Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend.

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

PSG hurt. And Everton really hurt. Those were two tough losses.

Heading in to our game with West Ham United, our season suddenly felt rather flat. Season 2015-2016 now had an end in sight. We had nine games left – four at home, five away, all in the league – and I was wondering where on Earth our season had gone. From a results perspective, it had clearly gone up in smoke, but this has seemed a very quick season, despite the troubles along the way. It did not seem five minutes ago that I was catching a train with my friend Lynda en route to the season’s first game in New Jersey in July.

And now I could hear New Jersey’s favourite son Frank Sinatra singing.

“And now the end is near.”

Nine games left. These games would soon fly past. And yet I’m still relishing each and every one of them. The five away games would be enjoyable just because they are away games. The four home games would be important, for varying reasons.

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

There was an extra-special reason for me to be relishing the visit of West Ham to Stamford Bridge. My friends Roma, Vanessa and Shawn – often mentioned in dispatches – were visiting London for five days, lured by the chance to see our captain John Terry one last time before he, possibly, heads west to the US or east to China. I have known Roma since 1989, when my cycling holiday down the East coast of the US took me to her home town of St. Augustine in Florida. Since then, there have been many laughs along the way, and also many Chelsea games too.

Roma announced to me a couple of months back that she was planning a visit to London, specifically Chelsea-centred, with her daughter Vanessa and son Shawn. Tickets were hastily purchased, and we waited for the day to arrive. Vanessa, fourteen years after her first game at Stamford Bridge against Fulham in 2002, was especially excited. She would be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday while in London. This was very much her trip.

And I so hoped that John Terry, side-lined for a while, would be playing. He was the reason, in a way, why the three of them had decided to visit us. I was so relieved when our captain made a late appearance off the bench at Goodison last weekend.

I made an early start. I left my home town as early as 8am. Just after 11am, I turned the corner outside the West Stand and spotted my three friends from North Carolina and Tennessee walking towards me. It was lovely to see them again. Shawn was wearing not one but two Chelsea shirts, plus a Chelsea tracksuit top. His favourite player is Diego Costa and he was wearing a “19” shirt. Vanessa favours Cesc Fabregas and was wearing a “4.”

My love of Chelsea Football Club has certainly rubbed off on Roma’s family. Her other daughter Jenny now has a two-year-old boy, who himself yells “Chelsea” at the TV set whenever we are playing. This is all too crazy for me to comprehend at times. Back in 1989, Chelsea were off the radar in the US.

We spent a lovely hour or so mixing with a few of the former Chelsea players who meet up in the Copthorne Hotel before each and every home game. The three visitors first met Paul Canoville at Yankee Stadium in 2012; there was an updated photocall in 2016. The girls loved being able to meet Bobby Tambling again too. They recreated a photograph from Charlotte. John Hollins and Colin Pates gave them signed photographs.

Good times.

My friend Janette from LA was also in town, excited at getting a last minute ticket, and it was great to meet up with her at last. Elsewhere, there was a contingent from the New York Blues honing in on The Goose. Chopper – the NYC version – called by at the hotel before moving on. There was talk of how I picked up Chopper and two others at Bristol airport on a Saturday morning in 2007, before our Carling Cup win against Arsenal in Cardiff, and how – just over an hour later – we were drinking fluorescent orange scrumpy in a Somerset cider pub.

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

On leaving the hotel, I spotted Kerry Dixon and offered a handshake. It was good to see him again, especially at Stamford Bridge, and he appreciated my well wishes. Back in 2005, Roma had posed for a photo with Kerry in “Nevada Smiths” before a game with Milan, but there would not be time, alas, for a repeat in 2016.

Back at The Goose, more New York Blues arrived. I think around twenty were over in total. It was lovely to see some old friends once again. Mike, the NYB’s chief bottle-washer, was over from NYC for a bare twenty-four hours, flying in at Heathrow at 10.30am and leaving on Sunday morning, his birthday. Such dedication is truly heart-warming. There was whispered talk of the upcoming 2016 US summer tour, and the inevitable moans from some “huge” stateside Chelsea fans about the club not playing in their part of the country. Some of them should take a leaf out of Mike’s book.

We worked out that Shawn, only nine, would be seeing his seventh Chelsea game.

“Seven! You are a lucky boy. When I was nine, I had only seen three, and you live four thousand miles away!”

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

Who would have guessed that Loic Remy would have been given the nod over Bertrand Traore? There was no Eden Hazard, injured. The surprise was that Kenedy, who Roma, Vanessa and Shawn saw make his debut in DC, was playing in an advanced midfield role. Elsewhere there were the usual suspects. There were grumbles that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was not involved from the start.

The beer garden was packed.

There were memories of last season’s game against Southampton, when Shawn was filling The Goose beer garden with bubbles from a toy. I joked with Roma then that it was a West Ham thing. Suffice to say, there were no bubbles in The Goose beer garden in 2016. There were, however, a small group of West Ham fans, wearing no colours, minding their own business. As we left the pub, early, at just before 2pm, I sensed that another little mob of West Ham walked past. I decided to hang back and let them walk on. The last thing that I wanted was for my guests to witness any match day silliness. To be fair, I didn’t see any trouble the entire day.

It is not always the same story when West Ham come visiting.

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn took their seats in the rear rows of the West Stand, underneath the overhang. They would soon be posting pictures. Fantastic.

The stadium slowly filled. How different this all is to the “pay on the gate” days of yesteryear, when the terraces often became full a good hour before the kick-off oat some games. In those days, the atmosphere would gradually rise with each passing minute. There would be songs from The Shed. On occasion, the pre-match “entertainment” would involve scuffles in the North Stand as opposing fans battled for territory.

In 1984, the ICF arrived very early in the seats of the old West Stand, causing me – a teenager on the benches – to worry about my safety.

Different times.

Prior to the game, Ron Harris presented John Terry with a memento marking his seven-hundredth Chelsea game the previous week. For a while, I wondered if Ron’s 795 might come under threat. Unless the club have a change of heart regarding John Terry, that record will go on forever.

There were three thousand away fans – three flags – in the far corner. They were mumbling something about “pwitty bahbles in de air” as the game began.

The first-half was a poor show to be honest. From the moment that Manuel Lanzini looked up twenty-five yards out and fired a fine curling effort past Thibaut Courtois on seventeen minutes, we struggled to get much of a foothold. A few chances were exchanged, but I felt that West Ham looked a little more focussed when they attacked. A penalty claim was waved away by new referee Robert Madley as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Enner Valencia. I am not one to moan about referees as a rule, but this was one of the first of many odd decisions made by the man in black.

We plugged away, but it was hardly entertaining or productive. I was slightly surprised that West Ham didn’t hit us further; they seemed to resist the temptation to attack at will, despite having a one-goal cushion.

This was not going well.

Aaron Cresswell struck a shot wide, Willian hit a free-kick over.

In the third minute of extra-time in the first-half, we were awarded another free-kick and I am sure that I am not the only one who presumed that Willian would take another stab at goal. Instead, Cesc Fabregas struck a magnificent free-kick over the wall and past the flailing Adrian.

Vanessa’s man had done it. We exchanged texts.

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

I instantly remembered Vanessa’s funny comment in Charlotte after Fabregas had fluffed an easy chance against Paris St. Germain…

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

I am not sure what magical dust Guus Hiddink sprinkled in the players’ half-time cuppas, but it certainly worked. Pedro replaced the injured Kenedy, and we then upped the tempo. Apart from a John Terry goal-line clearance from the mercurial Payet in the first attack of the half, we dominated the second-half right from the offset.

An effort from Oscar, a header from JT. We were getting behind the West Ham full backs and causing problems.

And yet…and yet…completely against the run of play, Sakho played in the overlapping Cresswell who smacked a shot against the bar with Courtois rooted to the floor.

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

The crowd sensed a revival but the noise was not thunderous as I had hoped.

Andy Carroll, who scored the winner at Upton Park earlier this season, replaced Sakho. His first bloody touch turned in Payet’s through ball.

Bollocks.

With West Ham going well this season, I almost expected a few to get tickets in the home areas of The Bridge. When they nabbed this second goal I looked hard to see if there were any odd outbreaks of applause from away fans in home areas – the corporate West Stand especially – but there was nothing.

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

We rallied well, and the West Ham goal suddenly lived a very charmed life. A Fabregas header went over, an Oscar shot was blocked, and Fabregas’ bicycle kick flew over. Corner after corner. A Terry header went close.

Carroll then twice tested Courtois, but the threat was averted.

The time was passing.

This would be Guus Hiddink’s first loss in the league.

Keep plugging away boys.

At last Ruben Loftus-Cheek appeared, replacing Oscar, who had another indifferent game. Ruben’s run into the box was curtailed by Antonio. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

At last…at last…the noise bellowed around Stamford Bridge.

I thought that we had definitely deserved a draw on the back of a more spirited second-half show. The first-half had been dire. We kept going. I thought JT was excellent, as was Mikel. Elsewhere, I liked Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek. They must be given more playing time in the remaining eight games.

At the Peter Osgood statue, my three American friends were full of smiles.

Lovely stuff.

As I drove towards Barons Court, I realised that there would be no home game, now, for four whole weeks.

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

“Oh wait. Hang on. I’m back again tomorrow.”

On Sunday, there would be day two of Vanessa’s birthday weekend, with a stadium tour, a quick call at the highly impressive Chelsea museum – and my first sighting of the excellent 3D model of the new stadium – a Sunday lunch on the banks of the Thames at Chiswick and a couple of hours under the shadow of Windsor Castle in Peter Osgood’s home town.

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

IMG_6542 (3)

Tales From The Tar Heel State.

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 25 July 2015.

The very first time that I visited North Carolina, I was on a bicycle.

Let me explain.

After I left college in 1987, I wasn’t set on a clear career path, and my main desire in those days was to travel and experience different cultures. I had already criss-crossed Europe on several inter-rail marathons, but needed to expand my horizons. From May 1988 – relegation to the second division, ugh – until August 1989 I worked in the cold store of a local dairy in order to save several thousand pounds to head over to North America with my college mate Ian. We had a rough plan; east to west, ending up at my relatives in Vancouver in time for Christmas 1989. Travel would be by bus, train and bicycle. Yes, that’s correct; we planned to cycle our way around at least a part of the gargantuan continent. We had both cycled as kids, as teenagers, but I had not owned a bike since 1981 when I was sixteen.

What the hell. Cycling would be a cheap mode of transport, it would enable us to see proper America and proper Americans, and it would add a sense of adventure to our stay.

Our adventure in North America began in September 1989. We spent a week in New York, a few days in Washington DC, then bought our bicycles and our camping gear in Richmond, Virginia. After three days of cycling through that state, we crossed in to North Carolina just south of a state park in Clarkesville, where I remember cooking up some bacon and beans on our little camping stove, and sharing a joke with the resident park ranger when she explained how she came to learn that the word “fanny” in English is – ahem – slightly different to its American meaning.

We crossed the state line into North Carolina on route 15, and cycled over sixty miles through rolling countryside on small roads through little villages and towns such as Bullock, Oxford and Creedmoor, before staying the night in another state park, this time in the relatively unknown city of Raleigh.

After that, we headed further south, but our path was severely disrupted by the course of Hurricane Hugo which brought severe destruction and desolation when it hit land at Charleston, South Carolina. We were holed up in a cheap motel just off I-95 in a place called Dunn for two nights, and thankfully missed everything. After cycling further south to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, we ended up cycling 120 miles in order to get through the disaster area.

