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 Holloway Road

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 19 January 2019.

Chelsea together? Hardly. During and after this game, it certainly seemed like Chelsea divided. This is going to be another difficult one to write. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Looking ahead to the game at Arsenal, I always feared the worst. Bizarrely, I have positive vibes about the Tottenham game at Stamford Bridge on Thursday – don’t ask me why, football is not an exact science, I just have a hunch – whereas the Arsenal match filled me with dread. They were on the “up” – generally speaking – but we were stalling.

This was another 5.30pm game. Just two of us travelled up from the west of England for this one. I picked up PD at 10.30am, and we approached London via the “southerly” route of the A36, the A303 and the M3. I was at Barons Court at 1pm. On the drive up – the misty rain cleared, eventually – I mentioned to PD “I’ll take a draw, now.”

I spoke about how I had enjoyed the game against Tottenham in the League Cup at Wembley. It was a game that we had lost, but not without a fight. We had shown a great deal of vim and vigour – it surprised me to be honest – and I felt involved all of the way through. Conversely, the win at home to Newcastle United a few days after had left me cold. The performance was dull, the atmosphere worse. I had thus enjoyed a Chelsea loss, but not a win. What did I say about football not being an exact science?

We had been tipped off to make our way to a new boozer for this match. I have mentioned before how I loathe large and cavernous pubs. Therefore, I did not mind one iota that the huge “Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn was thus swerved, and we headed instead for a much more intimate pub near Highbury & Islington station. After bumping into Alan and Gary, we set off. On the walk to this new destination, we spotted one pub called “The Library” and this raised a chuckle. We met up with Daryl, who was the first to arrive, and the pub looked like ticking all the boxes, although it was awkwardly borderline-hipster. There were high tables and craft ales, but no knobhead Arsenal fans, and we settled down for a good two hours of Chelsea chat and a few pints. It had been the venue that had hosted Madness, The Specials and The Stranglers in the dim and distant. I definitely approved.

At 4.45pm, we set off for The Emirates. We were walking up part of the A1, and this became Holloway Road at Highbury Corner. It brought back a fragile memory from 1983 when I attended an open day at the then North London Poly, before my “A Levels” and with thoughts of attending that particular institution for a three-year geography degree. On that day, I was well aware of how close the campus was to Highbury, Arsenal’s venerable stadium. Maybe it was the thought of spending three years in the shadow of Arsenal that resulted in me fucking up my “A Levels.”

There were no surprises at all with the team that Maurizio Sarri chose. There was neither room for Alvaro Morata, so shorn of confidence, nor Olivier Giroud, so lacking in playing time and also goals.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I was inside with about five minutes to spare. There did not seem to be too many empty seats anywhere, unlike the last few months of the Wenger regime. I soon spotted two Chelsea supporters to my immediate left wearing the hated and infamous half-and-half scarves. I tut-tutted once again. You have to wonder about the mentality of some of our “fans”. Surely these people must know how we dislike these damned things. Many of my US fans acknowledge how ridiculous these scarves are. Surely nobody among our rank and file buys them. What I can’t understand is if a friendship scarf is purchased as a memento, why bloody wear it, and if it is worn, why not just show the Chelsea half? Virtually all friendship scarves are worn with both halves on show – both teams on show – draped vertically and limply around the neck. Don’t these people know how to tie a scarf?

It does my nut.

We were just a few rows back from the corner flag. In front of us several fans held up a banner –

“THANK YOU PETR – CHELSEA LEGEND.”

So, The Emirates. On many counts, a magnificent stadium, but on other counts it still leaves me cold.

Even though we knew that a win would put us a mighty nine points clear of our North London opponents, I was hardly going dizzy with the thought of that coming into fruition. I am nothing but a realist.

Up close, I realised how truly awful both kits were. Those flecks on our shirts and a very odd block of red on their jerseys.

Arsenal were like greyhounds out of the traps. It is some time since I have seen an opposing team create so many chances with such gusto in the first five, then ten minutes. We were suitably shell-shocked, and – for the want of a better footballing cliché – were chasing shadows. There were errors everywhere, with a wayward pass from David Luiz signalling the first of much wailing which took over the three-thousand loyalists in the south-eastern corner with growing regularity throughout the evening.

They were all over us like a bloody rash.

Shots and crosses rained in on us. Aubameyang shot wide from close in, then Sokratis headed wide from point blank range. Kepa was rather lucky to see a header from Koscielny hit him on the chest. In the midst of all this Arsenal pressure, a meek shot on a rare attack from Eden Hazard did not test the Arsenal ‘keeper Bernd Leno.

On fourteen minutes, a corner on the far side was worked to the menacing Lacazette, who danced past a ridiculously half-hearted challenge from Marcos Alonso, and from a tight angle, the ball was lashed high into the net, beating Kepa at the near post.

Fuck.

Kepa then managed to block an effort from Aubameyang. This was hurting.

But I have to say the noise levels at the Emirates were poor. Despite their lead, the home fans hardly raised the roof. Our support was sporadic at best. There were more groans and grumbles and moans and mumbles from us than a defiant wall of noise.

Then, out of nowhere, a sublime long ball from David Luiz to Pedro – a replica of sorts of the first goal against the Geordies last week – but Peds’ chip dropped just outside the frame of the goal. To be honest, we enjoyed a little resurgence, but this was relative. In the first twenty minutes, we had been merely spectators. There appeared to be an abundance of space on our right which we continually failed to take advantage of. That man Aubameyang went close with an acrobatic flourish, and this was a hint of further damage. A ball was played into our box with too much ease and Koscielny jumped at the ball, and we watched as the ball looped up and over Kepa.

Fuck.

Again, a roar from the home fans, but they then went back to knitting, playing with their I-Pads, and lining up for half-time coffees.

By now, the mood in our section was rife with shouts and screams at players and manager alike.

Jorginho – never flavour of the month at Chelsea right now – was getting pelters from many.

Two chaps to my left were heavy on criticism, but not so eager to sing and shout in support of the team.

Willian was the centre of attention for one of them.

I had to speak out again, just like at Spurs in November.

“He’s not a cunt though, is he, mate?”

Just before Anthony Taylor blew up for half-time, a Willian header was met full on by a leap from Marcos Alonso which edged against the far post and went off for a goal kick.

It had been a grim old half of football.

At half-time, I wandered around the concourse for a few minutes, almost punch drunk from the onslaught that we had suffered in the first opening period, and spoke to more than a couple of good Chelsea people. A common line was “bloody hell, we could be 4-0 down” – or maybe more. None of us were relishing the second forty-five minutes. But I shuffled back to my standing position next to PD, Gal and Alan in row seven, and waited for the Arsenal players to join up with the Chelsea players who had been sent out of the dressing room early.

If nothing else, in the second-half at least we stemmed the flow of goals. But it was another frustrating forty-five minutes. At no stage was I confident that we would even score one goal. N’Golo Kante was his usual self, or rather his usual 2018/19 self and effectively this means several notches below his 2016/17 self and his 2017/18 self. Eden Hazard looked disinterested at times. Mateo Kovacic huffed and puffed but did little to change things. Pedro was keen and full of running, but often by himself and without runners alongside him. It was Peds who had an early chance from a set up by Willian on the left in front of us, but he skied it with his shin.

Mateo Kovacic was replaced by Ross Barkley.

Altogether now “like for like.”

But nobody liked this.

Why not bring on Olivier Giroud? Answers on a postcard.

