Tales From The Big House

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 30 July 2016.

It could have easily been a typical Saturday morning back home in England. As I lay in bed, the sheets almost covering me completely, I buried my head deep inside the covers and tried to sleep on for a few more minutes, and endevoured to ignore the depressing sound of the rain lashing down outside the window. It sounded bleak. Following Chelsea during the summer in the US wasn’t meant to be like this. I hadn’t packed a jacket for the trip, that’s for sure. And I knew that there was no cover at the huge University of Michigan stadium. With the tightening of stadium security, I also knew that bags were not able to be taken in to the game.  If the rain continued to fall at the same rate over the next few hours, there was a strong chance of the upcoming game against Real Madrid becoming the worst viewing experience of my life. No roof. No jacket. No bag for my camera. Possibly not even my camera; there was an unclear description of the type of camera which would be allowed inside when I had checked on the stadium website earlier.

“Less than six inches.”

On reading this, I had glanced down at my camera and sighed.

“Looks bigger than six inches to me.”

There was, I suppose, if the occasional thunder cracks continued too, even a slight chance of the game being cancelled or postponed and obliterated from the record books.

Bollocks.

I slept on for a few more minutes. The room had top notes of disinfectant, mixed with a slight aroma of marijuana. Its base notes were of misery. I wondered if this would set the tone for the day.

The rain abated slightly and I became a little more optimistic. I showered, chose jeans over shorts, Moncler over Lacoste, Adidas over Nike, and headed out for the time-honoured tradition of a McBreakfast on the morning of a Chelsea match. This one was not in Melksham, or Chippenham, or at Fleet Services, though; this one was at Ann Arbor, Michigan, a lovely college town situated at arm’s length from the urban sprawl of the troubled city of Detroit. As I finished my coffee, I chatted briefly to a father with two teenagers – the girl wearing a Chelsea shirt, the son wearing a Real Madrid one. It was their first Chelsea game. I wished them well. I wondered if we’d get to see Real’s famous all white kit. It would be a shame to come all this way and not be treated to that. Instead, some ludicrous away kit catastrophe. I have only ever seen Real play once before; in Monaco in the 1998 UEFA Super Cup Final. It was all white on the night for them, but more so for us; a Gustavo Poyet goal gave us a 1-0 win, and prompted my good mate Andy to memorably comment :

“Right now, in Madrid, there’s an old bloke in a bar, saying ‘They always beat us, Chelsea.’ “

Of course, we had beaten them in Athens in 1971 too.

Two games, two wins.

Our paths have rarely crossed since; certainly not in official European campaigns.

On the walk past the motel reception, I spotted a lad wearing a Willian shirt. As I ambled past, I couldn’t resist singing “he hates Tottenham, he hates Tottenham” and this drew a wide smile from the Chelsea fan. There was a spring in my step now. This would be a good day.

My friend John, from Ohio, had kindly volunteered to pick me up in his truck and head in to town for pre-match beers. It was fantastic to see him once again. John studied at Reading University for a few months during the winter of 2008/2009 and I was able to get him tickets, usually alongside the Chelsea legend Lovejoy, for some games. He saw the Juve home match and also took in a game at Anfield. I last saw him at the Baltimore match against Milan in 2009; still widely-regarded by many as the best Chelsea matchday-experience in the US of them all.

On the drive in to town, we caught up with each other’s lives, and John spoke to me about the town’s university, and its myriad sports teams. That John was a “U of M” fan, made this game even more worthwhile for him. I had driven in to town myself on a few occasions since arriving on the Wednesday, but the streets and parking lots were so much busier now. The town was gearing itself for an influx of over one-hundred thousand footy fans.

I had flown in to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on the Tuesday afternoon. I had decided to miss the opening tour game in Pasadena against the Scousers. Los Angeles is not my favourite place, and I wanted to stretch out and unwind a little bit rather than rush between three games. The matches in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis would be just fine. There would be no fun, in my eyes, travelling all of the way out to California to see bloody Liverpool.

“LA?”

“No, la.”

I spent Tuesday night with a few good friends in Chicago, where we spent a few hours hitting a few bars, sharing plenty of laughs, eating Mexican food, and reminiscing about the previous time that I had been in town; the memorable weekend of July 2006 – ten whole years ago, good grief – when Chelsea played the MLS All-Stars, the only game of our US tour that year. I had travelled to the US the previous two summers with Chelsea and had mainly kept myself to myself. In 2006, though, because everyone met up in one pub – “Fado” – and because everything was so well organised (a quiz night, an evening with Charlie Cooke, a practice session, a tour around Chicago in three double-decker busses before heading down to the game), everyone made a special effort to socialise. For me, it was a watershed moment. I met so many friends during those three days of Chelsea in Chicago. Not long after, Chelsea In America asked me to write about a trip to Bremen with Chelsea for their monthly newsletter, and I soon began posting ad hoc match reports on their bulletin board. Ten years later, I am still scribing away with thoughts about what supporting Chelsea means to me and many others.

It has been quite a ride.

I drove from Chicago – sad it was just a fleeting visit – to Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I made the big mistake of stopping by at “Culvers” for a butter burger. It is not a good sign for my future health that the sound effect that accompanied me biting down in to the burger was “squelch.”