Our cycling adventure was real. We laughed at the timing of all of it.

“We buy bikes on the Saturday. A week later, a bloody hurricane strikes.”

“What a couple of schmucks.”

However, it has to be said…it was an amazing few days.

Eventually, we ended up cycling around nine hundred miles down that Eastern seaboard of those historic and at times troubled South-Eastern states. We cycled through Georgia, then reached the promised land of Florida just north of Jacksonville. It had been a tough, but magnificent three weeks.

As an aside, and with typical irony, I only saw two Chelsea games in that 1989-1990 season – just before I left for NYC in September – and therefore missed our highest-placed finish since around 1971.

I wasn’t too bothered however. My first experience of the USA – and Mexico, and Canada – more than made up for that.

Almost twenty-six years later, I was again heading south to North Carolina.

After our surprising 4-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls on the Wednesday, I caught a New York Yankees game on the Thursday afternoon – an easy 9-3 win against the Baltimore Orioles – and then set off on my mammoth ten hour drive south to the city of Charlotte and our game against our new and seemingly bitter rivals Paris St. Germain. After five hours of driving through generally busy interstates, I stopped off at a hotel in Martinsburg, West Virginia. I then pushed on, heading south-west on the glorious interstate 81 which runs parallel with the Shenandoah Valley. The views were spectacular. This was a Chelsea road trip on another level. It was slightly longer than my drive from North Carolina to Chicago in 2006 for our game against the MLS All-Stars, which topped out at around 630 miles. I did that in one session though.

This one, from Yankee Stadium, New York to Charlotte, North Carolina would be 660 miles.

Ah, the American road. For those who know me, my love of driving is clear, even on the jam-packed and bottle-necked roads of England. If there is a Chelsea match at the end of it, even better.

As I pulled off I-81 and then headed due south in to North Carolina – “hello again” – it wasn’t long before we descended down from an Appalachian ridge down into the North Carolina piedmont on I-77. The vista, looking out over thousands of acres of greenery, was stunning.

Oh happy days.

Unfortunately, my original planned arrival time in to Charlotte of around 1pm never materialised due to traffic problems leaving New York City, several delays en route, and then further congestion to the north of Charlotte, with its city centre skyscrapers tantalisingly in view.

At around 5pm, I pulled up outside my friend and fellow Chelsea fan Brian’s gorgeous house a few miles to the south of the city centre.

I had arrived.

Phew.

Brian and I go back a few years; maybe a decade. He was, in fact, one of the first – if not the very first – US based Chelsea fan that I ever emailed. As soon as it was announced that our beloved team would be playing in his home city, Brian wasted no time in inviting me to stay with him and his family for a couple of days.

Fantastic.

I met Brian’s wife Jenny, their three lovely children – all Chelsea, all going to the match – and his good friend Leo, who I had met in previous tours. Perhaps I just needed someone to talk to after being alone in my car since 8.30am (please do not tell Parky that I missed him…) that I soon wasted no time in talking about all sorts of football, Chelsea and sport-related subjects. In their huge kitchen, I gabbled away manically like some sort of fool, as I ironed a shirt to wear for the evening’s pre-game activities.

Brian, Leo : I hope it all made sense.

We soon headed in to the city through indescribably picturesque tree-lined streets, and within ten minutes, were being deposited right outside the little park which links the city centre proper and the city’s two sport stadia. The sun was glinting off the towering skyscrapers, the weather was hot, but not unbearable. It was perfect. I was buzzing yet again.

Chelsea were in town.

In the same way that I knew virtually nothing of the city of Raleigh in the autumn of 1989, I am ashamed to say that I knew little of the city of Charlotte as this summer tour approached this year. I had visited its large airport twice before, in 2004 and 2006 on visits to see my friend Roma and her family in the mountains of North Carolina to the west, but Charlotte itself was virgin territory. I mentioned to Brian and Leo that, to be truthful, Charlotte is an almost unknown American city to us over in England. I was stunned to read that it is the ninth most populous city in the US. And yet, I would suggest, people in England would be hard-pressed to say which state it is in, let alone tell of its history and character. It would be a major disappointment on this trip that I would only be in town for three days.

During the hour or so that we spent chatting in the kitchen, I was reminded that the big college rivalry within North Carolina, despite being in the football-obsessed south-east, is in the sport of college basketball. Brian smiled when I explained that I have owned, in the past, a couple of items in support of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Their rivalry with the despised Duke is intense.

Elsewhere in Charlotte, the NFL Panthers – a relatively new franchise – and the NBA Hornets – now returned after exile in New Orleans – battle for affection. There is also a soccer (there, I said it) team called Charlotte Independence which competes at the sub MLS level.

As we walked to the little knot of pubs and bars opposite Romare Bearden Park, Charlotte looked just perfect.

This was going to be a great night.

And so it proved.

From around 7pm to midnight, and beyond, the small courtyard which hosted several bars, became increasingly full of Chelsea supporters from various parts of the United States, plus a few of us from England.

Songs, beer, handshakes, laughter, smiles, piss-taking…fun.

The Bayou City Blues from Houston and their charismatic leader Jesus.

The Chicago crew.

The ex-pats Simon and Tuna from Atlanta.

A little group from Jacksonville, Florida; kind enough to give me one of their very stylish chapter scarves.

Familiar faces everywhere.

Andy from Detroit.

Rick and Beckie from Iowa.

The Bobster from Fremont, California.

Beth. Always Beth.

Sam, Phil and Chris from Iowa.

Samantha and Larry from New Jersey.

Tim from Philly.

Charles from Texas, so thrilled at meeting Paul Canoville for the first time.

Steve from New Orleans.

Natalie from Kansas City.

Mark, David, Cathy from home.

Danny and a few of the infamous OC Hooligans.

Bobby Tambling.

Mario Melchiot.

JR from Detroit.

Pete from Florida.

Hoss from Oklahoma.

The beers were flowing. It was superb. This night was rivalling Baltimore in 2009 for the best Chelsea piss-up in the US. I dotted in and out of the packed bars, taking photographs, chatting away. It was lovely to receive a few words of genuine appreciation from many folk who I had never met who thanked me for my efforts in posting my thoughts on this website.

I was touched.

[Parky’s voice from three thousand miles away : “who by, you fucker?”]

I darted off for a pizza, and sat outside chatting with Steve from New Orleans, Robert from London and Neil Barnet. Brian and Leo called by. Chelsea talk dominated.

I dropped back over to the bar area around 1pm but people had drifted away. There were just a few left. I caught a $10 cab and headed home.

Out on the porch, until 4am, Brian, Leo, Leo’s brother Vince and I chatted away.

The Cocteau Twins played in the background.

“Heaven or Las Vegas?”

I’d take Charlotte anytime.

I slept well, from 4am to 11am, and amazingly woke without the merest hint of a hangover.

Due to the fact that I needed to keep on top of these match reports – and with three games against Arsenal, Fiorentina and Swansea City coming up in rapid succession on my return home – I spent a while writing up “New Jersey.”

It was early afternoon on game day. While others decided what Chelsea shirts to wear, I reverted to type. Brian smiled.

Lacoste Watch.

Chris – white.

Brian’s parents, with his father wearing a Chelsea away shirt from 2004-2005, a fine vintage, arrived and we set off in two cars for the local train station. On the short ride in to town – how English – the train compartment comprised of around fifteen Chelsea supporters and two PSG. This ratio was a good pointer for the rest of the day.

At around 4pm, we reappeared at the scene of devastation the previous evening. There had been reports of a little altercation earlier in the day. There had been a blue-smoked flare let off. The local police were in evidence. I again met up with the usual suspects. The notable arrivals were the New York Blues, unchained for a weekend on the loopy juice.

Mike, Frank, Lawson, Eliot, Julian – top lads one and all.

As I had a long drive ahead of me on the Sunday, my “intention” was to keep it light.

A couple of cans of “Blue Moon” later, I wasn’t so sure.

One special group of Chelsea supporters arrived at around 4.30pm.

Roma, her daughter Vanessa, hair dyed Chelsea blue especially, her son Super Shawn, plus Ness’ new boyfriend Dave and their friend Justin – who I remember as a three year old in 2004 – had driven in from their homes on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

Just a three hour drive for them.

It was fantastic that Chelsea should be playing so close.

We waited for JR’s mother – her first Chelsea game – to arrive and then walked over to the stadium, the corporately-named Bank Of America Stadium, which is a typical NFL structure, with two tiers, and little charm.

Outside the main entrance, two statues of snarling panthers about to pounce, were the only feature which seemed to worthy of note. It was a modern and efficient stadium, but oh so bland. Thankfully the new Stamford Bridge, God-willing, will set new standards in design.

In Roman Abramovich – and his architectural design team – we trust.

As game time approached, the heat was still intense. I took respite in the dark and cavernous concourse. I walked past a merchandise store and it was unbelievably manic. Both Chelsea and PSG goods were on sale. The lines at the tills were ridiculously long. Maybe I would buy a tour T-shirt in DC. Not today. Too busy. All around me, folk in Chelsea shirts darted past me. Further evidence yet again of how our global reach has touched so many.

Again, to go back.

When I travelled up to Pittsburgh with Roma and Vanessa and a few others in 2004 – and when I printed up seven “North Carolina Blues On Tour” T-shirts, the Chelsea section was no more than 150. The gate in Pittsburgh was no more than 15,000, despite more tickets being sold, hence the 25,317 official figure. This game would be around the 60,000 mark.

Stunning.

To see so many Americans wearing Chelsea shirts blew my mind.

The PSG tagline for their tour was quite clever.

“PARIS LOVES US.”

In to the stadium and the team were going through their drills. However, as often happens, my focus was 180 degrees opposite and I observed the massed ranks of the Chelsea fans behind me. My camera clicked. I was sat just behind Bobby Tambling and his wife Val. Fantastic.

It was clear that there were many more Chelsea fans than those of PSG. There appeared not to be any specific PSG section. We were in Block 122, right behind the goal, with the New York Blues. Other supporters groups were behind me and to my left. There then seemed to be a general level – general sale, not Chelsea only – in 121, before some recognisable faces appeared in 120. This was Chelsea central then. If there were – what? – 50,000 folk favouring Chelsea in the sky-blue stadium of the Carolina Panthers, the hard core behind the goal numbered a couple of thousand.

But this is not black and white, nor even blue and white. For example, right in front of Bobby Tambling were two chaps wearing Arsenal jerseys, and one of them had “Fabregas” on the back.

Work that out.

In the stadium, other English jerseys were spotted, notably – and with no surprise – Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. In this sky blue state, the colours of the Panthers and the Tar Heels, maybe Brian will see an upturn in City shirts.

Even in our Chelsea section, there were sporadic shouts of “PSG” during the game. More of that later.

The teams walked out on to the pitch several minutes later than intended. The US national anthem was played, people stood, caps were removed. I am not one for the bluster of nationhood, but even I joined in.

“…and the home of the brave.”

The game started around ten minutes late.

Roma and Shawn had witnessed the Chelsea and PSG game at The Bridge in March. Who would have possibly thought that we would be all here together in Charlotte only four months later? Shawn, still sporting his David Luiz locks, is one lucky boy.

