Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

Saturday 25 May : 7.30pm – Heathrow Airport Terminal Two.

It had been a relaxing Saturday thus far. I had driven up to my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton, where my car would be safe for a week, and he then took me over to Heathrow for just after 7pm. The season had, in fact, begun in the very same way; Glenn and I drove to Russ’ place before our jaunt to see Chelsea in Australia back in July. Two things struck me. The game in Perth seemed relatively recent. Yet the away game at Leicester City – what a yawn fest – seemed comparatively distant. It was, perhaps, typical of the strangeness of this season that times and places seemed to be swirling in a bewildering and confusing fashion. This was, undoubtedly, one of the oddest seasons I had ever experienced. Eight goals were conceded in ninety minutes of football in consecutive away games; the second-half at Bournemouth and then the first-half at Manchester City. A generally disliked manager attempted to implement a new brand of football against a baying and increasingly unappreciative support. The league form just about recovered in time as we stumbled to third place and guaranteed Champions League Football next season. And two out of our three cup competitions were to end in final appearances. The jury was out in many minds as to whether or not it had been a “good” season.

My thoughts were : “not enjoyable, but successful.”

Sometimes life is like that.

Russ, with his wife Kim, waved me off as I pulled my two bags towards the terminal. This was a rare departure place for me. My 2016/17 season had begun here with a trip to Vienna for the Rapid friendly, but I could not recollect another T2 / CFC trip. As I crossed the threshold into the departure zone, I looked to my right and just caught sight of a concrete tablet which stated that the terminal was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in late 1955.

I liked that. 1955. An omen. I liked that a lot. I was grabbing at anything. At work the previous day, as before Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013, I had bought breakfasts for the office team. It was one of a few superstitions that would hopefully play out. There was lucky bird shit on my car too; again a repeat of those two trips.

I was on my own now, for the first time this season. I will be perfectly honest; ever since I had booked my flights and accommodation, fortuitously, and the dream of six days in Baku became real, there was a strong element of guilt inside me. It did not feel right that many close friends – some who had travelled to all other European away games this season – had been priced out of this trip. This feeling was with me for a large part of these first few hours of travel.

Inside the building, there were the usual little tremors of concern that accompany modern travel; had I packed all the essentials, had I overlooked one key ingredient, had I remembered all the chargers, leads and adaptors, had I packed the Nurofen and Imodium?

In the line to check in, I spotted a chap of around my age in an Arsenal shirt from around 1993. In the interests of goodwill – and with a nod to the feeling that, with the final being played so bloody far away from anywhere, we were in some respects “all in this together” I approached him, and his son, and shook their hands. I was wearing a Chelsea polo – rare for me – which enabled them to see straight away that my allegiances were with the other team. We chatted away and instantly clicked. They were from the Isle of Wight, went to a few games each season, but told me of their huge problems, for example, in getting back to their home after midweek games in London. Will, the father, and Noah, the son, soon started asking me about my thoughts about the game, of Baku, of my experiences this season, of my past travels with Chelsea in Europe.

Not long into our chit-chat, Noah – who is fifteen I think – came out with a beautiful line.

“Of course, Chelsea are European royalty aren’t they?”

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

“The boy is being tactically naive, there” I thought to myself.

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

“Do you two want to close ranks and have a moment? Bloody hell. Should he be saying that in public?”

We all laughed.

European royalty, eh? Bloody hell. Is that how – some – others see us? Of course Arsenal’s last final was in Paris in 2006 and so this was their first one for thirteen years. It might explain why Arsenal had allegedly sold more tickets for Baku than us. Since 2006, we have experienced European finals in 2008, 2012 and 2013.

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

(…mmm, Paris 2006, Arsenal versus Barcelona…they almost became the first London team to win the European Cup, leading 1-0 until very late on…I immediately had trouble remembering the name of Juliano Beletti, who poached the winner, as my memory failed me for a few annoying minutes).

At the check-in, the first scare of the trip. The woman seemed to be struggling with my e-ticket and after a few minutes she shot off to see her supervisor. Panic. Blind panic. For three minutes I was left in limbo, with many gruesome scenarios hurtling through my brain. But all was good. She soon processed my details and even let me off with heavier-than-allowed hand luggage. Phew. I was on my way.

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

The Turkish Airlines flight from Heathrow, due to depart at 10.15pm, eventually left at 11pm. I only had a few moments of fitful sleep. We landed at Istanbul’s swish new airport to the north of the city at 4am. On the bus to the terminal, I chatted to three other Arsenal supporters. We sat and killed time by chatting away. Our flight to Baku was due to leave at 8.15am. Sanjay, who was with his son Chris, was from Crouch End but worked in Tottenham. He had visited the new Tottenham stadium, on a freebie through work, at the end of the season and was brutally honest as he extolled its virtues. It was so noisy. It was such a great stadium. His honesty was refreshing. Over the two or three hours of waiting at the airport, the prospect of “that lot” winning against Liverpool in Madrid was a dark, dark shadow which haunted us all. We all agreed how every team in London hates Tottenham.

The biggest London rivalries, involving the “big four”? Here is my ranking.

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

Sanjay bought me an orange juice. He was another good lad. The other Arsenal supporter was from Northampton, though I did not catch her name. I was outnumbered five to one. We spoke of loyalty points, season tickets, membership schemes, how our two clubs ride roughshod over our emotions. Interestingly, there would be no beam back at Arsenal either. There was ground improvements penciled in for the week. So, beam backs at Liverpool and Tottenham, but not at Arsenal or Chelsea.

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

Will and Noah departed as they were on their way to Tblisi where they were staying for two nights before getting a coach to Baku. I wished them well, though wondered if I would bump into them again on this trip. At the departure gate, I spotted a young lad wearing a CP top and a Chelsea badge. I smiled and approached him. He was Alex, with his mate Alan, and both from Moscow. It was my first Chelsea interaction of the trip. About bloody time.

Sunday 26 May : 12.45pm – Heydar Aliyev Avenue, Baku.

The flight from Istanbul to Baku, again on Turkish Airlines – no complaints, two great meals on the two flights – took three hours and the last ten minutes will live with me for a while. Approaching from the west, and above the bay, I was able to look out to my left and see the distant, dreamlike, sandy buildings of Baku. The sweep of the bay. The flame towers. The curved peek of the Heyday Aliyev Centre, which beguiled me as we drove past it in a cab on my first visit to Baku in 2017, and which I so wanted to visit in 2019. As the plane swung north, the dry earth of the land below.

We landed on time at midday. There was a little nervousness when I handed over my visa at passport control, but all was fine.

Stamp.

The small arrivals hall was bedecked with UEFA Europa League signage and I made a conscious decision to descend the escalator which was next to the roof column covered in photos of Chelsea players. I was taking no chances. It was the one to the left. I was happy. On my ascent up the stairs of the Matthew Harding, I always keep to the left. Oh those superstitions.

I exchanged some money and easily battled a cab driver down from forty manat to thirty manat. A cab to the city for £15? Perfect. On the way in, on Heydar Aliyev Avenue, I recognised a few landmarks from my early morning cab ride in with my friend Nick in 2017. We glided past the Olympic Stadium. Next up was the flame-like Socar Tower. As I mentioned in my Baku 2017 trip report, the furniture company for whom I work fitted out all forty-two floors back in 2014. Because of the complexities of the accompanying export paperwork, it caused me much grief. It almost saw the end of me if I am honest, as it added a massive workload to my already busy demands. Driving past it once more – on a wide boulevard with lamp posts covered in Chelsea colours – did raise a wry smile.

It was magical to be back in Baku.

Sunday 26 May : 1.30pm, Kichik Qala Street, Old City, Baku.

The cab ride in to the city only took twenty-five minutes. The sun was shining. The traffic grew busier with each passing mile. The cab driver, his mouth full of odd-shaped teeth, had been given my hotel address in the old city, but was struggling with its whereabouts. His driving style was rather erratic. He kept using his mobile phone. He changed lanes constantly. Into the city centre we went, curving south past the modern additions, past the designer shops, onto the boulevard where the Formula One race hugs the Caspian Sea. The city was festooned with the yellow and orange of UEFA. I recognised so much. The Maiden Tower, up the hill, past the glass prism of Icharishahar metro station, and we landed right outside the old Gosha Gala city gates.

“I’ll walk from here.”

Within a few seconds, my spirits had dropped. The row of three or four old-style restaurants, no more than wooden shacks, within one of which I enjoyed a £6 meal in 2017, had been pulled down and it looked like modern versions were taking their place. My heart dropped. It was the one abiding memory of my last visit; a huge stone oven, the smell of smoke, the wooden shutters clattering in the wind. I had planned a return for old time’s sake. Alas it was not possible.

“Progress” I thought.

My hotel was entombed within the old city. The sun was beating down as I pulled my two suitcases up and down Kichik Qala Street. Nobody had heard of my hotel. Up and down I went. I asked many locals. My bags were getting heavier. I immediately thought of our cossetted players – the image of Eden swanning onto the Chelsea plane that took the squad to Boston recently was centre stage in my mind – and wondered if they had any inkling of the tribulations we go through. Eventually, I stumbled across two friendly policemen. One of them ‘phoned my hotel, as had the cab driver en route to the city, but the number was not known.

An invisible hotel and a ‘phone number that does not work.

Fackinell.

The policemen then took me to a nearby hotel, only ten yards away, where I presumed they would ask for directions.

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

My booking, via Expedia, did not immediately feature on the lovely receptionist’s computer – I wanted to marry her there and then – but I have to be honest I suspect that there was a double-booking involved. There seemed to be genuine surprise at my appearance. After five minutes of double-checking, I was shown my room in the adjacent annex.

I had made it.

Fackinell.

Sunday 26 May : 9pm – 360 Bar, Hilton Hotel, Baku.

Being sleep deficient, I crashed out for four hours. I dreamed of work spreadsheets and I dreamed of work routines. The subconscious was not letting me forget work.

I was awoken by an English voice. It must have touched an inner trigger. A shadow of a memory of another time, a whisper from my father –

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

In fact, my father’s stock waking call was not this at all. It was a standard Royal Air Force line, which my father used to constantly use to get me out of bed on work days. It is a typically quirky and whimsical phrase that RAF pals would utter to others, enjoying deep sleep, and at any time during the night.

“Want to buy a battleship?”

I had no need of battleships in Baku, nor anywhere else, but I quickly came to the conclusion that, by God, I had needed this holiday. Within seconds the feelings of guilt that had been pecking away at me for ages quickly evaporated. Although I would miss the immediate company of my usual laughter buddies, perhaps I needed to be alone – certainly on the first two days of this trip before others would start rolling in – so that I could be left to unwind and relax.

I could be my own boss.

I love the company of others, but my own company is a true joy. I have the best of both worlds.

That first evening, I had one goal; to locate the 360 Bar atop the Hilton.

I was out at 7.30pm. It took me an hour of idle meanderings to reach the hotel, but I was in no rush. I enjoyed the Baku evening and quickly dipped into the fan park next to the Caspian. I couldn’t see many Chelsea from the UK participating at this. It was far too regulated. Far too happy-clappy. We like to hide in the pubs and bars, inside the deepest cracks and fissures of host cities, only emerging at the last minute to head on to the stadium.

I made my way east and soon found my goal. I noted lots of UEFA signage at the hotel reception and I was whisked up to the twenty-fifth floor. I settled in a comfy chair, ordered the first of five local Xirdalan lagers. They were only seven manat – just £3.50 – and were served with some crisps and popcorn. I booked a table for Tuesday when some friends would be in town.

And I relaxed. The revolving bar offered fantastical views of the city. My camera had trouble getting clear images, but my memories remain strong. The Flame Towers were the obvious stars and the lights flickered and danced with varying images…the red, blue and green of the national flag on individual towers, the flames, the Azerbaijani flag over the three towers, three figures waving national flags, sparking stars, and – oddly – the three towers as vessels filling up with water,

I was enchanted.

With wifi, I was able to toast absent friends on Facebook.

I left at midnight, took a cab into town, slowly guzzled three more bottles of lager in a bar called “Room” and relaxed some more. I chatted to a Serb from Belgrade – a Red Star fan – who remembered, and loved, Petar Borota who played for Chelsea from 1979 to 1982 and for Red Star’s great rivals Partizan Belgrade before joining us. It had been a chilled-out evening, just what my brain needed, but I felt that I was just touching the surface of Baku.

Monday 27 May : 7pm – Mugam Club, Old City, Baku.

There was more – beautiful – sleep on Monday. I did not wake early. Thankfully there was just enough cold air emanating from the air-conditioning unit to allow for a pleasant rest. Suffice to say, I missed breakfast.

Over the past year, I have watched “The Art Lovers Guide – Baku” on three occasions. I caught up with it again on iPlayer a few weeks back. The two guides – a troubling mix of excellent informative analysis but awful pretension – visited the “Mugam Club” where indigenous music is played while local food is served. The one song featured briefly in the programme was magical and my interest was piqued. Luckily, this was only five minutes from my hotel. I visited it, and enjoyed it all. Several musicians played. Some local music was mixed in with Western music, which spoilt it a little. A salad, some chicken in pomegranate sauce and some rice, all washed down with a bottle of Xirdalan. A lovely little distraction from the football-themed mayhem that would soon envelope the city.

