Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

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

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

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

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

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

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

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

“When are you coming back?”

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

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

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

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

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

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

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

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

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

We were here.

Panic over.

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

But we were never lost.

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

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From Two Hours And Penalties

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt : 9 May 2019.

A Gamble.

I had been looking at flights to Baku for ages. It was proving to be a tough nut to crack. In the back of my mind – or perhaps at the forefront of it – was the gnawing truth that by attending our second-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, it would undoubtedly mean that I would not be able to pounce on any standard flights to Baku as soon as the game had ended. The scrum-down would be even worse should Arsenal reach the final. The cheapest flights that I had seen – tying in with my need to get back to work on the Friday – were at the £550 mark.

Remember that I had originally messed up at work. Another colleague had already booked a holiday on the week of the final but thankfully my boss had allowed me three days off. But the thought of travelling to Baku was still very messy.

I was, sadly, looking to rely on an expensive flight with the club or with a travel company. But I guessed that the price for that would be not much shy of £1,000. Moscow in 2008 was around a grand, and with no accommodation. I went with the club to Stockholm in 1998 with one night in a hotel for £450, which seemed obscene at the time. For Baku, I suspected that a club trip would be another “in out” trip with no overnight stay too. That would hardly be fun. I’d be exhausted on the day of the game and also once I returned.

Thoughts of Baku were proving to be irritating rather than pleasurable. This was not how it was meant to be. When I visited Baku in 2017 for the Qarabag match, I only scratched the surface and I would like to see more.

In my match report for that trip, I ended with this comment :

“It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.”

But on Tuesday, things changed ever so slightly. At work, I learned of the job-sharing planned for the office staff to cover those four days when two would be off work. It looked like our little team would not be over-exposed.

That night, I opened things up. I looked at the cost of travelling out to Baku on the previous weekend and returning on the Saturday after the game.

I liked what I saw.

Six nights at a “three-and-half” star hotel right in the heart of Baku old town and some favourable flights from Heathrow to Baku via Istanbul – going – and Moscow – returning – would cost £979.

On Wednesday, cap in hand, I explained my thoughts to my manager.

He gave me the Friday off.

I thought again about the cost. But I am not following Chelsea to Boston nor Tokyo in the summer. I’ll probably go through the summer without any extended holiday anywhere. This would effectively be my summer holiday.

It was going to be “Baku or Bust.”

On Wednesday night – nothing like leaving it late, boy – I gambled and booked it all up.

Game Day.

On Thursday, the day of the game, I mentioned my plans to a couple at work, but my lips would be sealed at Stamford Bridge. I honestly did not want to be the ultimate Jonah and jinx it.

In the back of my mind, if we did not reach the final, and if Arsenal made it, I would bugger off to a coastal resort for the Thursday, thus avoiding it all. Should Valencia reach Baku, I would try to get a ticket and go to the final. There had been a personal precedent. Like many, I gambled in 2014 and spent four or five days in Albufeira on The Algarve  – along with two hundred other Chelsea – even though we had not qualified for the Champions League Final in Lisbon.

My mind was set. I assured myself that I had made the right decision.

Andy, a Tottenham fan, commented – “you’ll be fine, you’ll get through tonight.”

I was working a slightly later shift than I would have hoped. PD and Parky had met up for a romantic lunch earlier and, when I set off for London at just past four o’clock, they were travelling separately and so were well on their own way to Stamford Bridge, although not without a scare. I had purchased all three tickets for the game a while back, but Parky had not received his. He had presumed that his ticket had showed up at my house. It hadn’t. Sometimes Chelsea box office sends tickets individually, occasionally to the purchaser. Irritatingly, there is no standard procedure. He would need to pop in to the ticket office, cap in hand, before the game.

My route again took me south – leaving later, I feared horrific congestion on the M4 so I would go in again via the M3 – and my drive began with a little section over Salisbury Plain. It took me back to my time when I worked in Westbury, and to a specific day in April 1998 when Glenn and I drove along the very same road on the way to our European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second leg against Vicenza. On that day and this one, the weather was wet and the skies were grey.

1995 and 1998.

Of course there was the ECWC semi-final against Real Zaragoza in 1995 – one that rarely gets a mention these days – but in 1998 we travelled to London with a very real chance to progress to our first European final since 1971. In 1995, we had been thumped 3-0 in Northern Spain and we held little hope of progressing. Although we won 3-1 on the night, we narrowly missed out. Had we progressed, we would have met Arsenal in Paris.

But 1998 felt different.

Our team that season was a lot more credible, a lot more fancied. We had narrowly lost 1-0 in Northern Italy – I did not go – but were very confident of turning it around in the second-leg. For the first time, we watched the game in the newly-built Shed End, and we watched as Chelsea did a pre-match huddle for the very first time. We played, oddly, in our yellow away kit. Our team included such Chelsea greats as Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. It was a rotten and wet night, and when Vicenza scored a vital away goal, our spirits dropped. Thankfully, a crucial tap in from Gustavo Poyet just before half-time gave us hope. A fantastic cross from wide on the right wing from Vialli found the head of Zola, whose magnificent leap and header made it 2-2 over both legs, but with Vicenza still ahead. Mark Hughes came on with twenty minutes to go and after just six minutes, his ridiculous header to himself tee’d up the shot which smashed into the goal at the Matthew Harding end.

Everyone quotes the Bruges game in 1995 for the best atmosphere since the stadium was rebuilt, but Vicenza 1998 pushes it close. Only 33,810 were present, but we each played our part. We were euphoric. In those days, and many since, Alan’s lucky wine gums sent us on the way to victory and the subsequent final in Stockholm. We reconvened immediately after in our then local “The Harwood” – for those interested, this pub was featured in “The Football Factory”, or at least the outside scenes, and was also where Raquel Welch stopped for a drink while filming “Bedazzled” in a local film studio in 1967 – and downed a few celebratory drinks.

Our own little song during that evening in The Harwood was “The Self-Preservation Society” from “The Italian Job.” It felt right.

But there is an odd end to the story of our 1998 semi-final victory. The very next day, I was made redundant. It was one of the oddest twenty-four hours of my life. To add to the sadness, my – quite unexpected – redundancy came on the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. From the highest high on Thursday to the lowest low on Friday.

I would go to Sweden unemployed. It was an odd few weeks in my life.

In the end, my redundancy money funded a few holidays – Chelsea in the main – over the next few seasons, and my career took a very worthwhile tangential leap from quality assurance to logistics.

I have not looked back, apart from in these match reports.

Hello Goodbye.

I drove to London and it was probably my first solo drive to Stamford Bridge since…when?…many years ago. Maybe ten years? I don’t know. The weather was dire. Rain, rain, rain. And the traffic was slow once inside the M25. I texted a few friends to say that I would not be there until seven o’clock, maybe later. My mind continually went over my “Baku or Bust” gamble. Fucking hell Chelsea, don’t let me down.

I convinced myself to purse my lips if anyone asked my about my travel options. I convinced myself that I’d mutter some nonsense and folk would think me odd.

Ugh.

I thought about the game against Frankfurt not once.

Eventually, at around 7.10pm, I parked up at Queens Club. I briefly popped in to say hello to the troops at “Simmons” one last time this season. I was only there for five minutes. A very brief “hello goodbye” to a few chaps – I had to bite my lip when Daryl asked if I was going to Baku – and out into the evening. Thankfully, the rain was only slightly spitting.

Another European Semi-Final.

We have contended so many in recent years, eh? I have lived and breathed these ones.

1995 – Real Zaragoza, lost.

1998 – Vicenza, won.

2004 – Monaco, lost.

2005 – Liverpool, lost.

2007 – Liverpool, lost.

2008 – Liverpool, won.

2009 – Barcelona, lost.

2012 – Barcelona, won.

2013 – Basel, won.

2014 – Atletico Madrid, lost

Our Opponents.

I made my way to Stamford Bridge, past many Frankfurt fans, many with half-and-half scarves and many without tickets. There were rumours of ten thousand travelling to London. They are one of the big names of German football. They will indelibly be linked with Real Madrid and Hampden Park. But I have been aware that they were recently enjoying the pleasures of the German second tier if only for a few seasons. I found it odd that they have rid themselves of their red and black stripes in favour of an all-black home kit. They lost 6-1 at Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend.

I have no real Eintracht Frankfurt story to tell, apart from this one.

In the summer of 1988, the European Football Championships took place in Germany and while I was over in Germany in the March of that year, I wanted to enquire how tickets for games would be made available. I had a notion of going over to follow England. On one afternoon, with light fading, I made a bee-line for the HQ of the “Deutsche Fussball Bund” – the German FA – which was based a few metres from the old Wald Stadium of Eintracht Frankfurt. I popped in and asked a few questions. I remember a large terraced stadium, surrounded by trees, way out of the city centre. That stadium was replaced for the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Not much of a story. Not much of a 1988 tournament, England lost all three, including a 3-1 defeat to Russia in Frankfurt.

3,965 Kilometres.

By the long wall to the left of the West Stand forecourt, I noted that there was, again, a special Europa League display on show. On it, were the words “Distance to Baku 3,965kms, one match to go, together to Baku.”

What patronising bullshit.

“Thanks for fucking reminding us all how far away it is.”

“Together to Baku? With only a rumoured seven thousand tickets for a club with over twenty-thousand season ticket holders and with forty thousand regulars, how can we all be together?”

The Team.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – David Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mateo Kovacic – Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

Pre-Match.

PD was inside with Al when I reached my seat.

“Doesn’t seem dark enough to be a European night.”

