Tales From Platform 11 And Platform 25

FC Red Bull Salzburg vs. Chelsea : 25 October 2022.

When we heard the dates for the games in Group E of this season’s Champions League, my first task was focussed on sorting out Milan. I am, after all, used to just attending one away game of this stage in the competition. But after discussion with the Paul and Parky, I then turned my attention to the away match at FC Red Bull Salzburg. It took a while to resolve but I eventually sorted out a trip for us all.

2022 (Milan and Salzburg) would join 2015 (Porto and Haifa) and 2017 (Rome and Baku) as the only years that I would complete two of the three group phase games. I am in awe of those that continually attend all three, and in absolute awe of those who rarely miss any European away games.

Quickly, then, after the home game with Manchester United on the Saturday came a trip out to Austria on the Monday.

I collected my fellow troops late on Monday morning and we headed up to Heathrow where a British Airways flight to Nuremburg in southern Germany would take off at around 3.45pm. There was much traffic in the last section of the trip east and we arrived a little later at Terminal Five than planned, but all was OK. I had hoped for something a little more substantial on the outbound flight than a packet of crisps and a glass of water but “hey ho.” A fortnight after I was looking down on the port of Dover en route to Turin, I was looking down on it again, though from a much higher elevation. We had left a little later than planned but the pilot clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. We touched down at Nuremburg airport at 6.45pm.

We caught a cab to our digs – a really nice apartment in the middle of an industrial estate – and then soon headed for some drinks. We stopped at a little neighbourhood bar en route to a U-Bahn station for the first drink of the trip, and I had to conjure up some German for the first time in ten years. Amazingly, I realised that the very last time that my little tootsies had been on German soil was the day after a certain game in Munich in 2012. Nuremburg city centre was pretty quiet. We had further drinks in three bars and the lagers, of course, went down well.

I was last in this old city in the summer of 1985. I had stopped off on a month-long Inter-Rail trip to primarily visit Zeppelin Field where Hitler held those rallies in the horrific days of the Third Reich. I traipsed all over the southern half of the city on a Sunday afternoon. Eventually I found it all. The Grosse Strasse was still in place, as was the Congress Hall, and the tribune and podium remained. I clambered up on to the very podium where Hitler addressed his followers. It was, I have to admit, a very eerie sensation.

It pains me to report that a Chelsea mate, a Jew, was abused after a recent game by some of our so called supporters.

Words fail me.

I spoke to Paul and Parky about Hitler’s plans to build the biggest stadium of them all, just to the west of the Grosse Strasse – “Deutsches Stadion” – which would have held 400,000 in a huge horse-shoe shape, but this monster was never built. It would have been the biggest stadium ever.

I saw their eyes glaze over before me.

Sadly, my hunt for a German sausage, a crusty bread roll, with some sauerkraut and a dab of mustard did not materialise. We made do with a chicken kebab.

The wurst was still to come.

…more eyes glazing over.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, we took the U-Bahn into town and caught the 8.12am train south to Munich. It was a quick and easy service and only took an hour or so. I tried to snooze a little. Outside there was mist and fog, with limited visibility.

But I was awake to see a gorgeous image that I think will remain in my memory forever. Looking out to my right, in the middle of a field shrouded in mist, a lone white church tower stood, with sunlight crashing against it.

It took my breath away.

I quickly thought about my two previous games in Austria.

1994/95 : Austria Memphis 1 Chelsea 1 and two words – “John Spencer.”

2016/17 : Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0 and another two words – “shite friendly.”

There was a quick turnaround at Munich’s Hauptbanhof, a place that I remembered not only from post-match meanderings in May 2012, but from my wanderlust years of my youth. My most common trip in those days was Milano Centrale to Munich Hauptbanhof, via a change at beautiful Verona. It afforded me a fine sleep between Verona and Munich. I must have travelled that route ten times or so.

Our onward leg left from Platform 11, right on the southern edge of the main section of the station, which – I have to remark – was not as large as I remembered it. Nothing on the scale of Milan’s beauty anyway.

Platform 11 brought back a funny memory or two from late September 1987.

Ian, Trev and I – three college mates, as featured in the Milan episode – had spent the evening at the city’s famous Oktoberfest. We were blitzed. Four had consumed massive steins apiece. We were walloped. I am not sure how, but I walked away with two “Spatenbrau” steins, the others had one apiece.

Fellow travellers were slumped, snoozing, comatose, all over the station, a scene that was repeated after the 2012 game where Glenn and I tip-toed among Bayern fans on the way to the left-luggage lockers.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, in a beer-induced haze, my two companions first lost their left-luggage keys, but eventually found them. Trev was out of money so decided to catch an overnight train to Paris and head back to the UK early. Ian and I would travel to Hamburg. But I then realised that I had lost my wallet and Inter-Rail card and that Trev must have had them both; he was already asleep and far from impressed when I woke him. It was lucky that I had awoken him to be honest. He was on the wrong train so I quickly hooked him off. By sheer luck, I had rescued him just in time. We all then decided to catch an overnight train to Vienna to get some sleep after the Hamburg train never materialised.

We slept like babies.

When we woke, all was still. Ian and I presumed that we had miraculously arrived in Vienna. Trev, bless him, thought that he was newly arrived in Paris.

I looked outside.

We were still stuck on platform 11 at Munich.

Fackinell.

My only explanation for this is that the Germans, bless them, had put on train compartments for revellers to sleep in overnight during Oktoberfest.

But none of us never found out for sure.

Later that day we headed up to Stuttgart and Dortmund to see a football game that had already taken place.

Drink. What a perilous friend.

Back to 2022, we arrived at Salzburg train station at just before 11am. The last few miles of the jurney had been simply magnificent. The Alps to the South were just splendid. What a joy to travel in support of our team.

Salzburg. I was last here with my then girlfriend Judy, en route to a few days in the Alpine resort of Kaprun in late 2010. I had dropped into Salzburg from Vienna once in the ‘eighties by train, I think I never left the train station, but stayed an afternoon in the city on a day trip with my parents in 1977 from Seefeld in the Austrian Tyrol.

We picked up our match tickets at the quaintly named Fanny von Lenhert Strasse – I heard we had sold all 1,500 – and then quickly nabbed a cab to take us to our digs, a one room apartment a mile outside the city centre. Within an hour of arriving in Salzburg, we were sat at a table in a local restaurant drinking a pint of Stiegl, awaiting the arrival of plates of pork schnitzel with parsley potatoes.

The beers went down well. I remembered the beer from 2010.

The food was gorgeous too.

Fantastic.

We walked into town and soon spotted some friendly faces outside a sun-kissed bar in the square next to the train station.  It was about 1pm.

“Corner Am Banhof” was to be our base for around two hours. It was bliss. Although our friends Alan, Gary, Daryl, Nick and Pete were down in the old town, where I had visited with mater and pater forty-five years ago – I remember a castle atop a hill and Mozart’s birthplace and lots of antiquity – we found it hard to move. Leigh and his son Darren invited us over to share a table and their two friends from Norway had brought them a bottle of “Fisk” to consume; a heady drink consisting of eucalyptus, liquorice, menthol and vodka. The bottle was shared.

“It’s like getting pissed on Lysterine.”

A local woman, with a shapeless hat, kept pestering us for cigarettes and money.

Leigh’s son Darren asked me if I knew who she was.

“Badly Drawn Girl.”

Friends of Leigh and Darren from Basingstoke called in, suffering a little from a Stiegl brewery tour on the Monday.

Talk of alcohol, talk of football, talk of alcohol again.

The sun beat down. My face was heating up.

“You love the Limoncello, Leigh.”

“Love it? He bought the T-shirt.”

Leigh, wearing a vivid yellow Stone Island T-shirt, beamed in the autumnal sun.

Many friends drifted in and away. A group of Chelsea supporters were sat across the way. I felt sorry for the lone bartender. She was pulling pints of “Stiegl” at record speed.

It was time to move on. We had heard that some friends were massing at the “Shamrock” in the old town so another cab was hailed. We usually avoid Irish bars, preferring local ones, but the weight of friendship was pulling us. Inside, there were more familiar faces.

Fifteen minutes, we sauntered into the “Shamrock” and yes, faces everywhere.

Cathy and Dog, Josh and Andy from LA, the Gloucester boys, Big Rich, George from Prague, Charlotte, Donna and Paul from Somerset, Skippy from Brisbane, the famous Druce brothers.

The drinks flowed. Smiles and laughter. We stayed around two hours.

Andy led the march to a cab rank and we hopped in. Andy, now a family man, used to be ever present at games at the Chelsea pub in Orange County but can’t attend so many these days.

“I miss the sticky floors.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

It took forever, maybe forty minutes to travel just a few miles. We were dropped off outside the Red Bull Arena to the west of the city centre with about forty-five minutes to go before the game was to begin at 6.45pm. This would be the second Red Bull Arena that I would have visited after the one in Harrison in New Jersey in 2015.

The Red Bull franchise, for the want of a better word, has many enemies in the world of football. Since taking over at Austria Salzburg in 2005, the club changed colours from violet and white to red and white – a sure way to upset existing fans, eh? – and have hoovered up titles ever since; thirteen since 2005.

A breakaway club – SV Austria Salzburg – was soon formed and there are factions within the current sporting landscape of the city.

I was reminded of a conversation that I had in a Viennese bar en route to Bratislava in 1997. I was chatting to an Austria Memphis fan – sponsorship has long been part of this nation’s football scene, this club is now known as Austria Vienna but was temporarily named after a cigarette brand – and he spoke of a pre-season tournament that used to take place between teams in Europe that played in violet, that rarest of football colours. The three teams that I remembered were his own Austria Memphis, Anderlecht and Fiorentina. I suspect that a fourth team was Austria Salzburg.

Reb Bull Salzburg fans hated the way Red Bull Leipzig stole some of their best players since its formation in 2009; seventeen all told. This can’t be how football will be run in future generations, can it? There is no more hated club in Germany than Red Bull Leipzig. The fans of Locomotive Leipzig must loathe the club like no other team.

I guess that Red Bull Salzburg are equally loathed in Austria.

I am sure it wasn’t by design, but we ended up virtually circumnavigating the stadium which was built in 2003. We set off outside the east stand, bumping into fellow Chelsea on the way, before finally ending up outside the away entrance in the south-western corner. A factory was pumping flumes of smoke into the bright blue sky near the stadium, and as we walked underneath the dark stands, walkways above allowed fans, presumably enjoying pre-match festivities in adjacent corporate blocks, to traverse into the seating area. They resembled skywalkers. There was something bleak and futuristic about this, almost dystopian, an odd image that I had to capture on film.

Fritz Lange’s “Metropolis” as a football game? Maybe. He was born in Vienna. Maybe he knew something.

Chelsea played a pre-season game against this team at this stadium in July 2019; a 3-0 win. I am sure nobody I know went.

We were inside with about half-an-hour to go. The Chelsea support was split into two. We were based in the rather dark and dingy lower corner at the southern end. I took many photos of friends as they waited for the game to begin.

I approached Tim, DJ, Neil and Pete.

“Not sure I am ready to do this game on my blog. I am bollocksed.”

The result of around five hours of solid drinking was having an effect.

The three of us spotted space where the Famous Five – Nick the Whip, Pete, Alan, Gary and Daryl – were stood so we joined them. There was rail seating and of course everyone stood. There was netting ahead of us, obscuring the view, with fences to the front and screens to the sides. We are so used to no segregation in the UK that it still comes as a slight shock to see what others in Europe put up with.

Before kick, the dimming of lights, the boom of the PA, then mosaics and a huge “Salzburg” banner at the opposite end.

I had again, as in Milan, opted on my pub camera for this trip. In this dark corner, I was sadly resigned to the fact that my photos wouldn’t be too great for this game.

Chelsea were wearing those poxy navy socks; why? The home team were in a meek and weak grey kit, like something from an Alex Ferguson dystopian nightmare, circa The Dell 1996.

Our team?

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Pulisic – Kovacic – Jorginho – Sterling

Gallagher – Aubameyang – Mount

Or something like that.

It was probably easier to surmise the shape upstairs in the other section. Very soon into the game I mentioned to Pete that we were exhibiting the exact same stance, leaning on the metal barrier in front, but with our fingers smothering our faces in fear of a misadventure.

An early chance for Kai Havertz. Reacting well to collect a miss-timed headed back-pass, he stretched but crunched the Salzburg ‘keeper Philipp Kohn who lay on the deck for a while.

Chances at either end were exchanged in the first quarter of an hour and it was an even game. Maybe Pete and I were right to be a little concerned. It had been a lovely trip this far, and although these European forays are never all about the football in itself, the onus was on us to secure a win here and, with it, our passage into the knockout phase in 2023.

The home fans were raucous. But we were in good voice too.

“And it’s Super Chelsea.”

The referee, from Switzerland (um, is that akin to us having a Scottish ref in charge at Chelsea, answers on a postcard…) was wearing a red shirt, black shorts and red socks. This elicited a super bit of trivia from Nick who has been going to Chelsea since the ‘fifties and always, always, has a cupboard full of interesting facts about our wonderful club.

“We wore those colours at Maine Road in 1966, the game when Osgood flicked some V-signs at the City supporters.”

“Love it.”

A Salzburg shot flew over the bar at our end.

A forest of wanker hands to the home areas, thank you very much.

On twenty-three minutes, a move broke down at the other end and the ball fell to Mateo Kovacic. With the quickest of reactions, our Croatian man guided the ball high past the Salzburg ‘keeper from twenty yards out.

What a finish. He gets too few goals, but they are often classy efforts.

Alan, to my right :

“Zey vill have to come at us now.”

Me :

“Come on meine kleine diamonds.”

Chelsea were 1-0 up.

Phew.

“He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

From a Conor Gallagher corner, a glanced header from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang soon followed, but there was a sublime stretch and save from their ‘keeper. After a magnificent flowing move from south to north, Havertz set up Aubameyangr but our whole section groaned when the chance was spurned.

More chances were exchanged but Chelsea were in the ascendency, often with long passing moves aimed to find spaces in the packed Austrian defence.

A save down low from Kepa.

A save from another Gallagher cross and a meek Havertz header, close in.

Just before the break, our best move of the game thus far, with the impressive Havertz dancing in from the left touchline and the ball ending up with Aubameyang, but yet another fine save by their ‘keeper.

At the break, I had a little wander and began watching the second-half at the back of the section for a different perspective. The area next to the home fans to our right afforded such a poor view.

Soon into the second-half, Salzburg equalised when Junior Adamu latched onto a searching ball from out on their left cut out everybody. It was a fine goal and reignited the home fans.

Two quick chances followed for Aubameyang – another fine save – and Jorginho, a header swiped away on the line.

At the half-way stage of the second-half, Christian Pulisic twisted and turned the ball inside to Havertz, who dragged the ball back.

I shouted “Kai – SHOOT!”

He did.

His left foot conjured up some magic, the ball flying into what the Americans call the “upper 90.”

I hugged Daryl – I was now at the other end of our line – and we celebrated a really fine goal.

“It’s still nice to know that after all the years I have known you, and after witnessing so many Chelsea goals, it still elicits the same response.”

We were now 2-1 up.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for the excellent Kovacic.

A fine save, now, from Kepa down low. A clearance from Thiago Silva off the line. Phew.

Armando Broja for the frustrating Aubameyang.

A few more chances came and went, with Kepa now the busier of the two ‘keepers.

Two late substitutions.

Hakim Ziyech for Sterling.

Mason Mount for Gallagher.

Thankfully, there were no late scares. With us winning 2-1 and Milan beating Dinamo Zagreb 4-0, our qualification for the next phase, and holiday roulette, was secured. A first-place finish is teasingly close.

Right after the match, we sped outside, over a grass verge and straight onto a waiting bus that took us straight back to the centre of the city. As the bus reached its destination, there was a spontaneous round of applause for the driver. This was just excellent. What great organisation.

Five of us, Team Druce and us Three Chuckle Brothers wandered off into the city. We hoped to get some food, but two places were shut. We caught a cab after a drink in the first restaurant of the day and ended up a few doors down from the “Shamrock” in the old town, or rather right on the very edge of it.

“I saw more of bloody Salzburg in 1977 with my parents.”

More “Steigls”, more laughs. The night continued on. We stayed for two hours. At around 1am, it was time to call it a night. We got a cab back to Ausstrasse and soon fell asleep.

