the cramped Neopolitan streets, taking a grainy photograph of Mount Vesuvius and grabbing a slice of pizza. Then, in September 1990, there was even more of a fleeting glimpse of Naples as I changed trains on a journey from Reggio de Calabria north to Rome and beyond. On that occasion, I think I only ventured a few yards from the Naples train station.

It was time to return.

At 9am on the Monday, I headed over the Mendip Hills towards Bristol Airport. For the first time ever, I would be beginning a European trip from my most local airport. From there, I was flying to Rome, and then catching a train down to Naples on the day of the game. My friends Alan and Gary were already on their way to Rome from Heathrow. The Mendip Hills were mined for various minerals during the Roman occupation of these shores and the area is traversed with roads which owe their existence to the Romans. With Glastonbury Tor visible to the south, atop a hill in the tranquil Vale of Avalon, I drove along several long straight stretches of old Roman road.

What is it they say about all roads leading to Rome?

The flight from Bristol to Rome Fiumcino airport lasted around two-and-a-half hours and enabled me to relax and ponder the attractions that awaited me. I bumped into two Chelsea fans, Emma and Tony, who were as surprised as me to see other Chelsea fans on the flight. The EasyJet magazine taught me two things; kissing in public in the city of Naples used to result in the death penalty in the sixteenth century and the term “tifosi” comes from the typhoid-like fervour of the Italian football fans. I remember Northern Italian teams’ fans taunting the Napoli fans in the ‘eighties when an outbreak of cholera hit the city.

The simple chant of “Cholera! Cholera!” shamed the Neapolitans. No doubt they had a response, though.

I was last in the Italian capital for our game with Roma in late 2008. I quickly caught the city-bound train and soon found myself passing through the murky hinterland of the Rome suburbs. I was reminded of how much the locals seem to admire the early-eighties style graffiti which originated in New York. The weather was overcast. It was raining. The surprisingly bleak weather saddened me. I hoped that my brief spell in Italy would not be spent dashing in and out of the rain.

At 5pm, I knocked on the door of room 302 of the Yes Hotel on Via Magenta. This was the same hotel we used in 2008. Alan welcomed me to Italy with a bottle of Peroni. I was given the middle bed of three and I couldn’t resist a joke about myself waking in the middle of the night, imagining that I was Franz Klammer, the great downhill skier. Alan and Gary roared with laughter. The jokes continued all evening and we tried not to talk about the football. We caught a cab down to Piazza Barberini where we met up with Julie and Burger, the CL away trip virgins. We decamped into a quiet bar and caught our breath. Thankfully the rain had stopped. The evening was mild. The beers started to flow and the laughter, too. We spoke briefly about the on-going CPO debacle, but then Burger bought a round of amaretto. The football talk soon subsided. Julie spoke of how much she was enjoying her first ever visit to Italy. I managed to lock myself in the toilet.

We moved into Via Sestini and enjoyed a lovely meal. Another beer. We were roaring with laughter all of the way through it. Davie from Scotland, who I ironically first met in Rome in 2008, joined us and we ended the evening in an Irish pub off Via del Corso. More beers, a limoncelo, some strawberry vodkas. On Peter Osgood’s birthday, we toasted the great man. It is hard to believe that it is six years since that saddest of days.

I can well remember the visit to Rome I took with several Chelsea mates in late 1999 – the goalless draw with Lazio. On that occasion, none other than Ron Harris and Peter Osgood were amongst the 2,000 Chelsea fans in the Curva Sud that night. After the game, we were allowed on to Ron and Ossie’s coach back to the city centre. In the hotel lobby, we kept ourselves to ourselves, not wishing to pester either of them. That was a Rome memory to last an eternity, though.

It was 1.30am and time to get to bed. It had been a great night. We caught a cab back, past the imposing Vittorio Emanuele monument, and arranged to meet at the Termini station the next day.

“I’m off to get some beauty sleep” said Alan.”I’ll wake up in August.”

