Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

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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 Three Days In May

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 15 May 2013.

Tuesday 14 May began with a “who the hell is phoning me at this ungodly hour” call from Les at just after 7.30am. Les lives in nearby Melksham and was already at Bristol airport. He was phoning me to check if I was on the same early-morning flight to Schipol; I told him that I would be on the 3.20pm flight instead. He was just about to board the plane by the sounds of it. This was a good sign. I wasn’t sure how many Chelsea would be in Amsterdam for our Europa League Final with Benfica – surely not the 40,000 at Munich – but the fact that Les was going told me that we would have good numbers out there. Les isn’t a season-ticket holder, so I presumed that he was going without a ticket. He told me that two other lads that we knew – Westbury Mark and Trowbridge Andy – were heading off much later by coach. They were without tickets too, I believed. These lads, and thousands like them, were travelling in blind faith with no guarantee of a match ticket. Fair play to them all.

As I got my things together for my three days in The Netherlands, Munich was dwelling heavily on my mind. I have never thought myself to be too superstitious about football, but as I slowly decided on what items of clothing to pack, my view soon changed.

Timberland shoes – no, I had them in Moscow. A definite ‘no.’

My new Nike trainers – yes, I’ve only worn them twice…at Old Trafford and Villa Park. Two wins. Absolute certainties.

Hugo Boss top – yep, I wore that in Barcelona last year, I’ll wear that on Wednesday for the game.

One significant omission for my pre-Amsterdam planning, sadly, was my friend Glenn who was unable to make it this time. How the two of us revelled on that Friday together; travelling together out to Prague from Bristol and enjoying each other’s company, before joining in with the madness of Munich on the Saturday. Was it really almost a whole year ago?

During last year’s trail to European glory, I was indebted to bird 5hit. Let me explain. Just before I travelled out to Spain for the Barcelona game, I was unwilling to wipe off some birds’ mess which was on my car. Now, this is seen as good luck in the UK, if not elsewhere. I joked with my work colleague Mike about this on my return after a most improbable semi-final victory was secured (…thanks to the birds’ mess, and Messi’s miss). Imagine my worry when I had to turn in my car – which was a hire car – for another one, just before travelling out to Munich. I was all for keeping the car – and, crucially, not washing the mess off. Then, miraculously, on the Friday I spotted fresh birds’ mess on my new car. I texted Mike the good news. The rest, as they say, is history.

After Didier scored the winning penalty in Munich, Mike was soon to text me –

“The bird 5hit worked!”

The relevance of all this…er, 5hit?

As I opened my front door at about 12.30pm in readiness for my quick jaunt to Bristol airport, I quickly spotted the new addition just above the driver’s window.

A fresh dollop.

Oh boy.

Incidentally, just to prove that I can weave any old – er, crap – into a story about Chelsea, I can well remember being in The Shed for the 5-0 thrashing of Derby County in August 1983…yes, you’ve guessed it. A pigeon crapped on me. I am not sure if I considered it lucky at the time, but we went on to win the old second division championship that season.

I was parked at Bristol airport at 1pm. I wondered if Young Dave and Pav would be on the flight, just as they were to Prague in May 2012. I bought a pint of Heineken – of course! – and made my way over to the same part of the lounge area where Glenn and I sat last year. Yes, more superstition. Who should be there but Cookie, a lad from Frome who I used to work with in 1988-1989. He was from the year below me at school, a good footballer; I have often chatted to him at Frome Town this season. He was with another lad from Frome; they were both without tickets, but willing to spend £200 apiece. I chatted to them about our chances in the final. To my immense guilt a few days before the game, I could only name one player from the Benfica team – Cardozo – without referencing the internet. I then remembered a few names, including Nemanja Matic who fleetingly played for us three years ago. We obviously spoke about Munich too; it was never far from my thoughts.

I told Cookie about the amazing story of Pav’s famous home-made VIP pass which enabled him free access to the Allianz Arena last May. I had seen on Facebook before leaving home that Young Dave was helping to finalise Pav’s 2013 version. I wondered how successful Pav would be this year. On lining up at the gate, I spotted Graham – and his wife – from Melksham who were also travelling out with no tickets. I’d guess there were around 25 Chelsea lining up at the gate.

Just as I was about to enter the airplane at the top of the steps, I turned around.

It was Pav. He was right behind me.

“Alright mate!”

As with last year, he was wearing a badge with a lovely picture of his dear mother, who sadly passed away a few months before the Munich final.

“I hear you have made a VIP pass for this year too, Pav.”

“Yes, mate. It’s laminated this time. Very professional.”

The flight from Bristol to Schipol took less than an hour. I was able to read a lovely article about Bobby Tambling in “When Saturday Comes” by the Chelsea fan (and founder of “WSC”) Mike Ticher, who now lives in Australia. Bobby, the antithesis of the boozing and extravagant Chelsea player of the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, has only recently become a Chelsea celebrity by those outside SW6 due to Frank Lampard’s assault on his 202 goals.

Walking through the arrival hall, I realised that my last foreign airport was Beijing in December. I had a little tingle of excitement at that memory; this supporting Chelsea lark sure has its privileges, doesn’t it? Not only the best friends in the world, but an excuse to travel to the four corners of the world too.

Happy daze in Amsterdam.

Pav and I caught a train into Amsterdam and he was able to regale me with the fine details of how the fake VIP passes were planned and printed. At Central Station, he wanted to show them to me; they were excellent. He had one main one, plus a couple of back-ups. Before we went our separate ways, I touched the badge of his Mum for good luck, gave him a hug and wished him well.

As far as superstitions go, things were working out just fine.

Outside the bustling Central Station, I looked around for the correct tram to take me down to Leidseplein where Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed were waiting for me. I was last in Amsterdam in 2008 on a business trip. Back in the ‘eighties, the area outside the train station was grimy with the whiff of desperate guys trying to sell hash. In 2013, things had improved. Amsterdam was going to be my home for three days and I was buzzing.

I met up with the boys at 6.30pm. They had arrived around midday and had already acclimatised well to their new surroundings. They had ventured out in the misty rain for a leisurely bar crawl, followed by some snap; the highlight being Gary’s demolition of almost three racks of ribs.

We walked down to our cosy hotel, just south of Leidseplein. The central area of Amsterdam consists of concentric streets and canals in a largely “U” shape, with the train station at the top. Heading south, there is Dam Square and then Leidseplein. Our hotel was just at the bottom of the “U.”

We freshened-up, then assembled at 8pm. There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a first night in a foreign city; and nights on the town do not get much better than old Amsterdam. I soon realised that I was wearing the same Valentino shirt that I wore out and about in Seville some fifteen years ago; another nice superstition. We won that game too. That it still fits me is a miracle.

We decided to have a bite to eat in one of the many Argentinian steak houses on Leidsedwarsstraat. Steak and chips for all five of us, washed down with pints of Dommelsch. Bloody luvverly.

The toast, as ever was of “Friendship & Football.”

We caught the tram further into the heart of this intimate, exciting and fascinating city. This was my fifth visit. While at college at Stoke, while on a geography field trip, we visited Rotterdam for three nights and Amsterdam for four nights in April 1986. Fantastic memories. In 1987, two college mates and little old me made a return visit. In March 1988, I returned to attempt to sell some football badges at an Ajax UEFA cup match at the Olympic Stadium; it was my worst-ever night’s business during my badge-selling days. I didn’t sell a single badge; the market was already swamped with English footy memorabilia unlike in Germany and Italy. I find it incredible that it took me 25 years to return, save for that flying visit in 2008, when I only really experienced Amsterdam from behind the wheel of a car on a trip from Schipol down to Venlo and Utrecht.

