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.

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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.

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Tales From Two Nights In Turin.

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2012.

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

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

“Giacomo Kerouac.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a few moments of uncertainty, there it was.

Superga.

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

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

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

“Welcome. See you soon.”

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

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

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

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

Just one memory of Turin. There are hundreds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any mushrooms, Rob?”

“Nah. Fried tomatoes, though, Chris.”

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

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

“Chris!”

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

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

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

Yes really. Another good omen?

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

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

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

I smiled to myself. I wasn’t bothered.

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

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

Click, click, click.

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

If only I had a mini…

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

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

England fights back. The Italian Job all over again.

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

La Dolce Vita indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were smiles at each of these interjections.

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

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

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

“Fantastico.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could only hope.

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

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

Juventus came again and another fine save denied Marchisio.

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

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

A dagger to the heart.

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

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

Another dagger to the Chelsea heart.

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

Things were bleak.

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

Pure misery.

I texted Tullio –

“He always scores the third goal.”

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

“Chris, are you 1% happy?”

I grimaced.

“No. I’m zero per cent happy.”

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

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

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

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

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

At 10.13am, my work colleague Mike texted me –

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

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

“What? What’s the news?”

Mike replied –

“Been sacked.”

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

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

“Cambio, cambio, cambio! Bastardi!”

I walked up to Monte dei Cappuccini to take the last few photographs of my most recent trip to Turin. The city was oblivious to my sorrow. I guess that it was almost inevitable, knowing how the hand of probability works, that on one visit there would be sadness. Turin has certainly known its share of footballing grief, what with the twin tragedies of Superga and Heysel. Those two disasters have formed part of the collective psyche for the respective supporters of Torino and Juventus. Without wishing to be disrespectful, impolite or churlish, the city of Turin has now become a black spot in the history of my beloved Chelsea Football Club too.
IMG_1196

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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Tales From A Visit Of Old Friends.

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 19 September 2012.

What a lovely gift from the football Gods. The first game in our defence of the Champions League trophy, which we all hold so dear, would be against the Italian champions Juventus. As many people know, I have always had a massive soft spot for the Bianconeri and so my heart was filled with joy when the two clubs were drawn together in the same pot. Despite my funds being earmarked this autumn for the mind-boggling trip to Tokyo in December, I promised myself that I would go to one of only two European cities in this autumn’s group phase; Glasgow (Celtic) and Turin (Juventus). These two trips could not be missed.

As I watched the draw unfold on my PC at work on Thursday 23 August, I just knew that fate would assure that I would be heading back to Turin once more. True enough, Ruud Gullit helped draw Chelsea and Juve in the same group.

Perfect.

The trip to Turin in November was duly booked.

First, though, the home game.

Alongside me in the Matthew Harding Upper was Marco, the son of my good friend Salvo. I had bought the ticket for Salvo, who owns a restaurant near Earls Court, but he decided to pass the ticket on to his Juve-mad son. Salvo was worried that when he accompanied me to the Chelsea vs. Juventus game in 2009, a Didier Drogba goal had resulted in a Chelsea win and a Juventus defeat. Maybe a mixture of Catholic guilt and football superstition had colluded for this decision.

Either way, Marco and I were getting along famously. On the walk to the stadium from The Goose, we had already swapped several Juventus stories, and it also transpired that Marco was a fan of baseball too; his team being the Detroit Tigers.

We didn’t get in until 7.40pm. I had a quick glimpse down at the three thousand tifosi in the away section. Daz asked for my assistance in lifting the massive flag over the heads of the spectators in the upper tier. Once completed, I was able to head back to my seat and capture the pre-match ritual which is so iconic now.

The entrance of the two teams, the slow walk across the pitch, the players’ route taking them to the right of the black and white flag on the centre circle, the Champions League anthem, the handshakes.

In amongst the Juve fans, around a hundred fans held up their mobile phones and a hundred bright lights lit up that particular corner of The Bridge. Tellingly, I spotted around twenty similar lights in the upper tier of the adjoining East Stand. This was no surprise; though not in the same numbers as the Neapolitans who swamped HQ in March, I always knew that there would be Juventus supporters mixed in to the home areas. Hell, there was even one sitting next to me.

The big news was that Oscar was making his home debut for us. A big night for him.

The other big news, personally, was that Juve were playing in the famous black and white. It was an irritant that they chose to wear the muted gold shirts in 2009.

This was the real deal.

Chelsea in blue and white.

Juventus in black and white.

My two teams.

Of course, we all know the real story. Chelsea are my team. Chelsea are the team that I follow over land and sea, the team that has had a vice-like grip on my emotions since I was a young boy. The team which has brought me sadness one moment and happiness the next. In comparison, Juventus are a more frivolous object of desire. My history with them is still sizeable, though and Marco was getting snippets of “my Juventus story” throughout the evening.