Outside, my next goal was to get up close and personal with the Flame Towers. On the way, on the main square to the west of the Old City (I have to keep reminding myself how close everything is in Baku, it is a wonderful place to leisurely walk between sites), I spotted a Sky Sports reporter doing a live piece to camera. I chatted to him briefly. He had heard that the players were staying at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel. He also spoke to me about Frank Lampard, who I was sad to see had just lost to Aston Villa at Wembley.

Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United next season then. Two good trips there. Villa is just a bit tedious.

Monday 27 May – 11pm, Harry’s Bar, Baku.

Alas the funicular railway had closed, so at 9pm I ascended the six-hundred steps to the area by the Flame Towers. I spent a good ninety minutes or so underneath the dancing lights, and I was in my element. On the ascent I had spotted a terraced walkway lit up with pure white lights. A real stairway to heaven. The city was charming me with every turn of the eye. Adjacent to the towers was a beautifully constructed area – Highland Park – with a war memorial, fountains, and with outstanding views of the city. The minuets of the Sehidler Xiyabani Mosque contrasted wildly with the flickering LED of the towers. Baku was beguiling me again.

Very soon I found myself in the heart of the city, and I wandered south of Fountain Square into the quarter of a mile block that holds most of the city centre’s bars.

I passed a cellar bar – “Harry’s Bar” – and an English chap was coming up for air.

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

It was 11pm. I needed a drink as I was gasping. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed until 8am.

For the most part, there were no more than five or six people inside. I got talking to Bob and his son Chris – from Swindon, Arsenal – and we again had a great laugh. I was still yet to spot another Chelsea supporter in Baku. The pub was next to the “Red Lion” and I kept calling in to see if any friends had yet arrived. They hadn’t. That pub was pretty quiet too. But I was in no mood to travel too far. The first beer I was served was a five manat bottle of Efes, but I soon learned that Bob and Chris were on three manat pints. So I soon joined them. Within ten minutes of my arrival “Blue is the Colour” was booming around the small bar.

The night continued, the beers flowed steadily. We bought beers for the barman and his charming wife. Locals occasionally dropped in but for hours the cast involved just five people. Bob chatted to a local girl – the girl with no name, I would continually bump into her over the next few days – and I just sat at the bar with Chris, drinking away. Three o’clock came and went. Seeing Bob attempt to walk back down the steps into the bar from an excursion into the open air was the funniest thing I have seen for ages. Four o’clock came and went. I was in still no mood to leave.

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

There was then a very intense “domestic” between the barman and his wife. Then the bar owner showed up and things started to unravel. There was a tense moment of monies being counted and recounted and it all got a bit heated. It was as if Bob, Chris and I were watching some great Shakespearean tragedy unfold in front of our eyes. At about six o’clock – light outside now of course – and after the two Arsenal lads left, I was alone with a beer.

In walked Carl and Ryan from my old haunting ground of Stoke-on-Trent (last featured in the Barcelona away report from last season, another ridiculous night) and three lads from Gloucester. They were newly arrived in town, and had to kill a few hours before being able to book in.

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

I wasn’t sure who was more surprised to see each other. Chelsea laughs and Chelsea giggles all over. A Chelsea /Gloucester flag was draped from the bar ceiling. At last I had met some Chelsea fans in Baku. The drinking continued – at a slow pace, I hasten to add, I was in no rush – and the night didn’t want to end. Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel with the early morning sun warming my back.

Tuesday 28 May : 11pm – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

My hotel room had “occasional wifi” and I was able to observe during Tuesday how many friends and acquaintances were arriving into town. I trotted down to the centre and it was just so odd to be in Europe with Chelsea yet to hear another English team’s songs echoing around the streets. I aimed for “The William Shakespeare” on the main street for bars in Baku. On the intersection of this street and another, I spotted Will and Noah about to tuck in to some food in a street side café.

“Good to see you!”

They had thoroughly enjoyed Tblisi, but were now relishing the delights of Baku.

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

At last, a time for the gathering of the clans.

The “Shakespeare” pub was busy and getting busier by the minute.

Virtually the first people that I met were Andy and his daughter Sophie. I was especially pleased to see them because – I am sure they will not mind me mentioning it – Andy’s wife Karen passed away just after Christmas. If anyone remembers, I heard about it just minutes before the start of our game at Selhurst Park. I was just so pleased that they had been able to make it. I first met Andy – to talk to – on Wenceslas Square in Prague right after our afternoon game in Jablonec twenty-five years ago, although I had recognised him from my train journeys to London from the midlands as way back as 1985. I have known Sophie since she was a very young girl.

Bless them both.

I soon met up with Luke and Aroha and their pals, then Dave and Neil. Then Russ, Albert, Nathan and Shari from Australia. Callum. Eva. Carl and Ryan, the two Stokies. Nick from Weymouth. Martin from Gloucester. Calvin. A few more. I bumped into Orlin, another good lad who has featured in these tales for many years. I first met him before an Arsenal away game in April 2012, ironically in “The Shakespeare Tavern” at Victoria, and we would meet up again in Turin, Tokyo, Bucharest, Istanbul, Porto, Vienna and – er – Sunderland. We very rarely see each other at Stamford Bridge. He lives partly in San Francisco and partly in Serbia. He is a lovely bloke. There were a few fellow Chelsea Bulgaria in the pub. They are quite well known to the regulars at Chelsea. They are good lads.

Respect to the four Chelsea fans based in Australia, who I met out in Perth, who had travelled.

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

They would be part of a little band – of ten – who were in Perth and would be in Baku.

From the UK – Cathy, Rich, Scott, Paul, myself.

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

A few of us jumped into cabs and headed off to the 360 Bar for 9pm. My booth was waiting for me. Ruslan, the barman who looked after me on Sunday, welcomed me and we ordered some drinks and a little food. The others – Aroha, Doreen, Luke, Russ, plus three of Luke’s mates – loved it. The views were again stunning. We all then met up at “The Shakespeare” for community singing. We had heard that Arsenal had commandeered two pubs – “Finnegans” and the smaller “Red Lion.” As far as we could tell, we just had “The Shakespeare.” I don’t think this was anything official. It just transpired to be like this. All three pubs were within fifty yards of each other, like the trenches in the First World War. Throughout the evening, there were no police mobbed up outside our pub, unlike many European aways. There was a very laid back – surreal – atmosphere. I am not so sure there would have been the same vibe if Tottenham had been in town. In the pub, one song dominated the night. At one stage, with me trying to order a beer at the bar, it went on for bloody ever.

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was a fantastic rendition of “Blue Day” too. Everyone singing. Very emotional. Magical. And – of course – “The Liquidator.”

I bumped into, quite unintentionally, four Chelsea fans from the US; Jean, who I had met in “Simmons” at a European game during the season, Robert, James and Paul. Three from Texas and one from new Jersey. Three new acquaintances, and one re-connection. In fact, there was a gentle influx of Chelsea fans from outside the UK. Lots of scarves. Lots of replica shirts. They looked both amazed and bemused at the same time. We moved next-door, and downstairs, to another bar, and I then traipsed over to see how the two bartenders at “Harry’s Bar” were shaping up. All was good, but it was desperately quiet. I wondered how on earth they survived on such little turnover. I bought some pizzas for us and left there at 5am. Bloody hell.

Wednesday 29 May : 5pm – Fan Festival, Baku.

Match ticket in hand, obtained from the Landmark Hotel, I made my way back in to town. I walked in the shade as the sun was still beating down. I met up with Steve down at the Fan Festival. He had popped into the Hilton earlier, had spotted Florent Malouda and Deco, but also the extremely well packaged UEFA Cup (sorry, Europa League Trophy) as it arrived from Nyon in Switzerland. He hoped that the spotting of it was a good sign for him, for Chelsea, for all of us.

I had strolled into the Hilton too, just after the collection of the ticket, and used their wifi again. There were UEFA signs everywhere. I was half-hoping to bump into a famous player from the past, but I saw nobody of note. But you can just imagine what high-level schmoozing had been happening in this building over the past few days. Of course there had been much wailing about the decision to reward Azerbaijan with this year’s final. I have tried to be as objective as possible. Isn’t it right that every member nation within UEFA should host a major final at least once in their existence?

Er, yes.

But then it gets cloudy. I have always advocated the placing of the major finals to be within a central area of Europe, with the majority of host cities to run from Lisbon and Porto in the west to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and up as far as Copenhagen or Stockholm in the north, down through to Warsaw to Budapest in the east and down as far as Rome and Naples in the south. Ninety-five percent of likely finalists would be encompassed within that area. With the emergence of formerly Soviet states and the splintered Balkan states, maybe the odd and occasional flit – as has happened – to Istanbul, Kiev and Moscow.

But Baku?

It is the most easterly outpost of UEFA, not taking into the vast hinterland of Russia which lies east of Moscow.

It always was a mad decision.

But it was all about money, wasn’t it? It was all about Baku fancying itself as a Dubai on the Caspian Sea – oil rich and eager to impress on the global stage –  and UEFA went hand-in-hand with it all. The final straw was UEFA’s awful explanation for the awarding of so few tickets to the finalists. They themselves admitted that it would be a ridiculously difficult place for most fans to reach. It is enough to make anyone want to cry. UEFA might be financially rich but they are morally bankrupt.

I took some photos of the huge Azerbaijan flag which fluttering away like a flame. Its colours are horizontal bars of green, red and blue. Although the colours represent Islam, progress and its Turkic heritage – thank you Wikipedia – my take on it is this.

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

In footballing terms, I found it easy to work it all out.

Blue – Chelsea – above red – Arsenal – above green – the pitch.

Sorted.

Back at the hotel, a quick freshen up and out again.

I had, unremarkably, not thought too much about the game at all. The match would take care of itself. If pressed, I would say that we were slight if not firm favourites. There certainly wasn’t the fear of Munich in 2012. The vibe matched that of Stockholm in 1998 and Amsterdam in 2013. I was quietly confident.

The game was at 11pm, and I hit “The Shakespeare” at 7pm. I took it easy. I had enjoyed a few “cokes” during the day. I only had three beers before the game. I had a wry smile at the sight of a few working girls trying to muster up some business in the pub. On the night of a European Cup Final, with the kick-off approaching, they had surely miss-read their customer base? The crowds started drifting towards the stadium. About ten of us – all together, looking after each other – walked the fifteen minutes to Sahil metro station. We were on our way.

Wednesday 29 May : 10pm – Koroghlu Metro Station, Baku.

Out into the warm Baku night, and the stadium, burning with the orange and yellow hues of UEFA’s newest trophy just a few hundred yards ahead, we walked on. There were Arsenal voices and Chelsea voices now. The most voluble ones were from the UK. But of course there were other fans from near and far too. And I began to notice other club shirts. I had seen one or two Eintracht Frankfurt shirts in the city; it was obvious many had gambled, like me, but had lost. But there were Galatasary and Fenerbahce shirts. There were Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts. There were shirts from the local Azerbaijani league. It was all very strange. I walked on, but then excused myself from the others as I tried to capture a few photos of the stadium’s striking exterior. Just eighteen months previously, the stadium’s shell was more delicately coloured with shades of pink, lavender, red, purple and white. On that night, I circumnavigated the stadium alone and took some photos too. I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Who should walk past me but Orlin, who I had bumped into the previous day just outside my hotel in the old city. It was typical of the week that I would keep seeing the same faces. In addition to the girl with no name, I also kept bumping into a local who I had asked for directions while looking for my hotel, and also a policeman who kept appearing near my hotel. I called them my guardian angels. Orlin had taken the free bus from the muster point near Sahil Park, but had been dropped off a good fifteen-minute walk away from the stadium. He was far from impressed. I think our choice of the metro – free for three days with use of a match ticket – was the better option.

The photographs continued.

Wednesday 29 May : 11pm – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

I had reached my seat with about fifteen minutes to go. On the pitch, the last few moments of a quite inappropriate musical sequence were taking place. It was all very “Superbowl” and all very tedious. Where is my “go to” comment about modern football? Ah, there it is.

I hate modern football.

The booming noise emanating from the speakers meant that there was simply no point in us even attempting any Chelsea songs and chants. It seemed that the event was bigger than us, far bigger. It felt like we were just pawns rather than kings. I looked around the stadium. There were empty seats everywhere. I glanced over at the Arsenal section. The thin sliver was pretty packed apart from a half-full upper deck, not too far from where we had watched the Qarabag game – getting increasingly colder – not so long ago. There was a mixture of fans in jeans and shorts. It was a warm night and very pleasant, despite the late kick-off slot. I spotted a few familiar faces. Kev from Port Talbot – one of those on the two Thomas Cook flights from Luton – was down below me. Kisses and handshakes for the “Bristol lot” as they walked past me. I had chosen the most expensive seat available – as had many people I know by the look of it – and I was rewarded with a seat in line with the goal line. It would prove to be a treasure, a gift from the footballing Gods.

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

Through the smoke of the fireworks, I was just able to take a photograph of the teams on the far side.

