Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

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

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

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

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

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

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

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

“When are you coming back?”

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

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

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

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

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

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

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

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

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

We were here.

Panic over.

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

But we were never lost.

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

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From Easter Monday

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 22 April 2019.

Sunday, Thursday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday and Easter Bank Holiday Monday. The stretch of non-Saturday games was continuing. After our home game with Burnley, there were at least another five coming up too. Should we get to Baku, it will be a run of twenty-four matches with no Saturday football. It seemed particularly annoying that all other Premier League games were played on Saturday and Sunday. And that our match took place on the Monday evening, with a day of work right on its heels. There was not even the luxury of a three o’clock kick-off.

It was Glenn’s turn to drive and we were on our way at 10am. The reason for the very early start? Well, no surprises, there was a Fulham pub crawl planned. We were slightly surprised by the volume of traffic on the M4, boosted by folk returning to London from the fields and beaches of the West Country. But London was reached in the usual three hours. All four of us have developed an unhealthy interest in the construction of the new Brentford stadium over the past twelve months. As we drove past, high up on the elevated section of the M4, we looked over to check any recent changes. It’s going to be a compact little stadium, each stand different, and a good addition to London football.

We were parked-up near West Kensington. The heat hit us. It was setting up to be a beautiful day in London. The first problem was side-stepped; the District Line was closed over the weekend so we hopped into a cab to take us down to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. This cosy boozer wins our “Pub Of The Year” by some margin. As we pulled up, we spotted Luke and Aroha sitting outside.

“Save us a seat, we’ll be back in a bit.”

Inside, the Jacksonville Five were boosted by an extra member, Steve. And thus the drinking party was set.

Aroha, Luke, Jennifer, Brian, Danny One, Danny Two, Danielle, Steve, Parky, PD, Glenn and some bloke with a camera and a mental notebook.

The Thirsty Dozen.

We quickly came up with a game plan; a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham, and then a few cabs up to “Simmons” at the southern tip of the North End Road to meet the usual suspects.

The story of the weekend was of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United all losing. Tottenham’s 1-0 loss at Manchester City worked well both ways; a win for City in their race for the title and no points for Tottenham. It was, perhaps, expected. The other two results – proper miracles on Easter Day – were not anticipated; Everton beat United 4-0 and Palace won 3-2 against Arsenal in North London. A win against Burnley in the evening, after a lovely pub crawl, would be the perfect end to the footballing weekend.

We live in a place called Hope.

The game would be Chelsea match number one thousand, two-hundred and fifty for the bloke with a camera and a mental notebook. From Saturday 16 March 1974 to Monday 22 April 2019, I have made a record of all of them.

Some milestones –

Game 1 : 16 March 1974 – Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

Game 250 : 7 September 1996 – Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday

Game 500 : 8 August 2004 – Chelsea vs. Real Zaragoza

Game 750 : 15 September 2009 – Chelsea vs. Porto

Game 1,000 : 14 August 2014 – Burnley vs. Chelsea

Game 1,250 : 22 April 2019 – Chelsea vs. Burnley

I could suck out all sorts of data and statistics from all of these games, but a particular favourite of mine is that by the end of my fifteenth season of support (Game 117 : 28 May 1988 – Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough) the player that I had seen more than any other was Pat Nevin, my favourite-ever Chelsea player. And that date, that horrible game, marked Pat’s last-ever appearance for Chelsea Football Club.

81 starts, all wearing that number seven shirt, plus two substitute appearances.

83 out of 117 games.

In the summer of that horrible summer of 1988, I wrote to Pat – thanking him for his services – and I was so elated when he took the time to write back to me.

Meeting him in Moscow in 2008, another horrible game, was magical.

Cheers Wee Pat.

In fact, I found myself checking out some Pat Nevin rarities over the previous week or so.

Here’s a few gems :

1987 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIy7K2xMHjI&fbclid=IwAR1LAcchmu8Ub96RZbuLXM6Wy7Jk8aPDF9C43TfqMQG-JL7dA85c3sfhLJk

1989 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFChBeYhoso&fbclid=IwAR3t__j_DjNmhzVWh00Z5YCDAk6s1P-3jhQ1QILxD1rfCE5sUCMtviVWGOk

2015 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAETjZMOSq0&fbclid=IwAR3g_pr6NMuD9CS5eu9mq2F8ct7LGo363hWXVEVdv3QGq77oMP1-J7CkyS8

Having spent a good deal of time with Aroha and Luke in Kiev, European adventures were not far away from our minds. We spoke, inevitably of Frankfurt and Baku. Over the weekend, Parky and PD finalised their plans for Frankfurt. On many occasions, friends have often said to me that they live vicariously through these match reports, but in a couple of weeks’ time I will be living vicariously through Parky and PD.

Our American visitors were thoroughly enjoying their stay in London. Banter was soon flying around. It’s great to hear and see some fresh perspectives about Chelsea Football Club. There was even time for a very quick chat with Jennifer and Brian about our predilection for some staples of terrace fashion – a crash course in casualdom – rather than Chelsea favours.

We moved on to “The King’s Arms” – just around the corner – and I changed from pints of “Grolsch” to bottles of “Peroni.” Glenn, bless him, was imbibing a heady mix of coffees, orange juices and “Cokes.” Both pubs were pretty quiet to be honest. We ended up over the road in “The Temperance”, a roomy bar which used to be a billiards hall in days long ago. Time was moving on. We then jumped into some sherbet dabs – a little bit of rhyming slang for you, Danny One – and ended-up at “Simmons.”

There was talk of foreign travel further afield this time. Andy and Gary collared me and asked if I was planning on going to Japan in the summer. The quick answer was “no” although once I realised that we are now playing two games in Japan – in Tokyo and Saitama – I did momentarily look at options. But no, Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was exceptional. That visit could never be beaten. Talk moved to the following season. Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck has recently dropped some heavy hints that we would be returning to the US in 2020.

Andy, who is a big Elvis fan, told me “if we are going, we are going with you Chris. You can be our travel agent. I want us to play in Memphis.”

“Uh-huh.”

In the first pub, Jennifer had asked me which city in the US would I like to see us play.

“New Orleans would be good.”

If Chelsea Football Club do return to the US for a fully-fledged US tour (I am not going to the game in Boston next month), it would be my twentieth trip across the pond.

Number 20 in 2020.

That has a nice ring to it, eh?

On the façade of the West Stand, there were large displays of a few of our players advertising Beats headphones. With his musical background, Wee Pat should have been involved alongside Rudi, Eden and Ross. His musical column in the 2018/19 match day programme mirrors that of his column in the inaugural “Bridge News” of the mid-‘eighties.

Inside, there were more empty seats dotted around than usual.

Burnley, essentially needing a point for guaranteed safety, were to be watched by around 1,500.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

I honestly think that Sarri regards Higuain and Giroud in the same way that Ron Greenwood regarded Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence in the late ‘seventies. In one game, out the next.

It was a warm and sultry evening in SW6.

And a quintessential game of two halves for sure.

There was early pressure from us, with our wide men getting behind their defenders in wide positions in front of the Burnley contingent on the left and Parkyville – where the Jax 6 were watching – on the right. There was a rifled shot from Eden Hazard straight at Tom Heaton, then a lob from Gonzalo Higuain that was hoofed off the line.

However, on eight minutes we conceded a corner and the long ball to the far post was headed back into a dangerous area by Dave. It fell invitingly towards a spare Burnley man. Jeff Hendrick volleyed it straight through a scrum of players and Kepa was well beaten. Well, Chelsea – that was bloody marvellous.

Four minutes later, some textbook jinking from Hazard, with one defender on his arse, resulted in a pull-back from the bye-line towards N’Golo Kante. His sweet strike, high into the net, meant that we were right back in the game.

And then two minutes after, some equally pleasing passing inside their box involving Jorginho, Higuain and Azpiliceta – a subtle flick – resulted in Higuain lashing the ball high past the Burnley ‘keeper and into the net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

While I was up celebrating, I just happened to glance behind me and I couldn’t help but spot around five or six fellow season ticket holders sitting, hardly clapping, nor moving.

“Oh right.”

But how the players celebrated. They raced over to the south-west corner. The flags waved. The crowd roared. Lovely.

This was an open game of football. But my camera was working faster than my mental notebook, dulled by the alcoholic intake of the previous six hours. Our Ruben fancied his chances with a curler from just outside the box but it didn’t have quite enough dip. Sadly, on twenty-five minutes, a free-kick to Burnley was lumped towards our back post again. My camera caught the flight of the ball, the header back from Ben Mee – a free header, Ruben was all over the place – and the flick-on from Chris Wood. Ashley Barnes volleyed the ball in from close range with our defence ball watching. Not one defender had picked-up Barnes, zonal defending my arse. There was – of course – not one player on the back post. My next photo was of the Burnley players celebrating in a close huddle.

Bollocks.

I thought Italian managers were known for their defensive nous.

It was 2-2 and the mood changed a little. But we kept going. There were long shots. Hazard blasted over from an angle. Higuain was narrowly wide. Emerson and Hudson-Odoi were getting space out on our flanks. Sadly, our Callum was injured just before half-time. Pedro replaced him. He forced a save from Heaton, who had just been booked for time-wasting. Thankfully, Burnley had very few forays into our half.

It was level at the break. It had been, at the start especially, a pretty good performance. But it was all about three points. And I was far from convinced. How “typical Chelsea” for us to balls it all up.

As the second-half began, we saw that Mateo Kovacic had replaced Kante. Our spirits fell a little.

Pedro fed Higuain who forced Heaton to get down quickly. Soon after, Hazard dribbled and set up Kovacic. Here was another shot that worried the spectators behind the goal rather than the Burnley goalkeeper. On the hour, a rasper from Emerson flashed wide of the far post. But our attacking play lacked much cohesiveness. The crowd grew frustrated with our play and also with the deliberate time-wasting and “agricultural” challenges from the away team. All eyes were on Hazard, but his path was often unscrupulously blocked. Space was a premium. As so often happens this season, our opponents were so happy to sit deep and for us to pass ourselves to oblivion. I am not sure about a heat map, but Jorginho was so often involved in the middle of the park that his position was like those tube maps with a “you are here” sign which has been worn out by thousands of grubby fingers. The problem was that there were line closures in all directions, not just the District Line.

“You are advised to seek an alternative route”

But no route was forthcoming. And all the ubers were otherwise engaged.

Burnley’s attacks were still rare. Our attacks dried up too. Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain. Big surprise, eh?

Frustrations grew and grew, it became an ill-tempered game of football. It was hard to believe that Heaton was Burnley’s sole booking. We heard that the manager had been sent to the stands. On the walk back to the car, I tried to be as philosophical as I could.

“Hey, three games left. We’re still in it.”

Our next game, on Sunday afternoon, is at Old Trafford where we play the second-best team in Manchester.

I will see you there.

Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

Qarabag vs. Chelsea : 22 November 2017.

