Tales From Work

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 December 2015.

On most mornings, prior to myself leaving my home to collect the usual suspects en route to football, I invariably post on “Facebook” some sort of Chelsea-related message allied with the phrase “Let’s Go To Work.”

This reflects the rather business-like nature of football these days. It underlines the sense of focus that is required to progress at the top level of football. Over the past few seasons, especially under Jose Mourinho, I have considered it to be most apt. It is the phrase that the Milanese allegedly use, on occasion, rather than a standard greeting such as “good morning.” It cements the predominant work ethic in Italy’s industrial north. I can’t separate this from the old Italian saying “Milan works, Rome eats.” And while other teams and clubs have been doing a lot of eating recently – growing flabby and lazy, lacking focus and determination – Chelsea Football Club has been working hard.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

Work.

It made me think.

To be quite frank, as I stumbled around in the early-morning, for once, a trip to support my beloved Chelsea – never usually a chore – actually seemed like a work day. The decision by the board to dispense with the services of manager Mourinho on the afternoon of Thursday 17 December had meant that, in my mind, the game with Sunderland would not be an enjoyable event. In recent memory, there had been the toxic atmosphere of Rafa Benitez’ first game in charge after the sacking of Roberto di Matteo. I suspected something similar three years on. Yes, this seemed like a work day. A day when my appearance at Stamford Bridge was expected. It was part of my contract. There would be no chance of phoning in for a “sicky”. I had no choice but to don my work clothes, collect fellow workmates and “clock on.”

Chelsea? I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

There was even a small part of my mind that was glad that I had a duty to collect Glenn and Parky and to drive them to London. I was also glad that my local team Frome Town were away, at Kettering Town. Who knows what thoughts might have been racing through my mind had this just been about Chelsea and me, with the Robins playing a home game just three miles away.

In all honesty, it is very unlikely that I would forgo a Chelsea home game for a Frome Town game, but that the fact that I was even thinking these thoughts is pretty significant.

I collected Glenn and on the drive over the border from Somerset to Wiltshire, we spoke about the troubles and travails of Chelsea Football Club. There was talk of player power, a lack of summer signings, Mourinho’s intense and relentless demands, and dissension in the ranks. Not many stones were left unturned. There was concern that there would be boos for some players. There was never a chance that this would be part of my modus operandi for the day. I recalled, with Glenn, the one moment in my life that I had booed a Chelsea player. Back in 2000, the board chose to sack the loved Gianluca Vialli, and “player power” – yes those words again – was muted as the main reason for his demise. In the much-used phrase of the moment, Vialli had “lost the dressing room.” Frank Leboeuf was seen as one of the main instigators. In the home game which followed Vialli’s demise, against St. Gallen, as Leboeuf came over to retrieve the ball from a ball boy, a section of the crowd collectively decided to let him have it. I momentarily joined in the booing. If people think that I like Mourinho, I simply loved Vialli. However, the look of disbelief on Leboeuf’s face – of bewilderment and shock – quickly made me rue my actions. There would be no more boos from me.

As I have often said, “it’s like booing yourself.”

But I knew that there would be boos for some Chelsea players later in the day. And although it would not be for me, I wasn’t pompous enough to say that others would be wrong to vent however they felt fit. I usually grumble if there are boos at half-time if there has been a poor performance, but this day would be a bit different.

There were rumours of some players under-performing on purpose. I was not sure of the validity of these rumours, but this would not stop a certain amount of negative noise. I wondered if players would be individually targeted. Or would there be a blanket booing?

“Is that fair though? Not all players should be tarred with the same brush.”

I quickly listed those who I believed should be exonerated from any talk of players conniving against Mourinho.

“Willian stands alone, fantastic season. No problems with him. John Terry has tried his best, as always. And you can’t complain about the two ‘keepers Courtois and Begovic. Zouma too. And Dave. No complaints there. Even Ivanovic, who has had a pretty crap season, but nobody could accuse him of not trying. Cahill and Ramires, not the best of seasons, but triers. Pedro borderline, not great. Remy always tries his best. No complaints with Kenedy. You can’t include Loftus-Cheek as he hasn’t played too much.”

I then spoke of the others. If there was some sort of clandestine plot, then these under-performing players would be my main protagonists, based purely on lack of fight and application.

“No, the ones that you have to wonder about are Hazard, Fabregas, Diego Costa, Matic and even Oscar. Those five. So it’s only those five in my book.”

We very quickly spoke about our options for a new manager. Glenn made a very insightful comment about the world of top class football managers.

“Maybe there will be some sort of reaction against Chelsea. These managers obviously speak to each other. If they see that Mourinho didn’t last, maybe they will shy away from it. Too much a poisoned chalice. Too much pressure.”

Inside the pub, and outside in the beer garden, the troops assembled from near and far. The weather was mild for December. And the debate about Mourinho was mild too. Several of us spoke in little groups about the state of the nation. And all of it was level-headed and intelligent. It was good stuff, and I only wish that I could remember more of it to share here.

Rather than limit the discussion to a stand-off between Mourinho and players, which undoubtedly the media seem to want to focus on, we broadened it to include the whole club, embracing the various strands of its operation. We spoke about the ridiculous tour to Australia and the Far East right on the tail of last season. We chatted about a poor pre-season and questioned why the players were flown in to our three games in the US from a base in Montreal in Canada. We moaned about Mourinho’s increasingly weary outbursts and his tendency to blame others. For sure, his complex character was discussed. We questioned a very ineffectual set of summer signings. I condemned the over-long obsession with John Stones. We were annoyed with our manager’s continued reluctance to play our heralded youngsters.

“What has Loftus-Cheek got to do to get a game?”

“Say what you like about Benitez, but at least he played Ake.”

We grumbled about Michael Emenalo.

“Out of all the wonderful players that have come through this club over the past twenty years, surely we could find someone of greater credibility and standing than Emenalo. Our club, the director of football and other key positions, should be stacked full of former players.”

There was one point that took a few minutes to discuss.

“What I don’t understand, is that if Mourinho was having problems with some key players – maybe those five named above – why did he constantly pick them?”

Yes, that was the real conundrum of the day.

Fabregas was only recently dropped, yet has struggled for months. Matic awful all season long. Costa has lacked focus. Hazard has either suffered a horrendous drop in confidence – quite possible – or has not been up for the fight. Either way, he was rarely dropped. Oscar has not shown the fight.

More questions than answers.

The gnawing doubt in the back of my mind was that, despite his former prowess in cajoling the best out of his players, Mourinho had lost that gift. It’s possible.

But here was my last word before the game.

“Regardless of the relationship between Mourinho and the team, on many occasions it seemed to me that the players were simply not trying. And that doesn’t just mean not running around like headless chickens, but not moving off the ball, not tracking back to offer cover for the defenders, not working for each other. They have been cheating us. The fans. Inexcusable.”

That was where the “palpable discord” existed in my mind. Between players and fans.

However, before we knew it, the beers were flowing and our little group of Chelsea lifers from London, Essex, Somerset, Bristol, Wiltshire and Edinburgh were smiling and laughing.

At around 1.45pm, it was announced by Chelsea FC that former boss Guus Hiddink would be rejoining us. I reverted to old habits on “Facebook.”

“Welcome Back Guus. Let’s Go To Work.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. Glenn was in earlier than me and had commented that some players had been booed when the teams were announced for the first time at about 2.15pm.

The team? Much the same as before, but without the injured Hazard.

As the clock ticked, the stadium filled up.

I was pleased to see that the Mourinho banners were still up behind both goals. To drag them down would have been unforgiveable. It was clear that he would remain a presence, spiritually, at our stadium for years.

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In the match programme, John Terry said that there had not been any player power. In the words of Mandy Rice-Davies :

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

Just before the teams entered, the teams were announced again.

Yes, there were boos. But there were claps and applause too.

The last three names to be announced – 22 : Willian, 26 : Terry, 28 : Azpilicueta – drew most applause, quite thunderous. Zouma was applauded well. I was saddened to hear Ivanovic booed. Others clearly did not share my view of him. Unsurprisingly, Fabregas, Matic and Costa were booed, though of course not by a large number. Many had chosen to stay silent. After all, the naming of the players at this stage every home game is usually met with varying degrees of indifference.

To be honest, as the game began, the backlash was not as great as I had feared. Maybe, just maybe, we are getting too used to all of this. Too used to the serial sackings. Too used to ups and downs and the slash and burn mentality of the current regime. I certainly didn’t feel the venom of the 2012 sacking of Di Matteo.

There can be no doubt that Roman Abramovich, watching alongside Hiddink and also Didier Drogba in his box in the West Stand, had agonised long and hard about the dismissal of Mourinho. For a moment, I had thought that we would ride it out, but no. In the end, there was an inevitability about it all.

The ground was rocking in the first few minutes in praise of our former manager. As we attacked The Shed, I joined in almost without thought.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

With an almost eerie sense of timing, Branislav Ivanovic rose to head home a Willian corner as the name of Mourinho continued to be sung. In reality, from Sunderland’s perspective, it was that bad a goal that we could have conceded it. An unchallenged header. As easy as that.

We were 1-0 up after just five minutes. There was a roar, but this soon died down.

Soon after, with Chelsea playing with a little more spring to their step, a loose ball fell at the feet for Pedro to smash high in to the Sunderland net. After both goals, the name of Jose Mourinho rung out.

The Matthew Harding, capturing the moment, the zeit geist, burst in to spontaneous song.

“Where were you when we were shit?”

Self-mocking but sarcastic and poisonously pointed, it summed things up perfectly.

Oscar, undoubtedly much improved than during all previous appearances this season, was enjoying a fine game. His long run deep in to the Sunderland box, with the defence parting like the Red Sea, was sadly not finished with a goal. Elsewhere there was more high-tempo interchange, and our play was noticeably more cohesive. How is that possible after months of a more conservative approach?

I wish I knew the answer.

Sunderland hardly crossed the halfway line. It was virtually all one way traffic. Diego Costa, a little more involved in a central position, came close on two occasions.

Our visitors began the second-half with a lot more verve. However, from a counter-attack, Pedro – also showing a lot more zip – raced away before playing in Willian. He touched the ball forward but the Sunderland ‘keeper Pantilimon took him out. We waited as former Chelsea full-back Patrick van Aanholt was attended to, but Oscar coolly despatched the penalty. Again a burst of applause, but this soon died down. In truth, the game continued on with very little noise.

To be honest, a silent protest is difficult to ascertain at Stamford Bridge, since many home games are played out against a backdrop of sweet-wrappers rustling and birds chirping.

Soon after substitute Adam Johnson, booed for other reasons, sent in a free-kick and Courtois could only watch as his parry was knocked in by former Chelsea striker Fabio Borini. Sunderland then took the game to us, and went close on a few occasions. Shots from Borini and the perennial Defoe whizzed past our far post.

I almost expected a second goal.

“It’ll get nervous then, Al.”

Oscar shimmied to make space and hit a fine curler just past the post. Oscar was turning in a really fine performance. We briefly discussed his Chelsea career. He has undoubted potential – skillful, a firm tackler – but that potential is yet to be reached.

It is worthwhile to mention that there was not wide scale booing throughout the game. I was happy for that. However, when Mikel replaced Fabregas and Remy replaced Costa, boos resounded around The Bridge. I looked on as Costa slowly walked towards the Chelsea bench. He looked disgusted. He made a great point in looking – scowling, almost – at all four stands as he walked off. No doubt the noise had shocked him.

It was, if I am honest, as visceral as it got the entire day.

Ramires came on for Oscar. There were no boos. Maybe the Stamford Bridge crowd were changing their opinions, being more pragmatic, more forgiving.

There were a few late chances, with one being set up by a run from Jon Obi Mikel deep in to the Sunderland box. Yes, it was one of those crazy days.

At the final whistle, there was relief.

Out on the Fulham Road, there were still cries of “Jose Mourinho” but the mood was lighter than before the game.

Back in the car, we were just so happy with the three points and that another tough day was behind us. We quickly recapped on the day’s events, but then looked forward to the next couple of games, when we can hopefully continue some sort of run. It worked out rather well with Guus Hiddink in the latter months of 2008-2009, so let’s hope for a similar scenario.

On hearing that unfancied Norwich City had beaten The World’s Biggest Football Club, I went back on “Facebook” one last time.

“Van Gaal out. He never even won the league last season.”

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Tales From A State Of Confusion

Chelsea vs. Queens Park Rangers : 2 January 2013.

The old unbeaten home run was in jeopardy for the game with Queens Park Rangers. I woke up to discover that I had heating problems at home and needed to wait around for an engineer to call by. I took an emergency day’s holiday from work and waited. To be quite honest, I was fully expecting the boiler to be fixed late in the afternoon, making a quick sprint up the M4 to be pointless. If I left home at 5.30pm, I wouldn’t get in until half-time. Oh, well – the run will end eventually. I was quite philosophical about it. 236 games isn’t a bad figure. Thankfully, the bloke showed up just after lunch and I was able to keep the run going. On the drive over to Chippenham, the bleak winter scenery reached new depths, with only muted greens and browns mixed in with a thousand shades of grey.

If everything was sombre outside the car, things would soon change inside it. Lord Parkins was back for this game and it was great to see the old fool once more. His last game was the Liverpool game on Remembrance Sunday. A lot has happened since then. Oh boy. The old team were back together again and, after the usual volley of verbal insults between us, the journey to London flew past.

I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who was hoping for a bagful of goals against Queens Park Rangers. We beat them 6-1 last April. Our last home game saw us score 8 against Aston Villa. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was expecting an easy win, but I knew that if we scored an early goal, the omens were good. Let’s get into them. Let’s show them who is boss.

One of my least favourite games from my first ten years of attending Chelsea games was against QPR. In March 1979, I travelled up to London with my parents and an uncle for the game against our west London neighbours and the game was on the same day as the Forest vs. Southampton League Cup Final. I always remember being stuck in about an hour-long traffic jam on the M4; maybe the influx of traffic from Southampton was to blame. It was an altogether depressing scenario. I had visions of arriving very late and missing a chunk of the game. 1978-1979 was a horrible season. We were mired in a relegation place all of the way through the entire campaign. It was the one season when my support of the team waned a little. I was getting into music at the time and I think my love for Chelsea suffered a bit. I had seen us lose 3-1 at home to newly-promoted Spurs in the November. As it transpired, we reached our seats in the East Lower just in time for the kick-off, but I hadn’t been able to enjoy my usual pre-match of autograph hunting, souvenir shopping and programme collecting. It had been rushed and I hated it. The Chelsea team included a few new signings – Jim Docherty and Eamonn Bannon – but the manager Danny Blanchflower didn’t have a clue. Our team was woeful. Players such as David Stride and John Sitton are not often mentioned in a list of our greatest ever defenders. We lost 3-1 on that miserable day some 34 years ago. A couple of QPR fans were sitting in front of us in the East Stand that day. I loathed them with every ounce of my being. In May, we were relegated and we stayed in the old second division for five long years. Funnily enough, my support for the team and club soon reached its usual stratospheric level again within the first few games of 1979-1980. But that’s another story.

But 1978-1979; oh boy. What a season.

I made an apology to Parky for continuing to play the Japan CD on the drive east. Tokyo certainly made an impact on me and the music has haunted me since my return. We talked about lots on the drive in. Suffice to say, the old bugger has missed some of the most tumultuous weeks of Chelsea’s history since his last game. I could tell that Parky was chomping at the bit to get in amongst it in the pub. We sauntered in at 6.45pm and pints of Peroni were quaffed.

Out in the beer garden of The Goose, none other than Wrayman was chatting to Steve M. He had been over in Paris for a few days with his wife, but had timed his European vacation with a last-minute trip to England for the QPR game. He, unsurprisingly, was feeling the cold, although the weather in England has been milder than at Christmas. Rob came over to say a few words – they had bumped into each other on the Thursday before the CL Final in Munich. I always get a little tingle when Chelsea friends from different parts of the globe meet up. Seeing a photo of Rob and Andy – who didn’t previously know each other – in Munich on Facebook on the Friday had made me smile.

My solitary pint was consumed and The Bridge was calling me. I met up with my mate Steve from Bournemouth outside the tube and we made our way to the stadium. The QPR section took a while to fill up, but they soon had 3,000 noisy followers in the south-east corner. Not one single flag or banner, though. Poor. Chelsea fans only have to cross the road and we’re hoisting flags from every vantage point.

In place of the Peter Osgood banner in The Shed, the “Super Frankie Lampard” banner was proudly hanging instead. Clearly a signal to the board to get him signed-up. The Ossie one was over towards the west side, just above Parkyville and Wrayland.

The news in the pub had been that Juan Mata had been dropped. He has certainly been our talisman this season. Elsewhere, there were other changes with Turnbull in for the injured Cech, Bertrand and Marin in for Cole and Mata. Lamps remained partnered with Luiz. Moses preferred to Hazard.

“Come on boys.”

Before the game was able to get going, I thought that Marko Marin was very lucky to stay on the pitch after a terrible challenge on Unknown Rangers Player Number One. He received a yellow. Lucky boy.

The first-half wasn’t great. Off the pitch, the two sets of fans traded insults.

“Champions of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

“Champions of Europe, You’re Already Out.”

“Queens Park Rangers, You’re Already Down.”

“Fcuk Off Chelsea – West London is Ours.”

“We Don’t Hate You ‘Cus You’re Shit.”

A David Luiz bouncer on thirteen minutes was the first real effort on goal. It was a disjointed affair, and that early goal that I so craved didn’t transpire. The away team had been told to defend and to defend deep, with the enigmatic Taarabt playing the most advanced role. Shades of Eden Hazard in Turin. Our efforts on goal were sporadic. An Oscar effort from way out hardly troubled Julio Cesar, all dressed in black like an extreme Lev Yashin, tights and all.