The time I met Momo Sissoko in a Torinese restaurant. The time I saw Maradona at the Stadio Communale. The time Antonio Conte scored a last-minute winner at the Delle Alpi against Fiorentina and infamously picked up the corner flag and taunted the seething Viola fans. The time I received a Roberto Bettega signed photograph. The time I saw Vialli and Ravanelli at Ibrox.

This game would be my 904th. Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

I can well remember asking some friends a while back about the various sports teams which they support and asking them to rate the importance of the teams. If I was to add my other major love, the New York Yankees, I can remember that my results were –

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

This game would be my 904th Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

For comparison, I’ve seen the Yankees play 32 times.

Quite bizarrely, these numbers mirror my percentage points rather well.

946 games in total.

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

How weird is that?

Over in the far corner, I did my best to scan the banners which were fighting for space on the balcony wall. It surprised me that I didn’t recognise any of them. There was one from a town – Trezzano sul Naviglio – where my client’s warehouse is based. Down in the lower tier, six juventini wore T-shirts spelling out the word “Drughi.”

Drughi are one of the many Juve fan groups which have evolved since the mid-seventies. They are named after the “droogs” which are featured in the iconic film “A Clockwork Orange.” There was also another Juve group –since disbanded – called “Arancia Mecanica” – and I remember a famous photograph of these quasi-hooligans in a police escort in Milano wearing bowler hats to a game at San Siro.

The history of the various Juve fan groups and their rivalries for prominence warrants an encyclopaedia all by itself. Dig a little and you will be rewarded. I have a book, which I bought at that Fiorentina game in 1999, which painstakingly tells of some of these groups in a series of breathtaking photographs.

The Juve fans were soon in good voice.

“Tutta La Curva!” (meaning, in theory, “We are the curve”, or the home end.)

“Forza Ragazzi!” (meaning “Come On, Boys.”)

During the first-half, just for a split second, with the Juve fans singing loud, I was transported back to an evening in November 1987 when I saw my first-ever Juventus game. It was a UEFA Cup match against Panathinaikos and I was watching high up on the Curva Maratona – the opposite end to the home Curva Filadelfia – at the Stadio Communale. The stadium was a cauldron of cacophonous noise, full of Italian passion, full of memories which would last forever.

It was a major stepping stone in my football journey.I had been bitten by the glamour and buzz of European football and – twenty-five years on – it still has the power to exhilarate and humble me in equal measure.

I exchanged “good luck” texts with my two Italian – and Juventus – pals Mario and Tullio and quickly got into the game. And what a fine game it was.

We began brightly and I noticed that the three support players – Hazard, Oscar and Ramires – were hitting Torres early. I sat and hoped that tonight would be his night. And then, with each passing minute, Juventus started making more and more inroads into our half.

Andrea Pirlo, playing deep, was the main worry and my gaze was kept being drawn towards him. This was my first sighting of this respected player, whose stock seems to rise with each passing year. I’m surprised that Milan let him go in 2011 and to a major rival, too. This, however, is typical of Italy. How often do major players flit between the main Italian teams? I can think of many examples. Marco’s personal favourite Roberto Baggio played for Milan, Inter and Juve for example.

Another story from my Italian past. In September 1987, two friends and I were in Venice and had finished a whirlwind sightseeing tour. I bought a copy of the pink sports paper “La Gazetta Della Sport” and saw that Inter were playing newly promoted Empoli. Without much thought, we made plans to hop on a train to Milano and catch the game. I remember that an article in the ‘paper about the Inter player Aldo Serena brought a few quizzical frowns from myself. His career to date had seen him play for Inter (three times), Milan, Torino and Juventus. That a player would play for these rival teams really shocked me. Can anyone imagine Joe Cole – say – play for Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal?

Incredibly, Serena then went on to eventually play once again for Milan.

Such is Italy.

Upfront, Vucinic (who played against us for Roma in 2008 ) and the diminutive Giovinco (who played against us in 2009) were creating a few good chances, ably abetted by Marchisio and Vidal. I thought Pirlo had a relatively quiet game. As far as I could remember, only Chiellini and Buffon remained from Juventus’ last visit to SW6.

Mid-way through the first-half, Juve were edging it. I always knew they would be tough opponents, coming off a completely unbeaten league season in 2011-2012. Anyone who thought that this group would be relatively easy was deluded. To be honest, I had visions of us being hit for a few goals.

Over in the far corner, the Juve fans were memorably producing a new twist on the ubiquitous “I Just Can’t Get Enough” chant, the Depeche Mode song from 1981, which has travelled around Europe like a virus.

Not exactly “sotto voce” and “fortissimo”, but certainly with two differing tones.

Nobody does football songs like the Italians.

