Tales From Thursday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest : 14 March 2013.

I wasn’t one of the 150 or so Chelsea who ventured out to the Romanian capital last week for the first leg of this Europa Cup tie. From what I have heard, it was one of the best European trips for a while. Because there were so few travelers, everyone kept together and a boozy time, aided by ridiculously cheap alcohol, resulted in a fine trip. The game, as is so often the case, was the least enjoyable part of the trip. In The Goose before the return leg, I briefly chatted to Mick, who had been one of the 150. The strangest thing during his short stay was being greeted by a family of locals who were sleeping in the lobby of the apartment he had rented for the three days. By the time he had awoken in the morning, they had disappeared. Mick shrugged it off. I wondered if this sort of thing was common…in Liverpool.

Parky and I had reached The Goose in good time, but I soon realised how quiet the pub seemed to be. My good friend Orlin, the Bulgarian who now lives in San Francisco, was in town en route to Sofia and soon joined us. We had managed to wangle a spare ticket for a mate of his too, so everything was looking rosy. I noted that the Chelsea website mentioned that ticket sales for the game had been suspended, which obviously indicated that tickets had still been on sale. I was asked during the day what I thought the gate might be. I really had no clue, though the figure of 32,000 stuck in my head.

Daryl mentioned that it was exactly one year to the day since that amazing 4-1 victory over Napoli. Our greatest ever journey started that night. In comparison, the game with Steaua seemed to be something of an afterthought. Personally speaking, a lot of my focus was still on the F.A. Cup tie with Manchester United. However, going into the game, I had no real fears about us exiting the competition to Steaua. They were for the taking, despite the woeful performance in Bucharest.

Alan had sold my ticket for the game in Romania to one of around twenty Chelsea supporting Bulgarians from Varna. I mentioned this to Orlin, who was one of the leading lights in setting up the oft-seen Chelsea/Bulgaria Supporters Club. As I have mentioned before, Orlin’s club of birth is Levski Sofia; he still holds a season ticket at the stadium. The price? A whopping £35. Parky and I almost spat our drinks out when we heard that. Anyway, Orlin mentioned the various friendships that exist between clubs in Sofia and further beyond in the old communist bloc. For example, Levski’s main rival is CSKA Sofia, the old army team. It seems that supporters of the three “army” clubs of Bulgaria, Romania and the former Yugoslavia (CSKA Sofia, Steaua Bucharest and Dynamo Belgrade) often cross borders to attend each other’s games. Additionally, there are many Levski / Chelsea fans. Therefore, for the game in Bucharest, Orlin explained that many Levski fans travelled to Romania to support Chelsea and many CSKA fans travelled to support Steaua.

With that, I looked up and spotted a “Bulgaria Spurs” banner at the San Siro.

What does this all prove? Maybe that the standard of Bulgarian football is not so great and football fanatics will travel vast distances to get their fix.

From Bulgaria to Tottenham, though? Oh boy.

Of course, Chelsea has their own little band of allies in Rangers, Hearts, Linfield, Feyenoord and Lazio. We spoke briefly about the chances of meeting Spurs in the final in Amsterdam. Tottenham, of course, has a link with Ajax, the old Jewish club of Amsterdam, so the thought of a Chelsea versus Tottenham in Amsterdam, with a side portion of Ajax versus Feyenoord thrown in for good measure brought wry looks from the two of us.

Orlin’s mate arrived just in time to see William Gallas put through his own net to tie things at the San Siro. The pub exploded with glee. To see that lot go out would set things up nicely before we set off for the match. We crossed our fingers as we set off for the stadium. It was another cold night in SW6. There were many Romanians outside Stamford Bridge, obviously without tickets. A chap was using a tannoy to dissuade away fans from entering the forecourt. There were more police than usual on show.

Outside the turnstiles, all was quiet. Deathly quiet. There was no line, no queue. I wondered how low this attendance could possibly be. Please don’t embarrass me, Chelsea.

Once inside, I glanced across at the East Stand and it was just over half-full.

Oh boy…

Thankfully, the other stands were in better shape. The three thousand Romanians in the opposite corner were in good voice already. As the teams entered the pitch, I spotted many away fans holding up their phones and there were many doing the same in the designated home areas. Our home areas had obviously been infiltrated by Steaua fans. We could be in for an interesting evening.

Alongside me, Alan – like myself – was suffering with a cold and a chest infection. He excused himself from singing too much. He had said that the noise created by the home fans in Bucharest was very impressive. I wasn’t so sure we’d be able to generate one tenth of that, to be honest.