I soon spotted Parky. He was in.

The German supporters were jammed in with fifteen minutes to go. Their banners and flags were out in force. The dominant colour was black, with only occasional hints of red. The teams came on to the pitch. The away end turned white. “The Shed” flag surfed over the heads of our fans in the Shed Upper. The Eden Hazard banner did the same below me. His last-ever game at Stamford Bridge? Almost certainly. We were given blue flags to wave, but the thrill of that has gone.

There was more “Together To Baku” bullshit signage inside Stamford Bridge.

0-45.

The game began. We were in our usual kit. The visitors were in white, white and black. They had the first real chance of the match, a well-claimed header from their star forward Luka Jovic. But we started well, and Olivier Giroud showed some good link up play in the first part of the game. We carved out a couple of chances and were dominating possession. Willian sent in a ball that Giroud miss-controlled at the near post.

The German fans were singing – not super loud, others have been louder – but certainly constant. The upper tier waved their flags, then the lower tier. It was a great sight.

With a quarter of an hour gone, Kepa flung himself to his left and reached and reached. He tipped a fine volley over the bar. It a second stunner in the past two games.

The noise wasn’t fantastic to be honest, but there were outbreaks of Chelsea cheer. The Germans did a full on bouncy with 90% involvement across both tiers. I suggested to Albert who sits in front that our immediate reply of a similar bouncy would be a poor imitation. It was indeed. Our bouncy has had it day. It peeked at Derby County in 2004, it has been poor ever since.

All of our play seemed to be down our left. We had obviously spotted a weakness there. Our pressure grew. Jorginho back healed out of danger in his own penalty box and we gasped. A couple of half-chances, or maybe quarter-chances gave us hope. Another fine move down our left with Hazard linking well. A Willian free-kick was flicked towards goal by a deft David Luiz header but this was scrambled off the line. Our confidence was rising.

On twenty-eight minutes, some lovely trademark twists from Eden and a fine through pass to Ruben allowed our young midfielder to look up and assess the space. Time stood still. He touched the ball purposefully towards the far post and we watched, almost disbelieving, as it rolled over the line and into the net. The crowd gave it our all.

YEEEEESSSSSSSS.

Alan : “THEY WILL HAVE TO COME AT US NOW.”

Chris : “COME ON MY LITTLE SPARKLEGRUBERS.”

I could relax. A little. We never looked in danger during the rest of the first period. But it was still a nervy night. It was as if we were too nervy to sing. We heard that Valencia had taken a lead, but Arsenal had equalised.

Thoughts of Baku.

46-90.

In the first few minutes of the second period, I spotted – or rather heard – a very rare thing at Stamford Bridge. I think it was in answer to a similar song emanating from the away section, but a few souls in the MHL sang one short bust of “Chelsea Til I Due.” Now then dear reader, this was a first in my memory. I’ve never heard it sung at Stamford Bridge before. I know it gets hashtagged to death, but it has never been a Chelsea song.

A song much loved by lower league teams.

Not us.

Just after, Frankfurt waltzed through our defence – a Luiz half-hearted tackle created space – and Jovic blasted home an equaliser.

I blame #ctid.

And my trip to Baku was now looking problematic.

For fuck sake.

We went to pieces. Our high defensive line of the first-half shuffled back fifteen yards. Our confidence left us. Alan used a lovely phrase, aimed at Lovacic or Jorginho or Willian –

“That’s a tickle. Not a tackle.”

The nerves increased fifty-fold.

The game became scrappy. There was frustration and pain in the stands.

I could not help think about Baku. Arsenal were going through. The thought of all those replica-shirt-wearing muppets was making me feel ill. Maybe I could stay in Istanbul, get a cheap hotel or hostel and a cheap flight home from there. I did enjoy Istanbul in 2014.

There were few shots in the second-half. But plenty of annoyance in how our form had dipped. Jorginho, I will say, was holding things together. We obviously missed Kante. Ruben was drifting through the game, not enjoying his previous spark. On the hour, the loudest chant of the entire night. It reached 1998 levels, but soon petered out. Pedro replaced Willian on the hour and rushed around a lot without doing a great deal. Frankfurt themselves threatened our goal. An away goal would kill us. As the clock advanced, I could hardly believe how nerves were taking over my whole brain and body .On seventy minutes, Christensen was replaced by Davide Zappocosta. A real head-shaker. Azpilicueta moved alongside Luiz.Our back four now consisted of three Daves and an Emerson.

To be fair, Zappacosta – more Fiat than Ferrari – did inject a little energy into our team. One long shot soon tested the Frankfurt ‘keeper Trapp.

Giroud turned to the Matthew Harding to rally the supporters.

This was arse about face.

We should have been rallying the players.

We needed to get to ninety minutes. Conceding a goal in these last fifteen, ten or five minutes would be the end. I checked to ensure Andres Iniesta was not on their bench. With five minutes to go, Ross replaced Ruben. A low shot from distance from Giroud tested the Frankfurt goalie, but he was able to gather the rebound.

Five minutes of extra-time were signalled.

Nerves.

We held on.

Phew.

I chatted to a few neighbours.

“This is our chance now. We are at home. We need to drag them over the line. We need to roar them home.”

Our implosion right after the re-start of the game had proved our undoing once again. There is such fragility in our ranks. How the hell have we secured Champions League football for next season? In the break, a stunning song was aired.

“Heroes” by David Bowie.

91-105.

Our fourth substitute of the game – have we ever had four in a competitive game before? – took place as Gonzalo Higuain replaced Giroud, whose early promise had drifted away. So, we attacked The Shed again. Barkley, looking keen, shot from way out but only narrowly missed the target. A break down our right – with me shouting “get closer” – resulted in a low tempting cross being raked across the goal and the ball was poked goal wards by Sebastien Haller. At first, I thought it was going wide. But a scrambled kick off the line from Luiz – excellent one minute, average the next – saved us. Just after, a corner was headed towards goal by the same Frankfurt player and Zappacosta headed it over.

We were hanging on grimly.

And my nerves were fraying by the minute.

Just before the second period of extra time, “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea is our name.”

105-120.

The players were tired now. Hazard tended to roam, rather than be tied to his usual position, attempting to sniff out areas of weakness and decay in the Eintracht defence. It was tough to watch. It was all Chelsea, but with hardly any real chances being created. A rasper from Zapacosta stung ‘keeper Trapp’s fingers as he tipped it over. My nerves were shot, my heartrate was increasing, my sinews were unravelling. This was just horrible to watch.

With five minutes to go, and from a Hazard cross, Trapp fumbled and Azpilicueta bundled the ball over the line but the referee, rightly, cancelled the goal but not before a nano-second of celebration from me as I saw him point towards our goal.

Penalties.

This was tense as it could ever be.

Tottenham and Liverpool – I hope everyone appreciates how I have not mentioned them until now – and also Arsenal had reached the two end of season European grand finales. England – or some parts of it – was watching to see if we could make it four. Chelsea were being typical Chelsea and going about it the hard away.

I had no real time to think of much. I was pacing around like an expectant father. Nobody was enjoying this. Stern faces in the Matthew Harding Upper. I was beginning to regret no “Maynard’s Wine Gums” had been present.

The penalties were to take place at The Shed.

I set my camera.

“No shaking, Chris.”

Penalty One : Haller – Eintracht – scored, rolled to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Two : Barkley – Chelsea – scored, a confident slice to Trapp’s right.

Penalty Three : Jovic – Eintracht – scored, a roller to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Four : Azpilicueta – Chelsea – saved, a spawling lunge from Trapp to his left.

Hell, Cesar.

My world caved in. Thoughts of Baku, of Arsenal, of Istanbul, but also of Munich when we came back from the dead.

Penalty Five : De Guzman – Eintracht – scored, a confident strike to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Six : Jorginho – Chelsea – scored, that little skip and a chip to the right of Trapp.

At this stage, I had the briefest of thoughts. All three of their penalties had gone to Kepa’s right. Would he go that way? Would he stay still? What the fuck would I do?

Penalty Seven : Hinteregger – Eintracht – saved, straight at Kepa, who just crouched and trapped the ball under his shin.

It was the most ridiculous penalty save that I have ever seen.

Oh now we fucking roared alright.

“COME ON.”

Penalty Eight : Luiz – Chelsea – scored, low and to the ‘keeper’s right again.

The whole stadium on edge now.

Penalty Nine : Paciencia – Eintracht – saved, a faltering run-up and a shot to Kepa’s right that he saved magnificently.

We roared once again.

Advantage Chelsea.

Drogba in Munich.

Memories.

We waited. Eden Hazard placed the ball where Peter Osgood’s ashes lie.

We waited.

Penalty Ten : Number Ten Hazard – Chelsea – his last-ever kick at Stamford Bridge – scored, a small run-up, a dink to Trapp’s right, the ‘keeper going left.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

To say I was happy would be way off the mark.

I was fucking euphoric.

I shook with joy, I screamed, the boys were going to Baku, the boys were going to Azerbaijan, I was going to Baku, I was going to Azarbaijan, oh my fucking goodness.

While PD and Al bounced and hugged and jumped and screamed, I stood shaking.

My eyes were a little moist.

Chelsea Football Club. I fucking love you.

Tales From Third Place

Chelsea vs. Watford : 5 May 2019.