On thirty minutes, the ball broke to our young Brazilian number eleven and he let fire from outside the box. I was right in line with the shot. It was deflected away from Buffon and into the corner of the goal.

The crowd roared and I went very light-headed.

Get in!

It was against the run of play, possibly, but we were ahead.

Two minutes later, we witnessed one of the greatest Chelsea goals of the past twenty-five years. The ball was played into Oscar, with his back to goal. He pushed the ball away from the goal, at a bizarre angle, and seemed to move in a mysterious way as if he was unable to be seen by the defenders close by. The ball reappeared at his feet, but he was still facing away from the goal. Instinctively, he thumped the ball goal wards and we watched with open-mouthed amazement.

The ball spun up, the ball spun out, the ball spun down, the ball spun in.

2-0 and the Stamford Bridge spectators were awestruck.

What a home debut from Oscar. I imagined the headlines being typed out already.

Our amazing lead was sadly short-lived. A neat move found Vidal who slotted past Petr Cech.

It was 2-1 at the break. In the match programme, there was a nice article and three great photographs from the match in Turin in 2009. What a trip that was. Apart from Munich, it is probably my favourite ever European jaunt. If the trip this November is half as good, I’ll be very happy. There was also a photograph in the programme of Kev from Bristol, who was celebrating his 1,000th game that night. Staggeringly, he is only 31. Amazing.

Soon into the second half, I fed more Juventus stories to Marco as the game progressed.

I asked Marco’s views on the pronunciation of the word “Juventus.” Of course, long gone are the days when ill-educated English fans pronounced it with a “J.” My question was aimed at the second of the three syllables. I have often thought that Italians “almost” (and I underline the word “almost”) pronounce the “v” as a “w.”

In my mind at least (and especially when I am with Mario and Tullio), I perhaps subconsciously pronounce the word “You-when-tus.” Or at least with the slightest hint of a “w.”

Thankfully, Marco agreed.

And further, I’d suggest that it has three and a half syllables.

EE’OO-WHEN-TUS.

I mentioned to Marco that there was a strange comfort to these group stage games and especially the first of the six. They certainly have a different feeling to the do-or-die knockout games. The tension just isn’t there. Will it matter too much if any team – Chelsea included – drew the first one rather than won it? The tension tends to build in these autumn fixtures and 2011-2012 was a perfect example. By the time we met Valencia in December, the tension was as taught as a violin string.

The second-half was again rather even. Chances came and went, but both goalkeepers were not often tested. A penalty claim on Hazard was waved away. A Lampard free-kick thumped against Buffon’s body. Mata, the substitute, shot wide. Torres was always involved, but role seemed to be more of a support player. Of the two holding players, Mikel was the more impressive, forever blocking Juve’s forward thrusts. I’m surprised that Frank played ninety minutes, on the back of two full games for England and the one against QPR; he didn’t have his best game in Chelsea colours.

For the first time that I can remember – maybe because of the clear, cloudless sky – I particularly noticed the lights on the passing planes. For those unaware, Stamford Bridge is right on the flight path of Heathrow. I often see planes fly overhead. Back in the ‘eighties, it was often a welcome attraction from the dire football on the pitch.

On this occasion, I particularly noticed the green and red lights on the plans’ wings, in addition to the white light at the cockpit.

Green. White. Red.

The colours of the Italian flag.

Ominous? You bet.

With ten minutes remaining, Mikel gave the ball away and Stamford Bridge groaned. There was a dull ache of inevitability when Quagliarella was fed in and nimbly slotted home.

The Bianconeri erupted in the south-east corner. Marco grabbed my arm and I had the slightest of contradictory emotions flash through me.

Was I happy?

Maybe 1%.

As the game came to its end, I soon received two incoming text messages.

From Mario in Bergisch-Gladbach – a friend since 1975 – “A nice game.”

From Tullio in Turin – a friend since 1981 – “So, we are still friends.”

And so the defence of our trophy has begun. This indeed will be a tough group. I am convinced that the two games that we will have, back to back in October and November, against Shakhtar Donetsk will be all-important. However, one thing is certain. Throughout these games, plus our excursion to Denmark, I feel that the tension will be mounting all of the way through until we make a return visit to the Piedmont city of Turin on November 20th?

Am I excited about that?

100%.

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Tales From Curva A.

Napoli vs. Chelsea : 21 February 2012.

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

I have some history with Napoli.

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

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

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

Juventus vs. Napoli.

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

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

The two teams appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to return.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy. Ti amo.

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

Welcome to Naples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pompei here we come” bellowed Jock.

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

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

Perfect.

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

1993.

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

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

“Grazie mille e forza Chelsea.”

They smiled again.

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

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

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

But what energy the place exudes.

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

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

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

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

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

This is it.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50688829162658

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

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

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

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

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

How we sang.

