Tales From The Villa And The Vine

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2022.

It was a relatively late start for me. The 8am alarm sounded and I then collected the Gruesome Twosome by 9.30am. All three of us had chosen black tops – Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, Robe di Kappa – and as we stopped in Melksham for the first McBreakfast for absolutely ages we looked like the senior members of some “ultra” battalion.

Kinda.

Milan was still dominating my thoughts when I woke and over the first hour or so of the journey up to Birmingham. This is often the case, eh? The thrill of a European trip is difficult to forget easily. I soon told PD “I will be honest; I am trying my best but I am finding it hard to get up for this game. It’s a bloody good job I am not playing.”

I stopped for a coffee at Frankley Services on the M5 and I was soon turning off at West Bromwich.

To my right, the angled floodlights at The Hawthorns were easily spotted – “one of only three grounds where Chelsea have won the league, lads” – and the sighting of the stadium from half-a-mile away brought back immediate memories of Milan. On the elevated A4, approaching the end of our journey last Tuesday morning, I was keeping my eye out for the San Siro roof which I knew was a few miles to my right, to the south. Lo and behold, despite the grey and hazy view, I found it relatively easy to catch the ridiculously huge roof beams appearing in a void between some rooftops.

My heart jumped in Milan. But my heart jumped in West Bromwich too as I quickly remembered one of the finest nights of recent memory.

I dropped the lads off about a five-minute walk from the away turnstiles at Villa Park but then turned around and drove three-quarters of a mile north to my usual parking spot for Villa at Perry Barr. On the mile-long walk south, I noted that the horrible walkway – an underpass and a footbridge over the busy A34 – was no more, thus cutting a few valuable minutes off my approach to Villa Park. “The Crown & Cushion”, where we enjoyed a very boozy pre-match before the 2002 FA Cup semi-final, had been razed to the ground a few years back.

There were no real pre-game plans on this occasion. There aren’t too many pubs to the north of Villa Park and beers aren’t served in the away end.

This always was going to be a quick smash and grab raid against Aston Villa.

There is red brick everywhere on the way to the stadium. The terraced houses on Willmore Road where I parked for maybe the tenth time in a row, Perry Barr Methodist Church, the houses on Aston Lane, the Aston pub, the old tramway building and then of course the surrounds of Villa Park itself. Alas, the old Trinity Road stand with ornate gables was demolished in around 2000, but its design features are mirrored in the huge Holte End at the southern side of Villa Park. These days the only terrace in town is the steps which lead up from Witton Lane to the base of the Holte End. These steps are speckled with deep claret railings. Squint and it almost feels like an old-style football terrace.

I needed to wait a while to pass over a spare ticket.

I made it in at 2.02pm.

Phew.

The sun was beating down. My God it was hot. My choice of a black wool pullover seemed rather ridiculous. I sidled in alongside Gal, John and Parksorius.

The team? I tried to work it all out. With Reece James out, we wondered who Graham Potter would play at right wing-back if he decided to choose that system. We wondered about Ruben Loftus-Cheek. As I peered out into the bright sun, I attempted to piece it all together.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Sterling – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

I think.

Before I had time to ponder it all, Tyrone Mings headed a cross from Ben Chilwell up rather than away, and Mason Mount, lurking centrally, was able to pounce. He adroitly touched the ball past Emilio Martinez. Luckily enough, my camera captured it all.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 1.

A dream start, eh?

I looked around at Villa Park. It is a really fine stadium. It has been modernised but it still feels like an old ground because the four stands are reasonably different. The oldest current stand at the north end of the ground may not last too long though. There are plans to bulldoze it and build afresh with an even larger two-tiered structure in its place. An acquaintance, who lives nearby, had evidentially been invited in for a hospitality gig in the North Stand. He sent over a ‘photo of former Villa players Tony Morley and Kenny Swain who were in one of the lounges and were now hosting some guests. These two players had taken part in Villa’s European Cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982.

Ah that year again.

On Saturday 16 October 1982 – forty-years ago to the very day – Chelsea lost 0-3 at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers. The gate was a paltry 6,062. It was that bad that Alan Mayes made his first appearance of the season.

There is no punchline.

I was really happy with our start. In addition to the early goal, we were moving the ball well and the whole approach to attacking seemed to hark back to a more free-spirited time. We were looking to attack in a variety of ways.

Long and short. Over the top. Sideways into space.

And despite my ambivalence on the way up, I was absolutely enjoying this game. I was on it and hopefully not likely to fall off.

But then, imperceptibly, the home team grew into the game and for the rest of the first-half we were second best. There were defensive errors – Cucarella was the main culprit but even Silva on occasion – as Villa ran at our retreating backline.

A cross from the Villa left resulted in a melee at the back post. A header crashed against the top of the bar.

Kepa had already been involved before we were treated to three magnificent saves during the same move as Villa peppered our goal. The second one, especially – down low – was magnificent. The third save, in the end, did not matter as an offside flag was raised.

Regardless, our ‘keeper was cheered loudly by the Chelsea contingent.

“He’s magic, you know.”

An errant pass from the poor Aubameyang let in Danny Ings. Kepa was equal to a strong shot, pushing it away for a corner.

The best was yet to come. On the half-hour, Ings headed at goal from close in and I absolutely expected a goal, the equaliser. From right underneath the cross-bar, the Spanish ‘keeper managed to claw it out. I always cite a Carlo Cudicini save at Tottenham as the best save that I have ever seen by a Chelsea ‘keeper but this might well have beaten it.

I was in absolute awe.

“He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

We had spotted that Loftus-Cheek was now asked to deploy the right wing-back berth with Sterling further forward. Mount withdrew deeper. Both players then initiated a fine move, our first for a while. Loftus-Cheek strode out of defence and passed to Mount. The ball was moved on. A strong run from the previously quiet Kai Havertz was followed by a pass to Raheem Sterling.

“Curl the fucker.”

Curl it he did, but the ball smacked the bar.

Ugh.

At the break, we all knew that we had rodden our luck.

“Getting roasted here Gal. On and off the pitch.”

Potter reacted with some substitutions.

Kalidou Koulibaly for the battle-weary Cucarella.

Dave for the weak Havertz.

The team was re-jigged.

We were soon treated to a John Terry-style chest pass from the current “shirt 26 wearer” Koulibaly. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one who noticed JT’s trademark resurfacing.

The Chelsea crowd were giving the Villa manager some Ba-llistic pain with a certain song from 2014 being repeated again and again. This was followed up with a chant that was also aired in Milan last week.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

Now, I can concede that Internazionale might well have a claim to “own” the Italian city. But I wasn’t having Birmingham City being the top dogs in our Second City.

I turned to Gal : “Maybe they are including West Brom too, a joint bid.”

Chances were shared at each end.

Further changes ensued.

Conor Gallagher for a quiet Aubameyang.

Jorginho for Kovacic,

“Kovacic has run about today but he hasn’t done too much, Gal.”

On sixty-six minutes, a run into space by Mount resulted in a foul by Mings the merciless.

“I fancy this, Gal.”

Mount sized it all up. His dipping free-kick was perfection personified.

Goal.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Steven Gerrard was again getting it in the neck.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning…”

On the right wing, down below us, Gallagher mirrored the current government with a quick U-turn to free himself of his marker. A fine searching cross found the head of Sterling but his downward header bounced past the near post.

In the last minute, one last sub.

Armando Broja for Sterling.

I fancied us to score another to rub salt in the wound, but it stayed at two.

Phew.

I’ll say it again.

Phew.

“That’s five wins in a row now, John.”

“Four clean sheets too.”

“Unbeaten in six.”

“Off to a great start, Potter, eh?”

Mason Mount, with his first two goals of the season, took the eye, but Kepa – surely – was our star man. Without him, we could have been 3-1 down at the break. Conor Gallagher injected some energy and movement when he came on. Thiago Silva was excellent. Kalidou Koulibaly looked like the footballer that we thought we had purchased rather than a mistake waiting to happen. I liked Ruben Loftus-Cheek too; steady, though I am not sure that when he runs with the ball he is deceptively fast or deceptively slow. The negatives were Cucarella, Havertz and Aubameyang.

On the walk back to the car, PD mentioned the now missing underpass by the A34 as being the location of an almighty ambush by some Villa lads after the mad 2-2 draw on the last day of the season in 1990/91.

As is so often the case, we called in at “The Vine” at West Bromwich for an early-evening curry. PD enjoyed his Lamb Madras. Parky and I had the same dish, Manchurian Chicken. All very tasty, all immediately served within five minutes of ordering. I was just surprised that Michelle, Dane and Frances didn’t show up.

Please come back into the top flight West Brom so we have another excuse to stop off.

It was a decent drive home.

I was back inside at about 8pm.

Next up, our sixth game of nine in October is on Wednesday at Brentford.

I will see some of the lucky ones there.

Outside

Inside

Tales From My San Siro Odyssey

Milan vs. Chelsea : 11 October 2022.

My San Siro odyssey began in August 1986.

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

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

Ah, Milano Centrale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inter : middle class, to the right.

Milan : working class, to the left.

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

Which brings us nicely to 1982/83 again.

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

Chelsea versus Leeds.

Bloody fantastic.

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

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

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

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

I distinctly remember this :

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

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

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

The programme memorably had this message emblazoned on the cover :

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

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

“Yeah, that scans well. Put that in.”

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

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

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

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

The teams that day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tick tock, tick tock.

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

Fackinell.

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

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

“Fancy it? Sunday.”

“Too right.”

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

“No English badges. Great stuff.”

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

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

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

“Boys.”

I think that was their main group.

“Boys San.”

Loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In February 1988, I was at it again.

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

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

Small acorns and all that.

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

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

Mamma mia.

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

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

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

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

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

1985 : Verona.

1986 : Juventus.

1987 : Napoli.

1988 : Milan.

1989 : Inter.

1990 : Napoli.

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

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

Milano Centrale, Sunday 16September 1990.

“Tutto Inglese e Scozzese. Quatro mila lire.”

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

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

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

As it happened, I could afford it.

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

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

I hope the tax man isn’t reading this.

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

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

What a plum.

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

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

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

“Ah Chris! Come va?”

“Cosi cosi.”

It was the biggest understatement of all time.

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

“Oh, Milan John?”

“You know him?”

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

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

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

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

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Milan : you could have made me.

Vaffanculo.

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

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

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

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

It was gnawing at me.

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

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

ANDIAMO!

The plan was this :

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll never make a tour guide.

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

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

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

“I need to up my game here.”

My Joe Bloggs denim shirt looked decidedly downmarket in comparison.

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

What a joy.

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

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

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

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

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

I worked out this was visit number ten.

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

We smirked.

1987 : Juve vs. Panathinaikos.

1988 : Juve vs. Inter.

1988 : Juve vs. Napoli.

1989 : Juve vs. Fiorentina.

1990 : the “so so” moment.

1992 : Juve vs. Sampdoria.

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

2009 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2012 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2021 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2022 : Milan vs.Chelsea.

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

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

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

This was no normal Chelsea away trip.

This was one of the very best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnificent. Well done everyone.

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

Yeah, Mussolini loved marble.

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe she was a Tottenham supporter.

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

“Because of you, we miss match.”

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

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

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

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

Our “Oh Thiago Silva” was met with smiles.

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

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

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

Oh Christ. Here we go again.

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

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

“But – no photo in stadio.”

I replied : “sure, OK!”

I thought : “Yeah, right, sunshine.”

It was about 8.40pm.

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

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

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

Result.

Georg and Petr were just a few feet away too.

Relax.

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

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

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

2022 Chris : “Yes. Yes you will.”

1986 Chris : When?”

2022 Chris: “Not until 2022.”

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

2022 Chris : “Steady now.”

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

2022 Chris : “We will win plenty.”

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

2022 Chris : “That’s my boy.”

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

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Sterling

Aubameyang

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

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

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

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

“Ron Harris has played here twice.”

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

Ooh those white shorts and white socks, eh Ruud?

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

“MILAN MILAN VAFFANCULO.”

And you Milan John, you can vaffanculo too.

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

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

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

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

He approached the ball.

Click.

The ‘keeper went right.

The ball went left.

Shades of Munich.

GET IN.

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

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

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

But still one song dominated…

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

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

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

Anyone remember that?

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

Superb.

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

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

Surely?

Aubameyang slotted it low past the Milan ‘keeper.

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

We were winning 2-0 at the San Siro.

OH MY FUCKING GOODNESS.

This was magnificent stuff.

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

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

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

I was in heaven.

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

At the break, disbelief in the North Curv.

Graham Potter made a change at the break.

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

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

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

The manager rang some changes.

Cesar Azpilicueta for James.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Sterling.

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

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

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

Two late changes.

Kai Havertz for Aubameyang

Marc Cucarella for Chilwell

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

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

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

Mamma mia.

The game ended.

Milan 0 Chelsea 2.

What a fantastic result.

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

Certainly not 1986 Chris.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paninaro, oh oh oh.”

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

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

“That was my first ever away game.”

“In Europe?”

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

This amazed me.

But it amazed 1986 Chris even more.

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

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

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

1987

1990

2022

Tales From Diego’s Return

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 8 October 2022.

This was undoubtedly a very fine day out in London. I enjoyed every bit of it. This is how it played out.

I had finished work at 5pm on Friday with the realisation that I had a busy few days ahead. I still had to finish the Milan blog. I then needed to drive the usual suspects to London on a day when the roads were likely to be much busier than usual due to the nationwide train strike. There would be the game itself. Then the return trip home. Then a write-up of the day’s blog after selecting and editing some photographs. A night’s sleep. And then some packing ahead of a trip to Gatwick on Sunday morning and then up, up and away to Italy.

It’s a great life as long as I don’t weaken.

By 7.20am I had collected PD, RH and LP. I didn’t stop en route to London. I wanted to crack on and arrive. The morning traffic was much thicker than the norm during the last fifteen miles. However, I was parked up at 10am. So far so good.

