Tales From The Opposite Corner

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 7 October 2018.

An away trip down to Southampton is an easy one for us. It is only a journey of around an hour and a half. At eight o’clock on a clear, if cold, Sunday morning, Glenn collected me. PD was already on board the Chuckle Bus. We headed for half an hour north and Parky joined us. Glenn then did a one-eighty turn south, soon heading over Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge, yet to be inundated with day-trippers.  Autumnal sun was lighting up the entire sky now. We journeyed on, and everything seemed well in our world. As we neared the city of Salisbury, we passed through an avenue lined with tall and proud trees, and then the road opened out and away in the distance, straight ahead, stood the classic tower of the city’s cathedral, piercing the blue sky. As we drive around the highways and byways of this green and pleasant land, this particular view of the tallest spire in England always takes my breath away.

Salisbury. Who would ever have thought that this historic city would ever play a part in the history of Chelsea Football Club? Any yet, following the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia has been severely tested since the incident in March, and has lead – most people have surmised – to Roman Abramovich seeking out domicile in Israel rather than continuing to live in London. What a strange world we live in.

“Southampton away” now takes a familiar shape. We park at the train station, devour a hearty breakfast at a nearby café, and then get stuck in to some beers before heading off to the stadium on the other side of the city centre. We were parked up at 9.45am, and we were soon tucking into a lovely fry-up along with a strong coffee or two. We then re-positioned ourselves outside in a sun trap, and got stuck into some lagers. The sun warmed us. It was a perfect Sunday morning. We were joined by some friends from our local area; around a dozen of us in total. Unsurprisingly, chuckles of various pitches and volumes rebounded off the concrete of the nearby walls and steps.

“Brilliant. Just like a European away.”

I think Glenn was exaggerating slightly, but we all knew what he meant.

Out in the open air, catching some rays, drinking a “San Miguel”, sharing a laugh with some mates, occasionally talking football – “we should win this one, eh?” was about as far as we got – and generally enjoying each other’s’ company. Real life problems, outside our football bubble, occasionally tried to enter my head, but it was easy to push them aside.

“Cheers, lads.”

It might not have been quite such a perfect Sunday in Southampton. Glenn and PD had missed out on tickets among the three thousand away supporters. We needed to think outside the box, or even the box office. Thankfully, Glenn knows a Southampton season ticket holder – I remember he once came with us to Stamford Bridge to see the Saints some twenty years ago – and two tickets were purchased in the home section, the Kingsland Stand, so all four of us were “good to go.” As at Swansea City in 2014, Glenn and I volunteered to sit among the home support, since – without putting too fine a point on it – PD admitted that he would find it hard to keep schtum for ninety minutes.

Southampton would be added to the list of away stadia where I have watched Chelsea from the home sections.

Bristol Rovers – 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.

Bristol City – 1976.

Liverpool – 1992, 1994, 2008.

Everton – 1992.

Viktoria Zizkov – 1994.

Austria Memphis – 1994.

QPR – 1995.

Leeds United – 1995.

Arsenal – 1996.

Blackburn Rovers – 1995, 1995, 1996.

Barcelona – 2005.

Portsmouth – 2008.

Swansea City – 2014.

Southampton – 2018.

(…and not counting the friendlies at Rangers, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Swindon Town.)

There haven’t been that many in over 1,200 games. I’ve managed to live to tell the tale. Having a mate from Yorkshire – not a Leeds fan, I hasten to add – probably helped my cause in 1995. We lost that game 1-0, and I don’t think I was too quick to spring to my feet after Tony bloody Yeboah scored a late winner. I think his accent – drip-feeding the locals over the whole game – might well have saved me. After Wisey scored a last minute equaliser in a 3-3 at Highbury a year later, the four of us sitting in the last few rows of the West Upper could not contain ourselves. We jumped up – “giving it large” – and I even turned around and stared down the Arsenal fans behind me. I was lucky to get away without a slap on that occasion, methinks.

We caught a cab to St. Mary’s. While PD and LP turned left to join in with the Chelsea support in the Northam Stand, Glenn and I continued on and entered the Kingsland Stand. Our seats, in Block 28, were three-quarters of the way back, quite close to the corner flag, and diametrically opposite the Chelsea support.

I looked around. The supporters close by looked pretty harmless. I didn’t expect there to be any problem on this occasion.

Maurizio Sarri had finely-tweaked the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

No complaints from me.

Ryan Bertrand was the captain of the Southampton team.

The stadium took a while to fill, and there were odd gaps in the home section in the Chapel Stand to my right which ever filled. We were treated to more flames as the teams entered the pitch from the Itchen Stand opposite.

Southampton have disregarded their homage to the Kevin Keegan kit of 1980 to 1982 which they wore last season in favour of more traditional stripes. For the first time, we wore the new third kit.

Glenn : “You know what. From this distance, it looks half decent.”

Chris : “It looks better from two miles away.”

Glenn : “Looks bloody rubbish up close.”

Chris : “Up close, yes. Bloody awful.”

But I had to concede, it didn’t look as bad as I expected. But that isn’t saying too much. I absolutely loathed the God-awful tangerine and graphite kit of the mid-nineties, which the kit is said to reference. It was a minging kit.

If the ridiculous non-Chelsea colour scheme was ignored, there was still too much going on; two-tone grey stripes over-stenciled with a thin cross-hatch, panels here there and everywhere, a hideous badge in an over-sized shield, tangerine epaulets, and for some reason the tangerine of the collar was a different colour tangerine to the main body of the shirt, plus a hideous stone-washed look to the grey resulted in it just looking grubby.

Have I made myself clear? It was fucking hideous.

The game began, without hardly a ripple of noise or appreciation from the residents of Block 28. Over in the far corner, the Chelsea 3K were soon singing.

“Oh, oh oh, it’s Kepa.

You know.

He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

With my zoom lens, I eventually spotted Alan, Gary, PD and Parky.

On the pitch, all was good. In fact, Glenn and I were blessed, being able to watch from close quarters as we dominated the opening portion of the game with mouth-watering possession football, and swift passing between all of our players. Whereas we struggled at West Ham a fortnight previously, we purred in the Hampshire sun. In that early period, with Hazard the main catalyst, shot after shot seemed to be blocked by Southampton limbs. An effort from Willian looped up onto the bar. Around me, I heard whispers of admiration every time that Hazard caressed the ball. In the pub, I commented to the lads that – unlike in previous seasons – we had no “hate figure” in our midst. No Diego Costa. No John Terry. No Ashley Cole. No Dennis Wise. No Vinnie Jones. I would be interested to see how the locals received us.

Two chaps – neutrals maybe – right behind us were in admiration of Hazard. I did well to bite my lip and not give the game away.

I looked around. There really was no noise from our area at all. Nothing. I looked behind me, and the sight made me smart. No more than five feet away was a gormless looking young chap – about twenty-two maybe – wearing, as brazen as you like, a navy blue Manchester United replica shirt.

I was speechless.

Altogether now; “what the fuck?”

I caught his eye, and mouthed “United?”

He nodded.

I scowled and returned to the game.

The phrase “football is dead” is often shared these days and here was damning evidence.

Inwardly, I thought to myself “there’s no way I am going to leave here without saying something to the prick.”

On the pitch, all was sweetness and light. We were playing some sublime stuff, some of the best of the season thus far. Our one-touch, maybe two-touch, stuff was creating havoc in the Saints’ final third. Surely a goal would come?

Well, with that, somehow – I don’t know how – Southampton pulled themselves up with their boot strings and carved out a few chances, mainly emanating down our right where Dave was often exposed. The best chance of the entire game fell to the home team. Nathan Redmond released Bertrand on the left and his cross from the goal-line was inch perfect, but Danny Ings somehow managed to get his bearings confused and made a great defensive clearance from six yards out.

By this time, at last, the home fans were making some noise.

“Oh when the Saints…”

Our stand was pretty quiet though, and to be honest only those home fans who shared the Northam Stand with the away supporters tried to show some support for their team. Everywhere else, people were quiet. I swear blind that the teenager sat next to me, wearing a Southampton home shirt, did not speak the entire game. In fact, it was if I was in the middle of a ridiculous sponsored silence.

“Football Is Dead Part 584.”

Our play was far the sharper. Ross Barkley won the ball off a Saints player and fed Hazard. He was level with us, and we were able to admire his quick snapshot which flew past the Saints’ ‘keeper.

Saints 0 Singers 1.

I looked over to see the away end bubbling away like a big bowl of soup.

With the Chelsea supporters in fine voice for the rest of the game, our section opposite was deathly quiet. I had not heard a single shout of support from any individual the entire game, and I wanted to make my mark and break the silence, if only to be able to get a bizarre kick out of being able to say I was the loudest supporter in Block 28 the entire game.

“COME ON SAINTS.”

Glenn giggled.

I wouldn’t have done this at Leeds United back in 1995, mind you.

There are limits.

More Chelsea shots were blocked. Giroud stumbled in the box but it did not look like a penalty.

At the break, we were 1-0 up and coasting on the South coast. It had been an enjoyable, if not particularly loud, first-half in Section 28.