Jose fielded a very strong team, though Asmir Begovic was selected ahead of Thibaut. In came Matic, in came Hazard,in came Diego.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Milel, Matic – Moses, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

All eyes were on David Luiz – once a hero, now a figure of fun, but sadly booed by many in our ranks in the first-half – and also the talismanic Ibrahimovic.

Chelsea began reasonably well, but as the first-half progressed, PSG tended to enjoy more of the ball. We began probing from out wide, but a lack of quality in to the box was present. PSG, however, looked a more rounded outfit.

The Chelsea support, in pockets, rather all together, was trying their best.

After about ten minutes, with things quiet, I struck.

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

(I always try and do eight…I was counting them up…ugh…keep going son…I was smiling towards the end)

“ZIGGER”

“OI.”

(Slowing right down now…)

“ZAGGER”

“OI.”

(Phew…one last one.)

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER.”

“OI OI OI.”

My job was done.

Smiles all round.

Sadly, my endeavours were not rewarded on the pitch.

Twenty-five minutes in, Mikel sadly lost possession and Augustin snapped a fierce shot against Begovic’s right post, but to our dismay the ball rebounded to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who slammed the ball into a virtually empty net.

That hurt.

There were – bizarrely – cheers from within the Chelsea sections. I cannot explain that.

America…over to you.

Right from the offset, everything about this game seemed to be much more important and relevant than our game on Wednesday. These were two massive clubs, with a recent history of animosity.

This one counted.

Diego Costa crashed a shot against the woodwork, but our chances fell away.

Sadly, PSG continued to dominate as the first half continued on. The rest of the half will be remembered for three stunning saves – all different – from Begovic. He received resounding applause from us as he walked away at the break.

At half-time, a beer, and a cool down in the concourse.

The noise thus far had been patchy. I hoped for greater things from both players and supporters alike in the second-half. At least we would be attacking our end.

On came Courtois, Zouma, Ramires.

There had been strong challenges throughout the first-half and this continued as this tale of two cities continued. After Cesc Fabregas took too many touches, dallied and saw his shot blocked, Vanessa – who thinks Cesc is gorgeous – remarked –

“He’s always nervous around me.”

Oh, that made me smile.

Nice one Vanessa.

For a few moments, we were treated to the “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” chant.

Awesome.

Nobody in the central core sung this.

The NYBs continued to sing a huge variety of songs, but with not many people confident enough to join them..

I sang “We Are Blue, We Are White, We Are Fackin’ Dynamite” to a sea of blank faces. For an odd few moments, there was an odd game of pinball between the two factions of support in the stadia, initiated by the other three stands I hasten to add.

“CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG.”

A little similar to the “UNITED / SHIT / UNITED / SHIT” chant of old.

With Chelsea getting back in to the game, Fabregas picked out the movement of Victor Moses, who volleyed home from close range. There was a massive roar – GET IN! – and who says these pre-season games do not count. Victor’s somersault was spectacular. We bathed in his glory. It was magnificent.

Radamel Falcao was introduced to the proceedings and the roar was heartfelt. Chelsea grew in confidence and chased the winner. Willian, Oscar and Cuadrado entered the fray. A shot from fellow sub Loic Remy was pushed away. We roared them on. Sadly, amongst all this, the wave wrapped itself around the stadium for a few minutes.

Sigh.

This was excellent stuff, with the Chelsea fans around me full of smiles and encouragement. A few half chances were all we had to cheer, however. The last meaningful action of the game was a fine save up the other end from Courtois.

At least we didn’t lose.

Then, to all of our amazement, it was announced that there would be penalties, in a strange hark-back to the NASL days when no game ended in a tie.

“Damn, let’s take a draw and head back to the boozer” I thought.

We had a little think in our section.

Would this be our first penalty shootout since Munich?

I thought so.

I watched, calmly, and photographed the ensuing drama through my camera lens. I watched some penalties on the huge HD TV screen behind the goal.

As Cuadrado stepped up…”he’ll miss.”

Others agreed.

He missed.

Thankfully, that man Thibaut saved twice from Baheback and then, during sudden death, against Thiago Silva. Before we had time to think, we saw the tall figure, head to toe in 1987 jade, place the ball on the spot and smash the ball high into the goal.

GET FUCKING IN.

Oh boy, such a bizarre feeling, but one which was heartfelt.

We did it.

A win is a win is a win.

I sadly lost contact with Team Roma; they had to shoot off to their homes as they had to work in the morning. I slowly walked back past the post-game crowds. I was alone with my thoughts.

Rather tired, rather exhausted, my throat hurting after those rasping “Zed zeds” but supremely happy with my lot.

I bought another can of “Blue Moon” and waited for friends to arrive. I spotted Bob, then JR. The atmosphere was lovely. Charlotte had been very good to us. Then, out of nowhere, three lads from the Chelsea Fans Channel – one of whom I had met in New York on Tuesday – enticed JR and myself for a few opinions on our performance.

Here we go :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=vqCX3E4Tbcw&app=desktop

As soon as we had finished, I commented to JR “I called us schmucks. I never use that word.”

“You’ve been in New York too long.”

“Not used that expression for years. Maybe not since Hurricane Hugo.”

We returned back to a lovely restaurant under the towering central skyscrapers for a good old Carolina BBQ.

Great times.

Thank you Charlotte.

Your city, your stadium, our club.

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Tales From New Jersey.

New York Red Bulls vs. Chelsea : 22 July 2015.

Ah, the passage of time.

Ten summers ago, I was lucky enough to travel to the United States of America to watch two out of three Chelsea tour matches when we travelled as league champions for the first time in fifty years. I attended a match in the capital city of Washington against DC United and then at the Meadowlands in New Jersey against Milan. In 2015, I was repeating myself; a return trip to the nation’s capital and another game at the Redskins’ Fedex Field and then another game in New Jersey, this time at the purpose built home of the New York Red Bulls of the MLS. There would also be a third game in Charlotte, North Carolina. And again, we would be returning to North America as English Champions.

So, here was a great chance to compare the two trips, and to note how both the global spread of Chelsea Football Club has impacted upon another continent, but to also check on how the football scene in the US has changed over the ensuing decade. It would be a trip that will bring me face to face with many good friends, but also face to face with football’s steady rise in a once barren football nation.

Season 2015-2016, I guess, would begin in the little-known town of Harrison, New Jersey, across the Hudson River and the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan.

“Let’s go to woik.”

Most of my summers away from the constant beat of football – or at least Chelsea – follow the same pattern. After following the team extensively during the previous nine months, I usually feel exhausted and in need of a break. The summer of 2015 was certainly no different. As 2014-2015 closed, I felt myself shutting-off. I needed to re-charge those batteries.

However, I was in no doubt that the upcoming US Tour, with matches against New York Red Bulls, Paris St. Germain and Barcelona, plus the fun of meeting a few good Chelsea mates, would be the kick-start that I would need.

And yet this tells only half the story.

In my closing words from the last game of season 2014-2015, I mentioned that it had been the least enjoyable of the four league championships that I had witnessed. I don’t really want to go over old ground, but in the circumstances I feel it is appropriate. There are probably several reasons for the melancholy which greeted title number five, but two are paramount. After our win against Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final of 2012, I sagely suspected that any success which followed would not reach those same heights of emotion and satisfaction. And although the lovely journey towards our fifth league championship was often exciting and entertaining, the deciding win against Crystal Palace was slightly anticlimactic.

Also, of course – and most importantly of all – in the closing months of last season, I sadly lost my mother after a short but yet distressing illness. In the period immediately after this devastating loss, football seemed at times irrelevant – and silly, banal and ridiculous – and yet at times it acted as the force which kept me sane. It was, undoubtedly, a strange and confusing time.

For both of these reasons, and more, it felt like I almost sleepwalked through the months of March, April and May.

Without being too melodramatic, season 2015-2016 represents a new challenge for me.

Of course I am genuinely intrigued to see how the new season will pan out, not only in terms of the team’s success – which, worryingly, seems assured in some optimistic quarters of our support – but also how I react to having a different set of circumstances under which I find myself supporting the club. Will my support for the club step up a few notches, will it remain constant, or will it begin to decline, with an almost imperceptible inevitability? If I am honest, I have felt that I have reached some sort of plateau of support over the past few seasons. I guess that is a pretty high plateau. I have averaged around fifty games over the past ten campaigns and it is unlikely that I will be able to maintain that level of support – some would call it addiction or obsession, rather than simple support – over the ensuing decade. But I’m not sure. This is why I find this season rather intriguing.

All of these thought, plus many more, formed a backdrop as I prepared mind, body and soul for yet another season supporting the team of royal blue on the Fulham Road.

After landing at Dulles International Airport at 3.30pm on Monday 20 July, my latest American adventure began. I picked up a hire car and soon found myself heading north. How I love the American road. The weather was perfect, the scenery magnificent. I zipped over an iconic iron bridge over the Potomac River; I was buzzing.

I was headed for my friends’ house in Flemington New Jersey. I have known Stacey since 1989. I first met her husband Bill in 2001. They kindly invited me to stay the first night with them. After five hours of driving, I eventually reached their fantastic house at around 10.30pm. The last time that I had seen them was at Gettysburg when I visited that wonderful and historic Civil War site with my dear mother in 2010. As we chatted – a bottle of Peroni never tasted better – I could not help think back on the few hours that my mother spent in their house five years ago. Lovely memories. The next morning after breakfast, we spoke about a few current issues occupying our minds, but – typically me – I managed to chat about football too. Stacey and Bill are no football fans, although Stacey accompanied me to our 1-1 draw with Milan in New Jersey in 2005 – but I enjoyed our conversation about how football has taken hold in an increasingly rapid fashion in the US in the time that I have been visiting.

During the previous evening, I had driven past the Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, and I spoke to Stacey and Bill how that town used to house a US football powerhouse back in the ‘twenties called Bethlehem Steel. It was lovely that I drove past such an important town in the history of US football. The late David Wangerin penned an intriguing book called “Soccer In A Football World” which detailed the rise – and fall – and then rise again – of our sport in the United States. In the early twentieth century, everything was up for grabs, with various sports clamouring for national attention. For several reasons – some more nefarious than others – football missed its opportunity to stake a hold in the hearts and minds of the US nation. The other four major sports left football in their wake. It has taken a long time – via the boom and bust era of the NASL – for football to reach its current place in the hierarchy of US sports. The growth has been exponential in even the eleven years since my first Chelsea game in the US, the 3-0 win over Roma in Pittsburgh, when the Chelsea section was only around 150 in number.

The growth of the MLS – now with the fifth highest league attendances anywhere in the world – has grown year on year. New teams are created, new markets explored, new superstars added. It is an interesting story.

I often think that the US is a fantastical social experiment; “add various races from Europe, then add other races from Asia, then Africa. Mix and observe.”

It seems to me that the US football fan culture has evolved under similar lines; “add banners from Italy, songs from England, standing areas from Germany, scarves from Spain, chants from Mexico. Mix and observe.”

On the Tuesday, I drove to River Edge in New Jersey. I was staying with another couple – Lynda and Tee – for two nights, which would encompass the first of our tour matches. I have known Lynda, via the New York Blues, since 2010 and I first met T in 2012. Sadly, Lynda lost her paternal grandfather on the Sunday; it would be a tough time for her, but I was welcomed with open arms. Tee coaches football and soon arrived back from a “gig” in Hoboken.