At around 7.30pm on a clear and sunny but occasionally chilly evening, Glenn dropped me off outside my house. It had been another excellent day out in London with some fine friends. For Glenn, it was sadly his last game of this ridiculous season. I reached over and shook his hand and thanked him for driving for the second home game in a row. We very briefly exchanged thoughts about the manager once more. I thought back to the very first match of the season and I smiled as I said the word “Perth.” How can the campaign be almost over? How can that game that Glenn and I attended in Western Australia in late July seem like it only happened a month ago? Time and life is accelerating away far too damn quickly for me, for all of us.

Glenn had collected me at 7am. PD was already riding shotgun, and Lord Parky joined us soon after.

Both PD and Lord Parky were rather tattered and torn after their European travels in the week. Due to a delayed flight from Cologne, they did not get home until 4.30am on Saturday morning. They were both – as the saying goes – “hanging.” It was such an odd feeling to be watching their activities via Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday, with me being confined to barracks, working the late shift in Melksham. But by forgoing the semi-final – I don’t always make European semi-finals, Madrid 2014 certainly springs to mind – at least I had engineered some time off for the potential trip to Baku for the final.

Yes, it was an odd one alright. PD, Parky and little old me have been joined at the hip for most of this season and it was strange not to be over there in Frankfurt. It reminded me of an occasion, which sticks very vividly in my mind, from my early teen years when my parents, my grandparents and I squeezed into my father’s Renault and drove down to visit relatives in South Somerset. It hadn’t been a particularly long journey. But at the end of, it while my father tried to locate a place to park, my mother – who had been sitting alongside me – got out of the car and walked behind the car as it drove away, in order to pre-warn the relatives that we had arrived. I looked back at my mother, now separate from the main party, and it felt odd. That all happened almost forty years ago. Why do I mention it? I don’t know. It was if a connection had been lost, that my mother was now adrift, that she was on her own.

Forty years on, I never ever thought I would be referencing it to a Chelsea game in Frankfurt, but there you go.

Just before 10am, we entered the now familiar surroundings of “The Eight Bells” once again. The bar staff recognised us. It is soon becoming my local, one hundred miles from home. We were joined by Ollie and Julien from Normandy. I have known Ollie for a few years and we bump into each other at occasional games here and there. He is well known in the Chelsea family. It was lovely to see him again. I had not previously met Julien, his cousin, and it gave me a chance to reel off a few loosely remembered phrases from French “O level” in 1981.

I thanked Ollie for being one of the first few subscribers to this blogarama. We chatted about our love of “old school” stadia and we are both looking forward to the trip to Bramall Lane next season. I’m pretty happy with Sheffield United and Norwich City’s promotion to the top flight. We have already spoken about staying over in those cities next season, depending upon kick-off times. Elsewhere in the Football League pyramid, there were some sobering developments. Somerset’s only Football League team Yeovil Town were returned to non-league football after a spell of sixteen years in the Football League, rising to one single season in the Championship in 2013/14. A sadder tale involves the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County, who joined Yeovil Town in the second relegation spot. It does not seem so long ago that while Chelsea were toiling in the Second Division, Notts County were enjoying a few seasons – 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1983/84 – in Division One. We were last in the same division in 1991/92. A college pal, Craig, went to the Notts game at Swindon Town on the Saturday. I felt for him.

Why mention this?

I remember Notts County getting promoted ahead of us in 1980/81 when our season fell away dramatically after Christmas. And now they will be playing non-league football next season. A lot of newer Chelsea fans have a dig at people like me, always harking back to the days when Chelsea Football Club were under-performing and that these days are, by comparison, nothing to get too overemotional about. But I don’t care. Chelsea’s history in those bleaker years have coloured my opinions over the past twenty-five years of sustained success.

And that ain’t going to change.

We were then joined by John, Kev and Rich, from Edinburgh, all Hearts supporters. I have a lot of time for all three of them. On the Saturday, John had taken his two-year-old grandson to Tynecastle for the very first time. The pictures on Facebook had made me smile. The young lad fared better than the Jambos who lost 1-0 to Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock. Then the Kent lads showed up. It was all very pleasant. The pints of “Grolsch” were hitting the spot. I laughed as I turned to John and said “bollocks to the football, let’s just stay here.”

Ah, the football. After Tottenham’s calamitous performance against Bournemouth the previous afternoon – two sendings off and a late winner from Nathan Ake – we were now in a position where two more wins would secure us automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Oh what a crazy bloody season.

In previous conversations, we had been worried about getting points at Leicester City, and Watford would hardly be easy pickings. But two wins. Just two wins. It seemed achievable, and yet…

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

As is the case these days, the last home game of the season gives the commercial team at Chelsea Football Club a chance to display the new home kit for the forthcoming season, despite the fact that we will no doubt revert to the 2018/19 design for the games against Eintracht Frankfurt and Leicester City. As for the potential final in Baku, I am hoping for a repeat of 2012 and 2013 – when kits from those seasons were used – and not 2008, with a kit which was destined to bring back awful memories throughout the following campaign.

So. The 2019/20 Chelsea kit.

Have you got a minute?

I didn’t spot too many supporters wearing the new shirt on the walk to Stamford Bridge. I, like many, have spent the past few weeks fearing the worst, ever since a photograph of a new design was shared on the internet.

My thoughts?

The notion of honouring Stamford Bridge on the home shirt is not a ridiculous idea. Way back in 1995, Umbro took the decision to go for a panoramic shadow print of Old Trafford on the Manchester United home shirt. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it sold by the thousands, and millions. At the time, we all joked that it was the nearest many United fans would get to Old Trafford.

Stamford Bridge has – let’s be honest – rather a hotchpotch selection of stands. The East Stand is probably the most iconic – the most recognisable – but the three newer ones are of varying heights, with differences in sizes, in shape, in impact. So, dear reader, if I was given the brief to design a new Chelsea shirt embodying our home since 1905, I may well have chosen other sights and motifs.

The Peter Osgood statue, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1970 FA Cup Final triumph – when The King scored in every round – would be a good place to start. A subtle shadow print of a single image over the chest perhaps. Or if the mantra of “less is more” is not adhered to, and the brief was for multiple images, then how about the ivy on The Shed Wall, or the Gatling Gun weather vane from atop the East Stand? How about the “Chelsea Football Club” signage on the wall between The Shed and the West Lower, which in itself is a nod to the wording used on the old Leitch East Stand which welcomed supporters to Stamford Bridge for decades?

Or how about a single panoramic image – as subtle as possible – of that often-referenced sweeping black and white panorama from the ‘twenties?

Well, instead of this, the design team chose – as far as I can muster – repeated images of circular roof trusses, roof supports and side screens.

And not just a few subtle dabs here and there. The ramshackle design covers the entire shirt. It appears that random geometric shapes have been thrown together.

It is – let me be clear here – fucking hideous.

The blue of the shorts looks to me, from my subsequent match photos, to be a slightly darker hue than the main body of the shirt. And although the decision was to, thankfully, maintain the classic white socks, the design seems to be a year late. The current 2018/19 kit design is meant to reflect the 1983/84 kit, but next season’s socks are closer to the 1983/84 style than this season. And whereas both new shirts and shorts are solidly blue – albeit in three different tones – the socks have a red band, therefore not tying it in with either shorts or socks. Oh, apart from an oddly-placed red stripe under the rear of the collar. Additionally, the images of the rectangles and circles that make up the design appear to be smudged. Not crisp. Not clear. As a metaphor for the way parts of the club operates, it is – however – perfect.

It’s a bloody mess.

Why should I care, though?

Well, the sad fact is that I do care. It looks like a dog’s dinner. It looks like the sort of children’s pyjamas that are on sale in the bargain aisle at “Asda.” And, if the reaction of the vast majority of Chelsea supporters that I interact with is to go by, it is rated as one of the worst ever. And that means, ergo, that Nike won’t be getting the desired sales returns that they might have hoped. Which defeats the bloody object of designing a new kit in the first place.

I hate modern football part 259.

On the pitch down below me, Watford surprised us all with their attacking verve in the first-half. They were by far the more enterprising of the two teams. They buzzed about us like proper hornets in their waspish shirts. The highlight from our players was a truly magnificent save from Kepa as he flung himself to his right to tip over a Troy Deeney drive. The away fans in their yellow and black were enjoying their team’s early dominance. We, however, struggled to get a foothold on the game. Sadly, N’Golo Kante was injured within the first ten minutes and we missed his drive in the first-half. He was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Although I did not see the game on Thursday, many mentioned that he was our best player in Frankfurt. Gerard Deulofeu managed to find space to threaten our goal and shots were fired in from outside the box. We really struggled, and rarely carved out chances.

There was, at last, a nice little give and go between Gonzalo Higuain and Pedro. The Spaniard’s drive flashed past the far post.

There was an penalty shout for a foul on David Luiz. I wasn’t convinced.

At the break, although I am sure the people that I bumped into didn’t all offer this blunt, and hardly erudite, opinion, but the general consensus was :

“Fucking shit.”

Thankfully, the second-half was a vast improvement.

I am not normally a huge fan of short corners at all. However, after Eden Hazard forced a save from the Watford ‘keeper Ben Foster, the subsequent corner was played short to Pedro. Hazard clipped the return into the six-yard box and our Ruben rose virtually unchallenged.

A strong downward header, and we were one up.

Hazard blasted at Foster. We were all guns blazing now.

Two minutes later, another Hazard corner on the far side, but this time a direct approach. Another free header though, this time from the head of Luiz.

Two up and coasting.

Those three points were looking good.

This was more like it, Chelsea. With the confidence of a two goal cushion, our play looked a lot more appetising. There was one surging run from our Eden – possibly the last that I will ever capture on film at Stamford Bridge – which had the Watford defence back peddling and questioning their choice of career.