Sandwiched between two Saturday away league games at West Bromwich and Liverpool was a European away game that had tantalised myself – and many others – ever since the Champions League draw way back in August. Our game in Baku in Azerbaijan against Qarabag represented Chelsea Football Club’s longest ever trip for a UEFA game. Only the two games in the World Club Championships in 2012 in Yokohama, Japan – FIFA not UEFA – were further away from our home in SW6, with friendlies on the west coast of the US, South America and Australia not included.

On the evening of the draw, I booked myself onto an Aeroflot flight to Baku, via Moscow, and it soon became apparent that many good friends had decided to travel too. Only a few were going direct. Most had decided to go via Istanbul, but a fair few had chosen the Moscow route.

I had missed the last minute drama of the Michy Batshuayi winner in Madrid, but was there in Rome five weeks ago to see us lose 3-0. Bizarrely, Qarabag’s draw in Madrid that night dampened the pain of that loss to Roma. A win in Baku would see us through to the knock-out phase. It added a little drama – if it was needed – to this most lengthy of adventures.

Did this trip need a little drama to add a certain piquancy?

I was in two minds.

I have recently begun reading a book written by the revered Paul Theroux – “The Deep South” – which details his travels, experiences and insights of that fabled sub-section of the United States. In one of the first chapters, he details how travel books often engineer some sort of false logistical conflict in order to add a degree of tension and drama to the narrative. I have often thought that this was true of television travel documentaries – probably my favourite type of TV programme if I am honest – and I lay the blame solely at the feet of Michael Palin. His ground-breaking “Around The World In Eighty Days” travelogue from 1988 was enjoyable but there were endless “will I catch the correct plain/train/coach/car?” scenarios which I could not help but think were added to give the series an extra edge and a sense of danger.

Theroux was having none of this and it struck a chord. Certainly travelling within the US – he was to drive by car from the small towns of the Carolinas, through Appalachia and down to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico – there was surely no recognisable conflict. He was wealthy, he owned a good car, the fuel was cheap, the roads were wide and easy to navigate. There was no need to add any drama to his movement through the area.

However, on the day before I was set to leave for Baku, my friend Dutch Mick reported of a nightmarish experience in Moscow. He was not allowed on the waiting plane to take him to Baku. Then, once arrived in Baku – ten hours late – his son had paperwork issues with his Azerbaijani visa and had to wait for a new application, but there were subsequent issues with that too. I was then horrified to read that he commented that Aeroflot often cancel flights to Baku without any notice.

“Oh bollocks.”

Of course there are always usual worries linked to foreign travel – those horrid doubts about having neglected to pack that all important passport, visa, credit card – but as I left work on the Monday, I remembered how one friend had lost both his passport and wallet and another pal had lost his passport in Rome. Then came this extra worry of cancelled flights. I had no margin for error; my flight was only getting in to Baku at 5am on the day of the game. It is fair to say that I felt myself remembering Paul Theroux’ comments about enforced conflicts with a wry smile.

I hoped that the only conflict within this particular edition of my travels with Chelsea would be result-related and not due to any logistical snafu.

The English portion of the trip began well. I set off from my home in Somerset at 9am. At just after midday, I had parked my car in my friend Nick’s driveway in the small Berkshire town of Twyford. Although Nick has been going to Chelsea since that horrible relegation season of 1978/79, our paths have only recently crossed; in China of all places. We were over in Beijing for the Arsenal friendly in July. The Aeroflot flight took us out of London via Gatwick but back in via Heathrow; by parking at his place, potential problems from the English section of the trip were smoothed.

Nick’s wife was able to take us to Wokingham train station, from where we caught the hour long train to Gatwick. On that train journey, Nick and myself chatted relentlessly about our travels around Europe with Chelsea. Interestingly, our team’s performances were rarely mentioned; the buzz was all about foreign cities, unbelievable itineraries, excessive beer intakes, endless laughs and various “characters” that we both knew, of which Chelsea has many. Nick was full of tales and many brought a smile to my face.

He began one story by shaking his head and uttering the immortal words “I was sure I told her.”

One day, Nick received a text from his wife asking if he could pick up his son David from school in the afternoon as she would be busy with work.

He replied –

“I can’t. I’m in Bucharest.”

And he was, for our 2013 Europa League game. Classic.

Bearing this story in mind, plus a few others that reinforced the notion that Nick was as “football daft” as myself, I recalled the look that Nick’s wife gave me when I shook her hand back in Twyford.

“Here’s another bloody idiot.”

This would be my thirty-second trip abroad with Chelsea for a UEFA game. I was able to delve into a few of my personal memories. Off the top of my head, a top ten would be Munich 2012, Tel Aviv 2015, Turin 2009, Stockholm 1998, Barcelona 2012, Seville 1998, Lisbon 2014, Vienna 1994, Istanbul 2014 and Prague 1994.

There was time for a couple of pints at Gatwick. On the four-hour flight to Moscow, there were around twenty other Chelsea supporters. I wondered how many tickets we had sold; I hoped for at least one thousand.

Ah Moscow, bloody Moscow. After the memories of that damp and depressing evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, I swore never to return. But returning I was, and to the same Sheremetyevo airport too, although the Aeroflot terminal, built in 2010, was vastly superior to the now demolished northern terminal that we used in 2008. There was time for a few beers – Spaten, ah Munich – using some of Nick’s roubles from the Rubin Kazan game in 2013; the surly barman reminded me of the welcome we had from the locals on my only previous visit. Although it was around 11pm, all of the retail outlets were open – manned by bored shop assistants staring blankly at their mobile phones – and I was again reminded of how pervasive US commercial activity has proven to be; “Victoria’s Secret” and “Burger King” among others were peddling their wares in deepest Russia. A gaggle of Maribor players returning to Slovenia after their game against Spartak Moscow brushed past us. An enthusiastic Chelsea fan from Munich regaled us of his train trip from Southern Germany to Moscow for the 2008 Final; sixty hours there, sixty hours back. Suddenly Baku did not seem so far away.

I caught a little sleep on the Moscow to Baku leg. We touched down at bang on 5am. Outside, the night, everything dark and mysterious. We were quickly through the passport and visa check; “phew.” I exchanged some sterling for the local currency. The terminal was eerily quiet. A line of white taxi cabs was parked outside and the drivers seemed a little ambivalent to us. Eventually, we knocked back one driver who wanted 60 manat and finally negotiated a 25 manat cab into the city; this translated to around £12.

It was a quiet cab ride into town. We were both tired. The road was devoid of traffic. We wondered what was lying in wait. Baku seemed a beguiling city from afar. Soon, the cab driver took us straight past the oddly-named Olympic Stadium (I must have missed that one), which certainly reminded myself of the Allianz Arena in Munich; adjacent to the main road in to the city from the airport, and encased in a plastic skin. It looked stunning. The game would kick-off in fifteen hours. As the cab took us deep into the city, the buildings became more impressive.

Back in 2014, the furniture company for whom I work sent around seventy articulated trailers of workstations, chairs and storage cabinets to the city of Baku. We kitted out the twenty-five stories of the impressive Socar Tower. It was a huge project. Socar is the state-owned oil and gas company. Within ten minutes of landing in Azerbaijan, I had spotted my first Socar petrol station. As the cab neared our final destination in the city centre, not far from the promenade which overlooks the Caspian Sea, I was able to spot a large building bearing the name of the furniture installation company – Palitra – who were involved in the project. It brought a shudder; due to the intricacies of the export documentation required for exporting into Azerbaijan, which were an added burden to my already busy workload, the Socar project represented the most stressful time in my working life. I was certainly relieved when the tower was fully furnished and open for business. I so hoped to be able to set eyes on the tower, which is in the shape of a flickering flame, during my thirty-five hours in the city.

At about 6.30am, the cab driver deposited us right in the heart of Baku; Nick’s hotel was a few yards from the city’s “Hard Rock Café.”

My hotel – where my mates Alan and Gary, plus it would transpire, a few others – was not far away but the room was not ready until 2pm, so I crashed on the hard wooden floor of Nick’s hotel room for a couple of hours. At around 10am, I set off to collect my match ticket at the Grand Hotel, which was around a twenty-minute walk away. A Chelsea fan pointed me in the right direction. I wasn’t prepared for the very strong winds which blew leaves up off the roads and pavements. My bag on wheels thudded on the cobbled streets which lead up a slight hill. During those first few moments, my eyes were on stalks, taking it all in. I was impressed with the architecture; strong and formidable. I walked past small shops…clothes shops, fast food joints, small and intimate. The Grand Hotel was on a busy intersection. The cars flew down the hill but I soon noticed that, although lights were absent, cars always stopped once pedestrians stepped on to the zebra crossings.

My match ticket collected – 10 manat, or £4.50 – I was unsure what to do. Alan and Gary were on their way to the collection point too, but my phone was playing up. I decided to head back in to town, and soon spotted a Chelsea fan, Scott, sitting in a café on Fountain Square with another supporter. I joined him for a coffee. Outside, they were setting up stalls for a German-style market. A large Christmas tree overlooked the pale blue huts. Nearby were large KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds restaurants. The shops and eateries in this central square seemed very westernised. It reminded me of a small German city. Scott had arrived on the Tuesday; I soon wished that I had done the same.

And I was in a slight quandary. I was well aware that the city’s beers were cheap and the bars welcoming and plentiful. But I was sleep-deficient and I had a long day ahead. I wanted to see something of the city. I didn’t want to be tired and drowsy for the football. I wanted to be up relatively early on the Thursday for more sight-seeing. I pondered my options.

I imagined that if I chose to drop my bag at the hotel room and dive into some bars, my destiny might career out of my hands.

The risk of cheap alcohol was real.

I imagined myself stood next to a wheel of fortune and it spinning around, with an array of worrying options.

  1. Drink too much too early and – without food – become a burden, and manage to lose my wallet and match ticket.
  2. Drink too much, spend too much, lose debit card at an ATM, go back to hotel, sponge money off mates and get to game late.
  3. Drink too much and end up in a bar in the wrong part of town and struggle to get to the game in time.
  4. Drink too much, vomit over my jeans, end up in a dishevelled mess in a shop doorway.
  5. Drink too much, get on the metro, take the wrong train, end up miles from anywhere.
  6. Drink too much, simply go back to the hotel, miss seeing my mates, fall asleep, comatose.
  7. Drink too much, drop my camera, get annoyed, head back to the hotel room to charge up my phone/camera, fall asleep and miss game.
  8. Drink too much, fall asleep, wake up on Friday.
  9. Drink too little, but still get lost en route to the game, get in late.
  10. Drink too much and end up supporting Tottenham.

I decided in the circumstances to play it cool. I had drunk enough in Rome. This would be a chilled-out trip.

A young lad approached me on Fountain Square and interviewed me for either a) an Azerbaijan TV station, audience 5,000,000 or b) his YouTube channel, audience 7.

I briefly spoke about Chelsea, Qarabag and the city. Oh well, I knew about one of the three topics.

