Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

Exactly one year after our first league game of last season, we were on the road to a northern city once again. On the eleventh day of August in 2018, we assembled in Huddersfield for new manager Maurizio Sarri’s opener. That day felt like a huge step into the wide unknown, and a step outside of our comfort zone. It was meant to be intoxicating and different, with a new system, new players and a new approach. It wasn’t a bad day out at all to be honest. It was an easy win. At the end of that game though, I noted that the new manager did not walk over to us at the end of the game. I was to learn later that it was one of his many quirks and superstitions to never enter the pitch on game day.

What an odd fellow he was.

But one thing is for certain. If somebody had suggested that come the opening league game of the following season – and despite a third place finish, a domestic cup final appearance and a Europa League win – Frank Lampard would be our manager, there would have been widespread surprise and disbelief.

But this is football these days. Or, rather, this is Chelsea these days. Nothing is for certain, nothing seems constant, nothing seems ordinary.

Yes, dear reader, season 2019/20 was upon us with our beloved and admired former midfielder in charge and the general consensus within the Chelsea Nation was that it was time for the nonsense to stop. We just wanted a period of stability within the club. We wanted Frank Lampard to oversee a calm period. The transfer ban meant that for a year or so, we would have to look within ourselves – in more ways than one – and promote from our ranks. Again, the consensus was that we were OK with that, not that we had any choice.

Pre-season had been completed; seven games all told. I had managed to get to two of them; the wins in Dublin and Reading. My season opener against St. Pat’s was a full four weeks ago but it had felt like a short close season and time had soon passed.

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

It was going to be, inevitably, a long day on the road in support of The Great Unpredictables. I had woken one minute before my alarm clock at 7.30am – I suppose this loosely means that I was ready – and I collected PD and Glenn at 9.30am, and Parky at 10am. The first part of the journey was not devoted to football, but rather an update on various health issues that have affected the four of us, and some of our loved ones, over the summer. Thankfully, news was generally upbeat. Of the four of us inside The Chuckle Bus, I was able to report – perhaps – the healthiest news. I have been on a diet of late and am pleased with my progress.

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

“Happy with the ‘keeper. Not sure about the defence, especially now that Luiz has gone. That might be a big loss. He’s experienced and a good presence. But – let’s be frank, or even Frank – if he didn’t want to fight to retain his place, then he is best away. We are over stacked in midfield. Some real talents there. Especially if Ross and Ruben step up. But our attack worries me. Not sure about either of the three central strikers. Giroud is half a striker. Michy is half a striker. Tammy is half a striker. Real worries exist.”

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

There were periods of rain, periods of cloud, brief periods of sun.

Stupidly, I hadn’t packed a light rain jacket, only a thick coat from last season remained in my boot. I was horrified by my tactical naivety.

We glossed over the games so far. Typical heavy wins for City and Liverpool. A late, horrible, win for Tottenham. I hoped that Arsenal, never good travellers, might come unstuck at the day’s early game at Newcastle.

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

We recalled the horror show which had unfolded at West Ham; the VAR crimes on football, the frustration of ecstasy being denied, the ersatz pleasure of applauding an electronic decision, the mess of it all.

Fucking hell.

There had been delays en route, but this is nothing new on the M5 and M6. As with the previous two visits to Old Trafford, we called into The Beehive, just off junction nineteen of the M6. Waiting for us to arrive, at just gone 2pm, was my old college mate Rick, from nearby Northwich, and a long time United season ticket holder. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Since graduating in 1987 and going our separate ways, it was only the fourth time that we had seen each other, but it is always lovely to see a face from the past. We chatted about our summers, our thoughts on the immediate season, and about mutual friends from those grainy days in Stoke-on-Trent in the mid-‘eighties.

“To be honest, we were glad to see the back of Mourinho in the end.”

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

I mentioned to Rick how the highlight of my summer was a weekend flit over to Italy three weeks ago, primarily to meet up with my oldest friend in the whole wide world Mario, who was visiting his father in the town on the Italian Riviera where I first met him in 1975. Mario has appeared within these reports over the years as an endearing token of how football can add so much to our lives through the people that we meet along the way. People are mistaken if they think that football is just about tactics, players, formations, counter-attacks, transition, blocks, presses and assists.

Football is about people. It’s about the fans. The ones we meet. The ones who provide humour and laughter. The ones who provide comfort and support. The ones that you just love meeting again and again.

It’s true with Rick. It’s true with Mario.

In Diano Marina, it was magical to step inside Mario’s family home for the first time since 1988, and to meet his father Franco – now a ridiculously healthy and busy eighty-four-year-old, but still suffering as a long time Genoa fan – for the first time since then. Since those days of my youth, I had met Mario, and stayed at his house, for the Bayer Leverkusen Champions League game in 2011, and then again in 2016 when we toured Stamford Bridge in the morning and saw Leverkusen win 1-0 against Tottenham in the evening.

What memories.

I met up with his wife Gabi, and their football-mad boys Ruben, Nelson and Valentin. They reminded me of us in 1979,1980,1981…absolutely smitten with football, the teams, the players, the history, the colours, the fans.

In Diano Marina, I walked on the section of beach where Mario and I first kicked a ball to each other in 1975, and we re-created a photograph from that summer in his father’s garden, which abuts the Mediterranean Sea, and with a ball always close by.

What memories.

And we thought of potential Champions League match-ups in 2019/20 involving Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen (Mario and two of his sons are season ticket holders, Ruben the lone Borussia Dortmund fan) and Juventus (Mario is a long time Juve fan, he had a ticket for Heysel, it is a story told before) and we thought of return visits to London and Leverkusen.

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

At just after 3pm, we said our goodbyes and set off in our two cars. As the driver, no beers, no Peronis, I wanted to be fresh. There were still clouds overhead. I prayed for no rain, but the forecast was gloomy.

The new A556 link road zoomed us onto the M56, and I found myself navigating the familiar Manchester Orbital once more. At about 3.45pm, we were parked up at the usual garage off Gorse Hill Park. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Manchester United with Chelsea. In all of the previous twenty-four, I had seen us win just five games; 1985/86, 1986/87, 2004/5, 2009/10 and 2012/13.

We had whispered it among ourselves within the first hour or so of the day’s journey.

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

The rain was holding off. The others had light jackets, I just wore a sombre black Benetton – how ‘eighties – polo.

We were soon at Old Trafford, and the same old approach to the famous stadium. Some United fans aired a new song.

“Harry Maguire. Harry Maguire. He fucked off Leicester for Manchester. His head’s fookin’ massive.”

We dived inside pretty sharpish amid taunts of “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

There were handshakes and nods of acknowledgement with many of the travelling three thousand. I immediately sensed a noisier crowd, a far more enlivened crowd, a happier crowd. The Frank Lampard effect? Oh yes.

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

On the way up in the car, Glenn had asked me who I would start up front.

“I’ll trust Frank, but Giroud has the experience for places like this. I’d start him.”

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

It was lovely to see Alan and Gary again. The away club was back together for another season of sunshine and smiles, rain and agony. I stopped to chat to a few in the away quadrant. Our seats were in a similar spot to last season.

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

The rain was holding off. Old Trafford looked the same, apart from one or two new banners.

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

I chatted to JD, who had posted on Facebook earlier that he was a little underwhelmed by it all. He aired a few of my pet peeves – VAR, the farce of Baku, a support base that is full of irksome divs – and I tended to agree with him.

I commented :

“When they announced Frank as the manager, I got a proper buzz, but that seems to have worn off a bit. It’s all the other shite that goes with it.”

But JD is a good man and his humour will see him through.

As kick-off time approached, our section was full of support of the new manager but one song dominated, a song from our last visit.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

United were back to their usual white shorts this season, but with a muted red shirt.

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

The game began and as usual we attacked the Stretford End. It soon dawned on me that United were doing the defending, they were letting us dominate. How different from days gone by when the midfield would be a warzone, with tackles flying in, and attacks jumping to life when advantage had been gained. United let us play. And we looked good. We played coherently with confidence. After only four of five minutes, a corner was not cleared and Tammy received the ball, spun nicely and unleashed a waist-high drive which bounced back in to play off the far post with De Gea beaten.

The away end “ooooohed.”

A Kurt Zouma error allowed Martial a shot on goal but the effort did not bother Kepa.

We were bossing the game. Barkley looked at ease. Kovacic was winning the ball and moving it on. We definitely had the advantage. A cross from Dave, a shot from Mason Mount. It was going well.

Then, on eighteen minutes, Jorginho swiped at a United attacker but play was moved on, and with Rashford advancing at pace into the box – and with me fearing the worst – a horrible lunge from Zouma gave the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

We hadn’t allowed the United cheers to subside before we got behind the team, though.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

United, strengthened in spirit and desire after the goal, now dominated for a little spell, though they did not create too much of note.

But Zouma looked at sixes and sevens. He looked clumsy and awkward, like me in front of a woman. His limbs don’t seem to be programmed correctly. The fans around me noticed it too. But we kept the support up.

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

It is a mystery how United have the most vociferous away support of any in the top flight yet their home games at Old Trafford tend not to fizz these days. The quietness even shocked me. I almost wanted the bastards to make some noise.

United had the ball in the net a second time though every man and woman in the stadium surely realised that the player was a few yards offside. But on came the VAR review and a huddle of sweaty nerdicians in Stockley Park got to work.

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

Mount chose to pass rather than shoot and there was little weep of frustration. But we kept attacking. A shot from Barkley drew a messy save from De Gea and the rebound was not cleared. Jorginho’s follow-up effort was blocked for a corner. The best chance of the closing moments fell to an unmarked Emerson, who picked up a cross by Jorginho that just evaded the leap of Mount. His swipe hit the same post as Tammy’s effort in the first five minutes.

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

At the break, the mood in the camp was positive.

“How are we losing?” was a common question asked.

I certainly had few complaints, though if I was to be picky, I would look at our A to Z.

Tammy Abraham – I wanted him to move his marker more, be more cunning, be more devilish, be stronger.

Kurt Zouma – I wanted him to look more relaxed, to trust himself more, to look more at ease, to gel.

For old times’ sake, The Baku Half-Time Moaners club was revived as I chatted to Welsh Kev, though to be truthful we had little to moan about. On my way back to my seat, I stated the bloody obvious.

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

Overhead, the clouds were classic Mancunian. November in August. Tupperware skies.

I commented to Alan :

“Those clouds have more rain in them and this game has more goals in it.”

The second-half began mildly, with no team dominating. Our chances were rare.

On fifty-eight minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Ross Barkley, who had enjoyed a mixed game and was certainly starting to tire. Pulisic, from Hershey in Pennsylvania, is touted for great things. I have only seen highlights of him, I do not have the time to endlessly gorge on football, but he looks the business. If he can make that tract of land down the left wing his own in the same way that Eden Hazard did from 2012 to 2019, we will all be very happy.

