Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

Qarabag vs. Chelsea : 22 November 2017.

Sandwiched between two Saturday away league games at West Bromwich and Liverpool was a European away game that had tantalised myself – and many others – ever since the Champions League draw way back in August. Our game in Baku in Azerbaijan against Qarabag represented Chelsea Football Club’s longest ever trip for a UEFA game. Only the two games in the World Club Championships in 2012 in Yokohama, Japan – FIFA not UEFA – were further away from our home in SW6, with friendlies on the west coast of the US, South America and Australia not included.

On the evening of the draw, I booked myself onto an Aeroflot flight to Baku, via Moscow, and it soon became apparent that many good friends had decided to travel too. Only a few were going direct. Most had decided to go via Istanbul, but a fair few had chosen the Moscow route.

I had missed the last minute drama of the Michy Batshuayi winner in Madrid, but was there in Rome five weeks ago to see us lose 3-0. Bizarrely, Qarabag’s draw in Madrid that night dampened the pain of that loss to Roma. A win in Baku would see us through to the knock-out phase. It added a little drama – if it was needed – to this most lengthy of adventures.

Did this trip need a little drama to add a certain piquancy?

I was in two minds.

I have recently begun reading a book written by the revered Paul Theroux – “The Deep South” – which details his travels, experiences and insights of that fabled sub-section of the United States. In one of the first chapters, he details how travel books often engineer some sort of false logistical conflict in order to add a degree of tension and drama to the narrative. I have often thought that this was true of television travel documentaries – probably my favourite type of TV programme if I am honest – and I lay the blame solely at the feet of Michael Palin. His ground-breaking “Around The World In Eighty Days” travelogue from 1988 was enjoyable but there were endless “will I catch the correct plain/train/coach/car?” scenarios which I could not help but think were added to give the series an extra edge and a sense of danger.

Theroux was having none of this and it struck a chord. Certainly travelling within the US – he was to drive by car from the small towns of the Carolinas, through Appalachia and down to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico – there was surely no recognisable conflict. He was wealthy, he owned a good car, the fuel was cheap, the roads were wide and easy to navigate. There was no need to add any drama to his movement through the area.

However, on the day before I was set to leave for Baku, my friend Dutch Mick reported of a nightmarish experience in Moscow. He was not allowed on the waiting plane to take him to Baku. Then, once arrived in Baku – ten hours late – his son had paperwork issues with his Azerbaijani visa and had to wait for a new application, but there were subsequent issues with that too. I was then horrified to read that he commented that Aeroflot often cancel flights to Baku without any notice.

“Oh bollocks.”

Of course there are always usual worries linked to foreign travel – those horrid doubts about having neglected to pack that all important passport, visa, credit card – but as I left work on the Monday, I remembered how one friend had lost both his passport and wallet and another pal had lost his passport in Rome. Then came this extra worry of cancelled flights. I had no margin for error; my flight was only getting in to Baku at 5am on the day of the game. It is fair to say that I felt myself remembering Paul Theroux’ comments about enforced conflicts with a wry smile.

I hoped that the only conflict within this particular edition of my travels with Chelsea would be result-related and not due to any logistical snafu.

The English portion of the trip began well. I set off from my home in Somerset at 9am. At just after midday, I had parked my car in my friend Nick’s driveway in the small Berkshire town of Twyford. Although Nick has been going to Chelsea since that horrible relegation season of 1978/79, our paths have only recently crossed; in China of all places. We were over in Beijing for the Arsenal friendly in July. The Aeroflot flight took us out of London via Gatwick but back in via Heathrow; by parking at his place, potential problems from the English section of the trip were smoothed.

Nick’s wife was able to take us to Wokingham train station, from where we caught the hour long train to Gatwick. On that train journey, Nick and myself chatted relentlessly about our travels around Europe with Chelsea. Interestingly, our team’s performances were rarely mentioned; the buzz was all about foreign cities, unbelievable itineraries, excessive beer intakes, endless laughs and various “characters” that we both knew, of which Chelsea has many. Nick was full of tales and many brought a smile to my face.

He began one story by shaking his head and uttering the immortal words “I was sure I told her.”

One day, Nick received a text from his wife asking if he could pick up his son David from school in the afternoon as she would be busy with work.

He replied –

“I can’t. I’m in Bucharest.”

And he was, for our 2013 Europa League game. Classic.

Bearing this story in mind, plus a few others that reinforced the notion that Nick was as “football daft” as myself, I recalled the look that Nick’s wife gave me when I shook her hand back in Twyford.

“Here’s another bloody idiot.”

This would be my thirty-second trip abroad with Chelsea for a UEFA game. I was able to delve into a few of my personal memories. Off the top of my head, a top ten would be Munich 2012, Tel Aviv 2015, Turin 2009, Stockholm 1998, Barcelona 2012, Seville 1998, Lisbon 2014, Vienna 1994, Istanbul 2014 and Prague 1994.

There was time for a couple of pints at Gatwick. On the four-hour flight to Moscow, there were around twenty other Chelsea supporters. I wondered how many tickets we had sold; I hoped for at least one thousand.

Ah Moscow, bloody Moscow. After the memories of that damp and depressing evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, I swore never to return. But returning I was, and to the same Sheremetyevo airport too, although the Aeroflot terminal, built in 2010, was vastly superior to the now demolished northern terminal that we used in 2008. There was time for a few beers – Spaten, ah Munich – using some of Nick’s roubles from the Rubin Kazan game in 2013; the surly barman reminded me of the welcome we had from the locals on my only previous visit. Although it was around 11pm, all of the retail outlets were open – manned by bored shop assistants staring blankly at their mobile phones – and I was again reminded of how pervasive US commercial activity has proven to be; “Victoria’s Secret” and “Burger King” among others were peddling their wares in deepest Russia. A gaggle of Maribor players returning to Slovenia after their game against Spartak Moscow brushed past us. An enthusiastic Chelsea fan from Munich regaled us of his train trip from Southern Germany to Moscow for the 2008 Final; sixty hours there, sixty hours back. Suddenly Baku did not seem so far away.

I caught a little sleep on the Moscow to Baku leg. We touched down at bang on 5am. Outside, the night, everything dark and mysterious. We were quickly through the passport and visa check; “phew.” I exchanged some sterling for the local currency. The terminal was eerily quiet. A line of white taxi cabs was parked outside and the drivers seemed a little ambivalent to us. Eventually, we knocked back one driver who wanted 60 manat and finally negotiated a 25 manat cab into the city; this translated to around £12.