I reached the hotel, which was centrally-located on a pedestrianised shopping street with a mixture of local and Western brands. Above there were apartments with balconies. They love their balconies in Baku. Luckily, I was allowed into my room early at around midday. I hooked up my wifi; Alan had messaged me to say that he and Gary were out and about.

I slept, fitfully – I think I was too excited – and then went off on a personal tour of Baku for two and-a-half hours. I headed straight down to the promenade. I passed many high-end shops; Burberry, Boss, Lacoste. The wind was still howling. I crossed the busy road – used by the cars on the F1 circuit – and walked down to the steps which were being buffeted by a few small waves from the slate grey Caspian Sea. To the east were cranes, with new building development visible. To the west, the three flame towers dominated the vista, and they towered over the city. Beyond was the spindle of a TV tower. I headed up the hill – more impressive buildings, the warm yellow stone reminded of the Cotswolds – and edged around the walls of the old town. I dipped inside – I would return, I hoped, at length on the Thursday – and decided on a local meal. Just inside one of the gates, there is a row of around four wooden huts which house ridiculously small and intimate restaurants. Brian and Kev – the Bristol lot – spotted me and we chatted; the luck buggers had been in town since Monday.

I entered a small hut – a massive stone oven was right by the door – and the place was full of the atmospheric smoke from the wood which was being incinerated. I sat in a corner, the wind howling outside and rattling the windows, and ordered the national specialty – “plov” – which consisted of lightly scented boiled rice, tender lamb, tomato, onion and a small flat dumpling. Along with a huge slab of bread and a bottle of the local Xirdalan beer, it came to a mighty 12 manat or around £6. There was only one other person in my little section; a local man of around seventy years of age. I wondered what his life story involved. What was his history? I wonder if he had heard of Chelsea.

I took a leisurely walk back to the hotel, the night falling all around me.

I spotted a lone Chelsea fan. I was the first fellow-fan that he had seen all day. His travelogue was beset with “conflict”; he had been stuck in a two-hour traffic snarl-up in his home town and only just made the first of his two flights out to Baku. On the second flight, one of the passengers died. Bloody hell.

At around 6.30pm, Alan, Gary and myself – plus Pete and Nick – caught a cab to the stadium. The roads were full. Not long into the thirty-minute trip, Nick spotted that there were nine lanes of traffic, all going north. To our left, I spotted the magnificent Socar Tower, with the blue, green and red flames of the company logo flickering on the outside. It was a mightily impressive sight, at present the tallest in Baku.

The wind was blowing even stronger on the wide open approach to the stadium. I unravelled “VINCI PER NOI” and posed with it, making sure to grip it tight. I had visions of it flying off into the night.

There was a security check – bags through X-ray machines, a pat-down – and the surprisingly friendly police examined my banner for a few moments. It was allowed in. As there was an hour to kick-off, I left the others to enter, and I walked all of the way around the impressive stadium. It was certainly impressive alright. Towards our northern side, the light panels were dappled pink, orange and red, like a Cocteau Twins album. During the day, in the city, I had not seen a single Qarabag shirt or scarf. And yet there was an expected 67,000 sell-out expected. I had the distinct impression that the locals were jumping on this and treating it like a match involving a quasi-national team. Qarabag – exiled from a town that simply does not exist anymore in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of western Azerbaijan – usually play in a smaller stadium in Baku, but were playing this season’s Champions League games in this much bigger Olympic Stadium.

Inside, I made my way up to section 307. The lads had saved me a spot in the very front row. The stadium was marvelous, a photogenic delight. Three tiered on two sides, with two tiers behind the goals, it was fully encased. The athletics track meant that we were long way from the pitch, but it just felt like a proper stadium. It had its own design. Its own feel. Its own identity. The thousands of light jade seats soon filled. We spotted Dutch Mick a few rows behind us.

Down below us, a small knot of Qarabag supporters were in early, enthusiastically flying a few blue and white flags, and singing all sorts of songs. Throughout the game, many of them would be faced away from the pitch, encouraging others to sing. Football fans are a varied breed. Below us to our left, a gaggle of supporters wearing red were spotted. Maybe supporters of another team. If my prediction was right, this was a proper gathering of various clans.

The Chelsea team was displayed on the huge screens.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

So, no Alvaro Morata. I envisaged the front three swarming with pace at the Qarabag back line.

Just before the game began, we were treated to a cheesy Qarabag club anthem, and then the spectators in the huge stand to our left unveiled a couple of banners amid a sea of mosaics.

“FAR WAY FROM HOME BUT WHERE YOU BELONG.”

The stadium lit up with mobile phones being held aloft in the home areas, then the anthem and the teams. As the game started, a little rain fell. My jacket was warm but others were struggling. The home team in all black. Chelsea in dirty white.

In the first few moments, we started on the front foot but were soon shocked by a couple of Qarabag attacks. We watched in horror as the home team sliced through our defence like a hot knife through butter. The shot from Michel slammed against our crossbar with the defenders looking on aghast. Thankfully, the rebound was well wide. It was a real warning sign for sure. A fine block from Dave followed.

A header from David Luiz flew over the Qarabag bar. On twenty minutes, Eden Hazard pushed a ball through for Willian. As he advanced into the box, he was slightly nudged by a Qarabag defender. Down he went. The referee pointed to the spot and to be honest we were so far away that I was not so sure that the push had taken place inside the box. Next, the referee sent off the Qarabag defender, their captain Sadygov. The home fans were in uproar and I could see why. It seemed a soft penalty, and my eyes saw a covering defender too. Regardless, Eden rolled the penalty home.

Alan : “İndi onlar bizə gəlmək məcburiyyətində qalacaqlar.”

Chris : “mənim kiçik brilyantlar.”

Boos boomed around the stadium.

We were in control now. Pedro was busy. A Hazard header was straight at their ‘keeper. The Chelsea fans – officially 912 – struggled to make much noise but one song joined us all together.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, Willian combined beautifully with Hazard. Willian ran at the defence, played a ball to Hazard, who back-heeled the ball back to Willian. He stroked the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Game over? It certainly felt like it. Apart from that initial flurry in the first few minutes of the game, Qarabag had been no threat whatsoever. At half-time, thousands upon thousands of home fans – maybe not bona fide Qarabag supporters per se – left the stadium.

The temperatures dropped further as the second-half began. A few Chelsea supporters were spotted drinking pints of lager in the seats behind me; authentic too, not non-alcoholic. In this part of UEFA’s kingdom, normal rules apparently do not apply. Chelsea looked to increase the score and were in control. Pedro went close. Antonio replaced Marcos Alonso with Gary Cahill. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from the Qarabag keeper but was then replaced by Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard himself went very close to scoring, just staying onside but just steering his shot wide. The offside trap worked in Qarabag’s favour as a ball from Willian was touched on by Pedro to Azpilicueta. However, Dave had just wandered into an offside position; the resultant cross and goal from Morata was wiped off.

On seventy-three minutes, another weak penalty in my eyes; a slight tug from a defender brought Willian down. A few old-fashioned looks were exchanged in the away section. Cesc Fabregas needed two attempts to score, but score he did.

So, two pretty weak penalties and a sending-off in or favour. The tiresome Chelsea / UEFA conspiracy theorists might need a rethink.

Danny Drinkwater replaced N’Golo.

With five minutes to go, Willian – the man of the night – shimmied and stroked the ball to his right, making space. His fine shot thundered past the ‘keeper.

Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4

We were kept in for around thirty minutes. A gaggle of maybe fifteen Chelsea fans from Iraq – resplendent in Chelsea replica shirts, how quaint – appeared down below us, with a large banner. I bumped into Brian from Chicago right at the end; from one windy city to another, his trip was surely the longest of the night.

Outside, the gales were howling, but thankfully subsided as we walked around the stadium before catching a metro back to the centre. In our compartment, around six or seven local Chelsea fans were singing songs, if a little out of tune. I guess that there had been little pockets of non-UK based Chelsea fans dotted around the stadium. I would like to think that these took our total to over one thousand. Though I am sure some Chelsea fans would argue that these fans don’t count.

Back to Fountain Square at 12.30am, a kebab, and bed.

For a few lovely hours the following day – Thursday – I spent my time walking around the compact old town. It was a relaxing and chilled-out time. I walked to the top of Maiden Tower which offered fine views of the city, which rises quite dramatically from the shore of the Caspian Sea. I bumped into a few Chelsea fans, all heading back on the same 4.10pm flight as myself.

Down below, within a few square yards, various locals were going about their daily routines. Traders were setting their stalls up for passing custom – honey, confectionery, drinks, cakes, pots and pans, rugs, souvenirs – while four men were standing over a backgammon board, and making a considerable noise as they slapped the pieces down. A couple of young back-packers walked past. A model – ridiculously thin and with over-the-top make-up – was being photographed on one of the dusty streets, while three others waited their turn. Large wooden balconies towered over the scene before me. One of the flame towers peaked from a distance. Cars reversed with meticulous care along narrow streets. Space was at a premium. There was a call to prayer in a local Mosque.

This was Baku.

I darted inside a large restaurant. The friendly waitress guided me through the menu. The waiter looked like Andy Kaufman. I decided on stuffed aubergines, a salad, some lamb wrapped in vine leaves, another Xirdalan.

It was time to call it a day.

I met up with Nick and his mate James outside the Hard Rock Café. They sunk their beers and at 1.30pm we took a cab back to the airport. We had loved our short stay in Baku. It is a horrible cliché to say that the city is a city of contrasts. But it is both an ancient and increasingly modern city. If I was return in ten years, there is no doubt that I would witness a very different one. Oil rich and punching above its weight, Baku will surely become inundated with even more startling architecture as the years pass. A substantial area is already being built to the east of the city. I so hope that the very friendly locals don’t change for the worst.

We caught our flight to Moscow. We were homeward bound.

However, deep in the bowels of Sheremetyevo airport, for around thirty minutes, things became rather tense. I was at the back of the queue at the transfer desk, but did not recognise anyone from our flight. All of the signs were in Cyrillic text. Had I missed an announcement while I took two minutes to powder my nose in the gents? I was not sure of the time in Moscow. My mood grew dark.

Our flight was at 7.50pm. Our boarding time was 7.10pm.

I spotted a woman’s watch. It said 6pm. Phew.

“Is it six o’clock?”

“No, seven o’clock.”

With that, I pushed my way to the front of the transfer desk to force my way through. I looked to my right and around ten Chelsea fans were doing the same. An unsmiling Russian woman stamped my passport and I had made it.

“Thank fuck for that.”

That was enough conflict and drama for me thank you very much.

We landed at Heathrow at 9pm and I was soon hurtling along the M4. It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.

Over to you Qarabag.

Tales From A Night Of Adulation

Chelsea vs. Galatasaray : 18 March 2014.

This was a long day. I was up at 4.45am in order to do a rare 6am to 2pm shift at work. I collected Lord Parky, sorted a few priorities out at home and then set off for London at 4pm. We were beset with the usual traffic problems on nearing London. While others were already enjoying pre-match liveners in The Goose, Lord Parky and his designated driver were battling the M4 motorway. Just after 7pm, we made it into the pub. These midweek jaunts to HQ don’t get any easier. No drinks for me, but I believe Parky wolfed down a couple.

