Tales From A Good Excuse

St. Patrick’s Athletic vs. Chelsea : 13 July 2019.

Back in the summer of 2003, just after Roman Abramovich took over the reins at Chelsea Football Club, I really wanted it to be like this.

All those summers ago, it felt rather odd to me – if nobody else – that our club suddenly had huge spending power. To put it bluntly, it didn’t feel quite right. There were noticeable feelings of guilt at the way we splashed cash, at times indiscriminately and without purpose, in those first crazy months. It didn’t seem – to use a much-used phrase in football these days – “proper.” Whereas some supporters loved every minute of every million-pound purchase, I can sincerely remember that I hoped that some of the obscure Russian’s monies would go towards a top level academy where we could grow our own in the footballing equivalent of The Good Life. I distinctly remember an interview with my biggest Chelsea hero of all, Pat Nevin, in which he hoped too that funds would be diverted to some long term vision of the club nurturing its own. It seemed a lone voice at the time. Others saw no harm in flashing cash on anything that moved. But it is what we did in those first few years, and with fearsome results. But now, in the summer of 2019 – some sixteen years later – we are presented with the sudden chance, through an imposed transfer ban, to turn away from purchases and instead look inwards, promoting from our cast of thousands. And here we are with Frank Lampard as manager.

Here we are.

I am sure our path to this point in our history was not planned. But it would be foolish not to embrace the situation that we find ourselves in. Maurizio Sarri’s short, sweet and sour period as Chelsea manager is over. In the circumstances, a transfer ban would probably prove detrimental in luring a top-level coach to our club. Yes, of course Frank Lampard’s arrival as Chelsea manager is probably a few seasons too soon, but in some ways it is the perfect fit.

Frank knows the club. He respects the club. He is adored by all. He will be given time.

It does, to be frank, seem to be all about him at the moment.

As the world knows, there are many aspects of modern football that are gently eroding my love of the game. There are the unstoppable ways that commercialism have taken hold over the past couple of decades, but that is accepted with a long deep sigh these days, as irreversible as ever. Other particular grievances seem to irritate me more and more. Shall I name a few? Kick-off times changing to the detriment of match going fans. Games on Monday nights up North. Matches at 6pm on Sundays. The omnipresent threat of the thirty-ninth game. The perceived notion by many fellow fans that our club have a negligent attitude to match-going fans. The farce of Baku, and the lack of any desire at all by the club to engage with its fans in attempting to help with the costs of match tickets or travel options. The first half in Baku, which was the most surreal atmosphere that I have ever witnessed. The farce of VAR – loathed by many of my friends – and the solemn realisation that we are in for a very tough season ahead as it eats away at our enjoyment of every single goal celebration. More than anything else, VAR could tip me over the edge.

There was a key moment during the summer. I genuinely felt more excited that my local team Frome Town had re-signed two former favourites Matt Smith – a complete midfielder – and Jon Davies – a very skilful forward – than I was when I heard that Petr Cech had resigned with Chelsea. Of course, the Cech return was no surprise. The return of Matty and Jonno were big surprises. I guess everything is relative. But it is worth noting for sure.

So, against all these horrible negatives, I regard the arrival of Frank Lampard as Chelsea manager as my one beacon hope.

Only you can save me, Frank.

No pressure.

There will be talk of Frank Lampard aplenty in these match reports over the next few months. But I will say one thing now. I was bowled over by his first press-conference as manager. He simply looked the part. He looked in control, he spoke intelligently and with purpose, emphasising all of the things that I hoped he would. He down-played the emotion of the return, and that was a masterstroke. He just impressed me so much. It reminded me of the times when Jose Mourinho spoke in that first season with us, before he disappeared into a bizarre vortex of torment.

I hung on every word.

It was just magical – a real thrill – to see him as our manager.

I shouldn’t get warm and fuzzy about such things. I have just turned fifty-four for fuck sake. But I felt a very real connection with the club once more.

Bravo, Frank, bravo.

The announcement of our two games in Dublin a few weeks ago proved difficult for me to resist. There was no way that I could afford to take three days away from work to see both, so I plumped for the Saturday game against St. Patrick’s Athletic instead of the Bohemians game on the Wednesday. I soon bought plane tickets – reasonable – and a night in a hotel – not so reasonable. For only the third time in my life – apart from layovers en route to the US in 2015 and 2016 – I was heading off to the Republic of Ireland.

And it would be my first ever Chelsea game on the Emerald Isle to boot.

I couldn’t wait.

I was up early – 4.30am – on the day of the game. I soon made my way over to Bristol Airport and the 8am Ryanair flight to Dublin left on time. In order to recoup some of the extra money that I was forced to pay the airline for my carry-on bag, I warned the air hostess and nearby passengers that I would be charging for small talk.

With time the essence – I would only be in Dublin for thirty hours all told – I caught a cab into the city. I chatted away to the cab driver and told him that the 2pm kick-off time was odd, and might throw out my pre-match pub-crawl timings. We can’t even seem to hit a three o’clock kick-off time for a friendly these days, damn it. But the cabbie suggested that the Dublin vs. Cork Gaelic football game at Croke Park at 7pm might have forced the early start for our game.

…mmm, now I was tempted. This game was only thirty-five minutes each way. I could easily zip over to Dublin’s north side for the evening game at Croke Park, but in doing so, would miss some long-anticipated Dublin nightlife. I had some decisions to make. I expected that the lure of a Dublin evening session would outweigh the second sporting fixture of the day.

I spoke to the cabbie of my two previous visits to Dublin in 1991 and in 1995, both for stag weekends for college friends Pete and Jim. Both visits had a slight sporting nature. In 1991, four of us decided to combat our hangovers on the Sunday afternoon with a visit to Dublin’s famous old footballing stadium Dalymount Park where St. Pat’s were to meet visiting Swedish team Malmo in a friendly. We stood on a sizeable side terrace and watched as the two teams huffed and puffed to a 1-1 draw. It was a horrific game of football. I wondered about my sanity at the end of it. My non-Chelsea photographs on this website are very rare, but here are four from that day to illustrate this piece. It appeared from the match footage from the Bohemians game on the previous Wednesday that much of Dalymount Park has stagnated since 1991. It is hard to fathom how it once held almost fifty-thousand.

In 1995, staying in a guest house in Drumcondra, two of us walked the ten minutes to Croke Park and took in an official tour. At that time, the first of the three huge stands had just been built. It was a snapshot in time; the lovely old wooden main stand, the towering new three-tiered stand opposite, the historic Hill 16 to the left, the Canal End to the right. Having heard the tour guide talk of Croke Park’s history, I never ever thought that it would one day host the English sport of association football.

My journey into Dublin continued. The steel of Croke Park was spotted just a few hundred yards to my left. We crossed the River Liffey. The cabbie spoke how it is often the case these days how people use the appearance of their favourite bands in far off and exotic places as an excuse – his word, not mine, but I soon agreed – to visit cities that they would never usually reach. That very weekend, the star of the 1991 weekend Pete was visiting the Italian city of Lucca to see New Order, with his wife Maxine. Last summer, they visited Turin to see New Order. On the Thursday after the Chelsea game in Dublin, I would be seeing New Order in Bristol with Pete and Max.

And indeed, this Chelsea game in Inchicore against St. Pat’s was a bloody good excuse to visit Dublin once more.

My last visit was twenty-four years ago, but as we drove south it felt like only five minutes had passed. Those feelings that I had for Dublin then – uniquely so similar but so vastly different to the UK – were being rekindled. We looked on at the riverside developments, where many trailers office furniture that I help plan have ended up over the years. Dublin, after a lull in 2008, is again a thriving city.

I dropped my bag off at the hotel.

At 10.10am – just an hour and fifteen minutes after touching down at Dublin International Airport – I was ordering a full Irish Breakfast at a bar on nearby Baggot Street Upper.

I thought about the past four seasons.

In 2015, it was at Bello’s Pub and Grill in Newark, New Jersey, with a smattering of Chelsea friends from the US.

In 2016, it was in a smoky Viennese bar, just myself and some locals.

In 2017, it was in the bar of the Capital Hotel in Beijing with Glenn and Cathy.

In 2018, it was at a pop-up bar overlooking Sydney Harbour with Glenn, newly arrived that day.

And now in 2019, my first pint – typically a Peroni – of Chelsea’s season was at “Searson’s” in Dublin.

I toasted us all.

“Cheers.”

The breakfast hit the spot and set me up nicely. It is worth noting, I think, that in the subsequent Facebook album of 116 photographs from this trip to Dublin, no photograph received more likes than the one of my Full Irish. You lot are easily bloody pleased, aren’t you?

Outside, there were clouds, but the sun was bursting to shine through. I knew that my whistle-stop visit to Dublin would simply be too short to see much sightseeing, and so I chose the line of least resistance. From 10am to 2pm, I would meander through Dublin’s city centre and stop off at a few choice pubs. For those who know this Chelsea blog, in fact at times it is a travelogue, this will come as no surprise.

I do love a good pub crawl.

I had visited the General Post Office on O’Connell Street and I had seen Trinity College in 1991. I had seen the Molly Malone statue and I had spent time close to the River Liffey in 1991. I had visited Dalymount Park in 1991. I had visited Croke Park in 1995. I had walked through the city centre around Grafton Street in 1995. In 2019, it would all be about the pubs of Dublin, with a little football thrown in for good measure.

“Any excuse.”

