Tales From A Day Of Heroes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 November 2017.

It was approaching 4pm and I was walking towards Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. I wanted to ensure that I was nicely settled before the annual display of remembrance that Chelsea Football Club always does so well, but which would take place a full six days before Saturday 11 November and a whole week before Remembrance Sunday. We had already stood for a minute of silence at Bournemouth last weekend to show our appreciation for those who had fallen while serving in our armed forces. It is right that football pays its respects. With each passing season, the displays become more impressive. I am sure that twenty years ago there was just a toot of the referee’s whistle, a minute of silence, and that was all. There was, of course, nothing wrong with that. I would hate to think that clubs want to “out-do” each other – that is surely not the point – but at the moment the balance seems to be just right.

I had purchased a paper poppy in the morning, but as so often happens, I soon managed to lose it as I walked down the North End Road. I then purchased a “1917 – 2017” enamel badge from a serving soldier underneath the old Shed wall in the early afternoon. I would have felt naked without a little splash of red on such a day.

As I approached the CFCUK stall outside the Fulham Town Hall and opposite the Fulham Broadway tube, I called in to say “hi” to a few of the Chelsea faithful. I chatted to Neil. Our paths have crossed a fair bit of late. I admitted that there seemed to be a general air of nervousness around the streets and pubs – I had visited three of them, but was on driving duties so was limited to “cokes” – and on the drive up to London, I think that the general view was “anything but a defeat.” But then I turned a little more optimistic.

“Imagine we get a win, though. It’ll be celebrated like the Chelsea of old. Say we win 1-0 with a goal in the second-half. The place will go wild.”

With a smile, I went on my way.

Thankfully, we had heard that N’Golo Kante had returned from injury and there were a few other changes too. Davide Zappacosta was in at right back. Andreas Christensen was in. But there was no David Luiz amid a sniff of a bust-up with Antonio Conte. There was no place for the wide men Pedro and Willian. But Bakayoko and Fabregas retained their spots. As I headed inside the stadium, I decided to wait until I saw the players line up at the kick-off before I could fathom out the shape of the team to face Manchester United.

Ah, United. I had picked them to finish in second place this season, behind their City rivals and ahead of us, but they have faltered lately. All three of us expected a defensive game-plan from the ultimate pragmatic strategist Mourinho. After two defeats at Stamford Bridge last season in league and cup, a third defeat for Mourinho’s new charges would be a tough pill to swallow.

But we lived in hope.

In the other Sunday games at the top, City continued to impress with a win against Arsenal while Spurs crawled over the line against Crystal Palace.

While wolfing down a McBreakfast in Melksham, we spotted two replica-kit wearing Arsenal fans, a father and young son. They were off to Manchester.

“Is it your son’s first away game” I enquired.

“No, no. We go to all the games. I’m teaching him to be a thug” – and a loud laugh.

I turned to PD and Parky and rolled my eyes.

Once I heard that Arsenal had lost 3-1, I quickly thought of Thug Life and Thug Lite and hoped that they were suffering a thoroughly miserable return journey from The Etihad.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at just after 4pm. A quick scan of the away end. A couple of flags from the visiting hordes caught my eye.

“Immerse Me In Your Splendour.”

Yet another musical reference from the United support; this time The Stone Roses.

Another one was a little more basic and direct : “UTFR.”

The Chelsea flags were out in force too. Over at The Shed, the white banner with a red poppy was on show again:

“Chelsea Supporters Will Remember Them.”

The place filled to capacity.

It had been a busy day for me, flitting around, taking a few photographs, soaking in the atmosphere, “tut-tutting” at friendship scarves.

Earlier, I had met Janette – visiting from Los Angeles – in the Copthorne Hotel, but her visit back home to England was heart-wrenchingly emotional. Her brother, who I had briefly met a few seasons ago in The Goose, has been ill with cancer for some time and is now in a hospice in South London. It was difficult to know what to say. The two of them recently celebrated their birthdays – on consecutive days – and I am sure that this brought a small but priceless morsel of joy in tough times.

Janette certainly touched a nerve when she admitted that it would be fitting for him to leave as a “champion.”

It was good to see Janette again, albeit in tough times.

With ten minutes to go, with no real introduction, “Heroes” by David Bowie was played. It provided the understated backdrop as members of the armed forces carried a large banner on to the centre-circle, then stretched it out. A Chelsea crest and a scarlet poppy was featured and it mirrored a large banner pinned to the upper heights of the hotel above The Shed.

This was just right.

“I, I will be king.

And you, you will be queen.

Though nothing will drive them away.

We can beat them, just for one day.

We can be heroes, just for one day.”

It brought back memories of Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode singing the same song as his tribute to David Bowie at the concert I saw at the London Stadium in the summer. In the opposite corner of the Matthew Harding, another large flag bearing club crests and a poppy appeared over the heads of supporters. On the pitch, members of the air force, army and navy stood between large letters denoting “Chelsea Remembers.”

Just enough.

The teams appeared from the tunnel. I looked up to see a few Chelsea Pensioners in the East Middle. A penny for their thoughts. The teams walked past the poppy in the centre circle. The red of the visiting United team seemed apt on such an afternoon.

Then, a few moments later, the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle.

Silence.

Not a sound.

Perfect.

I hoped that a few Chelsea heroes would shine on this bristling afternoon in West London, but the focus was really on the heroes who have gone before and on those who protect us today.

I turned once again to football.

Nemanja Matic received a pretty decent round of applause from the home supporters. Not so much the opposing management team.

The game began.

It took me a few moments, but it looked like we had packed the midfield, with Eden Hazard playing off Alvaro Morata in attack.

So much for a dour and defensive game. After Rome – I still contend that we were well in it until the second goal was conceded – I was absolutely gushing with praise for the way that the manager had re-energised his troops. It was a breathless start to the match.

The returning hero Kante struck from distance within the first few minutes, but De Gea saved easily. Then, with us breaking at pace, Marcos Alonso crossed into the box and from my position one hundred yards away, the ball was seemingly steered into the United goal by Morata. I celebrated wildly, but soon realised that the goal had been disallowed. Offside? Handball? A foul?

At the other end, Rashford – full of running – dolloped a ball over Courtois but on to the roof of the net.

With Romelu Lukaku attacking our end, I was reminded how much weight he has put on since he was with us. He is a huge unit. With a touch of a refrigerator.

United struggled to cope with our energy and vibrancy in the first-half. I loved the way that we pressed every United player caught in possession. The constant nibbling by Kante and company meant that United players struggled to get the ball under control, and were forced into errant passes, which were pounced upon by our players. From the off, Andreas Christensen was so cool on the ball. Davide Zappacosta stretched out the United defence with a few gut-busting runs down the right.

But the star, even early-on, was N’Golo.

Although I had not been drinking, I soon exclaimed –

“Kante I fucking love you.”

His selfless harnessing of the United threat enabled Bakayoko to gallop forward. At once, the new purchase looked like the player of September and not October. He looked to be enjoying himself too. A shot wide from a Zappacosta pass hinted at greater things from him. Another shot soon followed. Cesc Fabregas, playing deep at times, played the ball short, then long, then high, then angled into space. I purred at the sight of Alvaro Morata’s first touch. It was sublime. One pass, shades of Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick at old Wembley, was ridiculous.

Over in the far corner, United were remembering a night in Moscow.

“Viva John Terry.”

A rare shot from Lukaku was saved by Courtois.

I was really in to this game.

“Close him down. Great pressure. Play it square. Use the width. Go on son. Go on. Touch it. Pick a man. “

A firm effort from Hazard was pushed out by De Gea but Fabregas, following up, never looked like getting his header on target from an angle.

United sang “Twelve Days Of Cantona.”

The Chelsea choir then really got our act together towards the end of the half.

“Carefree, wherever you may be…”

Deafening stuff.

No goals in the first-half, but I was oh-so pleased and proud of our performance. At that moment in time, I had to laugh when I thought that some sections of the media were talking about our manager either –

  1. Not enjoying life in London.
  2. Losing the trust of some of the players.
  3. Being in a strained relationship with Roman.
  4. Losing his motivational edge.
  5. Close to getting the push.

What a load of cock.

Doug Rougvie was on the pitch at the break, and a clip from 1984 of that tackle with Viv Anderson on his debut at Highbury was shown on the TV screen. What memories.

Eden Hazard was constantly getting fouled – assaulted, molested, chopped – throughout the first-half and it continued in the second-half. Phil Jones – a player more famous for pulling faces than his footballing abilities – was rightly carded for such a foul. That horrible little player Ander Herrera, a latter day Nicky Butt, then fouled Hazard and his name was taken too. The noise levels were raised.

Fabregas played in our little Belgian but his opportune volley on the edge of the box was straight at De Gea. Was this turning in to Roma all over again?