So, was this game all about the returning hero Didier Drogba?

At times, it certainly felt like it.

I tried to focus on the game.

With a little more composure in front of goal out in Istanbul – the story of our season, surely – this Champions League tie would have been over before this second-leg. In truth – although I wasn’t underestimating the threat of Galatasaray, blah, blah, blah – I was positive about our chances. I hadn’t seen too much to worry me in the away leg.

So – Didier Drogba.

What to say? As I have stated before, in many ways I wouldn’t have objected too much if the precious moments of Didier Drogba scoring that header and that penalty in Munich were the last memories that I would have of our former goal scorer and club icon on a football pitch.

What pure moments they were.

As we all know, the Chelsea faithful were given one last chance to see Didier back at his former stomping ground. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it? For those unable to witness our win in Munich live, it would be churlish of anyone to deny them this last chance to say a simple “thank you Didi.” However, as I thought about this game during the preceding few days, I was very aware of Didier’s chequered past in the colours of Chelsea Football Club. For every game where his brutal strength and sheer determination won us countless games, there were games where he sulked and pouted. For every thunderous header, there was the laughable dive after the merest hint of contact. For every smile, there was a scowl. As my mate Daryl said in an exchange towards the end of the 2004-2005 season, “no player has split the Chelsea support over recent years as Didier Drogba.”

And how right he was.

In those first couple of seasons, Drogba was on one hand a laughing stock (a commentator once wondered why a footballer with the physique of a heavyweight boxer could fall to the ground after the slightest of challenges like a ballerina) and on one hand a hero. In those first two years, our number 15 was the conundrum. Then, something happened. From season 2006-2007 on, our number 15 became our number 11 and his attitude visibly improved. The theatrics and the risible play-acting decreased. Instead, all of his energies were channelled towards improving his contribution to the team. The change was magnificent. What was the cause of this? I do not know. However, I have always suspected that John Terry took him out for an evening meal, just the two of them, and a few home truths were shared.

“Didi – you have the chance to be the best striker in world football. You have all the gifts. You have strength, power, speed, touch, energy. Please stop the diving. It is hurting the team. Please stop the histrionics. Please stop the pettiness. Let’s move forward together.”

From 2006-2007, we all noticed a change. The following two years – ironically, with no championships – there was a widening appreciation of Didier. We warmed to him. He gave his all. He became easier to like. Good times.

And then there was Moscow.

Moscow could have been the end of Didier Drogba at Chelsea. I wasn’t the only one who tussled with some mixed up emotions after his selfish implosion against Manchester United in the rain of the Luzhniki Stadium. There were many who wanted to more of him besmirching our name and sabotaging team morale. After John Terry’s penalty miss on that night, one can only wonder what one-to-one chat took place in the changing room that night. Maybe it’s best that we don’t know. With time, Drogba eventually worked his way back into most of our collective hearts. But, no doubt, for some the bridge had been burned. There would be approval of his goals, but no love for the person. Even as recently as the 2011-2012 season, Drogba was serving up a mixed-bag of performances. There was the prima donna one week, the hero the next. There was a general consensus of Drogba being “a big game player.” The Wembley games came and the Wembley goals were scored.

And then there was Munich.

Munich embellished the legend, and maybe the myth, of Drogba. That game alone cemented his place in our history.  Although there were other stellar performances on that momentous night, it was all about Didier.

The equalising header. The foul for the penalty. The match-winning penalty.

His city. His stadium. His cup.

And now it was our chance to say, despite all of his flaws –

“Thank you.”

For those of us who were lucky enough to see the game in Istanbul, we had already experienced that odd sensation of seeing Didier playing against us. And it was strange. To be honest, his performance that night was hardly the stuff of legend; he was kept subdued by our Chelsea defenders. A similar performance at Stamford Bridge would be just fine.

Inside the stadium, it was a riot of colour. The three thousand away fans in the allotted section– brightly clad in Galatasaray orange and red – were surely augmented by thousands of London-based Turks in the home areas. Even before the entrance of the teams, they were bellowing their support. Scarves were lofted – with the names of their two main ultra groups in addition to the team name – and the bouncing began. As is so often the case for European home games, the away fans were going to be as much the focus of my attention as the players on the pitch. We had all been given the usual blue and white flags and these were waved with gusto during “Blue Is The Colour.”  Not by me though; I was too busy pointing my camera through 360 degrees.

The teams entered the pitch. And I have to admit it; all eyes were on Didier. I was happy that I captured the moment that Didier spotted the orange “Drogba Legend” banner, now repositioned in the MHU, and pointed in appreciation. As the teams lined up, the evocative CL anthem echoed around the stadium’s four packed stands. Then, to my left, a new flag…a massive square of royal blue, with the Europa / UEFA Cup picked out in white…it was draped down into the MHL. Then, far away in the opposite corner, the Champions  League / European Cup trophy.

The twin trophies.

Fantastic.

I trust that there will be one coming soon to commemorate Athens and Stockholm too.

The holy trinity.

As the game began, I was relaxed. There was no real fear of us exiting from the competition amid scenes of embarrassment and dismay. There were no frayed nerves. After just four minutes, we took the lead. Neat play from Eden Hazard found Oscar and the ball was played in to Samuel Eto’o. Our striker took just one touch before slamming the ball past the Galatasaray ‘keeper Muslera. Eto’o ran off, gleefully smiling, with The Shed in rapture. A few celebratory leaps and he was then mobbed by his team mates.

“Samuel Eto’o, Samuel Eto’o – Hello, Hello.”

We were up 2-1. Surely there was no way that we’d mess this up.

I was very content with our performance as the first-half progressed. We chased loose balls, put our opponents under pressure and moved the ball intelligently. Galatasaray were quiet. As they were attacking the Matthew Harding, that man Drogba came under scrutiny, but his involvement was minimal. An optimistic overhead kick and a skybound free-kick were the sum of his efforts.

A free-kick from the right by Frank Lampard was met by John Terry, whose perfectly-timed run had surprised us all. Sadly his fine volley narrowly flew over the bar. Of all JT’s goals, most have been close headers and prods from inside the six yard box. We await his first screamer.

Just before the break, a corner from Frank Lampard was again met by a free-running John Terry. His header was saved, but Gary Cahill was on hand to smash the ball in to the roof of the net.

2-0 Chelsea.

More celebrations in front of The Shed. Great stuff. We relaxed a little further.

At the break, the much-loved Tore Andre Flo toured the Stamford Bridge pitch and he received a particularly warm reception. His indiscretion of playing a handful of games for Leeds United has been forgotten. It was great to see him again.

As the second-half began, it was the Galatasaray fans who were – sadly – making all of the noise. They were indeed quite a sight. Rhythmic bouncing, shrill whistling, fervent chanting – they had it all. A quite mesmeric run from Eden Hazard, reminiscent of a piss-taking dribble from Pat Nevin in his prime, went on forever, but the final pass to Oscar was ill-judged. His shot was saved. For a while, the Chelsea crowd were quiet. Then, for no apparent reason except for perhaps the humiliation of being out sung yet again, the home support awoke from its stupor and produced an unexpected and very solid display for a good fifteen minute period.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea – and Leicester.

We all follow the Chelsea.

On to victory.”

A Frank Lampard header from an Oscar cross proved to be one of only a few chances that we carved out. I felt that we were playing within ourselves; why not? Galatasaray were clearly one of the poorest teams we had seen in the latter stages of Europe’s biggest prize for some time. The noise still rang out from the home areas.

We sang a very loud “Carefree.”

This was great to hear.

“And it’s super Chelsea.

Super Chelsea F.C.

We’re by far the greatest team.

The world has ever seen.”

This was as loud as I have known it for quite a while. As far as I am concerned, Chelsea can win all of the trophies in the world and we can suck up millions of new fans far and wide, but if we – as Chelsea fans – aren’t rocking Stamford Bridge to its foundations every fucking game, we’ve failed.

More of the same please.

A few late chances came and went. The highlight of the closing stages was an audacious flicked back-heel from Eden Hazard which allowed Fernando Torres, a late substitute, to shoot. Nando’s effort sadly didn’t match the quality of the pass. Hazard was the star of our show once more, but Willian’s drive and energy again warmed me.

Without really being aware of what I was doing, I joined in with a chorus praising Didier Drogba. Old habits die hard, eh? To be truthful, this was as easy a Champions League game as I can remember. At the final whistle, there was a roar, but deep inside I knew that sterner challenges lie ahead.

As Didier Drogba walked over to the Galatasaray fans with a few team mates, I wondered how he would choose to end his night. He walked towards the centre-circle, stopped and applauded those still in the stadium. We repaid him with warm thanks and sang his name one last time.

Within a few short seconds, he had disappeared down the tunnel.

The night was over.

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Tales From The Only Place To Be Every Thursday Night

Chelsea vs. Rubin Kazan : 4 April 2013.

Our Europa League Quarter Final against Rubin Kazan was game three of four games in nine days. This was our busiest Easter week for years. No complaints from me, though. We have a hunt for silverware on three fronts. Not even Manchester United can boast that.

I set off for London just after 4pm; alas, no Lard Porky once again. If this has been a tough season for all of us, it has been especially tough for him. As I drove past Swindon, a few light flurries of snow started to fall. The snow lasted until Reading, though it showed no sign of pitching. Snow in April. Whatever next? Tottenham in the Champions League? Let’s hope not. The snow made me think of only one thing, of one person; Julie had just flown in from the sunnier climes of Southern California and would be watching her first game at Stamford Bridge for two-and-a-half years. We had arranged to meet up in the pub; I hope her jet lag hadn’t hit her hard and that she’d be able to make it. The traffic, like the snow, was light, and I was parked up on Bramber Road in less than two hours.

Outside, the weather was unforgiving and cold.

Inside the pub, which I try to use as a barometer for the attendance at Stamford Bridge these days, things were quite busy. It was busier than the game against Steaua, in any case. I still thought that the gate might be as low as 25,000 though. I briefly spoke to Tim and Kev – two of the loyal Bristol contingent – about their trip to Moscow for the return leg. They are the only Chelsea folk who I know that are going. Fair play to them. I’m lead to believe that the main reason for Tim going is the fear of missing Frank’s 202 and 203 goals.

Chelsea makes us do irrational things, eh?

I soon saw Julie’s smiling face as she made her way towards the back part of the bar. Yes, she was freezing. It truly was a cold night outside. We had a good old chat about Chelsea, but also of her plans for her ten day visit to London Town. Julie is here for the Sunderland game, but leaves just before the semi-final at Wembley. We briefly mentioned the two games in the US in May. By the end of the 2012-2013 we will have played the two Manchester teams a total of eleven times.

United. City. Familiarity. Contempt.

