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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Tales From Matchday Four.

Chelsea vs. Spartak Moscow : 3 November 2010.

An alternative title –

“Friends And Roman’s Countrymen.”

It seems rather obvious to state, but the history of Chelsea Football Club has changed dramatically since the arrival of Roman in 2003. However, the game against Spartak Moscow got me thinking about our other links with that nation. Of course, the Champions League Final in 2008 comes immediately to mind – and I have detailed that emotional day elsewhere – but there have been other dalliances with Russian teams and players in our recent and not so recent past.

If there is one game in our ancient history that I wish I had seen it was the momentous 1945 game against the crack Russian team Moscow Dynamo. This game was one of four games that the touring Russians played on that tour and the others were at Rangers, Cardiff and White Hart Lane ( against Arsenal ). The tour is wonderfully evoked in a great football book called “Passovotchka” by David Downing which I bought a while back. My great friend John, who was a schoolboy in South London during the war, spoke to me once about going to the game at Tottenham on a murky winter day in 1945. His memories helped solidify the images in my mind which the author’s words had planted. The few photographs from that tour are priceless of course. It is one of those occasions which I often daydream about – I can almost smell the spectators’ tobacco smoke, the mustiness of soldiers’ demob suits, the greyness of the London air, the sense of anticipation amongst the thousands upon thousands swarming on Fulham Road, the joy of a top flight game after years of ersatz friendlies during the preceding six years, the noise and the colour of the Moscow team in blue and the Chelsea team in red.

When I visited Moscow on that monumental day in 2008 – another grey day in more ways than one – I wanted to pick up a Dynamo souvenir in honour of that game from our history. On Arbatskaya, midway through a drinking session with a few close mates, I purchased a Dynamo scarf from a stall. It’s great. I love that great big “D” – the Dynamo logo. I did think about wearing it to the game against Spartak, but thought better of it. Of course, Moscow is like London in its many teams…in addition to Spartak and Dynamo, there are Torpedo, Lokomotiv and CSKA. I think that Dynamo’s fortunes have waned since the break-up of the communist regime, but I’m hoping that we play them again one day.

I was worried about getting caught in horrendous traffic on the journey up to HQ as there was a tube strike taking place in London. I mentioned it to my bosses during the day – oh, at least five times – and I was thankfully allowed out early at 3.50pm. My colleague Bill, an Aberdeen fan from Brechin was travelling up with his Chelsea supporting son. I said I’d tip him off if the traffic got heavy.

Every second counts.

I collected Parky and made great time…until the last two miles, when time stood still.

Not to worry – into The Goose at 6.40pm. Bill wasn’t far behind me, happy I had texted him with some parking options. Just time for two pints of lager with the chaps. San Francisco Bob is over for a week and it was great to see him again. He is coming down to The Wild West on Friday and we are catching the Frome Town ( five league wins on the bounce! ) versus Clevedon Town game on the Saturday ahead of our assault on Anfield the following day. Bob’s excitement was palpable.

Texas Wes and his Russian mate Sergey soon arrived and I handed over the Shed tickets I had managed to get for them. Mo was able to come up trumps with another of Wes’ mates too – quite a hive of activity. Lots of laughter and Mickey-taking of course. Bob’s eyes lit up when I told him that there is a Henri Lloyd shop in Street and we planned a flying visit on Saturday morning before I give him a tour of my home town.

I checked my phone and sat at my seat exactly at 7.45pm. It was just a shame that my phone was obviously two minutes slow.

Drat.

The Russians were encamped in the away section and soon unfurled a massive red flag with a diagonal stripe and this was passed overhead for a few minutes. No words, but the familiar iconic silhouette of Lenin in the top left corner. It was quite striking. I checked the starting line up with Alan and there was no JT. Ivanovic was shifted into the middle and Paolo took over at right-back. As soon as the game began, ex-CSKA player Zhirkov was roundly booed by the visiting hordes. I imagined that the Russians had been queuing since breakfast – they like a good queue, the Russians.

The next thing I spotted was that ex-Celtic winger Aiden McGeady wearing blue boots. I immediately thought of legions of “Cellic” followers in Cambuslang, Easterhouse, Cumbernauld, Dublin and Boston spitting out their pints of Buckfast fortified wine and turning the air – er, blue. It certainly came as a surprise to me.

The first-half was poor wasn’t it? Our Russian visitors were surprisingly unadventurous, but we seemed to be quite ponderous in our attacks. I can hardly remember anything specific. Anelka cut in adeptly in that favoured inside-left channel, but his firm strike flew high and wide. From a whipped-in corner, the ball found Alex lurking on the far post, inside the six yard box. He flung himself at the ball but managed to deflect the ball up and over the crossbar. This action was up the other end and so I think the magnitude of this miss was lost on us in the Matthew Harding. It certainly looked a shocker, though. Chances were few and far between.