Just after, a deep but perfect cross from the trusty Spanish boot of Cesar Azpilicueta picked out the unmarked leap of Alvaro Morata. I was amazed how much space he had. He jumped, so gracefully – shades of Peter Osgood – and headed the ball back across the goal, so that it nestled, quite beautifully, in the far corner.

Pandemonium in SW6.

There was the goal. It was what we deserved. Morata raced over to the corner, followed enthusiastically by Bakayoko and posed a la Fernando Torres in Amsterdam as an archer.

What a moment.

Not long after, The Bridge was in unison.

“Super Chelsea FC…”

We continued to dominate, but the game changed as first Mourinho brought on Fellaini and Martial. Antonio replaced the tiring Zappacosta with Rudiger, his Roman moment forgotten.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

We continued to pepper De Gea’s goal. There were shots from Bakayoko and Hazard. United looked tired and listless. They resembled us in 2015/15. We were still firing on all cylinders and – ironically – reminded me of the Ferguson team at their peak in around 1998, when their midfield terriers chased all game long. Matic? I thought he was very poor. As leggy as ever. Lukaku was hardly involved. In fact, hardly any United players warranted more than a 5/10 apart from De Gea. This is simply not a typical United team.

And for once, the usually noisy and vociferous away support were very quiet. I heard an occasional song mocking Merseyside, but that was it.

Danny Drinkwater added some solidity – alongside N’Golo for the first time since Leicester City – and replaced the majestic Fabregas, who was given a standing ovation. His performance was a real surprise after floundering of late.

N’Golo kept going and going and going and going. He was our star.

It then got a little nervy. No, I tell a lie, it got very nervy.

Mourinho regurgitated an old Chelsea tactic of his – memories of Robert Huth and John Terry playing upfront in the final few minutes – and his players lumped the ball high towards Fellaini and Lukaku. There is no doubt that Fellaini is useful in the air, all elbows and afro, and he did cause us some shaky moments. A rasper from Rashford flew past the far post.

We held our breath.

In the very last few minutes, the oh-so-predictable Fellaini equaliser looked to cruelly rob us of a deserved three points. Thankfully his swivel and volley was pushed away by our man Thibaut.

“What a save.”

Still chances came and went.

Willian – on for Hazard – played in Morata but with only De Gea to beat, he fell over himself and the chance went.

United were awarded a free-kick, centrally. I mused that it was a bloody good thing that David Beckham no longer wears their number seven shirt. Rashford’s effort was belted over, but a deflection meant that we had to endure a further corner.

It came to nothing.

On an afternoon when Chelsea Football Club showed the same indomitable spirit of last season, the simple shrill sound of the whistle was met with a resounding roar. It had been our most rounded league performance of the season, and I was just so proud.

Crisis. What fucking crisis?

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Tales From A Wembley High

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 April 2017.

We all knew how important this FA Cup semi-final was. We had suffered a recent blip in the league with two defeats out of the past four games and so we all realised that this game against Tottenham Hotspur – aka “that lot” – had the potential to make or break our season. A once seemingly impenetrable lead of ten points had been frittered away to a meagre four. A defeat – God forbid – at the hands of that lot at Wembley, we reasoned, would strike a horrible blow to our self-belief, while handing a lifeline to them.

No further build-up required. It was a massive match.

I woke early – again before the alarm – and unsurprisingly nervous. I was, if I am honest, full of trepidation. And this certainly felt odd. In recent years I have rarely felt so unsure of a Chelsea win and, with it, a grand day out from start to finish.

The four Chuckle Brothers – Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – had travelled up by train once again. It brought back memories, thankfully briefly, of the train trip that we all took just a few days after my mother passed away for the League Cup semi-final against the same opponent just over two years ago. On that day, I didn’t feel much like football, but my friends famously pulled me through. We had set off from Frome at 8am, and were soon at the lovely and delightful Paddington Station. There is something quite wonderful about alighting at a grand terminus, especially on a football day out. We had not spotted fans of either team on the journey to London. I certainly expected to bump into groups of “them” throughout the day.

As we strode out across the busy concourse towards Praed Street, I pointed out the metallic bench seats where the four of us had slumped – silent, stony-faced, sad – after the away game at The Emirates in September, and we all remembered those fleeting moments of pain and worry. The bench really sticks in my mind. It is undoubtedly one my personal totems of this incredible season. It made me think of another football club and one with which our current manager is heavily linked. I always remember that during the ceremony to mark the opening of the new Juventus Stadium in 2011, a bench played a starring role, since the famous old club was formed by some youngsters who met by a bench in one of Turin’s main streets. A replica of that bench was floodlit, in the middle of the pitch, as all other lights were dimmed. It was a simple and fine image. It represented a pivotal moment in time for that club. I promised the boys that if we ever made it to the FA Cup Final in May, we would make a point of returning to sit on that same bench on the Paddington concourse – maybe as league champions – and remember how far this team has come. Imagine returning on the evening of Saturday 27 May after an FA Cup Final with some silverware in our back pockets. Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have travelled in 2016/2017. After that game at Arsenal, it felt like we were down and out. We had a team in need of fresh blood. The mess of the previous season was set to continue. Our new manager had been found out. We were to face a long and testing season.

I had sorted out a little pub crawl. After scoffing a great breakfast outside the station, we were the first patrons to enter “Sawyers Arms” bang on 11am. We had already admitted to ourselves that we were all nervous about the game. Over a “Peroni”, the talk continued about the game. We all admitted that the result at Old Trafford had really been a “bad day at the office” especially when the news broke that a few players had been stricken with a stomach bug. The team had obviously been knocked sideways by the pre-match changes. In retrospect, everything looked out of kilter. But we were sure that the manager would be suitably prepared for the semi-final. Of course, the loss of Gary Cahill would be a tough one. We favoured Nathan Ake over Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

As we approached “The Sussex Arms” I spotted a gaggle of Herberts supping pints outside.

“Oh here we go. This could be them.”

As I got closer, I recognised a few familiar faces. Inside the dark boozer, I recognised even more. Many of the Chelsea fans from our neck of the woods had evidently decided to forego the bars closer to the station. I took my pint of San Miguel and chatted to one of the Swindon lads, Paul. Close by were lads from Melksham, Westbury, Trowbridge and Gloucester. Outside, the banter continued. None of us were overly confident. We were joined by three Chelsea lads from California – Tom, Brad and Mike, all in and out for just the one game – and we then headed off to the next pub on the list.

“The Victoria” is a cracking pub and I last visited it on the day of the 2012 FA Cup Final with Parky. The return visit in 2017 was, I will admit, a superstitious move by myself. But it is a fantastic boozer and it has retained its charm. A couple more drinks went down well. It was approaching 2pm.

We hailed a cab and darted off to “The Green Man” by Edgware Road tube. Daryl, Ed, Gary, Alan, John, Simon and Milo were already there, and the pub soon became swamped with many of the West of England Chelsea that we had met in “The Sussex Arms”. There was a moment when I looked up and each and every one of my London mates were chatting to lads from my part of England. It was a lovely moment. It encapsulated the buzz that I get out of following the team all over this country and beyond. All of us united by our love of Chelsea. All of us loving a beer. All of us loving a laugh.

The pub is nestled under the Westway and we were able to spot the Manchester City team bus that became stuck in traffic It was daubed with the club crest and a huge image of their players doing a “Poznan.”

I hope that Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kopmany appreciated the variety of hand signals that welcomed their slow advance into London.

Believe it or not, we were yet to see any opposing fans. Not one. Or at least, none that were wearing club colours. Maybe a few had sidled past us at Paddington but we would not have known. We had spotted little knots of police at Paddington, but there had been no Spurs fans. We walked to Marylebone train station. On the ten-minute ride to Wembley Stadium train station, right next to the ground, I spotted my first two Spurs fans of the day. One of them overheard me say “oh, there’s one” and apologised.

“Sorry.”

That made me smile.

The team news had broken through and it surprised us. Completely.

Out went Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, in came Willian and Michy Batshuayi.

Wow.

As for Gary Cahill’s replacement, we were right. In came Nathan Ake.

Unlike in previous years, there was no last-minute struggle to get in before the kick-off. We were all in with plenty of time to spare. The four of us were high behind the west end goal. Just like in the 2009 and 2012 finals, we were in that small section right above the TV screen. More positive superstition. Wembley is huge, of course. We preferred to be up high, since the patterns of play are able to be followed easier. Nearer the pitch, it becomes difficult to get much of a perspective.

Overhead, a mixture of sun and cloud.

Hardly any flags and banners were on show. New stadium regulations had meant that flags over a certain size needed to be pre-registered and have fire-certificates, thus stopping most from being allowed in. The cynical view is that banners obstruct advertisements along the balcony walls. Only one winner there, I am afraid.

It was lovely to spot thirty Chelsea Pensioners sitting in the lower deck to my left.