Sadly, on sixty-seven minutes – and with Tammy pole-axed in United’s box – a very quick counter resulted in our defenders scampering around like chickens having glimpsed the pointed ears and bushy tail of a fox enter their coop. A cross from the right from the boot of Andreas Pereira was inch-perfect, but Dave will be unhappy that Martial reached the ball before him. He poked it past Kepa.

We were now 2-0 down.

No way back? Nah. We looked out of it.

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were 3-0 down. I must admit that I missed the long pass out of defence from Paul Pogba which lead to Rashford running unhindered through our defence and poking the ball past a hapless Kepa. In the split second that my mind wandered, I found myself looking at the horrific Chelsea tattoo on the shin of a nearby supporter but don’t worry my concentration levels will increase as I get match fit. I saw the neat finish alright. Fuck it.

The United fans went doolally.

There is a problem at Old Trafford. From the curve of the away section, spectators have an unimpeded view of the home supporters down below us, especially in the paddock in front of the old main stand. Their faces were of delirium. They were bloody loving it. I felt ill.

Our little prince N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho with twenty minutes remaining and I guess that Lampard just wanted to give him “minutes.”

Lo and behold, despite our best efforts to stem the tide and to, maybe just maybe, grab a goal ourselves, the fates contrived against us, and just after an odd moment. Jose Mourinho must’ve been spotted in a TV studio because a sizeable proportion of the United support in the nearby main stand and “Stretty” spotted him and serenaded him

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

With that, United broke – supremely well – and Pogba ran and ran and ran. His cute pass to substitute Daniel James set the debutant up, though he needed two bites of the cherry.

A deflection hindered Kepa and we were 4-0 down.

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

“The biggest loss to them since the 1994 FA Cup Final.”

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

But most of the Chelsea support stayed to clap the boys off. Frank Lampard approached and clapped us too. He had looked the part the entire game, suited and elegant in the technical area, although he did retire up to the seated area in the stand at 3-0.

The four of us regrouped and began the walk back to the car, up the famous forecourt, where I watched one United lad swagger across, smile wide, and bounce right into the middle of us. I half expected someone to get a clump, but there was no “afters.”

There was the usual “Hollow Hollow Hollow” and yet more “Chelsea Rent Boys” schoolyard chants. We kept together, kept our heads down, looked after each other, moving slowly out.

A few United fans, talking among themselves, said that they had been lucky to get four. I had to agree. It didn’t feel like a 4-0 throughout the match, although at the end I felt it certainly did.

Crossing the main road, I spoke about our attacking options.

“I’m not sure Frank knows who is his best striker. I hope he soon decides. If it is Tammy, then he needs time to embed himself in the team, to work with his team mates, to know when to move, to know when to go.”

The game – yes, I know it is only the first one – worried me.

“I just don’t think we’ll score enough goals this season.”

We walked past supporters’ coaches headed for North Wales, for Fife, for Devon.

In the car, we heard Frank Lampard speak intelligently, with clarity, with a little humility, with calmness.

I expected nothing less really, but it was wonderful to hear someone talk so much sense.

Stuck in traffic, I posted a selfie of the four of us in my car, smiles wide and defiant.

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

The drive home went well, maybe those tedious trips south after games at Manchester United are a thing of the past.

I was back home at 11.30pm, a little bruised, but still proud to have been at Old Trafford.

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

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

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

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

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

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

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

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

“When are you coming back?”

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

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

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

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

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

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

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

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

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

We were here.

Panic over.

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

But we were never lost.

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

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From A Positive Step

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 3 April 2019.

We live in interesting times.

The negativity surrounding the unconvincing 2-1 win at Cardiff City on Sunday still seemed to be dominating the thoughts of many before the Wednesday evening game at home to Brighton & Hove Albion. The match in South Wales certainly triggered many reactions and emotions. Taken at face value, we squeaked home – oh so fortuitously – against poor opposition and, on any other day in any other season, that might well have been the end of it. But not this season, not at this moment in time. Debate raged among the Chelsea support about our manager’s aptitude, while the media tended to focus on the loud protests against Maurizio Sarri at the game.

The negativity was at times overwhelming on Sunday and in the following few days.

I was just sick of it.

And then I looked at the league table. Chelsea were in sixth place, tucked in behind the others. And then I looked at Tottenham’s recent form guide which stood at four losses in the last five league games, and I managed to have a sideways look at everything. Was everything quite so apocalyptic? Was this really a horrific season? The Tottenham run of form really shocked me. Not so long ago they were, allegedly, being touted as being in the title race, and not just by those who were soon to frequent the Tottenham High Road once more. It seemed that all was goodness and light with our rivals from N17; a team on the cusp of glory, a respected young manager, the new stadium about to open, young English players making the national team and everything so positive. And yet, there was not a great deal of difference between our relative league positions.

This is not to disguise the fact that Chelsea Football Club is enduring an awkward season. Our troubles are well known and well documented. I won’t bore everyone to death. But it did make me think. At Chelsea, is our glass – like Tottenham’s trophy cabinet – always half empty?

At work on Wednesday, I did an early shift and worked 7am to 3pm. One lad – Andy, a relatively new colleague, I do not know him too well, but he is certainly approachable and not full of nonsense – was working the 6am to 2pm before heading up to London for football too. But he was a Tottenham fan, a season ticket holder, and was hugely excited about their first league game at their new and impressive stadium. I suspect that our individual  approaches to the two games in London were wildly different. My game was –  I was quite sure – going to be all about putting the leg-work in, showing up, trying to support as best I could, enduring the possible poor quality on show, trying not to grumble too much and make some noise. Another game ticked off and hopefully a win.

More than anything else, I just wanted no more negativity. The loud chants against Sarri at Cardiff showed our support, to me anyway, in a bad light. I’ve never been an advocate of loud “demonstration-level” booing and suchlike during games. It just adds to the pressure on the players, on the management team, on the substitutes.

And – to reiterate – we are a top six team in the toughest league going.

As my father used to say “if you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

Too simplistic? I don’t care.

We are supporters. To me that means that during the ninety-minutes of the framework of the game, we support.

PD again drove to London and I was able to grab a little sleep en route. The pre-match routine was the usual : pints of Peroni at The Goose, bottles of Staropramen at “Simmons.” There was talk with Rob about The Old Firm, there was talk with Walnuts about Stiff Fingers, there was talk with Simon about his son’s trip to Austin in Texas. The football would take care of itself later.

The team was announced and there were wholesale changes from Cardiff.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Hazard

I might have chosen Rudiger and not Christensen, but there were generally few complaints from anyone.

The big story concerned Callum Hudson-Odoi. It would be his first league start and about bloody time.

(Am I the only one who detests the “CHO” moniker? Back in 2006, I warmed to Sean Wright-Phillips’ SWP as it linked itself to SW6. But as for “CHO” and “RLC” – nah. File alongside “Chels.”)

It was a cold night alright. On the cover of the match programme – did the editor know something that we didn’t? – was a highly stylised photograph of our Callum. The scene was set for great things from him on this evening in SW6. Inside the stadium, the three-thousand away fans were virtually all present with a fair few minutes to go. There were noticeable gaps elsewhere. In The Shed and in the Matthew Harding I spotted random empty seats which just meant that people had decided not to attend. In the top upper corners of the East Stand, always the last to sell, whole swathes of blue seats could be seen. These seats were never ever sold in the first place. This was going to be our lowest league gate for quite a while.

Brighton were dressed in a solid racing green shirt and it seemed odd. I had to think back to the last team to show up at Chelsea in a similar colour. My mind raced back to a match with Plymouth Argyle in 1988, but that was it. Over in The Shed goal stood their ‘keeper Mat Ryan – dressed in all black –  and, to me, he looked quite short, quite ridiculously so. Lev Yashin used to wear all black because he claimed that it made him look bigger, more intimidating. The reverse seemed to be the case on this occasion. At the other end, Kepa was dressed in bright orange and looked much taller (he’s two centimetres taller, but you get my point).

Another football folklore tale debunked?

What next?

Bert Trautmann’s ailment in the 1956 FA Cup Final was a sore throat and tickly cough?

The game began, Chelsea attacking The Shed. It was a quiet start to the game, both on and off the pitch. I was pleased that there was no negative noise aimed at anyone, though the change in a more agreeable starting eleven surely quelled any unrest from the natives.

While Brighton fans sung of Wembley – they play Manchester City in the up-coming semi-final – and of our support being awful (which it undoubtedly was), their team seceded from taking part in the more combative parts of the game. There was no desire to challenge, no desire to tackle, no desire to do much at all, except sit deep and let us have the ball. A corner from Eden Hazard found Giroud whose near post header cleared the bar. Our Callum cut in and shot from the right but it was deflected over. A half-chance for Giroud, whose swivel and shot came to nothing. On twenty minutes, a long cross found Solly March who did well to dig out a shot from a tight angle but only found the side netting. Until then Kepa, I think, had not touched the ball at all.

Alan and I spoke about the current state of the nation.

“If anyone had said, back in August, that come the first week of April, we would be in contention for a top four finish and with a strong shout of reaching the Europa League Final, while the manager and his players found their feet – a slow curve – I think most people would have been relatively content.”

“I think the players share some of the responsibility; it’s not just the manager’s fault that we have been lacking desire in some games.”

“The Chelsea story this season is multi-layered.”

“It’s certainly not a page turner.”

Inside, silently, I reminisced about another season under a different Italian manager.

I thought back to 2000/2001.

Claudio Ranieri was an odd choice, in some ways, and he was certainly a relatively untested Italian who had replaced Gianluca Vialli, who was a loved and respected Italian manager. There are obvious comparisons with Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte. Eventually, Ranieri got it right – but with no silverware – and laid the basis for our ridiculous haul of trophies from 2005 to 2012. In retrospect it is hard to believe that Ranieri was given the best part of four seasons at Chelsea. It would not happen today.

Everything was a little humdrum although Callum was showing promise on the wing. However, the chances slowly increased. A run from deep from Eden got the juices flowing but he ran out of space. There was a weak header from Giroud. Callum was probing well and his quality cross towards Dave was sadly not matched by the subsequent header. Eden blasted over from a central position, but the chances were stacking up. Down below me, Yves Bissouma gave Dave the run-around but his cross into the box luckily did not fall to a waiting Brighton attacker.

There was still hardly much noise from anyone in the home sections.

On thirty-eight minutes, Callum skipped past a defender in front of Parkyville and his low cross was turned in at the near post, with the most clinical of touches, by Olivier Giroud. From my angle, I wondered how on earth it had ended up in the net. He was mobbed by his team mates – with Parky looking on, can you see him? – and blew a kiss to the crowd.

Dallow, Spicer : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Pinkie, Cubitt : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Brighton’s defenders had resembled loafing oafs in all-night chemists.