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

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

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

Think again.

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

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

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

If only.

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

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

It was Napoli 3 Chelsea 1.

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

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

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

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

That, my friends, would have been too much.

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

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

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

Naples was indeed a sprawling mess of a city.

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

Ah, just like the old days.

Come On You Blue Boys.

DSCN5627

Tales From The Chelsea And Juventus Fans In Leverkusen.

Bayer Leverkusen vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2011.

This trip to the heart of Germany could not come quick enough. This would be my first trip to Europe for a Chelsea away game in around two years; the enjoyable jaunt to Atletico Madrid was the last one. A mixture of work commitments and lack of finances have contrived against recent trips. Additionally, there are other destinations which, if I am blunt, have not tempted me.

Others fancied a return trip to Valencia or an excursion to Genk in this autumn’s mix of games, but for me there was only one choice – Bayer Leverkusen. I booked my flight way back in August and gleefully counted down the weeks and days before I would be away.

There was an extra special dimension to this trip. My old friend – in fact, my oldest friend – Mario is now living in nearby Bergisch Gladbach and we had often spoken about meeting up should Chelsea play any of the nearby Bundesliga teams to his home city in the Champions League. I have spoken about Mario previously, ahead of my momentous trip to Turin with Chelsea in 2009.

“In June 1975, I stayed in the Ligurian resort of Diano Marina on my first ever family holiday abroad. At that time, I had seen Chelsea play three times at The Bridge and I was hooked. Relegation in May of 1975 hit me hard, possibly even more than the loss of my idol Peter Osgood to Southampton a month before my first ever game the year before. At the age of nine, my Chelsea life had already taken a battering. We had a great time in the Italian sun. My parents had visited the town back in the ‘fifties and had regaled me with stories of its charm. All well and good, I thought, but I needed a diet of football, even on holiday. I was aware of a few of the Italian clubs – I had recollections of a Juventus vs. Derby game being shown on TV ( 1973 – the Juve forward Pietro Anastasi stood out ) and I had bought a Juventus magazine on a day trip to Genova.

During the last few days of the holiday, we became friendly with the guy on the beach who hired out deck-chairs and pedalos. His name was Franco and his German wife Hildegard was often on the beach with their two children Mario and Sandra. I could not speak Italian and Mario could not speak English. But Mario owned a yellow and black plastic football and, for what seemed like hours on end, we played football at the water’s edge, the warm ocean lapping at our feet. I remember Dad even took a few magical seconds of us on cine film. I wasn’t a bad footballer, but little Mario, only six, was sensational.

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And so our friendship began. 

Our two mothers had swapped addresses and I was told to write to Mario soon after our return home. I still have the little postcard and a letter which Mario wrote back to me. I must have mentioned that I was a fan of Chelsea – of course! – but also a fan of Juventus and my favourite player was Franco Causio, the moustachioed winger. Mario replied that he too was a Juventus fan, but liked Roberto Bettega, the young striker.

I guess we had been so devoid of communication skills that this was not already established out in Italy.

So – Mario was a Juventus fan. Perfect. Over the next four years, our letters zipped across Europe as regular as clockwork. He sent me letters that were 100% full of Juventus results and news, often with Panini stickers illustrating his words. I did wonder what he ever thought of Chelsea, mired in the Second Division at the start of all this. I remember Causio and Bettega combining to defeat England in Rome in 1976. That match had extra resonance due to my friendship with Mario. How proud I was when Ray Wilkins became a regular in the national side. This was proof for Mario that my team wasn’t completely rubbish! Butch became a beacon of hope!

Throughout this period, Juventus were dominating Italian football, with players such as Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Causio, Bettega – how those names trip off the tongue – Cuccureddu, Boninsegna, Benetti and the youngsters Tardelli and Cabrini. Juve were in their pomp. Chelsea, by the time I visited Diano Marina again, in 1979, were back in the Second Division and Wilkins was soon to be sold to the hated Manchester United. On that visit, Mario’s family presented me with a black and white striped cotton shirt, and I was proud to wear it. I have no doubt I took him some Chelsea things.

We visited Italy in 1980 and 1981 too, each time going back to the same town, but his father had since moved on to work at an expensive hotel, the Gabriella. During the 1981 holiday, we heard that none other than Roberto Bettega was to stay at the hotel…a few weeks later, a signed Bettega photograph arrived on my doorstep. Whenever we met up, Mario and myself played football and talked football. I bet it amused our parents. In 1981, I met Mario’s friend Tullio, a boy from Juventus’ city of Torino – and yes, you’ve guessed it, he was a Juventus fan too. I have a photo of the three of us, posing on the beach beneath a Union Jack. Sadly, on the 1981 trip, we were also to learn of the cancer that would cause much worry for Mario’s mother. In July 1982, with an Italian team containing six or seven Juve players, the team won the World Cup in Spain – and I was happy for my Italian friends.