A few songs boomed out of the PA. A white flag wended its way from left to right in the lower tier of the east terrace, a blue flag moved over the heads of our supporters down below us. As the teams entered the pitch, supporters in our end frantically waved thousands of royal blue flags, while the other end depicted “COYS” amid alternate white and navy sections.

The scene was set.

But first, a minute of applause as the football world remembered Ugo Ehiogu, the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender, who had sadly passed away the previous day. He was a fine player. Both sets of players wore black armbands. Towards the end of the minute’s applause, we joined in chanting “Ugo” too.

We stood the entire game as did the majority around us and below us.

The match began and we started very well indeed. We thwarted an early attack which resulted in a corner but a fine Nathan Ake tackle set us off on a rapid attack of our own. A lovely touch from Michy set the raiding Pedro on his way. As he approached the penalty box, he was clumsily tackled by Toby Alderweireld. Barely three minutes had passed. A free-kick in “Willian territory.”

He steadied himself before clipping a fine shot just over the line of defenders. The net rippled and we roared. What a dream start and other clichés. The players raced over towards the side of the pitch, no doubt winding up both the opposing fans and also Mauricio Pocchetino, watching on like Rodney Bewes in a dark grey flasher mac.

I spotted a plane trailing an “ANTONIO ANTONIO” banner.

The pre-match worry had been temporarily lifted. For a while, we looked in control and at ease. Nathan Ake, bless him, looked particularly good. His movement is so natural. Sadly, this purple period did not last. A corner from Cristian Eriksen was cleared but he had a second bite of the cherry. A cross towards the near post was met by a stooping header from Harry bloody Kane, whose slight touch took the ball bouncing into goal way past the dive of Thibaut Courtois.

Ugh.

Game, as they say, on.

There wasn’t constant noise, but the atmosphere wasn’t at all bad. The slow and dirge like “oh when that lot go marching in” was matched by a few “carefrees.”  I was able to spot a few empty seats around and about but this was virtually a full house. There were little battles everywhere. N’Golo Kante was right in the middle of everything. I couldn’t work out why Son was playing at left-back. Victor Moses had a few trademark runs down that flank. That lot began to dominate and our defenders did well the repel their attacks. Luiz was at the centre of those blocks, ably aided by Ake to his left and Dave to his right.

Just before the break, the ball was pushed forward to Moses. He took a touch, but the poorly-timed challenge from Son immediately looked promising. After a split second, the referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.

“Get in.”

We waited. It looked like Batshuayi wanted to take it. Silly boy. Thankfully, Willian grabbed the ball. There was a slight stall as he approached the spot. Hugo Lloris was already on his way to his left as Willian struck it to his right.

“Yes.”

We punched the sky. But whereas there was wild euphoria with his first goal, there was just relief with this one.

The French ‘keeper appeared to touch the ball outside of the box, but we were one hundred yards away. At the break, texts came through to say that the touch was outside the box.

But the mood was buoyant at the break. We were halfway to paradise.

Our old rivals started the second-half the brighter. Luiz was soon heading and blocking in fine style. As Eriksen was allowed a little space, Glenn uttered the immortal words “no, don’t let him” and at that moment, we let him float a superb ball in and Delle Alli was able to meet the bounce of the ball and prod it high past Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

Only seven minutes of the second-half were on the clock.

That lot then dominated for quite some time, though in all honesty rarely threatened our goal. Luiz headed cross after cross away. A strip of sun edged slowly towards the eastern side of the stadium as the game continued. Elsewhere the pitch was in shadow. The songs ebbed and flowed.

On the hour, our manager pulled the strings. Off came Willian the goal scorer and on came Eden Hazard. Off came Batshuayi and on came Diego Costa. After a bright start, Michy had been largely stranded up front as the game continued. I heaved a sigh of relief. What a bonus for us to bring on such quality from our bench. They still had most of the ball though, but again found it so difficult to get behind us or even through us. Our royal blue wall was not going to be easily breached. Time after time, their attacks petered out.

Cesc Fabregas then replaced Pedro, who had also started brightly but was beginning to fade. Very soon, we won our first corner of the game. The ball reached an unmarked Eden Hazard, lurking just outside the box. He took one touch and shot low, through a forest of legs, and we watched – on tenterhooks – as the ball continued unhindered into the goal.

GET. FUCKING. IN.

Our end boomed.

A quarter of an hour remained.

“And its super Chelsea. Super Chelsea FC. We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.”

This was the loudest that I think that I had ever heard us at the new Wembley Stadium.

Five minutes later, our two craftsmen combined inside the box. Fabregas twisted a ball back to Hazard from the bye-line, and Eden took a couple of touches as he ran across the pitch, just keeping the ball under control. The ball was pushed towards Nemanja Matic, some thirty yards out.

Smack.

The ball crashed in off the underside of the bar, Lloris beaten, the whole team beaten.

Our end roared once again.

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Oh my bloody goodness.

At the other end, red seats started appearing. They had seen this all before. They were off home. In 2012 we administered their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. Now, in 2017, we had given them their seventh in a row.

Incredibly, Hazard and then Costa came close in the final few moments. A Kane free-kick in the dying embers of a fantastic game was saved by Courtois.

At the final whistle, of course many more red seats visible now, the joy of reaching another FA Cup Final almost matched the joy of beating “that lot” in a hugely important game in this most incredible, mesmerising, entertaining and dramatic of seasons.

The players cavorted down below. The manager looked breathless. The twin staples “One Step Beyond” and “Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

“Sing Chelsea everyone.”

The return train trip into the centre of London was full of smiles. At a bar outside Marylebone station, we met up with more Chelsea pals. Outside the redbrick hotel opposite, we spotted the Manchester City coach. Apparently, the Chelsea team had stayed at the very same hotel the previous night. We caught the 10pm train home, and there was time for one last gin and tonic from the buffet. Looking back, I should have asked for a double.

We reached home at midnight. It had been another fantastic day.

On Tuesday, the show rolls on. There is no time to rest. Southampton at home. See you there.

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Tales From The Road To Berlin

Chelsea vs. Sporting Lisbon : 10 December 2014.

With our advancement into the knock-out phase of the Champions League already assured, the home game against Sporting Lisbon was another one of those rarities; a match which was, on the face of it, of no consequence. Not only were we through, but we were also guaranteed first place in our group. Some of my friends were already well advanced in planning potential trips to cities in February. Return visits to Basel, Leverkusen, Turin and Paris loomed.

Having missed-out on the 6-0 drubbing of Maribor in October, my last Champions League night was the tetchy 1-1 draw with Schalke in September. That draw meant that our trip out to the Portuguese capital became an important “must-win.” On a sultry night at Sporting’s home stadium, Chelsea triumphed in a very entertaining match. We haven’t looked back since.

PD took a turn to drive to London for this one. I commented to Parky –

“The weather will be a bit different tonight compared to the T-shirts and shorts weather in Lisbon, mate.”

Ah, Lisbon 2014 was a great trip indeed. Was it already over two months ago?

On the elevated section of the M4, with the night having fallen, and with neon advertising signs and a smattering of impressive new buildings welcoming us once again to England’s capital, I summed up my feelings from the back seat of PD’s car.

“I always feel like this road, from Heathrow in, seems like we’re entering London through the front door.”

They agreed.

It felt like we were getting the red carpet treatment – for us Chelsea fans, maybe the blue carpet – as I spent a few seconds lost in thought. I dwelt on the number of dignitaries, politicians, world leaders, heads of state, film stars, pop stars and rock stars who have entered London via that same route.

It was definitely an “in through the front door” moment. And Chelsea was just around the corner. I experienced a slight tingle of excitement.

There were lit Christmas trees lined up outside the Fuller’s brewery at Chiswick.

Another tingle.

We were inside The Goose just before 6pm. It didn’t appear to be particularly busy. This was another sell-out though, for a game which would be inherently bereft of high drama, due to the very nature of the game. Whether or not the 40,000 fans would be “the right type of fans” – think noise – is another matter of course.

We heard through the grapevine, while supping pints of lager and cider, that both Nemanja Matic and Jon Obi Mikel were starting. My first thought was  –

“Ha. Good old Jose. A Mourinho masterclass.”

Following our narrow defeat at Newcastle – another game I missed – I felt that too many fans throughout Planet Chelsea were too quick to criticise our much-maligned Nigerian midfielder. To be honest, I felt that we played pretty well in the first-half and, over the entire game, I agreed with the manager’s view that we deserved more. It wasn’t a time to studiously re-evaluate “what went wrong.” It was, simply, one of those games. However, too many fans were too quick to jump to the “Matic Good, Mikel Bad” conclusion in my view. If Jon Obi Mikel is good enough for Jose Mourinho, then he should be good enough for plasterers in Peckham, graphic designers in Guildford, warehouse workers in Wichita and dentists in Dallas.