The goal was replayed on the TV screen and the fleet-footed shimmy from our young winger was just magical to watch. More of the same please.

We pressed on and there were a couple of jinking runs from Hazard, one from in his own half, others on the edge of the box. These, I would imagine, might well have drawn the ire of manager Sarri, but with the defence choked of space and with no runners, nor space to run into anyway, Hazard obviously felt that the best way to navigate the Brighton defence was via old-school dribbling rather than the pass-and-move mantra of the gaffer.

And this is where it has all broken down this season.

I suspect that when – if? – it is played correctly, the movement of our players in the manager’s system will mirror that of the White Helmets motorcycle display team, with synchronised runs and dummy runs, bluffs and counter bluffs, runners gliding into space and with runs using obtuse angles. It’ll be like a Busby Berkeley musical on grass.

In the meantime, we have to do what we have to do.

One Hazardous run was halted abruptly but David Luiz banged the ball against the wall. Late on in the half, after another dance into the box by Eden, there was an embarrassing air-shot from our Callum.

In that first-half, with lovely promise shown by Callum, our Ruben seemed to play within himself. I hoped for greater things in the second period. At the half-time break, I turned to Alan and became a ground hopper bore.

“You realise Slavia Prague’s rebuilt stadium used to be called the Eden Stadium?”

Ah, Prague. The joy of European travel. I know that I decided not to go to Czechia – new name, same place – for our up-coming game, but a boy can dream can’t he? I loved Prague on my two – ridiculously brief – previous visits (en route to Jablonec in 1994, en route to Munich 2012) and I spent a few wistful moments dreaming of the Czech capital. It is, like Budapest, a ground-hoppers’ paradise. In fact, if I was going, I could visit all of the five major stadia on a beautifully straight diagonal waking tour.

From south-east to north-west –

Slavia Prague.

Bohemians.

Viktoria Zizkov.

Sparta Prague.

Dukla Prague.

And then there is, at the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, the Strahov national stadium – where it was rumoured that we might have to play Zizkov in 1994 – and alongside it, the second-largest stadium ever built. This once held a monstrous 250,000 and was a vast area surrounded by a single-tier of terrace that was home to the “Spartakiada” for many years. It is now home to Sparta’s training ground and has enough space for nine full-size football pitches.  I can vividly remember a Friday night in 1976, right after an edition of “Open All Hours” on BBC2 if memory serves, when I watched the coverage of this annual show of communist strength via synchronised gymnastics that Busby Berkeley, and probably Maurizio Sarri too, would have been proud. It simply blew my mind. It is an image that has stayed with me for over forty years. Maybe I need to visit Prague again, maybe on a weekend over the coming summer. All of those stadia, all of those teams. Watch this space.

Later in the half-time break, I politely asked Alan to get me a Dukla Prague fridge magnet.

“It’s all I want for Christmas.”

Blimey, too many obscure musical references.

Back to London. The second-half started with us attacking the Matthew Harding. Hazard wriggled into the box, Luiz slammed a low cross towards the goal. Ten minutes in, a deep cross from Jorginho found the leap of our Callum – who looked offside to me – but his header fell into the arms of Yashin Junior.

“Oh Hudson-Odoi.”

At last we made some noise.

On the hour, Ruben played the ball in to Eden, who wriggled himself into space and sold Lewis Dunk a wonderful dummy before curling a wonderful effort wide of the ‘keeper and into a gaping net.

GET IN.

I was lucky to capture his run, jump and fist pump towards us.

Three minutes later, Jorginho to Hazard to Ruben. There was a quick appraisal of where he was, where the goal was, where the ‘keeper was, and our Ruben took one touch, opened up his body and despatched a firm shot – a little more loft and pace than Eden’s effort – which dropped beautifully high into the Brighton goal. It was sensational. I was again lucky to shoot the resulting elation from him and his team mates.

Brighton were rocking.

Teetering on their heels, they had offered nothing all game and were now well and truly out of it.

The game continued, but against an increasingly odd backdrop as thousands decided to leave early. I suppose it is, at least, better to leave for home when Chelsea is winning 3-0 than when we are losing 3-0. Regardless, the sight of acres of blue plastic was a jolt to the senses. Brighton sang about “Sussex by the Sea” and we watched as we continued to attack. Ruben’s strike seemed to give him confidence and a shot was drilled wide. A wide cross from Eden found a stretching N’Golo Kante who could only push it over the bar from close in.

The substitutions were made.

Davide for Dave.

Mateo for Ruben.

Willian for Eden.

Brighton, oddly, came to life a little in the last quarter, but the match was won and lost by then.

At the final whistle, the stadium was only two-thirds full. But it had been a reasonable game. I thought that in the immediate aftermath, fans were lavishing a lot of praise on Ruben, who had been fine and had scored a fantastic goal and yet had hardly influenced the game as much as some would believe. Maybe I saw a different match. But there were many more positives than negatives. This 3-0 win against Brighton just seemed a lot more wholesome than the 2-1 win against Cardiff.

Phew.

On the walk back to PD’s car, after demolishing yet another hot dog and onions from “Chubby’s Grill”, I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz.

We were of the same opinion about Ruben.

We looked ahead to our run-in.

“We can finish top four, of course we can. But our little sequence of games against these mediocre teams, and I am going to include the Europa League teams too, are not going to prepare us for our two horrific games at Anfield and Old Trafford. They will be so different. And I’m not convinced we can step up in those games.”

On Monday evening – continuing a run of nineteen consecutive games without a Saturday game  – we meet up again at Stamford Bridge for the visit of West Ham United.

I will see you there.

Tales From Both Sides Of The Ninian Park Gates

Cardiff City vs. Chelsea : 31 March 2019.

After away games in Ukraine and Scouseland we were now due to play our third consecutive away match on foreign soil. On the last day of March and the first day of summer we were headed over the Severn Bridge to Cardiff to play Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds. The Everton away game seemed ages ago. The Sunday trip into Wales could not come quick enough.

This was a drive of only seventy-five miles, a relatively brief excursion, but it would be a journey back into time too.

Let me explain.

There might have been the chance that our game at Cardiff City in 2019 might only have induced the slightest of mentions of our epic match at Ninian Park during the 1983/84 promotion campaign. I have already written about that encounter in two of these match reports already – during 2008/09, the twenty-fifth anniversary, and 2013/14, our last visit to Cardiff – and in normal circumstances I might have penned a brief mention. And then the Footballing Gods got involved. The match was moved to Sunday 31 March 2019, and it did not take me long to realise that this date would mark, exactly, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1984 game.

I mentioned the anniversary on a “Chelsea In The 1980s” page on Facebook during the preceding week and there were many replies, most of which seemed to centre on the crowd trouble that day rather than the game itself. But it was certainly a day that many recalled easily. And football hooliganism was often an inherent part of the day to day travails and travels of a Chelsea supporter in that era, and I suppose I should not have been shocked by the myriad of memories stirred by the mere mention of “Cardiff 1984”. There has always been a morbid fascination with hooliganism at football for many, much in the same way that violent films and TV series always stir some basic instinct among us. If “The Sopranos” was about opera singers and not New Jersey mobsters and if “Peaky Blinders” was about Birmingham milliners I suspect that viewing figures for both series would never have reached such stratospheric levels.

But more of 1984 later. You have been warned.

I set off for “Welsh Wales” – as we call it in Somerset, thus not confusing it with the local cathedral city of Wells – at just before eight o’clock. The usual Fun Boy Three of PD, Parky and little old me were joined by PD’s son Scott and Johnny, a local lad who we first met prior to the League Cup Final. It would be his first ever Chelsea away game. Tickets for this game seemed to be springing up all over the place. The media were in a shit-stirring mood and claimed that Chelsea fans were boycotting games after falling out of love with manager Sarri. I suspect that the glut of tickets for Cardiff City might well have been more to do with the game falling on Mothering Sunday.

Even football supporters – and hooligans and wannabe hooligans too – love their muvvers, just like the Kray twins.

The drive into Wales was so easy, though the fantastic weather of the previous day was nowhere to be seen. Heading over the Severn Estuary, it was all grey and cloudy. However, I was parked up on Mermaid Quay at just before 10am and we soon made the local pub “The Mount Stuart” our base. We devoured our various breakfasts and, while others got stuck into a variety of ciders and lagers, I made ample use of free coffee refills, as if I suspected that the upcoming game might induce torpor. There was a Cardiff Bay 10km race taking place and the pub was mobbed with runners ahead of the 11am start, but they soon vacated the large pub and we settled on high stools near the bar and overlooking the murky grey waters of the bay. Outside were flags of St. David and, in the distance, the cranes of commerce and trade.

A Cardiff City fan, John – Adidas gazelles and a Lacoste rain jacket – befriended us, and we chatted away about all sorts. Joining the dots, I think it is wise for me to assume that he had a chequered past as he knew of various names and events of days gone by, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. He remembered 1984. He spoke of the 2010 FA Cup game. But he was a friendly lad and was kind enough to take our team photo once we had been joined by fellow Chelsea fans Charlotte and Paul from Yeovil. I found it interesting that John mentioned that fans of Swansea City  – he called them “that lot” – and Cardiff City, especially in times when both teams existed further down the football pyramid, often had a second team, an English team. Again joining the dots, I reckoned his other team was Liverpool since he spoke highly of their 2001 FA Cup win in Cardiff against Arsenal and of “a mate” – oh yeah? – who went to Kiev for last May’s European Cup Final. His wife was taking part in the run. I think he was happy to have company while he waited for her return. We wished each other well.

We made tracks. I had arranged a parking place right outside the ground. In the middle distance I kept spotting the towering roof supports of the Millennium Stadium in the nearby city centre. It dominates the skyline.

There has always been something very special about spotting a football stadium.

In the late ‘sixties or early ‘seventies, I have a vivid memory of my father driving through Cardiff to visit relatives in Llanelli – in the days when the M4 in South Wales was still being built – and him pointing out the floodlights of Ninian Park. After Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road, Ninian Park was almost certainly the second football ground that I ever saw.

We were parked up at about 1.30pm. There was just time – but only just – for me to splinter away from the others and have a rushed walk around the new Cardiff City Stadium. I was unable to do so in 2014, when we similarly enjoyed a pre-match drink on Mermaid Quay but then left it very late in arriving at the game.

Outside the entrance to the away section on Sloper Road, police cars were parked up, with their blue lights flashing, and a fair few policemen were walking in a mob of Chelsea. The game had recently been elevated to a high risk “Cat C” ranking.

I walked on, and I soon spotted a feature which linked Cardiff City’s past with their future. The old Ninian Park used to sit on the northern side of Sloper Road. The new stadium sits on the southern side. I was heartened to see that the old Ninian Park gates – and their concrete surrounds – were not demolished but were moved en masse to form the basis of an entrance plaza (admittedly half-arsed and scruffy) into the new stadium.

