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.

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

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

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

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

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

How we sang.

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

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

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

Think again.

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

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

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

If only.

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

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

It was Napoli 3 Chelsea 1.

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

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

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

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

That, my friends, would have been too much.

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

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

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

Naples was indeed a sprawling mess of a city.

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

Ah, just like the old days.

Come On You Blue Boys.

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Tales From 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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Tales From The Banks Of The Chao Phraya River

Thai Premier League All Stars vs. Chelsea : 24 July 2011.

Day One : The Madness.

From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok …my flight landed at around 1.15pm on Friday 22nd. July. No time to dwell too much on the muted team performance the previous night in the cauldron of the Bukit Jalil stadium. Another city to explore and, on Sunday, another Chelsea match. But first, some fun.

I quickly made my way through customs at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport – sleek, slick and functional – and I soon met up with my mate Adie, who had just arrived on a domestic flight from his home city of Chiang Mai. Adie was in the same year as me at Frome College from 1978 to 1983 and was one of the stars of the school team. Adie played with distinction as a covering centre-back in a back four and had lovely positional awareness, close control and tackling ability. I played on the right wing in the 1978-1979 season, but soon fell out of the first team the following year. Adie went on to play many games for the school first eleven, but my football career fell away as my support for Chelsea grew and grew. Adie went out to Thailand in 1996 as a VSO worker, met his wife Waraya (who was his Thai language teacher) in Bangkok and moved north to Chiang Mai a few years ago. Adie visited Frome last year just as our championship season was concluding and attempted to sway me into visiting his new home in the near future. Well, as we all know, our tour of Asia was announced a while back and so I quickly decided to go ahead and book flights to encompass football and friends. Rather than follow the team on to Hong Kong, I wanted to visit Adie and Waraya in Chiang Mai instead.

There was slight drizzle outside as we quickly hopped into a – wow – pink taxi cab. In the 45 minute drive to our hotel in downtown Bangkok, we soon updated each other with news from both our lives. Over to our right, I spotted the curves of the Rajamangala Stadium where the game against the Thai League All-Stars would be played on Sunday. I quickly realised that Bangkok was on a different scale to that of Kuala Lumpur. KL had its share of skyscrapers, for sure, but they were in that condensed area of the Golden Triangle. Bangkok’s skyscrapers were all around. Adie pointed out the tallest one as we sped west. We curled round, off the elevated freeway, then down into the craziness of the city itself.

Our hotel – the Ibis Riverside – was nestled in a curve of the Chao Phraya River as it flowed south through the western part of central Bangkok. We checked in and I pulled the curtains in our room back.

“Oh wow.”

The view that greeted me allowed me another one of those “moments.”

Below me was the fast-flowing river, visible over tropical tree tops, and there were several small boats navigating their courses. On the eastern bank, there were several high-rises to complete the scene. It was a real jaw-dropper. It was another sight which will be saved forever in my memory bank of images. I could have stayed there, nose pressed against the window, for hours, or at least until Nando scored again. Adie was the person to thank – or rather his wife Waraya, who had booked the room on the back of her previous stay at the hotel as a VSO employee.

At 4pm, we headed out, the whole night in Bangkok ahead of us.

Here we go.

We managed to locate a small ferry boat to take us across the river. While we were lining up at the ferry pier – which was typically surrounded by a fast food and drink stall – Adie pointed down to the ground, just to my right.

It was a pig, sleeping in the afternoon sun.

“Bloody hell, mate. A pig!”

We made our way across the river on a little flat boat and the fare was just 7 baht, or just 15p. I snapped away like a fool, capturing every riverboat we passed. I didn’t want to miss anything. We had heard that Chelsea were to stay at the Shangri La Hotel – just across the river from us – and so our first port of call was in this hotel. Two beers, some nuts, plus more chat about our personal lives. Adie had visited Frome back in April, but there is always gossip to share. No sightings of any CFC personnel, so we decided to move on. We were headed into town on the monorail. However, just as we were queuing up for our tickets at the Saphan Taksin stop, Adie quickly advised me to stop talking and to stand still. The Thai national anthem is played over tannoys at every public space at 8am and 6pm and so we stood still for thirty seconds, along with everyone else on that platform.

Another “moment” for sure.

Three stops away, we alighted at Sala Daeng and I was ready to breath in whatever Bangkok had to throw at me. For thirty minutes or so, we wandered the close streets of Patpong 1, 2 and 3, right in the epicentre of the fabled Bangkok show bar area. Street stalls, open air cafes, fake DVDs, fake designer gear, locals eating noodles and rice, fake football shirts, noise, colour and a little sleaze, with a few chaps hustling us to enter the various show bars which opened up onto the streets. I peered inside and wondered “shall I, shan’t I?” I bought a “Clockwork Orange” T-shirt for just 200 baht from a busy stall under the monorail. I spoke to Adie about one of Juve’s firms being called “Arancia Meccanica” and the real world, the football world and my world overlapped once again.
And still the street hustlers wanted us to pay a visit to the local delights…

“One Night In Bangkok” indeed.

Adie fancied some food and so from about 7pm to 9pm, we sheltered in the relative calm of an Irish pub – “O’Reilly’s” – and had three pints of Singha…they are Chelsea’s beer sponsors after all. We ordered some food – chicken in satay sauce and some spring rolls – and had a great time. We spoke about our school days and our time in the same school and cricket teams. A few other topics were aired, but we kept coming back to football, the game that ties so many of my mates together. We spoke about Asia’s particular love of English footy, way ahead of any other league, way ahead of Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga. Adie kept asking me why English football was so loved and I did my best to respond. I guess I used the words “history, passion, humour, noise and tribalism.” Dotted around the bar were several western male tourists “of a certain age” sitting with local Thai boys. The pub was busy and I half-expected a familiar Chelsea face to appear…maybe Saturday night. Sitting in a bar in a foreign land, I was reminded of one of my favourite jokes, which I shared with Ade : –

“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman were shipwrecked and found themselves on a deserted island. Within a few weeks, the Irishman had found a way to ferment the local fruit to make alcohol and had opened a pub. The Scotsman had got into a fight with the Irishman and had been banned from the pub. And the Englishman was waiting to be introduced.”

Next up was the appearance of The Better Band, a local Beatles tribute band, and they played many Beatles’ songs. In their wigs and suits circa 1964, they did a good job to be fair. Paul McCartney even sang with a slight Scouse accent, which I guess is no mean feat. I spoke to Ade about the reports that I have been writing for CIA and we tossed a few ideas about what the Bangkok edition should be called. Adie suggested “Tales From The Big Mango” in lieu of the city’s modern nickname. It would certainly be better than “Tales From The City Of Angels, The Great City, The Residence Of The Emerald Buddha, The Impregnable City (Of Ayutthaya) Of God Indra, The Grand Capital Of The World Endowed With Nine Precious Gems, The Happy City, Abounding In An Enormous Royal Palace That Resembles The Heavenly Abode Where Reigns The Reincarnated God, A City Given By Indra And Built By Vishnukarn”. Bangkok has the longest place name in the world, allegedly. Feeling on top form, we then continued our walkabout and we ended up outside, and then inside, “The Finlandia” show bar. Twenty minutes later – and after just one beer, costing a couple of quid – we were back in the crowded streets and our lives were richer with another Bangkok moment.