We caught a cab up to Dam Square, which acts as the heart of the city. We bumped into Beth and Cathy, but continued east. We soon found ourselves in the heart of the red light district which is centred on Voorburgwal. There were Chelsea and Benfica fans at every turn. Inside for a beer, we found ourselves watching the Arsenal vs. Wigan game as the score leapt from 1-1 to 4-1. Andy Wray and Steve Mantle were spotted outside; it was clear that we were going to be bumping into friends at regular intervals in the city centre. We continued walking. The red lights were everywhere. The sights and smells were authentic Amsterdam; windows and windows of working girls of various ages, clad in bikinis, tapping the windows for our attention and the sweet smell of dope which permeated every side street and canal-side path. The mood was of boisterousness, of fun, of football. We passed a corner bar – Café Corso – on Achterburgwal. Inside, a famous Chelsea face was sat at a table, surveying the scene. The General was again in town. We took up residence in this bar…the beer was being sold in plastic glasses, but we didn’t mind. I guess we stayed here for around two hours. Alan happened to look outside just as Fun Time Frankie, Mike Neat and Dave The Hat were outside, chomping into some pizza. They looked up as we appeared at the window.

Don’t worry, they couldn’t afford us.

We had a fantastic time in this bar. There were pints of Heineken, plenty of laughs and – of course – tons of photographs. Supporting Chelsea was made for nights like this. We had a cracking time. The music on the juke box was rich and varied; we even got to witness Alan dancing, holding onto his lapels like a proper cockernee, to an oompah song about “Old Amsterdam.” It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, the bar closed ridiculously early at 1am. We were back walking the streets again. The crowds were now heavier, noisier, the bridges over the canals were bottle-necks. Benfica were out in force and were in fine voice. Chelsea were bantering back-and-forth with them. We decided to head home, or at least for further drinking nearer home, where it wouldn’t be quite so likely to “kick-off.” We wandered south. Daryl, Ed and I hung it out until 3am, supping two more additional pints apiece. I hoped I wouldn’t regret it in the morning. Outside the pub on Leidseplein, I looked up and saw Neil Barnett. I popped over for a quick word; there was talk of the game ahead, but also of New York.

We returned to our hotel. It had been a Dam lovely night.

Wednesday 15 May began with the slightest hangover for me. I had – foolishly, what was I thinking? – set the alarm for 7.30am. I made it down to a lovely breakfast at 9.45am. Unsurprisingly, Gary was there; he had been breakfasting for almost two hours. It was a leisurely start to the day; we were in no rush. Out at 11.30am, we again caught a tram into the centre. Unlike Tuesday, there was no rain and the sun was trying its damnedest to burn through the small amount of cloud cover. A coffee, a wander, a stroll down to Dam square where we met Walnuts, newly-arrived by coach. Benfica fans seemed to again be out in force, though that is probably misleading; they were bedecked in the red of their team, and easily recognisable. Chelsea, typically, tended to be more subtle, so blended in with the surroundings. In fact, during the previous night’s action, I had hardly seen a Chelsea shirt or scarf at all.

We ambled through the red light district once more and settled in at “Café Remember” for an hour. Two lads from the flight recognised me and told me of their successful visit to the stadium that morning in search of tickets. Melksham Graham was in the pub and he was relieved to hear of the good news; he soon departed to the Arena to check out the ticket situation. Next, we met Julie and Burger, the Nuneaton boys, Rob and the Kent boys, in a throng of a few hundred outside Susie’s Saloon. By now, the skies were blue; Chelsea weather. It seemed that the night before had passed with no serious incident, although we heard that two Benfica fans had been thrown into a canal. I’m surprised that it was only two.

Alan, Daryl, Ed and I headed back to the hotel to collect our match tickets, via another couple of beers in Leidseplein. There was bar after bar, cheek by jowl, one after the other. We sat outside in the mid-afternoon sun, under trees heavy with blossom. There was a massive echo from Munich; on that wonderful afternoon, my friends and I spent many hours in a gorgeous beer garden, with petals of blossom falling into our steins of Paulaner. With a lovely coincidence, I ordered pints of “Bavaria” lager. The area was full of noisy Benfica fans, but Chelsea soon responded with a few songs of our own. I quickly chatted to one of forty Benfica fans who had travelled over from Toronto. They are a massive club of course; the biggest in Portugal. I could hardly believe that they had suffered the sadness of six consecutive UEFA final defeats. Our single defeat in Moscow seems ridiculous in comparison. Our tickets collected, we met up with Gary and Walnuts back at Dam Square at about 4pm.

Still almost five hours until the game; lovely.

We wandered north, through the busy shopping area, and chanced upon a local restaurant. We spent the best part of two hours in there, enjoying each other’s’ company, knocking back more ale, laughing at a ridiculous array of silly jokes and stories. Alan and I chose the most wisely when we ordered the food. We had “hache” which is a Dutch beef stew, served with a huge pile of mash and a side order of red cabbage – or “Charlie Babbage” as Alan called it.

Yes, it was good.

With 7pm approaching, we headed up to the Central Station. There was a mix of fans in the train as we headed to Amsterdam’s south-eastern suburbs. Like Munich, the city’s stadium is way out of the centre. Thankfully, whereas the Munich subway trains were infamously slow and over-filled on that evening last year, this journey was fine. I stood the entire time, but it wasn’t a problem. Among the songs being aired, the “We all hate Leeds” song brought the biggest smile from me. The atmosphere in the train was fine; Benfica red and Chelsea blue sparring only through song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upZQ4_xKCZQ

The Amsterdam Arena appeared. It was surprisingly tall; it only holds just over 50,000, yet it towers over the buildings nearby. The roof adds extra height of course. We soon bumped into the New York contingent again. I wandered off to take it all in, taking the usual assortment of photographs along the way. The train station was adjacent to the southern end, which was the one allocated to Benfica. I slowly began my clockwise perambulation of the stadium until I reached the north end.

Just like Munich.

The Benfica fans were friendly enough. I had time on my hands. I was enjoying every minute. I bought a five euro beer – I made sure it wasn’t alcohol free, unlike the ones being sold inside – and took it with me on my walk, past the entrance to the Ajax museum, then further on to our end. I bumped into Beth, Wrayman, then a couple of mates from home. A tin of Amstel was thrust into my hands and I supped away. Time was now moving on, though, and I soon got caught up in the rush to get in. I walked in with Jonesy, a friend for almost twenty years. I didn’t bump into him in Munich, so I was doubly-pleased to see him in The Dam. He rarely missed a game back in the ‘eighties. We spoke of how our club has progressed in the past fifteen years. We talked of our joint obsession and, as if to prove the insanity of supporting Chelsea, Jonesy spoke about the trip that he took to Plymouth from his home in Nuneaton – a 450 mile round trip – for a Friday night friendly in around 1988. As he retold the story, it was obvious he could hardly believe that he did it. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A Chelsea fan showed me the two 70 euro tickets that he couldn’t shift. My pre-match calculations – 10,000 with tickets, 20,000 without – were possibly way off. Maybe around 15,000 Chelsea fans were in Amsterdam; maybe they all got in.

Despite arriving at the Arena with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare, the delay at the gates and a further wait to use the toilets meant that I was struggling to get in on time. I was mirroring – unintentionally – my late arrival at Munich and I reached my seat just before kick-off.

Proper Chelsea.

Sadly, I just missed the flag displays. Just inside, I spotted Les; he had made it in and was smiling wildly. I took my place alongside the boys in the lower tier…furthest away to my right was Daryl, then Ed, then Walnuts, then Alan, then Gary, then myself. Rob arrived fashionably late and sat to my left.

The team is the one that I would have picked; preferring Luiz alongside Frank with Ramires out wide instead of Moses. I was just pleased that Frank was playing. Well done Rafa on that one.

The Benfica fans were easily spotted to the south; they took up the entire lower tier and around half of the top tier. We obviously had the same situation in the north.

Just like Munich, red at the south end, blue at the north end.

