Tales From A Positive Step

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 3 April 2019.

We live in interesting times.

The negativity surrounding the unconvincing 2-1 win at Cardiff City on Sunday still seemed to be dominating the thoughts of many before the Wednesday evening game at home to Brighton & Hove Albion. The match in South Wales certainly triggered many reactions and emotions. Taken at face value, we squeaked home – oh so fortuitously – against poor opposition and, on any other day in any other season, that might well have been the end of it. But not this season, not at this moment in time. Debate raged among the Chelsea support about our manager’s aptitude, while the media tended to focus on the loud protests against Maurizio Sarri at the game.

The negativity was at times overwhelming on Sunday and in the following few days.

I was just sick of it.

And then I looked at the league table. Chelsea were in sixth place, tucked in behind the others. And then I looked at Tottenham’s recent form guide which stood at four losses in the last five league games, and I managed to have a sideways look at everything. Was everything quite so apocalyptic? Was this really a horrific season? The Tottenham run of form really shocked me. Not so long ago they were, allegedly, being touted as being in the title race, and not just by those who were soon to frequent the Tottenham High Road once more. It seemed that all was goodness and light with our rivals from N17; a team on the cusp of glory, a respected young manager, the new stadium about to open, young English players making the national team and everything so positive. And yet, there was not a great deal of difference between our relative league positions.

This is not to disguise the fact that Chelsea Football Club is enduring an awkward season. Our troubles are well known and well documented. I won’t bore everyone to death. But it did make me think. At Chelsea, is our glass – like Tottenham’s trophy cabinet – always half empty?

At work on Wednesday, I did an early shift and worked 7am to 3pm. One lad – Andy, a relatively new colleague, I do not know him too well, but he is certainly approachable and not full of nonsense – was working the 6am to 2pm before heading up to London for football too. But he was a Tottenham fan, a season ticket holder, and was hugely excited about their first league game at their new and impressive stadium. I suspect that our individual  approaches to the two games in London were wildly different. My game was –  I was quite sure – going to be all about putting the leg-work in, showing up, trying to support as best I could, enduring the possible poor quality on show, trying not to grumble too much and make some noise. Another game ticked off and hopefully a win.

More than anything else, I just wanted no more negativity. The loud chants against Sarri at Cardiff showed our support, to me anyway, in a bad light. I’ve never been an advocate of loud “demonstration-level” booing and suchlike during games. It just adds to the pressure on the players, on the management team, on the substitutes.

And – to reiterate – we are a top six team in the toughest league going.

As my father used to say “if you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

Too simplistic? I don’t care.

We are supporters. To me that means that during the ninety-minutes of the framework of the game, we support.

PD again drove to London and I was able to grab a little sleep en route. The pre-match routine was the usual : pints of Peroni at The Goose, bottles of Staropramen at “Simmons.” There was talk with Rob about The Old Firm, there was talk with Walnuts about Stiff Fingers, there was talk with Simon about his son’s trip to Austin in Texas. The football would take care of itself later.

The team was announced and there were wholesale changes from Cardiff.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Hazard

I might have chosen Rudiger and not Christensen, but there were generally few complaints from anyone.

The big story concerned Callum Hudson-Odoi. It would be his first league start and about bloody time.

(Am I the only one who detests the “CHO” moniker? Back in 2006, I warmed to Sean Wright-Phillips’ SWP as it linked itself to SW6. But as for “CHO” and “RLC” – nah. File alongside “Chels.”)

It was a cold night alright. On the cover of the match programme – did the editor know something that we didn’t? – was a highly stylised photograph of our Callum. The scene was set for great things from him on this evening in SW6. Inside the stadium, the three-thousand away fans were virtually all present with a fair few minutes to go. There were noticeable gaps elsewhere. In The Shed and in the Matthew Harding I spotted random empty seats which just meant that people had decided not to attend. In the top upper corners of the East Stand, always the last to sell, whole swathes of blue seats could be seen. These seats were never ever sold in the first place. This was going to be our lowest league gate for quite a while.

Brighton were dressed in a solid racing green shirt and it seemed odd. I had to think back to the last team to show up at Chelsea in a similar colour. My mind raced back to a match with Plymouth Argyle in 1988, but that was it. Over in The Shed goal stood their ‘keeper Mat Ryan – dressed in all black –  and, to me, he looked quite short, quite ridiculously so. Lev Yashin used to wear all black because he claimed that it made him look bigger, more intimidating. The reverse seemed to be the case on this occasion. At the other end, Kepa was dressed in bright orange and looked much taller (he’s two centimetres taller, but you get my point).

Another football folklore tale debunked?

What next?

Bert Trautmann’s ailment in the 1956 FA Cup Final was a sore throat and tickly cough?

The game began, Chelsea attacking The Shed. It was a quiet start to the game, both on and off the pitch. I was pleased that there was no negative noise aimed at anyone, though the change in a more agreeable starting eleven surely quelled any unrest from the natives.

While Brighton fans sung of Wembley – they play Manchester City in the up-coming semi-final – and of our support being awful (which it undoubtedly was), their team seceded from taking part in the more combative parts of the game. There was no desire to challenge, no desire to tackle, no desire to do much at all, except sit deep and let us have the ball. A corner from Eden Hazard found Giroud whose near post header cleared the bar. Our Callum cut in and shot from the right but it was deflected over. A half-chance for Giroud, whose swivel and shot came to nothing. On twenty minutes, a long cross found Solly March who did well to dig out a shot from a tight angle but only found the side netting. Until then Kepa, I think, had not touched the ball at all.

Alan and I spoke about the current state of the nation.

“If anyone had said, back in August, that come the first week of April, we would be in contention for a top four finish and with a strong shout of reaching the Europa League Final, while the manager and his players found their feet – a slow curve – I think most people would have been relatively content.”