For the record – ‘cus I know you all want to know – there were no table tennis balls but just 30 pretty bored Thai girls a-dancing on stage.

It had to be done, though. Tick that box, so to speak.

Next up, some more food and Adie sat us down at a cheap and cheerful café, with me just kicking back, enjoying some banter and aiming plenty of puns at poor Adie. We had a few local delicacies, including a crab which had been fragranced with a selection of Thai spices. I haven’t eaten too many crabs in my life and I was getting more and more frustrated as I toiled away, attempting to get as much flesh out of the little sucker as possible. At least the Singha beer was going down well. As I finished the meal, I spotted a local Thai gentleman in a Liverpool shirt and so I quickly showed him video film on my phone from the 3-1 game at Anfield in 2008. He growled and so I blew him a kiss and his little group of friends roared with laughter.

We crossed the roared and flagged down a tuk tuk, that funky three-wheeled vehicle which is such an iconic part of Asian life, and gave the driver instructions on how to reach our next attraction. I had pinpointed the open air bar on the 63rd. floor of the State Tower as a “must-see” attraction on this first night. Well, the tuk tuk drive was magnificent, a real adrenalin rush, with the exhaust roaring behind us and the traffic whizzing past. Waves to fellow tuk-tukkers, smiles to cab drivers.

“One Night In Bangkok.”

As we stepped out onto the roof terrace, my mind went ga-ga. What a sight – a clear dark night, starlit, with the illuminations of a million city lights stretched out to the horizon. Car lights, street lights, hotel rooms, reds, yellows, whites. We stepped into the crowded circular Sky Bar, itself illuminated, and tentatively ordered a couple of expensive beers. The barman was an Italian and so I decided to introduce myself –

“Sono tifo di Chelsea.”

He then told me that Didier Drogba and a few other Chelsea players had been up at the bar two hours earlier. If anything, that validated us being there, two mere mortals from Frome. We took it all in. Deep breathes. Photos of the vibrant Bangkok night down below. We sipped at the beers, wanting them to last forever. It really was a magnificent end to my first night in the Thai Capital. Pigs, river boats, Thai Beatles, Pat Pong’s vices, beer and Thai food, the city below from the Sky Bar above.

Chelsea in town.

There was still time for one more surprise.

“Chris Axon – what the fcuk are you doing here?”

I quickly turned around and a work colleague bounded across the bar to greet me with an outstretched hand.

“Batty – what the fcuk!”

Batty has worked with me at Herman Miller for eight years and, unbeknown to me, had just arrived in town the night before with his girlfriend Jo. He had spent a few minutes on the other side of the circular bar working out “is that Chris Axon???” The penny suddenly dropped…”must be him – Chelsea are in town.” Well, what a small world…what a cliché, but how true. We spent the next thirty minutes rubbing our eyes, sharing a few stories and wallowing in the absurdities of this crazy world. He had just visited Hong Kong and was only in Bangkok for three days. That our paths should cross in a bar 63 stories up in the Bangkok sky is surely a magnificent impossibility.

But, no – nothing is impossible in Chelsea World.

We called another tuk tuk – though it’s all a little blurred – and we raced back to the Ibis, our backsides only a foot or so from the ground, across the bridge over the Chao Phraya River and we collapsed into our beds at about 2am.

Day Two : The Tourist.

Adie was clearly not used to such an alcohol intake and was rather delicate first thing. I felt fine and, after a lovely buffet breakfast, we were out and about at just after 10am. The day was spent fizzing up and down the Chao Phraya River, visiting a few of Bangkok’s must-see sights. Of course, it had to happen; we bumped into Batty, not once, but twice on the Saturday…once on the ferry boat as we headed up to the Grand Palace and once inside the temple which housed the famous Emerald Budha.

“See you in about two hours, then.”

The Grand Palace was magnificent. It was another jaw-dropper. I was surrounded by gold-leaved temples and chedis, or pagodas, and while I snapped away, Adie secretly took a few photos of me. Adie loves his photography, like me, and taught me a few tricks about the art while I was with him. Being surrounded by all of that gold, especially on such a hot day, was almost hypnotic. For a few moments, I experienced what it must be like to be Roman Abramovic. We had to take off our shoes and caps to enter the revered temple of the Jade Buddha and for a few reflective moments, I sat in silence.

We then aimed for the temple which housed the Reclining Buddha or Wat Pho. This was another mesmeric sight. This Buddha is around 50m in length and is again gilded in gold. The toes are festooned in mother or pearl. It’s quite magnificent. With all of this gold around, I dubbed my visit to Bangkok a “gilt trip” and Adie groaned once more.

Death by a thousand puns.

Outside, more street markets; DVDs, Budha mementoes, second-hand toys, second-hand books, sex aids, plastic flowers, fresh fruit, pineapples and bananas, wooden phalluses, dried fish, coconuts, fake T-shirts, fake handbags, tat of every description, West Ham season tickets.

We caught the ferry boat back to the pier by the Shangri La Hotel and I decided to see if any players were hanging around. I waited in the reception area for a good hour or so. I spoke with an ex-pat, who had travelled down to Bangkok from Northern Thailand. He told me that he had paid the equivalent of £35 to attend the so called “High Tea With Chelsea FC” at the hotel on the Friday. He was far from impressed as he was one of around 250 fans and only the manager and four players attended, away on the top table. It was a bit of a farce, according to him. Bruce Buck and his wife arrived and I slowly walked over and greeted him with a memory from last season –

“The last time I saw you was at Frankley Services on the M5 after Stoke away.”

He looked a bit guarded and his response surprised me –

“Did you abuse me?”

I laughed it off and said “no, not at all.” We chatted a little and I asked his wife to take a photo…I had my trusty Yankees cap pinned to my belt and he noted it and patted his chest, saying “ah, close to my heart.”

Soon after, a minibus dropped Josh, Alex and Graeme Le Saux off and I had the smallest of chats with Berge as he raced through the foyer. I knew that the Chelsea squad were off to the stadium at around 5pm for some public training. I spotted Cathy and a few others arrive, back from a hot day visiting the sights. They had plans to visit the training session, but I was giving it a swerve. I lounged around and spotted a few CFC personnel – names unknown – and wondered what their roles were in the grand scheme of things. What were their names? What were their roles? Their motivations? Their qualifications? Their impressions of Andre Villas-Boas? Were they enjoying the trip? Were they missing their loved ones? It made me think. I asked one of them about the team’s departure time for the training session and the fact that he was an American surprised me. Not sure why, though.

