Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

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

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

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

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

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

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

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

“When are you coming back?”

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

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

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

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

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

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

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

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

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

We were here.

Panic over.

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

But we were never lost.

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

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From The Yellow And Blue

Dynamo Kiev vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2019.

Full length murals on the sides of grimy apartment blocks. Raised wooden walkways. Flowers on recent roadside memorials. Soaring residential buildings brutally blotting out the sky. Clusters of ornate gold-topped domes. The wide expanse of the Dnipro River. The striking faces of tall young women. The wrinkled faces of crouching old men. The awkwardly ornate buildings circling Independence Square. Statues and monuments. Cellar bars open twenty-four hours. Prostitutes walking the pavements. The storied governmental buildings of Kreschtayk Street. The “D” of the local football team. The pride of the city. The Cyrillic alphabet. Fading memories of recent siege and riots. The orange revolution and snipers on the streets. Steep cobbled roads. Men pestering for photographs with monkeys. Outlines in white paint marking where innocents fell in 2014. The yellow and blue of the national flag. The sadness of strife.

This was Kiev.

And another magical trip to a far-flung part of Europe with the love of my life.

Back in the autumn of 2015, I didn’t attend our 0-0 draw in the Champions League in Kiev against Dynamo as had I elected to go to the other two group phase games in Portugal and Israel instead. Those who went to Ukraine reported back that it was a historical city, with some great sights, but it had been rather dicey in places. I easily remembered that some innocent Chelsea supporters in a city centre bar were attacked by local hooligans on the night before the game – I distinctly recollect searching for the location of the bar on Google Earth on my home PC that evening – and there was talk that several mates were very thankful that a heavy army and police presence was available to escort the away hardcore to the stadium.

But this time, in 2019, I simply had to attend. The lure of an edgy, historic city was just too much to resist.

Flights – with Air France from Heathrow via Paris CDG – and accommodation in an apartment on Independence Square were booked. Car parking at LHR was booked. Match tickets – the ridiculous sum of £1.50 – were bought. It was a great price; it worked out at £225 for three nights.

The fun began at 2am on the morning of Wednesday 13 March. I collected PD, then Parky soon after. The M4 had a closure, so I changed track onto the A303 before hitting the M3 and M25. We reached our parking spot at Terminal Four at around 4.15am. It had been a breeze. The flight left at 6.25am. At Paris, we bumped into two brothers from Stockton-On-Tees who I first met in Stockholm in 1998. The five of us were the only Chelsea on the flight. I caught up on some shut-eye on the three-hour flight to Kiev’s Boryspil airport. We touched down to clear blue skies bang on time at 1.55pm. I soon bumped into Steve and Neil, who had just flown in via Warsaw. Our cab was waiting outside to take us to the apartment.

I was buzzing.

Here we were.

In Ukraine.

In my pre-trip thoughts and daydreams, I had already conjured up a phrase that might turn out be relevant to describe the city. I had surmised that Kiev might well be grubby, and not just around the edges, but in the centre too. As we clambered into a dirty cab – its windows needing a clean, the aroma of its upholstery rather piquant – and as we drove into the city on a wide and dusty main road, I wondered if grubbiness might well dominate the entire trip. In retrospect, this initial impression turned out to be wide of the mark; although Kiev was to show signs of battle fatigue, its streets and pavements were ridiculously litter-free and the locals were smart dressers.

The cab ride, which took about forty-five minutes, gave us a scintillating introduction. The scale of the city exhilarated me. Many new apartment blocks were being built on the eastern side of the Dnipro River, and everything reminded me of Moscow in 2008. The residential blocks were simply huge. We careered over the massive river, then caught a glimpse of the large and impressive statue of the Motherland Monument, passing right underneath it. Soon there would be the first of many domes of churches and cathedrals. We hugged the river. There were cobbled streets. The sun shone. Kiev was charming me. Then, a real treat. We turned left down another cobbled street and I soon spotted the architectural joy of the white columns marking the entrance to Dynamo Kiev’s own stadium – right in the city centre – which the club uses alongside the larger Olympic Stadium a mile or two further south. It is named after the former Dynamo Kiev and Russia – before partition – team manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Five minutes later, up a steep hill – more cobbles – and then down to our apartment. It was perfect.

A quick change and we were out at just before 5pm. We had spotted a couple of cafes near our digs, but chose a bar on the corner of our block which intimated that it was open twenty-four hours. In we went. In this cellar bar – “Copper Bar” – we soon spotted Scott and Paul, who I remember bumping into in Baku last season, and we sat down at a table with them for a good two hours or so. Six pints of “Lvivske 1715” later, we were well on the way. We had a good old natter about all things Chelsea. Scott rarely misses a game. There was talk of the game in Boston in May that Paul and Scott are attending, but that will be a game too far for me. They were both in Perth in July, so their travels this season will see Chelsea play on three continents, or four if we get to Baku. Respect.

They then had to go off and meet others for a meal in the city and we tentatively agreed to meet up with them at a restaurant outside the metro stop at the stadium at 5pm on the following day. Stan from High Wycombe then duly arrived with two other Chelsea lads, and the chit-chat continued. Luke and Aroha then showed up. Things were warming up nicely.

At about 8pm or so, we clambered into a cab and were soon climbing up the hill behind the square. I had ear-marked the best rooftop bar in Kiev – “B Hush” which sits on top of the Intercontinental Hotel – and this turned out to be a fine diversion. The five of us settled in to a quiet corner and three more beers soon followed. There was the beat of music in the background. This was as chilled as it gets. It was so relaxing. Outside, the night was cold, but we did not care. The V shaped roof-terrace overlooked a square which housed St. Michael’s Cathedral and a large governmental building with pillars, both floodlit, to the left. To our right, a building was lit with the yellow and blue of the national flag, with the ornate tower and domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral floodlit beyond. In the distance, a myriad of lights, shapes, blocks. It seemed like we had the whole of the terrace to ourselves, and perhaps even the city. All really was quiet outside, but my heart was beating.

I was in my element.

I found myself out on the terrace a second time, alone with my thoughts and a glass of lager, and I stood there in my polo shirt and jeans, the cold night air biting at me. Luke came out to check on me and we just stood, looking out, disbelieving that we were there, in Kiev, at that moment, with friends, with Chelsea. Luke is quite a traveller with both club and country and he visited Russia for two or three World Cup games last summer. He loves foreign fields. But we both agreed how wonderful this European club football can be.

We were mesmerized by it all. The view. The history. The architecture. The lights. The city. The night.

“A million sparking lights, a million sparking stars, a million sparking lives.”

We had heard that some other friends – Dave and Liam – were drinking in a pub called the “Just Beer Bar” and we jumped into two cabs and shot off into the guts of the city. Ten minutes later, we arrived, soon to be joined – quite by chance – by Alan and Gary and Lucio and Pete, in addition to Dave and Liam. We had lost Aroha and Luke on the way, but their places were taken with new recruits. By this time – around 11.30pm, and without food since a meal on the plane over France, we were getting slowly, or quickly, pissed and things were getting blurred, just like the photographs. This bar – quite quiet to be honest, and themed with a nod to Americana – was not far from the Olympic Stadium, and near to the others’ accommodation. It seemed that in Kiev the Chelsea support was either housed near the stadium or Independence Square. Three more bottles of beer were quaffed, but thank heavens we stayed clear of the shorts and shots.

Just after midnight, we hailed a cab and returned back to our apartment, just finding enough time to shovel a horrible cold meat baguette into our respective mouths at a stand in Independence Square.

It had been – undoubtedly – a fine evening.

We enjoyed a little lie-in on the day of the game, and chose a late breakfast in a Crimean restaurant. But I felt a little tired. I felt a little low. I wanted to get a second wind. We soon bumped into Charlotte and Paul, also from Somerset, on the walk to pick up match tickets at the Premier Palace Hotel on Pushinska Street, which was no more than a twenty-minute walk away. This gave us the chance of a leisurely stroll along the sweeping curve of the impressive Kreschtayk Street. We walked past protestors outside a governmental building. The architecture was stunning, surprisingly so. I expected everything to be bleaker, grubbier. We collected match tickets – so good to see Dog, with Cath, at his first European away in around eight seasons – and continued on. We had decided to walk to the stadium. At 1.30pm, we dived into another cellar bar – another one which was open all day and all night – called the “Fat Lion” bar. Bars were scarce in Kiev. But we did well to spot a few. Three beers were quaffed. I loved this bar. There were a few Kiev fans enjoying a pre-match meal. The beer was excellent. The barmaid was stunning. I had my second wind.

Around a corner, a craft ale bar in a building which resembled a potting shed. This was really quiet. The IPA was tough to stomach.

On we went. We dived into the third cellar bar of the trip, and chatted to a Kiev fan underneath a Ukrainian flag. This lager had an odd, soapy taste.

We reached the metro outside the stadium bang on 5pm, but struggled and then failed to spot Scott, Paul and the others. We spotted a local restaurant – so busy – and enjoyed a fantastic, cheap and tasty meal, washed down with a couple of varying lagers. The beer definitely tasted better the previous night in the first pub on Independence Square. Opposite us were three Dynamo fans, demolishing plates of food, glasses of lager and a bottle of vodka like their life depended on it.

“England?”

“Yes. Chelsea.”

“Ah. Chel – see – eh.”

One was wearing a scarf. He intimated that he was troubled why we were not wearing a Chelsea scarf.

I felt like replying “so we don’t get slapped by your fucking ultras, mate” but I suspect it would have been lost in translation.

Outside, the night had fallen and there were bustling crowds outside the metro stop. The temperature had only dropped slightly, thank heavens. I had previously had visions of a shivering night inside the concrete of the Olympic Stadium. We began walking towards the lights of the stadium, which was no more than a hundred yards away. In the shadows, we were lucky to bump into a few Chelsea including Leigh from Basingstoke. He quickly reminded us that – as per the Chelsea website instruction that I had clearly forgotten – we were to divert away from the immediate vicinity, past some restaurants, up a dimly lit hill and finally into a narrow walkway which was not signposted at all. It wasn’t a huge and frustrating diversion away from the ground as at Barcelona this time last season and although the authorities, I am sure, insisted on this approach was for our own benefit, it still seemed a risky walk. There were no police close by and there was the threat of “ambush” in the air. Thankfully we made it into the compound of the stadium. We soon spotted lots of familiar faces.

We were safe and among friends.

The Olympic Stadium – an expansive roof added over its two tiers in 2011 – hosted last season’s Champions League Final. It’s an impressive stadium. Its seats mirror the Ukrainian national colours; two shades of yellow, two shades of blues – plus one shade of white for contrast – and although there is a random placing of these colours, the bottom tier is predominantly yellow and the top tier is predominantly blue, mirroring the two bars of the national flag. It’s a pleasing look.

We picked a row and took our spots. We didn’t have as many as the one thousand two-hundred in Budapest. The younger element was missing. The figure of five-hundred or so from the UK seemed right. This was augmented by a few hundred supporters from Ukraine, Belarus and other nearby countries. These foreign fans could easily be spotted; these were the ones wearing Chelsea scarves and tops, waving flags, clambering onto the fences at the front of our enclosure and generally being far too happy.

The UK supporters stood, as is our wont, with our hands in our pockets, comparing pre-match drinking adventures and grumbling about everything within sight.

It’s our way.

It’s what we do well.

The stadium took ages to fill up. I severely doubted that it would be anywhere near its 70,000 capacity. In the ‘sixties, it held over 100,000.

The team news had come through earlier.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Rudiger – Christensen – Alonso

Kovacic

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

Willian was the captain for the night.

It was, of course, pleasing to see our Ruben and our Callum in the starting line-up. I had forgotten what our Davide looked like.

The teams came on, and our kit mirrored that of the stadium seats, but blue down below and yellow up top.