The letters between Mario and me reduced over the next three years…but every now and then, Mario would send me a letter detailing his hopes for Juve’s new players. The 1983 European Cup Final loss to Hamburg hurt us both. Then, towards the end of my first year at college, I sat down to watch the 1985 European Cup Final between my Juventus and Liverpool. What unfolded over the next three hours would haunt me to this day. However, the sense of disgust and sadness could easily have been so much greater. Unbeknown to me, Mario had a ticket for the ill-fated neutral section ZZ adjacent to the Liverpool fans. Thank God, Mario had a lot of schoolwork that week – he was sixteen – and so mercifully did not travel to Brussels. Around fifteen members of his local Juventus Club all returned safely. 

That summer, I travelled around Europe on an Inter-Rail pass and spent ten wonderful days in Diano Marina. Tullio was there too – the days were spent sunbathing, playing football and I was invited back to Mario’s house for lunch and an evening meal each day. Hildegard, his dear mother, was still undergoing treatment for cancer and I will never forget her hospitality. Her smiling face will live with me forever, as will her willingness to make me feel at home.

Sadly, Hildegard lost her brave battle with cancer a few weeks before I visited Mario, Franco and Sandra in 1986. I felt the loss – their house missed her busy nature and her “good eats” translation of the Italian “buon apetito” before each meal. My friendship with Mario and Tullio went up a few notches over the next few years. I had a real wanderlust period after leaving college and was forever travelling around Europe on the trains.”

I last saw Mario, in his home town, in 1988. Well, as luck would have it, Mario now lives around 20 miles from Bayer Leverkusen’s stadium. After the draw was made, we soon spoke on Facebook about the game and I was so pleased when he offered me the chance to stay with him and his family for the three days.

Fantastic!

As the days crept past, Mario and I spoke more and more on Facebook and my excitement rose.

The Liverpool game on Sunday came and passed, work on Monday was endured and lingering last minute arrangements were made. Due to the very real threat of fog, I gave myself an extra hour to drive up to Stansted airport. I only had three hours sleep on Monday night.

Tuesday 22nd. November.

At around 1.45am in the very small hours of Tuesday morning, I was off.

Germany – here I come.

My trip to the airport went well. I was buoyed by a couple of cups of coffee and my mind was soon wandering, looking back on all of the other Chelsea European trips, looking ahead to the imminent new one. I painstakingly counted the number of previous games…Moscow 16, Rome 17, Madrid 18…Leverkusen would be number 19.

And this would be my fourth Chelsea game in Germany, after previous appointments in Stuttgart, Bremen and Schalke. I personally love Germany; a frequent visitor in the wanderlust years of my youth, I have visited it on many occasions. Great beer, tasty food, decent people. Superb.

As I drove around the M25, I remember thinking to myself –

“There’s not a bit of this I don’t like.”

The planning of the flights, the talk amongst friends of the accommodation options, the anticipation, the final sense of excitement, the car trip to the airport, meeting friends, the thrill of a new city, the beer, the laughs, the camaraderie.

Chelsea in Europe Rule One; it is often the case that the actual football often gets in the way of a perfect trip.

By 5.30am, I was sat in the airport reading the current edition of “CFCUK” when I heard my mate Daryl’s voice.

“Morning mate.”

Daryl and his brother Neil, plus a few other Chelsea friends, were on the same flight as myself.

Thankfully, the threat of delays due to fog did not materialise and we were soon in the air. Daryl, Neil and myself had been together on our first ever Chelsea away game in Europe way back in 1994 on that memorable venture to Jablonec to see the Viktoria Zizkov game. That was from Stansted, too. Remember, that was Chelsea’s first European away game since 1971. Rarely have I ever been more excited about a Chelsea game. Superb. We spoke of our vivid memories from that crazy two day trip. It is hard to believe that Chelsea is the same club now, with our support spoilt by constant exposure to Champions League footy year after year.

The flight only lasted an hour. I was sat next to Tim from Bristol and attempted to have a power nap.

We touched down at Koln-Bonn airport at 10.30am.

We strolled through the arrival gates and there was Mario, with his arm outstretched, greeting me after a gap of 23 years. Daryl and Neil were off to meet up with Alan, Gary and Rob in Dusseldorf.

Oh boy, it was superb to see Mario once again. He was wearing the Chelsea / Juve scarf I had sent him two years ago.

Mario’s lovely wife Gabi was waiting in the car outside the airport and it was constant chatter from all three of us on the twenty minute drive back to their house. Mario updated with news of their three boys – Reuben 10, Nelson 5 and Valentin 15 months – and it was just lovely to be chatting away after all so many years.