But I loved the trip to Ann Arbor on the American road. I find it quite beguiling. The scale of everything is so different to back home.

On Thursday, I drove over to visit my friends Erin and JR, and their three-month old boy Harry, who was born just a few hours after our game at Anfield at the close of last season. It was lovely to see them again. It’s such a shame that simple geography keeps me apart from so many of my closest Chelsea mates. We headed in to Detroit for a few hours. Of course, everyone knows how that city has suffered over recent decades, but I was encouraged to see green shoots of renewal in the city centre, which seemed very chilled and relaxed. I love the way that the city’s sport stadia have remained right in the middle of everything. We relaxed at a great little restaurant. I just fancied a “light snack” and so asked for a Reuben sandwich. However, I was presented with a slab of food so huge that if it had been served in the UK, it would have needed planning permission. JR had shrimp tacos, while Erin had a very healthy salad and rice bowl. The server, a particularly irritating fellow who enjoyed regaling us with a far-too detailed description of the menu, made a point of asking Erin if she required “any protein” with her salad. Perhaps he thought she might soon wither away without added nutrients.

He turned to me and asked if I wanted any fries.

The fucker.

On Thursday night, in Ann Arbor, the Chelsea portion of my holiday kicked-in. Sometimes, I find it a little difficult to focus on events at the start of each season. Because I have witnessed so many games, and have seen us win so much – “things I never thought that I would hear myself say #542” – I usually take a while to get going each season. In “Conor O’Neils” in Ann Arbor, meeting up with a few friends, plus former players Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers, gave me the kick-start that I needed. We spoke about the current team, but also about little parcels of our history. I see Gary Chivers at Stamford Bridge quite often as he works on the corporate hospitality these days. I last saw Garry Stanley at Ian Britton’s funeral in Burnley. We watched Didier Drogba score against Arsenal in the MLS All-Star Game.

Too funny.

Jesus, Brian, Beth and Carlo from Texas were there. The omnipresent Cathy, with Becky, too. Neil Barnett ran through his player ratings – not many high scores, I have to say – from the Liverpool match, which I was unable to track in my motel room, but which we won 1-0. I had my photo taken with Garry and Gary. These were good times.

On the Friday, despite a slow start, the afternoon turned into an evening of additional Chelsea fun. I walked over to the pub at around midday, and spotted two mates – Tuna from Atlanta and Simon from Memphis – who I see on the US tours and also back home at games. They were outside enjoying a pint and a breakfast. They would be the first of many old friends – and a smattering of new – that I would happily meet over the weekend. We had taken over the whole pub – large, cool, roomy – and I spent my time chatting away with many Chelsea faces, clutching a bottle of Corona, and occasionally taking a few photographs to capture the mood. For a while, those outside the pub sang a selection of Chelsea songs, and this resulted in many locals using their cameras to record the moment. I don’t think Ann Arbor was prepared for it. The city centre is a quaint mix of antique shops, brew pubs, eateries, diners, pubs and shops. It is a very typical college town. For a couple of days, Chelsea fans invaded it like a plague of locusts, drank beer, and turned the air blue.

At around 12.30pm on the day of the game, John parked his truck in a multi-story opposite “Conor O’Neils” and we dived into the pub. The rain soon returned, and the University of Michigan store opposite had a run on ponchos. More beers were guzzled, and the pub absolutely roared to Chelsea chants. On the drive in to the city from my motel three miles to the south, the number of Chelsea shirts greatly outnumbered those of Real Madrid. This was a very positive sign indeed. At just after 2pm, thankfully the rain cleared and we began the twenty-five-minute walk south to the stadium. It was very pleasant indeed. The rain had freshened things up a little. We were allocated the northern end of the stadium, and it soon appeared before us. Touts – or scalpers – were doing their best to get rid of spares. Knock-off kits, virtually all Madrid, were being hawked on grass verges. Time was moving on, and the line at the gates were long. I thrust my telephoto lens down into my pocket and hoped for the best. Thankfully, there was a very minimal search and I was in.

“And relax.”

In time-honoured Chelsea tradition, the call of “one last pint” (or in this case “one last poncho”) had been honoured without jeopardising our ability to get in on time.

The stadium, which holds around 110,000, sits on a hill, but does not look large from the outside. Like so many stadia though, the entrances are towards the top of the vast bowl, and the pitch is down below. As I walked in, I was blown away by the scale of it all. It is immense. It is not called “The Big House” without reason. There are rows upon rows of blue metallic bleachers which wrap themselves around on one never-ending single tier. The very last twenty rows are a relatively recent addition. Along the sides are two huge edifices – darkened glass, quite sinister – which house hundreds of executive and corporate suites.

Our section was right down the bottom and it took a while to reach it.

I located my seat, alongside Brij, an Ann Arbor student from San Jose attending his first-ever Chelsea match, and Neil, who was with me in Vienna, just as the national anthem was being played on a trumpet.

I looked around and took it all in.

The guy with the Willian shirt at the hotel in the morning was stood right behind me.

What a small bloody world.