That in the very next game Mourinho decided to play them both was just delicious.

While I was lining up at the turnstiles, I glimpsed my match ticket.

Chelsea vs. Sporting Clubbe De Portugal.

It took me by surprise even though I had seen a similar sign at their stadium in Lisbon.

Not Sporting Lisbon, then?

This was evidently another example of us, the English, getting the name of a famous European team completely wrong. Go to Italy and talk about “Inter Milan” and you will be met with puzzled looks from locals, maybe similar to those which greet Americans talking about rest rooms to the English. “Inter Milan” do not exist; if anything, it sounds like a clumsy amalgamation of the two clubs, like “Rangers Celtic” or “Liverpool Everton.” So, neither does “Sporting Lisbon” exist. From henceforth, I will seize the moment and call them “Sporting.” Until I forget.

As a tube train rattled by, just beyond the boundary wall outside the Matthew Harding, I thought back to the times of my youth when I travelled up to games with my parents and we would take the District Line from Earl’s Court to Fulham Broadway. The train would plunge underground after leaving West Brompton, swing west, then emerge in the day light and the scruffy embankment – festooned with litter and weeds – supporting the north terrace, would appear just yards away. I always used to edge over to the left-hand side of the train compartment, just so I could set eyes on Stamford Bridge – my mecca – for a few fleeting moments. I remember the base of that floodlight pylon, then a quick view of the West Stand roof, then the buildings of the Oswald Stoll Foundation. The Bridge was gone in a flash, but the memory is etched in my mind.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was immediately impressed with the three thousand away fans who had made the trip, but I had momentarily overlooked the fact that Sporting were still in with a shout of progressing. We had been promised an appearance by Ruben Loftus-Cheek at some stage during the game; I had seen him play at Yankee Stadium in 2013, but this would be his official debut. The pairing of Matic and Mikel meant that Fabregas was playing in a more forward role. Maybe this wasn’t a game of no consequence after all. Maybe these fine-tunings might come to fruition come May, or June. Elsewhere, Kurt Zouma was alongside Gary Cahill, Petr Cech was back between the posts, Dave was playing right-back, Filipe Luis was at left-back and Fabregas was alongside Salah and Schurrle. Diego Costa was up top.

We were blessed with two early goals.

After just eight minutes, we were awarded a penalty when Filipe Luis was bundled to the floor just inside the Sporting box. Cesc Fabregas struck the ball home. On sixteen minutes, a fine move involving Matic picking out Schurrle, resulted in our recently-overlooked German exquisitely firing a low shot home.

We were 2-0 up and we were coasting.

Alan made a remark about the Brazilians, possibly in shock after their World Cup humiliation in the summer, doing well so far this season. Oscar has been in good form and I like Willian, though some don’t. Ramires has been OK, though not often used. Schurrle, the World Cup victor, however has been less successful. In some respects, the reverse might have been expected. Fair play to our Brazilian three; well done to them for digging in and bouncing back well.

We traded chances for a while. It wasn’t a bad game. The three thousand visitors from Lisbon kept singing, though it wasn’t one of the loudest away supports I have ever witnessed on these European nights. One of their songs surprised me; a Portuguese version of “Take Me Home Country Road.” I know that there is a bit of a link between Sporting and Manchester United – Nani, Ronaldo, Rojo – but I honestly didn’t know that it included the exchange of songs.

Nemanja Matic came close with a rising volley from twenty-five yards. I was behind the course of the ball all of the way; I’m still waiting for the net to ripple. I joked with Alan :

“Mikel would have scored that.”

I soon received a text from a good mate in the US who said :

“Mikel would have scored that.”

More efforts on goal were exchanged as the game wore on. In the stadium, there didn’t seem to be any atmosphere, as such, at all.

In the match programme, there was a feature on Vienna 1994, John Spencer and all that.

In the second-half, Schurrle soon fired over from a free-kick. Sporting quietened the docile Stamford Bridge crowd further when they nabbed a goal back. A crisp shot from Silva was fired low past Cech.

Game on? Not really. Only a wonderful finger-tip save from Patricio – their hero in the away game – kept Mo Salah from scoring with a fine shot. On fifty-five minutes, Cesc Fabregas sent a dipping corner into the box. Both Zouma and Cahill rose, but the latter managed to get his head to the ball. It was undoubtedly goal-bound, but none other than Jon Obi Mikel was on hand – seemingly not offside – to touch it over the line.

He scores when he wants, you know.

Mourinho rang the changes in the last fifteen minutes with Remy, Ramires and Ruben all coming on. There are high hopes for our Ruben. He was involved in a few moves during his ten minutes of debut action. Let’s hope that he becomes a part of our history at this club.

It had been a reasonable enough game. Another Chelsea win. Mustn’t grumble.

In 2015, more foreign fields await.

The story continues.

IMG_9462

Tales From The Chelsea Die-Hards

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 22 November 2014

Although it was only two weeks since our last game at Anfield, the gap of inactivity seemed a lot longer. Not to worry. As so many Chelsea friends remarked on Facebook, with the home game against West Bromwich Albion cheering us all up, “proper football is back.” I had been relishing Saturday 22 November for quite a while. Not only a Chelsea home league game in the afternoon, but there was a From The Jam gig to attend with some mates in my home town in the evening.

Ah, the twin obsessions of football and music (in that order)…the passions which constantly bring enjoyment to millions of Englishmen (and women). I always used to say that if I met somebody new, either through work or mutual friends, and that person didn’t care for either football or music (in that order), then I knew we wouldn’t hit it off. I think that this still holds true. So, if, dear reader, you have stumbled across this website and your two passions are cricket and cars, or science fiction and soaps, or golf and gardening, it’s probably best that you scarper. And it is probably best that you check your search engines on your computer.

The drive to London was uneventful, but it was just pleasurable to be heading to Stamford Bridge again. If the game at Anfield seemed like ages ago, then the QPR home match seemed ridiculously distant. The weather outside was grey and murky; it was, in fact, typical November weather. Before the game, there was a busy period of meeting up with friends in a couple of pubs. It was a pleasure to sort out a ticket for Ryan, a native of New Hampshire, who was visiting Stamford Bridge for the first time on this overcast November afternoon. It was also a pleasure to meet Kevin, an ex-pat now residing in Connecticut, who was back at HQ for the first time for a few years. It seems that every year – every match maybe – my Chelsea family grows and grows. In both pubs, the air was warm and muggy. Outside, too, it was surprisingly mild. The onset of winter was holding off for at least one more day. There was the usual banter in the pub. Yep, proper football was back. Although my interest in international football continues to wane – thank heavens that the third of the international breaks are behind us now – it still throws up occasionally interesting or mildly entertaining stories.

[Clears throat, coughs, adjusts tie and looks around the room to see if anyone is still paying attention]…

Around ten years ago, when I used to work for a different logistics company, I used to book consignments for my client for Spain and Portugal through our office which was based in Dover. The small team in Dover was managed by a chap called Allen Bula, a likeable and affable man, who also used to do some scouting for Dover Athletic. His team was Arsenal, so amid many phone calls from myself which used to involve booking full loads to Madrid, or smaller consignments to Barcelona, Cadiz, or Valencia, there would be the inevitable banter between the two of us. I met him on a couple of occasions. In around 2006, he left P&O Ferrymasters to work for a logistics company in Slovakia called Steeltrans. Allen still stayed in touch and there was the occasional email, but we only used his new company a few times. After a while, I heard that his company were sponsoring the MFK Kosice club, one of the provincial teams in Slovakia. We then heard that Allen was working for Kosice as their football and academy manager. I was suitably impressed. A few years ago, lo and behold, we heard that Allen had landed the job of Gibraltar team manager. Allen was originally from that rocky outcrop at the base of Spain, and we guessed that he had “gone home” to answer the call. Imagine my joy when we heard that Gibraltar had been given full UEFA status and that Allen was now a fully-fledged international football manager. It’s quite a story. Of course, I have been watching Gibraltar’s progress on the international stage over the past two years with growing fondness; some recent heavy defeats have been hard to take, but I’m almost tempted to travel up to Hampden Park to see how they fare against Scotland in the current Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. A recent 0-4 loss in Germany was a mighty improvement after two back to back 7-0 defeats against Poland and Eire.

[This is all very well, mate, but what has this got to do with Chelsea?]…

While at MFK Kosice, Allen Bula uncovered the talents of none other than Nemanja Matic.

So, Allen has gone from freight forwarder to international football manager. He was even featured in a documentary about Gibraltar on Channel Five during the week. There’s hope for me yet. I fancy applying for the Swedish women’s beach volleyball coach. Watch this space.

