Tales From The International Champions Cup

Chelsea vs. Fiorentina : 6 August 2015.

This was a strange evening and a strange game.

In the current climate, a home friendly is a pretty rare occurrence anyway. With our predilection for foreign climes and summer tours, a warm-up match at Stamford Bridge has been a very rare event over the past decade or so. I didn’t bother with last season’s game with Real Sociedad and, if I am honest, the only reason that I decided to attend the game with Fiorentina was because I had attended our other three “International Champions Cup” games in the US. I set off from work, alone, at 3.30pm to complete the set.

My main concern for the evening was the probable traffic chaos in London likely to be caused by the planned one-day tube strike. I sped as quickly as I could along the M4. At Reading Services, I spotted a father and daughter in Chelsea blue.

“Thought I was the only one daft enough to go tonight.”

“Should be a good game.”

Ah, the game. I hadn’t thought much about it until then.

This would be our first ever match with the viola of Florence. My very first encounter with them was on a muggy Sunday afternoon in late May 1989, when I watched a dull 1-1 draw between Juventus and Fiorentina in the home end at Stadio Communale. Apart from my first-ever sighting of Roberto Baggio – the eventual transfer of him between the two clubs would heighten animosities which exist until this day – my main recollection from that balmy Italian afternoon took place with around fifteen minutes of the game remaining.

Around 1,500 Fiorentina paninari – Timberland boots, Best Company T-shirts, Armani jeans, Burlington socks, Invicta backpacks, Schott bomber jackets, sunglasses, attitude – got a signal from their leaders, or maybe a phone call from their Juve counterparts, and quickly packed up their banners in the away end and left the terraces en masse, intent on disturbing the peace of an Italian summer on their way back to the city’s train station.

Ten years later, I was in Turin again, when Juventus boasted Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in their team, and watched as Antonio Conte scored a very late winner against Fiorentina. He famously went down in Juve folklore that afternoon by sprinting over to the visiting Viola fans and taunting them with a black and white corner flag.

As a Juve sympathiser, there was a frisson of excitement about seeing them again sixteen years later.

As expected, I did hit some slow-moving traffic, but further out than expected. Ironically, the last section into London stayed relatively clear. At 6.15pm, I was inside The Goose, but in the strangest of circumstances. Nursing my first SW6 pint of Peroni of the season, I soon realised that there was not one single person in the pub that I recognised. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. This was going to be a strange one alright.

Thankfully, a few friends soon arrived.

Mick mentioned that he might have to leave just after half-time because of the expected ninety minute wait at the two closest mainline stations. For once, I was glad that I was driving and the master of my own destiny. The Bristol Four soon arrived and we chatted about the pre-season. We briefly spoke about Kenedy, the Brazilian lad who appeared in our team against Barcelona in Maryland. We all agreed that we could not remember the last time that a “trialist” ever appeared in our team. It’s an odd one. Like something from the amateur days of the pre-war years.

Although I was not too bothered about seeing the introduction of the first team squad to the spectators at 7pm – a full hour before kick-off – I wanted to have a leisurely stroll down the North End Road and Fulham Road. I soon noticed US-style pennants hanging from street-lights celebrating our Championship of last season, with torso shots of all of our players looking all mean and moody, and intent on repeating in 2015/2016.

I approved. It added a little to the streetscape around Stamford Bridge.

It was difficult for me to judge the size of the crowd. I didn’t expect a sell-out, especially in lieu of the London Underground strike. The place seemed busy enough. I didn’t spot any Fiorentina fans outside the stadium. I had decided to purchase a ticket in the East Upper for a change. What with the chances of the modern Stamford Bridge being demolished within the next few seasons, it might turn out to be one of my last visits. I promised myself to take more than my usual share of photographs. A different angle, a different perspective, lovely.

I had a great position in the towering East Stand, in row seven towards The Shed. The place was filling up nicely. Flags had been positioned by each seat. It was soon obvious that there were many more youngsters in attendance than usual. By all accounts the pre-game introductions were a little over the top with their US-style razzmatazz. What next? Players being parachuted in from the skies above next season?