In the neutral areas, there seemed to be more blue than red. Excellent work, everyone. Although the sky was a brilliant cloudless blue, inside the stadium was dark. There was a strange feel to the stadium; it was impressive, but the infrastructure for the roof added much height. In reality, the seating tiers were not particularly large. I spent the first few minutes catching up on some photographs. Both teams had brought many flags and banners. Big respect to the fans who brought over the ‘Chelsea Adelaide’ flag; last seen in Tokyo.

The first-half, just like at Villa Park on Saturday, was horrendous. I watched on aghast as Benfica started very strongly, with their passing and movement seeming to bamboozle us. A couple of Benfica chances went begging and I wondered if this game was going to follow the same pattern as in Munich; that of dogged resistance after numerous onslaughts. A rough tackle on Ramires away in the distance went unpunished and the Chelsea fans wailed. We again looked very ‘leggy’ and we spent most of the first period chasing shadows. The Chelsea fans around me were openly frustrated by our players and our songs soon dried up. Shots were blocked inside our box as Benfica continued to dominate. Petr Cech, however, rarely had to make a save.

We had a couple of half-chances, but the mood was still grey. One fan behind me berated Oscar, yelling obscenity after obscenity after him. I turned around, glanced at him, yet turned away. I didn’t fancy a confrontation, but his hatred towards a Chelsea player truly sickened me. Benfica threatened again. A free-kick blocked. A shot over the bar. Yet, Cech remained untested. It was a strange game. I momentarily lost my lens cap – it was my glasses in Munich – and so missed our best chance of the entire game, a dipping shot from Lamps which was well saved by Artur.

I sent a text out at half-time :

“Well. Looking at a repeat of Saturday in the second-half.”

Just after the break, Benfica thought that they had opened the scoring but their collective hopes were dashed; the danger man Cardozo leapt and headed in, with no defender close. I saw the linesman’s flag jolt up so was unfazed.

Ever so slowly, Chelsea began contesting the game in a far more positive manner. The Chelsea fans, eventually, responded.

On the hour, a long throw out from Petr Cech and the ball broke for Fernando Torres. The entire Chelsea end realised that this was his ‘once in a game moment.’ Nando was around ten yards inside the Benfica as he received the ball, twisting away from his marker in a deft movement. He set off for goal and I captured his run on film.

Click : after having fought off the trailing defender Luisao, Nando approaches the goalkeeper just inside the box.

Click : he sways to his right and the ‘keeper moves to his left. The duel is on.

Click : after continuing his movement, Nando has enough strength to push the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive at his feet.

Click : with the ‘keeper on all fours, Nando keeps his feet and slots the ball in from an angle.

The Chelsea end erupted. I secretly hoped that this would be his night. Where were all the folk who said that Fernando Torres doesn’t score important goals.

“GETINYOUFCUKINGBEAUTY.”

I snapped his Usain Bolt-inspired pose down at the corner flag, but the photo was blurred and so was I.

Phew.

Alan leaned across and, in his best Portugeezer accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Me, in my worst Portugeezer accent : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our wonderful lead lasted only a short period, but what a period of dreaming that was. I whispered to Rob that “I hope it stays 1-0” (just so Torres can get some glory).

Just after, Azpilcueta handled inside the box. Oh boy. No repeat of Munich though; that man Cardozo slammed the ball in with Cech diving to he left. A single red flare was lit in the south lower.

Chelsea kept going, however, roared on by our travelling support. I could hardly believe that many hundreds in the lower tier sat the entire game. Torres went down in the box, but no penalty. On 81 minutes, Cardozo walloped a screamer at goal, but Petr Cech did ever so well to fingertip it over the bar. It was his first bona fide save of the entire night. Like I said, it was an odd game.

With three minutes remaining, Lampard was way out. I caught his thumping shot on film, and watched as it dipped and crashed onto the bar. I was amazed at its ferocity. I was amazed that it had gone so close.

Injury-time was being played when a Ramires run won a corner down to my left. Shades of Munich, eh? Juan Mata sent over a high ball. Ivanovic, back-peddling, leapt high. The ball began its upwards and then downwards trajectory. I clicked my camera out of habit than expectation. The ball seemed to take an eternity to drop. To our joy, the net rippled.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

The north end exploded.

I looked to my right at Alan and we just screamed at each other. A blue flare in front exploded with a huge plume of smoke. Oh, how we sung.

Almost immediately, Benfica attacked and – I found it hard to concentrate but

PLEASE

CHELSEA

DON’T

FCUK

THIS

UP.

The chance was cleared. Oh boy.

The whistle blew.

YES!

Benfica had lost their seventh consecutive UEFA final and we had won our fourth final out of five attempts. Apart from half an inch of Russian wood, it would have been five out of five.

Athens 1971, Stockholm 1998, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013.

It had been, let’s not kid ourselves, a below-par Chelsea performance on the night. Our ridiculously long season had eventually taken its toll. We looked tired. There was little to cheer, apart from the two goals of course.

Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic – we salute you.

The Chelsea players cavorted down on the pitch and we sung about being Champions of Europe.

You know how the song goes, eh?

There seemed to be a ridiculously long delay between the end of the game and the moment when our players ascended the steps to receive the medals. Unlike Munich, my telephoto lens captured the moment when Frank lifted the massive trophy – the old much-loved UEFA Cup – high into the Amsterdam night.

Munich 2012 and Amsterdam 2013.

Two steps beyond.

Congratulatory texts soon came in from Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona fans. Strangely, no mention of the birds’ mess from Mike.

Now, it was time to watch the players enjoying themselves; it was magical. I was so lucky to be close to where the majority of the action took place. Frank Lampard was alone with the cup for quite some time. John Terry, on purpose I am sure, stayed away from the spotlight. Fernando looked blissed out. Brana hopped up on to the bar – the same spot as Munich – all over again. Frank jumped over the advertisement hoardings and revelled in the adulation, beaming with smiles and looking up at fans in the upper tier. Ramires appeared with his son. The four goalkeepers stood together. David Luiz and his T-shirt, sent out funny faces and hand jives to his fans. Mikel and Moses in their trackie bottoms. Benitez, smiling, looking on. Nathan Ake, one for the future, with the huge trophy. The management team, perhaps unsure of the reaction, waited a while but stood together and hoisted the trophy. There was applause from the stands.

The songs…”Liquidator”, “One Step Beyond” and – strangely – “Blue Tomorrow.”

Then, the daddy of them all…a song that takes me back to 1972 and always leaves me wiping my eyes.

“Blue Is The Colour.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSW9H905RGg

We were giddy and excited as we moved away from our seats, waving to fellow friends, hugging others. Soon outside, we descended the many flights of stairs, singing joyously.

“We’ve won it again, we’ve won it again. Champions of Europe, we’ve won it again.”

Down at ground level, it really was Munich all over again.

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

Happy daze.

Then, a new song.

“Strippers And Whores. Ivanovic Scores.”

We caught a train back to the centre of Amsterdam, shaking hands with many more friends along the way. Munich will never be beaten, but Amsterdam was just so enjoyable. Stockholm meant more – to me, it was magical to replicate the feat of the vaunted 1970 and 1971 teams. At the time, we thought there would be nothing greater than a ECWC win since we all knew that we’d never win the league, nor the Champions League. What did we know? But Amsterdam was bloody fantastic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Back at Leidseplein, I joined in with the post-game buzz. All of the boys together, the square alive with Chelsea smiles the size of an Amsterdam spliff. There were more familiar faces there too; it seemed that everywhere we went in the city, we saw friends. It was bloody lovely. Brighton Tony held court; he was full of forthright opinions and very good company. He first met Gary as long ago as 1977 when they had season tickets in rows one and two of the East Upper. At 3am, we called it a night. We returned to our hotel with our fourth European trophy tucked into our back pockets.