“I think the players share some of the responsibility; it’s not just the manager’s fault that we have been lacking desire in some games.”

“The Chelsea story this season is multi-layered.”

“It’s certainly not a page turner.”

Inside, silently, I reminisced about another season under a different Italian manager.

I thought back to 2000/2001.

Claudio Ranieri was an odd choice, in some ways, and he was certainly a relatively untested Italian who had replaced Gianluca Vialli, who was a loved and respected Italian manager. There are obvious comparisons with Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte. Eventually, Ranieri got it right – but with no silverware – and laid the basis for our ridiculous haul of trophies from 2005 to 2012. In retrospect it is hard to believe that Ranieri was given the best part of four seasons at Chelsea. It would not happen today.

Everything was a little humdrum although Callum was showing promise on the wing. However, the chances slowly increased. A run from deep from Eden got the juices flowing but he ran out of space. There was a weak header from Giroud. Callum was probing well and his quality cross towards Dave was sadly not matched by the subsequent header. Eden blasted over from a central position, but the chances were stacking up. Down below me, Yves Bissouma gave Dave the run-around but his cross into the box luckily did not fall to a waiting Brighton attacker.

There was still hardly much noise from anyone in the home sections.

On thirty-eight minutes, Callum skipped past a defender in front of Parkyville and his low cross was turned in at the near post, with the most clinical of touches, by Olivier Giroud. From my angle, I wondered how on earth it had ended up in the net. He was mobbed by his team mates – with Parky looking on, can you see him? – and blew a kiss to the crowd.

Dallow, Spicer : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Pinkie, Cubitt : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Brighton’s defenders had resembled loafing oafs in all-night chemists.

The goal was replayed on the TV screen and the fleet-footed shimmy from our young winger was just magical to watch. More of the same please.

We pressed on and there were a couple of jinking runs from Hazard, one from in his own half, others on the edge of the box. These, I would imagine, might well have drawn the ire of manager Sarri, but with the defence choked of space and with no runners, nor space to run into anyway, Hazard obviously felt that the best way to navigate the Brighton defence was via old-school dribbling rather than the pass-and-move mantra of the gaffer.

And this is where it has all broken down this season.

I suspect that when – if? – it is played correctly, the movement of our players in the manager’s system will mirror that of the White Helmets motorcycle display team, with synchronised runs and dummy runs, bluffs and counter bluffs, runners gliding into space and with runs using obtuse angles. It’ll be like a Busby Berkeley musical on grass.

In the meantime, we have to do what we have to do.

One Hazardous run was halted abruptly but David Luiz banged the ball against the wall. Late on in the half, after another dance into the box by Eden, there was an embarrassing air-shot from our Callum.

In that first-half, with lovely promise shown by Callum, our Ruben seemed to play within himself. I hoped for greater things in the second period. At the half-time break, I turned to Alan and became a ground hopper bore.

“You realise Slavia Prague’s rebuilt stadium used to be called the Eden Stadium?”

Ah, Prague. The joy of European travel. I know that I decided not to go to Czechia – new name, same place – for our up-coming game, but a boy can dream can’t he? I loved Prague on my two – ridiculously brief – previous visits (en route to Jablonec in 1994, en route to Munich 2012) and I spent a few wistful moments dreaming of the Czech capital. It is, like Budapest, a ground-hoppers’ paradise. In fact, if I was going, I could visit all of the five major stadia on a beautifully straight diagonal waking tour.

From south-east to north-west –

Slavia Prague.

Bohemians.

Viktoria Zizkov.

Sparta Prague.

Dukla Prague.

And then there is, at the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, the Strahov national stadium – where it was rumoured that we might have to play Zizkov in 1994 – and alongside it, the second-largest stadium ever built. This once held a monstrous 250,000 and was a vast area surrounded by a single-tier of terrace that was home to the “Spartakiada” for many years. It is now home to Sparta’s training ground and has enough space for nine full-size football pitches.  I can vividly remember a Friday night in 1976, right after an edition of “Open All Hours” on BBC2 if memory serves, when I watched the coverage of this annual show of communist strength via synchronised gymnastics that Busby Berkeley, and probably Maurizio Sarri too, would have been proud. It simply blew my mind. It is an image that has stayed with me for over forty years. Maybe I need to visit Prague again, maybe on a weekend over the coming summer. All of those stadia, all of those teams. Watch this space.

Later in the half-time break, I politely asked Alan to get me a Dukla Prague fridge magnet.

“It’s all I want for Christmas.”

Blimey, too many obscure musical references.

Back to London. The second-half started with us attacking the Matthew Harding. Hazard wriggled into the box, Luiz slammed a low cross towards the goal. Ten minutes in, a deep cross from Jorginho found the leap of our Callum – who looked offside to me – but his header fell into the arms of Yashin Junior.

“Oh Hudson-Odoi.”

At last we made some noise.

On the hour, Ruben played the ball in to Eden, who wriggled himself into space and sold Lewis Dunk a wonderful dummy before curling a wonderful effort wide of the ‘keeper and into a gaping net.

GET IN.

I was lucky to capture his run, jump and fist pump towards us.

Three minutes later, Jorginho to Hazard to Ruben. There was a quick appraisal of where he was, where the goal was, where the ‘keeper was, and our Ruben took one touch, opened up his body and despatched a firm shot – a little more loft and pace than Eden’s effort – which dropped beautifully high into the Brighton goal. It was sensational. I was again lucky to shoot the resulting elation from him and his team mates.

Brighton were rocking.

Teetering on their heels, they had offered nothing all game and were now well and truly out of it.