It was already a beautiful morning in London. There were cloudless skies overhead. Outside the stadium, I stopped underneath the old retaining wall of The Shed. On a weekend when our own “Italian Job” was dominating all of our thoughts, I stopped under the image of Gianluca Vialli, one of our most loved Italian players, and had a moment of appreciation. On the walk to Stamford Bridge, there had already been a fair few “hello mate” nods and handshakes to friends and acquaintances. There was the marvellous anticipation of a trip to Italy, not to mention the day’s game which was to involve the return of Diego Costa. That pre-match buzz was hitting me hard. And I was absolutely loving it.

I walked down to Putney Bridge in order to blow some cobwebs out of my system. It only took me twenty-five minutes. Saturday morning people, with a Fulham twist, were out-and-about, and I didn’t spot too many football-goers among the pedestrians, shoppers, cyclists and those enjoying the fine autumnal weather.

In “The River Café”, I enjoyed a fine fry-up, and then noticed a faded Juventus team photo from 1985/86 high on a wall. On exiting, I thanked the staff in Italian – a practice for Turin and Milan – and asked the young chap who was behind the counter if he was Juve.

He pulled a face.

“No. Milan.”

“OK. Tomorrow, I go to Turin.”

“Why?”

“Milan versus Chelsea.”

“But why are you going to Turin?”

“Oh, I have friends there.”

“I go on Monday to Milan.”

“For the game?”

“Yes, sure.”

“Buona fortuna.”

I didn’t fucking mean it of course.

I stayed in “The Eight Bells” with PD and LP for two hours. It was superb to see “Munich Mark” – with his son Luca, you can guess why he is called that – who we had not seen since Christmas 2019 on a pub crawl around Fulham. I memorably first met Mark and his mate Paul, who were living in The Netherlands, on the very last U-Bahn away from the stadium in Munich on that famous day in 2012. He now lives in Spain. We had a riot of laughs. It was great fun.

We caught a 414 bus just after two o’clock to Fulham Broadway and were soon inside the stadium.

At first, there were many empty seats dotted around but they were eventually filled despite some very late arrivals. We were to hear of friends experiencing drives that had taken two-and-a-half hours that would normally take forty-five minutes. My heart sank. Just how long would my return trip west take? I needed to be home as early as possible.

Bollocks.

The team that Graham Potter had chosen was clearly one that was formed with the game in Milan in mind. Not exactly a “B Team” but…

Kepa

Dave – Kouilbaly – Chalobah – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

…or something like that.

At ten minutes to three, the usual musical countdown.

“London Calling.”

“Park Life.”

“Liquidator.”

As the teams arrived on the pitch, a sizeable segment of the home crowd serenaded the returning hero.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego.”

The sun was beating down and the Wolves old gold shirts seemed to augment the ambiance. It was a gorgeous afternoon. I did wonder why on Earth the floodlights were on though. Answers on a postcard?

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It still feels odd after all these years. Soon into the game, Conor Gallagher received the ball and my brain had not slipped into gear and I was surprised when the player turned towards us instead of moving towards the Shed End.

After just two minutes, a gentle prod by Gallagher slipped just wide of the far post. It was a bright start from us, especially with the floodlights on, but Wolves had a half-chance with a Daniel Podence header but this thankfully did not worry Kepa. We carved out a steady supply of chances for Kai Havertz, Jorginho and Christian Pulisic without causing their ‘keeper Jose Sa any undue concern down below us.

I, however, was concerned about his lavender uniform with orange boots.

Fackinell.

A brisk break from Wolves was halted with a well-timed tackle by Dave on the edge, but outside, of our penalty area. The resulting free-kick was well-saved at full stretch by Kepa.

I was happy with what I was seeing here. We seemed to be playing with a much greater freedom than during the closing period of Tuchel’s regime and Gallagher’s running and spirit epitomised this new looseness. There was some nice passing between players who seemed to be able to link up in a more colourful way. The interplay at times was excellent.

Down on the Chelsea left, Adama Traore splatted Pulisic to the floor in the absolute definition of a shoulder charge.

“And Traore has got a lot of shoulder to charge with” I said to Alan.

The attempts continued to roll in, or rather wide or over. Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek were off target and I began to wonder if we would ever score. The atmosphere was pretty weak again, despite a nice barrage of noise at the start.

Diego Costa created a little space for himself on the right but nobody in the Wolves team had gambled to reach his cross.

There was ironic cheering from Wolves when the Matthew Harding got it together with a chant for the first time in a while. It wasn’t exactly loud; I am surprised that the away fans heard it at all.

A fine arching effort from Pulisic was adeptly tipped around the far post by Sa.

On forty minutes, a strong cross from Traore was headed over from just under the bar by Matheus Nunes. It was the best chance of the match thus far. Bloody hell.

The half-time break was approaching but Mount was able to send over a deep cross from our right towards the thin frame of Havertz who was positioning himself at the far post. He lept well to meet the ball and dolly-dropped it into a yawning net after Sa had been caught flat-footed.

It was a fine goal.

On Wednesday, this part of SW6 had witnessed an Aubameyang somersault. It now witnessed a Havertz slide.

One-nil at the break but Gary was still moaning.

“I think we are playing well, Gal.”

And so did several around me. I thought it was a refreshing performance with plenty of positives; good movement, clinical passing, a nice fluidity, with some strong defending when needed.

At the start of the second period, Wolves enjoyed much of the possession. But we then gained control again. Gallagher thumped in a hard and deep cross from the right but Havertz’ header looped over.

On fifty-three minutes, a delicious move ripped Wolves apart. Mount passed to Pulisic who then advanced steadily and returned the ball to Mount. With Pulisic continuing his run, Mount adeptly picked out his movement with a delightful slide-rule pass. Pulisic gathered the ball with the finest of touches and despite being forced wide, gently lifted the ball over the ‘keeper into the goal.

What a beauty.

Safe now, surely?

Not long after, with play down below us, the ball went out and Wolves decided to replace Diego Costa. The substitution could not have been better stage-managed. Our former, feared, striker shook Jorginho’s hand and then slowly walked around the touchline, clapping supporters on several occasions, as the Matthew Harding and then the entire stadium sang his name.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

Three seasons. Two league championships. Brilliant.

He was a bastard, but he was our bastard. How we have missed his nigglesome pilfering of defenders’ pockets these past five years. It was a treat to see him in SW6 once again, but I am not sure his stay at Wolverhampton will be for too long. It was just right that we were able to give a decent goodbye to him on this occasion, especially since we were unable to do so in 2017.

A few chances were exchanged as the teams continued a fine battle.

There was a raft of changes in the final twenty-five minutes.

Matteo Kovacic for Loftus-Cheek.

Armando Broja for Mount.

Reece James for Pulisic.

Hakim Ziyech for Havertz.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Gallagher.

The last substitute was making his debut and he immediately impressed with a pacey run from deep along the left flank in front of the sun-drenched East Stand.

I had earlier found myself staring at the East Stand, and I was momentarily lost in thought. Should Todd Boehly’s plan to redevelop the stadium gather strength, I am not convinced that it would pay to tear down this huge structure. Indeed, I am not sure how many more seats could be added to a new stand that by law cannot go any higher and whose footprint is limited by the railway line behind it and, thus, the already steep rake cannot change. Maybe I am just being selfish. The stand – that steel, those rivets, that concrete – was there for my very first game in 1974 and, apart from that Shed wall, it is the only thing left from those days. I stared again.

That roof, those balconies, those side screens…I looked all this during my first game…it is a link with that moment…I want it to remain until my last visit whenever that will be.

Sentimental twat aren’t I?

When Broja appeared, I mentioned “he needs a goal.”

In the ninetieth minute, a fine Kovacic pass found the young striker who jinked towards the penalty box.

“Hit it Broja.”

He did.

A lovely drilled shot flew into the goal just inside the far post. The Albanian international ran into Parkyville and the crowd roared again.

Chelsea 3 Wolves 0.

Ah, this was just lovely.

A great performance, some great goals, a nice boost for Tuesday’s game in Milan.

Super.

Outside, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with Andy from Michigan – formerly south-west London – who, way back in around 2010, started to to sew some seeds in my mind about starting my own self-contained blog about my football adventures and anecdotes rather than upload them to a bulletin board.

He is the one to blame for all this shite.

Good to see you, Andy.

In closing, I continue my look back at our worst-ever season forty years on.

My diary entry for Wednesday 6 October mentions a sixth-form football game away at Cannington near Bridgewater in the afternoon. We lost 5-2 and I apparently squandered three good scoring chances. I was “very disappointed.” I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of travelling, nor playing, in this match. My memory is usually pretty decent. Maybe for Chelsea games only, eh? Later on in the day, I was pleased that Chelsea beat Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. I was particularly enthusiastic about “Speedie Gonzalez” – well, that never caught on, did it? – nabbing two more goals. It was six in four games for him. Mike Fillery scored the other goal in front of just 7,982. I was hopeful that this win would bolster the gate for the visit of Leeds United on the following Saturday…”to around 20,000.”

In 1982, I was looking forward to a game involving 20,000.

In 2022, I am looking forward to a game involving 70,000.

Let’s go.

Andiamo.

I will see some of you in Italy.

Tales From Division Two, Serie B And The Champions League

Chelsea vs. Milan : 5 October 2022.

It honestly didn’t seem too long ago that Parky and I had pulled up at a Berkshire pub on the way to a mate’s wedding reception in August. It was here that we were to learn of our fate in this season’s Champions League draw. What with Milan and Inter (never Inter Milan, a moniker that befuddles every Italian; a name that sounds as jarring to them as Everton Liverpool does to us) both partaking in the competition this season, the likelihood of the UEFA Gods allowing me the chance to – at last – see Chelsea at the San Siro was a little stronger than normal. Much to my pleasure we were drawn in the same autumnal group as Milan. My wish had come true. And now here we were; on the cusp of two games against the rossoneri in less than a week.

It also, really, didn’t seem that long ago since our first ever game – if you dismiss the qualifier against the now defunct Skonto Riga – in the Champions League against Milan in September 1999.

But let’s go further back than this.

Our paths first crossed in UEFA’s Inter-Cities Fairs Cup competition in 1965/66. In the first game in Milan on 9 February 1966, Milan defeated Chelsea 2-1 at a game that only attracted 11,000 at the San Siro. This low gate has always surprised me. I found out this week why it was so low; it was played on a Tuesday afternoon due to the threat of fog in the evening. In the return match at Stamford Bridge a week later, over 59,000 – that’s more like it – assembled to witness a game that ended 2-1 too. This match was notable for producing the largest income from the gate that the club had ever experienced. It was also the first game that any British club had produced a programme with colour photographs. In those days, there was no “away goals count double” after a tied aggregate over both games, nor even extra-time after the second one. Instead, a third game play-off was used. Milan “won” the venue on the toss of a coin and so both teams reassembled at the San Siro on 2 March. This game ended 1-1 in front of a more reputable 40,000.  The teams still couldn’t be split. In the end, and as ridiculous as it now seems, the passage into the quarter final stage was decided by another coin toss. On this occasion, Ron Harris chose correctly and Chelsea advanced.

On the drive up to London in PD’s car, Parky wondered if Chopper had used a double-headed coin and we all had a little chuckle.

With Chelsea meticulously avoiding European competition entirely from 1971 to 1994, the thoughts of playing games against such an elite club as Milan would have been thought of as mere folly. Way back when we were in the old Second Division in two spells, such encounters were off the radar, another world away.

In 1998/99 we finished third and thus entered the following season’s Champions League. Our match at home to Milan, twenty-three years ago, is remembered with deep affection indeed. Although the match ended as a 0-0 draw, it was the most entertaining goalless game that I can ever remember seeing. But the thing that I recollect most was the heightened sense of occasion that we all experienced on that evening in SW6.

I remember getting to the ground early and waiting by the players’ entrance to see if anyone famous was loitering around. My diary, sadly, notes that the only person that I saw of note was Des Lynham. Alan and I got in early to pin my “VINCI PER NOI” banner on the wall at the back of the Matthew Harding Upper. I watched alongside Alan in the same seats that I would be watching the same two teams in 2022.

That Milan team included such Italian greats as Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Demetrio Albertini, plus the imported strikers Andriy Shevchenko, newly-acquired from Dynamo Kiev that summer, and Oliver Bierhoff.

The Milan players that night wore a shirt with thin red and black stripes – how ‘sixties – and this was met with my approval. I wasn’t a fan of the black shorts and socks though.

Milan always wore red and black striped shirts with crisp white shorts and white socks. In my eyes, it was a classic kit, so clean, so fresh. I especially liked the Kappa kit from the Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten era with Mediolanum as the sponsor. I am sure we can all remember Gullit, on joining us, saying how much he loved playing in kits with white socks. I was always the same; it always looked good. Maybe it was my Chelsea bias.

What Milan were doing in black shorts and socks that season is the stuff of nightmares. However, they were not the only giants playing silly buggers at that time.

I loved the kits of the top three Italian teams in the ‘eighties and further back.

Milan : red and white striped shirts, white sorts, white socks.

Inter : blue and black striped shirts, black shorts, black socks.

Juventus : black and white striped shirts, baggy white shorts, white socks.

I had seen Juve versus Fiorentina in Turin in the May of 1999 and the sight of them playing with black shorts and black socks just did not seem right; in fact, it looked atrocious.

Ah, that match in 1999 was wonderful. Our team was jam packed with crowd favourites such as Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet, Gianfranco Zola, Marcel Desailly, Dan Petrescu and we paraded new signing Didier Deschamps. My diary from 1999 notes that Zola, the little maestro, hit a post and Bierhoff a bar – “similar to Peacock, ’94 Cup Final – and that it was “a superb night of football.”

The return leg, in late October 1999, is of course the stuff of legend, and inspired one of the most well-loved chants of the modern era. I am still gutted – traumatised – that I wasn’t there to witness it. I was on the wrong shift at work and unable to switch.

I hoped that my time would come again. Seeing Chelsea at the Giuseppe Meazza is right up there.

There had been, incidentally, a mid-season friendly at the San Siro in February 1997 – a 2-0 Milan win – that a few die-hards attended.

Since those days, the two clubs have met but only in a raft of pre-season matches in the United States. Milan are, surely, Chelsea’s most frequent opponent in such tours.