It was a quiet cab ride into town. We were both tired. The road was devoid of traffic. We wondered what was lying in wait. Baku seemed a beguiling city from afar. Soon, the cab driver took us straight past the oddly-named Olympic Stadium (I must have missed that one), which certainly reminded myself of the Allianz Arena in Munich; adjacent to the main road in to the city from the airport, and encased in a plastic skin. It looked stunning. The game would kick-off in fifteen hours. As the cab took us deep into the city, the buildings became more impressive.

Back in 2014, the furniture company for whom I work sent around seventy articulated trailers of workstations, chairs and storage cabinets to the city of Baku. We kitted out the twenty-five stories of the impressive Socar Tower. It was a huge project. Socar is the state-owned oil and gas company. Within ten minutes of landing in Azerbaijan, I had spotted my first Socar petrol station. As the cab neared our final destination in the city centre, not far from the promenade which overlooks the Caspian Sea, I was able to spot a large building bearing the name of the furniture installation company – Palitra – who were involved in the project. It brought a shudder; due to the intricacies of the export documentation required for exporting into Azerbaijan, which were an added burden to my already busy workload, the Socar project represented the most stressful time in my working life. I was certainly relieved when the tower was fully furnished and open for business. I so hoped to be able to set eyes on the tower, which is in the shape of a flickering flame, during my thirty-five hours in the city.

At about 6.30am, the cab driver deposited us right in the heart of Baku; Nick’s hotel was a few yards from the city’s “Hard Rock Café.”

My hotel – where my mates Alan and Gary, plus it would transpire, a few others – was not far away but the room was not ready until 2pm, so I crashed on the hard wooden floor of Nick’s hotel room for a couple of hours. At around 10am, I set off to collect my match ticket at the Grand Hotel, which was around a twenty-minute walk away. A Chelsea fan pointed me in the right direction. I wasn’t prepared for the very strong winds which blew leaves up off the roads and pavements. My bag on wheels thudded on the cobbled streets which lead up a slight hill. During those first few moments, my eyes were on stalks, taking it all in. I was impressed with the architecture; strong and formidable. I walked past small shops…clothes shops, fast food joints, small and intimate. The Grand Hotel was on a busy intersection. The cars flew down the hill but I soon noticed that, although lights were absent, cars always stopped once pedestrians stepped on to the zebra crossings.

My match ticket collected – 10 manat, or £4.50 – I was unsure what to do. Alan and Gary were on their way to the collection point too, but my phone was playing up. I decided to head back in to town, and soon spotted a Chelsea fan, Scott, sitting in a café on Fountain Square with another supporter. I joined him for a coffee. Outside, they were setting up stalls for a German-style market. A large Christmas tree overlooked the pale blue huts. Nearby were large KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds restaurants. The shops and eateries in this central square seemed very westernised. It reminded me of a small German city. Scott had arrived on the Tuesday; I soon wished that I had done the same.

And I was in a slight quandary. I was well aware that the city’s beers were cheap and the bars welcoming and plentiful. But I was sleep-deficient and I had a long day ahead. I wanted to see something of the city. I didn’t want to be tired and drowsy for the football. I wanted to be up relatively early on the Thursday for more sight-seeing. I pondered my options.

I imagined that if I chose to drop my bag at the hotel room and dive into some bars, my destiny might career out of my hands.

The risk of cheap alcohol was real.

I imagined myself stood next to a wheel of fortune and it spinning around, with an array of worrying options.

  1. Drink too much too early and – without food – become a burden, and manage to lose my wallet and match ticket.
  2. Drink too much, spend too much, lose debit card at an ATM, go back to hotel, sponge money off mates and get to game late.
  3. Drink too much and end up in a bar in the wrong part of town and struggle to get to the game in time.
  4. Drink too much, vomit over my jeans, end up in a dishevelled mess in a shop doorway.
  5. Drink too much, get on the metro, take the wrong train, end up miles from anywhere.
  6. Drink too much, simply go back to the hotel, miss seeing my mates, fall asleep, comatose.
  7. Drink too much, drop my camera, get annoyed, head back to the hotel room to charge up my phone/camera, fall asleep and miss game.
  8. Drink too much, fall asleep, wake up on Friday.
  9. Drink too little, but still get lost en route to the game, get in late.
  10. Drink too much and end up supporting Tottenham.

I decided in the circumstances to play it cool. I had drunk enough in Rome. This would be a chilled-out trip.

A young lad approached me on Fountain Square and interviewed me for either a) an Azerbaijan TV station, audience 5,000,000 or b) his YouTube channel, audience 7.

I briefly spoke about Chelsea, Qarabag and the city. Oh well, I knew about one of the three topics.

I reached the hotel, which was centrally-located on a pedestrianised shopping street with a mixture of local and Western brands. Above there were apartments with balconies. They love their balconies in Baku. Luckily, I was allowed into my room early at around midday. I hooked up my wifi; Alan had messaged me to say that he and Gary were out and about.

I slept, fitfully – I think I was too excited – and then went off on a personal tour of Baku for two and-a-half hours. I headed straight down to the promenade. I passed many high-end shops; Burberry, Boss, Lacoste. The wind was still howling. I crossed the busy road – used by the cars on the F1 circuit – and walked down to the steps which were being buffeted by a few small waves from the slate grey Caspian Sea. To the east were cranes, with new building development visible. To the west, the three flame towers dominated the vista, and they towered over the city. Beyond was the spindle of a TV tower. I headed up the hill – more impressive buildings, the warm yellow stone reminded of the Cotswolds – and edged around the walls of the old town. I dipped inside – I would return, I hoped, at length on the Thursday – and decided on a local meal. Just inside one of the gates, there is a row of around four wooden huts which house ridiculously small and intimate restaurants. Brian and Kev – the Bristol lot – spotted me and we chatted; the luck buggers had been in town since Monday.

I entered a small hut – a massive stone oven was right by the door – and the place was full of the atmospheric smoke from the wood which was being incinerated. I sat in a corner, the wind howling outside and rattling the windows, and ordered the national specialty – “plov” – which consisted of lightly scented boiled rice, tender lamb, tomato, onion and a small flat dumpling. Along with a huge slab of bread and a bottle of the local Xirdalan beer, it came to a mighty 12 manat or around £6. There was only one other person in my little section; a local man of around seventy years of age. I wondered what his life story involved. What was his history? I wonder if he had heard of Chelsea.

I took a leisurely walk back to the hotel, the night falling all around me.

I spotted a lone Chelsea fan. I was the first fellow-fan that he had seen all day. His travelogue was beset with “conflict”; he had been stuck in a two-hour traffic snarl-up in his home town and only just made the first of his two flights out to Baku. On the second flight, one of the passengers died. Bloody hell.