What upset me most was that we were not creating space off the ball. Too often we were loath to lose our markers, and create a little pocket of space for a positive pass. We kept moving the ball around and Arsenal surprisingly let us play. The home team were well on top. They defended in a great shape and were first to too many fifty-fifties. I was slightly surprised that they did not push on and endeavour to score more goals, but I have an inkling that they wanted us to have the ball and stifle ourselves, rather than let us have space to counter.

It’s a rum old state of affairs when the opposing manager knows our strengths and weaknesses, and not our own manager.

At last the manager introduced Giroud, who came on for the poor Willian.

We were still shot-shy. The moans increased. Only occasionally was there a sustained chant from the away crowd.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal tackle.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal block.

When we were within shooting distance, I kept shouting “buy a raffle ticket!”

The ball was being moved along the same lines, between the same players.

In a cartoon chase, remember how the background was repeated every few seconds?

A tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate.

At the Emirates, the ball saw the same players ad infinitum.

Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso.

The bloke in front of me shouted “shoot!” and a voice behind him whispered “shoot the fucking manager.”

Ah, the manager. Do we give him the benefit of a massive amount of doubt and wait until he gets his players in during the summer? We should do, right? We would plead for time on any other occasion. But it grates with me that for all of his fanciful philosophy, I would love to see him adapt to his current squad and arrange his team to the benefit of our stars, no names and no pack drill.

At last Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Pedro wide on the right but he was not really involved too much. It was more of the same, more of the same, is anyone bored yet?

I said to PD “I bloody hope their ‘keeper isn’t on piece work. He hasn’t made a save.”

As if to prove the ineptness of our play, substitute Giroud swung and missed when only ten yards out.

Fackinell, Chelsea.

To be fair to ourselves, I was really pleased – and proud – that very few of our support left until the last five or ten minutes, and even then it was a trickle and not a rush. There was a mighty six minutes of extra time but I had decided that we would not score in a month of Saturdays and Sundays and packed my camera and lenses away for the day. At the final whistle, we were put out of our misery.

And it had been a dire performance.

We shuffled out.

PD and I decided to wait for the queues to die down and so we popped into a Chinese restaurant on Holloway Road for a bite to eat. The food was good, but the conversation soon dried up. We were now only three points ahead of the twin threats of Arsenal and Manchester United, with many a tough game on the horizon. As we made our way across London – due south, then due west – we heard that the manager had publicly lambasted his players, which surprised me.

“Keep all that in house, Sarri.”

There was talk of the current squad being unresponsive to his ideas.

I wonder if a common response from any one of our players might be this –

“What have you won? We’ve won the league twice in four years. You dress like a regular at William Hill and you eat cigarettes.”

On Thursday, we have to fucking beat Tottenham.

See you there.

Tales From Tinsel Town

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wor now like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

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

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

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Tales From The Group Phase

Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest : 11 December 2013.

When the European Cup became the Champions League over twenty years ago, Chelsea Football Club looked on from afar. Until that point, European football was a rare treat. However, within the football fan community, there was immediate disdain of the participation within it of league runners-up. The “Champions League” suddenly became a misnomer. Then, the cut-throat knock-out nature of the old competition was thrown away in favour of a mini-league format. Football fans, showing considerable unity throughout the continent of Europe, were again dismayed. Most saw  its formation as UEFA appeasing the fat cats at the top table, virtually guaranteeing them all top level competition on an annual basis and staving off threats of a breakaway pan-European league. Since those days, Chelsea’s participation within the competition has been a regular event. This would be our eleventh season in a row. For us supporters, the real advantage of the Champions League group phase, played under lights in various degrees of midweek darkness every autumn, has been to pick and choose which of the three away games we are able to attend. Very often, the home games – especially on match day five or six – offer little distraction.

The Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest game, in itself our fourth match-up with the Romanians in nine months, was therefore hardly filling me with enthusiasm during the day. In fact, if truth be known, as the day progressed, I kept questioning myself as to why I was bothering to attend. Our passage into the last sixteen was already assured, there would be a tiring drive into London, probably a poor atmosphere, little drinking time before the game and a late finish in the small hours of Thursday morning.

I came to the conclusion that the main reason, on a personal level, was for me to witness – let’s hope – the immediate and entertaining upturn in our play since the Stoke City defeat on Saturday. I simply hoped for goals, attacking football and a reaffirmation of our collective love of Jose Mourinho.

A hope for better things.

A just reward for my Wednesday evening sortie into town.

It reminded of the days of following the club in the era, much doted upon by Chelsea supporters of a certain vintage, of “the drought” when we didn’t expect entertaining football at Stamford Bridge, or even a win, but we just attended games out of blind devotion and the hope, however small, that our patience would be rewarded with an entertainment-ridden goal fest.

Due to patchy fog in Wiltshire and traffic congestion in London, the drive to Chelsea took three full hours. Parky and I jostled into the boozer just after 7pm. There was a quick “hello goodbye” and then I was off with Alan to The Bridge. There was time to mull over a few talking points.

Within parts of the Chelsea fan base, there had been surprising reactions to the defeat at the Britannia Stadium. There was the call to move Petr Cech on and recall Thibaut Courtois. I found this to be rather harsh. At the Stoke game, he certainly erred for the first goal, but could hardly be held responsible for the others.  There was also a desire among some fans for Mourinho to recall David Luiz; his errant behaviour, much-frowned-upon and castigated by many of those same fans, forgotten. There was even frustration with Mourinho himself.

My thoughts?

Chill.

We all know that this team, this squad even, is changing.

I’d rather have Jose in charge than anyone else.

Anyone.

That is not to say we should bow down and follow blindly. There is always room for opinion and debate. Even I have tired of Mourinho’s snipes at our strike force’s lack of goals. However, as always, there is a thin line between quiet and constructive criticism as opposed to loud and knee-jerk negativism.

Regarding the lack of goals from Fernando, Demba and Samuel, Alan wisely noted –

“We can’t win. We should be happy the goals are being spread out among the team. If only Torres or Eto’o was scoring, people would be bemoaning the lack of firepower from elsewhere.”

Football fans are never happy.

We were inside Stamford Bridge as early as 7.25pm and my immediate concern was the vast amount of blue seats clearly visible. By 7.45pm, my fears had subsided. It was yet another near full house for a Champions League night. Our support, often derided, should again be applauded. Steaua brought a full 3,000 in March; tonight it was around 2,000. As the teams entered the pitch, the away end was lit with the many lights from the travelling Romanians’ mobile phones. There were obviously Steaua fans in the East Upper too; lights there also.

Mark Schwarzer was in goal, Ashley Cole was at left-back, David Luiz was partnering JT,  Frank was paired with Mikel in the anchor roles, Willian and Oscar recalled alongside Hazard, Ba upfront.

Chelsea began positively and a goal came under just ten minutes. Willian sent over a corner which was flicked on at the near post by Oscar and Demba Ba pounced.

Good start. Nerves settled. Let’s go to town.

Alas, the rest of the first-half offered little to cheer. In fact, Steaua could easily have levelled the score, only for Iancu to shoot wide. On several occasions, they worked the ball into our box but – thankfully – the ball tended to miraculously avoid an away player. Both Oscar and Hazard were quiet. Mikel had started poorly, managed to get himself booked, but then redeemed himself with a few cool pieces of play. At a Chelsea corner, I watched as an unmarked Lampard on the edge of the box signalled for the ball to be played out to him. The resultant volley was spectacular but was hit high of Tatarusanu’s bar.

Lots of huff and puff in the first-half, not much quality.