I definitely approved.

And my mind returned to 1984, quite easily in fact.

On that Saturday thirty-five years ago, Glenn and I had met up at Wallbridge Café opposite the Frome railway station. Inside, I was met by a sobering site. There was one other Chelsea fan – Dave – but also a couple of Frome’s Finest, two lads who I knew were only coming along for a bundle; Gulliver, a fan of Manchester United, and Sedge, a fan of Arsenal. Alongside them was Winnie, a friend from my year at school, who was anything but a wannabe hooligan. We made our way to Wales by train. As we neared Newport, I remember peering out at the scruffy grass alongside the tracks as if it was yesterday. At Cardiff train station, I met up with another school friend, Rick – a Pompey fan, studying at a polytechnic in Pontypridd – who was lured to Cardiff for the game.

Glenn and I soon lost the others and made a bee-line for Ninian Park. We knew that there would be pockets of trouble at various locations in the city centre and en route to the stadium. We kept our heads down, and feared the prospect of locals approaching us and asking us the usual “got the time mate”? We surmised that it would be better to get inside the away end early. I always remember that I was, in fact, the very first Chelsea fan to pass through the “click click” of the away turnstiles. Having the entire away end to myself, if only for a fleeting few seconds, was a memorable moment. Opposite the huge Bob Bank loomed, a massive terrace which backed onto some railway sidings and whose roof was etched with a ginormous Captain Morgan advertisement. To my left the main stand. Straight ahead the roof of the home end. Throughout the game, Chelsea fans would end up in three sides of the ground. The weather that day was grey and overcast too.

I continued my walk around the Cardiff City Stadium. Since my only other visit in 2014, a new tier has been added to the stand nearest Sloper Road. It has the infamous red seats, and the less said about that the better. The stadium now holds a healthy 33,000. There was a poorly executed statue depicting Fred Keenor, the club’s captain in 1927 when, as any good schoolboy will know, Cardiff City took the FA Cup out of England for the only time. I liked the fact that the signage on the main stand is an exact replica of that used at Ninian Park. The same words, the same font, though oddly in light grey and not Bluebirds blue. But I approved of that too. It was another nice nod to the past.

On the way in to the away section, there seemed to be an over-bearing presence of OB, but the security searches were completed with the minimum of fuss.

After six coffees, I was still buzzing.

I made my way in, behind the goal this time, and took my seat alongside Alan, Gary and PD. The others were dotted around.

Mother’s Day had won. There were quite a few empty seats in both home and away sections.

The teams came on. The yellow and blue “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” banner was held aloft to my right.

The game began without me knowing the team. I soon worked it out.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

So, no Kante, no Hazard, no Hudson-Odoi.

Words failed me, and not for the first time. Our Callum was undoubtedly the talk of the town, the player on everyone’s lips, but Sarri could not find a place for him against lowly Cardiff City. I could not get inside Sarri’s head. I was befuddled.

The game began with a few half-hearted shouts of support from the Chelsea faithful. But it was a slow start to the match. Both Alan and I were surprised that the home fans were not getting behind their team. However, Saturday had been a particularly painful time for them with both Burnley and Southampton victorious. Perhaps they had simply lost the will to battle and fight. Their team were happy to let us have the ball. But Neil Warnock is a wily old sod.

“Let them have it. Save yourselves. They’ll soon tie themselves up in knots.”

It was a cold day. I was glad that I had my jacket. The first real chance of the game fell to Pedro who danced his way into a central position and curled an effort narrowly over the bar. Soon after, a similar effort from the home team – in all blue, the aberration of red shirts consigned to the rubbish bin of memory – just span past the far post.

I turned to Gary : “I think their effort was closer than Pedro’s.”

We had most of the ball, but did fuck all with it. Sound familiar? I noted that it took until twenty-five minutes for any chant of noise and menace to emanate from the away fans and a further five minutes for the whole end to be united in song.

Sigh.

It was dire, both on and off the pitch. I had to step in when one of the traveling party continually ranted about virtually every Chelsea player. I just wanted to see positive noise. That’s our role as supporters, right?

Did we have any other chances? I captured a Willian effort on goal from a free-kick. There was a scramble in which the derided Alonso failed to poke home. Cardiff rarely threatened.

“Oh God, this is awful.”

In 1984 it wasn’t much better.

We had been riding high since the timely addition of Mickey Thomas in January added the requisite amount of energy and skill to our promotion-chasing team. My previous game that season had been the iconic 1-1 draw at promotion favourites Newcastle United. Chelsea were the in-form team, closing in on leaders Sheffield Wednesday. We had gone into the game at Ninian Park high on confidence. Although Dale Jasper was a young debutant alongside captain Colin Pates we did not foresee any trouble in garnering three points. As the away end filled up, I was well aware of the dress code of the day. Many were wearing those blue and white Patrick cagoules.  There were Pringles and Nike Wimbledons everywhere. For the very first time, I had joined in too; a yellow, light grey and navy Gallini sweatshirt, a £10 purchase in Bath the previous weekend, though if I am honest Gallini didn’t really cut it. It is a brand that is rarely mention in the various “clobber” pages on the internet these days. However, I did see three of four other lads wearing the same top that afternoon in Wales. As the kick-off neared, outbreaks of violence erupted in a variety of locations all over the stadium.

Chelsea were in town.

However, at half-time we were losing 3-0. Just like in 2019, we had been dire. We were shell-shocked. We had been second-best throughout.

Cardiff City 3 Chelsea 0.

Altogether now –

Fackinell.

Back to life, back to reality. In 2019, there were whispers between Alan and myself that this game might well mirror the Everton match where we had been well on top in the first forty-five minutes but had not prised open the home defence. The worry was, undoubtedly, that there was only a couple of chances against Cardiff rather than the five or six against Everton. Alan slipped in the phrase “we’re on the road to nowhere” and I had reminded him that this phrase had aided me on the naming of a blog a few years ago for a game at Manchester City.

“Tales From The Road To Nowhere.”

Alan replied “You can call this one ‘Tales From Groundhog Day.’”

Within seconds of the restart, a cross from Harry Arter was excellently clipped in by Victor Camarasa.

“Groundhog Day!” yelped Alan.

We stood silent. It is a horrible feeling being in the bear pit of an away section with the home fans baying.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

The away fans, rather than support the team, turned on the manager.

“We want Sarri out, say we want Sarri out.”

Oh great. I didn’t join in. I understood everyone’s frustrations, but surely with a team being 1-0 down and in need of encouragement, we needed to dig deep, real deep, and muster up some noise from the depths of our souls. I’ll say it again. That’s our role as supporters, right?

The Cardiff fans responded : “We want Sarri in.”

Oscar Wilde need not be worried.

Alan commented “it’s getting toxic.”

Indeed it was.

“FUCK SARRIBALL.”

I looked over to the bench. The manager must’ve heard. No reaction. Probably just as well.

Eden Hazard replaced Pedro on fifty-three minutes and the Belgian immediately lit up the pitch. A free-kick involving Willian playing the ball through Ross Barkley’s legs to David Luiz resulted in the wall being hit. The groans continued.

There was a strong shout for a Cardiff penalty after a messy challenge by Rudiger on Morrison. No whistle. Phew.

Our Ruben replaced – shock, horror – Jorginho, who had been quite terrible.

We dominated most of the ball now but despite countless wriggles and shimmies by Eden, Willian and others it looked like Cardiff’s back line would simply not be breached. I lost count of the times Alonso played the ball back rather than into the box. Frustration was everywhere. But I stood silent, not enjoying much of anything. I contemplated us winning all four home games, but easily losing all away games, here at Cardiff, at Anfield, at Old Trafford, at Leicester City. The thought of those two away games at Liverpool and Manchester United are certainly starting to cause me pain.

An effort from Willian went wide. The ineffectual Higuain shot meekly but was then replaced by Olivier Giroud.

Three substitutes used, but Callum stayed on the bench. Maybe Sarri was resting him for his next England game.

A cross from wide was whipped into the box but with Chelsea legs stretching out to meet the low ball, a Cardiff defender managed to reach the ball first. We were awarded a corner.

There were six minutes to go.

In 1984, Kerry Dixon stroked a low shot inside the post from outside the box and this was met with a roar of approval from the Chelsea hordes, but surely this was just a rogue consolation goal.

In 2019, the corner was played in by Willian. Alonso got a touch and – we breathed in expectantly – the ball reached Azpilicueta who headed home. I immediately sensed “offside” but there was no flag, no reaction, the goal stood.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

I turned to Alan.

“Bloody hell. Six minutes to go. Just like 1984. Maybe we’ll draw 3-3.”

A lucky escape at the other end. Another clumsy Rudiger challenge, but after a long deliberation, the referee only gave a yellow card. Was he the last man? It looked messy. Phew.

In 1984, with two minutes to go Colin Lee – the experienced striker now playing right back – found himself inside the six-yard box and bundled the ball home. Game well and truly on. The Chelsea crowd went doolally. We were losing 3-2 but the game sprang to life.

In 2019, there was praise for Chelsea, but the chants of “Maurizio” dried up around Christmas.

In 1984, on ninety minutes, a Cardiff defender handled the ball. A penalty.

Pandemonium.

Nigel Spackman slammed it home.

The away end erupted. Unfettered by seats, we jumped and shouted, and stumbled, and screamed, and hugged, and kissed. Our arms were thrusted heavenwards, our voices sang roars of triumph. As we marched out onto the bleak Cardiff streets, we were invincible.

In 2019, deep into stoppage time, a cross from Willian on the right perfectly found our Ruben. I snapped just as he lent forward and headed the ball towards goal. Just like in 1984 – all those years ago – the Chelsea end erupted. A leap from Ruben in front of me. I was screaming with joy. No chance of a photo.

Carpe diem.

Get in.

I did capture the aftermath.

Joy unbounded.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, boyo.”

There’s nice, look you.

Smiles, relief.

And then Barkley shot wildly over.

Oh boyo.

And that was that.

Despite the win, we all knew that we had been quite awful for eighty minutes. It was truly woeful. It was like watching players walking through treacle.

Football, bloody hell.

In 1984, on the train back to Frome, we regrouped, but two of our party were missing. Dave and Gulliver had been nicked for something or other. It had to happen. They were to spend the night in a police cell. On that train ride home, with me sitting quietly in one of those old compartments, a lad appeared in the corridor and he was serenaded by those who knew him.

“Daniels is our leader. Daniels is our leader.”

It was PD.

It was the first time that I had ever met him.

He was dressed in jeans, DMs and full regalia. He was a fearsome sight.

I had mentioned this to PD when I had picked him up at eight o’clock.