Thursday 16 May was a rainy day in Amsterdam, but we didn’t care. We breakfasted again, and then went our separate ways. I headed off to visit the Rijksmuseum, but first sat in the busy café to enjoy a cappuccino and have a leisurely read of a paper. There was a picture of Nando on the front.

“Read all about it.”

I decided to avoid the long lines at the Rijksmuseum, instead spending a very enjoyable hour at the Van Gogh Museum where I drooled over a few lovely paintings. I bumped into two Chelsea fans there too. Back at the hotel, we all reconvened before saying our “goodbyes.” I caught the tram up to the centre and met up with the New York contingent for two last pints of Heineken in a crowded bar near the station. I was soon on the train to the airport. And then, home to Bristol. It had been a magnificent time. Hearing from Gill that Frank has signed a one-year deal?

Perfect.

And just like in Athens, in Stockholm and in Munich, there will be a foreign field in Amsterdam that will be forever Chelsea. Additionally, we joined Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich as the only teams to have won all three European trophies. And for ten days we are Champions Of Europe and Champions Of Europe Lite.

Did we have a blast?

Dam right.

…and, yes, Pav made it in.

IMG_0071 IMG_0099 IMG_0283

Tales From The Longest Journey

Chelsea vs. Monterrey : 13 December 2012.

I can well remember travelling back from Munich in May when a few of us spoke about the chances of heading over to Tokyo for the World Club Championships. On that flight from Prague to Bristol, my view was that it was “one trip too far.” After the dust had settled and after I had mulled over the possibilities, my view soon changed. The tipping point was the realisation that the date of the final – Sunday 16 December – was my late father’s birthday. Once I heard that, little could stop me. In June I booked flights, in July I sorted a hotel and in October I purchased match tickets. I think it is safe to say that I have rarely looked forward to games with greater relish in all of my years of support of the club. The thought of seeing us become World Champions in Tokyo sent me dizzy.

2012 has truly been unlike no other.

By its eventual completion, I will have seen Chelsea play in Naples, Barcelona, Munich, New York, Philadelphia, Turin and Tokyo.

I need to get out more.

Since the start of 2012-2013, the games have mounted up and I have attended the vast majority. The two games in Tokyo would be games 26 and 27. What another tumultuous season for us all. Even in the opening five months of this campaign, we have had enough success, despair and madness at Chelsea to last a lifetime. The low point was the awful trip to West Ham when there was near civil war in the Chelsea section.

Enough was enough. I wanted to put the past few crazy weeks behind me. An away trip to Sunderland was avoided as I wanted to get my head straight for last-minute preparations for my longest ever Chelsea journey. I spent the Saturday, instead, watching my local team Frome Town. The contrast with my next game would be immense. Saturday gave way to Sunday. Sunday gave way to Monday. The hours passed. And then the minutes.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

As I headed out of Somerset en route for Heathrow on Tuesday 11 December, I couldn’t resist a text to a few close friends.

“Jack Kelouac.”

It seems almost superfluous for me to mention my trip to London when my end destination was many thousands of miles further east. However, for me, every mile counts. The hundred miles that I spent alone, listening to some Depeche Mode, enjoying the winter sun, letting my mind wander was the perfect start for my journey. As ever, it gave me the chance to put some sort of perspective on the upcoming events over the next few days. As I drove past Andover and Basingstoke, I was reminded of my first ever trips by car to Chelsea back in 1991-1992. I learned to drive relatively late at the age of 26 and my first few trips to Stamford Bridge, along the A303, up the M3 and around the M25 to a mate’s house in Worcester Park, were landmark events. It’s funny how certain music takes me back to that time. Those first few trips to Chelsea were often accompanied by rave anthems, but also by several Depeche Mode albums. Every time I hear “Black Celebration” I am transported back to driving home from a Sunderland F.A. Cup game in 1992. A John Byrne equaliser broke our hearts and stopped us advancing to our first semi-final in twenty-two years. It was a long and lonely drive home that night. Twenty years ago, trips to Tokyo to watch Chelsea would have been regarded as the stuff of fantasy.

So, there’s the perspective.

Over the last few miles of my journey, I couldn’t resist playing “Tin Drum” by Japan, a fantastic band from my teens. David Sylvian’s fractured voice, dipping in and out; with synthesisers producing a uniquely sparse sound provided the perfect backdrop for me. One of my favourite tracks from the early ‘eighties was David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s classic “Forbidden Colours.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1YkHJJi-tc

Visions of China and Japan echoed around my brain.

My good mate Russ dropped me off at Heathrow in plenty of time to catch the first leg of my gargantuan trip east. The 5.40pm Air China flight to Beijing left a little late. Chelsea stalwarts Cathy and Maureen were also onboard, plus a couple more fans who I didn’t recognise. We eventually took off, sweeping north and then east over London, before flying over The Netherlands, Germany, Russia – just south of St. Petersburg – and further beyond. My head was spinning at the enormity of it all. I hoped to catch plenty of sleep on the flight but, after a meal, I decided to check out the movies on offer. Of the forty to choose from, there was an over-abundance of Shirley Temple films. I obviously found this odd, but presumed that the People’s Republic of China has an obscure obsession with the tousle-haired child star of the ‘forties. It was proof, if any was required, that things would be getting slightly weird over the subsequent few days. I remembered how Albania was equally besotted with Norman Wisdom, the accident prone comedian from the post-war films of my childhood. Sometimes there is no reason behind anything.

Eventually, I chose “Citizen Kane”, the classic film about an enigmatic multi-millionaire. I didn’t last too long into the film as my eyes were soon feeling tired, but there was time for me to raise a smile at the line –

“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

I had seen the film a few times. A few scenes are marvellous. On this trip, when thoughts of my father would never be too far away, I was reminded of one of my most treasured memories from my childhood. Forget all of the Chelsea trips, the family holidays to Blackpool, Dorset, Italy and Austria and my father’s silly jokes; probably my most cherished memory of my father was when he pulled me, aged around three, on a home-made sled around my village, with snow falling and the two of us just chatting away. It was a rural winter wonderland. Perfect.

It was perhaps my “Rosebud” moment.

Our flight across the frozen wastes of Russia, Mongolia and China took over ten hours. Thankfully, I slept for half of this. I eventually peeked out of the window when we were an hour away from Beijing and saw snow-capped mountains. My heart skipped a beat. We landed in a freezing Beijing at around midday. Cathy and Maureen rushed through to catch their connecting flight to Tokyo, but my flight was much later. I had over five hours at the airport. But not just any airport.

Beijing.

Peking.

China.

Oh boy.

I was in China.

It was one place that I never thought that I would visit. Tiananmen Square was but ten miles away. I was not worried that I was locked “in transit” at the airport. This was enough for me. I paced around the airport and then endured, rather than enjoyed, an authentic Chinese meal. I had beef and noodles and so unfortunately wasn’t able to utter the immortal line–

“Waiter – this chicken is rubbery.”

The connecting flight to Tokyo left at around 5.30pm. I was now the only Chelsea fan left. The plane was less than a third full and so I had time to stretch out and relax. More sleep. I awoke with the bright lights of several cities down below. Using the flight map overhead, I soon worked out that we were over South Korea. As we headed out over the ocean, I then saw several hundred golden lights bizarrely stretching out in a diamond shape. They obviously belonged to ships that were passing underneath, some 35,000 feet below. Along with seeing the frantically busy waters near Bangkok from a plane last summer, it was one of those incredible sights of my life.

Oh lucky man.

The Japan coast appeared and, then, the myriad lights of the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. It was another overwhelming sight. The approach into Tokyo Haneda airport seemed to take forever, but we eventually touched down at around 9.30pm. I was amazed how quickly I was through the various checks and by 10.30pm, I had paid 1,200 yen (£10) and was on a “Friendly Limousine” bus into the city. As the driver edged out of the airport, I kept repeating one line.