Julie was not overly keen to leave the warm coziness of The Goose; every time I asked her if she wanted to leave, there was a muted response. At about 7.30pm, I eventually prised her away. We quickly walked down the North End Road, past the newly refurbished – but decidedly quiet – Malt House. For the last two hundred yards, Julie hardly paused for breath as she talked excitedly about Chelsea. Her enthusiasm was infectious. We made tentative plans to meet up on Sunday before disappearing our separate ways. I veered left to the Matthew Harding, Julie turned right to The Shed. There was a bigger line at the gate than for the Steaua game which was pleasing.

Inside, it was clear to see that the crowd was higher than I had expected. However, away in the opposite corner there was a mass of empty blue seats, save for the smallest pocket of away supporters I have ever seen at Stamford Bridge. The travelling army of Rubin Kazan supporters amounted to around forty-five, who were watching from the front rows of the lower tier.

It looked quite pitiful.

Yet, to be honest, I wondered if we would take half as many to the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in a week’s time. From anecdotal evidence, I’d guess than a maximum of twenty or thirty Chelsea – if that – are travelling over from the UK. Maybe our ranks will be bolstered by our large Russian fan base and by those Levski Sofia fans from Bulgaria, but be prepared for some hauntingly sparse support in that large bowl of mustard coloured seats in Moscow.

Ugh. I had a flashback to 2008. That’s another reason I’m not going to Russia.

It was great to have Alan back alongside me. There had been many congratulatory handshakes for him in the boozer; after a fifteen year courtship with Sue, they are now engaged.

“Yeah, I wanted to get to know her first…” he joked.

To be honest, I remember little of the first twenty minutes of the game. Alan and I were catching up and chatting about all sorts. The game was being played down below us, but we weren’t paying too much attention. Often at Frome Town games, two mates and I chat constantly throughout the game. Sometimes it’s just nice to use football as a chance to catch up.

Rubin Kazan resembled Sparta Prague, all dressed in Torino-style burgundy.

Benayoun was buzzing around in the first few moments of the game, but then faded a little. It was good to see Juan Mata starting. With Ba cup-tied, I began to understand a little how Benitez may have approached these last three games. Torres had to play against Rubin Kazan. Three days earlier, Ba got the start against United. Two days earlier, Torres got the start against Southampton. Is that not a reasonable response to fixture congestion? The alternative was for Ba to play twice in three days. That approach may have worked, too, of course. We’ll never know.

Somebody was moaning about Benitez in the pub earlier. My response?

“Ignore him. He’ll soon be gone. Support the team.”

The first real chance fell to Fernando, still wearing the mask, but his shot was embarrassingly wide.

Soon after, a long ball into the penalty area was aimed at Torres. This isn’t his game really and I didn’t fancy his chances against the leaping defender. The ball evaded them both, but fell between the two of them, by which time Torres had fallen to the floor. He somehow managed to hook the ball in while sitting on the grass.

1-0 to Chelsea.

Alan and I did our “THTCAUN – COMLD” routine, but the accents were way off; more Germanic than Russian.

Ryan Bertrand, ensured a little run of games with Ashley Cole out, had a cracking run down the left but his shot was blocked. Not long after, a Moses header was clawed out spectacularly by the Russian ‘keeper but Torres chased down the loose ball before turning the ball back into the box. The ball eventually reached a waiting Victor Moses who fired high into the net.

2-0 to Chelsea.

There had been a few long shots from the visitors, but this was a poor team. A two goal cushion at the break was a nice score. Let’s kill this tie off at Stamford Bridge. However, on a rare foray into our half, a shot struck John Terry. I wasn’t sure it was a penalty. Alan pulled a face to suggest it was. John Terry was livid. The referee was hardly going to change his mind. Natcho converted the penalty.

2-1 to Chelsea.

Oh dear. The dreaded away goal.

As Tommy Baldwin was introduced to the crowd at half-time, I realised that our run in the Europa League in 2013 was one which was being endured rather than enjoyed. Oh well. So be it. I’d hope I’m not that much of a football snob to bemoan it.

It is what it is.

If we’re in it, let’s win it.

The good news was that Tottenham were losing at home to Basle. Both Alan and I wanted them out. The reasons are perhaps too complex to fully discuss here, but the thought of losing to them in a major final is too horrendous to comprehend. There would be bag loads of trouble too, surely; I’m not sure the club needs any more negative publicity these days. Newcastle were drawing. I’m sure they were trying to win the trophy; their last trophy of any kind was way back in 1969.

At one point in the first-half, we could hear their chant of “Rubin! Rubin! Rubin!” Our support wasn’t great. I worried that Julie might be dismayed by the lack of noise. I wondered what the tiny contingent of Russians was thinking…

Alexander : “Is there line at kiosk?”

Sergei : “No. You want beer?”

Alexander : “I want beer. I always want beer.”

Sergei : “You not like this beer. It no alcohol.”

Aleaxander : “Beer with no alcohol. You are crazy man.”

Sergei (laughing) : “I like London. No line. Not like Kazan. Line for beer. Line for potato. Line for beer and potato. Line for potato beer.”

Alexander (shouting) : “But better now. You remember the beetroot shortage of 1977?”

Sergei : “Yes. Was bad. My mother line up for beetroot for thirty hours.”

Aleaxander : “Your mother stupid. In wrong line for thirty hours. She get cabbage.”

Sergei : “I eat cabbage for ten days.”

Alexander : “You the cabbage.”

Sergei (shouting) : “Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin!”

Alexander (singing) : “Oh, Kazan is wonderful. Oh Kazan is wonderful. It is full of potato, beetroot and cabbage. Oh Kazan is wonderful.”

Sergei : “You need work on lyrics.”

Chelsea continued their dominance during the second-half. Alan and I spoke about the amazing save which Cech had made against Chicarito on Monday. I rated it as possibly the best ever. I remember a similar one which Eddie Niedzwiecki made at Stoke City in 1985. Alan and I both recollected the Carlo Cudicini save from a Jamie Redknapp free-kick at Three Point Lane in which the ball moved at the last moment. Top stuff.

We had a few chances as the game progressed. I have to say that Ramires was by far the better of the two deep-lying midfielders. The game was again passing Frank by, despite the presence of Julie in The Shed. How I wished he had scored for her in the first-half. I wondered how she was coping with the cold. At least she had a small walk to her hotel; she was staying right behind The Shed in the Copthorne hotel.

On sixty-nine minutes, a nice move found Juan Mata in a little space down below me. I not only managed to photograph the cross, but I was able to snap the leap from Torres which resulted in the goal. It was a fine cross, a finer finish.

3-1 to Chelsea.

I continued photographing as Torres – or “Zorro” as I called him – was clearly relieved. This was his seventeenth and eighteenth goals of the season. The Chelsea players swarmed around him. I have a great vantage point for these celebrations. I’m a lucky man.

The crowd had been announced as a few shy of 33,000. This was clearly a pretty good attendance in the circumstances; a cold night and the second of three home games in seven days. Just like the United game, these tickets were only £30. Considering it costs £10 to see Frome Town and £20 to see Bristol Rovers, £30 is a fine price for these Chelsea cup games. However, one wonders how 33,000 would look in a 60,000 stadium out at Old Oak Common, though. In the closing part of the game, Oscar replaced Mata and Marin replaced Benayoun. Whisper it, but Yossi received a pretty good reception from the Chelsea faithful.

A late effort from Ramires was the last real effort on target.

Would a 3-1 lead be enough for us to take to Moscow? Would it be enough to see us progress to our tenth European semi-final since 1995? I think so.

Out in the cold London night, the Russians were on their way out of Stamford Bridge.

Alexander : “You hear blonde girl? She on phone to mother in California. She says London cold.”

Sergei : “Cold?!? Ha! She know nothing.”

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Tales From Munich : Part Three – Beyond Words

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

At 11.30pm in the north of Munich, Chelsea had miraculously become European Champions. In the final analysis, the season’s competition was decided by four penalty kicks, taken within four minutes of each other. Two Bayern misses and two Chelsea hits. In 2008, we missed the ultimate prize by a couple of inches. How fitting that our triumph four years later should be via penalties.

In truth, these facts were condensed into a nano second of thought as I stumbled to my feet. It is impossible for me to retell my innermost feelings during this most emotional and bewildering of moments.

All around me, fellow fans – followers of the royal blue – were screaming our delight.

BOOM.

The Nord Kurv was a cacophonous cauldron of noise.

BOOM.

Moscow was remembered briefly and then forgotten forever.

BOOM.

Chelsea, as overwhelming underdog in a foreign city, had triumphed.

BOOM.

Another miracle.

BOOM.

Destiny.

BOOM.

My beloved Chelsea had won the European Cup.

There were hugs for Ed, for Neil, and also for Glenn’s tormentor to my right. I shuffled to my left and hugged, Daryl, Gal, Glenn and Alan.

“We fcuking did it boys – we fcuking did it.”

I looked to my right and saw Simon and Milo scurrying down the terraces to be with us.

Everyone together.

I was aware that the players were rampaging towards us down below and so I started to take some photographs of the scene of carnage on the pitch and in the stands. The Chelsea faithful then bellowed a song of adulation and honour – one which was sung for each of our three domestic titles – but which now felt properly at home in this foreign field.

“Campiones, campiones – ole, ole , ole.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c1AT…hannel&list=UL

The scene was of wild delirium. Glenn wiping tears from his eyes, Simon and Milo bouncing and hugging each other, Alan with the widest ever grin on his face. I clambered up on to the seat and just tried to take it all in.

I looked at my phone and saw that there were some texts awaiting my attention. I didn’t want to read them just yet; it was all about the moment. I needed to concentrate on what was happening all around me. These precious minutes after the final penalty were my lifeblood.

I was aware that the Bayern fans were slowly leaving the arena. There would be no fifth title for them.

It was all about us.

The PA soon helped us celebrate further.

“Blue Is the Colour, Football Is the Game…”

How I love this song from my childhood. Memories of listening to Ed “Stewpot” Stewart’s “Junior Choice” programme on Radio One on Saturday mornings. This song was in the charts over forty years ago – to commemorate our 1972 Wembley appearance – and it still affects me every time. As a listening seven year old, it was just enough for me to hear the name “Chelsea” on the radio to send me wild with a paroxysm of delight. That Chelsea should have a pop record was just too much. Football and music is often intertwined, but for me it all began in the Spring of 1972. Chelsea in the charts? It amazed me back then. It was ridiculously perfect.

And I stood on my seat, singing along to every word, knowing full well that if I let the moment get to me, I would be wailing again.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZlYa…&feature=g-upl

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea Is Our Name.”

I then looked through my incoming texts.

There were messages of congratulations from fans of Liverpool, from fans of Juventus, from fans of Manchester United, from fans of Newcastle United and, of course, from fans of Chelsea.

There was even a little message – a smile, a kiss – from my former girlfriend Judy.

Fantastic.