At around 6.30pm, Alan, Gary and myself – plus Pete and Nick – caught a cab to the stadium. The roads were full. Not long into the thirty-minute trip, Nick spotted that there were nine lanes of traffic, all going north. To our left, I spotted the magnificent Socar Tower, with the blue, green and red flames of the company logo flickering on the outside. It was a mightily impressive sight, at present the tallest in Baku.

The wind was blowing even stronger on the wide open approach to the stadium. I unravelled “VINCI PER NOI” and posed with it, making sure to grip it tight. I had visions of it flying off into the night.

There was a security check – bags through X-ray machines, a pat-down – and the surprisingly friendly police examined my banner for a few moments. It was allowed in. As there was an hour to kick-off, I left the others to enter, and I walked all of the way around the impressive stadium. It was certainly impressive alright. Towards our northern side, the light panels were dappled pink, orange and red, like a Cocteau Twins album. During the day, in the city, I had not seen a single Qarabag shirt or scarf. And yet there was an expected 67,000 sell-out expected. I had the distinct impression that the locals were jumping on this and treating it like a match involving a quasi-national team. Qarabag – exiled from a town that simply does not exist anymore in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of western Azerbaijan – usually play in a smaller stadium in Baku, but were playing this season’s Champions League games in this much bigger Olympic Stadium.

Inside, I made my way up to section 307. The lads had saved me a spot in the very front row. The stadium was marvelous, a photogenic delight. Three tiered on two sides, with two tiers behind the goals, it was fully encased. The athletics track meant that we were long way from the pitch, but it just felt like a proper stadium. It had its own design. Its own feel. Its own identity. The thousands of light jade seats soon filled. We spotted Dutch Mick a few rows behind us.

Down below us, a small knot of Qarabag supporters were in early, enthusiastically flying a few blue and white flags, and singing all sorts of songs. Throughout the game, many of them would be faced away from the pitch, encouraging others to sing. Football fans are a varied breed. Below us to our left, a gaggle of supporters wearing red were spotted. Maybe supporters of another team. If my prediction was right, this was a proper gathering of various clans.

The Chelsea team was displayed on the huge screens.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

So, no Alvaro Morata. I envisaged the front three swarming with pace at the Qarabag back line.

Just before the game began, we were treated to a cheesy Qarabag club anthem, and then the spectators in the huge stand to our left unveiled a couple of banners amid a sea of mosaics.

“FAR WAY FROM HOME BUT WHERE YOU BELONG.”

The stadium lit up with mobile phones being held aloft in the home areas, then the anthem and the teams. As the game started, a little rain fell. My jacket was warm but others were struggling. The home team in all black. Chelsea in dirty white.

In the first few moments, we started on the front foot but were soon shocked by a couple of Qarabag attacks. We watched in horror as the home team sliced through our defence like a hot knife through butter. The shot from Michel slammed against our crossbar with the defenders looking on aghast. Thankfully, the rebound was well wide. It was a real warning sign for sure. A fine block from Dave followed.

A header from David Luiz flew over the Qarabag bar. On twenty minutes, Eden Hazard pushed a ball through for Willian. As he advanced into the box, he was slightly nudged by a Qarabag defender. Down he went. The referee pointed to the spot and to be honest we were so far away that I was not so sure that the push had taken place inside the box. Next, the referee sent off the Qarabag defender, their captain Sadygov. The home fans were in uproar and I could see why. It seemed a soft penalty, and my eyes saw a covering defender too. Regardless, Eden rolled the penalty home.

Alan : “İndi onlar bizə gəlmək məcburiyyətində qalacaqlar.”

Chris : “mənim kiçik brilyantlar.”

Boos boomed around the stadium.

We were in control now. Pedro was busy. A Hazard header was straight at their ‘keeper. The Chelsea fans – officially 912 – struggled to make much noise but one song joined us all together.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, Willian combined beautifully with Hazard. Willian ran at the defence, played a ball to Hazard, who back-heeled the ball back to Willian. He stroked the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Game over? It certainly felt like it. Apart from that initial flurry in the first few minutes of the game, Qarabag had been no threat whatsoever. At half-time, thousands upon thousands of home fans – maybe not bona fide Qarabag supporters per se – left the stadium.

The temperatures dropped further as the second-half began. A few Chelsea supporters were spotted drinking pints of lager in the seats behind me; authentic too, not non-alcoholic. In this part of UEFA’s kingdom, normal rules apparently do not apply. Chelsea looked to increase the score and were in control. Pedro went close. Antonio replaced Marcos Alonso with Gary Cahill. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from the Qarabag keeper but was then replaced by Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard himself went very close to scoring, just staying onside but just steering his shot wide. The offside trap worked in Qarabag’s favour as a ball from Willian was touched on by Pedro to Azpilicueta. However, Dave had just wandered into an offside position; the resultant cross and goal from Morata was wiped off.

On seventy-three minutes, another weak penalty in my eyes; a slight tug from a defender brought Willian down. A few old-fashioned looks were exchanged in the away section. Cesc Fabregas needed two attempts to score, but score he did.

So, two pretty weak penalties and a sending-off in or favour. The tiresome Chelsea / UEFA conspiracy theorists might need a rethink.

Danny Drinkwater replaced N’Golo.

With five minutes to go, Willian – the man of the night – shimmied and stroked the ball to his right, making space. His fine shot thundered past the ‘keeper.

Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4

We were kept in for around thirty minutes. A gaggle of maybe fifteen Chelsea fans from Iraq – resplendent in Chelsea replica shirts, how quaint – appeared down below us, with a large banner. I bumped into Brian from Chicago right at the end; from one windy city to another, his trip was surely the longest of the night.

Outside, the gales were howling, but thankfully subsided as we walked around the stadium before catching a metro back to the centre. In our compartment, around six or seven local Chelsea fans were singing songs, if a little out of tune. I guess that there had been little pockets of non-UK based Chelsea fans dotted around the stadium. I would like to think that these took our total to over one thousand. Though I am sure some Chelsea fans would argue that these fans don’t count.

Back to Fountain Square at 12.30am, a kebab, and bed.

For a few lovely hours the following day – Thursday – I spent my time walking around the compact old town. It was a relaxing and chilled-out time. I walked to the top of Maiden Tower which offered fine views of the city, which rises quite dramatically from the shore of the Caspian Sea. I bumped into a few Chelsea fans, all heading back on the same 4.10pm flight as myself.

Down below, within a few square yards, various locals were going about their daily routines. Traders were setting their stalls up for passing custom – honey, confectionery, drinks, cakes, pots and pans, rugs, souvenirs – while four men were standing over a backgammon board, and making a considerable noise as they slapped the pieces down. A couple of young back-packers walked past. A model – ridiculously thin and with over-the-top make-up – was being photographed on one of the dusty streets, while three others waited their turn. Large wooden balconies towered over the scene before me. One of the flame towers peaked from a distance. Cars reversed with meticulous care along narrow streets. Space was at a premium. There was a call to prayer in a local Mosque.