Phew. Here it is then.

My game number fifty-six, from Australia to Azerbaijan.

The team was not a surprise, but we were of course greatly relieved to see N’Golo Kante starting. Emerson and not Alonso, a big game for the lad. Giroud upfront, good. Pedro instead of Willian.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

For Arsenal, I was only interested to see if Petr Cech was playing.

He was.

Before the match, before the trip, I had been quite sincere with a prediction of a “0-0 then penalties”.

The game began and I had to make my first decision. Although the section to my left – behind the goal – was standing, most in my section were sat. I saw that Kev and Gary were stood a few rows in front, but it looked like I would be forced to sit. I felt terrible about sitting. It felt like I had lost the battle. I didn’t sit in Stockholm, nor Moscow, nor Munich, nor Amsterdam. I glanced across at the Arsenal section. They all seemed to be standing.

Bollocks.

Not long into the game, I saw a chap wearing a black Manchester United jersey file past me and I could not resist a few words of abuse. In front of me was a bloke in a Galatasaray shirt. To my right, no more than ten seats away, was a bloke in an Arsenal shirt.

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

And how on Earth had these fools managed to get tickets in the 6,000 Chelsea section? I would really love to know that.

A large stadium that was barely two-thirds full. Other team supporters sitting in our section. Chelsea supporters from the UK split up over three tiers. Chelsea fans sitting. Hardly any noise, nor songs, nor chants, nor laughter, nor atmosphere. Because of the factors mentioned, it was a truly agonising first-half. It was horrible. It was one of the worst halves of my footballing life. It was a totally shameful atmosphere. It honestly felt like a summer tour game in the US or Thailand or Australia. I will be honest, the pre-season game against Arsenal in Beijing in 2017 was way louder.

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

Many times during the first forty-five minutes, I felt that this was the end of the road for me. It was that upsetting.

On the pitch, it was a very quiet start, with lots of shadow boxing. Arsenal had more possession, though, and Aubameyang’s shot flashed wide of Kepa’s post after ten minutes. There were general mutterings of unrest in the seats around me as Arsenal continued to dominate. However, a penalty appeal involving Lacazette as he lept over Kepa never looked like resulting in a penalty, despite the audible howls from the Arsenal section. In that first-half, I could discern a few chants from that end. Our end seemed to be ball watching, not involved, distant. Slowly, Chelsea woke up and began to get involved. Kante, who had worried me in the first quarter of the game with a few odd errors, broke down the right and his cross towards the near post towards Giroud had us on our feet. sadly, the Frenchmen’s feet got tangled and the chance was lost. Pedro had been free just behind him.

Xhaka struck a very fine effort towards goal, and the rising drive clipped the top of our bar.

At last the game was evolving, slowly, into a final worthy of the name.

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

Emerson and Hazard were linking up well on the far side. Occasionally, Eden would wander over to the other flank. A turn, a spin and a twist would result in Arsenal defenders reaching for their sat nav. Emerson forced a block from Cech. With five minutes to go before half-time, a fine move involving Jorginho and Hazard ended with the ball at Giroud’s feet. He pushed the ball into space and shot low with his left foot – not a clean strike – but Cech was able to drop to his left and push the ball around the post.

I met up with Kev and Gary at half-time and we formed “The Baku Half-Time Moaners Club.”

You can imagine our chat. Back at my seat, I wondered if we were in for another second-half implosion, our motif of the whole season.

Thursday 30 May : Midnight – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The second-half began with Kovacic and Giroud in the centre-circle. A push of the ball backwards and we were away again. Eden was immediately a live-wire and he seemed to suddenly have more space than before. After just five minutes, the ball was played to Emerson, not so far away from me, about ten yards in from the touchline. I snapped my camera as he struck a cross towards the waiting Giroud. The ball was waist high and our striker fell to his knees to meet it, some fifteen yards out, reaching the flight of the ball just before Koscielny could react. His header was perfection. I watched as it flew low into the corner of the net past Cech’s hopeless dive.

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

My camera did not capture the header but although I was boiling over inside, I remained calm enough to capture the scorer drop to his knees and point both forefingers to the skies, eyes closed. Giroud had found his footballing nirvana.

Section 114 was going doolally.

Team mates swarmed around. Some dropped to their knees too. A kiss from Jorginho for Emerson, the supplier of the killer cross. Photos taken, I was able to punch the air and scream and shout.

GET IN.

It was the Frenchman’s eleventh goal in Europe this year. Thoughts of him being a former Arsenal player fizzed through my mind.

Ha.

It was all Chelsea now. Prompted by Jorginho, Kovacic and Hazard ran at the troubled Arsenal rear guard. The Chelsea section, on life-support in the first-half, was now roaring back to life. And for the rest of the game I stood. This was more like it, Chelsea. Then minutes after the first goal, Hazard was allowed too much time and space in the Arsenal final third – “table for one, sir?” – and spotted Pedro lurking on the edge of the box. He rolled the ball square. Pedro clipped it in.

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

Pete suddenly appeared next to me, holding two plastic glasses of “Amstel.”

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

Lager never tasted sweeter. I gulped my pint down pronto. I had to, since I was worried about missing another goal and another photo. My very next photo was of Pedro holding off a challenge in the “D”, the next was of him pushing the ball through to Giroud, the next the challenge by Maitland-Niles.

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

Eden Hazard vs. Peter Cech, team mates from 2012 to 2015, squared-up against each other.

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

The bloke in front of me commented “your voice has gone” and I smiled. I felt like saying “that is because I have been singing all second-half unlike you, you twat” but I felt better of it. The two gents to my immediate right – from the UK, dressed in the monstrosity of next season’s home shirt – hardly sang all night. Why do these people fucking bother?

Four minutes later, the substitute Iwobi unleashed a fierce rising volley – I was right behind the flight of the ball, it was a stunner – that flew into our goal.

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

Yet only three minutes later, a wonderful break from Chelsea saw Hazard exchange passes with Giroud in the box – the lofted “dink” from Giroud was world class, the highlight of the match for me – and this allowed Eden to smash the ball home.

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

I photographed the immediate aftermath. I knew straight away that my photo of Hazard, arms spread, and Cech, crestfallen, was a winner. That £121 seat was paying dividends alright. Only from that vantage point could I have taken that photo. I was a happy man.

There was a song for Gianfranco Zola and he responded with a wave from the bench.

In the last part of the game, Maurizio Sarri made some changes. Just before our fourth goal, Willian replaced Pedro. Then Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic. Willian twice went close with efforts, Cech saved from Hazard. Eden was then fouled, he looked injured, and he was substituted. I captured virtually every step of his last few seconds as a Chelsea player. A hug from Willian, an embrace from Giroud.

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

With the local time at 00.50am, the referee from Italy blew the final whistle.

We had only bloody won it.

Thursday 30 May : 1.30am – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The cup was lifted at 1.05am. There was no Wembley-style ascent to a balcony that happened in Munich and Amsterdam, but the same on-the-pitch presentation of Stockholm. Dave and Gary – how English, like two van drivers – lifted the iconic trophy. It really is a beauty. Dave then spent the next twenty minutes kissing the trophy and I was tempted to shout “get a room.” These were joyous times in deepest Baku.

4-1.

Bloody hell.

We usually squeak by in Cup Finals. Four bloody one. Unbelievable. We heard that Eden was, quite rightly, the man of the match. They all played well. Special mentions for Kovacic, Jorginho, and even David Luiz did well. I just bathed in the glory of it all. These nights do not come around too often. After that odd first-half, in which we gradually became stronger, we just exploded in the second-half. We were afforded so much space in the middle of the pitch and in the attacking third. Jorginho was in the middle of all of it, and once balls were released to our runners, I could not believe the ease with which we found each other. Arsenal seemed unwilling to challenge, or – to be blunt – even compete. At times we were miles too good for them. Maybe, here in Baku, almost three thousand miles from home, we had seen the season’s high water mark of our beleaguered manager’s playing style.

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

“And Arsenal don’t get Champions League football next season.”

“What a second-half.”

In my mind I was thinking all sorts of odd things.

…”bloody hell, I have never seen Chelsea play in Ipswich, but I have seen us play in Baku twice.”

…”God, that first-half was awful, though.”

…”thinking of Parky and PD and Gal and Al and Glenn and Daryl and Ed.”

…”we always score four in Baku.”

…”God, how many photos am I going to have to sift through from that game?”

I took blissful snaps of Kev and Gary, Dave, Leigh and JD.

Everyone smiling.

At last the players walked over to the Chelsea section. They massed by the curving area behind the goal then – again, so lucky – chose to hoist the cup once more right in front of myself and others in section 114. I was a lucky man once more. It will surprise nobody to hear that I was one of the last out of the stadium. At 1.30am, I took a single photograph of my seat in Baku and collected my, unused, souvenir flag, and stuffed it in my camera bag. I made my way to the exits, I was a happy man.

Incidentally, the attendance would be announced as 51,000 in a 67,000 capacity stadium.

A ridiculous figure really. It should have been packed to the rafters.

However, chew on this. At Liverpool’s first-ever European Cup Final in Rome in 1977, involving Borussia Mönchengladbach, the attendance was just 52,000 in a 65,000 stadium.

Thursday 30 May : 5am – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

“I told you seeing the cup at The Hilton was a sign.”

We hugged.

I met up with Calvin, who had just been separated from his father, at the long line for the metro. I had been on my feet for a couple of hours and I was starting to tire. Calvin was good company on that painful journey back in to town. Just like in Munich, I think  I was on the last train. In 2017, it was a much easier – and quicker – journey. On that day, with tickets more keenly priced – ours were £4.50 – over 67,000 attended. Crucially, though, we were well ahead at half-time and many left early. But tonight, damn, the movement out and onto the tube took forever.

At about 2.30am, we flopped on the red line into town. We scowled at a lad who was wearing both a Liverpool shirt and scarf.

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

Exhausted, we plodded back to Chelsea Central; we reached “The Shakespeare” at about 3am. Back with all the people that I had met over the past few days, this was a magical time. Drinks were consumed, songs were sung, all the old favourites. I loved a Jam and then a Style Council segment at about 4am.

“I was half in mind I was half in need
And as the rain came down I dropped to my knees and I prayed.
I said “oh heavenly thing please cleanse my soul
I’ve seen all on offer and I’m not impressed at all.”

I was halfway home I was half insane
And every shop window I looked in just looked the same.
I said send me a sign to save my life
‘Cause at this moment in time there is nothing certain in these days of mine.

We see, it’s a frightening thing when it dawns upon you
That I know as much as the day I was born
And though I wasn’t asked (I might as well stay)
And promise myself each and every day that is

That when you’re knocked on your back an’ your life’s a flop
And when you’re down on the bottom there’s nothing else
But to shout to the top shout.
Well, we’re gonna shout to the top.”

I had not spotted Luke and Aroha since before the game and when I saw them enter the pub, I shouted over to them. This made the person next to me turn around to see who was shouting. Bloody hell, it was Orlin.

“Bloody hell man, how long have you been stood there?”

We crumpled with laughter. I then spotted Alex and Alan from Moscow, the first Chelsea that I had met on this trip way back in Istanbul. Everyone together. Just right. I did not want this night to end. There are photographs of these hours on the internet and they will become priceless reminders of “that night in Baku.” Eventually, the bar turfed us out at 6am.

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

I made do with my second hot dog of the trip on Fountain Square. I returned to the hotel, but my head was still buzzing. I uploaded some photographs from my camera to share on Facebook. I shared the one of Eden Hazard and Peter Cech on Instagram. I was just glad the wifi had decided to work. At 7.30am I was still chatting to pals all over the world. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Thursday 30 May : 8pm – Qazmac Restaurant, Old City, Baku.

I was out in the evening again, relaxing at my own pace in a lovely restaurant opposite where those antiquated huts used to stand on Kickik Qala. I had chosen a light salad and some mutton kebabs. The waiter suggested some bread – fine – but he also recommended some local butter and some caviar. I thought “why not, when in Rome.” Imagine my surprise when he brought out a sizeable pot of the stuff. I asked him “how much is that?” just at the exact moment that he pierced the top of the sealed container.

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

“Whooooah, hang on one minute, I’m not paying that.”

I remember having caviar – for the only time in my life – on a little French stick in Vienna in 1987. It was just a taste then, and I had visions of a very small portion this time too. I clearly wasn’t prepared to pay £100 for a great pot of the bloody stuff. Thankfully, the waiter understood and that was that. But I enjoyed my meal. It was wonderful. With a beer and some lovely ice-cream it came to £12.50. Superb. It had been a relaxing day. No surprises, I had slept well. As my father might have said of my bed in room 304, “it has a lot of sleep in it.”

My main objective on this day was to head over to visit the splendour of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. It was an hour’s walk – I was tempted, I Iove a good walk in a foreign city – but as my match ticket enabled me to travel for free on the city’s metro for one further day, I made use of it. Rain was spotting as walked up to Icarisharer tube, but it soon stopped. I spent an hour or so walking around the curves of the building. This structure was also featured in that TV programme about Baku. I felt as if I knew all about it. Sadly, as there was a concert taking place, I was unable to go inside. Along with a visit to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old city, and that odd site of Yanar Dag to the north-east of the city where there is an eternal flame burning non-stop from natural gasses from deep inside the earth, it will have to wait until my next visit to Baku.