Down below, the players were cavorting like school kids, but the moment soon came for them to assemble on the pitch, in front of the stairs which led to the balcony where the glittering prize was waiting. How I wished I had my telephoto lens with me. The heavy-legged Bayern players summoned enough strength to ascend the flight of steps. Like the new Wembley, the players momentarily disappeared from view, and then became visible to all.

I had a bemused smirk to myself. What now for the Chelsea fans who had been so convinced that UEFA would never allow us to win football’s biggest prize? What now for those conspiracy theorists? What now for the paranoid ones in our midst? I for one never bought this theory. I never bought the theory that UEFA instructed Tom Henning Ovrebo to gift Barcelona that match in 2009. Ovrebo made four supremely horrendous decisions in that game; that is beyond question. But if he had been so besotted in making life as easy as possible for Barcelona, why did he send Abidal off with ages to go in the game and Chelsea 1-0 up? If UEFA had cooked the books – and if one single person had let the cat out of the onion bag – UEFA’s credibility would be zero and, more importantly, its commercial partners would have dropped the Champions League in an instant.

Never worth the risk.

And here’s the proof – Chelsea were European Champions.

The players – forming a beautiful line of blue against the dark suited inhabitants of the corporate lower tier – made their way to the balcony. My mind was racing now…I wanted this moment to last forever but I so wanted to see that mammoth trophy hoisted by the Chelsea team. All around me, there seemed to be a quietening of song and a concentration of thought.

I had my camera poised for the moment.

Somewhere in the midst was Michel Platini. Somewhere in the midst was Frank Lampard, the captain on the night. Somewhere in the midst was John Terry, captain fantastic.

A delay…then a sudden thrust skywards of the magnificent trophy.

Click, click, click.

A tumultuous roar.

Wembley 1997 was magnificent. Bolton 2005 was historic.

Munich 2012 was the best ever.

It was the greatest night of my life on the greatest weekend of my life.

We were happy and glorious.

From Drogba’s final kick of destiny, we stayed in the stadium for about an hour. It was a gorgeous hour full of tears and laughter, merriment and pride.

Just to see my heroes holding that huge silver cup. Oh my. What an image.

Chelsea songs were played on the PA…”Liquidator”, “Blue Day”, “One Step Beyond”, “London Calling” – and then, strangely “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO.

The players still cavorted on the pitch…a momentary period of calm when the official team photo took place, but then madness. It really was, one step beyond –

Fernando Torres with the Spanish flag, Petr Cech being hoisted high on team mates’ shoulders and the cup way in the air, Drogba running towards the Chelsea in the lower tier of the east stand…players as kids, fans as proud parents.

Magical times.

In truth, I probably stayed relatively quiet. Sometimes, the moment just takes hold. A full hour after victory, I sent out my first text to a few friends –

“Beyond Words.”

We were, typically, some of the last to leave, but the players were still enjoying themselves in the north goalmouth when the nine of us reluctantly left the arena. We were all gasping for a drink and, as there is no alcohol served at UEFA games, the nine of us had our own little celebration party on the concourse outside gate 341. We dutifully lined up and bought ice cold Sprites.

I swear that the first mouthful was the finest tasting drink of all time.

We stood in a little circle. We sipped Sprite, but tasted champagne. We were pumped with adrenalin, euphoric with pleasure – befuddled, bewildered, besides ourselves.

It is a moment I will always remember.

“What was the first thing you did after you won the European Cup, Chris?”

“I drank some Sprite, mate.”

“Ah, of course, of course.”

A few faces drifted past – I shook hands with Callum. He was right after all. It was never in any doubt.

Unfortunately, amongst the crazy drift of Chelsea fans heading south to the tube stop, Glenn and I lost contact with Alan and the boys. All of a sudden, the Chelsea lexicon of songs had been augmented by a few new editions.

“We won in Munich, Munich. We won in Munich, Munich.”

“We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham, running ‘round Tottenham.
Running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
Singing I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?
Singing I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?
Singing I’ve got a trophy, I’ve got a trophy, I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?”

And then, a song which doesn’t get aired too often. A song which I always attribute to Leeds United (remember them?) after they lost to Bayern Munich(ditto) in the European Cup Final of 1975. Although, Leeds lost, they lost under suspicious circumstances – a good Peter Lorimer goal was cancelled out due to a dubious offside call – and so the Leeds fans sang this for years after, in defiance of the actual result –

“We Are The Champions – The Champions Of Europe.”
“We Are The Champions – The Champions Of Europe.”
“We Are The Champions – The Champions Of Europe.”
“We Are The Champions – The Champions Of Europe.”

It was my song of the night, despite Kraftwerk still echoing in my mind.

“I’d like to take her home, that’s understood.”

There was an air of elation, but of sustained bewilderment too, as we walked around the stadium. Glenn was wearing his “lucky” lime green Napapijri polo shirt and I was wearing a royal blue Lacoste; the colours, in fact, used as the colour scheme of the final. The tickets were printed in these colours. The stadium, now shining bright at 12.30am, was also lit in these twin hues. The stadium looked perfectly photogenic and I took many snaps of it as we slowly walked south.

I contacted Andy Wray – whose hotel room Glenn and I were crashing in – to see where he was headed.

“The Shakespeare, near the train station.”

It was 12.45am. I was hoping to bump into Alan and the boys, but our paths never crossed again. At just after 1am, we hopped into one of the very last trains to leave the stadium. It was another nightmare journey, taking around an hour. Several Chelsea were so hot and tired, they got off to get a taxi…Glenn and I decided to stay on board. We chatted to two Chelsea ex-pats from Holland.

At 1.45am, the train pulled in to Marienplatz, the most central of central locations in the city of Munich. At street level, we crunched the glass of hundreds of beer bottles. In truth, we never really experienced what the pre-game atmosphere was like in the centre. Now, the Bayern fans quiet with sadness, still dominated, but pockets of Chelsea provided huge contrasts in mood.

“Campiones, campiones…”

Thankfully, despite vast quantities of alcohol being consumed all day, we did not see a hint of trouble. It was one of my fears, that should we have lost, the old Chelsea stereotype may have reared its unwanted head.

“…we’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose.”

Glenn and I collected our bags from the train station, stepping over hundreds of snoozing Bayern fans, in town for the night with no hope of being able to return to Nurnburg, Hamburg, Dusseldorf or Frankfurt until the morning. The hauptbanhof was as I remembered it from my last visit for the Oktoberfest of 1990, when I – like hundreds of others – slept like babies on the station forecourt.

We tried to track down The Shakespeare. Just as I thought about giving up, we bumped into Cathy and Barbara who were able to point us in the right direction. Finally, at 2.30am, we turned a corner to find what seemed like the only boozer open in the entire city.

“The Shakespeare – there it is Glenn!”

Inside, I spotted three familiar faces…first Andy Wray, then Steve Mantle, then his twin brother Daz.

Hugs and clenched fists, smiles and back slaps.

After that Sprite, came the real deal.

Beer has never tasted better.

“Champion.”

“The Shakespeare” was a tiny pub, with its clientele spilling out onto the road. While I was supping at the bottle of beer, who should walk right by but Mike Neat – the leader of the NYBs – and three of his troops; Alex, Napoli Frank and Matt. What a small world. We hugged – and Mike gave me a ridiculously long kiss on my neck. I looked up – and there was Susan Harvey, who I first met in Chicago in 2006, then Palo Alto in 2007.

“Great to see you!”

Cathy then turned up a few minutes later.

Icky – The General – was also in attendance. He had flown over from The Phillipines, but had been unable to get a ticket. I asked him where he had seen the game and he replied that he had watched it in an open air park somewhere. He joked with Cathy that he has never seen us win in Europe; our success that night was all down to him. I wasn’t going to argue.

So there we all were – drinking in Munich in the small hours, our smiles making our cheeks ache, our rapid fire comments and laughter never ending. There was an overwhelming sense of pride and joy. It is very likely that the phrases uttered by us in Munich were uttered, in various guises, by thousands upon thousands of Chelsea fans all over the globe.

Mike – “We did it. I don’t know how. We played shit, but we did it.”

Chris – “The ultimate away game mate.”

Frank – “Incredible, Chris. Just incredible.”

Chris – “The first London team to win it!”

Andy – “Drogba!”

Susan –“Oh…what about Tottenham!”

Chris – “Ha! What about Tottenham? Could it possibly get any better?”

Mike – “We were beaten. Two minutes to go. Incredible.”

Andy – “1905…19/05.”

Chris – “And what about Cech saving Robben’s penalty!”

Susan – “Written in the Gods.”

Chris – “And of all the people to miss a penalty, that fcuker Schweinsteiger.”

Mike – “We never win on penalties.”

Chris – “We did tonight, son!”

By now, Glenn was sleeping on the pavement, his head propped against his Quiksilver back-pack. He was OK. Just tired. I had a couple more beers. Photos with the last ones standing. It seemed like our little group, right there and then, was the epicentre of Chelsea Football Club.

I stamped my foot right down in the middle of our little group.

“The very hub of this club. Right here.”

Mike smiled.

I said to him – “and my next Chelsea game? At Yankee Stadium!”

We laughed.

“Life is good mate.”

I remember writing a three part piece about my experience in Moscow after the game in 2008. I remember that my whole day in Moscow was blighted by the fact that I knew that, should Chelsea win, my match going experience as a Chelsea fan would have reached its zenith. Anything which followed, by nature, would be of lesser value. It would always pale in comparison.

In Munich 2012, I simply didn’t care.

We were European Champions.

At 4am, I scooped Glenn up from the kerb and we said our goodbyes. We wearily tried to locate a cab to take us back to Andy’s hotel two miles to the east.

At 5am, Glenn was asleep but I was listening to the dawn chorus. My mind was still racing. It had been the most perfect of days, the most perfect of nights. Andy eventually rolled in at 7am and the three of us amalgamated to win the Chelsea Fans In Germany Synchronised Snoring Competition.

On the Sunday, I was up at 10.30am. Glenn soon followed. We said our goodbyes to Andy. He was to stay on for one more day. In the hotel’s reception, we spoke with a Chelsea fan from Brisbane, Australia who had travelled without a ticket just to be in the city. The saddest story I had heard involved my good mate Pete from San Francisco. His ticket was stuck in customs in New York and he had no way of expediting them before he was due to depart. He also travelled to Munich without a ticket – and didn’t get in. At the game, a few fans in the row behind us had stormed the gates after the game had begun. With strength in numbers, this was always an option for some.

Outside, the weather was blisteringly hot. On the U-bahn to the main station, a pragmatic Bayern fan told us ruefully –

“English teams know how to take corners.”

We smiled.

We travelled back to Prague, blissfully happy. The amazing thing was that I was 100% devoid of a hangover.

Oh Munich – I love you and I love your beer.

Twenty minutes into the trip north, just before we got stuck in some horrendous traffic near the airport, we drove past the Allianz Arena once more. In the bright afternoon sun, it looked divine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zg3NraIDPa4

“There she goes. We are the Champions. The Champions of Europe.”