The game continued, but against an increasingly odd backdrop as thousands decided to leave early. I suppose it is, at least, better to leave for home when Chelsea is winning 3-0 than when we are losing 3-0. Regardless, the sight of acres of blue plastic was a jolt to the senses. Brighton sang about “Sussex by the Sea” and we watched as we continued to attack. Ruben’s strike seemed to give him confidence and a shot was drilled wide. A wide cross from Eden found a stretching N’Golo Kante who could only push it over the bar from close in.

The substitutions were made.

Davide for Dave.

Mateo for Ruben.

Willian for Eden.

Brighton, oddly, came to life a little in the last quarter, but the match was won and lost by then.

At the final whistle, the stadium was only two-thirds full. But it had been a reasonable game. I thought that in the immediate aftermath, fans were lavishing a lot of praise on Ruben, who had been fine and had scored a fantastic goal and yet had hardly influenced the game as much as some would believe. Maybe I saw a different match. But there were many more positives than negatives. This 3-0 win against Brighton just seemed a lot more wholesome than the 2-1 win against Cardiff.

Phew.

On the walk back to PD’s car, after demolishing yet another hot dog and onions from “Chubby’s Grill”, I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz.

We were of the same opinion about Ruben.

We looked ahead to our run-in.

“We can finish top four, of course we can. But our little sequence of games against these mediocre teams, and I am going to include the Europa League teams too, are not going to prepare us for our two horrific games at Anfield and Old Trafford. They will be so different. And I’m not convinced we can step up in those games.”

On Monday evening – continuing a run of nineteen consecutive games without a Saturday game  – we meet up again at Stamford Bridge for the visit of West Ham United.

I will see you there.

Tales From Munich : Part Three – Beyond Words

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

At 11.30pm in the north of Munich, Chelsea had miraculously become European Champions. In the final analysis, the season’s competition was decided by four penalty kicks, taken within four minutes of each other. Two Bayern misses and two Chelsea hits. In 2008, we missed the ultimate prize by a couple of inches. How fitting that our triumph four years later should be via penalties.

In truth, these facts were condensed into a nano second of thought as I stumbled to my feet. It is impossible for me to retell my innermost feelings during this most emotional and bewildering of moments.

All around me, fellow fans – followers of the royal blue – were screaming our delight.

BOOM.

The Nord Kurv was a cacophonous cauldron of noise.

BOOM.

Moscow was remembered briefly and then forgotten forever.

BOOM.

Chelsea, as overwhelming underdog in a foreign city, had triumphed.

BOOM.

Another miracle.

BOOM.

Destiny.

BOOM.

My beloved Chelsea had won the European Cup.

There were hugs for Ed, for Neil, and also for Glenn’s tormentor to my right. I shuffled to my left and hugged, Daryl, Gal, Glenn and Alan.

“We fcuking did it boys – we fcuking did it.”

I looked to my right and saw Simon and Milo scurrying down the terraces to be with us.

Everyone together.

I was aware that the players were rampaging towards us down below and so I started to take some photographs of the scene of carnage on the pitch and in the stands. The Chelsea faithful then bellowed a song of adulation and honour – one which was sung for each of our three domestic titles – but which now felt properly at home in this foreign field.

“Campiones, campiones – ole, ole , ole.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c1AT…hannel&list=UL

The scene was of wild delirium. Glenn wiping tears from his eyes, Simon and Milo bouncing and hugging each other, Alan with the widest ever grin on his face. I clambered up on to the seat and just tried to take it all in.

I looked at my phone and saw that there were some texts awaiting my attention. I didn’t want to read them just yet; it was all about the moment. I needed to concentrate on what was happening all around me. These precious minutes after the final penalty were my lifeblood.

I was aware that the Bayern fans were slowly leaving the arena. There would be no fifth title for them.

It was all about us.

The PA soon helped us celebrate further.

“Blue Is the Colour, Football Is the Game…”

How I love this song from my childhood. Memories of listening to Ed “Stewpot” Stewart’s “Junior Choice” programme on Radio One on Saturday mornings. This song was in the charts over forty years ago – to commemorate our 1972 Wembley appearance – and it still affects me every time. As a listening seven year old, it was just enough for me to hear the name “Chelsea” on the radio to send me wild with a paroxysm of delight. That Chelsea should have a pop record was just too much. Football and music is often intertwined, but for me it all began in the Spring of 1972. Chelsea in the charts? It amazed me back then. It was ridiculously perfect.

And I stood on my seat, singing along to every word, knowing full well that if I let the moment get to me, I would be wailing again.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZlYa…&feature=g-upl

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea Is Our Name.”

I then looked through my incoming texts.

There were messages of congratulations from fans of Liverpool, from fans of Juventus, from fans of Manchester United, from fans of Newcastle United and, of course, from fans of Chelsea.

There was even a little message – a smile, a kiss – from my former girlfriend Judy.

Fantastic.

Down below, the players were cavorting like school kids, but the moment soon came for them to assemble on the pitch, in front of the stairs which led to the balcony where the glittering prize was waiting. How I wished I had my telephoto lens with me. The heavy-legged Bayern players summoned enough strength to ascend the flight of steps. Like the new Wembley, the players momentarily disappeared from view, and then became visible to all.

I had a bemused smirk to myself. What now for the Chelsea fans who had been so convinced that UEFA would never allow us to win football’s biggest prize? What now for those conspiracy theorists? What now for the paranoid ones in our midst? I for one never bought this theory. I never bought the theory that UEFA instructed Tom Henning Ovrebo to gift Barcelona that match in 2009. Ovrebo made four supremely horrendous decisions in that game; that is beyond question. But if he had been so besotted in making life as easy as possible for Barcelona, why did he send Abidal off with ages to go in the game and Chelsea 1-0 up? If UEFA had cooked the books – and if one single person had let the cat out of the onion bag – UEFA’s credibility would be zero and, more importantly, its commercial partners would have dropped the Champions League in an instant.