Mosaics were planned and with a great deal of condescension, the announcer painstakingly explained what the spectators needed to do. Thousands of multi-coloured paper panels were held aloft, but I found it odd that the folks in and around me in the Chelsea section held up cards depicting the Real Madrid crest, whereas over in the southern side, the Chelsea crest was visible. Actually, the sections were not cut and dried. To my annoyance, the Chelsea sections of 33,34 and 35 were populated by not only Chelsea supporters, but by those of Real Madrid and many other teams too. The lower sections housed those from the various supporters’ clubs though – New York Blues, Shed End Dallas, Chicago Blues, Beltway Blues, Motor City Blues, Shed End Seattle, Atlanta Blues, Badgercrack Blues – and this lower level housed the bedrock of our support. However, a pet peeve of mine, noted here before, is that it would have been much better to allocate a solid block of one thousand or two thousand just to Chelsea. Over the course of the game, getting the disparate sections, split up and spread more thinly than I would have liked, to sing together was almost impossible.

Elsewhere, there were colours of many teams. If the opposite end was officially the Real Madrid end, there were no noticeable hardcore sections among it. There were no banners, no flags, no “capo” stuff. In fact, if I am blunt, the only section in the whole stadium that tried to get anything going the entire game was in the lower sections of our end.

Real Madrid were in all white, but it was Chelsea that had let me down.

It was black and white, not blue and white, this time.

Antonio Conte had chosen a strong team.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta.

Terry.

Cahill.

Aina.

Matic.

Oscar.

Willian.

Pedo.

Loftus-Cheek.

Traore.

I am so used to seeing a 4-2-3-1 that it took me a while to adjust.

The match began and the support around tried desperately to get behind the boys.

I got my rasping “Zigger Zagger” out of the way early – on around six minutes – and it left me gasping for a sip of beer at the end. I almost didn’t make it. The last “ZZ” almost caused my head to explode in the warm Michigan sun. I turned to Neil and said –

“That’s it. That’s me done.”

As I said, sections of those in blue did their very best to get things going but it wasn’t great.

Sadly, the first-half was truly awful.

Willian had a free-kick which failed to live up to its hype. An ill-judged back-header from Matic caused Begovic to scramble and save. Real Madrid started to dominate.

Two relatively similar goals were scored by Marcelo as our defence opened up before him. This was not going to plan. A third goal from Diaz, whipped in, dipping, but almost straight at Begovic, left us all with concerned faces. I had visions of a 6-0, a cricket score. I had visions of folks back home, at work, waiting to pounce.

“Bloody hell, mate. You went all that way and your lot lost 6-0.”

Neil disappeared at halftime in search of beer, but was never seen again, until later, much later, in the pub.

The manager made widespread changes at half-time.

On came Courtois, Chalobah, Cuadrado, Batshuayi.

Things genuinely improved a little in the second-half.

“Not difficult” I hear you say.

I liked the look of Cuadrado down below me on the wing. At last he looked a little more confident on the ball, and his first touch seemed to be fine. He looked “up for it” and I have a feeling that the manager might well be regarding this as his “special project” this season. He saw him play in depth for Juventus last season. Maybe he can coax something out of his frail shell.

Shots from Chalobah and Batshuayi went close.

The Real ‘keeper Casilla raced out of his area to gather a ball, but Traore pounced, only to see a defender block his shot.

There was a pitch invader, and I – perhaps with a little too much heavy satire – said “shoot him.”

Brij, next to me, told me that there were snipers in the stadium. He pointed up to the two opposing top corners of the roofs of the sky boxes. There were two darkened figures.

I actually felt a shiver go down my spine.

Is this crazy world of ours spiralling out of control so much that we require snipers on stand roofs? I wondered back to the days of the police observation area in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I bet in those days, the only things on display were a pair of binoculars and a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Real Madrid made massive changes and the game drifted on.

Victor Moses, back for his annual pre-season run, was fouled and Hazard went close.

Soon after, with eighty minutes on the clock, Hazard gave the score line a little more respectability when he latched on to a Chalobah ball and rounded replacement ‘keeper Yanez to slot home. My boy Cuadrado looked good, and created a few chances down below us. With an almost copy of his first goal, Eden Hazard was played in by Batshuayi and again rounded the ‘keeper to score a second. As bizarre as it sounds, we all thought that we might salvage an unwarranted draw. We had a little spell right at the end, but with the ball out for a corner, the referee blew up.

3-2 is a lot better than 3-0, but this was not great.

I will make the same comments, though, as I did against Rapid Vienna.

These are just games for us to get our fitness levels back and for the manager to look at options.

Time is moving on though.

We need to improve.

After a slow walk back to the bar, I said a sad farewell to John. After a few more beers, in the bar, we were all chilled and the result was glossed over. The drinking continued. On Wednesday, the locusts descend on Minneapolis.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From A New Dawn

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 25 August 2012.

My very first Chelsea game was over thirty-eight years ago. The opponents on that life-changing afternoon were Newcastle United. Since then, our paths have crossed with alarming regularity, including some very memorable battles in the old second division. Our third Premiership game of the new 2012-2013 season would be my 31st Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match at Stamford Bridge. I have only seen Liverpool on more occasions at HQ. In those thirty previous games, our record was excellent; just four defeats. Our 2-0 loss to the Geordies in early May was our first league loss to them at home since a 3-1 defeat in November 1986.