I heard the Muscovites singing, in English – “We Are Top Of The League.”

At half-time, Charlie Cooke was on the pitch with Neil while the Lenin flag was being passed overhead in the SE corner again. A right-winger and a left-winger together. On the PA, the classic Ian Dury song “Reasons To Be Cheerful” was being played.

“Some of Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good Golly Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley, and nanny goats

Eighteen-wheeler Scammels, Domineker camels
All other mammals plus equal votes
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willy
Being rather silly and porridge oats

A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
You’re welcome, we can spare it, yellow socks
Too short to be haughty, too nutty to be naughty
Going on forty, no electric shocks

The juice of the carrot, the smile of a parrot
A little drop of claret – anything that rocks
Elvis and Scotty, the days when I ain’t spotty
Sitting on the potty, curing smallpox.”

To be honest, I could find few reasons to be cheerful in our pale first-half performance. I flicked through the programme and Ric Glanvill had written a great piece on the Dynamo game in 1945. A couple of great photos showed the sheer volume of spectators ( anything up to 125,000 ) plus the iconic shot of players such as John Harris, Len Goulden, Vic Woodley and Tommy Lawton clutching posies of flowers. What an iconic photograph. I’m sure you have all seen it. There was also a Q&A with our most famous Russian player, Dmitri Karin, our respected goalkeeper from the ‘nineties. He is now a goalkeeping coach at Luton town. I remember him famously saving a penalty against Viktoria Zizkov in 1994, our first European away game since 1971. He also played in the 1994 F.A. Cup Final.

The programme detailed our complete European record at Stamford Bridge and it really is phenomenal.

Played – 80
Won – 56
Drew – 20
Lost – 4

The game was being shown live on ITV1, one of our main channels, but I imagined thousands flicking through their TV guides on the back of the paucity of entertainment on offer in the first half. However, this became the hackneyed “game of two halves” with Chelsea hitting the net on four occasions in the second period. Nicolas Anelka was sent through, but I didn’t give him any chance of hitting the target from such a tight angle. Indeed, after he shot, the ball hit the side netting.

No – wait? Everyone else apart from Alan and me were cheering and Anelka was seen celebrating by running over to the far corner. This came as a complete surprise to me and I hardly celebrated, I was so shocked. This probably goes down as being the “least celebrated opening goal” in 36 years of Chelsea games. For the second goal, Didier tussled with the right back in that corner of the penalty box below me and I had a great view of his utter strength. It was amazing to see up close. What an ox.

An errant challenge, a penalty kick, two-nil to The Champions.

The Stamford Bridge faithful was surprisingly quiet all night – you knew that, right? However, we sang the old classic

“Che Sera Sera
Whatever Will Be, Will Be
We’re Going To Wembley
Che Sera Sera.”

The Cup Final song with a new European twist.

It was nice to see the three youngsters get some time on the pitch as the game progressed. With millions watching at home, some great PR for the club, too.

My camera was playing up all evening – very annoying – but I captured Ivanovic’ second goal in five days on film. However, the image was blurred and there is a white smudge from his forehead…to be honest, the image is pretty effective, though. He celebrated wildly by sliding on his knees into the arms of Didier, who I think had supplied the cross. We peppered the Moscow goal with a few late chances.

I noted that the Russian fans were doing the same as the Marseille fans – splitting themselves into two groups and chanting at each other. Meanwhile the middle of The Shed and the west side of The Shed were quiet.

We then went to sleep to allow a rapid Spartak break and a close-range goal. Not to worry, that man Ivanovic soon popped up with the fourth. A crazy game.

I briefly met up with Bill outside the Ossie statue and he had enjoyed the game. Parky, Bob, Wes, Sergey and myself met up at The Lily Tandoori at 10pm and we spent ninety minutes chatting away over some curries as the tube-strike induced traffic slowly moved outside. It was a time for celebration for Wes as he has recently nabbed a job as a schoolteacher in Ealing. He will be around for a while yet – after the Double last season, his sabbatical in west London is looking to be a perfect period in his life. Sergey tried a chicken tikka masala and it was his first taste of the English national dish. We spent a while debating if we had qualified for the final sixteen, but the football seemed to be of secondary importance on this particular night. From the gathering of the clans in The Goose to the curry after the game, it was all about laughter amongst friends to be honest.

We said our goodbyes – I’ll be seeing The Bobster on Friday – and departed at 11.30pm. Parky was soon asleep and the 110 miles were eaten up in double-quick time.

