Tales From Three Leaps

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 14 September 2019.

Football – of the right kind – was back after a self-imposed interruption of a fortnight. The international break saw England play Bulgaria and then Kosovo, and despite both matches being shown on “free-to-air” terrestrial ITV, I saw just five minutes of the second game. Even with appearances from Ross Barkley and Mason Mount, I’m afraid that my interest in our national team continues to wane. In the break, instead, I saw two consecutive home games involving my local team. Frome Town drew 1-1 with Evesham United and then beat Barnstaple Town 3-1. Both were excellent matches and I continue to feel an emotional attachment to my most local team, something that I struggle to do with England.

But now it was all about Chelsea.

The Chuckle Bus carried just two of its Brothers to our game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Parky was still recuperating after his hip operation and Glenn was otherwise engaged. I was parked-up in the city centre at 11.30am, and the two of us – PD and CA – were soon settled in “The Sunbeam” pub outside the city’s bus depot and not too far from the train station, right in the middle of everything. There were signs saying “HOME FANS ONLY” but we skipped past the security guard on the door and were soon inside, despite PD wearing shorts and thus allowing a loud and proud Chelsea tattoo on his leg to be seen by all.

We kept to ourselves and there was no bother nor trouble. This was despite the presence of some locals of a certain vintage who – if their clobber was anything to go by – might have been involved in some fisticuffs a few years back. However, not everyone who goes to football these days who sports a Stoney is a psycho and not everyone who likes the Lacoste label is a lad. We were joined by Scott, Paul and Kim. The mixture of accents must have confused the bouncers, although I suspect that Scott’s Wolves mate, who he met at the Chelsea Legends game at Real Madrid a few months back, might well have aided their entrance into the pub.

The sun was out, we had a good chat, and I liked being able to partake in a little bit of people-watching through the windows. By the time we had decided to move on, there was a large gaggle of Wolves lads drinking outside but the occasional Chelsea fan wearing colours who walked past received no trouble.

“Wouldn’t have been like this in the ‘eighties, PD.”

Wolves fans wearing all different types of replica shirts waltzed past. I soon realised how off the mark the home club was in 2018/19 with the yellow shirt rather than the warmer old gold of the current design.

There were more “home fans only” signs in a few other pubs. One day I’ll make it inside “The Billy Wright”, but maybe not on a match day. We bumped into Alex – originally from Sofia – and he moaned that the “away pub” down near the train station was rammed, so we decided to cut our losses and leisurely walk down to the ground, passing the university buildings and the leafy surrounds of the local church. Molineux was soon spotted, and we disappeared down to the infamous “subway” which was the scene of many an ambush in days of yore.

Despite my decision to forego home programmes this season, I just could not resist purchasing the £5 special edition that marked the one-hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the club moving to their current site. The famous old club was one of the twelve members of the inaugural Football League which began in 1888/89 and Molineux is their fourth home. The programme was wrapped in an evocative panorama featuring an artist’s adaptation of the stadium in 1889, 1958 and 2019. I can well remember the multi-span roof of the stand which used to sit on the land from where we would be watching the game in 2019. The old stadium was in poor repair for many years, but Sir Jack Hayward, whose statue welcomes spectators as they arrive with eyes blinking after walking through the darkness of the subway, helped renovate the stadium with huge success in the ‘nineties and the stadium has since been improved with a new double-deck north stand. It works well. If Goodison Park is my favourite away venue, then Molineux is surely my favourite “new build.” It is ridiculously close to the city centre, there is a perfect use of old gold in much of its structure and it all seems to fit together with a minimum of fuss.

In fact, I bought two programmes. When I was over in Italy during the summer, I spent a few hours in a bar on the beach in which one of the bar staff was a Swedish lad who, after I told him I was a Chelsea fan – I soon get this key fact out of the way pretty sharpish when I start chatting to a stranger for any length of time – he told me that he was a Wolves fan, and had been to Molineux a few times. I decided to send him a copy and he was very grateful when I quickly messaged him.

We waited in the cool of the concourse, PD supping lager, and little old me on my third and fourth Diet Cokes of the day. We welcomed a few friends as they arrived.

We made our way inside and I was well happy with our seats; right on the half-way line, just three rows from the front. For the FA Cup game in 2017, we were located in the lofty heights of the double-decker to my right. For this game, all 2,600 Chelsea were strewn out along the entire length of the lower tier of the Steve Bull Stand. I knew from the off that getting consistent singing from us all would be a difficult task.

I centered my gaze on the ten outfield players going through their warm-ups. There were three centre-halves involved; Christensen, Rudiger and Tomori. I wondered what plan Frank Lampard had hatched.

The sun was beating down. This would not be “Dublin in July hot”, but this was a lovely early autumn afternoon. “Love will tear us apart” by Joy Division improved my enjoyment of the moment, but this was then cut short as we were treated to a prolonged display of pyrotechnics just before the teams entered the pitch. Our faces were scorched by the heat of the flames.

OK – old gold, orange, I get it. I can make the connection between the fingers of flame which darted into the air and the club colours, but on a bright sunny day it seemed rather pointless.

Surely a display at night games only would be better.

Old gold and black.

Perfect.

The teams entered the pitch. We had jettisoned the blue shirts, and even the blue socks from Norwich City, and were in all white.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Christensen – Rudiger – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

It was an Antonio Conte-style 3-4-3.

The game began and it was a quiet beginning. Tammy was soon booed for his Aston Villa connections. On the Wolves right, we were treated to a few lightning bursts from Adama Traore – built like a sprinter or a modern-day winger in rugby – but who (classic football cliché warning) “flattered to deceive.” We looked composed on the ball without creating too much. Things were a little quiet off the pitch too. It took a full twenty-five minutes for a pitch-long chant to unite the Chelsea support. I spotted that Willian and Mason Mount swapped wings once or twice. We tried hard to reach Tammy, but it was a struggle. If I was honest, I’d say that Wolves possibly edged the opening half-an-hour, if only in terms of possession. But there were no efforts on target. A wild shot from Willian which blazed over was our one notable effort. Before the game, in whispered tones, a few of us had been worried about the three games in the next week.