“Me and Nicks and Andy thought that we’d go into the Cardiff end. We got in, looked around, this, that and the other, and soon left.”

Outside the away end, the 2019 party regrouped. We knew how poorly we had played. We were no fools. But we had won. At this stage in the season, three points is all. The traffic heading home was ridiculous. We were caught in an hour-long traffic jam just leaving the immediate area of the stadium. I slowly edged north and then south and then, eventually, west. I looked over at the roof of Cardiff City’s current home, the roof of the Millennium Stadium and imagined Ninian Park in between the two.

Thanks for the memories, Cardiff. I have a feeling that our paths will not be crossing next season.

On Wednesday, we play Brighton at Stamford Bridge, our first home game in bloody ages.

See you there.

The 1984 Game.

Many will be seeing this for the first time. Fill your boots.

Part One.

Part Two.

The 1984 Cast.

Chris – I still go to Chelsea, you lucky people.

Glenn – still goes to Chelsea.

Dave – he occasionally goes to Chelsea.

PD – still goes to Chelsea.

Nicks – still goes to Chelsea.

Andy – still goes to Chelsea.

Gulliver – now a Millwall fan, he goes occasionally and I see him around town occasionally for a chat.

Sedge – I see him around town occasionally.

Winnie – I see him around town occasionally.

Rick – a Pompey season ticket holder, now living in Portsmouth, and at the EFL Trophy game against Sunderland.

Tales From Lime Street

Everton vs. Chelsea : 17 March 2019.

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

We were slightly delayed touching down at Heathrow on Saturday evening after our four-day jamboree in Kiev. There had been high winds, and much rain, in England while our stay in Ukraine had been relatively mild with clear skies and startling sun. We had been truly blessed. But our Air France plane needed to enter the stacking system over South-East England as the winds caused delays in landing. As we circled above London, I commented to my two travelling companions L-Parky and P-Diddy that we had gone through the whole of Saturday without knowing a single football result. We eventually hit terra firma at about 7.30pm. Into the car an hour later, we then began the homeward journey. PD soon fired up his moby to check on the scores. I had forgotten that the FA Cup had shared the billing with the Premier League. Manchester City had squeaked past Swansea City in the cup. There were no games that had affected our position in the league.

Thankfully, the rain soon stopped on the drive home. I dropped Parky off at about 10.30pm, PD at 10.45pm, and I was home at 11pm.

At 11.25pm, I wrote the inevitable “just got in” post on Facebook.

“Kiev. The final reckoning; four days, five goals, a “few” drinks, almost nine hundred photos, one chicken Kiev and thousands of memories. The photos won’t get shared until Monday evening as we are off to Everton tomorrow. Thanks to those who walked alongside me. You know who you are.

Kiev. You were bloody fantastic.”

At 7.25am the next morning, there was another post on Facebook.

“Up early for another couple of days away following The Great Unpredictables.

Let’s Go To Everton.”

On The Road.

I had woken at 6.45am. It felt like I had only slept for an hour. I soon realised that Wolves had beaten Manchester United the previous evening. The news had completely passed me by until then. I guzzled down a black coffee before setting off for Liverpool. There was no Parky with us on this away day. After collecting PD at 7.45am, I made my way over to Warminster to collect Young Jake who was Parky’s late substitute. It would be another new ground for him. I fuelled up at Yarnbrook – petrol for the car, a double-espresso for me – and headed through Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon and skirted past Bath. It was a familiar route north. Thankfully it was a mainly dry drive. There was a McBreakfast at Strensham with another coffee. At Stafford, I was feeling exceptionally drowsy and so bought two Red Bulls. The hangover from Kiev was real, but the caffeine kept me going, six hits all told.

It all paid off. I gathered a second wind and was fine for the rest of the day.

I made the oh-so familiar approach into Liverpool, and was soon parked up at The Liner Hotel which would be the base for our stay. Yes, dear reader, I had long ago decided that driving five hundred miles in one day after the exertions of Kiev would be foolhardy. I was parked-up at about 1pm.

Despite this being St. Patrick’s Day – celebrated in this city more than most in England – I had been lucky enough to get a great a price for this hotel, which soon impressed us with its stylings and ambiance. Checking in time was 2pm so we headed over to a boozer that I had researched a few weeks back.

A Pub On The Corner.

“Ma Egertons” was a comfy and cosy little pub, with just a snug and a saloon, and it boasted a reasonable selection of ales, cheap prices and the locals were friendly. A high percentage of Scousers that I have met in real life have been fine, just fine. This might not be a popular opinion among our support but I cannot lie. There were a few Evertonians sitting close by and they did not bother us. The pub faces the rear doors of the Liverpool Empire and its walls were covered in photographs of those that had walked the boards over the years. My distaste of large and impersonal super pubs has been aired before. This one was just up my street or Lord Nelson Street to be precise. Three pints of lager went down very well. We were joined by Alan and Seb, father and son, from Atherstone in the Midlands who had travelled up by train. There was some talk about our current ailments – club, ownership, team, spirit, hunger, manager – and it all got too depressing for my liking. I just wanted to enjoy the moment.

My pre-match thoughts were simply this.

“Goodison Park has often been a tough venue for us, but Everton are shite.”

I am expecting a letter from Sky to appear on my doormat any minute for me to join their team of football pundits. Such bitingly perceptive analysis surely needs a wider audience.

We checked into the hotel and caught a cab up to Goodison. Despite the cabbie wearing a royal blue sweatshirt, he was a “red”. The cab fare was less than a tenner. Bargain.

The Old Lady.

Now then, anyone who has been reading these journals of my life on the road with Chelsea since 2008 will know how much I love – adore even – Goodison Park. If we had more time, and with this being Jake’s first visit, I would undoubtedly have completed my usual clockwise patrol around the four stands. But the desire was to “get in” so I followed suit. We met up with Deano, newly arrived back in Blighty after a couple of months in India. He was with Mick, also from Yorkshire, who has popped into these reports a few times of late.

With the plans to move into a new stadium – at Bramley Moore Dock – in around 2023, there will not be many more visits to this architectural delight at the northern end of Stanley Park.

Maybe four more.

So here are a few photographs to augment this match report. On a previous visit to Goodison, there was a lone image of Alan Ball displayed from the balcony of the Gwladys Street balcony. On this day, pre-match, images of Dixie Dean, Alex Young, Joe Royle, Bob Latchford, Graeme Sharpe and Duncan Ferguson – “the number nines” – were displayed above some twinkling mosaics.

Of course, I would have preferred an image of Tommy Lawton too.

In the cramped concourse, a rare treat for me; a bottle of lager. I chatted to the Bristol lot, our memories still fresh from our break in Ukraine.

Another Life.

Just as I started school in the spring of 1970, Everton won the League Championship on 1 April and Chelsea won the FA Cup on 29 April. My memory, as I have detailed many times before, is of the name “Chelsea” being bandied about in the schoolyard and I was consciously or subconsciously – who knows? – attracted to the name.

It so easily could have been Everton.

I could so easily be an Everton fan.

After all, Goodison Park was the only stadium that my father had ever visited until I came along. It would have felt right, in some ways, for Dad to encourage an Evertonian future for me.

At such a young age, I had no real control of my life choices.

I wasn’t even five.

But then along came Peter Osgood and I was Chelsea for life.

But in April 1970, my life witnessed another “Sliding Doors” moment for sure.

Those Final Moments.

While we have “Park Life” and “The Liquidator” before games at Chelsea – and “Blue Is The Colour” (and “One Step Beyond” if the moment requires it) after games – at Everton we are treated to a couple of Toffee-coloured tunes.

“And it’s a Grand Old Team to play for.”

“Z-Cars.”

I always think the first one is sung by Lily Savage. It does sound rather camp.

The second one is class, pure class.

It always gets me excited for the game ahead. Those drums and pipes, the extended introduction, the sense of anticipation, the glimpse of the players emerging from the ridiculously tight tunnel.

The Team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We had jettisoned the blue socks of Kiev to go all yellow.

Everton these days play in white socks just as they did in 1970.

Yellow Fever.

Yet again, I found myself behind the goal-line at Goodison, but with a clear unimpeded view of the pitch from the second row of the Upper Bullens Road. There were no fans allowed in the first row. Alongside me was Tombsie, one of those who I see everywhere yet don’t really know at all, and he was with his son. He was clearly another fan of Goodison Park.

“Proper stadium.”

We bossed the first-half, no doubt. Our early movement was fine. Ross Barkley – booed, obviously – was neat, and Jorginho was excellent. As ever, the energy of Kante was wonderful to witness. We were all over them. There were a couple of early chances for Eden Hazard, twisting and turning – and if I am honest, probably hogging the ball too much for Maurizio Sarri’s liking – and finding pockets of space everywhere.

Eden Hazard was soon peppering the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street. A shot low after a snake-like wriggle inside the box at the near post forced a late save from Jordan Pickford. Another low drive from a feint further out rattled the other post with the ‘keeper well beaten.

It was, simply, all us.

A magnificent lofted ball from Jorginho found the fine run of the lurking Higuain but the Argentinian was not supported by any team mate and the chance went begging.

After this very bright start, the game settled to a gentler pace. But Everton seemed to be totally lacking confidence, concentration, class and cohesion.

At last a chance for Everton, but Calvert-Lewin drove the ball well over.

There was a head-scratching moment at the other end when Barkley nimbly danced past some defenders with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have liked, but his attempted cross or shot was sliced into thin air.

“What the hell happened there?”

Shots from both Jorginho and then Barkley were fired straight down Pickford’s throat.

Our strikes on goal were mounting up, but – we know our football – so were the concerns among the away contingent that we could well pay for our wasting of these good chances.

Another shot for Everton but Gomes fired one straight at Kepa.

The Chelsea chances were drying up now, and Pedro should have fared better after freeing up some space wasted a good chance, striking the ball wide from a central position. From a Sigurdsson free-kick, an Evertonian header not cleared the bar but the roof if the Park Lane Stand.

Pedro then had two chances. A prod wide, and then – after creating some space with one of his trademark spins and dribbles – a shot which he narrowly dragged past the right-hand post.

The whistle blew for half-time. It had been all Chelsea. We had been all over Everton like a rash.

They had been hit with an attack of yellow fever.

Yellow Bellies.

Within the first two minutes of the re-start, the mood of the game completely changed. Calvert Lewin drilled a long ball into the six-yard box from out wide and there seemed to be a lot of ball-watching. Soon after, Kepa reacted well at the near post to deflect an effort over.

With just four minutes of the second-half played, our afternoon on Merseyside collapsed. From a corner in that lovely part of Goodison that marks the coming together of the two remaining Archibald Leitch stands, Calvert-Lewin met the incoming ball firmly. Kepa did well to block it, but Richarlison – until then, a spectator – turned the ball in. He reeled away and I felt sick.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

At last the Evertonians made some noise, so quiet until then.