Shaun Wright-Phillips (yes, him), who replaced the injured Unknown Rangers Player Number Two, shot wide, but Turnbull was largely untroubled.

As our attacks took forever to gain momentum and as shots were ballooned high, wide and ugly, I mentioned to Alan that we were “flattering to deceive.”

“Flattering to deceive” is one of those phrases which you only ever hear being mentioned in football reports, along with “away to my left”, “pitched battles”, “early doors” and “at the end of the day.”

Well, after misses by Ivanovic, Oscar and Moses, we were certainly flattering to deceive.

“There will be boos at the break, Al” I suggested.

There were. We had been poor, of course, but I was hopeful that things would improve in the second-half. Torres hadn’t been given much service and our midfielders were passing to oblivion.

At the break, Neil Barnett always likes to give us a few clues as to who will be on the pitch at half-time. He began by saying “this player played 350 games for us in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies and won medals in three cups.” I guessed at Marvin Hinton. Looking back, it could have been John Dempsey, but I think he joined after the 1965 League Cup win.

“We used to call him Suave Marve.”

Yep, Marvin Hinton. Although, he played for us until 1976, I was sure I never saw him play for us. He is now 72, looks pretty healthy, and enjoyed a walk around the pitch. The QPR fans aimed a rude song at him –

“Who The Fcuking Hell Are You?”

This, for a 72 year old. Classy.

Barnett retaliated by digging at them –

“And Marvin Hinton has more medals than your entire club.”

Soon into the second-half, a fine twisting run by Marin below me in the north-west corner was followed up by a low cross towards the near post. Victor Moses, who had been quiet in the first period, lunged at the ball but just evaded his toe.

The crowd groaned.

However, rather than spur the home spectators, the Chelsea fans largely remained quiet and subdued. It was the away contingent who could be heard. Our play improved in the second-half and I was utterly convinced that we would edge it 1-0. Efforts from Lampard and Cahill – who headed against the bar – suggested that I was right. Then, the best chance of the night; the ball fell to Torres, who instinctively lashed at goal, but Cesar (or Billy Joel, as Al called him) pulled off a superb save.

Ross Turnbull was largely a spectator and we sighed with relief when he easily saved from Unknown Rangers Player Number Three. Further QPR raids were repelled. Billy Joel was time wasting at every opportunity. He clearly wasn’t an innocent man, but Lee Mason didn’t find him guilty. Still the home support didn’t react. In truth, our support stunk like a dustbin lorry on a hot summer day.

Halfway through the half, following a corner, Lampard volleyed in and the place erupted.

“He’s done it again. Get in!”

The linesman, though, had flagged for offside.

Benitez rang the changes, replacing Marin (who had done OK) with Mata…we hoped things would improve further. Sadly, we were wrong. QPR won a corner and I muttered “fear of impending doom” to Steve.

Me and my sixth sense.

The ball dropped to Taraabt who played in Wright-Phillips. With a fine strike, he guided the ball low into Ross Turnbull’s goal, right in line with me, right inside the post. It was a goal all the way. The only consolation was that Shaun turned in on himself and chose not to celebrate.

Respect to him for that.

In the final fifteen minutes, we tried our best to carve open the QPR defence, but it was not to be. A Luiz free-kick hit the wall. An Ivanovic header boomed over. Did anyone notice the ridiculous, crazy challenge by Luiz on Unknown Rangers Player Number Four? He just threw himself at the player after the ball was well gone. Alan and I just sighed.

The crowd were leaving before the end.

Not good.

The whistle went and I was left alone with my thoughts.

2012 – I’m missing you already.

In truth, despite the number of team-changes that Benitez made, QPR were there for the taking. We should have won this 3-0. We had enough efforts on goal, but how many saves did the ‘keeper make? The whole team underperformed really. I hate to single out players, but there were several who didn’t do well. I thought that the marking of Taarabt, their one major threat, was farcical at times. We gave him far too much room. Throughout the team, there was a lack of ideas, a paucity of movement, negligible desire. Or – at least – compared to recent games. But…I say again, we should have beaten them 3-0 on the night. We certainly did not deserve to lose.

On the long drive home, Parky and I mulled over the state of affairs at our club.

We are clearly a confused and divided club at the moment. Where there was unity and cohesion – I’m talking generally here – in the summer, now there is infighting, rumour, rancour and unrest. I made the point that it is quite likely that there are Chelsea fans who want us to lose games so that Rafa Benitez gets the push. I also made the point that there must be fans of opposing clubs who want us to win so that they can see us squirm as we try to get to grips with Rafa.

That can’t be right, can it?

I’m still confused about the whole Di Matteo / Benitez scenario. It will probably take me many more games to come up with a succinct appraisal of what is happening. I just want success for the club. That’s obvious. However, I’m certainly no apologist for Benitez. In truth, I feel like retching every time I see him wearing Chelsea gear. It is clear that most Chelsea fans won’t give him an inch. In fact, no Chelsea manager will ever experience the derision and scorn that Benitez will get with every loss, every dropped point, and every tactical malfunction. Our recent little resurgence will soon be forgotten with each game that passes. Is that right? Probably not, but who am I to say? My head tells me I should move on and give him the benefit of the doubt, but my heart is struggling to come to terms with that notion. It’s a right mucking fuddle. To be honest, I’m trying to ignore the bloke – a la Ranieri in 2000 and Grant in 2007 – but as he is the image of the club at the moment, it is rather difficult.

Oh well, at least Danny Blanchflower isn’t in charge.

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Tales From The Longest Journey

Chelsea vs. Monterrey : 13 December 2012.

I can well remember travelling back from Munich in May when a few of us spoke about the chances of heading over to Tokyo for the World Club Championships. On that flight from Prague to Bristol, my view was that it was “one trip too far.” After the dust had settled and after I had mulled over the possibilities, my view soon changed. The tipping point was the realisation that the date of the final – Sunday 16 December – was my late father’s birthday. Once I heard that, little could stop me. In June I booked flights, in July I sorted a hotel and in October I purchased match tickets. I think it is safe to say that I have rarely looked forward to games with greater relish in all of my years of support of the club. The thought of seeing us become World Champions in Tokyo sent me dizzy.

2012 has truly been unlike no other.

By its eventual completion, I will have seen Chelsea play in Naples, Barcelona, Munich, New York, Philadelphia, Turin and Tokyo.

I need to get out more.

Since the start of 2012-2013, the games have mounted up and I have attended the vast majority. The two games in Tokyo would be games 26 and 27. What another tumultuous season for us all. Even in the opening five months of this campaign, we have had enough success, despair and madness at Chelsea to last a lifetime. The low point was the awful trip to West Ham when there was near civil war in the Chelsea section.

Enough was enough. I wanted to put the past few crazy weeks behind me. An away trip to Sunderland was avoided as I wanted to get my head straight for last-minute preparations for my longest ever Chelsea journey. I spent the Saturday, instead, watching my local team Frome Town. The contrast with my next game would be immense. Saturday gave way to Sunday. Sunday gave way to Monday. The hours passed. And then the minutes.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

As I headed out of Somerset en route for Heathrow on Tuesday 11 December, I couldn’t resist a text to a few close friends.

“Jack Kelouac.”

It seems almost superfluous for me to mention my trip to London when my end destination was many thousands of miles further east. However, for me, every mile counts. The hundred miles that I spent alone, listening to some Depeche Mode, enjoying the winter sun, letting my mind wander was the perfect start for my journey. As ever, it gave me the chance to put some sort of perspective on the upcoming events over the next few days. As I drove past Andover and Basingstoke, I was reminded of my first ever trips by car to Chelsea back in 1991-1992. I learned to drive relatively late at the age of 26 and my first few trips to Stamford Bridge, along the A303, up the M3 and around the M25 to a mate’s house in Worcester Park, were landmark events. It’s funny how certain music takes me back to that time. Those first few trips to Chelsea were often accompanied by rave anthems, but also by several Depeche Mode albums. Every time I hear “Black Celebration” I am transported back to driving home from a Sunderland F.A. Cup game in 1992. A John Byrne equaliser broke our hearts and stopped us advancing to our first semi-final in twenty-two years. It was a long and lonely drive home that night. Twenty years ago, trips to Tokyo to watch Chelsea would have been regarded as the stuff of fantasy.

So, there’s the perspective.

Over the last few miles of my journey, I couldn’t resist playing “Tin Drum” by Japan, a fantastic band from my teens. David Sylvian’s fractured voice, dipping in and out; with synthesisers producing a uniquely sparse sound provided the perfect backdrop for me. One of my favourite tracks from the early ‘eighties was David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s classic “Forbidden Colours.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1YkHJJi-tc

Visions of China and Japan echoed around my brain.

My good mate Russ dropped me off at Heathrow in plenty of time to catch the first leg of my gargantuan trip east. The 5.40pm Air China flight to Beijing left a little late. Chelsea stalwarts Cathy and Maureen were also onboard, plus a couple more fans who I didn’t recognise. We eventually took off, sweeping north and then east over London, before flying over The Netherlands, Germany, Russia – just south of St. Petersburg – and further beyond. My head was spinning at the enormity of it all. I hoped to catch plenty of sleep on the flight but, after a meal, I decided to check out the movies on offer. Of the forty to choose from, there was an over-abundance of Shirley Temple films. I obviously found this odd, but presumed that the People’s Republic of China has an obscure obsession with the tousle-haired child star of the ‘forties. It was proof, if any was required, that things would be getting slightly weird over the subsequent few days. I remembered how Albania was equally besotted with Norman Wisdom, the accident prone comedian from the post-war films of my childhood. Sometimes there is no reason behind anything.

Eventually, I chose “Citizen Kane”, the classic film about an enigmatic multi-millionaire. I didn’t last too long into the film as my eyes were soon feeling tired, but there was time for me to raise a smile at the line –

“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

I had seen the film a few times. A few scenes are marvellous. On this trip, when thoughts of my father would never be too far away, I was reminded of one of my most treasured memories from my childhood. Forget all of the Chelsea trips, the family holidays to Blackpool, Dorset, Italy and Austria and my father’s silly jokes; probably my most cherished memory of my father was when he pulled me, aged around three, on a home-made sled around my village, with snow falling and the two of us just chatting away. It was a rural winter wonderland. Perfect.

It was perhaps my “Rosebud” moment.

Our flight across the frozen wastes of Russia, Mongolia and China took over ten hours. Thankfully, I slept for half of this. I eventually peeked out of the window when we were an hour away from Beijing and saw snow-capped mountains. My heart skipped a beat. We landed in a freezing Beijing at around midday. Cathy and Maureen rushed through to catch their connecting flight to Tokyo, but my flight was much later. I had over five hours at the airport. But not just any airport.

Beijing.

Peking.

China.

Oh boy.

I was in China.

It was one place that I never thought that I would visit. Tiananmen Square was but ten miles away. I was not worried that I was locked “in transit” at the airport. This was enough for me. I paced around the airport and then endured, rather than enjoyed, an authentic Chinese meal. I had beef and noodles and so unfortunately wasn’t able to utter the immortal line–

“Waiter – this chicken is rubbery.”

The connecting flight to Tokyo left at around 5.30pm. I was now the only Chelsea fan left. The plane was less than a third full and so I had time to stretch out and relax. More sleep. I awoke with the bright lights of several cities down below. Using the flight map overhead, I soon worked out that we were over South Korea. As we headed out over the ocean, I then saw several hundred golden lights bizarrely stretching out in a diamond shape. They obviously belonged to ships that were passing underneath, some 35,000 feet below. Along with seeing the frantically busy waters near Bangkok from a plane last summer, it was one of those incredible sights of my life.

Oh lucky man.

The Japan coast appeared and, then, the myriad lights of the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. It was another overwhelming sight. The approach into Tokyo Haneda airport seemed to take forever, but we eventually touched down at around 9.30pm. I was amazed how quickly I was through the various checks and by 10.30pm, I had paid 1,200 yen (£10) and was on a “Friendly Limousine” bus into the city. As the driver edged out of the airport, I kept repeating one line.

“I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo.”

It was as if I needed some convincing.

The first thing I noticed was that the bus was being driven on the left-hand side of the road; the same as in Malaysia and Thailand. This genuinely surprised me. I was pretty tired, but the hour-long coach-ride kept me awake. The driver soon climbed onto an elevated expressway, though it was only one lane in each direction. As we weaved around the city centre, we rose and fell, with ramps being surprisingly steep. Then, the next surprise –

Less than half a mile to my right was the gaudily illuminated Tokyo Tower, like an oriental Eiffel Tower, but brightly lit with thousands of gallons of gold paint and thousands of electric lights. I snapped a few photographs as we raced by, alongside darkened skyscrapers and the first few sightings of the many neon signs that so dominate the city.

I was deposited right in the very epicentre of the pulsing heart of the city; Shinjuku. There was neon everywhere. I quickly caught a rather old-fashioned looking taxi-cab, like something out of Yugoslavia in 1976, up to Higoshi-Shinjuku and tried to take it all in. I booked into my hotel just after midnight. I had been “on the road” for almost twenty-eight hours. I was tired, but in no mood to call it a night. After a quick wash in the world’s smallest bathroom, I darted over to a local bar called “Fuma” where I quickly knocked back three small Carlsberg lagers, along with a dish which caught my eye; blue cheese pizza with honey. Believe it or not, it was fantastic. If truth be known, I could have stayed there for ages. I always think there’s nothing like the thrill of a first night anywhere, the visitor being absorbed by every single sight and sound. I quickly noticed that the two wafer-thin waiters were ridiculously eager to please. They seemed to be almost apologetic in their nature and went about their tasks in an endearingly bashful manner. It would be a trait that I would often notice again during my stay.

At 1.30am, I decided to call it a night. Thursday was another day and I couldn’t wait for it to unravel before me.

On Thursday morning, the main objective was get up to Ikebukuro, around three miles to my north. Here, I was to meet Mike and Frank from NYC at their hotel at midday. I trotted down to the hotel lobby and was in the middle of a fragmented conversation with the hotel receptionist when I heard an English voice.

“No photographs, please.”

It was Darren Mantle. He was in the middle of a heated conversation with the hotel manager about the validity of his credit card. Just as it looked like I might become embroiled, Darren intelligently said that he didn’t know me and I was on my way. First, a cup off coffee from the McDonalds opposite and then my first exposure to the vaunted Tokyo tube system. With surprising ease, I negotiated a travel card and headed north on the – wait for it – Fukotoshin line. The tube trains and stations were amazingly clean. I was soon out in the winter sun. it was a gorgeous day, despite a cold wind, and I soon located the Hotel Metropolitan. I soon spotted a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces, including Neil Barnett, enjoying a coffee. They were off to the Imperial Palace.

Mike soon appeared in the grand lobby and quickly updated me on the antics of the previous evening. He had arrived in Tokyo with Frank on a direct flight from JFK at much the same time as me, but had decided to hit the ground running. They had been out in a bar not far from my hotel, with the Mantles and a few others, until 8am. Frank was out for the count, sleeping like a baby, so Mike and I quickly decided to head down by tube to the area around the Imperial Palace.

We caught a tube down to the central area and spent a relaxing hour or so walking around the perimeter of the Imperial Palace grounds. We took a plethora of photographs of the moat and the pagoda-style palace. These contrasted well with the skyscrapers of a business district to the east. We bumped into the first four Corinthians fans of the trip. There had been rumours that there would be 15,000 Brazilians in Tokyo and the number amazed me. Chelsea had 1,000 tickets, but we believed that only around 600 would be attending through the club. I personally knew of around 20 friends who were in Tokyo.

One of the Brazilians whispered to me “here is a secret – David Luiz was a Corinthians fan as a boy.”

Ah, OK…I soon remembered the game in Monaco when Fernando Torres’ boyhood team Atletico Madrid handed us a thumping defeat. I put that memory to the delete folder of my brain.

Another Corinthians fan said “just make sure you win tonight, we want to play Chelsea in the final.”

Yes, indeed. Here was my biggest fear; that we’d go all this way to Japan and yet lose the semi-final. Wouldn’t that be typical? We posed for photographs together and wished each other well. Mike continued his re-hydration by buying drinks at every opportunity and we then caught a train back to Ikebukuro. On our return to the hotel, Frank (who also leans towards Napoli since his family are from that area), was still sleeping. Mike’s words did not arrest his slumber and so I decided to wake him.

“Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo – Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo.”

It worked.

Mike’s mate Foxy from Scotland, who I had not previously met, came down to join us and we then spent many minutes encouraging Frank to get out of bed, take a shower and get ready for the game.

The game. Yes, there was a game on in four hours but none of us had given it any thought.

Frank then tried the patience of all of us by unpacking and then re-packing all ten of his Chelsea shirts before deciding which one to wear. He then did the same with his socks. He then unpacked and packed his camera, toiletry bag, belt, computer, cigarettes, wallet and wristbands.

“No rush, Frank.”

To be honest, there was an amazing view of Mount Fuji from the hotel window and although Foxy and I were pulling faces of agony at Frank’s frustrating tardiness, the outside view compensated. Eventually, we left the hotel at around 4pm. Matt, another NY Blue, had joined us too. He had seen the Corinthians victory the previous night in Nagoya. I called in to my hotel to pick up a few things and we were soon on our way to Shibuya, a few miles to the south where we needed to change trains. The buzz was now there.

Tokyo away. Love it.

The journey down to the stadium was a manic blur. At Shibuya, we were right in the middle of the Tokyo rush hour and passengers, some with those infamous face masks, were rushing everywhere. Foxy lead us out from the tube station into the neon-lit mayhem outside, before we dipped into another part of the station which housed the Japan Railways service. It was frantic stuff, but we were soon on the right train. We were packed in like sardines, or maybe tuna. There was little interaction with the locals at this stage, despite our English accents. I expected a few people to be asking us about the game. Frank was still feeling rough from the previous night’s excesses in Shin-Okubu. As we changed trains one last time, Frank calmly vomited in the six inch gap between train and platform at Kikuna. I told him that I hoped that Fernando Torres was as accurate later that evening.