Wolves away, Valencia at home, Liverpool at home.

“We could…possibly…lose all three.”

On thirty-one minutes, everything changed. An attack on our right floundered and the ball was knocked away by a Wolves defender. The ball rolled at pace towards the onrushing Fikayo Tomori and he shaped to hit the ball without the need of a second touch. I snapped just as he connected. We watched, eyes bulging, as the ball made the net ripple.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBASTARD.

Oh my.

What a goal for this match, for this season, for any season.

His leap in front of me was euphoric.

After a few seconds…

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us nowwwww.”

Chris : “Come on moi little dimonddddds.”

Three minutes later, with the Wolves defence on their heels, we found our way into the box. Mount appeared to be fouled but the ball rebounded off a Wolves leg to Tammy who spun one-hundred and eighty degrees and lashed it in. The net bulged again. There was a kiss to the Chelsea support from an ebullient Tammy, back among the goals again.

Seven minutes later, and after a slight Wolves resurgence, a Jorginho cross was headed out. Alonso picked up the loose ball.

I had commented to Alan earlier that because we only had Tammy up front, our crosses needed to be on the money.

Alonso’s cross was.

He picked out Tammy perfectly and the tall striker headed home with ridiculous ease. It was a fantastic goal. Yet more lovely celebrations. I caught his leap towards the Chelsea support in the corner on film. This was another great celebration. It pleased me that I evidently took a better photograph of Tammy’s leap than that of Tomori.

Bloody hell.

We were 3-0 up at the break.

We could hardly believe it.

We had caught fire in the last fifteen minutes and the Wolves fans standing in the South Stand, the old Kop, were as scorched as we were from the pre-match flames. Our three goals might have flattered us a little, but we cared not. Wolves, after all, had not really forced a save from Kepa the entire half.

During the first forty-five minutes, I had mentioned our 5-0 win at the same stadium in 2003, which was my first-ever visit to Molineux. Alan had then spoken to me about his first visit too.

“To her dying day, my Mum never knew I came up here in 1977.”

Alan was just fourteen – I was eleven – and had been going to Chelsea for a few years. Our famous game in 1977, in which our travelling support was officially banned, was a huge occasion. Alan simply had to be there. He had told his mother that he was out to see friends and stayed out the entire day, via a secret trip to Wolverhampton, returning late. In those days – God, they seem so distant, before mobile phones and constant attention and interaction – kids would often disappear for hours on end. On this day – with Wolves needing a point to secure the Second Division Championship and with Chelsea requiring a point to gain promotion – thousands of Chelsea flooded Molineux. We drew 1-1 and, as I have reported previously, my one recollection of that day was hearing the result on “Final Score” at my grandparents’ house, opening the front door, running up the slope to the main road and jumping up, punching the air in a leap not too dissimilar to those of Tomori and Tammy forty-two years later.

Alan and I chuckled about the ridiculousness of it all.

We imagined Alan returning home at 10pm, in a scene not too dissimilar to that of Perry’s return from Manchester in the “Harry Enfield Show.”

“You’re back late, son.”

“Aye, I yam.”

“Why are you talking funny?”

“What yow talking about? Anyway, I’ve brought you a present.”

“What’s this, pork scratchings?”

“Bostin’ ah.”

Kurt Zouma replaced Toni Rudiger at half-time. Very soon, he was causing a few nervous jitters in the away section. However, we withstood some early Wolves pressure. On fifty-five minutes, Jorginho lofted the ball forward to Tammy. He controlled the ball, stood tall against Conor Coady, twisted into a little space, leaving Coady for dead, then struck a low shot past Rui Patricio.

He had silenced the Yam Yam Boo Boys in fine style with a sublime hat-trick.

Smiles everywhere.

Alan, knowing full well our past, uttered the immortal line :

“We’ve got the draw, let’s go for the win” and those close by chuckled.

Mount was set free and should have scored after darting past the ‘keeper after a magnificent pass from Jorginho, but his effort was wide.

With twenty minutes to go, Wolves grabbed a goal back after a corner was scrambled in after Kepa made an initial save. We would only learn much later that it was Tammy’s fourth of the game. Dave, playing wide, had several gut-busting runs down the right and should have created more with his final ball. At times, we were purring.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic. Michy replaced Tammy. We kept attacking. There was a lovely looseness to everything we did. Michy impressed me in the final quarter and could have scored a couple himself.

Bizarrely, Patrick Cutrone made it 4-2 with five minutes to go, stabbing home from close range after Kepa fumbled.

…maybe Alan was right after all.

“Bloody hell, we are 4-2 up, why are we all as nervous as hell?”

Wolves appealed for a penalty. The referee did not give it. VAR did not give it.

What a fucking non-story.

With six minutes of extra-time signalled, we found ourselves clock-watching.

“Come on ref, blow up.”

In the final minute, Michy controlled a bouncing ball, and fed in Mount in the inside-left channel. With ridiculous ease, he turned his defender and slotted home.

5-2.

Memories of the 5-0 in 2003.

Game, set and match.

Beautiful.

At the end of the game, Tammy grabbed the match ball. What a time to be alive for this young lad. May he go from strength to strength.

We are all right behind him.

On Tuesday, we reassemble at Stamford Bridge for our first Champions League match since Barcelona away in March 2018.

I can hear the music now…

…see you there.

 

Tales From Out East

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 24 August 2019.

The three-day August Bank Holiday had arrived and it would begin with a lunchtime match at Carrow Road in the Norfolk city of Norwich. This would be our most easterly league match of the domestic season, and – for us in the south west of England – it meant that it would entail a five-hour trek through nine counties. I have driven up and back to Norwich on the same day on a couple of occasions, but those days are gone. As soon as the date of the game was confirmed, my hopeful booking of a Saturday night at a hotel a mere ten minutes’ walk from the ground came to fruition. There was no need to cancel and re-book. We were on our way.