As kick-off approached, the area around myself was full. There were chattering kids behind me, plus many more within sight. The next generation was well represented and it was good to see.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. I like the fact that each of the four stands are slightly different, with idiosyncrasies, yet there is a common design to all. I am stirred that the new stadium designs echo these slight variances. The usual banners were out, though I noticed a few – Captain, Leader, Legend for example – looking rather faded and forlorn.

Our team contained several surprises.

Begovic – Aina, Zouma, Terry, Traore – Mikel, Loftus-Cheek – Cuadrado, Oscar, Moses – Falcao.

It would be home debuts for four.

I am sure that Ola Aina is in for a fine future at the club, but my main worry is that his name contains too many vowels for a defender.

“Too exotic son. See if you can get yourself some consonants. Work on that and you’ll be fine.”

Am I the only one who thinks our home shirts and shorts are – nicely – a deeper and darker shade of royal blue this season? They are certainly darker than the mid-blue of 2012-2013. Fiorentina, sadly but not surprisingly, showed up in white / white / violet.

Asmir Begovic did well to get down low within the first minute to save a rasping shot from distance after a simple passing move cut into our defence. We then enjoyed long spells of possession and our best twenty-five minutes of the evening. With the sun setting in the north-west corner, lighting up the sky nicely, I was settling down and enjoying this. Victor Moses, one of the stars in the United States, was again showing real promise in his determination and desire. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was impressing with his finesse and strength. We were playing some nice stuff. We were treated to a lovely Rabona from Oscar on the goal-line to my left.

I commented to the young couple to my right “I can do that after seven pints.”

I detected a foreign accent in the chap’s confused response, so I then decided to talk my way through the game with the Shed season ticket holder to my left. We had a good old natter throughout the match.

Mikel had been doing the simple stuff well, but then caused much merriment with an effort on goal which more resembled a defensive tackle.

Fiorentina then gradually took hold of the game. They kept the ball well and our play deteriorated alarmingly. On the half hour, a long raking drive smashed against Begovic’ crossbar. We had been warned. Soon after, Begovic saved well but could not smother the ball leaving an easy tap-in for Rodriguez.

The Fiorentina manager – ex-Juventus player and ex- QPR manager Paulo Sousa – was watching down below from the technical area and was increasingly pleased with his team’s performance. The little knot of away fans, no more than 150 in the bottom corner of The Shed, roared with approval too. They were, surely, mainly ex-pats. There was one “Viola Club Stockport” flag.

Fiorentina gained control and we struggled. The game went flat.

The noise, hardly tumultuous, reduced too.

At the interval, the Chelsea Women – in coats, they must have been feeling the cold – were introduced by Neil Barnett with the recently-won FA Cup.

Mourinho changed the personnel at the break, with Azpilicueta, Cahill and Ivanovic joining Zouma in defence. Matic replaced Mikel. The impressive Moses was sadly replaced by Ramires after the second of two knocks.

In truth, the second-half resembled the second-half at Wembley on Sunday; we enjoyed the majority of the ball, but found it difficult to break the opposition down. The frustration was starting to seep down to the players from the stands. Ivanovic seemed to be, again, a main source of our attacks, but again annoyed me with his final ball. As the game progressed I saw him getting increasingly annoyed with things. On one occasion he turned to the bench and had a proper rant, his face clearly contorted with rage about something or other.

“He had a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle” as the saying goes.

The comparison with the cool and calm and seldom-flustered Azpilicueta on the other flank could not be more dramatic.

Jose Mourinho, too, seemed to be increasingly annoyed. There were wholesale changes from both teams on the hour mark – on came Willian, Hazard, Fabregas and Remy – and Mourinho took dislike to the amount of time that Sousa orchestrated a similar amount of team changes too. It turned out to be the longest break for substitutes I can remember.

Joaquin, a visitor to Stamford Bridge with both Real Betis and Valencia in previous years, appeared among the viola substitutes. It was one name that I recognised.

“What do you mean Giancarlo Antognoni doesn’t play for them anymore?”

With more established quality in our ranks, surely a goal – and the inevitable win on penalties – would come now. Chelsea controlled possession but seemed to take forever to get going, and I lost count of the number of times the ball was passed laterally. We did improve when Willian, Hazard and Fabregas linked on a few occasions, but chances were rare. A Gary Cahill header from a Fabregas free-kick went close, and we all wondered how Remy, on for the quiet Falcao, managed to shoot wide from close range.