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, I spotted a facsimile of a World War One recruitment poster which was displayed in the middle of the Fulham Road. The club historian Rick Glanvill was stood close by. What a lovely touch; it was a fine tribute to those young men who gave their all during that most calamitous of conflicts.

DO YOU WANT TO BE A CHELSEA DIE-HARD?

IF SO JOIN THE 17TH. BATT. MIDDLESEX RGT.

“THE OLD DIE-HARDS”

And follow the lead given by your Favourite Football Players.

(Incidentally, I found it interesting that the term “die-hard” was used in this 1914 poster. It is hardly used in England these days, but I do note that it is used more regularly in North America to describe fandom. I wonder why.)

I noted several Chelsea supporters, scarves on – they looked like tourists – heading away from Stamford Bridge, scowling. I presumed that their search for tickets had not been successful.

I made it inside the stadium with just a couple of minutes to spare; phew. I looked around and – yes – the ground was packed to the rafters. Although attendances are often given as sell-outs these days, the more attentive fan can soon spot the odd empty seat here and there. On this occasion, with no home game for three weeks, Stamford Bridge was bursting. It is no wonder that those fans outside were looking miserable.

Again it was a very settled Chelsea team. The regulars were there. From Thibaut Courtois in goal through the spine to Diego Costa at the front, there was stability. It was a reassuring line-up. Not much had been said about the game thus far. There was the memory of the lucky 2-2 draw last season when…come on, let’s admit it…we were gifted a penalty after a “foul” on Ramires, but my view was that a win was vital, if not 100% expected.

Chelsea began well and John Terry forced a fine save from Ben Foster in the Albion goal after just four minutes. After eleven minutes, a cross from Oscar was played in to the penalty area. From my position, watching in the MHU, it seemed that not only me but the entire West Brom defence presumed that Diego Costa had strayed offside. In one movement, the striker chested the ball down and volleyed home. Offside, right? I hardly moved, let alone celebrated. But there was no flag and no whistle. Goal.

We were 1-0 up and I had hardly celebrated. Weird times.

Chelsea then peppered Foster’s goal, with Costa coming close on two further occasions, the second of which went agonisingly close. On nineteen minutes, a short corner was played in by Fabregas to Hazard, unmarked, and the Belgian maestro settled and shot low. It was as easy and as simple a goal as I have seen all season.

2-0.

On this occasion the Albion defence were again sleeping. This was very promising.

In an undoubted reaction to Jose Mourinho’s comments after the QPR game, the home crowd were in excellent form during this period of the first-half. It was lovely to hear. I joined in with gusto. In my mind, every fan should leave a game with a sore-throat. There was a dirty sky above, but a great atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge.

The positivism sweeping the stands increased further when Claudio Yacob – who? – was sent off for a horrible lunge on Diego Costa. The crowd roared.

Some of the football that Chelsea played in that sumptuous first forty-five minutes was just wonderful. The range of passing, the movement of the players, the fluidity, the style…it really was mouth-watering. Was it the best of the season thus far? Yes. In the middle were the two ever-presents; the intelligent brain and skilful passing of Cesc Fabregas and the tireless running and blocking of Alan Bula’s boy Nemaja Matic.

I commented to Bournemouth Steve : “Matic is just the sort of player that Arsenal have been crying out for.”

A couple of Foster saves towards the end of the first-half denied us further. With the score 2-0 in our favour at the break, and with the visitors down to ten men, there was a high degree of expectation for a sack full of goals in the second period.

Sadly, the second-half rarely reached the heights of the first period. Nemanja Matic was especially profligate, but our long-range shooting was very poor. Foster continued to make some great saves and blocks, but the West Brom players – neatly stationed in two deep banks of four, with the much heralded Berahino a lone striker, hardly involved – maintained a great shape throughout the second-half. I guess it was all a little anti-climactic really. And I hated myself for thinking it.

Yes, Chelsea are playing some lovely stuff at the moment and – yes – we are everyone’s championship tip, but I’d hate to think that I was taking any of this for granted. I was just glad that Ryan and Kevin, the visitors from afar, got to enjoy that blistering first-half display, plus the two goals, down at their Shed End.

I made great time on the drive home and was back in Frome at around 8pm. As Parky and I strolled in to the Three Swans, with an evening of music from our youth ahead of us, the excitement was palpable.  I met up with a few other Chelsea mates – Glenn and PD – and a few school friends – including Fran, he of the Anfield game in 1992 – and also a few friends from my school days who I haven’t seen for over thirty years (“do you still support Chelsea?”)

It was a stupendous evening. From The Jam, including original Jam member Bruce Foxton on bass, were in great form, playing the Setting Sons album in its entirety before treating us to all of The Jam’s greatest hits. The beers flowed and the laughter rung out. I always smile when I go to watch my local team, Frome Town, and the teams come on to the pitch to the sound of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice.” That song, plus all the others, made us sing and made us dance.

It was one of Frome’s greatest nights.

Football and music.

That’s Entertainment. IMG_9958 Dedicated to the memory of John Neal, the manager of Chelsea during my favourite ever season of 1983-1984. Rest In Peace.

Tales From Super Bock City

Sporting Lisbon vs. Chelsea : 30 September 2014.

Monday 29 September 2014.

This was a long-awaited trip to Lisbon in Portugal for our first Champions League away game of 2014-2015. Of course, there were many reasons for this; relaxation, travel, football, comradeship and all of the standard words and hackneyed phrases could be thrown in to the mix. But there was one distinct reason why this “European Away” would be a little bit special; it would be Parky’s first Chelsea away in Europe since the ECWC Final in Stockholm in 1998. Of course, I never knew him then as our paths would cross a few years later. But we’ve become solid mates over the past five or six seasons. It hurts me to say that Parky missed Moscow, Munich and Amsterdam and all other cities too since that memorable night in Sweden over sixteen years ago. This would hopefully be a thoroughly enjoyable trip for him.

I woke at 3am – truly the dead of night – and, in an hour, I was off on another adventure over land and sea. It would be my twenty-ninth away game in Europe with Chelsea.

It was a foggy drive through the dark Somerset and Wiltshire countryside on the twenty-five minute trip to collect Parky. I had decided to call him “Parkao” for this trip and this trip only.

I soon sent a text to Alan in London to let him know that I was on the road.

“Jak Kerouacao.”

He replied “Reg Varney.”

He was on a night bus in order to catch a coach up to Stansted Airport.

Parkao was buzzing as I collected him at 4.30am. We drove through Bath, and then headed up to Bristol Airport for our 7.05am Easyjet flight to Faro. The check-in process was delayed a few moments as Parkao’s metal leg brace set off the security alarms. After several attempts, he was successfully scanned.

He cost £1.72.

Once on the plane, I texted Alan again :

“Freddy Laker.”

He replied “Al Murray.”

He was obviously in the bar at Stansted. We would be all in the same hotel later in the day.

There was a slight delay as we waited for the food for the flight to arrive. The steward lost some credibility when he claimed that they needed the food on the plane to help balance the load. I remarked to Parkao “I’ve never heard a plane crash ‘cus it was missing a few sandwiches.” Eventually, we were up, up and away over Somerset, Devon and then over the channel, France, Spain and Portugal. We grabbed a little sleep. The time soon passed. The only surprise was that there was no other Chelsea on it. We were headed to Faro, on The Algarve, because the only option out of Bristol to Lisbon involved a Sunday to Thursday stay. The plane touched down at a sun-drenched Faro at around 9.45am. We caught the 11am “Vera” coach to Lisbon and we could relax.

I first visited Lisbon on the third of my Inter-Railing trips around Europe by train in 1987. I and two college mates – Ian and Trev – had graduated in the June and had worked a few jobs over the summer in order to get away for three weeks in September. We arrived in Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia station after an overnight train from Madrid. My memory is that we only stayed a couple of hours in the Portugal capital – just passing through on the way to The Algarve – but my diary entry for Tuesday 15 September 1987 informs me that we arrived at 9am, and caught the 2.10pm ferry over the River Tagus to Barreiro, so were in the city for longer than I thought. There was time for a stroll around the streets – the weather was very hot – and also time for a couple of beers in a street side café. I remember being taken aback by the sad sight of beggars without limbs at the station, and several people tried to sell us some hash. I also remember fake Lacoste polo shirts on sale by the ferry terminal, which abutted the main square. The city looked fascinating, with ornate architecture, wide piazzas and there were hints of a rich history. It felt horrible to be only in town for four hours. As the ferry took us over the massive river, I vowed to return one day.

I believe that Chelsea played Benfica in a friendly around fifteen years ago and also – for certain – in the 2011/2012 Champions League season, but I did not attend those games in Lisbon. Of course, our defeat by Atletico Madrid last April meant that there would be no Chelsea trip to Lisbon in May 2014, either. However, I had already booked a flight to Lisbon and hotel in Albufeira and so decided to go over for a few days’ break anyway. Hundreds of other Chelsea fans had exactly the same opinion. My stay in Lisbon in May was even shorter than in 1987. Before catching a train south, I just had time for a few beers in a quiet bar near the slightly run-down area around the Entre Campos station.