The seven games are listed here.

2 August 2004 : Chelsea 2 Milan 3 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

24 July 2005 : Chelsea 1 Milan 0 – Foxborough, Massachusetts.

31 July 2005 : Chelsea 1 Milan 1 – East Rutherford, New Jersey.

24 July 2009 : Chelsea 2 Milan 1 – Baltimore, Maryland.

28 July 2012 : Chelsea 0 Milan 1 – Miami, Florida.

4 August 2013 : Chelsea 2 Milan 0 – East Rutherford, New Jersey.

4 August 2016 : Chelsea 3 Milan 1 – Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I was lucky enough to attend three of these.

The game in 2005 at Giants Stadium wasn’t particularly enthralling, but I was able to witness Didier Drogba’s goal at close hand. The main Chelsea supporter section was up the other end. Milan then equalised. I must admit it felt special to be touring the US with the reigning English Champions. This was a fine weekend for me. New York Yankees on the Saturday, Chelsea on the Sunday. Perfect.

The match in 2009 at the Baltimore Ravens’ NFL stadium was probably the best quality match of the seventeen that I have seen in the US. Unfortunately, I was still waiting outside for a friend to arrive at the start and thus missed Drogba’s fine opening goal. A Yuri Zhirkov goal gave us a 2-1 win after Milan equalised. For many, Baltimore was a high water mark of our many US “summer seasons.”

The encounter in 2016 was the first sporting event to take place at the state-of-the-art Minnesota Vikings NFL stadium. This was another decent game. Bertrand Traore scored for us but Milan equalised. However, two late goals from Oscar gave us a fine 3-1 win in a game that marked N’Golo Kante’s first outing in Chelsea colours.

Back to 2022.

We were parked up as early as 4.20pm. It was time for another act in the Chelsea and Milan story.

There was a fair bit of time to kill. I had a wander. I chatted to the usual suspects at Steve’s programme stall and Marco’s “CFCUK” stall. I didn’t mind admitting that I was a little fearful going into the evening’s game. We had amassed just one point out of six and now faced the two hardest games of the group in quick succession.

“Deep down, we need four points from the Milan games but this will be a tough, tough ask.”

I popped in for a pie and chips on Fulham Broadway, then met a few more of the even-more-usual suspects at “Simmons” which was quiet when I walked in at 6pm. It grew busier but not with the football set. Instead, there were young Londoners on a night out. I bumped into a chap from Louisiana, quite by chance, who had been at the Palace game on Saturday.

The music blared. I supped a couple of pints. In the back of my head I was still fearful of getting turned over.

We all set off in good time to reach our seats by about 7.30pm.

The ground slowly filled. There didn’t seem to be anything like the sense of occasion that had accompanied the game in 1999. However, the “half-and-half” scarf grafters on the Fulham Road had evidently done quite a trade. I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many scarves. Most, it saddened me to see, were folded with the red of Milan visible. I presumed that there would be around 3,000 from Lombardy in the designated away section, but knew that there would be other Milan fans dotted around.

The team was announced.

Kepa

Kouilbaly – Silva – Fofana

James – Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Chilwell

Mount – Aubameyang – Sterling

It looked a decent set-up.

The Milan team of course included former Chelsea players Olivier Giroud and Fikayo Tomori, plus their big hope Rafael Leao.

The Milanese – a good many had been plotted up at Earl’s Court – were now beginning to make some noise. Their flags were out. The boys of the Curva Sud were ensconced in the southern end at Stamford Bridge, though the twin tiers of The Shed must have felt miniscule compared to the towering tiers at the San Siro.

A certain song was heard before the kick-off…

…”in the San Siro, with ten minutes to go.”

I remember watching the highlight’s on a mate’s TV in a portakabin – the traffic office – where I worked at a warehouse in Trowbridge, not knowing the result, but celebrating wildly when Wisey scored. The portakabin was rocking that night in deepest Wiltshire.

The teams arrived on the pitch. I still miss that walk to the West Stand across the pitch; that added drama.

The players soon lined up.

The anthem.

The players broke but were then called in so the pour souls who lost their lives in Indonesia recently could be remembered in silence. Again, Kepa had to race from his goal mouth to make the start. The minute’s silence was meant to commence with the referee’s whistle, but there wasn’t one. By now, the crowd were stood in complete silence. After a good few seconds the referee’s whistle blew. With that, the home fans began singing “Chelsea” while the players looked befuddled. I didn’t know what was going on. It was the most poorly executed silence I had ever seen.

Milan were in white shirts with a slight red trim, white shorts and black socks. At least they were in their club colours. Seeing Milan in bright orange, dayglow green or a jarring yellow just would not have seemed right.

Milan had the best of the opening five minutes with a couple of free kicks being swung in from their left. I immediately liked the look of Leao. We coped well with defending these and then built our presence as the game developed.

On just five minutes, a super move. Silva to Aubameyang to Mount, and a fine save from distance by the Milan ‘keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu.

The Milanisti were in fine voice.

“Forza Meelan ale ale, Foraza Meelan ale ale, Forza Meelan ale ale, ale ale ale.”

There was a magnificently-timed slide by Silva to rob a Milan attacker on the half-way line. I wish we had seen him earlier in his career. I had seen him in Baltimore in 2009 playing for Milan; if only we had picked him up at that time.

The defender then rose well at a Chelsea free-kick from Mount on our right to force a fine save by the Milan goalkeeper. Soon after, his diving header at goal from a corner on our left caused all sorts of panic and mayhem in the Shed End goalmouth. Milan never seemed to be in a position to clear the ball and, to this observer at least, a goal seemed on the cards. There were a few stabs at the ball, but after a some swipes, a Chelsea leg – and boot – tucked it home.

GET IN.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

Wesley Fofana had pushed it home.

Huge celebrations.

That anticipation of the goal was magical. I just knew we’d eventually put it away.

Alan : “like a goal in weekly parts.”

Chris : “love that mate, that’s going in the blog.”

Alan : “be even better if it had been scored by a player called Marshall Cavandish.”

Bloody hell, despite my pre-match fears we were 1-0 up. We really grew in confidence and dominated the rest of the half. On the half-hour, I wondered if Giroud had even touched the ball. A shot from Mount was deflected wide. There was a fine move and an even finer lob from Mount but the goal was disallowed for offside.  Sadly, Fofana was injured and fell to the floor twice. On the second occasion, he did not recover and was replaced by Trevoh Chalobah on thirty-eight minutes.

I was very happy with all this. We were absolutely dominating play and the away team had not carved out a single effort on goal. With a few minutes remaining in the half, Leao produced a powerful run between two defenders down below but was beautifully shepherded out by Chalobah.

There was a strong run from Sterling but it came to an anaemic ending as a block halted his shot. We all wondered why he hadn’t shot earlier. Then, just before the break, the best attack of the half from the away team. There was another strong run from Leao but the resulting shot from Charles de Ketalataere was blocked and the rebound was slashed over by Rade Krunic.

All was well at the break, then. There were happy faces all around.

Apart from, well it pains me to say it, the atmosphere was pretty poor. I am not sure if this was because many of the usual match-goers had decided to give it a miss. The tickets were only £35. Maybe the mix of spectators had caused it. I always note a far more cosmopolitan crowd – dare I say the word “tourists”? – at European games. The only section of the crowd that was bothering were the Milan fans in the far corner.

Sigh.

Modern football, eh?

The second-half began. By now I was chatting away to a young Chelsea fan from Kent – hello Jack, hope you like the blog – and he seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about modern tactics and the strengths of our players. But then it made me a bit misty-eyed for the days when our collective understanding of tactics – no “high press”, no “low block”, no “between the lines” in 1999 – was not that great but we just used to sing our hearts out and get behind the team.

Another sigh.

There was a very optimistic overhead kick from near the edge of the box from Trevoh Chalobah that didn’t bother anyone. I was reminded of a chant that my mate Tommy from LA invented for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel at the Milan game in Minneapolis in 2016.

To the tune of “she fell over!“ :

“He’s Chalobah!”

It has potential, eh?

We were dominating everything about this game. On fifty-six minutes, Ben Chilwell was in acres of space but his cross was too long, laughably so. Not to worry, the loose ball was collected by Reece James who sent over an inch-perfect cross into the six-yard box. Tomori tangled his limbs and Aubameyang struck from close in.

GET IN.

Chelsea 2 Milan 0.

There was a summersault from the scorer that was just too quick for me. He loved that goal and so did we. At last a poacher. Hallelujah.

I turned to Jack :

“It was if Chilwell thought to himself” –

“Well I can’t cross a ball but let’s give it to a bloke who can.”

Not long after, a slide-rule pass from the excellent Sterling found Reece on the overlap. There was a touch to move the ball onto his right peg. At this stage, I again knew a goal was coming. I love those moments.

BOSH.

Chelsea 3 Milan 0.

What noise now.

“Reece James. He’s one of our own.”

Stamford Bridge was temporarily on fire.

Phew.

The rest of the game? Not sure. I think I was just too surprised to take it all in.

I turned to Jack : “I suppose in some ways we will honestly feel a bit cheated if we don’t score another one.”

Some substitutions followed.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

Gallagher for Aubameyang.

Havertz for Mount.

Broja for Sterling.

All was good in the world. Well, apart from the noise which soon reached its old levels after the burst of energy and commotion that followed the second and third goals.

Only sing when we are winning?

Yep.

Even in the last seconds, the Milan lot were still singing, still bouncing up and down, still putting on a show.

At the completion of the game, the PA played “One Step Beyond” and even that was met with a muted reaction.

What a comparison

1999 : no goals but surely a bristling atmosphere.

2022 : three goals yet a muted atmosphere.

Another sigh.

To complete this Chelsea and Milan history lesson, let’s look at 1982/83 once again.

On Saturday 2 October 1982, Chelsea beat Grimsby Town 5-2 at Stamford Bridge. This game was watched by another 10,000 crowd and the scorers were David Speedie with another two goals and also Micky Droy, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery. We were unbeaten at home with two wins and two draws.

On Sunday 3 October, Milan played an away game at Campobasso, not so far from Naples. The surprising thing here is that this match took place in Serie B after the once mighty Milan team, European Cup winners in 1963 and 1969, had been relegated for the second time in three seasons in 1981/82. They won 2-0 and the only “stranieri” – foreigner – in the squad (Italian teams were allowed only one, how times change) was Joe Jordan, who nabbed one of the goals. Milan’s 1982/83 season ended more gloriously than ours. They were promoted as champions and have not been relegated since.

Grimsby, Campobasso.

Fackinell.

We made our way back to the car and PD made good time on the return to our little part of the Chelsea Kingdom. I reached home at around 1.30am.

See you on Saturday against Wolves.

1999.

2005.

2009.

2016.

2022.

Tales From A Long Day At The Start Of A Long Month

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2022.

My alarm sounded at 6.45am.

Good morning universe.

Here I was, here we were, back in action after an enforced lay-off. Our last game was the home match with Salzburg some seventeen days ago. Yet in this new month of October we faced nine games in just twenty-nine days. The plan will be to try and attend all of them. We were to begin this manic month with a trip to Selhurst Park for a game with Crystal Palace.

My weekend had begun with yet another concert – my sixth in a summer and autumn of music – that involved an act that was around in 1982. On Friday, I saw Toyah perform at the local venue in Frome.

She had opened the set with “Good Morning Universe” and it was stuck in my mind as I drove home after the concert. And it evidently remained in my ahead until the next morning too.

Toyah was a huge name in the UK music scene from 1980 to 1982, but her stardom soon drifted. I had seen her perform to a pretty small crowd in Frome back in 2015, but her popular “Sunday Lunch” videos with husband Robert Fripp, since lockdown in 2020, have put her back into the public eye once again. For someone who is sixty-four, her show was full of energy. I enjoyed it. The venue was packed.

There was always a slight resemblance between Toyah and my first-ever girlfriend from the summer of 1982. Although I did not dwell too much on it at the time, it later dawned on me that Toyah had a lisp, and that my girlfriend had the slightest of lisps too. I was always so delighted that Toyah’s determination to overcome a speech impediment allowed her to fulfil her career path. Forty years on, my own speech impediment still rears its very ugly head at unsuspecting moments and I hate it now as I fucking hated it then.

As I watched the singer on stage in Frome, my mind kept catapulting me back to summer and early autumn some four decades ago.

Here comes another seamless slide into 1982/83.

My reflective look at “the worst season of them all” continues with two Second Division games from forty years ago.

On Saturday 18 September, Chelsea played Oldham Athletic at Stamford Bridge. This game was notable as marking the debut of firebrand striker David Speedie who we had acquired from Barnsley for £80,000 in the previous May. I honestly cannot remember why his first start was delayed. The new boy got off to a flier, scoring two with a goal in each half. The attendance was 10,263. I remember being disappointed with this gate but philosophical too. In those days, such a gate was often reached by a few of the smaller clubs in the then First Division. My diary noted that I was “pleased that we thrashed Oldham 2-0” and I doubt that I was being ironic. A win, any win, in those forlorn days was definitely a thrashing. Trust me.

A week later, Chelsea travelled up to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday, who were always one of the bigger and more-fancied sides in the division at that time. The team remained unchanged from the Oldham game. The youngster Steve Francis in goal. A back four of Micky Nutton, Gary Chivers, Micky Droy and Chris Hutchings. A midfield of Mike Fillery, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew and Paul Canoville. The striking partnership of Colin Lee and David Speedie upfront. The new season’s starting striker Pop Robson was already – ominously – relegated to a substitute role. A pretty decent attendance of 18,833 assembled for this game. Sadly, the home team went ahead after just twelve minutes and scored two more goals in the second period before two late Chelsea strikes from Fillery and Lee probably gave the result a much closer ending than it deserved.

I can confirm that I was at home that afternoon, listening to the score updates on Radio Two, because I can remember what was happening elsewhere at other games in England on that particular afternoon. It turned out to be a Saturday for the record books. As always, the striking music that heralded “Sports Report” at five o’clock, followed by the measured tones of James Alexander Gordon as he read out the day’s results, was the highlight of the afternoon. The Scot’s raising or falling intonation would allow the listener to know the result even before the scores were completed. He was a master of his craft.