I was awake at around 9am on the Wednesday with not the slightest hint of a hangover. I just love those Austrian and German beers.

We wandered down to the city centre, killed some time with some food, alas no wursts, and caught the train to Munich at midday.

At Munich Hauptbanhof, there was an hour wait. Our pre-printed itinerary said that our return train to Nuremburg would depart at just after 3pm from platform 25, this one on the northern edge of the main station.

At just before 3pm, we saw a train marked up for Nuremburg pull in to platform 22.

We hopped on it.

Easy.

Well, not quite.

After an hour or so, with me trying but failing to nod off, I noticed we were making very slow progress. We were on the wrong train.

This one, instead of arriving at 4.45pm ahead of our 7.50pm flight home, would get in to Nuremburg at 6.16pm.

Bollocks.

We had obviously missed an announcement about our booked train, much faster, leaving from another platform.

From 4pm to 6pm, we sat still and silent, consumed about our plans once we hit Nuremburg. It was the slowest two hours of my life. The train tantalisingly stopped right outside the final destination for ten minutes.

Tick tock, tick tock.

It eventually pulled in at 6.25pm.

I almost expected a German army officer in plain clothes to wish us “good…luck.”

We hurriedly raced out into the evening air and I shouted to the first cab driver.

“Flughafen. Schnell. Schnell. Schnell.”

As I said it, I knew it sounded ridiculous.

Thankfully, the cab only took ten minutes to reach the airport and by 7pm, we were through security and waiting for our – now typically delayed – plane. We were there with an hour to spare.

I heard the theme to “The Great Escape” in my head.

“And relax.”

But still no German sausages. Damn it. Next time.

The flight left a little late, but we were back at Heathrow in good time. We left there at just before 10pm, and I was home just after midnight. It had been the easiest part of the entire trip home.

This had been a lovely trip.

And I have enjoyed writing this one.

Why does its title reference a train station in Germany, though?

Because it’s Munich. I just like talking and writing about Munich.

My friend JD always lists the number of stadia that he has attended seeing Chelsea games outside the UK, and the one in Salzburg was number seventy-six. That’s some number, eh?

While I am in the mood, and everyone knows that I love a list, my current foreign experiences with Chelsea are as follows (and I include games in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland here as these countries are outside of our home league which includes England and Wales) :

Camp Nou, Barcelona, 4.

Stadio Olimpico, Rome 3.

Allianz Stadium, Turin 2.

Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson, California 2.

Estadio Dragao, Porto 2.

FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland 2.

Johann Cruyff Arena, Ajax 2.

Mohamed Bin Zayem Stadium, Abu Dhabi 2.

Nissan Stadium, Yokohama 2.

Olympic Stadium, Baku 2.

Parc Des Princes, Paris 2.

Yankee Stadium, New York 2.

Allianz Arena, Munich 1.

Allianz Stadion, Vienna 1.

Bank Of America Stadium, Charlotte 1.

BayArena, Leverkusen 1.

Benito Villamarin, Seville 1.

Birds Nest Stadium, Beijing 1.

Bukit Jalil Stadium, Kuala Lumpur 1.

Cowboys Stadium, Arlington 1.

Estadio Jose Alvalade, Lisbon, 1.

Giants Stadium, Meadowlands, New Jersey 1.

Groupama Arena, Bucharest 1.

Heinz Field, Pittsburgh 1.

Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow 1.

La Romareda, Zaragoza 1.

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow 1.

M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore 1.

Mercedes-Benz Arena, Stuttgart 1.

Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor 1.

Nef Stadium, Istanbul 1.

Olympic Stadium, Kiev 1.

Optus Stadium, Perth 1.

Prater Stadium, Vienna 1.

Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok 1.

Rasunda Stadium, Stockholm 1.

Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey 1.

Red Bull Arena, Salzburg 1.

Richmond Park, Dublin 1.

Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa 1.

San Siro, Milan 1.

Stade Louis 2, Monaco 1.

Stadion Strelnice, Jablonec 1.

Stadio Olimpico, Turin 1.

Stadio San Paolo, Naples 1.

Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto 1.

Steaua Stadium, Bucharest 1.

Subaru Park, Chester, Pennsylvania 1.

Telhelne Pole, Bratislava 1.

Toyota Park, Chicago 1.

Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo 1.

US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis 1.

Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen 1.

Vicente Calderon Stadium, Madrid 1.

Weserstadion, Bremen 1.

Windsor Park, Belfast 1.

Total Stadia : 56

Total Games : 71

UEFA Games : 43

FIFA Games : 4

Friendly Games : 24

Tales From My San Siro Odyssey

Milan vs. Chelsea : 11 October 2022.

My San Siro odyssey began in August 1986.

Whereas my 1985 Inter-Rail jaunt around Europe took in many countries, from Italy in the south to Sweden in the north, the 1986 version – another solo-trip, another dose of me finding confidence through travel – was focussed on Spain, France, Italy and the Greek Island of Corfu. It was all about exploring the southern parts of Europe and the first fortnight or so encompassed Biarritz, Madrid, Barcelona, the Italian Riviera for a week, Pisa and Rome before I then spent around ten relaxing days in three locations on Corfu. After that had all finished, and on the return trip north, I wanted to stop off in Milan. In the three weeks or so that I had been away from Blighty, I had already visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and Stadio Olimpico in Rome. To miss out on the San Siro – or the Giuseppe Meazza as it is sometimes known – would have been foolhardy.

I caught the long overnight train – fourteen hours, the longest of the whole month – from Brindisi to Milano Centrale, arriving at 9am on a Thursday morning in early August.

Ah, Milano Centrale.

It brought back memories of my very first taste of Italy.

In 1975, on my first European holiday, my parents and I caught a train from London Victoria to Milan, another overnighter, on the way to Diano Marina in the Italian Riviera, and so the immense interior of this incredible station – Mussolini must have liked marble – thus witnessed my first ever steps on Italian soil.

A year later, another Italian holiday – this time to Lido di Jesolo near Venice – and another train to Milano Centrale. On this occasion, our onward leg was by coach and so we walked outside the station to pick up the connection. I was therefore able to witness the three huge halls that made up the station frontage. These were equally as impressive as the three semi-circular roof spans covering all of the train tracks.

By 1976, I had already chosen Juventus as my Italian and my sole European team but was of course aware of the two Milan teams who, in those days, were known in England as AC Milan and Inter Milan.

An Italian family had settled in my home village after the war and although they didn’t seem to be particularly into football, one of the brothers had a son, Adriano, who occasionally visited and he once told me that he favoured Milan. Incidentally, the mother in this family lived to a very grand age of 109. There must be something in that Italian diet.

My parents, on a whistle-stop visit to Milan on an Italian holiday in the ‘fifties had called in to see this family’s relations and my father often told the story of being given a few shots of the infamous grappa.

On a few visits to Italy, back to Diano Marina again and again to see my pal Mario, I became acquainted with more and more aspects of the Italian game. At that time, Inter were bigger than Milan – in terms of fan base – and the two clubs’ support tended to be split along socio-political lines.

Inter : middle class, to the right.

Milan : working class, to the left.

Oh, and I soon learned that “Inter Milan” was wrong, very wrong…either Inter or Internazionale and nothing else. At the time, Juventus were the dominant team but the two Milanese had sporadic success. Milan won a scudetto in 1978/79 but were then relegated to Serie B in 1979/80 due to a betting scandal and again in 1981/82 due to being, er, shite.

Which brings us nicely to 1982/83 again.

As I have mentioned previously, the visit of Leeds United to Stamford Bridge on Saturday 9 October 1982 absolutely captivated me. It stirred so much emotion. And it engendered such a sense of anticipation.

Chelsea versus Leeds.

Bloody fantastic.

Growing up, Leeds were a massive name. Just as I was getting into football, the big teams were Leeds United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. Derby County were champions in 1972 but never really had the same clout as the others. Manchester United? No, a joke of a club on the decline. Manchester City? Off the radar.

With Leeds getting unceremoniously dumped into the old Second Division at the end of the 1981/82 season, throughout that summer I was kept buoyed with the thought that I would be – hopefully – able to see them play my beloved Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

The fixtures were announced. I would not have to wait too long. Unlike the Leicester City game in September when I travelled up by train, for the Leeds game I went up by National Express coach from Bath. This was a tiresome journey and I remember being relatively miserable about the whole experience. I think it was a bit cheaper than the train – my diary mentions the coach costing £5.50 – and it was all about saving money for football in those days.

I remember that some long lost Canadian cousins had recently dropped in on us – my father’s cousin from Vancouver – and I had been gifted an oversized Vancouver Whitecaps shirt as a present. I know I decided to wear it up to the Leeds United game. What do I remember of the day? I remember arriving at Victoria Coach Station and catching a tube to Fulham Broadway.

I distinctly remember this :

I was stood in the central aisle, and I noted a young lad in front of me. Maybe the same age, seventeen. He was smartly dressed. He was wearing some sportswear. Maybe some Adidas trainers. Actually, maybe some desert boots. Maybe a Slazenger pullover. Perhaps an Adidas rain jacket. Definitely some tight jeans. And I certainly remember thinking “mmm, that’s a new look, something different, bit like a mod but with a football twist.” I was certain that he was going to Chelsea. I don’t remember a pin badge though. And I remember him looking at me in my Vancouver Whitecaps shirt, and the thought went through my head that he was trying to suss out who I was, which team.

At that time, living in rural Somerset, I was blissfully unaware of the dress code that had enveloped urban cities such as Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and London but which had originated on the football terraces. There were skinheads, punks, headbangers, mods, but that was it as far as I was concerned.

Looking back, I am positive that my first ever sighting of a casual took place on the tube on the way to Chelsea and Leeds that day. I would later learn that on that very day, the warring factions – I am not sure if I had heard of the Leeds Service Crew in 1982 but it is quite possible – were chasing each other around Piccadilly Circus that lunchtime.

The programme memorably had this message emblazoned on the cover :

“Welcome to all Leeds United fans present today. Chelsea FC extend a warm welcome to the supporters of our distinguished visitors Leeds United. We hope you witness an exciting match and have a message for you – don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug – and help your club achieve greatness once again.”

I remember having a chuckle at this. There was no mention of a warning to Chelsea fans here. It would seem that we were an innocent party. I can just imagine Ken Bates mouthing the “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug” to the programme editor.

“Yeah, that scans well. Put that in.”

I don’t remember much of the actual game and sadly I didn’t take my camera to games in those days. I absolutely remember the malevolent atmosphere though. I watched from my usual spot in The Shed, under the roof – just – and towards the tea bar. Leeds, I suppose, had around three thousand fans and the size of the gate really warmed me. It was 25,358, much more than I had expected and the third biggest of the day in the Football League. I remember Leeds in two central pens, nobody else on the bleak north terrace. But I remember that the northern segments of The Benches and the East Lower – what I would later learn to be the infamous Gate 13 – were absolutely rammed. It was as if the stadium had been tilted north and everyone had been squashed up against the north terrace. This gave me, an excitable youngster, the impression that the Chelsea fans just wanted to have a go at the Leeds lot.

There was one chant from The Shed that made me grimace :

“Did the Ripper, did the Ripper, did the Ripper get your Mum? Did the Ripper get your Mum?”

This was the Yorkshire version, not Jack of old London town.

The teams that day?

Chelsea : Steve Francis, Gary Locke, Chris Hutchings, Micky Droy, Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew, Mike Fillery, Pop Robson, David Speedie, Clive Walker.

Leeds United : John Lukic, Trevor Cherry, Eddie Gray, Kenny Burns, Paul Hart, Gwynn Thomas, Kevin Hird, Aiden Butterworth, Frank Worthington, Frank Gray, Arthur Graham.

This would be my first sighting of David Speedie. There are some names in that Leeds team. The Gray brothers. Kenny Burns. I must admit that I have no recollection of seeing Frank Worthington but I am glad that I evidently did. He was one of football’s great mavericks. Please Google his goal for Bolton against Ipswich Town in 1979.

Sadly, the game ended 0-0 and was memorable for the outbreaks of fighting in the East Stand than the quality on show on the pitch.

I sloped off and ended up waiting at Victoria for an hour or so to catch a coach home. Some Tottenham fans had been at their game at home to Coventry City and we got talking. Once they heard I was Chelsea, they told me to watch out for Leeds fans as they were “nasty buggers” and I remember one of them eying up what I was wearing.

“Don’t worry, I think that you will be safe with that on.”

Let’s move on four years to 1986 and my short stopover in Milan. I bought a map at the station and walked down past La Scala Opera House to the grand cathedral – Il Duomo – in the city centre before walking to Cairoli and catching a tube to Lotto. The weather was super-hot and the walk to San Siro was tough going. I first thought that I wouldn’t be able to get in, but thankfully I soon found an open gate so sneaked inside. In those days, the stadium was just two-tiered, a huge concrete edifice. Childhood hero Ray Wilkins was playing for Milan at the time. Another couple of tourists were inside too. One of them took a photo of me looking ridiculously tanned after my stay on Corfu. San Siro was undergoing a transformation over the summer; plastic seats were being bolted onto the once bare concrete, at least on the steps of the lower deck. I took photos inside and out. It was a joy to be inside one of the palaces of European football. My diary tells me that I scrawled “Chelsea FC” on one of the green seats at the northern end. That doesn’t surprise me. I had scrawled the same on a fence at the stadium in Rome too.

I didn’t leave Milan that day until I took a train to Paris at around 7pm. There is no doubt that I would have spent a fair few hours at Milano Centrale, an activity that I would repeat many times over the next four years as I repeatedly returned to Italy. My diary noted that Milan was “not a fantastic place really” but I enjoyed being in this famous city, this famous football city, and of course the home of Italian fashion and the birthplace of the “paninari” a few years earlier.

Earlier in 1986, I had bought the Pet Shop Boys’ mini-album “Disco” and absolutely loved the song “Paninaro” :

“Passion and love and sex and money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Food, cars, travel.
Food, cars, travel, travel.
New York, New York, New York.
New York.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

I don’t like country-and-western.
I don’t like rock music.
I don’t like, I don’t like rockabilly or rock & roll particularly.
Don’t like much really, do I?
But what I do like I love passionately.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

You, you’re my lover, you’re my hope, you’re my dreams.
My life, my passion, my love, my sex, my money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Don’t like much really, do I?
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
But what I do like I love passionately.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

What an anthem. In 1986, the paninaro look was definitely assisting the UK’s casual look to evolve. I had bought some deck shoes, a “Best Company” T-shirt and always had one eye on what was happening in Italy and on the terraces at Chelsea and elsewhere. It was a great time to be young and into football, music and clobber; the time of my life.

At San Siro in 1986, just for the record…red Kappa polo shirt, Adidas shorts and a pair of yellow espadrilles.

There is one more thing to add from my holiday in 1986. At Ipsos on Corfu, I shared a tent with a chap called Rob who owned a record shop in Sacramento in California. Every few months, he would visit London and buy up a ton of obscure music posters, T-shirts, and rare CDs and ship them out to the US to sell at hugely-inflated prices. It got me thinking. I cottoned on to the genius of selling rare items at a nice profit. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think too long. My post-college future was decided during that Inter-Rail trip of 1986. I would buy English football badges – the small, super small, circular ones – and travel out to Europe flip-flopping between games in Germany and Italy to sell them at games. For all of its problems with hooliganism, or being blunt because of it, I just knew that English badges would sell well in Europe.

I was itching to go. Sadly, I had one more year at college to endure.

Tick tock, tick tock.

1986/87 passed with Chelsea finishing in a lowly fourteenth place but I had fared better; I somehow passed my Geography degree with an Upper Second. However, my immediate future didn’t involve job fairs, interviews or further studies. My future was focussed on football.

Fackinell.

That summer I returned to work in a local dairy, as in 1984, to gather some sheccles together for more foreign travel. In September, I set off with two college mates – Ian and Trev, the same course – for another spin around Europe. On a Saturday evening in Rome in early September, after another visit to Stadio Olimpico, I stumbled across a booklet listing the Serie A fixtures for the season.

A quick scan of the fixtures : Inter vs. Empoli.

“Fancy it? Sunday.”

“Too right.”