On the second day of my 2018/19 season, I found myself walking around the famous curves of the Sydney Opera House. On this second-from-last day of the season, here I was outside the equally sublime and beautiful curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku.

Where next? The iconic lines of Preston Bus Station? Watch this space.

I loved it there. I loved the use of space. The undulating roof of the building is wonderful. And the whole structure sits on top of a gentle incline, and there is subtle use of grass and reflecting ponds. Typically, there was a large replica of the Europa League trophy at the base of the hill. It combined well with a “I Love Baku” sign. On this visit, the sky above was full of brilliantly fluffy clouds. Dotted around the grass lawns were odd concrete casts of snails and rabbits. It was like a surreal dream. It was bloody fantastic. It is no surprise that it is placed right on the main road into the city. It is surely Baku’s most stunning building.

To cap off another memorable day, I dived in to see a few pals – a couple of pints with Dave who was soon to be heading off to Kiev for one night – in “The Shakespeare” and made another trip down for some beers at “Harry’s Bar.” There were warm welcomes in both. I could hear some Arsenal chants from inside “The Red Lion.”

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

I’ll be honest. I bumped into two small parties of Arsenal that night – from Amersham, and then from Manchester – and they were fine. They were just so fed up with their team and their club.

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

On my last day in Baku, I was out on a half-day tour in a little mini-bus, to see the ancient cave etchings of the Gobustan National Park. I had booked this back in England. Imagine the look on my face when I saw Will and Noah waiting outside the travel agency.

“Of all the people we wanted to see. Hello, Chris.”

What a small world, eh? From a plane at Heathrow to a fifteen-seater in Baku. As I clambered aboard the mini-bus, who else should be on the vehicle but Margaret and Roy, two of the most loyal Chelsea supporters ever. They follow all of Chelsea’s teams, not just the first team like me, all over. I remember bumping into Roy at Bristol City’s training ground in around 2009 when we both watched a couple of Chelsea academy games on a Saturday morning. Again, what a small world. It was a four-hour trip. Alongside Will, Noah and myself was a chap called Tommy – an Arsenal supporter, from London – who turned out to be one of the most boring football supporters that I have ever met. I could not help bristling every time he referred to his team as “The Arsenal.” It is a pet hate of my good pal Alan too, and I thought of him every time I heard it. It did make me smile, though, when Tommy admitted to me “I wish we had Abramovich.”

Game. Set. Match.

The tour took us out on an hour drive to the south west of the city. The Gobustan stone carvings were quite fascinating, but it also gave me a chance to see a little of the scenery outside the city. There were oil rigs in the Caspian Sea and new houses being constructed alongside the roads. There was an abandoned Azerbaijani version of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and an unappetising beach resort. There were oil, water and gas pipelines snaking over the arid landscape, and the inevitable oil refineries. Two companies dominate; BP and Socar. The tour guide was an interesting character; formerly an army captain, formerly an off-shore worker, and a hater of caviar. In his youth, caviar was cheaper than meat and his mother used to feed him it daily. He now can’t stand the stuff.

We were given a tour of the caves. At the end, he led us to the oldest carving of the morning.

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

“Yeah, it depicts the Tottenham captain lifting their last league trophy.”

Friday 31 May : 7.30pm – Fountain Square, Baku.

After a meal in a pleasant restaurant – more salad, more kebabs – I was walking back through Fountain Square. I walked past a local father and son. I overheard the young boy mention Chelsea and Arsenal. I turned around and smiled. I intimated that I was Chelsea and gave the boy a thumbs up. The father explained –

“He wants to know of the history of Chelsea.”

I felt like stopping them, marching them into a café, sitting them down, turning on Google-translate, and entertaining them for three hours.

Later that evening, well aware that I had booked a cab to take me to the airport at 2am, I took it easy. There were some more photographs. I took around 1,750 over the week. My camera is my great companion on these trips around the world with Chelsea. There was time for an iconic shot of a roadside poster of the competing teams and UEFA logos right next to the historic, twelfth century Maiden Tower. Hopefully, another winner.

I sat next to some fountains in a little park on the main boulevard on the shore of the Caspian. I sat alone with my thoughts for many a minute.  I tried to take it all in. One moment touched me. A toddler reached out for her mother’s hand and they walked off together. It was a sweet moment, a lovely moment. I have no children and I do not generally harbour regrets. But this little moment obviously stirred me. At that moment, although not life-defining, I did ponder how different my life might have been had I become a father at some stage.

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

I made one last tour of my two favourite watering holes of the trip. I shared some laughs and some drinks – Cokes for me, I wanted to stay fresh – with Martin from Gloucester in “The Shakespeare” which was returning to some sort of normality after the recent madness.

After a quick visit to “Harry’s Bar”, I decided to head back to the hotel at about 11.30pm. The girl with no name raced after me after she saw me walking past “The Shakespeare.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Not sure, maybe when Chelsea play here again.”

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

I would indeed take a cab from the hotel to the Baku airport. There would be a 5am flight to Moscow, a two-and-a-half hour wait at the city’s Sheremetyevo Airport, another Aeroflot flight back to Heathrow. I would land early at just before midday on the Saturday morning and Russ would soon be there to meet me.

It would soon be all over; the trip, the travels, and the season.

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

Tuesday 18 July : 6.00pm – Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia.

Glenn and I had spent three days in Sydney, and had picked up a car on the fourth day of the trip. We set off to see the Blue Mountains, stopping off at the windy town of Katoomba. We were headed later that afternoon towards Coonabarabran, a good four-hour drive. With the light just starting to fade a little, we made the wrong turning in an old-style outpost called Gulgong, and soon found ourselves on what is known in Australia as a corrugated road. It means that it is not tarmac, not asphalt, not concrete, not paved, but simply a dirt track that has become rutted through use. With the fuel tank showing a red light, I was starting to get a little agitated. I had visions of us running out of fuel on a farm track, miles from anywhere. The road conditions deteriorated a little. I was keen to head back to Gulgong, but Glenn was more gung-ho. After about twenty minutes of lonely driving, we spotted a chap – a farmer – on a quad bike, towing some sort of contraption, away to our right in a field full of alpacas. We slowed down and shouted over to him. He bounded over.

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

Indeed, we were. His statement made us chuckle, but it reassured us. As long as he knew where we were, we were evidently not lost.

We were here.

Panic over.

And it has certainly seemed that, on many occasions this season that we – Chelsea Football Club in a very broad sense, but its supporters on various levels too – have been “lost.” It has felt like our journey was going nowhere. That we had no leadership at any level. That we were rudderless. And at times beyond hope.

But we were never lost.

We were a top six club, and would end up a top three club. At the end of it all, we would reach two cup finals. We would end up with silverware for the third consecutive season. We would end up with our fifteenth major trophy since 2000.

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From The Pride Of London

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 2 December 2018.

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. In those minutes before kick-off, with “Park Life” by Blur initiating the pre-game activities, the Fulham fans in the far corner were already voicing their dislike of us.

“We are Fulham. We are Fulham. We are Fulham. FFC. We are Fulham. Super Fulham. We are Fulham. Fuck Chelsea.”

So much for brotherly-love, eh?

This was Fulham’s first appearance at Stamford Bridge since the 2013/14 season. I personally like the idea of them being back in the top flight. An away game at Craven Cottage is always a treat. It’s good to have them back. But when I was growing up, I only ever really envisaged a Chelsea vs. Fulham league encounter taking place in the second tier. They were a club that wobbled between the old Second and Third Divisions. As recently as 1997, they were in the basement of the Football League. They have enjoyed a resurgence, then, in recent seasons, but when they disappeared from the Premier League in 2014, I did wonder if we would ever see them again in the league.

So they have done well to bounce back after just four seasons beneath us.

Ironically, ex-Chelsea midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic was recently sacked as their manager, and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri a week or so ago. In his first season as Chelsea manager, Jokanovic was the bete noire of Ranieri’s team, a one-paced misfit, who drew nothing but ire from the Chelsea fans at games all over England. He was seen as Ranieri’s man. His totem. His man. Jokanovic was known as “the Joker” and Ranieri was similarly mocked by many. In that first season, it took ages for the Chelsea support to warm to the Italian.

With large flags being waved on the pitch, each one indicating the numbers of the starting eleven, the Chelsea PA welcomed back Claudio Ranieri – dear, dear Claudio – to Stamford Bridge, and an image of him appeared on the large TV screen hovering over the away support.

It then got a little nasty.

“He comes from Italy. He fucking hates Chelsea.”

That was out of order.

It is, of course – nothing new here – a fact of life within SW6 that Chelsea fans have historically nurtured a distinct soft spot for Fulham. What is there to hate about Fulham after all? In years gone by, in the days when the terraced streets between Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage housed a solidly working class population, people would alternate between the two grounds each week. It was a distinct “Fulham thing”, this sharing of the borough’s two clubs. But not QPR, further north. Never QPR.

Fulham had brought three thousand, of course, as would be expected. As the teams entered the pitch, we were treated again to flames and fireworks. But this was a midday kick-off, and it seemed even more preposterous.

Fireworks for Fulham? Give me a break.

We had spoken about the potential line-up on the drive to London and we naturally presumed that Alvaro Morata would be playing up front. But what did we know? Instead, manager Maurizio chose Olivier Giroud. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian and Mateo Kovacic still kept Ross Barkley out of the starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

Former blue Andre Schurrle did not feature in the Fulham team, out with an injury. We all remembered the second-half hat-trick the German scored at the Cottage in 2014, our last game against them.

Around the stadium on signage, on the captain’s armband, on the match programme and on bootlaces were the seven colours of the rainbow, mirroring the pastel shades of the various Nike, Puma and Adidas footwear.

The game began with a few songs emanating from the Matthew Harding.

It was a very mild Winter’s day.

We started magnificently. Jean Michael Seri was pick-pocketed by N’Golo Kante, and the French midfielder advanced before setting up Pedro in the inside-right channel. Our little Spaniard – “the hummingbird” as my mate Rick in Iowa suitably calls him – cut back on to his left foot and poked the ball past Sergio Rico.

Pedro raced away past the supporters in the Shed Lower and celebrated with a hop and a skip and a jump. His smile lit up the stadium. It was a typically lovely nimble finish from Pedro.

Perfect.

SW6 East 1 SW6 West 0

The sun was breaking through some cloud as the first-half developed and there were some strong shadows forming on the pitch. I kept looking over at the two managers, both former Napoli men, managers separated by more than twenty years; Ranieri, impeccably dressed, Sarri looking like a bloke on his way to a Wetherspoons.

Alan and I briefly discussed the famous game between the two teams at Christmas in 1976. We were on our way to promotion that season – a beguiling mix of mainly home-grown youngsters with a few steadying influences too – and Fulham boasted George Best and Rodney Marsh. A ridiculous crowd of 55,003 attended that game. I was not at the game but I asked Alan of his recollections of the day. He replied that it was ridiculously packed in the forecourt, and he was genuinely concerned about getting crushed. He was sure that many were locked out. I can remember seeing the gate in the following day’s newspaper and it made me gulp.

55,003.

In the Second Division nonetheless.

What a club we were. Or rather, what a potentially huge club we could become.

I was warm and fuzzy at the age of eleven and I don’t think that feeling has ever really left me.

On the pitch, we dominated play, but without many clear scoring chances. Olivier Giroud threatened and forced a save from the Fulham ‘keeper. A poor David Luiz free-kick was struck against the wall. Pedro looked full of drive and energy, and Kante was covering lots of ground. But there were a few patchy performances. Eden Hazard struggled to get involved. And Marcos Alonso was having his own personal hell. There were misplaced passes, and poor control. He was often released on the left, but his final ball was usually substandard.

It was a generally scrappy affair. The sun was getting brighter still, but the play was grey.

It was, of course, ridiculously quiet.

There were occasional chants from the away fans.

“Haven’t you got a boat race to go to?” bellowed Alan.

There were two chances for Giroud, close in on goal, but the tight angles and conflux of opposing players worked against him.

There seemed to be an unwillingness to put a tackle in from our players. In these days, the buzz word in football is the word “press”. You can’t walk two yards or read more than five words about football without hearing or seeing the word “press.”

I remember the closing of space being called “pressing” by Arrigo Sacchi in his Milan years around thirty years ago. It was one of those words of English origin that the Italians often shoehorn into their language. I think at the time the English version was known, loosely, as “getting stuck in” but it has become the word of the season, or possibly the decade.

And the gentlemen of the press and fans alike love it.

The printing press. The trouser press. The cider press. And now the football press. There is no fucking escaping it.

What it means for much of the time is a lot of closing of space but tackling – that black art – being condemned to the pages of history.

Oh well.

I just wanted to see a well won tackle.

It would at least stir the fans.

Modern football, eh?