From “Searson’s” – a large and welcoming sports bar in the mould of so many in the US – I turned north. Without realising it, I walked right past a Bank of Ireland building on Baggot Plaza where some of our office furniture is still waiting to make its arrival – “delays at site” a typical operational problem – and then over the Grand Canal. Passing the grandness of the wide Georgian splendour of Fitzwilliam Street Upper to my left, I by-passed a few bars (although, if I am truthful, I wanted to find repose in every single one of them), I enjoyed a second pint of lager in the historic “O’Donoghue’s” on Baggot Street Lower. This was a small, dark bar, heavy on atmosphere, and an obvious hotspot for US tourists if all the dollar bills pinned everywhere were anything to go by. This is where The Dubliners were formed. I am not sure if I was being paranoid, but as soon as I ordered my pint, “The Fields of Athenry” was played on the juke box, a song heavily-linked to the national team, to Celtic, Irish nationalism and now to Liverpool too. I had a wry smirk to myself.

Time was moving on. I passed St. Stephen’s Green, and folk meeting for a morning coffee. In 1995, I remembered that Dublin was overflowing with coffee houses. There seemed to be a “Bewley’s” on every street. The rotunda at St. Stephen’s Green shopping centre reminded me so much of the entrance to Ebbets Field, the old home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I turned into Grafton Street, located the Phil Lynott statue on Harry Street – and immediately started humming “there’s whisky in the jar-o” to myself – before disappearing into “McDaids”. This pub was our base camp in 1991 and I raised a pint of Guinness to Max and Pete. This was another splendid pub. Memories flew through my mind. In truth, in 1991 I was in a far from happy place. I was on the dole, eking by, not going to many Chelsea games, at a low ebb. Soon though, I would pass my driving test, get a car, a job, and some semblance of order would return to my life. I raised the pint to myself this time.

A lad that I first met out in Baku – “M” – texted me to see where I was. I replied that I was on my way to “Grogan’s” and I would soon see him there. This was good fortune, because this pub was on his list too. At around midday, I spotted him outside and we trotted over the road into the fourth pub of the morning. A good mate Kev, who lived in Dublin, not far from St. Pat’s Richmond Park stadium in Inchicore in 1999, had heavily recommended this central pub. It was another beauty. Scandinavian style wooden panels, artwork on the walls, a fridge full of ham and cheese toasties. And another sublime pint of Guinness. “M” is originally from Thailand, and now lives in England. He goes to games with a couple of mutual friends. It was good to chat with a fellow Chelsea fan, and we rambled away about Baku, about the pre-season, about the immediate future.

We caught a cab over to Inchicore at about 12.45pm.

In “McDowell’s Pub” right outside the ground, there were a few familiar Chelsea faces. There was time for one last pint of Guinness before the game and a photo with Cathy, Dog, Nick, James, M and Dave and the famous “Rising Sun” flag. In the beer garden, if you peeked over the wall, the stadium could be seen below. It was all very cramped, the feel of a lower league ground in England. It looked lovely.

It was time to walk around the corner and go to the game. I had purchased a general admission ticket since the blurb on the CFC website mentioned that there was no allocation. Imagine my surprise when I heard of a Chelsea area (rather than an allocation, I guess) behind the far goal. The game kicked-off just before I was able to take position along the side terrace opposite the main stand. The TV cameras were just a few yards above my head. It felt excellent to be able to stand on a genuine terrace at a Chelsea game for the first time in years.

Just as it should be.

There was a mix of supporters all around the stadium. I’d edge the number of supporters in Chelsea’s favour. And I did notice one thing; there were no other team shirts present. Just of the two teams. That felt right. There were Irish Chelsea fans crowded in around me on that thin terrace. There wasn’t much banter, nor noisy support from any section throughout the game, and the Chelsea section to my left never really pulled off many noisy songs.

But it was a very pleasant experience.

I checked our team.

Caballero

Zappacosta – Tomori – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mount – Kovacic

Barkley

Abraham – Batshuayi

It took me a while to get used to seeing two up front.

Chelsea absolutely dominated the first-period and if it was not for some heroic saves from the St. Pat’s ‘keeper Barry Murphy, we would have been well clear at the break. Obviously it was lovely to see Mason Mount – not an inch of fat on his body – for the first time in Chelsea colours, albeit in the horrendous new kit. I was so close to Davide Zappocosta at times that it felt like I could reach out and tell him how much he still reminds me of Grouch Marx. He is certainly not the most gifted nor admired of players, but Zappa was up and down that right wing as if his life depended on it.

Michy was the first to impress in front of goal, soon forcing a low save from Murphy. Soon after, a thunderous shot from our Belgian striker from outside the box smashed against the home crossbar. On a quarter of an hour, a lovely incisive pass from Mateo Kovacic found the run of Mount and the young midfielder did his best Lampardesque impersonation to flick it past Murphy. We continued to attack and the home team offered little resistance. Shots increased on the goal to my right. Ross Barkley smacked a fine shot against a post with Murphy beaten. On the half-hour mark, Emerson found a little space outside the box and, optimistically, left fly with a low shot. It surprised me that it nestled inside the far corner, and I suspect that the ‘keeper may have been unsighted.

The Chelsea section serenaded “Super Frank” and he waved back. He was the study of concentration all game long.

With us winning 2-0, I was sorely tempted to enquire of the home supporters “are you Arsenal in disguise?” but felt better of it. Their exact copy of the Arsenal kit gave the game an even more surreal feel. There were “oohs and ahs” around me when David Luiz tackled, lifted the ball up over his head, juggled it once then laid it off to a team mate.

It was again the turn of Murphy to take over centre-stage when he made a series of fine saves, including a high leap to deny Michy once more, and another from a Barkley free-kick.

The sun was beating down now and my forehead was starting to tingle.

At the break, Frank and the management team came onto the pitch and watched as some players – those who were down to take part in the second period – went through some drills. As with the game on Wednesday, there were wholesale changes before the game restarted. We lined up as follows.

Cumming.

Alonso – Zouma – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Bakayoko – Gilmour

Kenedy – Palmer – Pedro

Giroud

The second-half was more subdued. With the sun still beating down on me, I was beginning to rue not bringing a baseball cap along. It was great to see Billy Gilmour. What with Happy Gilmour and Happy Zouma on the pitch, it was perhaps time for the Chuckle Brothers to move aside. I was surprised how deep Gilmour often played, but he kept possession well and had a couple of neat runs. The pace of the game dipped, but at times our fitness levels put the home team to shame. There were occasional breaks, and a few shots on goal although that man Murphy was again the star. Pedro looked neat and precise. I thought we might never see Kenedy again at Chelsea, but what with the appearance of Lucas Piazon on Wednesday (Piazon has almost been on as many pre-season tours as me) I guess anything is possible. It was Kenedy’s precise cross out on the left that found a blatantly unmarked Olivier Giroud, who calmly volleyed home to make it 3-0.

Excellent.

It was still a scorcher.

I turned to the bloke behind me and said “who thought I’d come to Dublin for a sun tan?”

The home team made plenty of substitutes as the game wore on. Eric Molloy, who had scored a fine equaliser against us for Bohs on Wednesday, showed up in this game too, a second-half substitute. There was a “wag” standing alongside some fellow St. Pat’s supporters in the front row just down from me. A large man, and full of banter, he played up to his audience. When a rough tackle was carried out by Kurt Zouma, he pleaded “leave him alone, he’s only fourteen” which brought a few smiles, alluding to young Evan Ferguson who played so well against us on Wednesday.

In the closing moments, Giroud chased down a pass, and set off towards goal from a central position. He was forced wide, but aimed at goal from the corner of the box. It was a laser, and crept into the net past the despairing dive of Murphy and into the bottom corner.

St. Patrick’s Athletic 0 Chelsea 4.

Franktastic.

At the end of the game, the crowd cheered our new manager as he walked towards the centre of the pitch and applauded all four sides. It did feel that the whole game, the whole day, was about him. It is understandable, but I am sure that he would agree that it is now all about the players.

Outside, I was so glad to bump into brothers Tim and Declan, who I often see on my travels at Chelsea games. This was their home city. I would have felt bad not seeing them. I met up by chance with M and we agreed to share another cab back to the city. Cabs were a rare commodity, though, and the sun was still beating down. We spotted a pub – Pub Number Six – and popped inside the cool interior for another Guinness apiece. It took a while, but M spotted the “Rising Sun” flag out in the patio area.

Out we went, joining Nick and James, plus two German lads. Both were Chelsea, but one was Chemie Halle and one was TSV1860. The chat continued on. It was pleasing to meet the 1860 supporter since he soon confirmed that he was one of the 1860 fans who followed us around Europe in our 1994/95 ECWC campaign.

Respect.

So, there was no Croke Park visit on that Saturday night. However, I did watch twenty minutes of second-half action in the hotel bar at around 8pm. There was a sparse crowd present. I think that I had made the correct choice. Later, at various locations in the city centre, I would frequent Pub Seven, Pub Eight and Pub Nine. Dublin had done me proud. It really was a friendly city for this friendly game.

I have a feeling that Reading, the venue for my next match, will not be so perfect.

I’ll see you there.

 

Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

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

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

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

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

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

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

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

“When are you coming back?”

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

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

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

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

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

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

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

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

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

We were here.

Panic over.

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

But we were never lost.

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

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From Two Hours And Penalties

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt : 9 May 2019.

A Gamble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I liked what I saw.

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

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

He gave me the Friday off.

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

It was going to be “Baku or Bust.”

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

Game Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1995 and 1998.

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

But 1998 felt different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Goodbye.

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

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

Ugh.

I thought about the game against Frankfurt not once.

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

Another European Semi-Final.

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

1995 – Real Zaragoza, lost.

1998 – Vicenza, won.

2004 – Monaco, lost.

2005 – Liverpool, lost.

2007 – Liverpool, lost.

2008 – Liverpool, won.

2009 – Barcelona, lost.

2012 – Barcelona, won.

2013 – Basel, won.

2014 – Atletico Madrid, lost

Our Opponents.

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

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

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

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

3,965 Kilometres.

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

What patronising bullshit.

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

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

The Team.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – David Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mateo Kovacic – Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

Pre-Match.

PD was inside with Al when I reached my seat.

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

I soon spotted Parky. He was in.

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

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

0-45.