We were headed up to Venice for an early morning visit, arriving at 6.30am. However, after a whirlwind walking tour, we were away at 9.45am and headed to Milan via a change at Vicenza. I had bought a copy of the famous daily sports paper “La Gazetta Dello Sport” to check some details about the game and tickets were on sale for L.10,000 or about five quid. The fervour being shown by a train full of Brescia fans en route to Padua – a local derby – astonished us. It was a fine pre-curser to our afternoon in Milan. We got in at 1.30pm and the game was to kick-off at 3pm. Perfect. We disappeared underground and took a metro to San Siro which was quite a way out. There was a free bus at Lotto to take us to the stadium. I had time to peruse the various grafters outside.

“No English badges. Great stuff.”

Italian ones were selling for L3,100 or about £1.50.

Our tickets positioned us above a small knot of Empoli fans in the southern end, the “Lions’ Den” section where Milan’s ultras congregated. We had reached our seats by entering near the northern end but the steady slope took us around the outside of the stadium to deposit us in the southern end. To my amazement, we sat on raw concrete. But I was not bothered. I was in football heaven.

The Alps were visible above the Inter fans in the north end. I loved all the banners.

“Boys.”

I think that was their main group.

“Boys San.”

Loved it.

Empoli? I knew little about them apart from that they were newly promoted. On the previous weekend, they had won 2-0 at home to Juventus, a huge shock at the time. On this day in sunny Milan, I watched on with great pleasure. This was my first professional football match outside of England, Scotland and Wales.

The San Siro would always have a place in my heart.

The Inter team that day included some stars; Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Altobelli plus the two “stranieri” Daniel Pasarella and Enzo Schifo. It was an utter joy to witness Italian football in the flesh.

Aldo Serena and Altobelli gave Inter a 2-0 win in front of 42,672.

My diary notes “I am sure I can make a killing there with badges.”

Later that year, in November, I sold badges at Juventus’ Stadio Communale before an evening game against Panathinaikos in the UEFA Cup. I only sold 31 but it was a start. I was less fortunate in Mannheim and Munich in Germany. I was stopped by the police in Mannheim and also in Munich where I decided to foolishly chance my luck. I had sold 34 at Munich’s Olympic Stadium – going well – but I did not have a street trader’s licence – “reisegewerbekarte” – so was arrested and fined on the spot. However, a cop let me in to watch the last twenty minutes of the Bayern vs. Uerdingen game for free.

In February 1988, I was at it again.

My first game was at San Siro, and a friendly involving Milan and Steaua Bucharest on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Unbeknown to me, the Serie A games had been cancelled due to an Italy vs. Russia game in Bari on the Saturday but thank goodness Milan had sorted out a friendly. Milan were in full flow at this time with Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten leading the team to glory. I did OK at this game. The gate was only 14,000 but I sold 26 badges and 2 scarves. One bloke swapped his “Fossa Dei Leoni” badge for one of mine. There were a few nervous moments as several police cars drove past but I was not spoken to. I had decided to pitch myself near the to where the Lotto busses stopped. It seemed perfect. I was positioned just outside the San Siro “Trotter” arena; horse racing but with the jockeys in little buggies.

It is a mystery why I did not pay the £4 to attend the game. I guess that I was on a limited budget – I certainly ate frugally and infrequently while away for a month – and the whole point of me being in Italy was, firstly, to make some money. I walked away with £40 in my pockets, and a profit of about £25.

Small acorns and all that.

A week later, I was back at San Siro for the Milan vs. Sampdoria game. Here was the real test. Thankfully this went swimmingly well. Again, I didn’t go inside, but for a valid reason; it was a sell-out. At half-time I was stood outside the stadium with a few thousand others. I went on a wander across the vast car park and returned to hear the clamour as Milan’s second goal went in. They were to win 2-1. The attendance was 72,000 and I walked away with £125 and a profit of about £80. I had sold 80 badges and 7 scarves. Not bad for around four hours’ work. I was in heaven with thoughts of returning again. And again.

Before the game, probably against my better wishes, I had bought the monthly magazine “Forza Milan.” As a Juventus fan, it was a bad move, but I just wanted to immerse myself in Italian football. It really was a heady time to be a Milanista. It felt that their time had come. At the end of the 1987/88 season, they were crowned as champions for the first time since 1979. Silvio Berlusconi was in charge, Arrigo Sacchi and his famous “pressing” was getting the best out of his players. And Gullit and Van Basten were soon to be European Champions with The Netherlands in the summer.

Mamma mia.

Later that week, I did even better at Verona, selling 79 badges from a crowd of just 33,000 before and after a UEFA Cup game with Werder Bremen.

In the summer of 1988, I recorded an episode of “Rough Guide – Milan” with Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha (remember them?) and the travel guide totally encapsulated all that was rattling around my brain at the time. There is no doubt that I was deeply infatuated with all things Italian from the mid-‘eighties onwards.

My next trip to Milan, and San Siro, would be my last for thirty-two years. It came in September 1990, right after the momentous Italia’90 World Cup – when many English folk “rediscovered football”, stop sniggering at the back – and I had returned from an equally momentous ten-month holiday in North America. With English football back with a vengeance after some dark days, the time was right for me to head over with a freshly-acquired stash of English – and Scottish, Celtic in particular always sold well in Italy – badges.

It was a heady time for Italian football. The national team had threatened in the World Cup before falling to a Maradona-inspired Argentina in a semi-final. However, I always thought that it was club over country in Italy, even more so than in England.

The Serie A title was certainly shared around in this period.

1985 : Verona.

1986 : Juventus.

1987 : Napoli.

1988 : Milan.

1989 : Inter.

1990 : Napoli.

The second Sunday of the 1990/91 Serie A season saw me return to Milan for the Inter vs. Bologna game.

At the end of the day, I started my daily journal :

Milano Centrale, Sunday 16September 1990.

“Tutto Inglese e Scozzese. Quatro mila lire.”

My sales patter didn’t go on for long, but it certainly did the job. I must have repeated that phrase five hundred times in the six hours before the 4pm kick-off.

My diary reports a “perfect day” and it is certainly one that I look back upon with a great deal of pleasure. It was, simply, one of the best “non-Chelsea” days of my life. I had arrived at Milano Centrale at just before 8am. By 10am I had arrived outside the remodelled San Siro and – oh my goodness – I can well remember the sight of those monstrous red girders floating above the photogenic towers that had been added to the San Siro since my last visit eighteen months earlier.

Within an hour, I had sold 26 badges to a stall-holder, at a slight-knock down price of L.3,500 each. I had decided to up the price to L.4,000 per badge from my L.3,000 price in 1988. I stopped selling at 3.15pm in order to buy a ticket off a tout – I couldn’t miss this game – and I nabbed one for L.25,000 instead of L.20,000.

As it happened, I could afford it.

My one memory of this day is of ascending one of the helix shaped towers behind the South Curv and scrambling to a seat almost at the rear of the very back row of the third level. I stood up and spent what seemed a long time picking L.5,000, L.10,000, L.20,000 notes and even one L.50,000 note out of all four pockets of my jeans and adding them to the pile in my wallet.

That day I sold almost 200 badges. I even sold some on the slow walk back to Lotto without even trying; a lad had remembered me from before the game and stopped me to buy ten. By the time I had pulled the last note from my jeans, I had made £330 which equated to a profit of around £200.

I hope the tax man isn’t reading this.

The game was half decent. Inter had the three World Cup winners Klinsmann, Matheus and Brehme in their team. I noted that Bologna countered well. In the last minute, Alessandro Bianchi scored with a great volley in front of the “Ultras”, “Boys San” and “Vikings” in the home Curva Nord to give Inter a 1-0 win. The noise was utterly incredible even though the gate was only around 50,000. The other lot, Milan, were the bigger draw by far at the time. They were the “buzz” around the city.

On the following Sunday, I paid another visit to San Siro and another fine afternoon followed. This time it was Milan vs. Fiorentina. I didn’t go inside for this one. Outside, I sold just under one hundred badges. My diary notes that I soon sold out of Liverpool, Chelsea and Celtic – by far the best sellers in 1990 for reasons that might well be obvious – and so I did well to sell so many. I was outside the stadium when Milan scored their first goal – they went on to win 2-1 – but I left for the station well before the end as I had developed a bad headache. One thing of note; I had been chatting to an English guy from Rochdale who had stayed over from the World Cup with England. He was interested in selling badges too; he seemed a bit of a chancer, but I gave him the ‘phone number of the bloke in Blackburn who had provided me with the badges. He disappeared off to “blag” some tickets but I later saw him, crestfallen, having been picked up by plain clothes cops, his tickets nicked too.

What a plum.

Alas, my badge-selling days were over before they had really got going.

There is a sad end to all of this in fact. A few days after the greatest days in Milan, I was robbed while on a train from Zurich to Genoa – I was knocked out using CS gas I think, it was all the rage on Italian trains at the time, luckily my Inter-Rail Card and passport were untouched – and so I had to sheepishly make my way to Turin where my friend Tullio’s father lent me some money to get home.

I remember his father answered the doorbell, so surprised to see me.

“Ah Chris! Come va?”

“Cosi cosi.”

It was the biggest understatement of all time.

This story continues on though. In 1995, I met up with Pete, the chap who sold me all those badges at cost price – bless him – before a Chelsea game at Ewood Park. He treated me to a pub lunch and we spoke about our grafting days. He was a Liverpool supporter – he was there in Rome in 1977 and elsewhere too – and when I spoke about Milan, I mentioned the chancer I had met in 1990.

“Oh, Milan John?”

“You know him?”

“Yes. From Rochdale. I always wondered how he got my number.”

“Bloody hell, Pete, I gave it to him.”

It turned out that this bloke had stayed on in Milan and was now living with the woman who was running the newsagents on the platform at Milano Centrale. He often bought badges from Pete. To say I was fed-up was another understatement.

“Bloody hell. That could have been me. Could have met an Italian girl. Could have had badges sent out to me. What a bugger.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Milan : you could have made me.

Vaffanculo.

In February 1997, Chelsea played Milan in a friendly at San Siro and a few hardy souls went over to watch. We lost 2-0 in front of 8,756. I think both teams just needed a game. A few friends attended but there was no way I could go over.

In October 1999, Chelsea played Milan in the San Siro in the Champions League group phase. Unfortunately, I was unable to get time off work and so, sadly, missed it.

In March 2010, Chelsea played Inter in the Champions League quarter-finals. Again, work got in the way. I had just changed companies and I knew my new boss would have struggled without me in the office for three days and so I valiantly – stupidly? – decided that I would forego my chance to see us in Milan.

I have seen Chelsea play seven times in Italy – three against Juve, two against Roma, one against Lazio, one against Napoli, and not a single win – but a visit to San Siro with my beloved Chelsea was evading me like Tottenham’s relationship with silverware.

It was gnawing at me.

There were ongoing rumours, which gathered strength over the years, of both Milan teams moving into a new build which would rise in the car park where I had walked in 1988. This news depressed me. I saw the plans for the new place. They looked super-modern yet so bland. The drama of San Siro’s bulk was missing. Sigh.

Thankfully, our names were drawn in the same group this autumn and I could look forward, at bloody last, to a visit.

ANDIAMO!

The plan was this :

A flight to Turin on the Sunday evening. By the time I had got to looking at flights after returning from Chelsea on a Saturday night, all of the cheap and timely flights to Milan had disappeared. Not to worry, I much prefer Turin to Milan. Three nights in a central apartment with PD and Parky. I would hire a car on the day of the game. A brief spell of sightseeing in central Milan then off to the match. A midnight flit back to Turin and then a flight home from the city’s Caselle airport on Wednesday evening.

I picked up PD at 11am on the Sunday morning and Lord Parky not long after. It was a fine drive to Gatwick. Despite the 4.40pm flight leaving an hour late, the pilot must have known a short cut as he clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. I had a window seat and particularly enjoyed the flight over the English Channel. I pondered how many thousands of articulated lorries I had sent over this small expanse of water since I began at my job in March 2003. From the air, I was able to easily see both coasts; France to the left, England to the right. I thought back to all those solo trips to Europe in my Inter-Railing days. What good times.

We landed at Caselle at 8.10pm. We took a cab to the city. By 9.12pm, I had navigated how to obtain our apartment keys and to enter our pad on Via Fratelli Calandra. Outside, misty rain. But our spirits were lifted when we spotted a small pizza place directly opposite. We sat ourselves inside on some high stools and ordered the first beers of the trip.

“Ichnusa” – from Sardinia – was first spotted by us in Rome in 2017, and here it was again. It was a fine lager. I had a pepperoni pizza – cheap, only eight euros – and all was well with the world. We slept soundly.

Monday was a lovely, lazy day. My two fellow Chuckle Brothers had only visited Italy once before – that Rome trip in 2017 – so Turin was new to them. I took them alongside the River Po, and spoke about the city a little. But I soon found my voice often drifting away to silence when I realised that they weren’t really taking it all in.

I’ll never make a tour guide.

We sat at a few cafes and ordered some cappuccinos. We got the nod that Callum was going to be in town for an hour or so en route to Milan so we caught a cab to Porta Susa train station. This was fine since it enabled me to scope out the Hertz car hire place that I would be utilising on the Tuesday. We all met up in a bar.

We wondered if we had indeed sold all 4,300 tickets. All we knew is that they had gone “off sale” so we hoped so. I spoke to Cal about my Italian pal Tullio who I have known since meeting him in Diano Marina, that town again, in 1981.

“I remember one Saturday morning, ahead of a Napoli game on the Sunday, in 1988…he drove over to meet some school friends after they had gone in to study. They were all labelled-up. Best Company sweatshirts. Timberlands. Sisley coats. Benetton. Lacoste. Jansport duffle bags. Even their school files were adorned with designer labels.”

“I need to up my game here.”

My Joe Bloggs denim shirt looked decidedly downmarket in comparison.

In the afternoon, we slurped a draught Ichnusa apiece in a bar directly opposite one of Turin’s must-see attractions. The National Cinema Museum is housed within the Mole Antonelliana, a building with a domed roof and spear-like tower. Rob and I went up the lift to the viewing gallery in 2009 and I was hoping to do the same this year. Alas, the lift was not working. Not to worry, I visited the film museum while PD and Parky supped on more Ichnusa.

What a joy.

And this was just right for me. During the first nervous months of lockdown in 2020, I really got into Italian films, especially those of the neo-realist school; step forward Rosselini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. I always loved “La Dolce Vita” but also really admired “Bicycle Thieves”, “Rome Open City” and the best of the lot “Two Women.” I also fell in love with Sophia Loren. Again.

The museum was stupendous. It was a visual treat. If you ever find yourself in Turin – I call it Italy’s hidden jewel – go. In fact, go now. Tell them I sent you.

That evening, we dropped into two familiar pubs on the main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II; “Six Nations” and “The Huntsman.” In the second one, we sat at the exact same table that we used on the night before the Juve game last season. Lo and behold, who should walk past but Andy – from the East Midlands I believe – who I last spent time with in Abu Dhabi. He too had flown into Turin.

As I always say : “Chelsea World is a very small world.”

Tullio popped in to see us for an hour or so. It was a joy to see him again. He was, alas, visibly hurting after Juventus’ continued failings under Massimilliano Allegri. I spoke about my previous visits to Turin.

I worked out this was visit number ten.

“No, wait. Eleven. I forgot your wedding.”

We smirked.

1987 : Juve vs. Panathinaikos.

1988 : Juve vs. Inter.

1988 : Juve vs. Napoli.

1989 : Juve vs. Fiorentina.

1990 : the “so so” moment.

1992 : Juve vs. Sampdoria.

1999 : Juve vs. Fiorentina – oh, and the wedding of Tullio and Emanuela.

2009 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2012 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2021 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2022 : Milan vs.Chelsea.

The evening was lovely. We rounded off the night with several shots of “Baileys” and God knows why. It was, as ever, a good night.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, PD woke me at around 6.45am.  We walked to the Porta Nova train station and caught a cab to Porta Susa with blue skies overhead and the city of Turin looking as gorgeous as ever.

Sorting out the car took a few minutes, but I was soon heading east through the rush-hour traffic of Turin. It was slow going during the first half-an-hour. But we were soon on the A4 to Milan. It made me chuckle really. In my childhood, my father used to drive along a section of the A4 – Beckhampton to Hungerford – on numerous trips to Chelsea. On this A4 instead of signs for Fyfield, Marlborough, Savernake, Axford and Hungerford there were signs for Chivasso, Greggio, Vercelli, Novara and Galliate. To our left, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps were stunning.

