Tales From Three Stadia In Turin / Racconti Da Tre Stadi Di Torino

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2021.

Are you ready to go to the match with me?

“Let’s go. Andiamo!”

It was just after four o’clock. This was a full five hours before the Juventus vs. Chelsea game was due to start at the Allianz Stadium in Continassa to the north of Turin’s city centre. But I was heading south. I had decided that I would undertake a magical mystery tour of the city’s footballing past before our second Champions League game of the autumn. I was ready to immerse myself once more in the city’s footballing heritage and in my football history too. I had sorted out the timings. I was sure it would all work itself out. I would have five hours to soak myself inside Turin’s story.

I was ready.

There was no need for a jacket or top. The weather in the Northern Italian city had been exemplary, a surprising antidote to the increasingly changeable weather back home. I set off out into the warm afternoon wearing the football staples of a polo, a pair of jeans and trainers. In my camera bag, in addition to my Canon SLR and lenses, was the small Sony camera that I had purchased specifically for Porto in May, just in case the stewards at the Juventus stadium were overzealous and would decide that my long lenses were unable to be taken inside. Also inside the bag was my passport, my match ticket and my proof of two vaccinations against COVID19.

My hotel was tucked into the narrow grid of streets to the immediate south and east of Turin’s Porta Nuova train station, and I walked a few hundred yards to the Marconi tube station. The city’s one tube line would serve me well. I caught the train to Lingotto, the site of the famous old Fiat factory with its test-track on the roof, so memorably featured in the wonderful “The Italian Job” from 1969. On my last visit to Turin in 2012, I had enjoyed a very fine meal at the rather posh restaurant on the roof terrace, and had walked around the test-track, a life-time wish fulfilled.

Lingotto was the nearest metro station to my first footballing port of call; Stadio Filadelfia which was around a mile or so to the west. However, when I checked the quickest way to reach this famous old stadium, I was mortified to see that there was no quick walking route from Lingotto.

Bollocks.

It was perhaps typical that my plans had quickly taken a turn for the worse. In the build-up to this away game, there had been much anxiety as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly I needed to do to get myself to Italy. There had been tests, forms, emails, pdf attachments, vouchers, and stress at every turn. For example, when I sat down to take my “pre-flight” lateral flow test at home on the preceding Sunday, I discovered that the liquid within the vial had leaked in transit and so I had to use the kit intended to be used in Turin for my flight home. This would mean that I would need to locate a chemist’s near my hotel to take my second test. What a palaver. Even on the seemingly straightforward drive from deepest Somerset to Stansted in the small hours of Tuesday, there was extra worry. With many garages short of fuel, I became obsessed at how fast my fuel gauge was fading. I was sure that I was OK for the trip to Stansted, but I needed to fill the car with petrol in readiness for my return trip on Friday evening. Four filling stations on the A303 had no fuel. Thankfully, Fleet Services on the M3 were open and fully stocked. There was a heavy sigh of relief. With a section of the M25 closed, I then ludicrously spent twenty minutes following diversion signs that then deposited me back to where I had left the M25 and I found myself heading west and not east. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thankfully, I arrived at my pre-booked parking spot bang on my allotted start time of 4.45am.

Phew.

Undeterred, I returned to the Lingotto subway station and quickly took a train north – retracing my very recent steps – to Carducci Molinette. From here, the stadium was around a twenty-five-minute walk away. I made haste and sped westwards. My route took me over a wide bridge that rose over the train tracks into the city’s main station.

It was along these very tracks that I would have travelled on my inaugural visit to Turin in November 1987, the city bathed in a grey mist that would not disappear all day. I remember sitting alone in the great hall of the main train station and pinning some British football badges onto a board that I had constructed at home prior to my latest Inter-Railing extravaganza. I had bought several hundred football badges from a company in Blackburn and aimed to sell as many as I could at games in Italy and Germany to help finance my travels in Europe. The Juventus vs. Panathinaikos UEFA Cup game later that evening would be my first opportunity to test the water. I had high hopes for this venture, and was equally as excited about seeing Juve, my favourite European team, for the first time.

Why Juve? A quick re-cap. They were the very first “foreign” team that I remembered seeing on TV, a European Cup game in exotic Turin against Derby County in April 1973. I made friends with Mario on an Italian beach in 1975; a Juventus fan, I had found a kindred spirit. In 1981, at the same beach resort, I met his friend Tullio, also a Juve fan. We have been friends ever since. I last saw Mario in that home town in 2019. I last saw Tullio in London in 2018. But these are just the essentials. Our three lives have intertwined for decades now.

As I walked south on Via Giordano Bruno, I stopped at a small shop to buy a “Coke” as my throat was parched. The previous day had been a long one; up at midnight, a flight at 6.45am, a tiring walk from Porta Sousa train station to my hotel, and then two spells of drinking, the second one long into the night with friends old and new at “The Huntsman” on the main drag. I was awake, in total, for around twenty-five hours. The “Coke” gave me just the kick I needed as I approached Stadio Filadelfia.

This stadium was the home of the all-conquering Torino team of the 1940’s, Il Grande Torino, who were so cruelly killed in the Superga air disaster of 4 May 1949. Growing up in England, I had heard Superga mentioned many times. At first I presumed that Superga was a small town near Turin where the plane, returning from a friendly in Lisbon, had crashed. Only later did I realise that Superga was a hill right on the eastern edge of the city. I then, with a mixture of amazement and horror, realised that the plane had crashed into the rear of a basilica perched right on top of that hill.

I always say it was akin to the successful Arsenal team of the ‘thirties crashing into Big Ben.

On the bus from the Turin airport at Caselle on Tuesday morning, I was telling this story to Pete, who along with my great pal Alan (and a host of other familiar Chelsea faces including a fanzine editor, an erstwhile Chelsea media man, a former Headhunter and a porn star) had been on the same Ryanair flight as myself. Just as I mentioned Superga – “you probably can’t see it in this haze” – Pete immediately spotted it away in the distance.

“Is that it?”

Indeed, it was.

As I approached the stadium, which has recently been painstakingly updated after decades of neglect, the memories of a previous visit to Turin came flooding back. In May 1992, three college friends – Pete, Ian, Trev – and I drove through France to attend a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game at Stadio Delle Alpi. On the day after the game, we drove up to Superga on the forty-third anniversary of the crash. We spent some time there. I remember I took my father’s new, and huge, camcorder on this trip and I shot a few segments of our visit. After, we drove down into Turin and parked up outside Stadio Filadelfia and hoped that we could peek inside. In 1992, the terracing on three sides were still intact, if very overgrown. The old main stand was held up with scaffolding. But we were able to walk onto the famous pitch and we even found a football to kick around for a few joyful minutes. The goal frames were still intact. Goals were scored at La Filadelfia. What fun. We then sat on the east terrace in quiet contemplation; Superga in another haze in the distance, the old Fiat factory nearby, the stadium still surrounded by tight working class flats on three of its sides. I imagined the roar of the crowd in those halcyon days. We took it all in.

Then, out of nowhere, we spotted two middle-aged women appear on the far side underneath the faded burgundy of the antiquated main stand. They were carrying two wreaths, and strode slowly on to the pitch, before stopping at the centre-circle to place the flowers on the turf.

It remains one of my most special football memories.

Torino played at Stadio Filadelfia from 1926 to 1960 and then shared the larger Stadio Communale with Juventus from 1961 to 1990. For many years, as the two teams hopped around stadia in the city, it was hoped that Torino would eventually return to their spiritual home. A while back, I was truly saddened to see it was in a very poor condition. So imagine my elation when I recently found out that a startling metamorphosis has taken place. A new main stand has been constructed, and a new pitch has been sewn. It now houses 4,000, and in addition to housing the club HQ, it also hosts the club museum and the team’s youth teams play games on this most sacred of sites.

As I circumnavigated the stadium, I remembered how decrepit the place had become. Its resurgence since 2015 has been sensational. I chatted to a Toro fan as I walked around and took some photographs. He was even wearing a burgundy – officially pomegranate – T-shirt and I thought to myself –

“You can’t get much more Toro than that.”

There is another Torino story, and one that tends to give the city an air of sadness in terms of football, and specifically with regards to the Torino club. I recently read the excellent “Calcio” book by John Foot. One chapter concerned the life and subsequent death of the Torino player, a real maverick, called Gigi Meroni. He joined Torino in 1964 and soon became the idol of the team’s supporters. A skilful and artistic ball-player in the style of George Best – a flamboyant playboy off the pitch, much admired by both sexes – he was out with a team mate after a Torino home game in 1967. Crossing the road near his flat on Corso Re Umberto, he was hit by two cars. He sadly died later in hospital. Bizarrely, the driver of the first car lived thirteen doors down from Meroni on that very street, and idolised Meroni, even adopting the same hairstyle. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. In a bizarre twist, in 2000 the Torino club appointed a new president; a native of Turin, an executive at Fiat. His name was Attilio Romero, who just happened to be the driver of the first car that had hit Meroni in 1967. On my walk to my hotel on the previous day, I had stopped by the memorial on Corso Re Umberto to pay my respects. With the Juventus tragedy at Heysel haunting many in the city, Turin certainly has its share of sadness.

It was approaching 5pm now and I walked a few blocks west. Next up was Stadio Olimpico, formerly Stadio Communale, and the current home of Torino. The two stadia are only a quarter of a mile apart. I walked past a bar where two friends and I had visited in 1989. This was another trip into Turin for a Juventus game with college friends. We caught a bus down to have a mosey around the stadium on a sunny Saturday morning before the game with Fiorentina on the Sunday and spent a couple of hours chatting and drinking and basically enjoying each other’s company. I was twenty-three, we had just won the Second Division Championship, and I was off to the US in the September. At the time, it seemed like a dream weekend in the middle of a dream summer, and it does even more so now. Bob was Leeds, Pete was Newcastle, I was Chelsea. But for that weekend we were all Juventus. I remember we all bought Juventus polos in the ridiculously small Juve store within a central department store.

Memories were jumping around inside my head now. I walked along Via Filadelfia and the years evaporated.

On my first visit in 1987, I arrived outside the home turnstiles as thousands of Juventus fans were singing and chanting a full three hours before they made their way inside the preferred home end of the Curva Filadelfia. I set up shop outside and sold around thirty badges – Chelsea and Liverpool the best sellers – before then plotting up outside the Curva Maratona, selling a few more, then heading inside to see Ian Rush and Juventus defeat Panathinaikos 3-2, but sadly get eliminated due to away goals. I remember the pink flares before the game, I remember the noise of the passionate bianconeri, I remember I was positioned in the very back row of the Maratona, right next to the main stand, Gianni Agnelli and all. Antonio Conte’s right-hand man Angelo Alessio scored one of the three Juventus goals that evening. It is a night I will never forget, my first European night, and my first visit to the home of Juventus, a sprawling stadium with those iconic curved goal stanchions, and the team with those baggy white shorts.

I remembered March 1988 and the visit of Internazionale, their masses of fans packing out the Maratona, while I proudly stood on the Filadelfia for the first time. Two banners in the Maratona : “WIN FOR US” and “RUSH – YOUR WIFE IS FUCKING.” Juve won that game 1-0 with a Marino Magrin penalty.

A visit in November 1988, my first flight into Europe for football, and I watched with my friend Tullio on the distinti as Napoli – with Diego Maradona at the very heart of its team in light blue shirts – defeated Juventus by the ridiculous score of 5-3. Tullio, aware that his Napoli friend Giorgio was in the Maratona, memorably wanted to leave at half-time when the visitors were already 3-1 up.

The game against Fiorentina in 1989, and the memory of piles and piles of the magazine “Guerin Sportivo” lying at the base of the Curva Filedelfia, intended to be claimed by home fans and then torn up as the teams entered the pitch. Instead, I gathered three different copies to take away from the game and to add to my collection. In those days, I would often buy “La Gazzetta” in Bath or “Guerin Sportivo” in London to keep up-to-date with Italian football. In 1988/89, I could probably rattle off most starting elevens of the dominant teams in Italy. In 2021/22, I struggle with the starting elevens of the main English teams.

I guess I have seen too much.

Also from that game, Roberto Baggio, of Fiorentina, getting sent-off in a 1-1 draw, but also the 2,000 strong visiting Fiorentina fans leaving early, possibly to avoid an ambush or perhaps to carry out an ambush en route back to the main station.

As with the scene that greeted me in 1987, there was masses of graffiti adorning the wall opposite the turnstiles. In 2021, all football related, and undoubtedly inflammatory against certain teams. In 1987, graffiti of a more political nature; the names Pinochet and Hess hinted at the rumoured right-wing bias of some dominant Juve supporter groups.  The old adage was Juve, Lazio and Inter right, Torino, Roma and Milan left though those rules seem to have diluted and changed in the subsequent years.

I turned the corner and peaked inside at the main stand. From our 1992 visit, I remember the four of us had sidled into the Stadio Communale unhindered – our version of “The Italian Job” – and had scrambled over to the main stand as easy as you like. The stadium was deserted, it was used occasionally for athletics, and I remember I even spent a few minutes sitting in the old directors’ box, possibly the seat used by either the owner Agnelli or the president Giampiero Boniperti.

As I turned north, with the turnstiles to the Curva Maratona in view, I remembered my very last visit to the stadium, in March 2009, with Chelsea. As you can imagine, what with my Juventus side-line, the meeting of the two teams was pretty much my dream tie. I remember I had gambled on Bristol to Turin flights – £37 – and I well remember my old boss coming into a meeting one morning to tell me “Juventus” when the draw was made. My gamble had paid off. While the unloved Delle Alpi was being demolished and then the new Juventus Stadium rebuilt on the same site, both Turin teams decamped to their former home, now remodelled and upgraded for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now with a roof, and a deeper distinti – but bizarrely looking smaller than the Communale – around 3,000 Chelsea loudly supported the boys on a fantastic evening in Turin, a 2-2 draw enough for us to advance on away goals. It was, indeed, the game of my life.

By the way, the Juventus manager that night? Claudio Ranieri. I wonder what happened to him.

It was now around 6.30pm and I needed to move on. But I liked the view of the Stadio Olimpico from the north. The marathon tower, which I believe was once known as the Mussolini Tower – the stadium was once known as Stadio Benito Mussolini – looks over the roofed stadium and there are huge sculptures by Tony Cragg, similar to those that I saw outside that wonderful art gallery in Baku in 2019. On my hurried walk back to Carducci Molinette – past joggers and cyclists and power-walkers, and folk practising tai-chi – I walked alongside a park that I remembered from my very first visit in 1987, saddened with Juventus’ exit from the UEFA Cup and not sure where – on what train – I would be sleeping that night.

Who would have possibly thought that thirty-four years later, I would be preparing myself for my third Juventus vs. Chelsea game of my life? Certainly not me. That season, Chelsea were relegated to Division Two.

We’ve come a long way baby.

And this was the crux of this whole trip. Despite this trip to Turin coming too soon in a COVID-confused autumn – the first away trip of the campaign – and with the pandemic still active throughout Europe, with all of the allied concerns and stresses, it was the lure of Chelsea playing Juventus that did it for me. I am not bothered about going to Malmo. A trip to St. Petersburg in December would be superb, but maybe too expensive and too “involved”. But Juventus? I just had to be there.

At around 7.10pm, I was headed into the city on the subway and the evening’s game was now in my sights. At every station, I expected more fans to join. But there were hardly any. Admittedly, the attendance would be clipped at around the 20,000 mark – we had allegedly sold 500 of our allotted 1,000 – but I just expected more fans to be on their way north. It was all very odd.

