Tales From Fresh Fields

Milton Keynes Dons vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2016.

The two domestic cup competitions were serving me very well in season 2015/2016. First, there was my first visit to Walsall’s Bescot Stadium in the League Cup in September. Then, on the last day of January, there was my inaugural visit to Stadium MK, the home of the Milton Keynes Dons, in the fourth round of the F.A. Cup. This was excellent news indeed; two new stadia within four months.

As soon as they appear, I’ll keep on ticking them off.

It had been an easy drive on an overcast Sunday; a leisurely trip through the shires of Southern England, avoiding the motorway network except for a fifteen minute spell on the M4 near Swindon.

Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

We drove past villages with names like Tingewick, Tubney, Kingston Bagpuize, Hinton Waldrist and Pusey.

We had decided to break the journey at Bicester. While I deposited the Chuckle Brothers – P Diddy, the birthday boy, and Puff Parky – at “The Acorn” pub for bevvies, I quickly raided the nearby shopping outlet for a lightning strike.

I had pulled over for a pullover, if you will.

I joined them for a drink, but we were soon on our way again.

We were parked up a few hundred yards away from the stadium on a grass verge by the side of the road. Although it looked just like any other road, flanked by industrial units and commercial premises, it was anything but. It was the site of the Watling Road, an old Roman road which originally shot as straight as an arrow from Canterbury through London – including Edgware Road – and up in to the Midlands before ending south of Chester. Back in August, while meeting pals at a pub before the Community Shield against Arsenal, we had walked a few hundred steps north on Edgware Road. And here we were, five months later, back on the Watling Road again. A little history, a little geography.

This was just up my street.

On more than one occasion in fact, the trip to Milton Keynes seemed a little like my schooldays revisited. Way back in 1979, I can remember learning about the new towns which were developed after the Second World War throughout Britain, in an effort to cope with population growth on one hand and a clearance of inner city slums on the other. Glasgow had East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. Edinburgh had Livingston and Glenrothes. Liverpool had Skelmersdale, Warrington and Runcorn. Birmingham had Telford. Newcastle had Washington. London had Bracknell, Basildon, Crawley, Harlow, Hatfield and a few more.

However, Milton Keynes, almost a cliché for blandness with its grid-pattern of streets and regimented land use, not to mention its famous concrete cows, is the most famous new town of them all. Apart from flying through the town on many train journeys from my college town of Stoke-on-Trent to Euston for football in the ‘eighties – the cows could be seen from the train – I had never visited Milton Keynes.

I would not visit it on this occasion either since the stadium actually sits in the town of Bletchley, merging in with its more famous neighbour to the north.

The town of Milton Keynes itself, the butt of many a joke, would have to wait.

It was approaching two o’clock, and the kick-off was over two hours away. A few good friends were drinking in a working mens club, but that was just too far away for us. We were not sure if there would be any pubs close by, but we decided to chance our luck and headed to the stadium.

From the outside the stadium is rather sleek. Although there is a large Hilton Hotel latched on to the main stand, the exterior walls are black and stylish. I was immediately impressed.

Outside the main entrance, excited locals were waiting for the Chelsea team coach to arrive. There was a tangible “buzz” about the place. We had sold around 6,700 tickets for this one, but I hadn’t been convinced that all of the home areas would sell out.

Outside the away end, we struck gold. Lined up, directly opposite the northern turnstiles, were a collection of restaurants.

“Prezzo.”

“Nando’s.”

“Pizza Express.”

“Frankie & Benny’s.”

“Bella Italia.”

“TGI Friday’s.”

This was too good to be true. We settled in “Thank Goodness It’s Sunday” and relaxed. The place was full of Chelsea, to be honest. Although hardly anyone was wearing colours, we just knew. We spotted a few faces. We chatted away to a chap who was with his four year old boy, one of the very few bedecked in Chelsea wear. The young lad was hugely excited and it was such a joy to see. Living locally, I asked if it was the boy’s first game. Far from it; it was his fifth game of the season. There had been tears at Wembley against Arsenal, to begin with, but this would be the lad’s third game of the month after Scunthorpe and Everton (more tears, followed by huge joy). It was bloody lovely to see the kid’s enthusiasm.

I spotted that the father’s mate was wearing a “Canada Goose” jacket, which I have started to notice being worn at football by those in the know this season.

“Aren’t you a bit warm with that on mate?”

“Just a bit mate.”

There had been a brief conversation with a MK Dons supporter outside. She had explained that she had grown up a Chelsea supporter, but could not afford tickets for our games these days. She was wearing a white MK Dons shirt, and was troubled that she did not really know who to cheer for. I found this rather odd. Even if you couldn’t afford tickets to many games, surely your club stays with you.

She seemed to sum up perfectly my dislike for our hosts.

Of course, I need not spend too much time chronicling the history of Milton Keynes Dons. Formed in 2004, on the back of the financial meltdown of former FA Cup winners Wimbledon, this is a football club which draws much disdain from the rank and file supporters of many teams throughout the football pyramid. That the town of Milton Keynes should suddenly be gifted a professional league team ahead of other more deserving towns and clubs, each with decades of history, really makes me angry. I won’t labour the point, but I was so happy and pleased when AFC Wimbledon, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, and cared for and succoured by fans, regained their place in the Football League in 2011.

Inside the stadium, I took my seat high in the upper tier in a corner underneath a large scoreboard. For once, I would be sitting alone. Other friends, the usual suspects, were scattered around the 6,700 away fans. I made myself at home. The black seats were padded, and roomy. I looked around. This was a very impressive stadium indeed. Originally there was just a lower tier, but as the years have passed the upper tier has been in-filled. Unlike so many new stadia – Southampton, Middlesbrough, Derby – this stadia had a variety of quirky features. The upper deck, quite steep in fact, gave the place an extra dimension. And rather than a single tier, wrapped around, there were distinct sections, set apart, with corporate boxes behind. This aspect reminded me a little of Red Bull Arena in New Jersey where our season began. I was especially drawn to the roof though. It seemed very light and airy, giving the whole stadium a European feel. I soon decided that I might not be a fan of the club, but I was a big fan of their stadium. Add in the row of bars outside the away end, Stadium MK was getting a huge “thumbs up” from me.

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As kick-off approached, the stands swelled to capacity. It was quickly evident that this was a full house. Hardly a seat was unused. Ironically, four next to me were empty. The Chelsea end looked fantastic. As this was “live” on BBC1, I was hoping that we would give the viewing millions a show both on and off the pitch. I had watched some of the televised Derby County versus Manchester United match on Friday evening and was pretty impressed with the United fans’ wall of noise throughout the game. Now it was our turn. I wanted skill on the pitch and noise off it.

A lot of Chelsea had come dressed for the occasion. There is no doubt that many make a special effort for away games.

Adidas, Aquascutum, Lacoste, Canada Goose, Moncler, MA Strum, CP.

Guus Hiddink had shuffled his cards slightly.

We were thrilled that Ruben was given a start.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Baba – Matic, Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek, Oscar, Hazard – Diego Costa.

We began the game on fire, and Diego Costa was the first player to test our faith. He was clean through, yet goalkeeper David Martin stuck up an arm to save at close range. We attacked at will and chance after chance came or way, only for awful finishing to let us down. Oscar was especially wasteful. However, the Chelsea supporters were in good voice and we hoped for a little more success in front of goal. Thankfully, Diego Costa pounced on a defensive error out wide and was able to feed Oscar, arriving on the far post. Although he slipped on impact, he was still able to guide the ball home.

Get in.

The home team had appeared to be silent witnesses to our comfortable start to the game, so it was a huge surprise when an optimistic shot from Darren Potter – who Cesc Fabregas really should have tackled – was deflected up and over Thibaut Courtois by the leg of Nemanja Matic.

Balls. That was not on the cards.

Fabregas then sent Eden Hazard clear, but his weak shot was parried by Martin on to the near post. We waited, still, for Eden’s first goal of the season. Baba, looking a little nervous, managed to squeeze a ball across the box, but Costa and Oscar seemed to get in each other’s way.

Not to worry, the Chelsea fans were making a racket.

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

Thankfully, just after the half-hour mark, Oscar was set free inside the box and struck a fine shot, first time, past Martin. The applause from the Chelsea fans, I thought, seemed quite subdued, but it only heralded more song.

“Bounce in a minute…”

A couple of shots were traded, but then Oscar went on a dribble before curling a lovely shot past Martin to give us a 3-1 lead.

A hat-trick for Oscar. Braziliant.

Just before the break, the entire Chelsea end burst in to song :

“Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon – Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon.

“Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon – Wimbledon, Wimbledon.”

Lovely stuff.

Our 1997 FA Cup semi-final opponents were remembered.

In the second-half, with victory surely on the cards, the flowing football from Chelsea began again. Hazard was fouled just inside the box, and a penalty was awarded. Eden placed the ball on the spot and calmly rolled it home.

Get in you beauty.

4-1 and game over.

There was a song for Fabregas, now seemingly back in the fold, after a strange time for him.

“Fabregas is magic…”

There was also songs for heroes sadly no longer with us.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star…”

Bertrand Traore replaced Diego Costa.

He was soon involved, latching on to a Hazard pass and ably sweeping the ball home.

5-1, with hopes of a few more.

I do not know too much about the young lad from Burkina Faso, but he looks confident with the ball. Baba, after a shaky start, improved as the game went on, and Loftus-Cheek (complete with his “Give It Up” song) oozed calmness on the ball. The home team were reduced to taking long shots at Courtois.

Willian and Pedro replaced Hazard and Oscar.

There was no way that the BBC commentators could accuse us of taking the FA Cup lightly.

No.

Not Chelsea.