However, we were by far the better of the two SW6 combatants. There had only been very rare attacks on our goal. Kepa had enjoyed a very quiet game. I am sure there was one moment when I saw him hunting down by his right-hand post for one of Thibaut Courtois’ old word search books.

The half-time whistle blew.

It had been a generally quiet and tepid affair.

I wondered what a few friends from afar had reckoned to the game thus far. We had welcomed the visitors from Toronto and Atlanta again to our pre-match. We met up in The Goose. In addition to Prahlad and his wife Nisha, and Brenda and Ryan, there was another Atlantan too; Emily, who I last saw in Vienna for our friendly in 2016, was visiting from Austria for one game only. Memorably, as we walked past the entrance to Fulham Broadway, Emily bumped into another Chelsea fan from Vienna, over for one game only himself.

As I have so often said, the Chelsea World is indeed a very small world.

We began pretty poorly in the second-half. Fulham forced an attack but Antonio Rudiger was able to block a shot. Then, from the ensuing corner Arrizabalaga reacted so well to thwart a Calum Chambers. To my liking, the whole ground replied with a roaring with a defiant “Carefree”. It had taken almost an hour for Stamford Bridge to raise a song, but at last we were back to our best, supporting the team as we should. And I loved this. We knew the team were struggling collectively and we rallied behind the team. Eric, from Toronto, and Emily were watching from the front row of the Matthew Lower, but from different sides of the goal. The Atlantans were up in the Shed Upper. I hope they appreciated the sudden burst of noise.

Another effort from Chambers. Another Kepa save.

In the stadium, the fans grew restless. Our play was slow, ponderous, tedious. Nobody shone in my mind apart from Pedro and Kante. And Kepa was certainly keeping us in the game. But we were passing to oblivion and the Chelsea fans were getting more and more frustrated. It was a very odd half of football. We were begging for a second goal. But there were more misplaced passes, and mistimed tackles.

Who expected Fulham to get an equaliser?

We all did.

There were moans aimed at Jorginho and Kovacic, neither of whom were playing well.

Some substitutes were soon warming up under the East Stand.

Within a few seconds of each other, Big John and I independently bawled the same thing.

“Get yer boots on Zola.”

How we missed a little of his creativity.

The manager, thankfully, looked to bring in fresh ideas and fresh legs into our midfield by replacing Kovacic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was given a hero’s welcome.

He was very soon running at the heart of the Fulham defence. He was warmly applauded. Just after, Giroud – no service in the second-half – was replaced by Alvaro Morata. A shot from Hazard was parried by the Fulham ‘keeper but from only six yards out, Morata shinned the ball way over the bar. There were groans and Chelsea eyes looked heavenwards. Emily would have got a good view of that. I wondered what her thoughts were.

A Hazard free-kick was hit straight at Sergio Rico.

The mood inside Stamford Bridge was becoming stiflingly nervous. We just needed a win to get our season back on track, to stay tucked in, on a day when three of our main rivals were playing too.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Marcos Alonso and Dave switched flanks.

I wondered if Jorginho – Sarri’s kingpin – would ever be substituted. I wondered if he would be known in some quarters as the modern multi-million-pound equivalent of Ranieri’s Jokanovic.

With the nerves still jangling, the ball was worked adeptly between Hazard, Pedro and Loftus-Cheek. The ball stood up nicely for Ruben to strike purposefully past the Fulham ‘keeper. It had easily been our most effective move of the half.

Get in.

Emily would have loved her view of that.

I watched as Ruben ran over to the far corner and as was mobbed by his team mates.

SW6 North 2 SW6 South 0.

So this was certainly a strange game. We absolutely struggled in that poor second-half. And all of us admitted that we had rarely felt more underwhelmed – possibly even deflated – after a win. Feelings seemed confused, messy. I think that in the back of our minds the horror of Wembley the previous week would not subside, and we knew that Manchester City, to say nothing of a potential banana skin at Molineux, were looming in the distance.

It was such an odd game. And we had a quiet and reflective drive home. I battled the rain and the traffic of the M4. We were quiet. I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first league game as Chelsea manager, way back in the August of 2004 when a 1-0 win against the might of Manchester United could not disguise our sense of bewilderment that a team so rich in attacking verve could kill the game at 1-0.

“Fucking hell. We’re not going to win the league playing like this, are we?”

It is one of those sentences I always remember saying.

But, in 2018, are we unnecessarily tough on Sarri and his new system? Quite possibly. This is a learning curve for all of us. As fans, we have been given the task of adapting to a new modus operandi too. It might not be easy. As I said to Glenn, regardless of the merits of a new style, we have won the league two out of the past four seasons. I’m not sure if that makes us spoiled or ultra-critical. But I know the sense of frustration from the stands for our underperforming players was no illusion. In the end the history books will say that we won 2-0 but it was almost in spite of ourselves.

I’m still working Sarri out. It might take a while yet.

We have a testing week ahead. Let’s hope we can regroup for the two games. Maybe we, as fans, need to show a little more patience, but that is easier said than done. At least the next game is away, when the fans are usually a little more supportive, and certainly a whole lot noisier.

Right then. Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday.

See you there.

 

Tales From Deep East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 September 2018.

With Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham all winning on Saturday, it seemed imperative that we should be victorious on Sunday afternoon – at West Ham United – too. Not that I have realistic thoughts about winning the league again this season but just that, well, a win is a win is a win. Why not keep this run going for as long as is humanely possible? So far, our perfect start to the league campaign – five out of five – had certainly surprised me, and here was a game that was immensely “winnable.”

The drive through Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and into London had been memorable for only two reasons. The bastard weather was awful, the worst of the season. Saturday had been horrible; wind and rain. And Sunday was just the same. I drove into three hours of rain and spray. It was not fun. Slightly funnier, though, was the sight – around Maidenhead I think – of a cyclist heading east in the near lane of the M4, quite illegally, and signalling with his left arm to leave the motorway at the next exit. The Chuckle Brothers all had to rub our eyes at the sight.

At just after 11am, I turned off the A4 and parked up outside Barons Court tube station. Waiting for us outside were my two Czech mates George and Petr, who live in Prague, and who I last bumped into together at the Rapid Vienna friendly two summers ago. They had contacted me over the summer about their unquenchable desire to see a Chelsea away game and, although I was far from confident of being able to come up with tickets for the West Ham match, some good fortune came my way a month or so ago and the boys were in luck. They then booked flights, and then accommodation. Their enthusiasm for the day’s events, despite the dreary conditions, was palpable.

As we headed east on the Piccadilly line, and then the Central line, we were surprised at the lack of West Ham, or Chelsea fans. But, for once, we were early. We always seem to leave it unfashionably late at West Ham. At Stratford – tons of home supporters now – we doubled-back on ourselves and alighted at the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane station. At last, the rain had virtually stopped.

Although from the Czech Republic, make no mistakes where George and Petr’s affections lie. They are thoroughbred Chelsea fans. I asked them how the Czech league was shaping up, and it warmed me a little to hear that they were not honestly sure about the placings; Petr thought it was Viktoria Pilzen, Slavia and then Sparta. But it seemed an irrelevance to both of them. I approved.

They were, as if it needed proving, proper Chelsea.

I had mentioned to the lads – The Czechle Brothers – as we passed through Bethnal Green and Mile End, that the area is, or at least was, the stereotypical East End, from which West Ham garnered much of their local support. There is nowhere else in London which is so tied to a football club; Arsenal and Tottenham might share north London, and much of its hinterlands, and Chelsea might draw support from the west and south, and share it with other clubs too, but from the traditional East End out to Essex, that acute angle of support is solidly West Ham.

As we alighted at the final station, with modern high-rises surrounding the former Olympic village, the contrast between the tight terraced streets around Upton Park and West Ham’s new neighbourhood could not have been greater. It is, simply, a stark, modern, airy environment. Everywhere you look are vast blocks of concrete. However, I am sure that the vast majority of West Ham fans still prefer the claustrophobic tightness of Green Street, the Queens Market, the Barking Road and the pubs which made West Ham the club it once was, but is no more.

There was time for a couple of drinks of overpriced lager from plastic glasses in the bar area outside the away sections. With George and Petr lapping up the pre-game thrills of a London derby, I nodded to the two hundred or so Chelsea fans within the area.

“No Chelsea colours.”

In fact, I was exaggerating for effect; there were in fact two people with Chelsea shirts.

“Probably tourists”, I joked, and they laughed.

They probably didn’t get the email.

Weeks ago, I had warned Petr and George about not wearing Chelsea shirts, scarves or hats. But they already knew the score and were well-versed in the dos and don’ts for a London derby.

The team had been announced.

No risks being taken with Pedro. Willian came in. And it was Olivier Giroud’s turn to lead the line.

No complaints. Happy with that.

With a quarter of an hour to go until kick-off, I walked up the steps and into the upper section of the away end. This time, better seats; we were in the fourth row back.

PD and Glenn were low down in the tier below and The Czechle Brothers were way beyond us in the last few rows of the upper section. I had warned them it would be a fight to get much noise flying around the away section. That huge void between the sections is no help.

I noted some signage on the main stand to my left :

“This Is The World’s Stage. This Is For Everyone. This Is London Stadium.”

It seemed the stadium was the star attraction and not the team.

And throughout the afternoon, electronic advertisements flashed constantly on the balcony walls between tiers; music concerts, events, baseball games.

Ah yes, baseball games.

I had to double-take when I saw my team, the New York Yankees, flashed up to my right.

It is the sort of thing I simply do not expect to see while watching Chelsea. In London.

There it was, in broad daylight.

New York Yankees V Boston Red Sox.

My mind wandered, briefly, to next June when the two teams will meet at West Ham’s new home stadium for a two game series. I tried to visualise where home plate would be; probably right in front of the nearest goal to where I was standing. And then I thought of the likely spectators. Yankee fans and Red Sox fans would only make up a relatively small percentage. There would be UK baseball fans from all over; Cubs shirts, Braves shirts, Dodgers shirts, Mets shirts, Phillies shirts. And I paused, again briefly, to imagine a similar scene should our league mirror Major League Baseball and cross the Atlantic.

Imagine a Chelsea vs. West Ham United game in, say, Chicago. It would not only attract fans of those two teams. If my experience is anything to go by, there would be supporters – wearing shirts and scarves – of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and others, to say nothing of the usual smattering of Bayern, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. And each little pocket of fans might well find themselves sitting cheek by jowl with rival fans. It is a scene which brought a wry smile to my face.

70,000 in Chicago.

A 15,000 section for Chelsea. A 15,000 section for West Ham. And a 40,000 neutral zone for all the other top fifty teams in Europe.

No thanks.

As the teams appeared, I spotted a phalanx of people crowding the two teams, separated by black fences. I presumed that this was the West Ham equivalent of Manchester City’s tunnel club, where people pay a dividend to get up-close-and-personal with their heroes.

I was happy that the lanky bugger Arnautovic was not playing.

Don’t we look great in that yellow / yellow / blue?

West Ham added to my thoughts about abandoning their heritage by wearing plain claret shirts, rather than with the blue-sleeves of yore. Maybe it was to honour their highest-ever finish, of second, in 1986.

If we sing about being Champions of Europe, and we sing about London, there is – I am sure people will begrudgingly agree – a slim chance of Arsenal and even Tottenham eventually lifting that trophy, although hopefully not in any of our lifetimes. But what of West Ham? They are easily London’s fourth biggest club, but it would be a minor miracle should they even qualify for the Champions league.

And to think, from 1979 to 1984, they seemed our natural London rivals.

How times change.

This would be my fourth visit to the London Stadium, but I was yet to see Chelsea win. A League Cup defeat, a League defeat and a Depeche Mode concert. I sadly missed our one win which came during our Championship season under Antonio Conte.

Behind me was a chap wearing a “Bulgarian Blues” polo shirt. He seemed involved all through the game. As George and Petr prove, not all of our foreign fans are gormless tools. Far from it in fact.

As the game commenced, I made it a priority to try to analyse the involvement of Jorginho during the next ninety minutes. I also vowed to try to try to keep an eye on Giroud. I confided in Gary alongside me :

“You know what, Gal? It honestly took me a while to warm to Giroud last season, for obvious reasons. But he’s a bloody good player, isn’t he? His lay-offs to Hazard have been excellent of late.”

I thought we played really well in the first twenty minutes or so.

A shot from Hazard forced Fabianski to save low. Our movement was great, full of one touch football, and we were stretching the home team nicely. But chances were certainly at a premium. For all of our attacking verve, it was West Ham who enjoyed the two best chances of the game. Firstly, Antonio broke in on the West Ham left but fired over. Then, Yarmolenko – similar in build to Arnautovic – fired low but Kepa Arrizabalaga smothered well.

One tackle, sliding, beautifully timed, from David Luiz had us all purring.

The grey skies had turned blue and at last there was a blast of sunlight.

I had warned Petr and George that the stadium had no architectural delights. With the slight rake of the lower tier especially, I find it a very bland stadium. It is not dramatic. It has no “wow” factor. The only part of it that seems worthy of comment is the cat’s cradle of steel which supports the roof and the triangular floodlights. Other than that, Upton Park trumped it hands down.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to the head of N’Golo Kante, after a finely volleyed cross from Willian allowed him a clear view of the goal. It was not to be. The ball skidded wide.