At around 7.30pm, I exited at Bernini station. Here, we had been told on the official Chelsea website, to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. Again, hardly any match-going fans were in the vicinity. The stadium was a good two and a half miles away. I began to worry. What if there was no bus? I toured around all points of the compass and eventually spotted a few likely match-goers at a bus stop. Phew. The bus took maybe twenty-five minutes to finally reach the stadium. Three young Chelsea lads in full replica-shirt regalia were sat close by.

Too noisy. Too full of it. Too eager. Too annoying.

God, I am getting old.

Just after 8pm, the bus deposited us at the northern end of the stadium and I made my way past a few street vendors selling fast food, panini, hot dogs, crisps, wurst, drinks, and also various Juventus trinkets. Outside the away turnstiles, a ring of police guarded our entrance. Ahead stood the two “A” frame supports that are effectively the sole remnants of the old Delle Alpi stadium which stood on the site from 1990 to 2009.

My first visit here was during that 1992 trip; we watched high up along the western side in the upper tier towards the home Curva Scirea. Sadly, the game with Sampdoria – Gianluca Vialli in attack – was a poor 0-0 draw. A couple of years earlier, of course, the stadium witnessed Gazza’s tears amid the tumultuous England vs. West Germany World Cup semi-final.

My only other game at the old Delle Alpi came on a Sunday after Tullio’s wedding to Emanuela on a Saturday in May 1999. Rather bleary-eyed from the excesses of the wedding reception, I caught a cab to the stadium and arranged with the cab driver to pick me up right after the game with Fiorentina, yes them again, and whip me up to Caselle to catch the flight home. Juventus had just lost to Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final the previous midweek, and the mood was a little sombre. I nabbed tickets in the other side stand, again near the Curva Scirea, and watched as Juventus – Zinedine Zidane et al – beat the hated Viola 2-1 with a very late goal from none other than Antonio Conte. Our former manager went into Juventus folklore that afternoon. After scoring, he ran towards the 1,000 or so away fans located, stranded, in the middle tier, and taunted them by pulling out the corner flag and waving it at them in a show of braggadocio.

The time was drawing on and there was a crowd waiting to enter the Allianz Stadium.

“Good job we have time on our side.”

I patiently waited in line, and spotted a few friends amid the Chelsea faithful. This was where it could have gone all so wrong. After I had picked up my match ticket at the city centre hotel at around 3pm – a police van parked outside just to keep us company – I returned to my hotel room. I almost put my passport to one side – “won’t need that again” – but then remembered that in Italy a passport is required at the turnstiles. Time was moving on but the line didn’t seem to be diminishing too quickly. Tempers were getting a little fraught. Just three stewards checking five-hundred passports. Police spotters – Goggles and his cronies – were loitering, and a few unidentified persons were filming our every move. It did feel a little intimidating.

A familiar voice :

“Hurry up. Only two euros.”

Eventually, I made it to the front of the huddle.

The first check married up my passport with my COVID19 pass, and then there was a temperature check.

OK so far.

Then a passport check against my match ticket.

OK.

Then a quick pat down and a very quick check of my camera bag.

OK.

Then, further inside, another passport and match ticket check.

OK.

I walked on, up the steps, a quick visited to use the facilities and I was inside at around 8.35pm.

“Good job I work in logistics.”

I made my way into the sparsely populated lower tier and chatted to a few friends. A quick word with Ryan from Stoke, with whom I had enjoyed some mojitos the previous night.

“Good night, wannit, Ryan?”

“Was it? Can’t remember getting in.”

I soon spotted Alan and Pete and made my way over to see them. We would watch the match from almost the same position as the November 2012 game.

At the time of that visit, the Allianz Stadium was known as the Juventus Stadium and had only opened in 2011. It was a horrible night, Chelsea suffered a lame 0-3 loss, and the game signalled the end of Roberto di Matteo’s short reign as Chelsea manager. I remember the sadness of the following morning and a text from a work colleague that informed me of the sudden news. Nine years later, I remember little of the game. I know we played with no real striker, a false nine, and Juventus were well worth their win. The loss would cost us our place in that season’s competition.

Oh well. We just sailed full steam ahead and won the Europa League in Amsterdam instead.

First thoughts?

It is a decent stadium. But it was odd to see it at half-strength. I had forgotten that there are odd corner roof supports that rise up and cause an irritating intrusion to an otherwise fine view of the pitch. The stands rise steeply. There are more executive areas on the far side, the East Stand, than on the adjacent West Stand. Down below us, the goal frame where – approximately – Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle saddened us in 1990 and where Antonio Conte scored in 1999 stood tantalisingly close.

The colour scheme is, of course, black and white, and there are three yellow stars – denoting Juventus’ 36 title wins – picked out in the seats of the southern Curva Scirea.

The trouble I have with the new pad is that it is still jettisoned out on the northern reaches of the city away from – in my mind – the club’s historical roots to the south of the city. I first fell in love with that amazing team of the ‘seventies of Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Tardelli, Bettega, Causio, Cabrini et al…then Boniek, Platini, Laudrup, those Ariston shirts, the Stadio Communale, the old lady, the old team, the old club. Juventus at the Allianz Stadium – all flash, all corporate boxes, all show – just seems all rather false.

Modern football, eh?

My visits to the stadia of Turin was now updated.

Stadio Communale : 4 games, 1 visit inside on a non-match-day and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Delle Alpi : 2 games.

Juventus Stadium : 1 game.

Allianz Stadium : 1 game.

Stadio Olimpico : 1 game and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Filadelfia : 1 visit inside on a non-match day ( and at least 1 goal…) and 1 visit outside.

Five stadia, but only three sites. It’s a confusing story, isn’t it?

But there’s more. I helped to arrange a delivery of office chairs to Juventus on Corso Gaetano Scirea a few years ago. And only on the day before I left for Turin, I learned that a company that I use for express vans around Europe takes care of delivering VAR equipment around Europe for UEFA and had just delivered to Juventus.

Small world, eh?

The clock quickly approached the nine o’clock kick-off time. Just as the Juventus anthem was starting to be aired – “La Storia Di Un Grande Amore” – Alan whispered to me.

“Don’t want you singing along.”

I smiled.

“I know the words.”

“I know you do!”

As I changed lenses on my camera, I could not help lip-synching a little. Both teams appeared in blue tracksuit tops. The Champions League anthem played. I was surprised to see a few folk wearing Chelsea replica shirts in the home area to my left, beyond the plexi-glass. They were soon moved along, or out, I know not which.

As the game began, I could hardly believe the amount of Juventus fans wearing replica shirts. There has certainly been a sea change in Italian terrace fashion in the years that I have been attending games in Turin. Just as in England in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, hardly anyone bothered with team shirts. In Italy, more than in the UK, it was all about the scarves in those days. Trends change, and there are more replica shirts on offer than ever before these days, yet a huge section of match-going regulars in the UK refuse to be drawn in. For the English connoisseur of football fashion, many look upon the Italians – “Paninaro, oh, oh, oh” – as excellent reference points in the never-ending chase for style and substance. Yet here we all were, a few of us decked out in our finery – Moncler, Boss and Armani made up my Holy Trinity on this warm night in Turin – yet the locals were going 180 degrees in the opposite direction and opted for replica shirts with players’ names.

Et tu Brute? Vaffanculo.

The Chelsea team?

We had heard that King Kante had succumbed to the dreaded COVID, while Reece James was injured. The manager chose an eleven that we hoped would fare better than in the miserable capitulation to Manchester City a few days previously.

Mendy.

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz

Lukaku

The match began and we started decently enough. There was a stab at goal from inside the box by Roemelu Lukaku from a corner by Marcos Alonso but this did not cause the former Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szcezsaczsaeisniey any anxiety. Soon into the game, the Chelsea loyalists in the tiny quadrant decided to go Italian and honour some of our former Italian greats.

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

“Gianfranco Zola, la, la, la, la, la, la.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

There wasn’t even a flicker from the black and white fans to my left.

Then a memory from a night in Milan.

“Oh Dennis Wise scored a fackin’ great goal in the San Siro with ten minutes to go.”

We lost possession via Kovacic and Chiesa broke away in the inside right channel, but his speculative shot from an angle was well wide of the far post.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the possession in that first-half. Whereas City had been up and at us, pressurising us in our defensive third, Juve were going old school Italian, defending very deep, with the “low block” of modern parlance. And we found it so hard to break them down. It became a pretty boring game, with few moments of skill and enterprise.

I spoke to Alan.

“There’s not much space in their penalty box. In fact, there’s even less space when Lukaku is in it.”

Despite Romelu’s weight loss from his days at Manchester United, he still resembles the QE2 with a turning circle to match.

It just wasn’t going for us. Very rarely did we get behind the Juventus back line. Balls were played at Lukaku, rather than to him, and the ball bounced away from him on so many times. It seemed that he often had three defenders on him.

He was full of De Ligt.

At the other end, Federico Chiesa looked to be Juventus’ main threat, and a shot flashed wide. He followed this up with another effort that did not trouble Mendy one iota. A rising shot from Rabiot was well over. The former Chelsea player Juan Quadrado rarely got involved. Juventus were easily leading in terms of efforts on goal.

At our end, there were hardly quarter chances let alone half chances.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The players couldn’t hear us. This was a dull game, and getting poorer by the minute. At half-time, I received a text from Tullio, now living in Moncalieri, a few miles south of Turin, but watching in a Turin pub with friends :

“Boring.”

Tuchel replaced Alonso with Ben Chilwell at the break.

It is my usual modus operandi to mainly use my zoom lens once the action starts, but I often take a few panorama shots with my wide angle lens just at the start of the second-half just to vary things a little. Thus, once the Spanish referee instigated the restart, I lifted my camera and took one and then two shots of the stadium with the game being played out below it. The first photograph was of a Juventus break; the second photograph was of a Juventus goal.

And just like that, crash, bang, wallop, we were losing 1-0.

Fackinell.

The goal was conceded after just eleven seconds of play in the second-half. It was a wicked smash and grab raid by that man Chiesa. The goal shocked and silenced the away fans. In reality, I doubted very much that Juventus, with Bonucci on the pitch and Chiellini waiting in the wings, would let this slip.

We still created little.

On the hour, more substitutions.

Jorginho, Dave and Ziyech off.

Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi on.

Juventus, mid-way through the half, really should have put the game to bed when a long ball was cushioned by Cuadrado into the path of Bernardeschi, but his heavy touch put the ball wide.

The final substitution with a quarter of an hour to go.

Barkley on for Christensen.

We had all the ball but never ever looked like scoring. I just willed Callum to get his head down and get past his man but he rarely did. There was a lame header from Lukaku, and after Barkley – showing some spirit and a willingness to take people on – tee’d up Lukaku, the Belgian striker fluffed his chance close in on goal.

“We won’t score, mate.”

Late on, a lazy header from Havertz only bothered the ball boys and press photographers at the Curva Scirea.

It was, again, a rotten night in Continassa.

In the last few minutes, Chelsea supporters in the top tier had decided to throw beer on the Juve fans to my left, but ended up soaking myself and a few fellow supporters.

For fuck sake.

We made our slow, silent way out to the waiting fleet of around seven buses that took us back to the centre of the city. Sirens wailed as we were given a police escort, with blue lights flashing.

Did I imagine it, or did someone spray “Osgood Is Good” on one of the buses?

I chatted with a bloke who I had not seen before. He told me that of his seventeen trips to Europe with Chelsea, he had seen just three wins. I begged him to stay away in future.

It was, after the stresses of getting out to Turin in the first place, such a disappointing game. We all walked en masse back into the pubs and hotels of Turin. I chatted briefly to Neil Barnett as we slouched along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and we agreed –

“That was a hard watch.”

A chat with Cal.

“Fancy joining us for a beer at The Shamrock?”

“Nah mate. My hotel is just around the corner. I am off to bed.”

It was approaching 12.30am. I darted into a late night café and devoured a kebab, washed down with two iced-teas. It was my first real meal of the day.

It was time to call it a night.

My trip to Turin stretched into Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, there was a quick “tampone rapido” test at a nearby chemist, and thankfully I was negative. I met up with my work colleague Lorenzo and his wife Marina. Although they are both natives of Milan, this was their first ever visit to Turin, despite being in their late ‘fifties. I remarked to Lorenzo, an Inter fan, that it’s “because of Juventus isn’t it?” and he was forced to agree. That Inter / Juve “derby d’Italia” animosity runs deep.

We met up with Serena, who works for a furniture dealership in Turin, and she gave us a super little tour of a few of the palaces and piazzas of the city centre. We visited Palazzo Reale, the former royal palace of the governing Savoy family, and enjoyed an al fresco lunch in the September sun. We later visited Superga – of course – and Lorenzo loved it, despite the sadness. One last photo call at Monte Dei Cappuccini, and he then drove me back to my hotel.

In the evening, saving the best to last, Tullio collected me outside my hotel and picked up his mother en route to an evening meal at Tullio’s apartment in Moncalieri. Sadly, Tullio lost his father last year, so the evening was tinged with a little sadness. But it was magical to see his family again. His daughters Sofia and Lucrezia are into canoeing and rowing. At seventeen, Sofia – who practices on the nearby River Po – is a national champion in the under-23 age group.

We reminisced about our past and remembered the times spent on the beach in Diano Marina in those lovely days of our youth.

Ah, youth.

Juventus.

Maybe that’s it.

On Friday, it was time to leave Turin. It had been, “assolutamente”, a simply superb four days in the sun. At Caselle airport, there was time for one last meal – gnocchi, my favourite – and one last bottle of iced tea. There was a quick chat with a couple of the Juventus women’s team en route to an away game against Roma. And there was time for a raid on the Robe Di Kappa shop, that famous logo reminding me so much of the Juventus kits of yore. There was even a photo of Roberto Bettega in his prime behind the till.

I walked a few yards across the tarmac to board the waiting 3.30 plane home, and I spotted Superga away on the hill in the distance.

Until next time, Turin, until next time.

Stadio Filadelfia

Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino

Allianz Stadium

Postcards From Turin

Tales From The Club With Two Stars

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 September 2021.

Just another Saturday? Hardly.

Even without the added weight of Porto, this was always going to be one of the games of the season. The current European Champions versus the current English Champions. Undoubtedly the biggest game in club football over the weekend, not just in England, but the entire World, was due to kick-off at 12.30pm at Stamford Bridge. And that was the only downer; that such a big game was being played at such an awful time. Well, I hope that the watching millions in Malaysia, Japan, The Philippines et al appreciated the match goers getting up at silly o’clock for them.  I am not so sure the TV viewers in North America were quite so excited; in California this meant a 4.30am kick off. Ouch.

The biggest game in the entire world. That’s quite something. When you grow up with a football club and try to get to as many live games as is physically, economically and geographically possible – why? That doesn’t need an explanation does it? – sometimes it is easy, too easy, to take the match day experience for granted. The grizzled old “every-gamers” can be a curmudgeonly lot at times, and we can sometimes forget to realise how excited those fans who only get to see us live once in a blue moon – sorry, poor analogy that – when the moons align – ditto – and they too join the match-going crowds at Stamford Bridge or elsewhere.

But this never felt like any other game.

I had been relishing it all week. City are a well-established team, tutored by the Catalan Pep Guardiola, and worthy champions in three of the last four seasons. They are still the team to beat this season. Although Chelsea has made great strides – leaps – the past eight months since Frank Lampard was jettisoned in favour of the Teutonic teacher Thomas Tuchel, we are still a work in progress, a team finding its feet, its optimum way of playing, its groove.

And I will say it once again. We are a team that is in a building phase, yet we are European Bloody Champions.

Weird ain’t half of it.

