Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

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

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

What luck.

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

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

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

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

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super.

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

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

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

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

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

We set off on a walkabout.

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

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

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper Chelsea.

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

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

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

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

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

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

Bless’em.

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

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

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

We all knew what it meant.

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

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

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

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

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

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

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

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

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

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

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

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

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

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

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes on the penalty takers.

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

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

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

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

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

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

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

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

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

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

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

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

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

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

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

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

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

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

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

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

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

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

It had been a good night.

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

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

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

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From The Final Tie

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2021.

Since We Last Spoke.

My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.

“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”

Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.

Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.

The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.

I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :

Why?

It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.

Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.

But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.

How?

It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.

I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.

The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.

But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.

Football still didn’t seem too important to me.

The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.

A small victory for me, and I needed it.

Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.

In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.

It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.

Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.

But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.

Was the world changing?

On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.

I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.

With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.

Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.

In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.

It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.

I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?

My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.

Thomas Tuchel?

A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.

Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.

On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.

I know what I found most enjoyable.

Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”

Pizazz? Style?

I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).

Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.

(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)

I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.

So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.

But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.

Let’s talk about the FA Cup.

For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.

After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.

Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.

The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.

“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”

“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”

“Bugger me.”

“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”

“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”

The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.

“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”

“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”

The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.

“Like a bloody river, Ted.”

After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal.  There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.

The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.

“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”

There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.

With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.

As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.

“That goal, Ted.”

“What of it?”

“It looked offside to me.”

“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”

“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”

On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.

This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.

“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”

I laughed with them.

The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.

It has been my life.

I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.

“I have missed it badly.”

They both smiled.

And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.

But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?

I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.

I have aired all this before. As well you know.

No pressure, Chelsea.

Vic Woodley.

On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.

Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.

But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.

I vote for Vic Woodley.

I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.

We must pay a visit when normality returns.

Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.


1994 And 2021.

I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.

This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.

We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.

RIP Wycombe Stan.

I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.

The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”

It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.

At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.

At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.

In. Simple.

We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.

Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.

Result. In.

For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :

“I’ve had a good six months.”

There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.

It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.

A Chelsea Gallery.

The Game.

The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.

A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.

“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”

I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.

James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.

So, yes, the team.

Kepa.

James. Silva. Rudiger.

Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.

Mount. Werner. Ziyech.

I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.

And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.

Does anybody like it?

To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.

Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.

With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.

The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.

Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.

After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.

We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.

Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.

Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”

It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.

For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.

Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.  

A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.

Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”

I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”

Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.

For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.

The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.

“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.

He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.

We play from the back.

And counter attack.

Champions of England. You made us sing that.”

Thankfully no mention of a high press.

The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.

At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.

No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.

The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.

Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.

Bollocks.

Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.

The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.

Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.

I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.

“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”

With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.

The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.

A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.

I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.

In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.

I heard a voice inside my head.

“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”

And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.

A red rectangle…

VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.

My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?

Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.

A roar from the other end, no goal.

King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”

I had no answer.

Has anyone?

There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.

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.

img_8212

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.

IMG_9805

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.

TEW05489694_00558