A double header coming up – Frome Town vs. Clevedon Town and Liverpool vs. Chelsea.

Reports to follow.

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Tales From Sir Matt Busby Way.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 3 April 2010.

For some reason, I awoke at about 3.45am and, for about two hours, I couldn’t get back to sleep…the game at Old Trafford was on my mind, along with memories of other past trips to that particular part of Lancashire. I was buzzing as England slept. At 6.15am, the alarm sounded. At last I was ready. This had the feel of a massive day. I was both nervous and superbly excited.

At 7.15am, I opened my car door, clutching a coffee, just as my neighbour Liz appeared, just about to take her two dogs out for their morning walk. She gave me an old-fashioned look as if to say –

“There’s that idiot off following Chelsea again.”

My village is festooned with daffodils at this time of the year and the hedgerows were full of yellow and green. I would be seeing a lot of those two colours during the day. I texted Alan the first of many…

7.20am – “Jack Kerouac.”

This was swifly followed by

7.22am – “Jenson Button.”

The F1 World Champion grew up a mere mile from my house in Upper Vobster. I was on my way north and I exchanged texts with Alan over the next few hours –

Chris – 7.46am – “Acker Bilk.”

Alan – 7.48am – “Cobblers.”

Chris – 7.59am – “Fred Wedlock.”

Alan – 8.12am – “Webb Ellis.”

Chris – 8.44am – “The Gold Cup.”

As I passed Worcester, I sent a text to my oldest friend ( 1977 and counting ) Pete, a United fan…

“Good luck today. The best team will win.”

At 9.45am, with the sun attempting to break through the grey clouds, I spotted the first United cars, with yellow and gold bar scarves draped by the rear windows. I had been listening to New Order, but soon changed to Everything But The Girl. It felt wrong for the sons of Manchester to be in my car on such a pivotal day. I had been thinking about Manchester – the city – in the build up to the game. I wondered about the demographics of that city’s two clubs. The city is ringed by several league clubs from outlying towns, and I guess their support is locally-based. The cliched-view is that no United fan comes from Manchester and of course this is ridiculous. I remember talking to a City fan – from south Manchester – and he commented that it was 50/50 where he grew up. I think that the historic United heartland of Salford, Urmston, Kersal and Stretford still holds true, whereas the City support is rooted in that south-central area of Hulme and Moss Side. However, due to the working class fan being priced out of the game these days, football has become a suburbanites plaything. How many hardcore Chelsea fans still live in Balham, Battersea, Wandsworth and Lambeth? Not many. In days of yore, the grimy street urchins of working-class Manchester would support their very local clubs, but these days United’s support now comes from every town in the British Isles. Still, I did wonder about that “map” of red and blue support within the Manchester connurbation and how it would look in 2010. Who “owns” Crumpsall and Harpurhey in the north, who “owns” Gorton and Hyde in the east? For me, these excursions into other cities on away days are like urban history trips…my mind races with past stories of club histories, past players, past battles, local personalities, local flavour. I love these trips with all my heart and always try to get under the skin of each host city. As I have mentioned before, my ancestors come from SW Manchester – an Axon stronghold – and this has played on my mind for some time. It’s just a good job Ossie and Webbie scored in that 1970 game at Old Trafford – yes, I realise the irony – or who knows who I would be supporting today.

Back in my youth, United were always seen as a bit of a sad old club, followed by neanderthal glory-hunters…the fact that they had not won the league for ages was richly celebrated. Their one season in the old second division was seen as perfect poetry for their legions of fans. Their lone star, George Best, was a laughing stock, missing matches, getting suspended. He was lampooned by us at school in those years from 1972-1974.

“Georgie Best, Superstar – He Wears Frilly Knickers And He Wears A Bra.”

And here’s the thing…back in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, I always got the impression that kids who weren’t really into football, but went along with it to fit in, always supported Manchester United and Liverpool. More irony – that those two bitter rivals should have such a shared gene pool amongst their support.

Infact, I remember finding my class photo from 1978 a while back and it acted as a fine snapshot in time for me. My class contained maybe 15 boys and 15 girls. We would have been 13. I clearly remembered who supported who…no clubs were supported by any of the girls ( how times change! ) but the list of boys’ support was as follows –

Liverpool – Peter, Richard.
Tottenham Hotspur – Andy, David.
Manchester United – Jerry.
Chelsea – yours truly.
Leeds United – Tim.
Bristol Rovers – Dave.

The fanatics were Rover’s Dave and myself. But only a quarter of that class were footy fans…I bet the figure is higher these days.