We went close with efforts from Pedro, Loftus-Cheek and Higuain. The dangerous Deulofeu would not be quietened at the other end. He slammed a low shot wide of the far post.

With fifteen minutes to go, Higuain – who had attempted a few tricky passes to others – saw a hint of space and lost his marker. He was set free inside the box by the excellent Pedro, and the Argentinian – we share the same shit barber – dinked a delicate lob over the ‘keeper.

Chelsea 3 Watford 0.

Game over. Almost.

Watford hit the bar. They deserved a goal to be fair.

Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain and contrived to bugger up a couple of chances. In the very last minute, Dave gave the captain’s armband to Gary Cahill, who replaced David Luiz. His season has been a painful one. It was lovely to see him in Chelsea blue one last time.

He’s won it all, you know.

A last jink from Eden and a last shot on goal.

It did not matter. A three-nil win was the final result.

Meanwhile, up in Huddersfield, the home team had – somehow – managed to hold Manchester United to a 1-1 draw. On the way home, all but the driver caught up on some sleep, and as we woke we heard that Brighton had drawn 1-1 at Arsenal.

That was it. The others had committed hari kari and Chelsea Football Club were guaranteed Champions League football in 2019/20.

What a bloody crazy season.

On Thursday, we take on Eintracht Frankfurt and some of their ten thousand-strong travelling army.

I will see some of you there.

I’ll be the one not wearing pyjamas.

Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From Lime Street

Everton vs. Chelsea : 17 March 2019.

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

We were slightly delayed touching down at Heathrow on Saturday evening after our four-day jamboree in Kiev. There had been high winds, and much rain, in England while our stay in Ukraine had been relatively mild with clear skies and startling sun. We had been truly blessed. But our Air France plane needed to enter the stacking system over South-East England as the winds caused delays in landing. As we circled above London, I commented to my two travelling companions L-Parky and P-Diddy that we had gone through the whole of Saturday without knowing a single football result. We eventually hit terra firma at about 7.30pm. Into the car an hour later, we then began the homeward journey. PD soon fired up his moby to check on the scores. I had forgotten that the FA Cup had shared the billing with the Premier League. Manchester City had squeaked past Swansea City in the cup. There were no games that had affected our position in the league.

Thankfully, the rain soon stopped on the drive home. I dropped Parky off at about 10.30pm, PD at 10.45pm, and I was home at 11pm.

At 11.25pm, I wrote the inevitable “just got in” post on Facebook.

“Kiev. The final reckoning; four days, five goals, a “few” drinks, almost nine hundred photos, one chicken Kiev and thousands of memories. The photos won’t get shared until Monday evening as we are off to Everton tomorrow. Thanks to those who walked alongside me. You know who you are.

Kiev. You were bloody fantastic.”

At 7.25am the next morning, there was another post on Facebook.

“Up early for another couple of days away following The Great Unpredictables.

Let’s Go To Everton.”

On The Road.

I had woken at 6.45am. It felt like I had only slept for an hour. I soon realised that Wolves had beaten Manchester United the previous evening. The news had completely passed me by until then. I guzzled down a black coffee before setting off for Liverpool. There was no Parky with us on this away day. After collecting PD at 7.45am, I made my way over to Warminster to collect Young Jake who was Parky’s late substitute. It would be another new ground for him. I fuelled up at Yarnbrook – petrol for the car, a double-espresso for me – and headed through Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon and skirted past Bath. It was a familiar route north. Thankfully it was a mainly dry drive. There was a McBreakfast at Strensham with another coffee. At Stafford, I was feeling exceptionally drowsy and so bought two Red Bulls. The hangover from Kiev was real, but the caffeine kept me going, six hits all told.

It all paid off. I gathered a second wind and was fine for the rest of the day.

I made the oh-so familiar approach into Liverpool, and was soon parked up at The Liner Hotel which would be the base for our stay. Yes, dear reader, I had long ago decided that driving five hundred miles in one day after the exertions of Kiev would be foolhardy. I was parked-up at about 1pm.

Despite this being St. Patrick’s Day – celebrated in this city more than most in England – I had been lucky enough to get a great a price for this hotel, which soon impressed us with its stylings and ambiance. Checking in time was 2pm so we headed over to a boozer that I had researched a few weeks back.

A Pub On The Corner.

“Ma Egertons” was a comfy and cosy little pub, with just a snug and a saloon, and it boasted a reasonable selection of ales, cheap prices and the locals were friendly. A high percentage of Scousers that I have met in real life have been fine, just fine. This might not be a popular opinion among our support but I cannot lie. There were a few Evertonians sitting close by and they did not bother us. The pub faces the rear doors of the Liverpool Empire and its walls were covered in photographs of those that had walked the boards over the years. My distaste of large and impersonal super pubs has been aired before. This one was just up my street or Lord Nelson Street to be precise. Three pints of lager went down very well. We were joined by Alan and Seb, father and son, from Atherstone in the Midlands who had travelled up by train. There was some talk about our current ailments – club, ownership, team, spirit, hunger, manager – and it all got too depressing for my liking. I just wanted to enjoy the moment.

My pre-match thoughts were simply this.

“Goodison Park has often been a tough venue for us, but Everton are shite.”

I am expecting a letter from Sky to appear on my doormat any minute for me to join their team of football pundits. Such bitingly perceptive analysis surely needs a wider audience.

We checked into the hotel and caught a cab up to Goodison. Despite the cabbie wearing a royal blue sweatshirt, he was a “red”. The cab fare was less than a tenner. Bargain.

The Old Lady.

Now then, anyone who has been reading these journals of my life on the road with Chelsea since 2008 will know how much I love – adore even – Goodison Park. If we had more time, and with this being Jake’s first visit, I would undoubtedly have completed my usual clockwise patrol around the four stands. But the desire was to “get in” so I followed suit. We met up with Deano, newly arrived back in Blighty after a couple of months in India. He was with Mick, also from Yorkshire, who has popped into these reports a few times of late.

With the plans to move into a new stadium – at Bramley Moore Dock – in around 2023, there will not be many more visits to this architectural delight at the northern end of Stanley Park.

Maybe four more.

So here are a few photographs to augment this match report. On a previous visit to Goodison, there was a lone image of Alan Ball displayed from the balcony of the Gwladys Street balcony. On this day, pre-match, images of Dixie Dean, Alex Young, Joe Royle, Bob Latchford, Graeme Sharpe and Duncan Ferguson – “the number nines” – were displayed above some twinkling mosaics.

Of course, I would have preferred an image of Tommy Lawton too.

In the cramped concourse, a rare treat for me; a bottle of lager. I chatted to the Bristol lot, our memories still fresh from our break in Ukraine.

Another Life.

Just as I started school in the spring of 1970, Everton won the League Championship on 1 April and Chelsea won the FA Cup on 29 April. My memory, as I have detailed many times before, is of the name “Chelsea” being bandied about in the schoolyard and I was consciously or subconsciously – who knows? – attracted to the name.

It so easily could have been Everton.

I could so easily be an Everton fan.

After all, Goodison Park was the only stadium that my father had ever visited until I came along. It would have felt right, in some ways, for Dad to encourage an Evertonian future for me.

At such a young age, I had no real control of my life choices.

I wasn’t even five.

But then along came Peter Osgood and I was Chelsea for life.

But in April 1970, my life witnessed another “Sliding Doors” moment for sure.

Those Final Moments.

While we have “Park Life” and “The Liquidator” before games at Chelsea – and “Blue Is The Colour” (and “One Step Beyond” if the moment requires it) after games – at Everton we are treated to a couple of Toffee-coloured tunes.

“And it’s a Grand Old Team to play for.”

“Z-Cars.”

I always think the first one is sung by Lily Savage. It does sound rather camp.

The second one is class, pure class.

It always gets me excited for the game ahead. Those drums and pipes, the extended introduction, the sense of anticipation, the glimpse of the players emerging from the ridiculously tight tunnel.

The Team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We had jettisoned the blue socks of Kiev to go all yellow.

Everton these days play in white socks just as they did in 1970.

Yellow Fever.

Yet again, I found myself behind the goal-line at Goodison, but with a clear unimpeded view of the pitch from the second row of the Upper Bullens Road. There were no fans allowed in the first row. Alongside me was Tombsie, one of those who I see everywhere yet don’t really know at all, and he was with his son. He was clearly another fan of Goodison Park.

“Proper stadium.”

We bossed the first-half, no doubt. Our early movement was fine. Ross Barkley – booed, obviously – was neat, and Jorginho was excellent. As ever, the energy of Kante was wonderful to witness. We were all over them. There were a couple of early chances for Eden Hazard, twisting and turning – and if I am honest, probably hogging the ball too much for Maurizio Sarri’s liking – and finding pockets of space everywhere.

Eden Hazard was soon peppering the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street. A shot low after a snake-like wriggle inside the box at the near post forced a late save from Jordan Pickford. Another low drive from a feint further out rattled the other post with the ‘keeper well beaten.

It was, simply, all us.

A magnificent lofted ball from Jorginho found the fine run of the lurking Higuain but the Argentinian was not supported by any team mate and the chance went begging.

After this very bright start, the game settled to a gentler pace. But Everton seemed to be totally lacking confidence, concentration, class and cohesion.

At last a chance for Everton, but Calvert-Lewin drove the ball well over.

There was a head-scratching moment at the other end when Barkley nimbly danced past some defenders with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have liked, but his attempted cross or shot was sliced into thin air.