Never worth the risk.

And here’s the proof – Chelsea were European Champions.

The players – forming a beautiful line of blue against the dark suited inhabitants of the corporate lower tier – made their way to the balcony. My mind was racing now…I wanted this moment to last forever but I so wanted to see that mammoth trophy hoisted by the Chelsea team. All around me, there seemed to be a quietening of song and a concentration of thought.

I had my camera poised for the moment.

Somewhere in the midst was Michel Platini. Somewhere in the midst was Frank Lampard, the captain on the night. Somewhere in the midst was John Terry, captain fantastic.

A delay…then a sudden thrust skywards of the magnificent trophy.

Click, click, click.

A tumultuous roar.

Wembley 1997 was magnificent. Bolton 2005 was historic.

Munich 2012 was the best ever.

It was the greatest night of my life on the greatest weekend of my life.

We were happy and glorious.

From Drogba’s final kick of destiny, we stayed in the stadium for about an hour. It was a gorgeous hour full of tears and laughter, merriment and pride.

Just to see my heroes holding that huge silver cup. Oh my. What an image.

Chelsea songs were played on the PA…”Liquidator”, “Blue Day”, “One Step Beyond”, “London Calling” – and then, strangely “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO.

The players still cavorted on the pitch…a momentary period of calm when the official team photo took place, but then madness. It really was, one step beyond –

Fernando Torres with the Spanish flag, Petr Cech being hoisted high on team mates’ shoulders and the cup way in the air, Drogba running towards the Chelsea in the lower tier of the east stand…players as kids, fans as proud parents.

Magical times.

In truth, I probably stayed relatively quiet. Sometimes, the moment just takes hold. A full hour after victory, I sent out my first text to a few friends –

“Beyond Words.”

We were, typically, some of the last to leave, but the players were still enjoying themselves in the north goalmouth when the nine of us reluctantly left the arena. We were all gasping for a drink and, as there is no alcohol served at UEFA games, the nine of us had our own little celebration party on the concourse outside gate 341. We dutifully lined up and bought ice cold Sprites.

I swear that the first mouthful was the finest tasting drink of all time.

We stood in a little circle. We sipped Sprite, but tasted champagne. We were pumped with adrenalin, euphoric with pleasure – befuddled, bewildered, besides ourselves.

It is a moment I will always remember.

“What was the first thing you did after you won the European Cup, Chris?”

“I drank some Sprite, mate.”

“Ah, of course, of course.”

A few faces drifted past – I shook hands with Callum. He was right after all. It was never in any doubt.

Unfortunately, amongst the crazy drift of Chelsea fans heading south to the tube stop, Glenn and I lost contact with Alan and the boys. All of a sudden, the Chelsea lexicon of songs had been augmented by a few new editions.

“We won in Munich, Munich. We won in Munich, Munich.”

“We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham, running ‘round Tottenham.
Running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
Singing I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?
Singing I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?
Singing I’ve got a trophy, I’ve got a trophy, I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?”

And then, a song which doesn’t get aired too often. A song which I always attribute to Leeds United (remember them?) after they lost to Bayern Munich(ditto) in the European Cup Final of 1975. Although, Leeds lost, they lost under suspicious circumstances – a good Peter Lorimer goal was cancelled out due to a dubious offside call – and so the Leeds fans sang this for years after, in defiance of the actual result –

“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.”

It was my song of the night, despite Kraftwerk still echoing in my mind.

“I’d like to take her home, that’s understood.”

There was an air of elation, but of sustained bewilderment too, as we walked around the stadium. Glenn was wearing his “lucky” lime green Napapijri polo shirt and I was wearing a royal blue Lacoste; the colours, in fact, used as the colour scheme of the final. The tickets were printed in these colours. The stadium, now shining bright at 12.30am, was also lit in these twin hues. The stadium looked perfectly photogenic and I took many snaps of it as we slowly walked south.

I contacted Andy Wray – whose hotel room Glenn and I were crashing in – to see where he was headed.

“The Shakespeare, near the train station.”

It was 12.45am. I was hoping to bump into Alan and the boys, but our paths never crossed again. At just after 1am, we hopped into one of the very last trains to leave the stadium. It was another nightmare journey, taking around an hour. Several Chelsea were so hot and tired, they got off to get a taxi…Glenn and I decided to stay on board. We chatted to two Chelsea ex-pats from Holland.

At 1.45am, the train pulled in to Marienplatz, the most central of central locations in the city of Munich. At street level, we crunched the glass of hundreds of beer bottles. In truth, we never really experienced what the pre-game atmosphere was like in the centre. Now, the Bayern fans quiet with sadness, still dominated, but pockets of Chelsea provided huge contrasts in mood.

“Campiones, campiones…”

Thankfully, despite vast quantities of alcohol being consumed all day, we did not see a hint of trouble. It was one of my fears, that should we have lost, the old Chelsea stereotype may have reared its unwanted head.

“…we’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose.”

Glenn and I collected our bags from the train station, stepping over hundreds of snoozing Bayern fans, in town for the night with no hope of being able to return to Nurnburg, Hamburg, Dusseldorf or Frankfurt until the morning. The hauptbanhof was as I remembered it from my last visit for the Oktoberfest of 1990, when I – like hundreds of others – slept like babies on the station forecourt.

We tried to track down The Shakespeare. Just as I thought about giving up, we bumped into Cathy and Barbara who were able to point us in the right direction. Finally, at 2.30am, we turned a corner to find what seemed like the only boozer open in the entire city.

“The Shakespeare – there it is Glenn!”