Oriel Romeu, another Munich Boy, appeared for Southampton in the second-half, adding a little more solidity to their midfield. Over on the far side, Sarri was his usual sartorially-challenged self, while Gianfranco Zola was referencing his first ever Chelsea game (Blackburn 1996, see above) when he pleaded “please, not an XL shirt again” by wearing a rain-jacket which resembled a tent.

But on the pitch, we were looking as good as ever. However, the home team carved out a couple of chances, with Bertrand wasting the best of them. As the second-half continued, I was particularly pleased with the way that Toni Rudiger was defending; he hardly put a foot wrong. Elsewhere, Jorginho was finding others with regularity. Barkley was having a very fine game. Just before the hour, that man Hazard was fouled and we waited for Willian to signal his intent to his team mates. Throughout the first-half, I had spotted his signals at corners; one finger, two fingers, three fingers. Against Vidi on Thursday there had even been a thumbs down. The ball was curled over towards the far post and Olivier Giroud attempted a rather spectacular scissor-kick. The ball bounced through a forest of legs and Ross Barkley was able to score his first Chelsea goal with an easy tap in from inside the six-yard box. His joyous run and leap in front of the celebrating away fans were captured on camera.

Saints 0 Singers 2.

I have always rated Ross Barkley. We might just have found another great English midfielder. Let’s hope so. He has poise and strength. I desperately want him to succeed at Chelsea.

We continued to dominate but play opened up a little. There was more defensive strength from Rudiger. And David Luiz, too. His renaissance has been hugely enjoyable.

Alvaro Morata replaced Olivier Giroud and then Pedro took over from Willian. Then Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

In section 28, still no noise.

The sponsored silence was going well.

We continued to push the ball around with ease.

But then, two Southampton chances to eat into our lead produced fantastic saves from Kepa. Redmond let fly from distance, but our young custodian leapt and finger-tipped over from right under the bar. He hasn’t the height of Big Pete or Big Nose, but if he has spring in his heels like that, who cares? Morata went close when he showed too much of the ball to the ‘keeper. I heard the grinding of three-thousands sets of gnashers from one hundred yards away. And then came the second super-save from Arrizabalaga; a similarly agile jump thwarted Ings. Sensational stuff, and we had great seats to see it all up close.

As the game was nearing completion, and as a Chelsea move was progressing, I was aware that the Chelsea supporters were singing out an “ole” with every fresh touch. I don’t usually like this. It seems overly arrogant. Maybe OK, if we are winning 6-0 but not before. The two neutrals behind me were not impressed.

“…mmm, don’t like that, taking the piss.”

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

The ball was worked to Hazard and with that shimmying approach of his, he created a little space and passed to Morata. This time, there was no annoyance from the away fans. His finish was clean and simple. As he dispatched the ball, Glenn and I spontaneously rose to our feet and whooped a little.

“Great goal.”

The final whistle soon came.

Saints 0 Singers 3.

Glenn and I packed up and watched as the Chelsea players slowly moved over and clapped the away support. They didn’t seem to walk over too far towards the Northam Stand. Maybe the 3-0 win seemed too easy. It was certainly easier than the come-from-behind win of last season which brought more prolonged celebrations at the final whistle.

As I exited row BB, I spotted that the United fan – remember him? – was waiting alone near the exit. I couldn’t help myself.

I motioned towards him, pointing at the United shirt.

“What’s with all this?”

Almost apologetically, he threw his arms back and said “it’s football.”

My response? Take your pick.

  1. “Ah that is fine mate. I know that United are a great club and their tickets are hard to come by. “
  2. “Oh, you’re English. Presumed you were foreign. Not understanding the subtleties of fandom in England. Whatever.”
  3. “And what a game. Cheers mate.”
  4. “You’re a twat.”

He then repeated his first answer and I then repeated mine.

As I walked down the steps, a grinning Glenn was waiting for me.

“You had words, then?”

To be honest, I was surprised that a steward or a home supporter had not approached him to tell him to either put a jacket on and cover himself up, or maybe go into the toilets and turn it inside out. At Chelsea, it surely would have been dealt with differently. I am not an advocate of violence in any shape or form, but honestly. The chap was lucky not to get a slap. He showed complete disrespect for Southampton Football Club.

And it – as is obvious – infuriated me to high heaven.

“Football Is Dead” indeed.

Manufactured atmospheres. Flames and fireworks. Orchestrated flag-waving goal celebrations. Noisemakers. Painted faces. Jester hats. Noiseless fans. People as critics and not supporters. A fan base of nerds.

And now Manchester United shirts being worn at games not even involving them.

For fuck sake.

I momentarily thought back to a time in the mid-to-late ‘eighties when it was pretty difficult to obtain foreign football jerseys. Occasionally, such jerseys were worn on the terraces, although not to any great degree due to the rarity of them.

They had a certain cachet to them. They looked the business. But always foreign shirts. And maybe, at Chelsea, the occasional Rangers one.

In those days, in the era of Half Man Half Biscuit and their football-based singalongs, and The Farm, with their scally heritage, and the music-football crossover, it would be quite common to see bands sporting foreign shirts. I seem to remember that I wore a cotton Kappa Juventus shirt on the benches once or twice in around 1986. It was all part of the burgeoning, and rapidly changing, casual scene which enveloped many of us all those years ago.

But not one of us would have been seen dead in a fucking Manchester United shirt at Stamford Bridge.

Then. Or ever since.

To that div in Section 28, this match report is not dedicated.

And now, damn it – modern football – the dreaded international break and a fortnight of inactivity.

Our next game is against Manchester United.

I wonder if knobhead is going.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Piccadilly Line

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2018.

On London Underground trains and station platforms on the Piccadilly Line, there is a graphic poster – maybe not as stylish as those wonderful ones from the ‘thirties – extolling the virtues of that particular line, which wends its way from out in the west through London, heading east and then north-east and then north to its eventual resting place. It shows a train disappearing underground at Hammersmith, with all of the major tourist attractions to be seen en route annotated on a map, and it is evidence of that particular line – “the purple one” – hitting many of the main tourist areas.

On the Hammersmith to Kings Cross section, especially from South Kensington to Leicester Square, there are certainly some sights to be seen.

Museums, department stores, royal palaces, theatres, squares, cinemas, parks and more. It is the very centre of an increasingly visited London.

Of course, just beyond Earls Court lies Stamford Bridge – on the District Line, “the green one” – while a few miles north of the stations of Kings Cross and St. Pancras, on into the darkness of North London, lies the Arsenal tube station, and with it not only Highbury, the former home of our opponents on the third day of 2018, but their gleaming new stadium too.

The Chuckle Bus – the PD Line, “the white one” – had picked me up from work at 2pm and, by 4pm, it was parked in a side-street adjacent to Barons Court. The four of us – PD, Parky, Scott and I – waited in the coolness of the early-evening air and were soon sent hurtling underground as the Piccadilly Line train took us into town. The game was not until 7.45pm. There would be time for a little pre-match revelry, which is not always possible for a London midweek away game. The weather in the West of England had been spiteful during the day, with showers and strong gusts of winds. Throughout the day, the weather had been bleak enough to remind me of the infamous game at Arsenal in December 2013 which had resulted in my car – my Chuckle Bus, “the blue one” – getting stranded in several feet of water with me having to walk a few miles to reach home at 5am the following day, Christmas Eve.

We soon reached our staging post. Piccadilly Circus was an electronic dream. Christmas lights strewn across Regent Street, floodlit shops, huge neon advertisements, excited tourists with cameras clicking. It was nothing compared to Times Square in New York or Shinjuku in Tokyo of course, but still pretty mesmerizing. I met up with Kyle from LA, who was still in town, giddy with excitement for more Chelsea football.

At about 4.30pm, the five of us entered “The Queens Head” just to the north of Piccadilly Circus. The pub was snug and warm, a typical old-style London boozer. Pints of lager were ordered. I could relax. I had not enjoyed the first couple of days back at work after a ten-day interlude. Here was a chance to unwind. Just opposite was the site of a former pub – “The Devonshire Arms” – which I remember well from a Chelsea game against West Ham in 1987. I had traveled down from Stoke with a college mate, Bob, whose pal Kev was a barman in the pub. As luck would have it, it was Kev’s last day of serving in the boozer, and he started pouring us free beers. By the time we left the pub to head over to Stamford Bridge, we were bollocksed. At the time, it was the most drunk that I had ever been at football, and the game was a huge blur.

Kyle had loved his Chelsea experience on Saturday. He watched from directly behind the goal and to quote him, had experienced “sensory overload.” I suspect it was quite a shock to be so near to the action. It would be akin to me watching my first ever baseball game at Yankee Stadium just four yards behind the catcher’s mitt.

At 5pm, I headed back outside into the London evening. My friend of over thirty-six years Tullio – often featured in these reports – was in town with his wife Emanuela and their two daughters Sofia and Lou Lou. We had arranged to meet up, albeit only for a few minutes. My Italian friends had enjoyed a long day of walking around the sights but were full of smiles. It was bloody magnificent to see them again; the last time had been in their apartment in Moncalieri, just to the south of Turin, ahead of our infamous 2012 Champions League game.