“Sheffield Wednesday – rising – three, Chelsea – falling – OH SHIT WE’VE LOST – two.”

On this particular day, throughout the Football League, it was raining goals. We have not witnessed the like of it in English football ever since. The First Division led the way. In its eleven games, a mammoth fifty goals were scored.

Aston Villa 2 Swansea City 0

Brighton 1 Birmingham City 0

Coventry 4 Everton 2

Liverpool 5 Southampton 0

Manchester United 0 Arsenal 0

Norwich City 1 West Brom 3

Notts County 0 Ipswich Town 6

Stoke City 4 Luton Town 4

Tottenham 4 Nottingham Forest 1

Watford 8 Sunderland 0

West Ham 4 Manchester City 1

Meanwhile, in Division Three, Doncaster Rovers walloped Reading 7-5 at home. However, one Reading player scored four and still ended up on the losing team. His name? Kerry Dixon.

Chelsea’s start to the new campaign had been fair-to-middling. Nothing more. After seven league games, we had won two, drawn three and lost two. It was hardly inspiring stuff from a team that had finished in twelfth position the previous season. But they were my team, my club, and I loved them dearly. On the near horizon was a trip to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Leeds United and, even forty years later, the thrill of the anticipation of that match still resonates.

As I have often documented, a trip to Crystal Palace’s stadium, deep in the hinterlands of South London, is always a troublesome one. I had been monitoring the best way in for a few days and all of the technical aids at my disposal were adamant that after collecting PD and Glenn, and finally, Lordy, the quickest route would be along the M4. So, this was what I did. Lordy was picked-up at 8.30am, but on nearing Swindon, our world caved in. There was a diversion ahead and so I was forced first south and then north of the motorway along smaller roads. It probably cost us an hour.

At Reading Services, I reset my sat-nav and it was sending me right into the heart of London rather than around the M25.

I drove on.

The route in was familiar. It took me along the A4, up to the junction with the North End Road, past those familiar Chelsea match day pubs. It even took me along Lillee Road, only a few yards from where I normally park for home games. But then, with the realisation that the national train strike had forced thousands onto the road network, our plans were hit hard again. Our slow drive through Fulham took the best part of an hour. We were not aided by some very slow changing temporary traffic lights just before Wandsworth Bridge. Eventually, around five-and-a-half bastard hours after leaving sleepy Somerset, we were parked up at my JustPark spot on Woodville Road with the massive TV pylon that dominates that hilly part of South London clearly visible yet still over two miles away. This huge structure was the tallest in London until as recently as 1990. We had given up on getting a drink before the game, but as we headed towards the already overflowing “Prince George”, we spotted a few friends drinking on the pavement outside a small jerk chicken café. We crossed the road to join them.

Rachel from Devon and Donna from Somerset were there. Rob from South West London was there, but without his mate Bob who was in Somerset watching his local team Waltham & Hersham in the FA Cup against Taunton Town. He has evidently reached that key stage – “local non-league team over Chelsea” – before me but I know that time will come for me too.

Drinks were guzzled. A blue flare was let off on the pavement outside the pub opposite. PD and Parky shot off to collect a ticket. Glenn and I set off just before 2.30pm to sort out tickets too.

By 2.40pm, I was in the queue for the Arthur Wait.

“Makes a bloody change to get to a game at Selhurst Park and it’s not pissing with rain.”

There was the usual bag check. While I waited in line, I spotted a listing of “prohibited items” on a poster next to the turnstile. Featured was an image of a camera with a “detachable lens” and the cold sweats came on. I had memories of the last encounter with Crystal Palace, at Wembley, and we all know how that ended. Thankfully, my camera was allowed in.

I shuffled through the packed concourse.

Selhurst Park. If it didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it.

However, for all of its cramped inefficiencies, people would soon lament its passing should it ever be replaced by a single-tiered stadium – “soul-less bowl” is the go-to phrase, eh? – either on the same site or elsewhere.

Each stand is different. Opposite our viewing area is the main stand, an Archibald Leitch original, eerily similar to the Johnny Haynes Stand at Fulham, and thus, the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge. To the right, the slight tier of seats of the Whitehorse Lane Stand, with ugly executive boxes above. In the corner between the two stands is the platform where Bex and his cohorts appeared in the original “The Firm” film from 1989. To the left, the steep two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its curved roof, a throwback to the Edwardian era but the newest of all the current stands. The Arthur Wait Stand was once all standing, and it remains a dark and brooding beast of a stand. The three thousand Chelsea fans, as always, were to be based here, though this hasn’t always been the case. The sightlines aren’t great. In fact, with my position in row eight, down low, I soon decided early on to try not to snap too many photos since my view of the game would be so poor.

A few friends spoke of similarly difficult journeys to the stadium. As kick-off approached, I spotted many clusters of empty seats in the home stands. Palace surely have a more local fan base than us, but I suppose the train strike must have had an adverse effect on numbers. It is a pet peeve that not all attendances are published either online or in the Sunday ‘papers these days. It has all changed after all of those games without fans in the nightmarish seasons of 2019/20 and 2020/21. Not even Chelsea’s home programme includes attendance figures anymore. So, maybe we’ll not know the official attendance for a while, anyway.

This annoys the fuck out of me.

My spreadsheet has half-empty columns.

And what is a world with half-empty columns, eh?

Kick-off approached. The teams entered from that far corner. It suddenly dawned on me that we would be wearing that God-awful away strip. Overhead, there were clouds but there was no hint of rain. I was glad that a rain jacket was left back in the car. I was wearing a subtle-coloured Marc O’Polo sweatshirt; an homage to one I that bought in 1986 or so when that particular brand was much-loved by football fanciers at the time. If the 1986 version was apple green, this one was more mint.

There was a minute of silence in remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II and this was followed by a hearty rendition of “God Save The King.”

This, of course, was Graham Potter’s first league game in charge.

In a “Costa Coffee” on the walk to the stadium, I had briefly spoken to fellow-fan Andy about the switch.

“Is Potter an upgrade on Tuchel?”

I just shrugged my shoulders, unsure.

The game kicked-off and it was clear that we were playing four at the back.

Kepa

James – Fofana – Silva – Chilwell

Jorginho – Kovacic

Then God knows what…

Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang – Mount

From my position down low, it wasn’t clear.

The game began and we dominated the first – er – seven, count’em, minutes. Thiago Silva was our main pass master, touching the ball often, and looking to play balls in to others. However, the home team had hardly touched the bloody ball when Wesley Fofana gave up possession too easily and the ball quickly found Jordan Ayew. I watched in horror as his perfectly whipped-in cross dropped perfectly at the foot of Odsonne Edouard and Kepa was beaten. Sadly, I caught this goal on camera, but thankfully the image is too blurred for my stringent quality assurance department to allow it to be shared.

It was a killer cross. But where was our defence? Answers on a postcard.

Michael Olise impressed me with his direct play in front of me, but it was Eberechi Ebe who then forced Kepa into action.

With a quarter of an hour gone, we had no attempts on target. Then, an easy header looped up easily into Vicente Guaita’s reach.

Gal was getting annoyed with Aubameyang, though to be fair, the striker had not received much service. It’s difficult when players from rivals find themselves at Stamford Bridge. I know full well that I am going to find it hard to warm to Aubameyang. Is it irrational? Who knows? Gal, from his words – that were certainly annoying the bloke behind me – it will be longer for him to approve of the former Arsenal striker.

Put it this way, at this moment in time, Gal rates Mark Falco more than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

There was a header from Mason Mount that flashed wide of the near post.

Halfway through the first period, I leant forward to chat to Calvin : “this is all a bit boring mate.”

Sterling hit the base of a post but I think the move was offside anyway, as was another that quickly followed.

This was hardly inspiring stuff.

The sun was out by now and it was surprisingly hot on this October afternoon.

The central section of around four hundred of their “ultras” – yeah, I know – were now jumping up and down to a chant that was so loud that I couldn’t hear it.

They looked like they were doing some sort of silent flash mob thing.

Bless’em.

(I know they are doing their best to get the atmosphere going, God knows we need it in this bloody country, and they are easy targets…but why just can’t people get behind their teams without this fucking contrived nonsense?)

In their defence, they did produce a few banners in the first-half about the lack of fan involvement in our national game but I am not sure who this was aimed at.

I hope there are similar banners throughout Europe as we rush headlong into the monster of the Qatar World Cup.

There next followed some confusion and more than a little worry. One on one, Silva appeared to hold back Ayew. The defender was booked. VAR then signalled a possible red card. Having not seen the apparent swipe of the ball by Silva’s hand, this was all a bit difficult to work out. Anyway, panic over, no red card.

“Think we got away with that” I said to John, two seats along.

With around ten minutes of the first half remaining, a fine move brought us some cheer. A diagonal found the leap from Silva – strangely well-advanced – and his header found Aubameyang. His quick turn, a swivel, and a shot was exquisite.

GET IN.

The bloke behind might well have ruffled Gal’s hair.

I am sure it wasn’t, but it felt like Aubameyang’s first touch.

It certainly seemed to me that it was an unlikely goal. Unsuspected. Out of the, er, blue.

Chelsea roared : “How shit must you be? Our number nine scored.”

In the closing moments of the half, a back-pass to Gaita was punished with a direct free-kick inside the box. More anguish from the under-performing Mount as his shot cleared the near post. There had been a lovely loose run from Havertz, drifting with ease, past several defenders and I was prepared to celebrate one of the great goals but the shot drifted wide of the far post.

There was time for a quick photo-call with Lordy at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, Potter replaced Jorginho with Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

His slow trudge across the pitch suggested to me – maybe it was just me, I am sure it was – that he realised that he had eventually been found out.

We had a couple of half-chances as the game continued; Chilwell over, a shot blocked from Havertz. Sterling was as lively as anyone, but our link-up play was a little too laboured for my liking, and the away crowd was getting a little frustrated.

As for the defenders, James was the star. I hardly noticed Wilfred Zaha at all.

An upturn in our form was mirrored in the Arthur Wait.

“On when the blues go steaming in, oh when the blues go steaming in, I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

It was deafening. Top work everyone.

This was followed by an equally loud “Ten men went to mow.”

Lovely stuff.

With twenty minutes, two superb saves from Kepa, foiling Zaha on both occasions.

On seventy-six minutes, a double switch.

Conor Gallagher for Havertz.

Armando Broja for Aubameyang.

The play creaked along.

A look towards Alan.

“Shite, mate.”

He nodded.

I spent some moments preparing an epitaph to post on “Facebook” at the final whistle.

On eight-five minutes, a final substitution.

Christian Pulisic for the poor Mount.

The epitaph was nearing completion.

“That was a hard watch. Milan must be quaking in their boots. At least Frome Town won.”

Just at that moment, maybe two seconds later, a sideways push of the ball from Pulisic to Gallagher.

A touch, a shot.

I watched the ball fly into the goal despite what looked like a valiant attempt by Guaita to claw it over. His fingertips could not deny us a goal.

I roared.

The away end roared.

Fackinell.

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

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

For the second time in eight months, a last minute goal at Selhurst Park had sent us into a frenzy.

At the final whistle, Gal and his nemesis – at it like hammer and tongs in that feisty encounter in the first-half – embraced with smiles.

I thought to myself : “get a room, lads.”

This was a fortuitous win, no doubt. I am not going to enthuse too much about it. I have to say that I am particularly worried about our two games against Milan over the next week or so, but I am filled with a huge sense of anticipation too.

Maybe not as much as the Leeds game in 1982 but you catch my drift I am sure.

In reality, more than a few friends have admitted that if we do drop into the Europa League, at least we might get some good trips out of it.

“The final is in Budapest” Calvin had reminded me.

But it’s just the fear of getting humiliated against Milan that I fear most. Nobody wants that. They should be two huge games. I honestly can’t wait.

With traffic locked, we popped into a cheap and cheerful “Chicken Cottage” – they evidently love their chicken in around Selhurst Park – to let the flow ease up a little and eventually left Thornton Heath at 6.15pm. Via another diversion on the A303, I eventually reached home four hours later.

I had picked PD up at 8am. I had dropped him off at 10pm.

Just in time for “Match of the Day.”

Just right.

Next up, one of the Italian greats.

Chelsea versus Milan at Stamford Bridge.

I’m off to practice some Italian swear words.

See you on Wednesday evening.

Postscript :

The BBC recently took the shocking decision to drop the reading out of all of the classified football scores on Radio Five Live at five ‘clock every Saturday.

Words fail me.

Tales From A Typical Day At The Office

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 27 August 2022.

There is one positive that came out of last Sunday’s humiliating defeat at Elland Road. As I stood in the upper section of our away area until the referee blew his whistle, I was at a low ebb, deflated. But it struck me that at least the fortunes of this great club still mattered to me. I was still emotionally attached to Chelsea. In an era when I am still occasionally doubting my devotion to the cause – have I ever said I hate modern football? – the defeat against Leeds certainly made me smart. I hated conceding three goals. It felt like a triple kick in the bollocks. I also hated us being the target of the large-scale piss-taking from those lads in the South Stand.

I also found it harrowing that many fellow fans had left the away enclosure way before the final whistle. I reacted that this was a further slight on my team, my club. However, as we sloped back to the car last Sunday, I realised that my season, only three games in for me, had been reset.

I was emotionally locked-in again. I cared.

Our next game would be at home to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, a bête-noire for us in recent years. On the face of it, this was a rather mundane match, but one that was engendering a new level of importance for me.

As an aside, my local team Frome Town were playing pre-season promotion favourites AFC Totton at home at the same time. I have commented before that there might well become a time when I have to choose between an important Frome Town game and a run-of-the-mill Chelsea game. This wasn’t going to be that occasion.

Chelsea needed me and I needed Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City it was.

As an hors-oeuvre to the game, the Champions League draw had taken place on Thursday evening. We had briefly discussed options outside “The Drysalters” in Leeds on the Sunday.

“Bloody hell. Imagine Celtic. It would be like a military operation. We’d have to collect our match tickets in Motherwell and be flown in by police helicopter.”