Inside, I spotted three familiar faces…first Andy Wray, then Steve Mantle, then his twin brother Daz.

Hugs and clenched fists, smiles and back slaps.

After that Sprite, came the real deal.

Beer has never tasted better.

“Champion.”

“The Shakespeare” was a tiny pub, with its clientele spilling out onto the road. While I was supping at the bottle of beer, who should walk right by but Mike Neat – the leader of the NYBs – and three of his troops; Alex, Napoli Frank and Matt. What a small world. We hugged – and Mike gave me a ridiculously long kiss on my neck. I looked up – and there was Susan Harvey, who I first met in Chicago in 2006, then Palo Alto in 2007.

“Great to see you!”

Cathy then turned up a few minutes later.

Icky – The General – was also in attendance. He had flown over from The Phillipines, but had been unable to get a ticket. I asked him where he had seen the game and he replied that he had watched it in an open air park somewhere. He joked with Cathy that he has never seen us win in Europe; our success that night was all down to him. I wasn’t going to argue.

So there we all were – drinking in Munich in the small hours, our smiles making our cheeks ache, our rapid fire comments and laughter never ending. There was an overwhelming sense of pride and joy. It is very likely that the phrases uttered by us in Munich were uttered, in various guises, by thousands upon thousands of Chelsea fans all over the globe.

Mike – “We did it. I don’t know how. We played shit, but we did it.”

Chris – “The ultimate away game mate.”

Frank – “Incredible, Chris. Just incredible.”

Chris – “The first London team to win it!”

Andy – “Drogba!”

Susan –“Oh…what about Tottenham!”

Chris – “Ha! What about Tottenham? Could it possibly get any better?”

Mike – “We were beaten. Two minutes to go. Incredible.”

Andy – “1905…19/05.”

Chris – “And what about Cech saving Robben’s penalty!”

Susan – “Written in the Gods.”

Chris – “And of all the people to miss a penalty, that fcuker Schweinsteiger.”

Mike – “We never win on penalties.”

Chris – “We did tonight, son!”

By now, Glenn was sleeping on the pavement, his head propped against his Quiksilver back-pack. He was OK. Just tired. I had a couple more beers. Photos with the last ones standing. It seemed like our little group, right there and then, was the epicentre of Chelsea Football Club.

I stamped my foot right down in the middle of our little group.

“The very hub of this club. Right here.”

Mike smiled.

I said to him – “and my next Chelsea game? At Yankee Stadium!”

We laughed.

“Life is good mate.”

I remember writing a three part piece about my experience in Moscow after the game in 2008. I remember that my whole day in Moscow was blighted by the fact that I knew that, should Chelsea win, my match going experience as a Chelsea fan would have reached its zenith. Anything which followed, by nature, would be of lesser value. It would always pale in comparison.

In Munich 2012, I simply didn’t care.

We were European Champions.

At 4am, I scooped Glenn up from the kerb and we said our goodbyes. We wearily tried to locate a cab to take us back to Andy’s hotel two miles to the east.

At 5am, Glenn was asleep but I was listening to the dawn chorus. My mind was still racing. It had been the most perfect of days, the most perfect of nights. Andy eventually rolled in at 7am and the three of us amalgamated to win the Chelsea Fans In Germany Synchronised Snoring Competition.

On the Sunday, I was up at 10.30am. Glenn soon followed. We said our goodbyes to Andy. He was to stay on for one more day. In the hotel’s reception, we spoke with a Chelsea fan from Brisbane, Australia who had travelled without a ticket just to be in the city. The saddest story I had heard involved my good mate Pete from San Francisco. His ticket was stuck in customs in New York and he had no way of expediting them before he was due to depart. He also travelled to Munich without a ticket – and didn’t get in. At the game, a few fans in the row behind us had stormed the gates after the game had begun. With strength in numbers, this was always an option for some.

Outside, the weather was blisteringly hot. On the U-bahn to the main station, a pragmatic Bayern fan told us ruefully –

“English teams know how to take corners.”

We smiled.

We travelled back to Prague, blissfully happy. The amazing thing was that I was 100% devoid of a hangover.

Oh Munich – I love you and I love your beer.

Twenty minutes into the trip north, just before we got stuck in some horrendous traffic near the airport, we drove past the Allianz Arena once more. In the bright afternoon sun, it looked divine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zg3NraIDPa4

“There she goes. We are the Champions. The Champions of Europe.”

At Prague airport, we bumped into Young Dave, who looked as happy as me, but five times as tired. His mate Pav, bless him, had an amazing story to tell. Without a match ticket, he resorted to desperate measures. He arrived at the stadium, dressed in smart clothes, with a Ford lanyard and a handmade Champions League pass around his neck. The Ford lanyard was handed out at a Champions League corporate event at Stamford Bridge a few years back. He pieced together some printed matter from a Chelsea magazine to give the impression that he was one of the corporate guests of Ford. Believe it or not, it worked. He chose his moment and got past the first ticket check. Once inside, he blagged his way in to the seating bowl. He was close to welling up when he told us this story.

“I had my Mum with me. I knew I’d get in.”

He showed me the card that he had used and I unfolded it. Part of the text – hidden from view – mentioned this –

“Win one of 14 VIP tickets for the CL Final.”

Indeed. Simple as that.

We howled with laughter.

“That’s not what it meant, Pav!”

We had one last dark Czech beer at Prague airport. We were still smiling on the return flight home as we reviewed the previous 48 hours of history-making. For me, it was the last flight of a long season. From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok to Leverkusen to Naples to Barcelona to Munich, glorious Munich. Dave and Pav were sitting opposite. Talk was of Monaco and Tokyo. The banter was still flying around. Glenn always has an eye for the ladies and I caught him eyeing up the bespectacled air hostess. I knew what was coming.