I quietly whispered to Tullio, with my head subtly nodding in the direction of “The Queen’s Head”, about him joining us for a quick pint.

He whispered back.

“Boh – I am a married man now.”

“Boh” is one of my favourite Italian phrases. It means that there is no answer to whatever question has been asked, and even if there was an answer, there would be no point in saying, whatever is done is done.

In the ten minutes that we were together, football dominated our chat, and the three girls looked on in awe at our ability to talk football under any circumstances.

Tullio : “What do you think of Conte?”

Chris : “We love him. A good man. You remember I went to the Juve versus Fiorentina game in 1999 the day after your wedding?”

Tullio : “I forget.”

Chris : “I am not surprised. Well, Conte scored the winning goal and taunted the Viola fans with the corner flag.”

Tullio : “Yes!”

Chris : “I met Conte very briefly in Beijing in the summer. I wanted more time so I could explain that to him.”

Tullio : “But he would not understand English. He barely understands Italian.”

We laughed.

I also mentioned that if Tullio had told me of his plans, I could have tried to get him a ticket for the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game.

But his reply did not surprise me :

“No. Tonight is Juve /Toro.”

We laughed again and soon said our goodbyes. It was lovely to see him and his family once more.

Back in the pub, there was time for more “Peroni” and a lot more laughs. This was a lovely time, another sweet spot, another great Chelsea moment. At just before 6.45pm, we set off for the last section of the journey. As we disappeared into the underground, I noted that Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was being played by a nearby busker.

“Seems appropriate, Kyle.”

Kyle mentioned its appearance in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and, just as we walked through the into the ticket hall, I had nightmarish visions of being accosted by some “droogs”. I also had an equally nightmarish vision of having my eyes forced open to watch the dour and defensive Arsenal team of the early ‘nineties on a constant loop.

On the train, the chuckling continued.

“Did Kyle enjoy the Arsenal game?”

“He never made it. He is still curled up on the Piccadilly Line laughing at the name Cockfosters.”

Parky piped up –

“Cockfosters. That’s what happens when you have too much lager, innit?”

I replied –

“Oh God. That’s the end of the line for you mate.”

At Holborn, on the platform, we spotted a few Chelsea faces.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

At Arsenal tube, there were random shouts of support for Chelsea but nothing from the Gooners. I had warned Kyle that the tube at Arsenal was like a rabbit warren, so much unlike the airy Fulham Broadway. Every time I revisit this particular stop I am reminded of my first-ever visit.

August 1984.

Ah. What a day.

I quickly gave Kyle the quickest of history lessons as we sped up to take a few photographs outside the still impressive façade of Highbury on Avenell Road. He was mesmerized by it all. The closeness of one of our great, huge, stadiums, to run-of-the-mill terraced houses. The clean lines of the stand. The sense of place.

We then hot-footed it to the larger, but hardly greater, Emirates Stadium. After a bag search and a trial to find my place, I reached Alan, Gary and Parky with a few minutes gone.

A quick check of the team.

“Packing the midfield, Cesc playing, Hazard behind Morata.”

I noticed that all was quiet. Very quiet.

After a few minutes, a few Chelsea were singing “empty seats, empty seats” but I didn’t see many.

For a few horrible seconds, I had a flashback to September of 2016; God, it seems so long ago now. Our beloved Chelsea team was completely over-run and out-played, especially in the first forty-five minutes. In hindsight, of course, the game marked the turning point in our season. It was a huge game in our history. Few defeats have ever been doted on as lovingly as that one.

I turned my attention to the game.

“You haven’t missed much, Chris” said Gal.

I have to admit, what with a combination of getting in late, a very low viewing position – row two – and the gnawing pain of knowing that I would be waking up at 4.45am in the morning for work after the drive home, I struggled to get to grips with the game in the opening moments of the first-half.

But Arsenal appeared to be in control, attacking down Victor Moses’ flank in front of us at will. I lost count of the amount of times that Alexis Sanchez was allowed to drift in and attack space on our right. Mezut Ozil too, looking even more gaunt than ever, was often breaking into our box. It was as if we were allowing a special little show of Arsenal prowess just for the away fans only.

I hated it.

I also hated the continuing – and eerie – quietness which had enveloped the stadium. I simply did not hear a single Arsenal song nor chant during the entire first-half. And that is truly shocking. I know I berate our own fans at Stamford Bridge for long periods of quiet, but this was on a different scale. How was it possible for nigh on sixty thousand people to make so little noise?

After constant Arsenal probing – ooh, matron – the ball broke for Alvaro Morata in the inside left channel, and we held our breath as he sprinted clear.

“Go on ma sahn.”

He inexplicably steered it past the far post. On the replay on the huge screen behind me, it looked even worse.

Then, an Arsenal chance for the effervescent Sanchez and a goal seemed assured. Remarkably, his effort was saved by Courtois onto his near post and we watched, hating every second of it, as the ball struck the far post and then rolled back, mesmerizingly, into his arms.

“Phew.”

A sublime save by Coutois from Lacazette followed, and it was undoubtedly one of the best this season so far. Stupendous stuff.

Chelsea were under the cosh, but a rare break resulted in a strike from Bakayoko and a save from Petr Cech.

The Chelsea support, three-thousand strong, behind me and to my left and right, were surprisingly quiet for a London derby. I have noted similar quiet away atmospheres at the new Arsenal stadium on a few occasions now. There is never as much noise, I feel, as at White Hart Lane on our visits. Maybe we are quietened by the osmosis of watching among so many Goons.

A yellow card by Jack Wilshere on Cesc Fabregas brought howls. A couple of half-chances were exchanged. Marcos Alonso’s free-kick in prime territory sadly did not test Cech. Just before half-time, a nice interplay involving Hazard and Fabregas resulted in the former Arsenal midfielder ballooning the ball high and wide. The first-half had not been much to write about, but it could have ended 2-2.

At half-time, I wondered if my pre-match prediction of a 1-1 draw might prove to be right.

We certainly began the livelier in the second-half. Hazard, after a nice run and set-up by Morata, went close. An Alonso header too. We were looking more focussed.

After ten minutes of play, the manager replaced Moses – a little under-the-weather – with Davide Zappascosta.

A little Arsenal pressure followed, but I was full of praise of our three defenders, throwing their bodies at everything and hounding those carrying the ball. From my vantage point, it looked like Gary Cahill had cleared off the line. In front of the defence, Kante was magnificent, Bakayoko not so. A few more chances were exchanged. A Hazard shot straight at Cech.

Just after the hour, a ball ran through to Wilshere and the ‘orrible little runt slammed the ball in.

“Bollocks.”

The stadium jumped to life at last. Until that point, I had still not heard a song, God’s honest truth.

“One nil to the Arsenal.”

I looked around and I bloody hated them.

Just four minutes later, Hazard danced into the Arsenal box down in our own special viewing gallery corner. He was up against Bellerin. His first cross was blocked but as he stretched to control the rebound, Bellerin caught his leg.

Penalty.

Eden slammed it in.

We were level. There was my prediction.

The game continued with us now looking the more confident and assured. A chance for Morata went begging, lifting the shot wide.

Danny Drinkwater replaced Fabregas. A show of solidity.

Oddly I felt, Willian came on for Hazard.

Salvation came on eighty-four minutes when fantastic diligence from Zappacosta out wide after a great pass by Willian allowed him to slam the ball low into the danger area. To everyone’s surprise, it was the wing back Alonso who arrived – Lampardesque – to touch the ball past Cech.

Euphoria at The Emirates.

Our left-back ran towards us and was jumped upon by his team mates. It was a happy and glorious pile of blue in front of our corner of the Clock end. The away end was now the ones singing, and how.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

The minutes ticked by.

Ninety minutes were up.

“Blow up, ref.”

Down in the corner, Willian had a chance to hoof it away, but meekly cleared. Eventually the ball was played into the box and Bellerin slammed home after a header was knocked towards him.

“Oh fuck.”

Amazingly, in the very last moments of the game, the ball was pumped behind the Arsenal back line and we watched again as Morata was one on one with Petr Cech. His unconvincing shot was smothered among cries of pain in the away end. The ball broke to Zappacosta. His heavy drive crashed against the bar.

“FUCK!”

A draw, in all honesty, seemed a fair result. We had all said that a draw would have been fine before the game. We headed off into the night, with the feeling of what could have been. There was one word on every body’s lips.

“Morata.”

My lasting memory of the game, though, will be of the long periods of quiet in the Arsenal areas for the hour before their goal. And, I will say again, our support was far from noisy. For me, the lack of atmosphere really had a negative effect on the game. It is a common saying that “football without fans is nothing” but just as true is that “football without an atmosphere is nothing.” I can never remember an important away game against huge rivals being so bloody quiet, with a distinct lack of “crackle” that surely should go hand-in-hand with games under lights. It just didn’t seem to be that much of a spectacle. I found it difficult to get emotionally involved in it.

It was a very odd night.

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Tales From Six Of The Best

Chelsea vs. Qarabag : 12 September 2017.