It was Tuesday afternoon – around 5pm – and we sped over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Our excitement was palpable; we would soon be meeting up with many friends in a bar under the shadow of the Empire State Building, but there was an added – and wondrous – twist. Not only would former players Bobby Tambling, Mario Melchiot and Paul Canoville be making an appearance, but arrangements had been made – hush hush and all that – for Frank Lampard to make an appearance too.

What excitement.

My friend Roma, with her friend Peggy, from Tennessee arrived at about 6.30pm. Roma is a familiar figure in these Tales, and has been a fantastic friend over the past twenty-six years. Roma has attended games at every one of Chelsea’s previous eight US tours (she is “one up” on me, since I missed the 2013 tour), and was doing all three of this summer’s games. However, when I calmly informed her that her hero Frank Lampard would be in the bar later in the evening, her reaction was lovely. To say she was excited would be an understatement. She almost began crying with joy. Bless her.

What a lovely time we all had. In addition to being able to reconnect with many good Chelsea friends, including the usual suspects from the UK, we were treated to an hour or so of valuable insights into the four guest’s views on various subjects. Munich often dominated the questions. Frank was very gracious and answered each question carefully and with wit and sincerity. I loved the way that he listened attentively to the other players. Near the start, the New York crowd began singing :

“We want our Frankie back, we want our Frankie back.”

Frank smiled and responded :

“I’ll be back.”

It was these three words which would be reported all of the way around the world the next morning.

I took a few photographs, but could not get close to Frank. However, it was just lovely to be so close to a Chelsea legend. Frank signed some shirts and photographs, but he needed to shoot off to meet up with his former team mates later in the evening. As he slowly exited amid scenes of adulation, it did not surprise me to see Roma right next to Frank, with her camera poised.

Snap.

Roma and Frank, New York 2015.

Picture perfect.

A few of us stayed chatting until gone midnight. To be honest I expected a later night, but then I realised;

“Not everyone is on holiday.”

Tomorrow, game day, would be a normal working day for most.

I spent all of the Wednesday in New Jersey. I was not tempted, for once, by Manhattan’s many attractions.

I had, actually, only been in New York in June, on a joint fiftieth birthday trip with my two good friends Daryl and Neil. We had planned that particular trip, encompassing two New York Yankees games, a New York Mets game and a Brooklyn Cyclones minor league game, for five years. We had a lovely time. The back story is particularly amusing.

In addition to being Chelsea fanatics, Daryl and I follow the Yankees. For many years we had said that should Chelsea ever experience a decline in fortunes, and specifically a prolonged absence from European games – with all associated expenses – then we would be able to go over to see some Yankee baseball. This plan was spoken about for many years.

Well, Chelsea kept winning.

Damn it.

The baseball trip never looked like happening.

European trips to Champions League cities prevailed.

Typical Chelsea.

In 2010, we decided that “enough was enough.”

In June 2015, we eventually made it to The Bronx for some baseball. We loved every minute of it. We even bumped into a few New York Blues at “Legends” after one game. It was fantastic.

On the Wednesday morning, I drove up to Woodbury Common in New York State, where there is a huge outlet centre. Always on the lookout for suitable additions to my football wardrobe, I picked up a few snappy shirts.

“It would be rude not to.”

In the afternoon, at just after 4pm, Lynda and I walked to the local suburban train station near her home. I was flagging slightly and, appropriately, guzzled back a refreshing tin of Red Bull. At 4.26pm, we caught the train to Secaucus Junction.

Season 2015-2016 was about to begin.

We then caught another train to Newark Penn Station. Outside, at around 5.30pm, we popped into the oddly-named “mmmBello’s” pub, which is often frequented by those of my New York mates who are not only Chelsea supporters, but fans of the Red Bulls too. This would surely be an odd game for them. What would be my equivalent? Frome Town versus Chelsea I suppose. It seemed we could not escape football. The US versus Jamaica game from Atlanta was on TV. The US would eventually lose 2-1, much to the complete joy of T, who had joined us, who is from Jamaica.

There was football everywhere.

On the Tuesday, the Red Bulls had played a US Cup – their equivalent of the FA Cup – match against Philadelphia Union. However, this meant that in all likelihood the Red Bull team against us would be a weakened team. This also meant that, unfortunately, the attendance would not be so great. This immediately disappointed me. I wanted to see a full house, with cheering NYRB fan groups going for it. I wanted a “proper” away game. As I met with more and more familiar faces, I was surprised how quiet the pub was. I expected it to be buzzing.

The “Rolling Rocks” were going down well though. It was a mellow time. I spoke with a few about the exciting plans for the new Stamford Bridge. Expect a running commentary about that subject this season.

One sight made my heart miss a beat. At the end of the street, past a huge graffiti mural on an old red brick building, the street opened up with a view across the Hudson River. There, all alone in the distance, was the World Trade Centre, standing tall on the southern tip of Manhattan.

Welcome to New York.

We were – typically Chelseaesque – running late for the game. We bolted down last beers and quickly walked the mile or so to the impressive Red Bull Arena. It is one of the new breed of purpose-built stadia, ideal for MLS, which have been built in recent years. It is a fine stadium. The sun glinted off the curving roof panels as we hurriedly entered the turnstiles. Up and into the guts of the stadium, and I was again impressed. The navy blue seats contrasted well with the silver of the exposed steelwork. Making our way towards the Chelsea section high up in the far corner, I glimpsed down just as Loic Remy kicked-off our season.

I soon joined the massed ranks of the blue-shirted loyalists and tried to take it all in.

Camera poised, I took a few panoramic shots, before focussing on the line-up. All of this was rather rushed. I would have preferred more time to settle myself. We were wearing our new Yokohama shirts.

Blue shirts, blue shorts, blue socks.

Chelsea appeared to be on top in the first few exchanges. All around me were familiar faces from New York and beyond. However, somebody was missing.

Where was Roma? She was meant to be sitting alongside me. I hoped that she was safe.

We bossed the first-half, with Victor Moses looking particularly lively, and with Mikel and Fabregas dictating the midfield. It was our first sighting of the much vaunted Bertrand Traore who fitted in well. We dominated the early play, with a few chances drawing excited gasps from the fans around me. On twenty-six minutes, Oscar found an unmarked Loic Remy, who was able to steady both himself and the ball, and slot home.

Get in.

The Chelsea section, although predominantly seated – unlike at Chester in 2012, the high water mark in terms of noise at any Chelsea game in the US – were in good form. Cathy initiated a hearty “Zigger Zagger” and there were outbreaks of that song and others throughout the first-half. It was great to hear.

The loudest chant of the first-half was the US-styled “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” which used to annoy me, but I know accept it.

It is a US chant, not a Chelsea one, but so be it.

We continued to dominate the first-half, with only a silly blunder by Thibaut Courtois causing us any anxious moments.

At half-time, I descended down into the concourse and had a wonderful time meeting many Chelsea fans who it has been my absolute pleasure to get to know over the years.

Jon from Florida.

Karen from Connecticut.

Brian from North Carolina.

Tim from Pennsylvania.

Frank from New York.

Keith from New Jersey.

Brenda from Georgia.

Fantastic.

Behind the stadium, the night was falling and there were the bright lights of Manhattan. What a sublime view.

I missed the start of the second-half due to my prolonged hand shaking, hugging and suchlike on the crowded concourse. Thankfully, at the top of the steps were Roma and Peggy. They had watched the first-half from behind the goal. It was a relief to see them both.

Eliot thrusted a can of cider into my hands and I took my seat alongside Roma, Peggy, Tom, Samantha and Larry.

I could relax.

Jose had rung the changes at half-time and it took me forever to work it all out. Only Zouma, Oscar and Dave remained from the first period. However, in addition to my throat being rather sore, my mind was a little muddled. This pre-season is a work out for us fans too.

Roma joined in with the “Diego” chants. It was great to see him on the pitch. We need him to be back to his fearless – and fit – best throughout the campaign.

I won’t dwell on the events of the second-half. However, the equaliser set the pattern for an almost comedic array of defensive blunders which allowed the vastly under-strength Red Bulls team to surge past us.

1-1.

2-1.

3-1.

There was growing disbelief with each calamity. All around me, stunned silence. The home crowd, particularly quiet throughout the whole game, greeted each goal with woops of pleasure.

“Oh bloody hell Chelsea.”

The deficit was reduced when Eden Hazard cut inside and drilled a shot home.

3-2.

The Chelsea support was stirred. The songs began again. One song made me smile.

“One Bobby Tambling. There’s Only One Bobby Tambling.”

Bobby was watching among the New York Blues just a few rows behind me.

Sadly, our hopes were extinguished when the home team struck again and made our misery complete.

Ugh.

I quickly tried to explain everything to myself.

“Sigh. It’s only pre-season. Jose will not be happy though. Defensive blunders. Pretty good singing. The half-time social was magnificent. A defeat still hurts though. Ugh.”

No doubt some – hopefully not many – of our fans would be reading too much in to this surprising defeat. They ought to log on to Ebay and get themselves a life.

I took a photo of Bobby Tambling with Roma and Peggy with the quickly-emptying stadium as a backdrop.

We all then descended down and out into the New Jersey night.

I said some farewells to some. Sadly many were only watching this first game.

I would see others, many others, in Charlotte and DC.

After taking a while to exit the immediate area by the stadium, which like Stamford Bridge is rather hemmed in, Lynda drove us home.

All three of us were rather lost for words.

Then New York took over.

Heading north on I-95, that long and never-ending highway that hugs the US coast from Maine to Florida, we were treated to the bewildering and ridiculously photogenic sight of Manhattan, just a few miles away across the Hudson.

Scintillating blurs of reds, whites, yellows and blues fizzed and popped into view.

The sight was stunning.

All of a sudden, the football didn’t seem to matter.

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Tales From The Best Seats In The House.

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 5 April 2014.

It is a familiar theme in these match reports for me to contrast the fortunes of Chelsea Football Club for the period of time before – let’s pick a famous date – 1997 and for the period since. There are simple reasons for this. I always like reminding myself, if not others, how damned lucky I have been to be a Chelsea supporter during the previous seventeen years. This is obvious. Other reasons are more tangential to the story. There are contrasts in the atmosphere on match days. There is the bewildering difference in our fan base. On a more personal level, there are massive differences in my circle of Chelsea friends and acquaintances. In 1997, I thought it to be wildly cosmopolitan to number Chelsea fans from Brighton, Southend and Nuneaton in my closest group of match-going mates. In 2014, at the Stoke City match, my fellow supporters came from as far flung places as California, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

As I stood outside the Copthorne Hotel at Stamford Bridge just before 1pm, I spent a few moments trying to visualise how the same piece of terra firma used to look back in the days when I was, fleetingly – for no more than three seasons – a Shed Ender. I concentrated on the site of the former blue gates and took the open space now to be my reference point. Looking left, I visualised the dirty brown brick work of the shops which abutted onto Fulham Road. I remembered the old portakabin of a club shop which was so miniscule that it could probably only hold around fifteen people before an unplanned sexual act took place.

“Sorry love.”

I remembered the open space of the forecourt – nothing grand, but it represented as far as we were allowed to go without paying admission, a sort of holding area for our emotions on match days – and the ivy-clad walls of the modest two-storey club offices where I would often get players to sign autograph books as they hurried between there and the East Stand. I reminisced on the turnstiles, virtually unchanged, in essence, since the ‘twenties and the memorable “click click” as I entered. I remembered the laughable gents’ toilet – another bloody portakabin – and then the steps to The Shed; a veritable stairway to heaven.