In truth we took our foot off the gas a little during the closing minutes, by which time I seemed to be transfixed by Dean Lewington, down below me on the Dons’ left, his movement reminding me so much of his father, Ray, who played for us from 1975 to 1979.

On the walk back to the car, we heard that we had drawn Manchester City in the fifth round.

By the time we had begun our return trip to Wiltshire and Somerset, we were numbed by the odd announcement by club captain John Terry that this would be his last season in the famous royal blue. I was confused and bewildered by this news. Ironically, I had mentioned to the lads on the drive to Bletchley that JT was worth another year. Last season was one of his best ever, and he rarely plays poorly. His performance at Arsenal last week was exceptional.

It had taken the edge off a fine day out in Buckinghamshire.

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Tales From A Day Of Pints And Points

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2014.

Outside, the rain lashed against the van windows in irregular gusts. The damp winter air was shrouded in a deadening blanket of dense cloud. There were many puddles of dirty grey rain water alongside roadside kerbs and pavements. The streets around Southampton Central train station were virtually deserted. The station car park was practically empty too. The New Year was only eleven hours old and the game was still four hours away, but here we were; ready for the first Chelsea match of 2014.

While it may be true that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, one wonders if anybody or anything accompanies Chelsea fans in a late morning downpour in the middle of winter.

Ducks, maybe.

“Nice weather for ducks.”

“Right then boys. Shall we go for it? Head up to the first boozer and shelter there a bit?”

“Let’s go.”

Glenn had collected me at 9am and Parky had been picked-up from an equally deserted Warminster station at 9.30am. The A36, a main trunk road which links Bath with Southampton, was almost devoid of vehicles. For once, there was no traffic jam in the city of Salisbury. However, it was 10am on New Year’s Day; what other idiots would be out and about at that time?

Chelsea fans, ducks, mad dogs and mad ducks.

The first pub – “The Encore” – was closed until midday.

“Oh great.”

“Let’s just aim for the main drag, then. Button up.”

The brisk walk from the station took us close to the city’s large civic centre, where I once saw Everything But The Girl in 1999, and which has a rather stunning white stone Italianate clock tower. It reminded me of a few of Mussolini’s brutal civic buildings in Italy.

Ten minutes later, having been buffeted by the wind and rain as we pitifully scampered across roads and pavements, we arrived at “Yates’s.”

“This will do, chaps. Base camp. Becks Vier for you Parky?”

We soon found a cosy corner upstairs and settled ourselves for three hours of drinking and community singing. Outside, looking through steamed-up windows, pedestrians were rare. The rain continued to fall. It seemed that every person baring the elements was headed for “Yates’s” too. The central area of Southampton was badly bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War Two; the result is a strange mix of open green space where buildings originally stood and a charmless shopping centre.

The pub soon filled with match-goers. Chelsea fans were in the majority. There were a few familiar faces from near and far. Very soon, the music began pumping out some songs much loved by the football-loving clientele.

The Jam, The Clash, Madness, you can guess the rest.

“Another pint, Chris?”

“Be rude not too, Porky.”

With Glenn driving, this was a chance – at last! – for me to unwind and enjoy a few game day liveners.

Soon, the Chelsea fans downstairs were singing along to “It Must Be Love” by Madness.

“I never thought I’d miss you
Half as much as I do.
And I never thought I’d feel this way.
The way I feel
About you.
As soon as I wake up
Every night, every day.
I know that it’s you I need
To take the blues away.”

Ah, the “Blues Away.”

Love it.

In the adjacent booth, five foreign student types – presumably unused to an English match day vibe – were giggling to themselves at the sound of two hundred Chelsea fans singing about love, love, love.

Next up, “The Liquidator” and the whole pub was up.

“We hate Tottenham. Chelsea!”

Then, later, K.C. and the Sunshine Band got an airing.

“Michael Essien, Essien – Michael Essien.”

Rob, Graham, Dan and Kirsty – all from my home area – joined us. I last saw Graham on the lookout for tickets to the final in Amsterdam. It was great to see him again. Then, from down below, a loud voice took the lead for “Chelsea Alouette.”

Then “Three Little Birds.” I remember the Chelsea faithful singing that particular song – and meaning it – just down the road at an equally rain-soaked Fratton Park in 2010 when our league campaign took a sudden jolt with a fantastic 5-0 win. Good times then, good times now.

2014 was off to a good start. I was loving every minute of it.

At 2.15pm, we set off for the stadium, past the park, through the subway, past some down-at-heel shops. Thankfully, the rain wasn’t quite so strong on the fifteen minute walk to St. Mary’s. We were soon inside.

“One last pint, Parks?”

The youngsters serving pies and pints were wearing special blue Chelsea t-shirts; a nice touch, I thought.

The area beneath the away stand at St. Mary’s is a particularly dark and dismal place, but the Chelsea fans weren’t worried. The songs were coming thick and fast.

Inside the bowl of the stadium, the floodlights were on, the spectators were assembled and I giddily made my way to join up with Alan and Gary right behind the goal. It looked like virtually every seat was sold for this one. Chelsea were in good voice as the teams entered the pitch. Hopefully the game would follow our 5-1 F.A. Cup win last season – almost a complete year ago – rather than the lame 2-1 defeat in the league a few months after.

The rain was still falling. Despite being under the cover of the roof, we experienced the occasional splash of windswept rain. I pitied the poor fellows in the first few rows. At the same stadium in 2002, in similar circumstances, I was one of the unfortunates getting drenched down the front.

I quickly glanced at our starting eleven; with a few forced changes, we knew there would be a different selection from against Liverpool. Notably, in came Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle and Fernando Torres.

We began very brightly, with Fernando Torres the immediate star, dribbling his way into the Southampton penalty area on a number of occasions. Shots from Schurrle and Ramires, after a fine dribble from deep, suggested that the songs emanating from the Northam Stand would soon be replaced by cheers. However, I couldn’t help but notice that our play seemed to be mainly down our left flank. Very often Juan Mata, in acres of space out on the right, was not picked out. I felt his frustration. Slowly, our dominance seemed to fade as Southampton, strangely minus Ricky Lambert, grew more dominant. A succession of timely interceptions and brave blocks kept Southampton at bay.

On the terraces, there were plenty of songs.

Chelsea : “We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.”

Saints : “Johnstone Paints Trophy – you’ll never win that.”

Chelsea : “You’re only here for the Chelsea.”

Saints : “Live round the corner, you only live round the corner.”

At the break, I squeezed in another pint.

“I’m only here for the Carling.”

With us now attacking the three thousand predominantly neutrally-dressed away followers – I’ve never seen so few wearing Chelsea colours, Gourlay must hate us – we hoped for greater things in the second-period. Soon into the half, the manager made changes, replacing Schurrle and Mata with Willian and Oscar.

The away end was soon up in arms.

With Oscar clean through inside the penalty area, charging in on Davis in the Southampton goal, he attempted to push the ball to the ‘keeper’s right. He appeared to be swept off his feet and, in that split moment of thought, I was shouting with glee at an obvious penalty rather than being upset that he had not scored. I watched as Martin Atkinson reached for a card, so my immediate thought was “sending off or at least a booking for the ‘keeper.”

Well, we were incandescent with rage when – instead – Oscar was shown a yellow for a dive.

Soon, however, the texts came in to say that the little midfielder had indeed dived.

Oh you silly boy.

I was just filled with disbelief.

Surely…just try to bloody score?

On the hour, the same player jinked and weaved in from the left and his chipped effort was pushed onto the far post by a scrambling Davis. The ball bounced back into play and Torres was able to readjust quickly to head home.

1-0 Chelsea.

Get in!

The Chelsea fans screamed delight.

The supreme irony of no Chelsea striker scoring away in the league throughout 2013 and yet Nando taking just an hour into 2014 was not lost on me, nor the three thousand other away fans at Southampton nor the countless millions around the globe.

Chelsea : “You’ve had your day out. Now fuck off home.”

Southampton brought on Lambert to replace former blue Jack Cork. The bustling centre-forward was soon involved, but Chelsea added to our lead on seventy minutes.

Oscar enjoyed another lovely run, with gorgeous close control, to the edge of the “D” and then picked out Willian. A quick body swerve to throw the defender off balance and a fine low shot found its way inside the corner of Davis’ goal.

2-0 Chelsea.

More screams of pleasure.

Chelsea : “Gone to the sales. You shoulda gone to the sales.”

More Chelsea pressure followed and Oscar capped a fine performance with another run into the Southampton box following a lofted ball into space from Eden Hazard. He struck quickly this time and the ball took a slight deflection before ending up in the Southampton net.

3-0 Chelsea.

With that, there was a mass exodus.

Chelsea : “Oh when The Saints go walking out.”

With three points secure, there was just time for a cameo from Michael Essien and the chance for us to serenade him with his own personal song.

“Give it up” for The Bison.

Lovely stuff.

The Mourinho magic – the substitutions, early in the second-half – were perfect. It’s unlikely that two substitutions will pay off so perfectly again for a while. Oscar and Willian added fresh drive to our team. They were simply superb.

Christmas 2013 and New Year 2014 had been excellent. We had tasted victory on three occasions and had shared the spoils at a title contender’s home stadium.

Ten points out of twelve.

Not perfect, but bloody good enough.

Just to complete the perfect away game, the DJ at St. Mary’s chose – bizarrely – to air a favourite song from the pen of Stephen Patrick Morrissey as we slowly descended the crowded steps. Alan’s face was a picture. And so was mine…

“You have never been in love until you’ve seen the stars reflect in the reservoirs.”

Sometimes, some moments are just there to be savoured.

I think 2014 is going to be fine, just fine.

See you at Derby.

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Tales From Under The Full Moon

Chelsea vs. Basel : 18 September 2013.