Glenn : “I would.”

Chris: “I know you would.”

Glenn : “Would you?”

Chris : “It would go to penalties, but – yeah – I would too.”

We landed back at Bristol and by midnight, I was home.

It had been, without exception, the most perfect of weekends. Simply everything had gone our way; from the timings to the travel, from flight prices to hotels, from the weather to the food and drink…the stadium, the football, the friendships…the goals, the penalties, the drama.

The European Cup.

Bloody hell.

IMGP9530

IMGP9590

DSCN7851

Tales From Munich : Part One – Petals From Heaven

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

So, where does this remarkable story start? The story surely begins before the two magnificent games against Barcelona, but it obviously encompasses them. It begins before the Benfica games, too. Does it start with the come-from-behind game against Napoli at Stamford Bridge? Quite possibly. But, maybe the story begins with the exemplary Drogba-inspired victory over Valencia in the last group phase game of the autumn? This was a game that we had to win to progress; nothing like leaving it late, eh Chelsea?

Or does the story begin years earlier? The gut-wrenching defeat against Barca in 2009? The crippling loss on penalties to Manchester United in the rain of an unwelcoming Moscow night in 2008? How about the twin losses to Liverpool on two evenings at an obnoxious Anfield? Does the story start there? The ghost goal of Luis Garcia in 2005 and the penalties of 2007? Pain, pain, pain.

How about the semi-final defeat – almost forgotten these days – at the hands of Monaco in 2004? Or another loss to Barcelona at the quarter final stage in 2000 which was at the end of our first ever assault on the biggest prize in European club football?

In my mind, the story didn’t exist in 1998. In that year, Chelsea had defeated Stuttgart in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Stockholm. We had replicated the achievement of the fabled 1970 and 1971 teams by following up a domestic Cup with a European one. I can remember thinking that this would be as good as it would ever get as a Chelsea fan. Chelsea, my team of perennial underachievers, had no hope of the league title; we had reached our glass ceiling in Stockholm. League titles and Champions League triumphs were the stuff for ridiculous fantasists.

The story starts in 1955.

In that year, of course, Chelsea Football Club won our first ever League Championship in our golden jubilee season. In the following 1955-1956 campaign, the good fellows at UEFA organised the first ever “Cup of Champions” for the league winners in all member countries. The story could have only lasted nine months. However, the English Football Association – never the first to support innovation – strongly advised Chelsea to resist European glory and step aside from participation. We timidly obeyed the octogenarians of Lancaster Gate and did not take part.

So, in 1956, Real Madrid were crowned the inaugural European club champions and Chelsea looked on from a distance. In reality, our league season was a pale shadow of the preceding one and our participation might have been rather brief. However, even in those days, we always were a cup side…

So, the story is one which has lasted for 57 years. It disappeared without trace from 1955, but it re-emerged in 1999 and Chelsea has been besotted with the story ever since.

The Champions League.

The European Cup.

The Holy Grail of European Football.

Enough of the history lesson; this is my story of Munich 2012.

I was finishing off my packing – marking off items on the check sheet – when Glenn arrived ahead of schedule on Friday afternoon. His excitement was all too apparent. In fact, he was bursting. Glenn is my oldest Chelsea mate. I first met him at school in Frome in 1977. We were the only lads at Frome College in 1981-1982 who owned Chelsea shirts. I bumped into him in The Shed in August 1983 and our first game together was two months later, the seminal 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle United. We’ve been constant companions, from Sunderland to Seville, from Bristol City to Barcelona, ever since. For Glenn to be accompanying me to the Champions League Final in Munich just seemed right. And yet, we have another dear friend to thank. Parky was unable to travel to Germany and so gifted his match ticket to Glenn, for which he was eternally thankful.

We left my sunny Somerset village at 3.45pm and were soon at Bristol airport for the 6.20pm flight to Prague. We had a couple of pints apiece and bumped into Dave, from Bath, and three of his mates. Dave – or “Young Dave” as he is known in Mark Worrall’s excellent tales of Chelsea obsession – owns a restaurant in the city of my birth. To be truthful, I hadn’t seen him for about four years. One of his mates, Pav, was wearing a large home-made badge showing a photo of his late mother; she had sadly passed away six months ago. Although Pav did not yet have a match ticket, he was honouring his mother – a massive Chelsea fan – by travelling to Munich. He was confident he would find a ticket from somewhere. He was confident he would get in. I wished him well, but I knew deep down it would be a difficult task.

The flight to Prague typically contained a couple of stag parties. When a further hen party boarded, Glenn was all eyes and did his best meerkat impression. The flight was only ninety minutes in length and we landed in Prague at 9pm, a good thirty minutes ahead of schedule. I had arranged, via a work contact in the Czech Republic, for a taxi to meet us at the airport. By 9.30pm, Michael was driving us into the Czech capital and regaling us with current updates on the various football teams which hail from that gorgeous city on the banks of the Vltava.

Prague really is a hotbed of football; Sparta, Slavia, Bohemians, Dukla and Viktoria Zizkov all battle for domination. Michael said he was a Sparta fan, but then admitted that Viktoria was his first love. I couldn’t really work this out; how can you support two teams from the same city? Michael rattled through many stories about famous Czech players who have played in England and I was suitably impressed. He said that a lot of fellow Czech citizens favour Chelsea because of Petr Cech. There was a lovely aspect to our one night stay in Prague. Way back in 1994, Daryl, Neil and I travelled to Prague for Chelsea’s first ever European away game since Atvidaberg in 1971. Twenty-three years of hurt indeed. We played the city’s poor relations, Viktoria, in the return leg of the tie having won 4-2 at a rainy Stamford Bridge. Never had 22,000 made more noise at The Bridge. Due to concerns about possible crowd trouble, however, the second leg was played up in the hills of Bohemia in the small town of Jablonec. Dmitri Kharine saved a penalty and we drew 0-0. Our Euro adventure was on its way…and we all said we would love to one day return to Prague.