There was a sense of revenge in the air. That game will be remembered, of course, for those two wondrous Cisse strikes. Strangely enough, while I was over in New York recently, I got chatting to a Newcastle United fan at the New York Yankees game on my last night. She had been at the game in May, one of the 1,500 away fans who had been rewarded for their support by a rare away win at Chelsea. I told her that there aren’t many times that I want to check out an opponents’ goal as soon as I reach home, but that was one occasion. We haven’t seen a goal like Cisse’s second strike at The Bridge for quite a while. Its trajectory seemed to defy all laws of physics. It was a cracking strike.

After our maximum six points being garnered from our two league matches, and our play improving over the past three games against City, Wigan and Reading I was truly relishing this one. Newcastle United would be a stern test. It had the makings of a classic. And this brought me a great deal of joy; I love the fact that teams outside of the big four or five have their moments. How boring it would be if our only tests each year were the same opponents.

With the evening kick-off, there was no need to leave until lunchtime. Out shopping in Frome in the morning, I bumped into Dave and Karen, fellow Chelsea fans and season ticket holders for around six or seven years. Regretfully, Dave informed me that they didn’t renew for 2012-2013. A few years ago, there used to be six season ticket holders travelling up from Dodge each game; Dave, Karen, Frank, PD, Glenn and myself. Only the latter two remain.

I collected Young Jake from outside Trowbridge train station at 1pm and Old Parky from his house soon after. There was a look of joyful glee on Jill’s face when I collected Parky; she often calls me her respite carer.

“Don’t worry, Jill, I’ll take care of the old bugger today. Send the cheque to my office.”

We chatted away as I headed east. Parky was fortified by a four pint pack of Foster lager. I made use of the new “Starbucks” drive-in at Membury Services near Swindon; another American innovation that has found its way over the Atlantic. The weather was bizarre; fine one minute, rain showers the next. We must have had twenty individual rain showers on the drive in.

As I drove past Slough to the north and Windsor to the south, it was obvious that London was in the middle of a pretty intense rainstorm. The sky was wild and wonderful. A great towering cumulonimbus cloud dominated the vista in the centre, but huge billowing white and grey clouds were everywhere I could look. We spotted occasional lightning forks. It was like a gatefold album cover from some hideous prog rock group in the ‘seventies. I almost expected to see dragons, serpents or bare-breasted Nordic goddesses.

Calm down Parky.

But then it got serious. The rain became heavier. We got drenched as we had a quick pit stop at Heston. The last twenty miles into town were painful. The rain came down in a never-ending deluge and the traffic slowed. The spray made visibility difficult. We drove past Brentford’s Griffin Park and saw that the floodlights were already on, even though it was only 3.15pm. Heading around Hammersmith, the rain bounced back up off the road and we saw great puddles of surface water.

“Honestly can’t see the game taking place, Parks…all this rain, bloody hell.”

The streets and pavements were virtually deserted. The sky was a brooding, dark shade of grey. It felt like a mid-winter evening, not a summer afternoon. The lightning strikes grew more frequent. There were even thunderclaps.

At least there were no text messages to say that the game had been postponed. We spoke about the last time that a match was called-off on the day of the game at Chelsea; we have been lucky, it was as long ago as 1998. Jake needed to meet Mick down at the Copthorne Hotel and so I decided to drive down to Stamford Bridge as the poor tyke would get soaked if he was to walk from The Goose. I turned left at the bottom of the North End Road and onto the Fulham Road. Where was everybody? Again, the streets were deserted.

It was, without doubt, a very eerie sensation. As I headed past the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall, the rain continued to fall. There was an apocalyptic air to what was before me; these familiar streets, usually so full of brightly coloured pedestrians and football supporters, were virtually devoid of people, save for a few poor souls sheltering under shop fronts and secluded nooks and crannies.

Dark skies, incessant rain, the wind howling and solemn streets devoid of life.

Like a terrible vision from the future.

Is this what Fulham Broadway will be like when Tottenham next win the league?

We dropped Young Jake outside the main entrance -“go, go, go!” – and I then drove around the block, past The Black Bull, The Finborough and up to the Brompton Road. Then, miraculously, the rain eased. By the time I drove past West Brompton tube, the newly-arrived passengers were briskly walking towards the gaggle of pubs as if the thunderstorm had not happened.

I then saw a sight which saddened me and stirred me in equal measure. Chelsea fan Kyle Broadbent tragically passed away during the week. He was just 26. Although I did not know Kyle, the eulogies being posted on Facebook during the week were enough for me to know that he had touched so many lives and was loved by many people in the Chelsea fraternity. Draped over the metal railings of the “Prince of Wales” pub, I spotted a damp, limp flag which simply stated –

“Kyle Broadbent 1986-2012.”

Several of his friends had walked that morning in his honour from Euston Station, some three miles away, to Chelsea. It seems that Kyle often went on wild and wondrous walks at various Chelsea games; it was his thing.

Oh boy. What to say?

Rest in peace, Kyle.

Miraculously, the rain stopped just as I parked up on Bramber Road. A few minutes later, Parky and I were with the usual suspects in The Goose. Another pint of Peroni. I’ll get a new nickname at this rate; “One Pint Axon.” I guess it’s better than “Half Pint Axon.”