A full moon shone brightly from the wedge of night sky between the silvery steel of the East stand roof and the beige brickwork of the hotel abutting the Shed End. Here was evidence enough that a full lunar month had passed since our last home game at Stamford Bridge, a narrow 2-1 victory over a resolute Aston Villa side, when I watched as the same full moon traced a slow curve into the August night. In some ways a lot had happened since then; a failed courtship of Wayne Rooney, the purchases of Eto’o and Willian, a dour draw at Old Trafford, a spirited but ultimately disappointing loss in Prague and a weak defeat at Everton. In other ways, not much at all had taken place; a period of four long weeks but only three games, stultifying inactivity, lots of emptiness and all of us waiting for the real football to recommence.

However, as I took my seat alongside Tom, with barely ten minutes to wait until our Champions League campaign of 2013-2014 began, my lack of excitement concerned me. In fact, this sense of ambivalence was seemingly shared by many. There just didn’t seem to be that air of anticipation that usually accompanies our first home game in the Champions League group phase each autumn. It was surely there when we played Milan in 1999 and it was also in evidence when we hosted Juventus last season. You would think that the return of Jose Mourinho, the most sought-after manager in world football, might add a crackle of electricity to the clear September night.

I didn’t feel it. From the quietness in the stands, neither did thousands more.

Alan soon joined us and we spoke briefly about the journey back from Everton. I was lucky, reaching home at just before midnight. Alan wasn’t so blessed; he had made it home, via a night bus full of clubbers, ravers and nutters from Piccadilly Circus, at 2.45am. We spoke with disdain of the over-reaction to our defeat by some supporters within the club. As the teams entered the pitch – Chelsea in blue shirts, Basel in blue tracksuit tops – we hoped for a better result in our match against the returning Basel side. It was a strange quirk of fate that the Swiss team were the last European visitors to Stamford Bridge in early May. Unlike that Europa League semi-final, I was dismayed to see that they were being cheered on by a paltry away allocation – maybe only 400 strong – in this, the much more prestigious tournament.

I had briefly heard Jose Mourinho, on breakfast TV that morning as I rushed between kitchen and bathroom, utter something about his Chelsea players being like eggs. I didn’t capture the whole quote and I was simply too busy with work (there – that’s the reason for my lack of focus on the evening’s match, I knew there was a reason), to delve deeper, but it certainly made me think back to a quote from 2007, just before his last match as Chelsea manager of his first reign.

On 18 September – exactly six years ago – we drew 1-1 with Rosenborg in another group phase home opener. In the build-up to the match, Jose provided a typically candid sound-bite for the gentlemen of the press. There had been a lengthy period of unrest between Roman Abramovich and the increasingly frustrated Mourinho; the clear message from his quote about omelettes and eggs –“you buy class A eggs in Waitrose, you make a great omelette” – was that he had been tied to using sub-standard players.

Twenty four hours later – or was it forty eight? – Jose was gone. Seven years later, an admittedly much more relaxed and jocular Mourinho was again using wordplay with the press. My fleeting glance of a smiling Jose on TV, giggling like a schoolboy, gave me hope that the frustrations of Goodison Park would be forgotten and that his evident trust in his new young players would make us smile too.

The match began. I was heartily thankful that, unlike that fateful Rosenborg game in 2007, we had again sold out Stamford Bridge. It was a so pleasing to see; another 40,000 gate. This might surprise some newer Chelsea supporters, but the gate for Rosenburg was a lowly 24,973. The club had a tough wake-up call that night; they had charged the supporters a whopping £45 – if memory serves – for the visit of the team from Norway. Obviously, supporters voted with their wallets on that night. In all subsequent seasons of CL football, match tickets for the group phase games have been held at the £30/£35 mark, which is considerably less than for standard league games.

It was one of the toughest few days; lots of derision from other teams’ supporters about our inability to fill Stamford Bridge. Then, the night of the long knives. Mourinho out and Grant in. Oh boy.

As the early exchanges took place on the pitch, against a sad backdrop of near quiet in the stands, Alan and I chatted about our plans for the trip to Bucharest; Alan ventured to the Romanian capital last season, this will be my first visit. The game was almost inconsequential; I watched, but wasn’t concentrating.

I spotted a few familiar names from May…Streller – mmm, I remember him. Just as Chelsea had Hollins, Houseman, Hutchinson, Hinton, Harris and Hudson in the ‘seventies, Basel’s team included Streller, Sommer, Schar, Stocker, Sio, Safari and Salah.

Chelsea began the stronger team, with Basel content to sit back and soak up the pressure. However, our possession was rarely converted into goal-scoring chances and the crowd were given little to cheer. And cheer, they certainly didn’t. I couldn’t help but think back to previous European nights in the mid ‘nineties when we were fresh-faced and more excitable about the prospect of European football – pick a game, any game…Zizkov, Vienna, Bratislava, Tromso. I’m sure that on those nights, we didn’t wait for a goal to roar the team on.

As the half continued, Basel grew in confidence and occasionally made purposeful forays into our half. With the first-half coming to a close, the stadium was almost silent.

“I wish that bloody owl in Brompton Cemetery would stop hooting.”

This wasn’t great football. It wasn’t even good. It was slow. The players were running in quicksand. There was little flair. Willian was struggling to make an impression. In fact, the midfield in general were poor. Nobody wanted to take ownership of the ball. Nobody wanted to make things happen.

I looked over towards Gary, sitting a few seats away and he simply said “awful.”

Just before half-time, David Luiz played the ball towards Frank Lampard who in turn touched the ball to his right where Oscar was waiting. The young Brazilian made room and drilled the ball in at the far post.

1-0 to Chelsea, “THTCAUN/COMLD” in a Germanic accent, but we hardly deserved the lead.

The second-half began and there was a slight change. The game opened up a little and we created a few chances. I caught Oscar on film wriggling away from markers before curling a wicked shot which bounced off the bar. He repeated this soon after, and then set up Hazard, who infuriatingly shot wildly over. Oscar was our best player by a mile and was rewarded with the first airing of his own song…the highly unoriginal “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar, Oscar.”

Although we were creating – with Willian running at his full-back and getting more involved – Basel were seemingly given full reign to cut through our midfield at will. It seemed to me that the basic premise of the midfielder that I grew up watching in the ‘eighties – Johnny B, Mickey Thomas, Nigel Spackman – was to physically intimidate an opponent. The vernacular of the day was simply “to put your foot in.”

To tackle. To win the ball. To compete.

These days, midfielders – perhaps due the changing of the laws of the game which has made physical contact easily punishable – are simply told to close down space and press. Well, on this particular night, we certainly weren’t tackling and we hardly did any pressing either. I commented to Alan –

“I often feel that when the crowd are not involved, it only takes a couple of strong tackles to galvanise the supporters into roaring the team on.”

That is one of my strongest memories of football in pre-Premier League England.

“Bollocks to flair, I’ll cheer a hard 50/50 tackle like there’s no tomorrow.”

Ironically, as Willian continued to get involved, Jose Mourinho chose to substitute him. He was given a nice reception, but we awarded his replacement Juan Mata an even bigger cheer. A nice ball from Lamps was played behind the Basel defensive line for Eto’o, but the goalkeeper raced off his line to gather. However, Basel had been threatening for a few minutes and their positive play was rewarded. A quick interchange of passes, with the ball being moved around intelligently, found Salah, who dispatched the ball in to the same corner of the Shed End goal as Oscar in the first-half.

1-1. No complaints.

This drew immediate change from Jose. The largely quiet van Ginkel and the subdued Lampard were replaced by Demba Ba and Jon Obi Mikel. Ba played in the middle, while Eto’o was forced to toil out on the left wing. He looked quite disconsolate and offered little for the remainder of the game. Our play deteriorated further. Eden Hazard, on his day our most exciting talent, drew the ire of the increasingly agitated crowd by holding on to the ball for far too long. As Basel cut through our midfield, in which Mata looked lost, Mikel at least gave a little solidity to the team with several strong tackles.

“That’s more like it son.”

With ten minutes remaining, Basel were awarded a corner. The ball was whipped in at head height – a great delivery in fact – and that man Streller rose to arrow the ball in with a great header. Although I was over one hundred yards away, and my view was obviously far from perfect, his leap seemed to go unchallenged.

A couple of half-chances amounted to nothing.

We had lost only our sixth game at home in almost one hundred European matches.

Lazio 1999.

Besiktas 2003.

Barcelona 2006.

Internazionale 2010.

Manchester United 2011.

Basel 2013.

I don’t think anyone on the walk out of the stadium could believe that they had witnessed such a poor Chelsea performance. One fan was heard to say “that’s the worst I’ve ever seen.” It certainly bore no likeness to the spirited and dominant Mourinho teams from 2004 to 2007. It is difficult to write any words of comfort, such was our disjointed and meekly-contested performance. I can only trust that the manager addresses the deficiencies in his typically astute manner and fires us up for Fulham at home on Saturday. I soon met up with Parky along the Fulham Road and the mood was sombre. The next game in the competition – yes, that game in Bucharest – will be huge. At least it makes that trip all the more exciting. In all honesty, it would be “typical Chelsea” for us to go to that particular cauldron – Alan has promised me great things – and chisel out a tough away win. I can’t wait for that trip. I already have a few ideas about places to visit. I’m sure Bucharest will be a great city.

Will I have a lovely time in Romania?

As sure as eggs is eggs.

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Tales From Twenty-Three Years

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 8 May 2013.