Eighteen years later, I was back. We zipped past Sparta’s Letna Stadium and Michael deposited us at Hotel Belvedere bang on 10pm. He had also arranged for his brother-in-law to collect us in the morning. We stumbled across a gorgeous local restaurant. For an hour, we sunk a couple of dark Czech beers, chatted about Chelsea and devoured some fantastic local fare. Pickled sausages, cheese sticks and then goulash with herby potato cakes. It was heavenly. Glenn had visited Prague way back in 1996 with his then German girlfriend Anke. He too was so pleased to be back. I remember he had brought me back a Sparta T-shirt from that trip.

Alongside, four young locals were feverishly debating amongst themselves in the particular way that you sense only eastern Europeans can do. I imagined feverish words being uttered about political unrest in Poland, or maybe the agony inherent in a local artist’s sculptures or the latest sounds from the new ground-breaking underground band in Ostrava.

I looked at the girl as she vented her fury; she slammed the wooden table with her palm when making a point. And my mind wandered…

“No – you fool. Play Kalou on the right. Sturridge is a mere shadow of his former self. You are all idiots.”

We dived into a smoky bar, full of more students, more local beer, more animated chat. Glenn and I observed from afar. What a wondrous feeling to be so far from our home comforts, to be able to witness the lives of others. But to also be on the edge of our own particular date with destiny. After one last beer in the hotel bar, we retired to bed, with nothing but positive thoughts about Munich, about the game, about victory. It had been a perfect night in Prague but the fun was only just beginning.

I awoke at 5.45am and a quick shower sorted me out. Outside, we waited in the cool morning air for our cab to take us into town. The yellow Skoda soon arrived and the tall cabbie spoke;

“Chris Chelsea?”

We were on our way to the train station where we were to catch the coach to Munich. The city looked breath-taking. We shot over the river with the Charles Bridge and the castle on the hill in the distance. We soon reached our destination. The train station is grand, but antiquated and in needing of restoration. We caught the coach outside its flaking exterior at 7.15am.

The coach trip lasted five hours, but the time flew past. We chatted more intensely about the football than the previous night. The Czech countryside was a picture; not dissimilar to the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania or Georgia, with none of the hedgerows of England which make our patchwork of a fields so unique. We noted fields of solar panels; they put us to shame in the quest for new energy sources. The sun was shining brightly. The sky was cloudless. It was magnificent.

We called in at Munich airport en route to the city. Another little bit of my personal history to tell; way back in 1977, my first ever trip by plane was to Munich on a family trip to Seefeld in the Tyrolean Alps. 35 years on, I was travelling on the same road. We soon drove past the white supernatural shell of the Allianz Arena. I was all eyes. It looked superb. I was reminded how far out of the city it is, though; it follows the old American model of being located right on the outskirts of the city. After only five more minutes, we came out of a tunnel on the inner city ring road and the iconic roof of the 1972 Olympic Stadium was in view. Way back in 1977, the only thing I remember of that coach trip was the sighting, late at night, of those flowing lines of the roof which connects the sports hall, the swimming pool and the main stadium. I had watched the 1972 Olympics of Mark Spitz and Mary Peters, the 1974 World Cup of Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner; the sight of the stadium made me gulp in 1977. It made me gulp in 2012, too. I love this stadium, although it is now considered out-dated, with its canopy roof, based on Bedouin tents. Of course, a few hundred yards north, several Israeli athletes had been killed during the siege in that Olympics.

My first real visit to Munich took place in the summer of 1985 during my first traipse around Europe as a backpacking student. The most vivid memory from that stay was my visit to the nearby Dachau concentration camp; the three hours I spent there were both surreal and shocking, the scale of the camp was awful and the photographs will be etched on my mind forever. The four or five Chelsea fans I saw in Barcelona singing about Spurs and Auschwitz and grunting “seig heils” should be forced to visit Dachau and to feel the pain that I felt on that blisteringly hot August day 27 years ago. On that visit to Munich, I also visited the Olympic Park in the northern suburbs; it was wonderful to see up close those wonderful iconic roofs and the towering pylons. It remains one of the most amazing and aesthetically pleasing stadiums I have ever visited. I would soon be returning in 1987 on two separate adventures.

The first time was with two mates for Oktoberfest in late September; what a crazy night that turned out to be. Suffice to say, two friends and I caught a late night (very late night) train to Hamburg to get some “free sleep” only to wake up at around 8am with the train still in Munich. I still haven’t worked out the reasons for that, but I suspect the ever hospitable Germans had simply laid on that train as additional sleeping quarters for the hundreds of backpackers sleeping in the train station that night.

Later that autumn, I returned. After I left college, I part-paid for several trips around Europe by train by selling British football badges at stadia in Italy. I also sold around 60 at this very same Olympic stadium in Munich on a frosty day in November of that year. However, I did not have the required “reisegewerbekarte” (street traders’ license) and so was arrested by the local police. I was taken down into a police cell deep in the bowels of the main stand, sharing it with a neo-Nazi Bayern fan. I had made around £80 that afternoon and the police fined me £75. However, I think one of the police took pity on me (it was a classic case of “good cop, bad cop”) and he let me in to see the game for free. The game was Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Uerdingen and it happened to be Mark Hughes’ first ever game during his loan spell from Barcelona. I left the stadium £5 up on the day, my tail between my legs but with my third ever European game under my belt.