At Kikuna, we avoided the first train because the carriages were simply at bursting point. However, we soon alighted at Shin-Yokohama and noted a few Japanese fans with Chelsea colours, plus three Mexicans with requisite sombreros. Outside, on the walk towards the stadium, there were many street traders with a variety of dodgy souvenirs on offer. Most of the half-and-half scarves (Chelsea / Monterrey and, not surprisingly, Chelsea / Corinthians) were being hawked by English chaps.

“Wherever I lay my tat, that’s my home.”

We dipped into a store and bought some tins of Kirin for the short walk to the Nissan Stadium, but then soon stumbled across a bar on a street corner, which was full of Australian Chelsea. They were full of song. Oh, and beer. We soon decided to head on up to the ground which was a further 15 minutes away. This stadium hosted the 2002 World Cup Final. A quick Axon Stat coming up…this was the fifth such venue that I have visited, along with the stadia used in 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1990.

On the slow incline up towards the gates, we caught up with Cathy and Maureen, and then posed for photos with Dave Johnstone. Surreal is a word that can only describe seeing familiar faces so far from home. The small entrance plaza was full of sponsor tents and fast food stalls. There was a Coca-Cola truck parked up and I couldn’t resist a quick photo with the female Santa. Never has a red and white kit looked so appealing. Away in the corner was a substantial Chelsea stand where I entered a draw to win a trip to London so I could get my hands on a Japan 2012 lanyard. Local kids posed with Stamford and there was a massive line for this photo opportunity. Good to see.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

A few Mexicans were singing on the steps leading up to the second set of turnstiles and their antics were being recorded by a TV crew.

I entered the stadium and met up with the Chelsea contingent, most of whom had opted for the cheaper ticket option in the lower level behind the goal. In among our support were many locals. At the north end, we spotted a few Monterrey flags, but there was no real way of guessing their total number. To my left, the main stand was only a quarter full. To my right, the other stand contained barely 1,000 spectators. I looked around and spotted some familiar Chelsea faces from home. The teams soon appeared from beneath the main stand; Chelsea in blue, Monterrey in a change strip of Blackpool tangerine. The stands were set back from the pitch and, to be honest, it was difficult to see any action at the far end. It was reminiscent of Stamford Bridge until 1994. Behind me on the upper tier balcony were a few flags; notably one of The Rising Sun, named after the public house – now the Butcher’s Hook – where the club was formed in 1905. Darren and Steve had managed to get the “Super Frankie Lampard” banner up too. Orlin and his wife Katerina soon appeared behind me. I’ve only known Orlin since meeting him before the Arsenal away game in April, but it seems I have known him for ages. I last saw him in Turin. I was therefore huddled with the US contingent; Matt, Fun Time Frankie, Mike, Orlin and Katerina. Cathy and Maureen were away to my left and the Australian lot, complete with inflatable kangaroo, were beyond. I just missed photographing the large Monterrey flag which had been held up at the other end of the stadium.

The game began and it was all Chelsea, with Eden Hazard and David Luiz causing much concern to the Mexican defence. Luiz was again playing in a deep midfield role, much to the blissful contentment of all the FIFA13 obsessives among our support. To be honest, I always thought this a better option than playing him at right back, which was a common request a while back. The Chelsea support, chilled in the Yokohama evening, was hardly vocal. A chorus of “We don’t care about Rafa” (which I find pretty dull and uninspiring – I’d much rather sing about positives) had already been aired when we reached the sixteenth minute. A respectful minute of applause began and I joined in; in memory of Munich and Di Matteo. I commented to Fun Time that “wouldn’t it be great if we scored now.” With that, the ball was worked into Mata, from the left wing, who calmly slotted home.

Get in.

The rest of the half was played out in near total silence. The Japanese fans in the stadium did not utter a word. To be honest, the Chelsea fans around me were remarkably quiet too, apart from a stirring “We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.” Monterrey only threatened a few times. This was going well. It was certainly reassuring to see the team, invigorated by the win at Sunderland, to be playing so well and seemingly en route to the final.

At the break, 800 yen beers were purchased from a girl who was carrying a cask among us in the stadium. What a nice idea.

“Arrigato.”

The second half began with a large proportion of the Chelsea fans still outside in the concourse. Sadly, a lot of these missed our two quick-fire goals which effectively killed the game off. First, a nice move from Hazard allowed Fernando Torres to score via a deflection. After his new-found confidence after the two goals on the Saturday, I for one hoped that he had finally turned the corner. I even forgave him for scoring (and not once, but twice I tell ya!) without me in attendance. Within a minute, we were 3-0 up after a strong ball into the six-yard box by Mata was deflected in by a Monterrey defender.

Phew.

Start celebrating; we’re going to the final.

The rest of the game was easy. We enjoyed serenading all of the Chelsea substitutes – Frank especially – as they warmed-up in front of us. In fact, Frank’s appearance in place of David Luiz drew the biggest applause of the night. At last the locals were awake. In truth, Frank should have scored with a clipped shot from close in just after he came on. He had another shot which sailed over which he was visibly upset about. It was annoying that we let in a cheap goal through De Nigris in the very last minute of play.

The final whistle blew and some of the players trudged over to the near goal and clapped us. I rather naively hoped that all of our players would hop over the advertising hoardings and get close to us. Of course, this never happened. Had the 1983-1984 team played in Tokyo – with 600 or more Chelsea fans from the UK in attendance – there is no doubt that the entire team would have been mere yards from us, probably throwing their Le Coq Sportif shirts at us.

More perspective.

After the players had left the pitch, it was now the turn of us to be the focus of the Japanese fans’ attention. We were all asked to pose for photographs, with scarves and flags being brandished, while the locals smiled and giggled excitedly. By this time, we were all giggling too. I then explained to five young lads about Peter Osgood (who is a screen saver on my mobile phone), but of course they had never heard of him. Mobile phones were used to film us singing and we all joked about being on “Facebook in the morning.”

I had been in Tokyo for less than 24 hours, yet was already wildly in love with the crazy place.

On the walk out of the stadium concourse, we were again mobbed by passing fans and were asked to pose for yet more photographs. We handed out “US Tour 2012” wristbands to a few of the younger members of our supporters.

Their faces were a picture.

On the walk away from the stadium, I succumbed to a half-and-half scarf after we managed to barter down from 2,000 yen to 1,000 yen. For a World Club Cup Final, I was ready to make allowances. We dipped into the pub on the corner and stayed for around two blissful hours, drinking and chatting, toasting the team and the city. I had always planned this to be the big night for drinking; a berth into the final was a fine reason to celebrate. Even if we ended up as World Champions, too many of us would need to be up and early for flights on the Monday. We raced back to Shin-Yokohama and caught the last train back to Shibuya. From there, we caught a couple of cabs to the little bar at Shin-Okubu where Mike and Frank had spent the previous night.

It was the smallest bar that I’ve ever witnessed, on the second floor of a narrow building. It was adorned with European football pennants and patrons were able to play FIFA13 on the large TV screen. Rounds of Kirin were ordered and we settled in for the night. There were a few of the Australians present. “The Liquidator” was played. The owner brought some bar snacks, while Orlin and Katerina tucked into some food at the end of the bar. I was buzzing. The beers were flowing. I had a good old chat with Foxy, who is a Dundee United fan too. This made me smile because many years ago, I kept a look out for their results. Foxy and I spoke about Tannadice, The Shed, Eamonn Bannon, Willie Pettigrew, Hamish McAlpine, Paul Hegarty and Paul Sturrock. Fun Time Frankie took his iPod out and arranged for a few songs to be played through the bar’s speakers. Songs from Stiff Little Fingers and The Smiths reverberated around the cosy confines of the “1863 Bar” and I was a happy man. Good times. Steve Mantle then arrived on the scene and, when the rest departed, I sat with him at the bar discussing a whole host of interesting topics such as songs, new fans, the board, football culture and the banners on show at The Bridge.

We eventually left at about 7am.

I began walking in a happy, warm and fuzzy state, with dawn breaking and early morning commuters sliding past, oblivious to my blissed out condition. Feeling hungry, I dived into a convenience store but simply didn’t recognise a single item of the food on offer. I walked on, but was totally unsure of which direction I was headed. I can honestly say that I have never felt in such an alien or surreal environment. In some ways, I could easily have walked for another few hours, ready to experience whatever I would stumble upon. With a sudden jolt, I suddenly came to my senses and realised that this was silly.

I was in Tokyo and had no idea where my hotel was.

I quickly flagged down a passing cab, mumbled something about Higashi-Shinjuku and made my way home…or whatever “home” was at 7.30am in Tokyo.

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Tales From A Night Of Gallows Humour

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 28 November 2012.

On the way in to work on Wednesday, I was pondering (I do a lot of pondering, has anyone noticed?) about the club’s hold on our emotions. Despite putting us through periods of strain, we are still slave to its hold on us. It is a very strange relationship, this; the club and the fan. It suddenly came to me in a flash. If being hitched to Chelsea was like a conventional marriage, then there is no doubt that the two parties would have divorced years ago. The fan base would have cited irreconcilable differences, to say nothing of periods of mental torture. And the inevitable question has to be; why do we keep coming back for more?

The glib answer is “because it’s part of who I am” but it has to run deeper than that. I don’t expect there will be any conclusions about this complicated question in this report, but it might for form the basis of what I’ll be thinking over the next few weeks and months.

“Why do I keep putting myself through this?”

Let it be said, Chelsea vs. Fulham on a Wednesday night in November, with all of the inherent negativity that would probably be evidence, was doing very little for me.

I left work a little earlier than usual. It was already getting cold on the short walk from the office to the car and I thought to myself “oh great – another bonus about going tonight. I’ll be freezing my bits off.” The journey, unfortunately without His Lordship once again, still took me two-and-a-half hours. A work-related problem unfortunately got me tied up in knots and kept me mentally occupied on the last hour, to such an extent that I suddenly looked up at the Chiswick roundabout and I thought to myself “hell, how did I get here.” I had been driving slowly and safely, yet my mind had obviously been elsewhere. Suffice to say, it hadn’t been one of my most enjoyable drives into the great city of London.

At just after six o’clock, I had arrived. I was right; outside the temperature had dropped and it was freezing. I made a bee-line for the boozer. I needed that one pint. It barely touched the sides. My good friend Russ, who I last saw on the night of the Reading home-opener, was already in the pub chatting to the lads. He would be sat alongside Alan and I for the night’s game. There was the usual banter flying about and the pub was full of the usual faces; the faces of the Chelsea lifers.

A chap was selling some special edition Christmas cards in the pub; “Merry Christmas from the Champions of Europe.”

Five for four quid. I had to indulge.

I just need to work out which five non-Chelsea fans receive them on December 25th.

We were in the stadium early, at around 7.30pm. My goodness, the place was empty. Surely the Chelsea nation were not as depressed as this? Surely we’d get another full house? Maybe the general malaise amongst the Chelsea support manifested in the masse late arrival.

The team was unchanged from the Manchester City game, except the insertions of Ryan Bertrand for Juan Mata and Oriel Romeu for Jon Obi Mikel, who have been two of our most consistent players so far in 2012-2013. We did our own little bit of second-guessing about Rafa Benitez (can I say his name?) and his own methodology.

Forget FIFA2013, it’s RAFA2013 that will be keeping us awake at night over the next few months.

As everyone knows, the game was a turgid affair. Eventually the stadium reached its capacity, but the mood among the viewing populace was of quiet suffering. There were no boos for the manager on the same scale as on Sunday. Thankfully I had the company of two good friends alongside me to get me through the ninety minutes.

The Fulham fans had sold out their three thousand allocation and were enjoying their time in the sun, seizing the moment to out sing the solemn home support.

“We are Fulham, we are Fulham…”

We chatted about Fulham for a few seconds. Although it still annoys Fulham fans that some Chelsea supporters still have a soft spot for them, a recent survey suggested that the newer Fulham fans ranked QPR as their biggest rival. I personally find that hard to believe. Alan chipped in –

“Fulham and QPR, eh? I like women’s football.”

By the time of the minute’s applause for Roberto di Matteo, which I supported by again clapping throughout, hardly any chances had transpired.

One of our brethren had decided that the bitterly cold weather was too much for him. Tom – in his ‘seventies – had stayed at home in Sutton. Alan called him from the match and assured him that he had made the right decision.

“You’ve made the right call, Tom, it’s dire.”

A few seats along, Joe – now in his mid ‘eighties, another Chelsea lifer – had braved the elements but was clearly not enjoying himself.

The cold weather had necessitated a few players to wear extra protection against the cold.

“More gloves out there than in the Harrods’ accessories department.”

Meanwhile, somebody in our midst was letting rip with a couple of trouser coughs. Jacket collars were pulled up to mouths.

Ugh.

“God, something’s died.”

“Yeah, our season.”

The chances were rare. A Ramires shot couldn’t have been further from the goal if he had tried. A David Luiz free-kick ended up in Wandsworth. A neat move found Fernando Torres who turned swiftly but shot right at Mark Schwartzer. A cross skimmed across the box with nobody able to connect. How we missed a late-arriving Frank Lampard.

And that was the first-half.

On the night that the club broke with the usual format of the home programme and instead chose to feature former Dave Sexton on the cover, one of the greatest-ever Chelsea players from the Sexton era skipped around the pitch with Neil Barnett.

It was none other than the Bonnie Prince himself Charlie Cooke. Charlie’s trips back to the UK from his home in Ohio are getting more and more regular. It’s great. He’s a lovely man. It has been my pleasure to meet him on a couple of occasions and he is indeed a prince and a gentleman. I think his smiles were the highlight of the evening. Great to have you back Charlie.

The second-half began and it was more of the same. Alan was full of it –

“Blimey, there are more headless chickens out there than at KFC.”

There was no doubt that our players were struggling to break down a team that was well marshalled by Martin Jol, but whose main aim was containment. On 54 minutes though, we lost the ball in midfield and were exposed for the first real time. A rapid Fulham break thankfully ran out of steam when Jan Arne Riise (we have a song about you, sir) shot meekly at Cech.

Soon after, Ramires found himself inside the box but a delicate toe-poke didn’t test Schwarzer. Juan Mata came on for the more defensive-minded Bertrand. A fine Mata corner was whipped in but the ball ended up going wide after a flurry of players attacked the ball. A Riise long-shot at Cech was followed by two half-chances (maybe quarter chances) from Torres. Torres has not been the subject of any boos yet. Who knows if that will last?

Fulham were content to defend, but I was always worried whenever Berbatov got the ball. Continental drift moves faster, but he does possess silky skills when he is in the mood.

The Chelsea team looked like a team which had lost a lot of its confidence and belief. Team mates were idly standing by. Team mates were not moving for each other.

Alan was at it again –

“More static than a pair of nylon underpants.”

At long last, Marko Marin made his league debut as he replaced the ineffective Hazard and Joe’s son “Skippy” was quite enthused.

“I haven’t seen him kick a ball yet.”

“Don’t worry, he won’t tonight” I was quick to add.

The home fans began to leave. The away contingent seized their chance.

“Is there a fire drill? Is there a fire drill?”

It was, I am quite sure, the funniest song ever to emanate from a Fulham supporter’s mouth. At this very moment, El Fayed is planning on erecting a statue in honour of this song smith to be erected at Craven Cottage.

The last ten minutes were played out and, despite some nice spirit from the substitute Marin, the game slithered away. The very last kick of the game was an Azpilicueta drive from distance which whizzed past the far post.

Outside, the winter was well and truly here.

Russ and I walked back to the car as quickly as we could, with the air now bitter. On the drive back to Reading, we had an excellent appraisal of the current situation at Chelsea, but ended up with more questions than answers. I dropped Russ off at his house and reached my home at 1am.

It had been a rotten night.

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Tales From Within

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 November 2012.

I travelled up to London fearing the worst. This was surely going to be one of the darkest Chelsea days. In light of Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking after the Juventus game, I was overcome with dread and I could hardly raise much enthusiasm for the day ahead at all. Thankfully the awful weather had subsided – the drive up to London with my friend Steve was thankfully clear of teeming rain – but I was expecting a nasty mood inside Stamford Bridge. Tensions were certainly running high among the Chelsea support. I predicted the most volatile atmosphere that I would have ever experienced in almost thirty-seven years of visits to Stamford Bridge.

Robbie was out, Rafa was in and the Chelsea board were in for a rough old time.

At this point, my story takes an abrupt and startling deviation.

As I write these words, I am not sure if it is common knowledge that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich met a small group of supporters at Stamford Bridge before the game in order to judge the mood of the club’s support since the sacking of Robbie in the small hours of Wednesday morning.

I was one of that group.

I’ll not spend time detailing how I ended up in Roman’s office at 2.30pm on Sunday 25 November 2012, but I will certainly write a few words which I hope will help to explain why that day was like no other in all of my forty-seven years.

Six other Chelsea fans and I sat around a large table with owner Roman Abramovich and his right-hand man, Chelsea director Eugene Tenenbaum.

The little group of us had no game-plan. And I certainly didn’t want to go into the meeting with a set list of questions. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if we would be limited to just talking about the sacking of Robbie or if we were going to be allowed carte blanche. To be truthful, neither Roman nor Eugene mentioned any protocol. We were simply allowed to speak our minds. I was going to see where the meeting went and shoot from the hip. As I think back, my inputs into the meeting were statements rather than questions, but I wanted to see how Roman and Eugene reacted to them. After the introductions were done, the meeting began and I surprised myself by launching the meeting with a warning for Roman.

“I just want to say how much we appreciate all that you have done for this football club. That is beyond question. But you have to realise that there a lot of upset supporters here today because of what has happened this week. When I awoke in my hotel room in Turin on Wednesday morning and heard the news, I could hardly believe it. Because of this, you may see and hear some things in the stadium today that might shock you. The atmosphere will be pretty tough.”