After a filling breakfast, we all met up on the platform of the main station a mere 500 yards away. Davie had spent until 5.30am in a nightclub, just as he had in 2008. On that occasion, he awoke outside on a roundabout.

Thankfully, he awoke in his own bed this time. The train to Naples left at 9.50am. Thankfully, clear skies greeted us. While Alan and Gary tried to get some shut-eye, Davie and I chatted about our love for Chelsea, but for football in general. Like me, Davie shares the opinion that we are here for the people and the camaraderie rather than the mind-numbing pursuit of silver wear and glory. We spoke of games past, of childhood heroes, of the Dundee United team of 1983, the Highbury game in 2004, of the 1982 World Cup. We spoke about the game in Naples.

Davie : “It could go one of two ways. Could be the best away trip ever. Could be an absolute nightmare.”

Chris : “It just feels right for us to be going in to this as the underdog. Chelsea as the underdog is our role in things.”

Although a self-confessed Chelsea nut, Davie has not visited The Bridge for two years. Like many of us, he is fed up of the current vibe at home games; full of silent dolts. Davie much prefers the rough and tumble of the away enclosure.

Outside, the Appenine Hills were flying past. I took plenty of photographs of many a hilltop village, perched upon light grey rock. Above, peaks were dusted in snow. The sky was blue.

Italy. Ti amo.

Gary, Alan, Davie and I hopped into a cab at Naples main train station to take us to our respective hotels. The first thing I noticed was that the cabbie’s Neapolitan accent was thicker and richer than that of the north of Italy. I guess, actually, that it was a dialect and not an accent. As I looked out at the densely packed streets, all of my memories of Naples came crashing back to me. The cabbie gave us a drive to remember; carving other drivers up, tooting his horn, talking on his phone and pointing his cab head first into ridiculously small spaces. As we neared our hotel on Via Melisurgo, he almost collided with a mother pushing a pram. He began shouting at her and I am convinced that the little bambino raised a finger.

Welcome to Naples.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable pre-match in Naples. We spent around three hours walking around the immediate area of our hotel, which was close to Castel Nuovo. Of course, Mount Vesuvius, across the bay, totally dominates any view of Naples. I took many photographs of its looming presence. One can only imagine the horror of the eruption which caused such devastation on Pompei and Herculaneum in AD79. We walked past the little bar which was full of Chelsea day-trippers on the official club trip. A few familiar faces. Most had taken heed of the club’s advice to eschew club colours. During the day, I only saw a handful of idiots who were brazenly wearing Chelsea shirts.

Our walking tour took us from the waterside, past the Castel Nuovo and up to the Royal Palace. The skies were still blue and the weather was lovely. As we walked up the slight incline of Via San Carlo, I became lost in my own little world. Let me explain.

My father was in the RAF during the closing years of the Second World War. His experiences were explained to me on many occasions and he was wise enough to capture a lot of his travels on film. Maybe I have inherited my love of travel photography from him. His first posting overseas, in 1944, was to Jerusalem, but he spent most of his active service in North Africa, in Tripoli and Algiers. He was a wireless operator in Wellington bombers, serving in coastal command. As the war ended, he spent time in Malta and then travelled up through Italy before returning home in 1946 or so. However, for six months, my dear father was billeted in the San Carlo Opera House in Naples. I would imagine that hotel rooms were very scarce and so the RAF commandeered the large theatre, stripped out the seats and filled the auditorium with bunk beds. What Dad’s role was during this time is not really known. I would imagine that he fulfilled an administrative role, perhaps helping to get the war-stricken natives back on the road to recovery. There are photographs in his album of trips, with his pals, to Taormina on Sicily and to Pompei.

At the top of the hill, the grand bulk of the San Carlo Opera House was visible to my left. Alan took a few photographs of me outside. During a quiet few moments, I walked into the booking hall of the theatre and peered inside at the cool marble steps leading up to the doors to the auditorium. For a few fleeting moments, I easily imagined Dad walking down those steps, in shirtsleeves and sunglasses, suntanned, heading out for a day’s sightseeing with a couple of his friends.