The scores were being monitored on the TV screen. The place was packed. A little group of around ten away fans were spotted a few yards away. No malice, times have moved on. However, I don’t think Chelsea have any real problems with Newcastle. Everton fans are sometimes spotted in the pub. West Brom, Blackburn too; no big deal. None of our main rivals would take these same liberties, though.

It simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen.

For once, The Goose was rocking with loud and boisterous singing, no doubt inspired by the presence of the away fans. We all joined in. We couldn’t let the Geordies win that battle. With our trip to Monaco for the UEFA Super Cup coming up, Andy and I spoke about our memorable coach trip to the 1998 game in Monaco when we beat Real Madrid 1-0.

The coach broke down on three separate occasions on that trip; it was, however, a great excursion which was full of many great memories. A few lads from Burnham-on-Sea in my county of Somerset were on the coach and soon got stuck into many flagons of “Rich’s” cider. One of the lads, attending his very first football game, unfortunately bore a striking resemblance to the notorious killer Fred West and his experience on the night of the game proved to be the funniest moment of the whole trip.

Fred West – I can’t remember his name – was out on the Nice seafront in the small hours after the match had long finished, chatting with a few ladies of the night. After things got a little boisterous, one of the street-walkers approached Fred and, to his absolute horror, pulled her skirt down to reveal that “she” was in fact a “he.”

With that, Fred started to recoil in horror, only for the same individual to pull out a shotgun, which was fired into the air.

The image of a startled Fred West sprinting back to the hotel had his friends roaring with laughter. I bumped into one of Fred’s mates at the Reise game at Anfield in 2009; Fred hasn’t been to a football game since.

Ed bought Parky a double Jack Daniels and Coke. I wondered if he should have bought me a shovel, to allow me to scoop Parky out of my car when I would eventually drop him off later that night.

We left the pub just as the Tottenham let in a late – a very late – equaliser.

Happy days.

At “the stall” I had a quick chat with a few acquaintances. Mark W had lost a lot of the new edition of “CFCUK” during the deluge’ leaving Dave to try to hawk a few dry copies of the August edition. Cliff A gave me a flier about a “test the water” meeting to look at setting up a Chelsea Supporters’ Trust. The meeting is scheduled to take place after the Stoke game; watch this space. I accompanied Steve M on the walk to the ground; we spoke about the great time we had in the States.

Despite the torrential downpour which had hit south-west London, the pitch looked stunning. There was no surface water at all. Well done the ground staff. Neil Barnett introduced the new signings Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta before the game. There were team changes from Wednesday; the big surprise was Raul Meireles partnering Mikel at the base of our newly-evolving midfield.

The game was indeed a cracker.

Despite the concerns over the summer about the new players taking a while to settle, we produced a very mature performance, with all players interacting well, against one of the fancied teams of the division.

The Bridge was soon rocking to the newest song of the moment. Out on the pitch, our play flowed in a way that was missing for vast tracts of last season. We simply purred. We began the livelier, with a few chances being carved out, with only sporadic Newcastle retaliation. In the 22nd minute, Fernando Torres spun into space and prodded the ball past a Newcastle defender. An outstretched leg, a fall, a penalty.

Three games, three penalties.

With Lamps side-lined, we pondered the options. Mata has missed a few penalties of late and so it was no surprise when Eden Hazard stood up.

A short run, a confident finish.

1-0 to the European Champions.

Alan and I had our “YHTCAUN – COMLD” exchange in a Geordie accent and, indeed, spoke in Geordie accents for the vast majority of the game.

The 1,500 away fans in the corner were clearly not impressed with the volume of our support and hit us, predictably, with the boring “Your Support Is F***ing S***.”

We yawned.

Fernando Torres, clearly now enjoying his permanent role at the front of our team, touched the ball past Coloccini and fell. Much to our horror, not only was a free-kick not awarded, but the Spaniard was booked.

Revenge came soon after. Although Alan was full of moans about Phil Dowd’s decision to allow five minutes of extra time at the end of the half, we were smiling in the 50th minute. A quite delightful move, which resulted in a Hazard back-heel into the path of an on-rushing Torres, ended with a delicate flick from the outside of Torres’ right boot. The ball simply flew into the net and The Bridge erupted.

Two goals in two games; Fernando Torres, you know what you are.

We all agreed how well we had played amidst our half-time chat. Out on the pitch, Neil Barnett was with former striker Joe Allon – famous for his jump over the Shed End advertising hoardings during a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon in 1991…but not much else.

Newcastle came at us in the first part of the second period. Our flow had been interrupted by the half-time break and the visitors’ new found thrust. But, in all honesty, we were hardly troubled the entire game. Ryan Bertrand hardly put a foot wrong. Both Mikel and Meireles covered a lot of ground and were the unsung heroes.

Three moments to cherish from the second period.

As the heavens opened again, a delightful back heel from Eden Hazard which almost reached Torres. I think we can expect similar moments of inspiration from our new Belgian as the season progresses. I noted that he has a very low centre of gravity – always an advantage for a dribbler – and, once he sets off on a forward run, he almost hugs the turf.

Fernando Torres was a man reborn and often ran at the Newcastle defence. His close control is one of his brightest assets. When he was on the edge of the Newcastle box, he fooled everyone by crossing the ball with his right foot from behind his standing left foot. Lovely stuff.