It was clear that the Kiev ultras were facing us at the opposite end, to the right of the access tunnel. They formed a dark and densely-packed mob, easily distinguishable from the rest of the home spectators. As the teams walked onto the pitch to the sound of the Europa League anthem (titled “Thursday Night Ersatz”) the ultras hoisted mosaics which formed an amalgam of the Ukranian flag and their club colours.

I was in a row alongside PD and Parky, then Lucy and Gary, Aroha and Luke, with Paul and Spencer from Swindon a few rows in front. Behind us, Scott and Paul. To my left, Kev, Tom and Russell. Alan, Gary and Raymondo a few rows behind. Other faces dotted around.

Chelsea in Kiev.

The game began.

There were a few Chelsea songs to mark the start of the match. Luke led the way with a barrage of ditties.

The home team – playing in all white for this one – attacked early but we coped with the danger. Over in the “north curve” a selection of eight or nine flags was waved with gusto, including a subtle black and white image of that man Lobanovskyi.

On just five minutes, we won a corner on our right. Willian struck the ball into the heart of our box, Ruben headed the ball on – and crucially down – into a few spare feet of space in front of the goal for Olivier Giroud to easily readjust his feet and guide the ball past Boyko.

I screamed with pleasure, the tie was safe now.

Dynamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 1

Not long after, Ruben wriggled in from the left after a fine series of passes but his daisy-cutter was palmed away by the Kiev ‘keeper.

To our right, above us in the home section, we spotted a few locals wearing the red, white and black bar scarves of Manchester United. A banner was quickly hoisted but I was not quick enough to spot the wording before it was forced to retire. A small United flag stayed throughout the match.

“Bit pathetic, that” I thought.

Behind me there was a running gag with Scott.

“We need one more. We’ll be safe if we get to five-nil on aggregate.”

“Yeah, they’d have to score six.”

Smiles.

Scott had met up with a few other Chelsea at a restaurant just around the corner from us. He had enjoyed a lovely rib eye. I told him that I had opted for a Chicken Kiev.

“Oh, and I had some borscht for a starter. Very nice. Only trouble was, I had to queue up for it for two hours.”

We controlled the game. The Chelsea songs came and went. Thankfully the temperature was fine and this was no bitter night in Kiev. A few crosses into their box tested their ‘keeper who was already having a busy game. They had a free-kick which didn’t cause us any harm. A break on their left ended up with a shot being placed past Kepa by Garmash but the Kiev player was clearly offside as the ball was played.

Next up from the ultras was a show of colour with hundreds of blue and white scarves held up over heads, and very effective it was too. I was surprised that there were no flares on display, but they were determined to put on a good show for us despite trailing heavily.

I thought to myself : “Fair play. That’s the embodiment of support. Making a racket. Making some noise. Always.”

On the half-hour, Ruben withstood some challenges and played the ball forward from deep to a raiding Alonso. With the entire defensive back-line backing off, the left-back slipped in a perfect ball into the path of Giroud who had an easy one-touch finish.

Dinamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 2

“Still need one more. They’ll need to score seven, then.”

A fine clipped corner from Willian found a leaping Giroud at the near post but his header was over. It could, and perhaps should, have been a perfect first-half hat-trick…left foot, right foot, header. Just before the half-time whistle, another fine move allowed Callum to race onto a fine through ball from Giroud to set up Alonso from close-in.

Dinamo Kyiv 0 Chelsea 3.

It had been a perfect first-half. The home team had been so poor, though. They just could not cope with our movement. And they looked so rusty. But the running gag continued.

“We still need another. I can see them getting eight.”

A few Chelsea left at half-time.

Answers on a postcard please.

Kiev had us all in stitches early into the second-half when Sydorchuk followed up Kepa’s fine save from himself with a rushed effort against the post with the whole goal gaping. Immediately after, another offside decision ruled out another Garmash goal.

“Bloody hell, they’re crap.”

As the hour approached, I spotted clusters of white lights in the home areas. Phone torches had been turned on.

“What’s this, a bloody Barry Manilow concert?”

The lights lit up most of the home areas, although I admired the fact that the solemn block of three-thousand ultras did not participate.

“Good on them.”

I noted that several half-hearted attempts from the home fans above us to instigate a “wave” didn’t ever materialise. This crowd were clearly split into two. The ultras and the rest. But although parts of the home support were visually impressive, there was not great booms of noise. No thunderous racket. It was no Istanbul. To be honest, the single chant of “Dee-nah-moh” was rather meek.

With the torch lights still on, Willian waited to take a free-kick down below us in the corner. His fantastic cross was met with a magnificent header from Giroud. There was his perfect hat-trick.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

D KNIB 0 Chelsea 4.

Although, it has to be said, the marking was again non-existent. I reckoned that half the defence had buggered off to start queuing up for some beetroot soup. A swipe from the foot of Alonso at a free-kick forced a magnificent save, arching back, by the overworked ‘keeper Boyko. Next up from the ultras was something that Leeds United used to do at half-time around fifteen years ago; the stripping off of shirts and jackets. Over in the far quadrant, there were several hundred skins.

I pictured an image of David Brent : “Ooh. You’re hard.”

Jorginho came on for Kante.

Dave came on for an injured Davide.

Pedro replaced Willian, who handed the armband to Captain Dave.

On seventy-eight minutes, a lovely through-ball from Giroud played in Callum, who raced through and calmly slotted past the hapless Boyko.

Chickens 0 Lions 5

Scott tapped me on the shoulder.

“That’s it. We’re safe. They won’t score nine.”

The joke had run its course and so had the tie.

Chelsea 3 Dynamo Kiev 0.

Dynamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 5.

This was my biggest ever away win in Europe.

It had worked out at 30p per goal.

Bargain.

The gate was announced as a very healthy 64,830. And the vast majority stayed until the end. At the final whistle, the Kiev ultras were still holding their scarves aloft. They had provided us with quite a show. Our players walked over towards us, with Olivier Giroud clutching the match ball. To be honest, we had never really moved out of second gear the entire night. Kovacic and Willian had done well. Giroud had scored three nice goals. It was as easy a night in Europe as we have ever had. We applauded them, and they applauded us.

As we waited for around twenty minutes or so for the home legions to be cleared, I admitted to anyone that might be listening “the trouble is, we haven’t honestly played anyone in this thing yet.”

The boisterous foreign fans – Chelsea Ukraine scarves, Chelsea Belarus flags – then began to serenade each other with the “Chelsea Alouette” and caused the UK fans to giggle. You had to admire their passion.

I was one of the very last supporters to leave the entire stadium. I had gone down to take some shots of the empty bowl from the bottom of our section. It was still a mild night. I slowly walked to the top of the away section, and I was the very last Chelsea fan to leave. As I walked out of the gates, around fifty police walked with me, their employment for the night over.

That’s what I call a police escort.

I bought a cheap Dynamo fridge magnet from a cheery local woman out on the main approach. I was certainly surprised how relatively empty the streets were. Certainly all other Chelsea had disappeared into the night.

It did not take long for the three of us to hail a cab and head back towards Independence Square.

In the last match report, the home game with the Wanderers of Wolverhampton, I had mentioned “Sliding Doors” which had begun with a scene or two at the old Fulham Broadway tube station.

Intrigued?

The cab driver asked for our destination.

I remembered that I had slipped a map of Kiev, picked up at the Chelsea ticket collection point, into my back pocket. I retrieved it and pointed to Independence Square.

“Ah. Maidan.”

This was the local name. We sped through the city and were deposited right outside our apartment. It was only a five-minute drive. As soon as we set foot on the pavement, a couple of Hungarian Chelsea fans walked past us and, soon realising that we were Chelsea, and from England, told us that they were headed to a pub called “O’Briens.” I had remembered this pub from a chat that I had had with our main client in Ukraine who, at one stage, was keen to meet up with us on our stay. Keen to visit as many bars as possible during our stay, we followed them up the hill. It was only a five-minute walk. The pub was surprisingly quiet. I am not a huge fan of Irish pubs – apart from in Ireland – but this one was passable. The barman spoke great English and we enjoyed a relaxing hour or so.

The Hungarian fans, from the lovely city of Budapest – this season’s Europa League adventure keeps looping back on itself – were good company. Two lads, two girls, though not couples. Just in Kiev for the Chelsea. They were just amazed how cheap everything was in Kiev.  I told them how much we had enjoyed their city in December. Also in the pub, quite randomly, were two Slavia Prague fans, this time a couple, and the bloke laughed about how he wanted to visit London in the next round, but his girlfriend was not keen on the idea. There was a little banter between the people from Prague and Budapest – local histories, rivalries – and the three of us from Somerset and Wiltshire just sat back, bemused.

“Another pint?

At around 1am, we left the pub – “see you in the next round” – and walked back down to our digs. On the corner of the square, right outside the “Copper Pub” we spotted a few police.

There was nothing to see really, so we turned in.

It had been a fantastic end to a very fine day.

The cab driver asked for our destination.

I uttered the words “Independence Square.”

He looked blankly at me. I looked blankly at him. I needed to bring my geographical skills into operation. I had a pretty good notion of which way we needed to go, so I pointed ahead. At a junction, quite close to the “Fat Lion”, I inadvertently chose the wrong road. For around ten minutes, we veered slightly away from where I knew we needed to be headed and we ended up taking a few more wrong turns. We found ourselves up on the high area to the east of Independence Square, but we eventually reached a little area off Kreschtayk Street. We slowly walked under the still busy road, using the eerie underpass, and made our way up to our apartment. We looked at the “Copper Bar” and uttered the words “nightcap”. At the top of the stairs, I spotted a few security staff. Inside, the bar was a mix of Chelsea and a few locals. We sat at the bar, and ordered more “1715.” A Chelsea fan then stunned us with the words “there’s fifty of them up in the square.” I found this hard to believe as we had seen no Kiev fans anywhere since we had left the stadium. On our gentle stroll through Independence Square, there had been no Kiev fans, hooligans or ultras waiting in shadows or anywhere else. I dismissed it as a silly rumour.

Ten minutes later, there was a commotion in the other bar – more a walkway – and then around six or seven Dynamo Kiev fans appeared in our bar, no more than four yards away. I remained calm, but inside my head was spinning. How many were upstairs and on their way in? Did they have weapons? Was this going to be a horrible repeat of 2015? Their main man, horrible eyes, a grin on his face, looked around. He shouted.

“Hooligans!”

He was flanked by mere kids. He threw something across the bar, hitting one or two. There was a commotion, a rush of bodies. The sound of glasses being smashed. The Kiev fans were chased out. Parky, PD and I had not moved from the bar. It was all over within a few seconds.

We remained in the bar, calmed each other, and others, and finished our drinks. At around 1am we called it a day. Outside the pub, thankfully we spotted a few police.

There was nothing to see really, so we turned in.

It had been a very odd end to a very fine day.

Friday was a day of rest, relaxation, a little sightseeing, a few more beers, and then some more beers. We had another lie in, and breakfasted locally at a Parisian-style restaurant. The food, and coffees – much needed – were superb. The three of us headed over to check out the Dynamo stadium, and in the ten-minute walk, using the underpass again, we soon spotted memorials to locals who had fallen during the demonstrations and battles of Maidan in 2014. Images were etched onto stone. There were flowers. Some of the fallen were young. On a few occasions we noticed the painted outlines of bodies, marking the location of where innocent people were gunned down by the army as they protested the Ukrainian’s prime minister’s wishes to become closer to Russia. It was a cold and sobering moment.

The stadium, glistening in the late-morning sun, improved the mood a little. I loved the pillars, the iconic “D” of the Dynamo badge, the magical statue of Lobanovskyi – on his bench – looking over at Independence Square.

A penny for his thoughts.

Alas, we couldn’t enter the stadium, but we walked up a leafy walkway and I was able to take a few panoramic photographs. The floodlights were pure Eastern Bloc. The trees added a natural touch. The blue of the seats were so vivid. It was a stunning setting for a football stadium. I am pleased that the club still regard it as its base.