This was Baku.

I darted inside a large restaurant. The friendly waitress guided me through the menu. The waiter looked like Andy Kaufman. I decided on stuffed aubergines, a salad, some lamb wrapped in vine leaves, another Xirdalan.

It was time to call it a day.

I met up with Nick and his mate James outside the Hard Rock Café. They sunk their beers and at 1.30pm we took a cab back to the airport. We had loved our short stay in Baku. It is a horrible cliché to say that the city is a city of contrasts. But it is both an ancient and increasingly modern city. If I was return in ten years, there is no doubt that I would witness a very different one. Oil rich and punching above its weight, Baku will surely become inundated with even more startling architecture as the years pass. A substantial area is already being built to the east of the city. I so hope that the very friendly locals don’t change for the worst.

We caught our flight to Moscow. We were homeward bound.

However, deep in the bowels of Sheremetyevo airport, for around thirty minutes, things became rather tense. I was at the back of the queue at the transfer desk, but did not recognise anyone from our flight. All of the signs were in Cyrillic text. Had I missed an announcement while I took two minutes to powder my nose in the gents? I was not sure of the time in Moscow. My mood grew dark.

Our flight was at 7.50pm. Our boarding time was 7.10pm.

I spotted a woman’s watch. It said 6pm. Phew.

“Is it six o’clock?”

“No, seven o’clock.”

With that, I pushed my way to the front of the transfer desk to force my way through. I looked to my right and around ten Chelsea fans were doing the same. An unsmiling Russian woman stamped my passport and I had made it.

“Thank fuck for that.”

That was enough conflict and drama for me thank you very much.

We landed at Heathrow at 9pm and I was soon hurtling along the M4. 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.

Over to you Qarabag.

Tales From Via Del Governo Vecchio

Roma vs. Chelsea : 31 October 2017.

I will never forget my first visit to the Eternal City of Rome.

July 1986. My twenty-first summer. I was there for barely twenty-four hours but it left a lasting impression.

Hot on the heels of my month of Inter-Railing around Europe in 1985, I again chose to spend the summer of the following year along similar lines. Whereas my ’85 Grand Tour had concentrated on central Europe – from Marseille in the south to Stockholm in the north and with many places in between – the 1986 edition had a decidedly Mediterranean feel to it. My travels took me to France, Spain, Italy and the Greek island of Corfu. And, typically, football was never too far away. On my quick dip in to Spain for the very first time of my life, I visited Barcelona and I made a bee-line for Camp Nou. It was the undoubted highlight of my day in the city. On the same trip, I visited the San Siro in my few short hours in Milan and that stadium thrilled me too. However, as I took a train from Pisa to Rome, for once football was not wholly dominating my thoughts.

Rome. Just the thought of such an ancient and interesting city had my nerves jangling and my heart racing.

I had visited Italy in 1975, 1976, 1979, 1980 and 1981 – all family holidays – and again in 1985, but this would be my first visit to the South of Italy. I can remember standing up in one of those old-style Italian train carriages with an aisle to one side and individual compartments, watching with increasing scrutiny at every passing sight on the way in to Rome and its marbled Termini station. The one thing that certainly sticks in my mind are those gorgeous and iconic pine trees which seem to flourish in the Rome hinterlands. I always used to think that they were olive trees, but the angled trunks and branches – seemingly altered by the wind, blown out of shape – and the floating canopy of leaves above are stone pines.

I arrived in Rome on a sunny afternoon. I deposited my ruck-sac at the train station and caught the subway down to The Colosseum. I was overwhelmed. It was, I suppose, the most famous stadium of them all. I had ticked off another one. From there, I embarked on a walking tour which saw me head past the ruins of the Roman Forum, the ostentatious Vittorio Emmanuelle monument, and then deeper in to the epicentre of the city – dusty, occasionally dirty, but deeply atmospheric – and over the deep gorge of the River Tiber and on to St. Peter’s Square and The Vatican, by which time the sun was setting and my desire for new sights and experiences had been fully satiated. That night, I slept rough in one of the waiting rooms at the train station alongside many other backpackers – I was on a typical shoestring budget – and as I awoke early the next morning, after a “wake-me-up wash” with cold water, I had one Roman sight remaining. Not The Pantheon. Not the Trevi Fountain. Not the Spanish Steps. Not Piazza del Popolo.

Yes, you have guessed it.

The Olympic Stadium.

I took a metro to the Vatican again, and chose to walk the two miles or so north to the stadium, thus saving money on buses. I recollect walking through the complex of buildings which were purposely constructed for the 1960 Olympics. I don’t remember seeing the infamous Mussolini obelisk on Foro Italico, but I certainly recall the heroic statues of ancient Romans which surrounded the practice running track adjacent to the main stadium. I was lucky enough to spot a chap who was working in the grounds of the stadium, and he allowed me up into the seating area. It will surprise nobody that I took a few photographs. The whole stadium was a lot shallower than today. There was a slight roof on the main Monte Mario stand opposite, which housed proper seats. Elsewhere were bench seats; a clean and cool light cream if memory serves, with curved terracing at both ends. The sun beat down. Everything was quiet. The games came racing back. Liverpool beating Borussia Moenchengladbach in the 1977 European Cup Final. The 1980 European Championships Final; West Germany defeating Belgium. I remembered the infamous Roma vs. Liverpool European Cup Final only two years previously. I let my imagination run away with me for a few moments. Soon, the chap was shouting for me to leave, but those fleeting glimpses inside the still bowl were wonderful.

There is always something about a dormant stadium.

With my visiting complete – more cultural sights would have to wait for further visits, of which there have been plenty – I returned to Termini and caught an early afternoon train to Brindisi and on to Corfu.

My first twenty-four hours in Rome were complete.

But Rome stirred me then, and I just knew that it would stir me in 2017 too.

I only managed two hours of sleep before I was awake for the drive to Stansted Airport in the very small hours of Monday morning. I collected PD at 3am and Parky at 3.30am. There was little traffic on our trip East. Buoyed by coffees, I was loving the excitement of yet another European Away. It would be PD’s first-ever trip abroad with Chelsea; it was long overdue. The first trip should have been way back in 1995 when I booked around twelve lads on a coach trip to Bruges for our ECWC game. Then, notoriously, England rioted in Dublin and the over-reaction went in to overdrive. Fear of any sort of repeat by Chelsea resulted in a lock-down of many travel itineraries and the independent travel company that I booked with pulled out of the trip, costing us all around £100 each. Having to make a number of telephone calls to my good mates in order to pass on the bad news was undoubtedly a low-point in my life as a Chelsea fan.