In the packed “Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham, we were all enjoying a lovely, yet brief, pre-match. I had booked a table for five at 10am. PD and Parky were on time. After I had parked the car, I bumped into Kev and Rich on the District Line train as it pulled into Putney Bridge. We joined the fray at 10.20pm. It would leave us barely ninety minutes of “pre-match” but we were not fazed. Kim, Dan, Andy and the Kent boys (including three brothers, the Loaders, a load of Loaders) were already ensconced in the corner, and the three late-comers sidled in alongside. I was driving, so on Diet-Cokes. But that’s fine. The laughs ripped through the cosy pub. We chatted with enthusiasm about the upcoming game, and the pub was noisier than usual. There was a real buzz to the place. One of the most overworked words in modern parlance – along with shenanigans, are you paying attention America? – is “proper”, so excuse me if I lazily use it here.

The “Eight Bells” is a proper football pub.

It is so old school, traditional, working class, call it what you will, that of the one hundred or more Chelsea fans squeezed inside, or overflowing onto the seated area outside, there was not one single woman. I realised this as I walked through as we exited at just after 11.45pm. To be truthful it shocked me. I am all for the fairer sex attending games, but the complete lack of females took me by surprise. To be blunt, I was shocked.

We caught the train, and we were soon walking along the Fulham Road. Rain had been threatening to make an appearance, but thus far all was fine. On the West Stand forecourt, scarves bearing the name of a company – I won’t bother saying which one – and the two club crests were being handed out by a few happy smiley types, who were also trying to persuade the match-goers to take a concertina’d noise-maker too.

I walked by and said “no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

This ain’t fucking Disney World, this ain’t Fulham, this ain’t Leicester.

As club historian Rick Glanvil pointed out as he walked alongside me they were even the wrong bloody colour; light blue, but light blue was the corporate colour involved.

Fuck that.

Anyway, suffice to say, I did not spot one single noisemaker inside the stadium.

Good work everyone.

As the teams took to the pitch – I have to say I miss the walk towards the West Stand – two flags floated above the heads of spectators at both ends of the stadium; a simple outline of the European Cup in The Shed, the “Pride of London” one in the MHL now adorned with two yellow stars.

I absolutely love that the club badge that I grew up with from 1971 to 1986 – with two stars either side of the lion rampant – has now developed a new meaning. If I had my way, this old lion would be reinstated in favour of the 2005 badge which already looks a little jaded.

It was our best badge.

I can well remember visiting a menswear shop in the nearby town of Warminster with my father in around 1971 or 1972. I had already been gifted a plain blue cotton shirt, but there was nothing to signify that it was “Chelsea.” While my father was talking business with the shop owner, my gaze was fixed on what looked like iron-on patches of a few football crests on display way above the counter. The Arsenal gun, the Tottenham cockerel, the Liverpool bird. I looked at a patch with a lion with “CFC” below and wondered if that was the Chelsea badge. On walking back to my father’s car, I mentioned the badges to him, and to my great surprise and undoubted joy, he marched me back into the shop and bought me the Chelsea patch badge. My mother would affix to my royal blue shirt, but alas it was soon to fade. There must be hundreds of Chelsea fans from that era with a faded Chelsea badge on their shirts.

It’s nice that those two stars, signifying the twin cup successes in 1970 and 1971, now represent the grander triumphs of 2012 and 2021.

Proper.

The minutes soon ticked by to kick-off.

Our team was with a new formation, albeit that which took command in the second-half during that heady game at Tottenham last Sunday.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – James

Alonso – Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante – Dave

Werner – Lukaku

One suspects that there were few complaints about this line up and personnel at kick-off. Be honest with yourself here. It was OK for me, though the duo up front was obviously a gamble as they had only played together in the Wednesday game against Villa late on.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t.

I soon wished that the coach bringing the City players into town had not been able to be refuelled and was stuck on the M25 near Watford. There had been a sudden mania for filling up cars with diesel and petrol amid rumours of a lack of tanker drivers being able to re-fil bunkers of fuel at garages all over the UK. We had witnessed a few queues on the way into London that very morning.

But no. The City players were at Stamford Bridge and were soon running amok. They absolutely bossed the first-half. Jack Grealish, the pantomime villain, was enjoying tons of the early ball down below us, and the energy and running of the City players made our movements look insipid and half-paced. While Tuchel had gone back to the ‘nineties with a twin pairing up front, Guardiola had gone the other way, backing into the future with a false nine in the guise of the diminutive but nimble Foden.

They shook us to our foundations in that first forty-five minutes.

Although we goaded the City entourage with songs from Porto, the City players did the fans’ talking on the pitch. They buzzed around like fireflies, and put us under immense pressure once we had the ball.

Alas, we did not show the same willingness to close them down.

In days of old I would shout “put’em under” and I am resisting to shout the ridiculously over-used word “press” with every sinew in my body. But they did. They pressed us all over the pitch as if it was going out of fashion, and God I wish that phrase would. They hunted in packs like the great United midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Butt. They were relentless.

Early on, maybe five minutes into the game, a ball was launched forward and Romelu Lukaku rose to head it at an angle in the general vicinity of Timo Werner. But it didn’t work, nor did it really come off for the rest of the game.

I turned to Al :

“What did I just see? A big central striker trying to play in a slighter second striker? Can you explain that to me, mate? I have a vague memory, but…”

City gathered momentum and our attacks were rare. Timo Werner bent a forward run to perfection on fifteen minutes to receive a ball from the trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso, and the German prodded the ball in to Lukaku but his effort was blocked. There would be not much else to give us hope and sustenance in that arid first half.

City were penning us in and we were lacking ideas on how to attack once we had the ball. The midfield three that had rampaged at will against Tottenham looked tired and weary. The front two upfront were stranded.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Sadly, just on the half-hour, Reece James was forced to leave the field. He was replaced by the calming presence of Thiago Silva. After being substituted in Porto, it was ironic that he would now enter the pitch in this game with City.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

For all of City’s possession, and it was impressive, Mendy was virtually untroubled. A mixture of wayward shooting from City and some excellent blocks, often from close in, from many Chelsea defenders meant that the game continued without a goal. There was City corner after City corner. A wild finish from Rodri just before the break summed up City’s profligacy.

We were really struggling. There was a massive gap between the midfield three and the two upfront. Nobody was breaking to support.

“Lukaku’s second touch is a tackle.”

City’s defenders had hardly been turned all of the first-half; all of the play was in front of them. This was too easy for them.

It had been a really poor half.

“Have we had a single shot on goal? I can’t remember one.”

It was time for a technical master class from our manager at half-time. While fellow supporters chatted with worried expressions in the stands, I hoped that Tuchel was conjuring up a change of system, or at least a change in attitude.

“Tell you what, Guardiola is going to be gutted, annoyed even, they are still without a goal at the break.”

Chelsea needed to change things around.

What would I have done?

No idea. I am a mere supporter.

Over to you, Tommy, lad.

Sadly, and seamlessly, City’s dominance absolutely continued in the first opening minutes of the second period.

At last an invigorating run from Timo down our right brought a ray of hope.

Al : “Need something like that to get the crowd involved.”

The noise from the Matthew Harding had been sporadic; loud at times, but not often enough.

Not long after, Grealish wriggled free in the inside-left channel and buzzed a low shot just past the far post. The deflection earned a corner which was taken short. Sadly, the inevitable happened. Gabriel Jesus was able to turn and prod the ball home inside a packed Shed End goa. From the northern end, I was unable to pick out an apparent deflection. It appeared to be in slow motion.

But the goal was on the cards.

The City legions boomed :

“We’re not really here.”

Mendy did so well to tip a shot from Grealish past the post.

An Alonso corner summed up our afternoon; it didn’t clear the first man but when the ball ended up at the feet of a tired N’Golo Kante, the French midfielder could only shuffle the ball all of the way back to Mendy.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Silva cleared off the line.

“Fackinell Chels.”

On the hour, Kai Havertz for Kante. I focussed on his chiselled features as he took position up front on the left and dreamed of Porto.

Back to a 3-4-3 formation.

I was up celebrating a Lukaku tap in from an early Havertz ball, but the German had strayed into an offside position.

Bollocks.

On sixty-seven minutes, our first shot on goal. But this would be an Alonso free-kick, in prime territory, that hit the wall. Soon after, at last, a bursting run from Kovacic warmed our spirits, but it all petered out rather too predictably.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Edouard Mendy was keeping us in the game, or so we naively hoped, with a succession of fine saves. To be truthful, all of the defenders in that central three had been excellent; no complaints. It was just our attacking players that had struggled all day long with the tenacity and hunger of the away team.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced the very poor Jorginho with a quarter to go. The noise increased as the crowd sensed that a sudden late upsurge in our play might entice a slightly unwarranted goal from someone in our midst. Despite some nice flourishes and a little more bite and energy from our Ruben that had been sadly missing, the late substitute just couldn’t ignite the team. The other substitute, Havertz, had offered little.

Mendy made one last save, a super one at that, from that man Grealish, but the game was done, the game was over.

City had totally deserved the win. A hundred thousand post-mortems would suddenly be happening at once all over the world. But the manager is no fool, no simpleton, and he will be soon at work to identify what decisions, including his own, engendered such a poor performance.

Don’t worry. We are in good hands.

We reconvened in the austere beer garden at “The Goose” to meet up with Kev and Rich before their evening return from Gatwick to Edinburgh.

Poor Kev’s last three visits to Stamford Bridge – Bournemouth, West Ham and now Manchester City – have all ended up as 0-1 Chelsea losses.

Imagine what Tottenham fans must feel like.

We headed home, philosophical, but pleased that both Manchester United and Liverpool had dropped unexpected points. However we couldn’t disguise how poorly we had played. On a day when the United Kingdom scurried around in search of fuel, it certainly seemed that Chelsea had been served two-star petrol, while City had been issued turbo-charged four-star.

Before I returned home, I was pleased to be able to fill my tank at my local garage in preparation for my early morning jaunt to Stansted on Tuesday for my, hopeful, flight to Turin.

I just need to get a negative reaction to a lateral flow test.

Juventus lie in wait.

I will see some of the famous five hundred out there.

Andiamo.

Tales From The B Team

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 22 September 2021.

This was our – literally, the team’s and my – fourth game out of five in London in just fifteen short days. What with my decision to go to Turin next week, the Aston Villa game in the League Cup (Carabao, my arse) would be the midway point of seven matches in a run of twenty-two days. After that little lot, I’ll need the next International Break.

Unlike the team, I had no alter ego, no reserve, no Chris-Lite, no twelfth man, no substitute to take my place for this game in a competition which was undoubtedly the lowest priority for the team, domestically, this season. What a great trick that would be, eh? To summon up a personal substitute at times during our lives when our full attention can’t be guaranteed.

Listening to a pub bore drone on, attending a dull meeting at work, watching a sub-standard film, watching England play football, listening to Queen. That sort of second-grade activity.

“No Real Chris, today?”

“No, he’s saving himself for the John Cooper-Clarke gig.”

I finished work, at home, bang on 3pm and – as with the game against Zenit last Tuesday – PD was parked on my driveway, with Parky riding shotgun, ready to whisk me away for an evening of football in deepest SW6.

Unlike last week, I grabbed a few minutes’ kip in the back seat as The Mother Road was devoured mile by mile. We were parked up at 5.20pm alongside the pot-infused Normand Park and we were in the first rub-a-dub at 5.30pm. As I walked through The Goose to the waiting beer garden, there seemed to be a discernible case of deja-vu. Both Robin and Russell were sitting at exactly the same places around the same table as last week. This week, though, I just didn’t fancy a beer. In “The Goose” and “Simmons”, I drank diet-Coke and PD, the conscientious driver, just drank water.

“How the mighty hath fallen.”

There was a little Frome / Westbury / Trowbridge / Melksham reunion in the beer garden of “The Goose.” Good to see chat to those lads, friends with each other for decades and decades.

There was also a chat with Kev, Brian, Julie, Tim and Rich in The Bristol Corner. Kev – a very seasoned traveller, he was recently in Vilnius in Lithuania – has been a great help in sorting out my pre-Turin plans and I bought him a pint of Doombar in recompense for his services.

In “Simmons”, a smaller, briefer Chelsea Chicago reunion.

Thankfully, there was no nightmare wait at the turnstiles before this midweek game and I was inside at around 7.30pm ahead of the 7.45pm kick-off.

This would be a nice test for our support. But the club always seems to get the pricing of these League Cup games just right; only £25 for tonight’s game against, almost certainly, the respective B teams of Chelsea and Villa. I was pleasantly surprised with the crowd; not a full house, but pretty damn close. I had noted that Leeds United had visited the borough on the previous night and had packed out the entire end at Craven Cottage; a very respectable 5,000 in the Putney End. And tonight, for the second time in September, Villa had sold their allocation of 3,000 at Stamford Bridge. Well done to them.

I definitely noted a different dynamic among the home support in and around the Matthew Harding, if not all the other areas; a younger support, many more replica shirts than usual, almost a boisterous air. I surmised that, for many, this might well be the first sighting of Chelsea for some time. There is no doubt the cheaper tickets entice a different fan base than the league games – where tickets are scarcer – and the European nights, which seem to entice a more cosmopolitan support. Tonight’s crowd was younger, more local, noisier.

After the sad passing of Jimmy Greaves on Derby Day, it came as no surprise that Chelsea were honouring our greatest ever homegrown goal scorer – Ossie was a creator too, a slightly different breed – and his face appeared on the cover of the programme, and on the TV screens before the match as the players from both teams circled in the centre of the pitch before kick-off.

The applause for Jimmy Greaves was heartfelt.

Tottenham had Greaves, but we had him too. And we had him first. Let’s not forget that.

He was, and is, one of ours.

Bless him.

Time for a quick run through of our team.

“Bloody hell, Kante is playing. What a strong side, so much for a B team.”

Kepa

James – Chalobah – Sarr

Hudson-Odoi – Saul – Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Chilwell

Ziyech – Werner

As the game began, it seemed that Ruben was the rock at the back of a packed midfield with Kante playing surprisingly forward and often wide. But this was a pretty fluid formation. We hoped Saul would enjoy a better game than in his debut against the same team a few weeks ago. In these days of COVID, not so sure Sarr is well-named. I hear we have cooled in our interest in Ronnie Tuberculosis and Tore Andre Flu.

[editor : “for fuck sake”]

For the first quarter of an hour, the game was played out down below me but I was in deep discussion with Alan about the process and protocols of the ball ache that is involved in following Chelsea to Turin. Hopefully, all of the tests and forms will be sorted out and uploaded in the necessary time-frame to enable me to see the team in Italy. At various times since me booking the trip last Friday, I have solidly wondered “is it bloody worth it?” and I am still not convinced.

The game started quietly, and struggled to “get going” throughout the first period. There was gentle sparring in the first twenty minutes, with the two defences only suffering minor tickling. But the home crowd were definitely in good voice and the Matthew Harding, as early as this, had already goaded The Shed, the East and the West to “give us a song”, admittedly with mixed results.

There was some good running from Timo Werner upfront, and we showed patches of good play but as the first-half progressed, it was the visitors who enjoyed most of the goal chances. It was odd to see Kante as an auxiliary winger, especially with Hudson-Odoi, and even Reece James in the line-up.

“Bollocks, let’s play with three right wingers.”

Ruben made some strong advances from deep and the game warmed up slightly. A rare shot on goal from the otherwise quiet Zyech was easily claimed by Steer in the Villa goal. The clearest chance of the first-half fell to Villa. On a break, Archer forced a fine block from Kepa as he was one-on-one with our ‘keeper, and as El Ghazi prodded a rebound towards the goal, Reece James was able to recover and hack the ball away.