“Ah, this is the life, Half Pint” gleamed Hank.

“Yes, indeed it is. RAF West Kirby seems a long way away” replied Reg.

“Pompei here we come” bellowed Jock.

From RAF West Kirby on The Wirrall to the San Carlo Opera House in Naples took Dad four years during the Second World War. It had taken me a mere ten days.

In the Plaza del Plebiscito, we bumped into Mark and Nick, Charlie and Pete. There had been news of a Chelsea fan getting stabbed down at the main station. We were lucky; this was the posh end of the city and I didn’t feel at risk. While Alan and Gary chatted to the lads, I wandered around the gently sloping piazza, spotting a new vista of Vesuvius, taking it all in. I was sure that Dad would have walked on these cobbles, witnessed these views. I wanted to position myself right in the centre of the square in order to get a symmetric view of the Royal Palace. I spotted a manhole cover and realised that it cut the piazza in half. I stood on it and took a photo looking east and a photo looking west.

Perfect.

I then happened to glance down at the manhole and spotted that there was a year embossed upon it.

1993.

I lost my father on April 17th 1993 – into my thoughts he came again.

It was 2.45pm and we were in need of sustenance. Alan, Gary and I dipped into a lovely little pizzeria on Via Chiala. We ordered some ice cold Peroni – bliss! – and then a pizza apiece. I opted for the Diavolo (devil) pizza and it was only five euros. The buffalo mozzarella was so creamy, the tomato sauce was so fresh, the pizza base was so perfect. The single chilli which gave the pizza its name was red hot. It was the best pizza ever. The locals were smiling. They knew who we were. As we left we said –

“Grazie mille e forza Chelsea.”

They smiled again.

We walked back down the hill, the evening chill now hitting hard. I picked up my match ticket and my passport from my hotel room, then joined Alan and Gary opposite in a small bar, full of Chelsea fans. We chatted to a few familiar faces – Pauline, Mick, Digger, Shaun, Pete, Eva, Neil – and had a couple more beers. We pondered our chances.

The mood was not great. There was a feeling that we could be in for a hiding.

We walked over to the assembly point at 6.45pm. The day trippers had departed earlier – maybe around 5pm. Good job we hung back a little. We sat on the bus for 45 minutes. Eventually we set off. The stadium is not far from the city centre, but the route we took lasted about an hour. Around ten coaches set off. There was a heavy police escort, not surprisingly. The coach hugged the road by the port and then climbed up onto the elevated expressway which circumnavigated the city. Although we were not to know it until after, we were taken east, then north, then west, then south. The stadium was due west. The locals would not get a chance to ambush us. The city looked on as our coach drove high on elevated bridges, and then delved deep into long tunnels. Apartment blocks were everywhere. The dark shadowy mass of hills appeared and then disappeared. Vesuvius, unseen in the distance, but looming still. Trizia of the CSG and I chatted about Naples and its team. I spoke to her of Maradona in 1988. I made the point that as I saw Maradona playing for his club team, doing his 9 to 5 job, then this made that particular experience all the more real. We had heard about the leaked team sheet and I wondered if it was a Mourinho-esque ploy to confuse the locals. Shades of Jose against Barca in 2005 in fact. As we drove on, I kept describing the city as a sprawling mess. I’m sure there is no place like it in Europe. Sure it is crime-ridden, it is strewn with the detritus of modern life, its walls are covered in graffiti, the houses are cramped, the washing dries on overhead lines, the traffic is noisy, the place is dirty.

But what energy the place exudes.

I crave different experiences in my support of Chelsea these days; Naples fits the bill tenfold.

Eventually, we were underneath the shadows of the stadium. Out in into the drizzle of a Neapolitan night. We marked our territory by having a mass toilet break against a nearby wall. We were given a brief search by the police and we were inside the stadium. Despite its size – it once held 80,000 – the place was very shabby. I half expected lumps of concrete to fall during the game when the ultras began jumping. I could already hear them bellowing their songs.