At Prague airport, we bumped into Young Dave, who looked as happy as me, but five times as tired. His mate Pav, bless him, had an amazing story to tell. Without a match ticket, he resorted to desperate measures. He arrived at the stadium, dressed in smart clothes, with a Ford lanyard and a handmade Champions League pass around his neck. The Ford lanyard was handed out at a Champions League corporate event at Stamford Bridge a few years back. He pieced together some printed matter from a Chelsea magazine to give the impression that he was one of the corporate guests of Ford. Believe it or not, it worked. He chose his moment and got past the first ticket check. Once inside, he blagged his way in to the seating bowl. He was close to welling up when he told us this story.

“I had my Mum with me. I knew I’d get in.”

He showed me the card that he had used and I unfolded it. Part of the text – hidden from view – mentioned this –

“Win one of 14 VIP tickets for the CL Final.”

Indeed. Simple as that.

We howled with laughter.

“That’s not what it meant, Pav!”

We had one last dark Czech beer at Prague airport. We were still smiling on the return flight home as we reviewed the previous 48 hours of history-making. For me, it was the last flight of a long season. From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok to Leverkusen to Naples to Barcelona to Munich, glorious Munich. Dave and Pav were sitting opposite. Talk was of Monaco and Tokyo. The banter was still flying around. Glenn always has an eye for the ladies and I caught him eyeing up the bespectacled air hostess. I knew what was coming.

Glenn : “I would.”

Chris: “I know you would.”

Glenn : “Would you?”

Chris : “It would go to penalties, but – yeah – I would too.”

We landed back at Bristol and by midnight, I was home.

It had been, without exception, the most perfect of weekends. Simply everything had gone our way; from the timings to the travel, from flight prices to hotels, from the weather to the food and drink…the stadium, the football, the friendships…the goals, the penalties, the drama.

The European Cup.

Bloody hell.

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Tales From Munich : Part Two – Arms Were Linked

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

The walk to the Allianz Arena on the evening of Saturday 19th. May 2012 probably took around fifteen minutes. At the start, we were together as a group, but occasionally we splintered away to talk to a few fellow fans, faces from home, as we marched north. I spotted many fans – of both teams – holding rather pathetic looking home-made cards with phrases such as “Need Ticket Please” on them. I brushed past them, feeling no guilt. There were Chelsea fans singing still. Bayern were relatively quiet. I then realised that most of the Bayern support was probably already within the stadium a few hundred yards away.

Onwards we marched. Glenn was still struggling with the basic concept of putting one foot in front of the other and he occasionally lurched and swayed to the left and right. It was time for me to have words with him. In the absence of an adjacent naughty step, I grabbed him by the arm and read him the riot act. I had visions of him being pulled at the gate by an over-zealous policeman.

“Listen mate, sober up. We’ve come this far. You have your ticket. Don’t fcuk it up at the last minute.”

Not every Chelsea fan was in colours. Amongst our little group, only the John Bumstead T-shirt being worn by Daryl and the black and orange Chelsea gear being worn by Gal gave a clue to our allegiance. Elsewhere there was the usual smattering of new Chelsea shirts, current Chelsea shirts, old Chelsea shirts and retro Chelsea shirts. Packs of lads without colours – typically the faces I see at most away games – were similarly attired as us. The forty-something dress code of trainers, jeans, polo shirts, designer tops and occasional baseball caps. Most Bayern fans were wearing replica shirts, though an alien from another planet might have been bemused by the obvious variety of colour schemes adopted by Bayern over the years. I always think of the classic Bayern team of the mid-seventies – Maier, Breitner, Beckenbauer, Muller – wearing the all red Adidas kit. This is how it stayed for years until the design gurus at Bayern decided to foist all sorts of strange designs on FC Hollywood’s fan base. The first bizarre kit to appear featured a red and blue striped shirt and I think this was a nod to the blue of the Bavarian flag. For a connoisseur of football kits like me, this was a bizarre choice. Since then, Bayern have had a variety of kits and even special Champions League variations. Some of the most recent variants have been red and black shirts and also red and white hooped shirts.

It made me wonder what Adidas have in store for us.

I spotted Dutch Mick and shouted across the grass verge. He was wearing the new shirt and I wondered if Chelsea would do the same for this last game of the season. We wore a new shirt in Moscow remember; I didn’t want us to follow suit.

Callum raced past and we shook hands. He was buzzing and said something to the effect of “the night is ours.”

As we neared the stadium, I heard Alan talk to Cathy and so I reeled around and had a very quick word while Alan took our photograph.

“It’s a long way from the Rum Jungle, Cath.”

I had enjoyed Cathy’s company in Kuala Lumpur way back in July on our Asia tour. Of course, in reality, it seemed like last week. These football seasons certainly race by.

Ahead, a young lad was perched on his father’s shoulders, and they were carrying a fifteen foot pole, bending under the weight of a large St. George’s Cross flag, with two smaller chequered Chelsea ones above and below. I took an iconic photograph of them with the pristine white of the stadium now only fifty yards or so away in the background. It was a defiant statement of intent and captured the mood precisely.

This was the ultimate away game. Let me run through some numbers. Here we were, an English team in Germany; plenty of history there. This was arguably our biggest game ever in 107 years. It was supposedly a neutral venue but fate had conspired for this to take place in the home stadium of our opponents. Sure, we took around 25,000 to the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm in 1998. Sure we took 25,000 to Old Trafford for the 2006 F.A. Cup semi-final against Liverpool. We have taken similar numbers to Cup Finals at Wembley. But, despite the folly of a neutral venue, make no mistake; this was an away game. This was our biggest ever show of strength for an away game since we swamped Highbury in August 1984, when close on 20,000 squeezed into the Tick Tock and hundreds more took residence in the home stands. In addition to the 17,500 in the stadium, Munich was being swelled to the tune of an extra 10,000, maybe 15,000, maybe 20,000 auxiliaries. We were a Chelsea army in Germany for the biggest prize in World football.

In 107 years, there has never been an away game like it and perhaps there never will.

The Allianz Arena stands at the northern end of a ridge of land, bordered by train lines and autobahns. Access is only at the southern end; the Bayern end. We hurriedly entered at the gate – there was a minimal search and I immediately rued my decision to leave my trusty zoom lens at home. We were in. I hugged Glenn and then began the short walk up to the Nord Kurv. I stopped to take a photo of the setting sun, disappearing behind clouds to the west.

Daryl stopped to have the quickest of chats with Terry, who was originally going to be sat alongside us, but had since wangled a seat in the press box. Terry is one of Chelsea’s iconic names from a distant past. I last saw him in Moscow.

We aimed for the gate to section 341. It was now 8.30pm and kick-off was but fifteen minutes away. There was a long ascent up a hundred or more stairs; these wrap themselves around the stadium but are hidden from view by the translucent plastic shell which gives the stadium its unique identity. My limbs were aching by the time I had reached the upper level. Behind me, several Chelsea fans were singing about Auschwitz. Ahead of me, I battled the crowds to force my way into the concourse and then the gents’ toilets.

An incoming text at 8.33pm – “atmosphere?”

I replied – “still not in yet. Typical Chelsea.”

And this was typical Chelsea. We are so used to leaving it late at home games – the ubiquitous mantra of “one more pint” was made for the pubs which envelope Stamford Bridge – and here we were, leaving it late in Munich.

Typical Chelsea.

I quickly found my way to my seat as the home fans were unfurling their impressive banner of the Champions League trophy in the Sud Kurv. Their end was a riot of red. In row 10, there was a nasty altercation between Glenn and a fellow Chelsea fan and I had to act as peacemaker. A few words were exchanged. The plan was for Glenn to sit alongside Alan and myself, but Glenn – still wobbly with alcohol – was despatched to the other end of our row. Although Daryl bought tickets for ten of us, such is the ineptitude within the Chelsea box office, Simon and Milo’s tickets were not with the rest of ours.

Blue flags were waiting at our seats and the Champions League anthem was echoing around the stadium.

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From the left; Alan, Glenn, Gary, Daryl, Neil, Ed, Chris.

The magnificent seven.

Simon and Milo was ten yards behind us. Callum and Dunc were spotted. Dutch Mick too.

In the rush to get ourselves inside, hardly a thought had been paid to the game. The rumours were true; Ryan Bertrand was playing out wide. I immediately thought back to Danny Granville at Stockholm in 1998. Clearly, di Matteo was taking a risk on the youngster but I did not have time to dwell on this. Thank heavens the two centre-backs were playing.

So, what were my thoughts as kick-off approached? There was no doubt that we had reached the final due to a healthy share of luck, especially against Barcelona when woodwork and a missed penalty aided our formidable rear guard performance. I was in no doubts that this luck could easily run out – if only due to the laws of probability – and I can remember quietly warning Gary in that serene Munich beer garden that “you do realise we could get thumped here?” He was in agreement.

And yet. And yet there was a positive air in the Chelsea end. In the back of my mind, there was unrelenting belief that – yes – despite the odds, or maybe because of them, we would prevail in this most hostile of situations. In our 107 years, there has never been a more unlikely story than our assault on this magical trophy. A team in disarray in early March, a team in decay, a team divided, now only ninety minutes from glory.

Without time to dwell, the teams appeared down below me and I spent a few minutes trying my best to juggle photos, texts and songs of support. It will surprise nobody to know that I had no plans to sit. In Moscow, I had stood for – what was it? – six hours, from bar to tube to stadium, to game, to bus. I envisioned the same in Munich.

The scene was set. The stadium seemed huge and yet compact at the same time. I was a fan. The cool grey concrete steps of the concourse and the aisles were mirrored by a similar colour for the seats. If only Wembley had decided on something similar – a cool cream maybe – rather than a brash ugly red. The Chelsea end was keen to cheer the boys on but I knew we would be in for a tough battle to be heard over the tumultuous support being handed out by the Bayern faithful. I spotted pockets of Chelsea blue in the lower tier to my left, but the neutral areas were predominantly red. There were three rows of unused seats in front of the line of TV studios in the east stand. To my right, I noted a ridiculous number of seats in the press box; maybe 3,000 strong. This was a sure sign that football was eating itself. Elsewhere in this lovely city, 100,000 fans were without tickets yet 3,000 seats were being used by gentlemen of the press. Beyond, in the corporate areas of the stadium, pink and yellow lights were shining in the many restaurants and suites. The blades of a solitary wind turbine, high on a hill, were able to be seen in the thin slither of sky. Bayern flags hung on every square inch of balcony. Chelsea flags countered.

I quickly spotted one which is often seen, away to my right –

“If I Had Two Lives I’d Give Them Both To You. Forever Chelsea.”

The 2012 Champions League Final began.

It was clear from the first few moments of play that Bayern were going to have most of the possession. It was galling to see Arjen Robben having so much of the ball. There was a consensus when he left Chelsea in the summer of 2007 that, due to his glass ankles, we had seen the best of him. Would he now have the last laugh? I feared the worst. Ribery, of course, was the other major threat and it was clear to me that the game may well be won or lost in the wide areas. It was key for Kalou and Bosingwa on the right and Bertrand and Cole on the left to close space. I soon realised, and it shames me to admit it, that I was not au fait with many of the Bayern players. The wide men Robben and Ribery, Gomez, Schweinsteiger, Nauer, Lahm, Boeteng…who were the others? I had little idea.