I wasn’t sure why the Villa player Buendia was roundly booed each time he came over to take a corner. Any ideas?

A Villa player was substituted by a lad called Chukwuemeka.

Alan : “He gets knocked down, but he gets up again.”

[editor : “I’ll give you that one.”]

At the break, I was just a little underwhelmed by it all.

There was a change for the re-start; a reversal of Tuchel’s decision at Tottenham.

Then, Kante for Mount. Now, Mount for Kante.

We went on the front foot in the second-half.

I soon realised that the Villa left-back, out of sight in the first period, was none other than forty-seven-year-old Ashley Young, back at Villa after his league win with Inter last season. He was only the third Englishman to win the “Scudetto” in Italy; one of the others was Jimmy Greaves, for his truncated role in Milan’s 1960-61 win.

Our Callum began to look a bit lively – “don’t forget the ball mate” – and the atmosphere seemed to improve. There were a few rousing choruses of everyone’s favourite hymns. You can’t beat a bit of community singing on a midweek night in London.

There was a deafening chorus of “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham.”

Our increase in possession came to fruition on fifty-four minutes. A pinpoint cross from Reece – Al and I had lamented that his crossing hadn’t lived up to the promise that we saw in his first few games for us – picked out Timo Werner who rose with the whole goal in front of him. An emphatic header had Steer well beaten.

He enjoyed that. We enjoyed that.

The TV screen boomed “GOAL.”

We hit a little purple patch and Timo looked as though he wanted to be the recipient of every ball into the box. A shot from Ziyech. A half-chance from Timo.

However, just nine minutes later the game changed.

Just as the Matthew Harding were droning on about “your support is fackin’ shit” – it wasn’t to be fair, for the second time this month the Villa support was solid – the visitors hit a claret patch of their own. After a few fine saves from Kepa, Cash whipped in a long and deep cross that found Archer free at the far post. His header was even better than Timo’s, finding the very top left hand corner of the Shed End goal.

Bollocks.

This was an open game now and chances were exchanged at both ends. Buendia blasted over the bar and with twenty minutes to go, a sublime dribble by Ruben set up Mase with a gilt-edged chance inside the six-yard box. His toe-poke wriggled just wide.

“How the fuck did he miss that, Al?”

More substitutions from Tuchel and the Ross and Romelu show.

Lukaku and Barkley replaced Saul and Ziyech.

Two upfront, bloody lovely.

Dixon and Speedie.

Jimmy and Eidur.

Romelu and Timo? A work in progress.

Shots were powered in on Steer from Mason and a lively Ross. A header down into the ground from the leap of Ruben was our last real chance but it drifted wide.

Thankfully, there was no midweek extra-time, and no late night finish in deepest Somerset.

The game went to penalties.

Villa : El Ghazi – scored.

Chelsea : Lukaku – scored.

Villa : Young – crossbar, missed.

Chelsea : Mount – scored.

Villa : Nakamba – saved.

Chelsea : Barkley – scored.

Villa : Konsa – scored.

Chelsea : Chilwell – crossbar, missed.

Villa : Buendia – scored.

Chelsea : James – scored.

GET IN.

Chelsea edged it 4-3 and we won our second penalty shoot-out of the season.

The second-half, just like at Tottenham on Sunday, was a far more pleasurable forty-five minutes than the first-half. A pretty decent game, a tidy performance, a pleasing atmosphere.

Outside on the Fulham Road, the two sets of fans milled past each other.

“Cheeseburger with onions and chips please.”

On walking back to the car, I heard that we had drawn Southampton.

“Away?”

“No, home.”

“Ugh.”

I fancied a midweek jaunt down to St. Mary’s. Oh well, another League Cup game at home awaits. PD made good time on the drive home and dropped me off, in another mirror image of last week, at 1am. Another win, another decent performance, no injuries. All good.

On Saturday, an early kick-off against Manchester City awaits. You can all start dusting off your Porto songbook now.

See you in the pub.

Tales From A Hard Watch

Chelsea vs. Zenit St. Petersburg : 14 September 2021.

I remember that in the first few tormenting weeks of lockdown in March and April of last year, there was a craze for lists to be shared on the global phenomenon that is Facebook. There were a fair few football-based lists. When it came to naming an A-Z of teams that I had seen Chelsea play against, I stumbled on one beginning with Z and named Real Zaragoza. Now, in the first group game of this season’s defence of the Champions League, Zenit St. Petersburg was able to be fully added.

I worked at home from 7am to 3pm and – I think for the first time – PD was able to provide me with a door-to-door, or at least a door-to-pub, service for the evening encounter with the moneyed upstarts from the glorious city on the Baltic Sea. There is no doubt that St. Petersburg is way up there on the list of cities that I would love to visit. UEFA may have gifted me two bites of the cherry this season; if the away game later this autumn proves impossible, there is always the hope that we might get a pop at the final next May which is planned to be held at Zenit’s Krestovky Stadium.

Football and travel.

Nothing comes close.

PD made super time as we headed up The Mother Road once again. By 5.20pm we had flashed around the roundabout at Hammersmith and had tucked ourselves in on Bramber Road. By 5.30pm, we were entering “The Goose” for the first time since the Liverpool game in the FA Cup in the Spring of last year.

The Goose is a gathering place for many on match days, especially those from the West of England. We waited in the beer garden for friends and tickets to arrive. Sadly, since our last visit, buildings have shot up out of nowhere at the rear of the pub, so that the once airy beer garden is now enclosed on all four sides. It has the feel of a prison yard, oppressive and claustrophobic.

My friend Mark from nearby Westbury arrived at about 6pm with a couple of printed-off tickets for PD. We chatted about all sorts; it was the first time that I had seen him – and Andy from Trowbridge – for ages. Soon into the chat, I updated him on my health issues of late. It then got rather spooky. I told him of my heart attack last autumn, and how I had two stents fitted on 12 October in a hospital in Bath. Mark replied that he had four stents fitted on 7 October in a hospital in Bournemouth. You can imagine how surprised we both were. Life can be very odd at times.

The two pints of Peroni hit the spot. It was a lovely treat to be able to unwind and to enjoy a few beers on an evening game, knowing that I would have no more driving to do later.

Next up, we sauntered down to “Simmon’s” where a few bottles of “Sol” were quaffed. The usual faces were there, give or take a few. My first sighting of father and son Simon and Milo since two seasons ago was a great treat. I chatted for a while with Andy – as mentioned in the Porto adventure – and we chuckled about some of the things I mentioned in the Aston Villa report.

Andy : “What gets me is…walking out of the ground after the game, and you overhear someone close by getting all excited because Harry Kane has scored a couple, because he is in their fantasy team.”

Chris : “They don’t say it to my face, but I think more than a few people at work regard me as a bit of a freak because I actually go to watch my team play.”

Modern football, eh?

My desire to finish off the last bottle of lager meant that I didn’t leave the second boozer, with Parky, until just gone 7.30pm.

Talking of Sol…

I presumed that there would be no place in the starting eleven for Saul. I am sure that, after his far from impressive debut on Saturday against Villa there might well be a chance for him to win us over against the same team on Wednesday.

Let’s hope that his road to Damascus begins next week.

Alas, there were huge lines at the turnstiles for the West Upper and also the Matthew Harding. I appeared at the end of the queue at around 7.40pm. While we were waiting in the mass of fellow spectators, I quipped that we needed Timo Werner to suddenly appear and take some people away to create some space for the rest of us.

After a few minutes, there were loud bangs inside the stadium, and the bright white flashes of fireworks inside lit up the sky. This momentarily confused me. The kick-off was 8pm, right? What’s this? Fireworks already? Surely the teams aren’t coming onto the pitch for a 7.45pm kick-off?

I checked my ticket.

20:00.

Phew.

I eventually reached my seat at 8.06pm. I was annoyed to have missed the anthem though. Bollocks.

Alan : “You ain’t missed much.”

I glanced around and about.

First thoughts?

“Blimey, a full house. Magnificent stuff, Chelsea. I had thought that, maybe, folk may have bought tickets for loyalty points with no intention of attending. But no, hardly an empty seat in the house. A small band of away supporters were grouped in the Shed Lower. They must be Russians now living in London, or at least the UK. Fair play to them.”

I ran through the team; a few changes from the Villa game.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Mount

Al explained all about the fireworks and the presentations that I had unknowingly missed. Oh well. The Russians were decked out in a neat mirror image of our blue / blue / white. I immediately admired their badge cum logo; it resembled a kind of Cyrillic equivalent of the slanted Los Angeles Dodgers logo. Kinda. If you looked at it quickly.

Moving on.

I soon heard that United, despite going 1-0 up while we were in “The Goose” had contrived to lose 2-1 to Young Boys.

Splendid.

Chelsea dominated most of the possession in the first-half without ever really posing much of a real threat. The Russian defence was well-marshalled and they seemed content to soak up all of our pressure.

It was, it has to be said, hardly a spectacle.

Only on a few occasions did the visitors attempt an attack.

Mason Mount seemed the liveliest of our attacking options, happy to burst through and take players out of the game. Yet for the most part, our approach play was laboured and rarely got out of second gear. We enjoyed only half-chances, or quarter-chances if I am brutally honest. A shot from the slight Ziyech was blocked.

Was that it? There wasn’t much more to shout about.

Late on in the first-half, the crowd awoke from their slumber.

“Carefree” boomed around Stamford Bridge, as welcome as a goal on nights like this, a sign that the support was willing to get behind the underperforming players. An equally loud blast of “Soopah Frank” quickly followed. Just before the break, Zenit recorded the game’s first shot on goal, a curler from distance from Rakitskyy but Mendy easily claimed the ball. A few late corners hinted at better things – a header from Romelu Lukaku flew over the bar – but the game was crying out for a goal.

It was scoreless, and possibly pointless, at the break.

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking, as is our wont, the Matthew Harding. A shot from Ziyech gave us a little comfort, but then on the fifty-minute mark, an enterprising and entertaining run from deep from Antonio Rudiger continued on and on and on. With each touch, with each stride, the excitement – and disbelief – increased. His final movement took him to his right and he unleashed a fierce shot that just whistled past the post.

“Didn’t he have a run and shot just like that two years ago?”

“That was Zouma.”

“Ah yeah. Of course. Row Z, wannit?”

We were improving in this half, no doubt.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters in the Matthew Harding were soon applauding a Reece James goal, apart from the fact that the ball hit the side netting.

On sixty-three minutes, Kai Havertz replaced Ziyech.

Warm applause.

“Oh Roman, do you know what that’s worth?”

There was a Bobby Moore versus Pele style tackle by Rudiger just as a Zenit attacker was just about to let rip. Oh, we loved that.

I was preparing myself for a 0-0 draw when, with twenty minutes remaining, a cross from deep from the fine right foot of Cesar Azpilicueta picked out Lukaku to perfection. Leaping at the far post, with two defenders close by but not close enough, the Belgian guided the ball down and past the keeper’s dive.

1-0.

On 69, the Russians were licked.

It almost seemed too easy, too obvious, almost cruel. The scorer reeled away and I captured the celebrations on film if not the goal itself.

Get in.

There was a sublime turn and shot from Marcos Alonso, but chances still remained at a premium.

With ten minutes to go, a rare break by Zenit caused our hearts to flutter, but the outstretched leg of Dzyuba guided the ball wide of the left-hand post when it looked easier to score. Mendy was injured as he came to challenge and he hardly moved for a few minutes. Thankfully he played on.

Two late changes from Thomas Tuchel.

Thiago Silva for Dave, Ben Chilwell for Alonso.

An even later change.

Reuben Loftus-Cheek for Lukaku.

A goodbye to Alan :

“See you Sunday, mate.”

The referee blew up and there was a feeling of relief.

“Thank God we won. And thank God that’s over.”

A word from an exiting Lee :

“Two thousand words on my desk in the morning.”

Blimey. This was a hard watch and this has been a hard write. But this was so typical of many of our first games on the European trail. Three points are all that matter on nights like this.

PD and I joined the crowd as we all made our way back along the busy Fulham Road. I have never seen the area right outside the West Stand so full of people.

“Covid, let’s have you.”

There was just time to call in on a re-vamped and re-named “Chubby’s Grill” for the first-time in a year and a half.

“Cheeseburger with onions please, mate.”

Next up is the most eagerly awaited away game of this season, of every season, of any season; a Sunday jaunt up the High Road for a London derby with that lot.

Time to drop Kane from those fantasy teams.

See you there.

Lee : 1,821…bollocks.

Tales From The Mother Road

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 11 September 2021.

It is a familiar motif from these match reports – I am tempted to say “stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before” – of games from the early part of our campaigns that I usually need a few matches to get back into the swing of things. I was doing fine this season. I was acclimatising reasonably well, I was getting back into live football, the games were seemingly important once again and even my vocal chords were coping. It all felt a little different this season, though. Our forced absence from the game for so long was playing heavily on my mind and I suppose the crux of it concerned my fears that I wouldn’t get the pre-COVID19 buzz back.

But here was a real test. After seeing Chelsea Football Club play just seven times in five-hundred and thirty-eight days (an average of one every seventy-six days), I was now about to embark on a burst of five games in just fifteen days (an average of once every three days for those who failed CSE Maths). This represented, in my mind at least, a test, a litmus test, for my enthusiasm. I certainly hoped that this spell of five games in London would rid me of the considerable disconnect that has hounded me since March 2020.

We all live in a place called hope, right?

I woke again way before the alarm, and gathered my tickets, trinkets, passes and thoughts ahead of the 10.30am departure. A new car, a new Chuckle Bus, was parked on my drive-way and this would be its first journey of note, its maiden voyage with me at the helm and it’s first trip up my version of Route 66 – in fact, Route A303 would be very apt as it arrived with just 303 miles on the clock – to London SW6.

It would be its first trip along the Mother Road.

I collected PD and Parky in good time.

There was talk of these upcoming games (the printing-off of some of the tickets at home was proving to be a far from a straightforward task) and some matches even further out. Just like holidays, I get a great deal of pleasure in planning these games, especially the away games, and these sometimes awkward tasks feed into my Obsessive Chelsea Disorder. Tottenham was almost complete, Brentford was a work in progress, but Newcastle was sorted. More of those three trips later. Turin, Malmo and Saint Petersburg away games were taking a back seat. Not that I would plan on all three anyway, but travel within Europe was so much “up in the air” right now – or not, as the case might be – that I wasn’t wasting energy on plans for those three destinations just yet.

One potential destination that had ruled itself out of my plans was Tokyo. It had recently pulled out of hosting the World Club Championships in December, and I was now hearing that maybe Las Vegas or maybe Qatar would step in like some gallant knight in shining armour. This was met with growls of disapproval from me. I am not a fan of Vegas. And even less of a fan of Qatar. From one extreme from the other. From “anything goes” to “strictly forbidden.”

Such was my feeling of abhorrence when Qatar was handed the 2022 World Cup a few years back, that I made the conscious decision not to watch a single second of the finals on TV. And I just recently decided not to watch any more of the qualifiers too. So, the recent International break absolutely passed me by. I may have lost England forever.

In the circumstances, the lingering presence of Qatar in talk of the World Club Championships focussed my mind further. I would be a hypocrite to avoid Qatar in 2022 as some sort of moral crusade – stop sniggering at the back – and yet blithely sign up to watch Chelsea in Qatar in December. So, let’s see how that all pans out.

No pressure, Vegas.

We only stopped at Fleet Services for a quick pit-stop en route from Somerset to London, but from then on in, we became embroiled in some nasty traffic. It usually takes me three hours from door to door (my door to the door of The Eight Bells in Fulham) but it took me just over four hours on this occasion.