Anyway, I put all of these myriad thoughts to one side as I turned off the M6 and began the oh-so familiar approach into Manchester. I was soon on the orbital and always find it odd that “The World’s Biggest Football Club” is never signposted. Methinks that there are some City fans in high places in the city council offices!

“Let the idiots from Surrey and Devon get lost.”

There were lots of youths in high-visiblity jackets shepharding cars into industrial estate parking lots – £5! £6! £7! – but I parked up on Gorse Avenue outside a house, no charge. Easy. This was at 11am. I walked out onto the Chester Road, the main approch, and the white steel roof supports of Old Trafford were clearly visible. The street vendors – or grafters – were out in force, selling the yellow and gold scarves.

“Get your protest scaaaaarves – only a five’uh” in that Mancunian vernacular.

A £3.50 “cheeseburg’uh” and I was on my way. The cross-roads by Sir Matt Busby Way is always a hive of red and white activity on match days…a massive queue to get into The Bishop’s Blaize pub, full of song, chippy after chippy, souvenir stalls, a riot of colour. I had to get in line to withdraw some cash and as I waited for what seemed like ages, I took it all in. Three young lads from Northern Ireland, their accents even more impenetrable than the locals, were stood behind me in the queue and I could sense they were worried, running through United’s attacking options, minus Rooney. Our team appeared stronger in comparison. Lots of United fans appeared tense. Fans were decked in protest scarves. Some had Megastore bags. An uneasy alliance.

On the final approach, I bought two fanzines…”CFCUK” from Dave Johnstone, but “United We Stand” too…for my mate Pete. But I do occasionally like to read other fans’ perspectives on this great game of ours. To be fair, “UWS” is a great read, albeit red-tinted, and it even allowed a Chelsea fan’s perspective on the current state of play. There were the predictable noises about the Glazer conundrum, the green and gold protest ( now getting passe, according to some ), the return of Beckham, but also some views from the hardcore about “Day Trippers”, corporate hospitality goons, the over-pricing of tickets and the loathing of Liverpool. Sound familiar?

I took a few shots of the stadium – the United Trinity, the statue of Sir Matt, the understated Munich memorial. I chatted briefly with a few mates on the forecourt, then lined-up to get in. However, an over eager steward stopped me from taking my camera in…he was just being vindictive I am sure…but thankfully, I sweet-talked my way into leaving the whole bag behind the desk at the main reception. The gentleman was very kind and I thanked him ( it meant I didn’t have to traipse back to the car and miss the kick-off ), but I daren’t tell him I was Chelsea! I would go for Plan B and would take a few photos with my phone. Sorted.

I was in the side stand again, but unlike the pre-match vibes at our game at OT last season, the mood was up-beat. It made a refreshing change I must say. In that crowded bar, so many familiar faces. I had a bottle of Bud – United most love America.

Alan, Gary and myself had great seats, four rows from the rear, level with the six yard box. The sun was shining, the nerves were tingling. I spotted Steve Azar, face aglow, in the corner section, right in the middle. There were 2,500 Chelsea in the corner, 500 along the side. We stood the entire game.

We had agreed that a strong, determined start was paramount and the boys didn’t let us down. From the kick-off, we worked the ball into Deco who shot from distance. And it didn’t stop there. We dominated that gorgeous first-half in a way that few of us could imagine. United couldn’t get near us. We were moving the ball so well, keeping United at bay. The defense was hardly troubled, but we kept asking questions of United. Mikel was at his best ; a defensive rock infront of Alex and JT. Frank and Deco moved the ball intelligently, Malouda was always happy to drive into the heart of the red back line. Anelka held up the ball well. We were loving it. The United support was reeling.

After a quarter of the game gone, Malouda, our French prince, skipped deep into the heart of the United defence…he whipped in a cross and we saw a blur of players at the near post. The ball ended-up in the goal, we knew not how, we did not care.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

The Chelsea support roared like never before this season. Up and down we bounced. We could not believe our eyes. A text from a mate…Joe’s goal…must’ve been the deftest of touches. For the next five minutes, our support roared and roared and I noted many sticks of celery being tossed into the air.

Our very own take on the yellow and green on show at Old Trafford.

For the rest of the half, we probed away, but with only a few shots from distance. However, United were as poor as I have seen in thirteen visits to their stadium. Neville, that loathed, ridiculously-moustachioed individual, was having a howler and Scholes’ cross-field passes often went out of play. Ji-Sung Park was coming in for some stick from Alan, Gary and myself.

“I hear that Park has bought a new labrador.”

“Oh yeah – what flavour?”

“He’s kicking chunks out of us.”

“Not a pal of mine.”

“They’ll never winalot with him in the team.”

Such lovely moments of humour really make watching football with Al and Gal so wonderful. We were hooting.