Roman listened intently to all of our opinions and questions. I am sure that he understood the gist of what we were all saying. However, he responded 99% of the time in Russian and Eugene listened and translated for us. After a while, my next comment regarded how the outside world sees us.

“Some fans say they don’t care about what others think, but I have to say that it matters immensely to me how Chelsea Football Club is perceived. This club means the world to me. And I hate to see it perceived in a negative way. There are some people who think that this football club is run in a” – I paused and chose my words carefully – “foolish way.”

The dialogue was incredibly candid. I have promised myself that I will not share Roman’s responses and I hope fellow fans can understand this stance. As the meeting turned to a lengthy and incredibly insightful discussion about managers, I had to comment about something which has often troubled me. It was too good an opportunity to waste.

“There is a school of thought which says that you need to change the manager every two years to keep things fresh. And that’s OK. But every time Chelsea appoints a big name manager…Scolari, Ancelotti, Villas-Boas, the club says…’this is the manager for the next three or four years’ and yet he lasts just six months. I’m not sure if Roman understands this phrase, but the club seems to have a ‘slash and burn’ policy when it comes to appointing managers.”

The meeting was incredibly informal. I found it fascinating to witness Roman’s body language. My last major statement concerned the stadium. There had been talk about the thorny issue of moving away from our ancestral home and I knew that I had to put my views across the table. I caught Eugene’s eye and looked at him as I solemnly spoke.

“I hope that you realise you completely misjudged the mood of the supporters last autumn and you got the CPO bid completely wrong.”

Outside, I knew there were protests and placards, chants and anger. It felt totally surreal to be deep in the inner sanctum of Chelsea Football Club.

I’m still coming to terms with it twenty-four hours later.

Looking back, with hindsight, I certainly wish that I had asked two questions –

“Who are your football advisors?”

“Why did you invite us here?”

The meeting lasted around an hour. We had all found it very worthwhile – of course! – and as we descended the lift and departed to join the other supporters congregating outside the West Stand, I had to pinch myself.

“Did that really just happen?”

The rest of the day is a blur. The caustic atmosphere that I had expected didn’t really amount to much. Sure, there was booing as the teams came onto the pitch, and it was certainly loud, but there were the usual lulls when the crowd resorted to its usual levels of docility. I had not heard that Dave Sexton, our much-loved manager, had passed away and so I was certainly shocked and saddened to hear of his passing. There was a sustained period of applause in his memory. Sexton was the manager who took charge of the team for my very first Chelsea game way back in 1974.

Rest in Peace.

As the game was played out before me, I kept thinking back to the meeting. To be honest, I did feel compromised. Going into the meeting, I could not understand the reasons why the club had dispensed with Roberto Di Matteo’s services and I was angry with our ludicrous policy of hiring and firing managers to the point of absurdity. After hearing the explanation for the brutal sacking – which again, I apologise for not being able to share publicly – my views of Roman and the board had softened.

And I felt very uncomfortable.

Had I fallen for the earnest and reasoned justification put forth by our owner and his, at times, quiet and shy demeanour? I wasn’t sure. I know that I didn’t feel right. I was surrounded by forty thousand disgruntled Chelsea supporters and yet my once strident set of opinions had been compromised by what I had heard in the meeting. I had to balance the two contrasting views. I’d like to think I am a fairly balanced person. I’d need time to fathom it all out.

Watch this space.

Chelsea fans heartily sang out our former manager’s name during the sixteen minutes and I joined in, clapping the entire time. I wanted to show solidarity with my fellow fans. Rafael Benitez, away on the far touch line – dressed in a dull blue suit – stood in the technical area and it just didn’t seem right.

But I couldn’t boo him. That would be, in my mind, one step too far.

It wasn’t much of a game was it? Thankfully, Manchester City seemed to be a pale shadow of the team which ripped us apart during the first twenty-five minutes of the corresponding fixture last season. That was a game in which we registered the eventual champions’ first league defeat of the season. For once, our troubled defence seemed to play a far more controlled game. This was most welcome. It was a start; from little acorns and all that. If anything, it was the players ahead of them who under-performed. Fernando Torres, typically, skied our best chance of the game, blasting high from fifteen yards in the second-half. In truth, Joe Hart was hardly troubled all game. City’s chances were a little more forthcoming, but the game ended 0-0.

I was happy with that. A defeat would have been too hard to bear.

And on this most tumultuous and yet fragile of days, this is where I will finish.

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Tales From Two Nights In Turin

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2012.

The church bells of my local village church struck three o’clock and a few minutes later I was away on my latest European adventure with Chelsea Football Club. I had been awake since 1.30am, but only had a couple of hours’ sleep to my name.

At three o’clock in the morning all is quiet. Thankfully, the roads were dry and the sky was clear of rain. I soon texted a small gaggle of friends on the west coast of America – the only ones that were still awake…

“Giacomo Kerouac.”

Up on Salisbury Plain, near Shrewton, I passed an owl, sitting still in the middle of the road. It reminded me of the owl that I drove past up on the Mendip Hills on my way to Bristol Airport for the game with Barcelona last season. I hoped for a similar result. I was evidently grabbing at straws and looking for any good fortune. Make no mistake; Juventus away was a stern test for our faltering team. It was the game of the season thus far. A draw would be fantastic. A win would be phenomenal.

I covered the 125 miles to Gatwick in two hours. The roads had remained dry and clear of traffic. On the journey, there was time for me to filter through all of the previous European trips that I had enjoyed during the past eighteen years. This second trip to Juve would be my twenty-fourth such trip with Chelsea. I quickly ranked the top five trips (Munich 2012, Barcelona 2012, Stockholm 1998, Turin 2009 and Seville 1998 ) and then thought about worst trips. To be honest, apart from a couple, all have been fantastic and I didn’t bother ranking the worst ones. Of those twenty four excursions, I had been to Spain six times, Germany five times and the Turin trip would be my fifth to Italy.

There were a few familiar faces on the 0700 Easyjet flight to Milan Malpensa. I thankfully managed an hour of sleep. Every hour counts.

We landed in Italy at 9.45am. Milan Malpensa was last visited by me in 1980 and 1981 on family holidays to the Italian Riviera. I quickly recognised the forests which surrounded the runway. Through passport control, the instant aroma of coffee was overpowering – “benvenuti in Italia!” – and I just had time for the first cappuccino of the trip before I boarded the Sadem bus at 10.30am which took us to Turin. While the other coach passengers either slept or listened to music, I was taking note of everything. Maybe it was the caffeine inside me, but my eyes were everywhere. In truth, the road was rather bland, but I did not care one jot. The mountains of The Alps were our constant companion to the north and I kept scouring the rural Italian landscape for iconic images. Old farmsteads, woodland copses and the amazingly flat Po valley laid out to my right. Overhead, there were blotchy clouds. The Alps kept getting closer. They were snow-capped, of course, and quite beguiling. We passed by the town of Vercelli, home many years ago to one of Italy’s great teams in the early years. Pro Vercelli had won the First Division, in all its guises, seven times before Juventus had their first “scudetto” to their name.

Ah, football. Football was back in my mind again. As we approached the outskirts of Turin, I was sitting bolt upright and my arms were hugging the seat rest in front, attempting to gain a good vantage point of the twin sights which were dominating my thoughts.

On my last visit to Turin in 2009, my match report closed with the phrase –

“As I walked out to catch the airport bus at about 7am, I just wanted to put my arms around the city one last time. The Alps still looked stunning to the west and there was Superga, to the east, ready to welcome me back next time.”

After a few moments of uncertainty, there it was.

Superga.

The famous basilica which overlooks the entire Piedmont capital, was sitting high and proud on its very own hilltop. It was midday and the sky suddenly lit up with a bolt of sunshine. After around twenty minutes, I just glimpsed the other iconic sight which I had hoped to see. The two roof supports – the sole remainders of around twelve such structures from the old Stadio delli Alpi – of the brand spanking new Juventus Stadium were spotted a few miles to my west. While everyone else on the coach was still slumbering, I had welcomed myself to the city. To be honest, I wanted to leap to my feet, grab a microphone and become a tour rep for a few minutes.

“Of course, there is a big dichotomy in the city. The Torino club is supported by more of the locals than the more illustrious Juventus club.”

At 12.20pm, we had been deposited outside the Porta Sousa train station. I decided to walk the mile or so to my hotel. The Turin streets, some cobbled, were quiet. There was a slight chill to the air, but – “che bello” – it was fantastic to be back. I texted my friend Tullio, who I first met on that 1981 holiday in Diano Marina – that I was in his city.

“Welcome. See you soon.”

While I waited for my hotel on Via Saluzzo to allow me to check in at 2pm, I walked around for a few moments, taking in the familiar surroundings around the Porta Nuova station. I popped into a nearby bar and ordered a couple of small beers – “un piccolo birra per favore” – and attempted to pick out pertinent points from the footballing section of “La Stampa.” The little plate of free nibbles that the Toro-supporting barmaid gave me went down well. At 2pm I checked in at Hotel Due Mondi, but the beer had made me drowsy. I had already been awake for eleven hours. I decided to have a famous “Chelsea On Tour Power Nap.”

At 5.45pm, the night was falling and I gathered myself together and headed out. I had arranged to meet Tullio around a mile to the east, right outside the church where he married Emanuela in 1999. The air had chilled further and the rush-hour traffic was thudding over the cobbled streets. As I walked over the bridge, I noted that Monte dei Cappuccini was lit with blue lights. Was this another good sign? I was desperate for good omens. The River Po, with lights reflecting along its western edge, was magnificent. I was so happy to be back in the city once more. This would be my seventh trip to Turin for a Juventus game. Those waters run deep.

Tullio arrived, his car lights flashing, and I clambered into his car, almost too excited for words. We shook hands and then embraced. It was, of course, wonderful to see him once again.

I first visited Turin in 1987 – early November – and I can well remember walking the three miles from Porta Nuova to the old Stadio Communale for a Juve vs. Panathinaikos UEFA cup game. With each step on that cold, dark night, my excitement rose, with memories of Anastasi, Rossi, Boninsegna, Bettega and Zoff racing through my mind. It was, in fact, my first ever UEFA game of any description. How excited I was to turn a corner and finally set eyes on the Juve supporters crowding, three hours before the kick-off, outside the Curva Filadelphia. On that particular night, I sold my first ever football badges – “emblemi inglese, due mila lire” – before disappearing into the Curva Maratona to witness the bianconeri at play for the first time.

Just one memory of Turin. There are hundreds.

Tullio’s wife Emanuella welcomed me into their apartment and the two girls, Sofia and Lucrezia, soon arrived on the scene, though their gaze soon returned towards the cartoons on the TV screen. Of course, just under a year ago, I was with my other Italian friend Mario – from 1975 this time – in Germany when Chelsea played Michael Ballack’s Bayer Leverkusen. Was it really 1985 when the three of us were last together, playing football on the beach outside the Hotel Gabriella in Diano Marina? How time flies.

Emanuela, who is just starting up a fledgling catering company with a friend, served up a lovely Italian feast, alongside a couple of lovely local wines. We chatted and caught up and – to my surprise – the football talk was kept to a minimum. We ran through our two teams. I told Tullio that I liked the diminutive Giovinco.

“But he never scores. Only the third or fourth goal. Once the game is over.”

We spoke about the possibility of meeting up to see a Depeche Mode concert at the San Siro in Milano during the summer. Tullio has Mario to thank for exposing him to the music of the boys from Basildon. I had to comment –

“Of course, the best thing is…Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are Chelsea fans.”

Tullio drove me back into the city and we said our goodbyes. Tullio would be attending the Chelsea match on the Tuesday with some friends; he had managed to get hold of a ticket from a friend whose brother is a presenter on the Juventus TV channel. Last time, in 2009, Cathy managed to get Tullio a ticket via a contact at Barclay’s in Turin.

I met up with Alan, Gary, Daryl and Neil in the “Murphy’s Six Nations” pub on Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II, the main east-west road in the city. They had arrived in the city from Genoa. A couple of pints there were followed by a few more at “Zilli’s Bar” on the other side of the road. A few more familiar faces; Rob, Pauline, Peter, Callum and Digger. I spent time talking to a couple of Chelsea friends. Rob was waxing lyrical about the time that he went to that infamous game in 1975 at White Hart Lane. It was, actually, his first ever Chelsea game, but he was locked out. He only got in towards the end of the game when Chelsea were losing 2-0 and the gates were opened to let the early-leavers depart. He went into great detail about parts of the day, but memories of the game were scant. I joked with him that he was able to remember what he had for breakfast in the café on the Tottenham High Road beforehand, though.

“Any mushrooms, Rob?”

“Nah. Fried tomatoes, though, Chris.”

To be honest, I expected this main drag to be busier. I was worried that we would only have around 1,500 out of our allotted 2,400. I decided to head back to the hotel at 2.30am after the bar was invaded by some youngsters who were intent on singing songs which I found to be unacceptable. I don’t appreciate songs lauding John Terry’s alleged racist nature. Things got a little heated. I soon left.

On the day of the game, my plans were already sorted. I had a fantastic lunch arranged for 12.30pm at the “La Pista” restaurant which sits on top of the old Fiat Lingotto factory where Tullio’s grandfather worked all his life. I had a lie-in, but left the hotel at 11.45am. Unbelievably, as I stepped out of the hotel, glimpsing up at the cloudless sky, I heard my name being called.

“Chris!”

It was Tullio’s mother! She was with Tullio’s father. What a joy it was to see their faces! I had not planned to see them on this trip. Their house was only a mile or so away and they had walked up to my hotel to leave a little present for me in reception. What an amazing coincidence that I should chose to leave the hotel at that exact time. We were all full of smiles and we gave each other big, big hugs.

I was buzzing. This city was endearing itself to me all over again. I caught the metro down to Lingotto at midday. For film aficionados, Lingotto is famously featured in the 1969 film “The Italian Job” when a bank heist takes place in the city. The famous car chase ends up on the test-track on top of the Lingotto factory. It is not far from the old Campo Filadelfia stadium and the Stadio Olimpico, former and current homes of Torino.

Lingotto remained disused for many years when Fiat’s production moved to the sprawling Mirafiori works further to the south, but has been rejuvenated by architect Renzo Piano in the past twenty years. It now houses a hotel and a shopping centre. Inside, there was a small Christmas fayre and there was music being played. The first song I heard was “One Step Beyond.”

Yes really. Another good omen?

I spent well over an hour in the fantastic restaurant at Lingotto. I’m not a foodie at all, but decided to treat myself. I had a table overlooking the old test track. The view was simply stunning. The Alps to my left, the hills to the right and the dramatic curve of the banked test track ahead of me. It was a perfect day. The food was exceptional. I typically spent the time people-watching; an elegant couple to my left were having the Full Monty, around eight courses, and I watched as truffles were weighed out on some scales. Ahead, a noisy table of sixteen, one of whom was wearing a Chelsea sweatshirt. Maybe he was a Torino fan. They all stopped to listen as the patriarch spoke; there was hushed reverence. I almost expected Roman Abramovich and his entourage to arrive and use the vacant table away in the distance. I wasn’t used to such decadent surroundings, but I loved every minute. I spent a while mulling over my love affair with Italy. It was a time for quiet introspection. There was a time, circa 1988, when I had no concrete career plans and I semi-seriously mulled over the idea of living in Turin and attempting to make a living through selling football badges at games in Italy. I’d attempt to learn the language. Maybe six months in Turin. Six months in England. La Dolce Vita and all that.

Dream on. It never happened. I didn’t have the self-confidence to go for it.

In the restaurant at Lingotto, I daydreamed of a life that could have been.

I smiled to myself. I wasn’t bothered.

“Things are good mate. Things are good. Salute.”

After the meal, armed with my camera, I circumnavigated the test-track. Ever since I have been coming to Turin, visiting it has been my own personal holy grail. And here I was, walking the famous banked curves for the very first time. My camera went into overdrive and I loved it. Thankfully, there were no clouds in the sky. The snow-capped mountains to the west were clearly visible. To the north, the ornate tower of Il Mole Antonelliana was magnificent.

Click, click, click.

I was in my own little world and I loved it.

If only I had a mini…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrNCGdtdIRc

With sadness, I left the roof area and descended into the shopping centre. I popped into the Juve store, but neglected to buy anything; I was in Turin for Chelsea. It didn’t seem right to buy a Juve item. In a boutique, I was warmed to see the appearance of some Henri Lloyd pullovers, sweatshirts and trousers alongside the more typical Italian names such as Armani. There was also a Clarks shop nearby.

England fights back. The Italian Job all over again.

I made my way back into town and met up, briefly with Josh (theangryintern) who was outside “Murphy’s” with Cathy. I set him off on a quick walk of the city to give him an idea of its charms. I then returned to the hotel to recharge batteries; my mobile phone, my camera, my body. At 5pm, I was back out again. Camera in hand, I shot a few memorable photos of the area around Via Roma, the street which houses the up-market shops such as Fendi and Boss, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. This street runs north south from the Porta Nuova up to Piazza San Carlo and beyond. Although I love it, its architecture is brutal and easily recognisable from the facist years of Benito Mussolini. In the city from November to January, there is a “Festival of Lights” and I captured a few iconic images. It was 5.30pm and the city was calm. Juve fans were hardly visible. I popped into a gorgeous bar on Piazza San Carlo and enjoyed a crisp beer, then helped myself to the plates of “free nibbles” which were piled high on the bar.

La Dolce Vita indeed.

As I departed I said “buona note e forza Chelsea” to the cashier. She smiled. Maybe she was Toro, too.