European football was back. Parky, PD and myself were parked up earlier than usual for a midweek game. We dipped in to “The Goose” for old times’ sake at about 5.30pm and chatted to a few old friends but it seemed pretty quiet. I had heard that the game against Qarabag from Azerbaijan had sold out, but I was genuinely worried that a sizeable number of supporters had bought tickets for loyalty points only, with the intention of moving tickets on, and there would be gaps throughout the stadium. We also popped into The Malt House for a couple more pints and, over the next hour, my spirits were raised. The pub grew busy. I hoped that there would be a near capacity crowd. When the group phase of the Champions League churns out our three opponents every autumn, I always wonder if our gates will hold up. There is usually a game against a “minnow” team, and – thankfully – our home support has responded well. Ever since the nadir in the autumn of 2007 when only 24,973 turned up for our home game with Rosenborg – Mourinho’s last game of his first spell – we have only once failed to fulfil expectations. Our 2011 group phase game with Bayer Leverkusen only drew 33,820, but all other home gates have reached the 37,000 to 41,000 mark.

On the short walk to Stamford Bridge, I spotted one Qarabag supporter, with an Azerbaijan flag draped over his shoulders. I knew that there would not be many present.

Inside, with a good quarter of an hour to go before kick-off, there were gaps everywhere. I wasn’t hopeful that we would end up with a decent gate. Thankfully, and to my surprise to be honest, the place filled-up quickly. Over in the far corner, around four hundred away fans were spotted in the lower tier of the away section. Baku is 2,500 miles away from Stamford Bridge. I guess it was a fair turnout.

Thoughts turned from our support to the team.

Not surprisingly, Antonio Conte had tinkered with the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi -Willian

The teams took to the pitch and, after a hiatus of one season, the Champions League anthem rang out around Stamford Bridge. It was a shame, in my mind, that our first game this autumn was not against more prestigious opponents – how I remembered the sense of occasion that accompanied our first-ever game in the Champions League in 1999 against the mighty Milan – but at least a home game against Qarabag would hopefully give us a fine chance for an easy win, with plenty of goals, in a potentially tight group.

In The Malt House, we had honestly admitted that we expected an easy win – 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 – against a team that we knew nothing of.

At kick-off, I scanned the crowd and was very happy. There was hardly a spare seat in the house, save for a block of around four-hundred above the away fans in The Shed. I spotted a new banner on The Shed Balcony wall – “Cahill, He’s Won It All” – and also an outing for one for the manager – “The King Of London.”

Rain started to fall.

As the game began, Alan and myself chatted about the aftermath of the Morata chant at Leicester City. Typically, the programme featured our Spanish striker on the cover. I certainly did not expect the chant to be repeated against Qarabag. Thankfully, it didn’t.

It was a bright opening from both teams. After only five minutes, Willian passed to Pedro, and although he was on the edge of the D, with the path to goal seemingly blocked by many players, his first-time strike zipped past everybody and into the top corner. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd responded with a reassuring roar. Pedro raced towards the Chelsea bench with a joyous hop, skip and a jump. Get in you beauty.

Chelsea dominated play, with some solid performances throughout the team. All eyes were on Michy Batshuayi after his disappointing show against Burnley. We hoped that he would seize his opportunity. A shot from Michy went close. There were rare attacks from Qarabag and I was impressed with the form of Andreas Christensen.

The song for Willian boomed out, as maybe an extra dig at Tottenham, on account of the anti-Spurs chant on Saturday getting such wide condemnation. Soon after, the ever-popular “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” rang out too.

On the half-hour mark, Davide Zappacosta received the ball from Thibaut Courtois. As he set off on a gut-busting run up the right wing, I had a nightmare. Rather than watch the new signing rampage past various Qarabag players, my thoughts were focussed on sending a text message to a friend in Chicago, who had helped put together the new Cahill flag. I looked up just as the ball was slammed with his right foot and flew past the away ‘keeper.

Boom. Two-nil.

I jumped up, but felt embarrassed that I had basically missed most of it. However, I had already sussed out that it seemed to be a fluke, rather than a genuine shot on goal. This did not stop Zappacosta, who enthusiastically celebrated down in Parkyville.

From then on, every time the Italian full back was in possession of the ball, sections of the crowd urged him to shoot. We continued to dominate. We did not let Qarabag settle. Our control of the game was very impressive. Thibaut had only had one save to make the entire half.

At the break, I summed things up with Alan.

“2-0 now, I reckon it’ll be 5-0 at full time.”

There was a read of the match programme at the break. I was reminded of our phenomenal home record in UEFA competitions.

Played 110

Won 77

Drew 25

Lost 8

That is just stunning.

There was also a complete list of our opponents in all UEFA games and one team dominated.

Barcelona 15 games

Liverpool 10 games

PSG 8 games

Porto 8 games

Schalke 6 games

Valencia 6 games

Atletico Madrid 5 games

Milan 5 games

I have witnessed nine of those fifteen Barcelona games, and what a set of memories are evoked. Some of my very best days supporting Chelsea – and one or two of the worst – took place against FCB. The Chelsea /Barcelona timeline goes back to the ‘sixties of course, and long may the story continue. Conversely, just three games against Real Madrid seem scant reward. We await our first-ever match at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Maybe this season.

With European football so common these days, it seems crazy that I had to wait a full twenty years – 1974 to 1994 – for my first taste of European football at Chelsea. In truth, my European story began slightly earlier than 1994. My first-ever UEFA game was in Turin in 1987; Juventus vs. Panathinaikos. The memory of the thrill of a noisy and atmospheric evening in a misty Turin is strong to this day. My European debut almost took place a few months earlier. In September 1987, when I was travelling around Europe on the trains with two college mates, we found ourselves in Stuttgart. It was a Wednesday and I spotted in the weekly sports paper that Borussia Dortmund were playing Celtic. We decided, on the spur of the moment, to head up to Dortmund and watch the game. We arrived at the city’s train station with only three quarters of an hour to spare. After quickly depositing our ruc-sacs in the left luggage room, we tried our best at getting directions,  blurting out “fussball stadion” and we even mimed kicking and heading a ball to assist us as we tried to make headway with the bemused locals. At last, we hopped on to the U-bahn train. We were running so late that we didn’t spot any other fans. Outside, I approached a middle-aged woman, and asked her about the stadium.

“Wo is der stadion? Borussia.”

She then said the immortal words –

“The game was yesterday.”

Oh bollocks. What a bastard.

I had, it seems, neglected to spot that the sports paper had detailed the Wednesday fixtures thus :

Borussia Dortmund vs. Celtic (Di)

Di meaning Dienstag meaning Tuesday.

Ugh.

Oh well. In the circumstances, it seems just right that fate was to hand me a Juventus tie for my first-ever UEFA game. Let me explain. Over this summer, after re-watching “The Damned United”, it dawned on me that the very first European game that I ever saw – live – on TV was the Juventus vs. Derby County game from Stadio Communale in Turin in 1973. It was on a Wednesday afternoon, and I have a sustained memory of watching it on our black and white TV with my father after he returned from work. There are solid recollections of the names Pietro Anastasi and Franco Causio for sure. And there is a very strong chance, in fact, that I saw Juventus live on TV before I saw a live match involving Chelsea. The first live Chelsea match would have been, undoubtedly, the away game at Manchester City in 1984 some eleven years later. But, anyway, as for my interest in Juventus, this was where it all began for me.

Ten minutes into the second-half, a free-kick released Cesc Fabregas, who clipped a lovely ball into the box with the outside of his foot and the cross was adeptly headed in by Cesar Azpilicueta, whose little dart into space was timed to perfection. He ran off to the far corner and celebrated with Alvaro Morata, who was warming up in front of the East Lower. I don’t think there is a more popular player at Chelsea than Dave. His joy in scoring was matched by us.

At last, Stamford Bridge responded en masse with a stadium-wide song. It had taken almost an hour, but the place was booming.

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

My 5-0 was looking good.

Eden Hazard soon replaced Pedro, and then Bakayoko replaced Kante.

Hazard set up Willian and his firm shot slammed against the crossbar. At the other end, Qarabag had a couple of wild shots over the bar.

Alan and myself were scratching our heads when we were awarded a corner – we thought that a Qarabag player did not get a touch – but Hazard played a short corner, received the ball back, and then sent over a low cross into the box. Qarabag failed to clear and the ball fell nicely for Bakayoko to slam home off a defender.

His celebrations were right in front of us – and just beautiful.

Antonio Rudiger replaced Azpilicueta and we kept attacking. We did not let up. We kept going, attacking at will. Although he had endured a quiet game, Batshuayi received the ball from Bakayoko some twenty-five yards out, quickly set his sights, and struck a fine low shot deep into the corner of the Qarabag goal.

OK, there’s the 5-0. Excellent.

We still kept pressing. Fantastic work from Zappacosta on the right forced an error from the shell-shocked left-back and his low cross was bundled in by a mixture of Michy Batshuayi and Qarabag defender Maksim Medvedev.

Chelsea 6 Qarabag 0.