It was clear that the weather in Munich was going to be sensational. Outside, we spotted the occasional Chelsea fan, but the ratio was 50-1 in favour of Bayern. We alighted at the central train station – the Hauptbanhof – and soon deposited our bags in the left-luggage lockers; hotels could wait. I was last in the train station in 1990 after a great night at the Oktoberfest.

Glenn and I caught a cab to the Paulaner beer hall a mile or two to the south where several friends had just arrived. Our plan was to avoid the madding crowds of the central area – long lines at the bar, possible aggro – and stay under the shade of some trees in the beer garden of this old-fashioned drinking establishment. Daryl had even reserved us a table on the Thursday. We stayed here from 12.45pm to 7pm. It was simply magical.

Glenn and I joined the others; Alan, Gary, Neil, Daryl, Simon, Ed and Milo.

Blossom from the surrounding trees was falling on our little party and ended up in our glasses of honey-coloured beer, like petals from heaven. We chatted, joked and laughed for over six hours; it was, of course, the best pre-match ever. Moscow in 2008 was grim and inhospitable, the locals unwelcoming, the weather too. Munich, in contrast, was the complete opposite. The sun was warm, the sky blue. The beer was sensational. The city was the ultimate party town, the ideal venue for a Champions League Final. The smooth beer, 3.60 euros a go, was not too expensive either. At around 2.30pm we all had some food; for me, it was pork knuckle, potato dumplings and cold cabbage salad. It was so gorgeous that Glenn helped himself to it too, the git.

The chat was varied; internal politics at Chelsea and the scrum for tickets, the potential new stadium at Battersea, the antics of Gary, the increasingly inebriated Glenn. We toasted Parky – the absent friend – and he sent through a few texts as the afternoon progressed. It was the European away debuts for Ed and Milo – the Under Fives – and what a day for them.

But Alan was the star of the show, as so often is the case. He treated us to his usual arrangement of comic impersonations. Firstly, Richie Benaud, Michael Holding, David Lloyd – the cricket commentators – describing the antics of Gary the previous night. Then, Didier Deschamps as Rain Man –

“Oh yeah…I play Wednesdays…I play Wednesdays…Champions League is Wednesdays…oh yeah. No – not Thursdays…Spurs play Thursdays…they play Thursdays. Oh no – Malouda – OH NO OH NO!”

And then – his finest hour.

Alan as Frank Sinclair’s mother, talking about the time her son scored at Coventry City and promptly pulled his shorts down in celebration, spoken in Jamaican patois.

“My boy Franklin. He call me on the phone and tell me to watch the TV. He score a goal and he walk around bearing his backside. Oh my. I tell him I will lick his backside, for sure, bringing disgrace on the family like dat.”

By this time we were all roaring. We’ve heard this routine twenty times but every time it gets better and every time the tears start rolling.

On the coach, Glenn and I had been talking about Kraftwerk and their songs “Autobahn” and “The Model.” He played “The Model” on his iPhone and we imparted a little musical knowledge to the youngsters. Ironic really, since Depeche Mode often accompany me on my travels around England following Chelsea. In the heart of Bavaria, we loved hearing the electro beats from 1982 which no doubt inspired The Boys From Basildon.

“She’s a model and she’s looking good.”

Alan immediately provided the Munich 2012 version –

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Ah – pudding. Four of us had a dessert of apple strudel. Bloody gorgeous.

The time was moving on. Talk of the football game was minimal though. I briefly mentioned that I wanted Torres to start but Daryl had heard whispers that Ryan Bertrand would be playing wide left. This surprised me I must say. That came out of left field. At around 5pm, I had a special visitor. My former workmate Michaela, and her partner Paul, had cycled the 20 miles from their home just to the north of the Allianz Arena to spend some time with us. Michaela worked with me in Chippenham from 2003 to 2007, but had been back home in Bavaria since then. It was lovely to see her again. There had been a call for the natives to dress in red and white on this most special day. Although they weren’t Bayern fans, they were suitably attired; Michaela in red, Paul in white. I spoiled things, of course; I was in blue.

A few of us – I forget who – ended the session with a solitary vodka schnapps.

It was time to move.

It was about 7pm and we walked north to the Goethe Platz U-bahn station. It was at this stage that I noticed Glenn was wobbling all over the gaff. He was impersonating a baby deer. The beer had clearly got to him. I passed over his match ticket and begged him to keep it safe. The streets were eerily quiet actually. Maybe the entire population of Munich were now ensconced in the central bars and the viewing parties around the city. Our subway train arrived and we piled on. With each passing stop, more and more fans squeezed on. We had been told that the journey was only around 20 minutes in length, but it actually took about an hour. We were pressed up against each other and it was pretty uncomfortable. At Marienplatz, the platform was awash with blue and red shirts. Inside our carriage, Chelsea outnumbered Bayern and we began singing a few Chelsea classics, just to let them know who we were.

At a few more stops, fans got more and more agitated as the space inside the carriage lessened. One parent cried out for space as a child appeared to be getting crushed. It was not pleasant. We had avoided the central area, so we had no idea how many Chelsea were in town. I sent out a few texts to a few friends, but our paths did not cross. The train moved slowly north, agonisingly stopping for minutes on end at more than one stop. The heat was sapping my energy. What I’d do for one last beer.

Eventually, we reached the final stop at Frottmaning. We assembled the troops together and ascended the steps. It seemed Chelsea fans were in the ascendancy. We were making all of the noise, singing all the songs. Some of the Bayern fans were ludicrously attired in lederhosen and denim waistcoats (very Stretford End 1977 as any Scouser will tell you) and I vented some scorn on them.

Ahead, the brilliant white shell of the Allianz Arena was way in the distance.

It was time for the long walk to immortality.

IMGP9418

IMGP9434

DSCN7824