As I sat, alone, in that small bar it felt like I should be there for a Chelsea game. It was a very odd sensation. I kept expecting friends to poke their heads around the door to join me for a brew. Little did I know that I would be back in just over four months and that the hotel I would choose would only be half-a-mile away from that very bar.

It was a fine, relaxing trip north. The coach was air-conditioned and the scenery – at first the white villas of The Algarve, then the green hills, then the arid farmland – was excellent. We caught up on yet more sleep – maybe an hour at most – before we eventually noticed the suburbs around Setubal. We soon saw the deep red supports of the April 25 Bridge, which majestically spans the River Tagus, then the formidable statue of Christ the King which looks down on humanity from the south bank of the river. It is very similar to the Christ the Redeemer in Rio. We were soon heading over the bridge and our welcome to Lisbon could not have been any more dramatic. The city centre, kissed by a hot afternoon sun, and shimmering to our right, looked magnificent, with hills rising up from the river to the suburbs in the distance. I spotted the iconic Monument to the Discoveries, on the river bank, to my left. With an eye for such things, I soon spotted the spindles of the Belenenses floodlights too. They are the city’s third football team, and if we are to believe, Jose Mourinho’s first love. He played for them many years ago, though not to any great standard. Ahead, was the aqueduct, which I photographed from the train in May. The city was quite beguiling. It was fantastic.

“What a welcome, Parkao.”

We soon located our hotel and had a little chat with the receptionists.

“Are you over here for the football?”

“Yes…Chelsea.”

“Tomorrow, we are with you.”

They were the first of the many Benfica fans that we would encounter during our stay.

A helpful lady assisted in our fumbling attempts to buy metro tickets and we soon alighted at Restauradores in the heart of the city. The sun was beating down and everything looked perfect. We spotted Alan and Gary outside a bar in the corner of Praca Dom Pedro IV. The steins of Superbock – around two pints apiece – were just seven euros. A few familiar Chelsea fans – Brighton Tony and his mates – joined us, then a few others.

“And relax.”

The only negative part of all this was the ridiculous amount of flies which kept buzzing around.

“Maybe there’s a Spurs fan nearby.”

We spent the best part of three hours sat outside in the afternoon sun and it was just brilliant. On the subway back to the hotel, we were a giggling quartet of silliness.

Parkao was in his element.

From Gary and Alan there was an array of double-entendres. The ensuing ribald laughter from all four of us caused a few glances to be aimed our way.

“I hope none of you can speak English” I begged to the others in the compartment.

After a quick shower, we were out on the town at 8.30pm. We headed south again, but had no idea where we would end up. We decided to go for a meal in an Italian restaurant on the large piazza which overlooks the river, and where I undoubtedly visited, albeit briefly, in 1987. We were soon joined by my mate Foxy, who I first met in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships. He was with his good lady Ashley and also Kev, a Hearts and Chelsea supporter from Edinburgh. The banter began again. The restaurant was superb, though quite quiet. It was, after all, only a Monday.

I politely enquired what factors resulted in Kev becoming a Chelsea fan. Foxy supports Dundee United – fine by me, I’ve had a soft spot for them since Peter Bonetti and Eamonn Bannon signed for them in 1979 – and his Chelsea roots are well known to me. I was just intrigued to hear Kev’s story. I’m well aware of the Chelsea/Rangers link, and also the Chelsea/Hearts partnership. You often see Rangers and Hearts flags at our away games. I suppose I wanted to know what inspired Kev to choose us as his other team. His reply pleased me; he mentioned Eamonn Bannon, who we signed from the Jambos in 1979, but also mentioned the name of Tommy Walker, a famous Hearts player, manager and director, who also played for us in the immediate post-war years. Additionally, for seven successive seasons in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, Chelsea played friendlies against Heart of Midlothian at the behest of Tommy Walker; at Tynecastle one year, at The Bridge the next. I mentioned my two visits to Tynecastle – the first way back in 1982 – and we became misty-eyed with the thoughts of those deep terraces, maroon stands, claustrophobic setting amidst the Gorgie tenements and the odorous fumes wafting over the spectators from the nearby brewery.

After another beer with a few more Chelsea fans outside another bar, we decided to take a cab to the lively Bairro Alto to the immediate west of the centre. The cab turned and twisted up steep and narrow streets until we reached the summit. Small sets of traffic lights allowed single-file cars to drive small sections of narrow roads. We peered in to an Irish bar as some Chelsea fans were singing “Willian.” The area was jumping. For a Monday night, it was amazing. Street vendors tried to sell us all sorts of tat. We took refuge in a small bar as it pumped out some dance music. I began with a mojito, and then got stuck into three morangoska cocktails, which were just unbelievable. These were made with strawberries, blackberry juice, sugar and vodka. They were beastly black. They tasted magnificent but were undoubtedly evil.

As the night grew older, there were more giggles bouncing off the buildings of Bairro Alto.

“Having a good time, Parkao?”

“It sure beats Trowbridge on a Monday night, son.”

There were back-packing types, international students, and locals milling around the cobbled streets, filling the night air with alcohol-induced merriment. My memories are unsurprisingly vague…

However, rather disappointingly, the bars closed at 2am and we shuffled along, past a posse of chanting Chelsea fans, towards a cab rank. We reluctantly returned back to the hotel. It will surprise nobody to hear that we did not discuss the game once the whole night.

One photo, sadly deleted in error, showed all four of us in the hotel lift, pointing our tongues out; all were blackberry black.

It had been a top night in Lisbon.

Tuesday 30 September 2014.

At 9am my alarm sounded just as I had dreamt that Andre Schurrle had raced past an opponent, reached the goal-line and pulled back a cross for Bobby Isaac to head home.

Morongoskas will do that to you, I guess.

Surprisingly, I was only a little, er, “delicate” in the morning. I was – thankfully – able to join the boys downstairs for an excellent breakfast. We decided to take Alan’s advice to utilise a hop-on / hop-off Lesbian (sorry – Lisbon) sightseeing bus tour. It only took a few minutes of Portuguese sunshine and fresh air for the last lingering remnants of a hangover to disperse.

Flies.

For the next two hours, we toured Lisbon and relaxed. We were driven down majestic streets, flanked by houses of various shades, some with tiles and mosaics, and some with gables and delicate balconies. We were driven through wide piazzas with statues, obelisks and fountains. We were driven up ramps which afforded stunning views of the city centre, baking in the September sun, and equally pleasing vistas of the wide, fast flowing Tagus. Out at Belem, having been driven under the momentous April 25 Bridge, we were driven past the ornate monastery, the quaint Belem Tower, then the piece de resistance; the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a stunning sculpture, depicting the various leading lights from the time when Portugeezers ruled the waves, and it is a statue that I have wanted to see in person for years. We decided there and then to return to Belem on the Wednesday. The bus returned us to the city centre, passing yet more fine houses, but also a funky mixture of more modern buildings, the type of which we never seem to get in the UK.

Flies.

To be truthful, I only half-heartedly listened to the audio guide during the tour – I was too busy taking photographs and chatting to Parkao – but  the overly cheerful Englishman’s voice did not mention sport during the entire two hours. This is a pet peeve of mine. Why do city guides – books, video, audio – continually neglect sport in their range of topics covered? Only a few days before the trip, I had bought a fine guide book on Lisbon, but within the 192 pages, there is just this pathetic entry about football :

“Lisbon’s main football stadiums, built for the 2004 European Football Championships, are Estadio Jose Alvalade and Estadio da Luz. The Portuguese football cup finals are held at the Estadio Nacional-Junior.”

There was no mention of Benfica, nor Sporting Lisbon, nor Eusebio, nor Luis Figo and the golden generation, nor Cristiano Ronaldo, nor Jose Mourinho. Yet two whole pages about music and three whole pages about bloody shopping. For many in Lisbon, football is at the centre of their lives, and the two – sorry, three – clubs within the city are surely worthy of more attention than this.

Flies.

Parkao and I split up from Alan and Gary and we slowly walked down through the centre, stopping off for a bite to eat and a drink at a café, before finding ourselves at the water’s edge, just south of the grand Praca Do Comercio. From here, there is a stunning view of Christ the King, arms outstretched. I wondered if anyone has attempted to put a Benfica or Sporting scarf around the neck. In Glasgow, you can be sure of it…

During the entire day, I had seen just one green and white hooped shirt of Sporting Lisbon. We returned to our hotel to freshen up, and then hopped on to the subway bound for the stadium. At last, there were now some football colours on show. We reached Campo Grande – the stop adjacent the home end of the stadium – and decided to try to get a drink in a nearby bar. Unlike other parts of Europe, there doesn’t appear to be a significantly violent underbelly in Portuguese football, and we were not met with any animosity throughout our stay. Lisbon, it seemed, was proving to be a near perfect city.