Of course, at half-time, we fully expected Ferguson to be giving his underperforming players the famous “Hair Dryer Treatment” and we knew that United couldn’t possibly perform as poorly in the second.

And so it proved. United had a lot more of the ball and I became trapped in a world of nervous doubt, hating every United attack, begging for us to close them down, but screaming support nonetheless. Paolo broke through soon into the second period, but was stage-struck and tamely shot wide. Damn. The time appeared to stand still. I looked at my watch constantly. Scholes, deployed so deep, was having so much of the ball and was having better joy with his “quarterback-style” long balls to the wings. United were getting back into it and eventually the home support was rocking. We stood firm – encouraging the boys, urging them on. Two stalwarts next to me, old school veterans, were annoying the hell out of me. They were so negative.

“Of course, United are stronger you fools, we couldn’t keep that dominance going forever, stop moaning!” – I thought. One of the “moaning two” couldn’t watch. He stood next to me, head bowed, muttering about wanting to be “in a darkened room.”

Drogba came on for Anelka and we approved. Nico had led the line superbly, but was tiring. Drogba had a couple of breaks, a couple of duels with Vidic. Dean was annoying us with his decisions. Send Scholes off, you muppet!

And then it happened.

A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…”go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football?

That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row infront. Gary ended up two rows infront. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!” The concensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care. A text confirmed it…it came from Del, a Liverpool fan, eager to see us halt United’s progress to Number 19 and four in a row.

Then, almost immediately, a United break and a close-range goal from Macheda.

And so it started all over again…the clock-watching, the nerves…a few sporadic United attacks. Thankfully, they were misfiring. But – oh – what a tense time. I was hating it, but loving it too.

“Back to the darkened room” I whispered to the fan next to me.

Everyone was talking about “Fergie time” and some expected five minutes or more – even seven – to be played. Thankfully, my call of “four” turned out to be right. With the Chelsea support roaring, we repelled every ball into the box…a Cech grasp, a JT head, a block, a penalty claim – EFF OFF! – but we stayed the distance.

At around 2.38pm, the final whistle.

I momentarilly slumped – YES! – payback for Moscow.

I then clambered high on my seat, hugged a few strangers, kissed a few strangers, then joined in –

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Right in line was our mate Simon, 1984 vintage, and he spotted the three of us.

His smile said it all.

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Down below, the players celebrated and we continued singing. It had been a momentous match in deepest Manchester. I felt shattered. I bounced down the stairs, to be met with ashen-faced United fans staring at us…I gathered my wits, then gathered my bag from the reception.

Out on Sir Matt Busby Way, the natives were silent, save for a couple of United lads gobbing off, then squaring up to a couple of Chelsea “scarfers.” I didn’t want to be the one Chelsea fan looking on if it kicked-off, so I quickly side-stepped a few United lads and walked amidst the Chelsea. I kept looking around to make sure the trouble had subsided, keeping my wits about me. I doubt if I would ever get involved – more of a peacemaker, me – but we had to stick together. Anyway, a lesson there. I never wear colours and that is why.

I hot-footed it back to the car with texts flying in from Glenn, Parky, a euphoric Del and then from further afield…Bob in ST, Andy in LA, Beth in TX. The locals were moaning about the referee too. Love it!

I was hot and flustered. I wanted to get away. I threw my Lacoste rain jacket into the back seat, gulped down a Red Bull and set off. On the CD player, Tracey Thorn –

“Wherever you go I will follow you.”

At just before 3pm, I entered the Chester Road and Old Trafford was – like Manchester United – in my rear view mirror. It was a beautiful drive home…blissed out…music on the CD…who cares about the rest of the football results…

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Nearing the M6, I was overtaken by a fat replica-kit wearing United fan, in a Mercedes, guzzling a Coke…he was a big old target…a United stereotype, no doubt loathed by the United hardcore…I put on “Blue Is The Colour” and wound down the windows, as I sidled up alongside.

The texts continued, the Chelsea CD continued.

“Son Of My Father.”

“Allouette.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

…as if to top a wonderful day out, I then learnt that both Spurs and Leeds had lost. The rain couldn’t dampen my spirits. I was loving every damn minute of it.

Nearing home, passing through Midsomer Norton, a text from Pete –

“Fair play mate. Sounded like you deserved to win. Hope you enjoyed it.”

Did I ever!

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Tales From Moscow.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 21 May 2008.

I got back from work on Tuesday at about 5.30pm…a bite to eat, watched “Sky Sports News” – I noted mainly United fans being interviewed in Red Square. Got to bed at 7.30pm…oh dear, too excited…I dozed off after a while, but the alarm woke me at 9.15pm. I packed some “lucky European game” Maynards Wine Gums ( the reason we beat Liverpool in the semis ) plus the scarf my mother bought me after my first ever game in 1974…its last outing was at Stockholm in 1998…I needed all the good luck charms I could muster. I set the VCR to record the game.