I got the nod that the team would be boarding the coach from a tucked-away service bay to the side. For about 45 minutes, with rain clouds threatening, I hung around in the hope of getting some good photographs of the players as they boarded the coach. In the end, the photos were disappointing and I questioned my sanity on more than one occasion. I felt, ridiculously, like a school kid at a pop concert and was tempted to head back to the Ibis. I stuck it out though – and was rewarded when I spun around to get a good shot of JT giving me the thumbs up from his seat. I also made him chuckle when I said “Beth from America says hi!”

On the ferry back across the Chao Phraya, the rain cascaded down and I hoped that Cathy et al had decided to forego the training session.

Saturday night was quieter than Friday – I swam in the hotel pool, while the rain came down and there was occasional sheet lightning which lit up the sky. The boats on the river were still floating past and it was another lovely moment. The rain lashing down on my skin, the swimming pool warm, the smile on my face constant. The rain increased in intensity and it was gorgeous.

“I’m going to swim underwater, Adie – I’m getting wet here.”

Day Three – The Game.

Of all my time supporting Chelsea Football Club, attending games and watching my heroes, the pre-match of Sunday 24th. July 2011 was unlike no other. We were up nice and early and began the morning with a pre-breakfast swim at around 7am. After a hearty breakfast – nice to know that pork sausages, fried eggs, fried potatoes and baked beans have found their way to Thailand – we set off for a walk around the Chinatown area of downtown BK. Across the river once more, then up a few miles on the ferry boat. From about 10.30pm to around 2pm, we slowly walked through street after street, bazaar after bazaar, delicately avoiding oncoming traffic and pedestrians alike.

I knew that I was in for a treat when Adie lead me down a slight passageway which got narrower and narrower until we turned a corner and ended up almost entering somebody’s house. There was a blurring of space – “Adie, is this a shop, a private kitchen, or a shared area between several families?” – and it felt like I had entered another world.

In fact, of course, this is just what I had done.

Every spare inch of alleyway was devoted to commercial pursuits. Here comes another list of products, but this could go on forever; food of every description, including raw and cooked fish, exotic fruits of every shape, colour and size, textiles, mobile phones, walking sticks, electric drills, fishing rods, bags, fake DVDs, radios, car engine parts, batteries, toys, shoes, fake designer gear, nuts, vegetables, magazines, old toy cars, bags of fried fish stomachs, hats, caps, jewelry, furniture, mirrors, incense sticks, electronic goods, dried flowers, football shirts, car stickers, anything, everything.

And every few yards, locals were sat on the floor, crouching over little stoves cooking their meals. Bowls and bowls of rice, meat, noodles, fish, vegetables, fruit and a thousand variations. There was a blurring again of what I saw before me; is this a stall selling food, or just simply a worker cooking up their own food?

Adie had taught me a new way to photograph, slowing to a standstill, spotting a subject and shooting from the hip. I took several photos like this and the results were OK. I remember the intense look of concentration of one very small Chinese gentleman who was delicately folding pieces of gold to make intricate origami displays. The look of a bored young girl texting a friend while sat behind textiles and ribbons. A woman devouring some food. A chap sat at a café, smiling with a passer-by.

With every step, a hundred different sights. With every breath, a different aroma.

I said to Adie – “and in four hours time, we’ll watch some millionaires play football.”

We stopped off at a couple of street-side cafes and guzzled some drinks in the heat of the day; an iced cappuccino, a lime cordial, a lychee yogurt smoothie.

And the streets got narrower and narrower. At times it was impossible to move as the people slowed to gaze at the goods on sale. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but at times I just wanted to break free and find some clear space.

Eventually we broke free of Chinatown and headed north, over a canal and towards the Golden Mountain, which was another golden temple on the highest piece of land in central Bangkok. We quickly ascended the steps, took a few photographs and spotted a few skyscraper landmarks. Time was moving on and we needed to head over to the game. We caught a cab – thank heavens for air-conditioning – and soon witnessed another taxi ploughing into a poor woman and her cart of fresh fruit, sending them sprawling onto the road.

On the thirty minute cab ride out west, we sped past a massive advertisement for Singha beer, which used the tagline “Spirit Of Champions” with four Chelsea players’ faces and the CFC badge. It was a remarkable sight, thousands of miles from West London. As we approached the stadium, the traffic slowed, Chelsea shirts were beginning to be spotted and the expectation levels began to rise with each minute.

We were dropped off outside the main – and as far as we could ascertain, the only – entrance to the stadium. The heat was now getting more intense, but my Yankee cap was doing a fine job. After a little confusion about choosing the correct line at the busy ticket booth, I quickly picked up our three tickets. I spotted Aggie from the Cyprus Blues and had a little chat. Thankfully, Cathy, Jim and Jayne soon arrived and I could relax. We decided to head inside and get out of the sun. Cathy and I posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” flag once again. The atmosphere outside was of excitement, but it was quieter than Kuala Lumpur. There were a few tents nearby containing various products, including a Chelsea FC stall, a Coke stall and a local radio tent, with a loud DJ creating a din. The game was dubbed the Coke Super Cup and there was a twenty foot tall Coke “running man” statue outside the stadium. Quite a few locals appeared to be selling tickets and I wondered if the gate might fall way short of a full house. Adie had seen Leeds, Arsenal, Manchester United, Barca, Real and Brazil over the years at the stadium…I hoped and prayed that we would fill it.

Thankfully, we had great seats under the cover of the sweeping roof of the west stand. Middle tier, right on the halfway line. These tickets were 2,000 baht or around #45. There was a cooling breeze and we were fine. Opposite, on the east terrace, thousands of Chelsea fans were sweltering in the late afternoon sun and I noted hundreds of multi-coloured umbrellas sheltering the poor souls. It was time to play spot the Chelsea flag. The lads from Weymouth were sat a few rows in front of us and I am sure their flag was close by. Opposite, we spotted the two Bletchley Blues flags, a Walton On Thames flag, a Pattaya Blues flag, an Indonesia Blues flag, a Singapore Blues flag, a Melbourne flag and a Rising Sun flag. It was a good show. VPN was missing – I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.

The Chelsea players came onto the pitch and went through their choreographed pre-match routines.

The Snappy Dresser –

Chris – pink.

Again, thousands of CFC flags had been draped over some seats and these were waved with gusto. The stadium took a while to fill up. Still the sun beat down.

There were fireworks during the pre-game show and then a Thai couple appeared high above the north terrace on a platform. They were suspended from two cables and slowly made their way to the running track, as if floating on air. Let’s see something similar at Chelsea next season, with maybe Cathy and Dog floating down from the West Stand roof with five minutes to go before kick-off.