This was no normal Chelsea away trip.

This was one of the very best.

We stopped briefly at a service station near Novara. I stacked up on coffee and snacks.

There was heavy traffic, again, just after a toll on the western outskirts of Milan. A journey that was due to take two hours was nearing one of three hours. But I knew we were closing in on our goal. My work colleague Lorenzo had highlighted the Lampugnano transport hub as the best place to park for San Siro. I was headed there, but first wanted to park up at San Siro because…well, because…it needs no explanation.

At around 11.30am, I briefly parked my black Toyota outside a stadium car park and took a few shots with my camera. The stadium looked even greater than I had remembered it. It was simply stunning. A dormant beast. Those cylindrical towers. Those slopes of concrete. Those roof beams. Spectacular. I was boiling over with emotion.

After six previous visits I was at last going to see us play here.

It was forever a standing joke about Milan that no matter what year you visited it, the roads were always in a state of upheaval due to metro extensions taking place. I am sure my parents mentioned this from their visit in the ‘fifties. Well, ironically, the lines are all fully extended now and completely finished, but on this day of all days there was a bloody tube strike.

At Lampugnano, we were therefore forced to catch a cab into the city. The taxi driver was a Milanista and resembled Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We were driven in past the striking new skyscrapers to the immediate north-west of the centre. We soon collected our match tickets at the Westin Hotel on Piazza della Repubblica. There were familiar faces outside. It was true; we had sold all 4,300 tickets.

Magnificent. Well done everyone.

We met up with fellow Somerset supporters Charlotte and Paul, Donna and Colby. A little sight-seeing was in order. I suggested a short hop north to Milano Centrale. This edifice did not disappoint. It was as stunning today as in 1975. While PD and Parky retired to the station bar, I gave the others a quick tour. I was reminded of the time – after the Milan game in September 1990 I think – when thousands of Inter fans returned from a game just as I had reached the outer hall. They were full of noise and of course the chanting echoed around the vast chamber to superb effect. I was also reminded, after a hot day walking the streets of Milan, how cool it was inside.

Yeah, Mussolini loved marble.

We walked south then caught a tube, bang on three o’clock when the strike ended, at Turati to Duomo. I had always walked this section, so exiting the metro stop and seeing the myriad towers of the city cathedral for the first time was another stunning moment. I never was a great fan of the city, but its two great cathedrals – Il Duomo and San Siro – are outrageously magnificent.

More photos. A beer in a bar. And a panini. When in Rome.Then a tube down to the area called Navigli, where several canals join and a vibrant bar scene has developed. It was where Chelsea were based on the Monday, and it is where many friends were based pre-match.

The place was mobbed. We didn’t venture too far. Many bars had run dry. Beers were on hold at the first place we queued. This was all a bit of a ball ache. Thankfully, PD and Parky had spotted a quieter bar near the nearest tube station so re-camped there. I waited for some friends – Georg and Petr from Prague, Eliot and Lawson from New York, then Sean from New York – and we had a relaxing natter. One more pint of “Warsteiner.” Just two pints was enough. I had to drive back to Turin after the game after all. Georg and Petr asked of our predictions and a 2-1 Chelsea win was a common response.

We set off for San Siro at around 6.45pm. Plenty of time? Think again.

The tube was rammed. But rather than changing at Cadorna onto the red line – which I was planning to do – everyone didn’t budge. At Cadorna, none of us could leave the compartment. We were therefore forced to stay on to Garibaldi. When a train pulled in, a young woman saw who – or rather what – was waiting to join her carriage and physically ran down the compartment.

Maybe she was a Tottenham supporter.

My route would have been eleven stops. This new route was sixteen stops. What a pain. It got worse. At Domodossola, hundreds of Chelsea fans were singing, chanting, banging the roof, creating havoc. For twenty minutes, we didn’t move. The Milan fans were getting irate.

“Because of you, we miss match.”

Corrective action was needed. It was around 7.45pm. We stepped outside and tried to get a cab. But this was hopeless. Hundreds of Chelsea got off here too. They disappeared into the night. At about eight o’clock, we realised we needed a Plan B.

“Right, back downstairs. Let’s see if the trains are running now.”

Bizarrely, the Milan fan that was so irate with all of us was still on the platform. This was odd. Eventually at around 8pm, a new train arrived. This was full of Milan fans; not a bad sign. They knew the timings. They were absolutely full of song too. And in good spirits. They loved our Cucarella chant and repeated it back to us. Most were wearing Milan colours, as had many that we had seen around the city. The dress-code of the late ‘eighties in Italy of jeans, green bomber jackets, scarves and boots – especially the Inter lot – was clearly no more.

There were many songs lauding the rossoneri and one linking interisti to “vaffanculo.”

Our “Oh Thiago Silva” was met with smiles.

Just as the train rumbled into the San Siro stop – newly built, or at least since my last visit – I turned to the nearest Milanista and said “good luck” and he smiled. We shook hands.

I had always approached San Siro from Lotto to the north so I was a little discombobulated.

We were marched west, right past where my car had been parked earlier, and we began the slow march in to the away section. Our ticket was cross-referenced with our passport. Further in, there was a predictable altercation with a couple of stewards who wanted me to take my pocket camera – I had left my SLR at home, I am no fool – back to “bus.”

Oh Christ. Here we go again.

There was no bus. My car was half-an-hour away.

I pleaded that it was just a “piccolo machina” and they thankfully let me in.

“But – no photo in stadio.”

I replied : “sure, OK!”

I thought : “Yeah, right, sunshine.”

It was about 8.40pm.

PD and Parky, hobbling, were allowed access to the lift. I tried to join them but was not allowed in. Instead, the slow ascent up the helix. It was fine, thank heavens. The old ticker wasn’t grumbling at all.

Inside, our area – the upper third tier, green zone – was near packed to capacity. I could go left into the centre or right to the end where I guessed there would be more empty seats. I chose right. After just five or six steps up, I spotted PD and Parky right next to the aisle.

4,300 Chelsea in one tier and we were together again.

Result.

Georg and Petr were just a few feet away too.

Relax.

This looked a full house; 75,000? Superb. Chelsea fans kept arriving, some way into the game. The stadium was as I remembered it. I looked over at the southern end and imagined myself there in 1987 and 1990.

What would the 1987 me have made of all this? Or the 1986 me for that matter?

1986 Chris : “Wonder if I will ever see Chelsea play here?”

2022 Chris : “Yes. Yes you will.”

1986 Chris : When?”

2022 Chris: “Not until 2022.”

1986 Chris : “2022? I’ll be an old man by then.”

2022 Chris : “Steady now.”

1986 Chris : “So, that must mean in European competition? That must mean we will win something?!”

2022 Chris : “We will win plenty.”

1986 Chris: “Tell me! No wait. Don’t. That will spoil the surprise.”

2022 Chris : “That’s my boy.”

Graham Potter, what a journey he is on, chose this team :

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Sterling

Aubameyang

There was a mosaic…nothing great, just “Let’s Go Milan”; like something an American high school teacher might say to a basketball team. It hardly referenced Milan’s illustrious European pedigree or used words to inspire.

The lights dimmed a little. Then the anthem, the fluttering of the logo on the centre-circle. The teams lined up. Chelsea were to play in all white. I was just pleased that I couldn’t see the insipid jade green / light blue hoops.

To me, it referenced the all-white that we wore in 1966.

On more than one occasion, a thought fluttered inside me :

“Ron Harris has played here twice.”

The Milan kit looked virtually all black from row 88. It was a poor kit. I much preferred the 1988 version.

Ooh those white shorts and white socks, eh Ruud?

Just before kick-off, I couldn’t resist a short burst of venom.

“MILAN MILAN VAFFANCULO.”

And you Milan John, you can vaffanculo too.

The game began and Milan, attacking us in the North Curv – OK, it’s not a curve, but it’s what the Italians call an end – where the strongest over the first ten minutes or so. Leao danced and shuffled his feet a few times. I had a feeling that if we denied him, we would have a chance.

For all of the singing and chanting in Navigli and on the metro, I didn’t think we were in particularly fine voice.

After some exchanges, the game altered direction irrevocably on twenty minutes. Reece James threaded a fine pass into Mason Mount. Inside the box, the midfielder tried his best to get a shot away but his effort was booted clear by Tatarusanu. I was concentrating on his efforts to shoot so wasn’t looking specifically at Tomori’s rough intervention.

To our joy, the referee signalled a penalty. A huge roar from us. There were protestations from Milan, but the referee was unmoved. Jorginho, to his credit, walked away with the ball and stood yards from the melee of Milan players hounding the referee. Eventually, he approached the spot. Again, a long wait. Jorginho took forever. My camera was poised. Our midfielder took so long that I had visions of my lens retracting.

He approached the ball.

Click.

The ‘keeper went right.

The ball went left.

Shades of Munich.

GET IN.

My dear friend Alan was unable to travel out for this game but I heard his voice from afar.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Wow. We were 1-0 up at the San Siro.

But still one song dominated…

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

I smirked when I remembered another memory in Italy not so long after this Milan moment. In December 1999, I travelled out for the lacklustre 0-0 draw with Lazio. A certain left-back missed a sitter late on and this – admittedly short-lived – chant was sung :

“Babayaro. Missed a fucking great goal. With one minute to go. In the Olimpico.”

Anyone remember that?

I really don’t know how I missed it, but it soon became apparent that Milan were down to ten men. There was a little ripple of acknowledgement in our area; it seemed that I wasn’t the only one that had missed it. I suppose we were all too busy celebrating the penalty decision.

Superb.

Olivier Giroud headed wide down below us and Milan seemed upset and ill-at-ease.

A really fine move carved open the Milan defence on thirty-four minutes. Mateo Kovacic played a ball in to Mount, who flicked it beautifully wide and into space. We had the glorious sight of both Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Abameyang free and with just the ‘keeper to beat.

Surely?

Aubameyang slotted it low past the Milan ‘keeper.

He ran down into the corner and although I had missed taking a photo of the goal, at least I captured the joyous celebrations.

We were winning 2-0 at the San Siro.

OH MY FUCKING GOODNESS.

This was magnificent stuff.

There was a fine chance for Mount in the closing moments of the first-half. His nimble turn allowed him to poke a low shot goal wards, but the Milan ‘keeper got down low to turn it around the post.

On forty minutes, purely planned to the minute, around fifty huge flags behind the opposite goal were waved and their presence lasted for the rest of the game. It was some sight.

It was a wonderful to see the place packed to the rafters. Bizarrely, two central sections in the middle of both upper tiers were unused though. Maybe there was a problem with egress from these lofty locations. The tiers go on forever at San Siro. And the huge roof hovers over everything. There is hardly a more stunning stadium in the whole of Europe. It is certainly supremely photogenic.

I was in heaven.

I was so far up, I might as well have been.

At the break, disbelief in the North Curv.

Graham Potter made a change at the break.

Conor Gallagher replaced the really excellent Mason Mount. We guessed he was saving Mason for later games. I had liked the energy of Mateo Kovacic and the calming positional play of Jorginho in that first-half. To be fair, all our players had been magnificent.

An early, seemingly easy enough, chance came to Gallagher who rounded the ‘keeper after a fine forward run from Trevoh Chalobah but his effort went wide, striking the side netting amidst groans from the 4,300.

We were easily the more accomplished team as the half progressed. We had a few half-chances.

The manager rang some changes.

Cesar Azpilicueta for James.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Sterling.

Positions were moved around. I tried my best to work it all out.

Our possession football – cheered with many an “olé” – must have tired Milan out. We looked relaxed and purposeful in everything we did.

There was a strong run from Loftus-Cheek, at his best, but his pass to Aubameyang resulted in a miss-cue. But our chances greatly out-weighed those of the home team.

Two late changes.

Kai Havertz for Aubameyang

Marc Cucarella for Chilwell

The Milan fans raised the roof with ten minutes to go with the loudest chant of the night. If I had to choose, I would always go for Inter over Milan, but their fans really impressed me over the two games.

Our fans by now were only chanting sporadically. As far as I can recall, there was not one single moment when the entire tier was singing as one. It was almost as if this was too easy. Especially with Milan playing with only ten men. It was an odd feeling. I thought back to all those great players to have worn the red and black stripes over the past forty years and this current team, despite being the current champions, are surely a pale shadow of the great Milan teams.

Baresi. Costacurta. Baggio. Van Basten. Ronaldinho. Shevchenko. Donadoni. Maldini. Ancelotti. Rijkaard. Papin. Pirlo. Kaka. Nesta. Seedorf. Ibrahimovic. Inzaghi. Gullit.

Mamma mia.

The game ended.

Milan 0 Chelsea 2.

What a fantastic result.

On the drive up to London last week, ahead of the Milan home game, if somebody had said that we would win both games with an aggregate score of Chelsea 5 Milan 0, nobody would have believed it.

Certainly not 1986 Chris.

Fackinell.

We were kept in for about forty-five minutes at the end of the game. We popped into the nearby snack bar which was surprisingly still open and I devoured a lemon iced-tea. I was allowed access to the lift this time.

The three of us slowly made our way back to Lampugnano; it was a thirty-five-minute walk. Halfway back, quite a way from San Siro, two trucks were still selling food.

“A burger, an iced tea and a Red Bull.”

The first two were soon demolished. The third would be consumed on the drive back to Turin.

There was a little chat with a Chelsea fan. I commented that there just didn’t seem to be that wanton euphoria that no doubt was in evidence at the 1999 “Dennis Wise” game. That it was all a bit subdued.

We agreed that the two clubs were at different stages in 1999 and 2022.

1999 : Chelsea as European novices, Milan as European royalty.

2022 : Chelsea as seasoned European competitors, Milan as a faded club.

I made relatively good time on my return to Piedmont from Lombardy. I set off at 1am, I was parked up outside the apartment at 3am.

Wednesday was another relaxing day. I was up early, though, at 7am to return the motor at 8am. It had been a magnificent adventure along the Italian A4. We checked out of the apartment after a light breakfast. There was time for a few beers in the city centre and a magnificent meal to boot. Callum joined us and we shared a cab to Caselle in order to catch the evening flight home.

There was even time to nab a couple of bargains at the Robe di Kappa shop at the airport.

“Paninaro, oh oh oh.”

I thankfully fell asleep for an hour on the flight back to Gatwick.

One young Chelsea fan was full of enthusiasm about the game. There had been a noticeably large contingent of youngsters out there. This is fantastic to see.

“That was my first ever away game.”

“In Europe?”

“No, the first ever. I just can’t get access to tickets for away games.”

This amazed me.

But it amazed 1986 Chris even more.

“My first away game was Bristol Rovers. His is Milan? Mamma mia.”

I eventually got home – the M3 closed, part of the M4 closed – at 1am on Thursday morning.

Next up, Villa away on Sunday. See you there.

1987

1990

2022

Tales From Simply A Superb Game

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 2 January 2022.

My run of football games over the festive period was continuing.

On the first day of 2022, following on from Frome Town’s 3-3 home draw with Melksham Town, it was time for another non-league match involving my local team. I travelled with my pal Fran over to nearby Paulton Rovers who had been enjoying a decent season themselves. This was one of those fabled games of two halves; in the first a rampant Frome attacked the end housing it’s sizeable travelling support and led with a fine goal from Kane Simpson. In the second-half, a different story as the home team dominated the game yet failed to really trouble the Frome goalkeeper. Frome weathered the storm and scored a late breakaway goal at the end via James Ollis to win 2-0. It kept the team at the top of the division down in level eight of the football pyramid. There was another large gate; 649 was more than four times the average Paulton Rovers attendance of 137. There must have been two hundred away fans. I enjoyed it.

But this was just a pre-curser, an hors-d’oeuvre, before the weekend’s main course.

On the second day of 2022, the last game of my Christmas schedule pitted Chelsea against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. However, as one run of games was ending, we were now overlapping into another sequence of games. Against Brighton, we embarked on a run of four home games in a space of just eleven days. I can’t ever remember a more condensed run of matches at Stamford Bridge.

Brighton followed by Liverpool followed by Tottenham followed by Chesterfield.

Of course, the build-up to the Liverpool game was dominated by Lukakugate. I suspected Machiavellian forces at work with the timing of the release in information of the interview. But oh Romelu, what were you bloody thinking? We waited to hear what the club’s response would be. Of course the most annoying thing about all of this was the fact that Lukaku had scored two in two games and had brought an extra element to our play against Villa and Brighton.