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

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

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

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

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

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

YEEEEESSSSSSSS.

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

Chris : “COME ON MY LITTLE SPARKLEGRUBERS.”

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

Thoughts of Baku.

46-90.

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

A song much loved by lower league teams.

Not us.

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

I blame #ctid.

And my trip to Baku was now looking problematic.

For fuck sake.

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

“That’s a tickle. Not a tackle.”

The nerves increased fifty-fold.

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

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

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

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

Giroud turned to the Matthew Harding to rally the supporters.

This was arse about face.

We should have been rallying the players.

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

Five minutes of extra-time were signalled.

Nerves.

We held on.

Phew.

I chatted to a few neighbours.

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

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

“Heroes” by David Bowie.

91-105.

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

We were hanging on grimly.

And my nerves were fraying by the minute.

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

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea is our name.”

105-120.

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

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

Penalties.

This was tense as it could ever be.

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

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

The penalties were to take place at The Shed.

I set my camera.

“No shaking, Chris.”

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

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

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

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

Hell, Cesar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh now we fucking roared alright.

“COME ON.”

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

The whole stadium on edge now.

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

We roared once again.

Advantage Chelsea.

Drogba in Munich.

Memories.

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

We waited.

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

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

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

I was fucking euphoric.

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

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

My eyes were a little moist.

Chelsea Football Club. I fucking love you.

Tales From Easter Monday

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 22 April 2019.

Sunday, Thursday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday and Easter Bank Holiday Monday. The stretch of non-Saturday games was continuing. After our home game with Burnley, there were at least another five coming up too. Should we get to Baku, it will be a run of twenty-four matches with no Saturday football. It seemed particularly annoying that all other Premier League games were played on Saturday and Sunday. And that our match took place on the Monday evening, with a day of work right on its heels. There was not even the luxury of a three o’clock kick-off.

It was Glenn’s turn to drive and we were on our way at 10am. The reason for the very early start? Well, no surprises, there was a Fulham pub crawl planned. We were slightly surprised by the volume of traffic on the M4, boosted by folk returning to London from the fields and beaches of the West Country. But London was reached in the usual three hours. All four of us have developed an unhealthy interest in the construction of the new Brentford stadium over the past twelve months. As we drove past, high up on the elevated section of the M4, we looked over to check any recent changes. It’s going to be a compact little stadium, each stand different, and a good addition to London football.

We were parked-up near West Kensington. The heat hit us. It was setting up to be a beautiful day in London. The first problem was side-stepped; the District Line was closed over the weekend so we hopped into a cab to take us down to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. This cosy boozer wins our “Pub Of The Year” by some margin. As we pulled up, we spotted Luke and Aroha sitting outside.

“Save us a seat, we’ll be back in a bit.”

Inside, the Jacksonville Five were boosted by an extra member, Steve. And thus the drinking party was set.

Aroha, Luke, Jennifer, Brian, Danny One, Danny Two, Danielle, Steve, Parky, PD, Glenn and some bloke with a camera and a mental notebook.

The Thirsty Dozen.

We quickly came up with a game plan; a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham, and then a few cabs up to “Simmons” at the southern tip of the North End Road to meet the usual suspects.

The story of the weekend was of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United all losing. Tottenham’s 1-0 loss at Manchester City worked well both ways; a win for City in their race for the title and no points for Tottenham. It was, perhaps, expected. The other two results – proper miracles on Easter Day – were not anticipated; Everton beat United 4-0 and Palace won 3-2 against Arsenal in North London. A win against Burnley in the evening, after a lovely pub crawl, would be the perfect end to the footballing weekend.

We live in a place called Hope.

The game would be Chelsea match number one thousand, two-hundred and fifty for the bloke with a camera and a mental notebook. From Saturday 16 March 1974 to Monday 22 April 2019, I have made a record of all of them.

Some milestones –

Game 1 : 16 March 1974 – Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

Game 250 : 7 September 1996 – Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday

Game 500 : 8 August 2004 – Chelsea vs. Real Zaragoza

Game 750 : 15 September 2009 – Chelsea vs. Porto

Game 1,000 : 14 August 2014 – Burnley vs. Chelsea

Game 1,250 : 22 April 2019 – Chelsea vs. Burnley

I could suck out all sorts of data and statistics from all of these games, but a particular favourite of mine is that by the end of my fifteenth season of support (Game 117 : 28 May 1988 – Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough) the player that I had seen more than any other was Pat Nevin, my favourite-ever Chelsea player. And that date, that horrible game, marked Pat’s last-ever appearance for Chelsea Football Club.

81 starts, all wearing that number seven shirt, plus two substitute appearances.

83 out of 117 games.

In the summer of that horrible summer of 1988, I wrote to Pat – thanking him for his services – and I was so elated when he took the time to write back to me.

Meeting him in Moscow in 2008, another horrible game, was magical.

Cheers Wee Pat.

In fact, I found myself checking out some Pat Nevin rarities over the previous week or so.

Here’s a few gems :

1987 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIy7K2xMHjI&fbclid=IwAR1LAcchmu8Ub96RZbuLXM6Wy7Jk8aPDF9C43TfqMQG-JL7dA85c3sfhLJk

1989 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFChBeYhoso&fbclid=IwAR3t__j_DjNmhzVWh00Z5YCDAk6s1P-3jhQ1QILxD1rfCE5sUCMtviVWGOk

2015 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAETjZMOSq0&fbclid=IwAR3g_pr6NMuD9CS5eu9mq2F8ct7LGo363hWXVEVdv3QGq77oMP1-J7CkyS8

Having spent a good deal of time with Aroha and Luke in Kiev, European adventures were not far away from our minds. We spoke, inevitably of Frankfurt and Baku. Over the weekend, Parky and PD finalised their plans for Frankfurt. On many occasions, friends have often said to me that they live vicariously through these match reports, but in a couple of weeks’ time I will be living vicariously through Parky and PD.

Our American visitors were thoroughly enjoying their stay in London. Banter was soon flying around. It’s great to hear and see some fresh perspectives about Chelsea Football Club. There was even time for a very quick chat with Jennifer and Brian about our predilection for some staples of terrace fashion – a crash course in casualdom – rather than Chelsea favours.

We moved on to “The King’s Arms” – just around the corner – and I changed from pints of “Grolsch” to bottles of “Peroni.” Glenn, bless him, was imbibing a heady mix of coffees, orange juices and “Cokes.” Both pubs were pretty quiet to be honest. We ended up over the road in “The Temperance”, a roomy bar which used to be a billiards hall in days long ago. Time was moving on. We then jumped into some sherbet dabs – a little bit of rhyming slang for you, Danny One – and ended-up at “Simmons.”

There was talk of foreign travel further afield this time. Andy and Gary collared me and asked if I was planning on going to Japan in the summer. The quick answer was “no” although once I realised that we are now playing two games in Japan – in Tokyo and Saitama – I did momentarily look at options. But no, Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was exceptional. That visit could never be beaten. Talk moved to the following season. Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck has recently dropped some heavy hints that we would be returning to the US in 2020.

Andy, who is a big Elvis fan, told me “if we are going, we are going with you Chris. You can be our travel agent. I want us to play in Memphis.”

“Uh-huh.”

In the first pub, Jennifer had asked me which city in the US would I like to see us play.

“New Orleans would be good.”

If Chelsea Football Club do return to the US for a fully-fledged US tour (I am not going to the game in Boston next month), it would be my twentieth trip across the pond.

Number 20 in 2020.

That has a nice ring to it, eh?

On the façade of the West Stand, there were large displays of a few of our players advertising Beats headphones. With his musical background, Wee Pat should have been involved alongside Rudi, Eden and Ross. His musical column in the 2018/19 match day programme mirrors that of his column in the inaugural “Bridge News” of the mid-‘eighties.

Inside, there were more empty seats dotted around than usual.

Burnley, essentially needing a point for guaranteed safety, were to be watched by around 1,500.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

I honestly think that Sarri regards Higuain and Giroud in the same way that Ron Greenwood regarded Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence in the late ‘seventies. In one game, out the next.

It was a warm and sultry evening in SW6.

And a quintessential game of two halves for sure.

There was early pressure from us, with our wide men getting behind their defenders in wide positions in front of the Burnley contingent on the left and Parkyville – where the Jax 6 were watching – on the right. There was a rifled shot from Eden Hazard straight at Tom Heaton, then a lob from Gonzalo Higuain that was hoofed off the line.

However, on eight minutes we conceded a corner and the long ball to the far post was headed back into a dangerous area by Dave. It fell invitingly towards a spare Burnley man. Jeff Hendrick volleyed it straight through a scrum of players and Kepa was well beaten. Well, Chelsea – that was bloody marvellous.

Four minutes later, some textbook jinking from Hazard, with one defender on his arse, resulted in a pull-back from the bye-line towards N’Golo Kante. His sweet strike, high into the net, meant that we were right back in the game.

And then two minutes after, some equally pleasing passing inside their box involving Jorginho, Higuain and Azpiliceta – a subtle flick – resulted in Higuain lashing the ball high past the Burnley ‘keeper and into the net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

While I was up celebrating, I just happened to glance behind me and I couldn’t help but spot around five or six fellow season ticket holders sitting, hardly clapping, nor moving.

“Oh right.”

But how the players celebrated. They raced over to the south-west corner. The flags waved. The crowd roared. Lovely.

This was an open game of football. But my camera was working faster than my mental notebook, dulled by the alcoholic intake of the previous six hours. Our Ruben fancied his chances with a curler from just outside the box but it didn’t have quite enough dip. Sadly, on twenty-five minutes, a free-kick to Burnley was lumped towards our back post again. My camera caught the flight of the ball, the header back from Ben Mee – a free header, Ruben was all over the place – and the flick-on from Chris Wood. Ashley Barnes volleyed the ball in from close range with our defence ball watching. Not one defender had picked-up Barnes, zonal defending my arse. There was – of course – not one player on the back post. My next photo was of the Burnley players celebrating in a close huddle.