A rather agricultural – no, bloody clumsy – challenge from Kurt Zouma on a poor Fiorentina player – caused much merriment in the seats around me. It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest tackles that I have seen for a while.

The atmosphere, roused at times, was pretty quiet now, and parents with young families began to leave early on their long and tedious journeys home. I had commented to the Shed Ender to my left that I was impressed with the attendance. It looked to be at the 35,000 mark. Imagine my surprise when a full house of 41,435 was announced. Again, even for a friendly game, tickets sold rather than spectators in seats is used. It’s an odd one. Undoubtedly, there were empty seats around the ground too. Even so, on a night of massive travel disruption, this was a great attendance.

Despite five minutes of extra time, no equaliser was forthcoming.

“We could have played until March and not scored.”

The Shed Ender agreed.

“Sorry for the cliché, but as so often happens in these pre-season games, there are more questions than answers.”

He agreed again.

“My biggest worry is that all three of our strikers might be a knock away from being side-lined for weeks.”

I was a little subdued on my slow exit from a warm and sultry Stamford Bridge. And although I wasn’t – honestly – reading too much in to our rather lacklustre performance against a well-drilled Fiorentina team, I knew full well that out there in cyberspace, thousands of virtual Chelsea fans were throwing themselves off the nearest bridge, building or balcony as we endured another pre-season loss.

How these people would have coped in 1975, 1979 or 1988 beggars belief.

I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Sadly, the journey home turned into one of farce as the roadworks on the A303 meant that I was severely re-routed, almost as far as Southampton damn it, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. Others, living in London, were still catching one final night bus.

A strange evening indeed.

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Tales From The Heart And Soul Of Lancashire

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 21 August 2010.

An Alternate Title – Boring, Boring, Boring, Boring, Boring, Boring ( that’s six ) Chelsea.

Another early evening kick-off. Another long drive.

Before setting off from Somerset, I replenished my choice of CDs for the trip north…I quickly threw in some CDs by Soft Cell, Portishead, the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey.I haven’t heard those particular ones for a while. Those tunes from the ’80s onwards would form the in-car entertainment for the trip to Lancashire.

This was a solo drive for me, with His Lordship unable to attend. As I set off from home at 10.15am, it took me a good few minutes to get in the groove…the weather was again overcast and, more importantly, the traffic on the way to Bristol was horrendous. It took an hour to go just over twenty miles…however, once through Bristol, things improved…the caffeine from a coffee was doing the trick and I was feeling more at ease.

Chelsea Away – Love It.

Thoughts centered on the town of Wigan, a rugby league stronghold for as long as I can remember but now hosting two teams in top flight sport. I’ve often mentioned that I think Wigan do well to support two professional teams in a town of only 81,000. For a comparison, I thought about my local city of Bath…roughly the same size of Wigan, with a rugby union team packing in 8,000 at The Rec each week, but now with Bath City newly-promoted to the Conference…they drew 800 for their first home league game of the season mid-week. I wondered how many Bath City would get should they promoted to the Football League. Yeovil Town regularly draw 3,500, but I think Bath wouldn’t match that. Wigan were once a non-league team and were promoted in 1978, so their rise has been steady, but highly commendable. Such is the beauty of our football pyramid…I wonder who will be the next non-league team to reach the top tier.

AFC Wimbledon, maybe?

As I headed through Gloucestershire, I had texts from Alan ( coach ) and Burger ( train ) to say that they were on their way…Burger had just bumped into Suggs from Madness at Euston and I could tell he was excited.

“Madness – Madness They Call It Madness.”

One friend who I knew wouldn’t be attending the game was Russ, from Frome, now living in Croydon. He works for the BBC, but is an assistant referee with Surrey F.A. His game in the morning was the Chelsea vs. Manchester United U18 game at Cobham…I emailed him on Friday –

“If you have any borderline decisions, remember Cantona 1994, Moscow 2008 and all the hundreds of United “fans” you grew up with.”

I awaited news of the result as I drove north.

For us in the UK, a trip to Wigan, almost 400 miles there and back, is a big deal, but I always feel immediately inferior to Americans when I start talking road trips.

“Hell, I drive two hundred miles for breakfast every morning, boy.”