I noted that the scoreboard above the away fans was showing that Demba Ba had scored for Steaua and we were losing 1-0. I wondered if the work of Nicolae Ceausescu was still being done.

At half-time, a lovely moment.

Our much-loved former right-back / wing back / midfielder Dan Petrescu was given a lovely introduction by Neil Barnett. Dan was the first “foreigner” to play two hundred games for us. How we loved his shuffling style and his incisive passing. He was serenaded by Chelsea fans and Steaua fans alike. He played for Steaua in the 1989 European Cup Final versus the mighty Milan. I love it that he now manages Dynamo Moscow; a club forever linked with the history of Chelsea Football Club. At The Shed, he momentarily picked up a Steaua scarf and the away fans lapped it up.

Superb stuff.

That was probably the highlight of the night.

As the game restarted, a few fans in the Matthew Harding attempted to “get things going” and I, at least, joined in. But generally, it was quiet. There was not one single song from the 12,000 spectators in the West Stand. The Shed were quiet. It was one of those nights.  I often wonder what a lost soul from the “drought years” would make of these European Nights at Stamford Bridge these days. What would an exiled Brit, maybe now living in Australia, returning to a revamped Bridge for the first time since 1990 make of it.

“Fackinell, I used to dream of nights like this at Chelsea. The stadium looks brilliant. Everyone close to the pitch. Flags everywhere. Loads of colour. Should be made for nights like this. But why is nobody fackin’ singing?”

There were few highlights in a very low key second period.

Ba had a great chance soon into the second period but blasted high.

Andre Schurrle, who had probably his best game in a CFC shirt in Bucharest, was introduced by Mourinho and soon enjoyed an impressive run at the heart of the Steaua defence. His direct play pleases me. On this occasion, he struck at goal and the rebound was headed over by Hazard.

Ba was played in and volleyed home, but was ruled offside.

As the match continued on, for once I was egging the clock to reach “90.”

Not to signify a Chelsea win, just for the game to end and for me to get home.

This was clearly a mediocre Chelsea performance. I sensed a great feeling of numbed disappointment in the lack of attacking verve rather than euphoria about cementing pole position in our group. There was little there for me to admire.

As I left the stadium, I walked around to touch the Peter Osgood statue; a bit of a superstition on Champions League Nights for me.

A quick touch of his right boot.

And thoughts of Athens, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Milan and Leverkusen.

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Tales From Both Sides Of The River

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 17 April 2013.

I was able to leave work slightly earlier than usual at 3.45pm. Unfortunately, Parky was unable to attend once more. It would be me – just me – alone with my thoughts on the familiar drive to SW6. There was certainly much to dwell upon. Firstly, my mind was full of thoughts of my father. Wednesday 17th. April 2013 was, sadly, the twentieth anniversary of his passing. My father was taken ill while shopping in Frome during the afternoon of Friday 16th. April 1993. He sadly passed away at the Royal United hospital in Bath in the small hours of the following day. In truth, much of my grieving twenty years later had taken place on the Tuesday; virtually all of the tearful memories and the strongest emotions came from the Friday 16th. April 1993.

Dad wasn’t a massive football fan; his sports were swimming, diving and badminton. He once boxed in the RAF during World War Two. However, once I fell in love with Chelsea Football Club, he soon realised how much the club meant to me. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. I often hear stories of friends saying “my dad hated football and never took me to any games.”

Not so my father – and mother.

My Christmas present in 1973 – the best ever – was the news that my parents were going to take me to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea. Oh my; just writing these words some forty years later brings it all back. That realisation that I’d be seeing my heroes in that iconic royal blue kit – in colour, for real, not on our black and white TV – made me so excited. As I have said before, I owe my parents so much.

My father attended many games with me over the years. His last one was against Everton on the first day of 1991. As I drove past Swindon on the M4, I remembered a game from January 1988. My father finished work in Frome and drove home to collect my mother and I to take us all to Swindon for Chelsea’s Simod Cup (aka Full Member’s Cup ) game against Swindon Town at their County Ground stadium. At the time, we were plummeting towards the First Division’s relegation zone while Swindon was a Third Division side. We were caught up in traffic, however, and found it difficult to find a parking place. The plan was for my parents to sit in the main stand while I joined 2,000 Chelsea in the cramped corner terrace. We were so late arriving that I heard the roars from the home crowd celebrating Swindon’s second goal as I was still trying to get in.

“Oh great. This is going to be a great night.”

In the end, we lost 4-0. We were awful, even though our team contained stalwarts such as Kerry Dixon, Steve Clarke, Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Tony Dorigo; good players one and all. I remember chants of “Hollins Must Go, Hollins Must Go, Hello, Hello” all night long. It was a dire night and it was a grim fore-telling of our eventual fate come May.

We were kept inside for ten minutes while the local hoodlums were pushed away from the stadium. I looked around the terraces where we had been stood all evening. Twenty yards away, looking out of place amongst hundreds of young Londoners, were my mother and father. I trotted over to greet them. It seems that they had arrived too late to gain entrance to the main stand; they had not bought tickets beforehand, we hadn’t thought it necessary. In those days, paying on the day was the norm. My parents had informed the club officials that they were Chelsea supporters and so, unbelievably, had been led around the pitch by stewards and put inside the away pen.

I think if I had seen them, I would have thought “oh no, what have they done now?”

Twenty-five years on, the image of my Mum and Dad, dressed in his suit, with a sheepskin coat, still brings a smile to my face.

Later that season, they were in The Shed for the Charlton Athletic game. But that’s another story for another time.

I stopped at Reading services on the drive east. As I returned to my car, I strangely noticed the incessant roar from the traffic hurtling towards London on the eastbound carriageway of the M4 motorway. I was thrilled by it. I smiled. It reinforced my love of travel, of moving, of visiting new and old places, the constant desire to see new cities, new landscapes, new towns, new villages, new people. There is still romance in travel; from seeing the ocean as a four year old boy – the wonder of that vast body of water – to visiting foreign lands in my middle years. I never want it to stop.

During the last hour of my journey, this was enforced further as I attempted to put some plan in place in order to visit Old Amsterdam for our potential participation in the Europa Cup final and New Amsterdam for our friendly at Yankee Stadium. I have already block-booked that fortnight from work; now for the intricate fine tuning…schedules, dates, hotels, flights, just lovely.

My pre-match plans for the evening’s game at Craven Cottage actually stemmed from my visit to Yankee Stadium in July. After the Chelsea game in Philly, I returned to NYC to catch a Yankees vs. Red Sox game before I returned home. In “Stans Sports Bar” that evening – before and after the game – I got chatting to Britt, an American who was over from London, visiting NYC with friends. I was wearing a CFC T-shirt and she soon announced she was a Fulham season-ticket holder. We exchanged email addresses and promised to meet up for a pint during the season. We had arranged to meet that night at The Spotted Horse in Putney at 6.45pm.

On the approach into London, high on the elevated M4, I was again mesmerized by the panorama of London’s skykline which was particularly clear in the early evening sun; Harrow On The Hill to the north, the Wembley Arch, the Post Office Tower, Canary Wharf away in the distance, a quick glimpse of The Shard, the hills around Clapham to the south. Up close were the new high-rises at Brentford, the old art deco buildings, the Lucozade sign, the floodlights of Griffin Park, Earls Court and Olympia.

Travel. I love it.

I soon drove around the Hammersmith roundabout and down the Fulham Palace Road. No need to turn off along Lillee road this time; I was heading south to Putney, not east to Stamford Bridge. As I drove on, I caught glimpses of the floodlight pylons at Fulham’s classic stadium to my right. At the Golden Lion pub I saw a sign which stated that access was for FFC season ticket-holders or membership card holders only. I was stuck on Putney Bridge for a while as neon-clad cyclists, cars and London buses jostled for position.