Bollocks.

I thought Italian managers were known for their defensive nous.

It was 2-2 and the mood changed a little. But we kept going. There were long shots. Hazard blasted over from an angle. Higuain was narrowly wide. Emerson and Hudson-Odoi were getting space out on our flanks. Sadly, our Callum was injured just before half-time. Pedro replaced him. He forced a save from Heaton, who had just been booked for time-wasting. Thankfully, Burnley had very few forays into our half.

It was level at the break. It had been, at the start especially, a pretty good performance. But it was all about three points. And I was far from convinced. How “typical Chelsea” for us to balls it all up.

As the second-half began, we saw that Mateo Kovacic had replaced Kante. Our spirits fell a little.

Pedro fed Higuain who forced Heaton to get down quickly. Soon after, Hazard dribbled and set up Kovacic. Here was another shot that worried the spectators behind the goal rather than the Burnley goalkeeper. On the hour, a rasper from Emerson flashed wide of the far post. But our attacking play lacked much cohesiveness. The crowd grew frustrated with our play and also with the deliberate time-wasting and “agricultural” challenges from the away team. All eyes were on Hazard, but his path was often unscrupulously blocked. Space was a premium. As so often happens this season, our opponents were so happy to sit deep and for us to pass ourselves to oblivion. I am not sure about a heat map, but Jorginho was so often involved in the middle of the park that his position was like those tube maps with a “you are here” sign which has been worn out by thousands of grubby fingers. The problem was that there were line closures in all directions, not just the District Line.

“You are advised to seek an alternative route”

But no route was forthcoming. And all the ubers were otherwise engaged.

Burnley’s attacks were still rare. Our attacks dried up too. Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain. Big surprise, eh?

Frustrations grew and grew, it became an ill-tempered game of football. It was hard to believe that Heaton was Burnley’s sole booking. We heard that the manager had been sent to the stands. On the walk back to the car, I tried to be as philosophical as I could.

“Hey, three games left. We’re still in it.”

Our next game, on Sunday afternoon, is at Old Trafford where we play the second-best team in Manchester.

I will see you there.

Tales From The Jacksonville Five

Chelsea vs. Slavia Prague : 18 April 2019.

There was a flurry of annoying late emails at work but, at just after 3pm, I left the office. I exhaled deeply. A four-day break was just starting and what better way for it all to begin than with a Chelsea game? I drove over to meet up with PD and Parky in the car park opposite work. We now try to avoid the usual delays on the M4 on these midweek bursts to London and, instead, head south-east towards Stonehenge and then in to London on the A303, M3 and the A316. PD made good time and we were parked up at about 5.30pm.

This was my fiftieth game of the season. Should we reach Baku, the season will top out at fifty-six, a total only bettered in the two other recent “European Final” seasons of 2011/12 and 2012/13. To confirm, I will not be able to attend the Europa League semi-final, but I am free for the final – should we make it – in Baku. I owe my manager – “United” – a big favour for that. Phew.

The Goose seemed quite quiet.

There was time for a single pint of “Peroni” and more time to relax. Although there were signs on the windows of the pub of “Home Fans Only”, a lone Slavia sticker had been planted to the wall inside the gents’ toilets. Something about “Slavia Destiny” was written with the cartooned shapes of ultras. Standard fare I guess.

We stood in the beer garden and spoke with a few friends and European travel was the obvious topic.

Rob : “I love the buzz of these trips, getting good flights, good deals. I often enjoy it more than the games these days.”

Parky : “We have our hearts set on Lisbon via Bristol.”

Kev : “Baku will be a nightmare if Arsenal get there too. You’re talking a grand.”

Brian : “I’d expect the club to run some trips. And there will be agencies chartering flights. But remember the Scousers were moaning about £900 trips to Kiev last time. And that was just to Kiev. Baku is almost twice as far.”

Chris : “Imagine going all that way and seeing those bloody Gooners over there. All those replica shirts and hipster beards. Nightmare. I hope Napoli stuff them. King Carlo in the final. Lovely.”

Brian : “And the Super Cup is in Istanbul. On a Wednesday.”

Chris : “Istanbul? Bollocks. Nice and easy for all of us then. Wankers. What was wrong with a Friday night? Nice flight in on the day of the game, back on the weekend. Just one day off work. But a Wednesday is at least two days off work. Fucking hell. UEFA. They just don’t care.”

There was little chat about the evening game. Glenn and I had watched the tedious – and ultimately very lucky – game from Prague at a pub in Frome the previous Thursday. It was grim stuff. But as I walked down the North End Road, I mentioned the away goal and we expected an easy passage into the semi-finals.

In “Simmons”, the usual suspects were gathered together, but I spent most of the time with a gaggle of five Chelsea supporters from Jacksonville – America’s most populous “unknown” city – in Northern Florida. I had met Jennifer and Brian in Charlotte in 2015, and again on their first-ever visit to Chelsea last season for the West Ham United game.

“How can that be over a year ago? Seems like last month.”

I asked the three stock questions – “let’s get these out of the way, then we can relax”- to Jennifer and Brian.

When did you get in?

“This morning.”

Are you jet-lagged?

“No. Red Bull.”

Where are your tickets?

“Shed Upper.”

Jennifer and Brian were with three other Chelsea fans from Jacksonville – “the first coast” – and I immediately forgot all their names. Let’s call them Danny, Danny and Danielle. I chatted with Danny One how my first night in Florida in September 1989 was spent in a tent on the side of a road in Jacksonville (Heckscher Drive – he knew it well) outside a fish bait store. My mate and I had simply run out of steam after a lengthy cycle ride from our previous night in Georgia. We needed somewhere to flop. Not for us the glitzy hotels of Walt Disney World or the comfortable motels in Orlando and Kissimmee.

Our first night in Florida? A tent by the side of the road. No food and drink close by. We were bitten by mosquitoes that night. Living the dream, eh?

I spoke with Danny Two and how he was originally from Bosnia, and how he got into watching us on TV in the US in around 2003. I am always intrigued how foreign fans find us. I am glad that it wasn’t through FIFA. It helped that his is team back home – Zeljeznicar – played in blue too. These three visitors from the Sunshine State were having a blast. Their enthusiasm was priceless. This would be their first game at Stamford Bridge. Their first-ever Chelsea game ever, I think.

They were having a lovely time.

And then they met Parky.

We knocked back a few bottles of “Staropramen” – how apt on this night – but it was, alas, soon time to move on.

I took a few photographs outside the West Stand. I noted that there was signage for something called “The Europa Lounge” at the main entrance to the West Stand. A few “welcoming” personnel in Chelsea blazers and a couple of rather ridiculous roped “VIP” barriers gave the area much more importance than it really warranted. But we all know the score. The Europa League isn’t the Champions League no matter how anyone butters it up. This was an ersatz version of the real deal. I had visions of the guests drinking the 2019 equivalents of Kestrel Lager, White Lightning and Panda Pops.

Inside the stadium, the away fans were virtually all in. Slavia are one of the great old names of European football. I remember talking to a work colleague in Prague over a decade ago who was an avid Slavia fan. He always told me that they were the older, established club of his home city and he hated Sparta who were the newly-moneyed upstarts.

It was a warm evening in London. A little muggy. My camera tried to take photographs of the Jacksonville Five – and the Slavia crowd – in the distant Shed but everything was a little misty, grey, the details blurred. I couldn’t spot them.

Andreas Christensen was in for the injured Rudiger. Eden Hazard was starting. N’Golo Kante was in, Jorginho was out. Olivier Giroud was up front.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Kovacic

Barkley – Kante

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

A full moon rose over the Shed as the teams entered the pitch. Another – almost – full house was in attendance. These £30 tickets for Thursday nights are perfectly pitched. The bright blush of red on the Slavia tracksuit tops stood out. Their kit was an odd one. A Feyenoord-style shirt, red and white halves, with white shorts. Crisp so far. But with insipid light blue socks, which they also wore in the home leg.

We were quick out of the traps and other clichés.

On just five minutes, we watched a lovely move unfold. We kept possession well. Pedro was heavily involved and sprinted in from the right to play a perfect “one-two” with Olivier Giroud. Pedro’s dink over the Slavia ‘keeper Kolar was excellent and we were 1-0 up on the night.

A mazy run from Hazard – a photograph I took ended up being titled “The Hunted” on Facebook – ended up with a block.

Just four minutes after the first goal, we watched a really lovely move down our left with Hazard pushing the ball on to Giroud, who held the ball well before feeding the run of Hazard. The cross across the box was aimed at that man Pedro. From our vantage point over one hundred yards away, it looked like his second goal and he reeled away in delight. It was, in fact, an own goal, but we did not care one iota.

We were 2-0 up on the night.

The away fans, a mob of red and white, were quiet. Alan had told me that their ultras were banned from the home leg which is why those two large, and lovely, banners of two former players took up so much space in their home end in Prague. Tonight, there were a few sings and banners, and most were for their ultras.

On seventeen minutes, a beautiful pass into space from Kante found – guess who? – Pedro who selflessly knocked the ball square to an unmarked Giroud who calmly tapped home.

Chelsea 3 Slavia 0.

Four up on aggregate. This was too easy.

With Frankfurt and Benfica at 0-0, this was looking good for PD and Parky, who were relishing the thought of a few days in the Portuguese capital. With the game surely in the bag, I eased off. I let my mind wander a little. Eventually, I was able to spot Jennifer, Brian and the three Dannys in The Shed.

And then Slavia got into the game a little. Kepa kept out a header in a rather unorthodox fashion, the ball fortuitously hitting him on the knee. From the resulting corner, the ball was drilled into an open area and Soucek – completely unmarked, Anfield, cough, cough – headed it firmly in.

“You scored one? We’ll do the same.”