And the three of us – LP, PD and little old me – were well happy. Norwich is a cracking city and we have enjoyed some good times there in recent memory.

I had left the office at 5pm on Friday evening with a skip in my step. We had managed to get through a busy two-week period at work, I was looking forward to the weekend ahead, and on a personal note, I had managed to lose a little more weight. I was the lightest for over three years. I have been a little inspired by a couple of good people among my Chelsea friends who have shed – pardon the pun – many pounds over the past year or so. A few weeks of eating sensibly and eating moderately had paid off and it felt great.

I was in a good place.

On Saturday morning, the alarm sounded at four o’clock. It would be a long day. I collected PD at 5am and Parky soon after. This weekend would be a bittersweet moment for Parky, and indeed for all three of us, since he is going in – at long last – on Thursday for his long-awaited hip operation. He will be in hospital in Bath for a few days, and out of action, football-wise, for five or six games.

So we’ll miss the old bugger, that is for sure.

If there was a lot of traffic on England’s roads on Saturday morning, we didn’t see much of it. Leaving so early, we were ahead of the game. The M4, especially, was super-clear. We stopped for a “Harry Ramsden’s” breakfast on the M11, pretty close to Stansted Airport where a few European adventures have started, and we bumped into four lads from our local area who were breakfasting too. And this was where the diet went off the rails for one day only. These football excursions are notorious for junk food. It is difficult to ask for a salad after a heavy away defeat.

Soul food is sometimes the only answer.

Just to the east of Cambridge there were signs for Babraham and then The Wilbrahams. I wondered if I might see a sign for Abraham. I rolled into the hotel car park in Norwich at about 10.15am. Luckily, we were only a five-minute walk from the “Coach & Horses” pub where we spent a good few hours before the “Peter Osgood Ten Year Anniversary” game in 2016. There were familiar faces in the packed beer garden. Although it was only mid-morning, the heat from the sun was relentless.

Talk turned to the game and the mood was of objective pragmatism.

“I’ll be honest; I’ll take a draw now. This won’t be easy. We just must not lose.”

There were doubts about N’Golo Kante’s fitness. That really would be a huge miss. In the beer garden, Parky met up again with the other lads from Wiltshire that we had seen earlier; Sir Les and Stretch from Melksham, plus two lads from Swindon who I first spotted in Baku and then en route to Dublin at Bristol Airport. PD and I sat with Julie and Tim from Bristol. The beers were going down well, but I was keen to head off to Carrow Road and be there in plenty of time. One of the security staff advised us of the route to the stadium and his accent was a thing to behold.

“Take a right down Stracey Road” seemed to have about twenty syllables and parts of it sounded like a whimpering dog. Norwich, like Bristol, is an urban accent that sounds decidedly rural. But we were on our way.

And it was turning out to be a cracking day in Norfolk.

Inside the stadium, fans were slowly filling up the yellow and green seats. Whoever chose these club colours for the team all those years ago did well. The vast fields which were visible on the roads in to the city, and certainly at this time of year, were painted with these most agricultural of hues and tones. Flags had been arranged on the seats in the home Barclay’s Stand to our right. I prepared myself for a photo opportunity. I reached our seats, just three rows from the front – but row B, work that out – and nodded a few “hellos” to distant acquaintances and shook hands with others. Glenn, watching at a bar in Frome, messaged to say that Pedro had been injured in the warm up and would consequently be subsequently replaced by Ross Barkley.

So here was the team :

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Mount – Barkley – Pulisic

Abraham

The kick-off time of 12.30pm approached. The Chelsea section of three thousand filled up. Our usual match day chants reverberated around the whole stadium as the minutes passed. I spotted Danny, originally from nearby Cambridge, but now a long-time resident of Massachusetts, and I called him over for a photo. Thankfully we were all in the shade; those in two of the home stands were going to be baked in the August sun. A special mention for Leigh, who was in the middle of a long weekend break with his loved ones in Bournemouth. On match day, Chelsea came calling and he made the four-hundred and sixty return trip to see us play.

“Top marks.”

With a couple of minutes remaining, the locals waved their colourful flags both sides of a large “Pride of Anglia” banner.

I commented to Gary :

“Bloody hell, they like their replica shirts here, don’t they?”

We were, of course, stood all match.

From the left : Alan, Gary, Parky, me.

Let’s go to work.

Many words have been spoken about our crisp white away shirt this season, but I soon fell in love with the socks; all blue with a simple red and white band. Classy. It reminded me of those blue socks that we sometimes used to wear at certain away games; Tottenham in 1987, when we wore blue / white / blue sprang to mind.

I spotted a few Norwich City fans wearing their jarring red away shirt. It looked horrible and seemed to be completely ill-judged.

Yellow. Green. Red.

No.

We began very brightly. Christian Pulisic had already seen some of the early ball, and when we broke at pace, a nice cross-field ball from Mason Mount fed the American on the right wing. He gathered the ball with ease and spotted the overlap of Cesar Azpilicueta. His long cross fell conveniently at the feet of Tammy Abraham who screwed it low past Tim Krul in the Norwich City goal. It was an excellent move and an excellent goal, and a real antidote to the tedious football of last season. How Tammy celebrated his first Chelsea goal. It was his well-cushioned lay-off in his own half that had released the ball to Mount. It was an exceptional team goal.

“Oh Tammy Tammy. Tammy Tammy Tammy Abraham.”

We roared his name.

Beautiful.

Sadly – and I hope that this is not a phrase that I will be repeating throughout this season – we soon conceded a soft goal. Our lead in fact lasted just three minutes. Norwich wriggled their way through our defence, with Emi Buendia allowed space. The ball was pushed out to Teemu Puuki and his low cross was turned in at the near post by Todd Cantwell, the ball nut-megging Kepa.

Fackinell.

The club anthem “On The Ball City” was bellowed by those to our right and it was quite a sound. Two goals in six minutes, a crackling atmosphere, what next?