I hate negative noise around Chelsea Football Club. It spoiled my anticipation of the upcoming game a little. But Sunday soon came around.

I collected the same three passengers on the way up to London as for the Brighton game four days earlier; between the four of us in my car, there was a total of seven-hundred and ninety-five games and fourteen goals for Chelsea.

…cough…and I’ll say it again…cough.

There was very little traffic on the road to London. The weather was fine if a little grey. I dropped PD and Lord Parky at “The Eight Bells” and Ron at the bottom of Fulham Broadway. I was parked up bang on 11.30am. The journey had taken me around three hours again.

I walked down to Fulham Broadway tube station. There were a few minutes to wait for the southbound train and so I used the time to take a few photographs. I especially zoned-in on the old stairways that lead to the original station’s booking hall. The memories came flooding back. It’s a bit of a metaphor for Chelsea really. One station but split into two. The antiquated southern part is frozen in time along with my memories of the club before success and money – or money and success if our rivals are to be believed – while the northern part is slick and swish and functional. I used to love being squeezed right out onto the Fulham Road from those exit stairs that were only used on match days, and that I bet most new fans are not even aware of. But these days we walk out through the back of a shopping centre and past an entrance to a car park.

In recent months, I have fallen in love with the short train ride from Fulham Broadway to Putney Bridge. With my driving duties completed, it represents a chance for me to relax a little knowing that I have again reached London without incident nor accident. I have never been a nervous nor anxious driver, but there is always a little bit of me that is relieved once I park up at Chelsea. We pass through Parson’s Green, a famous old Chelsea battleground for those that know and all that bollocks, and I love looking back at Stamford Bridge across the rooftops and then over to the buildings of Chelsea Harbour. The trip is over within four minutes but it’s now a favourite part of my Chelsea day. Putney Bridge is the cutest of stations. And of course I love the thought that within a minute of descending those wooden stairs I will be walking into the friendly and cosy “Eight Bells.”

Talking of which…

I spent from 12.30pm to 3.45pm with PD and Parky, but also with Jonathan, who I was not planning on meeting up with until I realised that he was sat a few seats away from me against Brighton. I sorted out a ticket for him for Liverpool there and then and we agreed to meet up. He came in just as I was about to launch into a plate of gammon, fried eggs and chips, as per PD and as per Parky. Of course, the others were the dedicated drinkers while I was the dedicated driver. PD, Parky and I ran through a few thoughts about Abu Dhabi; I hope to book flights soon.

Jonathan now lives in Tampa and we have a couple of mutual acquaintances that we know through the burgeoning presence of Chelsea fans in the US. Jonathan used to be a referee, and knows Phil from Iowa who is a referee too. I couldn’t escape Chelsea fans who were also referees; at the Paulton Rovers game, I bumped into Young Dave – as featured in the first couple of Mark Worrall’s books – and he runs the line at local games to this day.

Jonathan told me about a game that he officiated in back in around 1996; he was the linesman at a USA vs. England U17 game in Tampa. He mentioned a young starlet who played for England who was a Chelsea prodigy but – although great things were expected – never made the grade with us but instead played for Brighton. Jonathan couldn’t remember his name.

My brain started ticking over.

“Damn, I can picture him. His name is on the tip of my tongue. What I usually do is go through the alphabet.”

PD told Jonathan I’d eventually remember on the way home.

Well, I got there eventually. But I had to go right to the end of the alphabet.

“Zeke Rowe!”

Anyone remember him?

Outside there was a hint of drizzle but the air was still relatively mild. We made it inside Stamford Bridge at just gone four o‘clock. I soon spotted Liverpool players in a very dark red training top going through their pre-match routines. The sight made my hackles rise a little. They remain one of my three most disliked teams; Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool. It’s just the way it is.

This was to be the first-ever “safe standing” game to take place in the top flight of English football. We are in some sort of a four team trial I believe. In reality, of course, those with “rail seating” in the lower tiers of The Shed and the Matthew Harding have been “safe standing” since the start of the season. I am generally in favour of safe standing, though I find it odd that the Shed Upper has been given over to standing in addition to the two lower tiers at either end of the stadium. What I find unpalatable is that those season ticket holders in the three areas of the stadium now covered by “safe standing” were given no say whatsoever in the process. In a nutshell, they were not given the chance to move their season tickets over to another part of Stamford Bridge.

I stand at away games and I could probably ease into standing at Stamford Bridge all of the time with no real problem. But for many in the area of the Matthew Harding Upper where I reside, standing at games would been uncomfortable and painful. Bluntly, not an option. I am glad, therefore, that our tier remained as seating.

I also found it ironic that Liverpool were to be involved in the very first official “safe standing” game in the top flight.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilcueta

Pulisic – Havertz – Mount

Lukaku was not even in the squad.

Just before the game kicked-off, the stadium resounded to a noisy rendition of “Champions of Europe, we know what we are” to remind our visitors of who is on that particular perch at this moment in time.

There was a rip-roaring start to the game. In the first ten seconds, I was buggering about with my phone and so – in all honesty – missed the initial challenge on Cesar Azpilicueta by Sadio Mane that lead to the latter receiving a yellow card. I looked down to see Dave sprawled no more than thirty-five yards from me.

On two occasions that the ball was played centrally into the Liverpool box, water splashed up from the turf and I wondered if a little too much water had been sprayed onto that particular area. There was an early exchange of chances in the first few minutes. A defensive mix-up allowed Mane to play a ball across the goal towards Mo Salah but Edouard Mendy was able to save. At the other end, Kai Havertz put pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold and the ball broke for Christian Pulisic with only unknown Liverpool ‘keeper Caoieaihoieamhouin Kelleher to beat. However, our slight striker could not convert. In fact, the ‘keeper made a fine reaction save, scooping the ball away well.

After nine minutes, another defensive blip from a stooping Chalobah allowed the ball to run to Mane who rounded Mendy to score despite the presence of Dave’s lunge on the line.

Ouch.

Despite this, the noise levels remained high.

“He gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

I hate us singing this when we aren’t even playing Liverpool, but on this occasion I joined in.

We kept going and it felt like we were dominating the game. There was a low shot from Mason Mount that was blocked. Then a trademark Chelsea move of the past four years or so; we all had our hearts in our mouths when a deep cross from Dave on the right was played towards Marcos Alonso on the left. Alas, Alonso was stretching just a little too much and the shot was wild.

I spoke to PD : “We ain’t playing too badly here.”

Mateo Kovacic was showing great energy in our two-man midfield, and alongside him N’Golo Kante was at his usual high standard of play.

Alas, on twenty-six minutes, an incisive move down the Liverpool left found Salah breaking inside the box. I pleaded for Alonso to get tighter, but a shimmy and a shake from Salah allowed him to drift past. From an acute angle, he opened up his body and slammed the ball twixt ‘keeper and post. I was in a direct line with the shot. There was, eerily, a moment of silence in Stamford Bridge. The Liverpool fans down the other end waited for the net to ripple, and then there was a further slight pause for the wall of noise from one hundred yards away to hit me.

Fackinell.

I had immediate visions of 0-4, maybe even 0-5.

Fair play to Salah for not celebrating in front of us.

The noise died a little.

But then the away fans sang out “Allez allez” and this resulted in a hugely impressive “Carefree” from Chelsea.

Bloody excellent.

With the half-time break approaching, a foul near the far goal line on Havertz by James Milner raised our hopes. We watched as Alonso sent the ball in, only for Kelleher to punch up and away. I had my camera up to my eyes from the free-kick and watched through my lens as the ball ballooned up. It was falling towards Kovacic but he had to back-peddle to accommodate the arrival of the ball. As it fell, he volleyed with his right foot. The ball flew goal wards. We watched open-mouthed. It crashed into the right hand post. A moment of pure drama followed. Would it bounce out or bounce in? It bounced down and across the goal. Only when the net nestled did we celebrate. It was the Scousers turn to be engulfed by a wall of noise.

Whatafuckinggoal.

My immediate response?

Essien, Barcelona.

I snapped the goal scorer’s triumphant race back towards the centre circle. The place was buzzing.

The goal also reminded a little me of the volley that John Terry scored in the same goal against Wigan when he had to quickly readjust his feet. But that was from a lot closer in. This Kovacic goal was something else.

But then…but then.

An audible groan when it was announced that VAR was poking its big fat nose into our moment of joy. We waited. What was it for? Nobody knew.

Thankfully, the goal stood.

But then, I noted Jordan Henderson berating the referee. That’s Jordan Henderson the Liverpool captain. This made my blood boil. The referee should have carded him for that. Prick.

Just three minutes later, and into stoppage time, a Toni Rudiger clearance was pushed on by Kante with the deftest of touches.

We watched. The boy Pulisic was one on one. He was through. That lovely moment of expectation. I wanted to see him drop a shoulder and drill it low towards the far post. Instead it bounced high and he chested it down before lobbing the ball in.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I yelled and yelled. PD alongside me was shouting with both his arms raised. I reached down and took a few out-of-focus shots of the players celebrating. Many seconds later, I looked over at PD and he was still in celebratory mode, still in the same stance, still yelling, still cheering.

What bliss.

There’s always something special about two important goals being scored so close together. This was absolutely one of those moments.

Unbelievably, there was further drama in the minute or so left of the first-half. Alonso swept the ball over to Havertz who, despite close attention from a red defender, got his shot in from inside the box. The ball broke to Mason Mount but his shot was awkward and the ball rolled agonisingly past the far post.

There was just time for another ear shattering “Carefree.”

What an incredible match. What an incredible five minutes.

There was beautiful disbelief at the break.

Phew.

I couldn’t have been the only person who was warmly remembering the FA Cup tie against Liverpool almost twenty-five years ago? Two-nil down at half-time, on came Mark Hughes, we won 4-2. It remains as one of our very greatest games.

Twenty-five years ago, though? Fackinell.

Stamford Bridge was on fire then as it was in 2022.

Of course, the half-time whistle probably came at the wrong time and other clichés. Our momentum, not surprisingly, was so difficult to recreate. But the noise levels at the start of the second-half were surprisingly quiet. I wanted us to roar the team on to further glory.

For a player that we purchased as a defensive midfielder, Kante sure knows how to break forward with the easiest of pace changes; he glides, he turns, he keeps the ball moving, he passes. Once or twice in that early part of the second period he was an absolute joy.

A shot from Alonso flew over.

On the hour mark, one, then two then three saves from our man Mendy kept us in the game. The best by far was a magnificent reach after a speculative effort from distance from Salah. The Liverpool striker had decided to test our ‘keeper’s awareness. He’ll know better next time.

I was totally immersed in this game. It was a tantalising show from both teams. It was, frankly, a joy and a pleasure to be present.

On more than one occasion, after we were awarded corners, Rudiger and Pulisic turned to the supporters in the MHL to sing louder, stronger. They needed us.

A cross from Havertz and a volley from Pulisic was well-saved.

On seventy-minutes, a change in personnel and shape.

Jorginho for Chalobah.

We now had a three-man midfield, with just Havertz and Mount up top. Pulisic was moved to wing-back with Dave moved centrally. The American really grew into the game and proved to be a jinking, probing menace on the right. In one of the photos that I took of him, I noticed that he was smiling while in possession of the ball, probably looking at options. This rarely happens in modern football. More power to him. A shot from Christian, right winger, curled just over.

The whole team seemed to tire as one.

With ten minutes to go, we freshened things up further.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Havertz.

We enjoyed the best of the last part of the game. Callum injected some good pace and was able, for once, to speed past his marker rather than dawdle and play within himself.

A shot from Mount, which followed up his blocked free-kick, whizzed towards the goal but Kelleher saved well. One last header always looked like going wide of the far post.

The final whistle blew.

2-2 on the second day of 2022.

Exiting the stairs, I simply said “superb game of football” to a few friends.

I said as much on “Facebook” with the extra comment :

“Lukak’who?”

Thankfully, this match was a good case of addition by subtraction. Nobody really knew what the next step in the Lukaku saga would be, but with a steep run of games coming up, including three against Tottenham in just eighteen days, this match provided a magnificence boost to our morale.

And yes, it was a simply superb game of football.

Fulham Broadway.

The Eight Bells.

Stamford Bridge.

Tales From The Mother Road

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 11 September 2021.

It is a familiar motif from these match reports – I am tempted to say “stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before” – of games from the early part of our campaigns that I usually need a few matches to get back into the swing of things. I was doing fine this season. I was acclimatising reasonably well, I was getting back into live football, the games were seemingly important once again and even my vocal chords were coping. It all felt a little different this season, though. Our forced absence from the game for so long was playing heavily on my mind and I suppose the crux of it concerned my fears that I wouldn’t get the pre-COVID19 buzz back.

But here was a real test. After seeing Chelsea Football Club play just seven times in five-hundred and thirty-eight days (an average of one every seventy-six days), I was now about to embark on a burst of five games in just fifteen days (an average of once every three days for those who failed CSE Maths). This represented, in my mind at least, a test, a litmus test, for my enthusiasm. I certainly hoped that this spell of five games in London would rid me of the considerable disconnect that has hounded me since March 2020.

We all live in a place called hope, right?

I woke again way before the alarm, and gathered my tickets, trinkets, passes and thoughts ahead of the 10.30am departure. A new car, a new Chuckle Bus, was parked on my drive-way and this would be its first journey of note, its maiden voyage with me at the helm and it’s first trip up my version of Route 66 – in fact, Route A303 would be very apt as it arrived with just 303 miles on the clock – to London SW6.

It would be its first trip along the Mother Road.

I collected PD and Parky in good time.

There was talk of these upcoming games (the printing-off of some of the tickets at home was proving to be a far from a straightforward task) and some matches even further out. Just like holidays, I get a great deal of pleasure in planning these games, especially the away games, and these sometimes awkward tasks feed into my Obsessive Chelsea Disorder. Tottenham was almost complete, Brentford was a work in progress, but Newcastle was sorted. More of those three trips later. Turin, Malmo and Saint Petersburg away games were taking a back seat. Not that I would plan on all three anyway, but travel within Europe was so much “up in the air” right now – or not, as the case might be – that I wasn’t wasting energy on plans for those three destinations just yet.

One potential destination that had ruled itself out of my plans was Tokyo. It had recently pulled out of hosting the World Club Championships in December, and I was now hearing that maybe Las Vegas or maybe Qatar would step in like some gallant knight in shining armour. This was met with growls of disapproval from me. I am not a fan of Vegas. And even less of a fan of Qatar. From one extreme from the other. From “anything goes” to “strictly forbidden.”

Such was my feeling of abhorrence when Qatar was handed the 2022 World Cup a few years back, that I made the conscious decision not to watch a single second of the finals on TV. And I just recently decided not to watch any more of the qualifiers too. So, the recent International break absolutely passed me by. I may have lost England forever.

In the circumstances, the lingering presence of Qatar in talk of the World Club Championships focussed my mind further. I would be a hypocrite to avoid Qatar in 2022 as some sort of moral crusade – stop sniggering at the back – and yet blithely sign up to watch Chelsea in Qatar in December. So, let’s see how that all pans out.

No pressure, Vegas.

We only stopped at Fleet Services for a quick pit-stop en route from Somerset to London, but from then on in, we became embroiled in some nasty traffic. It usually takes me three hours from door to door (my door to the door of The Eight Bells in Fulham) but it took me just over four hours on this occasion.

I dropped PD and Parky at West Brompton, then about-turned to park my car just off Lillie Road. Then a quick flit by tube to Putney Bridge. Job done.

I had booked a table for 1.30pm, and the hosts had very kindly kept it for us when we arrived an hour later.

I met up with Mark, from Norwich, and his son Matt. We had been talking during the build up to this game how our first Chelsea match in 1974 was the very same one; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974. We are the same age. We both live out of town. A few nice similarities in fact. He is the first Chelsea fan I have ever met whose first match was the same as mine. I was quite thrilled when Mark shared a couple of previously unseen on-line photographs from that day forty-seven years ago. We chatted and reminisced about tons of Chelsea games, especially from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, and we found ourselves finishing off each other’s sentences on a few occasions as the memories and reference points interweaved and overlapped. That’s always a good sign.

I have to admit to being taken aback on a few occasions during our lovely conversation when I spotted a rather stern looking fellow, with a mop of white hair looking up at me from the other side of the bar.