There was still time for a fantastic dribble down below us from Eden Hazard, and I had to chuckle at the look of annoyance on his face – masked with a smile – as an errant touch gave the ball away cheaply. Having him back in the side is such a lift.

In the closing minutes, the Stamford Bridge crowd gathered together again for one last communal chant.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

The whistle blew and “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

Qarabag were poor all night long. We gave them a proper caning.

In the other game in our group, Roma drew 0-0 at home to Atletico Madrid, and I was very happy with that.

After only one match in the autumn of 2017, advantage Chelsea.

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Tales From A Night Of Ignition

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

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As soon as I reached the familiar surroundings of the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Upper, I was met by the odd sight of many green tin foil flags being brandished by my fellow supporters. It was a bit of a shock to the system.

“Green?” I asked Alan, who left the pub a little before the rest of us.

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

Ah yes. The Italian flag. It all made sense now. I looked over, past the green section and spotted silvery-white and red flags too. Once combined, the mosaic of an Italian flag was taking shape in the upper tier, while it seemed that fans – or at least some of them – in the lower tier had been given standard royal blue flags.

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

Conte would be the latest in a revered and respected group of Italians who have managed our club.

Gianluca Vialli. Claudio Ranieri. Carlo Ancelotti. Roberto di Matteo. Antonio Conte.

In addition, we have had our fair share of Italian players too, from the idolised Gianfranco Zola and Carlo Cudicini to bit-part players such as Pierluigi Casiraghi, Sam Dalla Bona, Christian Penucci, Gabrielle Ambrosetti and Marco Ambrosio.

It has always felt right, this Italian thing. The passionate azzurri playing with pride and passion in the royal blue of Chelsea. That there has been a strong Juventus link – Vialli, Casiraghi and now Conte – has made it all the more sweeter for me personally. It has evolved into a lovely subplot of my love affair with Chelsea over the past twenty years.

Back in the August of 1996, I welcomed Di Matteo and Vialli to Stamford Bridge with my very own “VINCI PER NOI” banner draped over the MHU balcony wall against Middlesbrough, and I ended that particularly wonderful season at Wembley against the same opponents with an Italian flag adorned with “FORZA AZZURRI” as we won our first trophy since 1971.

1996/1997 was a season with a distinctive Italian flavour.

And I wondered if the current campaign would be similarly seasoned.

As the first weekend of the Premier League got underway without us, all of my focus seemed to be on our new manager, our new don, our new capo, our new “Mister.” After the ersatz atmosphere of the US tour, suddenly I was thrust right into the venom of a bitter London derby against West Ham United and I wondered how the new man would get us playing.

This was the real deal, the real thing, the league opener, us against the world.

After a torrid day at work, it took a while for me to fully focus on the evening’s game as I drove up to London, but once inside Stamford Bridge, the anticipation was rising. I was getting back in the groove.

“What else you gonna do on a Monday evening?”

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

I have mentioned already that I have a particular phrase for the new manager Conte which sums him up.

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

It seems apt. Tons of passion too. Passion by the bucket load. That is fine by me. Passion is good. Passion is a good thing. Bring it on Antonio.

Let’s get my Antonio Conte story out of the way early, although I have touched on it once before in these despatches.

Back in 1999, I attended my friend Tullio’s marriage to Emanuela in their home city of Turin. It was a fantastic day, and evening, and night, and one of the nicest weddings that I have ever attended. Many beers were quaffed by myself (I honestly think they had got the beer in especially for me) and when I woke the next morning, I always remember my bloodshot eyes looking back at me from my hotel bathroom mirror. The wedding had been on the Saturday, and on the Sunday afternoon, I was to attend the Juventus vs. Fiorentina game at the Delle Alpi. It was perfect timing really. It could not have been better.

Juve, with Thierry Henri playing for them – and Zinedine Zidane too, as a substitute – were a team of superstars and I watched high up in the stands, towards the home Curva Scirea, as Juve went a goal up. During the previous week, the same stadium had witnessed the visit of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final, and the atmosphere during the game had not been great. But a win against bitter rivals Fiorentina would cheer the bianconeri after their defeat at the hands of Roy Keane et al. Sadly, the viola equalised late on. I had arranged with a local taxi driver to collect me outside the stadium at the final whistle in order to scoot me back to the city’s airport at the end of the game. I pondered if I should leave with a few minutes left in order to beat the crowds and possible traffic congestion. A little voice inside my head told me to hang on.

Right at the death, who else but Antonio Conte – an industrious box to box midfielder – popped up inside the Fiorentina area to fire home. I watched, delirious, as he raced over to the segment of travelling away fans and picked up the corner flag and brandished it towards them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHotoVK13T4

It was a perfect end to my weekend in Turin. Immediately after, Conte gained a great deal of notoriety within the Italian media for his actions, since many thought it confrontational, while in Juve circles he gained a great deal of respect. Incidentally, Conte was the Juve captain in those days and his manager on that day over seventeen years ago? Carlo Ancelotti.

This is the Antonio Conte that I observed during the otherwise lacklustre Euros over the summer. This is the Antonio Conte that I want to see at Chelsea. Passion, fire, vigour, energy.

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

On the walk from the pub, I had checked my phone for the manager’s first starting eleven of the new season. Chelsea Football Club had described the formation as 4-1-4-1, with this team :

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

It was no surprise to me that his much vaunted 3-5-2 was not chosen. The players – his players – were not in place for that yet. If this is his preferred option, it will be a while before the team is morphed to a new shape. It is always a balancing act of players and formations, form and function. I trust that the new man will manage the changes with his apparent studiousness and professionalism. I certainly liked what I had heard about him; his Mourinho-esque attention to detail, his obsessive devotion to the game, his management style.

It was a perfect evening for football. There was not a single cloud in the sky.

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first league game of 2016/2017 was another landmark game for me.

Just over two years ago, I had driven Glenn, Parky and PD in the Chuckle Bus up to Burnley for our away game at Turf Moor – the league opener – for my one thousandth Chelsea game. Here, in 2016, two years later, I had driven the same three friends up to London for our league opener against another team in claret and blue for game number 1,100.

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

Let’s hope that this season ends in the same way as 2014/2015, eh?

(…incidentally, I don’t usually do predictions on here, but I had the top four for this new season as follows : 1 – Manchester City, 2 – Manchester United, 3 – Chelsea, 4 – Tottenham Hotspur).

Over in the far corner, three thousand away fans were sat and stood, with more than the usual number of flags. Maybe they made a special effort. Elsewhere, Stamford Bridge appeared full, save for a few late arrivals in the top rows of The Shed. Familiar flags were spotted.

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

As the teams entered the pitch, the mosaics in our end were furiously waved.

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

Maybe I need to buy myself a retro away scarf of 1973 red, white and green this season.

It was a grand old sight and I feverishly clicked away. I hoped that they would not be the most exciting snaps of the entire night. Flames were thrown up in front of the East Stand – just a little bit too much razzmatazz for my liking to be honest – and we watched as the teams went about their usual routines.

It was then time for Alan and myself to make some comments about the tin foil flags in our midst.

“Knowing Gary, he’ll be collecting these at the end of the game and will use them to wrap his Christmas presents.”

“Nah, he can wrap himself in these after his latest marathon. Or Snickers, or whatever they call it these days.”

Chelsea in the traditional blue, blue, white, and West Ham in their traditional claret and blue.

An opening game between two bitter rivals, just as in 2000 when Mario Stanic – remember him? – scored on his debut with a sublime volley, with a young Frank Lampard looking on.

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The game began – our season began – and we attacked the MH.  West Ham began on the front foot, but there was a noticeable increase in the intensity shown by our players. It was hardly a new set of players – far from it – as all were on our books last season apart from the new lad N’Golo Kante, but it was remarkable how we easily noted an extra desire, passion and zip.

Oh dear. I apologise now for the number of times I will write the words “passion” and “desire” this season.

Sadly, Kante was booked early on for a tackle on Andy Carroll.

I noticed how animated the new manager was. He had given up his grey training gear of pre-season for a dark grey suit, and black tie, and he certainly looked the part. His trademark stance seems to be him standing with one arm across his stomach, one hand up to his mouth, surveying all and sundry.

West Ham were soon into their tiresome tirade of Chelsea-obsessed songs.

“Fucking hell, sing some of your own songs, will you, it’s getting boring now.”

Although the formation was officially 4/1/4/1, I couldn’t really spot much of a difference from last season’s shape. Matic seemed to be alongside Kante. Maybe there was extra width. Hazard was soon twisting away from markers, turning on a sixpence, and creating chances. Diego looked keen, yet still showed his propensity to dribble, head-down, rather than bring another players in. Matic began well. Kante really took my eye though. Tons of energy, and there is not that Matic-like tendency to dawdle once in possession.

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

Of all people, Branislav Ivanovic, ghosting past his man, provided the first real chance for us this season, but his firmly-struck shot went narrowly wide of the near post, forcing a low save from Adrian.

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

We knew that Carroll would be a problem, but were also thankful that their star Dmitri Payet was only on the subs’ bench. Oh, while I am on the subject : “Achy Breaky Heart” at football.

Fuck off.