In the packed Goose beer garden before the game, Rob was able to hand over my ticket for the Europa League Final in Amsterdam. It was great to have it in my own mitts. The worse thing that we can all do is take this game for granted, especially since it follows on the coat tails of last May’s triumph in Munich. This will only amount to Chelsea Football Club’s fifth European Final in 108 years. I personally can’t wait. To be truthful, the evening game against Tottenham felt like a European match. One chap likened it to the famous Chelsea vs. Liverpool match in May 2003. I was certainly aware of what was at stake. However, it wasn’t all about Champions League football in 2013/2014. We had our unbeaten home run in the league against Tottenham to protect.

…December 1 1990…a cracking game of football involving a Spurs team which included Italia ’90 superstars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne for Tottenham and Italia ’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo for Chelsea. Chelsea triumphed 3-2, Lineker blasted a penalty over the bar and I watched from the old West Stand.

On the walk down to the stadium, there was a proper big game feel to the atmosphere. I was in my seat with a good ten minutes to spare. The stadium seemed to take forever to fill up. Over in the far corner were 3,000 Spurs fans. Not one single flag or banner, though.

…11 January 1992…I watched from The Shed as a poor Spurs team were easily beaten with former Tottenham striker Clive Allen and Dennis Wise giving us an easy 2-0 win.

We had heard that both John Terry and Frank Lampard were not playing. However, a quick scan of the line-up didn’t cause me too much anxiety. This was a strong starting eleven, no doubt. I would have preferred JT in the defence, but I have to say that he looked decidedly shaky against Swansea City on a few occasions. Frank had put in one of his best performances of the season at Old Trafford, but it was no surprise that he was rested. So much for his and our dreams of scoring 202 against our most hated London rivals.

…20 March 1993…with David Webb in temporary charge, Tony Cascarino gave us an equaliser in a 1-1 draw. I remember Peter Osgood being on the pitch at half-time; his first appearance at Stamford Bridge for years and years. I watched from the lower west side of The Shed.

Neil Barnett quickly introduced last year’s management team before the game and there was a mixed reaction. Some booed. Some clapped. Most stayed silent. I think I clapped three times…”that’s enough.”

…27 February 1994…I didn’t attend this one unfortunately. An incredible game, which ended up 4-3 in our favour with a last-minute Mark Stein penalty. The attendance was a shockingly bad 16,807.

Juan Mata blazed over on 6 minutes but we did not have long to wait for a more pleasing effort on goal. A Mata corner dropped into the six yard box where Gary Cahill jumped pogo-like to nod the ball on to the far post where Oscar headed easily in. I had managed to capture his header on film and caught the subsequent celebrations deep in Parkyland on film too.

Get in!

Alan and I exchanged our usual pleasantries and the world was smiling.

…11 February 1995…I watched from the new North Stand as Dennis Wise stooped low to head in an equaliser. Phew.

We enjoyed more of the ball than Tottenham with Mata again going close. The busy Holtby was brilliantly tackled by Eden Hazard just as the Spurs midfielder was about to pull the trigger. However, much against the run of play, some sloppy Chelsea defending allowed Emmanuel Adebayor too much time to painstakingly guide a shot up and over the stranded Petr Cech. To be honest, I could barely believe my eyes as the net rippled. Unfortunately, I captured this shot on film too.

…25 November 1995…This game took place in the midst of the great Ken Bates vs. Matthew Harding “stand-off.” Matthew was famously banned from the Directors’ Box and so watched from the front row of the stand which he had personally financed. This was a very poor game. I watched from the temporary green seats at The Shed End and both teams were lucky to get 0.

Adebayor was proving to be quite a handful for the defensive pairing of Cahill and Ivanovic. Holtby was a bundle of energy. He reminded me of Bjarne Goldbaek. Remember him?

…26 October 1996…One of the most emotional games ever. Matthew Harding, who died on the Wednesday, was remembered on a very sombre day at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Roberto di Matteo, Ruud Gullit and David Lee gave us a 3-1 win. We watched from the North Stand, which was soon to be re-named. The image of a pint of Guinness on the centre-spot before the game was as poignant as it ever gets.

Although Spurs were back in the game, their support rarely varied from their two choice songs; “Come On You Spurs” and “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In.”

…11 April 1998…With Jurgen Klinsmann back with Spurs for an end-of-season loan, we watched as goals from Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli gave us an easy 2-0 win. I was now watching games from my own seat in the Matthew Harding Upper. These were great times to be a Chelsea supporter.

On 39 minutes, Fernando Torres – now playing without his Zorro mask – managed to evade the opposition in a tight area on the right wing. He showed great control to turn and then adeptly play a superb ball in to the path of Ramires. Our little Brazilian hit the ball early, catching Loris off guard. His toe-poke easily hit the target. It was time to yell once more.

“YEEEEEES!”

…19 December 1998…This was another 2-0 win with goals from Gus Poyet and Tore Andre Flo. This pre-Christmas treat was even more enjoyable because it meant that the win put us top of the league for the first time in eight years. Yes, eight years. I think this match was the game where Spurs only wanted 1,500 tickets. They refused the other 1,500.

We were back in the ascendency and Champions League football was looking good for next season. One aspect of our play in the first-half which I found pleasing was the runs from Cesar Azpilicueta. On several occasions, his run took the covering left-back Assou-Ekotto with him, enabling either Mata, Hazard, Torrres, Oscar or Ramires more space to cut inside. Well done Dave.

A Kyle Walker shot flashed wide of cech’s goal just before the break, but it had been a pleasing Chelsea performance. The summary of match stats on the TV screens at the break told the story of the half; Chelsea 12 attempts, Spurs 6 attempts.

…12 January 2000…George Weah arrived from Milan in the afternoon, came off the bench in the last twenty minutes and headed home a late winner at the Shed End. This was getting too easy.

John Dempsey – he of the wildest ever football comb-over – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett at the break. Our hero in Athens was visiting Chelsea with his granddaughter who was the Chelsea match mascot. We gave both a warm reception.

…28 October 2000…Two goals from Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and one from Gianfranco Zola gave us an easy 3-0 win, but I remember nothing of this one. After all, it was only Tottenham.

With ten minutes played of the second-half, it was all Chelsea. This was evolving into quite a spectacle with, for once, both sets of supporters trading songs at full volume.

…13 March 2002…Following our 4-0 win at Three Point Lane on the Sunday, this Wednesday night match was memorable for the magnificent hat-trick from Hasselbaink. A right foot thunderstrike, a bullet header and a left-foot curler. I will never see a more astounding “perfect” hat-trick. A goal from Frank Lampard gave us the fourth goal. I watched, mesmerized, in the East Upper. One of the great Chelsea versus Tottenham games.

We came close on three occasions. Fernando Torres failed to get a good connection inside the box and the effort was blocked. Azpilicueta sent in a curling effort from out wide which narrowly sailed over the far post. Eden Hazard cut inside after a trademark dribble, but – leaning back – blazed over. We wondered if we would rue those chances.

…1 February 2003…Spurs went ahead but Gianfranco Zola scored another magnificent goal, sending his free-kick curling in at the very top right hand corner of the Spurs goal. It was as perfect a free-kick as anyone could possibly imagine. This draw broke the Spurs’ losing sequence of six consecutive losses at Chelsea.

On the hour, Ramires was played in with a ball from inside his own half. The Stamford Bridge crowd roared him on. What a feeling that must be…breaking forward, with 40,000 people cheering you on. I guess we will never know. Sadly, he slipped inside the box, much to the disappointment of us all. He seemed to hit his head as he fell. Our chances were coming…but sadly going too.

…13 September 2003…I missed this game too, but not to worry. Chelsea won 4-2 in only Roman’s third home game as the new Chelsea owner.

As John Terry warmed-up over on the other side of the pitch in front of the family section, I wondered if his main role these days was to wind-up various sets of away fans in the far corner. At least it elicited a third song from the Tottenham fans. These are tough days for JT and for us fans alike. It is tremendously sad to see such a well-loved servant of the club clearly losing an edge to his game. Does he still have a role to play for us? Oh yes.

…19 September 2004…This was Jose Mourinho’s first-ever taste of a Chelsea versus Spurs derby and it will be remembered for how he chose to describe their approach to the game. The bus was parked. It was a dire 0-0 draw. Enough said. We hate Tottenham.

The game was opening up now, with our midfielders seemingly getting more distant from their opposite numbers. There were tired legs everywhere. In the programme, it mentioned that this was the 39th consecutive week that our players had either a Chelsea or national team midweek game. The last “free” week was in August.

…11 March 2006…Peter Osgood had sadly passed away ten days earlier and the game with Tottenham was the first home game since we lost our much beloved hero. This was another emotional day at Stamford Bridge. I took my Ossie banner to show my love for my childhood hero. We scored first through Michael Essien, only for Spurs to draw level. In the very last few minutes, William Gallas latched on to a loose ball and struck a venomous bullet into the Spurs goal. Stamford Bridge exploded like never before or after. For anyone there, they will never forget it.

With the game flowing back and forth, something struck me. Although it was proving to be a thoroughly entertaining – if not exhausting – game, I commented to Alan that Jose Mourinho would not allow a team of his to be chasing more goals while already leading in such a crucial match. With thirty minutes to go, he would have realised that the win would have secured Champions League football. He would have saved more goals for the Aston Villa and Everton games. He would have, quite simply, “shut up shop.” He would have asked his players to keep possession, tire Spurs out, and maybe make some defensive adjustments. How often did we see Chelsea winning 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 at home or away under Mourinho and the ball being played across the back four? It was a very common tactic. But no, not this time. I wondered if Benitez had told the players to keep attacking relentlessly (is attack the best form of defence?) or if the players, unfettered and free in this new attacking regime, were simply acting under their own impulses. The fans certainly wanted more goals. However, crucially, I think that once the players had started to tire, the message should have been to conserve energy. Benitez should have strengthened up the defence, too.

…7 April 2007…I remember little of this game apart from the wonder strike from Lord Percy himself, Ricardo Carvalho, which sealed a 1-0 win.