I zipped into “Zilli’s Bar” again. Rumours were confused about transportation to the stadium, some four miles to the north-west. Cathy and Josh, now joined by Beth, had rumours of getting a tube to Bernini and then coaches would be waiting. I then crossed the road and met up with Daryl, Alan, Gary and Neil in “Murphy’s” for a pint of Birra Moretti. There was a nice “Welcome Blues” banner outside this cosy bar and a Chelsea DVD was playing. I took a couple of photographs of Roberto Di Matteo in around 1997. The lads had enjoyed themselves during the day; a bus tour, a visit to Il Mole, some nice memories to take away with them. Alan had seen on the official Chelsea website that we had to muster on Corso San Maurizio to wait for buses. At around 7pm, we set off for this anointed point, but on our arrival, buses were nowhere to be seen. A plan B was called for and so I nipped into a Chinese restaurant and asked the owner to ring for a cab – “lo stadio, per cinque persone, per piacere.”

At 7.45pm, we were hurtling through the evening traffic. Fifteen minutes later, the cabbie – at last, a Juve fan – dropped us off at the north-eastern corner of the stadium. Pulses were racing now. Good times. On the cab ride, I had mentioned to Daryl that I remembered talking to him when we first met up in 1992 about my travels around Europe selling badges and the trips to Italy to see Juventus in particular. I remembered him commenting that, in all seriousness, he was a tad jealous, since all he had done was “watch Chelsea.” At the time, the remark made me wince since I was surprised anyone would be jealous of me. Since then, Daryl – plus all of my other mates – have had a merry dance, following our beloved team all over the continent. Daryl remembered the comment and smiled.

“We’ve been lucky. Other fans could only wish for what we’ve done.”

I was last on this spot in May 1999, the weekend of Tullio and Emanuela’s wedding, when I awoke bleary-eyed on the Sunday and made my way, again by cab, to the old Delli Alpi for the weekend’s other major attraction; Juventus vs. Fiorentina. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had been in town, memorably defeating Juve 3-2 in the CL semi-final after being 2-0 down. It was, allegedly, Roy Keane’s best ever game for United. It was United’s version of our draw at Barcelona in 2012 I guess. I was pretty delicate after the excesses of the wedding reception – I memorably awoke with bloodshot eyes – but watched a Juventus team including Didier Deschamps, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane defeat the hated Viola 2-1. Current manager Antonio Conte scored the winning goal way deep in injury time and then infamously ran towards the away section in the north-east corner and pulled the black and white corner flag out of the ground and waved it victoriously at the Fiorentina fans. I have this all on camcorder film somewhere.

The others were keen to enter the stadium, but I excused myself and took a few moments to let things settle, to take it all in. Outside, there were many souvenir stalls selling Juve gifts. There was also the ever-present smell of wurst being grilled. A German food being sold at an Italian game? Sure. The smell took me back to nights selling badges in Turin, Milan and Verona. There was a heavy police presence outside our gate, but I was quickly through the security checks. My camera hung around my neck, but I was allowed in. At each of the three checks, I sweet-talked the stewards.

“Sono tifo di Chelsea, ma – sono un piccolo tifo di Juventus.”

There were smiles at each of these interjections.

I took some atmospheric shots of the stadium, with the moon high above. The stadium sits on the exact site of the Delli Alpi. Because the lower bowl is below street level, it doesn’t look too imposing from the exterior. It is a very photogenic stadium though. The twin roof supports are painted white, red and green, mirroring the Italian flag, but the design reminded me, bizarrely, of the 1990 World Cup mascot, too. Strangely, Google Earth still shows the Delle Alpi stadium in all its unloved glory.

Yes, this was the site of the wonderful, but eventually heart-breaking, England vs. West Germany semi-final. I heartily recommend the film “One night in Turin” by the way.

I slowly made my way up the entrance tunnels and the white light of the arena beckoned me ever closer. Within a few steps, there it was. The terraces were so steep. Never has a 40,000 stadium looked so large and impressive. I’ve been keeping an eye on the progress of the building of this new stadium for quite a while. To my knowledge, it is the first-ever publicly funded stadium in Italy. I even watched the official opening in August of last year in a special 45 minute “Juventus / Facebook” link. It was a magnificently choreographed evening. And here it was, in the flesh. It was more spectacular than I had hoped.

“Fantastico.”

The Chelsea fans were strong in number. Thank heavens. I’m not sure where they had all been hiding during the day, but it was stirring to see so many had traveled.

It was soon time for me to become reacquainted with the Juventus anthem which I have been “YouTubing” for ages. The flags were waved, the music boomed out. Out came my “pub camera” to record it all for posterity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz68T…&feature=g-upl

I must admit to being just a little dewy-eyed at this moment. I am sure that Tullio, over on the far side, was singing along to the words.

“Juve, storia di un grande amore.
Bianco che abbraccia il nero.
Coro che si alza davvero, solo per te.
E’ la juve, storia di quel che saro’
Quando fischia l’inizio.
Ed inizia quel sogno che sei.”

Juventus in black and white shirts, white shorts and white socks. Chelsea in all blue.

So, this was it then. The night of destiny in Turin. I prayed that we could withstand the onslaught in the first twenty minutes. We had heard that the team would be without Fernando Torres. Eden Hazard to play centrally. Having Cesar Azpilicueta play wide in the midfield brought back memories of Ryan Bertrand in Munich.

We could only hope.

Early Juventus pressure was not a surprise. A wonderful save from Petr Cech at his near post had us all applauding. The home team kept attacking, but a break by Oscar on eight minutes gave us hope. It was a very strong run and he drew a defender before feeding in Eden Hazard. A low shot was deflected by Gianluigi Bufon into the goal’s side netting. This gave us hope. The old favourite from 2009 was aired.

“We are Chelsea, we are Chelsea, we are Chelsea – in Turin.”

Juventus came again and another fine save denied Marchisio.

Chances for Ramires and Hazard gave us hope. In truth, Juventus were enjoying most of the ball. At least we were creating some chances, though.

On 37 minutes, a speculative shot from Quagliarella took a wicked deflection and Cech was beaten. The tifosi roared and our hearts sank. As if to rub it in, the Juventus DJ played a short burst of “Chelsea Dagger” after the goal was scored.

A dagger to the heart.

Although Juventus had most of the ball, the thoughts among my little group of friends were that we had played reasonably well in the first period. Mikel was our best player I thought. Oscar showed good strength.

Our play seemed to deteriorate with each passing minute in the second-half. We all thought Cahill had fouled Vucinic inside the penalty area and we breathed a collective sigh of relief when the referee didn’t agree. Juventus attacked at will and some of our positional play was worrying. Azpilicueta, who had been fine, was replaced by Moses. Soon after, Juventus went further ahead when the ball was played back to Vidal. His shot was deflected again, this time by Ramires and Cech was beaten.

Another dagger to the Chelsea heart.

Torres came on for Mikel. A surprise that. He tidily played in Oscar to no avail. We were hoping for a miracle to be honest. The news from Denmark had been to our favour in the first-half with Shakhtar losing; they were now winning 5-2.

Things were bleak.

Giovinco broke through and beat the offside trap. Petr Cech did all he could to block, but the little Juventus attacker stroked the ball into an empty.

Pure misery.

I texted Tullio –

“He always scores the third goal.”

At the final whistle, we stared an exit from this year’s competition straight in the face. I went down to have a quick chat with my friend Orlin, who I previously met before the Arsenal away game last season. He is a Bulgarian, currently living in San Francisco. He remembered my quote of being a “1% Juventus fan.”

“Chris, are you 1% happy?”

I grimaced.

“No. I’m zero per cent happy.”

This was truly a grim night. Kev from Bristol did some calculations; it transpired that we have to hope for Shakhtar to defeat Juve while we win our last game against Nordsjaelland. We shuffled out of the stadium while some young oafs took their frustration out on some persplex glass which kept us separated from the locals, beating it constantly. We waited in silence. The mood was of solemnity. I wasn’t happy. We then boarded a fleet of coaches to take us back to the city centre. We were packed in like sardines. The mood was very similar to the mood after the game in Naples in February.

Back in the centre, the Chelsea fans dispersed into the night. The five of us sat outside “Murphy’s” for a few more drinks. After a few moments, the mood lightened. The famous Chelsea gallows humour helped us through. Behind me, an unknown Chelsea supporter was talking to an Italian about the club and its manager –

“Di Matteo is the new manager, yes. We will hope he can build a team this season. We want him to stay and do well.”

The boys had to be up early in the morning, so at about 1.30am we all returned to our respective hotels.

There was no need for me to get up too early on the Wednesday. At 10am, I was slowly coming around. The defeat was heavy in my mind. Should we fall into the Europa League, how will we cope? How will I cope? Big questions.

At 10.13am, my work colleague Mike texted me –

“What a joke! Di Matteo should have been treated better than that! Shocking!”

I looked at the text with blurry eyes. What did this mean? Had he been sacked? No. Surely not. I replied –

“What? What’s the news?”

Mike replied –

“Been sacked.”

In one single moment, I was angry, saddened, crestfallen, bewildered, upset, confused and heartbroken. The texts started flying around. It was true. How could my club dismiss the services of one of its greatest ever heroes so easily – and with the absolute absence of dignity – in such a despicable manner? This man had won us the FA Cup and the European Cup in May. This man had taken charge in dire circumstances and yet had got the team to respond admirably. Only a month ago, we had followed up a 2-1 win at Arsenal with a 4-2 win at Tottenham. Only recently, we were top of the league. Do we know judge our managers over just six games?

My brain was numb for the rest of that day in Turin. I disappeared over the bridge and had a morning cappuccino in a café in Piazza Crimea, then had a conversation in Italian with two locals as I bought the pink “Gazzetta” sports paper. I likened Chelsea to an Italian club, changing managers every six months. I only really know “football words” and “swear words” in Italian, but my vocabulary allowed me to talk for quite some time.

“Cambio, cambio, cambio! Bastardi!”

I walked up to Monte dei Cappuccini to take the last few photographs of my most recent trip to Turin. The city was oblivious to my sorrow. I guess that it was almost inevitable, knowing how the hand of probability works, that on one visit there would be sadness. Turin has certainly known its share of footballing grief, what with the twin tragedies of Superga and Heysel. Those two disasters have formed part of the collective psyche for the respective supporters of Torino and Juventus. Without wishing to be disrespectful, impolite or churlish, the city of Turin has now become a black spot in the history of my beloved Chelsea Football Club too.
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Tales From The Badlands

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 17 November 2012.

I left work on Friday, thrilled by the prospect of five straight days of holiday and, within that time frame, there would be two Chelsea games which I would attend.

First up was an away trip up the M5 to West Bromwich Albion’s neat Hawthorns stadium, a mere 111 miles away.

I didn’t have to be up there early. This was another solo-trip – no Parky – and I wasn’t in any particular mood to do much before the game. This would be a simple “in and out “affair. In truth, the drive up through a busy Bristol and up onto the motorway, then through the overcast countryside of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, was rather dull. I listened to “Fighting Talk” on Five Live and then caught the opening section of that station’s football coverage. The drive took me two and a half hours, similar in length to a home game, and I was parked up at the Park Inn at 1.40pm. There was a long line at the bar and, to be honest, I had a headache and didn’t fancy a beer. A quick hello to a couple of acquaintances in the bar and I soon decided to head off to the stadium. The North London derby was on a TV screen, but I gave it scant regard.

There was a time, before the M5 motorway ploughed right through the heart of the Black Country, when The Hawthorns probably felt like a natural extension of the historic town centre of West Bromwich. Now, the six-lane motorway dissects the two locales. The town centre is a mile to the west of junction 1 of the M5. The ground is isolated, cut off and disowned by the town centre, a few hundred yards to the east, surrounded by industrial units, a bakery, a McDonalds and a single housing estate.

And yet, I’ve always liked trips to this stadium, set on a slight incline, with its angled floodlights being easily visible from the motorway as it bends and curves its way north. I suspect that this could be, in part, due to our fine record at this stadium. A fine record, that is, until last season when a lamentable performance spelled the end of Andre Villas-Boas’ short, and eventually unloved, term in charge of our team. This would be my eighth journey to The Hawthorns; the first six of these resulted in straight Chelsea wins. The seventh, was that 1-0 loss in March.

I took the usual mix of photographs outside the stadium, which is clad in dull grey and navy steel, yet maintains a clean and trim feel. I was last in the area on my drive to Villa Park for the Community Shield in August, when our young team was still finding its footing. I took a few photographs of those angled floodlight pylons. There were times in the distant past when my sorties around the highways and byways – OK, the roads and railways – of this land were immortalised by shouts of “there’s Huddersfield’s ground” or “there’s Cardiff’s.” This was code for the fact that the floodlight pylons, rather than the stadia themselves, could be spotted, from maybe several miles away. It was somehow reassuring to know that they were still there; totems, if you like, for the stadium, for the club, for the respective communities which those clubs represented. These days, the lighting at stadia is more likely to be tucked under the roof of stands. The visual impact of those high and towering spider-webbed structures is, therefore, sadly missing from our urban landscape. It was always an anomaly of Stamford Bridge that, until 1994, we had three floodlight pylons, remnants from the days when the vast bowl was served by six pylons. In 1972, the three on the east side were taken down, leaving just the three on the west side. Spotting them from way out on an approach into London always got the pulses racing.

A few girls were handing out fliers for a Status Quo album or gig. Talk about taking a step back in time. Bad music in the badlands of the Black Country.

I also took a few photographs of the Jeff Astle gates, which are typically understated. Astle was a much-loved striker from the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, who sadly passed away in 2002. He was probably the Albion’s most famous son and appeared in Sir Alf’s 1970 World Cup squad. I met up with Alan and Gary, who were on the lookout for match badges. We walked down to the away entrance, where we chatted to the four Bristolians who frequent The Goose and all stadia east, west, north and south. Tim, one of the four, attended a Stiff Little Fingers concert with me in Bath on Monday. I had bumped into him at the same concert a year ago and, typically, I bumped into another Chelsea acquaintance – we recognised each other from The Goose – again this past Monday. Chelsea world gets smaller every year.

Talk was of the team. It was certainly a surprising eleven; no doubt the upcoming game in Turin on Tuesday forced Di Matteo’s hand.

Inside the stadium, we had great seats; in the first row above the walkway. Just before the teams entered the pitch, the resident DJ played the magnificent “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division and then followed it up with sings by Oasis and The Killers. I certainly enjoyed hearing those three classic songs. Well done to the DJ. It sure beat Status Quo.

The music changed to the classical sounds of “Carmina Burana” as the teams walked onto the pitch.

Stirring stuff.

“I need some Old Spice aftershave” I said to Gary.

We began well, controlling possession, and a fine move down the left resulted in a Ryan Bertrand effort from inside the box being hacked off the line. However, our early smiles were turned to despair when West Brom worked the ball wide and the resulting cross was headed home by Shane Long, with the floundering David Luiz absent. Maybe Luiz was still finding a place to park his car at the Park Inn, maybe he was outside the stadium buying some pork scratchings, or maybe he was in a line at the nearby McDonalds. Joking apart, it was shocking defending.

The locals celebrated by singing about one of their local rivals.

“Shit on the Villa, Shit on the Villa tonight.”

Victor Moses seemed to be involved on the left, more so than Sturridge on the right. A shot from Moses and another from Mikel hardly troubled Myhill in the home goal, though. Over on the touchline stood the former team mates, Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Clarke.

Wembley 1997 and all that.

We still dominated possession but rarely threatened. Studge worked himself into the game, firing at the ‘keeper, but Torres was woefully absent from any worthwhile activity. At times it was as if we were playing without a centre-forward, perhaps like the famous Hungarian formation from the ‘fifties. Fernando Torres, however, is no Ferenc Puskas. A quick break involving that man Shane Long almost put us 2-0 down.

Thankfully, we eventually broke through the well-marshalled ranks of striped defenders. An Azpilicueta cross deep into the West Brom six yard box was met by a rising Eden Hazard. I wasn’t sure how the ball managed to cross the line, but the net rippled and the Chelsea fans at last roared. To be honest, the away support had been pretty quiet until that point, with the noisy neighbours to our left providing more noise and variety. For some reason there was a heavy police presence in our end, with all of them looking our way. Maybe they had never seen Champions of Europe before.

…”Champions of Europe – we know what we are.”

I captured the celebrations of the Chelsea players away in the distance, but was then reprimanded by a weasel of a steward who warned me that further use of my camera would result in it being confiscated. The home fans then responded to our eventual noise.

“We know what we are.
We know what we are.
Pride of the Midlands.
We know what we are.”

As the sun cast long shadows on the spectators in the far stand, the Chelsea fans replied with an old chant from the late ‘seventies; quite rare these days.

“Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!”

There were mumbles and grumbles at half-time. The only players performing well, in my mind, were Mikel and Azpilicueta, though Moses and Bertrand were adequate. As the second-half began, the air grew colder. We again began well, with a strong run down the right flank, but Sturridge turned to shoot only at Myhill. It was to be the first of many misses during the second half from our frustrating number 23. Just as we appeared to be improving – “this is much better, Gal” – our error-prone defending let us down once again. Long was not charged down by Luiz and his quick cross was turned in by Odemwingie, with Bertrand unable to get close. The home fans roared again.

“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”

The Lord’s Prayer – Psalm 23 – then had an airing and The Hawthorns was rocking.

The songs continued. Chelsea were silent.

“We’re Albion till we die. We’re Albion till we die. We’re blue and white, the Wolves are shite, we’re Albion till we die.”

On the hour, time for action. Oscar for Romeu. Mata for Torres.

Soon after, two delightful balls from Juan Mata were lofted into the path of Sturridge, now playing centrally, but there was just too much “on” them. In truth, Studge did well to even reach the first with a header. However, despite the promising play from Mata, Studge’s two “misses” drew howls of derision.

The Chelsea fans, at last, decided to get behind the team. In response, the home fans countered and for a few minutes the atmosphere was electric, just like a game from the days of yore. The chances still came for Daniel Sturridge. Mata played the ball through, and Sturridge only had the goalkeeper to beat, but the ball was on his “wrong” side. His right-footed shot was tame and was easily blocked by Myhill, who was now turning in quite a performance in the Albion goal.