West Ham were stood in the Shed lower, but many chose to sit in the upper. There was not a great deal of noise from them.

Oscar went down after a clumsy challenge in the box, but neither Alan nor myself were too convinced that it was a penalty. Chances were at a premium to be honest. Diego was booked amid protests after. It was beginning to heat up.

Eden Hazard proved to be our talisman again and he burst through on goal but a fine shot was narrowly wide of the mark. How I love to see Eden tease his opponents. Often he slows and almost walks towards them, a hark back to the tricky tanner ball players much beloved in Scotland, the intricately skilled wingers such as Davie Cooper, Jimmy Johnstone, John Robertson, our own Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin. Often Eden will almost lower himself, a crouch, in order to concentrate his thoughts on how to get past his marker. It is one of modern football’s most wonderful moments.

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

I heard myself saying to Alan “how does he do that?” as he effortlessly swept past a defender. What a player he is when he is in the mood.

Diego fired over, but chances were still rare. It really was all Chelsea. West Ham were poor. They surprised me.

Late on in the first-half, Willian forced a save from Adrian from one of his trademark dead balls. Dave headed the resultant corner over.

All level at the break.

We were treated to Ricardo Carvalho at half-time..

We teased the away fans :

“Riccy Carvalho – he’s won more than you.”

No complaints at the interval.

PD, Glenn, Alan and myself – who sit all together – were happy with things.

I never like it when we attack The Shed in the second-half. It seems odd. Out of kilter. However, we were all howling with pleasure after Dave was bundled over just inside the box after a shot from Diego came back into play.

All eyes were on Eden as he placed the ball on the spot. For once, he blasted it high, and I am sure I was not the only one whose first thought was “oh no, he’s missed.”

We were 1-0 up and the stadium was alive.

Ronny : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We continued to press and Willian went close. West Ham, again, as if to ratify further, were nowhere.

For a while, we turned the tables on West Ham, and there was a prolonged Frank Lampard songfest.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

Gary Cahill chased down a West Ham attacker and made a lovely defensive tackle. Alan and myself spoke how Conte’s intense training sessions over the summer may be bearing fruit already.

“Twelve months ago, he may not have been able to reach that.”

It was a good simple, clear sign that we were a far more focussed, fit and forceful team in this season’s opener. They were handing out free tins of “Carabao” before the game but I am sure that the team’s vim was not due to this new energy drink alone. Conte had got the team playing and how.

The game continued, again with only a few chances. Eden began to tire a little. Willian was having a quiet game. Matic slowed – if that is possible.

Payet, the danger man, came on.

With a quarter of an hour left, I remember thinking “bloody hell, Courtois has hardly had a single shot to save.”

Dave was adjudged to have raised a foot to Carroll, whereas it looked to us that the West Ham totem pole had stooped. From the free-kick, Payet forced a save from Thibaut. From the corner, we blocked the initial effort on goal, but the ball rebounded to ugly bald ginger goon Collins who slammed home.

Bollocks.

Alan : “from a free-kick that should not have been given.”

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

Billericay Dickie, Dagenham Dave and Plaistow Patricia were making all the noise now.

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

Conte is not the typically cautious Italian and he soon replaced the quiet Willian with Pedro, always a willing worker.

Soon after, further attacking intent with two further substitutions; Batshuayi on for Oscar, who had shown a lot more bite than of late, and Moses on for the tiring Hazard.

This was the fabled 4/2/4, and we pushed and pushed. A forceful run from Moses, followed by a fine volley from Pedro, but his low shot flashed agonisingly past the far post.

Damn.

In the very last minute, a ball was pumped up to the new lad Batshuayi who managed to head on towards the waiting Diego Costa. Costa was a good thirty yards out, and had a lot to do, but West Ham seemed reluctant to close him down. With space ahead of him, Diego had time to stroke a shot towards goal. The ball hit the target and we erupted.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Diego ran on down to Parkyville, but my photographs of his intense celebrations were too blurred, too fuzzy.

2-1 to us, oh you lovely man Diego.

It was not Tottenham last season but it was bloody close. The stadium echoed to an old favourite.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC” and The Bridge was on fire.

A last chance – their second of the match? – fell to Carroll, but Thibaut fell on the ball and we could breath.

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

The manager’s emotional response to the winner was shown on the TV screens. Oh my goodness.

Ha.

This was a fine feeling alright. The boys were back in town and the new man Conte had pulled the strings to engineer a lovely win. “One Step Beyond” boomed and we bounced out of the stadium in very good spirits. The feel good factor was back. It felt oh-so good to be a Chelsea fan again.

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

A new love affair has been ignited. Let’s go.

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

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Tales From The International Champions Cup

Chelsea vs. Fiorentina : 6 August 2015.

This was a strange evening and a strange game.

In the current climate, a home friendly is a pretty rare occurrence anyway. With our predilection for foreign climes and summer tours, a warm-up match at Stamford Bridge has been a very rare event over the past decade or so. I didn’t bother with last season’s game with Real Sociedad and, if I am honest, the only reason that I decided to attend the game with Fiorentina was because I had attended our other three “International Champions Cup” games in the US. I set off from work, alone, at 3.30pm to complete the set.

My main concern for the evening was the probable traffic chaos in London likely to be caused by the planned one-day tube strike. I sped as quickly as I could along the M4. At Reading Services, I spotted a father and daughter in Chelsea blue.

“Thought I was the only one daft enough to go tonight.”

“Should be a good game.”

Ah, the game. I hadn’t thought much about it until then.

This would be our first ever match with the viola of Florence. My very first encounter with them was on a muggy Sunday afternoon in late May 1989, when I watched a dull 1-1 draw between Juventus and Fiorentina in the home end at Stadio Communale. Apart from my first-ever sighting of Roberto Baggio – the eventual transfer of him between the two clubs would heighten animosities which exist until this day – my main recollection from that balmy Italian afternoon took place with around fifteen minutes of the game remaining.

Around 1,500 Fiorentina paninari – Timberland boots, Best Company T-shirts, Armani jeans, Burlington socks, Invicta backpacks, Schott bomber jackets, sunglasses, attitude – got a signal from their leaders, or maybe a phone call from their Juve counterparts, and quickly packed up their banners in the away end and left the terraces en masse, intent on disturbing the peace of an Italian summer on their way back to the city’s train station.

Ten years later, I was in Turin again, when Juventus boasted Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in their team, and watched as Antonio Conte scored a very late winner against Fiorentina. He famously went down in Juve folklore that afternoon by sprinting over to the visiting Viola fans and taunting them with a black and white corner flag.

As a Juve sympathiser, there was a frisson of excitement about seeing them again sixteen years later.

As expected, I did hit some slow-moving traffic, but further out than expected. Ironically, the last section into London stayed relatively clear. At 6.15pm, I was inside The Goose, but in the strangest of circumstances. Nursing my first SW6 pint of Peroni of the season, I soon realised that there was not one single person in the pub that I recognised. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. This was going to be a strange one alright.

Thankfully, a few friends soon arrived.

Mick mentioned that he might have to leave just after half-time because of the expected ninety minute wait at the two closest mainline stations. For once, I was glad that I was driving and the master of my own destiny. The Bristol Four soon arrived and we chatted about the pre-season. We briefly spoke about Kenedy, the Brazilian lad who appeared in our team against Barcelona in Maryland. We all agreed that we could not remember the last time that a “trialist” ever appeared in our team. It’s an odd one. Like something from the amateur days of the pre-war years.

Although I was not too bothered about seeing the introduction of the first team squad to the spectators at 7pm – a full hour before kick-off – I wanted to have a leisurely stroll down the North End Road and Fulham Road. I soon noticed US-style pennants hanging from street-lights celebrating our Championship of last season, with torso shots of all of our players looking all mean and moody, and intent on repeating in 2015/2016.

I approved. It added a little to the streetscape around Stamford Bridge.

It was difficult for me to judge the size of the crowd. I didn’t expect a sell-out, especially in lieu of the London Underground strike. The place seemed busy enough. I didn’t spot any Fiorentina fans outside the stadium. I had decided to purchase a ticket in the East Upper for a change. What with the chances of the modern Stamford Bridge being demolished within the next few seasons, it might turn out to be one of my last visits. I promised myself to take more than my usual share of photographs. A different angle, a different perspective, lovely.

I had a great position in the towering East Stand, in row seven towards The Shed. The place was filling up nicely. Flags had been positioned by each seat. It was soon obvious that there were many more youngsters in attendance than usual. By all accounts the pre-game introductions were a little over the top with their US-style razzmatazz. What next? Players being parachuted in from the skies above next season?

As kick-off approached, the area around myself was full. There were chattering kids behind me, plus many more within sight. The next generation was well represented and it was good to see.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. I like the fact that each of the four stands are slightly different, with idiosyncrasies, yet there is a common design to all. I am stirred that the new stadium designs echo these slight variances. The usual banners were out, though I noticed a few – Captain, Leader, Legend for example – looking rather faded and forlorn.

Our team contained several surprises.

Begovic – Aina, Zouma, Terry, Traore – Mikel, Loftus-Cheek – Cuadrado, Oscar, Moses – Falcao.