“I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo.”

It was as if I needed some convincing.

The first thing I noticed was that the bus was being driven on the left-hand side of the road; the same as in Malaysia and Thailand. This genuinely surprised me. I was pretty tired, but the hour-long coach-ride kept me awake. The driver soon climbed onto an elevated expressway, though it was only one lane in each direction. As we weaved around the city centre, we rose and fell, with ramps being surprisingly steep. Then, the next surprise –

Less than half a mile to my right was the gaudily illuminated Tokyo Tower, like an oriental Eiffel Tower, but brightly lit with thousands of gallons of gold paint and thousands of electric lights. I snapped a few photographs as we raced by, alongside darkened skyscrapers and the first few sightings of the many neon signs that so dominate the city.

I was deposited right in the very epicentre of the pulsing heart of the city; Shinjuku. There was neon everywhere. I quickly caught a rather old-fashioned looking taxi-cab, like something out of Yugoslavia in 1976, up to Higoshi-Shinjuku and tried to take it all in. I booked into my hotel just after midnight. I had been “on the road” for almost twenty-eight hours. I was tired, but in no mood to call it a night. After a quick wash in the world’s smallest bathroom, I darted over to a local bar called “Fuma” where I quickly knocked back three small Carlsberg lagers, along with a dish which caught my eye; blue cheese pizza with honey. Believe it or not, it was fantastic. If truth be known, I could have stayed there for ages. I always think there’s nothing like the thrill of a first night anywhere, the visitor being absorbed by every single sight and sound. I quickly noticed that the two wafer-thin waiters were ridiculously eager to please. They seemed to be almost apologetic in their nature and went about their tasks in an endearingly bashful manner. It would be a trait that I would often notice again during my stay.

At 1.30am, I decided to call it a night. Thursday was another day and I couldn’t wait for it to unravel before me.

On Thursday morning, the main objective was get up to Ikebukuro, around three miles to my north. Here, I was to meet Mike and Frank from NYC at their hotel at midday. I trotted down to the hotel lobby and was in the middle of a fragmented conversation with the hotel receptionist when I heard an English voice.

“No photographs, please.”

It was Darren Mantle. He was in the middle of a heated conversation with the hotel manager about the validity of his credit card. Just as it looked like I might become embroiled, Darren intelligently said that he didn’t know me and I was on my way. First, a cup off coffee from the McDonalds opposite and then my first exposure to the vaunted Tokyo tube system. With surprising ease, I negotiated a travel card and headed north on the – wait for it – Fukotoshin line. The tube trains and stations were amazingly clean. I was soon out in the winter sun. it was a gorgeous day, despite a cold wind, and I soon located the Hotel Metropolitan. I soon spotted a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces, including Neil Barnett, enjoying a coffee. They were off to the Imperial Palace.

Mike soon appeared in the grand lobby and quickly updated me on the antics of the previous evening. He had arrived in Tokyo with Frank on a direct flight from JFK at much the same time as me, but had decided to hit the ground running. They had been out in a bar not far from my hotel, with the Mantles and a few others, until 8am. Frank was out for the count, sleeping like a baby, so Mike and I quickly decided to head down by tube to the area around the Imperial Palace.

We caught a tube down to the central area and spent a relaxing hour or so walking around the perimeter of the Imperial Palace grounds. We took a plethora of photographs of the moat and the pagoda-style palace. These contrasted well with the skyscrapers of a business district to the east. We bumped into the first four Corinthians fans of the trip. There had been rumours that there would be 15,000 Brazilians in Tokyo and the number amazed me. Chelsea had 1,000 tickets, but we believed that only around 600 would be attending through the club. I personally knew of around 20 friends who were in Tokyo.

One of the Brazilians whispered to me “here is a secret – David Luiz was a Corinthians fan as a boy.”

Ah, OK…I soon remembered the game in Monaco when Fernando Torres’ boyhood team Atletico Madrid handed us a thumping defeat. I put that memory to the delete folder of my brain.

Another Corinthians fan said “just make sure you win tonight, we want to play Chelsea in the final.”

Yes, indeed. Here was my biggest fear; that we’d go all this way to Japan and yet lose the semi-final. Wouldn’t that be typical? We posed for photographs together and wished each other well. Mike continued his re-hydration by buying drinks at every opportunity and we then caught a train back to Ikebukuro. On our return to the hotel, Frank (who also leans towards Napoli since his family are from that area), was still sleeping. Mike’s words did not arrest his slumber and so I decided to wake him.

“Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo – Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo.”

It worked.

Mike’s mate Foxy from Scotland, who I had not previously met, came down to join us and we then spent many minutes encouraging Frank to get out of bed, take a shower and get ready for the game.

The game. Yes, there was a game on in four hours but none of us had given it any thought.

Frank then tried the patience of all of us by unpacking and then re-packing all ten of his Chelsea shirts before deciding which one to wear. He then did the same with his socks. He then unpacked and packed his camera, toiletry bag, belt, computer, cigarettes, wallet and wristbands.

“No rush, Frank.”

To be honest, there was an amazing view of Mount Fuji from the hotel window and although Foxy and I were pulling faces of agony at Frank’s frustrating tardiness, the outside view compensated. Eventually, we left the hotel at around 4pm. Matt, another NY Blue, had joined us too. He had seen the Corinthians victory the previous night in Nagoya. I called in to my hotel to pick up a few things and we were soon on our way to Shibuya, a few miles to the south where we needed to change trains. The buzz was now there.

Tokyo away. Love it.

The journey down to the stadium was a manic blur. At Shibuya, we were right in the middle of the Tokyo rush hour and passengers, some with those infamous face masks, were rushing everywhere. Foxy lead us out from the tube station into the neon-lit mayhem outside, before we dipped into another part of the station which housed the Japan Railways service. It was frantic stuff, but we were soon on the right train. We were packed in like sardines, or maybe tuna. There was little interaction with the locals at this stage, despite our English accents. I expected a few people to be asking us about the game. Frank was still feeling rough from the previous night’s excesses in Shin-Okubu. As we changed trains one last time, Frank calmly vomited in the six inch gap between train and platform at Kikuna. I told him that I hoped that Fernando Torres was as accurate later that evening.

At Kikuna, we avoided the first train because the carriages were simply at bursting point. However, we soon alighted at Shin-Yokohama and noted a few Japanese fans with Chelsea colours, plus three Mexicans with requisite sombreros. Outside, on the walk towards the stadium, there were many street traders with a variety of dodgy souvenirs on offer. Most of the half-and-half scarves (Chelsea / Monterrey and, not surprisingly, Chelsea / Corinthians) were being hawked by English chaps.

“Wherever I lay my tat, that’s my home.”

We dipped into a store and bought some tins of Kirin for the short walk to the Nissan Stadium, but then soon stumbled across a bar on a street corner, which was full of Australian Chelsea. They were full of song. Oh, and beer. We soon decided to head on up to the ground which was a further 15 minutes away. This stadium hosted the 2002 World Cup Final. A quick Axon Stat coming up…this was the fifth such venue that I have visited, along with the stadia used in 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1990.

On the slow incline up towards the gates, we caught up with Cathy and Maureen, and then posed for photos with Dave Johnstone. Surreal is a word that can only describe seeing familiar faces so far from home. The small entrance plaza was full of sponsor tents and fast food stalls. There was a Coca-Cola truck parked up and I couldn’t resist a quick photo with the female Santa. Never has a red and white kit looked so appealing. Away in the corner was a substantial Chelsea stand where I entered a draw to win a trip to London so I could get my hands on a Japan 2012 lanyard. Local kids posed with Stamford and there was a massive line for this photo opportunity. Good to see.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

A few Mexicans were singing on the steps leading up to the second set of turnstiles and their antics were being recorded by a TV crew.