Barely a minute later, Hazard broke down the left and played the ball out to the overlapping Emerson. His low cross, right on the money, was pushed goal wards by Giroud. The ‘keeper fumbled the ball out and Pedro was on hand to slam it in. Pedro was having quite a game. He was involved in all four of our goals. I took a photo of the Floridian visitors celebrating in The Shed. My job was done.

Over in Frankfurt, we heard that the hosts had scored against Benfica.

In Naples, Arsenal were 1-0 on the night.

Bollocks.

The rest of the first-half came and went. At half-time, all was well. The only annoyance was the away fans, who had found their voices, and were singing their sodding version of “Allez, Allez, Allez” ad infinitum. It obviously reminded me of the noise at Anfield and I moaned to JD about it.

“Anfield has been erased from my memory. Thanks for bringing it up.”

Talk moved to The Europa Final and the thought of us having to share a beautiful European city with twenty thousand Arsenal fans.

I said “Moscow was bad enough with United.”

JD : “That has been erased too.”

I replied “OK. Got it. I’d best fuck off right now.”

The game restarted. If I had tended to drift off at times in the first-half, it was the turn of the players to do the same in the second-half. What a bloody mess. On fifty-one minutes, I captured the shot – from just outside the box – from Sevcik that, somehow, maybe it swerved, ended up beating Kepa at the near post. His view, admittedly was blocked by both Kovacic and the Luiz lookalike Kral.

It was now 4-2 and my thoughts wandered back to the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994. Our first UEFA game since 1971 against another Czech team had ended-up with that same score line.

It got worse.

Just three minutes later, the same player – with the away fans marking each pass with an “ole” – unleashed an unstoppable drive across Kepa and into the top far corner.

Fackninell.

Chelsea 4 Slavia 3.

What a bloody mess.

In pubs, in living rooms, in bars, on the internet, at Stamford Bridge, the same question was asked :

“What does Sarri fucking talk about at half-time?”

We went to pieces, and the support grew unsurprisingly restless.

For PD and Parky, it got worse. Eintracht had scored again. They held the advantage. Lisbon was looking unlikely.

A lightning break down our right ended up with a ball being drilled into the box. That man Sevcik – in acres of space – had his own Devon Loch moment and lost his footing just as he was about to connect with yet another effort on goal from the inside right channel. Kepa sprinted out to gather the loose ball. This was ridiculous. I only remember a bungled volley from Giroud as our sole effort on goal in that awful second period.

By now, Willian had replaced Hazard. Jorginho had replaced Barkley, and quite how Kovacic remained on the pitch is a mystery to me.

There was a fair bit of applause for Sevcik – from me, for sure – as he was substituted. On came Miroslav Stoch, our former winger, and he was given a warm welcome back at The Bridge. I expected great things from him way back in 2008/9 and he scored some screamers for Fenerbahce. He’s twenty-nine now, and looks older. Luiz, back-peddling, headed the ball back to safety but in doing so, the ball hit his arm. A free-kick seemed really harsh. Stoch took aim with a free-kick but thankfully blasted it against the leg of Willian.

Callum Hudson-Odoi made a cameo appearance in the last five minutes, replacing the first-half hero Pedro.

We held on.

But it was far from clever. This must rank as our least convincing run to a European semi-final ever. This was a 4-3 European game that surely didn’t match the previous night’s encounter in Manchester.

We won ugly.

It seemed that this one match had encapsulated – distilled – the one-hundred and fourteen year history of Chelsea Football Club. The good and the bad. Comedic defending. Periods of pleasure. Long periods of pain. Lady luck. Goals. Ultimately a victory.

Oh boy.

I am sure that the guests from Florida loved it – those first-half goals right in front of them for sure – but it was really painful. It is – stating the bloody obvious once again – proving to be a ridiculous season. After Fulham and Cardiff City, here was yet another win that seemed like a loss. And yet those two League Cup defeats at Wembley seemed like wins.

Oh my poor brain.

The news came through that the nearly men of European football Benfica had lost 2-0 in Germany.

We would meet Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final.

On Monday, we reassemble for the battle for league points with the visit of Burnley. We have another pub-crawl planed. The Floridians have been told to bring their drinking boots.

See you in the pub.

 

Tales From L4

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2019.

We were now in what some call the Business End of the season. The remaining games would quickly sort us out. Could we cling on to a top four position in the league? Could we reach yet another semi-final and another final? Would we, via either route, play Champions League football in 2019/2020? Or would we slump to a meek finish and “only” qualify for another Europa League campaign?

We would soon find out.

I suspect that I am not the only one who was dreading the trip to Anfield, for more than one reason. Liverpool had only lost once in the league all season and were vying for top spot with Manchester City. After the game in 2014 – how can it be almost five years ago? – they were after revenge. All week I kept saying to myself “I’d take a 0-0” draw. A goal-less draw? Too right. One more point for us, and two dropped points for them. And advantage City in the race for the title.

In the build-up to the weekend, a few things really focussed my mind on the game on Merseyside. On Thursday, I spotted that there was going to be a charity match in Dublin the following evening in order to raise funds for Sean Cox, the Liverpool supporter who was so badly injured by some Roma ultras outside Anfield last season. As I mentioned at the time, this awful incident hit home because Sean is the brother-in-law of a friend through work who I have known for sixteen years. My friend’s husband Marty was with Sean on that fateful evening in April of last season, and my friend – a client of ours –  has been giving me updates over the past twelve months of Sean’s – very slow – progress. It was a devastating incident for the whole family. But I have been pleased to hear of steady improvements in recent months. A game involving Liverpool legends and an Irish legends team at the Aviva Stadium was planned. I soon realised why my friend had an “out of office” on her email on Friday. In the evening, I sent her a little text to say that I hope that Sean enjoyed the upcoming game.

By that stage, on the Friday evening, work was behind me for the week and I was on my way to Basingstoke to see China Crisis, sons of Liverpool, once again. But football was still tugging away at my coat tails. As I stopped mid-route for a bite to eat, I checked my phone and saw that Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool captain, had passed away.

Liverpool was certainly starting to dominate the weekend.

After the China Crisis concert, I had a quick chat with Eddie Lundon, one of the band’s original two members, who I have got to know over the past few years through a mutual friend. Ed is a Liverpool season ticket holder and I wondered if he had heard about Tommy Smith. I felt awkward asking about him, in case he had not heard the news. But sad news travels fast and he had indeed heard about Tommy Smith. We chatted briefly and quickly about the Liverpool vs. Chelsea game. On the Sunday, he would be driving back from a gig on the Isle of Wight, thus missing the match. I could tell that he was displeased. He even mentioned it during the gig.

If I had more time after the concert, I would have liked to have shared a story about Tommy Smith with Ed.

A few years ago, Parky and I visited a few local pubs where Ron Harris was guest of honour, on two occasions alongside Peter Bonetti, Bobby Tambling and Charlie Cooke. They were superb evenings. A favourite yarn, told slowly and purposefully by Chopper, involved Tommy Smith. Ever since Emlyn Hughes broke Peter Osgood’s leg in 1966 in a game against Blackpool, the soon-to-be Liverpool defender was never flavour of the month at Chelsea. Apparently, Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes never saw eye-to-eye either, even when they were playing alongside each other in the Liverpool team of Bill Shankly in the early ‘seventies. A few years later in a game at Anfield involving Liverpool and Chelsea, Ron Harris “arrived late” as he crunched into Emlyn Hughes and wiped him out completely. While Hughes was writhing around on the floor in agony, and as his Liverpool team mates gathered around offering words of support, Tommy Smith sidled over to our Chopper and whispered these words:

“I’m beginning to like you, Mister Harris.”

He was a hard man, Tommy Smith, and this was praise indeed for our own enforcer.

RIP.

On the Saturday, I had a choice to make. My local team, Frome Town, on a run of three straight defeats, were at home to Hartley Wintney but I simply could not be arsed. I just could not stomach yet another insipid performance, yet another defeat and the inevitable relegation from the division. Even though the game was only four miles away, I stayed at home and cracked on with a few jobs. I have probably watched Frome more this season than any other year, but enough was enough.

Frome lost 1-0.

After eight successive seasons at “Level Seven” in the English football pyramid, relegation was a certainty. I was momentarily sad, but the comparison with Frome and Chelsea was brought into sharp focus. On the following day, I’d be travelling up to Liverpool, a good five-hour trip, and cheering on the boys. There was no way that I would not attend.

I had to be there.

By 9am on Sunday, the Chelsea 3 were on our way to Liverpool 4.

There was a lot of chit-chat between PD, Parky and little old me as I drove up past Bath and onto the M4 and then the M5. The potential trips to Lisbon, Frankfurt and Baku dominated everything. After a while, the jibber-jabber died down a little and I concentrated on getting us safely up to Liverpool. The weather outside was cold, the skies grey. We stopped at Strensham and also Sandbach. There were Liverpool replica kits everywhere. By about 1.30pm, I had reached a car-park right outside Goodison Park at the northern end of Stanley Park. We paid £15 and we were safe. The attendant positioned us right near the gates for a quick getaway.

“Are youse gonna be leaving right on the whistle?”

“Depends if we’re getting thumped.”

“Might be at half-time.”

Gallows humour.

It was odd being so close to Goodison Park on a non-match day. Just like Liverpool Football Club on the main approach to Anfield, up the long steady hill of Utting Avenue, Everton Football Club have decorated every available lamp post with a pennant. Without the need to rush, I had time to notice that there are Archibald Leitch motifs on the royal blue Everton ones and I approved. We had decided to drink at the Thomas Frost pub on Walton Road, a large and charmless Wetherspoons. It was a relatively safe haven, though. We quickly spotted a table of Chelsea fans – no colours, familiar faces, usual suspects – and we joined them. We were joined by a few other Chelsea supporters. Very soon the pub was packed.

90% Liverpool.

10% Chelsea.