Left home at 10pm…past Stonehenge…M3, M25…Gatwick at 12.15am.

My mate Neil had flown in from Guernsey at 7pm and had tried to get some kip at the airport to no avail. My other mates Daryl, Alan and Gary arrived by train from London at 12.30am. We all arrived just at the right time, just ahead of the rush. Our flight was to leave at 3am…the airport wasn’t busy at all. Time for one pint of San Miguel in the departure lounge – I was told that ex-England cricketer Alex Stewart and big Chelsea fan was in the bar. This would be my 55th game of the season…Gary has only missed two Chelsea games this season, dating from the Charity Shield in August…60 out of 62 I think.

We left Gatwick at 3.15am…a four hour flight was ahead of us. Not a great flight – not much sleep, awful food…the bloke I was sat next to was a Southampton fan…he was here with his girlfriend, who had two corporate clients on tow. I heaved a deep sigh. They didn’t even know where their seats were in the stadium. The whole idea of corporates at games makes me sick, so I did well to ignore them all for the rest of the flight.

With the three hour time difference, we touched down in Moscow around 10am…misty rain, low clouds…it hit home that I was in Russia when I clocked the terminal building, with Russian-style balconies and over-elaborate touches here and there. Then the Russian planes with the Cyrillic text. Dorothy, this ain’t Kansas…it ain’t even Croydon. I was loving it – the thrill of a foreign land.

To be fair, we went straight through passport control and were soon heading into Moscow on the free bus, stickered with CFC badges…a nice touch.

Sheremetyevo Airport must be about thirty miles to the NW of Moscow, but the bus trip took us two hours. I noted that a few of the fans caught up on some sleep, but not me…I peered out of the windows, taking it all in. The traffic was horrendous…the road network just isn’t up to the vast increase in cars now present in Moscow. There were massive apartment blocks everywhere, blocking the horizon…everything was on a vast scale…the towering housing blocks, the shopping malls…it was like America on drugs…a brutal cityscape…not pretty. We drove past two old-style Russian markets / bazaars…shanty-towns of products, rickety-shops and bright signs. We drove on and on, the apartment blocks dominating every view. Noted many massive car dealerships – Ford, Mercedes, Toyota…an Ikea…several McDonalds.

Eventually we spotted the Luzhniki – the former Lenin Stadium – home of the Olympics in 1980…Daley Thompson, Alan Wells, Coe and Ovett. We stumbled out of the bus at 12.30pm, not really knowing which side of the stadium we were on. The idea was to head into the centre. We crossed a road…I tried to phone home…we got our bearings. Then, just behind us, we spotted Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti appear from an underpass…I walked over to say “hi” to Ron as he lives near me and we chatted briefly…it then went surreal…out of the underpass appeared Pat Nevin ( my favourite CFC player of all time! ), then Ray Wilkins, then Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Dave Beasant, Clive Walker, David Lee, Steve Finnieston, Clive Wilson, Keith Dublin, Trevor Aylott, Garry Stanley, Gary Chivers. We were on cloud nine. What glorious good luck, to be at that exact point in a city as huge as Moscow…the players had just arrived themselves and were headed into the centre like us. We chatted to a few of them…photos with a few…had a nice little chat with Pat Nevin and I was beside myself with joy. After five minutes of this, the players drifted away and we stood around rubbing our eyes, not really believing what had just happened. We made our way to the nearest subway stop, only to be reunited with them all again as Alan bought our return tickets. I had the impression that Pat – the most Worldly-wise of them all – was sorting out the players’ tickets!

We descended the elevators into the station and I was loving it all. Onto the famous subway train and there was my most admired footballer ever Pat Nevin just five feet away. Bless him – he was wearing jeans and his ruc-sac contained the new Bill Bryson book (“Shakespeare” )…he looked like a mature student, ever the non-typical footballer.

We got to Red Square and up into the daylight, my heart now pumping with anticipation. Daryl had the “spot” of the day…Bryan “Pop” Robson was nearby. Red Square was magnificent, if not as large as I expected…we tried to hoist my Peter Osgood banner, but the Russian police said ”net”. Cathy was nearby in a bar, but I never bumped into her unfortunately…obviously, loads of photos outside The Kremlin and then by St Basils, the colourful cathedral built in around 1570. We spotted a few of the Chelsea players milling around…Ron Harris and the Kremlin, what an amazing sight.