At the break, there were grumbles among the three thousand.

Our positive start had not continued. There was a tendency to over-pass. I had been watching Giroud; there was not much to report. He was hardly moving his markers at all. I had been watching Jorginho too. Lots of the ball – pass, pass, pass, – but yet again no flights of fancy to unlock the door. There had been little running off the ball either – the “third man” was lost in Vienna, or Budapest, or Amsterdam. He was nowhere to be seen in East London.

In the stands, the noise was not great. Only once in the first-half did the home fans make a din.

Chelsea chastised them in the time-honoured fashion.

“You’re not West Ham, anymore.”

“You sold your soul…”

Chelsea attacked us in the southern end in the second-half. Amid the chants of encouragement, there were moans and cries of despair too. In truth, it was pretty pedestrian stuff, for all of our possession. And we totally dominated. And yet Willian and Hazard failed to really make their talents pay off. Hazard kept dropping deep. And he rarely hugged the touchline.

More of the same from Jorginho. Not his best game for us. He often lost possession. His passes were to the side or to players being marked. I was getting frustrated with him.

Giroud, under my watchful gaze, rarely made a move into space. He seemed to continually move towards the man with the ball rather than attempt a blind-sided run (oh, Hernan Crespo, are your ears burning?) to create space.

With twenty-five minutes remaining, Sarri replaced Giroud with Morata.

My thoughts :

West Ham were for the taking. Why not play both up front for a quarter of an hour?

Hazard, in on goal, chose to back-heel to Moratra rather than shoot himself.

“Fackinelleden.”

Then, from a corner, the ball fell at the feet of Morata. He had no time to think; he pushed a foot towards the ball but we groaned as the shot hit Fabianski in the face.

“Bollocks.”

The frustration rose.

An injured Rudiger was replaced by Gary Cahill.

As the game continued, and as West Ham enjoyed a little spell, I whispered to Gary.

“Fackinell Gal, I bet they will get the ball out wide, we’ll lose concentration, they will hit a ball in to the box, and one of their fuckers will head home.”

Within twenty seconds, Robert Snodgrass (“more clubs than Peter Stringfellow”) crossed into our box and Yarmalenko rose at the far post, completely and utterly unmarked, but thankfully his firm header veered past the post.

“Fucksakechelsea.”

We then came on strong in the final period.

We begged for a goal.

“Fackinellcomeonchels.”

Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic, and I liked the look of him immediately. He sprayed balls out to the wings with aplomb. Then, a big moment. Collecting the ball from wide, he looked up and curled a ball towards Fabianski’s far post. The bend on it was phenomenal. We were all about to celebrate when the ‘keeper scrambled down low to save.

Then, the last two chances.

A Willian volley, evading a tackle, but it was sent well wide.

Hazard, a tame shot across Fabianski.

At times, that lone cyclist on the M4 had shown a much better understanding of how to negotiate heavy traffic than our attackers.

It finished 0-0.

This had been our poorest performance of the season. As is always the case, we chatted about everything on the slow trudge across London, and then furthermore on the drive home.

What’s the expression? “More questions than answers.”

That seems about right. The Jorginho / Kante dilemma rumbles on.

On the M4, I summed up my feelings.

“Never mind Saturday. Say we are playing the biggest game in our history. Tottenham in the European Cup Final. A game we had to win. You would want Kante shielding the defence, right? In his best position. Not Jorginho. You’d want Kante there.”

The lads agreed.

And, not for the first time in our recent history, we have ineffectual strikers.

“Morata is half a striker. Giroud is half a striker.”

Just like in 2013/14.

“Torres was half a striker. Ba was half a striker. Eto’o was half a striker.”

Yep.

More questions than answers.

There is no trip to Anfield for me on Wednesday, but let’s hope we can find some positive answers to these questions on Saturday when we meet Liverpool for the second time in four days.

I will see you there.

 

Eyes On The Ball.

 

A Volleyed Cross.

 

Keeping It Alive. 

 

Working The Space. 

 

Early Ball. 

 

Signs.

 

Face Off.

 

Daisy Cutter.

 

Wide Man.

 

Bend It Like Barkley.

 

Well Wide.

 

My Ball.

Tales From The Mosh Pit

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2017.

After our surprising defeat against Burnley last Saturday, I only wished that more Chelsea supporters had exhibited the considered calmness of Antonio Conte. In a post-match interview, despite some unsurprisingly barbed questions, he spoke serenely with his trademark soft voice, down-playing any concerns about our future, and even finding time to playfully joke about finding a way to cope with his team playing with ten, or nine, men in future games. His personality shone through. Elsewhere, within the ranks of some of our support – some of whom would not have lasted five minutes in the days of Alan Mayes, Mark Falco and the like – there seemed to be hysterics and over-reaction.

And then, on the Friday, there was that extended spell of giggling and laughter when he was questioned about Diego Costa being treated as some sort of criminal.

It was beautiful and therapeutic to watch, wasn’t it?

It must have been the final nail in the coffin for Diego Costa’s last vestige of self-pride. Conte was on top, and there would hopefully be no more nonsense devoted to our out of favour striker and his desire to move on and away from our club.

Going in to the tough away game at Wembley against Tottenham – without Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard – here at last were some positive signs.

And we needed some positives. Despite my gung-ho words of last week (“Next Sunday, I might put some money on us to do well against Tottenham. It would be typical Chelsea for us to dig out a result there”), as the week progressed, I became a little less confident. The thought us losing against Tottenham, and with no points from our first two league games, was playing heavily on my mind. And with good reason.

On the drive up to London, the Four Chuckle Brothers were of the same opinion.

“Spurs are a good team. Let’s take a draw today. A win at home to Everton next weekend and we’ll be back on track.”

The game at Wembley – the first-ever league game at the national stadium in almost one-hundred years – would surely be one of our toughest away games of the season. In my pre-season prediction, mirroring that of last season in fact, I had us finishing third behind Manchester City and Manchester United. If Tottenham were playing at the familiar White Hart Lane this season, they might have been in the mix too, but, like many, I predicted that their use of the larger and unluckier Wembley would work against them. I had them finishing fourth, or fifth.

Our drinking completed, we made our way up from the centre of London to Marylebone, catching the 3.20pm train. With only 3,100 away fans in attendance, we were certainly in the minority, but the train carriage that we chose was full of Chelsea. There were high spirits, but – alas – some vile songs of old too. There is no place at football for songs mentioning Nazi death camps. For a few moments I wondered what on earth possesses some people to utter such shite.

Knowing how heated it used to get outside the away end as we turned into Park Lane from the High Road at White Hart Lane, I fully expected a heavy police presence between Wembley Stadium train station and our entrance at the eastern side of the stadium. There was nothing. To be honest, I got the impression that most home fans were already ensconced in the stadium, no doubt jigging along to a Chas and Dave smash from the last century. The walkways to the stadium were relatively clear. I noted a gaggle of Old Bill walking away from us at the top of the incline – maybe one hundred yards away – but apart from a few expletives being exchanged, there was no trouble. I had visions of aggressive Spurs fans picking out stragglers. I had visions of coins being thrown at us – a White Hart Lane tradition of late – and I had thoughts of a few punches being exchanged. In the end, the walk to the stadium was bereft of any nastiness at all.

We made our way to the away turnstiles. At the eastern end – we have been rare visitors to this end over the years – there is much more space outside the gates. A thorough search and we were in. I had decided not to take my proper camera. Too much aggravation. I would have to make do with my camera phone. Imagine my annoyance when I clocked a couple of fans with cameras as big as the one I had left in Somerset. Oh well.

During the build up to the game, we had heard that the local council and/or police (it wasn’t really clear to me) had kept the attendance to a maximum of around 70,000. Conversely, I had heard from a local Spurs fan – I don’t know many – that 90,000 would be the norm this season. Even though Wembley is positioned in a Tottenham heartland, that still seems a massive number. Of course, with us looking to play at Wembley in around 2019, I am very intrigued to see how it all pans out. In the match programme, I spotted that tickets for our game ranged from £35 to £95. By and large, apart from the cordoned-off seats in the highest levels of the top tier, it looked like Spurs had sold out; even the expensive corporate tier looked full.

I think it’s imperative that Chelsea get the pricing structure right when our enforced exile happens. Although the distance from Stamford Bridge to Wembley is three miles less than from White Hart Lane to Wembley, Chelsea has always relied on its bedrock support to come from south of the river. Wembley is a north London venue and Spurs are a north London team. That fit just feels more natural than ours. So, the club needs to get it right. It needs to lower season ticket prices and match day prices to hold on to our existing support in the years ahead when we will leave the familiar surrounds of Stamford Bridge. The club needs to take a hit during the first year especially, or else fans will simply get out of the habit of going to see our games.

Season tickets as low as £500? Why on earth not?

Match day tickets as low as £20? Yes.

The last thing that I want to see at Wembley, with potentially room for 90,000, is for us to be playing some league games in a third-full stadium. The club needs to gauge it right. It needs to safeguard our support. It needs to bridge the gap from the old Stamford Bridge to the new Stamford Bridge. There’s much room for discussion on this subject. I’m sure that the club must realise this. I am sure much discussion is planned between the club and the various supporters’ groups. I just hope that they make the correct choices afterwards.

Much of the talk in the car on the drive to London had centred on Tiemoue Bakayoko. If he was fit, and chosen, he would surely play alongside N’Golo Kante. We chatted about which of the two potential defenders would play alongside David and Dave; Antonio Ridiger or Andreas Christensen? If Bakayoko was not fit – hell – then we wondered if Luiz or even Rudiger might anchor the midfield.

Well, Antonio Conte was ahead of all of us.

He had decided to play Bakayoko, Ridiger and Christensen. We wondered how the team would line-up.

Our section was down low; strangely in a different section to where I watched Bayer Leverkusen play Spurs last season. We were in good voice as the teams took to the pitch away to our right. The home club had issued flags to their supporters, and they feverishly waved them as kick-off approached. The problem for Tottenham is that white is a neutral colour. There was no real impact. It was all rather wishy-washy. It looked, in fact, like seventy-thousand surrender flags being flown.

There were hardly any of the normal, draped, flags on show from the usual vantage points. Instead, Tottenham had decided to transplant the “To Dare Is To Do”, “Spurs Are My Club” and “It’s All About Glory” taglines from White Hart Lane on the top, white, balcony. The lower balconies advertised various supporters’ groups from around the world on an electronic ticker, which changed every few seconds. If I was living in Florida, I would be very worried; there seems to be Tottenham fans everywhere within that sun-addled state– Tampa Spurs, Tallahassee Spurs, Ybor City Spurs, Orlando Spurs.

The game began.

What? David Luiz in midfield? Conte had surprised us all. Whether through circumstance or choice, our manager – thankfully wearing his suit after last weekend’s display – had chosen to play a 3/5/2 formation.

Courtois.

Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Kante – Luiz – Bakayoko – Moses

Willian – Morata

Or a 5/3/2.

Or a 3/5/1/1.

Whatever.

But boy it worked.

We dominated the early moments, and Alvaro Morata really should have put us 1-0 up after only a few minutes. A cross from Dave on the right picked out our Spanish striker, completely unmarked, but his firm header was off target by some margin. I noted that Luiz was able to tuck back into a very defensive position – an extra shield – to assist the back three, who were playing as a three together for the very first time.

Tottenham, as expected, began to have more of the ball. Kane troubled Courtois and the derided Alli blasted over from a tight angle. But I was happy with our play. We looked tight defensively. There was pace everywhere. We closed down space. Kante and Luiz were everywhere. This had the makings of a great game. I was just pleased – I will be blunt – that we were in it.

The Spurs offensive – and I find them very offensive – continued. Dembele shot over. But I was still pretty calm. All around me, the Chelsea fans were making a fine racket. The home fans were surprisingly subdued.

And then it started. A bizarre rumble of drums blasted out over the tannoy. We were in fits of laughter :

“What the fackinell was that?”

Good God Tottenham. Have a look at yourselves. Piped drums? What on bloody Earth? It continued at regular intervals throughout the first period. The Spurs fans looked embarrassed, as they should.

Our support? We were in fine form.

“Stand up for the Champions.”

Gary, alongside me, was in good form too. He is small of stature is our Gal, but has a booming voice. Just after they became excited about “standing up if you hate Arsenal”, he initiated the song of the game. Just as they were returning to their seats, he rasped –

“Sit down if you’ve won fuck all.”

The entire away end joined in.

And the Spurs fans duly sat down. So funny. Good work, Gal.

On twenty-four minutes, David Luiz was fouled. We waited for the free-kick, some thirty yards away from the goal. The familiar left-foot of Marcos Alonso swiped and curled the ball over the lilywhite wall. I had a perfect view. Loris was well-beaten. The net bulged and so did we.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Our pre-match worries evaporated there and then. We were winning. Oh happy days.