We took control. In fact, we played some lovely football. Mount was often involved and it was the young midfielder who received a neat ball from a more central Pulisic, took a touch or two to glide past his defender and his finish, slightly curled, in to the goal was a joy to behold.

The young man was among the goals again and we loved his celebration in front of us all. I hope that I will not tire of the Frank Lampard comparisons as the season develops.

Seventeen minutes had passed, and the home team had rarely touched the ball since their goal. I liked the way that there was a variety in our attacks. Sometimes an overlap from wide and a traditional delivery in to the box. Sometimes some crisp passing on the deck. Sometimes a cross from deep.

From a corner, taken short, Ross Barkley played it way back to Emerson. His deep cross was met by a stooping header from Andreas Christensen, who forced a very fine point blank save from Krul. We were all over them. Shots from Barkley – neat but not overly productive – and Abraham kept the pressure on the home team. A nice run from Kovacic but he could not get his shot away. Jorginho took too many touches before being able to shoot.

There was a chant for Jorginho and hopefully his days as Maurizio Sarri’s poster boy are now forgotten.

We were bossing the game, but on the half-hour the match changed again. Norwich played through us from deep, and our defensive frailties were exposed once again. At the end of a crisp move, the ball was slid through to their main threat Puuki, whose low drive crashed past Kepa.

Ugh.

It was a poor goal to concede, and our young ‘keeper will be upset that his touch was not stronger.

“He needed stronger wrists there, Gal.”

I didn’t like the musical accompaniment to both of the home team’s goals. This is, horribly, standard practice at many stadia these days. Please keep it away from Stamford Bridge. Please let us be trusted to generate our own atmosphere.

Soon after, a quickly taken Norwich free-kick by Buendia resulted in an ugly, but effective, save from Kepa who did well to save the rebound from Grant Hanley. We then returned to our attacking patterns and there were a couple of late chances, including a blocked Pulisic effort after a deep ball from Barkley.

At the break, it was all square. It seemed that the home team had only enjoyed a handful of chances, whereas we had dominated.

Soon into the second period, a fine ball from Jorginho found Pulisic in the inside right channel. He possibly took one too many touches and the angle worked against him. His low shot rippled the side netting. The game drifted a little and I felt that it became a little scrappy. The team were not as dynamic as in the first-half. I hoped for no Leicester-style fade. The sun was still beating down though. There was no air. I was glad that I was watching from the cooler shadows.

We worked a fine opening for Emerson after some crisp and incisive passing, and our impressive Brazilian found himself in the same position as he did against United at Old Trafford. This time, his effort stayed low and Krul easily saved. A shot from Barkley was saved by Krul. Although chances were rarer during this second period, we were still dominating. In a rare Norwich attack, the ever-dangerous Puuki shimmied into space inside our box but hit straight at Kepa. The ‘keeper then released the ball early, rolling it to Barkley. He passed it square to Kovacic who – beautifully – slid the ball in to the path of a central raid from Abraham. He shifted the ball on to his right and hit a low belter past Krul.

I took a photo just after the impact and it is one of those shots where, in the follow through, his whole body is airborne.

Whack.

Oh how we celebrated that, and how Tammy did too. He jumped high and was soon mobbed by his team mates.

The Norwich manager was heard to utter “Farkenell.”

We had our noses in front once again and we were threatening our first league win of the season.

“OH TAMMY TAMMY.”

We did get the ball in the net again, but it looked like a foul on Krul to be honest. Hardly anyone in the Chelsea section celebrated.

It went to VAR.

How tedious.

Two loud chants from the away end.

“FUCK VAR.”

“What the fuck is going on?”

No goal.

A strong run from Godfrey – “do you think I might be excused?” – resulted in a slight scare, and then the same player rattled the Chelsea bar from the resulting corner. In the last action of an entertaining game, Barkley shot from distance but the ball slid past the near post.

At the final whistle, there was a mixture of relief and joy. All eyes were on Tammy. He looked drained but ecstatic. A heady mixture.

It was indeed a day of Wilbrahams, Babrahams and Abrahams after all.

And then the focus was on Frank Lampard, looking neat in a navy polo and track suit, as he hugged his players and slowly strode over to us. We didn’t get this engagement with Sarri last season. In Norwich, here was a really special moment. I used to love the fist-pumping and maniacal stares from Antonio Conte, and this was the Lampard version. His wide smile celebrated our first league win of the season, and his first win as the Chelsea manager.

It was bloody lovely.

We took our time leaving Carrow Road. There were a few pitch side chats. I was impressed with Mason Mount, and all three of our goals were absolute beauties. I think that Mateo Kovacic has been one of our most consistent players and he again played well, breaking up play and grinding away in midfield. There are defensive question marks, but we knew that.

We walked back to the hotel, freshened-up and donned a change of clothes. We took a quick cab up to “The Ribs Of Beef.” This is a cracking pub on the banks of the River Wensum that we visited in 2017/18. It’s a beauty. We got stuck in to some Peronis, and – quite unintentionally, but perfectly – met up with Tim and Julie again, and they became an honorary Chuckle Bother and Chuckle sister for the evening. We happily celebrated a late – late! – winner for Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, and the post-match giggles continued as we devoured some curries at a nearby Indian.

Good times, good people.

It was a blast.

There was a G&T nightcap in the hotel bar, but at just after 10pm – and after being awake for eighteen hours – it was time to call it a night.

I slept well.

Our next game is on Saturday at three o’clock at home to Sheffield United, but – before that – we have the most exciting day of the summer.

The Champions League draw will take place at 5pm next Thursday.

Happy days.

 

Tales From A Happy New Season

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 18 August 2019.

So there we were. Four of us in our row, re-united at Stamford Bridge for the first time since the Watford game towards the tail end of last season.

From the left, facing the pitch; myself, Alan, Glenn and PD.