I dropped PD and Parky at West Brompton, then about-turned to park my car just off Lillie Road. Then a quick flit by tube to Putney Bridge. Job done.

I had booked a table for 1.30pm, and the hosts had very kindly kept it for us when we arrived an hour later.

I met up with Mark, from Norwich, and his son Matt. We had been talking during the build up to this game how our first Chelsea match in 1974 was the very same one; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974. We are the same age. We both live out of town. A few nice similarities in fact. He is the first Chelsea fan I have ever met whose first match was the same as mine. I was quite thrilled when Mark shared a couple of previously unseen on-line photographs from that day forty-seven years ago. We chatted and reminisced about tons of Chelsea games, especially from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, and we found ourselves finishing off each other’s sentences on a few occasions as the memories and reference points interweaved and overlapped. That’s always a good sign.

I have to admit to being taken aback on a few occasions during our lovely conversation when I spotted a rather stern looking fellow, with a mop of white hair looking up at me from the other side of the bar.

Oh, it was me in a pub mirror.

The passing of time, and all of its crimes, is making me sad again.

Note to self : must smile more.

Kim, Andy, Dan and the Kent lads arrived and it was the first time that we had seen them since last year. It was superb to spend time together once again; around a dozen of us in our cosy corner of The Eight Bells, all meeting up again, trying our best to prove that football is real life, and not a TV programme. I totally understand that many can’t attend live football due to finance and geography, but it seems that so many these days do not make the effort. Is modern football now a diet of watching games on TV in pubs, streaming at home, fantasy football and betting accumulators?

At Putney Bridge tube station, there were a group of boozy and cheerful Villa fans. One chap, of a certain age, approached me and told me that he liked my yellow Adidas SL76 trainers. Thirty-five years ago, the conversation might well have been different.

“You got too much for us today. Think you’ll beat us 3-0.”

I concurred. It was my prediction too.

At Fulham Broadway tube, the lad at the Krsipy Crème stand spotted my Boca Juniors T-shirt and asked if I was from Argentina.

My colours on this day of football were yellow and blue, in-keeping with the current Chelsea offering, but without me looking too much like a Billy Smart’s Circus reject.

There was further talk of South American football with Clive in The Sleepy Hollow. A few months before my visit to Argentina last year, he had visited Brazil, and had caught an itoxicating Flamengo game at the Maracana. He highly recommended Brazil. The World Club Championships in Brazil has a nice ring to it. Chelsea at the Maracana? Where do I sign up for that beauty?

From 1993 to 2016, my desire to witness new sporting stadia outside of Europe was clearly focussed on North American baseball stadia; twenty-one major league and four minor-league. I have a feeling in the future my focus will now be on South American football.

We had heard that ten-men Tottenham had succumbed to three late goals at Crystal Palace – how we laughed – but a Cristiano Ronaldo brace had helped Manchester United beat Newcastle. All of this fizzled away into insignificance as our collective thoughts focused on the game against Villa.

The sun was out despite some clouds, and the extra hours of drinking meant there was a bubbly atmosphere as kick-off approached.

The teams entered onto the beautiful green lawn. A new Mason Mount flag surfed below me.

I checked the team.

The inclusion of Saul Niguez surprised everyone, possibly none more so than him himself.

It seemed an oddly thrown together team, but one which was representative of the pressures put on members of our squad during the international break. No Mount. No Dave. But an injured Kante too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Hudson-Odoi – Kovacic – Niguez – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Havertz

Romelu Lukaku was to play in his first game as a Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge since a substitute appearance against the same team in August 2013. All the rail-seating was in now. The banners around the pitch lay heavy with the early evening humidity. “The “knee” drew boos but then louder applause. The game began.

A few early Chelsea raids acted as mere foreplay for the full-on end to end session that followed. The game was a cracker. A zipped-in corner on our left from Callum avoided everyone but hit a knee, I think, of a defender and bounced up onto the bar at The Shed End. The first thing of beauty that I noted was a deep and high ball from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva which dropped perfectly and pleasantly at the feet of the advancing Marcos Alonso. People talk of a deep-lying midfielder pinging balls like a quarterback, but here was Silva doing the exact same. It reminded me of Ruud Gullit and then Frank Leboeuf doing similar.

It turned out to be a precursor to an even better ball from Mateo Kovacic. Breaking away in that busy style of his, he spotted the advanced Romelu Lukaku. A magnificently-placed ball, cutting right between two scuttling Villa defenders, and curving and dropping into the exact place that both Kovacic intended and that Lukaku had expected, landed perfectly. Lukaku sized up the options, turned Tuanzebe’s limbs into a pretzel and dispatched a low shot past Steer into the Villa goal.

It is fair to say that The Bridge boomed.

Lukaku raced past Parkyville, and led on the floor, facing the sky.

At last we had a finisher in our midst, not a finisher in the mist, out of sight, lost.

A magnificently noisy and rude “Carefree” enveloped the entire stadium.

Bliss. Absolute bliss.

But Villa, who had already enjoyed a few moves into our half, were not put out and only a sublime save, low and late, from Mendy at his right post from a Watkins drive saved us. Halfway through the first-half, and with Villa vibrant, Saul Niguez surrendered possession and that man Watkins rounded Mendy. A goal looked on the cards, but Silva is an experienced fellow and he nimbly recovered to block the shot admirably.

Our Saul was struggling with the pace and tenacity of the early exchanges.

“Our Saul, you say? More like a fackin’ arsehole. Wake up you caaaaaaaaant.”

I turned to Clive :

“Well, they’ve had their chances.”

This was a good game, possibly a great game. I was involved, and I appreciated the moment. It was an intriguing game of football, but one which was causing Chelsea increasing problems.

On thirty-three minutes, our man Mendy threw himself to save a rocket from Mings, but was able to scramble to his feet to push away the follow-up from Konsa. These saves were simply sublime. They sent me spinning back to Wembley 1973 and the Jim Montgomery double-save.

This was becoming a disconnected and disjointed performance from us with only occasional flourishes. Ziyech was quiet. Saul was getting over run in midfield. There were only flashes from Havertz. Lukaku was hardly fed anything save the pass for the goal.

Callum Hudson-Odoi was again a disappointment. It was as if the well-worn football phrase “flattering to deceive” was invented for him and for him only. On several occasions he was presented with a few one on ones, but inevitably chose a soft option.

I moaned to Clive : “I wasn’t a great winger, but when I received the ball, my one thought was to get past my marker, not look behind me.”

It was Villa who grew in confidence as the first-half progressed and by the time we all reached the interval, there was a mixture of relief and worried expressions in The Sleepy Hollow.

“We should be 3-1 down. Villa must feel robbed.”

Lo and behold, Thomas Tuchel – still without a song, I still feel I don’t know him too well – spotted the obvious and replaced Saul with Jorginho at the break. It would be a move that we all wanted and that would help to solidify our position in the second-half.

Just four minutes into the second period, Lukaku lost possession but then harassed and harried Tuanzebe and the ball was rushed to Mings whose attempted back pass to Steer was ably intercepted by Kovacic. He doesn’t often find himself in such forward positions, but his finish was impeccable. It had something of the Pedro about it; an instinctive and incisive flick past Steer, and in off the far post it went.

GET IN.

Initial thoughts : “bloody hell, Villa must be spitting feathers.”

But the relief was palpable. We were now 2-0 up and able to consolidate things. A Havertz drive slid past the far post. Thankfully, the Villa offensive was not as potent in the second-half.

On fifty-eight minutes, I was poised to clap in memory of the wonderful comedian Sean Lock, a regular at Stamford Bridge for years, who sadly passed away recently. At the start of the dedicated minute, not many joined in, but thankfully at the end the applause was taken up by many. It extended past the minute mark. The Matthew Harding then started our own song of remembrance :

“One Sean Lock, there’s only one Sean Lock.”

Bless him. He was one of my modern day favourite comedians.

The game continued, and thankfully most of the visitors’ shots on goal were tame, and often at Mendy. Our crowd was surprisingly buoyant for a decidedly average performance. But we were leading, and I suppose that helped.

Stating The Bloody Obvious #716.

To be fair to them, the Villa fans were pretty noisy throughout the game, and even though they are not known for being particularly vociferous, I had to admit that I was impressed with their performance. The three thousand strong block virtually stayed en masse, despite the game going against them.

The devilish McGinn was running things for Villa, his spirit and energy mirroring that of our Kovacic.  I was really enjoying this battle. As, I think were most. There didn’t seem to be a dull moment. The supporters were enjoying it too, and there was even one rare moment of appreciation of a strong tackle by a Villa player on one of our lot. Is this the new normal? To be fair, this isn’t too uncommon. Great saves by opposition ‘keepers, tackles by opposing players, even the occasional goal against – only as long as we are winning – have been clapped in the past.

On the hour, another change.

Dave for Kai.

Dave to right wing back, Callum to outside left, down in the Hazardous Area below me. Again, he was all flicks but with no real finished product.

“Thing is Clive, he doesn’t have to beat his man over five yards. He has twenty yards to run into. Knock it past him, and kill him for pace.”

The Matthew Harding had twice goaded into getting The Shed to sing in the first half with no response. An attempt to get The Shed involved – this is invariably met with a defiant “Carefree” – again fell on deaf ears. Midway through the second-half, when The Shed did finally get involved, an audible noise able to be heard, the Matthew Harding Lower jumped in.

“We forgot that you were here.”

Not sure what The Shed thought of that, nor ironically if they even heard it.

Former Chelsea player Bertrand Traore was given a nice reception as he came on as a substitute for Ings. A shot of his from distance was deflected narrowly wide.

Alonso had a trademark dig at an angle down below us, but his daisy-cutter fizzed wide.

Villa’s attacks grew weaker and without much intent.

Their fans still sang, but the Liverpool “Allez!Allez! Allez!” needs to be dumped. Sharpish.

Werner, the forgotten man right now, got a late run out, with Tuchel no longer willing to witness the advanced Hudson-Odoi anymore. By now, the game was being played out in a strange murky twilight, the sun long gone, the floodlights on, a hint of autumn in the air.

In the last moments of the game, a typically positive run from Dave down the right was followed by an inch perfect pass into the feet of Lukaku. A slight adjustment, and then –

BAM.

The ball flew past Steer.

Chelsea 3 Aston Villa 0.

Lukaku, attitude and / or arrogance on show, jogged over to our corner, and gave me – and others – a fine photo opportunity. Like the man himself, I don’t miss that easy an open goal.

CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.

At last, after the stern face, Lukaku smiled.

The ref soon blew up.

This had been a hugely enjoyable game. Villa had certainly surprised me though. Absolutely no way they deserved to lose 3-0. As we left the stadium, I shared these thoughts with PD.

“There must be few occasions over the years where an away team has come here and lost 3-0, yet the Chelsea supporters know deep down that they deserved more.”

The top three performers were undoubtedly Mendy for his excellent saves, Kovacic for his growing command of the midfield, his sublime assist and his beauty of a goal and Lukaku, two shots two goals, Goodnight Vienna.

We met up with Parky back at The Anchor fish bar on Lillee Road.

“Saveloy and chips mate, please, open.”

The drive home was a lot less stressful than the trip to London. It was a blissful trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset. I loved this day out. And I am so pleased to be able to report that I am rapidly getting my appetite for the game back.  

Game one of five down, superb, very enjoyable. Zenit on Tuesday, my first European Night at Chelsea since that tough loss to Bayern in 2020. Then Tottenham away – “love it” – and one of the games of any season. Then Villa again in the League Cup (that might be the one that tests me) and lastly a possible season-deciding game against City. I suspect we will give them a few reminders of Porto, don’t you?

Good times. Let them roll. Let the Mother Road lead us back to London time and time again.

See you Tuesday.

Goal One.

Goal Two.

Goal Three.

Tales From Under A Pure Blue Sky

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 28 August 2021.

Before we get too deep into this, give yourself a point if you either uttered or thought this line after the game at Anfield :

“I would have settled for a draw before the game.”

Everyone? Everyone gets a point. Everyone apart from Arsenal. Thought so.

This was a cracking day out. A long day, but deeply pleasurable. It almost had it all.

I had set my alarm for 7.30am but was awake at 6.45am. No point trying to go back to sleep. I needed to fuel up again, and on the short four-mile drive to the nearest garage, I briefly found myself doing eighty miles an hour through the Somerset back-roads. Proof, if anything was needed, that I was keen to get “on the road” and on my way to Liverpool for this one. Our fine start to the season, admittedly against far from high calibre teams, had got me chomping at the bit for this mouth-watering fixture at Anfield. It would be twenty-eight months since my last visit, a weak 2-0 defeat in April 2019.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome bang on 9am.

Our initial plans had been adjusted as Parky was still laid low with COVID19. We called in to see him and he handed over tickets for Anfield as if they were atomic waste; face masks on, gloves on, everything at a distance. Sadly, Parky would be absent, and so would Alan and Gary too.

Regardless, the Frome Three headed north, diverting into Melksham for our first match day McBreakfast for months and months and months.

I headed north.

A familiar route, though less travelled these days.

My last trip up the M5 for football was for Hull City in January 2020. My last trip up the M6 for football was for Everton in December 2019.

Driving north, the three of us enjoyed a lovely chat about the state of our club and team at the moment. Many positives. Too many to mention.

With this being a bank holiday weekend, we predictably hit a few areas of traffic congestion.

One of my favourite vistas on my travels around this Sceptered Isle with The Great Unpredictables is from the Thelwell Viaduct. On this particular day, the high-rises of Manchester’s city centre were clearly visible to the east. Beyond Saddleworth Moor and its notorious history. Ahead, Winter Hill – appearing so close, despite being twenty miles away – with the home of Bolton Wanderers nestling a few miles to the south. To the west, the cooling towers and bridges at Runcorn, but the almost mythical city of Liverpool out of sight.

Football Land.

I had earmarked an arrival at Liverpool – or to be precise the car park outside Goodison Park, the blue-half of the city – at 2pm. In the circumstances, my arrival at 2.20pm was half-decent. Happy with that.

A short walk away, past the Dixie Dean statue, was The Abbey pub, which was to be our base for around two hours. Already inside were Kev and Rich, veterans from Belfast, and I had kept their arrival a secret from PD and Glenn. It was a nice surprise for my Somerset Chuckle Brothers. Next to arrive was Deano, just a short hop down from Silverdale near the Lake District. To complete the group, Kim, ex California, ex Florida and now a resident of Crosby a mere ten-minute drive away. The pub was a new one for me; I have walked past it many times en route to and from Goodison. It was a decent boozer. There were three other Chelsea fans on a nearby table. The locals were fine. The prices were cheap. Everything was good. On the way up, we chuckled as Arsenal lost again, and lost without scoring again.

They said that The Titanic would never sink.

Full steam ahead, Arteta, and fuck the icebergs.

We made the short walk up through Stanley Park – the scene of much aggro, hooliganism, violence and associated nastiness in previous decades – and I have to say it was a surprisingly lovely walk. It was the first time I have walked to Anfield from the north for a game. The sun was out, a clear blue sky, and there were Victorian features to the park which made it all very pleasant.

Was I really in Liverpool?

The shining mass of the new stand at Anfield that peered over the trees to the south confirmed that indeed I was.

There was the quickest of security pat downs outside the away turnstiles and we were in at 4.50pm.

I was almost blinded by the sun as I walked into the lower tier of the Anfield Road Stand – “The Annie” as the locals call it – and I quickly found our seats.

Row five, equidistant twixt the six and eighteen yard boxes. Ideal.