Eden Hazard, now full of running, teased Coloccini down below me and left him for dead over ten scintillating yards. His change of pace was amazing.

Newcastle had two or three goal scoring chances at the Shed End. We were slightly edgy, knowing that a goal from the visitors would bring them right back into it.

We held on. It had been a lovely game, which augers so well for the rest of the season.

With no trip to Monaco for me next weekend, I now have to wait three whole weeks for my next game; a feisty trip to our neighbours at Loftus Road. Who knows, by the time we reconvene there, we might still be top.

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Tales From Plaza Major

Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea : 3 November 2009.

After a busy week at work – plus an equally frantic period for Chelsea with six games in eighteen days – I couldn’t wait to get myself to Gatwick and on the plane to Spain.

I set off from my home in the small hours of Monday and it was fantastic to be off on my travels again. Meanwhile, Game Four of the World Series was taking place in Philadelphia and I needed to know how my Yankees were doing. Good job I have friends in California – the only ones in the US still awake – and so I texted Bob and Danny and, by the time I had parked up at a mate’s house in South London, I was very pleased to hear that the Yankees had won. One game away from winning it all. I texted Danny to say “my two teams could win the World Series and the Champions League Final in Madrid.”

With my thoughts returning to football, I added up – and lost count a few times – of the number of Chelsea European aways I had done and I worked out it was eighteen…Madrid would be number nineteen. A roll-call, from 1994 to date…Prague, Vienna, Zaragoza, Bratislava, Seville, Stockholm, Monaco, Oslo, Rome, Barcelona, Stuttgart, Paris, Barcelona, Bremen, Gelsenkirchen, Moscow, Rome, Turin and now Madrid.

Enough memories to last a lifetime really. The best three? I’d go for Turin, Seville and Stockholm…even Moscow was magnificent. The worst – by a mile – was Zaragoza.

I must be one of the few Englishmen who has never been on a standard package holiday to a Spanish beach resort. My childhood holidays were always in Italy ( 5 times from 1975 to 1981 ) and I have always felt more “at home” in Italy than Spain. My only ever visit to the city of Madrid was in September 1987 on an Inter-Rail adventure with two mates…we arrived at Chamartin station in the morning and we spent 12 hours walking the city streets until we departed from Attocha station, en route to Lisbon, at night. I don’t remember too much about Madrid…I remember I bumped into a girl who recognised me from my school in Frome ( small world, eh? ) but the main image from that day all those years ago is of a massive, but crumbling Bernabeu Stadium. I think we paid a few pesetas for a tour of the stadium, but this involved rampaging all over the terraces with no guide, no security and basically being able to go wherever we pleased. Later on that trip we visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and I was far more impressed with that grander stadium. All of these memories flitted in and out of my consciousness as I drive through the night.

I met up with Alan, Gary and Neil on a train at Purley at 5.25am. Our Easyjet flight to Madrid Barrajas airport left at about 8am. There were a few familiar Chelsea faces on the plane, including a chap I first met in a bar in Vienna for the Austria Memphis game in 1994.

I caught a small amount of sleep on the plane and we were soon circling the parched Spanish landscape around Madrid. The sky was picture-perfect blue and England suddenly seemed pale and grey by comparison. In a second, I understood why Arjen Robben chose to leave London for Madrid in 2007. We landed at 11.15am.

Our two mates Daryl and Rob were on a slightly later flight from Stanstead. They would soon be with us. Alan provided the first big laugh of the trip as we used the airport toilets. I wasn’t aware he was next to me, but I heard his voice bellow out –

“Just seen Torres outside, looking confused. He doesn’t know which one to go in.”

And before we knew it, the Stanstead Two arrived and we were all together, on a rumbling metro line headed for the centre.

Let the fun begin.

Our hotel was very close to the city centre ( whisper it, but we have provisionally booked it for The Final in May, too ) and the six of us spent from about 1pm to 5.30pm on a very enjoyable walk around the area by Plaza Del Sol and Plaza Mayor. My goodness, that sun was hot. We popped into a few bars and sunk a few Mahou beers. We were relaxing together and I felt the worries of work leaving me with each drink. We sat outside a beautifully tiled restaurant / bar and got stuck into some tapas, followed by a main course and it was all gorgeous stuff. We finished off our spell at the restaurant with a couple of liquors ( one on the house ) which came in chocolate coated wafer cups…the business. On the trot back to our hotel, we dipped into a couple more bars. We spotted quite a few faces in “Moores,” including the famous Chelsea fan Blind Gerry, who was over with Charlie and Nick. Gerry was actually sporting a Chelsea In America T-shirt. I had a chat with Nick and he told me a few funny incidents involving Gerry, who has been a fan of the club for ages. He told me that they gave Gerry the window seat on the flight over.

I’m sure Gerry made the most of it.

Charlie sometimes provides match commentary for Gerry and he once commented ( in all seriousness ), after a beautiful passage of Chelsea play –

“Ooh – you should have seen that, Gerry.”