PD has been sitting alongside us since inheriting dear Tom’s season ticket midway through 2015/16, but the other three of us have been season ticket holders in The Sleepy Hollow since the first game of 1997/98.

So, our twenty-third year of sitting together, and always in our own seats. We never swap around. That wouldn’t be right, would it? I love my seat – number 369 – as it is right next to some steps. I am not hemmed in. I don’t have to whisper an apologetic “’scuse me” as I get up to turn my bike around. And I can jump up onto the little viewing platform to my left, should the gravity of the occasion warrant it, to rigorously celebrate a goal. I have some memorable moments within those few square yards. You had better believe it.

In front were Albert and Paul, themselves season ticket holders like us from the glorious summer of 1997. Behind us, other pals dotted around.

Rousey, Lee, Mick, the two Robs and Alex, Frank, Tim, Gary, Dane, Nick, Big John in the front row, The Sleepy Hollow’s some-time cheer-leader (the dent in the advertising hoarding is his sole responsibility), Mark, Gary…and several whose names are not known to us even after all these years, we are English after all.)

There were a few empty seats in our section, but not many.

We were all in early. I was in at about 4pm, just after having a lovely photo with Andy, my long-time mate from Yorba Linda in Southern California, and one of the two Robs outside the West Stand, under Peter Osgood’s gaze.

In the last quarter of an hour before the kick-off, the stadium rapidly filled and – with it – came an increase in noise levels, of anticipation, of excitement. I am not sure if the atmosphere could have been cut with a knife because they, along with selfie-sticks, flares, cans, air horns and celery are banned.

But you get my drift.

The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely.

No surprises, it had been a lovely day thus far.

We had set off from our home town early; eight o’clock early. Within five minutes of parking up near Queens Club, I soon bumped into Eck from Glasgow and then Rob from Essex. I can walk around my home town for an hour and see nobody that I know. On match day at Chelsea, it is a vastly different story. Over the course of the day, I would meet around one-hundred fellow Chelsea devotees. It is a lovely feeling. To many I simply shook their hands and wished them a “happy new season.”

We met up with a reliable gaggle of friends – Aroha and Luke from Harrow, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh – in “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge at just after 11am. It was a joy to be back. Kev and Rich had been present for the Watford game in May; it seemed like just five minutes ago that we were huddled around a table a few yards away from where we were now ensconced.

Aroha, Luke and little old me reminisced about Baku and the time our pub reverberated to the same song for what seemed like an eternity :

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor, Lyon down to Rome. Tottenham get battered everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was talk of desired destinations in the Champions League. Luke thought we might well finish third in the group, but go all of the way to Gdansk and win back-to-back Europas. You read it here first.

PD and Parky were just happy to be knocking back some lagers. Aroha, Glenn and PD ordered roasts. The chat continued – but mainly the laughs continued.

Football was back.

And it felt bloody marvellous.

We then caught the tube up past Fulham Broadway to West Brompton and eventually met up with Daryl, Alan, Gary, Duncan, Lol – and a few others, unplanned, Ray and his daughter Gaby, Tom, Woody, some just nodding acquaintances – in The Old Oak, only the second time that I have ever visited it. Capacity was a big issue though, and it was a strict “one out, one in” policy. I sauntered over to where four of the lads were waiting to be allowed in, and I quipped “fackinell, if Tommy Murphy leaves, all four of you can enter.”

Daryl soon retorted –

“Done that joke five minutes ago, mate.”

What a giggle.

Inside the stadium, the minutes ticked away towards kick-off. Aroha and Luke had spent three hours of their Saturday morning along with a dozen other supporters arranging mosaics for The Shed’s supporters to create a chequered mosaic before kick-off, to be augmented by a huge “tifo” – banner – to honour the return of Frank Lampard to SW6. In truth, it was his fourth homecoming since his last game for us at Stamford Bridge in 2014.

January 2015 – in the colours of Manchester City, a ridiculous moment.

February 2017 – as a guest at half-time, suited and elegant, and able to receive absolute adoration.

October 2018 – as the manager of Derby County, but with banners to honour his Chelsea past.

Our team had been announced of course. There was a surprise, in my mind and many others’ – that Frank Lampard had chosen Olivier Giroud over Tammy Abraham, especially after all of the positive noise emanating from the manager, and elsewhere within the club, about how we need to back the striker after Tammy’s unfortunate penalty miss against Liverpool in Istanbul.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Kante – Jorginho

Pedro – Mount – Pulisic

Giroud

In the pub, we had discussed how to pronounce Christian’s name. I had presumed that it mirrored the pronunciation of Stanic, Matic, Ivanovic, Jokanovic and Kovcic.

“Pull-a-sitch.”

Oh no. My good made JR from Michigan confirmed that the natives of the US were instead opting for “Pewl-a-sick.”

Righty-oh.

As long as nobody calls him “Pool-o’-sick.”

Not good.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture as the teams entered the pitch. Way up on the orange brick of the hotel and apartment were two new additions; a square, slightly blurred, photo from The Shed circa 1982 – if I have to guess, Tottenham at home in the FA Cup – and I had to note that the photo hardly embraces the ethos of diversity that the club wants to foster inn 2019.

All of the faces were male, all apart from one was white.

There was also a photo of Kerry Dixon wining a header against Watford at home in 1984; another odd ‘photo.

Still, it sure beats “Thrilling Since 1905.”

There were flames to add – or detract – to our moment of seeing the team stride across the pitch. The mosaics were raised. The banner unfurled.

“Welcome Back Super Frank.”

Bizarrely, the additional spot lights under The Shed and under the Matthew Harding Upper were on, despite it being an August afternoon.

Frank went smart casual with a fetching white tracky top and royal blue bottoms. He looked ten times the part compared to Sarri, the paraffin.

We were wearing the shirt of a thousand roof supports while Leicester City – and a fair few of their fans – were wearing a light pink shirt, and it looked alright but nothing more.

The game began.