Villas-Boas made two substitutes, and Benitez eventually countered by bringing on Moses on 73 minutes. However, he looked tired after only a few minutes on the pitch. Even I was losing my patience with him.

”Go past your man!”

…12 January 2008…I don’t remember much of this game. I remember Juliano Belletti scoring a screamer. I don’t remember Shaun Wright-Phillips’ goal. Yes, that’s right; even Shaun Wright-Phillips scored. Oh boy.

On 77 minutes, I glanced at the clock on the TV screen above the Spurs fans.

”God, there’s ages to go yet.”

…31 August 2008…This was a poor game. Belletti again scored for us but Darren Bent equalised on half-time. We hate Tottenham.

On eighty minutes, a Tottenham move carved through our defence and substitute Sigurdsson slotted in at the far post. The Tottenham fans exploded to life. It was a horrible sight but I always find myself inexplicably drawn to look at away fans celebrating a key goal. Oh boy.

It was again level. Fasten your seatbelts.

…20 September 2009…With Scolari in charge, we romped to an easy 3-0 victory with goals from Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Ashley Cole.

On 84 minutes, Benitez brought on Yossi Benayoun. The reaction of the home support was predictable but I found it annoying. Where there should have been encouragement and support, there was derision, dissention and hatred. Benitez is off in a few games time, Benayoun too; why can’t we just support the fcuking team in these last crucial four games?

…30 April 2011…This was a lovely time to be a Chelsea fan. We had beaten West Ham one Saturday and we played Tottenham the next. In between, we had the Royal Wedding and an extra day’s holiday. Sandro scored with a long-range effort in the first 20 minutes, but Frank Lampard “just” edged the ball over the line at The Shed End in first-half stoppage time. Salomon Kalou – an unlikely hero – got the winner for us in the very last minute. Again, the old place was rocking. We hate Tottenham.

I didn’t enjoy the last ten minutes. In fact, I think I watched a large proportion of it with both my hands clasped behind the back of my head; surely my body language was showing signs of nervous frustration. I imagined a Sky TV camera picking me out and the commentator mocking me –

“The Chelsea fans look worried now.”

…24 March 2012…This was a 0-0 draw. What can I remember from it? Nothing. We hate Tottenham.

What amazing drama in the last minute. Gareth Bale was fouled some thirty yards out. The crowd took a collective breath of apprehension. What a season the Monkey Man has had; every time I checked on Spurs’ progress in games, Bale seemed to have scored a late winner. And here we were…in the last minute of the biggest game of the season so far, with the Spurs saviour setting himself up.

It was in the perfect position for him, slightly to the right. Chelsea made a wall and Petr Cech took a position to his right. From where I was sitting, hands behind my head, the goal seemed to be too easy to miss. Surely he would lift a curving ball over the wall into the goal…my right, Cech’s left. They would win 3-2 (just like the bastards did in 1982), our league campaign would be in tatters and I would have to observe 3,000 Spurs fans jumping around like fools.

Oh boy.

We held our breath.

He approached. He struck. It flew high.

Petr Cech saved.

The referee signalled the end of the game. There were mixed emotions on the way out of the stadium. I heard somebody say “it felt like a loss.” I was saddened that we hadn’t clinched our Champions League berth, but I remember saying that I would not have been too unhappy with a draw on the walk to the ground.

It was imperative that Spurs didn’t win.

They didn’t.

They never do at Chelsea.

The unbeaten run – just as important as reaching the top four this season in my mind – goes on…

Parky and I dropped in to the “Fox & Pheasant” for a second-successive post midweek game drink. One fan made a great point; with a win against Tottenham, the manager could have eased off against Aston Villa on Saturday, thus saving energies for the Final in Amsterdam on Wednesday. Now, his hands are tied. He has to play his strongest teams in, potentially, all three remaining games this season.

The old adage of “taking one game at a time” now becomes very relevant.

See you all at Villa Park.

Dedicated to the memory of Chelsea fan Blind Gerry, who was at this game but tragically passed away later that night.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUIh-XCSu9s

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vw7PxD21ZKs

RIP.

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Tales From The Four Corners

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 27 January 2013.

If a week is a long time in politics, then eleven days is surely an eternity in football. Since the disappointment of those frustrating dropped points against Southampton in the league, Chelsea have played against Arsenal and Swansea City. I had tickets for both of those encounters, but due to a mixture of circumstances, I was unable to attend either. The Sunday jaunt to Griffin Park offered me salvation and the chance to get back in the groove. After the snowstorms of the previous week, I was very relieved to see clear roads and sunny skies as Sunday morning greeted me.

I set off at 8am, allowing me plenty of time to reach Griffin Park. I was certainly looking forward to visiting Brentford’s tight little ground, tucked away under the M4 a few miles to the west of Stamford Bridge. Although I visited it once before in 1992 – a game against Newcastle United with my Geordie mate Pete – this would be my first visit with Chelsea. We have played Brentford in a few friendlies over the years, but our two clubs have not met in a first team game for ages, decades even. Well, certainly not in my living memory anyway.

With me unable to attend the Arsenal match, my unbroken stretch of consecutive home games eventually came to an end.

The first game – Saturday 6 November 2004.

A fine 1-0 win against Everton, with a Robben goal at The Shed End after a rapid break down the right wing. Who can remember it? I know I can. We went top after the game.

The last game – Wednesday 16 January 2013.

The 2-2 draw against Southampton. Some people have forgotten that one already.

A total of 240 games without a break.

A total of 169 victories, 51 draws and 20 defeats.

What a fantastic record – it really was Fortress Stamford Bridge during this period.

And a total of 52,800 miles from Somerset to Stamford Bridge – and back.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get close to anything like that run again.

I watched both of the Arsenal and Swansea games at home on my laptop – and what a surreal experience it was for me to be watching Chelsea from Stamford Bridge in my own home. The last time I did that? Maybe as long ago as an Everton FA Cup tie in 1992.

I stopped off at Fleet services for a coffee and was surprised how cold it was outside. The bright sun and clear skies fooled me into thinking that the weather was warmer. I wasn’t worried. I was just happy to be back on the road in support of the team.

I drove in past Twickenham, the home of English rugby, and then took a left turn through Isleworth, with Syon Park to my right. I soon found a place to park a mere ten minute walk from Griffin Park. The surroundings were decent; I certainly felt that this was a nicer immediate vicinity than, for example, the surrounding environs of Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United’s grounds.

Of London’s twelve professional football teams, no more are clustered together in a tighter area than in the six miles between Griffin Park and Stamford Bridge; Brentford, Queens Park Rangers, Fulham and Chelsea all reside within a 30 minute bus ride of each other. Further south, there is Wimbledon, now playing in Kingston-on-Thames. Also south of the river, Crystal Palace just to the north of suburban Croydon, but also Millwall and Charlton Athletic closer to the Thames. To the east – and now back to the north of the river, there is West Ham United and lowly, almost forgotten, Leyton Orient. To the north, there is Arsenal. Then – lastly – Tottenham.

London football is often maligned as not having the unbridled partisanship and venomous passion of cities to the north or in Scotland, but within the M25 there is a magnificent tapestry of clubs, support bases and histories. What do I know of Brentford Football Club’s history? Sadly, I know very little. I know that Ray Wilkins’ father George played for Brentford and I know that former Chelsea icons Ron Harris and Micky Droy played for Brentford after leaving Chelsea. Brentford have flitted around the lower reaches of the Football League my entire life. With Orient, they are the two smallest clubs in the capital. In fact, every single one of the other ten clubs has enjoyed top flight football since 1988, but Brentford and Orient (the B’s and the O’s) have stunk. To their credit, Orient managed to ascend to the giddy heights of the second division in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties – and an F.A. Cup semi-final in 1978 – but Brentford have been the ultimate underachievers.

Which is why, I guess, they are never much of a threat and – dare I say it, without being too patronising – quite well-liked in Chelsea quarters. The fact that our reserves used to play at Griffin Park has helped in that respect too. One word of warning though; ex-Crystal Palace owner Ron Noades took over the helms at Griffin Park in 1998. However, in addition to being club chairman, he also managed the team for a few years. He even won the third division manager of the year award on one occasion.

I hope that Roman isn’t reading this.

On the short walk to Griffin Park, its four old school floodlit pylons signalling the way, the Brentford fans were bustling at a fair pace. I could tell from afar that they were invigorated by the appearance of their lofty neighbours from SW6. I’d imagine that Brentford was originally a small village, centred on a bridge across a small tributary of the River Thames, but has since been swallowed up by urban sprawl in the late nineteenth century. I was parked in a street called “The Butts” and this would have been, I’m guessing, where archers practiced their art. There is a similar street in my home town. Archery butts were a common feature of towns in past centuries. I noticed that the old red-brick Brentford library was a gift to the town of the great Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. These small details of urban history fascinate me.

Griffin Park was soon reached. From the west, the first stand that I stumbled across was the Brook Road away stand, a double-tiered structure which replaced a larger terrace in the late ‘eighties. Griffin Park is squeezed in amongst rows of terraced houses and there was a misty-eyed “old school” feel to the place. As I’m sure everyone now knows (it is the one fact about Brentford that everyone seems to be aware of), Griffin Park is the only football stadium with a public house on each corner. It was around 11am and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to dip into all four, but a circumnavigation of the ground was certainly achievable. The Griffin pub’s clientele was bursting out into the road, with a couple of “half-and-half” friendship scarves sellers doing a brisk trade amongst the chirpy Brentford fans. I was to learn later that this pub was used as the boozer in the hoolie-porn film “Green Street.”