The teams appeared down below us and the crowd roared. Difficult to gauge the attendance, but – like KL – the crowd kept arriving deep into the game.

Great to see Petr back between the sticks for the first time this season.

The game began but it was a poor opening thirty minutes or so, with the Thai team showing more spirit and know-how than the Malaysian team a few days earlier. Soon into the game, all was quiet in our section and I shouted out –

“Come On Chelsea!”

…and, much to my amusement, this was met with a few “oohs” and “aahs” and even a few claps from the locals around me. Cathy and I spoke about doing some ZZs later.

Cech did well to get down and block a Thai shot on 31 minutes. That man Torres, still looking leggy and distant, skewed wide on 37 minutes and we all groaned. At times, the atmosphere was very quiet. Then, the ball broke to Frank Lampard and he adroitly despatched the ball low into the goal from over 25 yards out. It was a typical Fat Frank Goal and the crowd roared their approval.

Cathy disappeared at half-time and didn’t re-appear until later in the second-half. I suspect that she was off on the hunt for some Strongbow. Adie asked me how I thought the top six would finish up in 2011-2012 and he was quite shocked when I predicted that the title would go to Manchester United. My top six were: Manchester United, then Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.

I caught both of the next two goals on film. Jose Bosingwa’s cross-cum-shot evaded the despairing, and comical, efforts of the Thai ‘keeper and bounced in off the far post. Soon after, a burst through the middle of the park by Ivanovic and a lovely ball through by Young Josh. He kept his cool and dispatched the ball with aplomb and the entire World and his Dog made cynical comments along the lines of “good job it wasn’t Torres.”

One of the highlights of the game for me was a crunching tackle by John Terry on a Thai player and I suspect that the said player is still having recurring nightmares about it. Josh looked busy and impressed. The star of the show was Hilario, on for Petr at the break, who made a succession of fine saves around the hour mark. Top marks. Ivanovic charged around all over the place and didn’t seem to be affected by the heat, though I am sure it was very humid and draining. Rather them than me.

The place was still quiet, though.

My “Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea” chant didn’t stir the locals and so I left it at that. A couple in front of Adie and I were annoying the hell out of me. They virtually ignored the game and instead kept taking photographs – and sickly ones at that – of each other. It was just as well that Cathy wasn’t around to witness such a pathetic sight. Just after Cathy returned to her seat, Florent Malouda lashed high into the net and it was 4-0 to Chelsea.

Job done.

JT looked rather embarrassed to collect another cup, but all thoughts were quickly forgotten as a glittering array of fireworks lit up the Bangkok night. It was a spectacular end to the night’s entertainment and provided a fitting end to my two Chelsea games in Asia. This was a much better performance than the game in KL and the team looked more at ease. I hoped that the man with the clipboard was starting to make an impact.

Adie and I let the crowds subside and were some of the last to leave the stadium.

I collected twenty plastic cups from the terraces which were all logo’d up with “Coca Cola Super Cup Thailand 2011” and had the images of Didier, Frank, JT and Nando on them. They will go to a few close friends.

Outside, the crowds were still to disperse. There was a noisy atmosphere out in the streets, with buses and cabs racing past us as we walked a few miles west to get away from the congested area. Adie also pointed out motorbike taxis, but that would have to be a Bangkok experience for next time. Lots of smiles with fellow Chelsea fans as Adie and I marched on, walking at pace away from the stadium. It felt, actually, just like a walk away from a game in Europe. Maybe Rome or Barcelona. Lots of shouts, lots of noise, lots of colour. I had to keep reminding myself that – no – this was Bangkok.

I said to Adie “at least there’s no chance of getting whacked out here.”

I also commented that although Bangkok was a wilder city than Kuala Lumpur, the atmosphere was not half as good.

At around 9am, sirens wailed behind us and the Chelsea team coach – also logo’d up in the colours of Coca Cola – raced by. I punched the air as the coach drive by and realised what a lucky soul I had been. The next time I would see the boys play would be in Stoke, but that seemed a lifetime away.

We dipped into a 7-Eleven for a bottle of ice-cold green tea and then luckily nabbed a cab back to our hotel. Time was running out for a Thai buffet, so instead, I devoured a burger and fries, along with two bottles of Singha. Not until now do I realise that these were the only beers that I had to drink the entire day. And what a day. That wonderful day in Chinatown and Chelseatown.

That wonderful day in Bangkok.

Postscript :-

After Bangkok, I had a relaxing time in Chiang Mai and one moment brought a smile to my face. On the last day, I was busy visiting a last few sights and was just about to leave a temple when a local lady in her ‘sixties approached me. I think she was aiming to get me sign up for a local tour. She asked me where I was from and as soon as I said “England” she was keen to ask me another question.

“Ah – which football team do you support?”

It made me laugh…one world, one game, one team anyone?

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Tales From The Game Of My Life

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2009.

“Tales From The Game Of My Life” – what else could I call this?

This was just a brilliant trip to the Piedmont city of Turin. As I sit here with enough memories to last a lifetime, my only concern is getting this report finished before I have to leave to go to the next game.

Let’s get started.

On Sunday afternoon, I re-watched “The Italian Job” ( set in Torino, 1969 ) to get my juices flowing. It was the perfect appetiser.

I left home at 1.30am on Monday morning and made great time heading up to Stansted airport to the north of London. I had only flown from this airport once before – my first ever Chelsea euro away to Viktoria Zizkov in September 1994. On that trip I bumped into Andy and Neil – two Chelsea lads from Nuneaton. I actually began chatting to them on Wenceslas Square in Prague. As fate had it, I had learned that Andy and Neil, plus Jonesy and Jocka, were to be on this flight too. We bumped into each other at the departure gate. Handshakes all round.

Our Ryanair flight to Torino left at 7am. I had already been awake since 12.45am, so tried to nab a little sleep on the plane. As luck would have it, Torino was featured in the in-flight magazine and it highlighted a couple of places I would later visit. Ex-Tottenham manager David Pleat was sat a couple of rows behind. I wondered if he would be visiting Torino’s pavement society. Maybe that would be shrouded in mystery.

Due to high winds, we circled over the hills to the east of the city for about thirty minutes before the pilot getting the nod to land. We caught a few glimpses of the city on a pristine clear morning. We descended and flew over the city from the south and I was able to point out the Lingotto factory featured in “The Italian Job.” We landed at 9.15am and caught a slow moving bus into the city centre. I spotted the roof supports of the Delle Alpi to the west, nestling beneath the stunning snow-capped mountains. To my east, the Superga basilica, high atop a hill, welcomed me to the city once again, like a beacon.