Back at Mario’s house, Gabi went out to collect Valentin from the kindergarten while Mario and I sat at the table, drinking cappuccinos and reminiscing about our childhood and the routes that our lives have taken since our last meeting twenty-three years ago. On that occasion, in March 1988, I had called in to see Mario, Franco and Sandra during one of my crazy months on the trains. I slept in the lounge of their house, on the sofa I think, and I can remember Franco fussing around me, making me a cappuccino and preparing some sandwiches for my onward train trip. Meanwhile I had a morning shower in a bathroom that stunningly looked out onto the Mediterranean Sea. It was a cold but supremely sunny Italian morning, with deep blue skies over the Med. It was a moment that I will never forget.

Mario spoke about his footballing career as a player with the local Dianese and Imperia teams, but also of a very promising career as a referee. Mario was always a better player than me and it came as no surprise for me to learn that he had enjoyed some degree of success in his youth. After he moved to Germany in 1997, Mario continued to play football in the regional leagues, but also continued his career as a referee. He told me that he was the linesman at a game which featured Rot Weiss Essen, a team that used to play in the Bundesliga, against the reserve team of Borussia Moenchengladbach. The attendance was over 8,000 and he told me the story of how his first decision of the match – an offside decision against the home team – was met with a massive roar of disapproval from a few thousand rabid fans behind him.

We laughed as he told me how noisy the crowd was.

The stories of football continued all morning and I realised that this was just so typical of what had happened on every occasion that we had met, from the ‘seventies through to the ‘eighties – two young lads consumed by football, by players, by personalities.

Mario also updated me with news of his father Franco – a Genoa fan – and his sister Sandra. Franco had been with Mario for the recent Leverkusen versus Valencia game.

Gabi returned with Reuben and Nelson, the elder boys, and we ate hot dogs for lunch.

In the afternoon, I walked down to the little village of Moitzfeld in order to take a few photographs of the local area and to have a few moments by myself. I was feeling weary as I walked back to his house.

Chelsea in Europe Rule Two; power naps are good. Very good.

We had a lovely meal in the evening and we then continued our conversations about our lives, our families, or friends and our jobs.

Mario opened up a few bottles of kolsch – the local beer of the Cologne area – and the talk returned to football. To finish the night off perfectly, we stayed up to watch the Serie A highlights on German TV.

Football. Always football.

Wednesday 23rd. November.

I was up at 8.45am and Mario was soon making me a morning cappuccino. He kindly volunteered to drive me into Koln. The weather was overcast, with murky low-lying clouds enveloping the trees which lined the autobahn into Germany’s fourth largest city. The blue road signs overhead reminded me of where I was; in the dreamy world of a Chelsea match day, it is easy to forget the location. The hard consonants of the local place names soon reminded me of my locale.

Bruck.

Kalk.

Buckheim.

Bickendorf.

On the twenty minute drive, Mario enjoyed telling me about his love of Depeche Mode and we exchanged a few stories of the band. I’ve seen them three times. He has seen them five times. At the first concert, way back in the small Ligurian coastal resort of Pietra Ligure, the lead singer Dave Gahan dried himself down with a towel and threw it straight at Mario, standing but three yards away. Although around twenty fellow fans lunged at Mario and tore it into twenty pieces, Mario still owns a strip from that concert a quarter of a century ago.

He has also seen them in Milan, Koln and Dusseldorf. The three concerts in Germany all took place during the pregnancies of his three boys and Mario clearly puts a lot of importance into this. They are easily his favourite band. All of the way through his dialogue, I was itching to tell him that Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans.

I looked over to see his reaction.

“Really? Chelsea fans. Oh. Great.”

Mario smiled.

“What about Martin Gore?”

“No – I don’t think he likes football”

It was my turn to smile.

We approached Koln and away in the distance were the twin towers of the massive Gothic cathedral, dominating the misty city skyline. As we crossed the massive Rhine, for some reason I was reminded of Philadelphia, crossing the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

By 10.30am, I had said my goodbyes to Mario and was walking through the pedestrianized streets of the busy city centre.

This was my time. A few hours of solitary confinement. Echoes of days when I travelled around Europe on the trains and found myself in a new city. I aimed for the magnificence of the Dom and took a few photographs. We stayed two nights in Koln for the Schalke game in Gelsenkirchen in 2007, so it was a familiar sight. Nothing but impressive, though.

I spent an hour or so walking around the Christmas market and the shopping streets to the south of the cathedral. I couldn’t resist some German food; a tasty wurst with very peppery sauerkraut was just fantastic. I followed this up with a frothy cappuccino. I stood at a table, nursing the coffee, watching the passers-by, looking out for fellow Chelsea fans. They were starting to gather together in small groups. I had the first couple of glasses of kolsch in the Europa am Dom Hotel while I waited to meet up with San Francisco Pete and his mate Mike. A Depeche Mode song was playing and I thought of Mario.