I didn’t see any Chelsea faces and so continued along Braemar Road, past the main entrance. It was here, in 1992, when I and two mates arrived ridiculously early at Griffin Park – again on a Sunday – for that Newcastle game and were met by Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott, who had just arrived by team bus. My mate Pete – the only Geordie amongst us – had not yet arrived and was miffed when we later told him. As I’ve said before, Keegan was a bit of a hero for me as a schoolchild. Seeing him close up was a treat. We muttered something about the game as the two of them disappeared into the stand. Twenty years later, Braemar Road was much the same. To be honest, I was half-expecting to bump into Rick Wakeman, Brentford’s most famous celebrity fan. Oh, that’s the second bit of Brentford trivia that everyone knows.

Walking past The Princess Royal and then The New Inn, I spotted some Chelsea faces. Lastly, The Royal Oak and time for a pint. The boozer was busy but mixed with fans of both clubs. Surely there would be no hint of trouble. On the way out into the crowded beer garden, I overheard a Brentford supporter mention Ashley Cole.

“We’ll have to give him some stick. Even though he’s awesome for England, I hate him.”

Parky was with me but was unable to get hold of a match ticket. His reward would be to attempt a “lap of honour” around the stadium and grab pints in all four pubs, while watching on the TV. At 11.45am, I joined the melee at the turnstiles and was soon inside.

The away stand at Griffin Park is an even smaller, if that is at all possible, version of the School End at Loftus Road. I quickly ascended the stairs and took my seat in the front row, just eight seats from the end. Bizarrely, even though we had booked tickets independently, I was sat next to my usual companions Alan and Gary. The shallow tier of seats was only six rows deep. Down below, around one thousand Chelsea fans were enjoying the bonhomie of a crowded terrace for the first time in years and years. As kick-off time approached, there seemed to be an air of great anticipation in the home camp. Eddie, Daryl and Rob were down below, but out of sight, tucked under the overhang. In the upper tier, there were familiar faces – too many to name. This was the Chelsea hardcore; every one of us befuddled with the current state of affairs at Stamford Bridge

Above, there were blue skies. A few tower blocks blighted the skyline, but this could so easily have been a game from the ‘fifties, ‘sixties or ‘seventies. Griffin Park was bursting to it seams with around 12,000 spectators locked inside. With such a perfect scene in front of me – a classic F.A. Cup setting and a lovely atmosphere – my thoughts now centred on the game and my spirits fell. The looks on my fellow fans suggested that they felt the same.

This had the potential of a classic cup upset and didn’t we all know it.

From my perch just over the goal-line, I felt privileged to have such a splendid view. The teams appeared in the tunnel, just twenty yards away. It seemed like I could almost reach out and pat John Terry on the back as he lead the team out. As with Fulham, the players and management team appear from a corner and then walk across the pitch to their dug-outs on the far side in front of the stand that was terraced back in 1992. Rafa Benitez therefore had to walk right in front of the baying 1,800 away fans. Even I was surprised at the venom. He avoided eye-contact with the Chelsea faithful. On his return trip, facing us, it would not be so easy.

Pre-match formalities took place and the game soon began.

Despite a promising few early attacks, with Torres involved, we didn’t threaten the Brentford goal. A bizarre back-pass from John Terry was picked-up by a clearly confused Ross Turnbull, but the resultant free-kick, inside the box, flew over the bar. Brentford soon realised that we seemed decidedly laid back in our approach. Alan and Gary – akin to the footballing equivalent to Waldorf and Statler, looking down from a lofty vantage point – were soon chastising the Chelsea players. The pitch wasn’t great; it was muddy and quite heavily sanded on our left. The wind blew left to right. It was a messy start, but Chelsea seemed to be struggling. All of the tough tackling seemed to be coming from the home team and they were the ones who started to trouble Ross Turnbull in the far goal. With Marin, Oscar and Bertrand clearly struggling, Brentford came close with a shot which narrowly went wide. Then, calamity. Just before the break, Lampard lost possession and Forrester wasted no time in lashing the ball at Turnbull. The ball was parried but Trotta coolly slotted home. The home fans erupted.

The cup shock was on.

Benitez had to endure the wrath of the away fans as he walked off the pitch. I kept an eye on him with my telephoto lens. He looked straight ahead. The players, too, looked solemnly ahead. Their body language was shocking. I was silent, of course. I don’t enjoy booing – my thoughts on that are well documented. Rather than characters from the Muppet Show, my fellow residents in the upper tier resembled emperors from the Roman Empire.

The thumbs were pointing down.

Lo and behold, a Benitez substitution took place at the break with the lack lustre Marin being replaced by Juan Mata. We definitely improved and equalised via a wonderful flick from Oscar.

Rather than push on, though, we seemed bogged down in the Griffin Park mud. At times, I was surprised how quiet the atmosphere had become. I expected more noise from the home fans, with only the terraces end at the eastern end making much noise.

Chances were at a premium. Then, a Brentford break and Adeyemi touched the ball past Turnbull. From my perspective, contact seemed minimal, but it was wishful thinking. There was only text which suggested that Ross didn’t touch him. The home crowd were on tenterhooks to see if a red card was to be issued. Thank goodness, it wasn’t.

However, the penalty was smacked home and we were down 2-1 with only twenty minutes remaining.

The home fans erupted once more and the hard-core in the far terrace set off a magenta flare to celebrate.

Things were now dire.

Perhaps thinking about any potential Mickey-taking which might be headed our way, Alan asked me if I knew of any Brentford fans. Thankfully, he had never met one. However, I knew of one. There was a chap, from Frome, who was a Brentford fan. He was the son of Frome’s mayor at one stage and went by the nickname of “Trotsky” due to his left of centre politics. He was a bit of a character when we used to watch Frome Town back in the early-‘eighties. Trotsky reached a formidable level of notoriety in Frome circles when he was caught in flagrante with his girlfriend on a mini-roundabout in the middle of Frome one night.

I wondered what he might have planned for his current lady if Brentford were to hold on for the win.

Meanwhile, time was running out for Chelsea Football Club.

Bizarrely, Benitez replaced Ivanovic with Azpiliueta. Work that one out. Lampard went close and Bertrand headed over when it was easier to score. At last, Ba entered the fray at the expense of the disappointing Bertrand. With time running out, Ba stumbled but did well to hook the ball towards Torres. Without checking, he intuitively curled the ball into the goal.

We roared with relief. To be fair, it was a great finish. Torres had not enjoyed the best of service all afternoon. His goal was an echo of his pomp at Liverpool. Fair play to him.

At the final whistle, more boos and jeers from the Chelsea fans were aimed at Benitez. The players seemed relieved but hardly happy. Frank and John especially thanked us for our support, but these must be testing times for them too. The turmoil within our collective psyche – certainly fans, certainly players, maybe even the board, with their consciences possibly pricked – is there for all to see.

Despite promising much, this was a dire Chelsea performance, with virtually no positives. There were grim faces amongst us all as we filtered out of the tight away end. Just to rub it in, the Brentford DJ decided to play “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.

“Thanks for that.”

The day turned even bleaker when I heard that Parky’s lap of the stadium had to be aborted after just two pubs when a dozen or so Chelsea yobs in their ‘fifties caused a major disturbance. Firstly, they became lippy with some Brentford fans. The mood in the pub then turned sour with fans squaring up to each other after the first equaliser. Then, finally, after the Torres goal, chairs and tables were smashed. How pathetic. To his credit, Parky soon realised that he didn’t fancy getting caught up in this mindless vandalism and so made a hasty retreat.

So much for the magic of the F.A. Cup

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Tales From The Group Of Death

Chelsea vs. Shakhtar Donetsk : 7 November 2012.

This game was my fifty-sixth Champions League game at Stamford Bridge and there have been few which have turned out to be more dramatic. In fact, this one turned out to be one of the most dramatic home games that I have ever seen.

Well, since last Wednesday, anyway.

Parky was back in the fold again and he accompanied me on my Wednesday evening drive to the city. As part payment, he plied me with a Cornish pasty and a Coke. In return, I made sure we were safely was parked up at 6.30pm.

I have mentioned before that my mate Simon is heavily involved in the shooting of a film and he had been in touch during the week in the search for a specific prop. He was in need of an old style, pre-modern badge Chelsea pennant to hang in the front of a car. He asked a few of us if we could come up with anything. I had a rummage around. I was successful.

The pennant race was over. Inside The Goose, I handed over a rather tattered plastic pennant with wonky lettering from around 1970. I said I wanted a mention in the film credits. The filming starts on Saturday and Simon is in for a very intense four week period. The game against Shakhtar will be his last for a while. I’m not too sure what the film’s plot entails, but it stars Aiden Gillen from “The Wire.” There will be one scene to be shot inside a boozer and all of us were hoping to be involved in that, but Simon told us that the date for that particular scene was a Wednesday. The Wednesday, in fact, of the last Champions League group phase game, when we play the team from Denmark with the unpronounceable name.

So, we will miss out on being involved in the film. A shame. We’re good in pubs.

I endeavoured to make it inside for the kick-off. It was a close-run thing. A large line at the MHU turnstiles meant that I missed the teams coming out onto the pitch, but thankfully I made the start. I ran through the team and there were a few changes from our trip to Swansea. The biggest surprise was the omission of John Terry. There were only a few empty seats in the away section. It held around 1,300 Ukrainians. This far surpassed our following in Donetsk which was in the 150-250 range. I have no doubt that the 1,300 in the south-east corner were bolstered by many Ukrainians who now call London home. It is, after all, the most cosmopolitan of all European cities.

I had a quick scan of the match programme. There was a little preview of our game on November 20th in Turin when we play Juventus. Unbeknown to me, the Piedmont capital is twinned with the city of Detroit, due mainly to both cities’ links to the motor industry. Soon into the game, I received a text message from my mate Tullio in Turin to say that he had managed to secure a ticket for the match. Just as in 2009, we will be watching our two teams play against each other. I have known Tullio since 1981. More of that later.