It was a familiar view, this. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Anfield with Chelsea. There have been the same number of visits to see us at Manchester United but, what with the two FA Cup Semi-Finals in 2006 and 2007, Old Trafford slightly edges past Anfield.

I spotted a few friends. PD, taking Parky’s ticket, was alongside me. Also alongside me were the empty red seats that would have been occupied by Gary – COVID positive – and Alan – COVID negative, but unable to make it – and it felt odd not having them alongside us.

Anfield took a while to fill. There were no COVID19 checks again this week.

I could not have been the only Chelsea supporter who thought “if I don’t catch it at Anfield, I won’t catch it anywhere”…

Pre-match songs included “Ring of Fire”, “Heroes” and “The Fields Of Anfield Road.”

Chelsea broke into song as the afternoon progressed.

One song dominated :

“Champions Of Europe…You Know The Rest.”

Out on the pitch, the game’s undercard was The Battle Of The Shit Training Tops.

Chelsea won it easily.

The clock ticked towards to the kick-off at 5.30pm.

The Liverpool PA announcer’s ridiculously deep and monotone voice announced a few items in that dead pan voice of his. Think Ringo Starr but at several levels lower.

The team was almost the same as the one that started against Arsenal.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Azplicueta

Alonso – Kante – Jorginho – James

Havertz – Lukaku – Mount

The teams came on, Chelsea first, then Liverpool. The line-up. The Kop was ready with its myriad of DIY banners, and of course, their scarves.

The away end was virtually a scarf-free zone.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Not as loud as on many previous occasions.

Must do better.

It annoyed the fuck out of me to see a couple of Chelsea / Liverpool scarves in our cramped away section. These fuckers evidently didn’t bother reading the small print in their Chelsea contract.

Liverpool and Chelsea. Two league wins apiece thus far. This was a game that I had been relishing all week. I predicted a 2-2 draw.

Romelu Lukaku took the kick-off before the pre-game “knee” and I hoped that it would not be the last time that he would be out of synch.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Kop in the first-half.

Not surprisingly, Liverpool came out of the traps firing on all cylinders and other clichés. Their youngster Harvey Eliott looked neat and purposeful in the opening moments. His shot was knocked wide. Mason Mount fired over from the edge of the box. The next chance of the game came down the Liverpool right as Terence-Trent Darby-Alexander-Arnold pumped a long ball into our box that Jordan Henderson reached, but could only prod the ball wide with what appeared to be his heel.

It was an even start.

Liverpool were aggressively closing down our defenders but the ball was moved with pace out of areas that would hurt them.

I grimaced every time Mo Salah came at us. He was a very real threat for sure. A Van Dijk header at the far post was blocked.

Despite our regular utterings of “Champions Of Europe” there was, surprisingly, no usual retorts from the home support about our lack of “history.” This was a real surprise. This is their usual stock, almost Pavlovian, answer to any of our chants that either praise our successes or mock them. Maybe they are learning their history lesson after all these years.

It was, in fact, refreshing to hear no “Murderers” chanting from our section either.

Had the lockdown affected us all that much?

After some dogged perseverance from Marcos Alonso underneath the dreaded Anfield Clock, we won a corner.

Reece James pumped the ball in towards the near post. I snapped as Kai Havertz – already showing silky sweetness in attack – leapt. I watched, and snapped again, as the ball looped up and over everyone into the far corner of the box.

GET IN!

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

In truth, I had no idea how the ball had ended up in the net. I wasn’t even sure that Havertz had touched it last. Was it a defender’s head that had looped it on? I simply did not know. It all happened so quickly.

The scorer was announced as Havertz.

How did he manage it? It was from the corner, at least, of the six-yard box? I was flummoxed. What a goal.

People mention “The Catch” in baseball and everyone knows it’s Willie Mays at The Polo Grounds. “The Try” in rugby union, and it’s the Barbarians at Cardiff. “The Save” in football and it’s Gordon Banks against Pele in Mexico in 1970.

Now we have “The Header.”

It defied physics and football. He had his back to the goal, his back to the ‘keeper, his back to everyone. His flick managed to twist the ball up and over everyone in a perfect parabola. In the end, it dropped into the goal amidst so much space that it was almost unkind on Liverpool.

It was an absolute beauty.

A couple more Chelsea half-chances strengthened the air of positivity – if not euphoria – in the Chelsea end.

“Shall We Sing A Song For You?”

Playground stuff really, but you could tell the locals didn’t like it.

There were often long balls from Liverpool, in a red kit oddly trimmed with salmon pink, looking to catch us on the back foot.

Edouard Mendy anticipated an early ball and raced to clear with Mo Salah – or was it Michael Angelis from “The Liver Birds” and “Boys From The Black Stuff” – lurking menacingly.

A delightfully constructed passage of play down the inside light channel, allowed Lukaku to feed in Mount but his shot was brushed wide.

Firmino was hooked by Klopp to be replaced by Jiota.

Three minutes of extra time.

“Come On Chels.”

A Liverpool corner from their left.

Madness ensued.

A knock on. Matip managed to loop the ball up into the air. Both Mendy and Alonso went for the ball. Matip again, and onto the bar. By this time, I was already befuddled. Bodies swarming the six-yard box, a mere twenty-five feet away from me. A shot, blocked on the line – twice – then hacked away.

Phew.

Alas, alas, alas…a late VAR review, and the bloody inevitable result.

A Liverpool roar. In the confusion, a red to Reece James, which I missed amidst the madness, and a yellow to Rudiger.

That man Salah.

A swipe at the ball.

Goal.

1-1.

Bollocks.

PD : “We’re up against it now.”

A yellow for our ‘keeper.

Chaos on the pitch.

The Liverpool support, which had grown quieter throughout the first period, suddenly erupted.

At half-time, which immediately followed, there was a mixture of disbelief and anger in the away end. Of course, the strange thing is that even though I was so close to the action that lead to the penalty, the viewing millions had a much better view of everything than me.

The consensus was that the penalty was right to be given as the hand stopped a goal, but the ball was blasted at James from two yards and hit his thigh first.

Had the world gone mad?

How could that be a red?

We girded our loins at the start of the second-half and of course Thomas Tuchel made the inevitable changes.

He took off the unlucky Havertz and replaced him with Thiago Silva who bolstered the defence. The injured Kante was replaced by Mateo Kovacic.

We strapped ourselves in for a difficult forty-five minutes.

Five at the back – in reality – with three in midfield and the lone Lukaku upfront.

But I have to say that whenever we broke away, Alonso was up and down that left flank as if his life depended upon it.

What we hoped for was a defensive master class.

And that is exactly what transpired.

Liverpool, of course, dominated the ball, but we defended with such regimen and aplomb that I was only worried about our line being breached on a few, rare, occasions. Everyman played his part. Dave was sensational, the incoming Kovacic tackled, covered, and occasionally raided, but I thought Silva was magnificent.

Calm, assured, reliable.

A great performance.

Rudiger made a few rash decisions but more than made up for it with his steely determination. A super game from Christensen too. Jorginho was solid, and worked tirelessly.

As for Mendy. Utterly superb.

Soon into the second-half, I said to PD.

“Look at us.”

We were identical. Arms folded, one arm up, hand clenched and nested beneath our noses.

Classic art critic poses, as if we were studying a Turner, a Picasso, a Hopper.

Of course, we were witnessing a master class in defending.

We were, let’s make no qualms about it, sensational. There were echoes of Porto if I am honest. And just like that night in Portugal, I became obsessed with that bloody Anfield Clock.

55 minutes, 60 minutes.

PD was watching it too.

Salah to Jiota, a header. Over.

A long shot from Van Dijk, a daisy cutter, and Mendy scrambled to save. As similar save from Fabinho. A parry from a Robertson volley from distance.

The first-part of the second-half seemed to take forever, and then as the Liverpool chances grew less frequent, the time sped along nicely.

A rare attack, initiated by a strong break from Alonso, eventually enabled Mount to loft a ball in to Lukaku but his shot was blocked.

If I am honest, Lukaku struggled a little against Matip and Van Dijk, but his was a thankless task in the second-half. Van Dijk has fast feet, and on this occasion Lukaku had relatively slow feet. Let’s hope his feet won’t be the stumbling block to his progress this season.

The clock ticked on.

Sixty-seven minutes, thirty seconds.

“Half-way through the half PD.”

“I was going to wait until seventy.”

That man Lukaku then linked so well with Kovacic but his shot was weak and at the ‘keeper.

This was tense stuff.

A Liverpool break and the ball fell to Salah, centrally positioned. I had a mental image of him rolling into the corner, to Mendy’s right, my left, and The Kop going berserk. But his pathetically weak shot – shades of Pat Nevin against Manchester City in 1984 –  rolled apologetically to Mendy’s left, my right, and the chance passed.

Eighty minutes.

It was a joy to see many Liverpool fans head for the exits.

Eighty-five.

Trevoh Chalobah – surely he should come from Manchestoh with a name like that – replaced the tiring Jorginho.

Ninety.

An extra three, just like on forty-five.

We held on.

Ten Men Went To Mow.

Magnificent.

The away end was jubilant, but as at Arsenal last Sunday, I noticed only stern and serious faces on the Chelsea players. This shows amazing self-control. I am not so sure that we would have been quite so reserved under other managers.

Because make no mistake, a 1-1 draw at Anfield is a bloody fine result and us supporters almost regarded it as a win.

Walking back to Goodison, out through Stanley Park, the quietness of the home fans was a joy.

We had set our marker for the season with this result.

Lovely.

My exit route out of the city took my car right alongside the stands on the Bullens Road at Goodison park.

After the Annie Road at Liverpool, we now found ourselves on the Gwladys Street at Everton.

I made a quick exit, out onto the East Lancs Road, then the M57, then the M62, then the M6.

We stopped a few miles down the M6 in well-heeled Cheshire, now solidly in United territory.

“I love it how, through football, us three lads from Somerset can suddenly find ourselves in a curry house in Knutsford at ten o’clock on a Saturday night.”

The Eastern Revive on King Street did us proud.

I made it home at just after 1.30am in the small hours of Sunday.

It had been a good day.

Anfield.

The Header.

Gallery.


Chelsea at Anfield.

Played : 25

Won : 5

Drew : 7

Lost : 13

For : 26

Against : 39

Tales From The Arsenal Petri Dish

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 22 August 2021.

One weekend. One game on Saturday. One game on Sunday. An FA Cup game on Saturday. A Premier League game on Sunday. Two local derbies. One in Somerset. One in London. One four miles away. One a hundred and fifteen miles away.

Football was back.

This was my first footballing double-header in ages, and one which I was – of course – relishing. At work on the Friday, I could hardly believe my own ears as I repeatedly told colleagues that I really fancied us – “us” as in Chelsea, not Frome Town – to do really well at The Emirates and I genuinely meant it. Whisper it, but I even told a couple that I half-expected us to pump a fair few goals into Arsenal. This sort of over-confidence is rare, especially before an away game and especially at a ground where we haven’t always had it our own way in recent times.

It was with a beautiful feeling that I woke on Saturday morning with a near perfect football weekend ahead of me.

First up, a Frome Town vs. Paulton Rovers FA Cup Preliminary Round game. Last weekend, while I was at Chelsea, a local company sponsored the town’s league opener at home to Highworth Town by giving away free tickets to anybody who fancied it. A fantastic crowd of 867 duly attended; it was the fifth highest league crowd in Frome Town’s one hundred and seventeen year history and I was a little annoyed that I could not be part of it. A 1-0 win followed. I had arranged to meet up with a couple of old school friends for the FA Cup game against the local rivals from Paulton. We were treated to a very entertaining game of football. Frome went ahead with a sublime volley from Rex Mannings early in the game. Yet Paulton moved the ball well and came back into the match with a virtual carbon copy of Marcos Alonso’s sublime free-kick against Palace last weekend. The only difference was that the Frome ‘keeper made an effort to save it. Frome then dug in, and found a new resilience to win the game with two late goals from Jon Davies and James Ollis. The gate was a healthy 398. I even bumped into Glenn at the final whistle; he had strolled in late on after seeing another game across the road.

“See you tomorrow at ten.”

“Tomorrow” duly arrived. I collected PD and Glenn in Frome and set off for London. Unfortunately, Parky had contracted COVID19, quite possibly while at Stamford Bridge the previous weekend, and so was unable to attend. It was Glenn who picked up his ticket. I saw Parky briefly – at distance – during the week to collect the match ticket and the old soldier had been hit hard. But he was improving slightly as the week passed. I had both a Lateral Flow and a PCR Test early in the week; both negative, I was fine.

We were parked up at Barons Court tube station in West London at around 12.30pm. The classic green-tiled interior of the booking hall welcomed us. We always park here for Chelsea away games as its just off the A4. I remarked to PD that we didn’t always have great memories of walking up those steps after away games at West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham. But I was still supremely confident. And it didn’t even worry me, which was worrying in itself.

Was this just because the returning hero Romelu Lukaku was set to play his first game for Chelsea since his move back to SW6 from Inter? Yes and no. We are already a decent team, but his presence should round off the team very nicely. It would, hopefully, banish the nerds into blathering on about “false nines” into the wilderness for a few seasons too. Bonus.

I saw Lukaku play a handful of times – four starts plus a handful of substitute appearances – in his first spell with the club. His last appearance was as a substitute against Aston Villa on a midweek game in early 2013/14. I chose just one photo to accompany that match report, as was my way in those days (it was in fact the first-ever fresh match report on this site) and it was of him, shielding the ball below me.

I last got up-close and personal with him three weeks later before a league game at Goodison Park. I happened to be outside the main entrance as he arrived in his car after going on loan at the club and I shook his hand and said “have a great season here, then come back to us next season, God bless you.”

He must have misunderstood my sense of urgency.

The three of us joined up with Alan, Gary and Daryl in “The Euston Flyer” not far from St. Pancras. I was gasping so treated myself to one refreshing “Peroni” before getting back onto some “Diet Pepsi”. I felt a bit awkward admitting to the lads that I fancied us strongly later in the day. It was, no doubt, a most un-Chelseaesque feeling. The Southampton versus Manchester United game was on TV. A huge cheer met the Saints’ goal, a lesser cheer for the equaliser. It was Glenn’s first meeting with the three lads from London since Everton at home in March of last year. There were a few Chelsea faces that I recognised in the boozer, conveniently placed before the short hop up to The Emirates.

I wanted to visit Highbury and take a few photos of the old Arsenal Stadium, so excused myself and left at around 3.15pm. Alas, this didn’t go to plan.

I alighted at Highbury & Islington tube and walked up the Holloway Road, but instead of diverting towards Highbury I made the mistake of heading towards The Emirates first – like a moth to a flame – which was a bit silly really. I was soon entrenched in a line at the slope behind the Clock End entrance and soon realised that to visit Highbury, I would have to go back out and then return again, and I wasn’t keen on two security checks.

“Maybe next time.”

We were kept waiting for twenty minutes. I didn’t particularly enjoy being among the replica-kitted Arsenal fans, but I kept quiet and waited in turn for a security pat down. Unlike Chelsea, there was no COVID19 passport check required and, after getting a body check with a scanner, I avoided eye-contact with the team at the “bag check” tables behind and waltzed in through.

Outside The Emirates, as it curves towards the away turnstiles, I could not help but notice that the signage on the stadium wall now looks really faded. Everything is a light pink and not a strong red. Those images of the interlinked Arsenal players seemed lacklustre. It was as if the Arsenal shirts had been washed in the wrong type of detergent. Inside the stadium, even the famously padded seats looked faded too.

The faded glory of a once proud club?