We stumbled back to the hotel and arranged to meet up in about an hour. I forgot to change the time on my phone, so my alarm went off late…I joined up with the boys, rather sheepishly, at about 8.15pm. They had been joined by some other lads – chaps I went to Turin with – who were at our hotel, too. Woody was well oiled already and was wearing a multicoloured Mohican head-dress which he had obtained from a street vendor. I went off to get a beer as he fell off his seat. We bumped into a few other semi-familiar faces throughout the night and bar-hopped around Plaza Mayor. We had yet more tapas at about 11pm. Not sure what the conversations were about, but the laughter flowed as well as the beer. I met up with Dominic – from NYC – in a packed pub called “The Dubliners” and gave him his match ticket. It was manic in there – loads of Chelsea. I had last seen Dominic in Baltimore and he was so grateful to get his hands on a ticket. We dipped into a couple more bars and – sitting outside one – serenaded the world with a couple of Depeche Mode songs. We back-tracked and entered “O’Neills” in search of more fun.

Amidst all this, Game Five of the World Series was taking place. This was a historic time for Daryl and myself. I only got to know Daryl, in 1991, through our joint love of baseball – or the Yankees in particular. Daryl used to edit a Yankee fanzine for us UK-based fans. Only a year later, when he saw my name in the late lamented “Chelsea Independent” did he realise that we were both Chelsea fans. And that’s how our particular friendship blossomed. Anyway, we live 150 miles apart and had never once watched a baseball game together…certainly not in the US, nor even on TV in the UK. I have lost count of the times we have pondered trips to The Bronx together. They usually always ended –

“One day, mate – one day.”

However, there – like a mirage, was a large TV screen with the baseball. Daryl and myself smiled and toasted our team.

One win away from the Series, I wore a small gold NYY badge on my dark blue pullover and hoped the Yanks could overturn a 1-3 deficit. The coverage was then turned off for some reason. We then heard from Rob – who had disappeared – that the World Series was being shown in “The Dubliners.”

As I entered the pub, Cathy shouted out my name and I went over to have a brief word…the pub was full of Chelsea and the songs were loud. There was a crunch of sticky broken glass underfoot…the pub had obviously seen some heavy action that evening.

There were a few Rangers and Hearts fans in too – they often show up to see us in Europe.

We saw the Phils go 6-1 up and I wondered how long I could last. The beers were starting to have an effect.

The baseball coverage stopped at about 3.45am as the pub closed. I left most of my last pint as I knew I had reached saturation level. We meandered home, shards of glass stuck to my shoes, making me sound like a tap dancer. We reached the hotel at around 4am and tentatively all arranged to meet up in the hotel lobby at 10am.

At 11am I was the only one up! Eventually we all assembled and the eleven of us met up for a coffee in a nearby square.

Lacoste Watch

Chris – lavender
Jocka – light blue
Andy – racing green
Neil – mid blue

My goodness, the heat was strong again. Mirroring my visit in 1987, we then caught a couple of busses up to the Real Madrid stadium…while we waited for the second bus, next to the Madrid Hard Rock Cafe, we saw Ray Wilkins and Gary Staker walking towards us. We were able to get a few photos with Butch and we engaged him in a brief conversation.

Daryl asked him if there would be a full first team out and he replied “well – we’ve got a couple of crafty changes up our sleeve” and he then reconfirmed that “Sunday is a much bigger game.”

The Bernabeu Stadium is located a couple of miles to the north of the city in an area that could be called “plush.” It is set next to a business district full of blue-chip companies and a high-rent residential area and even the shops opposite are top-end boutiques. It is a quite abnormal location for a football stadium. It was once said – back in the mid-seventies, when talking of our un-reached potential – that Chelsea had the best location of any club in Europe, except that of Real Madrid. I was reminded of this when Daryl mentioned the setting of Stamford Bridge as being the best in London and the one stadium comparable to Real Madrid’s pad.

We spent about 90 minutes at The Bernabeu and we loved it. Since 1987, how it has changed. It has now easily leap-frogged Camp Nou in terms of quality. We paid 15 euros for a tour and it was well worth it. The first thing on the tour involved a lift up the outside of the stadium, overlooking the streets below, which reached the top tier in a few seconds. From there, the view was spectacular. The skies were clear blue and mirrored the blue of the seats. The iconic white roof hovered over the steep stands and the scene was just beautiful. Throughout the tour, my mind was doing various permutations of what could happen over the next six months. Would Chelsea be paired with Real in the knockout phase? If we reached the final, who would we play? How spectacular it would be if it was to be Real Madrid. Or – tantalisingly suggested by Daryl – how about Barcelona? The whole of Madrid would be behind us. We would be drinking for free!

The tour consisted of viewing the stadium from several levels, from the upper tiers all of the way down to pitch level by the tunnel. I took lots of photos. There is a museum, featuring old artefacts, game-worn jerseys from as far back as 1902, photos of previous stadia, potted histories of a their famous players and then there is the trophy room, which is superb. There is a wall containing photos of thousands of players. We concluded that there are six players who have played for both teams…Arjen Robben, Christian Panucci, Geremi, Claude Makelele, Lassana Diarra and Nikolas Anelka.

They clearly are an ultra-successful club.

However – for anyone with just a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish football, all of this success hasn’t exactly come as a result of just the honest toil from the players on the pitch. Real has achieved their successes partly via the murky transfer of players, funds from politicians and businesses, decisions from dodgy referees, patronage of the state, favours from every direction, subjugation of others ( a certain team in Catalonia to name but one ) and the like.