And how. We were on fire. Not the chess-like moves of the previous regime. But high-tempo action, with the crowd involved and loving it. We were all so pleased to see Kurt Zouma looking far more relaxed in his first few touches than at Old Trafford. And we applauded those touches. As we should. It was a very energetic start indeed. Very early on, Pedro slammed a shot just wide of The Shed End goal, with many in the crowd thinking that a goal had been scored. There was a shot from the lively Mason Mount, whose inclusion had surprised me too.

On six minutes, Casper Schmeichel gently rolled the ball out to Wilfred Ndidi, but the central defender dillied and dallied, dallied and dillied, lost his way and didn’t know where to roam. Mount pounced and robbed the defender before steadying himself before a potential stumble and prodded the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Suffice to say, Stamford Bridge roared.

The players raced over to Parkyville.

Alan looked at me.

“They’ll have to come at us naaar.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

We laughed and Alan gave me a lovely hug.

“It’s fucking great to be back, innit?”

“It fucking is mate.”

A lovely moment.

“Hopefully no VAR.”

“Nah.”

Ah…VAR.

We all just hoped and prayed that we were in for a VAR-less afternoon.

Because we all fucking hate it.

On ten minutes, not nine as planned, a sizeable section of the crowd sang in praise of Tammy Abraham.

Good work everyone.

We played some lovely stuff in the first twenty minutes, with everyone on song. The noise was good, if not constantly thunderous, and there was a lovely vibe. Our next real chance again fell to the youngster Mount, but his snap header was straight at Schmeichel. A yard either side and we might have been two to the good. A shot from Kante was blocked close in.

Watching Kante is a joy.

I shared my thoughts with Alan.

“I don’t want to talk in clichés about black athletes, but Kante looks so graceful, his limbs are so loose, he has such perfect balance. He glides over the surface of the pitch.”

Until midway through the half, we had oozed confidence, and our play was warmly appreciated. At that point, Pedro – energetic as ever –  and Pulisic – neat and tricky – swapped wings.

There is a joke there, surely, about a Christian right winger from the United States, but I am buggered if I can think of one.

Leicester, on the other hand, had been rank, just voyeurs of this wonderful blue movie. They had hardly touched the ball. Our relentless pressure on them once they had the ball was impressive.

Please note that I am trying to avoid, like the plague, the word “press” – the buzzword of the moment – in these reports. I will try to find alternatives. Oh, and “block” too.

Leicester slowly awoke from their stupor, though. They began moving the ball and threatened with one or two rare attacks. Jamie Vardy is always a threat. I certainly felt that we needed the all-important second goal. But as Leicester improved, we seemed to stall. It looked like we needed a second wind.

However, at the break, the home fans were pretty contented. Claude Makelele was briefly introduced to us all as he stepped on to the pitch. There were a few words. Bless him.

The away team began the second half by far the livelier, and I waited for them to fade. But to be fair to them, they never did. With Vardy always pushing into space, James Maddison began to shine in the inside-left channel. He really impressed me as the second period developed. On one occasion, he rounded an unsure Kepa, but was unable to finish. The warning signs had certainly been sounded and the warning shots were not far behind.

A rare Giroud header at the Matthew Harding did not trouble Schmeichel. Leicester kept attacking us.

For Fox’ sake.

An effort from Hamza Choudray was saved by Kepa, a Maddison effort was swept across the face of the goal.

I held my head in my hands.

On the hour, Tammy replaced Giroud and he was warmly applauded as he took to the field. We all urged him on at every opportunity and, as we tend to do with our youngsters, overly-applauded his every touch.

Positive discrimination? I guess so.

On sixty-six minutes, though, that man Maddison looped a fine corner into the danger area and Ndidi rose to head the ball, way too easily, into the goal.

Did he celebrate?

Yes, Ndidi.

We sighed.

“Free header.”

The away team were emboldened now, absolutely bursting with confidence, with the two danger men Vardy and Maddison spurning golden chances.

“They’re ripping us to shreds, here.”

With twenty minutes to go, Willian replaced the fitful Pulisic and Kovacic replaced Jorginho. Our play didn’t really get the jolt that we were hoping for. We stumbled and bumbled along. Our play had certainly dropped off from the first quarter of the game. Was this due to the extended play in Istanbul? Almost certainly. Leicester still kept raiding away.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Willian was particularly disappointing in his twenty minutes on the pitch. Wearing the vaunted number ten shirt might may well be hazardous for him if our expectations continue to be dashed. A terrible corner here, a misplaced pass there.

Must do better.

If only we could meld together the positive attributes of Pedro and Willian (oh, I await the negative comments).

Tammy toiled away, but his only run into the channels was when he forlornly chased a back-pass. He tried, but had no service. One loose shot was blazed ridiculously high.

“How many minutes’ extra time?”

“Hopefully not many. Blow up ref!”

In the last heart-in-stomach moment, Kepa raced out to, just, clear before Vardy could pounce. It summed up the day.

We were grimly hanging on.

There were, dear reader, a few boos at full-time.

No words.

No fucking words.

On the walk out of the stadium, across the forecourt, I spoke briefly with Mark, a fellow-dweller of The Sleepy Hollow.

“I bet loads of people, fans, are giving Frank grief right this very minute. But we’re not experts. We need to get off his back, we need to give him time, we need to let him breath.”

It had been an odd game. We began like a shooting star, but one which soon fizzled out. Leicester City had been well worth the point. In truth, they could’ve won it.

But our first point was on the board.

Next up is Norwich City on Saturday lunchtime.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From Reading, Writing And Arithmetic

Reading vs. Chelsea : 28 July 2019.

After a hiatus of a fortnight, my season was back on track. I was heading seventy miles east for a Sunday afternoon friendly against Reading. And while Glenn was on the beach in Dorset and while PD was on the piss in Somerset, my loyal travelling companion Lord Parky was coming with me to Royal Berkshire. At about 11am, I collected him from Parky Towers and our season started to gather momentum. He was pleased to see me – and vice versa – and we were soon on our way.