I continued a walk through the immediate area, then met up at the “Copper Bar.” We soon learnt that we were to play Slavia Prague in the quarter finals. We decided to give it a miss, then hope for Benfica – cheap flights from Bristol – rather than Frankfurt. Although from memory, that stadium is nicely nestled in some woods too. Either city would be a joy.

I left the boys to some more drinking as I headed up to the historic area of the Golden Gate, St. Sophia’s and St, Michael’s. I took plenty of photographs and I lost myself for an hour and a half, away from the madding crowd, away from the beers, and I enjoyed every second of it. On returning to the bar at about 5pm, the Bristol lot – Julie, Tim, Kev, Brian, Pete and Sam – had dropped in. This was their third visit to Kiev, after a flying visit en route to Donetsk in 2012 and again in 2015. Tim tellingly reported that there was devastation around Maidan / Independence Square on the second visit, with evidence of buildings being fire damaged. The area has certainly seen some action over the past few years.

Later that night, with the other two returning to the apartment early, I had the whole night to myself. There were a few beers in “Blues Bar” with a local duo playing some fine music. When they heard I was from London, they wanted to take a selfie with me. I found that odd, but touching. I returned to “B Hush” for a few more beers and some lovely food.  I was alone with my thoughts once again.

The night continued on.

Kiev had been a wonderful host city.

I would return in a heartbeat.

Tales From The Final Shot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 24 January 2019.

This season has, thus far, been quite the mixed bag hasn’t it? Our last three games perfectly exemplify this; an encouragingly optimistic performance, but a loss against Tottenham at Wembley, a very dull home win against Newcastle United and then a limp and depressing defeat at Arsenal. Overall, in these three games, we would be scored as “must do better – much better” and the mood of the Chelsea support was in negative territory. How would we perform against Tottenham in the League Cup semi second leg? Would our play take us back into the positive for the first time in a while?

When we realised that we had been drawn against “that lot” – it seems ages ago now – my thoughts were this.

“At home, a one-off tie, we could beat them. But over two legs, I don’t fancy our chances.”

But things change. Our spirited first game a fortnight ago swung the balance our way. I sensed we’d beat them. When we heard that our bitter rivals had lost Kane and Ali to injury and Son to the Asia Cup, our spirits were lifted further.

As I left work at 3pm, my mood was worryingly optimistic.

It was a typical midweek pre-match. PD had driven Parky and little old me to London, and we had enjoyed the North End Walk, which links The Goose and Simmons Bar. There were tons of familiar faces in both and even the same faces in both; it seems a common choice on match days to combine drinks at the two hostelries. There was a noticeably buoyant and expectant air in both pubs. It felt fine. It felt good. Guest of honour was Pete, originally from North London, but now living in San Diego, and lucky enough to get his hands on a ticket at the last minute for the game. I last saw him in DC for the Barcelona friendly in 2015. I am sure Pete will not mind me mentioning that he is Jewish, and he soon showed me – rather coyly – his Chelsea kippah, which he produced from his breast pocket.

We both laughed.

“…mmm, best not wear that tonight mate, might get the wrong reaction.”

We laughed again.

I reminded him of the flight I took to Tel Aviv in 2015.

“I looked up and saw that the chap sitting in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. Fucksake. Then I spotted a woman to my left, across the aisle, one row ahead, was breastfeeding her infant. So I had a tit in front of me and a tit to my left too.”

Pete gave me an old-fashioned look.

“True story.”

There was just a little team talk.  I wasn’t confident that Maurizio Sarri would begin with Olivier Giroud, and neither was Simon but Daryl thought that he would.

In the build up to the semi-final against Tottenham, I was well aware of our two previous encounters with them at the same stage of the competition.

Our 1971/1972 semi-final was just before my time, not as a Chelsea fan per se, but I certainly can’t recall the build-up nor the two games themselves at all. After all, I was only six. I since learned that we overcame Tottenham, and that the first-leg was quite a game. A poke-in from Ossie followed by The King giving the away fans a “V”, a first-ever goal in our colours from Chris Garland and a Johnny Hollins penalty. We drew the second-leg 2-2 and progressed to the final. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7m68Fvvlyk

In 2001/2002, we beat Tottenham 2-1 at Stamford Bridge with a brace from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the first one a prod past Kasey Keller down below me, the second an absolute screamer at The Shed, and I certainly remembered that match. We then reconvened at White Hart Lane two weeks later and I was able to hook up a portable TV to watch while I worked the evening shift at a portakabin in Trowbridge. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2drkUtSCj4

Two other games are worthy of note I think.

In 1990/1991, this time at the quarter final stage, we again drew Tottenham in the League Cup. This was a classic game, but only insomuch that it is, without doubt, the most one-sided 0-0 that I have ever seen. I watched from the West Stand seats, a bit of a treat really since I was on the dole that season, but towards the Spurs fans in the curving North Stand. Graeme Le Saux was absolutely on fire that night, and I had a prime position to see him roast the Spurs defence time after time. It was one of those games when you thought “we’ve got a real talent here”. Even though I travelled back by train that night, and therefore would not have seen the TV highlights anyway, this game has gone down in Chelsea history because the scheduled TV programme was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Gulf War and action from the game was never aired. That night, Baghdad came under a horrendous attack, but it paled into comparison to the blitzkrieg we had rammed into Tottenham a few hours earlier. It’s likely very few have seen these rare highlights, recently unearthed by a chap on a Facebook group that I am in. I love the involvement of the crowd and the noise from this game. Just 34,000 were officially present, but it was a common view that Ken Bates massaged the crowd figures in those days. Just what we needed, really. From a period that opposing fans refer to when lambasting our historical attendances, the bloody Chelsea chairman was making out we had less fans at games than we actually did. Nice one, Ken, you silly old duffer. Anyway, fill yer boots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwqOjP2s58c

One more Chelsea / Tottenham midweek memory. With the signing of Gonzalo Higuain – never saw that one coming, cough, cough – and the thought of him possibly starting the game, many of us remembered the signing of George Weah in the 1999/2000 season. On a memorable evening, he had jumped off a plane at Heathrow and then appeared a few hours later to score the only goal of the game against Tottenham in the league. It was very much a case of “mmm, how shall we beat Tottenham this time?” It was fantastic. George Weah and his white boots, what an impact player for us in those last few months of that season. In 2019, we have witnessed another Milan to Chelsea loan signing, but alas there was no chance of another “Hig-Whea-in” winning goal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egOgvkpHgF4

For this game, Tottenham had around four thousand in The Shed. This meant Parky was forced to buy a seat elsewhere. I decided to swap with him so he could watch alongside Alan and PD, while I took his seat in a central area of the same tier. As I took position, I realised that it was the first time that I had watched a game from behind the goal in the MHU since Bruges at home in 1995. It cunningly gave me a new vantage point for my photographic endevours.

And it was some view.

I loved the team that Sarri had chosen. In came Emerson, Barkley and Giroud.

Kepa

Dave – Rudi – Geezer – Emerson

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Peds – Olivier – Eden

I got chatting to Vince, a season ticket holder for decades, who was with two friends, sitting to my immediate right. I warned him of my habit of taking photographs and hoped it would not spoil his enjoyment of the night. Surprisingly, the seat to my left was empty. It looked a full house, but if you looked hard enough there were odd seats not being used.

More dimmed lights and firework and flames. At night games, it adds to the drama, but what next I wonder? Thank God the club hasn’t implored us to turn our phone torches on prior to the entrance of the teams. You heard it here first, sigh.

The teams came on. I love the sense of drama as they walk across the pitch to the West Side. No Premier League flag getting in the way this time. A straight and purposeful walk to the other side of the pitch. And I was staring down the four thousand Tottenham fans. They were, awfully, in our Shed, but somehow the sight of a solid block of away fans – flanked by several hundred empty seats on each side – gave the evening a proper “Us Versus Them” feel.

Whisper it, but it gave the game an added drama. Three stands us, one stand them, just like the old days, but swung around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.

There was not one single Tottenham flag on show.

The game began.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Spurs were weakened on paper, and they began weakly on the grass too. We began well, bossing it, and got better. A divine full body shimmy from David Luiz suggested that he was full of confidence, and I only hoped that the others shared his positivism. We absolutely dominated the first five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. We moved the ball quickly, but into danger areas with more urgency than recent memory. For once, I noted that Jorginho was not hogging the ball. For once, it was not solely about him. We moved the ball long and short, and runners were hit. Once or twice, Eden played deep-seated playmaker and propelled lasers to the feet of a wide man. This was good stuff indeed, and the crowd – that vital component – were involved from the off.

I was enjoying my little chats with Vince. We delved into a few previous games. Bruges in 1971 and in 1995. That Le Saux game in 1991. The flat semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday – which followed the Spurs tie that year – at noon on a Sunday when we were undone by the same bloody free-kick routine – John Sheridan? – on two occasions. Another infamous game. Fackinell Chelsea.

Throughout the first-half, there were no end of rugged and miss-timed challenges on our players, which the referee Martin Atkinson shrugged off, and the home crowd bellowed and roared our disapproval. Each time the referee chose not to card a Spurs player, the otherwise quiet and bespectacled lad to my left exploded with a tirade of abuse; top notch swearing in fact. It was the sole time he seemed to get involved. There was no roaring of support for any of our players from him. He seemed an odd character. But more of that later.

Tottenham’s main song of the night was clearly one intended to entice a response from us, or at least some in our ranks.

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

We sing in the sun and we sing in the rain.

They’ve tried to stop us and look what it did.

Cos the thing I love most is being a ***.

Being a ***.

Being a ***.

The thing I love most is being a ***.”

But we are made of stern stuff and we did not lower ourselves.

There was no Y-Word-Nonsense from Chelsea’s three stands.

Well done us. Again.

However, as the game progressed, I was rather worried that for all of our dominance, we had not really tested their ‘keeper Gazzaniga. But Tottenham had rarely ventured into our half.

“Where’s Chris Garland when you need him?” I chirped to Vince.

On the half-hour mark, a Hazard corner from our left ended up bouncing towards Kante, some twenty yards out. He steadied himself, arms balanced, and did well to keep his shot down. Somehow it squeezed through a packed box, and we were 1-0 up and level in the tie. The crowd roared and the players quickly raced back to our half.

Game on.

From Alan : “THTCAUN”.

To Alan : “COMLD.”

A replay would show how the ball had miraculously travelled betwixt the legs of three opposing players.

I wonder if the French word for “nuts” or “megs” was uttered by our man.

I turned to Vince : “The mention of Chris Garland did it.”

The Bridge was buzzing now.

The crowd roared N’Golo’s song at a home game for the first time that I can remember.

“Ngolo – ohh!

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believe in.”

Pure gold.

There was a close chance for Giroud, but his legs seemed to become tangled.

Ten minutes after the first goal, a fantastic move involving crisp passes from Barkley, Hazard, Pedro and Azpilicueta meant that Spurs were a little slow to spot the movement of Hazard, who appeared in the box as if by magic – like Mr Benn –  to calmly steer the ball home.

More wild noise, bloody fantastic.

I turned to Vince :

“Spurs are not bloody singing now.”

The game opened up further. A heavy Pedro touch meant that a fine run was wasted, and there were blocked shots as we piled on the pressure. There were only rare Tottenham attacks. Luiz played the ball out to his wide man Emerson with aplomb on many occasions. In the last moment of the first-half, Hazard was tackled from behind by Alderwiereld – I was not convinced – but befitting the rest of the first-half, no action was taken.

Vince : “one of the best halves of football we’ve seen down here for ages.”

The second-half began with “Where’s Wally” to my left nowhere to be seen. However, he eventually ambled back to his seat and – I am afraid that I am not exaggerating here – for a good eighty percent of the second-half he stared at his phone as he reeled off text message after text message, rarely looking at the game for minutes on end. And it really wound me up. It shouldn’t, should it? But it did. It is a miracle of self-restraint that I chose not to bite and say something bitterly sarcastic to the prick.