I entered the stadium and met up with the Chelsea contingent, most of whom had opted for the cheaper ticket option in the lower level behind the goal. In among our support were many locals. At the north end, we spotted a few Monterrey flags, but there was no real way of guessing their total number. To my left, the main stand was only a quarter full. To my right, the other stand contained barely 1,000 spectators. I looked around and spotted some familiar Chelsea faces from home. The teams soon appeared from beneath the main stand; Chelsea in blue, Monterrey in a change strip of Blackpool tangerine. The stands were set back from the pitch and, to be honest, it was difficult to see any action at the far end. It was reminiscent of Stamford Bridge until 1994. Behind me on the upper tier balcony were a few flags; notably one of The Rising Sun, named after the public house – now the Butcher’s Hook – where the club was formed in 1905. Darren and Steve had managed to get the “Super Frankie Lampard” banner up too. Orlin and his wife Katerina soon appeared behind me. I’ve only known Orlin since meeting him before the Arsenal away game in April, but it seems I have known him for ages. I last saw him in Turin. I was therefore huddled with the US contingent; Matt, Fun Time Frankie, Mike, Orlin and Katerina. Cathy and Maureen were away to my left and the Australian lot, complete with inflatable kangaroo, were beyond. I just missed photographing the large Monterrey flag which had been held up at the other end of the stadium.

The game began and it was all Chelsea, with Eden Hazard and David Luiz causing much concern to the Mexican defence. Luiz was again playing in a deep midfield role, much to the blissful contentment of all the FIFA13 obsessives among our support. To be honest, I always thought this a better option than playing him at right back, which was a common request a while back. The Chelsea support, chilled in the Yokohama evening, was hardly vocal. A chorus of “We don’t care about Rafa” (which I find pretty dull and uninspiring – I’d much rather sing about positives) had already been aired when we reached the sixteenth minute. A respectful minute of applause began and I joined in; in memory of Munich and Di Matteo. I commented to Fun Time that “wouldn’t it be great if we scored now.” With that, the ball was worked into Mata, from the left wing, who calmly slotted home.

Get in.

The rest of the half was played out in near total silence. The Japanese fans in the stadium did not utter a word. To be honest, the Chelsea fans around me were remarkably quiet too, apart from a stirring “We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.” Monterrey only threatened a few times. This was going well. It was certainly reassuring to see the team, invigorated by the win at Sunderland, to be playing so well and seemingly en route to the final.

At the break, 800 yen beers were purchased from a girl who was carrying a cask among us in the stadium. What a nice idea.

“Arrigato.”

The second half began with a large proportion of the Chelsea fans still outside in the concourse. Sadly, a lot of these missed our two quick-fire goals which effectively killed the game off. First, a nice move from Hazard allowed Fernando Torres to score via a deflection. After his new-found confidence after the two goals on the Saturday, I for one hoped that he had finally turned the corner. I even forgave him for scoring (and not once, but twice I tell ya!) without me in attendance. Within a minute, we were 3-0 up after a strong ball into the six-yard box by Mata was deflected in by a Monterrey defender.

Phew.

Start celebrating; we’re going to the final.

The rest of the game was easy. We enjoyed serenading all of the Chelsea substitutes – Frank especially – as they warmed-up in front of us. In fact, Frank’s appearance in place of David Luiz drew the biggest applause of the night. At last the locals were awake. In truth, Frank should have scored with a clipped shot from close in just after he came on. He had another shot which sailed over which he was visibly upset about. It was annoying that we let in a cheap goal through De Nigris in the very last minute of play.

The final whistle blew and some of the players trudged over to the near goal and clapped us. I rather naively hoped that all of our players would hop over the advertising hoardings and get close to us. Of course, this never happened. Had the 1983-1984 team played in Tokyo – with 600 or more Chelsea fans from the UK in attendance – there is no doubt that the entire team would have been mere yards from us, probably throwing their Le Coq Sportif shirts at us.

More perspective.

After the players had left the pitch, it was now the turn of us to be the focus of the Japanese fans’ attention. We were all asked to pose for photographs, with scarves and flags being brandished, while the locals smiled and giggled excitedly. By this time, we were all giggling too. I then explained to five young lads about Peter Osgood (who is a screen saver on my mobile phone), but of course they had never heard of him. Mobile phones were used to film us singing and we all joked about being on “Facebook in the morning.”

I had been in Tokyo for less than 24 hours, yet was already wildly in love with the crazy place.

On the walk out of the stadium concourse, we were again mobbed by passing fans and were asked to pose for yet more photographs. We handed out “US Tour 2012” wristbands to a few of the younger members of our supporters.

Their faces were a picture.

On the walk away from the stadium, I succumbed to a half-and-half scarf after we managed to barter down from 2,000 yen to 1,000 yen. For a World Club Cup Final, I was ready to make allowances. We dipped into the pub on the corner and stayed for around two blissful hours, drinking and chatting, toasting the team and the city. I had always planned this to be the big night for drinking; a berth into the final was a fine reason to celebrate. Even if we ended up as World Champions, too many of us would need to be up and early for flights on the Monday. We raced back to Shin-Yokohama and caught the last train back to Shibuya. From there, we caught a couple of cabs to the little bar at Shin-Okubu where Mike and Frank had spent the previous night.

It was the smallest bar that I’ve ever witnessed, on the second floor of a narrow building. It was adorned with European football pennants and patrons were able to play FIFA13 on the large TV screen. Rounds of Kirin were ordered and we settled in for the night. There were a few of the Australians present. “The Liquidator” was played. The owner brought some bar snacks, while Orlin and Katerina tucked into some food at the end of the bar. I was buzzing. The beers were flowing. I had a good old chat with Foxy, who is a Dundee United fan too. This made me smile because many years ago, I kept a look out for their results. Foxy and I spoke about Tannadice, The Shed, Eamonn Bannon, Willie Pettigrew, Hamish McAlpine, Paul Hegarty and Paul Sturrock. Fun Time Frankie took his iPod out and arranged for a few songs to be played through the bar’s speakers. Songs from Stiff Little Fingers and The Smiths reverberated around the cosy confines of the “1863 Bar” and I was a happy man. Good times. Steve Mantle then arrived on the scene and, when the rest departed, I sat with him at the bar discussing a whole host of interesting topics such as songs, new fans, the board, football culture and the banners on show at The Bridge.

We eventually left at about 7am.

I began walking in a happy, warm and fuzzy state, with dawn breaking and early morning commuters sliding past, oblivious to my blissed out condition. Feeling hungry, I dived into a convenience store but simply didn’t recognise a single item of the food on offer. I walked on, but was totally unsure of which direction I was headed. I can honestly say that I have never felt in such an alien or surreal environment. In some ways, I could easily have walked for another few hours, ready to experience whatever I would stumble upon. With a sudden jolt, I suddenly came to my senses and realised that this was silly.

I was in Tokyo and had no idea where my hotel was.

I quickly flagged down a passing cab, mumbled something about Higashi-Shinjuku and made my way home…or whatever “home” was at 7.30am in Tokyo.

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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 Munich : Part One – Petals From Heaven

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

So, where does this remarkable story start? The story surely begins before the two magnificent games against Barcelona, but it obviously encompasses them. It begins before the Benfica games, too. Does it start with the come-from-behind game against Napoli at Stamford Bridge? Quite possibly. But, maybe the story begins with the exemplary Drogba-inspired victory over Valencia in the last group phase game of the autumn? This was a game that we had to win to progress; nothing like leaving it late, eh Chelsea?

Or does the story begin years earlier? The gut-wrenching defeat against Barca in 2009? The crippling loss on penalties to Manchester United in the rain of an unwelcoming Moscow night in 2008? How about the twin losses to Liverpool on two evenings at an obnoxious Anfield? Does the story start there? The ghost goal of Luis Garcia in 2005 and the penalties of 2007? Pain, pain, pain.