I had begun the day with a breakfast at the local McDonald’s in Frome. These McBreakfasts tend to start all of our trips to watch Chelsea and they feel like an essential part our regular match day experience these days. I am sure that this was my first such meal since last season and, as such, it honestly felt like some sort of quasi-religious ceremony, maybe like some sort of communion, what with it being a Sunday. The breaking of the bread and all that. Not so much the last supper as the first breakfast.

I explained all of this nonsense to His Lordship and he looked at me as if to say “you need to get out more.”

Thankfully, I was and so was he.

We were on our way to the Madejski.

I’ve never really enjoyed the four previous visits to the Reading’s stadium. We hurtle past it every time we drive to London. It’s therefore a familiar sight. And it is too close to home to feel like a credible away trip. The stadium is stranded out on the edge of Reading, close to the M4. And we would be silly to head into the town centre and then have to come back out again. The stadium itself is set among car dealerships, retail parks, offices and hotels, and there are no watering holes nearby. It’s a typically anaemic experience. It’s not my favourite stadium, although it is far from the worst.

When I first visited it in 2003/4 – a midweek League Cup game – I remember liking it. It was a little different to the other new builds such as at Derby, Southampton and Middlesbrough. The seating tiers undulated a little, there were odd angles. On that night, with us playing in the first of our never-ending supply of black away kits, we won 1-0 with a goal from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

2003

My next visit was in 2006/7 and was full of notoriety. This was Reading’s first season in the top flight, and although we won 1-0, the game will forever be remembered for the awful foul on Petr Cech by Stephen Hunt after just twenty seconds, which resulted in our great ‘keeper being stretchered off and missing around three months of football. Later in that game, Carlo Cudicini was injured by Ibrahima Sonko. None other than John Terry played in goal for us for the closing minutes. Reading’s Andre Bikey and Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel were sent off. We won 1-0 with a goal from Frank Lampard, but it was an insane afternoon of football. Things took a turn for the worse when I returned to my car to find that it had been broken into and a few personal effects had been stolen. Not a great day at the office, despite the win.

2006

The following season in 2007/8, it was another midweek visit. We went 1-0 down in the first half to a Bikey goal, but came back to won 2-1 with goals in the second-half from Frank Lampard and a long-range effort from Didier Drogba. There were great celebrations in the away end that night.

2007

Our last visit was in 2012/13, and was typical of our results at times that season. We were coasting 2-0 with goals from that man Frank Lampard – goal number one hundred and ninety-six for us, and pictured – and Juan Mata. We then let in two very late goals to draw 2-2, and Rafa Benitez was never more unpopular. It was a game that we should have seen out. Sigh.

2013

For our game this summer, we were given 2,200 and the £10 tickets were snapped up.

I avoided the tiresome M4 for the short hop to Reading and drove along the A4. We reached Hungerford just after mid-day and decided to drop into The Bear Hotel. There had been pints in Dublin, but this felt like the first real drink of the season.

“Cheers.”

This Chelsea pre-season consisted of seven games in all sorts of far flung places.

Dublin.

Tokyo.

Reading.

Salzburg.

Moenchengladbach.

I don’t know of anyone from the UK who went out to the games in Japan. I know a few did Dublin, a few are going over to Austria and Germany. But this might be a long old season and holidays need to be saved. Not only was this a very squeezed close-season for the players, this was my shortest summer break ever. The game in Baku was in late May and the game in Dublin was only fifty-two days later.

“No rest for the wicked.”

Out in the beer garden, we enjoyed the drinks despite being attacked by a few wasps. It was a cracking day. Just right.

I was parked-up in one of the official car parks at the Madejski at about 1.30pm. Perfect.

We made our way around to the away end. I had never approached the stadium from the north before, so at least I saw something different of the locale this time. It reminded me a little of the Bolton stadium where we won the league in 2005. We spotted the two Robs drinking outside the home stand and joined them. Although it was both of their wedding anniversaries – a thirty-fifth and a second – they were more than happy to be watching Chelsea on this sunny day in Berkshire. We moved around to the away turnstiles, and this is where it went momentarily wrong.

I was asked to have my bag searched, and was stopped from taking my Canon SLR into the stadium.

“But this is a friendly.”

“Copyright.”

I am not completely sure what my hackles are, but I felt them rising.

What to do? The steward told me to retrace my steps and see if the adjoining hotel could check it for the duration of the game. So, back I went. I politely asked at the reception if I could leave my bag there, but as I was not staying at the hotel, I had no choice but to walk all of the way back to the car. I was fuming. I spoke to a chief steward.

“How come there are Chelsea queuing up to get in the home end?”

He looked at me incredulously, as if I was a moron.

“It’s a friendly!”

“So why can’t I bring my camera in, then? It’s ridiculous.”

His colleague agreed.

“But rules are rules. Sorry, mate.”

I walked back to the car, muttering “I hate modern football” to myself.

Evidently, there were Chelsea going to be located all throughout the home areas of the Madejski, and this was not deemed by anyone to be a safety threat of any description. And yet I was stopped from taking my camera in to a friendly.

For fuck sake.

Outside influences keep chipping away at my enjoyment of this beautiful game. It is relentless.

So, I wasted half an hour trotting back to the car. At 2.50pm, I eventually entered the stadium, by which time there had been an announcement that the game had been delayed until 3.15pm.

“Poxy club.”

Parky was still with the two Robs, and I explained my tale of woe. Inside, the place was slowly filling up. We were in row four, quite near the goal. It was lovely to see so many friends. We were stood next to Andy, who I last saw in Baku.

“Don’t know why they just didn’t give us the whole end.”

I agreed with him.

I did find it odd that Chelsea were allowed in the home areas, and I found it odder that a few were wearing Chelsea gear. It seemed that the normal rules of behaviour were being ignored. Our usual away day companion Gary was a row or two behind us.

The teams came onto the pitch and we were wearing last season’s all yellow, thus avoiding a colour clash with either the new blue or white shirts.

The team lined up in a 4-2-3-1.