Underneath the entrance to the away section, Alan and Gary had stopped for a word with Tom. Alongside him was the almost mythical figure of Icky, resplendent in green bomber jacket, baseball cap, jeans and boots. He had travelled from the Phillipines for this one. I took a classic photo of Tom, Gary and Alan against a backdrop of Italian police, riot shields to the fore.

The stadium now holds 60,000, but there were many empty seats in the small lower tier. The Napoli fans were making a din, though – waving their flags, bellowing songs, whistling when we had the temerity to show support of our team. Our section filled up slowly. Initially, I guessed at around 1,000 had braved the ferocity of the locals. In the end, I guess it was nearer 1,500. Despite a few youngsters and a few women, the bulk of our support was male and was aged 40 to 55. Solid old school. Faces from our hooligan past. Faces from the good old bad old days. Faces from away trips up and down the length of England. One family of Chelsea die-hards. Don’t step on us.

We began to spot hundreds of cigarette lighters flickering at both ends of the stadium; Curva A, which we shared to the south end of the stadium, and Curva B, to the north. The choreography and the anthem, the flares and the cheers of the Napoli ultras.

This is it.

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I wanted to avoid an early goal – but I feared the worst.

Away in the north curve, I spotted a massive banner – striscione – which I struggled to decipher.

“Come Pioggia Scende Al Cuore Copisce Come Un Leone Ruggisce.”

Pioggia means rain. It was raining. Surely the fans who had written the banner don’t leave it until the very last minute to decide on a pertinent phrase for each game. However, knowing the organisational skill of the capos among the ultras, then nothing would surprise me.

Mata’s neat finish sent us all into a jumping, bounding, leaping frenzy. What a quite magnificent moment.

How we sang.

“We are the Chelsea and we are the best…”

Maybe Davie was right – this would be the best away game ever.

Befuddled AVB, at odds with the senior players, somehow managing to outthink the attacking prowess of the Napoli team?

Think again.

Two goals in the last ten minutes of the first-half caused us much pain. Lavezzi’s curler just eluded Petr Cech and Cavani appeared like a ghost at the far post to squeeze the ball in. The sight of Cavani running towards the moat which encircles the running track, tugging at his shirt, his face contorted with ecstasy will live with me, unfortunately, for years.

After each goal, a thunderous roar. Flares behind each goal.

If only Ramires had not thundered over at 1-1. If only Brana’s wonder run had resulted in a shot. If only Luiz’ header had gone in.

If only.

At the break, I was confused. I wasn’t sure if we should go for it and attack or aim for damage limitation. Before the game, I would have been very contented with a 2-1 reverse. But here, in the shadows of the San Paolo, I was worried that more goals would cascade into our goal.

Chances were spurned at both ends in the second-half, but lamentable defending gifted Lavezzi an easy second.

It was Napoli 3 Chelsea 1.

And still chances came. Thank heavens that Ashley Cole cleared from the goal line. At the other end, Drogba spurned a late chance. My God, 3-2 would give us a huge chance in the return leg. The substitutes Lampard and Essien offered little.

The whistle blew and the Napoli fans knew exactly what to do next. They hoisted their blue and white scarves and the club song echoed around the cavernous stadium. Parts of the anthem sounded too close to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for comfort, so we all soon descended into the area below. We stood and chatted. A few moments of gallows humour, but glum faces. I chatted to five from Bristol; Tim’s wife had been swiped on her back with a belt buckle just a few yards from the stadium. Such attacks were thankfully rare. We had met up with Rob at half-time and he rode with us on the hour long coach ride back to the centre. We were dropped off at the port just before 1am, some two and a half hours or so after the game had ended.

The Chelsea fans fled from the coaches into the Neapolitan night. The bar opposite our hotel was closed and so we decided to get some sleep.