The first few minutes passed and – just as I thought to myself “mmm, Eriksen has been quiet, bet he misses his usual targets”- the ball was whipped in by Danny Rose, an early substitute, from their left and Llorente prodded home.

The away fans roared now, and a Star of David was spotted being fluttered like a red rag to a bull in the Shed Upper.

The game opened up again. This season, there would be no extra time if scores were level over both games and the game would go straight to penalties. We begged for a third goal on the night. And to be fair, we certainly gave it our best shot, if not one that hit the target.

Over the next forty minutes there was shot after shot. Giroud wriggled free and lashed an effort low but Gazzaniga saved at the near post down below me. Giroud, – undoubtedly under threat with Higuain on board – had not created much for himself up until then, but his presence had allowed others to make use of space around him.

The home crowd urged the players on. I will be honest, I was especially loud – “rasping” – and aimed my voice towards Wally to my left, but there was no reaction from the twat. He had the sort of face that was begging out for a slap, glasses or no glasses, and even though I am not a violent person…mmm, my voice fades into the ether, best not say anything, I’m honestly not a violent person, but…

Unbelievably, Jorginho and Kante were booked despite the rotten Tottenham challenges, and the reaction of Sarri to a bad tackle resulted in him getting a yellow too.

“Good lad.”

Llorente messed up a great chance from close in, and there was much wailing at the Tottenham end.

We attacked again. Great play from Hazard and Emerson. A shot from Pedrio.

Moura then hit the side netting and the away fans roared just as the Chelsea fans roared when Kerry Dixon hit the side netting in 1991 (have you watched the clip yet? Go on…)

And then Dave was carded too.

Three Chelsea players carded. And not one opposing player. This seemed bloody ridiculous. This brought Wally to life and he again spewed out some fuckwords into the evening air at the referee.  But there were still no signs of support for his team.

Back to your texts, lad.

Willian replaced Pedro, who had stretched his marker all night.

My favourite part of the game, in one way, took place on the East Stand touchline. There was a foul on a Chelsea player – Kante I think –  but many players continued, and Kante himself had clearly not heard the whistle (or maybe he had, wink), and he made a firm but fair tackle, leaving a Tottenham player on the floor and clasping his shin. It was sheer poetry. This certainly galvanised our support further.

At last a Tottenham booking; Sissoko, and much sarcastic cheering.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

Hazard pelted one in from outside the box and it missed the target by inches. He repeated this shortly after, but another chance went begging. Mateo Kovacic replaced the tiring Barkley, who had begun well but was fading. We still pushed on. There were further chances though. Another messy effort from Giroud at the far post had us all frustrated, but worse was to come.

Emerson, finding great energy from somewhere, flew past Aurier and sent over a peach of a cross towards a leaping Giroud. His effort cleared the intersection of post and bar. I actually turned around and double-stamped in absolute frustration.

…”mmm, I haven’t done that before” I self-consciously thought to myself.

So, penalties.

I said to Vince :

“Simple. If it is up there, we’ll lose. If it is down here, we’ll win.”

Thankfully, it was at the Matthew Harding.

Great for us, great for the fans, great for me, great for my camera.

We waited.

Tottenham :  Eriksen – IN.

Chelsea : Willian (currently one of the boo boys, please don’t give them extra ammunition to have a go at you) – IN.

Tottenham : Lamela – IN.

Chelsea : Azpilicueta (didn’t like his over-enthusiastic run up) – IN.

Tottenham : Dier – OVER.

Chelsea : Jorginho (that stop, like at Huddersfield) – IN.

Tottenham : Moura – SAVED.

Chelsea : Luiz (a hero from the spot in Munich, another long run up, initiated by a Jonny Wilkinson-style stop, sorry about the rugby reference) – IN.

Stamford Bridge roared once more.

GET IN.

It was the final shot.

The final shot of the game.

A shot to get us into the final.

And my final shot of the action.

The penalties had taken place and we had done them four by two.

Phew.

Hugs with Vince.

“See you at Wembley.”

David Luiz had been featured on the programme cover and it was fitting that he had brought us home. He had enjoyed a great match along with Hazard, Rudiger, Pedro and – of course – the loved Kante. But Luiz was the centre of attention as “One Step Beyond” boomed around Stamford Bridge. I glanced over to The Shed, and many had quickly disappeared.

It was a beautiful sight indeed.

I slowly made my way to the exit and outside the West Stand one song dominated.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

And indeed it fucking had.

It had been…clears throat…a great night.

On Sunday, another cup competition awaits.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Home City Of Puskas, Hidegkuti, Albert And Bozsik

Vidi vs. Chelsea : 13 December 2018.

What with the altered, almost dreamlike, reality caused by the bright neon of the Christmas lights, and the extra-sensory rush of the chilled wintry air, plus the floodlit castles by the river and churches and synagogues and spires of the city, to say nothing of the intoxicating scent of mulled wine and of the tantalising aromas of the hearty food of the Christmas markets, at many times in Budapest it felt like I was in the middle of an Eastern European fairy tale. It truly was a magical time. It was magical enough that I was at last visiting one of the classical European capitals with good friends. That there was football, and Chelsea of course, made it all that much sweeter.

Budapest 2018 was truly wonderful.

The flights and accommodation had been sorted out way back in August. This trip to Hungary, my first-ever visit, was a slow-train coming. It seemed like it would never arrive. As the autumn campaign in the Europa League progressed – a procession for our team – the anticipation rose steadily. I bought a Budapest guide book (a pet peeve of mine; hardly a single mention of football in its two-hundred and seventy pages, and certainly no mention of Ferenc Puskas), and also carried out a little online research. We were lucky in the scrum down of the Virtual Waiting Room, and were sure of match tickets. We knew of many that had not been so fortunate. But many were travelling to Budapest without tickets, lured by the prospects of a proper European city with all of the associated thrills.

Eventually the day came.

The long drive to Stansted began at 3am on the Wednesday, the day before the game. My travelling companions were PD and LP, our third European away game together. Also on the 0830 Ryanair flight out of Stansted were Alan, Gary and Daryl. The flight was bang on two hours in duration. We nabbed a few precious minutes of sleep; we knew it would be a long old day. At the airport, we jumped in a cab and headed towards our apartment on Vorosmarty Utca, about a mile and a half to the north-east of the “Pest” city centre. The skies were clear, with few clouds. Thank heavens there was no rain. As we drove through the roads and streets of this new city, I peered out of the window, eager to take on board all of the new sights.

It looked a quintessential former Eastern bloc city. High rises. Graffiti. Crumbling walls. Old dwellings. But then the brazen modern additions, the hit of capitalism and the gleam of car dealerships, fast food restaurants and roadside billboards. I spotted the four leaning floodlights of Honved, that famous old club, a mile or so to the south. We then zipped past the green tinted steel of the Groupama Arena – the home of Ferencvaros – where the game against Vidi would be played the following day. Over the last few miles, I realised that I had not seen a single shop or bar in the city itself that was open. All had their shutters up. No lights were on in any of the properties.

“Maybe it’s half-day closing.”

It was an odd feeling.

Then, eventually, as we got closer to the centre, a few shops had lights on, and doors were ajar.

I kept looking at the signs, attempting to glean any clue as to what the words meant but there were no familiar Latin or Germanic, or even English, hints. Hungarian is indeed a “stand alone” language.

We had a crash course in famous Hungarians.

Biro and his pen.

Rubik and his cube.

Parky’s mate Laszlo, who I remember wearing the very same blue and white Pringle that I was sporting when I encountered a little gaggle of Chelsea casuals in The Crown in Frome’s Market Place in the summer of 1984.

Puskas, of course.

We pondered if Chelsea had ever had any Hungarian players. We thought not. Apart from the Hungarian heyday of the ‘fifties – more, much more, of that later – the national team has not produced much quality since. Have there been many famous Hungarian players of late? We thought not. At the airport, Daryl had mentioned the former West Brom player Zoltan Gera. The Hungarians have certainly not set the Premier League alight, unlike – say – some Czechs or Serbs that I can mention.

Oh, a special mention for Andrea Temesvari, the blonde tennis player from the early-eighties. I think my love affair with Hungary began with her.

We located our apartment then had a quick lager – Arany Aszok, just over a pound a pint – in a nearby bar. There followed another beer in another bar. Then another. Dave, Glenn and Liam joined us for one. Then some goulash in a fantastic local restaurant. Then a walk to a couple of ruin bars – “Mazel Tov” and then the iconic “Szimpla Kert” – and the meeting up with Alan, Gary, Daryl, and then Andy and Antony, Johnny12 and Jenny12 – all from California, and freezing – and then some more beers and some more and some more. The talk was all of Chelsea and of our fanaticism, but never of the game the following day. We took the piss out of each other. The beers flowed further. It was a great night.

At about 10.30pm, I received a text from Foxy, newly arrived from Dundee via Copenhagen. The instructions about how to enter the apartment were not working. And our phones were running out of charge. We exchanged a few frantic texts. We left Andy and Antony in a bar, excused ourselves, and hopped into a cab. Meanwhile, Foxy had hopped into a cab to meet us. Our cabs possibly passed each other. I had visions of us being stranded outside in the cold. And my phone was now on zero charge. It was a fraught ten minutes or so. We scrambled out of the cab. I entered the code onto the keypad as I had been instructed by the Russian girl eight hours earlier. No luck. I turned on my phone and, out of nowhere, I had three percent charge left. I quickly dialed the letting agency and spoke to a girl, who informed me that the Russian girl had told me the wrong code.

Oh bloody hell.

“7395 – enter.”

“BUZZZZZ.”

We were in.

YES!

“Bloody hell, we’re in.”

To celebrate, we popped around the corner to the first bar we had visited ten hours earlier and ordered two or three more pints apiece. The smiling barmaid had recognised us from before. The bar stayed open past its usual midnight closing slot. The barmaid brought us a round of apricot schnapps on the house. Some seriously inebriated locals befriended us. Laughter, laughter, laughter. We left there at 1am. I had been awake for almost twenty-four hours, minus a very brief power nap on the plane.

We scoffed down some food from a shop that was thankfully open. LP and PD called it a night but Foxy and I chatted away until 2am. He had recently visited Madrid for the Copa Libertadores and we were in full-on “football raconteur” mode. We spoke about how our generation, sadly, might well be the last bastion of old-school football support; the singers, the drinkers, the dreamers. Remembering the last lingering whiff of the terraces, hanging on desperately to the notion of supporting teams at as many games as possible. We feared the future where the predominant football supporting experience might be via a TV or streaming site.

Maybe we got a bit too self-important. But I don’t think we did.

It was a bloody long day, and night, though. Our ramblings drifted off into the night…

The bed hit us at 2am.

Game day arrived and we had a chilled-out and relaxing start in our top-floor apartment – I hesitate to call it penthouse, but this is exactly what it was, sun terrace and all – as we were in no rush to get moving. After a while, we set out for the Novotel on the main street in Budapest, Rakoczi Ut, where we easily picked-up our match tickets. We saw a few familiar Chelsea faces. We then embarked on a slow walk south-west, taking in a few of the sights along the way. Central Budapest was a little weather-beaten at times, but it certainly kept my eyes occupied. It was not as grand as Vienna, maybe its sister city along the Danube in the days of the Austria-Hungarian empire, but it was a lot tidier and beguiling than Bucharest, the only similar city of the former Eastern-European bloc that I have visited. This would be my thirty-sixth game on continental Europe with Chelsea, and I know of many who are up to a hundred or more. Their fanaticism is to be applauded.