The bus stopped outside the Porta Nuova train station, where I had arrived in Torino for the very first time in 1987. We stayed about 90 minutes in a tiny, cramped bar, drinking a variety of beers, the owner feeding us nuts and crisps. My – it was great to be back. I texted my friend Tullio to say I had arrived. I had collected two tickets at HQ on behalf of Joe from Chicago and he arrived at about 1.30pm so I could hand over the tickets. He looked very happy. Andy and his mates were staying several miles south, but we had time for one more beer in a quiet bar, before we went our separate ways. In those two bars, we spoke about the team, our football this season, our players, our hopes, our concerns…there wasn’t a stone left unturned…a real, intense session, which is quite unlike us really. Towards the end, we chatted about various bands – of our youth – and as I left them at about 3pm on Via Sacchi, Andy bellowed out a Slade song at me.

I walked east over the Po river and located the youth hostel where I was staying for the first two nights. I had stayed there in 1989 for the Juve vs. Fiorentina game, plus one night in 1990 too. I booked in and decided to sleep for an hour. All my mates are experienced euro travellers and we often cat-nap for an hour before hitting the town. I awoke and showered, quite refreshed. I got changed and re-traced my steps into the city. Unfortunately, Andy’s lot had overslept and then took a tram to the wrong station.

Porco Dio.”

While I waited for them to arrive, I scouted out a good pizzeria and decided to head into the foyer of Hotel Roma on Piazza Carlo Felice. Who should be in there but Dutch Mick plus Paul and Trizia. I had a beer and then my mates arrived. We made a beeline for the restaurant on Via Lagrange. I ordered a pizza with gorgonzola and onions, plus beers and more talk about Chelsea and music. Towards the end of the meal, we noticed a gaggle of Italian men get up from their table, quite agitated ( one looked like Bruce Buck )…we realised that they had spotted Momo Sissoko, sitting quietly with his wife and little daughter. This wasn’t a posh place – my pizza was eight euros – so we were gobsmacked. He had hurt his leg in the Toro vs. Juve game ( il derby delle Mole ) on Sunday, so wouldn’t be playing. Jonesy took a photo of him with me. I said to him “sono tifo de Chelsea.” He smiled and was pleasant and affable. We were drinking some Birra Moretti – who knows the significance of this in the story of Chelsea and Juventus?

At about 11pm, we slowly walked up to the cobble-stoned Piazza San Carlo, Turin’s “Drawing Room, and this is the epicentre of the city…a few neon adverts in one corner, a massive screen in another. The boys weren’t taking much interest in my tour guide comments and wanted some beer. We headed into a very nice pub called “Jumping Jesters” – thankfully devoid of Chelsea. Nice to just be with some locals. The beers were on offer for two for five euros. Bargain. Neil and Jocka were drinking Guinness but didn’t fancy using the “whole in the ground” toilets. It was like a game of human kerplunk! They lasted, despite several pints of the heavy brew, until they got back to their hotel. I texted Cathy, who I knew was arriving late. After a few texts, Cathy and Dog arrived and joined us for a few late night beers. Cathy was full of gorgeous tales from the past, too many to mention.

It felt great – top level Chelsea chat in a foreign city with some Chelsea legends.

We were kicked out at 3am. I dropped into a bar called the “Texas Ranger” on a slow walk back to the hostel. One for the road. Lo and behold, who should be in there but two blokes who were sat in front of me at Coventry, one of whom – Digger – was at Beth’s 50th birthday bash. They were bollocksed. I soon departed. As I crossed over the Po, I phoned Beth and had a boozy chat!

I retired to bed at 4am. I hope I didn’t wake anyone up.

Set the alarm for 9.45am. Game Day! A shower. Thankfully no hangover. Bonus!

I dropped into a café, a familiar haunt from past trips. “Un cappocino, per favore.” How perfect these little cafes are – lots of polished wood, frothing cappocino machines, baskets of Panini and brioche. I was falling in love with the city once again. Alan, Gary, Walnuts and Whitey were coming in from Milano – where they had enjoyed a San Siro tour – and were due in at 11am. I had arranged to meet up with them in their hotel and so hobbled along Corso Vittorio Emanuelle but took a cab from Porta Nuova.

My mate Rob was staying at their hotel too and by 11.30am we had all met up. Handshakes and hugs all round – a special welcome to my mate Walnuts who, like me, has been a Juve fan for many years. The weather was phenomenal – clear skies, the Alps never looking clearer. Rob lead us from the hotel near Porta Sousa through the middle of Torino. We reached Piazza San Carlo, bumped into Chicago Joe and Michelle, saw a few Chelsea dotted about.

Our one aim for the day was to visit the Superga basilica and we caught a tram from Piazza Vittorio Veneto ( the largest square in Europe with no statue, it was hosting the annual Chocolate Festival – the aroma was amazing! ). We reached Sassi, but the funicular railway was shut on Tuesdays. While we waited to catch a bus to the top of the hill, I chatted to a Stone Island wearing Chelsea fan from Halle in the former Eastern Germany. He goes to about 25 games a year – respect!

We spent around 90 minutes high atop the Superga hill. Everyone seemed to appreciate the views, if not the long time it took to reach the summit. We were soon at the site of the Superga air crash which wiped out the 1949 Torino team. The understated memorial, with the script written in Torino burgundy ( or granata / pomegranate to be more precise ), was laden with Torino scarves and wreaths lead close by. I wished I had brought a CFC scarf to lie alongside the other tributes. The air was solemn with respect.

From there, we spent a few minutes taking in the magnificent panorama of Torino below us. The Alps appeared to float above the city. It was a truly wonderful moment. Torino’s grid streets were visible as were a few landmarks including Il Mole Antoniella ( once the tallest building in the world, for which the the Juve vs. Toro derby is named ), Stadio Delle Alpi to the north, Stadio Communale to the south.

My love for Italy is a real story running through my life and it was a joy to be back at Superga. I last visited it in May 1992 and I vividly remember not wanting to leave the summit, a long drive home through France ahead of me. I have that trip on film and there is a real look of sadness on my face as I look out at the city. Seventeen years on, I still didn’t want to leave.

One song was rattling around my head throughout this trip, one by Everything But The Girl, which came out in April 1988, just after I had returned from a month in Italy and it summed up my dilemma at the time. After I had left college, on three occasions I sold football badges outside stadia in Italy. For a while, I contemplated another life, based in Torino, selling badges for a living, but England – or Chelsea – was in my head.

“So here we are in Italy
With a sun hat and a dictionary.
The air is warm, the sky is bright
Your arms are brown, you’re sleeping well at night.
But England calls.”

And so it continues – in moments of quiet contemplation, I often wonder what would have happened if I had decided to live in Italy. Well, I wouldn’t be up to 700 Chelsea games, that’s a fact.

I returned back to the hostel, showered, changed into my game wear, recharged my camera batteries, picked up my ticket and headed out into the clear evening air.

This is it Chris.

As I crossed the Po once again – let’s freeze that moment in time – I realised what a lucky man I was.