I hoped so.

Of course hardly anyone was wearing face coverings. On the London Underground, a good 95% of passengers were wearing masks. At the football, it was less than 5%.

I looked out at the undulating top tier and the middle tiers awaiting to be filled, then the gentle slope of the bottom tier and wondered about the safety of it all. Was The Emirates a giant petri dish in disguise? How safe were we? Only time would tell.

I bumped into loads and loads. This was the first proper domestic away since Bournemouth in February 2020. Everyone was greeting each other like long lost friends, which is of course exactly what we all were.

I was down in row six, in line with the six-yard box alongside PD, Gary and Alan. This was my fifteenth visit to The Emirates; I have seen every one of our league appearances at the new place, excepting the 2020/21 fixture of course. It must hurt many of those who, unlike me, never miss a game, to have their records blown to smithereens the past year and a half.

Damn you COVID.

We had heard that many Arsenal tickets had not been sold. There were gaps, but not swathes.

The rain that had been expected was thankfully nowhere to be seen. All three of us had left rain jackets in the car.

Our team was announced and it did not surprise me to see Lukaku in and Timo Werner out. A few raised eyebrows at Marcos Alonso in, though.

Edouard

Antonio – Andreas – Dave

Marcos – Jorgi – Mateo – Reece

Kai – Romelu – Mase

Happy with that. Kante on the bench.

Arsenal’s team consisted of a few names that, due to my abandonment of TV football in 2020/21 could easily have been the names of TV repairmen, taxi drivers and hair-dressers. I fucking hoped that they would be playing like them too.

Pre-match, a few Chelsea warm ups from the terrace to get the vocal chords warmed up. Nothing from Arsenal.

Arsenal in an apparent nod to their 1998/99 kit – but looking a little too “Ajax” for my liking – and Chelsea in their Charlie Cairoli hand-me-downs of all blue.

Arsenal, as always, attacked the Clock End in the first-half and were first out of the traps but a shot from Emile Smith-Rowe, the chartered accountant, was easily dealt with by our man Mendy.

Sadly, the gentle rake of the lower tier and the fact that I am a proud short-arse meant that my view of the game was not great at all. I hardly saw any of the action down our right. I saw a lot of the backs of heads, but bugger all else. Only when the ball was in the other two-thirds of the pitch did I see enough. I felt a bit disjointed. At least the rain was holding off.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was played into Lukaku who touched the ball back to Mateo Kovacic. He then spread the ball out to Reece James and we sensed danger. All eyes were on the wide man, but I suspect that the viewing millions at home were more likely tuned to the run into the box of Lukaku. The ball was played into the six-yard box to perfection and, amidst a bewildered group of window dressers, sous chefs and car mechanics, Lukaku struck.

One-nil to the European Champions.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

Alan : “they’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea crowd went berserk. Unable to focus on the celebrating players, I turned the camera on us. One image is of a beautiful gurning, exhilarated, beatific, orgasmic mess of humanity.

Ah, the joy of football.

It was back.

With no Chelsea goals in his first period with us, it was our new target man’s first Chelsea goal.

“Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romelu Lukaku.”

It is not known what Mateja Kezman nor Fernando Torres were thinking at that exact moment in time.

A header from Lukaku dropped over the bar.

Up the other end, the dance trio Xhaka, Saka and Lokonga combined but Mendy was not troubled.

We were dominating the game and the home fans knew it. The little group next to the away contingent behind the goal were trying to make some noise, but only when a ball was pushed through for the cycle courier to race on did the home crowd make any sustainable racket. Kieran Tierney in front of me seemed to have a lot of the ball but our defence was well marshalled. Efforts on our goal were at a minimum.

On thirty-four minutes, a magnificent move that started on our left but finished on our right, with Reece James free and in space and able to crash the ball past chat show host Leno.

The Chelsea 2 The Arsenal 0.

Magnificent.

I had silly visions of 3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

At that stage it did look possible.

Sadly, in the last ten minutes of the half, the heavens opened. We remained in place, in defiance of the weather. I just had a T-shirt on. I tucked my camera away. I remained stood, and prayed for a respite.

James tangled with Saka. No penalty.

We were playing so well.

But the clouds were darkening overhead and Arsenal’s supporters must have been immersed in the gloom.

“Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

The rain continued to fall throughout the half-time break and at the start of the second-half. We grimly stood on duty, and at least we were buoyed by a sterling performance from our team. The two goal scorers under Chelsea on the scoreboard were matched by two bookings for Arsenal.

“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

A fine strike from Saka was tipped over by Mendy. It was his first real test. Were Arsenal equipped for a comeback? They only occasionally hinted that it might be possible.

Lukaku played the ball back to Mason but his shot was dragged wide.

On the hour, head tennis in our box and Holding the sixth-form tuck shop supervisor headed over, though I only saw it on the replay.

A third Arsenal booking, a swipe at the marauding Lukaku.

The rain stopped.

Kante for Kovacic.

The entire Arsenal support : “Fackinell.”

With a quarter of an hour to play, Mount slipped the ball in to a central Lukaku. It was a perfect ball. The striker headed at goal but Leno adjusted so well to tip the ball onto the bar.

A third goal would not have flattered us.

Ziyech for Mount.

Havertz went close.

“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

Werner for Havertz.

We saw the game out. Arsenal just missed a cutting edge. They hardly created anything of note. Our lads were excellent and my positive pre-match thoughts were justified. I really enjoyed the physicality of Lukaku. The modern game seems to be drifting inexorably to a “non-contact” sport so there is something gratifying, something that stirs the senses and galvanises emotion, about a good old-fashioned one-on-one battle. It used to happen in midfield in days gone by. Now it tends to be a very rare event. Shades of Drogba and Costa? Oh yes.

We said our goodbyes, and the three from Frome slowly wandered down the Holloway Road before diving into our usual Chinese for a bite to eat.

The drive home was blissful. It was a joy to be back on the road after such a lovely away day.

I pulled in to my drive at just after 10.45pm, and saw the very last of Ian Wright – I think – and his damning assessment of Arsenal’s woes on “MOTD2.”

Next up, another cracking away game.

Liverpool away. Ah, these away days are the best. The absolute best.

Herbert And Some Herberts.

Guns.

Super Dave.

Cross.

Head.

Joy.

Reflections.

Storm Clouds Above.

The Clock End.

Hands.

Out.

Marcos In The Rain.

A Shot Saved.

Serious Business.

Late on Sunday night, I cheekily posted on “Facebook” :

“Catch Us If You Can.”

side note : sadly, the petri dish at Arsenal yielded two further victims to COVID19. Two of my featured pals succumbed to the virus since Sunday and another has lost his voice. I have taken a Lateral Flow Test, and await the result of a PCR too.

Fingers crossed. See you at Anfield? I hope so.

Tales From A Love Story

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 August 2021.

I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.

Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.

I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.

I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.

My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.

I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.

Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.

Bosh.

For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.

It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.

On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.

I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.

Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.

Don’t hold your breath.

As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.

I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.

Inside the stand. I was home.

Phew.

Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.

Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.

With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.

I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.

“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.

It just wasn’t the same.

The teams were announced.

No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.

Mendy

Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Werner – Pulisic

“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.

And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.

BLUES FOREVER

One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.

“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”

Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.

He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.

He was loved by all.

Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.

There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.

Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :

Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.

Forty bloody years ago.

Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”

Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.

We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.

The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.

There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.

There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.

Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.

“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”

With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.

I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.

One-nil to the European Champions.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.

On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

We were back.

And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.

We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.

A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.

Two-nil to the European Champions.

A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.

Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)

In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.

I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.

A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.

Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.

3-0.

Magnificent.

I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.

Joyous scenes, eh?

I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.

Let’s get it going again.

I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.

James for Dave.

Havertz for Pulisic.

Emerson for Alonso.

A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.

The game ended 3-0.

It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.

I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.

I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.

What’s that I hear you say?

Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?

OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.

The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

There was a moment in The Harp bar in Belfast’s historic and beguiling Cathedral Quarter that will live with me for a while. Parky and I had met up with our good friends from Edinburgh Gillian, Kev and Rich at just after 2pm on the day of the game. We were then joined by old friends Daryl, Ed, Gary and Pete in our favourite Belfast bar. We loved the décor, the attentive staff, the choice of beers – including draft Peroni – and the excellent music. We had crowded around a couple of tables for a few hours and had been predictably catching up with each other after almost a year and a half apart. There was the usual flow of stories, jokes and laughter but also – in these rather odd times in which we have found ourselves – a few sobering tales of health issues, of how we tried to overcome the stresses of lockdown and a few fleeting mentions of Chelsea Football Club where time permitted. The time, of course, absolutely flew past. The kick-off between Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Villareal was at 8pm. We had decided to leave for Windsor Park at around 6pm, but I was hoping for some sort of suspension of time so that we could just enjoy this wonderful pre-match for a few precious moments more.

And then things improved further still. One of the bar staff decided to open the concertina windows that fronted onto the narrow street outside. The sunlight suddenly shone into the bar, and the late afternoon air immediately hit us.

It seemed that after our yearlong hibernation from watching Chelsea, we were now catapulted into a warm – and warming – future.

“After those dark, bleak months away from Chelsea, this is our time in the sun boys.”

It really was sheer bliss. We were all livened by the sun’s rays.

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

There was a time when the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland would have been a no-go for me. Even as recently as twenty years ago, it seemed a rather intimidating place, as it endeavoured to escape the shackles of its sectarian past. When I started travelling around Europe independently and also with friends, Belfast was simply a place too far. I can remember being genuinely scared of the city, a result of watching all of those awful images on TV in the ‘seventies of bombs and desolation. For a while, it seemed that every time I stayed up late on a Saturday night in the early ‘seventies to watch “Match Of The Day”, there would be harrowing film of a city under siege on the preceding news on BBC1. Names such as the Falls Road, the Shankhill Road, the Crumlin Road and Divis Flats have stayed in my consciousness from early those days.

Thankfully, times have changed. For a few years I have been promising myself a trip to Belfast – EasyJet run cheap flights from nearby Bristol – so there was a sense of real joy when it became apparent that Belfast would be hosting the 2021 UEFA Super Cup Final. I love the way that Chelsea has dragged me to some of the cities that I have always wanted to visit; Moscow, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Beijing…St. Petersburg is waiting in the wings.

What luck.

Not long after our – still – surprising journey to this Champions League Final and subsequent victory against Manchester City, it did not take me long at all to book flights and a hotel to Belfast. I managed to coerce Parky to join me. We would be in town for three long days. Compared to the stresses of last summer, this year has been a relative breeze at work but I have to admit the thought of a lovely Chelsea-fuelled break in Belfast has kept me going when things darkened a little.

I was, deep down, hoping to be something of a lucky charm for Chelsea. I have only ever attended one UEFA Super Cup before, the only one where we have been victorious; our first one in Monaco in 1998. I did not travel again to Monaco in 2012, nor Prague in 2013 nor Istanbul in 2019.

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

As winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Joachim Low’s Stuttgart, Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were assured of a place in the subsequent Super Cup match against Guus Hiddink’s Real Madrid – winners of the European Cup against Juventus – in Monaco in August. Of course, in those days both finals were held on Wednesdays. We won in Stockholm on 13 May, then had to wait a week to see who we would be playing. It will surprise nobody that I was hoping that Juventus would be our opposition in Monaco. It would have been my dream matchup, even though we would have been ridiculously out-numbered by the Italians with Turin only a few hours away.  But just as we won in Sweden with a single goal from Gianfranco Zola, it was the Castilians who triumphed by the same score in Amsterdam with a goal from Predrag Mijatovic.

At the time of the game in Sweden, I was famously unemployed; I had lost my job the previous month. But by the time that August came around, I had moved into a very satisfying job in logistics, although those first few months were pretty frantic. But my employer granted me time off at the end of the month, so all was well. A company called Millwest – a Manchester sports travel firm, formerly Universal – had advertised a four-day coach trip to the South of France that included a night in nearby Nice for a decent price of £129. The match ticket was extra.

My mate Andy – who travelled to Porto with me in May this year – was the only one of my close Chelsea mates that fancied it. The season was two games old. I didn’t attend the opening 1-2 loss at Coventry City, but was at the following weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle United. New players included Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Albert Ferrer and Marcel Desailly. It was a considerable upgrade to our squad.

Andy and I met up at a pub near Victoria around lunchtime on the Thursday ahead of the game in Monaco on the Friday evening. We boarded the coach and started talking to our travel companions. I think we semi-recognised a few from The Harwood Arms which was one of the hardcore pubs around that time. I remember a gaggle of lads from Highbridge in Somerset who had brought along a few flagons of the local “Rich’s” cider. One lad – Jamie – I see on odd occasions to this day. One of his crew was a lad who wasn’t really into football, attending his first-ever game, and bore an uncanny resemblance to serial killer Fred West. I remember a lad who was Tommy Langley’s cousin on the coach. Most were blokes. Virtually all in fact. Once in France, we stopped at the “Eastenders” wholesale drinks warehouse and stocked up on beer and cheese. The banter among new friends slowly faded away as we all fell asleep on the ten-hour drive south. We all occupied double seats. There was plenty of room.

Not long after waking on the Friday morning the coach broke down on the wide approach towards the coast. We were only shy of our destination by around twenty miles.  After a couple of nervous hours on the side of the motorway, we eventually limped into Nice. We sensed that the relationship between the drivers, an American and a Canadian, was already strained. Our surprisingly good quality hotel was on the western end of Promenade D’Anglais, the main road that hugged the beach. We were suitably impressed.

A quick change around lunchtime and then a bus into the town centre. Typically, we bumped into Jonesy from Andy’s home town of Nuneaton. We plotted up at a table and enjoyed some beer and pizza.

We later found ourselves outside a bar at the main station at Nice, where a decade or so earlier I had slept al fresco on my travels around Europe as I waited for an early morning train into Italy. Andy spotted Hicky in the distance, the first time I had seen him since the ‘eighties, a visitor from Thailand and at one time the nation’s most infamous football hooligan. We hopped on a train for the short twenty minute into Monaco.  The stadium is a stone’s throw from the train station.

The pre-match was memorable for Andy’s altercation with the Labour MP and Chelsea supporter Tony Banks outside the VIP entrance.

Previously, the Super Cup had been played over two legs.

1998 was the first year of it being played in Monaco where it resided until 2012. It was always held on the same weekend as the UEFA draws and I believe most draws were made in Monaco during that era.

Of course, the Monaco stadium is an odd creation. The pitch is famously above several stories of facilities including a basketball arena and a car park. It holds 16,000 but the gate on that night in 1998 was 11,589. My guess is that no more than one thousand Chelsea supporters were present. We were allocated the open away end with its nine high arches at the rear of the yellow seats.

It was a case of “sit where you like” and Andy and I chose to stand behind the goal.

Chelsea played in all blue, which was considered unlucky by many until we won the league at Bolton in 2005 in that colour combination.

I remember little of the game. I think the pitch was pretty bumpy and didn’t play true. Real Madrid had many more supporters than us at the opposite end; maybe four thousand. Real’s team included Roberto Carlos, Christian Panucci, Fernando Hierro, Clarence Seedorf and Raul. They were no mugs for sure. But we won it with a solitary goal from Gus Poyet in the eighty-third minute, a low strike at our end. I remember our new signing Brian Laudrup made his debut for us just after our goal.

At the time, it seemed we were invincible in the cup competitions.

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

“In a bar in Madrid right now, there’s an old Real Madrid fan who is saying” –

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

We hopped onto a waiting train, triumphant. We enjoyed a few more beers before calling it a night.