But it was fine. There were random outbreaks of Chelsea sings, but none of the home fans were overly intimidating. They had other things on their minds. The Manchester City game was on the TV, and most of the Scousers were subdued. I bumped into Steve, who runs the Connecticut Blues in the US, and it was the first time that I have seen him for quite a few years. He had won a trip over to England – flying into Manchester, two nights in Liverpool, match tickets – along with four others. It was good to see him again.

Welsh Kev arrived on the scene, like me a dedicated driver for the day. While I was existing on “Cokes”, Kev was making use of free coffee-refills. His route up to Liverpool had mirrored ours.

“Loads of Liverpool replica shirts at the services.”

“Tell me about it” I replied.

They love a replica shirt, the Micky Mousers.

At about 3.30pm, we decided to catch a cab from outside the pub up to Anfield, thus saving valuable time. Both Everton’s and Liverpool’s two grounds are covered by the L4 postcode.

L4 Blue to L4 Red.

It sounded like a chess move. And it was all over in a few minutes. The cabbie – another “red” after the two “reds” we used on the day of the Everton match a month earlier – dropped us off on Walton Breck Road. We were now right in the very heart of all things red. I took a photograph of PD and Parky with the gleaming new main stand in the background before they shot off for one last beer in the away end. I took a walking tour around Anfield for the first time since the stadium had its mammoth new addition. I slowly walked past “The Twelfth Man” pub and then approached “The Albert“ pub right outside The Kop. My mind whirled back to last April. This was exactly the spot where Sean Cox was attacked.

I continued walking. The statue of Bill Shankly, fists clenched.

I honestly didn’t mind Liverpool in those days.

As I slowly moved from one vantage point to another, I had presumed that Manchester City had won. There was a noticeably subdued air underneath the towering stands. On some of the signage, there was the usual hyperbole associated with modern football, and with Liverpool Football Club especially. On a sign above an entrance to The Kop, the word “Songs” was crossed out. The word “Anthem” was highlighted instead. Then the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Then the words “Not a song. It’s who we are.”

Then the hook line “We are Liverpool. This means more.”

Well, that just didn’t scan.

File under “trying too hard.”

The new stand goes back forever. I can only imagine the amount of corporate hospitality areas entombed within it. The days of the “half-time gate” on The Kop are consigned to history. I remembered that one of the cabbies from last month mentioned to us that his season ticket mentions the word “client number” rather than “supporter number.”

I hate modern football, part 847.

However, I like the way that, instead of acres of steel cladding, much of the façade uses standard red brick, so typical of the local area’s tight terraced streets. I didn’t get a chance to spot the re-positioned Hillsborough Memorial, but I climbed the stairs – presumably a nod towards the terraces of the old Kop – and took a few photos. I walked past the line at the away turnstiles but noted one Liverpool fan shout out –

“You fucking rent boys.”

I – pardon the pun – walked on.

I met up with Eddie’s son Daniel – and my friend Kim – outside the Kenny Dalglish Stand, formerly the Centenary Stand, formerly the Kemlyn Road Stand, God I am showing my age. There was only time for a quick “hello goodbye” before we needed to head off into our respective areas. Eddie and his son have season tickets on the half-way line – a great “speck” in the local lingo –  in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand. The Shankly Gates – forged in my home town of Frome – have been repositioned outside this stand, having moved from their original position alongside the original Hillsborough Memorial

On the façade of this stand, there was more hyperbole.

The word “badge” was crossed out and the word “honour” was used instead.

Then “for others it’s an emblem. For us, it’s an honour.”

Righty-o.

Time was moving on. I lined up at the away turnstiles. I bumped into some familiar faces. Lads from my local area had tried, like Steve from Connecticut, to get into the usual “Arkles” but for the first time ever it was “home fans only.” I suspect that on this day of all days, on the Hillsborough weekend, the landlord had decided to play it safe. After a quick bag check, I was in. I was tempted to save the green “bag searched” tag for the few Liverpool fans that I know.

“Here’s a souvenir from Anfield, since you fuckers never go these days.”

This would be my twenty-fourth trip with Chelsea in all competitions.

Our record is not great in this cross-section of matches, but better – much better – than it used to be.

Won 5

Drew 6

Lost 12

Our last loss at Anfield was the 4-1 defeat just after the 2012 FA Cup Final win against the same team when nobody could really be bothered. We had loads of empty seats at Anfield that night, a black mark in recent years.

The team?

I almost expected a false nine. It was a show of reticence from Sarri.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilcueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Hazard – Willian

A huge game for our Ruben and our Callum. But a huge game for all of us. I really do not know what Gonzalo Higuain made of Maurizio Sarri’s starting eleven. Higuain was Sarri’s boy. He worked with him at Napoli. I am not sure if the phrase “cherry-picked” is correct, but Sarri chose him above all other strikers in January. And he was on the bench.

The stadium was packed to the rafters. Just before the teams came onto the pitch, the ridiculously deep-voiced Anfield announcer – who has been going for years and years – spoke of Tommy Smith and most Chelsea supporters joined in with a minute of applause.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” boomed and Chelsea floated the yellow “Chelsea Here. Chelsea There” away flag. Then, the stadium settled and the announcer spoke of Hillsborough.

The teams stood in the centre circle.

Mosaics filled the Dalglish Lower Tier and the entirety of The Kop.

“30 Years – 96.”

Not a word was spoken in that respectful minute by anyone.

For the youngest, Jon-Paul Gilhooley – Steven Gerard’s cousin – aged just ten, to the oldest, Gerard Baron, aged sixty-seven.

For the Hicks sisters.

For Kevin Williams, aged just fifteen, whose mother Anne was such a dominant force in the battle for justice.

For Tony Bland, the last to die, in 1993

For the 96 – RIP.

I have written about the tragedy of Hillsborough before. When I see footage of that day, there are soon tears.

Just one thing to add. Of the ninety-six deaths, only three were over fifty years of age. A staggering seventy-eight were less than thirty years old. Not only does this represent a staggering loss of humanity, of young lives not being able to blossom, but it also marks a snapshot in time, only thirty years ago, when the age of match-going supporters was noticeably younger than today. The average age of those who were killed was around twenty-five. In those days, going to football was a young man’s game. And that last comment was not meant to be sexist. Many more men went to football in those days. Of the ninety-six fatalities, eighty-nine were male.

Football has indeed changed in so many ways since April 15 1989.

The game began. If the key phrase before the match was “I’d take a 0-0 now” then another was undoubtedly “let’s not concede an early goal.”

As with every visit to Anfield, I became obsessed with the discrete clock tucked into the side of the Dalglish Stand. Like at Old Trafford, there are no large TV screens at Anfield, for which I am quite grateful. For all of the off-the-field corporate activity spinning out of control, it is reassuring to see that, at least during the game, it is all about the action on the pitch at these two great stadia in the north-west of England. There are no distractions. Our gaze is centered on the twenty-two players. I like that.

The home team dominated the early possession and a volley from Mo Salah bounced against the turf before nestling in Kepa’s arms. Dave seemed to be a little off the pace at the start but soon improved. After a while we began to build a few attacks. Eden Hazard was the busiest of our forwards, but he tended to plough a lone furrow upfront, often prone to drifting into his favoured inside left channel but with virtually no support. A lone cross from our Callum on the right did not reach anyone. A Hazard shot was easily saved by Alisson at his bear post. The heal of David Luiz thankfully deflected a Jordan Henderson effort wide. We were so close to the action. I watched the faces of the Chelsea defenders at corners. I shared their obvious anxieties.

Toni Rudiger went down and we feared the worst. He went off, then came back on immediately.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to Willian, raiding centrally. He kept moving the ball to his right, and I was begging for a drilled low shot across Alisson into the bottom left, but he kept moving the ball on. His shot spun well clear of the right-hand post. We were then exposed as a Salah sprint down our left was followed by a ball into Sadio Mane’s path, but his shot narrowly whizzed past the post.

Thirty minutes had passed and we were keeping them at bay. Pre-match, there were horrible thoughts of another Manchester City style bombardment. With five minutes of the first-half remaining, Rudi went down again. This time he didn’t move. Sadly, this time there was no miraculous recovery. He was replaced by Andreas Christensen (who some Chelsea fans still think played at Anfield in 2014. It was Tomas Kalas) and he looked a little nervy in the last five minutes of the first-half.

Over in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand, I couldn’t help but notice something that I always pick up on during most visits to Anfield. In the area closest to the Anfield Road Stand – the one that we were sharing with some home fans – there seemed to be more red on show. My take on this is that in the more central areas of the lower tier, there are more season ticket holders. In the flanks of that stand, there are more “day trippers” (as the Liverpool hardcore calls them) and hence more people prone to visit the club shop and buy scarves, shirts, jackets and hats. I’d imagine that season ticket holders at most clubs tend not to go too overboard with club colours. Of all the stadia in England, I have always thought that this is more noticeable at Anfield than at any other ground.

I was stood with Parky, Gal and Alan. The Chelsea support had been sporadic throughout the first-half. I think we were all too nervous. The home support was certainly nervous. Fifty thousand of them honestly failed to get much of an atmosphere going at all.

There were nerves everywhere.

Right before the break, Kepa stretched late and made a super reflex save, but an offside flag had already been raised. In truth, our ‘keeper had not been as busy as I had perhaps predicted.

We had made it to half-time.

0-0.

“And breathe.”

The general consensus was that we had played reasonably well during the first period. Both Ruben and Callum had shown flashes, but were quiet. Kante and Hazard – no surprises really – had been our standout performers. Jorginho had largely been a bystander with only occasional offensive prods to team mates. The days of us Chelsea supporters singing a song in praise of him, and the manager, are long gone. At the break, I bumped into a Chelsea fan that I know through Facebook, a young lad called Bank, from Thailand, who was at his very first Chelsea away game. He had watched the Chelsea vs. West Ham United game last week and on Saturday was lucky enough to see a Mason Mount hat-trick as Derby County beat Bolton Wanderers 4-0. After the game, he waited to chat with Frank Lampard, and he had a truly wonderful time.