I picked up the local paper and reviewed the previous night’s games. I looked up just in time to catch a sighting of an infamous Chelsea fan from the good old bad old days. He was grinning at the size of some steins in a nearby shop; his hair cut in the same style as in years gone by and was wearing a green bomber jacket and jeans. He was with a little band of mates. Hicky was in town.

Pete and Mike soon arrived and joined me for a beer. They had driven over by car. The next few hours were spent flitting in and out of various bars with a few mates. I met up with the newly-arrived Alan, Gary, Daryl and Neil – and then the Nuneaton trio of Neil, Jokka and Jonesy – but then sped off with Pete and Mike down to The Corkonian in the Altstadt to pick up Mario’s ticket from Cathy.

Chelsea in Europe Rule Three; the sighting of several police vans means that an Irish bar and some Chelsea hoodlums are not far away.

Plenty of faces there. In a quiet corner, I spotted that green bomber jacket. I bumped into Andy and Josh, the Californians, who had been in town since Monday. Michelle and Joe from Chicago were also in the bar. The Beltway Blues were basing themselves in Leverkusen itself, but most of the Chelsea were using Koln as HQ. I then back-tracked to the other bar on Am Hof for a beer with the boys. I was beginning to wish I could be cut into several pieces, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, so I could simultaneously spend time with different groups of friends. Back amongst my mates, there was talk of the CPO, the shame of the 39th. Game, the way our club is going…the same old gripes and the same old moans.

We decamped into another bar for a few more beers and the chat continued apace. Good times with great mates. Jonesy spoke about the recently-departed Jim Lewis who played a part in our championship season of 1954-1955. Because of his amateur status, Lewis never received a penny in his Chelsea career, nor even got a suit, along with the professionals in the squad, to mark the championship win. Alan suggested that Villas-Boas should explain about Jim Lewis, playing in a championship-winning team without payment, to the team before the game. One suspects that several players would simply not believe it.

In search of food, we sped down to the Christmas market in the Altstadt – sausages on sticks for me! – and I then went back into The Corkonian to catch up with Andy, Josh, Joe and Michelle. Time was moving on and I had arranged to meet Mario outside the stadium at 7.30pm. After another tasty beer in Heumarkt, we quickly decided to take two cabs to the stadium. The price was 30 euros – no worries.

We bundled in the cab and we were on our way…Josh in the front, Andy and I in the back with another Chelsea fan whose name escapes me. Too many beers. Too many beers for Andy too, who had to take extraordinary measures while the cab was momentarily stopped on the autobahn.

We got to the Bayerena at around 7.45pm and Mario was waiting for me outside the away section. I thankfully had no problems getting my camera inside. Mario and I positioned ourselves centrally in the lower tier. Flags were draped over the top balcony. Josh had a great seat in the front row of the upper tier. Beth was a few rows behind us.

So, after 36 years of friendship, Mario and I were able to watch our first ever Chelsea game together. Bloody superb.

The Bayerena has been recently redeveloped. The team played in Dusseldorf while a new tier and a new roof were added. It’s a reasonable stadium, if a little anaemic. I found it odd that the hard core home support were located directly opposite us in a corner, rather than directly behind the north goal.

The Champions League flag was waved as the teams stood and the Champions League anthem was played.

Let’s go to work.

I was surprised that Fernando Torres was not in the starting line-up. After only a few minutes against Liverpool and with an away game with presumably space to exploit behind defenders, I was amazed that he did not start. Michael Ballack was wearing a facemask and I couldn’t help take plenty of photographs of him. Clearly Leverkusen is not one of Germany’s iconic sides, so I give Ballack credit in returning to one of his previous German clubs. Shades of Gianfranco Zola’s famous return to Cagliari. The first section of the game was a turgid affair. After about twenty minutes, with hardly a chance created, Mario exclaimed –

“Why don’t they want to play!?!”

On 38 minutes, Drogba burst clear down the right and slammed the ball over the bar, with other options available.

Mario’s reaction was classic –

“Mamma Mia!”

After a heavy intake of beer, it took me twenty-five minutes to realise that Jose Bosingwa was over on the far side in the left-back berth. I remember he played there against Lionel Messi in “that” game in 2009, but my addled mind could not work out why Ashley Cole was not playing. A shot from Mata for Chelsea and a header from Michael Ballack which rocked the crossbar for Leverkusen were the only real chances in the rest of the first-half. The game was warming up, but only slowly.

Soon into the first half, a cross from Daniel Sturridge was played in towards Didier Drogba. To his credit, he spun and just managed to evade the attentions of two Leverkusen defenders. Although he lost balance, he was still able to turn the ball in at the far post.