At least I was in control. Unlike Barcelona, fuzzy through alcohol, I was able to take everything in. It was my biggest fear that I would be drunk beyond words in Munich, unable to play a significant role in supporting the boys. Despite many beers in the afternoon, I was fine…it had been perfect. I looked over several times to check on Glenn; phew, he was still standing, not slumped in his seat.

Bayern dominated the first half with only rare advances by Chelsea into the Bayern defence. In truth, we were playing a wholly subservient role in this game. Our plan was of containment. Wayward shots from a number of Bayern players rained in on Petr Cech’s goal and I began wondering if our luck was going to hold out once more. The first “heart in the mouth” chance fell to Robben way down below, but Cech managed to deflect his shot onto the woodwork for a corner. Bosingwa then fluffed an easy clearance, only for the spinning ball to end up in an area devoid of red-shirted attackers. Lady Luck was in the building and sporting Chelsea colours.

All eyes were on the clock.

15 minutes.

30 minutes.

In a rare attack – our best of the game – the ball was worked to Salomon Kalou, but his shot hardly tested Nauer at the near post.

In the closing minutes of the first period, a Bayern chant petered out, but its familiar melody was picked up by the Chelsea hordes.

“Oh Dennis Wise
Scored A Fcuking Great Goal.
In The San Siro.
With Ten Minutes To Go.”

It was easily our loudest chant of the evening and I was comforted that we, as fans, could impact upon the night’s atmosphere.

A text from the US confirmed this –

“Heard the Dennis Wise song loud and clear on the TV coverage in the US!”

Just before the teams re-entered after the break, around ten red flares were let off in the top tier of the Bayern end. It was an impressive sight for sure. The smoke drifted to the east, then hung in the air for ages. The second half told a similar story. Tons of Bayern possession with Chelsea players – all defenders now – scurrying around and closing space. I was particularly enamoured with Mikel, whose stature rises with each big match appearance. Elsewhere, Cahill, Cole and Lampard were magnificent. Luiz caused me a few worries. Bosingwa had his moments too. Juan Mata, the one midfielder who had the tools to unlock any defence, was struggling. Didier Drogba’s main job was to continually head away corner after corner; a job he has done so well in these last eight amazing seasons.

Ribery’s goal was flagged for offside and thankfully I wasn’t perturbed. What is the German for “calm down?” Bayern shots rained in on our goal, but our brave defenders threw themselves at the ball and blocks were made.

60 minutes.

Bayern’s support was now getting frustrated at the quality of their finishing and the Chelsea support grew and grew. Songs of old rolled around the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. I was heartened by the noise. It clearly galvanised the team. Still Bayern shots missed the target. Was I the only one thinking that a force field had been set up around Cech’s goal frame?

Ryan Bertrand, non-existent offensively, gave way for the much-maligned Florent Malouda. We stood and watched. We sung. We hoped. A few half-chances way down below gave us renewed sustenance. The songs continued. I was so proud of our support.

On 83 minutes, our world collapsed. A cross from the left and a leaping Bayern player – Muller, a name from the glory years –out jumped our defenders. In one of those moments that happens in football, time seemed to slow to a different speed. The ball bounced down. The ball bounced up. The ball flew past a confused Cech. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar.

The ball was in.

The previously quiet Sud Kurv bellowed and roared. It was a horrendous sight. We stood silent. What could we do? The PA announcer then, shamefully in my opinion, announced the scorer to the spectators in a rousing tirade which seemed to last for ever. For a supposedly neutral venue, I thought this was a poor show…he ended his belligerent outburst with the word “Thomas…”

…and the Bayern fans responded “Muller!”

That sickened me almost as much as the goal.

We were losing 1-0 and Lady Luck had seemed to have packed up her belongings in a suitcase and was heading out of town. My thoughts were of sadness; that this iconic Chelsea team, forged under Ranieri, fine-tuned under Mourinho, cajoled by many managers since, were now going to disband over the summer without that most desired of prizes, a Champions League victory. For this, make no mistake, was their – our – last chance. There would be no return for a while. I sighed.

Callum – you were wrong mate and I was foolish enough to believe you.

Immediately, di Matteo replaced the ineffective Kalou with Fernando Torres.

Torres, with a thousand points to prove despite his goal in Barcelona, seemed to inspire us. His darting movements breathed new life into our attack. In turn, the Chelsea support responded. It was his endeavour down in the corner which gave us a corner. It was our first of the entire game. Juan Mata trotted over to collect the ball. I lifted my trusted camera from around my chest and zoomed in as best I could. I held the camera still – constantly focused, the button half-depressed – and waited for the corner. I looked up and trusted that my camera would do its job.

88 minutes had been played. This was it, Chelsea.

Death or glory.

Juan Mata blazed the ball in towards the near post. In a moment that will live with me forever, two players in blue rose to meet the ball.

I clicked.

The ball cannoned into Nauer but then flew into the roof of the net.

The Nord Kurv thundered. I clenched my fists and roared from deep inside my body. Tears of joy soon started flowing. We were back in it.

Chelsea – I fcuking love you.

I was soon aware that my glasses had flown off and so I tried to steady myself and search for them, but I felt my head spinning, imploding with joy. I feared a blackout. It happened when Torres scored his first goal last season. Steady Chris, steady.

I tried my best to find my glasses – but they were gone.

The Chelsea fans were yelling, shouting, clambering onto seats, pointing. I looked down and in to the row in front. There, miraculously perched on a seat, were my glasses. I reached down to retrieve them just before a lad stepped on them.

Six seats away, Alan had smashed his sunglasses at this moment. There was carnage in the Chelsea end, but devastation in the Bayern end.

Advantage Chelsea. Bayern had already taken off Muller. The home fans were on the ropes. We were going to do this.

We were going to win.

My head was still spinning, the Chelsea end was buzzing, my world was perfect.

In the short period of time before the extra period of thirty minutes began, we roused the team by singing “The Blue Flag.”

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Our confidence took a battering soon into the first period of extra time when Didier Drogba, back defending, tripped Franck Ribery inside the box.

Oh Didier.

I just turned my back to the game and sighed. This was virtually a carbon copy of the penalty he gave away in Barcelona. Didier messed up our chance in Moscow. He redeemed himself in Munich. And now this.

We stood and hoped. Cech looked large and impressive. Robben approached the penalty spot. I wasn’t sure if I should tempt fate by taking a photograph of a potentially match-losing moment.

What the hell.

Robben shot.

I clicked.

Cech saved, then gathered the loose ball.

Destiny.

It was going to be our night.

Much to our joy, Ribery was substituted. Good work Didier, I take it all back.

The rest of the period of extra time was truly a blur, though. Torres had a few runs at the Bayern defence. Luiz and Cahill miraculously held out. Our players were strong. As the minutes ticked, I was happy for the game to be decided on penalties.

My main reasons were probability and destiny.

We lost on penalties in Moscow.

We’ll win on penalties in Munich.

It’s our night.

Simple as that.

We weren’t sure about the rules for determining the ends at which the all decisive penalties were to be taken, but there was a certain grim inevitability that, like in the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, they would be at the other end.

I wasn’t sure if I should take any photographs.

I took a photo of Philip Lahm scoring past Petr Cech, with the other players, arms linked in the centre circle.

I didn’t take a photo of Juan Mata. His penalty was poor – too close to Nauer – and we fell silent.

I had my hands in my pockets, I was still stood. So here we go, Chelsea – another loss on penalties. How brutal this game of football can be. I consoled myself that at least I would not be as distraught as in Moscow. Nothing, surely, could be as bad as that.

Mario Gomez made it 2-0 to Bayern. The home fans roared.

David Luiz took a ridiculously long run up. Death or glory. I had horrible visions of his shot not only clearing the bar, but the third tier. His hair bounced as he raced towards the ball. Goal. A gasp of relief from Chelsea.

To our surprise, the goalkeeper Nauer took his turn and he scored to make it 3-1. I felt the weight of probability slipping away.

Frank Lampard simply had to score. Memories of all the others. Liverpool 2008. Go on Frank. Get in.

Frank scored.

Then it was the turn, not of Ribery, but of the substitute Olic. He looked nervous. I sensed that this could all change in an instant. Probability versus practice.

He still looked nervous. I sensed he would miss. A poor penalty was swatted away by the diving Cech and we were back in it. The whole stadium was on edge now. A tightrope. Sudden death. Sudden life.

Ashley Cole – a scorer in Moscow – was next up. The Chelsea fans were buoyant now. We sensed the momentum had changed. Ashley dispatched the perfect penalty.

Back in the beer garden, Gary had asked Michaela if Schweinsteiger meant “pig fcuker” but Michaela had dismissed this as a myth. It meant “pig climber.”

I didn’t care. I saw him place the ball on the spot and saw his Germanic features on the TV screen. In my mind I called him a pig fcuker. He again looked nervous. His approach proved this. He stopped, mid-run, and I again sensed a miss. His shot was hit low, but it hit the base of the diving Cech’s post.

Oh boy.

Advantage Chelsea.

The Nord Kurv, the watching thousands in the city centre, the fans at Fulham Broadway, in Malaysia, in Nigeria, in Australia, in Singapore and in North America were one kick away from glory.

Who else but Didier Drogba? It had to be him.

I got the call from Ed.

Arms were linked.

Alan linked arms with Glenn, who linked arms with Gal, who linked arms with Daryl, who linked arms with Neil, who linked arms with Ed, who linked arms with me, who linked arms with Steve in Philly, who linked arms with Mario in Bergisch Gladbach, who linked arms with Parky in Holt, who linked arms with Danny in Los Angeles, who linked arms with Rick in Kansas City, who linked arms with Walnuts in Munich, who linked arms with Tullio in Turin, who linked arms with Bob in San Francisco, who linked arms with my mother in Somerset, who linked arms with JR in Detroit, who linked arms with Dog in England.

I took a photo of us together; the magnificent seven.

I turned the camera towards the pitch.

Wide angle.

Approaching midnight in Munich.

Didier placed the ball on the spot.

A small run up.

No fuss.

Impact.

I clicked.

I saw Neuer move to the right.

I saw the ball go to the left.

It was in.

Pandemonium ain’t the word for it.

The Earth tilted off its axis for a split second.

We were European Champions.

In a split second I turned the camera to my left and clicked again; I caught a blurred mass of unreal and simply unquantifiable happiness.

It was no good.

I was overcome with emotion and I crumpled to the floor.

For what seemed like ages – it was probably no more than ten seconds – I sobbed tears of pure joy, alone in a foetal position.

A football position.

For that moment, I was alone with only my thoughts, my emotion, my journey, my life.

Seat 18 in row 10 of section 341 in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Arena will always be mine.

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