We began like a team possessed. After only a few minutes, Oscar sent over an absolutely fantastic cross from wide on the right wing. Not only was it played with perfect depth and precision, but it even dropped right on the six yard box, making the goalkeeper Pyatov have to judge the immediate bounce of the ball. An onrushing Fernando Torres was only inches away from connecting. The keeper then failed to read a back pass and Torres charged down his poor attempted clearance. By the time the ball had crossed the line, the Stamford Bridge crowd were roaring and Fernando Torres was running down to Parkyville in wild celebration.

Get in!

It was Fernando Torres’ nineteenth Chelsea goal and – yes, here we go again – I have seen every one of them.

Alan – in a generic Slavic accent:

“They will have to come at us now.”

Chris – similarly:

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Almost immediately after, Torres broke free and almost scored a second, but his shot was parried. Crazily, Shakhtar equalised in the very next move. Fernandinho – possibly some lost relative of the gruesome twosome from Peckham – was allowed to cross from the right and a virtually unmarked Willian easily prodded home.

Game on.

There was no denying it; our visitors – wearing a bright orange and black kit – played some superb football in the first-half. Their play reminded me of our home game with Manchester City last December, when they made us look like fools in the first half. Their passing and movement was excellent. But, equally so, our defending was shocking. We gifted their playmakers far too much room and continually failed to close down the man with the ball. That’s a cardinal sin in my book. In particular, though I hate to single him out, Ryan Bertrand was continually out of position. Mistakes were being made all over the pitch though. We seemed to be half-asleep. We were sloppy.

Alan and I gave a running commentary throughout.

“Come on Ramires, that’s poor…Ivanovic, what are you doing…come on Cech, talk to your defenders…oh God, Luiz, just clear it…Ryan, watch your marker…come on boys…get in the game, Oscar…get stuck in Torres…Mata looks knackered.”

We agreed that Mikel was the one player holding firm and doing his job well.

Cech scrambled away a quickly-taken corner which caught everyone unawares. Eden Hazard found Torres, who nimbly turned on a sixpence but hit the side-netting. Teixera was narrowly wide with a low drive which zipped low past Cech’s right hand post. There was no denying it, Shakhtar were mustard.

Before the game, it was obvious that this would be a tough one. In theory, we had to win it. Of course, a lot depended on the Juventus game. If they dropped points, could we –just – afford to also? The news came through that Juve were ahead.

Porca Dio.

Oh boy. Anyone who thought that this would be an easy qualification group was wrong. This was as tough a group that I have known.

Italian Champions, Ukrainian Champions, European Champions.

Forget faltering Manchester City’s group. Here was 2012’s Group of Death.

This was a quiet and definitely nervy Stamford Bridge. We were too edgy to sing many songs. The MHL were all standing – a good sign – but there was hardly any noise. I watched with gritted teeth. I sensed that my face must’ve been a picture.

“Look at that miserable bastard.”

My face changed on forty minutes. A Mata ball was headed away by the Donetsk ‘keeper, who was under pressure from Ivanovic, of all people. The ball fell right at Oscar, but he chose not to take a touch and control the ball. He knew that the ‘keeper was stranded on the edge of his box, so he decided to act quickly. He side-swiped a volley back over the doomed ‘keeper and we all watched, amazed, as the ball flew into the net.

YES!

We could hardly believe it. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd thundered. Oscar ran towards The Shed and his delirious team mates soon joined him. I remember a similar lob from distance from the late David Rocastle in the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994.

At the break, we knew that we were extremely lucky to be ahead. Tore Andre Flo was on the pitch at the break. We all loved him down at Chelsea, though at first he looked gangly and was unconvincing. His two goals at Real Betis in 1998 turned him into an instant Chelsea folk hero.

Well, lamentably, we were still asleep at the start of the second. A quick move by the visitors and the ball was crashed low into the box by Srna. That man Willian was there again to pounce.

2-2.

Bollocks.

With Juventus wining easily, things were looking desperate and my face mirrored the situation. Frown lines appeared and my hair grew even greyer.

For the next forty minutes, Chelsea fought to get a grip on the game. Chances were created, but the tension grew as each minute passed with no goal. Jon Obi Mikel shot over and then Shaktar countered with a long shot from distance with thudded against the base of Cech’s post. Mikel then scored, but the linesman had flagged early for offside. Ramires, after a poor first period, was back to his old self, tackling with perfect timing and balance, charging forward with gusto.

On 73 minutes, Eden Hazard – who was becoming more and more involved – sent a ball through for Ramires. His run was perfectly timed and he looked confident and strong. Just as he was about to pull the trigger he fell to the floor and we all expected the Spanish referee to blow. To our consternation, he waved play on.

I was so angry, I couldn’t speak.

I sat down and put my head in my hands.

Had I miss-read what I had just seen? Am I so blindly partisan that I immediately think that any challenge against a Chelsea player is a foul? Am I that far out-of-touch?

No. It was a penalty.

The home crowd erupted in displeasure.

Here we go again.

The game continued on and I spent a lot of my time clock-watching. It’s always the same when we are chasing the game.

“I’m surprised there’s been no subs, Al.”

We tried to engineer our way through the orange and black rear guard. The Shakhtar defence were giants. Oscar was replaced by Moses.

The quote of the night came from Alan alongside me after a Shakhtar player had stayed down too long after a Chelsea challenge.

“Get up you radioactive cnut.”

We had a lot of corners. Obi wide with a volley. Cahill over from a corner. The tension mounted. In truth, the visitors had not been so much of a threat in the second period. They were obviously happy with a share in the spoils. And yet, they had a flurry of half-chances in the very last minute as the game was agonisingly stretched. I was aging by the minute.

The referee signalled three extra minutes. I sighed once again. We would have to go Turin and win.

We were mired in third position with only five points from twelve.

Sorry, Tullio. Sorry, Mario. Needs must.

On 93 minutes, Alan rose and said “well, in light of what happened last week, I’m off. See you Sunday.”

“See you Sunday, Al.”

A few seconds later, we won a corner and the crowd roared our support. Juan Mata walked over to take it. I held my camera and centered on the action. I focussed. I saw Mata strike the ball well.

Bloody hell, that’s a great corner – that’s right on the money.

Click.

I caught the leap of Victor Moses. My photograph caught that moment in time of when the ball is but a foot away from his forehead and is on its way.

I watched as the ball crashed into the goal and the net bulged.

The net bulged.

Anyone who is into football will know that feeling.

The net bulged.

YEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

I was bubbling over again, but captured the resultant race of the players alongside and behind Moses as he ran towards the NE corner. One photo has Pyatov hacking the ball away disconsolately. I immediately turned back to my right and saw Alan racing back towards me, his face an absolute picture, his fist clenched.

YES!

There was a massive celebration taking place on the far side. Moses was engulfed by fellow team mates and the moment seemed to last forever.

Within seconds of the restart, the Spanish referee blew for time.

We had done it again. Bloody hell.

There was a predictable mood of euphoria as the teams left the pitch, but also one of bewilderment. Two consecutive Wednesdays, two consecutive nights of high drama, two games where goals were scored in the 94th minute.

Oh boy.

There are no doubts that the visitors were desperately unlucky not to at least draw. Over the two games, they were by far the better team. In fact, had the two games been played in the knockout phase, Chelsea would be out, since the Ukrainians scored more away goals than us.

But we kept battling, we kept going. The Chelsea of old has not been completely dismantled. For once, let’s look on the bright side. Let’s wallow in the positives. We didn’t give up. Full credit to us for that.

Liverpool – be warned.

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Tales From A Visit Of Old Friends

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 19 September 2012.

What a lovely gift from the football Gods. The first game in our defence of the Champions League trophy, which we all hold so dear, would be against the Italian champions Juventus. As many people know, I have always had a massive soft spot for the Bianconeri and so my heart was filled with joy when the two clubs were drawn together in the same pot. Despite my funds being earmarked this autumn for the mind-boggling trip to Tokyo in December, I promised myself that I would go to one of only two European cities in this autumn’s group phase; Glasgow (Celtic) and Turin (Juventus). These two trips could not be missed.

As I watched the draw unfold on my PC at work on Thursday 23 August, I just knew that fate would assure that I would be heading back to Turin once more. True enough, Ruud Gullit helped draw Chelsea and Juve in the same group.

Perfect.

The trip to Turin in November was duly booked.

First, though, the home game.

Alongside me in the Matthew Harding Upper was Marco, the son of my good friend Salvo. I had bought the ticket for Salvo, who owns a restaurant near Earls Court, but he decided to pass the ticket on to his Juve-mad son. Salvo was worried that when he accompanied me to the Chelsea vs. Juventus game in 2009, a Didier Drogba goal had resulted in a Chelsea win and a Juventus defeat. Maybe a mixture of Catholic guilt and football superstition had colluded for this decision.

Either way, Marco and I were getting along famously. On the walk to the stadium from The Goose, we had already swapped several Juventus stories, and it also transpired that Marco was a fan of baseball too; his team being the Detroit Tigers.

We didn’t get in until 7.40pm. I had a quick glimpse down at the three thousand tifosi in the away section. Daz asked for my assistance in lifting the massive flag over the heads of the spectators in the upper tier. Once completed, I was able to head back to my seat and capture the pre-match ritual which is so iconic now.

The entrance of the two teams, the slow walk across the pitch, the players’ route taking them to the right of the black and white flag on the centre circle, the Champions League anthem, the handshakes.