On the train trip back to Rome, we shared our compartment with a Neapolitan girl, returning to her university in Rome. She was a Napoli fan – you get the impression that all Neapolitans support Napoli –but had been at Stamford Bridge in April for the Chelsea vs. Tottenham game. She said that her boyfriend was a Chelsea follower. I am so pleased that she didn’t say that she favoured Tottenham.

That, my friends, would have been too much.

She helped me translate the striscione. It went something like –

“As rain falls … strikes at the heart … like a roaring lion.”

As the train headed north, an itinerant salesman was peddling Napoli souvenirs and he tried to get us to buy his wares. Not only was I upset about the previous evening’s game, I remembered 1988 too. On my European travels, I often get souvenirs of the clubs that I visit. In this case, I was happy to make an exception.

Naples was indeed a sprawling mess of a city.

At the moment, it feels that we are a sprawling mess of a football club.

Ah, just like the old days.

Come On You Blue Boys.

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Tales From A Chelsea Pub Crawl

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 February 2012.

On the Saturday, most of England was hit with a snowstorm. As I hardly live around the corner from Stamford Bridge, I am always faced with a dilemma when the weather conditions take a nose dive. Even if the weather had cleared in the morning, there was always the risk of further snow on the Sunday, with the possibility of myself being stranded in London. Late on Saturday night, I decided that I would not be too upset if Chelsea were to call the game off. If so, this would have followed the same pattern as in 2010-2011. Our game in December against United was postponed until March. At the time, we were going through Ancelotti’s “bad moment” and so it all worked out for us. Obviously, we are hardly firing on all cylinders right now and so there was an additional reason behind my ambivalence to the game going ahead.

Let’s play United when we have a full set of players to choose from. Let’s regroup. Let’s beat them later in the season.

And yet, there was a further problem. I was well aware that there were five friends from various parts of the US who had travelled over to see the game. None of them had the added security of an extra Chelsea match, so my heart went out to them. What a terrible shame if their mission to see Chelsea play was derailed at the last minute.

I awoke on Sunday morning and quickly peered out of the window; no further snow in rural Somerset. The roads were icy but clearly navigable. However, I wondered now the Home Counties had fared. By the time I had collected Lord Parky at just after 10am, I had already received a text from Alan to confirm that Chelsea had confirmed that the game would go ahead. OK – glad to hear that. I knew that the guests from across the pond would be elated. On the drive east, the fields adjacent to the M4 showed more and more signs of snow with each passing mile. We diverted into Reading and swapped cars at my mate Russell’s. He had kindly volunteered to drive the last forty miles. This meant that I could relax a little and have a few beers as I wouldn’t be back in my car until around 7.30pm that evening.

The weather was actually quite mild, though the visibility wasn’t great. It was a murky old day in London. For a change, we didn’t head straight to The Goose. I have often commented on how lucky we are at Chelsea; Stamford Bridge is surrounded by pubs and restaurants, bars and cafes. There must be twenty-five boozers within a fifteen minute walk from the stadium. I can’t say I have visited everyone, but every season we say we’ll try out some new ones. To this end, Russ parked a good mile and a half away from Fulham Broadway and we had a mini pub crawl.

First up was The Pear Tree. Jesus was already inside, nursing a pint at the bar. Inside, the décor was of an Edwardian front room and the place was packed with Sunday diners launching into their roasts. To be honest, we stuck out like sore-thumbs. This was clearly a pretty expensive gastro-pub and we stood at the bar like uninvited guests at a society wedding. I have often wondered how far out Chelsea fans drink on match days. Well, there were no Chelsea fans in this one. The pretty Australian barmaid actually asked us the question –

“Are you watching the rugby?”

We gave her a withering look and explained we were off to Chelsea.

Soon after, Parky spotted another barmaid slowly pulling the pump on one of the draught beers.

“Looks like you’ve pulled” he said.

It was now his turn for the withering looks.

“Is that a joke?” she replied.

With that, we decided to move on.