The home team, though not creating a great deal, found themselves in our half more now. I had this quirky and whimsical notion that with them attacking a lot more, the game would open up more and we might, just might, be able to exploit some open spaces. But our chances were rare. A rushed slash from Alonso which only hit the side netting summed up our efforts.

We were, visibly, going to pieces.

There were no leaders cajoling others and nobody keen to take ownership of the ball. It reminded me of a similarly painful showing – a 0-2 defeat – at the same ground seven years earlier under the tutelage of Vilas-Boas.

The mood in the away section was now turning venomous.

PD alongside me was hurling abuse every thirty seconds.

I stayed quiet.

I was just hurting.

Just after the hour, there were piss-taking roars as Ross Barkley was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Then Olivier Giroud replaced the increasingly immobile Higuain.

Just after, a rash tackle took place inside the Chelsea penalty area. It was up the other end and my sightlines were not great. But it looked a nailed-on penalty. Alonso was the guilty culprit and PD almost exploded with rage.

We waited.

Sigurdsson struck low, Kepa saved, but the rebound was tucked home by the Icelandic midfielder.

Everton 2 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced the now ineffective Jorginho.

We had a little flurry of attacking activity with our Callum coming inside nicely and flashing a shot at Pickford but the England ‘keeper tipped it over.

It had been – severe cliché warning – a classic game of two halves.

And we had been hung, drawn and quartered by our lack of guile, togetherness and steel. Our confidence had seeped out of every pore as each minute passed by. And there was a shocking lack of courage and passion.

We had been yellow-bellied incompetents.

Sigh. I have done a lot of sighing this season.

My comment as we slowly made our way out of the wooden top tier summed it all up.

“Sarri’s team talk at half-time must have been fucking diamond.”

We walked down Walton Lane and caught a cab – another “red” – on the junction of the road that bends towards Anfield. We headed down into the city centre, tails well and truly between our legs.

And I knew that there would be a meltdown taking place everywhere. I was just too tired for all of that. New fans, old fans, arguments, talk of disarray, bitter comments, questions of loyalty, a civil war in the camp.

Sigh.

A sub par season? Yep. Compared to the past ten or fifteen years. But my love of this club keeps me going.

I am no football snowflake.

Lime Street.

I found myself outside Lime Street station for the very first time – incredibly – since a game at Anfield in December 1987. On every single visit to Merseyside with Chelsea since that game – all forty-two of them – I have enjoyed pre-matches either up at the pubs near the two stadia, around Albert Dock, or at a couple of locations nearer the river.

Please believe me when I say that Lime Street after games at both ends of Stanley Park in the ‘eighties was as an intimidating place for away fans as any location in England. In those days, we would be kept waiting inside the grounds – allowing home supporters to regroup in the city centre – and we would be walked down to Lime Street en masse. There were even, possibly apocryphal, tales of scallies in flats with air rifles taking pot shots at Mancunians.

Around the station, it would often be a free-for-all.

I remarked to Jake that on my very first visit to Goodison Park, in March 1986, I was chased by some scallies from Lime Street to the National Express Coach Station just around the corner. I was with two college mates – Pete and Mac – and we managed to jump onto a coach headed for Stoke and Stafford just before the lads caught us.

It was a very narrow escape.

The memories of Lime Street returned. It felt so odd to be walking around an area for the first time in over thirty-two years. The large and imposing St. George’s Hall – images of Bill Shankly and his hubris back in 1974 and then the Hillsborough campaigners in more recent times – was floodlit in green for St. Patrick’s Day.

Memories of the area returned.

The infamous graffiti on a bridge on the slow approach to Lime Street : “Cockneys Die.”

Catching a bus up to Anfield in May 1985 and attempting to put on a Scouse accent so not to be spotted as an away fan.

On a visit to Goodison Park later in 1986, I remember seeing that the Cocteau Twins were in concert at the nearby Royal Court Theatre. I was sure that night that Pat Nevin would have stayed up in Liverpool to attend. I remember travelling back to Stoke, totally gutted that I had not realised that my favourite band were in town.

So many memories.

Jake and PD piled in to a local chippy. We tried our best to dodge the locals who were flitting between boozers. Shenanigans – one of the most over-worked words in the US these days, but quite appropriate on a St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool – were in full force. Being three Chelsea fans among a sea of red, blue and green Liverpudlians and Evertonians on St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool city centre is a potentially high risk activity.

PD retired for the night.

Kiev and Liverpool had taken its toll.

Into “Ma Egerton’s” for one last pint, and – for me – my first ever bowl of Scouse.

Unlike the football, it warmed me.

It was an early night for me too. Over the road to the hotel, and a relaxing evening watching the Real Betis vs. Barcelona game, a rare treat for me. I very rarely watch football on TV.

We now have a break from Chelsea for a long fortnight and I think I need it.

After Ukraine and England, Wales next.

See you in Cardiff.

Tales From The Quiet Neighbours

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 3 March 2019.

It seemed to be all about sequences.

We were playing the fifth of seven consecutive games in London. We were playing the seventh match in a row of fourteen that did not include a Saturday game. And we were due to play the tenth game in a run in which there had been alternate wins and losses in the previous nine.

Oh, and in the pub, having mentioned that Slavisa Jokanovic, Claudio Ranieri, Scott Parker – their three managers so far this season – were all former Chelsea personnel, I could not resist yelping

“Bloody leave us alone Fulham.”

Ah yes, the pub. Parky, PD and I had set off early on the morning of the game in order to get ourselves lodged into a pub between 10am and 10.30am. I had completed some research and it looked like “The Rocket” in Putney would be open at 10am. Those following along with these rambles this season will know that we have often enjoyed some splendid pre-match drinks in a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham – “The Eight Bells” and “The King’s Head” mainly – but our plan was to avoid those two because they would be undoubtedly rammed with supporters, probably of both clubs, as they were so near Craven Cottage. As has been the case on every single visit that I have made to Fulham Football Club, the plan in 2018/19 was to drink in Putney.

We were parked-up at just after 10am. There was light drizzle. The sky overhead was grey and threatened more rain. As we headed towards “The Rocket” on the south bank of the River Thames, we met up with Andrew from Columbus in Ohio who was visiting for three games. I had last met Andrew in Ann Arbor in 2016 for the Real Madrid friendly although he was over for the Palace home game last March. We located the pub easily but I was gobsmacked when the barman uttered the infamous line “we are open yes, but we are not serving alcohol until midday because of the football.” We could hardly believe it. And this was a “Wetherspoons” too; hardly the classiest of joints.

I uttered the first “fackinell” of the day. There would be a few more later.

In days of old, before more modern means of communication, the telex address used by Fulham Football Club was “Fulhamish London” and I immediately thought of this. A “Wetherspoons” pub not opening until midday because of football? How Fulhamish.

For those whose interest is piqued; our telex address was the far less whimsical “Chelstam London SW6”.

We back-tracked a little, closer to where we had parked-up in fact, and settled on “The Duke’s Head” – again on the banks of the river – where we had visited on many other occasions. We were inside when it opened at 10.30am.

Phew.

The troops started to arrive. Brad and Sean from New York appeared, as did Nick and Kim from Fresno. From closer to home, Alan and Gary from London, Duncan and Daryl from Essex, then Jim from Oxfordshire. We were spilling over onto three tables now. Mehul and Neekita from Detroit met up with us again, fresh from seeing the West Ham versus Newcastle United match on Saturday. I met two chaps from the US for the first time; Steve from Ohio, another Steve from New York. There was the usual chatter, banter and laughs. Brad and Sean had watched John Terry and Frank Lampard go head to head at Villa Park the previous day. This would be their first official Chelsea away game. And they were loving every damn minute of it.

With the US friends huddled close by, I spoke about some events which took place in the first few years of the twentieth century.

“I suppose we need to be thankful that Fulham said “no” to playing at Stamford Bridge, or none of us would be here today.”

And there was a moment of silence and clarity.

A few people seemed to gulp.

Indeed, we were grateful.

“If they had said “yes” there would have been no Munich, Peter Osgood may never have been a footballer, and Gianfranco Zola might never have been a crap manager for Watford and Birmingham City.”

“Blimey, that last bit didn’t pan out the way I was expecting” replied Andrew.

We laughed.

The chit chat continued.

“Another beer, lads?”

When Andrew had posted the obligatory “airport photo” on Facebook on leaving the US, alongside his passport and a pint of Peroni, there was a Chelsea badge styled on The Clash’s “London Calling” album cover. My great friend Daryl had produced these, so I introduced the two lads to each other.

“Chelsea World is a small world” part two hundred and fifty-seven.

I hinted to the lads that I had already come up with a title for the match blog.

“Remember when City started to threaten United and Alex Ferguson called them ‘the noisy neighbours’? – well, Fulham are far from noisy.”

It was a shame to leave the cosy confines of this great pub, but time was moving on and, at just past 1pm, so were we. Outside, the weather was murky. I had visions of being blown to bits on the walk across Putney Bridge, but the predicted high winds were still gathering elsewhere and the rain was only a slight hindrance.

On walking towards Craven Cottage – past the All Saints Church where we stood on Remembrance Sunday in November, past the Fulham Palace, and up into Bishop’s Park – I bumped into Kenny, who reminded me that I said that I would include him in the blog at Wembley, but then didn’t. This time, I am making amends for it, and as the date becomes closer, I will include Kenny’s sponsorship link for the London Marathon. I first met Kenny on tour in the US in DC in 2015, and he was also in Ann Arbor the following year. To say that he has lost some weight since 2016 would be a massive understatement. He deserves our support on 28 April. Watch this space.

In Bishop’s Park, we came across a selection of food stalls – some looked fantastic – and quite a few match-goers stopped to soak up some pre-match alcohol. Bizarrely, however, there were a few stalls that would not have looked out of place at a Farmers’ Market. One stall was selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

How Fulhamish.

We reached Stevenage Road at about 1.40pm and I had just enough time to take a few “mood shots” outside Craven Cottage. The red-bricked turnstiles, the rear of the cottage itself, the Johnny Haynes statue, the carved stone plaques, the black and white timber, the crowds rushing past, the match-day scene in all its glory. Craven Cottage rarely disappoints. The main stand on Stevenage Road – renamed the Johnny Haynes Stand after their most-loved player – is a Grade II listed building and is so protected from demolition. And it is a beauty. I have mentioned it before – and I mentioned it to Sean in the pub before the game, in a little segment devoted to the guru of stadium design Archibald Leitch – that the dimensions of Fulham’s oldest stand are exactly the same as the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge which lasted from 1905 to 1972. The two stadia in Fulham could not be more different, now nor in the past. Of course Craven Cottage is a gem, but part of the reason why the old Stamford Bridge was so loved by us Chelsea supporters was that it felt like a proper stadium, and to be blunt, there was so much of it. It was a rambling beast of a stadium with huge rolling banks of terracing, two forecourts, ranks of turnstiles, cobbled alleyways, ivy-covered offices, huge floodlight pylons, everything befitting the name “stadium.” Craven Cottage has always been slight. It has always been small. It has always only had that one stretch of entrances on Stevenage Road, that long expanse of warm red-brick.