It would be home debuts for four.

I am sure that Ola Aina is in for a fine future at the club, but my main worry is that his name contains too many vowels for a defender.

“Too exotic son. See if you can get yourself some consonants. Work on that and you’ll be fine.”

Am I the only one who thinks our home shirts and shorts are – nicely – a deeper and darker shade of royal blue this season? They are certainly darker than the mid-blue of 2012-2013. Fiorentina, sadly but not surprisingly, showed up in white / white / violet.

Asmir Begovic did well to get down low within the first minute to save a rasping shot from distance after a simple passing move cut into our defence. We then enjoyed long spells of possession and our best twenty-five minutes of the evening. With the sun setting in the north-west corner, lighting up the sky nicely, I was settling down and enjoying this. Victor Moses, one of the stars in the United States, was again showing real promise in his determination and desire. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was impressing with his finesse and strength. We were playing some nice stuff. We were treated to a lovely Rabona from Oscar on the goal-line to my left.

I commented to the young couple to my right “I can do that after seven pints.”

I detected a foreign accent in the chap’s confused response, so I then decided to talk my way through the game with the Shed season ticket holder to my left. We had a good old natter throughout the match.

Mikel had been doing the simple stuff well, but then caused much merriment with an effort on goal which more resembled a defensive tackle.

Fiorentina then gradually took hold of the game. They kept the ball well and our play deteriorated alarmingly. On the half hour, a long raking drive smashed against Begovic’ crossbar. We had been warned. Soon after, Begovic saved well but could not smother the ball leaving an easy tap-in for Rodriguez.

The Fiorentina manager – ex-Juventus player and ex- QPR manager Paulo Sousa – was watching down below from the technical area and was increasingly pleased with his team’s performance. The little knot of away fans, no more than 150 in the bottom corner of The Shed, roared with approval too. They were, surely, mainly ex-pats. There was one “Viola Club Stockport” flag.

Fiorentina gained control and we struggled. The game went flat.

The noise, hardly tumultuous, reduced too.

At the interval, the Chelsea Women – in coats, they must have been feeling the cold – were introduced by Neil Barnett with the recently-won FA Cup.

Mourinho changed the personnel at the break, with Azpilicueta, Cahill and Ivanovic joining Zouma in defence. Matic replaced Mikel. The impressive Moses was sadly replaced by Ramires after the second of two knocks.

In truth, the second-half resembled the second-half at Wembley on Sunday; we enjoyed the majority of the ball, but found it difficult to break the opposition down. The frustration was starting to seep down to the players from the stands. Ivanovic seemed to be, again, a main source of our attacks, but again annoyed me with his final ball. As the game progressed I saw him getting increasingly annoyed with things. On one occasion he turned to the bench and had a proper rant, his face clearly contorted with rage about something or other.

“He had a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle” as the saying goes.

The comparison with the cool and calm and seldom-flustered Azpilicueta on the other flank could not be more dramatic.

Jose Mourinho, too, seemed to be increasingly annoyed. There were wholesale changes from both teams on the hour mark – on came Willian, Hazard, Fabregas and Remy – and Mourinho took dislike to the amount of time that Sousa orchestrated a similar amount of team changes too. It turned out to be the longest break for substitutes I can remember.

Joaquin, a visitor to Stamford Bridge with both Real Betis and Valencia in previous years, appeared among the viola substitutes. It was one name that I recognised.

“What do you mean Giancarlo Antognoni doesn’t play for them anymore?”

With more established quality in our ranks, surely a goal – and the inevitable win on penalties – would come now. Chelsea controlled possession but seemed to take forever to get going, and I lost count of the number of times the ball was passed laterally. We did improve when Willian, Hazard and Fabregas linked on a few occasions, but chances were rare. A Gary Cahill header from a Fabregas free-kick went close, and we all wondered how Remy, on for the quiet Falcao, managed to shoot wide from close range.

A rather agricultural – no, bloody clumsy – challenge from Kurt Zouma on a poor Fiorentina player – caused much merriment in the seats around me. It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest tackles that I have seen for a while.

The atmosphere, roused at times, was pretty quiet now, and parents with young families began to leave early on their long and tedious journeys home. I had commented to the Shed Ender to my left that I was impressed with the attendance. It looked to be at the 35,000 mark. Imagine my surprise when a full house of 41,435 was announced. Again, even for a friendly game, tickets sold rather than spectators in seats is used. It’s an odd one. Undoubtedly, there were empty seats around the ground too. Even so, on a night of massive travel disruption, this was a great attendance.

Despite five minutes of extra time, no equaliser was forthcoming.

“We could have played until March and not scored.”

The Shed Ender agreed.

“Sorry for the cliché, but as so often happens in these pre-season games, there are more questions than answers.”

He agreed again.

“My biggest worry is that all three of our strikers might be a knock away from being side-lined for weeks.”

I was a little subdued on my slow exit from a warm and sultry Stamford Bridge. And although I wasn’t – honestly – reading too much in to our rather lacklustre performance against a well-drilled Fiorentina team, I knew full well that out there in cyberspace, thousands of virtual Chelsea fans were throwing themselves off the nearest bridge, building or balcony as we endured another pre-season loss.

How these people would have coped in 1975, 1979 or 1988 beggars belief.

I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Sadly, the journey home turned into one of farce as the roadworks on the A303 meant that I was severely re-routed, almost as far as Southampton damn it, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. Others, living in London, were still catching one final night bus.

A strange evening indeed.

IMG_2032

Tales From Two Nights In Turin

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2012.

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

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

“Giacomo Kerouac.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a few moments of uncertainty, there it was.

Superga.

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

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

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

“Welcome. See you soon.”

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

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

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

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

Just one memory of Turin. There are hundreds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any mushrooms, Rob?”

“Nah. Fried tomatoes, though, Chris.”

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

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

“Chris!”

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

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

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

Yes really. Another good omen?

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

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

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

I smiled to myself. I wasn’t bothered.

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

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

Click, click, click.

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

If only I had a mini…

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

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

England fights back. The Italian Job all over again.

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

La Dolce Vita indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were smiles at each of these interjections.

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

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

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

“Fantastico.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could only hope.

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

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

Juventus came again and another fine save denied Marchisio.

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

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

A dagger to the heart.

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

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

Another dagger to the Chelsea heart.

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

Things were bleak.

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

Pure misery.

I texted Tullio –

“He always scores the third goal.”

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

“Chris, are you 1% happy?”

I grimaced.

“No. I’m zero per cent happy.”

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

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

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

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

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

At 10.13am, my work colleague Mike texted me –

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

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

“What? What’s the news?”

Mike replied –

“Been sacked.”

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

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

“Cambio, cambio, cambio! Bastardi!”

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

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 3 November 2012.

A day of international travel and unintelligible road signs, of wild scenery and heavy industry, bright sunlight and then darkening skies, rainstorms, hail stones, police cars, wailing sirens, lightning and fireworks.

But, sadly, no three points for Chelsea Football Club.

During the week, I had been toying with ideas of what to do before the game. If the weather held up, I had plans to venture further west; past Swansea and on to see the beaches of the Gower peninsula. Maybe take a few photographs. I contemplated a pub lunch overlooking the sea. On these football away days, I’m always keen to try something different for a change. Last season, on the last day of January, during the death throes of Andre Villas-Boas’ reign l, Parky and I had a grand day out in Swansea. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours on The Mumbles, the bay side area just to the south of the city, before heading up to the Liberty Stadium for the game.

Initial thoughts on the Saturday were that we were in for a day of wind and rain. Sadly, it would seem that the beaches would have to wait until next season.

At 9.15am, with the weather swaying from brooding clouds one minute and bright sunshine the next, I left my home in East Somerset.

I sent a single text out to my mate Alan.

“Kerouac >>>>> Jacks.”

He replied –

“Ivor the engine.”

And so a day of Welsh accents and Welsh stereotypes, Welsh phrases and Welsh jokes began.

Depeche Mode accompanied me on my first twenty miles, but The Jam took over as I headed through Bristol. To be fair, the weather was surprisingly good. As I drove up on to the M4, the visibility was magnificent. At the crest of an incline, the twin bridges over the River Severn and the black hills of Wales were clearly visible to the west.

All was good with the world. It looked like the weather was holding out and I’d soon be in Swansea to see the European Champions.

Tidy.

Once over the river, a sign welcomed me to Wales.

“Croeso i Cymru.”

I paid the £6 bridge toll. Paul Weller was singing about bombs in Wardour Street and then tube stations at midnight. The Chelsea army was invading Wales and it felt good. I skirted the town of Newport / Casnewydd as I played a Massive Attack CD. I was happy to hear two of my favourite female singers, Elizabeth Fraser and Tracy Thorn, featured. Heading past the capital city of Cardiff / Caerdydd, the weather was still holding firm.

However, it was too late to change my plans. Instead of spending some time to the west of Swansea, I was going to spend a little time at an outlet mall to the east. At 11am, I veered off the M4 at Bridgend and did some snappy shopping. In the “Berghaus” store, I typically spotted a fellow Chelsea supporter, who sits a few yards from me in the MHU, who had similarly been tempted with some retail therapy. With two shirts plundered, I continued west.