The second-half began. And still Anfield was quiet, so quiet.

The first five minutes passed.

“Let’s get to the hour.”

A minute later, the ball was worked inside our box to Henderson who clipped over a tantalising ball into our six-yard box. Mane rose with no Chelsea defender in sight, let alone touching distance, and his header easily found the net. If Rudiger had been on the pitch, would he have had such am unhindered leap? Perhaps not. He reeled away towards the corner, beneath that damn clock, and Anfield erupted. The noise roared around the stadium now.

One song kept going and going.

“We’ve conquered all of Europe.

We’re never gonna stop.

From Paris down to Athens.

We’ve won the fucking lot.

Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly.

The fields of Anfield Road.

We are loyal supporters.

And we come from Liverpool.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.”

It didn’t reach 2005 levels. But take it from me, it was loud.

It was to get worse. Liverpool hit a purple patch. A cross-field ball from Virgil Van Dijk sent over a cross-field ball to Salah, who cut in past Emerson and unleashed an impeccable laser into the top corner of Kepa’s goal. Anfield erupted again.

Bollocks.

Two goals had been conceded in the first eight minutes of the second-half. What the bloody hell does the fag muncher say to the players at half-time? I’d really like to know.

Gonzalo Higuain replaced our Callum.

Bizarrely, we then hit our best period of the entire game. A fantastic ball from Emerson was beautifully dolloped into the path of Hazard who took one touch and shaped to shoot. I’d say that every Chelsea supporter was poised to leap and scream. A goal looked the only option. Alas, the shot smacked against the base of the right hand post. We were crestfallen. Soon after, Willian clipped in an equally impressive ball into the danger area towards Hazard, but Alisson was able to save.

We then fell away again.

Ross Barkley replaced our Ruben.

Our attacking game petered out, and we rarely threatened the Liverpool goal again despite many Hazard dribbles – he takes a good photo, eh? – and the occasional shot from Higuain and Hazard.

It was not to be.

Liverpool deserved their win. They were more clinical. They were not at their best but they were, evidently, too good for us.

I have this horrible feeling that they might win it this season.

Fackinell.

On Thursday, the road to Baku continues with a home game against Slavia Prague.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From Both Sides Of The Ninian Park Gates

Cardiff City vs. Chelsea : 31 March 2019.

After away games in Ukraine and Scouseland we were now due to play our third consecutive away match on foreign soil. On the last day of March and the first day of summer we were headed over the Severn Bridge to Cardiff to play Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds. The Everton away game seemed ages ago. The Sunday trip into Wales could not come quick enough.

This was a drive of only seventy-five miles, a relatively brief excursion, but it would be a journey back into time too.

Let me explain.

There might have been the chance that our game at Cardiff City in 2019 might only have induced the slightest of mentions of our epic match at Ninian Park during the 1983/84 promotion campaign. I have already written about that encounter in two of these match reports already – during 2008/09, the twenty-fifth anniversary, and 2013/14, our last visit to Cardiff – and in normal circumstances I might have penned a brief mention. And then the Footballing Gods got involved. The match was moved to Sunday 31 March 2019, and it did not take me long to realise that this date would mark, exactly, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1984 game.

I mentioned the anniversary on a “Chelsea In The 1980s” page on Facebook during the preceding week and there were many replies, most of which seemed to centre on the crowd trouble that day rather than the game itself. But it was certainly a day that many recalled easily. And football hooliganism was often an inherent part of the day to day travails and travels of a Chelsea supporter in that era, and I suppose I should not have been shocked by the myriad of memories stirred by the mere mention of “Cardiff 1984”. There has always been a morbid fascination with hooliganism at football for many, much in the same way that violent films and TV series always stir some basic instinct among us. If “The Sopranos” was about opera singers and not New Jersey mobsters and if “Peaky Blinders” was about Birmingham milliners I suspect that viewing figures for both series would never have reached such stratospheric levels.

But more of 1984 later. You have been warned.

I set off for “Welsh Wales” – as we call it in Somerset, thus not confusing it with the local cathedral city of Wells – at just before eight o’clock. The usual Fun Boy Three of PD, Parky and little old me were joined by PD’s son Scott and Johnny, a local lad who we first met prior to the League Cup Final. It would be his first ever Chelsea away game. Tickets for this game seemed to be springing up all over the place. The media were in a shit-stirring mood and claimed that Chelsea fans were boycotting games after falling out of love with manager Sarri. I suspect that the glut of tickets for Cardiff City might well have been more to do with the game falling on Mothering Sunday.

Even football supporters – and hooligans and wannabe hooligans too – love their muvvers, just like the Kray twins.

The drive into Wales was so easy, though the fantastic weather of the previous day was nowhere to be seen. Heading over the Severn Estuary, it was all grey and cloudy. However, I was parked up on Mermaid Quay at just before 10am and we soon made the local pub “The Mount Stuart” our base. We devoured our various breakfasts and, while others got stuck into a variety of ciders and lagers, I made ample use of free coffee refills, as if I suspected that the upcoming game might induce torpor. There was a Cardiff Bay 10km race taking place and the pub was mobbed with runners ahead of the 11am start, but they soon vacated the large pub and we settled on high stools near the bar and overlooking the murky grey waters of the bay. Outside were flags of St. David and, in the distance, the cranes of commerce and trade.

A Cardiff City fan, John – Adidas gazelles and a Lacoste rain jacket – befriended us, and we chatted away about all sorts. Joining the dots, I think it is wise for me to assume that he had a chequered past as he knew of various names and events of days gone by, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. He remembered 1984. He spoke of the 2010 FA Cup game. But he was a friendly lad and was kind enough to take our team photo once we had been joined by fellow Chelsea fans Charlotte and Paul from Yeovil. I found it interesting that John mentioned that fans of Swansea City  – he called them “that lot” – and Cardiff City, especially in times when both teams existed further down the football pyramid, often had a second team, an English team. Again joining the dots, I reckoned his other team was Liverpool since he spoke highly of their 2001 FA Cup win in Cardiff against Arsenal and of “a mate” – oh yeah? – who went to Kiev for last May’s European Cup Final. His wife was taking part in the run. I think he was happy to have company while he waited for her return. We wished each other well.

We made tracks. I had arranged a parking place right outside the ground. In the middle distance I kept spotting the towering roof supports of the Millennium Stadium in the nearby city centre. It dominates the skyline.

There has always been something very special about spotting a football stadium.

In the late ‘sixties or early ‘seventies, I have a vivid memory of my father driving through Cardiff to visit relatives in Llanelli – in the days when the M4 in South Wales was still being built – and him pointing out the floodlights of Ninian Park. After Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road, Ninian Park was almost certainly the second football ground that I ever saw.

We were parked up at about 1.30pm. There was just time – but only just – for me to splinter away from the others and have a rushed walk around the new Cardiff City Stadium. I was unable to do so in 2014, when we similarly enjoyed a pre-match drink on Mermaid Quay but then left it very late in arriving at the game.

Outside the entrance to the away section on Sloper Road, police cars were parked up, with their blue lights flashing, and a fair few policemen were walking in a mob of Chelsea. The game had recently been elevated to a high risk “Cat C” ranking.

I walked on, and I soon spotted a feature which linked Cardiff City’s past with their future. The old Ninian Park used to sit on the northern side of Sloper Road. The new stadium sits on the southern side. I was heartened to see that the old Ninian Park gates – and their concrete surrounds – were not demolished but were moved en masse to form the basis of an entrance plaza (admittedly half-arsed and scruffy) into the new stadium.

I definitely approved.

And my mind returned to 1984, quite easily in fact.

On that Saturday thirty-five years ago, Glenn and I had met up at Wallbridge Café opposite the Frome railway station. Inside, I was met by a sobering site. There was one other Chelsea fan – Dave – but also a couple of Frome’s Finest, two lads who I knew were only coming along for a bundle; Gulliver, a fan of Manchester United, and Sedge, a fan of Arsenal. Alongside them was Winnie, a friend from my year at school, who was anything but a wannabe hooligan. We made our way to Wales by train. As we neared Newport, I remember peering out at the scruffy grass alongside the tracks as if it was yesterday. At Cardiff train station, I met up with another school friend, Rick – a Pompey fan, studying at a polytechnic in Pontypridd – who was lured to Cardiff for the game.

Glenn and I soon lost the others and made a bee-line for Ninian Park. We knew that there would be pockets of trouble at various locations in the city centre and en route to the stadium. We kept our heads down, and feared the prospect of locals approaching us and asking us the usual “got the time mate”? We surmised that it would be better to get inside the away end early. I always remember that I was, in fact, the very first Chelsea fan to pass through the “click click” of the away turnstiles. Having the entire away end to myself, if only for a fleeting few seconds, was a memorable moment. Opposite the huge Bob Bank loomed, a massive terrace which backed onto some railway sidings and whose roof was etched with a ginormous Captain Morgan advertisement. To my left the main stand. Straight ahead the roof of the home end. Throughout the game, Chelsea fans would end up in three sides of the ground. The weather that day was grey and overcast too.

I continued my walk around the Cardiff City Stadium. Since my only other visit in 2014, a new tier has been added to the stand nearest Sloper Road. It has the infamous red seats, and the less said about that the better. The stadium now holds a healthy 33,000. There was a poorly executed statue depicting Fred Keenor, the club’s captain in 1927 when, as any good schoolboy will know, Cardiff City took the FA Cup out of England for the only time. I liked the fact that the signage on the main stand is an exact replica of that used at Ninian Park. The same words, the same font, though oddly in light grey and not Bluebirds blue. But I approved of that too. It was another nice nod to the past.