A hundred yards along, we called in at The Idle Hours, a pub which had obviously been recently modernised. It was very quiet though. Still no other Chelsea fans. Jesus, who loves his stay in London on his internship, had decided that he could not afford to miss the United game and so had paid out a mighty £150 for his MHU ticket. He was very worried that he had bought a fake, but it looked fine to my trained eyes. The seller had made a tidy £90 profit on the ticket; nice work if you can get it. Jesus is clearly in love with football (he has already visited The Valley and Selhurst Park during the past fortnight) and is getting wrapped up in the football culture of these isles. He reminds me so much of Farmer John, who was with us for four months in 2009; a football fanatic, overdosing on Chelsea. As long as we have passionate overseas fans such as Jesus we’ll be fine. We chatted about the differences between sporting culture in the US and the UK. Jesus sneered that many US gridiron fans change their teams as often as they like. Over here, it’s different. We both quoted the famous line –

“You can change your job, your politics, your name, even your sex. But you can’t change two things; your mother and your football club.”

I like the addendum to this –

“Never trust anyone who changes their football team.”

The red brick wall of Queens Club was to our left as we continued our slow walk towards The Goose. The icy pavements were turning to slush and we had to watch our steps; Parky especially. I mentioned to Jesus about the Stella Artois tennis tournament which takes place at Queens, just ahead of Wimbledon each June. Next up was the tiny Colton Arms and at last a couple of Chelsea fans. I’ve often driven past this pub, but this was my first visit. The place was tiny and the snug was only around eight feet wide. Another bottle of beer, more football chat, more corny jokes from Parky. We even had the chance to give Jesus a little history lesson; 1066 and all that…King Harold, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the Battle of Hastings and the Bayeaux Tapestry.

It was now 2.15pm and The Goose was calling us. We turned a corner and I pointed out a blue plaque on the side of one of the red brick houses, denoting the former residence of former Formula One champion James Hunt. As we approached The Goose, youngsters on a rooftop bombarded us with snowballs. Inside, the place was absolutely jam-packed with Chelsea supporters. Over in our corner, beneath a TV showing the Newcastle game, sat Starla, the first of the US visitors. It was great to see her again; having passed her degree recently, this was her gift to herself. Alan slipped my Napoli away ticket into my hand; what pleasures await on that little trip into that crazy city? It’s only two weeks away now and I just hope we get some of our big hitters back for that tough away game.

After quickly guzzling a pint, we had to make one last call before the game began. Starla, Jesus, Parky and I strode down the North End Road and entered the equally busy Malt House. Out in the beer garden, we quickly spotted the other American guests Andy, Tom and Steve-O. More chat and laughter, mainly at Andy’s expense. The last time I saw Tom and Steve-O was for Torres’ debut one year ago. Altogether now – where does the time go?

As we squeezed out of the pub, I bumped into a chap holding a replica of the FA Cup, asking for donations for a charity. Although I didn’t stop to ask for details, I guess the idea was for punters to have their photos taken holding the cup. I wondered if the chap would fare better outside the away turnstiles; the only chance United would get to hold the trophy this season. I walked the last four hundred yards alongside Steve-O, who hails from the far sunny climes of LA. The snowfall that he had witnessed the previous day was the first of his life. Its truly humbling to walk alongside fans such as Andy, Starla, Steve-O and Tom. All this way for one match. Fair play to you all. As we approached the West Stand, Jesus began singing along to the Chelsea songs which were being aired and he did so with a noticeable cockney twang. It made me chuckle. From his home on the US/Mexico border to Chelsea, Jesus was loving it.

He gets it.

At the turnstiles for the MHU, though, he was tense. Would that expensive ticket which he purchased prove to be legitimate or not? He held the ticket’s bar code up to the scanner and the message flashed up –

“Welcome to Chelsea FC.”

I saw him go through the turnstile and he punched the air as soon as he was inside.

The look of joy on his face was one of the highlights of the season.