On Thursday morning, I sent a message to a few friends.

“Milan and Glasgow please.”

With the San Siro due to be replaced by a new state-of-the-art stadium in its current car park, a visit to Milan was undoubtedly priority “numero uno” for me. With Milan and Inter in the draw, we had a chance. Even though I watched Internazionale play against Empoli in 1987 and Bologna in 1990, I unfortunately missed the Chelsea Champions League games in 1999 and 2011 due to work commitments. There was an earlier friendly in 1995 against Milan too, but that was never on my radar.

Parky and I were at a Chelsea wedding reception – congratulations Gemma and Ludo – on Thursday evening and as we stopped at a pub close to the venue in Maidenhead, I finally checked my ‘phone and was so pleased that we had drawn Milan.

Bloody magnificent.

We just had to wait for the dates to be finalised. My only doubt involved Matchday 2; there was already someone away on holiday from our small office that week. Surely work wouldn’t bugger things up for me yet again?

Saturday arrived. Alan would be unable to attend the Leicester game – work buggering things up for him on this occasion – and so Glenn was able to take his ticket.

In the low countryside around Frome, everything was shrouded in mist. Tree tops pierced the white blanket. It was a stunning scene. Away in the distance, the hills past Trudoxhill and Chapmanslade stood like islands above a white foaming sea.

At road level, thankfully visibility was fine. As I drove east, my car was fully loaded.

The two Glenns and Ron at the back, Paul and me up front.

“Some five-a-side team, this.”

The weather was decent, the chit-chat provided a lovely back-drop to my driving. All was good in the world. Glenn – he has a ticket for Southampton away, on his birthday, on Tuesday – will be starting a new job next week and he is happy about that.

“You played at the San Siro in the ‘sixties, right, Ron?”

“Yeah, we got through on the toss of a coin.”

It sent a shiver down my spine when I realised that one of my passengers had played against Milan legend, their golden boy, Gianni Rivera.

The pattern for pre-match at Stamford Bridge is well set these days.

I drop the boys off on the Fulham side of Putney Bridge. I park up on Bramber Road and walk down to Fulham Broadway with Ron, who dives off to wait at the hotel bar until his corporate gig starts. I have a chat with a few early risers and then catch the two-minute train down to Putney Bridge before joining up with the lads in “The Eight Bells.”

At Steve Smyth’s stall, I picked up a copy of “Soccer The Hard Way” by Ron Harris. It’s pretty rare so I didn’t mind paying a fair bit for it. I’m friends with Steve, so he kindly gave me a decent reduction. In an ironic twist, Ron’s petrol money helped to pay for it.

In case any Americans are getting excited about the use of the word “soccer” in the title of the book, I need to comment that for a decade or so, from the mid-‘sixties to the mid-‘seventies, the word “soccer” often appeared in the UK media; on TV programmes, in books, in magazines. I have no explanation for this. In the school playground and in the workplace, pub and stadium, it was always football.

There was a nice chat with Marco and DJ outside the “CFCUK Stall“ and I then made my way south.

There was a breakfast in the café opposite the tube station at 11am. There’s just something about a fry-up (I don’t have many for those concerned) in a London caff on match days. It’s timeless. I checked my phone to see that the Footballing Gods had smiled on me. Everything was clear for Milan in early October. Zagreb was just too early for me to get my head around it and work is busy at the moment. Salzburg is a likely trip too.

We’re lucky people.

I decided that I would check Milan flights and suchlike when I returned home later that evening but knew that all of the cheap deals would have been snapped up quickly.

I thought back to the first-ever time that I saw Leicester City play us. It was early on in the 1982/83 season. I will detail that game later this season, but as a lead-in to my memories of that season, our worst-ever, I am heading back to Sunday 22 August 1982.

I was mid-way through the Sixth Form at Frome College and hardly relishing the final year. I would take “A Levels” the following June. Emotionally, I was rather low. I was lamenting the departure of my first-ever girlfriend Julie who had moved away to the Reading area not long after we first started going out. For those wondering, these two facts were not linked. Smiley face.

Her father had been working in Bath for the Ministry of Defence but had taken up a new position in Berkshire. I needed some cheering up and I had talked my parents into taking me up to Stamford Bridge for a family day a week before the season began. I remember that I had asked Julie if she fancied coming along for the day, my Dad picking her up en route, but her letter that declined the offer resembled a bullet to my heart. The end was nigh. Her family were more into rugby anyway. It would never had lasted. Another bloody smiley face.

I have a feeling that my parents went shopping while I spent a few hours at Stamford Bridge. My memories aren’t particularly strong. I certainly remember getting quite a few autographs; assistant manager Ian McNeil and players Gary Locke, new signing Bryan “Pop” Robson, Mike Fillery, Alan Mayes, Bob Iles, Colin Pates, Gary Chivers, and Peter Rhoades-Brown. I remember I ascended the upper tier of the East Stand for the first time and thought that the old stadium looked an absolute picture.

There were funfairs and sideshows dotted around the stadium and the highlight was a practice match at three o’clock.

As a pre-curser to that, and I have no recollection of this, I was probably chasing players for autographs :

“Sherriff Danny Arnold Wild West Demonstration.”

No smiley face.

Tickets for the upcoming home game with Wolves started at £3.50 and the most expensive were £7.

I bought a photo of the squad. I loved that Chelsea shirt. I still have it,

The one thing I do recollect is a small chat with Colin Pates, amazed by the turn out.

“God, if it’s like this now, what will it be like if we actually win anything?”

Two years later Colin found out.

I strolled into the pub at about 11.30am. The boys had been in there since opening time at 10am.

We were soon joined by Even, Ray and Hans from Oslo who have been relatively recent additions to my Facebook friends list, lured in by this very blogorama.

Thanks boys.

It was a pleasure to spend some time with them. They are over for a week or so and will be at Southampton on Tuesday and at the West Ham game next weekend. They have all been Chelsea since the early-‘seventies. Ray and Hans are season-ticket holders in the MHL, and from what I could work out sit relatively close to the Kent Boys – Kim, Andy, Dan, Graham and more – who were nestled around another table in the boozer.

“I’ll try to keep a look out for you.”

Ray and Hans come over for fifteen to twenty games every season.

Top class.

We were joined by Sophie – fresh from her enjoyable trip to Milan of all places – and Andy and then we all left for the game at two o’clock.

Parky made his way to join his pals in The Shed. PD, Glenn and I continued on to the familiar stairs of the Matthew Harding. Inside, we were joined by Gary – who sits a few yards away from me in the MHU but is within earshot of those sitting in The Shed Upper – and Clive.

So, alongside me was Glenn, then Clive, then PD.

The Famous Four.

A Saturday league game at three o’clock. Weekends were made for this.

A typical day at the office.

Let’s go to work.

On the pitch, the team lined up with Edouard in goal, what seemed like a back four of Reece, Thiago Silva, Trevoh and Marc, a midfield of Ruben, Jorginho, Conor and Mase, with Havertz and Raheem up top. But it wasn’t always easy to see exactly who occupied what part of the pitch. Where’s my heat map when I need it? The Famous Four’s heat map was mainly four dots the entire first-half with one solitary excursion to the gents for Clive. Thomas Tuchel’s heat map must have been a single dot too, banished to the stands after the altercation with Antonio Conte after the last home game.

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It always seems odd.

Early on, Raheem advanced centrally and rolled an absolutely perfectly-weighted ball into the path of Ruben – I expected a goal, I was up on my feet – but Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward was able to recover and block well at his near post.

On twelve moments, we were awarded a penalty after a clumsy challenge on Ruben by Youri Tielemans – our 2021 FA Cup Final nemesis – and I was up on my feet again. For some reason, I immediately glanced around me and was shocked (shocked, I tell ya) to see that 90% of my close neighbours in the MHU were fully seated.

What? We have just been awarded a penalty! Good God. Has our support become that dull and unresponsive?

Ah, but maybe they knew something. After a few seconds, VAR was called into action. We waited with that dull ache of inevitably.

In the build-up, Kai had been spotted in an off-side position.

Those watching on TV at home – the important ones – probably had a much better view, and explanation, than us in the stadium.

We had definitely begun the better team, with Raheem buzzing about nicely, but then our play drifted and we lost a lot of intensity and Leicester came into the game.

I think I heard a “Dennis Wise is a wanker” chant from the Foxes. Answers on a postcard. I guess he wasn’t particularly liked when he played for them after leaving us.

On the half-an-hour, Marc wasted a corner on the far side and the ball was punted away. Conor then made a terrible lunge on Harvey Barnes in his own half. The youngster – again seemingly eager to impress –  had begun the game with a lovely crunching tackle, but I apparently missed a yellow that he had received earlier. This absolutely silly tackle was rewarded with a second yellow. While Clive fucked off to the little boys’ room, Conor fucked off to the dressing room.

Silly boy.

I lamented the fact that we were down to ten men for the second successive game and had mustered just one shot on goal in just over thirty minutes.

Next, Edouard jumped at a ball from corner and the appeared to fluff his lines completely. The ball was turned in but thankfully a foul on Mendy had been spotted.

On forty-two minutes, a ball dropped nicely for Reece but his powerful strike hit the angle of near post and cross-bar.

Two shots. Oh boy.

Next, a pass from Tielemans sliced through our last line and the advancing Jamie Vardy – his wife is a grass – scuffed his shot wide and this reminded me so much of the Kane miss a fortnight earlier.

This was a pretty poor performance from us. It was a pretty poor game. The atmosphere was not worthy of the name. Sigh.

I turned to Clive : “our link up play just doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Just before the half-time whistle, Dennis Praet was in on goal and there was a fear of impending gloom. Thankfully Edouard raced from his line and made a very fine save indeed.

At the break, the doom mongers were out, including me.

“0-0 – can’t see us scoring…”

One of the bright spots in the first forty-five minutes had been Trevoh’s solid showing. I said to Gal  “is Fofana really £70M better than Chalobah?”

As the second-half begun, I saw Dave in his number twenty-eight shirt, on the pitch. I missed the fine detail of the substitution. I soon worked out that Mason had been replaced and I realised that he had hardly played any part in the first-half. Weird times.

Dave played in a three with Reece and Marc moving to wing-backs.

After just two minutes of the second-half, the game changed. A very fine ball from Marc found Raheem in the inside left channel. A little shimmy, some space gained, and then a shot that was subtly deflected up and over the despairing leap of Ward in the Leicester City goal.

The crowd roared.

One-nil to Chelsea.

At last Stamford Bridge boomed.

“Sing when we’re winning? Yes.”

Soon after, another lucky deflection – this time on another Marc to Raheem pass – set things up nicely but his shot cannoned back off the far post with Ward well beaten.

I loved how Trevoh twisted in mid-air to stretch and head a dangerous cross out for a corner, his braids flying every which way.

A break from Ruben with Marc in acres of space outside him but he chose to continue on and attempt to beat a man, one of his “things” that annoys me. The ball was lost.

Half-way through the second period, we witnessed a fine move. Jorginho guided a ball out wide. Havertz, almost walking, played a ball forward into space down in Parkyville for Reece. His smart cross was zipped across the goal and Raheem was beautifully positioned to tap in.

Chelsea two-up.

Wow.

With no James Maddison, it was Harvey Barnes who was causing us a few problems. Not long after our second goal, he played a neat one-two with Vardy and smashed the ball past Edouard at his near post.

That wasn’t on the script. Fackinell.

This, then, set up a very nervy final quarter of the game.

There were worried looks in the Matthew Harding as the away team attacked our end. But it was a major plus that we possessed the calming influence of Thiago Emiliano da Silva in our defence. He was putting on another sublime performance. A sliding tackle on seventy-seven minutes was worth the admission money on its own. The applause boomed around the stadium.

I loved the way the home crowd got behind the team in those last nervy minutes.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

There was a fine Mendy save from Barnes, down low.

Two substitutions :

Mateo for Jorginho.

Christian for Raheem.

These freshened things up nicely.

Late on, I spotted Ray and Hans in the MHL.

The most worrying moment occurred on eighty-two minutes when that man Vardy raced away and clear of Trevoh. Our last defender made a valiant effort to stop him, chopping high, but the ball ran on. He rounded Mendy but with a heavy touch. His slashed shot thankfully only hit the side netting.

Ben for Marc.

With continental-style whistling and the constant “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” combining for a deafening finish, Leicester broke through one last time. Ayoze Perez ran through and slammed a fierce shot goal wards. But Mendy had stayed tall, narrowing angles, closing free space, and the ball thundered against the underside of the bar.

Phew.

Four league games. Two wins. A draw. A loss. A solid start, nothing more.

I will see some of you at Southampton on Tuesday evening.

Gallery

Chelsea Norway

1982/1983

Tales From A Twin City

Chelsea vs. Milan : 3 August 2016.

I drove from Ann Arbor in Michigan to Minneapolis in Minnesota in one ridiculous hop. It totaled out at 672 miles, took me over eleven hours and became the longest car journey of my life. There have been some long road trips for me watching Chelsea in the US (North Carolina to Pittsburgh, North Carolina to DC, North Carolina to Chicago, LA to Palo Alto, New York City to Charlotte, Charlotte to DC), but this one was the grand-daddy of them all. I only stopped four times – once for fuel, once for lunch, once for a drink and once at the Minnesota welcome centre – and thankfully the time went OK. I didn’t feel tired at all. The American Road kept me happy. I delved into a selection of FM radio stations to reduce the boredom, but you can only hear Chicago and Peter bloody Cetera so many times without going insane. I therefore hopped around some different stations a bit when things got tedious. I stayed clear of “Culvers” butter burgers, and all was fine.

The landscape was pretty flat around Michigan, but I noted many vineyards and wineries, which surprised me. I then swept wide and west past the suburbs of Chicago, my first port of call on this, my nineteenth trip to the USA. The Sears Tower, or whatever incarnation it is known by these days, was away in the distance. After I stopped at a down-at-heal “Hardees” for a burger and fries – can’t get more American than that – in Roscoe, Illinois, the scenery slowly changed and became more stimulating. The hills broadened, the fields turned greener, the sky opened up a little. Even the clouds looked more interesting. It became a lovely car trip.