However, what Americans don’t understand is our clogged-up road system…for us even the shortest journey can take forever. With the notorious M6 ahead of me, I drove on.

As I passed Tewkesbury, I was reminded of an evening I spent there many years ago with a few friends from Trowbridge. Back in 1992, I was into the rave scene, but for a change one of my workmates suggested I joined her and a few friends for a Northern Soul night at a pub in Tewkesbury. I was aware of this particular music scene, but it had largely gone unnoticed amongst my peers at school.

This was an off-shoot of the mod movement if the mid-‘sixties and gathered momentum amongst UK music enthusiasts as the ‘sixties drew to a close and into the ‘seventies. The key components were all nighters, rare records imported from America and a highly individual dancing style, involving twists, back-flips, somersaults and vigorous peacock-strutting. One of the key venues involved was the famous Wigan Casino, which gathered Northern Soul enthusiasts from all over the UK for many years.

The weather was a mixture of rain showers and brief sunny interludes. I stopped at Strensham Services and noted a couple of coaches of Plymouth supporters en route to Wallsall, virtually everyone of them bedecked in dark green shirts, with the sponsor’s logo – Ginsters Pasties – raising a smile.

Heading through West Bromwich, the traffic slowed to the pace of a rheumatic snail, with West Brom fans heading over to watch their game against Sunderland. I couldn’t spot their ground as it was shrouded in low-lying clouds. I spotted the Sunderland team coach as it left the exit of the motorway. Yet more slow traffic for the next hour or so. Passing familiar roadside landmarks, it didn’t seem real that it was sixteen weeks since the amazing awayday at Anfield.

I was pounding the tarmac and having good vibes.

The Pet Shop Boys were now on the CD, bringing back memories of many a cold night night spent in my student house, writing essays on social deprivation ( I was in Stoke, so I had plenty of local examples )…the house was so cold, I used to wear gloves in my bedroom when I was forced to study. In that 1986-87 season, no song brings back memories of Chelsea games and student discos as The Pet Shop Boys song “Paninaro.”

“Passion and love, sex, money, violence , religion, justice, death.
Paninaro.
Paninaro.
Oh – Oh – Oh.”

The “paninari” were Italian lads, heavilly into fashion in the ‘eighties, bizarrely named after the sandwich shops they used to frequent. This look helped breath new life into the UK casual movement in around 1986, once the sportswear of 1984 had been replaced by paisley shirts, black leather jackets, dark jeans and cords. One of the main components was the Timberland deck-shoe…often worn without socks.

I remember reading of Rangers and Hearts casuals singing a few lines from “Paninaro” at a game at Ibrox in around 1987…I think they mave have focussed on the “Violence, Religion, Justice, Death” segment. But it may have been –

“Armani, Armani, A-A-Armani, Versace, Cinque.”

On the M6, I heard from Russ that despite being 2-0 up, the Chelsea boys had lost 3-2 to United. Russ had had a quiet game, but had picked up a teamsheet from the game – a nice memento. This was his third game at Cobham I believe.

I had a text to say that Burger had arrived at Wigan and was enjoying a pint in The Swan. Alan, too, was nearing the final destination.

After five long and at times tedious hours on England’s marvellous roads, I was parked up in my usual parking place, just 15 minutes from the DW. It was a muggy day, but with rain still threatening. I put my Lacoste rain jacket on, but instantly regretted it as I marched to the stadium. I dipped into The Queens Arms and had a pint with two mates, Andy and The Youth, with their children Sophie and Seb. The pub was half-and-half Wigan and Chelsea, no agro, no big deal. Andy and myself spoke about – very generally speaking – how we are not really too anxious and worried about Chelsea these days….Andy smiled as he said

“I’m not bothered mate, we’ve done it, we’ve won it.”

And I knew what he meant…to be truthful, I’m still enjoying the afterglow oif the title in 2005, let alone 2006 and last year.

We dipped into The Red Robin pub so Andy could pick up a ticket from Lovejoy. This is the main away pub at Wigan, but I had always gone to The Queens Arms on previous trips. A hundred or so Chelsea were out in the beer garden singing The Chelsea Ranger – the more youthful element – while a few familiar faces were inside, enjoying some food and some beer. I was hoping to bump into The Burger Family, but we never did meet up.