How about the semi-final defeat – almost forgotten these days – at the hands of Monaco in 2004? Or another loss to Barcelona at the quarter final stage in 2000 which was at the end of our first ever assault on the biggest prize in European club football?

In my mind, the story didn’t exist in 1998. In that year, Chelsea had defeated Stuttgart in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Stockholm. We had replicated the achievement of the fabled 1970 and 1971 teams by following up a domestic Cup with a European one. I can remember thinking that this would be as good as it would ever get as a Chelsea fan. Chelsea, my team of perennial underachievers, had no hope of the league title; we had reached our glass ceiling in Stockholm. League titles and Champions League triumphs were the stuff for ridiculous fantasists.

The story starts in 1955.

In that year, of course, Chelsea Football Club won our first ever League Championship in our golden jubilee season. In the following 1955-1956 campaign, the good fellows at UEFA organised the first ever “Cup of Champions” for the league winners in all member countries. The story could have only lasted nine months. However, the English Football Association – never the first to support innovation – strongly advised Chelsea to resist European glory and step aside from participation. We timidly obeyed the octogenarians of Lancaster Gate and did not take part.

So, in 1956, Real Madrid were crowned the inaugural European club champions and Chelsea looked on from a distance. In reality, our league season was a pale shadow of the preceding one and our participation might have been rather brief. However, even in those days, we always were a cup side…

So, the story is one which has lasted for 57 years. It disappeared without trace from 1955, but it re-emerged in 1999 and Chelsea has been besotted with the story ever since.

The Champions League.

The European Cup.

The Holy Grail of European Football.

Enough of the history lesson; this is my story of Munich 2012.

I was finishing off my packing – marking off items on the check sheet – when Glenn arrived ahead of schedule on Friday afternoon. His excitement was all too apparent. In fact, he was bursting. Glenn is my oldest Chelsea mate. I first met him at school in Frome in 1977. We were the only lads at Frome College in 1981-1982 who owned Chelsea shirts. I bumped into him in The Shed in August 1983 and our first game together was two months later, the seminal 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle United. We’ve been constant companions, from Sunderland to Seville, from Bristol City to Barcelona, ever since. For Glenn to be accompanying me to the Champions League Final in Munich just seemed right. And yet, we have another dear friend to thank. Parky was unable to travel to Germany and so gifted his match ticket to Glenn, for which he was eternally thankful.

We left my sunny Somerset village at 3.45pm and were soon at Bristol airport for the 6.20pm flight to Prague. We had a couple of pints apiece and bumped into Dave, from Bath, and three of his mates. Dave – or “Young Dave” as he is known in Mark Worrall’s excellent tales of Chelsea obsession – owns a restaurant in the city of my birth. To be truthful, I hadn’t seen him for about four years. One of his mates, Pav, was wearing a large home-made badge showing a photo of his late mother; she had sadly passed away six months ago. Although Pav did not yet have a match ticket, he was honouring his mother – a massive Chelsea fan – by travelling to Munich. He was confident he would find a ticket from somewhere. He was confident he would get in. I wished him well, but I knew deep down it would be a difficult task.

The flight to Prague typically contained a couple of stag parties. When a further hen party boarded, Glenn was all eyes and did his best meerkat impression. The flight was only ninety minutes in length and we landed in Prague at 9pm, a good thirty minutes ahead of schedule. I had arranged, via a work contact in the Czech Republic, for a taxi to meet us at the airport. By 9.30pm, Michael was driving us into the Czech capital and regaling us with current updates on the various football teams which hail from that gorgeous city on the banks of the Vltava.

Prague really is a hotbed of football; Sparta, Slavia, Bohemians, Dukla and Viktoria Zizkov all battle for domination. Michael said he was a Sparta fan, but then admitted that Viktoria was his first love. I couldn’t really work this out; how can you support two teams from the same city? Michael rattled through many stories about famous Czech players who have played in England and I was suitably impressed. He said that a lot of fellow Czech citizens favour Chelsea because of Petr Cech. There was a lovely aspect to our one night stay in Prague. Way back in 1994, Daryl, Neil and I travelled to Prague for Chelsea’s first ever European away game since Atvidaberg in 1971. Twenty-three years of hurt indeed. We played the city’s poor relations, Viktoria, in the return leg of the tie having won 4-2 at a rainy Stamford Bridge. Never had 22,000 made more noise at The Bridge. Due to concerns about possible crowd trouble, however, the second leg was played up in the hills of Bohemia in the small town of Jablonec. Dmitri Kharine saved a penalty and we drew 0-0. Our Euro adventure was on its way…and we all said we would love to one day return to Prague.

Eighteen years later, I was back. We zipped past Sparta’s Letna Stadium and Michael deposited us at Hotel Belvedere bang on 10pm. He had also arranged for his brother-in-law to collect us in the morning. We stumbled across a gorgeous local restaurant. For an hour, we sunk a couple of dark Czech beers, chatted about Chelsea and devoured some fantastic local fare. Pickled sausages, cheese sticks and then goulash with herby potato cakes. It was heavenly. Glenn had visited Prague way back in 1996 with his then German girlfriend Anke. He too was so pleased to be back. I remember he had brought me back a Sparta T-shirt from that trip.

Alongside, four young locals were feverishly debating amongst themselves in the particular way that you sense only eastern Europeans can do. I imagined feverish words being uttered about political unrest in Poland, or maybe the agony inherent in a local artist’s sculptures or the latest sounds from the new ground-breaking underground band in Ostrava.

I looked at the girl as she vented her fury; she slammed the wooden table with her palm when making a point. And my mind wandered…

“No – you fool. Play Kalou on the right. Sturridge is a mere shadow of his former self. You are all idiots.”

We dived into a smoky bar, full of more students, more local beer, more animated chat. Glenn and I observed from afar. What a wondrous feeling to be so far from our home comforts, to be able to witness the lives of others. But to also be on the edge of our own particular date with destiny. After one last beer in the hotel bar, we retired to bed, with nothing but positive thoughts about Munich, about the game, about victory. It had been a perfect night in Prague but the fun was only just beginning.

I awoke at 5.45am and a quick shower sorted me out. Outside, we waited in the cool morning air for our cab to take us into town. The yellow Skoda soon arrived and the tall cabbie spoke;

“Chris Chelsea?”

We were on our way to the train station where we were to catch the coach to Munich. The city looked breath-taking. We shot over the river with the Charles Bridge and the castle on the hill in the distance. We soon reached our destination. The train station is grand, but antiquated and in needing of restoration. We caught the coach outside its flaking exterior at 7.15am.

The coach trip lasted five hours, but the time flew past. We chatted more intensely about the football than the previous night. The Czech countryside was a picture; not dissimilar to the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania or Georgia, with none of the hedgerows of England which make our patchwork of a fields so unique. We noted fields of solar panels; they put us to shame in the quest for new energy sources. The sun was shining brightly. The sky was cloudless. It was magnificent.

We called in at Munich airport en route to the city. Another little bit of my personal history to tell; way back in 1977, my first ever trip by plane was to Munich on a family trip to Seefeld in the Tyrolean Alps. 35 years on, I was travelling on the same road. We soon drove past the white supernatural shell of the Allianz Arena. I was all eyes. It looked superb. I was reminded how far out of the city it is, though; it follows the old American model of being located right on the outskirts of the city. After only five more minutes, we came out of a tunnel on the inner city ring road and the iconic roof of the 1972 Olympic Stadium was in view. Way back in 1977, the only thing I remember of that coach trip was the sighting, late at night, of those flowing lines of the roof which connects the sports hall, the swimming pool and the main stadium. I had watched the 1972 Olympics of Mark Spitz and Mary Peters, the 1974 World Cup of Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner; the sight of the stadium made me gulp in 1977. It made me gulp in 2012, too. I love this stadium, although it is now considered out-dated, with its canopy roof, based on Bedouin tents. Of course, a few hundred yards north, several Israeli athletes had been killed during the siege in that Olympics.