I crossed the state line in to Minnesota as the rush-hour traffic was beginning to fade. My final approach seemed to electrify me. I shot past the little nest of downtown skyscrapers of St. Paul, the lesser of the two Twin Cities, and then continued on a further ten miles towards the far more impressive skyline of Minneapolis.

I genuinely knew little of the city to be honest. Cathy and myself had stopped for a few hours at the city’s airport on our long flight to Los Angeles in 2007, but I had not visited it in its own right. It was the home of Prince, bless him. It was the home of the Minnesota Twins, who were the opponents for my very first New York Yankees game in 1990. It was home to the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. The area was settled by many Scandinavians. There was a huge shopping mall in its suburbs. The city had skyways to keep people off the cold streets of winter and the scalding streets of winter. That was it.

For a geography graduate, I should have known more.

Ah, but there was also an Everything But The Girl song called “Twin Cities” from their 1991 album “Worldwide” and I loved it to death. It came out just after I had visited the US for the first time. This particular song was an ode to travel throughout that vast continent. It seemed to strike a chord for me. That particular band often wrote about travel, of foreign cities, of wanting to be elsewhere, and a few of their songs get me dreaming of foreign lands.

“And now I’m standing in a city that’s as pretty as an ocean in the night.

And we are twin cities. And we are that ocean. From the standing still. We are set in motion.”

At about 6.45pm, Minneapolis opened up before me and I-94 threw me right into the heart of the city. As I took a broad curve down over the river, the incredible black irregular block of brick, steel and glass of the US Bank Stadium greeted me. It was a definite jaw-dropping moment. Of course, I had done my homework – I knew we were opening it up, as we did with Dallas’ new pad in 2009 – and I had studied images of it from inside and out. But the stadium looked incredible. Its irregular surfaces defied rational description. Was this a mere stadium, or some sort of space-ship about to take off into the night?

For the second time in five days, I had a feeling that a stadium would prove to be the star of the show.

I met up with a few friends down at the anointed pub – “Brits” – on Monday and Tuesday evening, and it was a pleasure to bump into a few old friends for the first time on this trip. On the way to the pub on the Tuesday, I had spotted a young lad with a Chelsea shirt in my hotel and so I spoke to him and his mother about the game. They were from Kansas and this would be their first Chelsea match. Soon after, we were sharing a cab down to “Brits” and Erica and Cooper – only seven – were soon meeting up with a roomful of Chelsea fans from all over the US. However, not long into the night, with Neil Barnett and both Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers turning the air blue with some of their tales from the past, I noticed that the two of them had disappeared outside in the warm summer evening air. I hope that we had not scared them away.

On both nights, I didn’t get back to my hotel, no more than a five-minute walk away from the stadium, until 2.30am. Thankfully, on the mornings after, there was no hint of a hangover.

Minneapolis seemed a fine town, but devoid of too many pedestrians. I suspect that the skywayss have a lot to answer for. I noted a fair bit of quirky architecture and the usual smattering of corporate skyscrapers.

On the day of the game, I started off with a pint of Leinenkugel’s summer shandy in a bar near my hotel. It was 1.30pm. There were still seven hours until kick-off.

“Blimey, that’s like me having a pint at 8am on a Saturday matchday.”

I’d enjoyed a similar grapefruit shandy from the same company at the Detroit Tigers vs. Houston Astros game on the Sunday. What a refreshing drink. The summer shandy was cloudy and not half as refreshing. I walked to “Brits” and bumped into ex-pat Kev / Clive (old joke, ask Parky) on the way. He had travelled by 650cc motorbike from Detroit for the game and we swapped stories. Things were pretty quiet in “Brits” to be honest. I met up with Bob and Danny, both from California, and Phil from Iowa. A few more pints went down well. Bob and myself moved on to another bar called “Cuzzys” which was a fantastic place. Its floors sloped, and its walls were festooned with dollar bills hanging from every surface. It reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar in Key West “Sloppy Joe’s.”

Back at my hotel, we met up with Danny, Mike, Tim and Eugene, lads that I have met over the years on my travels around the US. More beers, and a few more laughs. Time was moving on and so at just before 8pm, we walked towards the spanking new stadium. Throughout the past few days, we had hardly seen any Milan shirts. There was also a gnawing realisation that the good people of Minneapolis were out in force to witness the opening of the stadium rather than to see a football match. In a few bars, we had even seen fans – presumably going to the game – with the violet of the Vikings jersey on show. We envisaged another quiet night in the Chelsea section and the stadium as a whole.

There seemed to be a little confusion about access into the stadium and the most direct way was unable to be followed due to fences blocking our path. This was evidence that the stadium’s immediate areas were still requiring attention. Bob and myself took a lift to a quiet, air-conditioned, carpeted walkway – a skywalk, I suppose – which took us into the stadium midway up. In all honesty, at this stage, it all seemed a little too alien for me. It did not seem like a sports stadium. It seemed like an airport. There were wide concourses, and signs pointing here, there and everywhere. It did not seem right.

Then, we came out onto a viewing area – again, lots and lots of space – and we were able to see inside the stadium for the first time. Outside, the irregular shape of the stadium is said to resemble a Viking long-boat (for some reason, I used to love drawing those at school) with its angled lines and suchlike. Inside, the stadium appears huge, almost too huge, or at least too high. It was another jaw-dropping moment for me.

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I have been inside a few NFL stadia over the years – though I am yet to attend a game, no surprise there – and the last one that I visited which was equally stunning was the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. This one in Minneapolis though seemed almost perfect. At the Cowboys stadium, there are layer after layer of executive boxes where the corporate world can watch in air-conditioned isolation, but this leaves less seats for the common fan (if one exists in the NFL – it certainly seems a working class sport attended by the rich middle-class). This one seemed to have a larger proportion of general seating, even though the seats at the very rear of both side stands seemed to be so high as to be needing oxygen masks. It certainly ranks as the highest stadium I have seen. Probably higher than Dallas, probably higher than Camp Nou, certainly higher than the North Stand at Old Trafford.

At each end were massive TV screens. Everywhere, the violet / purple of the Vikings.

We took an elevator down a level and found our seats among the Chelsea section in the western side of the stadium, directly behind the goal. I looked around; just beyond our section, which continually stood for the duration of the game, there was the usual mixture of Real / Milan / Juve / Inter / Barca / Arsenal / Manchester United shirts. However, Chelsea was in the majority.

Back in 2005 – at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey – I attended another Chelsea vs. Milan game, but on that occasion, Chelsea were outnumbered by four or five to one. I know the demographics of the New York area are so different to that of Minnesota, but that just shows how far we have traveled in such a short period of time.

I spotted a few familiar faces in our ranks. Gary Chivers and Garry Stanley were a few rows below me.

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The players finished their pre-match routines and the clock ticked-down. The US flag fluttered as a tattooed girl sung the national anthem. The teams entered the now jam-packed arena. The players appeared so close to us.

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Antonio Conte’s team was again strong.

Courtois.

Aina.

Terry.

Cahill.

Azpilicueta.

Matic.

Fabregas.

Willian.

Traore.

Costa.

Moses.

The 4/4/2 aligned Costa and Traore for the first time.

It was good to see Diego back in the team.

Milan – playing in virtually an all-black kit – attacked the end where the Chelsea supporters, numbering possibly no more than five hundred at most, in a little tight block, were stood. Of course, there were Chelsea fans elsewhere, but this was the equivalent of an away section, the notion that movers and shakers in charge of these tours are only vaguely acquainted.

My friend Steve Rea, from New Orleans – who writes blogs on the official website – had asked me about my thoughts about my travels over to the US for these tours. I shared a few things with him, and included a moan about “other” fans getting tickets in apparently Chelsea-only sections. Things can often get a little tetchy in some cases. I remember getting annoyed by some Barcelona fans standing right in front of me in DC last summer. My closing comment to Steve for his article was – knowingly controversial – “sometimes segregation is a good thing.”

It didn’t surprise me that this line was cut from the final edit.

But certainly, for football games, it is surely key.

Who wants to be stood next to opposing fans?

Get us all together, one block, one voice, one song.

Us and them.

Make some noise.

Milan were the first to cause problems when Abate was able to ghost in at the far post to connect with a cross, after drifting inside a dozing Dave. Milan looked quite sharp and I hoped for better things from us.

We had torn shirts as Traore and then Diego were manhandled. Diego headed over from a Traore cross. Milan then broke well and we had to rely on a fine Courtois block, with his legs, to avoid us conceding.

The noise in the Chelsea section was not great and I had rolled my eyes as a couple of “waves” were attempted around the stadium. Thankfully, they did not get far, unlike at Ann Arbor on Saturday. On that particular afternoon, I found it so ironic that the only section of fans not joining in with this loathsome and tiresome activity were the ones that had been trying to sing all afternoon. Sometimes I come away from games in the USA and think “yes, you’re getting it” but on that day, in The Big House, I marked America down.

After one wave faltered, I thought “enough of this shite” and bellowed out twelve “Zigger Zaggers” (a personal best, thank you very much) and the Chelsea support around me rallied a little.

Chelsea played a little better and had a few attacks on goal. Victor Moses, as is his wont during these games, had a forceful run out left. Another of his runs ended with a shot which rebounded nicely for Bertrand Traore to head home from close range.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

It pleased Minneapolis-native Tom, standing in-front of me, that the PA played “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince to mark the first goal scored in his city’s sparking new stadium.

Dave drove hard at the Milan goal but his shot breezed past the far post. We seemed in control.

Sadly, before the break, we conceded a free-kick just outside the box, and Bonaventura – pet detective – curled a stunning shot over the wall and past Thibaut.

Chelsea 1 Milan 1.

Milan started a little stronger at the start of the second-half. By now, the Chelsea support was quite pitiful. Hardly any songs were heard. The manager then shook things up a little, bringing on N’Golo Kante for his Chelsea debut – how small he looks, so reminiscent of Claude Makelele – and then there was a huge cheer for the introduction of Eden Hazard. They replaced Moses and Traore. It was lovely to see Kante dart around, but first he posed for a photo. Bless him. Welcome to Chelsea, N’Golo.

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Hazard was immediately involved. Willian’s shot was well saved by the Milan ‘keeper. Thankfully, the Chelsea support got behind the team a little more.

More changes ensued, with Ivanovic, Oscar and Batshuayi in for Aina, Fabregas and Costa.

The songs continued and we urged the team on.

A silly handball by a Milan defender allowed Oscar to fire the resulting penalty home.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Chelsea 2 Milan 1.

Eden seemed to be elbowed in the jaw and stayed on the floor for a while. His new jersey did not display a number and the Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were excited to the point of collapse.

Chalobah and my mate Cuadrado were introduced late on.

We lustily sang a chorus of “fackemall, fackemall – United, West Ham, Liverpool” and one middle-aged woman turned around in an adjoining section and gave us the dirtiest of looks.

In front of me, Tommy had his finest moment.

To the old chant of “She fell over!” he sang “He’s Chalobah!” and gained a few credibility points.

That deserves to catch on next season.

You heard if first in Minnesota.

Four minutes from the end, we added to our lead when my boy Cuadrado did ever so well to supply an onrushing Oscar with a deft pass. He tucked it home well.

Chelsea 3 Milan 1.

This was a much better performance from us and I hope and pray we can build on it in Bremen on Sunday.

At the end of the game, it was lovely to see JT head over to sign some shirts before clapping us and heading up the tunnel. I said my goodbyes to a few and at that point my plan was going to head on back to “Brits” for a couple of hours. There were five of us left – Brian (Texas), Danny (California), Josh (Minnesota), Tommy (California) and me (Nebraska) – and we were some of the very last to leave. We posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner and left the stadium.

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And what a stadium it had been.

Sadly, the lure of my hotel bed, a mere five-minute walk away, proved too tempting.

It was time for me to call it a night.

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Tales From The Road To Milan

Chelsea vs. Porto : 9 December 2015.

Midway through the morning, a work colleague spoke.

“You’re quiet today, Chris.”

A pause…”yep.”

“Are you going to Chelsea tonight?”

“Yep. I think that’s the reason why I’m quiet.”

Here we were again, then. Shades of 2011 and 2012, when we left it – unfashionably – late to determine our progress through to the Champions League knock-out phase. Of course, our fortunes contrasted in both of those seasons. In 2012, we failed to qualify from the group phase for the very first time after we won our last game against Nordsjaeland but Willian’s Shakhtar Donetsk lost 1-0 at home to Juventus.

In 2011, a triumphant win at home to Valencia set us on our way to “you know where.”

Looking back, it’s odd that the last five final Champions League group phase games have all been at home.

2015 : Porto.

2014 : Sporting Lisbon.

2013 : Steaua Bucharest.

2012 : Nordsjaeland.

2011 : Valencia.

Thankfully, we haven’t always left it quite so late to qualify. And Chelsea have a proud Champions League record to uphold. In our thirteen previous campaigns, we have only failed to qualify for the knock-out phase just the once. We have qualified as group winners ten times, as runners-up just twice. It’s a pretty remarkable record.

I yearned for a win against Porto. Not only would it signal our passage through to further European adventures on the road to Milan, and not Basel where the Europa Final would be played, but I hoped that it would give us a much-needed confidence boost to our awful league form.

As the day progressed, my noise levels did not increase. I was truly focussed on the evening game with Porto. After the demoralising loss at home to AFC Bournemouth on Saturday evening, there is no surprise that there was an air of solemnity. These were still edgy times as a Chelsea supporter.

Ah, Bournemouth. Although their manager Eddie Howe called it the greatest result in his team’s history – with sufficient reason – was it really a nadir for Chelsea Football Club? I think not. The troubles of season 1982/1983 surely represented our historical low point. A few games in that season might be awarded the dubious honour of marking our lowest ebb. A 3-0 reverse at fellow strugglers Burnley might signify that. I was not there at Burnley nor many of the other miserable games in 1982/1983. However, the one game that many Chelsea fans quote as “the ultimate low point” actually took place in 1981/1982; the infamous 6-0 loss at Millmoor, the home of Rotherham United. I did not attend that one either. However, on a personal level, Bournemouth away in 1988/1989 represents my personal all-time low. Let me explain. Newly relegated from the top division, our third game that season took us to Dean Court for a game with Bournemouth, in only their second season at that level in their history. I was confident of a win.