In amongst the Juve fans, around a hundred fans held up their mobile phones and a hundred bright lights lit up that particular corner of The Bridge. Tellingly, I spotted around twenty similar lights in the upper tier of the adjoining East Stand. This was no surprise; though not in the same numbers as the Neapolitans who swamped HQ in March, I always knew that there would be Juventus supporters mixed in to the home areas. Hell, there was even one sitting next to me.

The big news was that Oscar was making his home debut for us. A big night for him.

The other big news, personally, was that Juve were playing in the famous black and white. It was an irritant that they chose to wear the muted gold shirts in 2009.

This was the real deal.

Chelsea in blue and white.

Juventus in black and white.

My two teams.

Of course, we all know the real story. Chelsea are my team. Chelsea are the team that I follow over land and sea, the team that has had a vice-like grip on my emotions since I was a young boy. The team which has brought me sadness one moment and happiness the next. In comparison, Juventus are a more frivolous object of desire. My history with them is still sizeable, though and Marco was getting snippets of “my Juventus story” throughout the evening.

The time I met Momo Sissoko in a Torinese restaurant. The time I saw Maradona at the Stadio Communale. The time Antonio Conte scored a last-minute winner at the Delle Alpi against Fiorentina and infamously picked up the corner flag and taunted the seething Viola fans. The time I received a Roberto Bettega signed photograph. The time I saw Vialli and Ravanelli at Ibrox.

This game would be my 904th. Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

I can well remember asking some friends a while back about the various sports teams which they support and asking them to rate the importance of the teams. If I was to add my other major love, the New York Yankees, I can remember that my results were –

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

This game would be my 904th Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

For comparison, I’ve seen the Yankees play 32 times.

Quite bizarrely, these numbers mirror my percentage points rather well.

946 games in total.

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

How weird is that?

Over in the far corner, I did my best to scan the banners which were fighting for space on the balcony wall. It surprised me that I didn’t recognise any of them. There was one from a town – Trezzano sul Naviglio – where my client’s warehouse is based. Down in the lower tier, six juventini wore T-shirts spelling out the word “Drughi.”

Drughi are one of the many Juve fan groups which have evolved since the mid-seventies. They are named after the “droogs” which are featured in the iconic film “A Clockwork Orange.” There was also another Juve group –since disbanded – called “Arancia Mecanica” – and I remember a famous photograph of these quasi-hooligans in a police escort in Milano wearing bowler hats to a game at San Siro.

The history of the various Juve fan groups and their rivalries for prominence warrants an encyclopaedia all by itself. Dig a little and you will be rewarded. I have a book, which I bought at that Fiorentina game in 1999, which painstakingly tells of some of these groups in a series of breathtaking photographs.

The Juve fans were soon in good voice.

“Tutta La Curva!” (meaning, in theory, “We are the curve”, or the home end.)

“Forza Ragazzi!” (meaning “Come On, Boys.”)

During the first-half, just for a split second, with the Juve fans singing loud, I was transported back to an evening in November 1987 when I saw my first-ever Juventus game. It was a UEFA Cup match against Panathinaikos and I was watching high up on the Curva Maratona – the opposite end to the home Curva Filadelfia – at the Stadio Communale. The stadium was a cauldron of cacophonous noise, full of Italian passion, full of memories which would last forever.

It was a major stepping stone in my football journey.I had been bitten by the glamour and buzz of European football and – twenty-five years on – it still has the power to exhilarate and humble me in equal measure.

I exchanged “good luck” texts with my two Italian – and Juventus – pals Mario and Tullio and quickly got into the game. And what a fine game it was.

We began brightly and I noticed that the three support players – Hazard, Oscar and Ramires – were hitting Torres early. I sat and hoped that tonight would be his night. And then, with each passing minute, Juventus started making more and more inroads into our half.

Andrea Pirlo, playing deep, was the main worry and my gaze was kept being drawn towards him. This was my first sighting of this respected player, whose stock seems to rise with each passing year. I’m surprised that Milan let him go in 2011 and to a major rival, too. This, however, is typical of Italy. How often do major players flit between the main Italian teams? I can think of many examples. Marco’s personal favourite Roberto Baggio played for Milan, Inter and Juve for example.

Another story from my Italian past. In September 1987, two friends and I were in Venice and had finished a whirlwind sightseeing tour. I bought a copy of the pink sports paper “La Gazetta Della Sport” and saw that Inter were playing newly promoted Empoli. Without much thought, we made plans to hop on a train to Milano and catch the game. I remember that an article in the ‘paper about the Inter player Aldo Serena brought a few quizzical frowns from myself. His career to date had seen him play for Inter (three times), Milan, Torino and Juventus. That a player would play for these rival teams really shocked me. Can anyone imagine Joe Cole – say – play for Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal?

Incredibly, Serena then went on to eventually play once again for Milan.

Such is Italy.

Upfront, Vucinic (who played against us for Roma in 2008 ) and the diminutive Giovinco (who played against us in 2009) were creating a few good chances, ably abetted by Marchisio and Vidal. I thought Pirlo had a relatively quiet game. As far as I could remember, only Chiellini and Buffon remained from Juventus’ last visit to SW6.

Mid-way through the first-half, Juve were edging it. I always knew they would be tough opponents, coming off a completely unbeaten league season in 2011-2012. Anyone who thought that this group would be relatively easy was deluded. To be honest, I had visions of us being hit for a few goals.

Over in the far corner, the Juve fans were memorably producing a new twist on the ubiquitous “I Just Can’t Get Enough” chant, the Depeche Mode song from 1981, which has travelled around Europe like a virus.

Not exactly “sotto voce” and “fortissimo”, but certainly with two differing tones.

Nobody does football songs like the Italians.

On thirty minutes, the ball broke to our young Brazilian number eleven and he let fire from outside the box. I was right in line with the shot. It was deflected away from Buffon and into the corner of the goal.

The crowd roared and I went very light-headed.

Get in!

It was against the run of play, possibly, but we were ahead.

Two minutes later, we witnessed one of the greatest Chelsea goals of the past twenty-five years. The ball was played into Oscar, with his back to goal. He pushed the ball away from the goal, at a bizarre angle, and seemed to move in a mysterious way as if he was unable to be seen by the defenders close by. The ball reappeared at his feet, but he was still facing away from the goal. Instinctively, he thumped the ball goal wards and we watched with open-mouthed amazement.

The ball spun up, the ball spun out, the ball spun down, the ball spun in.

2-0 and the Stamford Bridge spectators were awestruck.

What a home debut from Oscar. I imagined the headlines being typed out already.

Our amazing lead was sadly short-lived. A neat move found Vidal who slotted past Petr Cech.

It was 2-1 at the break. In the match programme, there was a nice article and three great photographs from the match in Turin in 2009. What a trip that was. Apart from Munich, it is probably my favourite ever European jaunt. If the trip this November is half as good, I’ll be very happy. There was also a photograph in the programme of Kev from Bristol, who was celebrating his 1,000th game that night. Staggeringly, he is only 31. Amazing.

Soon into the second half, I fed more Juventus stories to Marco as the game progressed.

I asked Marco’s views on the pronunciation of the word “Juventus.” Of course, long gone are the days when ill-educated English fans pronounced it with a “J.” My question was aimed at the second of the three syllables. I have often thought that Italians “almost” (and I underline the word “almost”) pronounce the “v” as a “w.”

In my mind at least (and especially when I am with Mario and Tullio), I perhaps subconsciously pronounce the word “You-when-tus.” Or at least with the slightest hint of a “w.”

Thankfully, Marco agreed.

And further, I’d suggest that it has three and a half syllables.

EE’OO-WHEN-TUS.

I mentioned to Marco that there was a strange comfort to these group stage games and especially the first of the six. They certainly have a different feeling to the do-or-die knockout games. The tension just isn’t there. Will it matter too much if any team – Chelsea included – drew the first one rather than won it? The tension tends to build in these autumn fixtures and 2011-2012 was a perfect example. By the time we met Valencia in December, the tension was as taught as a violin string.

The second-half was again rather even. Chances came and went, but both goalkeepers were not often tested. A penalty claim on Hazard was waved away. A Lampard free-kick thumped against Buffon’s body. Mata, the substitute, shot wide. Torres was always involved, but role seemed to be more of a support player. Of the two holding players, Mikel was the more impressive, forever blocking Juve’s forward thrusts. I’m surprised that Frank played ninety minutes, on the back of two full games for England and the one against QPR; he didn’t have his best game in Chelsea colours.

For the first time that I can remember – maybe because of the clear, cloudless sky – I particularly noticed the lights on the passing planes. For those unaware, Stamford Bridge is right on the flight path of Heathrow. I often see planes fly overhead. Back in the ‘eighties, it was often a welcome attraction from the dire football on the pitch.

On this occasion, I particularly noticed the green and red lights on the plans’ wings, in addition to the white light at the cockpit.

Green. White. Red.

The colours of the Italian flag.

Ominous? You bet.

With ten minutes remaining, Mikel gave the ball away and Stamford Bridge groaned. There was a dull ache of inevitability when Quagliarella was fed in and nimbly slotted home.

The Bianconeri erupted in the south-east corner. Marco grabbed my arm and I had the slightest of contradictory emotions flash through me.

Was I happy?

Maybe 1%.

As the game came to its end, I soon received two incoming text messages.

From Mario in Bergisch-Gladbach – a friend since 1975 – “A nice game.”

From Tullio in Turin – a friend since 1981 – “So, we are still friends.”

And so the defence of our trophy has begun. This indeed will be a tough group. I am convinced that the two games that we will have, back to back in October and November, against Shakhtar Donetsk will be all-important. However, one thing is certain. Throughout these games, plus our excursion to Denmark, I feel that the tension will be mounting all of the way through until we make a return visit to the Piedmont city of Turin on November 20th?

Am I excited about that?

100%.

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