On the old East Stand at Chelsea, the large painted letters “Chelsea Football Club” – in block capitals, mirrored on a wall of The Shed today – used to welcome all to Stamford Bridge and at the rear of the cottage to this day are the words “The Fulham Football Club” – in block capitals too. Like big brother, like little brother. Of course it is a cliché now that Fulham hate us but we are ambivalent to them. In fact, if pressed, most Chelsea have a soft-spot for Fulham, which infamously winds them up even more…bless ‘em.

There was the most minimal of security checks and I was in. Such is the benign nature of Fulham Football Club that home fans in the Riverside Stand use the same turnstiles as the away fans. And there is only one stadium in the realm of UEFA that has a designated “neutral zone”, a nod to Fulham’s non-segregation history of the Putney End.

And that is as Fulhamish as it gets.

I made my way to the back of the stand. I had swapped seats with PD as I had visions of my allotted place at the front being a tough place for cameras, and there was also a very strong threat of rain. Rain and cameras certainly do not mix. As it happened, I was in row ZZ, the very back row.

Row ZZ, but I am sure that I would not be tired of this game.

Fulham versus Chelsea, a very local affair, and a pretty friendly rivalry if truth be told.

“London Calling” boomed but it seemed odd that Joe Strummer’s most famous song was being used by Fulham. Joe Strummer was a Chelsea fan and if Chelsea are The Clash, then Fulham are…well, Neil Sedaka.

“I live by the river.”

The teams walked out from beneath the cottage to my right, the red-bricked chimney pots of the terraced streets behind. I quickly checked the team that manager Maurizio Sarri had chosen. The big news; Kepa was back in. Again, OK with me, move on.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

The management team took their positions in the dug outs in front of the stand to my left. It was announced before Christmas that Fulham would at last move ahead on extending the Riverside Stand in May, thus increasing the capacity of their tidy stadium from 25,700 to 29,700, and opening up the rear of that stand so that there would, at last, be an unrestricted walk from Hammersmith Bridge to Putney Bridge. The images of the new stand looks sensational. During the game, there would be rolling adverts on the perimeter of the pitch for the boat race in April, with Craven Cottage a prime site to bring in some extra income.

I did not attend the game, but I can remember Paul Canoville scoring at Craven Cottage in 1983 on the same afternoon as the boat race. I bet the pubs in Fulham were a very odd mix of clientele that day.

Chelsea in all blue. Fulham in white and black.

I soon noticed that the Fulham support were brandishing those damned cardboard noisemakers.

File under “Fulhamish” once more.

With Tottenham and Arsenal eking out a draw at Wembley on the Saturday, here was a fantastic chance to tighten things at the top. A few weeks ago, we were all adamant that we would finish sixth. As Kepa walked towards us, he was loudly clapped, and he responded similarly.

“It’s Kepa you know. He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

The game began.

Chelsea began well and were backed with some noisy and boisterous singing. The Putney End at Fulham goes back a surprisingly long way, and the last section consists of metal platforms which are extended past the natural bank of terracing below. It allows for a formidable bounce once the away stand gets going.

There was an early outing for the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant, but this sadly finished with more than a few adding the “Y” word at the end…maybe that battle is not yet won, after all.

Gonzalo Higuain was involved early, but dawdled with a chance in front of goal and took an extra touch. He then headed well wide. Down below us, a typically selfless block from Dave stifled a goal scoring chance for Fulham. We were on top, but only just. There was almost a calamity when Kepa rose for a ball, with the red-headed Ryan Babel bowed beneath him. He could only fumble and we watched with a degree of horror as the ball came free of his clutches and bounced. Thankfully, the former Liverpool player was oblivious to the loose ball, our ‘keeper quickly clutched the ball and the moment of panic had gone.

Just after, the move of the match thus far developed below us. Rudiger to Willian, then to Dave. He whipped in a low ball towards the near post. Higuain met the cross and dispatched the ball effortlessly past the Fulham ‘keeper Sergio Rico with one touch. He jumped high in front of the seated denizens of the Hammersmith End.

SW6 0 SW6 1

“One team in Fulham, there’s only one team in Fulham” sang the Chelsea hordes.

We were on our way. Or were we?

After only a few minutes, Fulham tested us. Mitrovic swung a left foot, swiveling, and forced a really excellent save from Kepa, but a corner thus followed. In front of the filigree of the balcony, the grey slate of the roof and the red brick of the chimney stacks of the cottage away to my right, the ball was played short and then long, very long. The cross found the unmarked Calum Chambers at the far post. His down and up shot bounced past Kepa and Fulham had equalised.

SW6 1 SW6 1.

The noisemakers were heard. Just.

“Where was the marking?” I screamed.

Two or three minutes later, Jorginho managed to win the ball and knocked it outside to the shuffling Eden Hazard. Jorginho had continued to support the attack and Hazard easily spotted him. Just like Higuain, he did not need more than one touch. I was right behind the course of the ball as it was slotted high into the net. It was almost too easy.

SW6 1 SW6 2.

I watched as the scorer raced over to celebrate with Emerson, and I am surprised that any photographs were not blurred, such was the bounce in the metal flooring below me.

“Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh” sang those to my right.

“You fickle bastards” I shouted.

Then, just after, a lovely chipped through-ball from Jorginho met the run of Higuain perfectly. The disappointingly wild shot – blasted over – from the striker could and should have made the ‘keeper work. Hazard then ran and shot right at the ‘keeper. Virtually the same move as our opening goal – almost identical – involving a pass from Willian, a low cross from Dave, enabled another first-time shot from Higuain but this time the Fulham ‘keeper scrambled low to his left to save.

At the break, I had memories of the 4-1 win at Craven Cottage in the early winter of 2004, when we – Alan, Gary, Daryl and I from the 2019 party – had met at the Duke’s Head and had witnessed one of the games of the season in Jose Mourinho’s first triumphant campaign at the helm. Would there be a similar score line this time around? I hoped so.

In truth, we struggled for most of the second period and even though we created a few half-chances, there was growing frustration in the Chelsea ranks as the game progressed. Eden struck another low shot at Rico. Willian went close at the near post. There was a strong penalty appeal down below us, but it was waved away. Azpilicueta held his head in his hands and squatted in an odd show of disbelief. I could hardly believe it as the referee Graham Scott repeated Dave’s actions in a clear case of Micky-taking.

“Never seen that before. What a twat of a referee.”

Willian went close but hit the side-netting. A ball was pumped across the face of the goal by Hazard – “too good” I complained to the bloke next to me – but there was nobody close to get a touch.

We found it difficult to create much more. If anything, Fulham finished the far stronger of the two teams. Mitrovic thumped one over and the noisemakers were called into use again.

Sarri rang the changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Pedro for Hazard.

Loftus-Cheek for Barkley.

All were surprising in their own way.

By now, the rain was falling in SW6 and the wind blew the rain in gusts. The River Thames was cutting up, visible in two slithers to my left. The rather odd corporate boxes at Fulham have been likened to large filing cabinets, and they inhibit the views of the outside environs at Craven Cottage. A few chimney pots and a few rooftops close by to my right, a tall block of flats further away. The river and some trees on the far bank to my left. The top floors of the Charing Cross Hospital above the roof of the Hammersmith End. Craven Cottage is hardly claustrophobic but there is not much to see of the outside world.

On the pitch we were, bluntly, holding on.

Kepa saved low from Cairney and then again from Bryan. The nerves were jangling in the Putney End.

With the clock ticking, we were chasing shadows as Ayite found Mitrovic with a quick cross. The strong striker’s instinctive header was met by a very impressive leap from Kepa and the ball was pushed away.

Fackinell.

I had memories of a late Fulham equaliser from Clint Dempsey in 2008. Remember that?

Fulham had thought that they had repeated this feat in the very last move of the match when their young starlet Ryan Sessegnon tucked the ball in, but I – and possibly three-thousand or more Chelsea supporters – saw the raised yellow flag of the linesman on the far side. The clacking noisemakers were soon silent.

With that, the final whistle.

Phew.

We met up outside the turnstiles on Stevenage Road.

“Made hard work of that, eh? I grumbled.

“Did we ever” replied PD.

The rain lashed against us on the walk back to the car. We walked silently through the park. I had the worst-ever post-game hot dog and onions. At last there was the comfort of my warm and dry car waiting for me on Felsham Road. We eventually made our way home. This game on the banks of the Thames will not live long in the memory. But at last we had two back-to-back victories. But, I have to say that Fulham look like they are down, though. And I think that is a shame. I love our little derby. I love a trip to the southern tip of the borough. I wonder who their next manager will be. He’s due to be appointed very soon.

Teddy Maybank, anybody?

On Thursday, we play Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League at Stamford Bridge.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Last Laugh

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 27 February 2019.

Tottenham at home. Do they come any bigger than this? I don’t think so. But the games are coming thick and fast now, and this season’s match at Stamford Bridge against “that lot” was tucked in after an emotional League Cup Final. The mood among our support base was changed, though. There was a noticeable uplift. Not so long ago, there were people whispering “lose to Man City, lose to Tottenham, and he’ll be gone.” But even if there was a loss at Wembley, the team displayed so much fight that the negativity had abated since Sunday.

We travelled to London with hope in our hearts but I was the pragmatic one, not the dreamer. I remembered the awful loss to them last season – almost eleven months ago – and just wanted to avoid a defeat.

I uttered the famous phrase “I’ll take a draw now.”

There was a lager in “The Goose” where our extended post-game drinking had finished on Sunday evening, and a couple more in “Simmons” with friends from near and far. Lads from Salisbury, Trowbridge and Melksham in the former, friends from California, Texas and Michigan – and London, fackinell – in the latter. Charles – the Texas connection – was with us again, last mentioned within these reports for the Barcelona away game last season, and whose last Chelsea game was over in Greece for the PAOK match in the autumn. Andy and Brett, still in town after Sunday, were present. These two Californians were joined by Josh – one of the OC Hooligans (sic.) – and it was a pleasure to see him again. Pride of place went to Mehul and Neekita from Detroit, their first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge, and plainly shaking with excitement. I had told them that “Simmons” would be packed full of long-standing Chelsea supporters, and joked that there would be nobody wearing Chelsea colours. I wasn’t wrong, and we shared a laugh about it.

Charles looked at me, very seriously, and showed me his match ticket.

“I shouldn’t have this.”

I wondered what he meant and had to ask him.

“This game should be sold out before I get a chance.”