“The meet” was going to be at “The Huntsman” near the station, but I heard singing from outside “Café Lumiere.” All of the World and her Dog was there…Rob, Alan, Walnuts, Gary and Whitey had just arrived. I popped in to get a 5 euro beer and noted loads of Chelsea faces, all old school, battle-worn veterans, the old school on tour…I had to laugh when I saw Rosey Cheeks chatting to an ex-Headhunter as if they were the best of friends. Dutch Mick was there. Up Norf Malcolm. Rousey. Stan and Mo. Cathy was throwing crostini at me. The bar had laid on free nibbles. The bouncy was going on in the bar.

By some strange coincidence, the date of the game was the twenty-fifth anniversary of a pivotal game in Chelsea’s 1983-84 promotion campaign, but also a pivotal moment in my life. My good friend Glenn and myself travelled up on the Chelsea special for the away game against Newcastle United on March 10th. 1984. Despite a few away games in Bristol, this was my first “proper” Chelsea away game. My parents drove us up to London – they disappeared off to the Ideal Home Exhibition for the day – and we caught the train from Kings Cross at 9am. This was to be a phenomenal away game – Glenn and myself had been looking forward to it for ages. I always remember walking through the centre of Newcastle en masse, feeling part of something, part of something bigger than I had ever witnessed. Police cars were jammed up against pubs to stop locals getting at us. What a feeling.

Memories of the game? We went ahead through David Speedie and the 5,000 Chelsea went berserk. I was quite near the front and climbed the fence, gesturing my elation towards the home fans, but was pulled down by a fat Geordie copper who pushed me against the fence. I was a bit shaken, but OK. Newcastle equalised through McDermott and the Geordie fans erupted. Never have 36,000 fans made more noise. Another clear memory was of about 100 Chelsea casuals perched on top of that fence, a row of beige Pringle pullovers, yellow, blue and white Tacchini tracksuit tops and many Nike Wimbledon trainers. Wedge haircuts. Attitude. Just brilliant.

The train was bricked on the way out of Newcastle and it broke down at York. However, on the journey south, a very important event took place. I was dozing and Glenn went off to the buffet. He came back, bouncing, and said he had met some Chelsea fans from Brighton.

Fast forward – the next home game against Fulham and these lads were sat in front of us on the benches. Their names? Alan and Paul ( aka Walnuts ). We have been friends ever since. I told this story to Alan and Walnuts and they remembered meeting Glenn and couldn’t believe it was twenty-five years ago.

Just like in 1984, March 10th 2009 threw up another Black And White away game.

I was buzzing. Tullio was on his way and I was so excited.

As he approached, I shook his hand and then we embraced. I turned, opened my arms towards the scene behind me, and said “Welcome To My World.” Tullio was able to meet – and personally thank – Cathy for getting him his ticket. It was in the expensive seats and he was overjoyed. He met Alan and the boys, but it was soon time to make our way to the stadium. We all made our separate ways. Tullio and myself avoided the “Chelsea Coaches” and caught a bus and a tram to the stadium. As luck would have it, Tullio bumped into his Juve mate Mimo, who had been at the game at The Bridge. That was Mimo’s first euro away game since the sadness of Heysel in 1985. Mimo was a typical Juve fan – he came from the South and it was a pleasure to meet him.

At 8pm, we arrived at the ground and we took some team photos. “Ciao” to Tullio and Mimo. I didn’t go straight in, but wanted to savour every last minute of all of this. I headed for the road adjacent to the home end – the old Curva Filadelfia – where I had first sold badges at the Juve vs. Panathinaikos game in November 1987. I bought a scarf. I could hear the Juve tifosi singing inside the ground and I fought away some tears of happiness. Get a grip, man.

A little mob of Drughi were still outside…I edged past them. I noted what appeared to be a pool of blood on the road – there had been a couple of ambulances leaving the scene as I arrived. We later learned two Chelsea had been stabbed. I was blending in though, no colours.

“Axon!”

I turned around and Jocka, Andy, Neil and Jonesy were behind me. They had seen the blood too. Time to get in. No body searches at the gate – I was in at 8.30pm.

The scene which greeted me was spectacular. I filmed my entrance to the Chelsea section on my phone and soon decided to position myself atop some steps at the front of the middle tier. After a few moments, I realised Les from Melksham was near and he came down to stand next to me all of the game. Right down below me, Chicago Joe and Michelle. Cathy and Dog came in and watched right from the front. Chelsea fans brought in a Lazio and a Toro flag to wind up the locals. The fans in the Curva Nord to my right had been issued with Italian flags. At the other end, I noticed two massive sections of green and red shiny mosaics. As the CL anthem played, the tifosi in the home end, got to work, unfurling three massive banners which said “YES WE CAN.” However, much to my amusement, the last flag got caught up and so was never fully exposed. Felt like singing “No You Can’t.” As it turned out, this failed unfurling proved to be a metaphor for the night.

At 8.45pm, The Game Of My Life began – Juventus vs. Chelsea. Just seeing those two words together makes me go all goose-pimply. After a few minutes, Andy and Smithy arrived behind me…bizarrely, Smithy got in without having to show a ticket. This was great as I saw him in Rome but he had been delayed and so missed the game. Poetic justice! To be honest, I thought we were pretty poor in the first period. That opening goal from Iaquinta was on the cards and our World crumpled. Don’t do this to me! My worst fears were starting to come to life. Juve moved the ball around well but we defended OK. We just couldn’t seem to create anything, though. I remember one wild shot from Ballack, who was particularly poor.

The first-half ended in a blur of confusion and then elation. Please excuse my memory, but I may have got these moments all a bit messed-up. With the seconds ticking away, that Drogba free-kick ( ? ) looked to be saved by Buffon, but then a roar, a Chelsea player near the goal with arms raised and we went wild. Much celebration, but then – wait – we saw that the game was continuing. What happened? Dunno. What seemed like a minute after, a scramble in the Juve goal – did it come back off the bar? – and Essien poked it home, but I wasn’t sure it was in.

It was. GET IN. From my viewpoint at the front of the middle tier, I watched as the Chelsea fans in the lower deck ( the more “wild” of the 1,700 ) go amok, running towards the Juve fans to my right…or rather the plexiglass screen. Much singing, shouting, arms pointing. The Juve fans responded with a bizarre mixture of arm signals.

Juve now had to score three to go through. My evening was now looking good, very good in fact. We played better in the second-half, with Frank very busy. Chiellini was sent off half-way into the second period but then Juve seemed to dominate. We were all impressed with the substitute Giovinco. A Belletti handball presented Del Piero with a penalty which he coolly slotted away.

It was now “Game On.” The Juventus fans to my right were at it again. One fan in particular – a man in his late fifties, very much like Claudio Ranieri – was very graphic. In one memorable moment he seemed to suggest that, with a tremendous show of agility with his tongue, that we were all fans of oral sex.