Oh, it was me in a pub mirror.

The passing of time, and all of its crimes, is making me sad again.

Note to self : must smile more.

Kim, Andy, Dan and the Kent lads arrived and it was the first time that we had seen them since last year. It was superb to spend time together once again; around a dozen of us in our cosy corner of The Eight Bells, all meeting up again, trying our best to prove that football is real life, and not a TV programme. I totally understand that many can’t attend live football due to finance and geography, but it seems that so many these days do not make the effort. Is modern football now a diet of watching games on TV in pubs, streaming at home, fantasy football and betting accumulators?

At Putney Bridge tube station, there were a group of boozy and cheerful Villa fans. One chap, of a certain age, approached me and told me that he liked my yellow Adidas SL76 trainers. Thirty-five years ago, the conversation might well have been different.

“You got too much for us today. Think you’ll beat us 3-0.”

I concurred. It was my prediction too.

At Fulham Broadway tube, the lad at the Krsipy Crème stand spotted my Boca Juniors T-shirt and asked if I was from Argentina.

My colours on this day of football were yellow and blue, in-keeping with the current Chelsea offering, but without me looking too much like a Billy Smart’s Circus reject.

There was further talk of South American football with Clive in The Sleepy Hollow. A few months before my visit to Argentina last year, he had visited Brazil, and had caught an itoxicating Flamengo game at the Maracana. He highly recommended Brazil. The World Club Championships in Brazil has a nice ring to it. Chelsea at the Maracana? Where do I sign up for that beauty?

From 1993 to 2016, my desire to witness new sporting stadia outside of Europe was clearly focussed on North American baseball stadia; twenty-one major league and four minor-league. I have a feeling in the future my focus will now be on South American football.

We had heard that ten-men Tottenham had succumbed to three late goals at Crystal Palace – how we laughed – but a Cristiano Ronaldo brace had helped Manchester United beat Newcastle. All of this fizzled away into insignificance as our collective thoughts focused on the game against Villa.

The sun was out despite some clouds, and the extra hours of drinking meant there was a bubbly atmosphere as kick-off approached.

The teams entered onto the beautiful green lawn. A new Mason Mount flag surfed below me.

I checked the team.

The inclusion of Saul Niguez surprised everyone, possibly none more so than him himself.

It seemed an oddly thrown together team, but one which was representative of the pressures put on members of our squad during the international break. No Mount. No Dave. But an injured Kante too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Hudson-Odoi – Kovacic – Niguez – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Havertz

Romelu Lukaku was to play in his first game as a Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge since a substitute appearance against the same team in August 2013. All the rail-seating was in now. The banners around the pitch lay heavy with the early evening humidity. “The “knee” drew boos but then louder applause. The game began.

A few early Chelsea raids acted as mere foreplay for the full-on end to end session that followed. The game was a cracker. A zipped-in corner on our left from Callum avoided everyone but hit a knee, I think, of a defender and bounced up onto the bar at The Shed End. The first thing of beauty that I noted was a deep and high ball from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva which dropped perfectly and pleasantly at the feet of the advancing Marcos Alonso. People talk of a deep-lying midfielder pinging balls like a quarterback, but here was Silva doing the exact same. It reminded me of Ruud Gullit and then Frank Leboeuf doing similar.

It turned out to be a precursor to an even better ball from Mateo Kovacic. Breaking away in that busy style of his, he spotted the advanced Romelu Lukaku. A magnificently-placed ball, cutting right between two scuttling Villa defenders, and curving and dropping into the exact place that both Kovacic intended and that Lukaku had expected, landed perfectly. Lukaku sized up the options, turned Tuanzebe’s limbs into a pretzel and dispatched a low shot past Steer into the Villa goal.

It is fair to say that The Bridge boomed.

Lukaku raced past Parkyville, and led on the floor, facing the sky.

At last we had a finisher in our midst, not a finisher in the mist, out of sight, lost.

A magnificently noisy and rude “Carefree” enveloped the entire stadium.

Bliss. Absolute bliss.

But Villa, who had already enjoyed a few moves into our half, were not put out and only a sublime save, low and late, from Mendy at his right post from a Watkins drive saved us. Halfway through the first-half, and with Villa vibrant, Saul Niguez surrendered possession and that man Watkins rounded Mendy. A goal looked on the cards, but Silva is an experienced fellow and he nimbly recovered to block the shot admirably.

Our Saul was struggling with the pace and tenacity of the early exchanges.

“Our Saul, you say? More like a fackin’ arsehole. Wake up you caaaaaaaaant.”

I turned to Clive :

“Well, they’ve had their chances.”

This was a good game, possibly a great game. I was involved, and I appreciated the moment. It was an intriguing game of football, but one which was causing Chelsea increasing problems.

On thirty-three minutes, our man Mendy threw himself to save a rocket from Mings, but was able to scramble to his feet to push away the follow-up from Konsa. These saves were simply sublime. They sent me spinning back to Wembley 1973 and the Jim Montgomery double-save.

This was becoming a disconnected and disjointed performance from us with only occasional flourishes. Ziyech was quiet. Saul was getting over run in midfield. There were only flashes from Havertz. Lukaku was hardly fed anything save the pass for the goal.

Callum Hudson-Odoi was again a disappointment. It was as if the well-worn football phrase “flattering to deceive” was invented for him and for him only. On several occasions he was presented with a few one on ones, but inevitably chose a soft option.

I moaned to Clive : “I wasn’t a great winger, but when I received the ball, my one thought was to get past my marker, not look behind me.”

It was Villa who grew in confidence as the first-half progressed and by the time we all reached the interval, there was a mixture of relief and worried expressions in The Sleepy Hollow.

“We should be 3-1 down. Villa must feel robbed.”

Lo and behold, Thomas Tuchel – still without a song, I still feel I don’t know him too well – spotted the obvious and replaced Saul with Jorginho at the break. It would be a move that we all wanted and that would help to solidify our position in the second-half.

Just four minutes into the second period, Lukaku lost possession but then harassed and harried Tuanzebe and the ball was rushed to Mings whose attempted back pass to Steer was ably intercepted by Kovacic. He doesn’t often find himself in such forward positions, but his finish was impeccable. It had something of the Pedro about it; an instinctive and incisive flick past Steer, and in off the far post it went.

GET IN.

Initial thoughts : “bloody hell, Villa must be spitting feathers.”

But the relief was palpable. We were now 2-0 up and able to consolidate things. A Havertz drive slid past the far post. Thankfully, the Villa offensive was not as potent in the second-half.

On fifty-eight minutes, I was poised to clap in memory of the wonderful comedian Sean Lock, a regular at Stamford Bridge for years, who sadly passed away recently. At the start of the dedicated minute, not many joined in, but thankfully at the end the applause was taken up by many. It extended past the minute mark. The Matthew Harding then started our own song of remembrance :

“One Sean Lock, there’s only one Sean Lock.”

Bless him. He was one of my modern day favourite comedians.

The game continued, and thankfully most of the visitors’ shots on goal were tame, and often at Mendy. Our crowd was surprisingly buoyant for a decidedly average performance. But we were leading, and I suppose that helped.

Stating The Bloody Obvious #716.

To be fair to them, the Villa fans were pretty noisy throughout the game, and even though they are not known for being particularly vociferous, I had to admit that I was impressed with their performance. The three thousand strong block virtually stayed en masse, despite the game going against them.

The devilish McGinn was running things for Villa, his spirit and energy mirroring that of our Kovacic.  I was really enjoying this battle. As, I think were most. There didn’t seem to be a dull moment. The supporters were enjoying it too, and there was even one rare moment of appreciation of a strong tackle by a Villa player on one of our lot. Is this the new normal? To be fair, this isn’t too uncommon. Great saves by opposition ‘keepers, tackles by opposing players, even the occasional goal against – only as long as we are winning – have been clapped in the past.

On the hour, another change.

Dave for Kai.

Dave to right wing back, Callum to outside left, down in the Hazardous Area below me. Again, he was all flicks but with no real finished product.

“Thing is Clive, he doesn’t have to beat his man over five yards. He has twenty yards to run into. Knock it past him, and kill him for pace.”

The Matthew Harding had twice goaded into getting The Shed to sing in the first half with no response. An attempt to get The Shed involved – this is invariably met with a defiant “Carefree” – again fell on deaf ears. Midway through the second-half, when The Shed did finally get involved, an audible noise able to be heard, the Matthew Harding Lower jumped in.

“We forgot that you were here.”

Not sure what The Shed thought of that, nor ironically if they even heard it.

Former Chelsea player Bertrand Traore was given a nice reception as he came on as a substitute for Ings. A shot of his from distance was deflected narrowly wide.

Alonso had a trademark dig at an angle down below us, but his daisy-cutter fizzed wide.

Villa’s attacks grew weaker and without much intent.

Their fans still sang, but the Liverpool “Allez!Allez! Allez!” needs to be dumped. Sharpish.

Werner, the forgotten man right now, got a late run out, with Tuchel no longer willing to witness the advanced Hudson-Odoi anymore. By now, the game was being played out in a strange murky twilight, the sun long gone, the floodlights on, a hint of autumn in the air.

In the last moments of the game, a typically positive run from Dave down the right was followed by an inch perfect pass into the feet of Lukaku. A slight adjustment, and then –

BAM.

The ball flew past Steer.

Chelsea 3 Aston Villa 0.

Lukaku, attitude and / or arrogance on show, jogged over to our corner, and gave me – and others – a fine photo opportunity. Like the man himself, I don’t miss that easy an open goal.

CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.

At last, after the stern face, Lukaku smiled.

The ref soon blew up.

This had been a hugely enjoyable game. Villa had certainly surprised me though. Absolutely no way they deserved to lose 3-0. As we left the stadium, I shared these thoughts with PD.

“There must be few occasions over the years where an away team has come here and lost 3-0, yet the Chelsea supporters know deep down that they deserved more.”

The top three performers were undoubtedly Mendy for his excellent saves, Kovacic for his growing command of the midfield, his sublime assist and his beauty of a goal and Lukaku, two shots two goals, Goodnight Vienna.

We met up with Parky back at The Anchor fish bar on Lillee Road.

“Saveloy and chips mate, please, open.”

The drive home was a lot less stressful than the trip to London. It was a blissful trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset. I loved this day out. And I am so pleased to be able to report that I am rapidly getting my appetite for the game back.  

Game one of five down, superb, very enjoyable. Zenit on Tuesday, my first European Night at Chelsea since that tough loss to Bayern in 2020. Then Tottenham away – “love it” – and one of the games of any season. Then Villa again in the League Cup (that might be the one that tests me) and lastly a possible season-deciding game against City. I suspect we will give them a few reminders of Porto, don’t you?

Good times. Let them roll. Let the Mother Road lead us back to London time and time again.

See you Tuesday.

Goal One.

Goal Two.

Goal Three.

Tales From Dixie Land

Chelsea vs. Everton : 7 December 2019.

Not long in to the long drive north for our game at Everton, I admitted to PD and Parky about my thoughts :

“Of course, we can’t really be sure how this one is going to go.”

Despite Chelsea sitting in a pretty decent fourth place, and with Everton having just sacked their manager Marco Silva, Goodison Park has been a tough place for us over the last decade. Additionally, we have been limping along of late and have struggled to find consistency. Everton, under caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson, would be fired up. It was, in my mind anyway, a difficult result to predict.

The journey from rural Somerset to urban Merseyside was completed in a very good time; a little under four-and-a-half hours. At just after 10.30am, I was at the large car-park in Stanley Park, a quarter of a mile from the towering main stand at Anfield, where the league title looks increasingly like residing in May. We walked through the park, and I found it difficult to believe that we were last in this particular part of the world almost two years ago, just before Christmas, when we ended-up walking back to my car in the same car-park after a dismal 0-0 draw. Last season – last March, St. Patrick’s Day, a 0-2 loss – we had travelled to and from our hotel near Lime Street via cabs.

It would be my twentieth visit to Goodison Park, and as many know, this particular stadium at the northern end of Stanley Park is easily my favourite away venue in domestic football. While PD – Bullens Road, Lower – and LP – Bullens Road, Upper – made the short walk to the away turnstiles, I had a little time to kill before kick-off, so had a customary wander. For certain, I was in no need of alcohol since I wanted to remain fresh for the return journey later that day. I had been awake well before the 5am alarm. The day, for me anyway, was all about staying alert for the demands of the road.

I soon found myself at the Dixie Dean statue. It is a formidable structure and depicts the legendary Evertonian as a strong and determined individual, his eyes focussed and with a fist clenched. His record of 349 league goals in just 399 league games for Everton is one of the greatest records in English football. Growing up as a boy, my father – who was not a football fan at all, really – would often talk of Dixie Dean. He was the superstar of the inter-war years. I always liked the fact that his haul of 60 league goals in 1927/28 was matched by Babe Ruth’s haul of 60 home runs in 1927 for the New York Yankees. Both were the superstars of their eras. And I thought that both records would never ever be beaten. The Ruth record has been surpassed, but Dixie Dean’s sixty will surely stand forever. I took a few photographs of the area, which is backed by plaques commemorating the seven Everton players who were killed in the two World Wars. There were bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue, and it was the focus for many of the match-going fans.

I disappeared off, past the Everton club shop, and headed over to Walton Road where I hoped to meet up with a Chelsea mate of mine and his Everton-supporting brother, but they were delayed en route. Instead, I made my way back to Goodison, passing the Everton Community School, which has enjoyed much success in the local area in recent years. I spotted a long-haired lad knocking a ball against an end of terrace brick wall, the outline of a goal white-washed against it. These sort of scenes are rare in England these days. Ball games are usually not allowed. It was a pleasing sight. I almost wanted to join in. It brought back memories of me endlessly kicking a tennis ball against the large expanse of wall opposite my house in my home village, honing my timing, my technique – and my silent commentary.

“Hollins, outside to Cooke. To Osgood. Goal!”

As always, I circumnavigated Goodison Park, and was very pleased to spot a new addition since my last visit. On a wide pavement outside the famous church of St. Luke The Evangelist stood statues of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Alan Ball, Everton’s “Holy Trinity.” It is sensational. I love that it might resemble three fans heading along Goodison Road from a distance, but once close, it becomes apparent that the figures are footballers.

I took some photographs. It was again the focus of much attention from Evertonians.

I remembered how, on my second visit to Goodison Park in the winter of 1986/87, I had walked not more than ten yards away, along the pavement, alone, and had immediately regretted my choice of jacket. A little group of scallies had scuttled past me and one hissed :

“That jacket is so fuckin’ red.”

I thought I was in for some grief, but nothing came of it. Just a little later, some younger lads started talking to me – much to my annoyance, I thought they were spotters – but I managed to avoid any trouble. I remember they spoke about getting in at Everton under the turnstiles, or by often using some free tickets that someone at the club gave them. They were at first an irritating gaggle of kids – they must have been around fourteen or fifteen – but as I chatted to them, they were just keen to talk to me about football, despite me being on guard.

“What’s your firm called?” I remember one kid asking me.

I pleaded ignorance. I didn’t fancy getting slapped by his elder brother, possibly lurking around a corner.

Later that season, a month or so later, I bumped into the very same group of four or five kids at Anfield for the away game against Liverpool. One of them recognised me.

“Alright, mate?”

I smiled but kept my head down.

Merseyside in 1986 was a tough gig.

The welcome from Evertonians in 2019 was a lot cheerier.

A chap in his ‘sixties moved so I could take a photograph of Alan Ball. I thanked him and said “great statue, that.”

He replied :

“We could do with them today.”

We both smiled.

I had timed my ritualistic pre-amble to perfection and was inside the historic Bullens Road stand with about a quarter of an hour to spare. I could not resist some photographs of the blue and white interior. Once up in the Upper Tier, the wooden floorboards hint at its antiquity. It is a magical place, a great perch from which the full glory of Goodison Park is visible down below.

Those Chelsea supporters who boorishly talk about Goodison Park being a “shit hole” can never, ever, be true friends of mine.

Opposite, the main stand, a double-decked behemoth, acted as a quick reminder of my childhood when its towering presence used to enthral me as I watched the Everton players on TV. In those days – “oh bollocks, here he goes again” – I used to love the idiosyncratic nature of many football grounds. Each one imbued its own personality on the clubs. In fact, the two were one of the same.

Everton was Goodison.