I managed to catch a little sleep on the Ryanair flight to Rome’s miniscule Ciampino airport. We landed at around 12.30pm. Outside, waiting for the transfer bus to take us in to the city, the sun played hide and seek with some dark clouds for a few minutes. A local wearing a Manchester United baseball cap collected our bus tickets (…insert cliché here).

At last, we were on our way into the city.

The ride in from Ciampino in the East was not the most grandiose of journeys. Down-at-heal local shops and markets. Sketchy apartment blocks daubed with graffiti. Slow-moving traffic. But then the welcoming stone pines. I smiled. We were deposited at Termini, and we immediately caught a cab to our apartment in the heart of the city. The route took us over Via Magenta which housed the hotel where we stayed for the Roma match in 2008, and also for the Napoli game in 2012, when we split our trip between the two cities. The cab took us very close to Via Gaetta, where my good pal Steve from Philadelphia stayed whilst an overseas student at the local university in the mid- ‘nineties and where one of his roommates would become his wife. I quickly texted him, and I sensed the yearning to be with us over the thousands of miles in his reply. The hotel where we stayed in 1999 for the Lazio game was just around the corner.

As we raced down the cobbled streets, memories continued to race through my mind. Halfway down Via Nazionale, I spotted the shop that a few of us raided in 2008 for a few items of Italian menswear – a couple of CP crisp cotton shirts for me, both of which, amazingly, I can still wear without buttons flipping off – at ridiculously cheap prices. I wasn’t so sure there would be a repeat this time around. The noise of the cab bouncing over cobbled streets and the ever-present screech of wailing police sirens created a familiar aural backdrop.  PD was laughing at the driving style of the cab driver; he was living up to the stereotype for sure. Down into Piazza Venezia, I spotted the bar where a few of us drank brandies in the dead of night before the Lazio game. On that occasion, after a night of alcohol abuse, we made our way home as dawn was breaking and I remembered one moment fondly. About six of us, walking up a slight incline, were bellowing out “Carefree” and the Roman walls were echoing to our tuneful wailing. We turned a corner, only to be met with two carabinieri sitting in their car. One of them just brought his finger to his pursed lips and pleaded for quiet.

“…sssssssssshhhhhhhhhhh.”

We were silenced.

Rather than get out of his car and start whacking us, we appreciated this approach.

We passed the staggering Vittorio Emmanuelle monument once again to our left, and I spotted the infamous balcony of the building to the right – now opened-up after decades of guilty closure – where Mussolini spoke to his followers. Then the roads narrowed as we approached the area around Piazza Navona. I was buzzing. I made a call to our host and Christina met us outside the huge wooden doors to our apartment on the intimate and paved Via Del Governo Vecchio. We made our way in. A towering courtyard met us. The place was an old palazzo. We were stunned. The boys thanked me for booking such a great residence. We were all buzzing.

From Frome to Rome.

We had arrived.

After a quick freshen-up, we were soon out and about. It had just turned 3pm. Just a few doors down, we enjoyed the first of many cold beers – Peronis were only 2.5 euros each – at a small and intimate bar called “La Prosciutteria Navona” and the friendly waitress soon served us up a mixed platter to share.

We piled into a lovely selection of cold meats, cheeses, olives, aubergines, courgettes, bread, tomatoes and fruit.

“La Dolce Vita” never tasted better.

It was a lovely afternoon. Perfect weather. The excitement for what lay ahead was palpable.

Our two pals Kevin and Richard – Chelsea and Hearts fans from Edinburgh – joined us. They had arrived on the Sunday and were enjoying their first visit to Rome. This was Rich’s first Chelsea European Away too. Their apartment was a ten-minute walk away, across the nearby Piazza Navona. We sauntered past a variety of bars and cafes on Via Del Governo Vecchio and chose a bar which served San Miguel on draft at 5 euros a pop as the narrow road opened up onto Piazza di Pasquino. My good pal Foxy – last featured in Tales From China – soon joined us. He had flown in from Amsterdam. We gulped down a few beers and then had a wander, our version of the famous Italian “passaggiata.” We were for ever on the lookout for local bars – and not Irish bars, thanks very much, screw that – where we could continue drinking at low prices. It was hit and miss. One bar close to the touristy Piazza Navona had the audacity to ask for 7.5 euros for the same small bottle of Peroni that we had enjoyed at the first bar.

Swerve.

We dipped into an internet café, and cheaper beers were quaffed.

Lastly, but by no means least, at around 6.30pm, Alan and Gary joined us. Their hotel was up near Termini. Like myself, both were lacking sleep, and Gal looked knackered. After a few crisp lagers, he soon perked up.

The eight of us then returned to the first bar – our “local” – and the drinking continued. I tasted a very nice lager from Sardinia – “Ichnusa” – for the first time. I toasted Gianfranco Zola. The laughs and banter increased as the evening turned to night. Not long into proceedings, Foxy remembered the famous European Cup semi-final between his team, Dundee United, and Roma back in 1984. Following on from their sole Scottish Championship win in 1983, which included ex-Chelsea players Eamonn Bannon and Ian Britton, Dundee United went on an amazing European run the following season. In the first-leg of the semi at Tannadice, United beat Roma 2-0. Sadly, for Foxy – and for me, I have a massive soft-spot for Dundee United; I blame the girl from Lochee that I met on holiday in Italy in 1979 – the return leg in Rome was lost 3-0 under deeply suspicious circumstances.

“I hate Roma” said Foxy, not once, but twice, but many times during the night.

That 1984 European Cup Final was so nearly Dundee United vs. Liverpool. Instead, Liverpool beat Roma in their home city on penalties, and the natives violently ambushed many of the visiting scallies after the game, providing part of the back-story for Heysel the following season.

It was 9pm. We moved on and enjoyed a meal a few doors down the street. We all commented that a fantastic pub crawl could take place within the seventy yards of Via Del Governo Vecchio alone. I wolfed down a pizza with gorgonzola, mozzarella and radicchio and then we hit the Limoncello.

Or, rather, the Limoncello hit us.

There had only been a little chat about the game throughout the night. We expected a tough old game for sure. On our previous visit, Roma had handed us a deserved 3-1 thumping. This would be Chelsea’s third tie against Roma; we played them in the 1965/66 season too and the game at the Olimpico saw Chelsea players tackled crudely by the Italian players on the pitch and bombarded with coins by the Roma fans off it.

The meal finished, we headed on to two more bars, the Limoncello chasing our Peronis and almost catching them up.

What a night. What a laugh.

Alan recorded a small clip of us all singing – too slowly, out of tune – a song for Antonio, and posted it on Facebook. I suspected my number of Facebook friends to plummet overnight.