Soon into the game, I texted a few friends to say that I predicted a gate of 28,000.

What did I know of Steaua? Very little. Our paths almost crossed in early 1988 when I sold some English football badges outside the San Siro when they played Milan in a friendly. Only 14,000 were at that Sunday game some 25 years ago, but I was not one of them. I chose to stay outside and attempt to sell some more badges to late-comers and early-leavers. I made £40 that afternoon; enough for a few more meals as I travelled by train between friends in Germany and Italy. Unbeknown to me at the time, the game foretold the 1989 European Cup Final when a Milan team including Ruud Gullit defeated a Steaua team including Dan Petrescu. There was, in fact, a nice interview with Dan Petrescu – what a lovely player he was – in the programme.

The first real chance of the game took place when Mikel lost possession and a ball was pumped through for Rusescu. I thought that there was a hint of offside, but – not to worry – the shot was easily saved by Petr Cech. A couple more away efforts on Cech’s goal signalled that this would be no walk in the park. We were treated to two rare Jon Obi Mikel shots on goal midway through the first period, but the ‘keeper was untroubled. Then, thankfully a breakthrough. Ramires threaded in Mata, who danced a few more steps inside the box and nudged the ball goal wards. It almost apologetically limped over the line.

Phew.

Torres blasted wide, and then the lively Hazard shot at the ‘keeper. However, just on half-time, a Steaua corner was not cleared and Chiriches blasted high into the net from only a few yards out.

Hell.

A hundred or so Steaua fans in the West Lower danced with glee, but were oddly not escorted out.

We now had to score two more goals to advance.

The second-half began slowly, but came to life when we were given a free-kick near the corner flag down below me. I captured Juan Mata’s kick on film. Alan shouted – “Go on JT. Get your head on this, son.”

I then just caught John Terry’s perfect leap to meet the ball and send it crashing down and into the Steaua goal.

The crowd roared and the captain reeled away in delight.

No time to waste. Let’s get another.

Chelsea were now enjoying more and more of the ball as the opposition tired. Their fans, who had spent the first-half noisily whistling every time we were in possession, grew quieter. On several occasions, Eden Hazard was just a blur. One rapier-like sprint into the Steaua box was the most exciting piece of play of the entire match. When he is on fire, he is lovely to watch. However, a fine one-handed save from Petr Cech kept us in the game.

On seventy minutes, Hazard played in Fernando Torres and the whole of the Matthew Harding held their breath. One touch, then a split second to steady himself.

Torres thought of ice cubes, of a bitterly cold wind, of liquid nitrogen, of absolute zero.

It worked.

Rather than a heated, flustered finish, his body froze and he only thought of one thing. He coolly and calmly used his weaker left foot to score, slipping the ball past the ‘keeper at the far post.

Again, the crowd erupted. I watched through my lens as he celebrated with team mates at the corner flag only a few yards away.

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

Only Petr Cech and John Terry did not clamber all over him.

Phew.

Was this the match winner? It looked like it.

Just after, Szukala appeared to clip Torres as he raided the penalty box again. The referee’s assistant behind the goal line was incredibly well placed but – surprise! – elected not to give anything. I am yet to see these officials actively engage in any game I have attended. What a waste of time. Torres must have been clipped as he lay on his front for ages. He was taken off, re-appeared with a shirt which did not have a number, then had to go off to get that replaced. His bloodied nose was not obvious to me.

With five minutes to go, a desperate lunge at the excellent Hazard and the referee rewarded Chelsea with a penalty. I watched as Torres took the ball and – with memories of Sunderland – we all hoped for a similar result.

I chose to photograph the moment of impact.

Snap.

I looked up to see the ball smack against the bar.

Torres in a nutshell…one step forward, two steps back.

A couple more Chelsea chances came and went. The referee blew for the end of the game and we all heaved a sigh of relief. As I walked away, I saw the Steaua team in one extended huddle. They had acquitted themselves well over the two legs and really should have sewn it up in Bucharest. I made my way out into the cold of a London night. Outside the back of the Matthew Harding, a small group of Chelsea fans were singing about Rafa Benitez. I suddenly realised that it was the very first such song that I had heard the entire evening. Outside on the Fulham Road I spotted even more Romanians. It was clear that many had not made it inside.

Before I knew it I was back inside in my car and headed home, sneezing away like a good’un, my cold now making life quite unpleasant.

It was a long and weary drive back to Somerset.