In the morning, we were to learn that out on the promenade in the small hours of Saturday morning, Fred West had an altercation of his own with a woman who revealed herself to be a transvestite and then, if that wasn’t enough a shock for our Fred – after a little provocation from what I remember – drew a pistol and fired a few shots into the air. Fred West raced back to the safety of the hotel and according to Jamie when I saw him a few years back has not been seen at a game since.

On the Saturday, we dipped into Nice again for a few more beers and a bite to eat. These were simply super times. The Chelsea stories came thick and fast. This was all a bit like the second coming of Chelsea; we were all in love with the 1970/71 team and here we were witnessing a repeat in 1997/98.

We caught a cab back to the hotel and I can remember this moment as if it was yesterday.

A little boozy, light-headed with beers, the window open, laughter from my new-found friends alongside me, the Mediterranean sky overhead, the warm air brushing my cheeks, high on life, high on Chelsea, high on everything.

It was my time in the sun, and one that I was to repeat twenty-three years later.

Super.

But this was to be the briefest of away trips in reality. We left for the long return trip home during early afternoon on the Saturday.

Sadly, the coach broke down again near Marseille. A few lads needed to be back in the UK on the Sunday so got off and caught a cab to Marseille airport. There followed another frustrating wait for a few hours. Eventually we got going. I slept fitfully. I remember sitting in a French service station eating a dodgy sandwich around midnight when the news broke that one of the coach drivers had stormed off in a moody fit. I can recollect seeing him walking away with his little bag on wheels being towed behind him. We pleaded with him to return. One driver would not be able to get us to Calais in light of the driving regulations. Eventually he relented. On the approach to Calais there was a further fuel leak and the coach limped home. On the motorway back in Blighty, we pulled into a services and changed coaches. We arrived back in London at around 5pm on the Sunday, a good five hours later than planned.

It was, as we joked, a character-building trip and one that always brings a smile of happiness when Andy and I remember it.

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

The trip to the 2021 Super Cup had begun for me with an early alarm at 2am in the small hours of Tuesday, the day before the game. I collected Parky at 4am. By 5am we had arrived at Bristol Airport. It was no surprise that we saw a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces from the West of England on our 7am flight to Belfast International Airport. There were around thirty Chelsea on the flight which lasted less than an hour. Friends Foxy from Dundee and Rich from Edinburgh were waiting for us outside the terminal and we soon hopped into a cab to take us into the city. We were joined by Jason from Newport, who decided to swap his accommodation in favour of the last room that was available at our – cheaper – hotel just south of the city centre.

We set off on a walkabout.

Foxy had visited Belfast on many occasions and so walked and talked us through the city centre. Parky had first visited the city with the British army on two tours in the early ‘seventies. After an Ulster Fry breakfast in the Cathedral Quarter, we decided to head down to Sandy Row, something of a loyalist stronghold, and we dived into a pub called “The Royal” at just after 11am. It was packed, and packed with some very familiar faces. We supped the first beers of the trip and bumped into Daryl and Ed quite by chance. There were nearby murals of George Best, of Hurricane Higgins, of local factory workers, of normal Belfast folk, but also of Joe Bambrick – Linfield and Northern Ireland – who also played for us in the 1930’s. Playing for Linfield, he scored a staggering 286 goals in 183 games. We returned to the city centre for another beer in “Fibber Magees.”

Parky and I then embarked on a pre-paid black cab tour of the city. Our guide – a cabbie called Kieran – was wearing a Leeds United away shirt and was full of smiles when I noticed it.

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

The tour was supposed to last an hour, but it lasted two and a quarter hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The photographs show some of the sights that we visited. It was – of course – rather eerie to find myself walking along the Falls Road and the Shankhill. More learned and erudite students of the history of this particular part of the world are far better placed than myself to comment on Belfast’s sectarian past. Suffice to say, that afternoon will live long in my memory.

I leave this section of my Belfast story to the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns, to sum it all up :

“Well it’s lasted for so long now
And so many have died
It’s such a part of my own life
Yet it leaves me mystified
How a people so intelligent
Friendly, kind and brave
Can throw themselves so willingly
Into an open grave.”

Later that evening, we reassembled in the Cathedral Quarter – the area that we were to grow to love – at around 5pm.

We met Gillian, Kev and Rich in “The Dirty Onion” – hugs. We were all together last in Newcastle in January 2020. It seemed so recent but also a lifetime away. From there, to “The Harp” and from there to “The Duke Of York” where we spotted the first of the yellow-clad supporters of Villareal. Daryl, Gary, Pete and Nick briefly dropped in, but exited after – like us – being rather annoyed with how long it was taking to get served. It was even poorer service in “The Morning Star” – a favourite of many – but as I joked with Rich, it was funny how my spirits had been lifted by just a few swigs of lager. We then stood outside a cracking pub – “Bittles Bar” – which reminded me of The Minerva in Hull, Belfast’s answer to The Flatiron in Manhattan. We then ended up at “Franklins Sports Bar” where the drinking continued long into the night. My pal Stephen – originally from Belfast – but living in New Orleans for twenty years called in with his wife Elicia and her parents.

Then the others drifted off and I was the last man standing.

There was a reunion with a few good friends, some Chelsea songs, some flag-waving.

At about 1am we were turfed out and I managed to find my way back to the hotel.

Outside the hotel, there was more chat with a couple of Chelsea lads and I then stumbled next-door to raid the adjacent chicken joint.

At 2am – awake for twenty-four hours – I called it a night.

Unfortunately, the scene that greeted me on Wednesday morning – game day – was of drizzle in the Belfast streets below my room on the sixth floor. In the distance, pinched between some tall buildings, the slopes of Black Mountain could be seen, but they were shrouded in cloud. Parky and Foxy were up before me, but I eventually met Parky in reception at around 11am. We put on rain jackets and ambled off to pick up our match tickets at the Europa Hotel. As every Chelsea fan in Belfast 2021 now knows, it is the world’s most bombed hotel (43 times according to yer man Kieran).

We inevitably bumped into many Chelsea faces in the fifteen minutes that we were at the Europa. Parky and I then sheltered in a restaurant – another fry up for me – and a lovely pub “The Spaniard” before our get-together in “The Harp” at 2pm.

Peroni, laughs, Peroni, banter, Peroni, chat.

We admitted to each other that we were just so relieved that Villareal had reached the final and not Manchester United. Belfast is a United stronghold. The Manchester club has had a certain affiliation with the Catholic community in the past – though not as strong as Celtic – and so the thought of United and Chelsea with its links to Rangers and, to a lesser degree Linfield, drinking in the same compact city centre drew gasps from us all.

As the afternoon grew older, we looked on as little groups of Villareal fans – their vivid yellow so prominent – stopped for photos beneath the neon signs opposite. It certainly was a photogenic hotspot. We then joked that it was the same fans on some sort of sponsored walk and that when we reached the stadium there would only be fifty inside.

After four hours or so of sublime Chelsea chat, we split up. Sadly, Gillian and Kevin were unlucky to get tickets in the UEFA ballot. Foxy and Rich had been luckier. But so much for heading off to the stadium at 6pm. We eventually left at around 6.30pm. It took us a few nervous minutes to get hold of a cab. But the cabbie was only able to take Rich, Parky and little old me as far as Sandy Row, which looked like a scene from the apocalypse with debris and broken glass littering the street. A good time had certainly been had by all. A police car blocked the road south.

So, out into the now seriously warm evening sun. We embarked on a thirty-minute walk down to Windsor Park which sits a mile or so to the south of the city centre. I enjoyed this. There was a certain old-time feel to it all, walking past decidedly working class terraced houses, the crowd being drawn to the football stadium as in times of yore.

We turned into Donegall Avenue, under a road bridge, a row of police watching us, yet more echoes of a distant past, and then the security checks. Thankfully, no issues with either the COVID19 passport nor my ticket. More familiar faces. Good people. Plenty of old school Chelsea. But then a silly altercation with a fellow fan who was sat in my seat. This all meant that despite waking up at around 10am, and the kick-off some ten hours away, I was only in position for the kick-off at 7.55pm.

Proper Chelsea.

I was behind the eastern goal in row G, but where was Parky? Maybe Chelsea in their infinite wisdom had decided to keep us apart despite me getting our tickets together in the same transaction. Who knows? Answers on a postcard.

Windsor Park holds 18,000 but its limit for this game was 13,000. Chelsea were given 2,000 tickets, Villareal had 1,500. Now I know this club comes from a city with a population of just 50,000 but that split doesn’t seem fair in this day and age. Surely all UEFA Finals should have an even spilt. The side stands – home to the UEFA ballot tickets – were predominantly Chelsea. In the end, it looked like slightly over 1,000 Villareal fans had made the journey. They were residing in half of the western end and in the two tiers of the side stand too. I remember the old Windsor Park. I remember England returning there in 1977 after a spell of Northern Ireland always playing their Home International games away from Belfast during The Troubles. For many years it was a ramshackle stadium, the double tiered north stand being the only modern structure. It has now been totally modernised, with white, blue, light green and dark green seats. It has rather ugly raised executive areas in the main south stand and an even uglier arrangement in – our – eastern end. But it suited UEFA for this game. I remember the Cardiff City stadium hosted Real Madrid and Sevilla in 2014.

So, I predictably missed all of the pre-game pageantry.

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

Villareal’s team included Capoue, ex-Tottenham, and Moreno, ex-Liverpool.

It seemed like every single one of their fans were wearing yellow.

Bless’em.

It is worth noting that in none of the bars and pubs, in none of the conversations among close friends and distant acquaintances did anyone…not one person…mention a “high press.”

So here we all were. The Chelsea away club transplanted to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. A row of Chelsea flags along the unused seats at the front of the east stand. Chelsea flags sporadically placed on balcony walls.

The simple efficiency of one that bore the words “Two Steps Beyond.”

We all knew what it meant.

The game began and Chelsea were immediately on top, and its fans too. The first segment of the game was played out in front of a noisy backdrop and one song dominated.

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth?

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

Chelsea attacked the colourful Villareal fans in the western end. Behind them, the dull outline of the hills that surround Belfast squeezed in between the steel of the stands. A setting sun behind it all.

When the Spanish fans began to familiarise themselves with the sights of Belfast, perhaps they took solace in the bright yellow of the twin cranes of the Harland & Wolf shipyards. Was yellow the key colour of the moment? There was that rather oddly misaligned yellow piping on the Chelsea shirt and then shorts after all.

After five minutes, an in swinging corner from the slight Hakim Ziyech on our right found the predatory Timo Werner on the far post. He connected late, almost between the legs of his marker, and brought a great instinctive save from Asenjo in the Villareal goal. We were finding players in good wide positions and after a sweeping ball in from that man Havertz, the ball was won back by N’Golo Kante, the captain on the night, who thundered the ball wide.

Where was Parky, though? Couldn’t see him anywhere.

We were well on top. Kante was everywhere. Villareal were kept camped inside their half. On twenty-six minutes, after steady Chelsea pressure, the ball was played by Marcos Alonso out to Havertz on the left. His first time cross was hit low towards Werner, but was picked up by Ziyech behind him. He swept the ball fortuitously into the net, bouncing up and in, as if in slow motion.

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

The players celebrated over in the opposite corner with the noise booming around Windsor Park.

Not long after, a rare Villareal break enabled players to find space inside our box but Dia was foiled by Edouard Mendy, who did well to block the effort on goal.

A Ziyech cross from the left found Alonso, but his snap shot was clawed out by Asenjo at the near post. Then a Ziyech free-kick caught Villareal out. It was perfectly played, dropping at the far post but the outstretched leg of Kurt Zouma just sent the ball crashing over the bar.

The goal scorer Ziyech went down after a challenge and was replaced by Christian Pulisic.

Right on the half-time whistle, a very good Villareal move enabled the ball to be hooked back towards the far post where Moreno met the ball with a thunderous volley. We gasped as the ball crashed against the bar, and bounced down a foot or so from the line.

Fackinell.

At the start of the second-half, Havertz went close at our end. But then Mendy slipped as he cleared and the ball fell to Moreno. Mendy thankfully redeemed himself, touching the ball onto the base of the far post. But the warning signs had been sounded and Villareal dominated much of the possession in the second half. The Chelsea fans grew nervy and quieter.

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

Mendy saved at the near post from Estupinan. On seventy-two minutes, the Yellow Submarine cut through our rather static defence and Gerard Moreno slammed the ball in after a nice ball played back to him by Dia. The Villareal players celebrated in the yellow corner.

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

Right in front of me, in the inside left channel, Alonso received a ball, nestled it on his thigh, turned and volleyed. The ball only troubled the side netting. It was the last chance of the ninety minutes.

We moved rather reluctantly into an extra thirty minutes and I suspected that the extra pints that had been gleefully taken throughout the days drinking in the many city centre pubs may have had an adverse effect on the Chelsea support.  

In truth, the extra half an hour provided little thrills. Pulisic stumbled as he prodded a ball towards the Villareal goal and the ball apologetically bounced wide. In the second period, a twist and a shot from Mason Mount inside the box brought another fine save from the Villareal ‘keeper.

Just before the end of the extra thirty minutes, we looked over to the touchline and saw that Kepa was lining up to replace Mendy.

There was a mixed reaction in the Chelsea end. There were moans when we realised that the penalties were to be taken at the Villareal end.

So. The game continued, the night continued. All was dark above Windsor Park now.

All eyes on the penalty takers.

First-up Chelsea. Our support tried to put the fear of God into the Villareal players.

“We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

Havertz. The hero of Porto. The new hero. An easy save. Bollocks.

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

Dave. A big penalty. A sweet strike. Goal.

Mandi. Saved not by Mendy, but by Kepa. Get in you bastard.

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

Jorginho. Lots of nerves from us all. Would he hop and go right? No, a hop and left. Goal. Get in.

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

Albiol. My camera was poised. A strike. The Chelsea players blocked my view. I heard a roar. Saved.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

The players ran towards Kepa in the yellow corner. The submarine was sunk in Titanic’s home city.

I looked for Jonesy, a veteran from Monaco, and we shared a special moment. We had been present at all of the “modern” European Chelsea victories in all those far flung places.

Monaco and Belfast, though; the most unlikely of twinned cities.

There was the usual post-game sequence of the modern age. The rather odd two-stage presentation of the cup. Firstly, the handing over of the cup to Dave and then a walk to the platform to join the waiting team mates.

The hoist, the silver ticker-tape, the screams of delight.

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

Count’em up. Eight. Two of each. I like a bit of symmetry.

It’s lovely that the badge that I grew up with, the lion rampant and the two stars – celebrating 1970 and 1971 – now has an even deeper meaning.

And if the win in Monaco in 1998 was Realy super, the win in Belfast in 2021 was Villarealy super.

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

Outside, I met up with Rich. We waited for Parky to emerge from the crowds but soon gave up. We were to eventually find him tagged on to the end of a queue for hot dogs and hamburgers on the Donegall Road.

We walked back, slowly, to the busy area near our hotel, an area that was known as the Golden Mile in the dark days of the ‘seventies, just beyond the high-security of the city centre. A cheap and cheerful pizza, with Chelsea shouts and songs in the distance, and then bed.

It had been a good night.

On the Thursday, there was a visit to the area near the Titanic Museum, a hop-on and hop-off bus tour of the city and even a quick flit over to East Belfast to cram in another football stadium. The Oval is home to Glentoran, Linfield’s main rivals, nestling underneath Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the nearby dock area. It is so different to Windsor Park, but I loved it.

It was a perfect end to a magnificent three days in Belfast.

We caught the 10pm flight home and I was able to look down on the lights of the city as we soared high above. The memories will stay a long time.

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.