Bakayoko had enjoyed a quiet start but he had a fine run deep into the Spurs half. Harry Kane twice threatened our goal, but his finishing was adrift. Spurs were biting back now, and just before half-time, a low drive from that man Kane came back off the post with Thibaut beaten. Spurs still had time to pepper our goal in the closing moments. We had ridden our luck, no doubt, but I was more than happy. Courtois had made a couple of saves but we looked like a team in control of our own destiny. It had been a very encouraging half. Andreas Christensen had been imperious. It was hard to fathom that this was his full debut. I have a contact through work who is a Borussia Monchengladbach supporter and we have been emailing each other at regular intervals over the past couple of seasons; he was distraught when we brought Christensen back from his loan spell. Elsewhere, we were full of running, full of fight.

Good old Antonio.

At half-time, I found out that the old Tottenham trick of throwing coins had followed them from White Hart Lane to Wembley; friends Liz and Michelle were both clutching coins that had been pelted their way.

That is just shite.

The second-half began. It was more of the same, to be honest, with much Tottenham possession, but Chelsea very compact, forcing Spurs to pass around us rather than through us. Whereas we have width up front and at the back, Spurs’ play was very central and they became stifled. Whenever they did pierce our midfield, I lost count of the number of times that Rudiger, Christensen and Luiz headed clear.

We then enjoyed a fine spell, with Willian teasing and testing the Spurs defence. Morata almost reached a cross. He then shot wide after fine close control although if I am honest I wished that he had not taken quite so many touches. He looks neat though. His goals will come. Moses danced into the box but blazed over. This was a fine Chelsea resurgence. Willian advanced and drilled a shot across the goalmouth, but we groaned as it hit the base of the post. Bollocks.

Ten minutes to go.

Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for the exhausted Morata.

“Come on Chelsea.”

On eighty-two minutes, and after countless crosses being claimed by Courtois, or headed away by the defenders, we conceded a free-kick out wide and I immediately sensed danger.

I almost held myself back from saying it, not wishing to tempt fate, blah, blah, blah, but I simply could not help myself. I whispered to Gal –

“These are the free-kicks I hate us defending.”

Two seconds later, the danger man Eriksen whipped in a head-high cross.

Bam.

1-1.

Fuck it.

The action was so far away that I did not even notice that it was a Chelsea player – the luckless Batshuayi – who had thumped the ball in.

At last the Spurs fans exploded with noise.

And, I will be honest – I am hopefully honest in these reports – the place was fucking rocking. Only on a couple of other occasions have I heard more noise at an English football stadium. They only seem to have two songs, the fuckers – “Come On You Spurs” and “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In” – but it was as noisy as hell. The rabble down to my left were pointing, gurning and strutting like Mick Jagger. What an unpleasant sight.

“Bloody hell. OK, deal. A draw here. A win against Everton. Back on track. Just don’t concede another.”

To be fair to us, we kept pressing. It was a fantastic game of football. With time running out, a ball was played in to Michy, but he crumpled under the challenge. We won the ball back – Luiz, magnificent – and he played in Pedro, fresh legs and full of guile. With Spurs a little flat and half-asleep, he fed in Marcos Alonso.

He advanced.

He struck low.

The ball zipped beneath Loris.

Oh my fucking goodness.

2-1.

What happened then has only happened on a few rare occasions in my football-life. I lost it. We all lost it.

A last minute winner.

Against Tottenham.

At Wembley.

On their big day.

Their big fucking day.

I bounced up and screamed. I quickly grabbed my sunglasses because I knew they would fly off. Damage limitation. I noticed fans flocking down the aisle steps, heading down, I had to join them, destiny. I wanted to run, but steadied myself as other fans knocked me sideways. It was mayhem. Arms flailing everywhere. Pauline had been knocked to the floor. I raced on. Bloody hell, what is Parky’s crutch doing here? At the bottom of the terrace, a mosh pit of ecstasy. Fans bouncing, jumping, arms pointing, bodies being grabbed, hugs with strangers, smiles wide, screams, screams, screams.

And a surreal sight ahead, just yards away.

I looked up to see the entire Chelsea team, or at least the ten men in royal blue – and the royal blue seeming, strangely, out of place among the away end regulars – celebrating wildly with the nutters in the front row.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Costa.

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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Tales From The East End

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 24 October 2015.

So this was it, then. This was to be Chelsea Football Club’s last ever game at West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground, or Upton Park to give its more commonly used title. Next season, they vacate their century-old stadium within the cramped terraces of E13, and head off a few miles to the west and north to Stratford and the former Olympic Stadium.

The plan was to have one last look around the old place – hardly a personal favourite, in fact far from it – before going inside to join the three thousand royal blue loyalists. I had not ventured much past the main stand on Green Street in past years, not since the away end has flip-flopped from the South Bank to the North Bank in around 1993. That main stand, updated and enlarged in 2001, of course houses a ridiculous frontage consisting of a pair of Lego style towers. I wanted to have one last laugh at that. However, I also wanted to pop down to see the statue featuring West Ham’s 1966 heroes for the very first time before, I presume, it would take residency at their new home. I also wanted to rekindle a few memories – God only knows why – of a couple of visits to the South Bank, both heavy losses, in 1986 and 1988.

As I say, that was the plan.

I had missed the creditable draw in Kiev during the week. It was the first match that I had not seen thus far into the current season. I thought that we performed rather well in the Ukraine, especially in the first-half, and really should have put the game away. We tired in the second period and, in the end, were lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw. The reporting of an ambush by locals on a small group of Chelsea fans sickened me to the core. I was keen to hear from a few friends who had travelled of their experiences.

London was calling me.

I was relishing this one.

I left my home town relatively early at just after 7.30am. A long day lay in wait. Leaving so early meant that the M4 was clear.

It was a relaxing drive.

On the approach in to London, the last forty-five minutes maybe, I drove to the sound of New Order’s excellent new album “Music Complete.” The band from Manchester are back to their best. I can’t wait to see them – unbelievably for the first time – in Brixton in three weeks’ time.

Football and music.

Music and football.

New Order are a band – there are a few – that transcend both.

We were parked up at Barons Court at around 10.30am. PD, Parky and myself headed straight in to town on the District Line, but instead of joining up with one of many Chelsea pre-game rendezvous in various hostelries throughout the city, we had other plans. We alighted at Embankment, slap dash in the middle of the nation’s capital. There was to be no trip on the District Line from the West End to the East End on this occasion. Instead, the three of us caught a river bus from Embankment, just along from Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, to North Greenwich, adjacent to the O2 Arena, formerly the Millennium Dome.

Although the skies were grey, with no hint of sun, and the waters of the River Thames bleak, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the very centre of London. Of course, I snapped away like a fool. What did you expect? Oil paintings?

I have only ever taken a boat trip along the Thames once before, and that was with some US friends in 2002, when the trip was at a more leisurely pace and with a guide to hand. This one took around fifty minutes. And it was fantastic.

The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, the Royal Festival Hall, the London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Oxo Building, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, the Nat West Tower, The Gherkin, The Shard, The Walkie-Talkie, the GLC Building, The Tower Of London, Tower Bridge.

And then river boat sped around the broad sweep of the Thames, with that odd mixture of geometric architectural shapes appearing at first to our left and then to our right as our perspective changed.

Canary Wharf, and its financial towers, and then the slowly rising curves of the O2 Arena.

At just before midday, we were setting foot on the south side of the river. Twenty minutes later we found ourselves ordering pints of cider and lager in The Pilot public house a few hundred yards to the south east of the O2. In an area of massive urban renewal – huge blocks of concrete everywhere – this lovely pub was at the end of a row of old London terraced houses, allowed to remain amidst change.

We settled down and chatted about all sorts. We tracked others using our phones. Andy from Los Angeles – in town for just three days – was with others a mile or so away in a “proper” pie and mash shop in Poplar.

“We’ll do that next time. Not had pie and mash for years and years.”

There were a few Charlton Athletic fans in the pub – the Valley is around a thirty minute walk away – but, unsurprisingly, no Chelsea or West Ham fans. It was just pleasant to be doing something a little different at an away game.

Team news came through, and it was an unchanged eleven from Tuesday. I approved.

“The plan” went awry unfortunately. We didn’t leave the boozer until gone two o’clock, meaning that my planned walk down to the statue of Moore, Hurst and Peters – and Wilson – would disappear into the ether.

Unfortunately, mirroring the game in March, we were further delayed on the eastbound District Line from West Ham to Upton Park due to – again – “football crowds on the platform.” This was really frustrating. We were all restless as the train stalled for a few minutes at Plaistow. We walked up the shabby steps of Upton Park station for the final time and headed off to the game. We knew that we’d miss kick-off.

The Chelsea mantra of “one last pint” had struck again.

Bollocks.

We were funnelled down a familiar side street and soon entered the away end. We got in with around five minutes on the clock. I was just getting my bearings when Andy – Los Angeles – suddenly appeared next to me. Not only had he enjoyed some pie and mash, he had also visited one of the most infamous boozers in all of London, The Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, scene of gangster Ronnie Kray’s murder of rival gang member George Cornel in 1966.

Seat numbers were ignored by many as the late-comers just shuffled along the rows.

The Boleyn Ground.

Upton Park.

Our final game.

This would be my eleventh visit to the London Borough of Newham to see Chelsea play West Ham United. My first visit should have taken place on New Year’s Day 1986 – with both teams mounting a twin assault on the league title – but sadly I only reached Aldgate East tube station before hearing from fellow fans that the game had been called off due to a heavily frosted pitch.

My first visit was on Saturday 11 October 1986 – just over twenty nine years ago – and some details are remembered to this day.

There was a visit to Nathan’s Pie and Mash Shop on Barking Road, just behind the away end, and I can remember a West Ham supporter trying to illicit a conversation with me about the Hammers’ recent form. I was having none of it. I kept quiet. There was a clear singularity to my actions behind enemy lines that day; “don’t get sussed.” Although the match was “pay on the gate” (as usually they all were in those days, or at least, for the standing areas), we had to show our plastic Chelsea membership cards to be allowed access into the away enclosure, which was a tight and heavily partitioned area, full of metal obstructions and associated ugliness. I remember the away end being packed. I remember the heavy police presence. I remember Chelsea supporters being lugged out for swearing. I remember that bloody awful Chelsea Collection kit. What was Batesy thinking? I remember us going 3-2 ahead, but then letting the game slip away in the last five minutes, eventually losing 5-3.

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At the very end of the game, West Ham fans – from outside, to my left I think – threw a couple of flares into our end. The away support was 99% male. I remember being gutted to have lost. The Chelsea fans were given an escort – of some sort or another – because we were sent packing on a train west from Upton Park which did not stop until it reached Victoria. It meant that I had missed a connection to take me back home, but who mentioned anything about football fans being treated “normally” back in the ‘eighties? Certainly not me.

In 2015, although there were more females than in 1986, the Chelsea support was still predominantly male. As in 1986, colours were hardly worn.

With West Ham attacking us in the “Sir Trevor Brooking Stand”, I tried to settle. The Chelsea support was getting behind the team, with one particular favourite getting a good airing.

“Frankie Lampard scored two hundred…”

We probably edged the first portion of the game, but West Ham enjoyed the first real chance, with Begovic leaping high to palm Payet’s free-kick over. Sadly, the resultant corner was not cleared and Zarate’s low strike whipped past our ‘keeper and into the bottom corner.

Here we go again. Bollocks.

We tried to chip away at West Ham, who seemed happy to defend deep. We had a few half-chances. The mood in the away end was of grim resilience. I managed to capture on film – snap! – the moment of impact between ball and Kurt Zouma’s forehead as he rose to meet Fabregas’ corner. He headed down, but the ball was cleared.

Soon after, West Ham should have increased their lead as Lanzini broke, but thankfully his lofted effort just cleared our bar.

A chance at the other end; after good work from the tireless Willian, Fabregas’ fine low shot ploughed into the goal, only for our celebrations to be halted by the sight of the linesman’s yellow flag on the far side.

Just before half-time, Matic – already on a yellow – made a clumsy and needless challenge on Sakho, only a few feet from the right touchline. I sensed danger immediately. Matic walked away but I feared the worst. He was called back to receive a second yellow. In my mind, it was academic.

Matic was nothing but a fool.

Brainless.

In the ensuing melee by the touchline, two yellow cards were further brandished to complaining Chelsea players.

This again was brainless.

Did Diego Costa and Azpilicueta believe that their waling would reverse the referee’s decision?

This was just poor discipline.

The mood was dark at half-time. Down to ten men, a goal down, this was going to be a tough ask in the second period. There was a brief chat with Calvin about the perils of Kiev.

“We walked to the stadium. Tell you what, if it wasn’t for the army escort, we’d have got battered.”

Mourinho replaced Fabregas with Mikel. We didn’t notice it straight away, but the manager did not take his normal position in the technical area or in the dugout. We were not sure why.

Rather than succumb to continued West Ham pressure, we controlled much of the ball as the second half got underway. After ten minutes, Zouma managed to get on the end of Willian’s corner. The ball bobbled inside the area, and the Chelsea support sensed something. The ball fell, not ideally, to Gary Cahill, who managed to adjust slightly and smash the ball in.