We had heard that many Chelsea were plotted up at “Pointer Pub” near the river. We headed for there, and arrived – with perfect timing – just as Happy Hour between 2pm and 5pm began. There must have been two hundred Chelsea in there. We got stuck into the pints of “Hunter” lager – not bad – and had a lovely and relaxing time. Great to see Mr. & Mrs. Burger once again; I remember being with them in Rome ahead of their very first Chelsea away in Europe at Napoli in 2012. This was a relaxing time to be honest. And we still didn’t talk about the game. After a bite to eat, five of us bundled into a four-seater yellow cab. As we turned a rising corner, the cab grounded out. Sadly, one of the occupants – Andy from Kent – would not even attempt to get in to the stadium; he had a ticket but not in his name. Once he saw the lines of interrogation, he returned to the city centre.

The cab had dropped us off right outside the main entrance and the steel of the Ferencvaros eagle welcomed us. It was a fantastic sculpture. We edged our way past a side stand, clearly full of corporate hospitality bars and suites. We lined up at the south-west corner and waited for the passport check. One song dominated.

“We’re on our way. We’re on our way.

To Baku, we’re on our way.

How we’ll get there, I don’t know.

How we’ll get there, I don’t care.

All I know that Chelsea’s on our way.”

Our passport and match ticket were checked twice by stewards and police standing two feet apart, then the ticket again, then a bag search. Despite gambling with both lenses, there was no issue with my camera.

“Result.”

With Vidi playing at the Groupama Arena rather than their home stadium, they were treated to the exposed steel of the neat stands being lit in red and blue. Once inside the away section, we slowly made our way to the top rows. It is a rule of thumb for European aways that everyone sits where they want. There have only been three exceptions to this rule as far as I can remember; Moscow 2008, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013. I chose to wear my newly-acquired red, green and white retro away scarf, what with the Hungary team of the ‘fifties being the inspiration for the kit in the first place. I was expecting more fellow fans to be wearing the scarf. Out of over 1,200 Chelsea fans, I only saw two others wearing it, and one of them was my usual match day companion Alan.

“Good work, mate.”

The stadium is single-tiered and plain, but perfect for a team like Ferencvaros, whose old Albert Florian Stadium sat on the exact same site until 2013. There were executive boxes at the rear of the steep stand to our immediate left. All the seats were green. It reminded me a lot of Rapid Vienna’s new stadium.

We were in with a quarter of an hour to spare. After missing the rotten show at Wolves and the euphoria, and then media-led meltdown, of the City game due to ill-health, this was my first game since Fulham.

The team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Ampadu – Christensen – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Barkley

Willian – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We had already qualified as group winners. Vidi were in with a chance of getting through too. The mist had rolled in from the Danube, and it was cold, but not as cold as at Burnley two seasons ago. The game began; Chelsea in “tangerine and graphite”, Vidi in Genoa-style red and blue halves.

There was a little singing from Chelsea, but nothing too loud. There was nothing at all from the home sections. Vidi only play to about 1,500 fans at their home games, and I suspect that the crowd had been bolstered by a few neutrals from the city’s other teams. The Hungarian flag was visible in several locations. The team’s former name appeared on one. Another said “Team Hungary.” Although not on the same scale as Qarabag playing in Baku last season, here was another example of the locals rallying around another city’s team.

“United Colors Of Videoton” anyone?

Chelsea, as predicted, dominated possession during the first ten and twenty minutes. The home team were quite happy to sit back and defend en masse. We kept trying to work openings, but it was an uneventful opening period. The singing in the away section had declined, and we were stood, hands in pockets awaiting something to cheer. Right on the half-hour, Willian – who had enjoyed a couple of lung-bursting sorties down the left-wing, was chopped down outside the box. He grabbed the ball, and we waited for his free-kick. He curled a fantastic effort over the wall and we were a goal to the good. The players celebrated down below.

Alongside me, PD was happy.

“First European away goal I have seen, Chris.”

Sadly, PD was cursing shortly after. A Vidi corner curled in towards the near post and an attacker headed it on. Ethan Ampadu, attempting to divert it, could only head it past Caballero. Nego, who had already forced a save from Wily earlier, then struck a shot which our ‘keeper turned past the post at full stretch. The mood in the away end was of grumbling frustration. We were not playing particularly well, with most of the players under performing.

After a Chelsea move petered out, Alvaro Morata injured himself and Olivier Giroud replaced him.

It was noticeable that some – not many – Chelsea fans left at half-time, presumably to head back to the bars of the city centre. I just do not get it. I hope they didn’t bump into any Chelsea fans who had not been blessed with match tickets in the first place. I noted that virtually the entire stand to our left emptied at half-time as the match-goers headed back inside for the warmth of the hospitality areas.

Into the second-half, Stopira was left completely unmarked at the back stick, but headed over.

On fifty-six minutes, a fine move from Vidi resulted in a floated cross from Milanov being smashed in – on the volley from an angle, in front of us – by Nego. The crowd roared and even I had to admit “great goal.” The Vidi players celebrated right in front of us, the buggers.

We then dominated possession again, but it a lot of our play fell apart due to poor touches or a lack of concentration. Giroud went close from inside the six-yard box. The Frenchman then peeled away at the far post and his sweet volley, in the style of Nego, rose as it left his foot and ended up clearing the bar.

Pedro, who had been energetically warming up in front of us, replaced Willian and immediately spurred us on.

With a quarter of an hour left, Fabregas was fouled and we were rewarded with a centrally-placed free-kick. Barkley stepped over the ball, but it was Giroud who clipped the ball over the wall and into the goal.

Vidi 2 Chelsea 2

“Phew.”

We had most of the ball in the final period, but as the temperature fell, I just wanted to return to the city and thaw out. The whistle went. It had been an uninspiring game, but contained three super goals. The Chelsea fans slowly tumbled out of the steep away end and into the night.

Almost immediately after the game, I spotted that there had been a reporting of “anti-Semitic” songs during the match.

This startled and confused me. What songs? I had not heard any. What was this all about?

I trawled through a few posts on Facebook and it seemed that Dan Levene, on Twitter Twatter, had reported – soon into the game – that a song about Tottenham had been sung which contained the second part to “Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

Now then. I did not hear that song at the game. If it was sung, it could surely not have been very loud. I usually keep my eyes and ears open for any songs being sung at a given game. At the Pointer Pub in the afternoon, however, I did hear the song, in its entirety, being sung by a group of Chelsea upstairs. I often sing that song – it has been sung at Chelsea for decades – but never finish it. I used to finish it. I used to sing a lot of things. But not those words, now, not any more, no longer. Tottenham can sing it and do sing it. That is their problem.

I stop abruptly at “Barcelona, Real Madrid” just as the Buzzcocks’ “Love You More” ends with the words “razor cuts.”

I had to wonder why this song had suddenly been reported. It did not take long to work out. The media had overblown the Raheem Sterling incident. That Chelsea fan had not said those words. The media still needed to prolong their agenda against us. We were in their crosshairs. The shots were taken.

The world was on our case once more.

Sometimes, I hate football.

We walked a few hundred yards along Albert Florian Ut – a famous player from Ferencvaros’past – and caught a taxi cab in to town. After a couple of beers in a gorgeous curved bar on Kiraly Ut, we returned back to the first bar that we frequented the previous day, but we only had time for a single pint before the place closed at midnight.

We slept well.

On the Friday, I had my own magical mystery tour planned. I left the others to their own devices, and caught a tube into the city centre and then out to the south-eastern suburbs to the area of Kispest, home to the fabled Honved Football Club. There was simply no way that I was going to let a trip to Budapest slip by without an attempt to take a few photographs of the former playground of Ferenc Puskas and his famous team mates.

At Kobanya-Kispest station, I still had a forty-five-minute walk ahead of me. It was a cold morning, with a frost, but I set off with a smile. My little mission reminded me of my youth travelling around Europe, heading off to see a city’s football stadium rather than its art galleries and museums. Kispest is a decidedly grubby and working class suburb, full of graffiti’d houses, towering blocks, small shops, tram lines and churches. After half an hour, I spotted two of Honved’s leaning floodlight pylons and my heart leapt. It was a beautiful sight. I waited at a crossing as a train passed, then approached the Bozsik Jozsef Stadium. I was soon learning that in Hungary, the surname always comes before the “first” name. The stadium was guarded by a gate and a security guard did not allow me in to take photographs.

“Bollocks.”

I noted a nearby plaque in memory of Puskas Ferenc, and a wreath. The turnstiles were dilapidated but they spoke of a million memories. I walked away from the stadium, and took some snaps of its heavily iconic leaning floodlights.

So Eastern European.

I wandered along a very quiet road, and was just pondering my next move when a miracle happened in deepest Kispest.

On the other side of the road, walking along the pavement by the perimeter wall of the stadium was Sam. Sam is a fellow Chelsea supporter. We do not know each other well, but we “nod” every time we see each other. As I crossed the road, we both exclaimed “what are you doing here?”

Sam was with Dan, a Chelsea fan from London, whose father’s family are from Budapest. Sam was staying with Dan’s family. And here is where things got interesting. Dan’s father – Kalman, another fan I “nod” to when I see him – had arranged for the two of them to meet an employee of Honved. So, we walked back to the security guard, and after a phone-call, all three of us were allowed in. My camera was primed.

We met Vince, who is the director of Honved’s youth academy, and we were given a twenty-minute tour of the academy building, where one hundred boys live and study, and then the entrance hall to the main stand and the stadium itself. I was in my element. What luck. What beautiful luck.

Vince explained that Jozsef Bozsik was the first Hungarian player to gain one hundred international caps. I found it endearing that Honved’s stadium was named in honour of him and not the more famous Puskas. Vince told us that Puskas’ house was within spitting distance of the stadium.

Most incredible of all, Vince told us that in January, the club will play its last game at the current stadium before it is demolished and a new stadium is built on the same site. The current one, a very low bowl with a capacity of 15,000, will be replaced by a new one of just 8,000. We gasped when we heard it was going to be that small.

But Hungary does not have a strong league these days. And Budapest is rich in football clubs. I suppose the club knows its support. In the meantime, Honved are going to share with another club in the city. My work colleague Marton, who runs a company in Budapest, detailed his take on the city’s football landscape in an email to me a while back, once he heard I was visiting. He does not support one team, but has had spells supporting a few of the teams, mainly due to friendships along the way. He even helped form a team which plays in the lower leagues. He admitted that Ferencvaros has the aura and history.

He then summed things up.

“But Ferencvaros are supported by Nazis. Honved are supported by communists. MTK by Jews.”

He did not mention the support base of Ujpest Dosza. Nor Vasas Budapest.

The visit to Honved over, I said my goodbyes to Sam.

“Amazing, Chris. See you in Brighton.”

With that, I hopped into a cab which had just stopped a few feet away.

“MTK Stadium please.”

I was on my way again.

Within twenty minutes, I was stood outside the utilitarian and ultra-modern Hidegkuti Nandor Stadion. This was hugely different to the archaic charm of Honved. The old MTK stadium stood on the same site – it is where that God-awful “Escape To Victory” was filmed – but this new structure was rebuilt in 2016. Sadly, I could not enter, but I took a few photographs as the cold wind chilled me. If I had stepped inside, I would not have liked what I would have seen. The new stadium only holds 5,500 and there are only concrete walls behind both goals. If this is post-modern football, then count me out. Hidegkuti was a team mate of Puskas and part of the fabled Hungarian team that humbled England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest a year later. I believe that MTK were known as Red Banner when they played Chelsea in a midweek friendly at Stamford Bridge in 1954. Hidegkuti certainly played in that match.

Alongside the brutal angles of the MTK stadium, I recognised the older and more ornate sandy coloured brickwork of the day’s third stadium.

BKV Elore play in the national third division, and do not have any famous players. But they surely have one of the most beautiful stands left in Europe. I had read about its charms on a fellow WordPress site last summer and was now able to see it in person. I made my way past the entrance – open to the public – and fell in love with the dark brown of the wooden roof, the angled staircases, the viewing platforms, the innate beauty of it all. On the other three sides of the pitch, there is nothing, just a yellow and blue perimeter fence. There seemed to be a bar tagged on to the stadium, and I ventured in from the street side. Down below at the bottom of some stairs, ten plates of biscuits were laid out on a table. I wondered what on earth was going on. This didn’t look like a bar to me. Maybe it was part of a fundraising event. I stepped outside again.