Just after 6pm, I was parked up.

Walking past a few pubs by the River Thames – The Half Moon, The Duke’s Head – I soon realised what a lovely pre-match this would be. There is nothing quite like a game of football at Fulham. I looked up and saw a modern red bus crossing Putney Bridge. It wasn’t the old classic shape of a Routemaster, but it was still an iconic sight.

I needed sustenance and so looked for options. Unlike my expensive meal in Turin in November, there was no gastronomic treat for me this time. I ended up with a typical football meal of chicken and chips. Bloody hell, even KFC even sounds like a football club.

I reached The Spotted Horse at 6.30pm. Britt soon appeared and it was lovely to see her again. She was with her bloke Chris – an armchair Liverpool fan – and we had a quick catch up. As I quaffed a pint of Peroni, we chatted about all sorts. In addition to being a Fulham season ticket holder, she also follows Saracens rugby union. She is originally from DC and we spoke about that area’s sports teams. In fact, it was a similar conversation that I have had with various US guests to Stamford Bridge over the years. It felt almost liberating to be chatting to a fan of a rival team though. I had promised myself not to have too many digs at Fulham during the evening; I almost succeeded. In truth, Britt summed things up when she said –

“You don’t care about us, though, do you?”

Broadly she was correct, though I have a little soft spot for Fulham, which I am sure winds most Fulham fans up further. It’s true though. Long may the SW6 derby continue in the top flight.

Before we left The Spotted Horse, I briefly mentioned my father and we toasted him.

“Cheers Dad.”

There was talk of Peter Osgood, my first game, a Chelsea vs. Fulham game from 1982, a game from 2002, the banter was flying, it was super.

We then moved onto an even better pub – The Coat & Badge – and I had another pint while talking to more US Fulham fans. I had to stop and think –

“Shouldn’t I be talking to Chelsea fans? What will my mates think?”

To be honest, I was revelling in the change of scene, seeing new people, new places. I spoke to a Fulham fan from Philly and he was baffled by our club’s decision to sack Roberto di Matteo. To be truthful, I was stuck for words. I couldn’t – still – validate Roman’s decision. I also chatted to a girl – another American – about her experiences watching Fulham and living in London. Her accent suggested she was from The South, but I recognised a few cadences which lead me to believe she was from North Carolina or Georgia. To be honest, her accent was very similar in places to that of Mary-Anne from Knoxville Tennessee. I decided that I had to quell my inquisitiveness and so I asked her if she was from North Carolina or Georgia.

“Yes! North Carolina, Tennessee.”

“Ah, I thought so…you sound like a friend from Knoxville.”

“Knoxville is my home!”

“Damn…I should have gone with my hunch and said Knoxville…would have freaked you out, right!”

At 7.30pm, it was time to depart. We had a fantastic walk across Putney Bridge, with Britt leading the way, nothing getting in her way. It was quite an aerobic workout. I again commented that there is something quite therapeutic and hypnotic about walking towards a football stadium with thousands more.

It was a lovely spring evening as we strode through Bishop’s Park. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race starts on the river at Putney Bridge of course. It’s a lovely part of the world.

I wished Britt and Chris well – “may the best team win and all that bollocks” – and then turned towards the red brick of the away turnstiles where more familiar faces were everywhere I looked.

I soon bumped into two lads from Melksham, near where I work; “no Parky, mate?”

I looked down at my phone…what was the time?

1955.

A good year.

Up into the seats and I was soon alongside Alan and Gary and Kev from Bristol.

We were lower down than usual. Not far from the pitch. Excellent.

Before I had time to blink, the teams were on the pitch, walking across from the cottage to my right. Chelsea were in all blue. Although I love the design of our kit this year, I still think the blue is not dark enough, not vivid enough, too light, too muted. There was to be no show of hostility that we saw at Griffin Park as Benitez strode across the pitch. I quickly ran through the team. John Terry back, Ivanovic at right-back, Lamps back, Moses in, Torres in. I looked at the Fulham team to see if Duffer was playing, but didn’t spot him.

Let’s go to work.

This was a game that we simply had to win to stay in the hunt for a top four place in the league. We all knew that. But it wouldn’t be easy. The last two visits to Craven Cottage were draws.

Gary mentioned that he had seen some American Fulham fans on the tube on his journey from work. I can see the attraction, what with the pleasant setting of Craven Cottage, plus the former US players such as McBride, Bocanegra, Dempsey, Keller and Johnson who have represented Fulham recently. I wonder if those Fulham fans were aware of Fulham’s first batch of American players in the ‘thirties; the often forgotten trio of Lou Schattendorrf, Farmer Boy O’Malley and Chuck Rosencrantz III.

Fulham began strongly, much to our chagrin, and we heaved a massive sigh of relief as Ruiz volleyed over from close in. We weren’t playing well and a Karagounis effort bounced against the top of the bar. There were murmurs of disquiet in the away end. I looked around the trim stadium. I noted small pockets of empty seats, but it was near capacity. The Chelsea choir decided to start mocking our neighbours with a few choice ditties –

“We don’t hate you – ‘cus you’re 5hit.”

“Michael Jackson – he’s one of your own.”

“Nonce for a statue. You’ve got a nonce for a statue.”

I felt that Dimitar Berbatov was their main threat, yet we seemed to be offering him too much space. He was often unmarked. A few half-chances came and went, but it clearly wasn’t a great start by Chelsea.

The Chelsea fans were in good voice, though, with a variety of songs being aired. I could hear some sort of noise emanating from the Hammersmith End – where Britt and Chris were watching – but I couldn’t decipher it. I never heard once their usual “We are Fulham, fcuk Chelsea” song once.

On the half-hour, with frustrations rising, the ball was played square to David Luiz, some thirty-five yards out. Many fans behind me simultaneously yelled “shoooooot!” and I am sure this was mirrored in bars all over the world. Luiz touched the ball once, it sat up for him, and he unleashed a curling, dipping, thunderbolt which crashed into Mark Schwarzer’s goal.

Oh boy.

What a cracker. Schwarzer was beaten before he could move.

The Chelsea end roared.

In truth, the goal had come against the run of play. Until then, we had looked disjointed.

Just after, Emanuelsen had the ball under his spell, looked up and painstakingly aimed a shot at the far post. I was right behind the path of the ball and expected a goal. From the middle of the six yard box, Petr Cech stretched low and touched the ball out for a corner. It was a phenomenal save. Just after, a lovely flowing move out from defence found Torres in space and in the inside-right channel. His shot was crashed over and we sighed.

A shot from Berbatov went wide, a Lampard free-kick went close. Just before the break, the previously quiet Juan Mata floated a cross towards the far post and John Terry, making a great blind run, was able to rise and head home. How he celebrated that one.

With us 2-0 up, we were able to breath a massive sigh of relief. A Ruiz penalty claim was waved away by Mike Dean. We had ridden our luck, but the two goal cushion meant there were smiles at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, with the pressure seemingly off, we were able to relax and sing. The Putney End, which seems to have excellent acoustics, was rocking to a fantastic foot stomping and hand clapping rendition of a song from Munich.

“We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe.”

The place was rocking. What noise.

To be honest, despite the awful anniversary, this was turning into a just magnificent evening down by the banks of the Thames. The jokes were coming thick and fast between Alan, Gary and myself, the boys were winning 2-0 and the Chelsea fans all around me were turning in the best vocal performance of the season.