Mate – who isn’t?

The game continued on a knife edge. However, throughout the game, I did find it hard to concentrate on the action. On many occasions, I found myself drifting back to my four previous visits to the stadium between 1987 and 1989. The stadium was 80% all standing in those days and even lie unused from 1990 to 2006. I continually read all of the black and white Juve banners which adorned every inch of balcony space. I found it hard. It was too incredible for words.

Late on, a fine move down in front of me and Juliano found Drogba with an inch perfect pass. Seeing the net bulge was a pure moment of joy. I was filled up, but remained calm enough to take about ten shots of the resultant celebration. The scream, the leap, the players joining in…the Chelsea fans down below me going crazy, climbing the fence, so reminiscent of that game in 1984.

We were in full voice.

“We Are Chelsea In Turin.”

“We Hate Tottenham In Turin.”

“We Are Bouncy In Turin.”

I’m afraid one moment was not met with my approval. A 50 year old old-school Chelsea “face” mimicked the fans getting crushed at Heysel to the viewing Juve fans. To all those that glory in our shared hooligan history, a wake up call. This was not clever.

At the final whistle – relief and euphoria. We were now in great voice. The players came over and we serenaded them. Joe was loving it down below me. We gave Tiago a brilliant reception and he looked visibly moved. He was the last off the pitch. I met up with Alan, Walnuts, Rob, Gary and Whitey just as Dave Johnstone was getting some stick as he tried to sell his fanzine.

“It’s A Euro In Turin.”

“Hurry Up In Turin.”

So – into the last eight and out into the Turin night. We caught buses back to the city centre. Skinhead John was on our bus and was wearing a Torino shirt. He demanded that I help tie up a Toro flag to taunt the Juve fans. He’s quite a formidable character – I wasn’t going to argue. Thankfully the police got it taken down. I was right next to the flag – didn’t fancy getting stoned on the way back to the centre.

A few groups of Toro fans applauded us as we flew through the streets, police car lights flashing.

We regrouped at the same restaurant – a Sicilia pizza with anchovies this time – and were joined by Fiona and Ronnie ( Scooby Doo at the Coventry game ). No Sissoko, but the same gaggle of Italians ( including Bruce Buck! ) were there. We shook their hands as they left. Nice times. We again stayed at the “Jumping Jesters” until 3am…nice and easy, though, nothing mad.

Back to the hostel at 4am again. Phew.

The last day was another perfect one. I breakfasted at my little café on Corso Fiume again, this time with a copy of the pink “La Gazzetta Dello Sport” and tried my best to evaluate the Italian synopsis of the game. I walked over to Piazza Vetorio Veneto and waited for the boys to arrive. I had a gorgeous piece of chocolate cake from one of the stalls of the Chocolate Festival. The boys arrived at about 11.30am and a coffee. Gary, Walnuts, Alan and Whitey soon left for Milano, but I stayed with Rob for the rest of the day.

More blue skies. We sat at the café for three hours, more coffee, a coke, some gnocchi. It was heaven. Ronnie and Fiona joined us, but Rob and myself had one last bit of sightseeing to do.

We visited Il Mole Antoniella and this was a great way to view the city. A lift rushed us up within the shell of the building and we were soon overlooking the red roofs and grid-like streets of the city. Just spectacular.

We then walked – or rather hobbled in my case, my football injury was getting worse – back to the hotel. I stopped off to get some stuff from the Juve shop on Via Garibaldi. Rob was taking a late flight that night, so I wished him well.

“See you Sunday.”

There was one more treat in store for me. Tullio picked me up from the hotel at 6pm and I was soon in his new apartment, to the south near Moncalieri. I met his wife Emanuela again, but also his daughters Sophia and Lucrezia for the first time. Sophia presented me with a Juve scarf. We had a few appetisers as the sun set behind the Alps. Magnificent.

We dropped in to see Tullio’s parents for a few moments – I was just so very pleased to be able to see them again and we spoke of the old times in Diano Marina. More appetisers. Tullio spoke of his grandfather’s love for Juve. He apparently saw Juve’s first ever game at Campo d’Armi, a stadium just to the north of Stadio Olimpico.

Tullio and myself then searched for a place to park before going into a lovely Piedmontese restaurant for a great meal. Talk about work, our families, our plans to meet again. The meal was rounded off with a perfect chocolate pudding.

When in Torino.

Tullio remembers me saying to him in around 1988 that it would be my dream to one day see Chelsea play Juventus. Deep down I knew this was never going to happen. What did I know, eh?

We bade our farewells to each other back at the hotel. We hugged. My last words to Tullio were –

“I’ve seen your team play many times before, for you to eventually see my team play means the World to me.”

“CIAO CIAO.”

After a peaceful night’s sleep at a hotel near Porta Sousa, I awoke early and was soon knocking back some coffee at around 6.45am in the hotel breakfast bar. The hotel radio jumped to life with a song which was coming to its end and it just made me smile. It was Louis Armstrong and “What A Wonderful World.”

Perfetto.

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.

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Tales From The Last Sixteen

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 25 February 2009.

A lovely evening at HQ, but there is still a nagging doubt that our 1-0 lead may not be enough over the two legs.

I had booked a half day holiday. I had a dental appointment first thing and then worked 9.45am to 2.15pm. Well, I say “worked” but it was very quiet indeed. I had been “working” on my account of my personal journey into Italian football for Dave Johnstone’s “CFCUK” and I fine-tuned it in the morning before submitting it. This is my first article for this fanzine and I just knew I had to do it. Just had to share it with the Chelsea Nation. Glad I completed it just in time for the game. “The Game Of My Life” just about sums it up. I submitted this on CIA, too, so that I can refer back to it once I get to write up my recollections of Torino in March.

Parky was collected from the pub opposite and we set off for Chelsea. There was the usual banter flying around on the drive east, but he was quiet for the longest ever time in living memory as he read through my recollections of Italy. We both agreed that the internet is a wonderful medium to share such things with people around the World. I am sure Parky could tell a few tales, so to speak. Best not encourage him though.

Before we knew it, we were parked-up just off Lillie Road at about 4.15pm. This was always going to be a extra special game for me, but I had planned an extra level of enjoyment by arranging for Ohio Silver Lining / Farmer John / mgoblue and a mate, Bob / unagi1 and two stalwarts from across the pond ( Chopper and Hoss ) to meet me for a meal at “Dall Artista” at 5pm. Bob was already settled with a pint in the Lillie Langtry as Parky and myself strolled in. Bob had visited Barcelona since Villa on Saturday. Then two phone calls in quick succession. John was on his way and needed directions. Then my friend Tullio in Torino called, but he was off work with a high temperature. I wished him well and said I would see him in a fortnight.