United was Old Trafford.

Arsenal was Highbury.

I thought back on the variety of stands opposite the TV gantries.

The multi-span roof at Molineux.

The trim art deco stylings of the East Stand on Avenell Road at Highbury.

The low pitched roof of the Kemlyn Road Stand, with its line of floodlights above, at Anfield.

The low, small stand at Filbert Street.

The huge and brooding Kippax terrace – a rarity in itself – along the side of the pitch at Manchester City.

The structured modernity at Old Trafford; terrace at front, seats in the middle, executive boxes at the rear.

The tightness of the small structure at The Dell.

It is such a shame that these individualistic beauties have, by and large, been replaced by tiers of seating in lookalike rebuilds. Thankfully, Goodison Park remains (but not for too much longer) and its two Archibald Leitch stands became the early focus of my attention as the game progressed.

Kick-off time approached. Time for one of the highlights of modern day Chelsea away days.

“Z Cars.”

I love it. I fucking love it.

I beamed a very wide smile.

Chelsea were unchanged from the Aston Villa game on the previous Wednesday.

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Chelsea in black, black, bright orange.

There were more than a few empty seats in the Upper Tier. Everyone was stood.

The game began.

In the very first few minutes, a couple of loose passes from Dave had a few supporters mumbling and grumbling. But Mason Mount looked busy and involved, running into pockets of space. As a ball was worked out to our right and a pull-back followed, I imagined an Ivanovic or a Costa thumping the ball in for an early lead. It was a promising start. But then, a full scale calamity. We gave up possession way too easily and Everton were all over us like a rash. They moved the ball quickly and purposefully, and we were – cliché warning – chasing shadows. The ball reached their right wing, under the towering double-decker, and Djibril Sidibe punched a fine cross into our box and it was met by the free leap of Richarlison. Our centre-backs were absent without leave.

Only five minutes had been played.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

Chelsea tended to dominate possession, but with little danger to Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. Everton seemed a little more dangerous on the rare occasions they had the chance to hurt us. There was more space in our defensive third than theirs. A cross from Walcott just evaded Richarlison and there was a save from Kepa from an Everton shot on goal. But we had moments when we looked half-decent. In the middle of the first-half – if not mirroring the purple patch against Villa, perhaps a lavender or violet patch – we started to build a little momentum. Willian managed a few forceful dribbles out of our half, and there was some reasonable linking together of passes. One textbook breakaway down our right came to nothing, and on more than one occasion it felt that we were too frightened to pull the trigger on goal.

Pulisic was on the periphery. I heard a million voices in the US shout the exact same thing :

“Shoot the ball!”

The highlights of the first-half involved our two best players.

N’Golo Kante stretching, but able to cushion a ball into the path of a team mate with just the correct amount of weight. Just perfection.

Mateo Kovacic fighting like a demon for the ball as he kept possession during an extended dribble, even after running into defenders, showing great spirit and determination. It was like something from another era.

As the second-half began, I admitted to Gary “it’s strange not seeing Hazard down below us at this ground, twisting and turning.”

After just two minutes of the half, further catastrophe. I had commented to Gary that it was good to hear the Evertonians applaud Kurt Zouma’s defensive clearance in the first few seconds of the half. He was well-liked at Goodison last season. And yet it was his far-from-convincing hoof into the air which caused panic in the heart of our defence. Christensen and Zouma took it in turns to fall over themselves as the ball fortuitously fell at the feet of Dominic Calvert-Lewin (more a bespectacled member of the clergy than a footballer) and we watched, horrified, as he thumped the ball in from close range.

It felt like we had shot ourselves in the foot yet again. Two goals in the first five minutes of each half.

Bollocks.

No way back from this?

It certainly felt that way.

And yet just a short period of time followed – three minutes – and we were miraculously back in it. A raiding Kante touched the ball to Azpilicueta. His intended pass to Willian was cleared, but it reached Kovacic some twenty-five yards out. His low shot was supremely well-placed. It nestled in the bottom corner with Pickford well beaten.

Game on.

There had been a VAR check for both second-half goals, but both stood.

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.”

We continued to dominate the game, and I think it would be safe to say that most of us expected an equaliser at some stage. But we just lacked the final touch. And the noise in our section wasn’t great to be honest. Theo Walcott’s pace had the beating of Kante on one occasion, but then our little prince fared better in a second duel.

But Alan wasn’t impressed.

“Walcott’s had more dribbles than Stephen Hawking.”

There were efforts from Kovacic, from Mount, a drive from outside the box from Christensen. As the game continued, our exasperation increased. Another shot from Mount, a flash from Azpilicueta that was finger tipped over by Pickford.

On seventy minutes, Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Willian.

On eighty-two minutes, Michy Batshuayi replaced Reece James.

Frank played with two up top.

Sadly, the game was decided with eighty-four minutes on the clock. Kepa tried to find Zouma but his long pass was poor. Theo Walcott collected it, and found Calvert-Lewin. I immediately growled. This looked dangerous. A back-heel from him found Tom Davies, a substitute, and as he stumbled Calvert-Lewin pounced to stab home the loose ball.

Everton 3 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Despite a day of rainbow flags, rainbow armbands and rainbow laces, the Park End then sang about rent boys.

Original, eh?

The game ended.

The home crowd roared “Duncan, Duncan Ferguson” and I thought back to the “dogs of war” team of his era when players like Barry Horne, Dave Watson and Paul Rideout showed no mercy in every game they played. It was a similar performance from the home team on this occasion.

There was the shaking of heads and the pursing of lips in the Bullens Road. It was another strange one. A game of defensive lapses, and a game of goal-shy forwards. Pulisic was lightweight and had a shocker. The defensive four were individually poor and collectively worse. Kante and Kovacic shone like beacons. The game passed Tammy by. And our support wasn’t great.

I spoke to a couple of mates.

“Didn’t seem like a 3-1 game.”

And it didn’t. We weren’t too far away from a draw, but a loss was sadly predictable. We have now lost three of the last four league games. And we play Lille at home in the Champions League on Tuesday, a game that might well affect our self-confidence over the next three months.

We walked back to the car, a little downbeat, but a little pragmatic too.

“Frank is still testing his ideas, testing his thoughts on the best formations, the best mix of players. It’s still a work in progress.”

The escape route out of Stanley Park, down Utting Avenue, past the Liverpool pennants on the lamp posts, and onto Queens Drive was the quickest ever. Maybe the Evertonians were still ensconced in Goodison celebrating their surprising win.

I made good time on the way home, yet I missed a turning from the M6 and down onto the M5. I found myself driving past Villa Park – on the day that their former boss Ron Saunders passed away – but still had time to head over to “The Vine” at West Bromwich which is one of the most famous football pubs in the UK.

Chicken jalfrezi, mushroom rice, peshwari naan.

It took my mind of the football. Just.

I reached home at about 8.30pm, but found myself falling asleep during the “MOTD” coverage of our game. It was probably just as well.

Later, I looked at the record of my twenty visits to Goodison Park. It made for sobering viewing.

The first ten games : 1986 to 2011.

Won 5

Drew 5

Lost 0

The last ten games : 2011 to 2019

Won 2

Drew 1

Lost 7

It has become, ridiculously, a huge bogey ground for us.

Right.

Tuesday.

Lille.

See you there.

Tales From Wet Watford

Watford vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2019.

…although I did not watch a single second of the game, I soon learned that England Rugby had mirrored Chelsea Football Club in failing to become World Champions in Yokohama.

There. That’s my first rugby reference for a few years out of the way.

This weekend was all about football. It was all about Watford away. This was an early evening kick-off at 5.30pm. This meant that I didn’t really need to leave at the crack of dawn or the crack of anything for that matter. I picked up PD at 11am and then made my way to collect Parky. All evidence suggested a stunning autumnal morning. For a while – over an hour – the fine weather continued. It was one of those mornings that made driving a pleasure. Bright skies, a sky bursting with differing cloud formations, the fields rimmed with various autumnal hues, leaves on the change. A perfect football day. The slip-up against Manchester United during the week had been confined to the past. The immediate future was all about league points, and away points, which we have regularly amassed since the loss at Old Trafford. We were looking for our fifth consecutive away win in the league.

I stopped for a coffee at the halfway point, Reading Services, but then the rain started. It was a horrible reminder of the previous weekend’s drive to Burnley.

Nevertheless, I was parked-up in our usual spot in Watford at just before 2pm. Unlike the mighty seventy-five games against Manchester United, this was only game number nineteen against Watford, and only my seventh away game, all since 2007, at Vicarage Road. I am a late bloomer when it comes to Watford.

As far as I have worked out thus far, the Hertfordshire town does not offer too much to the football visitor aside from the ridiculously well stocked High Street; many bars and restaurants, cafes and nightclubs sit cheek-by-jowl on this pedestrianised road and we have noted a new shopping centre that has risen at the southern end during our past few visits. We have generally fared well at Vicarage Road but the 4-1 shellacking in 2017/18 still hurts.

Our most famous match at Vicarage Road was – possibly – in 1981/82 (and my match day companion Alan would mention it during the game) when Chelsea supporters were on an away ban yet around three thousand Chelsea showed up, and the local police decided that it would be far wiser to let them all in to the stadium than have them roam around the town centre – pubs closed at three o’clock in those days – for hours on end.

On Tuesday night, it has been decided that Ajax will not be allowed in to Stamford Bridge after previous misbehaviour, but the Watford policy of 1982 will not be followed. We have all been warned to bring along photographic identification with our match ticket prior to entering Stamford Bridge.

They – the Dutch –  shall not enter.

It all seems a bit draconian to me. And with no away fans to stir up some energy and emotion in the stadium, we will probably witness the flattest ever atmosphere for a Champions League home game.

The Watford High Street might well have been crammed with pubs and bars, but we chose our usual hostelry right on the northern boundary. It would be our third visit to “The Horns” and two good friends were waiting for us.

Ollie and Julien, two proud Frenchmen from Normandy, had been in the pub since midday. As soon as I walked in, I welcomed them.

“Bonjour, mes amis.”

They were last with us for a pre-match drink at home to – ironically – Watford last Spring. In fact, the first time that I ever met Ollie, after being Facebook friends for quite a while, was before the Watford away game in 2016/17, just before Antonio Conte got it together with his 3-4-3.

We spent a fine hour and a half in their good company before they had to head off to sort out Julien’s match ticket. We delved back in to Ollie’s personal Chelsea story. I am always pleased to hear from our many overseas’ supporters about their individual journeys. They can be wide and varied. Ollie’s story began in around 1984, listening in to our football on the old Radio Two in his home village in Northern France. He was drawn in with talk of the atmosphere in and around our games, but also he hinted that the rowdier nature of our support beguiled him, as it did many at that time.

I agreed.

“There was an edge to football. It made for a raw atmosphere. But it was also pretty scary at times.”

Olllie’s first Chelsea match was at home to Sheffield Wednesday in August 1989. He just loves the club. And he has some fine credentials. He comes over three or four times every year. He is a familiar passenger on the crossings between Dieppe and Newhaven. We listened intently as he spoke of his deep passion for our club.

I joked with him.

“You are our most famous French fan.”

Tattoos were shown. PD and LP joined in.

Shirts were taken off.

I stepped nervously from one foot to the other.

“OK. Moving on.”

Regardless, it was magical to hear of his Chelsea past.

Conversely, any journey that begins “I started playing as Chelsea on FIFA” is not so well received.

Outside the weather had deteriorated significantly. We watched aghast as new customers entered the busy pub with their outer layers completely drenched. On the twenty-minute walk to Vicarage Road, past pubs teeming with people, we were drenched too. It was as bleak an afternoon that I can remember.

At about 4.45pm we met up with friends from Yeovil and PD’s match ticket was sorted. There were ridiculous rumours floating around about Aston Villa beating Liverpool at home and Southampton winning at Manchester City. Sadly, these games ended up being won by the usual suspects. At least Arsenal dropped points at home to Wolves.

We were inside Vicarage Road good and early for a change. In the same way that it had not seemed possible that it had been ten full months that I had sat at the bar in “The Horns” – on Boxing Day 2018, hanging my coat on the “fighting octopus” beneath the bar, supping a lager – neither did it seem wholly believable that it was ten months that we had all last visited this now familiar away stadium, these same seats too, more or less. It seemed closer, maybe a few months back, not almost a whole year ago. All of these games, these away games, getting joined up – dot to dot – and I wondered how long all of these dots would continue to be joined. If Watford didn’t buck their ideas up, this sequence might not be continued next season.

Out in the ridiculously packed concourse at the top of the away seats, four fans were singing a previously unheard of song that referenced – painfully – David Luiz, Fikayo Tomori and the size of the latter’s manhood.

Good grief.

Thank heavens I never heard it during the game.

The minutes ticked by. Familiar faces everywhere.

“Z Cars” played on the PA, but it seemed out of place. Everton, yes. Watford, no.

The rain was still lashing down as the teams emerged from the Elton John Stand. There were considerable numbers of unoccupied seats in all home areas. As this was the nearest Watford home game to Remembrance Day, we observed a minute of silent appreciation, all players with their arms linked.

I bowed my head.

Sadly, some late arrivals in the away concourse needed to be “shushed.”

Our team lined up as below –

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic – Mount

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Watford have ditched the yellow and black stripes of last season and now wear yellow and black halves. I like neither.

We began attacking the home end. After just five minutes, we were in rapture. The ball was played back to Jorginho, quite deep, and without so much as a blink of an eye or a break in step, he played a curling, sweeping ball over the heads of a few Watford defenders and – right on the money – in to the path of Tammy Abraham, who was in a dead central location inside the box. Tammy met the ball just before it became within Ben Foster’s reach and he guided it over the Watford ‘keeper and into the now vacated goal. The net rippled. We roared. Tammy raced over to the goal-line in front of the home fans and slid on his knees.

What a bloody pass. What a bloody goal.

The away end roared some more.

The assist from Jorginho, utterly perfect in strength and trajectory, was the pass of the season thus far. And it was warmly appreciated by all. In the Norwich match report, I noted how our passes into the final third were much more varied than the claustrophobic monotony of last season. Here was proof. A ball swung in from deep, the defenders unable to cope, a striker waiting to pounce.

Boom.

It was some goal.

“Oh Tammy, Tammy. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy, Tammy Abraham.”

So, we were 1-0 up early on. Before the game, I had joked with a few mates how we were likely to be treated to another 4-1 or 4-2 away day goal fest. We dominated possession, but on the rare instances that Watford summoned up enough courage to attack us our defence looked in control. In fact, at times our defence looked too calm. I know we like to smother the ball and pass it out, but sometimes our tendency for Kepa, especially, to play balls to defenders who have opponents breathing the same air as them is inviting trouble. Sometimes an agricultural “hoof” up field is quite acceptable.

It really is.

I turned to Alan :

“This new rule about goal kicks being allowed to be played to defenders inside our box. It doesn’t mean that they have to every single time.”

There was a rare Watford poke at goal which was easily saved by Kepa.

Still the rain came down.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

Watford are not known for their support and I noted that I had not heard a single shout from their fans all game. Watford are such an inoffensive club. They are the chicken korma of the Premier League.  I waited and waited for a song from them.

I love to see Mason Mount running at defenders – he is so natural – and one such run resulted in a shot on goal. From the block, Tammy pestered the Watford goalkeeper but Foster saved well again. From a corner, a fine leap from Christian Pulisic forced a very fine acrobatic save from a back-peddling Foster.

All this before twenty minutes.

We were loving it.

Out of nowhere came a loud chant from within the travelling two thousand supporters in support of Gianluca Vialli, who is battling cancer. We all joined in.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

He was, of course, manager at Watford for a while after he left us in 2000.

Just in front of us, down towards the corner flag, there was a ridiculous few seconds of showboating between Kovacic and Jorginho. The ball was kept alive with a tantalising medley of flicks and kicks. It paid off, but I had to wonder if that sort of stuff should best be saved for when we are 4-0 or 5-0 up. Regardless, we got away with it.

There was another rare Watford attack, and a low shot from Gerard Deulofeu that whizzed past the far post. In truth, Kepa had been rarely tested.

We watched as Mount wriggled in from the left-wing, hopscotched past challenges, and then whacked a fine shot at goal. But the resolute Watford goalkeeper thwarted us once more, leaping high and touching the goal bound shot onto the bar. He had been, undoubtedly, our first-half nemesis.