“What the hell happened there?”

Shots from both Jorginho and then Barkley were fired straight down Pickford’s throat.

Our strikes on goal were mounting up, but – we know our football – so were the concerns among the away contingent that we could well pay for our wasting of these good chances.

Another shot for Everton but Gomes fired one straight at Kepa.

The Chelsea chances were drying up now, and Pedro should have fared better after freeing up some space wasted a good chance, striking the ball wide from a central position. From a Sigurdsson free-kick, an Evertonian header not cleared the bar but the roof if the Park Lane Stand.

Pedro then had two chances. A prod wide, and then – after creating some space with one of his trademark spins and dribbles – a shot which he narrowly dragged past the right-hand post.

The whistle blew for half-time. It had been all Chelsea. We had been all over Everton like a rash.

They had been hit with an attack of yellow fever.

Yellow Bellies.

Within the first two minutes of the re-start, the mood of the game completely changed. Calvert Lewin drilled a long ball into the six-yard box from out wide and there seemed to be a lot of ball-watching. Soon after, Kepa reacted well at the near post to deflect an effort over.

With just four minutes of the second-half played, our afternoon on Merseyside collapsed. From a corner in that lovely part of Goodison that marks the coming together of the two remaining Archibald Leitch stands, Calvert-Lewin met the incoming ball firmly. Kepa did well to block it, but Richarlison – until then, a spectator – turned the ball in. He reeled away and I felt sick.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

At last the Evertonians made some noise, so quiet until then.

The home team, though not creating a great deal, found themselves in our half more now. I had this quirky and whimsical notion that with them attacking a lot more, the game would open up more and we might, just might, be able to exploit some open spaces. But our chances were rare. A rushed slash from Alonso which only hit the side netting summed up our efforts.

We were, visibly, going to pieces.

There were no leaders cajoling others and nobody keen to take ownership of the ball. It reminded me of a similarly painful showing – a 0-2 defeat – at the same ground seven years earlier under the tutelage of Vilas-Boas.

The mood in the away section was now turning venomous.

PD alongside me was hurling abuse every thirty seconds.

I stayed quiet.

I was just hurting.

Just after the hour, there were piss-taking roars as Ross Barkley was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Then Olivier Giroud replaced the increasingly immobile Higuain.

Just after, a rash tackle took place inside the Chelsea penalty area. It was up the other end and my sightlines were not great. But it looked a nailed-on penalty. Alonso was the guilty culprit and PD almost exploded with rage.

We waited.

Sigurdsson struck low, Kepa saved, but the rebound was tucked home by the Icelandic midfielder.

Everton 2 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced the now ineffective Jorginho.

We had a little flurry of attacking activity with our Callum coming inside nicely and flashing a shot at Pickford but the England ‘keeper tipped it over.

It had been – severe cliché warning – a classic game of two halves.

And we had been hung, drawn and quartered by our lack of guile, togetherness and steel. Our confidence had seeped out of every pore as each minute passed by. And there was a shocking lack of courage and passion.

We had been yellow-bellied incompetents.

Sigh. I have done a lot of sighing this season.

My comment as we slowly made our way out of the wooden top tier summed it all up.

“Sarri’s team talk at half-time must have been fucking diamond.”

We walked down Walton Lane and caught a cab – another “red” – on the junction of the road that bends towards Anfield. We headed down into the city centre, tails well and truly between our legs.

And I knew that there would be a meltdown taking place everywhere. I was just too tired for all of that. New fans, old fans, arguments, talk of disarray, bitter comments, questions of loyalty, a civil war in the camp.

Sigh.

A sub par season? Yep. Compared to the past ten or fifteen years. But my love of this club keeps me going.

I am no football snowflake.

Lime Street.

I found myself outside Lime Street station for the very first time – incredibly – since a game at Anfield in December 1987. On every single visit to Merseyside with Chelsea since that game – all forty-two of them – I have enjoyed pre-matches either up at the pubs near the two stadia, around Albert Dock, or at a couple of locations nearer the river.

Please believe me when I say that Lime Street after games at both ends of Stanley Park in the ‘eighties was as an intimidating place for away fans as any location in England. In those days, we would be kept waiting inside the grounds – allowing home supporters to regroup in the city centre – and we would be walked down to Lime Street en masse. There were even, possibly apocryphal, tales of scallies in flats with air rifles taking pot shots at Mancunians.

Around the station, it would often be a free-for-all.

I remarked to Jake that on my very first visit to Goodison Park, in March 1986, I was chased by some scallies from Lime Street to the National Express Coach Station just around the corner. I was with two college mates – Pete and Mac – and we managed to jump onto a coach headed for Stoke and Stafford just before the lads caught us.

It was a very narrow escape.

The memories of Lime Street returned. It felt so odd to be walking around an area for the first time in over thirty-two years. The large and imposing St. George’s Hall – images of Bill Shankly and his hubris back in 1974 and then the Hillsborough campaigners in more recent times – was floodlit in green for St. Patrick’s Day.

Memories of the area returned.

The infamous graffiti on a bridge on the slow approach to Lime Street : “Cockneys Die.”

Catching a bus up to Anfield in May 1985 and attempting to put on a Scouse accent so not to be spotted as an away fan.

On a visit to Goodison Park later in 1986, I remember seeing that the Cocteau Twins were in concert at the nearby Royal Court Theatre. I was sure that night that Pat Nevin would have stayed up in Liverpool to attend. I remember travelling back to Stoke, totally gutted that I had not realised that my favourite band were in town.

So many memories.

Jake and PD piled in to a local chippy. We tried our best to dodge the locals who were flitting between boozers. Shenanigans – one of the most over-worked words in the US these days, but quite appropriate on a St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool – were in full force. Being three Chelsea fans among a sea of red, blue and green Liverpudlians and Evertonians on St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool city centre is a potentially high risk activity.

PD retired for the night.

Kiev and Liverpool had taken its toll.

Into “Ma Egerton’s” for one last pint, and – for me – my first ever bowl of Scouse.

Unlike the football, it warmed me.

It was an early night for me too. Over the road to the hotel, and a relaxing evening watching the Real Betis vs. Barcelona game, a rare treat for me. I very rarely watch football on TV.

We now have a break from Chelsea for a long fortnight and I think I need it.

After Ukraine and England, Wales next.

See you in Cardiff.

Tales From A Shocker

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 30 January 2019.

Another tough match report. Are you sitting uncomfortably? Let’s go.

At half-time, I went on a little wander to meet up with Parky and PD who had travelled down independently and were in fact staying the night in a Bournemouth town centre hotel. I soon found them, full of giggles and laughs, and we gave each other a hug. They had enjoyed a good old pre-match at the usual pub we frequent on visits to the town, and were not particularly bothered by our performance thus far. They had been sitting next to Alan and Gary towards the corner flag. My position had been towards the half-way-line of the stand along the side of the Vitality Stadium, in the back row all but one, and I had driven down with Young Jake. I bumped into a few other Chelsea mates during the break. I assured one set of friends that things would improve in the second period.

“We get one, we’ll get a few” and my comment was met with nods of agreement.

Well. That shows how much I know about football, or rather this current Chelsea football team.

Fackinell.

So, The Chuckle Brothers had taken two Chuckle Busses to Dorset. PD had collected Parky at around 10.30am and at around 12.30pm they were ensconced at “The Moon On The Square”, no doubt enjoying the freedom of a midweek drink-up, and they had unsurprisingly bumped into a few of the travelling Chelsea army during their six or so hours of guzzling. I left work at just after 4 o’clock, and collected Young Jake in Warminster half-an-hour later. He had taken a half-day holiday from his warehouse job in Salisbury. His last game was the Manchester City game when he took my ticket at the last minute. He was nice and excited to be ticking off another new away stadium. This was an ideal midweek away game for me. I didn’t have to leave work early. Just a sixty-mile drive. Perfect. Despite a pre-advised bottleneck on the main road into Bournemouth, I guessed that I’d be parked up outside the stadium in a private driveway at around 7pm. We stopped at Shaftesbury – a town which is home of the cobbled hill which was famously featured in the famous “Hovis” commercial of the mid ‘seventies – and grabbed a burger and some fish and chips, sustenance for the evening’s predicted cold weather. Just south of our pit-stop, the usual route was closed, so I was sent on a diversion south-east across the hills and fields of Cranborne Chase. It was a route that I have never taken before, but it was a fine drive, alongside lanes with high hedges, and little traffic. There were signposts for Melbury Abbas, Tarrant Gunville, Tarrant Hinton, Tarrant Launceston, Tarrant Monkton, Tollard Royal, Gussage St. Michael and Three Legged Cross. I have said it before; Dorset has the best names. We drove past several magnificent country pubs. On another day, with more time, we would have been tempted to stop I am sure.

We hit the expected traffic snarl-up on the main Salisbury to Bournemouth A338. But as expected, at just after seven o’clock, I edged into my pre-paid parking space on Littledown Avenue, just a five-minute walk from the stadium. Another Chelsea car was parked alongside me. This would be my sixth visit to the stadium that used to be called Dean Court. We have garnered three wins in the last three seasons. I have enjoyed them all. The floodlights at the Vitality Stadium are on four poles, how old-fashioned. It was a photo opportunity that I could not avoid. The weather was cold, but not drastically so.