I excused myself and sped off to the away end. I smiled as I overheard an irritable mother say to her excited five year old boy – clad in a Chelsea shirt – “just calm down, the game hasn’t even started yet.”

Once inside, I quickly rushed down to the front of the steep single-tiered stand to pin my banner up over the very first two rows. Wigan is ideal for flags, as the first two rows are never used. The Chelsea players were taking shooting practice as I pegged “Vinci Per Noi” to the faded blue seats and I had to duck for cover as Frank, in particular, seemed to be intent on hitting me.

The boys looked great in their crisp white training tops.

Alan and Gary arrived with our mates Nick and Mark and we shared a pre-match natter. No complaints about the team line-up. We were a little concerned that our 4,100 allocation would not be full, but we need not have worried…sure, there were empty seats, but it was a good show. At only £25 a ticket, how could anyone not go?

Wigan came at us in the first half-an-hour and we seemed to be slow in closing players down. Gary to my left and Alan to my right were not happy. Cathy and Dog were sat two rows infront and there were familiar faces everywhere I looked. It was noticeable that the Away Season Ticket Section – the middle blocks – were mainly full of seated fans, whereas the flanks had fans standing.

I noted a new song, an updated version of the Follow Follow song.

“Double Double Double.
John Terry Has Won The Double.
And the S*** From The Lane Have Won F*** All Again.
John Terry Has Won The Double.”

A few half-chances to Wigan, but we rode the storm. Malouda hadn’t been in the game, but he touched in a rebound after a fine, flowing move down the left had picked out Frank, whose flick was initially thwarted by Kirkland.

1-0 – Phew.

Just before the second-half began, the incredibly loud PA played two soul classics – “This Old Heart Of Mine” by The Isley Brothers and “Move On Up” by Curtis Mayfield. I half-expected a few Wigan fans to start doing back-flips.

In the second-half, our football flowed a lot better. To be honest, looking back, it was all a bit of a blur. Mikel was our one strong performer from the first half and he sent through a sublime ball for Anelka…he coolly slotted in at the far post and we went wild. Anelka’s first Chelsea goal was in the same goal in 2008 and he celebated, with Drogba, with a new – slightly odd – celebration. Soon after, Drogba set up Anelka to score close-in with a header and the celebrations were repeated.

By this time, the Chelsea faithful was rocking. Our away support is so different to the home and it’s just great to be part if it. Alex made two stupendous tackles – the first of which I captured on camera – and his name was sung with gusto for ages.

Kalou came on and then scored two more goals and the singing continued on. While a Wigan defender was getting carried off, we serenaded Frank, JT, Ashley, Petr, Paolo, Nico and even new boy Benayoun…the Dennis Wise song was aired, and so too was the Peter Osgood tribute. After the Frank Lampard chant went on for more than the usual one verse, Frank looked pretty embarassed by the adulation, bless him.

We even had time to sing the Robert Fleck song.

“We All Live In A Robert Fleck World.”

On ninety minutes, it was 5-0 and all was well with the world. Incredibly, after last week, we hit six again as Yossi slammed in a goal from a perfect cut-back from Paolo, the two subs combining to perfection.

The Chelsea fans still kept going –

“6-0, We Only Win 6-0.”

It had been an amazing game and even the new black and orange looked splendid. No complaints.

I gathered my flag and made my way back to the car. I bumped into Tim from Bristol and we chatted about our current league goal run…since we scored a late goal at Tottenham, we have since scored a ridiculous total of thirty without reply. We weren’t sure but that has to be a UK record.

Thankfully, not so much traffic on the drive south, but it still took me four hours to return home. I stopped off for the usual Red Bull pit-stop at Keele Services, close to my former college stomping ground. I kept changing the CDs as I drove, Morrissey singing about Rome one minute, the Pet Shop Boys singing about West End Girls the next. Then it was the turn of Soft Cell, who put out some memorable pop tunes in the 1981-1982 period. Their classic song is “Tainted Love” – and I suddenly realised that this was originally the de facto Northern Soul song, originally sung by Gloria Jones.

I mused that Wigan might have Northern Soul, but Chelsea showed a lot of Southern Heart.

At 11pm, I was home at last…top of the league and having even more laughs.

Played 2 – Goals For 12, Goals Against 0.

Happy Days.TEW06418556_00095