On the way in to the away section, there seemed to be an over-bearing presence of OB, but the security searches were completed with the minimum of fuss.

After six coffees, I was still buzzing.

I made my way in, behind the goal this time, and took my seat alongside Alan, Gary and PD. The others were dotted around.

Mother’s Day had won. There were quite a few empty seats in both home and away sections.

The teams came on. The yellow and blue “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” banner was held aloft to my right.

The game began without me knowing the team. I soon worked it out.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

So, no Kante, no Hazard, no Hudson-Odoi.

Words failed me, and not for the first time. Our Callum was undoubtedly the talk of the town, the player on everyone’s lips, but Sarri could not find a place for him against lowly Cardiff City. I could not get inside Sarri’s head. I was befuddled.

The game began with a few half-hearted shouts of support from the Chelsea faithful. But it was a slow start to the match. Both Alan and I were surprised that the home fans were not getting behind their team. However, Saturday had been a particularly painful time for them with both Burnley and Southampton victorious. Perhaps they had simply lost the will to battle and fight. Their team were happy to let us have the ball. But Neil Warnock is a wily old sod.

“Let them have it. Save yourselves. They’ll soon tie themselves up in knots.”

It was a cold day. I was glad that I had my jacket. The first real chance of the game fell to Pedro who danced his way into a central position and curled an effort narrowly over the bar. Soon after, a similar effort from the home team – in all blue, the aberration of red shirts consigned to the rubbish bin of memory – just span past the far post.

I turned to Gary : “I think their effort was closer than Pedro’s.”

We had most of the ball, but did fuck all with it. Sound familiar? I noted that it took until twenty-five minutes for any chant of noise and menace to emanate from the away fans and a further five minutes for the whole end to be united in song.

Sigh.

It was dire, both on and off the pitch. I had to step in when one of the traveling party continually ranted about virtually every Chelsea player. I just wanted to see positive noise. That’s our role as supporters, right?

Did we have any other chances? I captured a Willian effort on goal from a free-kick. There was a scramble in which the derided Alonso failed to poke home. Cardiff rarely threatened.

“Oh God, this is awful.”

In 1984 it wasn’t much better.

We had been riding high since the timely addition of Mickey Thomas in January added the requisite amount of energy and skill to our promotion-chasing team. My previous game that season had been the iconic 1-1 draw at promotion favourites Newcastle United. Chelsea were the in-form team, closing in on leaders Sheffield Wednesday. We had gone into the game at Ninian Park high on confidence. Although Dale Jasper was a young debutant alongside captain Colin Pates we did not foresee any trouble in garnering three points. As the away end filled up, I was well aware of the dress code of the day. Many were wearing those blue and white Patrick cagoules.  There were Pringles and Nike Wimbledons everywhere. For the very first time, I had joined in too; a yellow, light grey and navy Gallini sweatshirt, a £10 purchase in Bath the previous weekend, though if I am honest Gallini didn’t really cut it. It is a brand that is rarely mention in the various “clobber” pages on the internet these days. However, I did see three of four other lads wearing the same top that afternoon in Wales. As the kick-off neared, outbreaks of violence erupted in a variety of locations all over the stadium.

Chelsea were in town.

However, at half-time we were losing 3-0. Just like in 2019, we had been dire. We were shell-shocked. We had been second-best throughout.

Cardiff City 3 Chelsea 0.

Altogether now –

Fackinell.

Back to life, back to reality. In 2019, there were whispers between Alan and myself that this game might well mirror the Everton match where we had been well on top in the first forty-five minutes but had not prised open the home defence. The worry was, undoubtedly, that there was only a couple of chances against Cardiff rather than the five or six against Everton. Alan slipped in the phrase “we’re on the road to nowhere” and I had reminded him that this phrase had aided me on the naming of a blog a few years ago for a game at Manchester City.

“Tales From The Road To Nowhere.”

Alan replied “You can call this one ‘Tales From Groundhog Day.’”

Within seconds of the restart, a cross from Harry Arter was excellently clipped in by Victor Camarasa.

“Groundhog Day!” yelped Alan.

We stood silent. It is a horrible feeling being in the bear pit of an away section with the home fans baying.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

The away fans, rather than support the team, turned on the manager.

“We want Sarri out, say we want Sarri out.”

Oh great. I didn’t join in. I understood everyone’s frustrations, but surely with a team being 1-0 down and in need of encouragement, we needed to dig deep, real deep, and muster up some noise from the depths of our souls. I’ll say it again. That’s our role as supporters, right?

The Cardiff fans responded : “We want Sarri in.”

Oscar Wilde need not be worried.

Alan commented “it’s getting toxic.”

Indeed it was.

“FUCK SARRIBALL.”

I looked over to the bench. The manager must’ve heard. No reaction. Probably just as well.

Eden Hazard replaced Pedro on fifty-three minutes and the Belgian immediately lit up the pitch. A free-kick involving Willian playing the ball through Ross Barkley’s legs to David Luiz resulted in the wall being hit. The groans continued.

There was a strong shout for a Cardiff penalty after a messy challenge by Rudiger on Morrison. No whistle. Phew.

Our Ruben replaced – shock, horror – Jorginho, who had been quite terrible.

We dominated most of the ball now but despite countless wriggles and shimmies by Eden, Willian and others it looked like Cardiff’s back line would simply not be breached. I lost count of the times Alonso played the ball back rather than into the box. Frustration was everywhere. But I stood silent, not enjoying much of anything. I contemplated us winning all four home games, but easily losing all away games, here at Cardiff, at Anfield, at Old Trafford, at Leicester City. The thought of those two away games at Liverpool and Manchester United are certainly starting to cause me pain.

An effort from Willian went wide. The ineffectual Higuain shot meekly but was then replaced by Olivier Giroud.

Three substitutes used, but Callum stayed on the bench. Maybe Sarri was resting him for his next England game.

A cross from wide was whipped into the box but with Chelsea legs stretching out to meet the low ball, a Cardiff defender managed to reach the ball first. We were awarded a corner.

There were six minutes to go.

In 1984, Kerry Dixon stroked a low shot inside the post from outside the box and this was met with a roar of approval from the Chelsea hordes, but surely this was just a rogue consolation goal.

In 2019, the corner was played in by Willian. Alonso got a touch and – we breathed in expectantly – the ball reached Azpilicueta who headed home. I immediately sensed “offside” but there was no flag, no reaction, the goal stood.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

I turned to Alan.

“Bloody hell. Six minutes to go. Just like 1984. Maybe we’ll draw 3-3.”

A lucky escape at the other end. Another clumsy Rudiger challenge, but after a long deliberation, the referee only gave a yellow card. Was he the last man? It looked messy. Phew.

In 1984, with two minutes to go Colin Lee – the experienced striker now playing right back – found himself inside the six-yard box and bundled the ball home. Game well and truly on. The Chelsea crowd went doolally. We were losing 3-2 but the game sprang to life.

In 2019, there was praise for Chelsea, but the chants of “Maurizio” dried up around Christmas.

In 1984, on ninety minutes, a Cardiff defender handled the ball. A penalty.

Pandemonium.

Nigel Spackman slammed it home.

The away end erupted. Unfettered by seats, we jumped and shouted, and stumbled, and screamed, and hugged, and kissed. Our arms were thrusted heavenwards, our voices sang roars of triumph. As we marched out onto the bleak Cardiff streets, we were invincible.

In 2019, deep into stoppage time, a cross from Willian on the right perfectly found our Ruben. I snapped just as he lent forward and headed the ball towards goal. Just like in 1984 – all those years ago – the Chelsea end erupted. A leap from Ruben in front of me. I was screaming with joy. No chance of a photo.

Carpe diem.

Get in.

I did capture the aftermath.

Joy unbounded.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, bach.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, boyo.”

There’s nice, look you.

Smiles, relief.

And then Barkley shot wildly over.

Oh boyo.

And that was that.

Despite the win, we all knew that we had been quite awful for eighty minutes. It was truly woeful. It was like watching players walking through treacle.

Football, bloody hell.

In 1984, on the train back to Frome, we regrouped, but two of our party were missing. Dave and Gulliver had been nicked for something or other. It had to happen. They were to spend the night in a police cell. On that train ride home, with me sitting quietly in one of those old compartments, a lad appeared in the corridor and he was serenaded by those who knew him.

“Daniels is our leader. Daniels is our leader.”

It was PD.

It was the first time that I had ever met him.

He was dressed in jeans, DMs and full regalia. He was a fearsome sight.

I had mentioned this to PD when I had picked him up at eight o’clock.

“Me and Nicks and Andy thought that we’d go into the Cardiff end. We got in, looked around, this, that and the other, and soon left.”

Outside the away end, the 2019 party regrouped. We knew how poorly we had played. We were no fools. But we had won. At this stage in the season, three points is all. The traffic heading home was ridiculous. We were caught in an hour-long traffic jam just leaving the immediate area of the stadium. I slowly edged north and then south and then, eventually, west. I looked over at the roof of Cardiff City’s current home, the roof of the Millennium Stadium and imagined Ninian Park in between the two.

Thanks for the memories, Cardiff. I have a feeling that our paths will not be crossing next season.

On Wednesday, we play Brighton at Stamford Bridge, our first home game in bloody ages.

See you there.

The 1984 Game.

Many will be seeing this for the first time. Fill your boots.

Part One.

Part Two.

The 1984 Cast.

Chris – I still go to Chelsea, you lucky people.

Glenn – still goes to Chelsea.

Dave – he occasionally goes to Chelsea.

PD – still goes to Chelsea.

Nicks – still goes to Chelsea.

Andy – still goes to Chelsea.

Gulliver – now a Millwall fan, he goes occasionally and I see him around town occasionally for a chat.

Sedge – I see him around town occasionally.

Winnie – I see him around town occasionally.

Rick – a Pompey season ticket holder, now living in Portsmouth, and at the EFL Trophy game against Sunderland.