We lost 1-0.

It was my “there in person” low point in terms of losing to a team, and club – a small, provincial club – that we ought to have beaten.

No doubt that game will be referenced again when we get to visit Dean Court in April.

In the pub before the game with Porto, there was the usual gathering of mates from near and far. Chris was over again from Guernsey, with his son Nick. They were both in town for the Bournemouth game, too. And get this. Although he has been watching Chelsea games in person for fifteen years, the 1-0 loss at home to Bournemouth was the very first game that he had seen us lose.

“How many games is that then, Nick?”

“Not sure. About fifty.”

“Bloody hell.”

Inside Stamford Bridge, Alan and I compared notes.

Alan : “It took me two games to see us lose.”

Chris : “Three for me. Two wins and a loss.”

Across the stadium, Porto had brought a full three-thousand to Stamford Bridge. They were, of course, still in contention for a passage into further rounds of this year’s competition. Nevertheless, three thousand was a fine showing. It made our 1,100 showing in Porto in September pale by comparison.

This was our fourth Champions League match against Porto at Stamford Bridge. They are our most familiar such opponents, along with Barcelona and Liverpool. There was also a home friendly with Porto in the heady summer of 1995, which marked the home debuts of new signings Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes.

Jose Mourinho had decided to – eventually – drop Cesc Fabregas and recall Diego Costa. Dave and JT returned, and there was a starting place for Ramires too.

In the Porto team, Iker Casillas made his Stamford Bridge debut – damn it, will we never ever draw his former team Real Madrid? – and old adversary Maicon was captain. There was no place for the remarkably named Andre Andre, whose favourite ‘eighties bands are presumably Duran Duran, The The and Talk Talk.

As the game began, although our sights were focussed on the pitch, the game in Kiev would also be monitored. This was a very tight finish to our group. Although many potential scenarios were spoken about, I am not convinced even now that I truly understood the ramifications should all three teams end up on equal points.

There was an exciting start to the game with a couple of chances exchanged. Alan had brought along his Champions League lucky wine gums. They soon worked their magic. A ball through from Eden Hazard allowed Diego Costa to advance on goal. From an angle, a low shot was parried by Casillas, but the ball bounced back towards the defender Marcano. The ball was goal bound, but seemed to lack “legs.” We watched, time appearing to stand still, as Maicon hacked the ball off the line. We were, of course, at the other end of the stadium. I was not convinced that the ball had crossed the line. A creature of habit, I glanced over to the linesman in front of the West Stand. His flag was down. The crowd were roaring, though. The referee was signalling a goal. I had, of course, neglected to look at the much-abused official behind the goal line.

It was a goal.

It didn’t create the emotional release of other goals due to its rather messy nature, but it was a goal nonetheless. Ironically, Alan and I had just bemoaned the presence of the fifth and sixth officials, who rarely get involved in any decisions whatsoever.

On around twenty minutes, I was fuming as Diego Costa needlessly, and stupidly, tripped Casillas as he had collected the ball and was looking to distribute the ball. It was just so annoying. Just like our season – one step forward, one step back – Diego Costa seems to confuse and infuriate me.

His efforts lead to a goal, but he then followed that up with a baffling trip.

Idiot.

Chances were otherwise rare in the first forty-five minutes. A sweet strike from Oscar was deflected narrowly wide. Just before the break, Courtois saved well and then Diego Costa was through one-on-one, but shot wide of the goal.

Ramires was a major plus during the first-half. His energy and running, his tackling and blocking, seemed to be a breath of fresh air. He seemed to invigorate us and drew good applause from the Stamford Bridge crowd.

It had been a competent showing in the first-half but my pre-match prediction of “a 1-0 lead from early on resulting in a nervous match all of the way through to the final whistle” looked like being correct.

In Kiev, the home team were beating Maccabi. No surprises there.

Porto began the second-half on the front foot. It was in their best interests to attack. Two efforts on goal signalled their new vigour. However, after just six minutes, a fine interchange between Diego Costa and Eden Hazard found Willian, who slammed the ball low past Casillas. It reminded me of his match-winner against Everton at the start of 2015. His run towards the far corner was the identical.

Hopefully, we could now relax a little.

I was able to sit back and appreciate the intricacies of our play. Porto continued to move forward and we were content to let them do so. They had to score. We just needed to keep it tight. Our attacking reverted to that of old-style counter attacks. I lost count of the number of times that we broke away at speed. On one occasion, Diego Costa ran through, tussling shoulder to shoulder with Maicon, but fell to the floor way too easily.

At the other end, fine tackles from our two centre-halves were perfectly executed.

Porto continued to push forward, but I thought that they suffered from the same malaise as us on Saturday; plenty of crosses played in to the danger areas, but nobody able to get on the end of them. The away fans appeared to be resigned to a defeat, a third-place finish and demotion to the maligned Europa League.

While we had dreams, however outlandish and fanciful, of Milan and the San Siro, Porto’s route to European glory would now be diverted to the Swiss city a few hundred miles to the north of the Lombardy capital.

Our counter attacks continued, and Eden Hazard went close.

A few spirited tackles from Oscar drew applause. Matic, ambling around but in control, was able to soak up Porto pressure. Hazard was not involved as much as I would have liked but was neat and rarely gave the ball away. It was reassuring to see Dave back.

One moment, involving Diego Costa, annoyed me further though. At the end of a great move, the crucial killer ball evaded him. He ended up in the goal mouth, turning his back to play. Although the ball was still “live”, rather than chase it down and keep pressure on Porto, he slowly walked back on to the field. Whereas other players had shown more of the old Chelsea spirit, it was annoying to see Costa still not 100% focussed on the team ethic which Mourinho so espouses.

“One step forward, one step back.”

Mourinho made some late changes.

Pedro for Oscar : lots of applause for the Brazilian.

Mikel for Diego Costa : this signalled an exodus from the stands, the game was safe now surely, Mikel was closing the sale.

Remy for Hazard : the poor bugger, surely he deserved more than a few minutes.

We were through. The road to Milan continues.

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Tales From Babe Ruth’s House And Babe Ruth’s Home

Chelsea vs. Milan : 24 July 2009.

So, here we go…let’s get my 2009-2010 season started. Like all my reports, this one is a very personalised account and I hope that any newcomers to the site understand my emphasis on “the background” stuff which goes on in my Chelsea life.

It clearly ain’t just about the football.

However, before my trip report – here are some numbers.

This would be my fourteenth trip to North America – on almost the twentieth anniversary of my first one in September 1989. It would be my fifth trip to the US to see Chelsea play – the games against Milan and Club America would be games eight and nine in The States. My other sport is baseball and so I decided to avoid the West Coast games in order to squeeze in two New York Yankees games. It would be my ninth trip in which I would be seeing the Yankees play. It would be the third visit in which I would be seeing Chelsea AND the Yanks play on the same trip ( how lucky I have been…) and it would encompass my eighth trip to New York. I would be seeing the Yankees for the 24th and 25th time in New York. It would be my fourth visit to Baltimore, but my first ever visit to Dallas / Fort Worth.

I clearly have a long history of travelling to America. I guess it is why I enjoy posting on here so much.

My trip began with me leaving my home in Somerset at 4.30am on Tuesday 21 July. As I set off in my car, I texted a few people with the immortal line –

“Jack Kerouac.”

Soon after, as I headed east towards Salisbury Plain, I heard back from Beth and Teri, who were with The Legends out in Pasadena. A simple text message brought us all together.

I texted my friend Roma in NC that I was on my way and I was stunned to hear back from her.

“I hope to be able to be with you in Baltimore.”

This was a big surprise. I have known Roma for twenty years – we met in Florida in 1989 – but she hadn’t hinted that she would be able to join me. As I headed towards London, I tried not to get too excited as Roma does tend to leave things to the last moment and I did wonder if she would make it.

My mate Russ – Chelsea – dropped me off at Heathrow and I was on my way through passport control at 7am. Right in front of me was a young boy in full Chelsea kit. That had to be a good sign. I caught three hours’ kip on the BA flight…I was day-dreaming of how the trip would pan out…hoping we could build on our good start in Seattle. Before I knew it, I was on the subway from JFK to Times Square – what a buzz to be back in Gotham once again – and I was booked in at my hotel by 2pm. Ironically, it was opposite the hotel I had stayed at in June 2008 when I came over to pay a last, tearful visit to old Yankee Stadium.

The rest of my first day in America was spent travelling up by subway to 161st Street / River Avenue in The Bronx and watching The Yankees. I chatted to a Bronx native on the train and he wished me a happy spell in America. I then spent time in “Stan’s Sports Bar” for a while, nestled under the noisy elevated rails of the 4 line and across from the bleachers of the old stadium, the original House That Ruth Built. I know the owner, but I had just missed him. I had a chat with a couple of the bartenders, though. I drank two Rolling Rocks. Then into the revamped “Billy’s Sports Bar” for a burger and fries, washed down with a couple of Sam Adams…eight bucks each, though. Ouch. I texted a few friends. I felt I had to share my great sense of happiness at being back in one of my favourite locations. Chelsea will always be my life, and I am rather a lapsed baseball fan, compared to the heady years of 1993-2001, but I still love the beauty and tradition of the game. It acts as a great counter to my fanaticism of football.

It’s a different ball game.

I crossed the road and entered the new stadium. I immediately felt like a customer rather than a fan. The old place was cramped but atmospheric and the ghosts of previous players and fans haunted every nook and cranny. The new stadium is grand no doubts – its walkways are wide and open – but my immediate reaction was that it was like a shopping mall. There was a rain delay for thirty minutes – only my second ever in over 40 baseball games – and so I walked around, buying a box of Crackerjacks, taking it all in.

The game began at 7.30pm and my seat was high up on the first base side, thankfully under the cover of the minimal roof. As Sergio Mitre hurled an opening pitch at the Baltimore Orioles, the drizzle was still falling. That first pitch was hit for a double and the Orioles scored one run in the top of the first. However, the Yanks came from 0-1 and 1-2 down to win 6-4.

Although I am 44, I was carded when I bought some beer…I had to laugh. I soon stopped laughing when I heard the price…ten bucks…or £7.50 in real money. I gulped down a hot dog too. I texted a few folk from my seat high up in the stadium – a few were gathering together in Pasadena for the Chelsea vs. Inter game…I was juggling two teams that night. It felt wonderful.

It was a solid Yankee performance…it always takes me a while to get “into” watching live baseball…on any trip, I usually enjoy a few beers during game one, then hone my watching skills as the trip progresses…I only had one more game on this trip, so my attention had to be sharp. I know a lot of people despise the Yanks, but they are my team and I still get a buzz whenever Robinson Cano makes a great defensive play at second or when Mark Texeira reacts quickly to catch a ball at first.

At baseball, I find myself uttering the American “woo” at a great play rather than the English “yes!” when a Chelsea goal is scored. Why is that?

As the game progressed, I took over a hundred photos, from the first pitch to the last out ( a catch by Derek Jeter in shallow centre ). I thought about my life as an English Yankee fan writing about Chelsea for Americans. I pondered the two sports, the two kinds of support, the tribes, the differing senses of belonging. I have long since come to the conclusion that my trips to baseball cathedrals are purely personal…for a few hours, I get lost in pure Americana, I note the ways of the locals and maybe I try to blend in. It is a weird thing that not once have I ever desired to join a UK-based Yankee fan group, nor watch games with a bunch of UK fans. Not my thing. It’s purely personal for me. I note how this differs from most of the CIA fans I have got to meet since 2004. I wondered why that was. I think that football is the ultimate tribal sport. Baseball is just different. It’s more game-focussed…it’s about the players, not the fans. Fans go to baseball in small groups of three and four. I go to Chelsea with ten and fifteen.

The game ended at around 10.20pm – Frank Sinatra sang “New York New York” – and I had to rush to get down to “Nevada Smiths”, the famous watering hole on 3rd and 14th to see the Chelsea game live on TV. I was straight onto the subway. The crowd had started leaving in the eighth – I could never do that…I think it’s the football fan in me. The express train rattled through Manhattan and I stepped into “Nevada Smiths” bang on 11pm.

At the bar were Burger and Julie. Hugs and kisses. Out by the TV screen were Gill and Graeme. More hugs and kisses. I first met Gill – from Kent – in Nevada’s during the Q&A with Kerry in 2005. The story comes full circle. Also in the bar were NY Blues Carrie, Simon and Henry. It was pretty quiet though – I expected more people.

I supped some pints of Paulaner and watched as Drogs and then Frank scored to give us a 2-0 win. At the first goal, I texted Bob in San Francisco

“THTCAUN.”

He replied

“COMLD.”

For newbies to my reports, I apologise!

We watched the second half with diminishing interest. Burger, Julie and myself were now talking about the anticipation of meeting all of our friends again in Baltimore. We sang songs, Burger did a “Zigger Zagger “ ( you need to work on the tempo, mate! ) and we got more merry…OK, we got drunk. A text came through from Mad Mark in Pasadena saying he had JT’s shirt.

Git.

It was a great win. It looked like a massive crowd. Loads of Chelsea blue in The Rose Bowl.

We said our goodbyes. Burger, Julie and myself took a cab to Times Square. It was around 1.30am…apart from three hours’ kip on the plane, I had been awake for 26 hours.

I awoke at 8am with a headache, so – no pressure, I’m on holiday! – I slept on. By the time I showered and crossed the road for a breakfast at 10.15am, I was fine. I bought a copy of the New York Post…to my great pleasure, the picture chosen to illustrate the Yankee win was the last out…the close up of Jeter grasping the ball. It was an exact copy of my shot of the very same play, albeit in extreme close-up.

Unbeknown to me the previous night, my viewing of the Yankee game had seen us go top of the AL East.

Happy days.

A Yankee win, a Chelsea win. Very happy days.