And then I looked around and saw the modern bricks of the hotels, the restaurants, the modern “Chelsea brand” signs, the rush of foreign tourists with blue and white scarves, the arrival of taxis outside the hotel, the TV crews, all the accoutrements of modern day football. I wasn’t sad. I was just happy that I had witnessed both. I took comfort that my memories were strong; of when we waited in line behind former Arsenal ‘keeper Bob Wilson before a game with Southampton in 1976, when Millwall and Chelsea ran at each other in 1977, when Glenn tried to chat up the two blondes who used to run the programme stall under the wall to the far right, when I spoke to Pat Nevin for the first time before a game with Fulham in 1984 and when we were locked inside the forecourt for our own safety when the ICF came calling later that year.

Within an hour or so, I had met up with Nick – Massachusetts – and Tim – Pennsylvania – and we had enjoyed a quiet chat in the equally quiet hotel bar. Luckily, we just met Ron Harris before we left. I then gave the two chaps a tour around the periphery of the stadium. This was Tim’s second visit, but the game represented Nick’s first Chelsea match at The Bridge. I had met Nick in NYC twice before, plus the game in Philly too. He was – without wishing to state the bleedin’ obvious – very excited about the whole day. I was intrigued and partially saddened to hear that one of the deciding factors behind his trip was to see Stamford Bridge – I am unsure if I should call it the “old” Stamford Bridge since the current incarnation is only thirteen years old – before it is either redeveloped further or we end up playing in Battersea, Earls Court, Brighton, Southend or Nuneaton. I told the story of the CPO and how “my generation” of Chelsea fans can vividly remember the thought of losing Stamford Bridge for good due to the ruinous East Stand; we remembered “Cash For Chelsea” buckets on the forecourt in 1977 and “Save The Bridge” buckets in 1986.

“Save The Bridge.”

It seems almost implausible that mighty Chelsea Football Club ever had to contemplate such a campaign, yet the same three words could well have been used during the “Say No CPO” campaign of 2011.

We live in changed times, we live in the same times.

In The Goose, there was a gathering of like-minded Chelsea souls. I had travelled up with three Chelsea stalwarts who were most definitely pre-1997; Glenn, Lord Parky and PD. Outside, two supporters’ groups from the other side of the Atlantic were swelling the numbers in the beer garden. I was introduced to a gaggle of Chelsea “first timers” including three from the proud city of Pittsburgh. I was also introduced to Leke from The Bronx. With my New York baseball past, I wondered if Leke was a follower of the Yankees too.

He wasn’t. He cared not a jot for baseball. Not to worry. We had Chelsea to talk about.

Leke, like Nick, ended up sitting close to me in The Shed Upper for the game with Stoke City. I was among the twenty-five strong party of New York and Pittsburgh Blues; it was a privilege to be among them. I had, no surprises, left it fashionably late to squeeze in through the Shed Upper turnstiles and arrive at my allotted seat in the fourth row just in time to see the two large flags in the Matthew Harding disappear from view. This was my first game in the Shed Upper since our F.A. Cup game with Stoke in 2010. I was immediately struck with how good the view is from the first ten feet of the Shed Upper. The Shed End is ridiculously small and intimate compared to both towering side stands at modern day Stamford Bridge. I was ridiculously close to the action. The first few rows of the Shed Upper are arguably the best seats in the house. Before me, the stadium looked magnificent. It was, of course, another full house. The Stoke fans, without a win at Chelsea in the league in forty naughty years, were already making a din.

“GOOO ON STOKE – GOOO ON STOKE.”

Beside me was Andrew, a former New York resident now living in Kent. He commented –

“They’re only singing so much because the game is on TV.”

I think he had a point.

Our team contained a few surprises with Salah, Willian and Schurrle behind Torres. I am sure that the US visitors were happy to see Frank start. It was clear from the kick-off that the Stoke fans to my immediate right were going to be consistently noisier than the Chelsea fans around me. This, as we all know, is the norm.

Away fans sing, home fans watch.

I’m sure that there was a Norwegian fan group sitting behind me; a song soon into the match contained no English words at all. A father and son behind me kept saying “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” and I’m thankful that nobody joined in. An irate Irishman behind me soon drew my ire by calling one Chelsea player an “eejit” and then loudly criticised another. I bit my tongue. There are a fair share of moaners around me in my normal seat over one hundred yards away so I am used to “tut-tutting” to myself during games. It would also be too simplistic for me to say that my presence among the tourists of the Shed Upper was a metaphor for the new Chelsea. We have always had a fair share of visitors at The Bridge for as long as I can remember.

But something wasn’t right. Maybe it was the noisy Stoke fans. Maybe it was the constant use of smart phones and cameras by the surrounding visitors.

“But you take lots of photos at games, Chris.”

“I know. I was being ironic.”

It just felt…I don’t know…it just felt different. I just think I missed my usual seat, my familiar view for the best part of eighteen years, my usual companions. In all honesty, despite our dominance from early on, the atmosphere was quite muted. Surely the result on Wednesday in Paris and the up-coming game on Tuesday were both counter-productive to producing a noisier atmosphere. On more than one occasion (OK, fifty-six to be exact), I let my mind wander…

“2-0…we just need to win 2-0.”

After a noisy song from Stoke City about the joys of eating oatcakes, spinning a piece of Wedgewood on a potter’s wheel or some such other Stoke tradition, the Chelsea choir behind me responded with a hearty chorus of –

“You Never Won Fuck All.”

I again tut-tutted and explained to Bob –

“Wrong on two counts. Double negative. And they beat us in the 1972 League Cup Final.”

Andrew had his own particular take on this –

“We’re just politely reminding them that they have won something.”

“Yeah, and what thanks do we get?”

Before I knew it, Chelsea were completely dominating the game and were starting to pepper one-time target Begovic’ goal. Just after half-an-hour, the ball was played out to Mohamed Salah by Nemanja Matic and the Egyptian’s low shot thudded in despite a slight touch from the Stoke ‘keeper.

It was time to celebrate and time to relax. I think most Chelsea fans had written off the league title, but it was important to keep the pressure on the reds of Liverpool and the blues of Manchester. A header from Branislav Ivanovic was wildly celebrated by us in the Shed Upper and it took us all a rather embarrassing amount of time to realise that it had been called back, presumably for offside.

Our dominance was total, but the noise was half-hearted. I have often wondered what it must feel like to finally attend a game at Stamford Bridge after years of support…all of that yearning, all of that longing…only for the atmosphere to be slightly subdued. I guess this, sadly, was one of those days.

In the second-half, we were treated to a substitute appearance by the snarling Scot Charlie Adam who soon chopped down Andre Schurrle. On the hour, Salah was unceremoniously hacked down by Wilkinson. Although Eden Hazard, scorer from twelve yards in Paris on Wednesday, had replaced Schurrle, Frank Lampard called rank and took the penalty instead. His rather poor effort was blocked by the ‘keeper, but Frank was on hand to slam home the rebound in a scene similar to Claude Makelele’s first ever goal for us in 2005.

“2-0…yes, 2-0.”

Not long after, Willian capped a fine display by squeezing the ball around a Stoke defender and into the goal. As soon as he moved the ball onto his right foot, I sensed a goal.

And there it was.

As easy a 3-0 win as I can remember.

Ashley Cole and David Luiz appeared in late cameo appearances and the US guests were surely happy with that.

Job done.

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Tales From Yankee Stadium.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 May 2013.

The silver Amtrak train slowly trundled its way along the tracks deep below the streets of Manhattan and eventually came to a halt. I gathered my two cases and patiently waited until it was time to step down onto the platform at New York’s Penn Station. I edged along among the fellow travellers and then took a couple of steps onto the elevator. As I slowly rose, it hit me.

That New York City Subway smell.

It is difficult to define, but once experienced, it is never forgotten. It is a mixture of sickly sweat, of train diesel, of dirt and grime, of car fumes, of urine, of adrenaline, of oil, of body odour, of perfume and aftershave. It is a heady mix. Without any hint of self-censorship, I blurted out –

“I love that smell.”

I was back in New York.

The story of my return to the US at the end of yet another ridiculously entertaining and tumultuous season following Chelsea Football Club is worthy of a separate dissertation all by itself. Here are the bullet points. Like many others, I was at first shocked that Chelsea were returning to the US for two essentially money-making games against Manchester City. After all that the players have been put through, why not let them rest and allow their bodies time to re-charge over the summer? To me and countless others, it seemed illogical and quite pathetic. Personally, I was also surprisingly underwhelmed. Knowing my love of travelling to the US, my ambivalence truly surprised me. In the words of many a football fan, I was clearly not “up” for this crazy addendum to this longest ever season. My initial thought was to boycott it.

In fact, in all honesty, I was happy with a boycott. After almost 12 years of travelling to the US – and elsewhere – every summer following the Yankees or Chelsea, I was looking to try something different during the summer of 2013. I had already ruled out attending the Asia tour, simply because I had only just visited two of the three cities – Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur – as recently as 2011. No, that would be over-egging it. I wanted to spread my wings. I had thoughts about driving down through Italy, maybe seeing Depeche Mode in Milan and Rome. Maybe a relaxing beach holiday – not my scene at all, really, but something different – or maybe swimming with camels in Norway, cycling around the North Pole, learning to plate-spin in Greece, wine-tasting in Glasgow, scuba-diving in Siberia, maybe even something as simple as a week in London, catching up on all the tourist attractions that I never get the chance to witness despite being in London close on thirty days every single year. I just fancied something a little different.

And then Chelsea, as is so often the case, screwed it all up.

The club announced that the match in New York would be in Yankee Stadium.

Oh boy.

I honestly swear that if the venue had been the Red Bulls’ place in Harrison, the new NFL stadium in East Rutherford or the new Mets’ pad in Flushing, I would have said “no.”

But – damn Yankees and damn Chelsea! – I simply couldn’t resist a trip back to the house that George Steinbrenner III built in the Bronx and so I looked at travel options and my mind became infused with New York once again. I saw my first Chelsea game of 2012-2013 at Yankee Stadium and I would see my last Chelsea game of 2012-2013 there too. These twin games would prove to be two incredible bookends for another crazy season. Way back in the early ‘nineties – when I was just starting out on my own personal baseball journey – if someone had mentioned this to me, I think I would have fainted.

Without too much trouble, I soon sorted flights to the US and I was able to include a three-game Yankees series in Baltimore in my plans too. The baseball and footballing Gods were shining down on me once again.

Penn Station plays a small but significant role in my life as a Chelsea supporter. Just as I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea (Westbury, Wiltshire and Gaviota State Park, California), I can well remember where I was when I heard that Frank Lampard had signed for us. I was at Penn Station. I had been in New York for eight days and I ‘phoned my good friend Glenn, who had been keeping an eye on my mother while I was abroad. In a hurried call, he had told me that Claudio Ranieri had bought both Frank Lampard and Emanuel Petit, with others “to follow.” At the time, I was excited that we were splashing the cash, though undecided about Lampard as a player. I needn’t have worried, eh?

A while back, with Frank unsigned for next season, I was worried that my personal Frank Lampard story would start in Penn Station and end in The Bronx, where his last ever game for Chelsea may have taken place. I love my symmetry, but that would have been tough to take.