I arrived at my seat just after the teams had lined-up, so was not able to witness the “will they / won’t they shake hands” nonsense involving Rio Ferdinand. I quickly scanned the players going through their pre-game hugs and I spotted that Branoslav Ivanovic was like a man-possessed, bouncing his chest off several players. Without John Terry, we needed leaders out there.

Over in the far corner, the three-thousand United fans were standing; a solid mass of black, grey and navy jackets with the occasional flash of red. Only two United flags were draped over the balcony wall. I looked over to the other side of The Shed Upper – the west wing – and wondered what was going through the minds of the CIAers. I quickly ran through the Chelsea team. With our squad so depleted through injuries and internationals, I am not so sure the manager had too many options. There was a call for the youngster Ryan Bertrand to start at left-back, in place of the suspended Ashley Cole and instead of Jose Bosingwa. I wasn’t so sure. With Gary Cahill’s debut in defence, I was worried that another fresh face in the back four would be too risky. We all know that Boswinga has his doubters, but I think I would rather play him at left back rather than risk Bertrand. This wasn’t Bolton. This wasn’t Blackburn. This was Manchester United, the reigning champions, never afraid to attack with pace on the flanks. I feared Bertrand being shell-shocked after being ripped apart by the flying United wingers. His time will come – against Birmingham City in the cup, maybe. He’s one for the future.

Elsewhere, the other contentious position was taken by the floundering Florent Malouda. I guess the only other option was to play a midfield of Romeu/Essien/Meireles. Against United, maybe that would have been a sounder bet. But who am I? I haven’t got any coaching badges.

This would be the 22nd consecutive season that I have seen a Chelsea vs. Manchester United league game. This run goes all of the way back to a cold and depressing Sunday afternoon in December 1991, as a Ryan Giggs-inspired United beat us 3-1. I had travelled up with my old school friend Pete’s brother Kevin (a United fan) and we watched in The Shed. Pete (also a United fan) had travelled up separately with his girlfriend’s son, and watched from the old West Stand. We were pretty dire. The weather was cold. The Stamford Bridge pich was shrouded in mist. The crowd was only 23,000. In those days, the away fans were treated to the vast expanse of the open north terrace, holding some 10,000. It’s unlikely that United brought more than 4,000 for that game. The game was live on ITV – quite a rare event really. As was the way in that era, live games would often result in lower gates than usual. Sky TV were not yet at the party, but that would change the following season with the advent of the Premier League. That 1991-1992 season was pretty grim from start to finish for us, under the blundering stewardship of the late Ian Porterfield. The highlight was a run in the FA Cup, but we lost to Sunderland in the heady heights of the quarter-finals (our longest run since 1982 in fact.) In those days – and I’m speaking for football fans in general – we would travel to see our heroes and expect a poor display. Football was more rudimentary in ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, especially the way we played it. Not the silky football of today. Our play involved the full backs pumping the ball up to the attackers, an aerial battle, the midfield tussle for the second ball, aggressive tackles…percentage football. In those days, we would attend games through blind faith that the occasional game would be entertaining. Foreign players were rare. Our foreigners were the twin pillars in defence Ken Monkou and Erland Johnsen. The days of super sexy football involving Gianfranco Zola, Joe Cole, Arjen Robben and Juan Mata were light years away. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same sport.

Maybe it isn’t.

At work on Friday, my colleague Mike – yep, another United fan – and I reckoned that the game may not be that great, with both teams going through a far from convincing period of form. Well, we couldn’t have been further from the truth. After the succession of crazy games involving the top clubs this season, this was another game that is quite likely to set this season apart from the rest.

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0.

Daniel Sturridge weaved his way down to the goal line in his trademark move. This was right down at the Shed End, in front of both Parky and the visitors from the US. I was surprised that his dribble was not snubbed out by a United challenge to be honest. Next, in a scenario uncannily similar to our goal at Swansea on Tuesday, the ball was zipped into the six yard box. I will be honest; I didn’t have a clue how the ball ended up nestling in the goal. And I amazed by myself by not celebrating the goal. It just seemed a strange goal. A goal by default. An apology of a goal. The rest of the ground roared and I was alone and silent. I’ll have to improve on that. Most unlike me. Did we deserve the half-time lead? Only maybe.