The best chance of the game again fell to Strurridge four minutes from time. Oscar, who had been playing in quite a withdrawn role, played the ball in but Sturridge screwed the ball wide. The Chelsea supporters had already decided that “enough was enough” and began to drift away. Two late corners, however, stopped the flow and the walkway in front of us became congested. Out came my camera to capture the last pieces of action. A short corner was played in by Mata and I snapped. The ball flew across the box and the sight of the yellow shirt of Petr Cech, flying through the air, at the far post caused a moment of supreme surprise and great expectation. I had not seen our ‘keeper arrive. It would have been some goal.

His outstretched leg did not connect with the ball. The referee blew for time. The glum faces of the Chelsea followers filed away into the night and the home spectators celebrated with a wild roar. I patted Al on the back – “see you in Turin” – and soon departed. As I turned one final corner, I glanced back at the spectators in the main stand –

“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”
“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”
“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”

Fair play to them, the baggy buggers, let them enjoy the night.

Outside in the cold West Midlands night, the crescent of a waxing moon welcomed me as I hurriedly walked past the red brick of an old factory to my left. The Chelsea supporters around me were in a foul mood. Of course, I was far from happy either. I made my way past the onrushing home fans, battling the crowds, well aware that my solemn face did not match that of the locals. They were buzzing, to be fair. Steve Clarke has fashioned a hard-working team at West Brom. I wasn’t really sure if he would “cut it” as a stand-alone manager, but the dour Scot from Saltcoats has done a grand job. What of us? There were some below-average performances for sure. No need to mention names. Everyone knows who. However, I was later to learn that we had won twelve corners to West Brom’s zero. It certainly felt like we were always in with a chance of scoring. I think that a draw would have been a fair result.

Alas, not.

I got caught in some bad traffic as I tried to leave the area but, after ages, I found my way back onto the southbound M5. I just couldn’t be bothered with the radio. The United game would be referenced every five minutes and I couldn’t stomach that. Instead, Massive Attack accompanied me on the lonely trip home. I was typically melancholic as I drove on; dismayed by the result, but also with the standard of support from the away fans. At times, it was woeful. We were quiet at Swansea too.

Must do better.

As I reached home, I flicked on my laptop and could hardly believe the news that Norwich City had defeated Manchester United at Carrow Road. What a shocker. I suspect that the United legions were all over the internet moaning about their manager, the under-performing players, the formation, the whole nine yards. They have already lost three out of their twelve games so far this season.

Fergie out.

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Tales From The Sloaney Pony

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 28 October 2012.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Four words to get the pulses racing.

After our two marvellous wins at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, I was relishing this one – of course – and was fearless, despite our poor performance in Donetsk on Tuesday.

Sunday couldn’t come quick enough. Saturday was a blur.

Overnight, winter had arrived. The clocks went back an hour and the temperature had dropped. Despite the potential luxury of an extra hour in bed, I was up and at’em on Sunday morning.

There is always something special about going to football in October, with the trees changing colours and the first breath of winter giving the air a chill. In fact, it caught me unawares. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, I stood in my bedroom for a good ten minutes, befuddled and confused, trying to work out the best combination of shirt/pullover/top/jacket to wear for the first cold trip of the season. I eventually chose a white polo shirt. I then pinned my Remembrance Day poppy on a navy blue pullover and I was away.

I collected Young Jake in Trowbridge, Wiltshire’s county town, at 11am and we headed north to the M4 and then east to Chelsea Town.

This would be Jake’s first sighting of Manchester United and he was clearly “buzzing.” Due to Chelsea’s liking of Second Division football in the days of my childhood and youth, my first sighting of the famous red shirts took place as late as December 1984, when I was halfway through my nineteenth year. In fact, from the day of my first ever Chelsea game in 1974, the two teams’ paths only crossed on two occasions in the league at Stamford Bridge until that fateful day ten years later. In the first of these ten seasons, 1974-1975, Manchester United found themselves in Division Two while we were toiling in the top flight. In the next two seasons, it was our turn to play in the second tier. In 1977-1978 and 1978-1979, our paths crossed momentarily. Then from 1979 to 1984, Chelsea were back amongst the dead men of the Second Division.

In December 1984, I joined a season-high attendance of 42,000 who assembled on a cold post-Christmas afternoon and watched aghast as United romped to a 3-1 win. This was standard for many years; for ages, Chelsea did well at Old Trafford and United won the spoils at Stamford Bridge. From around 1967 to 1987, we were undefeated at Old Trafford. United’s ascendency over us at HQ only really lilted in 2002, after years of domination. I can still taste the bitterness of those 3-2, 4-1 and 3-0 defeats in 1994, 1995 and 2002, to say nothing of the 5-3 F.A. Cup defeat in 1998 and the Champions League loss in 2011.

However, over the past ten seasons, we have been undefeated against United at Stamford Bridge in the league. I chatted about some of these games with Jake as the rain started to increase. There have been some crackers; the undoubted highlight being the 3-0 championship decider in 2006. Thank you William Gallas, thank you Ricardo Carvalho and thank you Joe Cole. You wait fifty years for a league championship and then two come together. Superb stuff.

Of course, the best ever memory was from that incredible day in the autumn of 1999 when a rampant Chelsea defeated the treble winners 5-0. What a magnificent performance under the tutelage of Gianluca Vialli. There have been few more pleasurable afternoons in deepest SW6. Bloody hell, even Chris Sutton scored that day. Remember him?

No, I thought not.

At Reading Services, I spotted a chap wearing a New England Patriots shirt and my hackles rose. He was off to Wembley for the annual NFL game. I only heard about this match on the Saturday; the media has been strangely muted about this year’s encounter. I noted that the London Saracens rugby union team played a regular league game in Brussels last weekend. Where will it all end?

I know where it will end.

Chelsea playing a regular season game against Norwich City in Shanghai.

By which time, this particular Chelsea fan will have taken a damn good look at the way football has gone and may well have decided to hang up his boots. I’m fine with watching friendlies in the US and Asia, I’m fine with World Club Championships in Japan, but the regular season is sacrosanct.

Mess with that, dear Football Association, and you might well have lost me, and millions like me.

We rolled into London, the rain thankfully halted, at 1.30pm. Jake sought refuge in The Goose, but I headed down the North End Road and the Fulham Road to Parson’s Green, where I had arranged to meet up with Mike from the NYBs. On my way, I dipped into a betting shop and put a tenner on us to win 5-0.

It has happened before, it could happen again.

I dreamt of a £1,500 treasure chest.

I walked past the site of the former George pub and was dismayed to see that it now houses an estate agent. The George used to house the CFC Yeovil branch on match days back in the mid-’eighties and a few of us from Frome used to spend many an hour with them. Good people. I hardly see any of them these days. I only commented recently that the total of seven regular Chelsea attendees from Frome, all season ticket holders, has withered to just myself.

I walked past Fulham police station just as “Goggles” – one of the local policemen who are always present at Chelsea games, from London to Birmingham to Turin to Donetsk – left the building with four others. The wind was chilling the air, but my warm jacket was doing its job.

The White Horse pub, right on the northern edge of Parson’s Green, is a famous old Chelsea watering hole. I haven’t frequented it for years and years – 1995 to be exact – but it’s a lovely pub. As it is just off the King’s Road, it has always attracted a certain type of clientele. Back in the early ‘eighties, social commentator Peter York dubbed the pretty young things who live in Kensington & Chelsea “Sloane Rangers.” In Chelsea football circles, the White Horse was always called “The Sloaney Pony.” I spent a nice time there, supping my usual one pint of lager; this time it was a crisp Budvar. Mike was giddy with enthusiasm at the thought of seeing the team play once more. His last game was in Miami. I met up with a couple of his UK-based mates and we had a good laugh. Mutual friends were referenced and humorous stories were told. Yet again, the up-coming game was ignored. We spoke, instead, about trips to Munich and Barcelona, the summer tour and Japan.

Stamford Bridge is only a ten minute walk away, past Eelbrook Common and the Pelican pub. I was soon on Fulham Road, outside the West Stand, where a Chelsea brass band was playing “Land Of Hope And Glory”, “Amarillo” and “Blue Is The Colour.” I lost count of the number of tourists I saw with Chelsea / United scarves.

I was in the stadium early. It was too early, in fact. It was 3.30pm. I didn’t know what to do.

The stadium, as always, took a while to reach capacity and I suddenly realised that there were no pre-match songs emanating from stands like in days of old. This is another match day tradition which has slowly died out since the end of the terracing. I remember the days when…oh never mind.

The Chelsea team was unsurprisingly unaltered from the fine win at White Hart Lane. United’s defence interested me; surely we could attack them in the middle, to exploit the pairing of Ferdinand and Evans. Further upfront, Rooney and Van Persie worried me. But this was a game that we could win and win well.

5-0 will be fine, please.

After Neil Barnett had announced the teams, in that rather loud and irritating way of his, he called for silence. Both sets of fans were asked to acknowledge the life of former Manchester United and England winger John Connelly, who had recently passed away.

A short but steady period of applause resounded around the stadium.

United had their usual three thousand and the lower tier, at least, stood the entire game. The home areas eventually were filled to capacity. I tried to spot any empty seats and it was difficult. We were treated to a bona fide full house at last. Maybe we’re getting too used to sight of United and too used to the big games, but the pre-match buzz was sadly lacking inside the stadium. I felt it outside, in the pubs and in the streets, but inside, there was a strange quietness.

The teams entered the pitch. The United contingent had begun singing with a few minutes to go, but we drowned them out. The place was suddenly rocking.

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

There were the expected venomous catcalls from the home stands aimed at Rio Ferdinand as the match began, though thankfully none of a racist nature. I’m personally getting bored with it all and it’s time to move on.

Well, what a game. After last season’s rollercoaster 3-3 draw, who could have thought that we could be in for another tumultuous ninety minutes of drama and intrigue, goals and calamity, ecstasy and misery?

After just three minutes, United had struck down our left flank, with Ashley Cole horribly out of position. The arch predator Van Persie struck a shot against Petr Cech’s near post and the ball cannoned in off a hapless David Luiz. And my £1,500 bounty had been blown to smithereens. I gazed skywards, sighed and then muttered something to myself which probably mirrored 95% of what the Chelsea crowd had been singing at Rio Ferdinand.

Soon after, Ferdinand walked over towards us in the north-west corner to receive a ball from David De Gea. The boos cascaded down on him. However, nobody closed him down and he had time to initiate a move down the United left which again caught Cole woefully out of position. The ball cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter. A low cross, a Van Persie shot.

2-0 to United and the game had hardly started.

I looked on as I saw Ferdinand punch the air.

A horrible feeling.

Midway through the first-half, with Chelsea seemingly chasing shadows, Alan leaned over and summed it up.

“They’re better than us. No point disguising the fact. We’re not in it.”

I had to agree.

Every time United broke, we were sent into a tense period of panic. Although Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs were not playing, this was so reminiscent of the rapid thrusts of the United team from the mid-‘nineties. Alan then made another telling point.

“Our wide men in midfield aren’t providing extra cover on the flanks.”

I had visions of more United goals. It was so imperative that we nabbed a goal before the break, or else I could see United running away with the game in the second-half.

The away fans were bellowing – that bloody awful Cantona song always annoys me – as United punched deep into our defence and we were reeling on the ropes. And then, miraculously, we found our feet and retaliated. I had commented to Alan that “we haven’t even had a corner.”

With that, the rest of the first-half was Chelsea corner after Chelsea corner.

They must have heard me.

De Gea was tested with a dipping and swerving Luiz free-kick, which the ‘keeper chose to save with his feet as he scrambled across his goal. This then set the tone for the rest of the half. De Gea’s goal lived a charmed life as headers from Cahill and then Torres were saved. We kept pushing and the crowd responded. This was more like it.

Just before the break, we were awarded a free-kick. Every outfield United player crowded into the penalty area, forming a formidable barrier to Juan Mata. I clicked my camera just as the little Spaniard clipped the ball past the tight huddle of intertwined red and blue shirts and into the goal.

It was an inch-perfect strike and the ball caressed the side netting as it entered the waiting goalmouth.

Stamford Bridge shook as the 38,000 home supporters roared.

Phew. We had scored that all important goal before the break.

Game most definitely on.

At the break, Neil Barnett appeared by the tunnel with a little girl and he announced that she was watching her first-ever Chelsea game. Her face appeared on the large TV screen above the United fans just as Neil told the story of her father scoring at Old Trafford in 1996. I quickly computed that little Amelia’s father was none other than Gianluca Vialli. As Luca was seen nut-megging the United ‘keeper, the memories flooded back. I am sure this was Luca’s first official return to the Chelsea fold since he was unceremoniously sacked in September 2000, though he is a season ticket-holder to this day.

He remains one of my very favourite Chelsea heroes.

The Juventus background, the cheeky smile, the cashmere cardigans, the self-effacing humour, the hilarious use of cockney phraseology, the goals and the glory.

A proper gentleman, a lovely man, a funny guy, a true Chelsea legend.

Ah, we loved Vialli.

One memory always brings a smile to my face to this day. After a game at Nottingham Forest in 1999, my then girlfriend Judy – who had a massive crush on Luca – and I waited for the players to board the team coach in the Forest car park. I took a few photos of the players as they were being mobbed by the crowd, but I then realised that Judy was missing. After a few moments, I looked up to see her standing right next to Luca by the door to the coach. She had simply sidled up alongside him and had held his left hand for a few seconds as he signed autographs with his right hand. He then realised what was going on and gave Judy a smile, and then signed her hand.

Judy bounced over to show me, her face beaming.

She didn’t wash her hand for a week.

The United players were first to appear back on the pitch after the break. I wondered what extra words of encouragement Di Matteo was imparting to the team. Di Matteo is from the same stock as Luca; calm, modest and a gentleman. I struggle to think he gets overly irate about anything. This was a big test for him, though. We waited for the Chelsea eleven to reappear.

The second-half was a travesty.

We began with gusto, as we attempted to prise gaps in the United defence. After some sustained Chelsea pressure, the impressive Oscar clipped the ball in to the six yard box where a seemingly unmarked Ramires was able to head the ball home.

He doesn’t score many, but when he does…

Now the stadium almost went into orbit.

The United fans fell silent as the Chelsea legions bellowed –

“You are my Chelsea.
My only Chelsea.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You’ll never notice how much I love you.
Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.
LA LA LA LA LA
LA LA LA LA LA
OH OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH
Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Stamford Bridge was the loudest it had been since that date with Barcelona last spring.

But then, just as we were in the ascendency, smelling blood, our game plan was forced to change. A quick United break, Ashley Young through on goal, with Ivanovic giving chase. Within a blink of an eye, a tangle of legs and Young was sent sprawling.

It was a clear red, even allowing for David Luiz in the vicinity. It was unlikely that Luiz would have covered.

Damn it.

Chicarito, who scored against us at home last season, came on for United. Di Matteo brought on Azpilicueta.

It got worse.

Fernando Torres, who was tending to hold the ball a little too long for my liking, set off on a run deep at the heart of the floundering United defence. I didn’t think that he would be able to get past the defenders, so it was with relief when Evans hacked him down. I then wondered if Evans had been booked (he hadn’t) and if the referee would send him off for the second offence.

Imagine our horror when Clattenburg decided that it had been a dive from Torres. This was a second yellow and so, Torres was given his marching orders. Torres looked heartbroken. I was speechless. The United fans gleefully waved him off the pitch. After last season’s miss at Old Trafford, I really felt for him. He acts as a totem of all that is wrong about Chelsea in the eyes of many opposing fans.

We were down to nine men with twenty minutes to play.

With the crowd galvanised against Clattenburg and the opposition alike, the noise levels stayed high and the atmosphere was certainly intense. However, United soon seized their chance to strike. Van Persie wiggled one way and then the other before striking low at Cech’s goal. The ball squirmed away from his grasp and spun slowly towards a post. No United players were on hand to poke it home but the ball was knocked back into the crowded box by Raphael. Chicarito – it had to be him – prodded the ball in after coming back from behind the goal line. Incoming texts suggested that he had been offside when he delivered the final coup de grace. However, the area was so crowded and the ball in was so quick, that it was not readily apparent in my eyes at the time.

With the odds heavily stacked against us, an equaliser seemed impossible. We never gave up the fight, though. Our nine men gamely searched for that illusive goal. A fine example of this was a scintillating run by the impressive Eden Hazard deep into the United box.

The game continued on with five minutes of extra time, but it wasn’t our day.

All around me, Chelsea fans were moaning about Clattenburg, but I really wanted to get home and watch the match highlights on TV before I made up my own mind.

By 10.45pm, I was moaning too.

There were defensive lapses during the game for sure. David Luiz can be world class and class clown in the same passage of play. Our defence misses John Terry. Against United, frailties will always be exposed. But we showed a lot of fight and courage in that middle third of the game. I saw promising signs. Against Arsenal, Tottenham and United we have gathered six points. Both United and us will be in the mix at the top end of the table come May.

And on Wednesday, we meet again.

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Tales From The North Circular

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 October 2012.

On Friday evening, with the arid desert of the two week long international break thankfully behind us, I felt like an excitable five year old on Christmas Eve. We all remember that feeling. On any other night of the year, as a child, it was typical to eke out as much time in the evening as possible before it was time to head up to bed. I can well remember the glee when my parents relented after persistent pleading to have “ten more minutes” outside (to play football in the street usually, with light fading), before being herded inside and then taken upstairs to bed. Christmas Eve was different; get to bed early, try to get to sleep quickly, it will soon be Christmas Day, with presents and jollity and fun.

At 6.30am, the alarm sounded and, unlike weekdays, there was no need for me to utilize the snooze button.

This was Tottenham Away.