The majority of Chelsea’s play seemed to be coming down our right flank, with Torres putting in a great night’s performance, full of energy and application. I was able to capture a lot of Hazard’s dribbles on film. The team were creating more chances and the fans were responding. A great Torres cross almost resulted in a goal, but Mata was unable to connect.

A Moses curler forced a fine save from Schwarzer. From the corner, Torres flicked on Mata’s delivery and John Terry made sure, heading it in from beneath the bar. The Chelsea fans in the Putney End believed that Nando had scored and so soon serenaded him. John Terry smiled at us and pointed towards Torres, while Torres dismissively waved away the adulation. Texts soon confirmed that it was JT’s goal.

Whatever.

Fulham 0 Chelsea 3.

Time for more song.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam I pray.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
We are coming in the month of May.”

Towards the end of the game, the Chelsea fans began looking ahead towards Sunday and our game at Anfield by warming up with a smattering of Liverpool songs. This was almost Mourinho-esque…with games won, he would often change the focus, ask players to conserve energy and start to think about the next challenge. Alas there is no Anfield for me on Sunday but I am not disappointed. With all of the noise about Benitez which will undoubtedly dominate the day, I am happy missing it.

There was a cooling wind coming off the Thames as I hurriedly walked back through Bishop’s Park. The lights alongside the river created flickering reflections on the water. It was a lovely scene. The Chelsea fans were still in good voice. The Fulham fans, who must have been taking part in an odd oath of silence since half-time, were unable to be heard.

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Tales From Happy Monday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 1 April 2013.

The Easter weekend of 2013 was turning out to be a bitterly cold one. After our meek capitulation at Southampton on the Saturday, Chelsea were not able to give us any added warmth on that particular afternoon. As Easter Sunday passed, thoughts turned to the Easter Monday F.A. Cup replay with Manchester United. In all honesty, I wasn’t too worried. After years of supporting the club through thick and thin, it would be “typical Chelsea” for us to follow up a poor performance against one of the division’s lesser teams with a sterling victory against one of the giants. And yet, it would also be “typical Chelsea” for our fine performance in the first game – which seemed like ages ago – to be unrewarded with a defeat in the replay.

Inevitably – everyone knows how my mind works by now – I thought back to previous games in the F.A. Cup with United. In recent memory, there have been two. And the vibes were not great. In 1998-1999, we did well to eke out a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, despite getting Robbie di Matteo sent off, but then lost in the replay. I didn’t attend the second game; it was the days of doing shift-work and so I had to listen in on the radio at work. I wondered if a similar scenario might exist in 2013. I certainly didn’t fancy a repeat of the horrendous F.A. Cup game of 1998.

We, of course, were F.A. Cup holders; a phrase which we had been unable to utter for a full 27 years. Manchester United were the reigning League Champions. Ruud Gullit was our manager, Dennis Wise was our captain. Our team included some well-loved players; Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Mark Hughes. We met United in the third round. It was our first game as defending F.A. Cup holders. What followed was probably one of the most humiliating trouncings that I have ever seen at Stamford Bridge.

At one stage, we were losing 0-5.

Yes, that’s correct.

0-5.

That we scored three very late goals to give the score line a vague hint of acceptability did not fool anyone.

We had been found out.

Not long after, we lost to United again in the League. We also lost to Arsenal in the League and League Cup in quick succession. Soon after, Ruud Gullit was given the sack, with rumours of contract negotiations causing problems in the relationship between the chairman Ken Bates and our dreadlocked manager. As a fan base, we were saddened and confused. That our first manager to bring us a major trophy in 26 years could be dismissed within nine months seemed crazy, cruel and heartless.

Does this ring any bells?

Thought so.

In truth, the team was brilliant one minute, awful the next. I’d say that the football that we played in the autumn of 1997 was the best ever. The midfield of Poyet, Di Matteo, Wise and Petrescu was magnificent. Upfront, we had Hughes and Zola. Great times. But how they can soon change.

Travelling up to Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday 2013, I was sure that there wouldn’t be a 0-5 score line confronting me at any stage of the upcoming game, regardless of Rafa Benitez’ inadequacies.

In the pub, there was a lovely little Tokyo reunion; Mike was over from Brooklyn, Foxy was over from a ship off the coast of New Zealand, via Nottingham. It was great to reminisce about that most magical of foreign trips, regardless of the end result.

Parky was with us too. He has had a rough week or so. His spirits are always up, though. I have to admire his resilience. He came out with a piece of “Classic Parky.”

“Yeah, they wanted to see me in the hospital. I stayed in there a few hours. They gave me a check up. They hooked me up to the scanner. Apparently I cost £2.20.”

On the walk down the North End Road – the cold wind added to the freezing temperatures – we spotted five or six Manchester United fans. To the uninitiated, there would be no clue; they were not wearing scarves, shirts, caps, or even small pin badges. But we knew. The way they were dressed, the fact that they were silent, the fact that they looked a little concerned.

They were United.

The days are gone, really, of having to run the gauntlet at away matches, but there is no point in advertising to the world of your allegiance at certain away games. Anyway, they made their way unhindered. The Shed would be full of 6,000 Mancs for this one; I feared that their noise would drown ours.

As I checked the starting line-ups, my spirits were raised. Juan Mata and Eden Hazard started for us. I checked out the opposition; Manchester United fielded a decidedly unglamorous team, and their personnel suggested a more prosaic form of football, far from their swashbuckling style much admired throughout the footballing world. Crucially, Wayne Rooney was injured and Robin Van Persie was on the bench. This confused me. United have virtually won the league and they are out of Europe; why would Alex Ferguson not start the most prolific striker in British football?

The Shed balcony was adorned with the red / white / black flags of United. There was one which mocked Steven Gerrard’s lack of league titles. He has, of course, twelve less than Ryan Giggs.

The first-half was a strange affair. It was a decidedly slow game; a game of cat and mouse. Chelsea enjoyed most of the possession, but on the first day of the baseball season, it appeared that both teams were attempting a no-hitter. Apart from a slow daisy-cutter from Mikel, the first real shot on target, which warranted a save, took place on 31 minutes; an effort from Demba Ba which De Gaea saved with an outstretched leg. Soon after, Ramires set up Ba again, but his shot was blocked. It took United 37 minutes for their first real effort on goal; an effort from Nani. A lovely dribble from Hazard, a lay-off from Oscar, but Hazard blazed over. Then, a wild, swerving shot from Chicarito was booted clear by Cech.

It had been a strange half. Ashley Cole had pulled up on twenty minutes, of course; we hoped that Ryan Bertrand would cope better than on Saturday.

At half-time, with no match action to distract me, I stood and froze.

The second-half began in a lively fashion. A cheeky back-heel from Ba provided the first attempt on goal. Soon after, the game changed. Mikel won the ball right on the left touchline in our half and the ball was eventually played through to Juan Mata – the king pin – who was in acres of space in the middle of United’s half. Oscar had continued to move up the left wing and I pleaded for Mata to push the ball through for him inside the full-back. Instead, Mata caught us all on the hop. He played a ball which nobody expected, chipping the ball up and into the penalty area. He had spotted the slightest hint of a move by Ba; great vision. With one amazing piece of dexterity, Ba let the ball fall over his shoulder and he cushioned the ball so it flew over De Gaea’s flailing – and failing – body.

The crowd exploded.

I screamed.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Over in the far corner, Demba fell to his knees in silent prayer and was then mobbed by his team mates.