Caballero

Zappacosta – Christensen – Tomori – Alonso

Drinkwater – Bakayoko

Kenedy – Barkley – Pulisic

Giroud

With no proper camera, I relied on my ‘phone.

With Chelsea attacking the far end, and with me watching from a low angle, I found it a little difficult to track all of the movements of our players. These pre-season games are important for us fans to get back into it again. The old voice boxes need to get used to the workload ahead. The atmosphere was OK, but nothing special, as the game began. My throat survived a few rasping renditions of “Carefree” and I was back in the game.

It was, of course, my first sighting of the American Wunderkind Christian Pulisic who took up a position on the left wing. I have to admit that there were a couple of instances when, only naturally, I had a mental image of Eden Hazard appearing as if by magic and causing havoc.

But those days are gone.

There were a few early flourishes from the home team. On just thirteen minutes, Reading moved the ball well inside our defensive third and, after the ball broke to Josh Barrett out on their left, we watched as he adeptly lobbed the ball over Caballero.

Here was the first “fackinell” of the season.

The home crowd – especially the five hundred strong section to our left, who were all oh-so young – roared. There had been the usual “we support our local team” stuff from them in the first few minutes – a song that I remember well from all the previous visits – and they were now in their element.

Gits.

We struggled to get going and the game ambled along. We created a couple of half-chances. On twenty-two minutes, Olivier Giroud was fouled in a central area. Ross Barkley waited and waited. I spotted that the ‘keeper was marginally too far to his left. I predicted a sweeping curving shot over the wall and into the corner to the ‘keeper’s right.

We waited some more.

As Barkley struck and as the ball began its ascent I firmly spoke.

“That’s in.”

We watched as the ball curled just as I had expected it to. We roared. The woman to my right turned to me and smiled as if to say “you were bloody right.”

Get in.

It was only Reading. It was only a friendly. It was only a glorified training game. But a beautiful goal needs to be celebrated.

Lovely stuff.

Pulisic began to grow into the game with a few nice touches.

The young American was at times playing on the same part of the Madejski Stadium pitch as Boris Johnson occupied when the charismatic toff / shambolic buffoon (take your fucking pick) made that ridiculous rugby-tackle on the poor German player Maurizio Gaudino in a charity football match in May 2006. The look on team mate Ray Wilkins’ face was a picture, but the stricken Gaudino was an Eton mess after that bone-crunching attack. Maybe Stephen Hunt had watched Boris and had been inspired. The lunge on Cech followed in the October of 2006. Either way, what a Berkshire Hunt.

Reading rallied a little, but then Giroud headed wide from a deep Barkley free-kick.

There were a few Chelsea chants.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

The hideous “We’ve won it all.”

Just before half-time, Kenedy – who had looked eager to impress – slammed a shot wide. A few minutes later the same player took a swipe from outside the box. The ball seemed to move in the air, like a knuckleball pitch in baseball – and the Reading ‘keeper either misread it, saw it late, or saw it and still couldn’t gather it.

We were 2-1 up at the break.

There was time to say “hello” to a few friends at the break.

In the second-half, only Caballero remained.

As with the first-half against St. Pat’s, the team lined up in a diamond 4-4-2.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Pedro – Kovacic

Mount

Batshuayi – Abraham

Matt Miazga played the second-half for Reading. Charlie Adam played too. Where’s Boris Johnson when you need him?

There were defensive frailties in our ranks in the opening period and Reading equalised after only four minutes. A long cross found Mark Morrison unmarked and able to tap in at the far post. As with the first Reading goal, the stadium PA boomed out a dance track and the muppets joined in.

…if that ever happens at Chelsea.

Sigh.

The game opened up now, and we began to play some sweet stuff. From one of many second-half corners, David Luiz controlled a ball well, brought it down, touched it out from his feet and curled a majestic effort against the bar. It deserved to go in. Sublime.

Just before the hour, Tammy Abraham advanced from deep, but when his cross was intercepted, Mason Mount pounced and coolly slammed the ball past the Reading ‘keeper. There was something Lampardesque about that finish. Almost uncanny.

I kept urging both Tammy and Michy to be selfish and attack their defenders. They were full of endeavour. Kovacic looked strong. We were moving the ball well, but were using fewer touches than last season to reach dangerous areas. Pedro looked neat. His smile is so infectious.

On the hour, a Reading mistake gifted Mount a second goal. The ‘keeper Walker erred, kicking straight to Michy who passed to Mount to slot home.

A new chant was aired.

“Ole, ole. Ole, ole. Mason Mount Mount Mount. Mason Mount Mount Mount.”

Simple but effective.

Jamie Cumming replaced Wily in our goal.

On seventy minutes, Reading sliced through our defensive and Sam Baldock finished a fine move. There were further chances for us to increase our lead including an acrobatic effort from Tammy, but the game ended with no more goals.

Frank – our Frank – came over to us at the end and he was serenaded in fine style. I enjoyed the game in the main, but it was a typical pre-season run out which lacked real intensity. But it was another good excuse to see some friends, to have a beer and to get the vocal chords warmed up for the rigours ahead.

I am not – honestly – reading too much into any of these pre-season games. They are, let’s be honest, little more than glorified training sessions. And I think that Frank, Jody and the management team are paying more attention to the stuff that goes on behind the scenes in the confines of Cobham and elsewhere. The attentiveness of the players. The willingness of the players to try new things. The interaction within the squad. The discussions. Their confidence. The body language. The small details.

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So, that was Reading.

This has been me writing about Reading.

And if my arithmetic is not mistaken, this was a game that involved twenty-two Chelsea players and it also marked the third game in a row in which I have seen Chelsea score four.

And it all adds up. Frank looks in control. I think we are in good hands.

Sadly, we now have to wait two whole weeks for the league opener at Old Trafford.

But I cannot bloody wait.

Who’s going?

If you are, you are a lucky bugger.

I’ll see you there.

The Bear Hotel, Hungerford, Berkshire.

 

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.