Down to the river, a walk past the southern wall of The Kremlin…I treated the boys to a hot dog and a drink…the hot dog was awful actually. Mike from New York was in town, but try as we might, we never managed to meet up – a shame. We headed into Arbatskaya, one of the main streets for bars in Moscow…my mate Mark from Westbury, a nearby town to my home in Somerset, shouted out to me and we joined him for a beer…in fact five beers…he was sat with a Chelsea crew from Trowbridge and Salisbury. We were then joined by the Worcester Boys ( Burger will remember these chaps from Villa Park last year…good lads ) I pinned my Ossie banner up…it felt good.

The rain had come by this stage, though, and it was getting a bit cold. I bought a black Russian hat ( with hammer and sickle ) for 300 roubles ( £6 ) and I was told by the lads “that looks good on you, mate.” I still don’t know if they were serious! Opposite us was a Sbarro and sitting in the front was Specials front man Terry Hall ( big United fan )…he was looking pretty miserable actually and Alan and Daryl told him this when they got photographed with him as he left!

We decided to get some food at Sbarro too…and what followed was typical Russia…we waited for about twenty minutes to get served because the cashier had run out of change! I kid you not. By the time Alan and myself had been served, our pizza was getting cold…we sat down in the front by the pavement to be met by Daryl throwing plastic cups at some ravenous crows which had descended to pick up some scraps. It was like a scene from The Birds.

At about 7pm we walked up through Arbatskaya, past a pub full of United fans, and dropped into the John Bull pub…half and half Chelsea and United. The United fans were the more vociferous it has to be said…they were also the most drunk. It helps. To be fair to United, they really do have an amazing array of songs – fair play to them. I feared that this song would be whizzing around my head for the rest of the evening…

“Viva Ronaldo, viva Ronaldo, running down the wing, hear United sing, Viva Ronaldo.”

I hate it when that happens. Bloody hate it.

We caught the subway, outnumbered and out sung by United on our train…I commented to Daryl that as United’s support is so massive, then the 21,000 present are by nature bound to be the most vociferous of its support…our 21,000 would be more mixed, more representative of our ( mainly middle-class ) smaller support as a whole. Something I have realised these past few years. Our support ain’t bad though…when we’re in the mood we can put on a good show.

I noted many Russians wearing Chelsea scarves and shirts. It was noticeable that we spotted a Chelsea / Adidas billboard with the slogan “Impossible Is Nothing” at many locations in Moscow. Maybe we do have ten million fans in Russia! Took a few photos outside, including the iconic statue of Lenin, cape flying in the wind. The stadium was set in its own separate area, surrounded by trees, all very ordered, all very utilitarian…the stadium was functional rather than beautiful…its roof ( an addition since 1980 ) gave it a certain style and an extra visual impact. I bought some match programmes.

Into the stadium at about 9.15pm…unfortunately missed out on a place to pin up my Ossie flag.

We had reasonable seats, lower section, row 15, by the far corner flag. The food outlets were busy, but the food on offer looked ropey. Bizarrely, I opted on a big bucket of popcorn for 200 roubles…should we win, it would be popcorn at every game for the rest of my days!

This was it then – the zenith of my Chelsea-supporting life. I had thought on the importance of this match for days on end. I realised that, to an extent, there was a certain inherent sadness in this momentous trip. Should we be victorious, this would undoubtedly be the high point, the high water mark, of my Chelsea life…anything else which follows would be therefore of lesser importance, of lesser value…quite a chilling prospect and it haunted me throughout the trip.

As the stadium filled up, I needed some time alone. I went out into the area beneath the stands. Up until that point, since being out sung by United on the tube, I had negative vibes about the game… would our support rise to the occasion, would the team? My mind was muddled. I needed some clarity.

I stood by myself, overlooking a lower-level entrance onto the pitch, just as the red and gold clad performers were assembling below. I thought back on all the games I had been to, I thought of my parents taking me to that first game, for igniting my passion for this wonderful club…I was just so grateful to be there, to be in Moscow…my feelings at this moment are difficult to put into words. My vibes were improving. I bumped into Dutch Mick, who was in Chicago in 2006, and took a photo of him and his mate Gary with two Russian soldiers. Just this simple act – meeting a good friend so far from home, amongst 21,000 fellow fans, made me feel great and I bounced back into the stadium.

TV presenter Jonny Gould ( he hosts the live baseball each week on Channel Five ) was spotted five rows behind. I had a quick chat…”was watching the Yankee game on Sunday, heard you say you’d be here, been a Yankee fan for twenty years” – he told me to email the show. Good stuff.

The PA played “Take Me Home Country Road”, the United song, adapted to include the more appropriate “United Road” and the United fans were loud and vociferous.