I made my way up to street level and soon took a cab to Brooklyn. I had lucked out with accommodation for the NYC segment of the trip; my friend Alex had offered me the use of his apartment in Greenpoint while he was away on holiday in Denmark. I was soon hurtling over the Greensboro Bridge, slightly unsure if the cabbie knew where he was going, but just so excited to be back in one of my favourite places on Earth. The view was phenomenal; the East River down below, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and, hauntingly, the now almost completed new tower at the World Trade Centre.

Oh lucky man.

Alex evidently lived in a great neighbourhood. Rather than charging me rent, all he wanted was a flagon of scrumpy, which I had given him in London on his recent visit, and a few packs of football trading cards to give to a young relative. Greenpoint was clearly a great place to base myself for a few days. There was a subway stop a hundred yards from Alex’ pad. I would be fine. There was an eclectic mix of Polish shops and other ethnic cafes, although the place was swarming with “trying too hard” hipsters. However, I was entranced by the mix of different accents as I walked the streets of Greenpoint . It was so typical of New York.

Sergei : “What we do here? I want go home Russia.”

Alexander : “We American now. We leave London, big chance in Big Beetroot.”

Sergei : “Big Apple. It’s Big Apple.”

Alexander : “Apple, Schmapple. Whatever.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

In all honesty, this would not be like other trips to the Big Apple. This was a time for me to relax and to chill out at the end of another taxing season. On the plane over, I calculated that this would be my seventeenth trip to the US and my fifteenth time in NYC. There was little that I needed to see. Over the years, I have visited all of the major attractions, most of the main art galleries and museums, all of the sport stadia, all points north, south, east and west.

In a similar vein, Baltimore had been ultra-relaxing. I had landed at 4pm on the Monday and, by 5pm, I was booked in to my hotel a block from the excellent inner harbour and only five blocks from that jewel of a ballpark Camden Yards. By 6pm, I was back at the “Pratt Street Ale House”, which acted as a base for Chelsea fans ahead of our game with Milan in 2009, chatting away to a Baltimore-native and Liverpool fan called Dean. That first evening in Baltimore was magnificent; a lovely time spent high up in the seats beyond third base, chatting to strangers about Baltimore, the Yankees, Chelsea – inevitably – and my love of visiting The States, interspersed with beer and baseball. That I got to see Mariano Rivera successfully close a game in his farewell season was the cherry on the top of the crab cake. The Yankees won 6-4 and I was floating on air. However, after being awake for most of 26 hours, my walk home from “Pickles” – another bar from 2009 – to my hotel is a massive blur. I remember nothing of it.

Tuesday was another relaxing day, which unfortunately ended with a narrow extra-innings loss to the Orioles. On Wednesday, I got my tourist boots on and visited the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, just a few blocks away from Camden Yards, indulged in a Baltimorean crab cake fantasy, went on a speedboat into the Baltimore harbour and visited the World Trade Center, with fantastic views over the city. In the evening, my good friend Steve – who had travelled down from Philly – met me and we went on a little pub crawl before attending the final Yankees vs. Orioles game of the series. We lost 6-3, but still enjoyed our time thoroughly. In my stay in Baltimore, I had casually bumped into two other Chelsea fans; this simply would not have happened in days gone by. Back in the ‘eighties, I hardly bumped into many Chelsea fans in Frome, let alone Baltimore.

Just like 2009, Baltimore had been a blast.

However, I soon learned that my beloved Yankees had signed a deal with Manchester City to assist in the formation of a new MLS franchise, to come into fruition in 2015. This was a shocker and dismayed me. My initial reaction was that Chelsea had missed a trick; surely helping to foster links between a club in the US, with its links to new players, and a club in Europe was an excellent idea. I almost felt that the Yankees had been going behind our back. I felt cheated. It was a strange feeling. I then also remembered that way back in around 1998; the Yankees signed a commercial partnership with Manchester United to develop each clubs’ branding opportunities in both markets. I was irate then, too. I even phoned the manager of the Yankee clubhouse store on Fifth Avenue to tell him what I thought of it. So, the thought of my Yankees hopping into bed with both of the Manchester teams over the past fourteen years certainly annoyed me. Who says the course of true love runs smooth?

Thursday in New York was a relatively relaxing affair. Typically, I was lured in to Manhattan by the prospect of seeing our game in St. Louis against City on a TV screen in “Legends”, which was the scene of much debauchery last summer. First, though, I popped next door for a few pints in “Foley’s.” The bar was festooned with thousands of pieces of sporting memorabilia, from shirts draped from the ceiling, to old seats from Busch Stadium and Tiger Stadium, to signed baseballs, signed boxing gloves to photos and trophies. I settled in at the end of the bar, ordered a pint of “Blue Moon” – despite its City links – and began talking to a couple from Brighton. Mac and Jo were keen Brighton fans, and still lamenting their loss to arch rivals Palace in the play-offs, but soon became engaged in a long conversation with me about football. I think this pee’d off their American friend, who was soon off to see the New York Rangers play the Boston Bruins at nearby Madison Square Garden. This guy, by the way, chose to wear a NY Rangers shirt over his normal work shirt, like some sort of FIFA2013-addicted Uber Sports Nerd. Why do these people do this? As the evening progressed, Mac told me a few funny stories about football. This was the best one –

…Mac and Jo have been together for fifteen years and during the first few weeks of their courtship, all was rosy. They then decided to travel to Gillingham to watch a Brighton away game. The two of them were stood in the away end, when all of a sudden – and to Jo’s horror – Mac began pointing and gesticulating towards a policeman nearby. After a while, the gestures became ruder and ruder and Mac’s language descended to profanity and derogatory name-calling. Jo thought to herself; “oh great…I thought this guy was lovely…looks like he’s just a typical football hooligan…bloody hell.” This continued all game. Each time, the policeman ignored Mac’s taunts. He had good reason. It was Mac’s brother.

Mac introduced me to the bar-owner and the drinking continued. It was a great time. I was at ease with myself. That I could start talking to complete strangers was lovely, though I know only too well that football – not beer – acted as the great lubricant in this chat. For me, it wasn’t always like this.

Here’s another story. I always remember reading about Joe DiMaggio, probably my second-favourite Yankee of all time behind Don Mattingly, and his comments about how he regarded himself. Despite Joltin’ Joe’s fame, he always remained a very shy person. I remember reading about him commenting to a reporter – probably in the famous baseball bar in Manhattan called “Toot Shor’s” – as he looked on as the more gregarious members of the Yankee team of the day greeted friends and strangers alike with hugs, backslaps and laughter –

“I wish I could be like them.”

For many years, these words struck a chord with me.

And this from a man who bedded Marilyn Monroe.

Oh to be at ease in your own skin. Even you, Joe D.

Our 4-3 loss to Manchester City was a crazy end to Thursday. Even more crazy was the fact that there were only two other Chelsea fans in “Legends” watching the game.

Maybe this trip to New York was going to be a let-down after all. After leaving “Legends” I navigated my way back to Brooklyn and hoped for better things.

I awoke on Friday morning and all was well. A coffee and a bagel in a café on Nassau Avenue set me up for another fantastic day in New York; perhaps one of the best ever. I had a plan. Way back in 2008, I had visited Coogan’s Bluff, that high promontory in Manhattan which overlooks the East River and Yankee Stadium. Down below was the former site of the old Polo Grounds, that odd, horseshoe-shaped bath tub of a stadium which once housed the New York Giants, the New York Yankees and even the New York Mets at various stages. It was a sight which thrilled me. I knew only too well of the sporting tales which had taken place on that piece of real estate down by the river…the “shot heard around the world”, the Willie Mays catch, Babe Ruth’s first few seasons in NYC, the rivalries with the Yankees and the Dodgers…well…next in my sights was the old Brooklyn Dodgers’ stomping ground Ebbets Field, deep in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, only some five miles away, but – in my mind – fifty years away…another time, another place.

I hopped on the subway, changed in the heart of Brooklyn and took a second train to Prospect Park. My nerves were tingling. Let me explain. If the Brooklyn Dodgers were still playing ball, I think they would be my team. Just a week before my very first trip to the US in September 1989, I visited that wonderful bookshop “Sportspages” – sadly no more, damn you internet shopping – and bought a book on baseball stadia called “Take Me Out To The Ballpark.” It was to be my first real introduction to a sport that I just knew that I would get to love over the course of my next year in North America. Those black and white photos of Ebbets Field – Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Leo Durocher, Hilda Chester and her bell, the Abe Stark sign, the Dodgers Symphony, the rotunda, the whole nine yards – really struck a chord with me. The Dodgers were the perennial season after season losers, the stadium a rickety treasure, their fans charismatic. At the time, I regarded Chelsea as perennial underachievers. There would have been a “fit” there. There was another dash of synchronicity; the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and Chelsea’s only championship were both in 1955.

Damn you, Walter O’Malley. It could have been a perfect match.

That I chose the Yankees – or they chose me – in the winter of 1989-1990 is of course well known. I loved New York and I loved it that the Yanks were going through a lean spell. I wanted to earn my stripes – or my pinstripes – in support of this fabled team. I didn’t want to be labelled a glory hunter. They were my team. They are my team. I’ve seen the Yankees play some thirty-six times. I have loved reading and writing about the Yankees ever since; visiting The Bronx is always a journey of wonderment for me. Yet, for me to step out of Prospect Park subway station and to walk those same steps that millions of baseball fans took in the glory years of Brooklyn baseball was truly wonderful.

As I approached the intersection of Sullivan Place and McKeever Place, my mind played tricks on me. I easily visualised those famous old photographs of Ebbets Field, the streets busy with cars, hot dog vendors, souvenir stalls, fans of every creed and colour and the famous rotunda behind home plate. In reality, in 2013, I stared at a monumental block of social housing; brown apartments rising twenty stories or more into the Brooklyn sky. I turned and saw a gentleman of around seventy years of age. I felt I had to say something.

“I’m from England. I’m a Yankees fan. But I just love being here.”

“The Dodgers? I saw them play here.”

That was perfect. I slowly walked anti-clockwise around the former site of Ebbets Field…first base, second base, third base and home. It was magical. It stole my heart.

Why do I mention this? Why am I sentimental about a stadium that I never visited and about a team that died in 1958? In 2011, Chelsea Football Club wanted to buy my pitch owner share and initiate a move away from Stamford Bridge forever. In fifty years’ time, I don’t want football fans alighting at Fulham Broadway and making a similar trip to where football was once played.

Later on Friday, I made my way in from Brooklyn to Manhattan once again. I was hoping for a better turn out from the Chelsea Nation than on Thursday ahead of the game in The Bronx on the Saturday. I made my way into Jack Demsey’s bar, again just along from “Foley’s” and “Legends” on West 34th Street. I arrived at about 6.30pm and stayed way into the night. In truth, the night began slowly, with only a few familiar faces making an appearance. Of course, it was great to see Beth, John, Wobbley, Steve from California, Paul from Ontario and Jamie from NYC again. However, I was expecting more faces. Was this a game too far? Compared to previous pre-game parties, this was definitely a quiet start to the night. I got the beers in and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, in a bar a few miles away, the importance of Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium was being discussed.

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Hey, you see they’re playing soccer at Yankee Stadium again tomorrow?”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “What tha fcuk! Again? That grass is gonna be messed up. Who they got playin’?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Two English teams.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Who?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Chelsea.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a girl’s name. Who else?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Man City.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a gay nightclub.”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Forget about it.”