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Tales From Victoria

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 21 April 2012.

Throughout the build-up to the game with Arsenal, my thoughts had been full of past games. Should we prove to be triumphant at The Emirates, I’d wager that the trio of wins within seven days would represent our greatest ever week. The only other week that was comparable – and one that sticks in my mind for some reason – was from April 2000. On April Fool’s Day 2000, Chelsea won 1-0 at Leeds United when Leeds were a top four team. On the following Wednesday, Barcelona were humbled 3-1 in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. On the following Sunday, Chelsea beat Newcastle United 2-1 in a great F.A. Cup Semi-Final. Three massive wins, one massive week. Following our momentous double of Tottenham and Barcelona, could we surpass these three wins from 2000? It was the main train of thought in my mind as I collected Parky at 8am.

Well, I’m lying.

My head was full of the second-leg at Camp Nou. I don’t apologise for this – I am sure I am not the only one prioritising the return leg on Tuesday. Images of 95,000 crammed into the multi-tiered layers of the Catalan edifice, with 3,000 Chelsea fans clinging on for dear life in the very top corner. Images of a Chelsea team in Real Madrid white taking on FCB in red and blue. Images of a Barcelona team, riddled with feelings of revenge, putting us to the sword. The occasional image – flickering, out of focus – of us nabbing an improbable draw…or win. Images of pure joy in the lofty heights of Camp Nou. Images of quite easily the best away game ever. Images of a mad scramble for flights to Germany – Munich, Stuttgart, Berlin, anywhere.

But first – Arsenal.

We’d surely field a team of players who would, generally, not feature in Catalonia. Parky and I may have mentioned a few of di Matteo’s options as we drove to London, but the Depeche Mode CD soon quashed much talk of football. I made great time and I was parked up at Barons Court – for a change – at 10am. As we approached the station, I noted that a young lad who sits in front of me at Chelsea – Dane from Bracknell – had just arrived at the station, too. We exchanged “hello mates” and then Parky and I set off for a pre-match meet at Victoria.

At 10.30am, Parky and I strode into The Shakespeare Tavern and ordered two pints of “Becks Vier.” It made a really pleasant change for us to have a change of scene on a match-day in London. This was a first-time visit for me, but I was well aware of its role in Chelsea lore. This pub, just outside Victoria train station, was the anointed meeting place for the Chelsea firm back in the ‘eighties, when it was known by the typically ‘eighties moniker “Shakes.” I’d imagine that Chelsea fans regard Victoria as base camp on match days; it is the station where vast swathes of our support head for, before going off on a pub-crawl down the Kings Road, or catching tubes into Earls Court, West Brompton, Fulham Broadway or Parsons Green, the four tube stops which services Stamford Bridge on match days.

Victoria, Pimlico, Kensington and Chelsea – our heartland.

We had arranged to meet a little posse of Chelsea fans. Steve Neat, from Staten Island, was the anointed leader but he came with four others. Andrew used to live in NYC but now lives in Kent. Paul and his son Jeff are from the US (though, if I am honest, I am not sure where) and a new face – Orlin – is from San Francisco. Andrew reminisced about a lot of the old pubs at Chelsea which have gone by the way-side since the ‘eighties. I’ve never really spent much time on The Kings Road on match days, but it always used to house the de-facto Chelsea Pub Crawl, from the Chelsea Potter down to The Worlds End and further south to the Hand and Flower. This was Parky’s old stomping ground of course.

I really enjoyed chatting to Orlin, who remembers me from a few “Zigger Zaggers” at the Club America game at Palo Alto in 2007. We spoke about the San Francisco pub “Mad Dog In The Fog” which I know sometimes houses the SF Chelsea fans. Orlin’s story fascinated me. He is originally from Bulgaria and was a boyhood Levski Sofia supporter. He told me that Chelsea is well-supported in Bulgaria and I wondered if it was linked to Chelsea’s games against Levski’s arch-rivals CSKA in the 1971 ECWC campaign. It seems that a lot of Levski’s fans aligned themselves with Chelsea. Levski also play in blue. Of course, we played Levski Sofia on two occasions over the past ten years. He told me how drawn he was when his two teams competed against each other; he realised he was referring to Levski as “we” and that was his brutal awakening to who he feels closest to.I understand that, no worries. I referred to him as “Mr. 49%” for the rest of the chat. He comes over to England 5 or 6 times each season and was at the Leverkusen away game. I loved to hear his emotional story of how he missed the 2008 Champions League Cup Final in Moscow because his daughter Victoria (if only, eh?) was born the day before. Her birthday is the day after this year’s final in Munich and he owes himself a CL Final trip. Watch this space.