Rio Ferdinand, who had been booed relentlessly, had been the victim of Ba’s magnificent finish. How we laughed.

Chelsea enjoyed a nice period of possession. The United fans – despite their numbers – were not so loud. We had a special message for our friend in the middle of United’s back-four :

“Rio Ferdinand – fcuk off to Qatar.”

On the hour, a most brilliant piece of football. A blistering cross from the right, a fine leap from Chicarito.

I cringed and grimaced.

It was the equaliser for sure. Damned United.

But, no. Petr Cech threw out an arm and the ball was deflected over the bar.

It was the save of the season, no doubt. The applause for our great goalkeeper was loud and heartfelt.

Free beers for him in the bar after.

The chances for Chelsea then came and went in quick succession.

Juan Mata forced a save which rippled the side-netting, but the linesman did not give a corner. Eden Hazard was clean through, but dragged his shot wide. Ramires belted one off target. At the other end, Valencia well wide. There was intriguing physical battle between Ba and Ferdinand. Our play was more direct than with Fernando Torres in the team.

More chances. Mata over, Mata wide.

No matter.

I was surprised – really surprised – that we had reached 80 minutes with no substitutes being made by Benitez. Ferguson had already brought on Van Persie and Giggs.

Oscar shot meekly wide; he is having a tough time of late.

I have to say that I thought that Ryan Bertrand performed admirably at left-back after replacing Ashley Cole. His positioning was much better, his marking tight. One of the other poorer players at Southampton, Branislav Ivanovic, was much better too. Maybe Southampton was just a bad day at the office. Two late chances for Van Persie were wasted and we held on.

As I made my way down the Fulham Road, my phone was going crazy with incoming texts. We were back at the new Wembley for the twelfth time in under six years.

It is our second home and, quite possibly, our third home too.

As I drove home on the westbound M3, I happened to glance over at the Thorpe Park roller coasters which are easily visible from the motorway.

I had a chuckle to myself.

“Don’t waste your money on that. Just get a Chelsea season ticket.”

At 4.40pm on Sunday 10th March, we were virtually out of the F.A. Cup.

At 2.30pm on Monday 1st April, we were back at Wembley.

No joke.

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Tales From Munich : Part Two – Arms Were Linked

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

The walk to the Allianz Arena on the evening of Saturday 19th. May 2012 probably took around fifteen minutes. At the start, we were together as a group, but occasionally we splintered away to talk to a few fellow fans, faces from home, as we marched north. I spotted many fans – of both teams – holding rather pathetic looking home-made cards with phrases such as “Need Ticket Please” on them. I brushed past them, feeling no guilt. There were Chelsea fans singing still. Bayern were relatively quiet. I then realised that most of the Bayern support was probably already within the stadium a few hundred yards away.

Onwards we marched. Glenn was still struggling with the basic concept of putting one foot in front of the other and he occasionally lurched and swayed to the left and right. It was time for me to have words with him. In the absence of an adjacent naughty step, I grabbed him by the arm and read him the riot act. I had visions of him being pulled at the gate by an over-zealous policeman.

“Listen mate, sober up. We’ve come this far. You have your ticket. Don’t fcuk it up at the last minute.”

Not every Chelsea fan was in colours. Amongst our little group, only the John Bumstead T-shirt being worn by Daryl and the black and orange Chelsea gear being worn by Gal gave a clue to our allegiance. Elsewhere there was the usual smattering of new Chelsea shirts, current Chelsea shirts, old Chelsea shirts and retro Chelsea shirts. Packs of lads without colours – typically the faces I see at most away games – were similarly attired as us. The forty-something dress code of trainers, jeans, polo shirts, designer tops and occasional baseball caps. Most Bayern fans were wearing replica shirts, though an alien from another planet might have been bemused by the obvious variety of colour schemes adopted by Bayern over the years. I always think of the classic Bayern team of the mid-seventies – Maier, Breitner, Beckenbauer, Muller – wearing the all red Adidas kit. This is how it stayed for years until the design gurus at Bayern decided to foist all sorts of strange designs on FC Hollywood’s fan base. The first bizarre kit to appear featured a red and blue striped shirt and I think this was a nod to the blue of the Bavarian flag. For a connoisseur of football kits like me, this was a bizarre choice. Since then, Bayern have had a variety of kits and even special Champions League variations. Some of the most recent variants have been red and black shirts and also red and white hooped shirts.

It made me wonder what Adidas have in store for us.

I spotted Dutch Mick and shouted across the grass verge. He was wearing the new shirt and I wondered if Chelsea would do the same for this last game of the season. We wore a new shirt in Moscow remember; I didn’t want us to follow suit.

Callum raced past and we shook hands. He was buzzing and said something to the effect of “the night is ours.”

As we neared the stadium, I heard Alan talk to Cathy and so I reeled around and had a very quick word while Alan took our photograph.

“It’s a long way from the Rum Jungle, Cath.”

I had enjoyed Cathy’s company in Kuala Lumpur way back in July on our Asia tour. Of course, in reality, it seemed like last week. These football seasons certainly race by.

Ahead, a young lad was perched on his father’s shoulders, and they were carrying a fifteen foot pole, bending under the weight of a large St. George’s Cross flag, with two smaller chequered Chelsea ones above and below. I took an iconic photograph of them with the pristine white of the stadium now only fifty yards or so away in the background. It was a defiant statement of intent and captured the mood precisely.

This was the ultimate away game. Let me run through some numbers. Here we were, an English team in Germany; plenty of history there. This was arguably our biggest game ever in 107 years. It was supposedly a neutral venue but fate had conspired for this to take place in the home stadium of our opponents. Sure, we took around 25,000 to the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm in 1998. Sure we took 25,000 to Old Trafford for the 2006 F.A. Cup semi-final against Liverpool. We have taken similar numbers to Cup Finals at Wembley. But, despite the folly of a neutral venue, make no mistake; this was an away game. This was our biggest ever show of strength for an away game since we swamped Highbury in August 1984, when close on 20,000 squeezed into the Tick Tock and hundreds more took residence in the home stands. In addition to the 17,500 in the stadium, Munich was being swelled to the tune of an extra 10,000, maybe 15,000, maybe 20,000 auxiliaries. We were a Chelsea army in Germany for the biggest prize in World football.

In 107 years, there has never been an away game like it and perhaps there never will.

The Allianz Arena stands at the northern end of a ridge of land, bordered by train lines and autobahns. Access is only at the southern end; the Bayern end. We hurriedly entered at the gate – there was a minimal search and I immediately rued my decision to leave my trusty zoom lens at home. We were in. I hugged Glenn and then began the short walk up to the Nord Kurv. I stopped to take a photo of the setting sun, disappearing behind clouds to the west.

Daryl stopped to have the quickest of chats with Terry, who was originally going to be sat alongside us, but had since wangled a seat in the press box. Terry is one of Chelsea’s iconic names from a distant past. I last saw him in Moscow.

We aimed for the gate to section 341. It was now 8.30pm and kick-off was but fifteen minutes away. There was a long ascent up a hundred or more stairs; these wrap themselves around the stadium but are hidden from view by the translucent plastic shell which gives the stadium its unique identity. My limbs were aching by the time I had reached the upper level. Behind me, several Chelsea fans were singing about Auschwitz. Ahead of me, I battled the crowds to force my way into the concourse and then the gents’ toilets.

An incoming text at 8.33pm – “atmosphere?”

I replied – “still not in yet. Typical Chelsea.”