In one of the bars – Café Bianco – I got chatting to two Juventus chaps, and one of them showed me a photograph on his phone of his friend Sergio Brio, who played in the very first Juve game that I saw in 1987. It was great to be able to converse, however slightly, with the locals.

After around nine hours of revelry, it was time to call it a night. We had not seen a single Chelsea fan on our travels around our little piece of Rome. But it had been a hugely pleasurable time.

Just the eight of us. Just enough.

“Friends. Romans.”

“Countrymen.”

Carry on, Chelsea.

On the day of the game, there was a leisurely start. We had a lovely breakfast at a quiet café a few doors down and then met up with Kev and Rich. We popped into a menswear shop on the walk to Piazza Venezia – lots of lovely Paul & Shark, but no purchases this year – and we then took a cab up to Via Cavour to collect our match tickets. The driver was a Napoli fan, he hated Roma, and he looked a bit of a loon. Without much of ado, the tickets were firmly in our mitts. For a few hours we based ourselves at a nearby bar, and were able to enjoy a few lunchtime drinks as the Chelsea fans headed down the steps to collect their tickets too. I lost count of the number of people we recognised.

A special mention for my mate Charles, who had flown in that morning from Dallas for a three day visit to Rome. He soon collected his match ticket, too, and joined us for a few beers. It was a very relaxing time. Over the course of the morning, we had heard how some Chelsea, including some that we knew, had been attacked during a cowardly attack at the nearby “Shamrock” Irish bar – please refer to my last comments about Irish bars – by around forty Roma ultras. This was typical of the locals. I can just imagine a few Roma fans driving around the city on their scooters, keeping a watching eye on all of the Irish pubs where English fans traditionally congregate in most foreign cities, and then reporting back. Thankfully, no Chelsea fans were injured, save for a few bumps and bruises. Apparently, some flares were thrown inside the pub, but the locals did not enter.

It did not help that the pink sports paper “La Gazzetta” had reported the day before that “two thousand hooligans” were on their way to Rome.

Two thousand?

Ridiculous.

We made our way to another bar, then met up with Mark, Les and Andy from the local towns of Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham. Mark was one of the “Bruges 12” from 1995. It was especially good to see him. We then posed for photographs with The Colosseum looming in the background, mirroring photographs of myself in 1986 – with map in one hand and provisions for the evening in another – and Alan and myself in 2008.

There was time for a wandering walk back to our part of town, time for a meal – gnocchi with gorgonzola for me – and for some Peroni in frosted glasses. A quick change, then out for one or two beers at “the local.” We then caught two cabs up to the Villa Borghese where, as in 2008, we were told to assemble to catch the buses up to the stadium for our own safety. The city traffic was solid. PD and myself arrived just in time to hop on the same coach as Kev, Rich and Parky. Perfect timing. This contrasted heavily with 2008 when we were kept on the buses for an hour before setting off. It was around 7pm. We were given a police escort on the twenty-minute drive to the stadium. I remembered back to 2008; on the day of the game I did not see a single person wearing Roma gear until we reached the stadium. This time, I had only seen three or four. There was loud singing all of the way to the Olimpico on our bus. I hoped that it would continue at the stadium.

Our tickets were presented to the security along with our passports, with checks on both sides of the turnstiles. A quick frisk and we were in. Thankfully, my camera was waved through.

It was soon clear that the gate would be much bigger than the 35,038 at the 2008 match. Our away following that night was a paltry five hundred. The stadium was filling up all over, not just in the Curva Sud. I was of the opinion that 55,000 to 60,000 would be present. The Chelsea fans were in a thick wedge in the 5,700 capacity north-west distinti. The numbers of our tickets sold ranged from 1,750 to 2,500. It felt like around 2,250. A fair bit of noise before the game. Quite a few flags. I left my “VPN” in the apartment; I didn’t fancy it getting pulled for being too provocative, in Lazio sky blue too.

The team had been chosen. Sadly, Kante was not even on the bench. A big game for Hazard. A big game for Fabregas too, who had not played club football in Italy, despite advances from some of their top clubs. The returning player Rudiger was chosen to play to the left of Luiz and not Cahill. Dave was chosen to play as a wing back.

Courtois.

Cahill – Luiz – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

The stadium filled. I wondered if my guess was on the low side. We were treated to two Roma anthems; odd songs which reminded me of the days of variety from the years between the wars.

The Curva Sud was full. The flags were constantly waving. The rest of the stadium was all Limoncello yellow and Roma red.

We were ready.

Our end was looking pretty healthy. In 2008, we were allotted the whole section, but only filled thirty rows of a small section. This time, we reached from row 1 to row 75 in a broad wedge.

The teams, the flag, the anthems. The PA announced the first names of the Roma team, the fans roared their surnames.

The game began. Within twenty seconds, Pedro was sent through by Bakayoko, but finished weakly. Within as many seconds later, a cross from Kolarov down below us from deep on the Roma left was aimed at the head of Edin Dzeko, but the ball spun off him, right in to the path of El Shaarawy.

I feared danger. I was right.

The ball flashed past Courtois.

Just thirty-nine seconds had passed.

As the Roma players celebrated in front of us, the PA bloke pissed us all off.

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

I was reminded of the “Tomas – MULLER” bollocks in Munich.

Rather than quieten, our support responded ever so well. Alvaro Morata looked up for the fight early on. Eden Hazard broke, but dallied too long, and his weak shot was easily parried by Allison in the Roma goal.

Over in the adjoining Curva Nord, the Roma fans were having a dig at us.

“Chelsea, Chelsea – vaffanculo.”

“Chelsea, Chelsea – vaffanculo.”

Eden cut in from the left again, but his fine run ended with a weak shot right at the ‘keeper. It would be a familiar story throughout the first half. Pedro fed in that man Hazard, and another shot at the ‘keeper. All around me, the singing from the away supporters was fantastic.

One was the song of the night :

“Score, score, score, when you get one you’ll get more. We’ll sing you an assembly when we get to Wembley so come on you Chelsea and SCORE, SCORE, SCORE.”

I was proud as fuck.

Despite Roma not needing to go on the attack at will, we edged possession and kept testing their back line. Some fans around me were negativity personified, but not me. I kept urging the team on. We weren’t playing badly at all. Unbelievably, Morata blasted over from eight yards out after a clearance was charged down by Pedro and the ball fell at our Spaniard’s mercy.

We kept going.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

A rare attack from the home team followed. Courtois saved well from the danger man El Shaarawy after a rash challenge by Luiz set up Dzeko to play in his team mate.

Then, with our support still making tons of noise and with hopes of an equaliser, our hearts were broken. A ball pumped forward by Nainggolan was allowed to drop by Rudiger, who looked for all intense and purposes that he had got a call from Dave to leave the ball. In the confusion, El Shaarawy again pounced and clipped the ball past Courtois.