Bearing in mind the rivalry between the two clubs, the magnificent denouement to last season, which of course resulted in us elbowing Spurs out of the Champions League, and the added frisson of Andre Villas-Boas as Spurs’ new manager, I regarded this as the most important away game of the domestic season.

Love it.

At 8.15am, I had packed my match day essentials – ticket, wallet, camera, coffee – and I was on my way. Within a minute of driving through the misty village, I had disturbed some pigeons as they sat idling in the middle of the road. Feathers flew, but I didn’t have time to check if there had been fatalities. I think they had a lucky escape. I wondered how we would fare with our feathered friends from Tottenham later in the day. Would the cockerels be quite so lucky?

The early morning was shrouded in mist as I headed east. As I drove along the quiet country roads to the north of Frome, a huge lock of birds suddenly appeared to my right. They swooped down and across my field of vision and the sight was rather impressive, if not slightly spooky. I let my imagination run away with me for a few seconds and I chuckled as I wondered if the pigeons had been in touch with the starlings after the incident five minutes earlier. As I drove on, I looked back and saw around twenty black birds sitting, ominously, on an electric wire, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

Gulp.

I took a swig of coffee and told myself to pull myself together.

Pigeons, starlings, cockerels, Hitchcock.

What did it all mean?

Thankfully, the next hour or so was devoid of similar incidents. In fact, the drive through Somerset, into Wiltshire and on into Berkshire was simply fantastic. Back in my childhood, my father used to take this route on his drive up to London for our twice-a-season pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge. For games at White Hart lane, I usually drive into London and then take the tube up to Seven Sisters. For a change, I had decided to drive all the way in and chance my arm with a parking spot near the stadium. The first hour was spent driving along the idyllic roads of Wessex, through towns such as Devizes and Marlborough. While thoughts of previous games at White Hart Lane flitted in and out of my mind, all was good with the world.

Slender church spires piercing the monotone grey sky, prim thatched cottages hugging the road, trees peeking out over valleys of low-lying fog, delicate Turneresque smudges of light as the sun attempted to burn its way through the grey clouds, red brick farmhouses, the surreal lunar landscape of the chalk down lands, the first tints of autumn on beech trees and the dull purr of my tires on the road below.

As my little capsule of contentment headed east, I was happy with my lot.

And Chelsea’s game at Tottenham was only a few hours away.

Seriously, what else are you going to do on a Saturday?

Typically, my mind wandered back to my youth; my first ever two visits to White Hart Lane during the early weeks of the 1986-1987 and 1987-1988 seasons.

In September 1986, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day out in N17. After a far from impressive start to the season, we travelled to White Hart Lane and triumphed 3-1. The weather was dreadful, I got drenched on that long walk back to Seven Sisters, but I was euphoric. Only five months earlier, my first ever visit to Old Trafford had resulted in a Chelsea win. Two debut wins at my most despised opponents’ home stadia was just perfect. Although unmemorable in the main, 1986 at least provided me with those two excellent away days.

Less than a year later, we had got off to a flier with two wins from games against Sheffield Wednesday at home and Portsmouth away. The Chelsea hordes travelled in our thousands for this one. The attendance for the 1986 was just 28,000, but the 1987 one drew 37,000. I travelled up by train with Glenn and it felt like we were part of an invading army. We bought tickets (Glenn bought his from a tout) for seats in the upper tier of the Park Lane End and watched as our ranks were swelled with each passing minute. As I thought about the current limit of 3,000 away fans at all Premier League games, I became misty-eyed for those distant times. On that day in August 1987, I’d say that we probably had 10,000 fans at White Hart Lane. Those were the days my friend; for a moment, I was transported back in time. As kick-off approached and the terraced areas in front of our seats became swelled to capacity, there were calls by the Chelsea fans for the police and stewards to open up extra sections in the lower tier of The Shelf terrace, which ran along the side of the pitch and housed the Tottenham hardcore.

Eventually, an extra pen was given to the away fans. The Chelsea fans charged into the section, much to the chagrin of the Spurs fans above. It was all about territory in those days. It was all about how many you took to away games. It was all about numbers. These days, it’s difficult to gauge the size of various clubs’ travelling support because the limit is always 3,000. Back in those days, it was the size of our away “take” that was in many ways as important as the result on the pitch. In 1987, we travelled to White Hart Lane not because we were in the hunt for silverware. We just travelled to make a statement and to support the team.

Sadly, a last minute goal by Nico Claesen gave Spurs a 1-0 win, but the over-riding memory of that day twenty-five years ago was the fearsome size of our travelling support.

At 9.30am, I flicked on a Morrissey CD as I joined the M4. The next hour, save for some familiar tunes making me chuckle, the driving was rather monotonous. The fog thickened. It wasn’t so much fun.

Heading into London, the fog was still thick and the Wembley Arch to the north was not visible. Ah Wembley – memories of that 5-1 annihilation in April.

I exited the M4 and began a clockwise circumnavigation of inner London via the fabled North Circular. I don’t often travel on this road; the last time, in fact, was with Beth on our return from Leverkusen via Stansted airport last November. Before the advent of the M25 in around 1986, the North Circular – and the South Circular – was the main road used to traverse the great city of London. It acts as a ring road. It was and it still is notoriously busy.

As I drove through Ealing Common, with the road at its narrowest, I easily thought back on the years from 1975 to 1980 when my father would park on an adjacent side road and we would travel in by tube to see games at Stamford Bridge. My father was terrified of the London traffic and Ealing was as far as he could manage. Ah, how excited I was on those walks to Ealing Common tube station. My father’s last ever Chelsea game was against Everton on New Year’s Day 1991 and I’m pretty sure he parked at Ealing Common on that occasion, too. My mind became full of memories of match after match. They were layered one on top of another, just like the piles of bright autumn leaves on the Ealing Common walkways.

After Park Royal, from where we travelled in by tube for my very first game in 1974, the road broadened to three lanes. I had an eye on the clock and an eye on my speedometer. The traffic slowed to a halt on a few occasions. The road cut through inter-war housing estates, industrial areas and small parks. Signs for Wembley, Neasden, Finchley, Barnet and Wood Green. North London proper. It didn’t seem like Chelsea territory and, of course, it wasn’t. Sure we have pockets of support in this vast section of England’s capital, but this area of suburban sprawl belongs to the two North London teams. A large advertisement hoarding for an Arsenal shop at Brent Cross shopping centre emphasised the point.

I continued on. As I neared my destination, the traffic crawled along and my frustration was rising. How I’d hate to have to do this every two weeks. The only place to be every other Saturday certainly isn’t driving around the North Circular.

At last, I turned off at Edmonton and, via yet more slow moving traffic and a rather circuitous route, I eventually parked on Wilbury Way. It had taken me three and a half hours to cover the 125 miles.

Phew.

It was 11.45am.

I walked along Bridport Road and then Pretoria Road, past small industrial units, past the Haringey Irish Centre, where Cathy sometimes stops for a drink at Tottenham. I was soon outside White Hart Lane. Land was evidently being cleared for the construction of their new stadium which is planned to be built directly to the east of the current site. A computerised image of the new stadium appeared on a few hoardings. It looked impressive, but eerily similar to Arsenal’s new pad. This is no surprise; most new football stadia look as if they have been taken from the same blueprint these days.

Lower bowl, two tiers of executive seats, undulating top tier.

There is nothing special architecturally about White Hart Lane from the outside. It’s all rather dull to be honest. What makes it special are the memories of past matches and past players.

I shuffled past a heavy police presence in the south-west corner and entered the stadium. It was 12.15pm. While I waited for the kick-off, I spoke with a few acquaintances. It’s amazing how slow it takes for grounds to fill up these days. With fifteen minutes to go, the place was only half full. The team was the same as for Arsenal, apart from Cahill in for Terry. We heard that Gareth Bale wasn’t playing. Alan and Gary joined me just before the teams entered the pitch. There had been a few Chelsea songs in the pre-match build-up, but nothing from Tottenham.

As the match began, we soon serenaded the home fans of memories of Munich.

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

Two lads arrived with a twelve foot long banner, obviously nicked from Munich, which we tied to the barrier right in front of us.

This was the Champions of Europe section.

Happy days.

Down on the pitch, Chelsea were in the ascendency and were pushing the ball around intelligently. The sun briefly broke through the grey sky and White Hart Lane looked a picture. It is a very neat stadium.

The songs continued.

“We won 5-1 – Wembley.”

“We won 6-1 – at The Lane.”

“We are the champions – the Champions of Europe, we are the champions – the Champions of Europe.”

“That song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song.”

“Ashley Cole’s won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup.”

“You got battered, you got battered, you got battered – in Seville.”

“Love the Old Bill – in Seville. Love the Old Bill – in Seville.”

We were certainly in good voice and our team were responding well. Our midfield maestros Oscar and Mata were soon probing away and we looked calm and relaxed, often finding room on both flanks. A corner to the far post was headed back across the box by Gallas. Gary Cahill had peeled away from his marker on the near post and met the dropping ball on the penalty spot with the sweetest of volleys. As a planned corner it could not have worked better if Gallas was still a Chelsea player. The ball thundered into the net. It was a volley which reminded me of the strike by Ivanovic in the Norwich game.

I captured Gary’s joyful run back towards us in the southern Park Lane end on camera. He was being chased by his gleeful team mates and their happiness was matched by ours.

Get in.

Our excellent play continued, but we didn’t carve out many chances. Tottenham tested Cech a little, but the defence held firm. Mata should have made it 2-0 as the interval approached but he shot over after he followed up his own shot after it was parried by Brad Friedel.

With memories of that night in Naples, Ashley Cole was able to scurry back and head a dipping cross off the line. Two fantastic blocks in quick succession – I think by Cahill and Ivanovic – told me all I needed to know about this new Chelsea team. Both players flung themselves at the ball with no respect for personal injury. It was magnificent to watch. Fantastic stuff.

At the break, talk was all about us playing well, but we were all rueing the lack of a second goal.

Well, the opening period of the second-half was a nightmare. Our concerns about that missing second goal came to fruition. Within ten minutes, defensive lapses had presented Tottenham with not only an equaliser through Gallas but a second goal via Defoe. The home crowd roared both strikes and the sight of all the gurning Spurs fans goading the Chelsea fans to my left and right was sickening.

White Hart Lane came to life. The uber-slow dirge “Oh when the Spurs…go marching in” echoed around the white tub of the old stadium. I hate it because it reminds me of that 2008 Carling Cup Final, but the Spurs fans certainly love it. It’s the one time they all get behind the team. The noise was deafening and we were momentarily quiet and subdued.

We were staring our first league defeat in the face. We hadn’t won at Tottenham in the league since 2005. Our unbeaten run of thirty-two league games against Spurs from 1990 to 2005 suddenly seemed like a distant memory. It was time for us to buck that trend. It was time for the players to respond. It was Roberto di Matteo’s first real challenge of the 2012-2013 league season. There was a niggling doubt that our three marauding midfielders would not be able to offer the two holding midfielders enough cover and assistance. Not just for this game, but throughout the whole campaign. I sat and wondered if our new playing style might be one-dimensional and too fragile. I looked at the Spurs midfielders – Sandro, Sigurrdsson, Huddlestone – and I looked at the slender Mata, Hazard and Oscar.

This was a big test alright.

To be truthful, Hazard had been the least impressive in the first-half. Suddenly, the overwhelming good vibes at the break had turned into feelings of worry and concern. There were cat calls amongst the away support. Fernando Torres, though neat in possession, seemed to be unwilling to run and test the Spurs defence. Too often, he stayed still, rather than exploit space.

Tottenham fired a few long range shots at Cech, but thankfully they tended to be straight towards him.

We need not have worried.

With Mikel and Ramires starting to re-exert themselves in the middle, the rhythm of the first-half soon returned. We enjoyed watching some wonderful flowing football. A loose clearance by Gallas – it was turning out to be his afternoon after all – fell at the feet of Juan Mata on the edge of the box. With ice cold blood in his veins, he took a steadying touch and calmly drilled the ball into the goal, with just inches to spare by the post.

YEEEEESSSSSS!

We were bouncing again. The Chelsea corner exploded with joy.

This was turning into some game. Remarkably, Defoe forced a supremely athletic save from Cech with a dipping shot. Then, a magnificent move resulted in more joy for the three thousand royal blue loyalists. Mikel played the ball to Hazard, who was now a lot more involved. His delightful first-time ball cut straight through the Spurs defence and into the path of the advancing Mata. It was the pass of the season.

Mata clipped the ball past Friedel and we were 3-2 up.

YYEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS!

Oh boy.

What a game.

I found myself yelling awful abuse at the Spurs fans in the distance and I somehow felt cleansed for the experience.

Spurs had a couple of half-chances. Juan Mata could have scored another. He then played in Torres, but his studied strike towards the far post narrowly missed the target.

To our surprise, Daniel Sturridge took the place of the magnificent Oscar when we all expected Torres to be substituted. I commented that Jose Mourinho would have brought on at least one defender with us being 3-2 up. The days of narrow pragmatic wins were now a distant memory.

Attack or be damned.

With Spurs pushing for an equaliser – amid horrible memories of Robbie Keane’s late equaliser in the ridiculous 4-4 draw in 2008 – Walker was robbed by Mata on the far touchline in front of The Shelf. He painstakingly passed the ball across the six yard box for Studge to almost apologetically prod home from four yards. Behind him, Torres.

It was one of those days for Nando.

We roared again, though our screams of delight were mixed with howls of laughter too. We turned to the intense figure on the Tottenham bench for one last bout of piss-taking.

“Andre – what’s the score? Andre, Andre – what’s the score?”

Mr. Villas-Boas was not available for comment.

This was a stunning game of football. Not only did we play some wonderfully entertaining stuff, but the nature of our recovery was emblematic of the new found confidence running through this team. Although Mata deservedly garnered all of the attention, and Cech kept us in the game, I need to mention Mikel and Ramires, our two quite dissimilar bastions at the base of our midfield five. They were quite simply magnificent. Who could have possibly thought that our movement away from a physical style of football to a more entertaining variant would be so easy?

Transition season? What transition season.

On the walk back to the car, all was quiet among the Tottenham fans. There seemed to be an air of sad acceptance that Chelsea had prospered. I hate to say this, but I’m genuinely starting to feel sorry for them.

Wink.

IMG_0313

Tales From The South Bronx

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 22 July 2012.

It was all so different in 1989.

My first trip to North America, almost a year in duration, was in 1989. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime away. In other ways – because many of the memories still remain vibrant and strong – it seems like last week. In September 1989, my college mate Ian (with delicious irony, a Rotherham United fan…and yes, he went to our 6-0 defeat in 1981) and I touched down at JFK. Our flight had been delayed due to an almost calamitous malfunction just before take-off at Gatwick. A tyre had burst as the jumbo hurtled down the runway and had flew up into the engine causing severe damage to the engine and our hearts alike. Thankfully, there was enough room left on the runway for the pilot to slow down. Several passengers were visibly shaken, but Ian – on his first ever trip on a plane – remained remarkably calm. We were delayed for eight hours as an alternative plane was located and this resulted in us not getting to New York until around 10pm. Our plans to travel in to Manhattan by bus were jettisoned and our first real sighting of North America was through the dirty windows of a yellow New York cab as it took us on a rather circuitous route through Queens, with the glistening lights of the Manhattan skyscrapers beckoning us closer and closer to the heart of the city. Once over the Brooklyn Bridge, the slow ascent up one of the north-south avenues of Manhattan is a memory that remains strong to this day. The cab driver seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in telling us that a local had been killed just opposite our hostel near Times Square the night before. I can vividly remember trying to fall asleep on the upper bunk in a youth hostel dorm as police sirens wailed outside. My head was spinning. I was scared and exhilarated in equal measure.

Welcome to America.

I remained in North America until June 1990 and my travels took me to many states. We cycled down the east coast, from Virginia to Florida, and I particularly enjoyed the cities of New York, St. Augustine, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. I snorkelled off the Florida Keys, saw basketball in Denver, baseball in New York and Toronto, ice hockey in Vancouver. In many ways, it was the time of my life.

But throughout that entire ten month period, I only ever bumped into one other Chelsea fan. Before heading down to Florida for one final month, I stopped off in New York for my first ever New York Yankees baseball game. On the day after that momentous match in the South Bronx, I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and chanced upon an ex-pat wearing a particularly hideous umbro Chelsea training shirt.

Ten months, many cities, many states, many people, but only one other Chelsea fan.

Twenty-two years later, things have changed a million fold.

In 1989, I arrived in America with Chelsea as second division champions.

In 2012, I arrived in America with Chelsea as European champions.

Let’s recap on 2011-2012. Of course, it began on an overcast summer day at a downbeat Fratton Park as the previously trophy-less season under Carlo Ancelotti was laid to rest. The very next day, I flew off to Kuala Lumpur for the first game of the Asia tour. Little did I know, but the season would prove to be the most unbelievable and tumultuous season of my life. Mid-way through it, at the nadir of Andre Villas-Boas’ reign, I had visions of our worst finish for twenty years. The team was in a desolate state of health. The spirit – at Goodison Park especially – was horrendous. Even I was at a low ebb. I began to wonder if my support would be tested during the last painful months of the campaign. That the season would finish with tears of happiness in Munich would have been seen as a simply ridiculous and unattainable vision, conjured by some foolish fantasist.

But the resurgence of Chelsea under Roberto di Matteo on the European trail was just one of a plethora of equally marvellous moments.

Back in October, the SayNoCPO campaign defeated the heavy handed desire by a patronising board of directors to loosen the CPO’s hold on Stamford Bridge. Never have I felt prouder to be a Chelsea fan as we exited that EGM, the club defeated, the fans high on euphoria.