As the night drew on – and on – more faces appeared and I was able to relax in the company of good friends. Brothers David and Scott arrived from their respective home cities, still dressed in their suits, straight from work; a lovely surprise. Nick and Shawn, the two Boston Blues, made a much heralded appearance at around midnight and it was great to see them. Mike and Fun Time Frankie arrived from St. Louis and more beers were quaffed. James, Pablo, Matt, Samantha, Lynda and Jaymee joined the throng and we had a blast. The beers were going down well. It was lovely. In truth, we didn’t talk too much about the team or the players. We just stood around, taking the piss out of each other.

Proper Chelsea.

Before I knew it, the time was 3.30am. Oh boy. It was time to say “goodnight.” A few of us slithered into Fun Time Frankie’s motor and he drove us home.

Unlike my usual commute of 110 miles to see a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, my very last football trip of season 2012-2013 was of just six miles and around forty minutes on a couple of NYC subway trains. On the first of these trains, from Nassau Avenue to Court Street, I spotted two US Bayern Munich fans. It came as a jolt. I had forgotten all about the Champions League Final which was taking place in London in a few hours’ time. Of course, I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them –

“You won’t like me. I was in Munich last year. I’m a Chelsea fan.”

They smiled. I explained that I hoped that Bayern would be successful. Historically, I have never cared too much for them, but the warm welcome given to 40,000 Chelsea last May will not be forgotten. My vote was for Bayern – for Robben, for Schweinsteiger the pigfcuker, for Lahm, for Ribery, for my friend Michaela – though, in truth, I wasn’t bothered.

Eventually I reached “Legend’s” at just before 1pm, a little later than I had hoped. The place was already heaving with bodies. Downstairs, in Jack Keane’s “Football Factory” there was a riot of Chelsea and Adidas royal blue. I had a quick poke around – a “hello” to a few familiar faces – but then came up for air in the top bar, which was full of Bayern, Dortmund and neutrals. Interestingly, there was a precedent to this; in 1996, while in town for a three game Yankees vs. A’s series, I watched my beloved Juventus beat Ajax in Rome in that year’s Champions League Final. On that occasion, I watched in a small bar near Columbus Circle. I think I was the only one watching. How times change.

I spent most of my time with Steve from Philadelphia, who was chatting to Rick, also from Philly. I had met Rick in The Goose a season or so ago. Thankfully, my friend Roma and her youngest daughter Jenny – who I last saw in Los Angeles for the Galaxy game in 2007 – soon arrived. Roma had driven up from her home in Tennessee on the Friday with Jenny, her son Shawn, her mother Mary and their friend Missy, who was in NYC for the first-ever time. Only Roma and Shawn would accompany Steve and I to the game; the other three were left to explore the sights and sounds of Manhattan. I last saw Mary at that Galaxy game in 2007, too. It was smashing to see them all again. Roma, who dotes on Frank Lampard, has been present every Chelsea tour in the US since 2004. This would be her ninth Chelsea game in the US, her tenth lifetime. In July, her other daughter Vanessa, was with Roma and Shawn for the game against PSG.

Shawn seemed to be more interested in spotting Spiderman leaping between skyscrapers as we walked to the subway stop, but I approved of the Chelsea T-shirt – formerly Jenny’s – that he was wearing. We were soon hurtling north, beneath the streets of Harlem, and we soon found ourselves back in The Bronx. I commented to Steve that I hadn’t seen the area around Yankee Stadium so quiet on a match day since my first ever visit back in 1990. Seeing the white, pinstriped Yankee shirts on sale made me double-take. Was this a Chelsea game or a Yankee game? Who cares, get the beers in.

We called in at “Stan’s” for a “Rolling Rock” and it was so good to be back. It is my favourite bar in America, perhaps the world. The owner Lou wasn’t present but a couple of the bartenders, plus the bouncer, recognised me from previous visits. That gave me a real buzz. Bayern scored a goal at Wembley and I was happy with that. We then popped into “The Dugout” where the main Chelsea pre-game party was in full-flow. On the short walk from “Stan’s”, we heard another roar…this was Dortmund’s equaliser. I had never visited “The Dugout” before; it was quite cavernous, and full of Chelsea. There were even a few City fans dotted about. Roma and Shawn departed to take their seats in the stadium, while I chatted to a few other friends who I have made the acquaintance of over the years. It was lovely to see Chopper, Tommy, Steph and Steve from Connecticut again. Steve and I gulped down a last can of Pabst Blue Ribbon – there was no draught beer left – and we hurried to our seats, since there was only ten minutes to go until the game was due to start at 5.30pm.

As we walked through the Great Hall, we stopped to admire the Yankee greats whose photographs adorn every square inch. Although I am no real fan of the new ballpark, the Great Hall is its best feature. In truth though, I’d rather have the claustrophobic tunnels and alleyways of the original House That Ruth Built. The new stadium will grow on me I am sure, but I still think it has a few design faults. There is far too much exposed dull grey steel, the upper deck should be higher, deeper, without a mid-level break, the old stadium was just so dramatic, the new one is tame. The worst feature, though? The words “Yankee Stadium” high on the outfield wall behind the left-field bleachers.

We fcuking know its Yankee Stadium.

Unlike the game in July, our section was in the mid-level mezzanine – section 212. I was happy with the view. I was well aware that the tickets had not been selling well for this game. Despite the tremendous 48,000 sell out in St. Louis, I feared that around 20,000 to 25,000 would attend this one. I knew that a friend had picked up two for $60 out on the street. The gate for the PSG game in July was given as 38,000. I thought that was rather optimistic. On this cold and grey evening in The Bronx – typical English weather – the stadium was sparsely populated. As the teams did their drills out on the pitch, it was clear that there were far more Chelsea than City fans present. The City section away in left field was hardly full; there were even Chelsea shirts in it. I’d suggest that barely 20,000 spectators had bothered to attend the game. The published gate of 39,000 made me chuckle.

The 5.30pm kick-off never materialised. It was nearer 6pm when Fernando Torres led the Chelsea team out onto the Yankee Stadium turf. For many US fans, this would be the first sighting of Torres, plus quite a few others. Despite Chelsea’s team containing Nathan Ake, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Anders Christiansen, the team that Benitez chose did contain quality through its ranks. The Manchester City team, though, looked impressive. This would be our sixth game against them this season; they were our only real nemesis, on a one versus one basis, throughout 2012-2013 and I wondered if we would be able to match them.

As Rafa Benitez walked to the bench in shallow right field, I wondered what was going through his mind. I never really warmed to the bloke since his appointment in November. It was always going to be a tough relationship between him and us. I was present for his first game against City, I was there to usher him out after his last game against City.

In reality, we found this a tough old game. A goal from Gareth Barry, the world’s most boring footballer, on just three minutes gave City the advantage and a second from Samir Nasri on the half-hour gave City a 2-0 lead at the break. In between, we created a few chances, but the finishing was poor. Despite City’s lead, I heard no City songs. Perhaps they weren’t really here after all. Our section was in relatively good voice, with songs being aired at regular intervals. Our section resolutely ignored the “wave” which circled the stadium on a few occasions.

The “Come On Chelsea” chant just sounded odd, to my ears…it sounded flat, with no intent.

At home, it’s “COME ON, Chelsea” with encouragement in the first two syllables.

At Yankee Stadium, it was “Come On Chel-SEA” and sounded monotone and flat.

Just before the break, Paolo Ferreira came on to replace Loftus-Cheek. He received a magnificent reception from the royal blue hordes.

A goal from Ramires soon into the second-half gave us hope, but Milner – the second most boring footballer in the world – struck low past Petr Cech to give them a 3-1 lead. I was pleased that the New York fans were able to see Juan Mata play; he replaced David Luiz on the hour. Another goal from Ramires made it 3-2 and then Nasri scored to make it 4-2. This was now turning into a very cold evening in The Bronx and I felt for Roma, alongside me, wearing sandals. A delightful free-kick from Juan Mata, captured on film, the last of a long season of goal photos, gave us hope at 4-3, only for Dzeko to seal the 5-3 win late on. There was still time for me to let out a rasping “Zigger Zagger” and the fine fellows around me responded magnificently.

At the end, a few moments to reflect upon.

In the row behind me, a US fan was ranting about the poor performance by the team. In truth, he had been moaning all game. I had a go back at him.

“This is the last game in a long season, mate. Give them a break. It means nothing.”

“They’re a disgrace.”

“No, mate – you’re a disgrace.”

Another chap…an expat…never seen him before, was equally scathing about Chelsea’s performance. Tellingly, he chose to refer to Chelsea as “they” all the way through his tirade. Philly Steve was stood alongside me and could tell I was bristling. I had to jump in.

“You mean “WE” not “THEY” don’t you?”

It irritates me still, the use of “they” in talking about Chelsea. Almost as much as the inappropriate use of “Chels.”

“Ah, fcuk him” I thought…I let him rant away…I was too tired for further confrontation. His argument petered out after being met with indifference from myself and Steve.

At the end of the game, old blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, sang “New York New York” and I wiped away the tears of joy. I love this town.

“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.
I want to be a part of it – New York, New York.
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray.
Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York.
I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep.
And find I’m king of the hill – top of the heap.
These little town blues, are melting away.
I’ll make a brand new start of it – in old New York.
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s up to you – New York, New York.”

Back in Stan’s, we had met up with Andy Wray and were enjoying more “Rolling Rocks.” The place was full of happy Chelsea fans; who cares we lost? However, it was sadly time to say goodbye to Roma and Shawn and they made their way back to meet Mary, Jenny and Missy. A couple of Belgian Chelsea fans joined us, and we then ventured down into the adjacent subway.

There were already around fifteen Chelsea fans down on the platform, along with a Manchester City couple, and so – after a team photo – we decided to start singing. The acoustics were magnificent and we were in great voice. For ten minutes or more, we sang and sang and sang. Almost every song in the Chelsea songbook was aired – “One Man Went To Mow” managed to get the locals particularly interested – and the singing continued on the subway train south. Throughout all this, the two City fans were looking on, silent and bemused. I bet they were thinking –

“Wow. That’s impressive.”

Andy Wray suggested we sang “We Won In Munich, Munich” and I foolishly joined in. After a long day of singing, that one is a real rasper. Oh boy. I have to say, after the away section in Chester for the All-Star Game, the trips to Turin, Tokyo and Amsterdam, a chat with Roman, the wins at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and The Emirates, that subway ride was one of the highlights of the season.

Back at “Legends” it was all Chelsea, the Bayern and Dortmund fans having long since disappeared. I chatted to more friends and the beers continued to flow. Steve set off for home at midnight, but the residual few – you know who you are – kept going until 3am. It turned into a crazy night and it turned into a crazy morning.

I didn’t get home until 5.30am.

On the Sunday, I treated myself to a nice meal in a steakhouse in Brooklyn, with Sinatra still singing in the background. Fun Time Frankie picked me up in Greenpoint and took me through Queens and out to Rockaway – a glimpse of the Atlantic, that body of water that bizarrely connects England and America – before dropping me off at JFK. There was talk of The Ramones, of John Gotti, of the Yankees, of the Mets, of football. We stopped for a slice of pizza at a roadside joint in Ozone Park and looked forward to our next meeting. It was the perfect end to a fantastic few days in New York.