Originally, I had plans to travel north to visit Ujpest’s stadium too, but time was against me now. I walked back in to town so that I could waltz past the Puskas Ferenc Stadium – formerly the Nep Stadion – which is being rebuilt, but access was impossible. The photographs I took of that stadium are not worthy of sharing. If I ever return to Budapest, I’ll need to visit this new national stadium, plus maybe Ujpest and Vasas too.

But I did OK on this trip to Budapest.

Four stadia in two days.

I met up with the boys at the Pointer Pub again and we laughed our way through five more pints.

In the morning, Budapest was covered in snow as a cab picked us up one final time and took us from our digs on Vorosmarty Utca to the airport.

With a heavy heart, we left this quite stunning city, rich in history and rich in football.

I would love to return.

 

Tales From The Long Road To Baku

Chelsea vs. PAOK : 29 November 2018.

As we set off for the game, with PD driving alongside Lord Parky, and yours truly in the backseat, I spoke to my travelling companions.

“You have to wonder why we’re going tonight, don’t you? We’re already through. It’s hardly an important game.”

PD soon took the bait.

“Yeah, but we love our football, Chrissy.”

Indeed we do.

Indeed we do love our football.

Guilty as charged.

PD battled the evening traffic and some appalling weather as I relaxed in the rear seats. I drifted off to sleep on a couple of occasions. I had been awake since 5.30pm. By the time we reached our usual parking spot at around 6.30pm – three hours after we had left – I was suitably refreshed.

In the busy “Simmons Bar” at the southern end of the North End Road, I met up with some friends from near and far. It was good to see Neil from Guernsey again for the first time in a while. He was with his brother Daryl, alongside Gary, Alan, Duncan, Lol and Ed and all seemed to be making good use of the two bottles of “Staropramen” for a fiver deal. On the exact anniversary of his first ever game at Stamford Bridge, Eric from Toronto soon appeared and we bought each other a bottle of “Peroni.” He is over for a few games. His enthusiasm was boiling over and he was met with handshakes and hugs from my little gaggle of mates. Prahlad, now living temporarily in Dusseldorf, but originally from Atlanta, was present too, and it was fantastic to see him once more. The Chuckle Brothers first met him for a good old pre-match in Swansea two seasons ago. He was with his wife; her first game, I am sure. Brenda, who runs the Atlanta Blues, was in the pub too, with another Atlantan, Ryan; his first game at Stamford Bridge for sure.

Everyone together.

Chelsea fans from England; South London, Essex, Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire. From Guernsey. Chelsea fans from Canada. Chelsea fans from the US.

These foreign visitors are not tourists in my book. They are Chelsea supporters. Tourists – that most derided of all at Chelsea and other football clubs in this day and age – happen to find themselves in London and decide to go to a game at Chelsea as part of the London experience. Another box ticked. Buckingham Palace. The Houses of Parliament. Oxford Street. The Tower of London. The Fullers Brewery. Harry fucking Potter. An “EPL” game. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

Eric joked with me; “See I am assimilating nicely. Not wearing a Chelsea shirt this time.”

We laughed.

Prahlad was assimilating nicely too. As he said his goodbyes, I tapped him on the shoulder –

“Nice Moncler jacket, mate. You thought I didn’t notice, didn’t you?”

It was his time to laugh.

Off we trotted to the game. We had heard warnings of many away fans travelling over without tickets – something that Chelsea will be doing when we visit Budapest in a fortnight – but I didn’t see any Greeks outside Stamford Bridge. As I walked with Eric past the touts and the souvenir stalls and the general hubbub of a match day, I heard voices from almost a century ago; my grandfather walking the exact same steps –

“Shall we get a rosette, Ted?”

“I’d rather have a pint of beer, Ted.”

There was a quick bag check and we were in. Eric had a ticket in the West Lower. I’d see him at the Fulham game and the one at Wolves too.

Inside the stadium, the three thousand visitors were stood, and were hoisting banners and flags ahead of the game. There were yawning gaps in the top corners of the East Upper, and similar gaps in the West Upper too. After 39,000 gates against BATE and Vidi, this one might not reach those heights.

But these tickets were only twenty quid. Here was a good chance for our local fans to attend a match at Stamford Bridge; to be bitten by the bug, for peoples’ support to be raised a few notches.

But I was sure that there would be moans about “tourists” the following morning…

For a few moments before the teams entered the pitch, I moved over to the seats to my right, which look down on the West Lower, and which give a slightly different perspective. In my desire to photograph every square foot of Stamford Bridge, it allowed me a few new shots.

The teams took to the pitch and I returned to my usual seat in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team was basically a “B Team.”

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Barkley – Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek

Pedro – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

This was a chance to see how a couple of our youngsters might shape up. In the first-half, our Callum was right over in the opposite corner to me; in the second-half, he would be closer. After seeing him play in Australia, and then again at Wembley in the Community Shield, here was a rare start.

We began with all the ball, and on just seven minutes, our position improved further still. With Olivier Giroud chasing a loose ball, a PAOK defender lunged awkwardly at the ball. Giroud tumbled and the referee from Estonia flashed a red. Off went Yevhen Khacheridi. Sadly, Cesc Fabregas shot meekly from the resulting free-kick.

There were attempts on goal from Hudson-Odoi and Giroud. Very soon into the match, Fabregas began sending a few lovely balls from deep towards our forwards. Of course, Jorginho and Fabregas – although both playing right in the middle – are wildly different players, but it was a real pleasure to see Cesc pinging a few beauties to Giroud and Pedro. Pedro took one down immaculately and forced a fine save from their ‘keeper Paschalakis.

A chance fell for Loftus-Cheek and his effort was tipped wide.

The away fans, dressed predominantly in black, and overwhelmingly male and under the age of thirty-five, made a constant din throughout the opening period of the half. They were not the loudest away fans that I had ever heard at Chelsea – I seem to remember Olympiakos, their countrymen, making more noise – but this lot were non-stop. It was stirring stuff.

On twenty-seven minutes, another magnificent ball from Fabregas found Pedro, who controlled magnificently. He spotted Giroud outside him, and he rolled the ball to his right. The finish from Giroud, struck with instinct with his left foot, was perfectly placed into the PAOK goal.

Stavros #1 : “They’ll have to come at us now, peeps.”

Stavros #2 : “Come on my little diamonds, innit.”

Hudson-Odoi went close just after, his curler from distance dropping into the bar with the ‘keeper beaten. There had been a solid effort from Ross Barkley too. Ten minutes after his opener, Giroud doubled our lead. Another Fabregas ball dropped at Giroud’s feet, but his finish was made to look easier than it must have been. Another first-time finish, volleyed home at the far post, the ball squeezed in between the frame of the goal and the luckless ‘keeper.

Amid some fine quality, there was time for a wild shot from Davide Zappacosta which went off for a throw-in.

PAOK’s attacks were rare. A sublime block from Gary Cahill nulled the best chance of their half.

The half-time whistle blew and we were well worth the 2-0 lead. On every seat back, a sticker advertising “The Fifth Stand” had been applied. It seemed that a private game had been taking place in the row behind me; our mate Rousey – he was oblivious – had been “stickered” by many. He even had one sticker stuck on his ski hat. The back of his coat was covered.

I whispered to Alan :

“Not the first time Rousey is going to end up with a lot of sticky residue on his jacket.”

“I dare to think about it” replied Alan.

The match programme, a better read this season I think, produced a few interesting morsels. The news of our game in the summer in Japan was detailed. I won’t be going; Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was a pristine, sublime and wonderful memory. I won’t be going back. It would only pale, I think, in comparison. But I am keen to see where else we are headed in the summer. This was our one-hundredth and seventeenth home game at Stamford Bridge in all European competitions, and we have lost just eight. I always remember the sadness of our unbeaten record going against Lazio in 2000. But eight out of one hundred and sixteen is phenomenal. I have – sadly? Is that the correct word? – been at all of the defeats. Throughout all the defeats, though, nothing hurts more than the Iniesta goal in 2009 and the resulting draw. There were nice profiles of Tommy Baldwin and Peter Houseman, players from my childhood, and who played in the first two games that I saw way back in 1974.

Into the second-half, and our dominance continued. The away team, so obviously lacking the class to combat us, would have found it hard to prise open a vacuum-packed packet of feta cheese, let alone our defence. But their fans were still making tons of noise.

A fine run from Loftus-Cheek – looking loose and confident – forced another good save from the PAOK ‘keeper. Then, the ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi by Fabregas. He took a quick touch and then shimmied a little before striking, the ball being whipped in at the near post with Paschalakis beaten. I just missed “shooting” his shot, but I caught his joyful celebratory run into our corner.

This was just lovely to see. The players swarmed around him. I have to pinch myself to think that our Callum is just eighteen years of age.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Zappacosta and took his place in front of Maurizio Sarri and the towering East Stand.

Willian replaced Pedro.

The away fans still sung.

Olivier Giroud – a great performance – was replaced by Alvaro Morata.

After only three minutes, Cahill pushed the ball towards Hudson-Odoi. He soon spotted the presence of Morata in the box, and his cross was simply faultless. Morata jumped and timed his leap to perfection, even though he was sandwiched between two defenders. It was a classic header – why does his heading ability remind me of Peter Osgood? – and the net was soon rippling.

Chelsea 4 PAOK 0.

Perfect.

Against the bubbles, we hardly squeaked it.

The away supporters among the 33,000 crowd were still singing. Their performance throughout the night was very commendable. As a comparison, I have to sadly report that this was the first Chelsea game that I can ever remember in which I did not sing a single note. However, I wasn’t the only one. It was a sad sign of the times.

With a midday kick-off coming up on Sunday, I am not overly hopeful that the atmosphere will be much better, London derby or not.

But I’ll be there.

I’ll see you in the pub.

Tales From The Rising Sun

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 6 May 2018.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in the upstairs room of the Rising Sun public house on London’s Fulham Road on 10 March 1905. Some one-hundred and thirteen years later, the main bar of the same pub, now named The Butcher’s Hook, was filling up slowly ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match, and I was alongside two friends from my home town in Somerset, Glenn and Francis. I had planned a little pub-crawl based around the stadium, but PD and Lord Parky chose to spend the pre-match in The Goose. Glenn, Francis and I had started off with a drink in the Copthorne Hotel – a gentle start to the afternoon at about 1pm, and a very brief chat to Ron Harris and Gary Chivers – before stepping over the road at the pub on the corner of Fulham Road and Holmead Road. I remember when it used to be called the Stamford Bridge Arms in the ‘eighties. I recalled one summer morning when I called in to the ivy-covered offices between the forecourt and the East Stand to get my membership card sorted for the upcoming season and seeing Robert Bates, our Ken’s son, stopping in for a lunchtime pint in the very same pub. On this occasion, decades later, while I supped on one of only two pints of lager that I was allowing myself, we spotted Steve Atkins, Chelsea’s Director of Communications, chatting to some others a few feet away. Jason Cundy was nearby too. It certainly felt like we were on a very important piece of terra firma.

Glenn had spoken to Francis about the day that he saw his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in 1978, and how the forecourt has changed since then. And I can remember Francis and I posing for a photograph on the same forecourt in front of The Shed turnstiles ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match in 1991. That was Francis’ first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – a fantastic 4-2 win, we watched from the old West Stand seats – and he has seen quite a few Chelsea vs. Liverpool matches since, sometimes alongside me, sometimes elsewhere. For those who have not sussed it yet, Fran is a Liverpool fan – and a very fine close friend – and I am always happy when he is able to watch his team at Stamford Bridge.

In seven games from 1991 to 2012, he was yet to see a Liverpool victory.

1990/91 : Chelsea 4 Liverpool 2

1991/92 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

1992/93 : Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

1995/96 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

2004/05 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0

2007/08 : Chelsea 3 Liverpool 2

2012/13 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 1

1990/1991, 1991/1992, 2007/2008, 2012/2013 and 2017/18.