Get in!

From a few rows in front came a text message from Alan –

“THTCAUN.”

And I replied –

“COMLD.”

The Chelsea choir sang his praises and we began making a little more noise.

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.
Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

A Daniel Sturridge shot was our only goal-bound effort though and the home team had more of the ball. On 57 minutes, Herr Ballack did well to twist his body to attempt an overhead kick from twenty yards out which Cech did well to save. Soon after, another shot from Ballack was blocked by Cech. I thought back to the chance that Cech saved from Ballack in the first leg at The Bridge and it was quickly turning into a battle of the masked men.
On 65 minutes, a strong run and shot from Studge but the ‘keeper saved his effort.

The Chelsea choir was mid-way through a proud and defiant rendition of “You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea” when Sam, out on the left, clipped a ball over for the substitute Derdiyok to head in, with the Chelsea defenders racing back to no avail. The goal was a blur, but our defence seemed to be completely stretched and out of position.

The mood now grew tense within the 1,500 away fans. A cross from substitute Malouda on the left found Drogba unmarked, but his weak volley did not trouble Leno in the home goal. In the closing moments, we watched aghast as a chipped corner found the head of Friedrich who somehow was able to rise unhindered amongst a cluster of blue shirts. The ball tantalisingly arched past the despairing dive of Cech and into the net.

The home fans roared and we were shocked into a stony silence.

There was no time to retaliate and we were defeated. After all of the losses I have endured as a Chelsea fan throughout the years, I should not have been too fed-up, but there was genuine disappointment that this latest game had ended in (self-inflicted?) defeat. Our defending for the goals was poor and we didn’t seem to have the determination and fight of previous campaigns.

To add insult to injury, only six players could be bothered to trudge over to us in the south-west corner of the Bayerana to thank us for the thousands of pounds we had spent in support of our team.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50476949082658

Mario and I shrugged and slowly began our walk back to where Mario had parked his car. Unlike on his previous visits to watch Leverkusen, there seemed to be more traffic than usual on this particular night. A few sympathetic texts came in and Mario and I spoke of a few more childhood memories to keep the spirits up. We returned to the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, speaking of obscure Juventus players such as Domenico Marocchino, Guiseppe Galderisi and Pietro Paolo Virdis and more famous ones such as Liam Brady and Paolo di Canio. Talk of our childhood love of football proved cathartic and the time soon passed. I also did my best to explain to Mario about the SayNoCPO campaign of the past month or so.

On our return home to Mario’s house, we watched the Champions League highlights and we shared a few more bottles of clean and crisp Gilden kolsch.

Thursday 24th. November.

The last day of Chelsea trips are strange affairs. Trips usually take the form of –

Day One – manic beer guzzling, boisterous behaviour and bar-hopping, late into the night.
Day Two – sightseeing, nursing of hangovers, the match, more refined drinking.
Day Three – OK, let’s get home.

However, on this most atypical of Chelsea trips, I was quite content to make the most of my last day with Gabi and Mario. I awoke at 9am and Gabi soon made me bacon and eggs for breakfast. A lovely visit with Valentin to Gabi’s parents then followed, before we had pizza for lunch with all the boys. In the afternoon, Mario dropped me off at the nearby town of Bensberg while he returned to do some work from home.

I spent around two hours in Bensberg and enjoyed walking around the town’s shops, buying a Leverkusen scarf for myself (I always try to pick up a souvenir of our opponents on foreign trips), plus chocolates and cakes for my mother and Judy. At the top of the town is the castle – or schloss – which is now, typically, a top-end hotel. At the bottom of Schloss Strasse, I spent a while inside the local church, a lovely structure with superb stained-glass windows. It was with regret that I could not attend the wedding of Gabi and Mario in June 1999, due to lack of finances, so it felt right and proper that I was able – at last – to visit the church where they were married in 2011.

At 5pm, Mario took me to Koln-Bonn airport and we bade each other a fond farewell. Gabi was otherwise engaged with Reuben and Valentin, but young Nelson accompanied us on our twenty minute car ride. I can see the twinkle in the eyes of Mario’s dear mother Hildegard in the face and eyes of Nelson.

Mario dropped me off at Terminal B and I shook hands with little Nelson and gave Mario a big hug.

“Ciao ciao.”

It had been a fantastic time in Germany and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Our flight was unfortunately delayed, so I did some more shopping; pumpernickel, cheese, the usual suspects. Beth and Dave from Toronto were on the same flight home. We touched down at about 8.45pm and I was able to drop Beth off at the Prince of Wales pub at West Brompton just in time for last orders at 11pm. Ironic that for a few minutes, my journey home had taken me to within a mile of The Bridge.

I returned home, eventually, at 1.30am; three whole days of friendship and football.

Superb.

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