Forget about it? Impossible.

And so, season 2012-2103 has finished. Another eventful campaign has passed. It has been – cough – interesting. There are tours in the summer to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and then, crazily, even a return to the US. Not for me. I need a rest.

I’m done.

…signing-off.

Chris, Sunday 2 June 2013.

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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 Frank And Bobby Show.

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 28 April 2013.

Brian was full of smiles when I collected him in Frome at 9am. As I pulled out of his road, I remarked that “this is just like the old days” when the Frome Four (Brian, Glenn, Frank and little old me) would take it in turns to drive up to Stamford Bridge for home game after home game. I first got to know Brian in around 1996. From 1997 through to around 2001, he was able to attend most of our matches at HQ. Although Brian had a pretty severe health scare in October 2011, he has been back at work as a lorry driver for well over a year. Through texts and messages throughout the proceeding few weeks, I knew that he was really looking forward to his first visit to The Bridge since the game against Wigan Athletic last season. With Parky unable to attend the game against Swansea City, Brian would prove to be perfect replacement; a pinch hitter, perhaps, or maybe a pinch bullshitter. Either way, the banter and laughter was flying as I drove past Stonehenge and eastwards towards London. We updated each other with various stories and tales involving friends and acquaintances. Brian tends to watch Chelsea games from the comfort of his living room these days. On many occasions, he ends up swearing at the inadequacies of our players and manager alike. These irate comments always get a response from his other half, Linda, and a heated debate often ensues.

“She shouldn’t complain really. It’s the only time I talk to her” said Brian, amidst much laughter from us both.

Gill was with her son Graeme in the Copthorne Hotel bar area when Brian and I arrived at just after midday. I waved a “hello” to Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti as I strolled over to give Gill a birthday hug. Graeme had contacted me during the week and had asked if I could meet them; it was Gill’s 60th birthday on the following Wednesday but this would be her “Chelsea birthday party.” Gill was wearing a spangly birthday sash and was wearing a “Teacher Gill 60” Chelsea shirt; a present from her school kids. Gill was handing out Chelsea cup cakes to a few friends. I joked that she ought to make sure that her friend Ferdi gets one. Ferdi is a Tottenham fan.

“It’ll be the only cup he’ll see this season.”

Gill’s school kids had collaborated in a handmade book for Frank Lampard and Gill proudly showed me each page, which contained hand written messages from her beloved pupils. Her school in Kent has attained FA Special School Charter status and Gill has worked closely with Chelsea over the past year in order to achieve this. I’m so proud of her. It’s a magnificent story. I first met Gill, with her eldest son Neil, over in New York before our game with Milan in 2005. Our paths have crossed at increasingly smaller intervals since then and her support of the club never ceases to amaze me. Gill’s hometown is Folkestone, which is a good 75 miles to the south of Stamford Bridge. Away trips must be a huge effort. But Gill is usually there, at the away grounds, in the front row, waving her flag. And how she loves the youngsters. Gill even travelled out to Barcelona this season in order to support the youth team. She is in an inspiration. When I get to her age – I’m sure Gill doesn’t mind me saying this – I hope I still have that same enthusiasm for life and for our football club. It was lovely to spend a little time with her before the game.

She even got a kiss from Kerry Dixon.

Curtis spotted me outside the tube station at Fulham Broadway as Brian and I walked back down the Fulham Road on our way to The Goose. Curtis, along with his sister Karen, is from Pittsburgh and was visiting London on his annual pilgrimage. They had been in town for a few days and also had tickets for the Basel game on Thursday. We quickly reached The Goose and my usual Chelsea mates were sat chatting around a table inside. The pub was rammed. I joined up with a few of the visiting New York Blues out in the beer garden. I asked Curtis how it must have felt for a Chelsea fan to see his team play in his home city. Remember that Chelsea played Roma in July 2004 at the Steelers’ Heinz Field. This was a game that I attended too; it was a momentous game for me as it was my first Chelsea game outside of Europe. Curtis spoke about the excitement of seeing the team play in his back yard. The other cities on that first US Tour for 15 years or so were Seattle and Philadelphia. Curtis’ main feeling was –

“Why Pittsburgh?”

It was, indeed, a strange choice. However, I was more than happy to be able to attend. And, as I knew, this game by the confluence of the Alleghany, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers represented a historic date in the history of Chelsea in the US. It marked the first real confluence of several disparate fan groups across the US. The story goes that there was a very drunken pre-game meet in a hotel in Pittsburgh involving the New York Blues, the now defunct US Blues, the Texas Blues and several key individuals. Until that point, Curtis said, he had only corresponded to these folks by email. It was, I guess, a seminal date in the history of Chelsea fandom in North America. I famously took a photograph, from my viewpoint behind the north goal, of the Chelsea section away to my left and although there were only around 100 Chelsea standing together, I am able to spot and name many.

Keith was one of that group and his was the next face I recognised in The Goose. He is one of the mainstays of the New York Blues and again makes an annual visit to SW6. I first bumped into Keith at the Chicago game in 2006 as we were both milling around the team hotel, hoping to meet the players. As more New York Blues arrived out in the increasingly crowded beer garden, it didn’t take long for Keith and myself to start chatting about our other shared love; the New York Yankees. Keith had paid a visit down to Florida in March to see three Spring Training games – in Tampa, Bradenton and Lakeland. I was keen to hear about his experiences as I eventually hope to take in a Spring Training trip at some stage in my life. It is in my – in the phrase which is used now – bucket list of things to do before I grow old. With my trip to the US now booked and looming large on the near horizon, we spoke about my plans for that week which will culminate with the Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium on May 25th.

Alex was the next New York Blue to arrive. I am pretty sure that I remember being able to spot him in that photo from Pittsburgh in 2004 too. However, I first got to know Alex a few years ago and he is yet another NYB who is excellent company. It must be something that they put in the water in the City That Never Sleeps. He was over in Munich for the Champions League Final – oh boy, is it really almost a year ago? – and I saw him again in NYC last summer. Last Wednesday, I received an email from him which made me punch the air; he would be in Denmark with his girlfriend while the Chelsea game is due to take place at Yankee Stadium in May, so very kindly offered me the use of his apartment in Brooklyn.

“Get in!”

I immediately envisaged myself being able to be immersed in the Brooklyn vibe for three days. I had visions of Jackie Gleason and “The Honeymooners”, Pee Wee Reese and the Brooklyn Dodgers, sharp-talking Italians and lots of pastrami on rye. As I downed a pint of Peroni, I joked with Alex about me still being in his flat when he returned, unable to leave his Brooklyn home, married to a local sweetie, my life changed forever.

“That’s fine. Just don’t scratch any of my records.”

He also spoke, worryingly, of the Polish construction workers who live in the basement of his apartment block.

“If they invite you out for a drink, never ever refuse.”

Anyway, no matter what happens, for three days in May, I will be a Brooklyn bum.

Alan was a New York Blue who I never met. Mike Neat spoke of Alan occasionally over the years; he was an artist, but a Chelsea fan first and foremost. He sadly passed away last year. I can remember another NYB, Dominic, mentioning a retrospective of Alan’s paintings which was on show at a Manhattan gallery and I remember many NYBs attending. He appeared to be, from an outsider such as me, to be quite a character. Out in the beer garden, I introduced myself to Alan’s widow who was part of the visiting group. They first visited Stamford Bridge way back in 1978 and it soon became apparent that Alan loved being a follower of Chelsea, despite the thousands of miles between New York and The Bridge. On this particular trip, Alan made his last ever journey; his ashes were scattered at his favourite place in London.

Frank arrived, typically late, for the pre-match rendezvous in The Goose. He was full of his usual boisterous enthusiasm. His booming voice was soon heard in the far corner where he was entertaining some Chelsea fans from Norway and Sweden; the New York Blues had been out until the small hours in The Butcher’s Hook on Saturday night and it seems that the Scandinavians had been involved in their late night revelry. I spoke to one of the Norwegian lads; he was from Oslo and also followed Vaalerenga. We spoke about the European Cup Winners’ Cup tie between the two clubs which took place in 1999. My mate Alan spent quite some time chatting to Frank in the beer garden; I think they must be kindred spirits (or at least when Alan puts on his best Bada Binglish accent) because I noted them laughing and joking as if they were long lost cousins.

“Forgetaboutit.”

Andy spotted me walking towards the stadium. He was with his young boy Jude, who was dressed in Chelsea gear. I think that Jude’s first ever game was the West Ham match from 2011 when a certain Fernando Torres opened his goal scoring account. I can only imagine how excited he must have been; almost as excited as Andy. Andy had just returned from a work trip from Texas. I think that he had enjoyed himself. He had visited the stockyards in Fort Worth during his stay; a place that a few of us CIAers know very well…paging Jeremy, Wobley, Nathan, Danny and Christy Boner. As we walked towards the stadium, with the sun shining, the sight of Andy and Jude reconfirmed what I already knew; that Chelsea Football Club has played an integral role in the lives of countless families, going back generation after generation. The club has acted as a backbone for many of us. It has helped fathers and sons and mothers and daughters to become closer, to share experiences, to laugh together, to grow old together. Let’s hope that this will always be so.

Frank waited patiently on the sidelines until the injured Ramires was taken off. Although his blue-blooded brother John Terry had been recalled to the starting eleven for the game, Rafa Benitez had decided to keep Frank on the bench until needed.

He was now needed.

The game, thus far, had been a timid and scrappy affair. The spring sun had bathed the Stamford Bridge stadium in light, but had turned the spectators to sleep. My first shout had taken thirty long minutes to be uttered.

“Come on Chelsea.”

I had looked over at the foreign visitors in the Shed Upper – flags from New York and Sweden – and wondered what was going through their minds.

“We come all this way and the atmosphere is bloody crap.”

In the last five minutes of the half, Frank was involved in our two goals. Firstly, Frank received a ball from John Terry and then played in Oscar, who calmly slotted the ball in at Vorm’s far post. Just after, Juan Mata was chopped inside the box and Frank slammed the ball in from the spot. I captured his 201st Chelsea goal and euphoric leap on film. The crowd, at last, came to life.

Bobby appeared simultaneously on the pitch and on the large TV screen above the 1,500 Swansea fans at half-time. In the hotel bar area before the game, I was able to walk over to his wheelchair and lean forward to shake his hand. Compared to the last time I saw Bobby at Stamford Bridge, he looked frail. I wished him well and for a full recovery from his recent ailments. At least, I figured, he was well enough to travel over to London from his home in the Republic of Ireland. That had to be a good sign. Down on the pitch, Bobby was soon raising his arm and waving to the spectators who were applauding him. Alongside him was his lovely wife Val. Neil Barnett had announced his arrival on the pitch and was soon lauding Bobby with praise. The crowd then stepped it up a gear.

“One Bobby Tambling.
There’s only one Bobby Tambling.
One Bobby Tambling.
There’s only one Bobby Tambling.”

Another wave.

I looked up to the screen and could see that Bobby was wiping away a tear.

I did the same.

Of course, in the end, the dream scenario of Frank equalling Bobby’s haul of 202 Chelsea goals never materialised. However, for Brian, Gill, Curtis, Keith, Alex, Alan – watching I am sure – Frank and Andy it was just enough to witness Frank and Bobby being indelibly linked on another momentous day in the history of our club.

It had been a good day.

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