Pandemonium in the North Bank. I was pushed forward, and clung on grimly to a few friends, rather than tumble on top of the person in front. Shins were bruised, but I remained on my feet. Sometimes having plastic seats in an area where people are standing all game is asking for trouble. I’m not sure why – maybe it is because of the shallow rake – but away fans’ celebrations at West Ham always look mad on TV.

How did we look?

Our faith restored, we roared the team on. Our players responded so well and continued to boss the game. It was indeed hard to believe that we were one man down. It was heart-warming stuff. The teams exchanged a few chances, but we remained ahead on points. Everyone around me was full of praise for Willian who worked relentlessly. It was sad to see, though, Eden Hazard unwilling to move in to space in that tight final third. Is his play simply due to a dip in confidence or are there other reasons for his collapse in form? Diego Costa seemed to be having an off-day too. Although we were enjoying possession, that final ball in to the danger area was missing.

Zarate was substituted, with Andy Carroll joining the fray.

The away crowd immediately chirped :

“Man or a woman? Are you a man or a woman? Man or a woman?”

As the game continued, we were more and more exposed down the West Ham left. A sliced clearance by JT was played back out to Creswell, who had time to spot Carroll in the middle. His prodigious leap over our defenders was oh-so predictable, as was the slow looping header which dolloped down and in, with Begovic caught in no man’s land. To be honest, it is doubtful if he had stayed on his line he would have saved it.

We slumped.

The home fans roared.

Throughout the game, of particular annoyance was the sound of them singing a ditty in praise of Dimitri Payet to the tune of “Achy Breaky Heart.”

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

Now they were in full voice.

I half expected the Chicken Run to start fucking line dancing.

We brought on Baba Rahman and Radamel Falcao late on, but despite the tireless energy of Willian inspiring the support, an equaliser never really looked likely.

The game was over.

And so was our last ever visit to the Boleyn Ground.

On the walk back to the long line at Upton Park tube, I chatted – I think you can call it a superheated conversation – with Mark from Westbury.

“It’s no good Mourinho blaming every one, and everything. The man needs to take responsibility. And the players too. Everyone. We need to stand up. All this of this blaming others…it probably gives the players the wrong message. He just has to prove that he is the manager that we know he has been and hope he still is.”

It was a long trip back to the familiar streets of West London and then our homes in the West of England.

Five losses out of ten league games.

That’s it. I’m not going to football ever again. I will see some of you at Stoke on Tuesday evening.

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Tales From The North Bank Of The River

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 26 April 2015.

Sometimes it often feels to me that the inhabitants of Planet Football have mindfully chosen to perpetually live as if they were children stuck in a particularly spiteful schoolyard where jagged and mean-spirited barbs are continually aimed at each of the other children’s football teams. I’m sure that football is not the only sport where this happens. On “Facebook” I often become privy to some occasionally nasty and rude conversations that take place between some US acquaintances as they discuss the merits of various college football teams, NFL teams or baseball teams. You can be sure it happens in Australian cricket, French rugby, Brazilian football and virtually all major sports currently being played too. Very often the debate is not about the abilities on show in the sport in question, but the personality disorders of players of hated rivals, sexual proclivities of other coaches and managers, to say nothing of the real or perceived differences between rival fan bases.

The reasons for this are many, but I suppose that the driving force for all this constant noise of abuse and antagonism is the desire to prove that your team, or club, is superior and aims to meet its goals in the correct way.

In football, it can get out of hand pretty easily.

There is a song which occasionally gets aired in and around football stadia, and elsewhere, about a certain Arsenal manager and a certain packet of sweets and a certain cheeky smile. To be honest, when we first heard this around twenty years ago it raised a smile, but as an example of how nasty a football song can be, there are few equals. I stopped singing it years ago. I can well remember being squashed inside a tube train en route to an Arsenal versus Chelsea game around ten years ago when the whole carriage seemed to be joining in. In the carriage were a few, only a few but a few nonetheless, young children. A good friend and I both rolled our eyes and admitted to ourselves that this was not a particularly edifying moment in our lives.

Sometimes Planet Football can be a cruel and painful place.

As the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game loomed on the horizon, the relative merits of both clubs came in to focus and the “banter” and dialogue on social media intensified. Out came the barbs once more. At times, I was back in the school yard. And I wondered to myself where I personally stood in this whole “us and them” thing. Of course, I’ve never liked Arsenal, why would I? In truth, I dislike Tottenham more. And yet there is something about Arsenal which annoys me intensely. It is their essential “Arsenalness.”

It is down to two things.

For the vast majority of their existence they have produced a rather humdrum and tedious brand of football, which even the doyen of all things Arsenal Nick Hornby has acknowledged. Yet since the arrival of Arsene Wenger, this “1-0 to the Arsenal” modus operandi has been airbrushed from the record books, with everyone inside and outside the media seemingly brainwashed into thinking that entertaining football has always been the Arsenal way. What nonsense. The memory of George Graham’s defensively strong Arsenal team of twenty-five years ago still lingers.

And then we need to talk about Arsenal supporters. For a sport which has traditionally drawn its support from the working classes, I never fail to be amazed with how painfully middle class the Arsenal support appears to be; they spend their entire life chattering, complaining, bickering, but never realising how lucky they are. This sense of entitlement, which I sadly see creeping in to certain sections of our support, really annoys me. What right have do Arsenal fans think they have to silverware? When Chelsea went without a single piece of silver for twenty-six years, did we wail and moan? No. We simply fucking got on with supporting our club, through hell and high water. Just imagine if Arsenal were to be relegated. The screams of torture emanating from North London would keep inhabitants of Australia awake at night.

And, of course – of course! – the Arsenal fans of 2015 are never shy in singing the two favourites, much beloved in school yards everywhere :

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Shit club, no history.”

Again, there is this insistence within Arsenal’s support – and other teams too – that our success of late is unwarranted due to our perceived lack of historical clout. I need to readdress this view.

Back in around 2002 or so, before anyone knew who Roman Abramovich was, I stumbled across a discussion on a Chelsea fans forum, which totally changed the way that I felt about my club. Back in 2002, even I was beginning to believe the media’s view that we were a mid-sized club. True, I knew that Stamford Bridge had hosted huge crowds, but I also knew that our support had dwindled from the late ‘seventies to the mid ‘nineties. Crucially, it was this era – the most recent – that fans of other teams had referenced in discussing our small support base. Of course, most other teams’ support had dropped in this period too, yet it seemed that it was only Chelsea that was ever mentioned.

In this forum, average attendances were being discussed, and – salvation – somebody posted a link to a Newcastle United forum which, for a lover of statistics like myself, I found to be utterly fascinating.

Here, was a complete list, ranked in order, of every Football League club’s average home attendance, taken from their first season to the most recent. My heart skipped a beat when I realised that “little old Chelsea”, far from being a mid-ranked team, was the fifth-best supported club in England and Wales.

So, as of 2002 (though I think this list might well date from a year or two later when it was updated slightly), the numbers do not lie :

  1. Manchester United – 36,165
  2. Liverpool – 33,591
  3. Tottenham Hotspur – 33,386
  4. Arsenal – 31,692
  5. Chelsea – 31,113
  6. Everton – 30,917
  7. Newcastle United – 30,675
  8. Manchester City – 28,403
  9. Aston Villa – 27, 806
  10. Leeds United – 25,689

Of course, all sorts of things jump in to my mind here, but one key point needs to be addressed. Whereas in 2002 all of the clubs above us in this table had accumulated many more trophies than us, our support throughout almost one hundred years had stayed remarkably buoyant. Yes, Arsenal – for example – had won twelve or thirteen league championships in their storied history, but their average home gate was a mere 578 more than that of Chelsea, who had accumulated just one league championship to that point.

So, rather than the old notion of Chelsea’s support being poor, I would strongly suggest that our support has been historically the most unappreciated and arguably the most loyal of all.

I just wish that this little gem of statistical fact could easily be relayed into a witty terrace chant.

That would shut the bastards up.

My football weekend had encompassed a nervous ninety minutes watching my local team, Frome Town, eke out a 1-1 draw with St. Neots Town on the Saturday. The draw ensured survival for the fourth straight year at our highest ever level in the football pyramid, though this was due in part to the disappearance of former Football League club Hereford United around Christmas; thankfully, only three teams were relegated, not four.

On the Sunday, Parky and I decided to do something a little different. Everyone else seemed to be meeting in a Chelsea stronghold – The Shakespeare’s Head – at Holborn, which is where I have tended to assemble for Arsenal away games for ages, but I parked by the Fullers Brewery at Chiswick and we went on a really excellent pub crawl along the River Thames. We spent a few hours in four different pubs – The Old Ship, The Dove, The Rutland Arms, The Blue Anchor – before catching the Piccadilly Line east and then north at Hammersmith. This part of London is not specifically Chelsea territory – it is closer to Fulham’s ground – and I am sure that hardly any Chelsea match-going fans drink this far out on match days, but it is a pub crawl that we definitely want to repeat. Each pub was different, each had its own charms and each had lovely views of the river. There were blue plaques everywhere. The pubs are on the course of the University Boat Race. There was history and charm aplenty. Quirky and magnificent, it was a part of London that I had not yet witnessed until then. We’ll do it again.

Our meandering walk on the north bank of the river reminded me of the peculiar nature, in some respects, of our support. Yes, Chelsea is on the north side of the Thames, yet we have an SW6 postcode, and our traditional working class support was based not only in Fulham and Hammersmith but south of the river in Chelsea strongholds such as Battersea, Wandsworth and further south into Mitcham, Tooting and beyond. Arsenal, by contrast, eked out an existence south. That meandering Thames in its last twenty miles heading through the nation’s capital city has helped define and confuse the sense of geography of two of its teams.

Chelsea – north in location only, southern in spirit.

Arsenal – roots in the south, now in the north.

As soon as we entered “The Shakespeare’s Head” – packed with familiar faces and hardly any Arsenal – a new Chelsea song entered my consciousness. For a good ten minutes or more, it was non-stop. I quickly tried to work out the words. Within a few minutes, I was joining in.

“Fabrgegas is magic, he wears a magic hat.

He could have signed for Arsenal, but he said “no, fuck that.”

He passes with is left foot, he passes with his right.

And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

For the current climate, in current circumstances, this was a rather light ditty, without any associated malice. The cruel school yard seemed distant. I texted the words to a couple of friends, but word had got out. The Chelsea section of the World Wide Web was heating up with references to – gasp – a new song.

Lovely stuff.

The team news came through; “no striker.” Ah, the game…I hadn’t thought too much about it. A draw would be fine from my perspective. It seemed that Jose Mourinho agreed. A draw would knock Arsenal and their 578 extra fans out of the title hunt. I geared myself up for a dour defensive battle. Mourinho doing a George Graham, but with tons more charisma.

The stations at Holloway Road and Arsenal were closed (at the latter, there was the sulphurous odour of a smoke flare, Chelsea at work no doubt) so we had to alight at Finsbury Park. This resulted in a delay; I missed the kick-off by ten minutes. There is no doubt, for all the negativity about the lack of atmosphere inside, Arsenal’s stadium is striking.

Chelsea, in all blue, were attacking the other end.

Courtois, Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Matic, Ramires, Oscar, Fabregas, Willian, Hazard.

My pre-match expectation of a dour defensive battle was not too wide of the mark. As the game progressed, I commented to Gary that Arsenal never really looked like threatening us.

“We can soak all this up all day long, Gal.”

The first-half provided me with more good opportunities to observe how well our defence plays as a unit. Only on a few occasions did the Arsenal players find space. In a first-half of few chances, a shot from Ramires was saved by Ospina after good work by Willian. Penalty shouts came and went; Ospina clattered Oscar and Fabregas was booked for simulation.

Our support was in good voice, with the Willian song and the new “Magic Hat” song providing the highlights. One thought kept filtering in to my mind though –

“How can 57,000 people make such little noise?”

It was not difficult to judge the mood of the home fans though. They seemed to be resigned to the fact that even a win against us would not be enough. I can hardly remember a rousing Arsenal song the entire game. There was only a rise in the volume from the home areas when Arsenal attacked. There was no solid backing throughout the game.

Jose replaced Oscar with Didier Drogba at the break. I hoped for a little more attacking verve, but there was little. Courtois dominated the box time and time again, forever seeming to thwart high ball after hall ball. I thought that Dave had yet another fine game of football, but the star of our team was John Terry, who was simply magnificent. Walcott and Welbeck entered the fray late on for Arsenal, but we kept them at bay. I noted that a considerable amount of home fans applauded Cesc as he was replaced by Zouma.

The point was well won, and the away fans roared. After the final whistle, the screams of pure delight from John Terry were captured by me on camera.

Inside, if I am honest, I felt a little flat. Yes, I would have taken a draw before the game, but this particular game of football will not live too long in my memory. I felt a little empty. I wondered if it was only me experiencing these feelings. Sigh.

Outside, a little army of away fans had congregated outside the turnstiles and were baiting the home fans in the lounge and bar areas above. One song dominated.

It was magic.

We made our way south, back to Hammersmith, then repeated our footsteps back to the waiting car. As the evening sky was reflected in a resting River Thames, thoughts turned to Leicester City on Wednesday evening. Another win there and we will almost be home.

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