To be honest, the Cherries of Bournemouth have been in my thoughts more this past year or so than in other times. We played them in the League Cup at the same stage in 2017 and 2018. They walloped us three-nil in January 2018 – three second-half goals, mmm – and I have been impressed with Eddie Howe’s team this season. Out in Australia, I was reunited with Uncle Brian, Bournemouth-born and a Bournemouth supporter and match-goer in his youth, who I had last seen on an evening in 1994 when I watched a Chelsea League Cup game at Dean Court with him and his brother Peter. His son, Paul, was born in Bournemouth but became a Chelsea supporter when he heard about my fanaticism for the club on a visit to England in 2008. Paul’s children and grandchildren support a mixture of Arsenal, Chelsea and Bournemouth. I know Paul has an understandable soft-spot for his home town team.

So, I have family ties on my mother’s side to Bournemouth.

But I have much stronger links on my father’s side. My father was born in Wareham on the Isle Of Purbeck. Dad did not grow up as a football fan and his childhood footballing memories are rare. I always remember him saying that Wareham’s kit consisted of a shirt consisting of brown and yellow halves, maybe like one of those mint humbugs, or perhaps a two-tone toffee, that might well be purchased in one of those old-fashioned sweet shops that are rare these days. His mother was a native of Parkstone, nearer Poole than Bournemouth, and it saddens me that I only have one very scant memory of her since she passed away when I was only two years old. But my father told me that his mother was a very passionate football supporter, and a very outspoken Labour supporter to boot, and I often wondered if my footballing passions came from her, maybe more so than my football-playing grandfather on my mother’s side, who liked football, but to no real degree.

Outside the away end, I met up with my friend Paul from nearby Poole – for whom I had a ticket – who I last saw in the summer of 2012 when he very kindly put my name on the guest list of a Buzzcocks gig in the musical venue that he helped run. On the night of the gig, we met up in a pub for a pint before heading off to the venue. It was a fantastic gig, the first time that I had seen the band, and it was an excellent night. I saw the same band with Parky last summer in Bath, another enjoyable night. With the recent sad passing of Pete Shelley, there will be no more.

A few years ago, my Canadian cousin Kathleen – whose grandfather Bill and my grandmother Gladys were brothers and sisters (they had the magnificent surname Lovelace) – shared the marriage certificate of my grandmother and grandfather. Well, lo and behold, not only was my grandmother Gladys living on Britannia Road in Parkstone at the time, her house was no more than a two-minute walk from the pub that we had visited, and my grandparents were married at St. Peter’s Church, which sits no more than fifty yards from the venue where we saw the gig. Who knows, my grandparents might have even had their reception in the pub itself.

In addition, my father’s cousin Julie – she went from an Axon to a Loveless through marriage, there is a lot of love in my family it seems – lived in Bournemouth and left my mother and myself a nice little sum in her will when she sadly passed away in 2004. It funded my first trip to the US with Chelsea, thus opening up a whole new chapter in my life, and I owe dear Julie so much.

So, yeah – Bournemouth, and Dorset. I have ties with the area.

There was a quick line at the turnstiles and after a bag check – “don’t tie that security band too hard, my leg will fall off” – I soon bumped into Alan and Gary. Alan was talking to Welsh Kev about the horrible thought of Liverpool winning their first title since 1990.

Alan had contingency plans : “I’m booking a flight to the furthest place away from England if they win. Tristan de Cunha looks the best bet.”

“Love it Al, never thought that I would hear the words Tristan de Cunha at a Chelsea away game.”

Tristan de Cunha I thought, sounded like a striker that Newcastle United might buy.

Paul had mentioned that Chelsea had gone through a morning training session at Poole Town Football Club. The team play in the same division as my local lot Frome Town and, having left their old stadium, now play on a make-shift pitch adjacent to a junior school that Paul’s granddaughter attends. The players – maybe not all of them – popped into the school apparently. A nice gesture, though I had to wonder why Maurizio Sarri was so keen to continue this practice. Surely there is no need for a training session on game days?

I was happy with my position high in the stand. My camera was poised.

Right, the team.

  1. Arizabalaga.
  2. Azpilicueta.
  3. Emerson.
  4. Jorginho.
  5. Rudiger.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Pedro.
  8. Kante.
  9. Higuain.
  10. Hazard.
  11. Kovacic.

For Bournemouth, Artur Boruc and no Asmir Begovic, but no Callum Wilson either. Nathan Ake was in their defence. Dominic Solanke was on their bench.

The ground took a while to fill. Is there a more unassuming football club in the top division than Bournemouth? They have a small and homely ground, are managed by a genuinely decent and softly-spoken manager, and seem to be ridiculously happy just to be there. Even their stadium is painted pretty pink, the corporate colour of the sponsor.

No threat?

…mmm.

“Sweet Caroline” was played on the PA before the game – it was played right after our defeat at The Emirates a few weeks back – and has somehow made its way from Fenway Park in Boston to these shores.

I despise it.

How is it remotely a song that is seen to be suited for football stadia?

Sigh.

The teams entered the pitch, Chelsea in dull grey and day-glo orange. While the Chelsea supporters to my left tussled with the bright yellow “CHELSEA HERE CHELSEA THERE” banner the home fans – those in the stadium – chimed in.

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

As the flag disappeared down the seats, I noted that the red staff of the lion was on the wrong side. It had been hoisted completely upside down. A metaphor for the evening? We would find out later.

The game began with many empty seats in both home and away areas. I struggled to understand how we, as a club, can’t fill out every one of our 1,200 seats at a stadium just one hundred miles from Stamford Bridge. It surprised me to be honest, midweek game or not. In the concourse, at least, I had spoken to a few fans from my home area that had previously been unable to attend any of the three other games at the Vitality Stadium due to the dearth of tickets.

In the first few minutes, David Luiz was painfully struck in the face from a shot and he stayed down for a while. But Chelsea began the strongest, if measured in terms of possession. Within five minutes, most of the previously unoccupied seats in the home areas were filled.

The away support boomed : “Here For The Chelsea.”

An early chance, the first of the game, presented itself to a lunging Mateo Kovacic who just about reached a cross from Pedro. The header flew towards goal, but Boruc finger-tipped it on to the bar. It was, sadly, a stunning save.

We then dominated for long periods, with the trademark passing that we have got to love – cough, cough – this season. Amidst the constant passing, if not constant movement of our players, N’Golo Kante was excellent, tackling and breaking up play. I absolutely adore his economy of movement; how he can intercept a ball and touch the ball once but with absolutely the correct amount of firmness and direction that his next touch is in space, moving forward, effortless. He is a magnificent footballer. I promised myself that I would pay extra attention to Gonzalo Higuain, and I watched his off-the-ball movement and active participation throughout the first-half. I liked what I saw. He made a few blind runs, but a couple were offside, though the fault was with the passer rather than him, as there was often a delay after the optimal time to release the ball. He looked like he has goals in him. It is just difficult to gel immediately with a new set of players. There was no space in the areas that Higuain was attempting to exploit, but at least he was trying his level best to find pockets of space in preparation for a ball. Jorginho was breaking up play more than usual, and there were bursting runs from Emerson on the left. David Luiz attempted one or two long bombs from defence, and at least this meant there was a variation in our play. Too often this season we have only been interested in half-hearted attempts to pass the ball in the way that the manager craves.

Not too long into the game, someone must have heard that Tottenham were losing.

Out came a song, lamenting the joyful failure of them to win the top division.

“Spurs. Spurs Are Falling Apart Again.”

There was a shot from Pedro, a shot from Hazard, a shot from Dave. But all were easily cushioned by Boruc.

“Keep knocking on the door, Chelsea” I thought to myself.

The noise from the away support wasn’t great. Maybe our song sheets were upside too.

“Not a bad game, though, Jakey-Boy.”

I was sure a goal would come. I am, undoubtedly – unlike in life itself – an optimistic bugger when I go to games.

There was the slightest of chances for the impressive David Brooks after a move on their left but it amounted to nothing. We still kept trying to break through the two banks of eighteen. It was like trying to navigate a maze. Amidst our dominance, there were two lung-busting bursts right through the centre of the pitch, the first from the nimble Brooks and the second from Joshua King. The resulting shots did not threaten Kepa. Only towards the end of the first-half did the mood among our section of the away support get frustrated, with the usual moans about over-passing and the grey dullness of it all.

So, half-time and my wayward prediction for the second-half.

Oh boy.

What happened during the second forty-five minutes?

God only knows.

I was busy taking the third of only three wide-angle photographs during the game when I heard a roar from the home areas. Barely two minutes had elapsed. I had missed the goal, in reality, though the final shot is captured on my camera, but is not worthy enough to share.

Bloody hell.

Bournemouth 1 Chelsea 0.

The goal scorer? Josh King, apparently.

Someone once opined that “anger is an energy” but although there was much anger in the stand, there did not seem to be too much anger on the pitch, nor certainly any real energy from our players in attempting to battle through our set-back and stretch the defence, and run and run and run some more.

The mood in the away section worsened now.

The home fans were absolutely buoyant and it was not surprising.

Pedro set up a lovely run from Kante but the ball just evaded him. Where is Frank Lampard when you need him?

We didn’t really huff and puff, we just pushed the ball from hither and thither.

Of course we had much possession, but it led us up blind alleys. On one or two occasions, I saw Hazard break from a wide to central position, pointing behind him for the ball to be released to the overlapping Emerson. Emerson advanced but no ball was forthcoming. Instead, it seemed to me we wanted to spread the ball out to our right flank where Dave and Pedro, and then Willian as his replacement, whipped in an unending supply of poor crosses, the majority of which were low. Ironically, there had been a superb low cross from Dave in the first-half during our period of domination, but it missed everyone. But in the second-half his final ball was woeful. It was a motif for the whole second period. I felt sorry for Emerson, who at least showed willing. Our Eden was poor. If ever there was a game that he needed to gather by the scruff of the neck then this was it. But the whole team looked insecure and unsure of each other. After a reasonable start to the game, Jorginho greatly disappointed. Kovacic too.