We thumped our old enemies Tottenham 5-1 in the F.A. Cup semi-final and went on to defeat our new enemies Liverpool in the final. It was our fourth such triumph in just six seasons. The youngsters again won the F.A. Youth Cup. Arsenal went trophy less of course. Tottenham too. Manchester United – never my most liked of teams – lost the league title in the most ridiculous and heartbreaking of circumstances in the last few minutes of a long season to arch rivals Manchester City. A trophy for Liverpool unfortunately, but there was a certain element of glee in the way that they celebrated their Carling Cup victory against Cardiff City…on penalties…as if they had won the league. My local team Frome Town enjoyed a strong first season at the highest ever level in their history. A new stand had been built in time for the March 31st deadline and more than a few Chelsea friends in America had donated funds to help. Further afield, my favourite European club team Juventus had christened their first season in their new trim stadium with a championship involving not one single defeat.

With victories against Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern, Chelsea had become European Champions for the very first time and – in doing so – had relegated Tottenham to a season in the shadows on Thursday nights.

Munich was the best weekend of my life, the best night of my life.

Yes – 2011/2012 was some season.

Our greatest ever season.

In some ways, there was certain reluctance on my part to even contemplate thinking about the next one. My focus, if anything, was for the World Club Championship, way ahead in December. And Munich was but a heartbeat away. This is a familiar comment from me, but I don’t think I was ready for 2012-2013 to start. Yet again, my main focus as I crossed the Atlantic once more was to meet up again with old friends. The football, most certainly, was of secondary importance.

I flew into Boston on the night of Saturday 14 July. For six days, I relaxed at my own pace, basing myself in the historic town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I drove up the Maine coast a few times and also inland to Vermont. I’ve had a pretty hectic period at work and I certainly enjoyed the tranquil change of pace.

I caught a train from Boston to Penn Station on Friday 20 July. After almost a week of – in the main – my own company, I was ready for the madness of New York. The tribes were gathering and, despite a torrential downpour on my arrival in Gotham, my fervour could not be dampened.

I was ready for all that New York City – after Stamford Bridge, maybe my third home – could throw at me.

Here are some highlights.

8pm, Friday 20 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

Down in the cellar of The Football Factory at Legends, a dark but atmospheric epi-centre of football fandom underneath the considerable shadow of the Empire State Building, the first troops were greeting each other with backslaps and handshakes. I spotted Paul Canoville, wearing a brightly coloured shirt and a trademark baseball cap, who I had met on a couple of occasions before. At the South Station in Boston earlier that day, I had bought a copy of the New York Post. An article had made me giggle and I knew that it would amuse Canners too. The former NBA player Dennis Rodman, while on a tour of The Philippines with an exhibition team, had met his father – the wonderfully named Philander Rodman – for the first time since he was a very young child. There was a photo of them greeting each other. Rodman Senior had been living in Manila for many a year, but I was staggered to read that he had fathered 26 children with 19 different women.

Here was a story to share with Canners, who himself had fathered a similarly large brood, with a variety of women. Canners smiled as I shared the story with him and he enjoyed hearing it, no doubt, but there was another tale, which I did not dare to mention, underneath this one.

Canners was separated from his father too, but memorably met up with his dad for the first time since his childhood on the night at Hillsborough in Sheffield when he tore Sheffield Wednesday to shreds in his greatest ever game for Chelsea. We were 3-0 down at half-time, came back to lead 4-3, only for an infamous Doug Rougvie foul to gift Wednesday a late penalty. I didn’t dare ask him if that emotional meeting had inspired him to greatness on that night in 1985. Some questions are best left unasked.

I had seen his first ever game at Stamford Bridge against Luton Town in May 1982. Thirty years ago. That game – our last game in a mediocre season at the second level – does seem like yesterday. Strange how some games drift off into oblivion, but the memory of Paul Canoville, the local boy from Hillingdon, coming off the bench to be met with a mixed reaction from The Shed is a strong one.

It was great to see him in America.

1pm, Saturday 21 July – Chelsea Piers.

As the fans tournament, involving four teams of Chelsea fans from throughout the US, was coming to an end, I was as nervous as I have been for years. I had been chosen to captain the Chelsea team to play in the Friendship Cup game against Paris St. Germain. When I had heard this news a few weeks back, I was very humbled, certainly very proud, but the over-riding feeling was of fear. I hadn’t played for two months and I was genuinely concerned that I may pull a muscle, or jar my once troublesome right knee, or give away a penalty, or run out of gas after five minutes or just look out of my depth. This is typical of my times in various school football teams over thirty years ago when I would tend to be shackled by fear and a lack of confidence in my ability on the pitch.

Once the game began, my fears subsided and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We lead 3-1 at the break, but soon allowed PSG to scramble some goals. At 4-4, I managed to squeeze in a goal and my heart exploded. Could we hang on? In the end, PSG went 8-6 up and there was no Canoville-like inspired recovery at the end. Canners, plus Frank Sinclair, were the refs and what a pleasure it was to be on the same football pitch as them both.

Upstairs in the gallery, no doubt making a few humorous comments, was Ron Harris. When I saw my very first game at Chelsea in 1974, Ron was playing. Now, 38 years later, he was watching me play.

Now that, everyone, is just beautiful.

9pm, Saturday 21 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

As a lot of people know, Ron Harris used to live in the town of Warminster, no more than eight miles from Frome, my home on the Somerset / Wiltshire border. It was with growing pleasure – and disbelief – that a few mates and myself got to know Ron rather well. We used to call into his bar on the way home from Stamford Bridge from 1995 to 2000 and he always made us feel very welcome. To see him in New York, thousands of miles from England, was magnificent. I couldn’t help but sidle up to him and tell him that I saw him play around fourteen times for Chelsea, but I was still waiting to see him score a goal…

He, however, had seen me score for Chelsea that very day.

Don’t worry, I got away from him before he could tackle me.

1am, Sunday 22 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

My mate Millsy – another season ticket holder – had flown in on work (strangely involving trips to NYC, Philly and Miami – wink) and was regaling us all with some of his rough-and-tumble tales from life on the edges of the murkier aspects of supporting Chelsea. His exploits from Rome in 2008 – when I first met him and the legendary mad Scot Davie – had us rolling in the aisles. From punching a transvestite to waking up in a warehouse after a night on the ale in a Rome night club, to staying a few days in a Spanish jail…the stories came thick and fast. I briefly mentioned that I had turned down the chance to attend a “Q&A” with Ron Gourlay at the Chelsea hotel in Manhattan as I was concerned that I might say the wrong thing. Somebody asked our little group, which included Rick “Funchficker” Finch and Boston Ben, what we would say to Ron Gourlay if we had the chance.

As one, both Millsy and Funchficker said –

“Why are you a c**t?”

1pm, Sunday 22 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

Despite the game against PSG not starting until 7pm, I had arrived at Legends bang on midday and awaited the arrival of friends. I soon bumped into Tom, a fellow Chelsea home-and-away season ticket holder, who was revelling in his first ever visit to the US. His comment to me struck a chord.

“This is the most surreal experience I’ve had, Chris. This pub is full of Chelsea, but I don’t know anyone.”

Of course, to Tom, this was akin to supporting Chelsea in a parallel universe. I think he was amazed at the fanaticism from these people who he didn’t personally know. For Tom, it must have been unnerving. This scenario is so different to our experiences in the UK and Europe where the close-knit nature of the Chelsea travelling support has produced hundreds of friendships. In Wigan, in Wolverhampton, in Milan, in Munich, there are faces that are known. On this afternoon in the heart of Manhattan, fans kept entering the pub, with nobody leaving. I wondered if it would collapse with the volume of people in both bars. Thanks to my previous travels to the US with Chelsea, wherever I looked, I managed to spot a few familiar faces. I was sat at the bar, chatting with Scott from DC, his brother David from Athens, Phil from Iowa, Mark from England, Andy from California, Stephen from New Orleans. The blue of Chelsea was everywhere. Down below in the basement, a gaggle of around twenty-five PSG fans were singing, but their chants were being drowned by the boisterous chants of the Chelsea fans.

It dawned on me that, unlike in 1989, the Chelsea fans that I would be encountering were not just English ex-pats or not just Americans of English extraction, but Americans with ancestors from every part of the world. Just the previous week in Portsmouth NH, I had met a young lad who had seen me wearing a pair of Chelsea shorts and had declared himself a massive Chelsea fan. His birthplace? Turkey. I asked him if he was a fan of Galatasaray, of Besiktas or of Fenerbahce, but he said that Chelsea was his team. This frankly amazed me. It confirmed that Chelsea has truly gone global.

The simple truth in 2012 is that people like Tom and me, plus the loyal 5,000 who make up our core support at home and away games in the UK and Europe are in the massive minority amongst our support base. For our millions of fans worldwide, the typical scenario is just what Tom had witnessed at first hand in NYC; a pub in a foreign land, bristling with new Chelsea fans, fanatical for success.

I found that quite a sobering thought.

4.45pm, Sunday 22 July – New York Subway.

I travelled up to the game at Yankee Stadium with Scott and David, plus Josh from Minnesota and Stephen from New Orleans. The idea had been to get the subway bouncing with Chelsea songs, but there were too few of us to kick start this idea. Stephen contributes to the official Chelsea website as “A Blogger From America” and I first met him in Texas in 2009. He is full of football anecdotes and very good company. We swapped humorous tales from the world of football. He spoke of a game in Romania between club sides from Romania and Bulgaria. During the pre-match kick-in, the players heard music being played. The Romanians thought that it was the Bulgarian anthem and so stopped in their tracks and stood still. The Bulgarian players saw this and presumed that the music was of the Romanian national anthem. Both sets of players were stood perfectly still.

The music was from a Coca-Cola commercial.

I had recently seen a similar video. Two teams were lining up at the start of a game, facing one way, as a national anthem was being played. A TV cameraman was jostling for position, holding a huge camera in a hoist around his waist. He lost his footing, stumbled and fell. He lay motionless for a few seconds. As the national anthem played on, a team of medics attended him and he ended up being stretchered off, the two teams trying their hardest to stifle some laughs.

5.30pm, Sunday 22 July – Stan’s Sports Bar.

My friend Roma and her two children Vanessa and Shawn were on their way to find a parking spot near the stadium and so I had told Roma to meet me in “Stan’s”. I have known Roma since that very first trip to America in 1989 and she has been ever-present at all of the Chelsea US tours since 2004. They travelled up from North Carolina on the Saturday and had stayed overnight in New Jersey. Well, knowing Roma and her infamous logistical planning, “New Jersey” could mean anywhere on the eastern seaboard of America.

Roma had briefly called in at “Legends” at about 4pm, but had simply parked her car outside Penn Station. I had told her to rush back in case it got towed. Since she left New Jersey at around 11am, I struggled to understand where she had been for five hours. However, at least she was in New York City. It was a start.

As I waited for them to arrive, I enjoyed a few beers with Josh. “Stan’s” is my bar of choice when attending games at Yankee Stadium. I first ventured inside its cramped, yet atmospheric, interior in 1993. It was then that I became friends with Lou, the owner. I had seen him featured on a sports programme from 1991 when the Yankees were at a low ebb and a TV crew entered a deserted “Stan’s” for opinions. I had recorded the programme on tape – such was my passion for baseball in those days – and I arranged to get a copy sent over for Lou. Ever since that day, I always stopped by for a few words on each visit and I often brought him Chelsea stuff as gifts; a pennant here, a t-shirt there. I forget the number of free bottles of Rolling Rock I have had on the back of this.

Lou now lives in Santa Barbara and flies over for most home stands. I last visited “Stan’s” in 2010 when I was over in the US with my mother. On that occasion, I was so annoyed that I had just missed him. On this occasion, I was so pleased to see him behind the bar and we had a chat about Chelsea playing in Yankee Stadium.

Yes, that’s right.

Chelsea at Yankee Stadium.

When I first heard about this game, I was overcome with happiness. For my favourite team to play at the home stadium of my second favourite team is – to be honest – beyond description.

My trips to the US have been truly blessed. This one would surely top the lot.

Inside “Stan’s,” it didn’t take me long to meet up with three young girls – one dressed in the blue of Cruzeiro – who had obviously done their research and had brought their own little plastic sealed bag of celery. Now, this was a photo opportunity which was too good to miss.

My goodness, it wasn’t like this when I first set foot in New York in 1989.

Chelsea fans. Girls. Celery.

Pass me the smelling salts please, nurse.

My good friends The Bobster, Lottinho, Captain Jack and Speedy arrived and joined the merry throng inside “Stan’s.”

“Where’s Roma now, Chris?”

“Bunker Hill, maybe.”

I had almost given up hope on Roma reaching “Stan’s” in time. It had reached 6.30pm and I promised myself that I wouldn’t be late for the pre-game singing and the anthem. In Baltimore in 2009, Roma arrived fashionably late for the Milan game and I missed Drogba’s goal as I waited outside for her. I had been selected as one of Chelsea’s “fan photographers” for this trip and so I was worried that I might miss some great photo opportunities. I was literally in the process of handing over the envelope with Roma’s three tickets for Lou to take care of until she arrived when Vanessa tapped me on the shoulder.

“Oh boy. Am I glad to see you?”

Finally, I could relax. We headed off into Yankee Stadium to see the European Champions.

More smelling salts please nurse.

7pm, Sunday 22 July – Yankee Stadium.

This was a game in which I needed to be in many different places at once and to be able to do many different things at once. I wanted to be able to meet friends, take photographs, sing songs, concentrate on the game, analyse the behaviour of fellow fans, kick back and relax, compare to previous visits to see the Bronx Bombers and compare to previous Chelsea games in the US.

In the end, it was one glorious blur. It was simply too surreal for me to say too much about to be honest.

However, I see these Chelsea players every ten days back home during the regular season and so it is always my main goal on these trips to look instead at the faces in the stands, the fellow Chelsea in my midst.

What were my findings?

The hardcore of the Chelsea support – maybe 2,000 in total – were spread out along the first base side, like different battalions of confederate soldiers at Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg, ready to storm the Yankee lines.

Down in the corner, behind home plate, were the massed ranks of Captain Mike and his neat ranks of soldiers from New York. Next in line were the battalion from Philadelphia and the small yet organised crew from Ohio. Next in line were the wild and rowdy foot soldiers of Captain Beth and the infamously named CIA company. On the far right flank stood the massed ranks of the Connecticut Blues who were mustered under the command of Captain Steve.

It was really fantastic to see our section fully adorned with the four official banners which Steve had arranged to bring over from Stamford Bridge (Peter Osgood, Matthew Harding, John Terry and Frank Lampard). They don’t go for banners in American sports in the same way do they?

Within the CIA ranks, where I watched the first-half, the stars were the songsters from Captain Andy’s OC branch, with Steve-O leading the singing with a perfectly pitched “Zigger Zagger.” Nearby, Ben, Shawn and Nick from the Boston branch were ably assisting the support of the team.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9j_6q…&feature=g-upl

However, as the play developed on the pitch in front of us, quite a few noticed that the singing was rather intermittent and there were pockets of Chelsea fans that were quite happy to sit and keep still and keep silent.

More than a few of us sung the sadly truthful “our support is fcuking shit” fighting song in an attempt to shame the silent ones into belated action.

On the pitch, a deflected shot gave Paris St. Germain a narrow 1-0 lead at the break.

I had told Roma to head up to my section as soon as she could, but there was no sign of her. At half-time, I wandered down to see if I could spot her. Thankfully, despite stringent ticket checks by an over-efficient Yankee steward, I managed to sneak in alongside Roma, Vanessa and Shawn who were sitting, unknowingly, very close to Ron Harris and Paul Canoville among the New York Blues. This was the first time that I had met Shawn, who has the curly locks of David Luiz and a wonderful personality. He is only five. I even caught him singing “Chelsea” a few times. That boy has a great future ahead of him.

I was now able to take photographs from a different perspective; two views for the price of one.

In truth, the game wasn’t fantastic. With our players attacking the goal in left field, underneath the 500 PSG fans, I found it even more difficult to concentrate on the game.

It was fantastic to see John Terry back on the pitch. I took several photos of him adjusting his armband after taking over from Frank. The noise which greeted him was the loudest of the night.

The stadium was nowhere near full. The new stadium holds just over 50,000 and the attendance was given as just 38,000. However, I think that this was total ticket sales. I honestly think that the actual number of attendees was only around 30,000. Compared to 71,203 in Baltimore in 2009, I’d imagine that Chelsea will be disappointed. However, the vast majority of spectators inside were favouring Chelsea. And PSG aren’t Milan.

As the second half continued, the Chelsea fans in the seats along the third-base side (the area not dedicated as being solely Chelsea), mustered a chant of their very own. It mirrored the chant – the bog standard US sports team chant – which we witnessed in Arlington in 2009.

“Let’s Go Chelsea.”

I know I grumbled about this in 2009, but I was more favourable this time around. I couldn’t fault their desire to get involved. However, I just hope that there were a few neutrals or a few new Chelsea fans who had been inspired by the singing of the massed ranks on the first base side.

Apart from the players putting on a show, it’s just as important that we, the fans, put on a show too.

To this end, mid-way through the second period, I screamed out a blood-curdling “Zigger Zagger” of my own which got everyone singing and which elicited a wide grin from Canners to my left.

A neat finish from substitute Lucas Piazon gave us a share of the spoils, for which we were so relieved.

At the end of the game, Paul Canoville kindly posed for a few photographs with Roma, Vanessa and Shawn.

It was the perfect end to an amazing few hours in the South Bronx.

Late night, Sunday 22 July – Manhattan.

Roma had to race off to collect her car and I joined up with Captain Jack, Lottinho and Speedy as we caught a slow-moving train back to Manhattan. In our carriage, we chatted to a few Chelsea fans from Toronto who were in the middle of a crazy footy and baseball road trip.

Back at Legends, I realised that my voice was fading. I devoured a few more beers as I chatted to more friends before heading off with Lottinho and Speedy for a late night snack at a classic American diner.

In the city that never sleeps, it was time to get some shut-eye.

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