I wished that Foster had fucked off to Gloucester in this shower of rain.

Reaching my seat at the end of the interval, I spotted Ollie and he came over to join us in row HH for twenty minutes or so.

Still the rain fell.

Deulofeu ran at our defence early in the second-half and he rolled the ball square to Andre Gray but a brave block by Kurt Zouma – no longer the nervous wretch of the first few games of the season – came to the rescue.

As the game developed along similar lines as the first-half, it seemed that Mateo Kovacic was everywhere; twisting and turning out of trouble, striding confidently with the ball, allowing others to move before passing to their feet. The away crowd soon rewarded this very fine masterclass in midfield dominance.

“Kovacic. In the middle of our pitch.”

Willian burst through the midfield and set up Mount with a perfect pass. Doctor Foster clinically removed the threat with yet another fine save.

Just after, a very similar run from Willian in the same area and the ball was dispatched out to Tammy right in front of us. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Pulisic. It was another lovely move. Tammy waited for his team mates to celebrate with him. I was pretty lucky to be able to snap away as the players swarmed a mere thirty-feet or so away.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole – Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Lovely.

Fun and games in the way end were then abruptly halted.

“USA. USA. USA. USA.”

No. Just no.

Kovacic, in the middle of his pitch, dribbled forward and set up Pulisic. Another great stop from Foster. We were attacking at will now, with Kovacic himself and then Tammy – twice – going close.

I was still – honestly – waiting for the first Watford chant of the day, as indeed were many more in our support.

“Watford – give us a song. Watford, Watford – give us a song.”

(a quick reality check. I am a fifty-four-year-old man detailing how one set of football supporters were goading another set of football fans into singing support of their team. Is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

With a quarter of an hour to go, how we all wished that Kovacic or Jorginho had “hoofed” the ball away, but instead the “to me, to you” nonsense inside the Chelsea box resulted in a challenge between Jorginho and Deulofeu.

The referee firstly seemed to signal a goal-kick.

Then, a delay.

Then, VAR.

Then, a delay.

It is of my opinion that there should be a twenty-second-time limit on VAR decisions. If nothing can be decided within twenty seconds, nothing is clear, therefore the original decision stands.

We waited.

And waited.

A cure for cancer was found, Parky bought a round, Brexit negotiations reached a conclusion, World poverty was no more, oil companies acknowledged climate change, Lenny Henry was funny again, Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace-pact, Donald Trump said something insightful and Tottenham won a trophy.

Then, a penalty.

A replay – just once – of the “challenge” was shown on the TV screen in the stadium.

The Chelsea crowd were incandescent.

“FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR.”

(a quick reality check…I am a fifty-four-year-old man…is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

Deulofeu rolled it home.

Game…as they say…on.

Despite this lifeline, many Watford fans decided to join those that had already left at 0-2.

Morons.

There was an instance, not long after the Watford goal, when some – many – in our section were shouting for VAR after a decision went against us.

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

The world is full of fucking idiots.

Michy Batshuayi came on for Tammy with two minutes to go, and spun himself in to space, but was thwarted.

Deep in injury-time, a free-kick to Watford was awarded around thirty-five yards out. Foster joined the attackers inside the box. Our nerves were being tested. I was tempted to use my sports-mode setting on my camera, but – always so superstitious – I remembered the United goal last Wednesday.

“Nah.”

The ball was sent in. The ball was flicked on. It found a Watford head – Foster, it had to be him – and the ball was, in my mind, goal bound.

We had fucked it up.

But no. We saw the jade green of Kepa lunge to the left and the ball was spooned away.

Phew.

With that, the referee blew the final whistle.

We had consolidated our place in the top four on top of a pretty pleasing performance.

And then we witnessed one of the highlights of the day. The players came over to thank us for our support and there were smiles aplenty. But all eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked over, sedately at first, but with each photograph that I took, his emotions took over.

He smiled, he clapped, his eyes twinkled, his smile grew wider, his face was one of pride and joy.

It was – I’ll be honest – quite wonderful.

How good did this all feel?

It felt Franktastic.

NB : No trophies were won by Tottenham.

Tales From Hammersmith Bridge To Stamford Bridge

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 August 2018.

Even though I had set my Saturday morning “first home game of the season” alarm as early as 6.30am, and even though I caught the first of two trains to take us up to Paddington from Frome station at 8.07am and although I left the last of four pubs that we chose to visit at just before 5pm, I still managed to miss the bloody kick-off.

That takes some doing, eh?

It would, if I was pressed, be something that I might term “Proper Chelsea.”

I remember that even on our greatest night in our history, I still only arrived at my seat in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Stadium with barely more than five minutes to go until kick-off.

I usually manage to time it just right, often slipping into my seat a few minutes before the teams enter the pitch. Not on this occasion. There had been another fantastic pre-match pub crawl, but then a little delay at Earl’s Court, and then again as we climbed the steps at Fulham Broadway, when tempers ran a little high between both sets of fans. At just before 5.30pm, I grabbed a programme, shook Kerry Dixon’s hand outside the West Stand – he appeared to be in just as much a rush as I was – and made my way up to the Matthew Harding Wraparound.

Just after kick-off, I was in.

I had missed the pre-game show. Alan showed me the banner that had surfed over the supporters in The Shed Upper, a celebration of Roman’s fifteen years in charge and of the fifteen major trophies within that time span.

Other teams – no names, no pack drill – could only dream of such success.

I was back at Stamford Bridge for my forty-fifth season of match-going Chelsea support.

And it felt great.

As always, there was a quick scan of the Chelsea team – “same as at Huddersfield” – and a scan of the away support – “same as always Arsenal, more than the usual amount of replica shirts in their three thousand compared to, say, Spurs or West Ham.”

The ridiculous “Thrilling Since 1905” had thankfully disappeared from the signage at Stamford Bridge.

We were left with “The Pride Of London” and I can’t find fault with that.

I had mentioned to Glenn on the train journey to London that I fancied a Chelsea win. There was no real scientific theory behind this – the season is far too early for any real prognosis of our overall chances just yet – but I just had this feeling that we would be sending Arsenal away with their second successive league defeat of the season. The morning train ride into London had been a real pleasure. There were thoughts of the game, but also – of course – thoughts of meeting up with some good Chelsea people along the way too.

After a breakfast on Praed Street, we caught a train down to Hammersmith. Not for the first time, we had planned a pub crawl by the side of the River Thames. At just after midday, we met up with Kim and Dan, then settled in at The Old City Arms, right on Hammersmith Bridge, its green wrought iron just outside the pub windows. Andy and Phil joined us, and then Dave. The counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Kent and Northampton shire were represented.

And we were then joined by the state of Michigan.

Erica and Victor – on a whirlwind European tour including a wedding (not theirs I hasten to add) in Frankfurt, and quick visits to Valencia and Paris – were in town for Chelsea and Chelsea only. I had met them both in Ann Arbor for the Chelsea vs. Real Madrid game in 2016 and we had stayed in touch ever since, and especially since they told me of their imminent visit to these shores. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our little tour party. In a week when La Liga announced its intention to play regular season games in the United States in the near future, it was fitting that Erica and Victor, bless ‘em, had travelled over land and sea to London to watch us. Another friend, Russ – who I had met for the first time in Perth in the summer – was also in town especially for Chelsea from his home in Melbourne.

And this is the way it should be.

For those of you who have been reading these match reports the past ten years, my views on all of this are well known. Like many Chelsea supporters in the UK – and I am basing this on those who I know, who are mainly match-goers, I don’t know many Chelsea who do not go to football – the idea of Chelsea playing a league game outside of our national, and natural, borders both saddens and repulses me.

My message is crisp and clear.

“You want to want to watch English football?”

“That’s great. Come to England.”

Of course, Richard Scudamore and his money-chasers at the Football Association originally proposed the “39th Game” in 2008, and – thankfully – the idea was shot down in flames by supporter groups the length and breadth of the country. This cheered me no end. I felt that the football community had said “no” in a forceful and coherent way. Of course, since then, all manner of US regular league games have been played out in the UK – er London, does any other English city exist in the minds of the average American? – and with each passing NBA and NFL game which takes place in our capital city, my spirits weaken. I have no doubt that the FA look on and rub their hands with glee. It will surprise nobody, I hope, to know that I am already boycotting the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox baseball series at The Oval next June.

It would not feel right for me to attend. That’s just my personal choice. I’ve seen the Yankees play thirty times in The Bronx and nine times on the road. But the thought of seeing the Yankees playing in some sort of ersatz environment (I dread to think, I dread to think…) does nothing for me, and it would be supremely hypocritical.

Major League Baseball got the ball rolling with this concept – “sporting colonialism” – around twenty years ago with regular season games in Japan and then Mexico. It has been the American way. I made the point to Erica and Victor that US teams seem to hop around from one city to another at the drop of a hat (or at the hint of a new stadium), and so there seems to be an immediate disconnect between teams and supporters. There is an ambivalence to the fans. I do not seem to see too many NFL season ticket holders, for example, in the US campaigning against the loss of home games to London.

In England and in the UK, supporters are a lot more tribal, more political, more strident, and I bloody hope it continues.

My secret wish is that a couple of our football clubs – let’s name names, Liverpool and Manchester United – who have very politicised support bases and pressure groups (“The Spirit Of Shankly” and the “Manchester United Supporters Trust” to name two) will lead the way in fighting against any new proposals for “overseas games.”

I have always said that if the FA, and if Chelsea are implicit in their plans, decide to play a regular season game outside of England and Wales, then that will be the last straw for me.

An idle threat?

I am not sure. It would be a heart-breaking decision for me to turn my back on the love of my life, but nobody enjoys getting the piss taken out of them.

We will wait and see.

Down on the River Thames, we hopped from The Old City Arms to The Blue Anchor and then to The Rutland.

The pints were, of course, going down rather well. The time raced past.

Erica and Victor were staying near Earl’s Court, and they had tried to pop into a local pub during the morning. From their story, I believe that the pub was “The Courtfield”, which stands right opposite the tube station, and is one of the main “away” pubs at Chelsea. Victor was wearing a 2010/2011 home shirt, and he was advised by a policeman to avoid going in to the boozer as it was full of Arsenal. This totally shocked Erica and Victor. In the US, home and away fans in team colours mix easily and freely outside stadia and in nearby pubs. The cultural differences between sport in the UK and the US were spoken about once more. Victor, forced into a corner somewhat and maybe fearing all sorts of mayhem at Stamford Bridge, chose to wear a grey pullover over the Chelsea shirt instead.

There then ensued a little chat with Erica and Victor about “the cult with no name” and our ongoing predilection for designer clobber at football. As we stood overlooking the River Thames, watching rowers and paddle boarders, I gave the two visitors a crash course in the casual movement from 1977 to date. I looked over at the lads in our tour party and, quite fittingly, everyone was wearing football schmutter. In fact, we could not have been more colour-coordinated. But not a single Chelsea shirt, scarf or favour, save from a couple of very small pin badges.

“Less is more.”

But I then commented to Erica that if any other football fan – “in the know” as we say – were to walk past, they would immediately know that we were all going to football.

More beers, more stories, more Tales From The Riverside.

The idea was to head up to “The Dove” – the best pub of the lot – but time was against us. We caught the tube to West Kensington, and dived into “The Famous Three Kings” which was awash with Juventus Club Londra fans watching their game against Chievo.

I could not resist.

“Forza Juve, Vinci Per Noi.”

So, that was the pre-match. The big thrill for me was to see Erica and Victor enjoying themselves so much, and sharing jokes and laughter with my mates. In the four hours that they were with us, they sampled a great range of alcohol too; cider, bitter, lager, “Guinness”, and even a “Pimms”.

I hope they remembered the match.

In the opening salvos of the game, honours were pretty even. A couple of chances for us, and a couple for them. David Luiz, wearing plain black boots – weirdo – tried to lob Cech, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, we did not have too long to wait. A beautifully weighted through ball from Jorginho picked out the run of Marcos Alonso down our left. He soon spotted the figure of Pedro to his right, in oodles of space, and his pass was perfection itself. Right in front of the Arsenal support, Pedro slipped a low ball past Petr Cech, the man in black.

One-nil to The Chelsea.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I admired the touch and movement of Ross Barkley in the first moments of the game. He seems to have grown in stature over the summer; in self-confidence, in presence. He may yet be a fantastic buy. I always liked him in his first few seasons at Everton.

Aubameyang forced a save from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

I’ll just call him “Save.”

Then, a ridiculously easy chance for Aubameyang again, but he ballooned the ball over from a very central position. Our defence, it seemed, had not been introduced to each other before the game. Then, another rapid break into the Arsenal half. A long ball from Dave was played beyond the Arsenal line and Alvaro Morata was able to race away, twist past his marker and wrong foot Peter Cech. His finish looked easier than it was. He raced away to Parkyville and wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

I must admit that I found it odd to see N’Golo Kante in a more forward position; it is a role that we are not used to see. How often have we seen him over the past two seasons patrolling that central section of the park, and causing a massive hindrance to opposing players? It is his role, his position.

On his day, he gets as close to his opponent as a wet shower curtain.

And now, within the manager’s new plan, he is asked to change his game, and I am not sure if we will see the best of him. In our old system of 3/4/3, I would imagine that a midfield “two” of Jorginho and Kante would have been ideal. But what do I know?

Next, another gilt-edged chance for Arsenal but another line fluffed. Mkhitarian repeated Aubameyang and the ball flew high over our bar.

“Phew.”

This was open a game as I had seen for a while.

Maurizio Sarri, bedecked in head to toe royal blue, was not as animated as the previous manager, but he studiously watched from the technical area and the bench. If you squint, and think “sepia”, he looks a little like Billy Birrell, our spectacled manager from both sides of the Second World War.

Morata forced a save from Cech.

While my concentration was devoted to demolishing a chicken katsu pie, its contents as hot as molten lava, I looked on as Mkhitarian popped a low shot past Arrizabalaga from outside the box after we gave up possession rather too easily. Then, horror upon horrors, a ball was whipped in from our left and Iwobi struck from close-in. Our defenders were not even close. It reminded me of the low crosses from which Manchester United often used to punish us twenty years or so ago.

So, all even at the break and many a scratched head in the Matthew Harding.

I popped down for a very brief chat with Big John in the front row.

“So, if we play a league game in the US, is that it for you, John?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s a pact then.”

We laughed.

The second-half began. With us attacking the Matthew Harding, the play stagnated a little. Ross Barkley broke through but Cech saved well. We needed an extra push. On the hour, Sarri decided to shake things up.

Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley (a shame, I though Barkley had been fine) and Eden Hazard for Willian.

We were treated, almost immediately, to some pure sparkle from Eden Hazard. He immediately looked the part. Mateo Kovacic instantly impressed too. In fact, I can rarely remember a more impressive home debut as a second-half substitute, Joe Allon excepted (you had to be there.)

He was all energy, full of movement, skillful in tight areas, and a lovely awareness of others.

OK, I was joking about Joe Allon.

Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard lined up alongside David Luiz as a free-kick was awarded, but the Brazilian’s effort was saved by Cech.

On seventy-five minutes, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

We seemed to tighten our grip on the game.

A chance for N’Golo. Over.

Throughout the game, Alan – bless him – had been tough on the defensive frailties of Marcos Alonso, who had often been caught out of position or ball-watching. With ten minutes remaining, an exquisite burst from Eden Hazard enabled him to drift easily past his marker and drill a low cross right into the box. Who else but Alonso arrived just at the right time to flick the ball through Peter Cech’s legs.

“Nuts.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd erupted as one. I jumped up and punched the air, then quickly looked back at Alan and we found ourselves smiling and pointing at one another.

The joy of the moment.

A late winner.

Against Arsenal.

Marcos Alonso.

Fackinell.

We were, believe it or not, top of the league.

We exchanged a few last chances but Arsenal disappeared off into the West London evening with no points in their first two games under their new manager. Yes, we had ridden our luck in the first-half, but thank heavens for Eden Hazard. Arsenal do not have anyone like him, and nor do many others. Let’s keep him for life.

We began the day with a breakfast at Praed Street and we finished it with an Indian on Praed Street.

We caught the 9.30pm train home, and the beers had taken their toll over the day, and a couple of us, ahem, rested our eyes.

We finally reached Frome at midnight.

It had been a top day.

See you at Newcastle next Sunday.