I knew what he meant, bless him. This game has always been a “hot ticket” and maybe he did not feel worthy to have his hands on one, or was just shocked that he had one at all. It would be his first-ever sighting of Tottenham, and I could sense his anticipation. The same could certainly be said of Andy – the San Diego connection – who was attending a game at HQ for the first time. His enthusiasm was palpable too.

Outside the West Stand, I stopped to take a few photographs of the Peter Osgood statue. The great man always loved playing Tottenham. The thirteenth anniversary of his passing would very soon be upon his. It was deeply symbolic that our first home game after his passing on 1 March 2006 was against Tottenham. Who can forget that William Gallas winner? I never saw The King play for Chelsea, and I do not have any Tottenham-specific memories involving him.

But I can easily remember a story that he once told the assorted guests at Ron Harris’ pub in Warminster in around 1998.

Ossie had us in the palm of his hands as he spoke of his first-ever trial for Chelsea. The small room was deadly quiet. You could hear a pin drop. The King was talking. We were mesmerised. He spoke how he had played for a local team called Spital Old Boys, and how his uncle had written off to a few clubs, including Chelsea, asking that a trial be given to the raw fifteen-year-old. Chelsea replied positively and he attended a trial at Hendon, where the team trained at the oddly-sounding Welsh Harp, but he was rather dismissive of his chances of being noticed due to the huge number of other boys present. The young Osgood scored early in one of the first two sessions, but did not think he had impressed. Imagine his surprise when Dick Foss, the legendary Chelsea scout, approached him and said “sign here, son.”

Ossie then paused, looked at us, savouring the moment and uttered the immortal line –

“And that just shows you how easy it was, back in those days” – another slight pause for dramatic effect -” to sign for Tottenham.”

There was uproar. We were in stitches. His story, like so many of his runs, had taken a subtle turn right at the end. I was in awe of him. Not only a Chelsea icon, a great footballer, a childhood hero, but a fantastic story-teller, with Tottenham the fall guys of this wonderful tale.

God bless him.

Inside the stadium, there was a noticeable buzz, Seats were being filled. Mehul and Neekita – husband and wife – had single tickets down below us in the Matthew Harding Lower, and I wondered if they were far apart. Over in the far corner, “that lot” were filling their allotted three-thousand places but without a flag or banner to their name. JD walked past – “I’m not up for this” – and I almost believed him.

I took a photo of the match programme – Gonzalo Higuain the cover star, but his Nike boot seemingly the main attraction – and posted it on Facebook with a caption.

“They made me cry in 1975. I have been laughing at them ever since.”

Thankfully, there had been no protracted debate about the Kepa / Sarri  / Caballero farce from Sunday during the evening. At work, I had tried to avoid it. The club needed to move on. If anything, I felt for Sarri. The sight of him storming towards the tunnel was surely an unpleasant few moments. Who remembers The Simpsons and Bart talking about the hapless Ralph?

“Watch this Lisa. You can actually pinpoint the second where his heart rips in half.”

I felt his anger and his frustration and his sense of isolation. I wanted to support him on this night, whereas before my support was, broadly speaking, more team-based. I was well aware how quickly things can change in football. Football is never an exact science, is it?

On this night, Maurizio Sarri had chosen Caballero over Arrizabalaga and that was OK with me.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

This was certainly a more expansive team than at Wembley and a more typical Sarri formation.

Tottenham had Kane, but were they able? I fucking hoped not.

The lights dimmed, more theatrics, but surely not needed for Chelsea versus Tottenham, SW6 versus N17, royal blue versus navy blue, lions versus cockerels, Osgood versus Chivers.

The game began, and thankfully some noise.

Very soon into the match, there was a free-kick for Marcos Alonso on our right but his firmly-struck shot just ricocheted back off the Tottenham wall. Not so long after, a deep cross from Dave eventually fell at the feet of Gonzalo Higuain, and his snatched shot spun away from Loris but smacked against the right-hand upright. At the other end, David Luiz flung himself to block and tackle and ate up space like his life depended on it. The initial signs were encouraging. We definitely had the best of the first fleeting minutes. Higuain was again involved but his speculative curler was forever bending away from the target.

What of them? Without Alli, all eyes were on Eriksen and Son, with the latter looking the livelier of the two.

There was some aggression between Luiz and Kane when the latter did not give the former time to control a high ball played back to him when a Tottenham player had received some treatment. This riled everyone up. The noise levels increased. I thought of the two from Detroit below me, and was pleased that there was a proper buzz to the night. I had spotted that JD in the front row below me was soon involved. Swearing. Good old JD. He was up for it now alright. Tottenham had a little spell and Dave did well to block a Kane shot.

We aired our “Barcelona, Real Madrid” anthem, but the chant petered out with a muffled “ssssssshhhhhhhh.”

That war has been won.

A dipping shot from Winks from a long way out smacked the cross bar and caused it to wobble like rubber. It reminded me of the Eriksen opener for them last season. Shudder. There was a whipped-in cross from out on their right moments later which thankfully evaded everyone. Chances were at a premium, but they were back in this. It was bubbling away and was becoming an enthralling match. I thought Kante was our star yet again for all of the four-hundred-and-eighty-six previously-mentioned reasons. Marcos Alonso was getting up and, more importantly, getting back. I liked the industry of Kovacic. Eden, by contrast, was struggling to make an impact. Pedro was Pedro, always moving.

I found myself standing on many occasions. Everyone was on their feet in the MHL, but hardly any in the MHU. But for a nervous game like this, I can’t help standing.

We must not lose.

At the break it was even. Maybe we had the slight advantage. Both teams had enjoyed little spells of dominance. There had been, probably not surprisingly, no chants for Kepa nor Caballero nor Sarri. It was all about supporting the team.

Early into the second-half, a high lofted chip from Jorginho had found the run of Higuain. It was offside all day long, and the subsequent deft lob over Loris was of no consequence. It was a little cat-and-mouse for a while.

On fifty-seven minutes, Dave pushed a ball into space outside of the full-back Davies to Pedro. The Spanish winger had been nimble all evening and he totally flummoxed the taller Alderweireld who was tied up in knots, his feet like fins. Pedro nudged the ball inside, made space for a low shot, away from a Tottenham defender’s lunge, and we watched – breathless – as the ball flew through Loris’ unlucky legs.

The ground exploded.

Oh the photos.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

I captured the billing and cooing between Eden and Pedro.

Beautiful.

The noise levels increased.

“CAREFREE.”

“CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE, YOU’LL NEVER SING THAT.”

Tottenham were silent.

On the hour, Willian replaced a quiet Hazard.

Tottenham then came at us. A long, hopeful, shot from Kane did not bother anyone. After Eriksen was allowed to waltz into our box, who else but Pedro – fucking Pedro! – was able to drop and tackle, robbing the ball impudently from behind with a curl of the foot and then a spritely dummy past another fool. The crowd roared and we boomed his name.

“OH PEDRO RODRIGUEZ.”

Another lame effort from Kane. Balls dropped and dolloped into our box but without threat. Very often David Luiz was able to scurry over and chase a ball away. He was enjoying a game for the ages.

On seventy-seven minutes, Ruben Loftis-Cheek replaced Kovacic.

“His best game for ages.”

There was a curler from Pedro, the man of the moment, but it was high and wide and not particularly handsome.

On eighty-four minutes, Olivier Giroud for Gonzalo Higuain.

A ball was lofted towards the substitute’s napper. Was it his first touch? Possibly. It fell at the feet of Keiran Trippier. He pushed the ball back towards the advancing Loris.

My thought process.

0.2 seconds – blimey, that’s going past the ‘keeper.

0.3 seconds – fackinell.

0.4 seconds – that’s going wide.

0.5 seconds – no it ain’t.

0.6 seconds – fackinell.

0.7 seconds – that’s not going to reach the line.

0.8 seconds – keep running Willian.

1.1 seconds – no, it has enough legs.

1.5 seconds – it’s going in.

2.0 seconds – fackinell.

By this stage, I was up by the barrier to my left. I had stood as soon as the ball had started on its inexorable course. Was I shouting and screaming?

No. I was just laughing.

Oh my bloody goodness.

I was not alone.

I shot a few photographs of Willian and Giroud walking away, almost apologetically, with Alderweireld holding the ball like some sort of exhibit from a crime scene. I turned around to see a beautiful mass of smiling and laughing faces. I took a photo of my pals Alexandra and the two Bobs. Their faces, and those of the others, were a picture.

Ha.

And then, the song of the night, and just perfect.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Stamford Bridge had seldom been louder.

That was it. They were off. Even they beat their record for clearing an end. Chelsea used to clear ends in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties by dubious methods. The modern way, and saved especially for Tottenham, is far more agreeable.

Oh my aching sides.

I took a photo with maybe four hundred of the three-thousand left. I have to say that there were far more Chelsea left in the away section at the end of the ninety-minutes at Manchester City after our 6-0 gubbing than there were Tottenham after this 2-0 loss. The final whistle blew and the inevitable “One Step Beyond” boomed out, and with it a sea of fifty-year olds bouncing awkwardly – it is never a good look, arms all over the shop – to the nutty sound of Madness.

“Hey you.”

I spoke to Alex and the two Robs about the photo that I had taken, and Rob had, without me knowing, taken a photograph of me, during one of my standing moments, arms outstretched. Our smiles were just as wide as we trotted out onto the West Stand forecourt and one song lit up the night.

“Tottenham Hotspur. You’ve done it again.”

Indeed, they bloody well had. We had surely deserved that. A mention for the often derided Alonso, his best game for ages, but they were all stars. Did Willy Caballero have to make a save? Not really. It was a pragmatic and hybrid performance, defensively sound but with just the right amount of flair. My pre-match quote about Tottenham making me laugh continually, year after year, decade after decade rang true. What is the old saying?

“He who laughs last, laughs longest.”

They had raced into an early lead this season with the 3-1 win against us in November, we edged past them in the League Cup semi-final and we had now beaten them 2-0 at home in the league. Over the four games against Tottenham in 2018/2019, we were on top.

“He who laughs last, laughs longest.”

I was reminded of the Dick Emery skinhead of the early ‘seventies who, after various efforts to impress his skinhead father with an array of nefarious schemes, inevitably managed to get one crucial detail wrong time after time :

“Dad, I fink I got it wrong again.”

There was an exuberant walk along the Fulham Road and a hot dog and onions from “Chubby’s Grill” had never tasted better. Our ridiculous sequence continued on.

Won. Lost. Won. Lost. Won. Lost. Won. Lost. Won.

After the aberration of 2017/2018, our next unbeaten home sequence against “that lot” had begun. If it follows the same longitude and attitude as the last one, the next time that we will lose at home to Tottenham in the league will be in 2047 when I will be eighty-two.

See you at Fulham.