I was happy to have him alongside me once again. We joked about it in the weeks which lead up to this game. In the car on the way to London, PD had enquired of Francis what he did for a living.

“Trading standards, mate. Keeping an eye on con men, rogue traders, that sort of thing.”

“Scousers?” I suggested.

The Chuckle Bus roared.

After our little visit to where our club was born, we darted around a few more pubs on what was turning out to be a blisteringly hot day. We spent a pleasant thirty minutes in the crowded beer garden of “The Jam Tree” which was is known as one of the venues where “Made In Chelsea” is filmed. The pub was plainly cashing in on its fame; a burger was priced at £17. Next up was “The Imperial” along the King’s Road, and I was back on the Cokes, sadly. We bumped into our pal Dave, who had chanced upon a last-minute ticket. From there, brief stays in “The Rose” and finally “The Tommy Tucker” before heading along the Fulham Road to the stadium. With Tottenham losing at The Hawthorns, here was a fantastic chance for us to close the gap on both of the teams ahead of us.

(And still some Chelsea fans bemoan the fact that this has been – apparently – a poor season.)

Glenn had reeled-off the line-up in one of the pubs and it was almost the same starting eleven as at Swansea City, with the returning Alonso in for Emerson.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Giroud

As we approached the West Stand – “thrilling since 1905” still grates – everything seemed normal. The sun was beating down. There were no clouds. Programmes were purchased. There was a buzz of expectancy. There were fans milling around, though we had not spotted – to our knowledge anyway – any away fans. These days, there is a relaxed air at most games. However, over the past couple of weeks, one incident outside a football stadium has shocked many. Before the Liverpool vs. Roma Champions League game at Anfield, and right outside The Albert pub, in front of The Kop, some Italian ultras carried out a seemingly unprovoked attack on one or two Liverpool supporters. We would later learn that one of them, a fan of around my age, was knocked unconscious and was in a subsequent coma. Imagine my horror when I was to learn shortly after that he is the brother in law of a work acquaintance – no, more than that, a good friend – that I have been talking to in Dublin for over fifteen years. Sean Cox is her husband’s brother. And although there has been untold Chelsea vs. Liverpool banter between the two of us over the years, as you can imagine, the chill of knowing that an act of wanton violence can have such a devastating effect on someone that I know was quite awful.

I spoke to my friend just after the return leg, and she seemed desolate. Such was the pain that her husband did not even bother to watch the match, something that he would never normally do. On at least one occasion, he has been at Anfield the same time as me. He is quite a Liverpool fan. How his future will develop, I can’t imagine.

Inside the sun-kissed stadium, everything was just perfect. As ever, there were three-thousand Liverpool supporters over in the away end, though just two flags; one praising Virgil van Dyke, the other with – surprise, surprise – five yellow European Cups.

Some chap called Michael Buffer, he of the “let’s get ready to rumble” boxing clarion call, read out the teams. It was just dreadful. It seemed so out-of-place. I cringed as the twat said “and in the blue corner.”

Fuck off.

Whoever at Chelsea thought this was a good idea needs shooting. Was it you, Steve Atkins?

A good ten minutes before kick-off, Neil Barnett spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson, and we clapped as an image of him appeared on the TV screens. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Then, with the players appearing on the pitch, a tribute to Roy Bentley appeared in The Shed. I briefly met Roy Bentley on three occasions, and he seemed a thoroughly lovely man, his deep Bristol burr providing lasting evidence of his birthplace, and who can remember his little jig in front of the Matthew Harding at the last home game of 2008/2009, which I reported on at the time :

“Before the players came back on, an extra special moment. Ron Harris, Dennis Wise and John Terry – three of the four trophy winning Chelsea captains – were on the pitch to honour the eighty-fifth birthday of the fourth, Roy Bentley, the championship winning captain of 1955. It was a truly magical moment. Roy Bentley is a lovely, lovely man and I was able to meet him briefly in November at the CPO. The photo I have with him is one of my most-prized Chelsea possessions. He was in great form. He did a little jig as he made his way to the Lower Tier of the Matthew Harding. He was hilarious and Ron, Dennis and JT were in stitches. We all were.

“Looks like he’s been on the sherry” chirped Alan.

He had been presented with a shirt with “Bentley” on the back, but he threw it into the crowd…shades of Mourinho.

God bless you, Roy.”

Underneath us in the Matthew Harding Lower, a large banner remembering Ray Wilkins was passed over the heads of fellow spectators. These have certainly been sad times at Chelsea Football Club.

There was a minute’s applause in memory of Roy Bentley, our first Chelsea Champion. And the Liverpool fans applauded and clapped too.

Thank you.

The match kicked-off with lots and lots of noise. Francis always reads these blogs and has noted my comments about a decreasing amount of atmosphere at home games with note. I told him that the noise was far better than normal. After all, this was Liverpool. The highlight of the first few minutes was a sublime cross-field pass to Victor Moses from Gary Cahill, which drew a warm “well I’ll be fucked” salvo of appreciation.

However, Liverpool seemed to edge the first part of the game, and Roberto Firminio caused Thibaut Courtois to save early on, but it was the keen and incisive Sadio Mane who caught the eye. He seemed to be involved in many of their attacks. Victor Moses sent over a teasing ball, but no Chelsea players could add the needed touch. Eden Hazard managed to tee-up Marcos Alonso in the inside-left channel but his powerful effort was straight at the Liverpool ‘keeper Loris Karius. There was a simply magnificent tackle by N’Golo Kante on Mane, and this drew great applause from the supporters. The noise had subsided slightly, but this was much better than the usual levels at recent games. Over in the far corner, I tried to get my head around a few new Liverpool songs, no doubt harking on about European adventures of yore. I honestly found it hard to decipher much of it.

Another Mane shot. Another Courtois save.

The sky was still cloudless. The sun had certainly risen well on this Sunday.

The Liverpool red is darker than usual this season. Very often, thankfully, it ran up against a deep royal blue wall.

The often chastised Tiemoue Bakayoko was enjoying a solid start to the game and I was really elated to hear some warm applause for even the most basic of plays from our often beleaguered midfielder.

That, my friends, is what being a Chelsea supporter is all about.

On the previous Monday, myself and around one hundred Chelsea supporters had attended an evening with Gianfranco Zola at a pub in Ascot. It was a fantastic evening. I remembered what the great – little – man had said about Eden Hazard. He had been asked how he could improve his game. Gianfranco said that he would ask him to release the ball earlier when in a deep position, and then really save his tricks and crisp passing for the final third, when everything matters. I could not have put it any better. In this game, as in so many others, there were spins and twists from Eden when he was barely over the halfway line. I wanted him to improve.

We then came close when a Moses cross was met with a dive and a header from Bakayoko, but it flashed wide. Soon after, on thirty-two minutes, the same player sent over a cross after doing well to make space in front of Parkyville. His cross was aimed at the large frame of Olivier Giroud. We watched as the big Frenchman rose and guided the ball home. It was not dissimilar to the Morata goal versus Tottenham.

The ground reverberated with noise.

I tried to spot where the scorer was running, and soon realised that he was headed over to the Chelsea bench, by-passing Antonio Conte, and aiming straight for David Luiz. The players hugged.

A nice touch.

Francis, who had chosen that moment to turn his bike around, appeared back in the top tier just as the whole stadium was roaring a very loud and very defiant “CAREFREE.”

Phew. Get in.

Cesc Fabregas whizzed a shot across goal. Mo Salah, quiet thus far, was booked for diving.

There were a few rousing choruses of “Antonio.”

Will he stay beyond this season?

Probably not. Another great manager chewed up and spat out by my club.

I hate modern football.

At half-time, I was more than happy with the game. We had not created a host of chances, but everyone was on their game, the sun was out, and the stadium was as noisy as it has been for a while.

The second-half began, and the game – damn it – became a real test of my nerves. Liverpool tended to dominate possession once again, but as Fran kept saying, were unable to do much with it. Moses, always a threat out on our right, fizzed a low ball across the box but I was not convinced if he had intended to shoot or cross. A more delicate ball in to the waiting Giroud might well have been a better ploy.

Maybe Gianfranco Zola had managed to get a message to Eden Hazard at half-time. One move in particular, captured on film and featured below – along with two other Hazardous Dribbles – was just breath-taking.

Although he was hemmed in by three red-shirts, he miraculously dribbled into them and out the other side before slamming a shot towards the Liverpool goal. It was saved, just. It reminded me of when Zola was hemmed in over in the south-east corner in his very last Chelsea appearance and slalomed between four or five Liverpool defenders.

From the resulting corner, Gary Cahill rose to head down and Toni Rudiger bundled the ball in but from a clearly offside position.

All eyes were on the clock now.

65 minutes.

72 minutes.

75 minutes.

Liverpool were given lots of space, and we defended deep, not allowing Salah or Mane any space to exploit. The three defenders were simply exceptional. Our performance mirrored that of our 2-1 win at Wembley versus Tottenham at the start of the season. The defence never looked troubled. Liverpool never really threatened us. We covered the pitch with great professionalism, and great desire. But I was still struggling with all of this.

I kept thinking to myself :

“This win will probably mean nothing. We will still probably finish fifth. This isn’t a cup tie. It isn’t a league title-decider. It isn’t a CL decider like that Zola game in 2003. It’s just a normal league game. But I love it that I am kicking every ball, heading every clearance, tackling every 50/50. This is a fucking great game. Blow up, ref!”

In the end, there were two late chances, one for the royal blues, one for the scarlets.

A high and deep cross from that man Victor Moses was aimed past the far post. Marcos Alonso, at a ridiculously tight angle, was underneath it, and let fly. The volley flew inches past the far post.

Then, Dominic Solanke – not applauded by any Chelsea supporter when he appeared on seventy-four minutes – saw a rather timid effort dollop over the bar.

Four minutes of added time were signalled.

As the last of these was reached, my protestations to the referee to “blow up you cunt” surprised even me.

At last, the final whistle blew.

GET IN.

My mate Rob, who sits a few rows back, soon appeared and we hugged and bounced for what seemed like ages.

“Loved that. Great game, Rob. Nervous as hell though.”

“It’s why we keep coming, mate.”

As we bounced out and down the Fulham Road, I made arrangements for Francis to attend next season’s game too.

Eight visits, no victories.

“A nice bit of history, la.”

All was well with the world as we headed home to Somerset and Wiltshire. The season has three games left, and all of them are Cup Finals.

See you on Wednesday.

Tales From Another Semi

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 22 April 2018.

It was around 7.30pm and we had just bought a round of drinks in “The Swan”, a high-ceilinged public house placed between the two buildings which form Hammersmith tube station. It had taken a while to leave Wembley Stadium, what with the wait for our eventual train south, and then changes onto the underground system and we were momentarily paused on our way back to Barons Court where my car was parked. We sat on stools at a high table, soon toasted ourselves – “the final” – and quietly chatted about the day. There had been blue Chelsea flags for everyone in the Chelsea section at Wembley, and Glenn had placed our four on the table. They would eventually be handed out to young Chelsea fans that we know; a nice little gift for the youngsters. Only last week, I had called in to see a neighbour who was looking after eight-year-old two twin boys for the day – the sons of my once next-door neighbours who moved to a nearby village a few years back – and I passed over a blue and white chequered flag from a few years back to Alphie. His face was a picture. I did feel a little embarrassed that I had nothing for his brother Isaac – who purportedly favours Manchester City – but I had to laugh when Isaac told me that he liked Chelsea too. I quickly put him in his place

“You can’t support two teams!”

And then I felt guilty that I had publicly chastised him.

Anyway, I had plans to give one of the Chelsea flags from Wembley to Alphie  – “you’ve made the wrong choice, Isaac, sorry” – and send the other one over to a young relative in Australia, who I recently learned was a Chelsea supporter. They would be nice reminders of yet another semi-final victory.