“Ah fuck it.”

Watching them celebrate in the same place was sickening. Our support immediately quietened.

A shot from Alonso was hit at Alisson. A familiar story. Copy and paste. Copy and paste. Copy and paste. Bakayoko headed over from the corner.

Doom and gloom at the break. I certainly felt that we were well in it until the second goal, but held little hope of retrieving anything from the game.

Dzeko went close in the first few minutes of the second period.

Willian replaced Cahill and Pedro went to right wing back, with Dave pushed inside. A nice little move eventually found Morata – quiet after his initial burst – but he screwed it wide.

Just past the hour, we watched in horror as Cesc Fabregas lost possession on the halfway line and Kolarov played in Perotti. Nobody took responsibility and the Roma player ran and ran. He slammed a strong shot past Thibaut.

Roma 3 Chelsea 0.

Shades of 2008. The mood darkened. The mood darkened several shades further when we watched in absolute shock and horror as all three of our central defenders raced over to close down Dzeko on a raid from deep, leaving Perotti free on the other side of the box. We heaved a massive sigh of relief when he ballooned it over. But what shocking defending. This was turning in to a night of infamy.

“Infamy. Infamy.”

“They’ve all got it in for me.”

Danny Drinkwater came on for a very poor Fabregas. Michy came on for Morata. It was a lost cause. Only two stupendous saves from Thibaut stopped the result becoming a rout, the second an astounding point-blank block from Manolas. The game drifted away.

Only the amazing news from Madrid, where Qarabag held Atletico to a memorable 1-1 draw provided any sort of comfort. Out came an abacus and we soon calculated that if we get a win in Azerbaijan, we will qualify for the next stage. For all the talk of Antonio Conte being under pressure – totally unwarranted in my humble opinion – imagine the pressure that Diego Simeone is under. His Atletico team is without a win in four games in our group.

And, if nothing else, it means our trip to Baku will mean something; it always was a bloody long way to go for a nothing game.

We were kept in for an hour after the game. It was OK. We have known worse. It was ninety minutes in 2008. Our gallows humour kept us going. There was predictable mayhem getting on the buses which took us back to Piazza della Republicca.

In a small café on Piazza Venezia, we stopped for a couple more beers and a porchetta pannini.

We briefly talked about the game.

I spoke of the difficult task once we had gone 2-0 down, away to a fine team. It would always be difficult to bounce back from that.

PD, on his away debut, had me beaten all ends up –

“They did it to us.”

I sighed.

“Yep. You’re bloody right, mate.”

I was dazed and battle-fatigued. We spoke for a few more minutes about the current malaise, but soon concluded that with Kante back, our solidity should improve. The manager? I trust him without doubt. I am behind him 100%.

The bar was looking to close.

It was 1.30am and it was time to head off to bed.

On the Wednesday, we enjoyed a city-tour on a double-decked bus. There were blue skies overhead and the weather was fantastic. The defeat of the previous night hurt, of course, but we have seen worse. We met up with three good friends by the Colosseum; they had been in the pub that was attacked on the Monday night. One was bloodied on the night by a piece of glass. Like us, they were hurting from our defeat but were still smiling.

What a carry on.

A cab, a bus and a plane took us back to England.

It had been a fine trip to Italy once more, but I realised that after six visits to my favourite European country with Chelsea, I was yet to see us win. Four losses and two draws. Maybe I shouldn’t go next time?

No, I’ll keep going.

I’ll carry on, regardless.

We landed at a cold Stansted an hour late at 7.30pm with a heavy old bump. I reached home at about 11.30pm.

On Sunday, we are back to basics and back to our bread and butter.

Chelsea host Manchester United.

See you there.

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Tales From Six Of The Best

Chelsea vs. Qarabag : 12 September 2017.

European football was back. Parky, PD and myself were parked up earlier than usual for a midweek game. We dipped in to “The Goose” for old times’ sake at about 5.30pm and chatted to a few old friends but it seemed pretty quiet. I had heard that the game against Qarabag from Azerbaijan had sold out, but I was genuinely worried that a sizeable number of supporters had bought tickets for loyalty points only, with the intention of moving tickets on, and there would be gaps throughout the stadium. We also popped into The Malt House for a couple more pints and, over the next hour, my spirits were raised. The pub grew busy. I hoped that there would be a near capacity crowd. When the group phase of the Champions League churns out our three opponents every autumn, I always wonder if our gates will hold up. There is usually a game against a “minnow” team, and – thankfully – our home support has responded well. Ever since the nadir in the autumn of 2007 when only 24,973 turned up for our home game with Rosenborg – Mourinho’s last game of his first spell – we have only once failed to fulfil expectations. Our 2011 group phase game with Bayer Leverkusen only drew 33,820, but all other home gates have reached the 37,000 to 41,000 mark.

On the short walk to Stamford Bridge, I spotted one Qarabag supporter, with an Azerbaijan flag draped over his shoulders. I knew that there would not be many present.

Inside, with a good quarter of an hour to go before kick-off, there were gaps everywhere. I wasn’t hopeful that we would end up with a decent gate. Thankfully, and to my surprise to be honest, the place filled-up quickly. Over in the far corner, around four hundred away fans were spotted in the lower tier of the away section. Baku is 2,500 miles away from Stamford Bridge. I guess it was a fair turnout.

Thoughts turned from our support to the team.

Not surprisingly, Antonio Conte had tinkered with the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi -Willian

The teams took to the pitch and, after a hiatus of one season, the Champions League anthem rang out around Stamford Bridge. It was a shame, in my mind, that our first game this autumn was not against more prestigious opponents – how I remembered the sense of occasion that accompanied our first-ever game in the Champions League in 1999 against the mighty Milan – but at least a home game against Qarabag would hopefully give us a fine chance for an easy win, with plenty of goals, in a potentially tight group.

In The Malt House, we had honestly admitted that we expected an easy win – 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 – against a team that we knew nothing of.

At kick-off, I scanned the crowd and was very happy. There was hardly a spare seat in the house, save for a block of around four-hundred above the away fans in The Shed. I spotted a new banner on The Shed Balcony wall – “Cahill, He’s Won It All” – and also an outing for one for the manager – “The King Of London.”

Rain started to fall.

As the game began, Alan and myself chatted about the aftermath of the Morata chant at Leicester City. Typically, the programme featured our Spanish striker on the cover. I certainly did not expect the chant to be repeated against Qarabag. Thankfully, it didn’t.

It was a bright opening from both teams. After only five minutes, Willian passed to Pedro, and although he was on the edge of the D, with the path to goal seemingly blocked by many players, his first-time strike zipped past everybody and into the top corner. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd responded with a reassuring roar. Pedro raced towards the Chelsea bench with a joyous hop, skip and a jump. Get in you beauty.