My first real visit to Munich took place in the summer of 1985 during my first traipse around Europe as a backpacking student. The most vivid memory from that stay was my visit to the nearby Dachau concentration camp; the three hours I spent there were both surreal and shocking, the scale of the camp was awful and the photographs will be etched on my mind forever. The four or five Chelsea fans I saw in Barcelona singing about Spurs and Auschwitz and grunting “seig heils” should be forced to visit Dachau and to feel the pain that I felt on that blisteringly hot August day 27 years ago. On that visit to Munich, I also visited the Olympic Park in the northern suburbs; it was wonderful to see up close those wonderful iconic roofs and the towering pylons. It remains one of the most amazing and aesthetically pleasing stadiums I have ever visited. I would soon be returning in 1987 on two separate adventures.

The first time was with two mates for Oktoberfest in late September; what a crazy night that turned out to be. Suffice to say, two friends and I caught a late night (very late night) train to Hamburg to get some “free sleep” only to wake up at around 8am with the train still in Munich. I still haven’t worked out the reasons for that, but I suspect the ever hospitable Germans had simply laid on that train as additional sleeping quarters for the hundreds of backpackers sleeping in the train station that night.

Later that autumn, I returned. After I left college, I part-paid for several trips around Europe by train by selling British football badges at stadia in Italy. I also sold around 60 at this very same Olympic stadium in Munich on a frosty day in November of that year. However, I did not have the required “reisegewerbekarte” (street traders’ license) and so was arrested by the local police. I was taken down into a police cell deep in the bowels of the main stand, sharing it with a neo-Nazi Bayern fan. I had made around £80 that afternoon and the police fined me £75. However, I think one of the police took pity on me (it was a classic case of “good cop, bad cop”) and he let me in to see the game for free. The game was Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Uerdingen and it happened to be Mark Hughes’ first ever game during his loan spell from Barcelona. I left the stadium £5 up on the day, my tail between my legs but with my third ever European game under my belt.

It was clear that the weather in Munich was going to be sensational. Outside, we spotted the occasional Chelsea fan, but the ratio was 50-1 in favour of Bayern. We alighted at the central train station – the Hauptbanhof – and soon deposited our bags in the left-luggage lockers; hotels could wait. I was last in the train station in 1990 after a great night at the Oktoberfest.

Glenn and I caught a cab to the Paulaner beer hall a mile or two to the south where several friends had just arrived. Our plan was to avoid the madding crowds of the central area – long lines at the bar, possible aggro – and stay under the shade of some trees in the beer garden of this old-fashioned drinking establishment. Daryl had even reserved us a table on the Thursday. We stayed here from 12.45pm to 7pm. It was simply magical.

Glenn and I joined the others; Alan, Gary, Neil, Daryl, Simon, Ed and Milo.

Blossom from the surrounding trees was falling on our little party and ended up in our glasses of honey-coloured beer, like petals from heaven. We chatted, joked and laughed for over six hours; it was, of course, the best pre-match ever. Moscow in 2008 was grim and inhospitable, the locals unwelcoming, the weather too. Munich, in contrast, was the complete opposite. The sun was warm, the sky blue. The beer was sensational. The city was the ultimate party town, the ideal venue for a Champions League Final. The smooth beer, 3.60 euros a go, was not too expensive either. At around 2.30pm we all had some food; for me, it was pork knuckle, potato dumplings and cold cabbage salad. It was so gorgeous that Glenn helped himself to it too, the git.

The chat was varied; internal politics at Chelsea and the scrum for tickets, the potential new stadium at Battersea, the antics of Gary, the increasingly inebriated Glenn. We toasted Parky – the absent friend – and he sent through a few texts as the afternoon progressed. It was the European away debuts for Ed and Milo – the Under Fives – and what a day for them.

But Alan was the star of the show, as so often is the case. He treated us to his usual arrangement of comic impersonations. Firstly, Richie Benaud, Michael Holding, David Lloyd – the cricket commentators – describing the antics of Gary the previous night. Then, Didier Deschamps as Rain Man –

“Oh yeah…I play Wednesdays…I play Wednesdays…Champions League is Wednesdays…oh yeah. No – not Thursdays…Spurs play Thursdays…they play Thursdays. Oh no – Malouda – OH NO OH NO!”

And then – his finest hour.

Alan as Frank Sinclair’s mother, talking about the time her son scored at Coventry City and promptly pulled his shorts down in celebration, spoken in Jamaican patois.

“My boy Franklin. He call me on the phone and tell me to watch the TV. He score a goal and he walk around bearing his backside. Oh my. I tell him I will lick his backside, for sure, bringing disgrace on the family like dat.”

By this time we were all roaring. We’ve heard this routine twenty times but every time it gets better and every time the tears start rolling.

On the coach, Glenn and I had been talking about Kraftwerk and their songs “Autobahn” and “The Model.” He played “The Model” on his iPhone and we imparted a little musical knowledge to the youngsters. Ironic really, since Depeche Mode often accompany me on my travels around England following Chelsea. In the heart of Bavaria, we loved hearing the electro beats from 1982 which no doubt inspired The Boys From Basildon.

“She’s a model and she’s looking good.”

Alan immediately provided the Munich 2012 version –

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Ah – pudding. Four of us had a dessert of apple strudel. Bloody gorgeous.

The time was moving on. Talk of the football game was minimal though. I briefly mentioned that I wanted Torres to start but Daryl had heard whispers that Ryan Bertrand would be playing wide left. This surprised me I must say. That came out of left field. At around 5pm, I had a special visitor. My former workmate Michaela, and her partner Paul, had cycled the 20 miles from their home just to the north of the Allianz Arena to spend some time with us. Michaela worked with me in Chippenham from 2003 to 2007, but had been back home in Bavaria since then. It was lovely to see her again. There had been a call for the natives to dress in red and white on this most special day. Although they weren’t Bayern fans, they were suitably attired; Michaela in red, Paul in white. I spoiled things, of course; I was in blue.

A few of us – I forget who – ended the session with a solitary vodka schnapps.

It was time to move.

It was about 7pm and we walked north to the Goethe Platz U-bahn station. It was at this stage that I noticed Glenn was wobbling all over the gaff. He was impersonating a baby deer. The beer had clearly got to him. I passed over his match ticket and begged him to keep it safe. The streets were eerily quiet actually. Maybe the entire population of Munich were now ensconced in the central bars and the viewing parties around the city. Our subway train arrived and we piled on. With each passing stop, more and more fans squeezed on. We had been told that the journey was only around 20 minutes in length, but it actually took about an hour. We were pressed up against each other and it was pretty uncomfortable. At Marienplatz, the platform was awash with blue and red shirts. Inside our carriage, Chelsea outnumbered Bayern and we began singing a few Chelsea classics, just to let them know who we were.

At a few more stops, fans got more and more agitated as the space inside the carriage lessened. One parent cried out for space as a child appeared to be getting crushed. It was not pleasant. We had avoided the central area, so we had no idea how many Chelsea were in town. I sent out a few texts to a few friends, but our paths did not cross. The train moved slowly north, agonisingly stopping for minutes on end at more than one stop. The heat was sapping my energy. What I’d do for one last beer.

Eventually, we reached the final stop at Frottmaning. We assembled the troops together and ascended the steps. It seemed Chelsea fans were in the ascendancy. We were making all of the noise, singing all the songs. Some of the Bayern fans were ludicrously attired in lederhosen and denim waistcoats (very Stretford End 1977 as any Scouser will tell you) and I vented some scorn on them.

Ahead, the brilliant white shell of the Allianz Arena was way in the distance.

It was time for the long walk to immortality.

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