It had been a long day. I was awake at around 7am and I had collected the three other Chuckle Brothers by 8.30am. We would not be home until 10.30pm at least. This football lark can be tiresome.  The chat slowed and we stared at our drinks. Then, a chap with a Boss T-shirt and a pint of Guinness spotted the four Chelsea flags and approached us. It looked like he had enjoyed a few drinks as he was slurring his words slightly, and his girlfriend was hanging back a little.

“Why are you looking sad? You are Chelsea fans. You won, right?”

It was clear from his accent that he was from mainland Europe – I initially thought he was Dutch – and his words touched a nerve. Although I smiled in response, inside I was hurting. Had we become something that we had long hated? Had we become so used to success at Chelsea that we were blasé about yet another semi-final triumph? Was I at that stage in my long journey of Chelsea support that I had secretly dreaded? Was I taking all of this for granted? I experienced a few uneasy seconds as I tussled with the severity of the thoughts in my head. We replied that – indeed – it had been a very long day, and that he had caught us, maybe, at a weak moment. After all, what would he really want us to be doing? Constant somersaults and cartwheels on a Sunday evening? Anyway, we chatted about the game – “never really looked in trouble, just took a while to make it safe” – and the chap revealed that he was from a small town in Southern Denmark. He was in absolute awe that we went to every game – “a three-hour drive home, wow” – and he told how he was at Stamford Bridge for the Manchester United game last autumn. It seemed that they had watched from a corporate area. I wasn’t sure if he was a Chelsea fan too but his friend had been solemnly told that he couldn’t wear a Chelsea shirt – “that’s bullshit” – and we pulled faces of shock and astonishment, though I had heard long ago that colours are indeed not allowed in such areas. He gleefully admitted that his girlfriend – still keeping her distance – was a Manchester United fan, and he seemed happy that United had lost that game. I looked over at her and smiled but deep down I thought “it’ll never last.” For some inexplicable reason, none of us mentioned the FA Cup Final which would pit Chelsea and Manchester United once again. After a few more minutes, our drinks finished, we excused ourselves and left to head back to Barons Court.

At exactly 8pm, I pulled away from Barons Court, and pointed The Chuckle Bus west. Ahead was a fine drive home in the aftermath of another lovely day in the nation’s capital, with the sun slowly dipping beyond the horizon – but first a quick glimpse of the Wembley arch shining away in North London – and a clear night sky.

It had indeed been a good day.

After missing the excellent win at Turf Moor on Thursday – which was followed by the ridiculous over-reaction by many to that Alvaro Morata’s miss – it meant that it would be two consecutive Chelsea versus Southampton games for me. We had certainly been given a fantastic chance to reach an FA Cup Final with a semi against the relegation-threatened team. As for the first semi-final, played the previous evening, I could not have been happier. I was travelling back from a Frome Town game at Gosport Borough – the less said about that the better – and did not even listen to the match on the radio. But I was very happy that Spurs had lived down to expectations. A potential final against Manchester United would be absolutely fine. The thought of losing to Mourinho’s team in the final would be tough, but not nearly as horrific as a loss in an FA Cup Final to Tottenham. Beating them, of course, would be wonderful, but it was just too much of a risk. The stakes would be too great. A loss to Spurs in the final would go straight into a top three of most miserable Chelsea games.

But – wait!

This is Tottenham we are talking about.

1993 : Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0.

1995 : Everton 4 Tottenham 1.

1999 : Newcastle United 2 Tottenham 0.

2001 : Arsenal 2 Tottenham 1.

2010 : Portsmouth 2 Tottenham 0.

2012 : Chelsea 5 Tottenham 1.

2017 : Chelsea 4 Tottenham 2.

2018 : Manchester United 2 Tottenham 1.

The pleasure in avoiding Spurs was a view shared by the Kent lads – yes, them again, they love a Chuckle Brothers pub crawl – as we enjoyed our first pints of the day in “The Swan”, a former coaching inn from the eighteenth century at the northern edge of Hyde Park, adjacent to Lancaster Gate tube station, and close to the FA’s former HQ. The pub was dotted with a few Chelsea fans, and one or two Southampton fans too. We then walked out into the bright London sunshine towards Paddington Station, popping into “The Sussex Arms” for one, and then on to “Fountains Abbey” where the London chaps had been based since midday. There was little talk of the semi-final, as so often is the way. We were so sorry to hear that one of our friends – John, who lives very close to Paddington / Marylebone / Edgware Road – had lost his mother on the Wednesday. Gillian, Kev and Rich were down from Scotland and it was great to see them once more. Kev told me that it was his first-ever visit to Wembley. I could tell he was excited. We had heard rumours that neither Chelsea nor Southampton had sold all the tickets available to both teams. This raised a few eyebrows. There was talk of high ticket prices, but I had a distinct feeling that if we had drawn Tottenham or Manchester United, our allocation would have been snapped up. I definitely got the impression that for many it was a case of “Southampton? Can’t be bothered.”

Time was now accelerating away, and it was time to move. We legged it to Marylebone, bumped into the usual suspects at the Sports Bar outside, but then had to wait a while to catch the 2.30pm train. We were certainly leaving it late, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion.

We alighted at Wembley Stadium station at just after 2.45pm.

“Be a miracle if we see kick-off.”

There seems to be more and more construction at Wembley with each visit. Hotels are going up at a fair rate of knots. There is already a designer outlet nearby. If, as seems likely, we will be residing at Wembley in the near future – a subject worthy of a wholly separate piece in itself, maybe even a separate website – then maybe we will eventually decide to drink at the hotel bars nearby. Wembley was festooned with huge advertising. I still loathe the new national stadium. It is as charming as an aircraft hangar.

I took a photograph of Kev with the curve of the arch behind him.

“Enjoy Wembley mate. And don’t break the crossbar.”

We made it inside the upper tier with about five minutes gone, thus missing out on the pre-match presentations. That Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had done us again. Just outside the seating area, in the concourse, there was an “oooooh” as Chelsea went close.

We had seats halfway back in the top tier, above the south-east corner. Southampton had our usual western end. Bloody hell, there were swathes of empty seats in their top tier. And bizarrely, these were the cheapest seats, at just thirty quid. How very odd. There were hundreds and hundreds of empty seats dotted around our two tiers. I looked around and spotted familiar faces in our section; Dutch Mick and Gary, the two Bobs, Scott, Mark, The Youth and Seb.

A quick check of our team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

A quick check of the supporters.

In the lower tier of the western end, it looked to me that every single Southampton supporter was standing.

In the opposite end, down to my right, only the supporters in the sections behind the corner posts were standing.

This, in simple terms, suggested to me that they were more “up for it” than us.

There certainly seemed to me more noise being generated by their red and white bedecked supporters.

Sitting next to me was a young family, parents with two children under the age of seven. The two kids soon looked bored. Over the course of the game, the mother hardly spoke to the kids. I wondered why they were there. Elsewhere, despite the first part of the game being dominated by Chelsea, there was little noise.

I tried to join in when any semblance of a chant tried to get going, but all around me people were sat on their hands.

Watching not supporting.

Fucking hell.

The stadium is so huge, so impersonal, with few – if any – unique features, that it just deadens any enjoyment for me. The Club Wembley level was only half-full at best. Down on the pitch, Chelsea were still dominating, with tons of possession and pretty patterns, moving the ball this way and that, and with Kante the metronome in the middle, keeping the rhythm, and with Willian and Hazard stretching Southampton, we looked like the only team that would score.

Willian, in Willian territory, dipped a free-kick just over the bar.

The Saints fans were still making more noise. Their song reminded me of Tottenham, shudder. Although I live only sixty or so miles from Southampton, I have only known three friends/workmates/acquaintances that have been Southampton fans. One of them, Duncan – a workmate from twenty years ago, who I see once every few years – was not at the game, but he posted a lovely photograph on Facebook of his mother at the game, smiling, flag in hand, Saints scarf around her neck. Her beaming smile was wonderful. She was certainly “up for the cup.”

A rare chance for Southampton came on twenty-five minutes, but Caballero saved from Lemina.

We only created a few half-chances though. Our play seemed to run out of ideas a little, in the same way that we had run out of songs.

Olivier Giroud teed up a chance for himself with a deft flick from a Fabregas cross but his follow-up volley was wide.

At the break, all was quiet in Wembley Stadium.

There had been so much swearing emanating from the mouth of one of the Chuckle Brothers throughout the first-half, that when I got back to my seat midway through the halftime break, and saw the family of four to my left were missing, I did wonder if they had left early, never to be seen again. Imagine my surprise when they returned with hot dogs and crisps costing half a weekly wage. These people were in it for the duration and I was somehow soothed.

The game restarted, and I spoke to Glenn about the huge section of empty seats behind the dugouts – the “Club Wanker” section – and bemoaned, for the fifty seventh thousand time, the state of modern football.

“Twats.”

A Chelsea move built and then a foul. Cesc Fabregas sent over a lovely cross towards Hazard, who did ever so well to pass the ball onto Giroud. My next thought was purely personal.

“Bollocks, I haven’t got my camera at the ready and this looks like a goal to me.”

With that, Giroud seemed to stumble and yet maintain possession. Everything happened in slow motion as he fended off a few challenges, and stabbed a leg out to send the ball home.

Camera or no camera, I roared and we all roared.

GET IN.

Giroud spun away and celebrated with team mates and then the manager.

Almost immediately, there was the usual text exchange with Alan.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Perfect.

There was a salvo of song from the Chelsea end – about bloody time – but we were quietened when Shane Long took a very heavy touch with only Caballero to beat. The ball raced away for a goal-kick and we heaved a sigh of relief.

The first change took place on the hour, and Conte – the pragmatic Italian – went for safety first in an attempt to shore up our shape, replacing the effervescent Willian with the boo boys’ favourite Tiemoue Bakayoko. The boos rang around Wembley. I wasn’t surprised.

Hazard moved forward alongside Giroud, with the midfield bolstered by an extra man. Only the second Southampton chance of the entire game resulted in a Caballero save – somehow, I am not sure how, or with which body part – from Redmond. The game was opening up and, surely, this would be to our advantage. A Hazard thunderbolt was tipped over by McCarthy. The little Belgian then sent over a perfect rabona which Victor Moses just failed to reach. Hazard was at his teasing best, the certain star. Two more substitutions took place.

Pedro for Fabregas.

Morata for Giroud.

After being on the pitch for just three minutes, Morata was able to wiggle between two defenders and head home from another sublime Azpilicueta cross. I managed to capture this on film. The ball seemed to take forever to drop, and it looked like it would eventually go wide from our view high up in section 521. At last the net rippled and the goal was wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Southampton 0.

We felt safe now, but Austin hit the base of the far post from an acute angle. Morata then went close on two occasions at the other end.

At last, the referee Martin Atkinson whistled the end of the game.

Phew.

It was hardly comparable to the semi-final against Spurs exactly 365 days previously, but we had done it. It was the worst atmosphere I have ever experienced at a semi-final and that definitely detracted from the day. But we had reached our sixth FA Cup Final in twelve seasons. What a record. Quite phenomenal. One more win would put us at joint-third in the all-time list of winners – alongside Tottenham of all teams – and only behind Arsenal and Manchester United.

In the queue for the trains back to Marylebone, Pat Nevin waltzed past and it made my day. As the line slowly zig-zagged along, I spotted my friend Duncan’s mother only a few yards away. I had never previously met his Mum, although both Duncan and I grew up just a couple of miles apart, but I was sure it was her. Duncan had told me that his mother had recently been bitten by the football bug and was now a season ticket holder at their home games. The line shuffled along, and eventually I was able to catch up with her and say “hi.” I took a selfie of us and sent it to Duncan. Lovely.

We eventually took the train south, and things felt very familiar indeed.

And here’s a well-used sign-off.

“See you at Wembley.”

For John’s mother : RIP.