Chelsea dominated play, with some solid performances throughout the team. All eyes were on Michy Batshuayi after his disappointing show against Burnley. We hoped that he would seize his opportunity. A shot from Michy went close. There were rare attacks from Qarabag and I was impressed with the form of Andreas Christensen.

The song for Willian boomed out, as maybe an extra dig at Tottenham, on account of the anti-Spurs chant on Saturday getting such wide condemnation. Soon after, the ever-popular “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” rang out too.

On the half-hour mark, Davide Zappacosta received the ball from Thibaut Courtois. As he set off on a gut-busting run up the right wing, I had a nightmare. Rather than watch the new signing rampage past various Qarabag players, my thoughts were focussed on sending a text message to a friend in Chicago, who had helped put together the new Cahill flag. I looked up just as the ball was slammed with his right foot and flew past the away ‘keeper.

Boom. Two-nil.

I jumped up, but felt embarrassed that I had basically missed most of it. However, I had already sussed out that it seemed to be a fluke, rather than a genuine shot on goal. This did not stop Zappacosta, who enthusiastically celebrated down in Parkyville.

From then on, every time the Italian full back was in possession of the ball, sections of the crowd urged him to shoot. We continued to dominate. We did not let Qarabag settle. Our control of the game was very impressive. Thibaut had only had one save to make the entire half.

At the break, I summed things up with Alan.

“2-0 now, I reckon it’ll be 5-0 at full time.”

There was a read of the match programme at the break. I was reminded of our phenomenal home record in UEFA competitions.

Played 110

Won 77

Drew 25

Lost 8

That is just stunning.

There was also a complete list of our opponents in all UEFA games and one team dominated.

Barcelona 15 games

Liverpool 10 games

PSG 8 games

Porto 8 games

Schalke 6 games

Valencia 6 games

Atletico Madrid 5 games

Milan 5 games

I have witnessed nine of those fifteen Barcelona games, and what a set of memories are evoked. Some of my very best days supporting Chelsea – and one or two of the worst – took place against FCB. The Chelsea /Barcelona timeline goes back to the ‘sixties of course, and long may the story continue. Conversely, just three games against Real Madrid seem scant reward. We await our first-ever match at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Maybe this season.

With European football so common these days, it seems crazy that I had to wait a full twenty years – 1974 to 1994 – for my first taste of European football at Chelsea. In truth, my European story began slightly earlier than 1994. My first-ever UEFA game was in Turin in 1987; Juventus vs. Panathinaikos. The memory of the thrill of a noisy and atmospheric evening in a misty Turin is strong to this day. My European debut almost took place a few months earlier. In September 1987, when I was travelling around Europe on the trains with two college mates, we found ourselves in Stuttgart. It was a Wednesday and I spotted in the weekly sports paper that Borussia Dortmund were playing Celtic. We decided, on the spur of the moment, to head up to Dortmund and watch the game. We arrived at the city’s train station with only three quarters of an hour to spare. After quickly depositing our ruc-sacs in the left luggage room, we tried our best at getting directions,  blurting out “fussball stadion” and we even mimed kicking and heading a ball to assist us as we tried to make headway with the bemused locals. At last, we hopped on to the U-bahn train. We were running so late that we didn’t spot any other fans. Outside, I approached a middle-aged woman, and asked her about the stadium.

“Wo is der stadion? Borussia.”

She then said the immortal words –

“The game was yesterday.”

Oh bollocks. What a bastard.

I had, it seems, neglected to spot that the sports paper had detailed the Wednesday fixtures thus :

Borussia Dortmund vs. Celtic (Di)

Di meaning Dienstag meaning Tuesday.

Ugh.

Oh well. In the circumstances, it seems just right that fate was to hand me a Juventus tie for my first-ever UEFA game. Let me explain. Over this summer, after re-watching “The Damned United”, it dawned on me that the very first European game that I ever saw – live – on TV was the Juventus vs. Derby County game from Stadio Communale in Turin in 1973. It was on a Wednesday afternoon, and I have a sustained memory of watching it on our black and white TV with my father after he returned from work. There are solid recollections of the names Pietro Anastasi and Franco Causio for sure. And there is a very strong chance, in fact, that I saw Juventus live on TV before I saw a live match involving Chelsea. The first live Chelsea match would have been, undoubtedly, the away game at Manchester City in 1984 some eleven years later. But, anyway, as for my interest in Juventus, this was where it all began for me.

Ten minutes into the second-half, a free-kick released Cesc Fabregas, who clipped a lovely ball into the box with the outside of his foot and the cross was adeptly headed in by Cesar Azpilicueta, whose little dart into space was timed to perfection. He ran off to the far corner and celebrated with Alvaro Morata, who was warming up in front of the East Lower. I don’t think there is a more popular player at Chelsea than Dave. His joy in scoring was matched by us.

At last, Stamford Bridge responded en masse with a stadium-wide song. It had taken almost an hour, but the place was booming.

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

My 5-0 was looking good.

Eden Hazard soon replaced Pedro, and then Bakayoko replaced Kante.

Hazard set up Willian and his firm shot slammed against the crossbar. At the other end, Qarabag had a couple of wild shots over the bar.

Alan and myself were scratching our heads when we were awarded a corner – we thought that a Qarabag player did not get a touch – but Hazard played a short corner, received the ball back, and then sent over a low cross into the box. Qarabag failed to clear and the ball fell nicely for Bakayoko to slam home off a defender.

His celebrations were right in front of us – and just beautiful.

Antonio Rudiger replaced Azpilicueta and we kept attacking. We did not let up. We kept going, attacking at will. Although he had endured a quiet game, Batshuayi received the ball from Bakayoko some twenty-five yards out, quickly set his sights, and struck a fine low shot deep into the corner of the Qarabag goal.

OK, there’s the 5-0. Excellent.

We still kept pressing. Fantastic work from Zappacosta on the right forced an error from the shell-shocked left-back and his low cross was bundled in by a mixture of Michy Batshuayi and Qarabag defender Maksim Medvedev.

Chelsea 6 Qarabag 0.

There was still time for a fantastic dribble down below us from Eden Hazard, and I had to chuckle at the look of annoyance on his face – masked with a smile – as an errant touch gave the ball away cheaply. Having him back in the side is such a lift.

In the closing minutes, the Stamford Bridge crowd gathered together again for one last communal chant.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

The whistle blew and “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

Qarabag were poor all night long. We gave them a proper caning.

In the other game in our group, Roma drew 0-0 at home to Atletico Madrid, and I was very happy with that.

After only one match in the autumn of 2017, advantage Chelsea.

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