On the Wednesday, I returned to the stadium.

Two funny things happened on the subway. On the first train I took, I noticed that the woman who was sitting next to me was reading a book.

“On The Road” by Jack Kerouac.

In the next train, opposite me, was a young lad wearing a Chelsea shirt. I showed him my Chelsea ring and we smiled.

Serendipity.

I met the former Yankee Mickey Rivers outside and he signed a photo for me. A lovely souvenir to add to my existing collection of Yankee signed photos.

Inside the stadium and – sunny weather now – I happily watched the Yanks again defeat the lacklustre Birds. New York raced into a 4-0 lead in the first and won again with a 6-4 score, behind the pitching of AJ Burnett. In this second game, I was closer to the action, sitting in the $125 seats in the second tier, level with the pitcher. I really enjoyed the view of this. Burnett pitched well, but the play of the game was a catch by Nick Swisher out in right field. My only purchase, apart from Yankee souvenirs, was a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade.

Very un-Chelsea like.

Burger texted me to say that he was watching the game in a bar near Canal Street.

I again took many photos. Baseball is such a photogenic sport. The wind up and release by the pitcher. The crouch of the short-stop. The “gloves-up” stance of the first-baseman holding a runner. The clean lines of the diamond. The grass. It was fantastic.

I really didn’t want to leave the stadium, but I knew I had to move on. After a 15-8 record at the old place, I was 2-0 at the new home…and long may it continue.

The rest of Wednesday was just wonderful. I walked amidst tourists and shoppers along Fifth Avenue before returning to my hotel for a change of clothes. Then down to Greenwich Village for a lovely meal in a restaurant called “Rare” – and three more Sam Adams. I phoned Roma and – YES! – she was still keen to attend the game in Baltimore. I needed a spare ticket for her and so I contacted Mike ( who had just landed at JFK from the Inter game ). After an hour of texts and phone-calls, we were sorted and I was so pleased.

I then took a cab up to a lovely, local bar to meet Burger and Julie. It was now 9pm and, to my amusement, they hadn’t moved since the texts I had received at 4pm.

Proper Chelsea.

Proper Burger.

I joined them for a pint of “Blue Moon” and we then got another cab up to our respective hotels.

It had been a perfect day in New York.

I was up bright and breezy on the Thursday. I left my hotel room, had a McBreakfast and met Julie and Burgs at Times Square. My good mate Bob ( unagi1 ) from Fremont in CA had flown over on a red-eye and we met him at Penn Station.

The tribes were gathering.

We headed down to Ground Zero as neither Burger, Julie nor Bob had seen this eerie, silent place. We also raided the adjacent “Century 21” discount department store in a memorable hour. I only bought one item – in fact we all bought one item each – but it was a “must buy.” A brown CP Company jacket reduced from $759 to $279. It would have been rude not to. It will be worn at various away games next season, you can be sure of that.

Via an aborted trip to go on the Staten Island Ferry, we enjoyed a couple of beers in a restaurant near the financial district. We had a great discussion about all sorts. We then caught a cab up to Penn Station – it had to be the most tense cab ride ever, as we left it worryingly late.

Our train to Baltimore left at 2.05pm. We arrived at Penn Station at 1.58pm. Phew. I had joked that I wanted top quality chat on the train because we all knew that as soon as we hit Baltimore, the madness would start.

Three more beers, loads of laughs – great times.

We arrived 45 minutes late in Baltimore but soon got a cab to The Sheraton. We dumped our bags and headed for the Ale House, just a few blocks away. We had heard that the practice session was cancelled, but we hoped this was not the case. We bumped into Beth outside and she was engaged on the phone, no doubt trying to solve yet another logistical problem on this trip. Bless her. As we entered the bar, we were met by many familiar faces…too many to mention. But it was certainly great to see John ( mgoblue06 ) once again – we had enjoyed some fun times back at HQ in the spring. It was great to meet Tommy Langley and Steve Finnieston too – heroes of mine from 1974 to 1980. I had last met them at the CPO last November. Handshakes with many, hugs with Wobley, Mad Mark, Tuna and Simon.

This was it. This is what we had waited two years for.

Chelsea on tour in America – Mow That Meadow!

I downed a beer and set off with a few friends for the practice at the Ravens Stadium. However, there were massive lines. After treating the locals to ten minutes of Chelsea songs, we decided to head back to the pub. We heard later that it was a bit of an anti-climax…no practice, just some autograph signings. And Milan didn’t even show up. I had my photo taken by the Johnny Unitas statue and headed back to the boozer.

Let the fun begin.

From about 7pm to 3am, we drank and sang, then sang and drank, meeting many many people who I have got to know over the years. We disappeared upstairs and I pinned VINCI PER NOI up on the wall. The Q and A began, but I was too busy drinking and chatting. I think Jock was getting some stick for his views on JT. I left them to it and headed downstairs, where the hardcore were based. For the rest of the evening, I hung out with John ( who disappeared off to bed way too early! ), San Francisco Bob, Detroit Bob, Cathy, Mo, Mad Mark, Simon, Tuna, Cliff, Burger, Julie, Spy, Tommy and Jock…plus a few more at various stages. My good mate Chris ( who I had first met at the DC game in 2005 ) showed up, but we sadly shared only a few minutes. I hope he realised it was manic – I had warned him.

After a while, we trooped over to Pickles, just as the rain started. The fun continued as we took over the bar. The beers continued and someone bought us some shots. I got chatting to Neil Barnett for a while and I haven’t a clue what I said to him. I think that it may have been about Chelsea ( pause for effect…)

There were a bevy of local girls nearby and they seemed to be attracted to our English accents and bizarre selection of Chelsea songs. I was chatting to one girl, who reached up and dabbed her finger below my eye, picking up a loose eyelash.

“Make a wish” she said, looking me in the eyes.

Well, dear reader, I can assure you it wasn’t a wish for Sheva to score twenty goals next season.

Before we knew it, the time had raced by and we had to leave. Julie and Burger had gone back to the hotel a bit before and so the last few standing ( Cathy – always Cathy – the two Bobs and myself ) made our way back to The Sheraton. I got inside the room, noted John spread over the entire bed and so grabbed my CP coat and fell asleep on the floor. ( Apparently Julie had woken up a few times and looked over to see John but not me…she was wondering where I was, wondering perhaps if my wish had come true! )

It had been a superb night. I just wish I could remember more of it. Can anyone fill in the gaps?

I woke at about 8am and soon grabbed an hour more sleep in the bed. The other three went down for breakfast and I showered and changed into my match day gear. As you all know, I usually forego Chelsea gear for a multitude of reasons, but I had been on a diet in order to squeeze into my original 1983 Le Coq Sportif shirt – an homage to that 83-84 season which I have been detailing the past year. I think it looked great as it happens.

I walked over to join Eddie’s tour of Camden Yards, the pristine baseball stadium of the Orioles. A statue of George Herman Ruth greated me. The Babe was a Baltimore native and was born a few blocks away. His father owned a saloon bar whose location was actually situated within the current outfield. That’s just beautiful. Ruth’s first pro team was the original Orioles – who moved and became the New York Highlanders, who became the Yankees. That I had just been in NYC watching the Yankees and the current manifestation of the Orioles seemed to be just perfect.

I enjoyed the tour and I was amazed to see Cathy and Mo in the group. I had seen a Orioles vs. New York game in 1993, the highlight being a Don Mattingly homer into right. We had a lovely group photo in the home dugout. That finished around 12.45pm. Back to P Street and I was suffering with a slight hangover. I had a plate of bangers and mash ( so-so ) but began the day with three cokes. The beers could wait. A few NYBs showed up – lovely to see yet more faces.

I phoned Roma who was driving up from near Asheville in NC. She was still 200 miles away. I went back to the hotel to charge up my camera batteries, then headed over to Pickles once again. I guess this was at about 4pm.

Bob and John, with Andy Wray, were already at the bar and I joined them for a few $2 Bud Lites.

Here the fun began again. Over the next three hours, we had so many laughs. I took my photo album from last season around to show to a load of people. Of course, this was our pub, but there were a few Milan fans too. It was so friendly. Chopper, Mike, Lawson, Elliot, Curtis, Karen, Dave, Layla, Keith, Steve, Carrie, Alan, Napoli Frank and the New York Blues were in fine form.

Of course, we took a few photos of the three “Scores” girls, with celery down their cleavage.

Oh boy – too much!

The beers flowed. I met Brian ( carolinablue ) from NC for the first time – we have been emailing each other since 2006. I explained “celery” to some confused locals. I asked Toxic Tel to do me a countdown for a “Zigger Zagger” and it was hillarious – it went something like this…

” 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 ”

Amidst laughter from all, I did a hearty “Zigger Zagger” and turned purple. I bumped into the two girls from the previous night again and wished I was twenty years younger. The barbecue smoke outside the pub was strong, the music was loud, but the Chelsea songs came thick and fast.

I phoned Roma and she was stuck in traffic…oh dear. Soon the time came around for us to march to the stadium. Off we went, handing out CIA cards to the blue-clad locals. I met up – all too briefly – with my mate Glenn’s uncle Bob from NJ…he is a Southend United fan and I last met him at HQ for the FA Cup game in January.

By the stadium, I handed over some Chelsea flags to a gaggle of American kids in a hospitality tent. I felt, momentarily, like a true ambassador for my club. A lovely feeling.

Massive lines to get in at 7.30pm. Meanwhile, no Roma.

Aaaaarrrrggghhh.

The traffic on I-95 was truly horrendous and I began to wonder if I would get in for the kick-off.

The answer was “no” – I waited and waited, pacing like an expectant father. I noted many people looking for tickets, plus a few scalpers doing business. At 8.07pm, I heard a massive roar and presumed Milan had scored. Eventually, Roma parked up and we met by the Unitas statue at 8.15pm.

A massive sigh of relief. I gave her a big hug.

I last saw her inside the Home Depot Centre after the Galaxy vs. Chelsea game in 2007. And here we were outside the Chelsea vs. Milan game in 2009.

Two years had passed – it seemed like two minutes.

Amidst loads of giggles, we walked around to our seats in the Chelsea section, right in with the NYBs, five rows behind the CIA lot. We got in at 8.20pm – happy with that. And we were 1-0 up. Drogba with a screamer! Almost immediately, I signalled my entrance with another “Zigger Zagger”, then regretted it. I made up for lost time and clicked many photos. I noted the two Chelsea banners on the side balconies – they usually reside at opposite ends of The Bridge on match days. I wonder who brought them over…I presumed they belonged to the CSG. Seedorf equalised, but I missed this one too, my gaze momentarily distracted by some errant celery.

Roma bought me a beer a half-time. I looked around and saw lots of faces, so full of smiles. It was a great feeling to be so far from home, yet so at home.

I really enjoyed this match. Both teams “went for it” and Milan were a tad unlucky really. They hit the bar twice and forced a great reflex save from Petr. My preparations for this trip have been all about the fans, the songs, the friendships. I had overlooked the fact that none other than Ronaldinho, our former nemesis, would be playing for Milan. His shimmy in the second half was stupendous. I was impressed with Zhirkov and it was his calm strike which gave us a 2-1 win. I have to be honest, I found it hard to concentrate on the football. I was forever looking around at the reactions of the locals to our songs and chants.

I see Chelsea every 5 days back home – or at least I did last season – and so my focus in America has always been on the fans, not the team.

I think Roma fell in love with Sheva’s blonde locks. It couldn’t have been his football.

Overall, I think Milan had more fans – maybe more plastics – but we were far more organised. It had been a result on and off the pitch. But still a few niggles remain…

To be blunt, he Chelsea singing was a bit disjointed I felt…yet again, too many fans not singing, clueless…how anyone can go to a footy game and not even join in leaves me befuddled. Three girls took ages to decipher the simple “Super Frank” chant. Is the English accent that strong? I also noted “Carefree” being sung WAY too slow. Still – that apart, it was a hell of an experience and I hope our antics enticed a few more in to The Chelsea Family.

The game ended and I took a deep breath.

In 2004, around 20,000 had seen us play Roma in Pittsburgh. Five years on, a sell out 71,000 had witnessed my team in Baltimore. I could hardly comprehend it. My personal view is that getting to Moscow really took our “brand awareness” up a few notches in America. I also think we are the first club for any sports fans in America who favour “blue” teams ( Chicago Cubs, Michigan, LA Dodgers, NY Giants, etc) and I think this might be a valid reason for our growth in popularity.

We marched slowly back to the centre of town with Burger, Julie and Mark. Unlike the Thursday, this was to be a far more mellow evening. Pickles seemed to be devoid of any “faces” and so we returned to the Ale House amidst a further rain storm.

We sat outside and got stuck into a few more beers. With Roma alongside me, I mused on a few personal things. It had been surreal to see her again ( we were a long-distance “item” from 2001 to 2006 ) and here we were in Baltimore.

What does it all mean?

“Better not contemplate it too much mate, have another beer.”

The residual hard-core ( no Cathy on this occasion ) on that Friday night in Crab Town was San Francisco Bob, Farmer John, Burger, Julie, Detroit Bob, Simon, Cliff, Tuna, myself – and Roma.

The five inhabitants of room 413 – Burger, Julie, John, Roma and myself – slowly meandered back to The Sheraton amidst much merriment. A bearded fellow – “Santa” – walked past and he was serenaded by us all and I thought Julie would pass out with laughter.

Too much fun.

The time reached 3am and Cary invited us up to his room, but the hotel wasn’t prepared for Chelsea On Tour. One guy complained and so we had the quietest ever “Zigger Zagger” which was whispered by Cliff ( aka Alfie Garnett ) and the room was filled with muffled laughter.

After more complaints about “noise”, we eventually called it a day. The sleeping arrangements were sorted out and Farmer John took a spell on the floor.

3.45am – Room 43, The Sheraton, Walton’s Mountain –

“Goodnight Burger.”

“Goodnight Chris.”

“Goodnight Roma.”

“Goodnight Chris.”

“Goodnight Julie.”

“Goodnight Chris.”

“Goodnight Farmer John.”

“Goodnight Chris.”

“MOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Baltimore had been a blast.

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