Just after an hour of increasingly frustrating football, David Luiz attempted a clever pass but miss-controlled and the ball eventually fell to the breaking Brooks, who swiped the ball past Arizzabalaga after side-stepping a challenge from the recovering Luiz. He raced over to the corner and my stomach ached.

Bournemouth 2 Chelsea 0.

The home support now seized their chance for revenge : “Here For The Bournemouth.”

Quite.

The buggers.

This then roused the away support but I did not like the tone.

“You’ve won fuck all.”

Goodness sake, Bournemouth are a small club, with a small fan base, a minute stadium, with moderate means, and probably limited aspirations. They are quite benign, and no rival to us. They are, I am sure they will be the first to admit, over-achieving at this level. They are not an Arsenal, nor a Tottenham, nor even a Middlesbrough or a Leeds United. Mugging off their fans was a poor show. We are followed by some proper morons.

There was also the “we’ve won it all” dirge, which is plainly not true. Yokohama in 2012 is proof.

Sigh.

Right after the second goal, Higuain was replaced by Olivier Giroud. I could not believe it. I wasn’t expecting the manager to play two up front – “as if” – but I was surprised he had replaced his man. Anyway, like for like, blah, blah, the same shape, the same bloody shape as always.

“You don’t know what you’re doing” rained down at Sarri.

A lad behind me : “it’ll be 3-0 before 2-1.”

A chap commented : “it’ll never be 2-1.”

I turned around and nodded in agreement.

Did we create a single chance of note in that second-half? I think not. An advertisement for a medical product was flashed up on the TV screen.

“Kill The Pain.”

If bloody only, I thought.

Eight minutes later, another crisp and effective Bournemouth move was finished off with a clean finish from King, after being fed by Stanislas. Our defence was being cut to ribbons. Among all this obsession with passing in the attacking third and the – buzzwords coming up, brace yourself – “high press”, has the manager completely forgotten that defences win league championships?

Bournemouth 3 Chelsea 0.

The crowd turned venomous now.

I tried to condense my thoughts.

OK, Sarri was brought in to implement a new style of play, his methodology, his terms, and a part of me gets that. He needs time, his supporters say. But I have to say that he was under little pressure to win anything at Napoli. They hardly share Bournemouth’s aspirations, but there would have been more pressure at Juventus and the two Milan teams, serial winners one and all. Napoli have only won the league twice. Why not modify his ideas to make use of the players at his disposal right now – at this “half-way house” stage – to get results and then push on using his own players in the summer? I have to say, should things continue as they are, I doubt if he will have the luxury of a second season. If I totally backed his ideas – I have tried my best to comprehend his way of playing and I am far from convinced – I too could buy into his plan. But I still can’t warm to him, and I know how much results matter.

The players it seems are not on the same page. The reasons for this? I don’t know. Maybe they think they can see through him, just like a few key players who would go on to triumph in Munich saw through Andre Villas-Boas in 2011/12. At the moment, some supporters are against Sarri, while some are annoyed with some players, and some are angry with everyone. Some philosophical questions can be aired. Player power is OK if John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole do it but not if Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro do it? I don’t know. Who does Sarri report to on a day-to-day basis? I don’t know. These are muddied waters.

Kovacic was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and I felt so sorry for him. Another ad on the TV screen, this time for greyhound racing at Poole.

“We’ve gone to the dogs tonight, already.”

Ruben looked up for the battle, but compared to the others on the pitch this was not an accomplishment worthy of much note. He dragged a shot wide of the far post. I looked over at the TV screen again and eighty minutes had been played.

“Come on ref, blow up, put us out of our fucking misery.”

Many had left at 0-3. A block of around forty seats to my left were empty. I could never leave early, I’m just a fool. There were four or five minutes of extra time, I wasn’t cold, I just wanted to go home. In the last very moment of the game, a cross from a free-kick out on our right was headed on – with not a challenge from any of our players – by substitute Charlie Daniels. We watched in agony as the ball looped up and over everyone and into the net.

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0.

Our hearts sank.

What a humiliation.

The whistle blew and I stood stunned.

Four nil.

I wondered if any players would step towards us. To be fair to us, we clapped them over. David Luiz, our only leader, walked slowly towards some Chelsea supporters down the front. He said nothing. His face said it all. He had eye-contact with a few, and tapped his chest – John Terry used to do this – and his body language just said “I’m so sorry.” It took guts to do that. I clapped him. Some players “get it” – or at least I hope they bloody do. Dave walked over but stopped a good ten yards away. Nobody else bothered.

My mind raced through time.

I quickly remembered my first-ever visit to Dean Court in the first few weeks of the 1988/89 season when we lost 1-0 to a team that was managed by Harry Redknapp. It was our first ever match with them, and they had just recently been promoted from the old Third Division after rising from the Fourth Division in the early ‘eighties. I certainly expected a Chelsea win. We were humbled 1-0 and, having not gone to the 6-0 shellacking at Rotherham United in 1981, it was – until then – my own personal “Millmoor” moment. I stood on the packed away terrace and, through a ridiculous viewing position – I can remember how packed it was to this day – looked on as we lost. The train trip home was a lonely affair that evening, and I drowned my sorrows with a few pints in a few Frome pubs. A personal nadir for sure.

But this?

This was ridiculous.

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0.

Only recently in one of these match reports, I had written this :

“I had reminded myself, from memory, that our last heavy defeat to any team in league football was a 1-5 reverse at Anfield in the autumn of 1996. As a comparison, we have put six goals past Tottenham in 1997, six against Manchester City in 2007, six past Arsenal in 2014, six past Everton in 2014, not to mention sevens against a few smaller clubs and even eight on two occasions. We have enjoyed the upper hand, in general, over many since that game at Anfield twenty-three years ago.”

As I exited the seats, we were one of the last to leave, I mentioned the Liverpool game – I did not go to that one – to two or three friends.

Sigh.

A four-goal defeat in the league was a long time coming, but it eventually came not against Manchester City, nor Liverpool, nor Manchester United nor Arsenal, nor Tottenham Hotspur, but bloody Bournemouth.

Altogether now : FACKINELL.

Outside, Jake – who had spent the last few minutes of the game rolling a cigarette – was puffing on it like his life depended on it.

“Bet Sarri, like you, is puffing on a fag right now mate.”

We reached our car, shell-shocked. We drove home, shell-shocked.

It had been a shocking night.

Tales From A Day On The Road

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 28 October 2018.

Not for the first time on a Chelsea away day, I was awake before the alarm clock was due to ring at 4.30am. Initially, though, I was in no mood for football. The sad events of the Saturday evening involving the helicopter owned by Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha spiralling out of control and crashing in a shocking fireball outside the King Power Stadium hung heavy in my mind. This was so eerily similar to the tragic events of October 1996 in which our very own Matthew Harding and four others were killed on the return from a League Cup tie at Bolton. I was to set off on a long drive north for our away game at Burnley – we guessed at five hours in total – with no concrete news about the Leicester tragedy, but deep down we all knew. It had certainly been a sad footballing Saturday. During the day, our former Chelsea player-manager Glenn Hoddle had collapsed in a TV studio and had been termed seriously ill. It is no wonder that the thought of football on such a bleak weekend had left me numb.

There had been warnings of a bitterly cold day awaiting us in the old cotton town hiding underneath the moors. I chose some warm clothes and began to prepare myself for the longest drive of the footballing season. A coffee, as always, stirred me to life.

A five-hundred-mile round trip lay ahead.

I departed just before 6am and soon collected PD. Young Jake – his first game of the season, and resplendent in Napapijri and Moncler finery, he had evidently been busy in the close season – joined us at 6.20am, and the old warhorse Parky joined us at 6.45am. Just before 7am, Young Jake opened up a can of Southern Comfort and lemonade. Even the seasoned drinkers LP and PD were impressed. This was the first time up the M5 and M6 since the visit to Manchester City in the first week of March over seven months previously. But this was a well-worn path and all of the road-side views seemed so familiar.

The two Severn Bridges from the ridge of high land just before we joined the M4 at Tormarton. The ski slope at Gloucester. The abbey at Tewkesbury and the Malvern Hills in the distance. After a stop for food at McStrensham, Parky and PD washed things down with some breakfast ciders. “Autumn In The Neighbourhood” – a China Crisis album from 2015 – was given a spin. Parky and I had seen the band in Bristol on the Friday. It would be another weekend devoted to music and football. We neared Birmingham and there were more familiar markers. The floodlights of The Hawthorns. The Bescot Stadium. There were stretches of reduced speed limits between Birmingham and Manchester. Another stop at Stafford Services and Jake treated us to a round of bacon butties. We flew past Stoke and hit the flat lands of Cheshire, passing close to the site near Middlewich where the helicopter returning south from Burnden Park perished in 1996. Outside the skies were mainly clear. It looked a decent day, but we were cocooned in a warm car. We feared the worst. We climbed over the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal and the Pennines were easily visible ahead. Winter Hill at Bolton and the memories of an early-evening game at the Reebok Stadium in April 2005. The Heinz factory at Wigan. The road flattened out again, but then climbed and I spotted Blackpool Tower on the horizon to the west. The visibility was stunning. On the M65, high over Blackburn, the view was spectacular. The hills of the Lake District in the distance and the Forest of Bowland. The trees turning from shades of green to the wilder colours of autumn. Darwen Tower high on the hills to the south. And then the approach into Burnley. The bleak moorlands in the distance. The grey terraced houses. Occasional chimney stacks standing proud as a last lingering testament of a more prosperous time. The sunlight catching the rounded towers. Light and dark. Ancient and modern. A town trying its best to adapt. A quintessential Northern town. A town that loves its football.