We began making our way across a dusty car park, when we stumbled across a chap with an ice box selling cans of Super Bock for 1.5 euros.

“Get in Parkao, son.”

“Superb.”

This was perfect. We then found another vendor selling them for one euro each.

“God bless the black market Parkao, let’s buy two more each.”

Sporting fans drifted past us wearing a variety of shirts, from various vintages. The main two stadia in Lisbon are within a mile of each other and, in both cases, were built adjacent to the original stadia of each club. I suspected that the car park where we were stood once housed the previous Sporting ground.

Estadio Jose Alvalade is brightly coloured outside, with green roof supports, multi-coloured panels, green-tinted windows, and plenty of space for non-football activities. Whereas Benfica’s stadium resembles The Emirates, though slightly bigger, the Sporting Lisbon stadium is only two-tiered, yet seems huge from the outside. We walked around, buoyed by a quick intake of Super Bock, and entered the stadium at the away turnstiles. Sadly, I had to hand my telephoto lens in, but I was assured it would come to no harm. All of the stewards were pleasant. Inside the concourse, both Chelsea and Sporting fans were able to mix, which was a new one on me. Here was another clue that hooliganism wasn’t particularly rife in Portugal.

It was “sit where you want” and so we squeezed in alongside some friends. Gary and Alan were four rows in front. We were behind the corner flag. It was an impressive stadium, the fans in the lower tier were tight behind the goals, but the stands stood way back at the sides. Below, underneath, was a massive moat. The ultras in the home end were already in full voice and many flags and banners were being waved. Hanging from the roof on the far side were large banners depicting the starting eleven of the home team.

As the teams were read out, Nemanja Matic received loud boos, since he of course played for the hated Benfica.

A couple of friends texted me to say that they had spotted Parkao and myself on the TV.

Flies.

As the anthem played, a huge banner was unfurled from the top tier opposite :

“We Are Sporting.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cz9NbHv7Qs&feature=youtu.be

The teams entered the pitch and we were wearing the all yellow kit of Goodison Park. I ran through the team; Filipe Luis in for Dave, Schurrle for Willian. Oh, and a start for Parkao.

After just one minute, Oscar put Diego Costa clear. We held our breath as he stroked the ball low. Surely we would get off to a dream start. Alas not; we saw the ball deflected wide after a block by the Sporting ‘keeper Patricio. Not to be perturbed, we continued to attack and were clearly on top in the early stages. We were in fine voice too. The lower tier was packed at the front, leading to some great “togetherness.” Copious amounts of Super Bock and Sagres helped too. I kept looking across at Parkao and he was loving it.

In the build up to the game, I wondered if Sporting’s new signing from Dundee United – yes, them again – Ryan Gauld, might play a part during the evening, but there was no place for him neither in the team nor on the bench. Instead, Nani was the one familiar face and it wasn’t long before he was serenaded –

“You’re just a shit Michael Jackson.”

The Ultras – Torcida Verde – at the other end were in good voice too and their chanting was relentless. At one stage, I counted twenty flags being frantically waved, though others appeared and then disappeared throughout the evening.

Andre Schurrle then missed three good chances in three minutes. First he rounded the ‘keeper but hit the side netting from a tight angle. A tame header was then fielded easily by Patricio. Then, a low shot, again easily saved. After his 184 wayward shots on goal during the Bolton game, this was getting all too familiar. A few fans nearby wanted to see him subbed already.

I rolled my eyes.

Next, it would be me rolling my eyes. A great run from Hazard set up Diego Costa, who rolled the ball towards Schurrle. We all growled as he pushed the ball well wide of the Sporting goal.

“At least get it on target.”

Ugh.

Soon after, a free-kick on our left was played deep towards the leaping Nemanja Matic, who rose purposefully and sent a looping, dipping header over the stranded goalie and into the net.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.

GET IN MATIC!

THE BENFICA BOY!

Almost immediately, a few fans behind me got going with a new song, at first a quiet murmur, but then growing stronger with each rendition.

“Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.”

I loved that. Suggs would too.

Nice one.

Then, soon after –

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

There were a few half chances for Lisbon, but we were well on top. A handball appeal against Gary Cahill was waved away and the first-half ended with boos ringing in the ears of the referee as the players and officials left the field.

Boos welcomed the referee back on the pitch at the start of the second-half. The natives were clearly restless.

Down below us, we spotted Rob, who came to spend a few minutes with us. He told a warming story. He pointed down at Chelsea fan Charlie, who was with four Benfica ultras. They had been given tickets in our end as an act of thanks for what they did in honour of a Chelsea fan that sadly passed away ahead of the Chelsea vs. Benfica Europa Cup Final in Amsterdam last year. They had spotted on a Chelsea chat site that Blind Gerry, known to many at our club, had passed away just hours after a game at Stamford Bridge. In his honour, they created a banner in memory of Gerry and flew it in Amsterdam before gifting it to Gerry’s friends.

Class.

It was great to have those four among us.

Nani threatened with a curler, but then wasted a great chance when he flicked the ball to…er…nobody, allowing us to clear. The game was remarkably open. Mourinho must have hated it.

Then, a firm shot from Diego Costa which was blocked. Just after, Filipe Luis dropped a ball over the square Sporting back line and Oscar raced through with just the ‘keeper to beat. He appeared to have too much time, and seemingly froze. The keeper foiled us again.

Nani again was involved at the other end, having two shots on goal, but Courtois was largely untested. We begged for a second goal. This was becoming tense.

Diego Costa, with a tremendous burst of pace, flew past Mauricio, but the Sporting defender cruelly blocked him. Costa looked hurt, but it was the defender who was stretchered off. It was a moment which seemed to derail Lisbon for a few moments. However, their fans still sang heartily throughout the second-half. At one point, with them singing their version of “Fields of Athenry” and with their fans holding their scarves aloft, you could easily be mistaken for thinking the game was being played in the East End of Glasgow. I even saw a U2 “Boy” flag.

Willian replaced the hard-working but wasteful Schurrle, then Mikel took over from Oscar. With Mourinho now using Matic and Mikel as a shield, surely our defence would hold firm. Fabregas pushed up.

Diego Costa hit the side netting, and then shot wide after a delightful defence-splitting ball from Matic had set him free. Filipe Luis broke free down in front of us, but his ball into the six yard box evaded everyone. How we begged for another goal. Sporting had a curler which went just wide. In the final five minutes, the Chelsea support roused itself magnificently with the loudest rendition of “Amazing Grace” that I can remember hearing at a European Away. It was stirring stuff. The home team kept the pressure on us as the minutes ticked by.

“Come on Chels, hang on.”

On ninety minutes, Fabregas fed Mo Salah – who had replaced Hazard – and he advanced on the ‘keeper. Yet again, Patricio made a magnificent save to deny us.

“Oh, those three one on ones, Parkao.”

At the final whistle, I roared. This was an enjoyable game of football – thankfully not defensive and dour like so many European aways – and the relief that came with the win was immense. After the draw with Schalke, it was so important that we came away with a win. We soon heard that Maribor, bless ‘em – had eked out a draw in Gelsenkirchen.

Nice one.

Jose slowly walked over to shake the hands of the Sporting goalkeeper who had kept us from winning 4-0. We then clapped as our players walked towards us.

I had thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

In fact, the drama made the game. Had we won by a greater score line, the sense of relief would not have been so great. The support wasn’t massive – maybe 1,600 or so – but it was loud and passionate. Who needs thousands more when we can get by on 1,600 loyalists.

As Alan remarked : “Quality over quantity.”

I soon collected my camera and we walked off, with a quasi-police escort, to Telheiras tube station. There is always something quite joyful, yet eerie, about being given the streets of a foreign city to walk through, all to ourselves, especially after victory. It didn’t quite match Camp Nou in 2012, but it wasn’t bad.

We were deposited in the centre of town – the subway train did not stop until the last three stops – and we met up at our “local” in Praca Dom Pedro IV for two more steins of Super Bock. Foxy, Ashley and Kev joined us, then Brighton Tony, then Charlie with two of the Benfica lads. Parkao was smiling.

“Although it’s been a great trip, the win made it, mate.”

“Yep. Bloody brilliant, Parkao.”

Wednesday 1 October 2014.

We were up, bright and breezy, for breakfast at around 9am. We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed down to Belem once again. We spent a few moments at the Belem Tower, which was once positioned in the River Tagus itself, but which is now adjoined to the riverbank after extensive land reclamation. We made our way to the Monument to the Discoveries, built to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death in 1960, and I was in photographic heaven. The white of the stone contrasted well with the blue sky above. The figures depicted in stone – Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, Fernao Magellen and others – were wonderful subjects for my trusty camera.