I met John’s college mate Greg, a guy from Salonika in Greece and a Juve admirer. We sunk the first beer of the evening and I was buzzing. Chopper was on his way too. We walked past Brompton Cemetery which sits behind the East stand and arrived at the restaurant bang on 5pm. A big hug from my good friend Salvo – who has met Teri and Starla – and also a hug from Hoss, who was already there. I first met Hoss in Chicago in 2006 and he now lives in Missouri…he’s over for two games. He told us of a great deal he managed to strike up at the Chelsea Hotel, paying about £48 a night! Introductions were made and the air was full of chat and laughter with everyone chipping in with comments about Chelsea and life…there, that’s profound, eh?

I made the point that if my life could be distilled, with all the nonsense and irrelevancies turned to ether, this is what it would be…sat around a table with close friends, jabbering away like fools about all sorts of Chelsea chat.

“And then, in about two hours’ time, we are going to watch our eleven heroes play for us.”

We raised a toast.

We asked for the menus just as Chopper, his daughter Kelly and her Chelsea-debutant boyfriend Shaun arrived. Happy days. More beers please Salvo. Parky was in good form and we were having a good laugh. Because of the differences in the sense of humour between us Brits and North Americans, I often feel we need to put on a bit of a show for our guests and Parky is my ideal partner for this, full of wisecracks, plays on words and sideway glances to camera! I last saw Chopper in NYC in June and it’s always good to see him. I phoned Beth and was pleased she was able to join in our little party.

I had brought up a few photographs from the ‘eighties of myself with my friend Mario, his parents and some shots of his home town. It is Salvo’s home too and I suppose – in the light of things – it came as no surprise that he recognised Mario’s father Franco. It turned out that Salvo played for the same town football team – Dianese – in the ‘sixties as Mario did in the ‘eighties. We ordered our pizzas – an Americana, how appropriate, with anchovies – and more beer, Salvo! I had to put the brakes on though…four small bottles would be my limit. In a quiet moment, I asked Salvo if he was excited and he said he hadn’t been able to eat all day! Bless him.

Henry, who I met in NYC in June, but was now back home in Blighty, popped in and this was a surprise for us all. Fantastic.

It was 6.40pm and we really needed to move on. We marched down to The Goose and joined the milling throng. Unfortunately, we lost Chopper’s lot but Salvo, Parky, John, Greg, Bob and myself were soon chatting with Alan, Gary, Walnuts, Russ, Daryl, Ed, Simon, Milo, Rob, Andy and Lovejoy.

Bada bing!

At 7.15pm we set off for The Bridge and I called Mario. After meeting on that beach in 1975, here we were talking thirty minutes before the first ever Chelsea vs. Juventus game. We wished each other well. It was lovely to hear his voice.

Then a text from Tullio…”tick tock tick tock.” The game was approaching. We were walking along on a tide of adrenalin as the lights of the stadium appeared. I bought Chelsea / Juventus scarves for Tullio and Mario, plus four programmes. Managed to lose Bob and Parky, but Salvo was close by as we entered the stadium.

“Welcome to my home” I said to Salvo, who smiled. Just as we entered the arena, a red Juventus flag was being carried around the pitch and met us in our corner. Salvo beamed. Into our seats in good time and the Champions League build-up began. John was down below me in the corner. The disappointing thing for me was that La Vecchio Signora were not playing in the famous black and white.

On many occasions throughout the game my gaze was centered on the 3,000 Juventus fans in The Shed. I noted the banners and tried to pick out any slogans. Juventus, like all of the Italian teams, have an array of various supporter groups, which tend to constantly evolve through time. The fan leader Beppe Rossi seems to be the Juve leader of note and I have a book at home called “Il Gruppo” which is a photographic record of the various factions since the first fan group in around 1973. Not all groups are hooligans, but it is safe to say that they are all “ultras”, that Italian definition of rabid support. I have lost count of the many Juve groups, but names include “Vikings”, “Indians”, “Black And White Supporters”, “Fighters” ( I have a scarf ) and the infamous “Drughi” and “Arancia Meccanica” ( literally Clockwork Orange ) inspired by Kubrik’s iconic film. There is an amazing photograph from around 1984 of around 500 Juve ultras at an away game in Milano wearing black bowler hats, in homage to Kubrik’s “horrorshow.” That must have been a spine-chilling sight for opposing fans. Juve, Inter, Verona, Atalanta and – most famously of all – Lazio align themselves to the political right, whereas Milan, Roma and Livorno are to the left…historically at least, maybe not quite so much these days.

The Juve fans made a fair bit of noise. I noted several held-aloft signs showing four silhouetted figures with the word Drughi below. One guy in white was the cheerleader, sitting on the balcony wall, looking back towards the fans and instigating the rhythmic singing. Italians often do this. You see it all over. Fans as an organic body, singing their allegiance. For many fans the world over, this is the real battle.

Never mind the game, just show up, sing and win the battle of noise on the terraces.

The game was a bit of a blur. My mind was racing, trying to capture some nice photographs, making sure Salvo was enjoying himself, trying to get some singing going, trying to make out how the game was going, texting a few friends. After some early pressure, I had my telephoto lens centered on the Shed goal. On twelve minutes, Drogba shot and so did I. I depressed the button and loved it as I saw his strike head towards goal… but was gutted when I realised the camera switch was off. I saw Drogba’s goal through my inactive camera! Not really mixed emotions – I was ecstatic we had scored so soon.

Get in!

I prayed we would be treated to more early goals, thus killing the tie off even before the away leg. I couldn’t be more wrong. Juve tended to increase their possession throughout the game. It turned out to be a fractious, nervy game and I was surprised how quiet the Chelsea support was in the main. I tried my best, but not even I was getting stuck into the singing. Thought Frank was lively and honest, moving the ball around well. Ballack? Another missing-in-action performance. We were solidly sticking to the 4-3-3, but I thought Anelka did OK, rarely losing the ball. It was a pleasure to see players like Nedved ( whose hair appears to live a life of its own ) and Del Piero ( or Bruce Springsteen, as Al called him…I can see the resemblance…he was born to run, too ). Not really sure why Malouda came on and not Stoch. Generally speaking, though, despite the win, I am rather worried for our future in the competition.

Not so much has the Fat Lady sung, but has the Old Lady sung yet?

Gutted to hear Liverpool won away in Europe again. You know the rest!

After the game, I received a congratulatory text from Tullio and we then moved onto “Barbarella’s” where I had arranged to meet my mate Buller. This is the little bar and Italian restaurant where a lot of the ‘seventies players hung out. As luck would have it, Ron Harris was in there…small world…and so I introduced him to Salvo, who appreciated meeting a Chelsea legend.

As we came out onto the Fulham Road, a little mob of around forty Juve ultras were being ushered along by the police. Not sure if we had missed some action or not.

Loads of traffic meant that I didn’t get home until 2am. Parky the Nodding Dog was away in some dream world for most of the journey, no doubt dreaming of more Peronis.

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