Then our turn – and “Blue Is The Colour”, sung heartily by the blue hordes in the south terrace. I captured this all on my phone.

The pre-match festivities continued with the on-field antics of the dancers, the release of the red and gold balloons.

The teams entered the arena, the Champions League theme tune sounded.

We were ready.

It seems pointless for me to regurgitate the entire game, since you all saw it and you all shared the highs and lows.

All I can do is mention my perspective from Row 15, Tribune 1 in the South-East section of The Luzhniki. I was sat next to Neil, he was next to his brother Daryl…across the way were Gary and Alan…two seats down was Andy, a good friend from Nuneaton. So good to be so close. Three Russians were stood infront.

I replaced my Russian hat ( it felt massive! ) with my Yankees cap – this was a good luck charm from Anfield and The Bridge semi-finals, so I needed the help of that, too.

Caps, scarves, wine gums – if you must know, blue socks and underpants too. OK – I know…too much information.

It’s worth commenting on that our starting XI was the one which I predicted as did the rest of the lads. We can debate this until the cows come home, but it doesn’t say much for Paolo Ferreira’s confidence, does it?

Since we left the bar on Arbatskaya at 7pm, we were on our feet from then until we eventually sat on the bus which took us to the airport at around 2am…seven hours on our feet. Apart from a few pockets, the Chelsea support stood as one the entire game. The United massed ranks did too.

Of course, just before the game began, we waved our flags furiously…United’s show was quite clever…red mosaics, with the word “Believe” picked out in white…but the “i” was in the shape of the cup…when it first appeared I thought that it said ”Belveve” to my weary eyes.

I think for our Champions League appearance in Rome next May we should do something similar, but the word should be “Celery.” That could confuse the Romans and the rest of Europe come to that. Alternatively “Vinci Per Noi” has a nice ring to it.

Our main chant for the night was “We’re in Moscow, we’re in Moscow, “F” your history, we’re in Moscow.”

The game was magnificent wasn’t it? At last a great CL Final. But we were fearing the worst as half-time approached…Essien wasn’t playing close enough to Ronaldo…their midfield was dominating.

Great goal from Ronaldo, but oh that hurt. Only noted a few United fans in the neutral section to my right. United were then in full voice for twenty minutes…one chant in particular ( relying on United’s antagonism towards England…they surely are the closest of cousins to the Scousers )…

“He goes to the left, he goes to the right – that boy Ronaldo made England look shite.” The whole of the north end was swaying one way and then the next…impressive…sickeningly so.

Then a ball into the box, the ball broke…I said to Neil “we’ll score here” and a nano-second later, Lamps equalised…much against the run of play, but our end erupted…gave Neil a hug and just briefly glanced at Daryl, losing it, as I climbed up onto the seat behind me. We screamed our support.

Our second-half performance ( in which we quietened United’s support to a whisper) was the stuff of legends…on many occasions, with me singing myself hoarse, the whole Chelsea end as one organic unit, at one with the team, I just felt that it was as good as it will ever get.

Mesmerising.

The game continued on…it was an epic…or at least it felt like it. The wine gums were getting eked out – I needed to save some for extra-time, then penalties.

The low point of the whole night for me was Drogba’s typically selfish walk down the tunnel. I was saddened, truly saddened, that he was so self-absorbed that he didn’t even bother to watch with his manager and team mates from the bench. Words fail me.

Let’s cut to the chase. When Ronaldo tried to be clever, when Big Pete saved, the rush we all experienced was amazing. I clambered onto my seat and paraphrased United.

“He goes to the left, he goes to the right – that boy Ronaldo – he is fucking shite.” Oh boy – the antichrist has missed…GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Frank scored – bless him, God Bless Pat – and I think it was at this stage that I began welling up, my hands coming up to my face, trembling, my whole upper torso shaking. I remember thinking “Christ, if I’m like this now, what will I be like when we win” and I was very self aware that I might well soon be collapsing in a heap, tears flowing.

“Get a grip, Chris.”

United and Chelsea traded pens. I captured Anderson’s ( ? ) penalty on my mobile…MISS, MISS! No luck.

Then Penalty Number Five. JT…we stood and we remained still.

Disbelief – utter disbelief. The feeling of euphoria soon evaporated and United sensed our fear. Anelka’s penalty miss was academic I thought – I knew we’d never recover from JT’s miss.

We turned away, silent.

Fifteen minutes later, we were scrambling around outside the back of the stadium, trying to dodge the rain and the massive puddles…I heard “I vow to thee, my country” being played on the stadium PA ( the quintessential English hymn ) and then…with us a good five minutes away…the roar from the United hordes as the cup was lifted.

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