Heading over another crest of a hill, a startling vista opened up in front of me. Away in the distance were the smoking chimneys and the ugly buildings of the Margam steel works to the immediate south of Port Talbot. Beyond, there was the broad sweep of Swansea Bay. I even spotted the lighthouse at Bracelet Bay, away in the distance, where Parky and I had enjoyed some fish and chips and a couple of pints of Grolsch in a seaside café last season.

However, there were now clouds above and the mood suddenly became gloomier.

On the long straight of the motorway which bordered the steel works, I spotted that the other carriageway was devoid of traffic. There was a police car strategically placed on a bridge. The busy road had recently been closed to vehicles. I wondered what lay ahead. As traffic slowed, I saw another police car parked on the bridge, with two police officers scrambling down the embankment.

On the paving slabs, some way from the motorway, was the body of a man. As further police cars hurtled towards the scene, sirens wailing, I wondered if I had seen a dead body for the only the second time.

“Welcome to Wales” indeed.

I hit some traffic as I approached Swansea / Abertawe city centre. I turned right at the “Swansea Jack” pub and was soon parked up.

It was 12.15am. Alan, Gary, Daryl and Rob were already enjoying a few beers in the Grand Hotel opposite the main train station. I battled against Saturday shoppers and a cold wind to join them. I had forgotten how hilly Swansea was. Terraced streets appeared to be layered one on top of the other. I had only been inside the small bar for a couple of minutes when Van Persie shot United ahead at Old Trafford against Arsenal. The game was being shown on the TV, but not many people were watching intently. Van Persie always seems to be able to hit the corners of the goals when he becomes within range. In a flight of fancy, I wondered how he would fare at the tip of our team, instead of the hit and miss Fernando Torres. Daryl reckoned with only a hint of exaggeration that he would end up with fifty goals in our team this season.

Rob was outside talking with Cathy and one of Roman’s bodyguards. A few familiar Chelsea fans drifted in and out of the bar. A few police officers entered the pub and the singing increased. One song was to dominate the day –

“We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.”

On that matter, we were united.

We had heard on the grapevine that a few hoodlums had travelled down by train but had alighted at Neath, no doubt expecting a little altercation with the Swansea firm. I rolled my eyes to the sky. With the bar getting busier and busier, I excused myself and re-traced my steps to the car park. I needed to drive up to the stadium and locate the “free” parking space that I used in January.

As I walked down towards the white steel of the Liberty Stadium, underneath a couple of railway bridges, the first rain spots of the day fell. Nearing the stadium, a sudden burst of hailstones caused fans to rush for cover. Once inside the crowded area below the stands, I was reminded of the humorous signage which dominated the small enclosed area. This made a refreshing change. I especially liked one which simply stated “Mumbles” – with an arrow pointing outside– and “Singing” – with an arrow pointing into the stadium. And there was one which said, similarly “Beautiful Beaches. Beautiful Game.”

More of that please.

Around 200 Chelsea fans were silently staring at the closing minutes of the game from Old Trafford, like the members of some obscure sect, their faces blank, the children of the damned. Watching Manchester United and Arsenal will do that to you.

Inside the neat stadium, my eyes seemed to be drawn to the sky even though the teams were gong through their pre-match routines on the pitch. One moment, the rectangle above was a dull grey, the next it was a mixture of blue and white. At times during the afternoon, the stadium was lit up with a strange and surreal autumnal glow.

The Chelsea team was announced and the main talking points were the shuffling along of Ivanovic into the centre of the defence and the addition of Moses in place of Mata.

It wasn’t much of a game.

In fact, it was a half-hearted affair all round.

For the first time that I can remember for quite some time, I sat for the vast majority of an away game.

Swansea City are a fine team and, despite a few poor performances, the work that ex-Chelsea employee Brendan Rodgers started is being continued by Michael Laudrup.

Yes. Michael Laudrup.

I was looking forward to seeing the former Juventus player in person once again. I last saw him playing for Juventus in 1988-1989. They used to call him “Michaelino” in the city of Turin. And there he was, over to my right, sitting on the Swansea bench, just beyond the suave figure of Robbie Di Matteo who was patrolling the technical area.

From Turin to Swansea.

It is the exact opposite journey which ex-Juventus legend John Charles made all those years ago.

Swansea had the best of the opening twenty minutes and certainly fancied their chances down our left, where Ashley Cole was coming under attack from the raiding Swansea players and the supporters in that noisy corner section alike. Eventually, we got into the game, but struggled to do much with the ball. Our passing should have been aided by the slick Welsh turf, but our play was rather laboured.

The home supporters, especially the couple of thousand to my left, were roaring the home team on. On the occasions where they sung the quasi-Welsh national anthem “Land of my Fathers”, the stadium rocked to its foundations. I have a feeling that the upward slope of the roof greatly aided the acoustics. I’ll be honest. It was a bloody noise. Well done Swansea.

The Leeds United chant echoed around the away end. In fact, at times, with Swansea in their trim all-white kit, it felt like we could easily have been playing Leeds.

Hernandez and Michu caused us a few problems but Petr Cech’s goal wasn’t really threatened. A Torres header, weak and at the reserve ‘keeper Tremmel, was our most notable effort of a poor opening period. As the first-half continued, the Chelsea fans became quieter and quieter.

At the break, we all knew we hadn’t been playing well.

Ramires replaced the rather one-dimensional Romeu at the break and our little Brazilian certainly energised the midfield. We watched eagerly as Torres twisted one way and then the other and then picked out Victor Moses, quiet until then, with a fine chip. Unfortunately, our new signing headed over. Swansea then came into the game again and our defence was tested.

After a decision went against them, the Swansea supporters sang a ditty which I honestly haven’t heard, let alone during a game, for years and years.

“How’s your father?
How’s your father?
How’s your father, referee?
You haven’t got one.
You never had one.
You’re a bastard, referee.”

That made me chuckle.

On the hour, a free-kick from Hazard was turned around the post for a corner. Oscar, wearing a pair of royal blue gloves to the consternation of Gary, clipped in a ball which found the head of Gary Cahill. The ball flew goal wards, but Victor Moses was able to glance it in at the far post after reacting very quickly.

YES!

I caught the immediate aftermath of the goal on camera. I was right behind the goal, merely twenty yards away.

The turn and sprint towards us, the slide, the scorer beaming at us in the away enclosure, the sliding Gary Cahill, Cahill jumping on his back, the arrival of the ecstatic Torres and Ivanovic, then Ramires and Mikel, then the other players all joining in.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

Photographs from the frontline.

Swansea countered again, aided by the nimble and gifted substitute Nathan Dyer. The manager replaced Moses with Daniel Sturridge, who hugged the right touchline for the remainder of the game. In the closing twenty minutes, the rain turned heavy and then the sky filled with hailstones.

It was quite an apocalyptic scene. The ice filled the air and turned it white. Chelsea were now under attack. Ryan Bertrand replaced Oscar. Alas, with just three minutes remaining, a fine move down the Swansea right resulted in Hernandez having the calmness of mind to slot the ball past an unsighted Cech.

The Swansea hordes boomed and “Land of my Fathers” shook the place to its foundations.

Oh boy.

We didn’t deserve anything more than a draw. After the two tumultuous games against Manchester United, we never really set the right tempo against Swansea. Too many players underperformed. There was a collective responsibility in the team’s deficiencies. Even us fans seemed subdued.

We were all, clearly, under the weather.

I bade my farewells to Alan and Gary – “see you Wednesday” – and prepared myself for the wintry scene outside. On the ten minute walk back to my car, through the car park, over the roundabout and up the hill, the hail continued to fall. Footstep after footstep was met with the crunch of ice underfoot. In all of my years of supporting Chelsea in person, all nine hundred and twelve games, I don’t think I’d every encountered such a wretched walk back to a waiting car. I truly pitied the poor souls who faced a thirty minute walk back to the train station.

Despite being stuck in traffic for a while, I eventually pulled away and soon found myself heading east. The hail had turned to torrential rain. Oh fun, fun, fun. As I drove past Port Talbot, the array of lights at the steel works cut into the night. The plumes of smoke still billowed heavenwards. Then, the explosion of light as several lightning flashes lit up the entire sky. This was turning out to be some day in deepest, darkest South Wales. To add to the drama, fireworks – ahead of Monday’s Firework night – lit up the sky too. I found the driving to be rather tiring, but I wanted to get home. No coffee stops, no respite.

I got the cheapest of thrills as my headlights lit up a road sign.

“Welcome to England.”

I was in no mood to listen to the football on the radio. Music accompanied me on the two and a quarter hour journey back to Somerset. It was only as I was nearing my end destination that I flicked on “Five Live.” There was a small amount of consolation in the fact that Spurs had lost at home to Wigan and that Manchester City had only drew at West Ham. United’s win meant that we had slipped down to second place, but we are still conveniently placed.

On Wednesday, we have a must-win game against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. On Sunday, we meet Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League.

These are the days, my friend.

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