“Smallest town or city to ever house Football League Champions, Jake.” It was his first visit. If I was honest, I wanted to wax lyrical about how happy I was to be back in one of the wilder outposts of our travels this season. Here was a “proper” football town, something that Bournemouth and Brighton could never claim.

I was parked up outside the modern curves of the town’s bus station at about 11am. It was my fourth visit to Turf Moor for a Chelsea match. It was fantastic to be back.

Outside, the weather wasn’t so severe as we had all expected. We were impressed with the nearby display at the town’s war memorial; a riot of red poppies and white crosses. It was a short, but brisk, walk to Turf Moor. On a sign depicting Yorkshire Street, there was a Huddersfield Town sticker. On the bridge carrying a canal over Yorkshire Street, the colours of Burnley were sprayed, as if marking territory. The roadside pubs warned “home fans only.” A couple of grafters were selling badges, hats and scarves. Several local shops had claret and blue signage. Everything chimed football, and Burnley Football Club seemed at the centre of everything. For a town of less than 80,000 to support its football team to the tune of 20,000 every two weeks is a highly commendable feat.

There was a strict search outside the away turnstiles. Alas, my camera was not allowed inside and so I was forced to make use of my camera phone.

We had plenty of time to kill, and so we spent the time chatting to a cast of what seemed to be thousands. Familiar faces everywhere. There was a nice pre-match buzz. The team news filtered through.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley.

Pedro – Morata – Willian.

Unlike in previous visits when I was positioned way down and almost pitch-level, here I was about halfway back. A different viewpoint allowed me to see the high moorland behind the stand to my right and beyond the stand at the other end of the ground. Turf Moor is a mix of ancient stands with wooden seats bolted to concrete risers – the old stand to my right had no more than twenty rows – and two newer, but blander, stands. The away stand is cramped but atmospheric. I remember it from the ‘seventies in the days of Steve Kindon, Dave Thomas and Leighton James.

The troops arrived and settled, but nobody sat the entire game. Everyone seemed dressed for the occasion. Puffa jackets, warm tops, ski hats, gloves, Aquascutum scarves wrapped high around the neck.

I looked over at the moors in the distance and my mind whirled back in time. Just after the completion of the Second World War, my mother spent a week in Burnley at the house of a friend that she met while working the land in Sussex. I can’t begin to think how different Burnley must have seemed to my mother, born and raised in a bucolic Somerset village.

The harsh accents. The terraced streets. The mill-workers. The industry. The hustle and bustle. The grey drabness of post-war austerity. The same bleak moors overhead. I looked to my right.

“Wonder if my mother ever set eyes on that exact piece of moorland?”

Muriel, Mum’s friend, would marry Joe Chadwick and they would go onto run a B&B in Blackpool, and we stayed there once or twice in the ‘sixties. I remember seeing Muriel when she visited a mutual friend in Frome in the summer of 1979. The lives of Muriel and Joe are now lost in time – I am sure they did not have any children – but they are remembered every time I revisit Burnley.

The teams entered the pitch from the corner to my left. I was aware that a line of servicemen had positioned themselves alongside the pitch. Although Remembrance Sunday would not take place for a fortnight, here was Burnley Football Club’s ceremony.

But first an announcement about the tragedy at Leicester.

So sad,

The teams stood at the centre-circle.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning.

We will remember them.”

Parky and I repeated the last line.

“We will remember them.”

The “Last Post” was played. There was complete silence. It was awfully poignant.

In the stands, the weather seemed OK. Cold but not uncomfortably so.

Chelsea – in the lovely yellow and blue – went through their pre-match rituals of hugging and embracing. I spotted a chest bump between David Luiz and Toni Rudiger. The team spirit looked exceptional.

The game began.

Alvaro Morata was the only outfield Chelsea player wearing gloves.

Insert comment here.

In the first ten minutes or so, it was the home team – claret and sky blue shirts, pristine white shorts and socks – who dominated. They had obviously been told to “get in among them” and we were decidedly off the pace. For all of their possession, though, we managed to limit them to few chances. We slowly managed to get hold of the ball. On twelve minutes, the game’s first real chance came our way. A cross from N’Golo Kante found Ross Barkley, and his shot bounced high off the turf towards Alvaro Morata, loitering in front of goal. He diverted the ball towards the goal only for Joe Hart to arch himself up and to his left and he tipped it over. It was a great reaction save.

We traded efforts. A Brady shot wide. A Willian shot at Hart.

On twenty minutes, a fine pass from Alvaro Morata resulted in Willian guiding a low shot against the far post.

The home supporters sharing our stand were making quite a din; not surprisingly songs about “Bastard Rovers” dominated.

On twenty-two minutes, we worked the ball quickly through our midfield – everyone took a touch – and the ball ended up at the feet of Ross Barkley, who played a perfectly-weighted ball into space for Morata. A clip past Hart and we were one-up.

“GET IN.”

I was just so relieved that our much-maligned striker had scored.

I remembered the equally exquisite pass from Cesc Fabregas to Andre Schurrle on the opening day of 2014/15 – from almost the same piece of terra firma – and there was a warm glow.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Chances were again exchanged. A Tarkowski header over. Another Willian shot, just wide.

On the half-hour, Pedro left the pitch in some discomfort, and was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

On the car ride up in the morning, we had mentioned the thousands of FIFA nerds who must have ran off to their game consoles to play Ruben upfront after his three-goal haul against the Byelorussians on Thursday. The clamour for him to displace either Alvaro or Olivier up front as the sole attacker seemed to reach ridiculous levels. Not sure how that would work to be honest. There is more to playing as a sole striker against defenders in the most competitive league in world football than ghosting in from deeper positions against European lightweights. I was never close to being sold on that idea.

An excellent move from our penalty box, which included a forceful run at the Burnley defence from Marcos Alonso, resulted in Morata poking a ball past the post. A lofted pass found the same striker then shot straight at Hart – in the thick of it now – and we were well on top. The home fans had quietened from their opening volley in the first quarter of the game. The mood at half-time in the crowded concourse was upbeat. It had, thus far, been a great game of football.

Joe Hart, the poor bugger, was met by his own personal song which was bellowed at him by the Chelsea faithful.

“England’s number five. England’s, England’s number five.”

Ten minutes into the second-half, Willian made space and crossed from the right, but a Morata header at the near post narrowly missed the framework.

Two minutes later, a sublime move developed with rapid passes twixt Jorginho and Kante. The ball was played to Barkley, who looked up and planted a left-footed strike into the Burnley goal, with Hart unable to get close. The ball zipped low across the goal and the net rippled a few yards in front of us all.

“GET IN.”

His knee-slide was euphoric.

“Bloody superb goal.”

The away end was enjoying this. Smiles all around.

As I have mentioned before, I’m not a fan of the “viva Ross Barkley” chant though. How a song pandering to hackneyed Scouse stereotypes is going to make a Scouser feel loved is beyond me.

Just after Barkley’s goal, a trademark Willian wiggle to his right allowed him enough time and space to pick his spot, again down low to Hart’s left, in the far corner. We whooped with joy once again. More fantastic celebrations. Poor Joe Hart was undone again.

My mate Mark, a Blackburn Rovers supporter, texted me :

“Make it seven.”

We were coasting now and playing some bloody lovely stuff. There was a moment which stood out for me; the tall and strong Loftus-Cheek turning and running at pace in a central position, right at the heart of the Burnley defence, with the equally strong and robust Barkley alongside him. We may not see this too often under this new manager – his mantra is pass and move – but it was a breath-taking spectacle.

Two English midfield lions running at a defence.

Long may it continue.

Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata. There was applause for both. The Frenchman soon went close.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Jorginho and tried to spot a run from Andre Schurrle.

“Not this time, Cesc.”

Hart made a stunning save from a Giroud, palming his fierce header from inside the six-yard box onto the bar. Loftus-Cheek hit the side netting. It was all Chelsea and we did not let up. In the closing minutes of the game, a run from David Luiz – who had headed away many a Burnley cross in his own half – found Marcos Alonso, who adeptly back-heeled the ball into the path of Loftus-Cheek. Our Ruben smashed it home.

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Just beautiful.

We bounced out of the ground, and there was such a positive vibe.

“Loved that. Great performance.”

I retrieved my camera, met up with the lads, and then we trotted back to the car, alongside fans of both sides. Many thousands of the home supporters had left before the final whistle. On Yorkshire Street, I narrowly avoided stepping into several dollops of police horseshit.

“Weirdest game of hopscotch I ever played.”

We edged out of Burnley town centre and I slowly began my return trip home. We were on our way by 4.15pm, soon zooming along, and down, the M65. As I headed west, the white steel roof supports – looking very European – of Deepdale could be seen in the distance.

If you know where to look, there is football everywhere.

After stopping at Stafford at our favourite Chinese restaurant on our football travels – where we bumped into three other match-going Chelsea supporters, much to our mutual amusement – I kept driving on and on, before eventually getting home at 11pm.

6am to 11pm.

It had been a long old day, but what an enjoyable long old day.

Thanks Chelsea.