Jesus, sporting a beard which is getting more prominent each game, arrived at 11.30am, fresh from picking up his Barcelona away ticket. I reckon Jesus isn’t shaving until we win the CL Final in Munich. So there we have it, in a corner of a pub in Victoria, Chelsea fans from all over the world, gathered together.

Parky, Andrew and Chris – England.
Steve, Paul and Jeff – USA via England.
Orlin – USA via Bulgaria.
Jesus – England via Mexico.

We sped off to catch the tube up to Arsenal. I noted that Jesus was wearing a little Chelsea pin-badge on his shirt, the only sign of allegiance to Chelsea, thus mirroring the dress code of Parky and myself.

We cut it fine, but reached Arsenal tube, just a hundred yards from the old Highbury stadium – one of my favourites – at 12.25pm. Every time I slowly walk up the steep incline at Arsenal tube, I am always reminded without fail of my first ever visit in August 1984. It was one of our most famous ever away games – and one of my most cherished memories. It was such a seminal game that Mark Worrall wrote a whole book about it.

This was Steve’s first visit to Arsenal’s new pad and he was suitably impressed. It is, of course – putting club loyalty to one side – a magnificent stadium. I must admit that I wish it was called Arsenal Stadium – like the signs on the art deco East Stand at Highbury – since I know Emirates will one day withdraw their funds. I also like the large images of current and former players adorning the high walls of the stadium, arms linked; Tony Adams, Cliff Bastin, Thierry Henry, George Armstrong.

Quite effective.

I reached the away segment in the south-east corner at 12.44pm; perfect timing. I was stood next to Alan and Gary, but it soon became apparent that the group of four Japanese tourists behind me were very annoyed that everyone was standing. At one stage, the mother – sitting right behind me – sat still, with her eyes closed. I guess she would rather be at Harrods or the Hard Rock. I wondered how they got ticket; one of life’s great mysteries. They left with five minutes to go; no surprise there.

The game was something of nothing. The Chelsea team was essentially a “B” team, with only Petr Cech, Gary Cahill and The Captain likely to start on Tuesday in Barcelona. It was, of course, lovely to see Oriel Romeu back on the pitch after his extended absence. The sky was a brilliant blue, the stadium large and almost full. I noted more Arsenal banners than on previous visits; they have obviously taken a leaf out of our book. As the teams came onto the pitch, a large flage was hanging over the north stand – I don’t suppose it is referred to as the North Bank – which said –

London Our City.

With 13 league championships, 10 F.A. Cups and 2 European trophies, I guess they have a point. They are a large club and it would be foolish to think otherwise. However, I’ve always regarded their fans to me the most pompous and boring of all London’s clubs. Arsenal fans could never sing anything as beautifully obscure as “If she don’t come, I’ll tickle her bum…”

I spotted one banner was ridiculously infantile –

“We Don’t Need Batman – We’ve Got Robin.”

Of course, all of this boasting by Arsenal will account for nothing if we become the first London club to bring home the European Cup on Saturday 19th. May.

The game was a stinker to be honest and neither team deserved three points. Arsenal themselves seemed decidedly out-of-sorts and I expected more from them. I know it is a well-worn cliché, but how 57,000 fans can make so little noise is a mystery of the modern era. Our woodwork saved us on two separate occasions in the first-half, but Arsenal rarely got behind us. Those three goals against from last December were never likely to be repeated.

The Chelsea fans seemed subdued, too and the noise only really got going occasionally. The three favourite songs of the day were –

“She said no, Robin, she said no.”

“Seven years – you’ve won fcuk all.”

“We won 5-1, Wembley.”

I had no complaints with the back-line of Bertrand, Cahill, Terry and Bosingwa. I have nothing but praise for Gary Cahill; he has adapted to life in SW6 so well. A bright future in blue beckons. Ryan Bertrand looks like he has an equally secure place in our hearts, too. The midfield two of Essien and Romeu were steady, but it was the forward four of Malouda, Kalou, Sturridge and Torres which caused most anxiety. Of the four, Torres’ hold up play was the only bright spot. The other three were at times quite woeful. Sturridge worries me; his choices are usually the wrong ones. I guess he is suffering with a lack of games. Confidence can’t be switched on and off like a tap.

At half-time, I had a quick chat with Beth about the games in the US in July. Jason Cundy was spotted amongst the 3,000 Chelsea fans.