Snap, snap, snap.

The floodlights of Belenenses were just a mile or so away. Mourinho entered my head again.

In my Lisbon guide book, I read with interest that Henry the Navigator – the one at the front of the statue – never actually sailed the seas during Portugal’s age of discovery. I drew a parallel with Jose Mourinho, who hardly set the world alight as a player, but who has successfully navigated many teams to success as a manager.

Mourinho as navigator?

“You bet. Hey, listen, after three morangoska cocktails on Monday night, you’re lucky to get that as a footballing paradigm, I’m telling you.”

We relaxed down by the river with a few drinks. It was a calming end to our short spell in delightful Lisbon.

The coach then took us all of the way south to Faro once more, where Parkao and I enjoyed a meal in a restaurant overlooking the town’s marina. The sun slowly dropped behind a palm tree to the west – a palm tree on a Chelsea away trip, whatever next? – and the setting sun turned the sky orange and then lavender. We raised one final Super Bock to one of the best Chelsea European aways yet.

Obrigado, Portugal.

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Tales From The Football Association Challenge Cup

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 26 January 2014.

The build-up to our F.A. Cup Fourth Round tie with Stoke City was somewhat overshadowed by the intrigue involving the transfer of Juan Mata to Manchester United. Rather than obsessing about the intricacies of the move and its possible Machiavellian undertones, my mind was elsewhere. My mother had been taken ill the previous week, thus providing me with ample reason to dismiss the ramifications of this surprising transfer and instead concentrate on much more important issues. As the week progressed, thankfully my mother’s health improved. I visited my mum for an hour on Sunday morning and Lord Parky, bless him, made his way over to the Royal United Hospital in Bath for us to make a speedy getaway just after midday.

As I drove east, headlong into yet more English winter rain, we were able to discuss Mum’s past week. To be honest, nothing else mattered. That I was going to be able to have a couple of relaxing hours with friends was – of course – a wonderful medicine for my own worries, but I couldn’t help but think as I passed the usual landmarks on the M4 that this was all superficial stuff.

I was parked-up just in time for the two of us to nip into The Goose for a pint of Peroni apiece. On the TV, a meagre crowd at Bramall Lane were watching the Sheffield United vs. Fulham cup tie. An even more meagre crowd in the pub was paying attention to it. It seems that with every new round of the F.A. Cup, I need to go back and reiterate again and again why the competition has lost so much of its twinkle in the past twenty years. I won’t do that again on this occasion.

However, it dawned on me that – in some ways – it seems like the Champions League has taken on the role of the F.A. Cup for Chelsea Football Club since our first youthful advances in the 1999-2000 season. The glamour, the atmosphere, the fascinating sub-plots, the magnificent away games; it is all there. However, I think I’m being honest enough to say that Chelsea has certainly given the F.A. Cup more respect than most other teams. Damn it, we’ve won it four times in seven years and we play to full houses in the competition at Stamford Bridge. Quite why other clubs feel different is not for me to answer.

Inside Stamford Bridge, it was the same story as ever; four packed stands save for a paltry away following. When we played The Potters in the F.A. Cup in 2010, I am sure they brought 1,400. On this occasion, it was less than half that number. Maybe it was just a matter of weighing up priorities; maybe the money to be spent on league away trips was more important. I shrugged my shoulders and settled down for the game.

Over on The Shed balcony wall, a fine new flag, with critically placed gold star.

CHELSEA FC – BY BIRTH – NOT BY GLORY

I admired those sentiments.

Except for…um…shuffle shuffle…cough cough…

I wasn’t born in to a Chelsea family.

Far from it.

My father didn’t follow a particular team. My maternal grandfather had soft spots for Aston Villa and Newcastle United in his youth.

Why Chelsea?

I started primary school in my Somerset village just after Easter in 1970. The Cup Final was earlier than usual that year because of England’s preparations for the Mexico World Cup. I am not sure of the exact dates, but school began for me just as Chelsea beat Leeds in the F.A. Cup Final. Talk about serendipity. Sadly, I have no recollections of either the first game at Wembley or the replay. But I do know that I used to watch the older schoolboys play football in the schoolyard at break times. Up until that point, I had shown little interest in the sport. I guess I looked on in awe at the skills of the boys. One team would be Leeds United and the other team would be Liverpool or the next week, Manchester United and Arsenal or maybe Chelsea and Tottenham. I think (and this is the story I always tell) that I heard that either Chelsea were a good team or they had just won a big game. There must have been something in the mention of Chelsea that drew me in. Maybe it was just the sound of the name. I think that is how it all began. Who knows…maybe on that fateful day, I perhaps joined in with the bigger boys for the first time and maybe I was in the Chelsea team. It would be nice to think so. I wonder if I mentioned to my mother, as she collected me from the school gates on that eventful day, that I had discovered Chelsea a few hours previously. Anyway, from the littlest of acorns do mighty oaks grow – from that initial mention of the name Chelsea, they became my team.

Looking back, I suppose that I would be classed these days, even though I was only four years old at the time, as a glory hunter.

There I said it.

That we won bugger all from 1971 to 1997 serves me right, eh?

The game began and Samuel Eto’o swivelled low inside the box and dragged a low shot just wide of Begovic’ post. At the other end, former Chelsea season ticket-holder Peter Crouch slashed wide. It would be the last real Stoke chance of the half. Chelsea monopolised possession and took a stranglehold on the game. The darting runs of Hazard and the steady prompting of Oscar helped us dominate.

What a sublime strike from Oscar from that free-kick. I was able to capture on film – click! – the exact moment that he made contact with the pink match ball. As the ball flew through the air, careering away from the Stoke ‘keeper in an arc of pure fantasy, I was dumbfounded. It was as perfect as it will ever get. As he ran away to the south-west corner, I roared with joy. And then, a little tremor went through me; how typical for Mourinho’s man Oscar to open the scoring at the first match without Mourinho’s discarded man Mata.

It had to be him.

Immediately after the goal, a couple of minutes of sun bathed the otherwise bleak London sky in light.

A scintillating run from Eden Hazard deep into the box gifted the recalled Frank Lampard with a fine chance but Frank slapped it over the bar. Then, a shot from Oscar rattled the base of the near post. Then, Lampard – again – blazed over.

It could’ve been 3-0 at the break.

Stoke weren’t in it. Their fans were unsurprisingly silent.

At the half-time break, Frank Blunstone made a lovely appearance on the pitch and milked the applause. A member of both the 1955 Championship team and the 1963 Second Division promotion team, he amassed well over 300 appearances for us. His face was a picture.

I absolutely love the way our club honours all of our ex-players.

Top marks.

The second-half was a cavalcade of intricate passing and surging runs. Andre Schurrle blasted against the bar. Oscar was so strong and his passing almost perfect. Samuel Eto’o was always involved and looks better with each game. In midfield, playing alongside the more offensive Lampard stood the impressive Nemanja Matic. As the game progressed, he really stood out. OK, Stoke hardly threatened, but he looked very natural and at ease. He won headers, he tackled, and he covered. One slide rule pass to Ramires was the best of the entire afternoon.

A curling shot from Oscar after neat possession had us all gasping; it drifted just wide.

A lone effort from Jonathan Walters ended up in the Shed Upper; Stoke, quite simply, were awful.

However, despite some 40,000 “home fans” at times there were moments of almost complete silence.

Yes, I know.

After seventy minutes, I noticed the bloke to my right struggling to stay awake.

A Lampard shot was hit low, but did not trouble Begovic. Still the second goal would not materialise. Yet another mesmerising run from Hazard (I love the way he stands, teasing, and then suddenly explodes past his marker), teed up Ramires and Eto’o but to our bewilderment the ball stayed out. The last real chance for Chelsea was a thunderbolt of a free-kick from David Luiz which the ‘keeper managed to thwart.

On any other day, we would have rattled in six.

A late Stoke rally caused us a little worry, but the danger was averted.

Into the last sixteen.

Job done.

Walking along the North End Road, past the shops and pubs, a fan called out that we had been drawn away to Manchester City.

“Oh great.”

“Two tough away games in two weeks up there.”

“Time for Nemanja Matic to stand up to Yaya Toure?”

“You bet. A battle royal beckons.”

Parky and I soon made tracks. For the second week in a row, we stopped off in Marlborough for a pint. Last week, it was “The Green Dragon” and this week “The Royal Oak.” Within a few months, we will hope to have ticked-off every pub on the A4 from Devizes to Hungerford.

The road to Wembley begins in Wiltshire, right?

In a quiet corner, we supped another pint of Peroni apiece.

A chat and a chance to unwind a little.

Phew.

On a day when my mind was occupied with concerns for my nearest and dearest, at least good old Chelsea was able to bring me a little cheer.

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