And this was typical Chelsea. We are so used to leaving it late at home games – the ubiquitous mantra of “one more pint” was made for the pubs which envelope Stamford Bridge – and here we were, leaving it late in Munich.

Typical Chelsea.

I quickly found my way to my seat as the home fans were unfurling their impressive banner of the Champions League trophy in the Sud Kurv. Their end was a riot of red. In row 10, there was a nasty altercation between Glenn and a fellow Chelsea fan and I had to act as peacemaker. A few words were exchanged. The plan was for Glenn to sit alongside Alan and myself, but Glenn – still wobbly with alcohol – was despatched to the other end of our row. Although Daryl bought tickets for ten of us, such is the ineptitude within the Chelsea box office, Simon and Milo’s tickets were not with the rest of ours.

Blue flags were waiting at our seats and the Champions League anthem was echoing around the stadium.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OkWI…&feature=g-upl

From the left; Alan, Glenn, Gary, Daryl, Neil, Ed, Chris.

The magnificent seven.

Simon and Milo was ten yards behind us. Callum and Dunc were spotted. Dutch Mick too.

In the rush to get ourselves inside, hardly a thought had been paid to the game. The rumours were true; Ryan Bertrand was playing out wide. I immediately thought back to Danny Granville at Stockholm in 1998. Clearly, di Matteo was taking a risk on the youngster but I did not have time to dwell on this. Thank heavens the two centre-backs were playing.

So, what were my thoughts as kick-off approached? There was no doubt that we had reached the final due to a healthy share of luck, especially against Barcelona when woodwork and a missed penalty aided our formidable rear guard performance. I was in no doubts that this luck could easily run out – if only due to the laws of probability – and I can remember quietly warning Gary in that serene Munich beer garden that “you do realise we could get thumped here?” He was in agreement.

And yet. And yet there was a positive air in the Chelsea end. In the back of my mind, there was unrelenting belief that – yes – despite the odds, or maybe because of them, we would prevail in this most hostile of situations. In our 107 years, there has never been a more unlikely story than our assault on this magical trophy. A team in disarray in early March, a team in decay, a team divided, now only ninety minutes from glory.

Without time to dwell, the teams appeared down below me and I spent a few minutes trying my best to juggle photos, texts and songs of support. It will surprise nobody to know that I had no plans to sit. In Moscow, I had stood for – what was it? – six hours, from bar to tube to stadium, to game, to bus. I envisioned the same in Munich.

The scene was set. The stadium seemed huge and yet compact at the same time. I was a fan. The cool grey concrete steps of the concourse and the aisles were mirrored by a similar colour for the seats. If only Wembley had decided on something similar – a cool cream maybe – rather than a brash ugly red. The Chelsea end was keen to cheer the boys on but I knew we would be in for a tough battle to be heard over the tumultuous support being handed out by the Bayern faithful. I spotted pockets of Chelsea blue in the lower tier to my left, but the neutral areas were predominantly red. There were three rows of unused seats in front of the line of TV studios in the east stand. To my right, I noted a ridiculous number of seats in the press box; maybe 3,000 strong. This was a sure sign that football was eating itself. Elsewhere in this lovely city, 100,000 fans were without tickets yet 3,000 seats were being used by gentlemen of the press. Beyond, in the corporate areas of the stadium, pink and yellow lights were shining in the many restaurants and suites. The blades of a solitary wind turbine, high on a hill, were able to be seen in the thin slither of sky. Bayern flags hung on every square inch of balcony. Chelsea flags countered.

I quickly spotted one which is often seen, away to my right –

“If I Had Two Lives I’d Give Them Both To You. Forever Chelsea.”

The 2012 Champions League Final began.

It was clear from the first few moments of play that Bayern were going to have most of the possession. It was galling to see Arjen Robben having so much of the ball. There was a consensus when he left Chelsea in the summer of 2007 that, due to his glass ankles, we had seen the best of him. Would he now have the last laugh? I feared the worst. Ribery, of course, was the other major threat and it was clear to me that the game may well be won or lost in the wide areas. It was key for Kalou and Bosingwa on the right and Bertrand and Cole on the left to close space. I soon realised, and it shames me to admit it, that I was not au fait with many of the Bayern players. The wide men Robben and Ribery, Gomez, Schweinsteiger, Nauer, Lahm, Boeteng…who were the others? I had little idea.

At least I was in control. Unlike Barcelona, fuzzy through alcohol, I was able to take everything in. It was my biggest fear that I would be drunk beyond words in Munich, unable to play a significant role in supporting the boys. Despite many beers in the afternoon, I was fine…it had been perfect. I looked over several times to check on Glenn; phew, he was still standing, not slumped in his seat.

Bayern dominated the first half with only rare advances by Chelsea into the Bayern defence. In truth, we were playing a wholly subservient role in this game. Our plan was of containment. Wayward shots from a number of Bayern players rained in on Petr Cech’s goal and I began wondering if our luck was going to hold out once more. The first “heart in the mouth” chance fell to Robben way down below, but Cech managed to deflect his shot onto the woodwork for a corner. Bosingwa then fluffed an easy clearance, only for the spinning ball to end up in an area devoid of red-shirted attackers. Lady Luck was in the building and sporting Chelsea colours.

All eyes were on the clock.

15 minutes.

30 minutes.

In a rare attack – our best of the game – the ball was worked to Salomon Kalou, but his shot hardly tested Nauer at the near post.

In the closing minutes of the first period, a Bayern chant petered out, but its familiar melody was picked up by the Chelsea hordes.

“Oh Dennis Wise
Scored A Fcuking Great Goal.
In The San Siro.
With Ten Minutes To Go.”

It was easily our loudest chant of the evening and I was comforted that we, as fans, could impact upon the night’s atmosphere.

A text from the US confirmed this –

“Heard the Dennis Wise song loud and clear on the TV coverage in the US!”

Just before the teams re-entered after the break, around ten red flares were let off in the top tier of the Bayern end. It was an impressive sight for sure. The smoke drifted to the east, then hung in the air for ages. The second half told a similar story. Tons of Bayern possession with Chelsea players – all defenders now – scurrying around and closing space. I was particularly enamoured with Mikel, whose stature rises with each big match appearance. Elsewhere, Cahill, Cole and Lampard were magnificent. Luiz caused me a few worries. Bosingwa had his moments too. Juan Mata, the one midfielder who had the tools to unlock any defence, was struggling. Didier Drogba’s main job was to continually head away corner after corner; a job he has done so well in these last eight amazing seasons.

Ribery’s goal was flagged for offside and thankfully I wasn’t perturbed. What is the German for “calm down?” Bayern shots rained in on our goal, but our brave defenders threw themselves at the ball and blocks were made.

60 minutes.

Bayern’s support was now getting frustrated at the quality of their finishing and the Chelsea support grew and grew. Songs of old rolled around the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. I was heartened by the noise. It clearly galvanised the team. Still Bayern shots missed the target. Was I the only one thinking that a force field had been set up around Cech’s goal frame?

Ryan Bertrand, non-existent offensively, gave way for the much-maligned Florent Malouda. We stood and watched. We sung. We hoped. A few half-chances way down below gave us renewed sustenance. The songs continued. I was so proud of our support.

On 83 minutes, our world collapsed. A cross from the left and a leaping Bayern player – Muller, a name from the glory years –out jumped our defenders. In one of those moments that happens in football, time seemed to slow to a different speed. The ball bounced down. The ball bounced up. The ball flew past a confused Cech. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar.

The ball was in.