Did we have any real chances? I remember a towering header from John Terry from a Malouda corner in the first period but little in the second-half. By that time, the wayward runs of Sturridge had contrived to frustrate the hell out of all of us. Van Persie was clearly not himself – he was kept at bay by Cahill and Terry – and rarely troubled Cech. A sublime interception by the substitute Mikel was magnificent, just as it looked like Arsenal had eventually breached our rear-guard.

Mata came on but offered little. Cole entered the fray and triggered a noisy reaction from the snoozing Goons.

The game petered out and I – for one – was happy with a draw.

The players slowly walked over as the Chelsea fans showed support.

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Three points from the B Team would have been stretching it even for us in this week of weeks.

I met up with Parky and Jesus and we slowly trudged alongside the home fans on the way back to the Highbury & Islington tube station. I had received several texts from friends which said that both of them had been spotted on TV. Jesus, bless him, was amazed that anyone anywhere knew what he looked like.

I spotted small pennants adorning the lampposts on the perimeter of the walls surrounding the stadium. They were of photos of various Arsenal fans, with a brief description of their story. I thought this was another nice touch. I spotted one fan – I think his name was David Smith – who has not missed a home or away game for 50 years. I immediately thought of our Cathy – 35 years of unbeaten support to her name – and raised my eyebrows. And then I felt a tinge of sympathy for Mr. Smith. As his beloved Arsenal have never experienced league football outside the top flight – how boring of them – I realised that he had yet to experience league visits to Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Bournemouth or Rotherham United.

And it is that aspect of Arsenal’s support which so grates; their support has never been tested. They squeal about a lack of trophies but I often wonder if they would simultaneously combust should their club ever suffer the embarrassment of relegation. Manchester United, West Ham United, Leeds United, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Chelsea have all been relegated in living memory. Should Arsenal ever suffer the same fate (unlikely, I know), expect suicides off the top tier of The Emirates.

We slowly edged down the Holloway Road, where I once went for an interview at North London Poly in 1983 – what was I thinking? We eventually slipped onto the waiting tube train and we were away.

We serenaded Jesus with a song on the tube south –

“You’re not going home.
You’re not going home.
You’re not going.
You’re not going.
You’re not going home.”

Two QPR fans were on the tube, heading west to see the game versus Tottenham. I wished them all the best. We may dislike QPR, but we hate Tottenham.I was feeling weary by the time we had eventually reached Barons Court tube station. I popped next-door to a lovely little café and ordered a Panini and a double-espresso. Who should enter the café right after me, but Sebastian Coe – or Lord Coe to give him his full title? This is weird because I was only mentioning Seb Coe to two friends at work on Wednesday, when I was re-calling the time I bumped into him along the North End Road after the Barcelona game of 2005. Seb is, of course, a bona-fide Chelsea fan of many years standing. I remember seeing him being introduced to the crowd at the home opener in 1981, a mere 24 hours after breaking yet another world record. He wrote the introduction to the “Chelsea Story” (1982) book which was lovingly written by the recently departed John Moynihan. In that introduction, he used a phrase which I often thought was wonderful –

“Following the club could be as frustrating as chasing split mercury across a laboratory table.”

In September 1982, I knew exactly what he meant.

While I waited for my espresso and Seb waited for his two teas, we spoke about the day’s game. He was clutching a match programme. I know it sounds silly, but we chatted away like old friends. We both said we were happy with the draw. We both mentioned the joyous defeat of Spurs on Sunday. Regarding the game we had just witnessed, he commented –

“Arsenal are a bloody miserable bunch, aren’t they?”

If I had met Lord Coe, away from a match day, in an airport or somewhere, I expect I may have been stuck for words, but our Chelsea bond made the conversation flow. Parky asked him if he was running in the London Marathon on the Sunday –

“No, I’m too old.”

I asked him if he was going to Spain on Tuesday –

“No, I’m too busy.”

And in that moment, I felt a tinge of sadness for Sebastian Coe.

We stopped off for a drink at Beckhampton, between the market towns of Marlborough and Devizes – a pint for Parky, another coffee for me – before eventually returning home. QPR had indeed beaten Tottenham – good – but Newcastle had won again – very bad. Our challenge for a fourth place finishes is starting to falter now. However, our thoughts now turn to the Champions league.

There is no time to stop and think now. There is no time to breath. Barcelona awaits and who knows? As I said earlier, it has the potential to be the best away game in 107 years.

Let’s go.

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