When they claim they are the most successful club of the 20th Century, it is almost as if there needs to be an asterisk hovering nearby.

I never have liked Real Madrid, Franco’s club, the fascist Ultra Sur hooligans, the galacticos et al. I remember the booing of SWP and other black players on England duty at the Bernabeu in around 2005, something that certainly shocked me. The fact that Leeds United rebranded themselves in the ‘sixties to copy the all-white kit hasn’t helped either.

However, perhaps they have never liked us…we beat them in Athens in 1971 and in Monaco in 1998. I wonder when the third meeting will be.

You see how are minds were working? We were playing Atletico, but The Final and Real Madrid were always lurking in the background.

We enjoyed a pre-match meal in a quiet central bar / restaurant and caught the subway down to the game. As we approached the stadium, which remained hidden behind tower blocks for some time, we joined a slow-moving group of fans. This is where I needed to keep my wits about me. There were Atletico fans drinking nearby and a few Chelsea fans were singing a few yards away. I kept my eyes on Daryl, Rob, Alan, Neil and Gary to make sure we were all together. We walked past groups of police and I sensed an atmosphere. At last, the concrete walls of the stadium approached and the road widened, souvenir stalls in front and to the side. We walked around to the northern end and via a quick security check, we were in.

Virtually the first person we saw inside was Cliff and he was in the wars again…he had been hit by a bottle on the forehead, thrown indiscriminately into the Chelsea fans as they passed a bar. His shirt was bloodied but he was OK.

As we reached the top tier ( the 3,000 Chelsea visitors were in two tiers ) we heard from many that we had just missed a baton charge by the Spanish police in which women and even a teenage girl were hit. This is clearly disgraceful. I am not sure what the provocation was, but it highlighted how near we came, perhaps, to being attacked. I was struck by a police baton in Zaragoza in 1995 and was doing no more than watching my team. It was a case of “sit where you like” in the top tier and I was right on the end of a row, overlooking the outside of the main stand, which is quite an oddity. The Madrid ring road, next to the Mazanares River, runs right beneath its support columns. I had three or four policemen stood next to me for the entire game and a few mouthy Chelsea youths were prodded and poked throughout the game. Because away travel is virtually non-existent in Spain, I have this theory that Spanish police get freaked out by 3,000 away fans. Still no excuse though.

The Estadio Vicente Calderon is a simple bowl, in two tiers, with a single row of executive boxes perched on the rim – clearly a recent addition. The main stand – which was blocked from my view by a large scoreboard – sits apart from the other three sides though. The top deck is in the colours of the Atletico shirts ( red and white ) while the lower tier is blue, matching the normal blue shorts. I guess they played in red shorts to avoid a clash with us. The stadium was spartan – bare concrete everywhere and was a poor second to the majesty of the Bernabeu.

Banners at the opposite home end signalled two of their ultra groups – Red & White Inferno and El Frente Atletico. As the teams entered the pitch, their fans in the lower tier held their scarves aloft and waved a few flags. This was clearly the hotbed of their support. Elsewhere, the home fans didn’t really get involved.

I looked around at the fans in our support and soon realised that there were not many women and virtually no kids. In fact, 75% of our support were aged 40-55…perhaps more. I have heard stories from many fans that they don’t bother with domestic aways these days and only turn out for Europe.

I can see the attraction…maybe one day. Maybe after I have visited Bolton another ten times.

It was a strange game and we didn’t really impress for most of it. Strange to see Kalou starting and he was his usual frustrating self. Despite a couple of silky flicks, Joe Cole was very quiet and didn’t appear match fit. Alex patrolled the pitch with great conviction and often chased and closed attackers down as if his life depended on it. I liked Ashley’s contribution too.

A delightful move ended with Frank – otherwise quiet – shaving the post and Drogba hit the post in the second half.

Our support, split into two tiers, was sporadic.

Of course, that failed defensive header from JT gifted Aguerro with a goal on the hour and the home support roared their approval. They did a massive bouncy and it was pretty impressive. We came back into it when Malouda sent over an inch-perfect cross for Didi to head home…great celebrations…we just about deserved a point and we’d take it. Then, a superb break from Drogba, fending off two defenders, resulted in a goal when his initial shot was parried.

We went crazy.

Screams. Fists punching the air. Yes!

We couldn’t believe it really. Did we deserve three points? No.

Then, of course, the denouement…the sub Aguerro spun a wicked fee-kick past Cech and our elation turned to dust.

Again the Atletico fans roared.

At the final whistle, a shrug and the realisation that we had reached the last sixteen quickly over-rode any sadness.

The Spanish OB kept us in for about 25 minutes. We had a few songs. A few laughs. We assembled outside and had a partial police escort until they lost interest about fifteen minutes away from the stadium. There was no “afters.” We dived into a bar for a quite exceptional Mahou, served in an iced glass, then caught a cab to the centre.

After a couple of beers and yet more tapas, we called it a night.

On the Wednesday, we all got up late again and walked the short distance to the royal palace. It was an impressive building and we took a few snaps. We didn’t see much of Madrid to be honest, but it was all about male bonding and “being there” more than anything else. As we left the centre, en route back to the airport, I couldn’t help but think that it felt like it was a dry run, a “practice” for May.

Fingers crossed – let’s hope so.

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