“It’s not your own hair. It’s not your own hair. Wayne Rooney – it’s not your own hair.”

Chelsea 2 Manchester United 0.

A move soon into the first few seconds of the second-half found Fernando Torres wide right. He swung in a gorgeous, arcing ball towards the far post. Down below, eight yards out, Juan Mata was waiting. With a perfectly timed movement which took over his entire body, he swivelled his hips and volleyed high into the net. No messing about this time. I roared, I shrieked, I roared again. The entire stadium erupted. What a moment. Did we deserve to be 2-0 up? Perhaps.

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Chelsea 3 Manchester United 0.

A Juan Mata free-kick, in a deep position. The hustling Chelsea attackers pulled their United counterparts one way and then the other. Mata swung the ball in. The tousled head of David Luiz was first to the ball and the result was further pandemonium. The Bridge roared again. Did we deserve to be 3-0 up? Probably not, but who cares?

My colleague Mike texted me – “speechless.”

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 1.

A tackle from Daniel Sturridge, way in the distance. My first thought was of a fine tackle, but no. Howard Webb pointed to the penalty spot. Rooney, calm under pressure, hit the ball high into the top corner. Cech well beaten. Oh God. Here we go again. That very familiar Chelsea feeling.

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 2.

A United move. Edge of the box. A blur of two players came together. Webb pointed again. Disbelief and anger. Rooney despatched the ball, low. Now we were very worried.

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 3.

The crowd were on tenterhooks. I sat with my arms folded. Silent, yet knowing full well what was going to happen. A cross from the left and Hernandez completely unmarked in front of the goal. That sickening feeling once again. To my utter disbelief, a sizeable number of Chelsea “fans” could take no more and left.

Well, you always know how United will play. They will attack until the last minute. As the game progressed, there was a gnawing inevitability about this result. The introduction of Paul Scholes, as a deep-lying quarterback on Superbowl Sunday, was a key moment. That our midfielders then chose to ignore him was inexcusable. And yet…and yet. There were positive signs. Gary Cahill had a fine debut. The defence were steady. Torres and Mata flitted around and were at the heart of our best moves. But – the negatives…Malouda was awful and Sturridge was wasteful. I didn’t hear much positive spin on the way out. I guess that isn’t too surprising, really. We’re a moaning, miserable bunch of gits these days.

We listened to conflicting opinions about our play on “606.” Blimey, anybody would think we had lost. At least Parky and Russ tended to share my opinion that we were worth a point. Barring a very questionable penalty decision, we would have beaten the champions and stretched our unbeaten league record against them at Stamford Bridge to eleven games. We were then treated to a Blackburn Rovers fan, from my home county of Somerset, who had been a corporate guest at the Arsenal game on Saturday. He was full of praise for the hospitality afforded him at the game…”we were treated like Kings.” He then cheerily said that is only able to attend one Blackburn Rovers game a season, but was livid with the lack of passion shown by his team.

Pardon?

We returned home to various parts of Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. I was keen to see the match highlights on “Match of the Day Two” and in particular, of course, the two penalty decisions. I had no complaints about the first one, but the second one was a joke. Shades of the two Wembley penalties in 1994. David Elleray and Howard Webb. They will go down in Chelsea infamy.

I went through the usual post-game routine of trawling the internet for the moaners and the groaners who were lamenting our latest performance. Without wishing to bore people rigid, let’s see the positives in this game. We drew with the champions, despite a make-shift team. We were a de Gea fingertip save away from winning it 4-3. I feel Andre Villas-Boas’ growing frustration and we just need to support him. In case anybody needs reminding, he is barely into his sixth month of competitive fixtures. Oh, and we’re unbeaten in 2012. In the background, the Giants and the Patriots were on TV in the Superbowl. I was paying such scant attention that it took me 15 minutes to realise the Giants were playing in white. It was time for bed.

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