The previously quiet Sud Kurv bellowed and roared. It was a horrendous sight. We stood silent. What could we do? The PA announcer then, shamefully in my opinion, announced the scorer to the spectators in a rousing tirade which seemed to last for ever. For a supposedly neutral venue, I thought this was a poor show…he ended his belligerent outburst with the word “Thomas…”

…and the Bayern fans responded “Muller!”

That sickened me almost as much as the goal.

We were losing 1-0 and Lady Luck had seemed to have packed up her belongings in a suitcase and was heading out of town. My thoughts were of sadness; that this iconic Chelsea team, forged under Ranieri, fine-tuned under Mourinho, cajoled by many managers since, were now going to disband over the summer without that most desired of prizes, a Champions League victory. For this, make no mistake, was their – our – last chance. There would be no return for a while. I sighed.

Callum – you were wrong mate and I was foolish enough to believe you.

Immediately, di Matteo replaced the ineffective Kalou with Fernando Torres.

Torres, with a thousand points to prove despite his goal in Barcelona, seemed to inspire us. His darting movements breathed new life into our attack. In turn, the Chelsea support responded. It was his endeavour down in the corner which gave us a corner. It was our first of the entire game. Juan Mata trotted over to collect the ball. I lifted my trusted camera from around my chest and zoomed in as best I could. I held the camera still – constantly focused, the button half-depressed – and waited for the corner. I looked up and trusted that my camera would do its job.

88 minutes had been played. This was it, Chelsea.

Death or glory.

Juan Mata blazed the ball in towards the near post. In a moment that will live with me forever, two players in blue rose to meet the ball.

I clicked.

The ball cannoned into Nauer but then flew into the roof of the net.

The Nord Kurv thundered. I clenched my fists and roared from deep inside my body. Tears of joy soon started flowing. We were back in it.

Chelsea – I fcuking love you.

I was soon aware that my glasses had flown off and so I tried to steady myself and search for them, but I felt my head spinning, imploding with joy. I feared a blackout. It happened when Torres scored his first goal last season. Steady Chris, steady.

I tried my best to find my glasses – but they were gone.

The Chelsea fans were yelling, shouting, clambering onto seats, pointing. I looked down and in to the row in front. There, miraculously perched on a seat, were my glasses. I reached down to retrieve them just before a lad stepped on them.

Six seats away, Alan had smashed his sunglasses at this moment. There was carnage in the Chelsea end, but devastation in the Bayern end.

Advantage Chelsea. Bayern had already taken off Muller. The home fans were on the ropes. We were going to do this.

We were going to win.

My head was still spinning, the Chelsea end was buzzing, my world was perfect.

In the short period of time before the extra period of thirty minutes began, we roused the team by singing “The Blue Flag.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9X8N…&feature=g-upl

Our confidence took a battering soon into the first period of extra time when Didier Drogba, back defending, tripped Franck Ribery inside the box.

Oh Didier.

I just turned my back to the game and sighed. This was virtually a carbon copy of the penalty he gave away in Barcelona. Didier messed up our chance in Moscow. He redeemed himself in Munich. And now this.

We stood and hoped. Cech looked large and impressive. Robben approached the penalty spot. I wasn’t sure if I should tempt fate by taking a photograph of a potentially match-losing moment.

What the hell.

Robben shot.

I clicked.

Cech saved, then gathered the loose ball.

Destiny.

It was going to be our night.

Much to our joy, Ribery was substituted. Good work Didier, I take it all back.

The rest of the period of extra time was truly a blur, though. Torres had a few runs at the Bayern defence. Luiz and Cahill miraculously held out. Our players were strong. As the minutes ticked, I was happy for the game to be decided on penalties.

My main reasons were probability and destiny.

We lost on penalties in Moscow.

We’ll win on penalties in Munich.

It’s our night.

Simple as that.

We weren’t sure about the rules for determining the ends at which the all decisive penalties were to be taken, but there was a certain grim inevitability that, like in the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, they would be at the other end.

I wasn’t sure if I should take any photographs.

I took a photo of Philip Lahm scoring past Petr Cech, with the other players, arms linked in the centre circle.

I didn’t take a photo of Juan Mata. His penalty was poor – too close to Nauer – and we fell silent.

I had my hands in my pockets, I was still stood. So here we go, Chelsea – another loss on penalties. How brutal this game of football can be. I consoled myself that at least I would not be as distraught as in Moscow. Nothing, surely, could be as bad as that.

Mario Gomez made it 2-0 to Bayern. The home fans roared.

David Luiz took a ridiculously long run up. Death or glory. I had horrible visions of his shot not only clearing the bar, but the third tier. His hair bounced as he raced towards the ball. Goal. A gasp of relief from Chelsea.

To our surprise, the goalkeeper Nauer took his turn and he scored to make it 3-1. I felt the weight of probability slipping away.

Frank Lampard simply had to score. Memories of all the others. Liverpool 2008. Go on Frank. Get in.

Frank scored.

Then it was the turn, not of Ribery, but of the substitute Olic. He looked nervous. I sensed that this could all change in an instant. Probability versus practice.

He still looked nervous. I sensed he would miss. A poor penalty was swatted away by the diving Cech and we were back in it. The whole stadium was on edge now. A tightrope. Sudden death. Sudden life.

Ashley Cole – a scorer in Moscow – was next up. The Chelsea fans were buoyant now. We sensed the momentum had changed. Ashley dispatched the perfect penalty.

Back in the beer garden, Gary had asked Michaela if Schweinsteiger meant “pig fcuker” but Michaela had dismissed this as a myth. It meant “pig climber.”

I didn’t care. I saw him place the ball on the spot and saw his Germanic features on the TV screen. In my mind I called him a pig fcuker. He again looked nervous. His approach proved this. He stopped, mid-run, and I again sensed a miss. His shot was hit low, but it hit the base of the diving Cech’s post.

Oh boy.

Advantage Chelsea.

The Nord Kurv, the watching thousands in the city centre, the fans at Fulham Broadway, in Malaysia, in Nigeria, in Australia, in Singapore and in North America were one kick away from glory.

Who else but Didier Drogba? It had to be him.

I got the call from Ed.

Arms were linked.

Alan linked arms with Glenn, who linked arms with Gal, who linked arms with Daryl, who linked arms with Neil, who linked arms with Ed, who linked arms with me, who linked arms with Steve in Philly, who linked arms with Mario in Bergisch Gladbach, who linked arms with Parky in Holt, who linked arms with Danny in Los Angeles, who linked arms with Rick in Kansas City, who linked arms with Walnuts in Munich, who linked arms with Tullio in Turin, who linked arms with Bob in San Francisco, who linked arms with my mother in Somerset, who linked arms with JR in Detroit, who linked arms with Dog in England.

I took a photo of us together; the magnificent seven.

I turned the camera towards the pitch.

Wide angle.

Approaching midnight in Munich.

Didier placed the ball on the spot.

A small run up.

No fuss.

Impact.

I clicked.

I saw Neuer move to the right.

I saw the ball go to the left.

It was in.

Pandemonium ain’t the word for it.

The Earth tilted off its axis for a split second.

We were European Champions.

In a split second I turned the camera to my left and clicked again; I caught a blurred mass of unreal and simply unquantifiable happiness.

It was no good.

I was overcome with emotion and I crumpled to the floor.

For what seemed like ages – it was probably no more than ten seconds – I sobbed tears of pure joy, alone in a foetal position.

A football position.

For that moment, I was alone with only my thoughts, my emotion, my journey, my life.

Seat 18 in row 10 of section 341 in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Arena will always be mine.

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