Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

Saturday 25 May : 7.30pm – Heathrow Airport Terminal Two.

It had been a relaxing Saturday thus far. I had driven up to my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton, where my car would be safe for a week, and he then took me over to Heathrow for just after 7pm. The season had, in fact, begun in the very same way; Glenn and I drove to Russ’ place before our jaunt to see Chelsea in Australia back in July. Two things struck me. The game in Perth seemed relatively recent. Yet the away game at Leicester City – what a yawn fest – seemed comparatively distant. It was, perhaps, typical of the strangeness of this season that times and places seemed to be swirling in a bewildering and confusing fashion. This was, undoubtedly, one of the oddest seasons I had ever experienced. Eight goals were conceded in ninety minutes of football in consecutive away games; the second-half at Bournemouth and then the first-half at Manchester City. A generally disliked manager attempted to implement a new brand of football against a baying and increasingly unappreciative support. The league form just about recovered in time as we stumbled to third place and guaranteed Champions League Football next season. And two out of our three cup competitions were to end in final appearances. The jury was out in many minds as to whether or not it had been a “good” season.

My thoughts were : “not enjoyable, but successful.”

Sometimes life is like that.

Russ, with his wife Kim, waved me off as I pulled my two bags towards the terminal. This was a rare departure place for me. My 2016/17 season had begun here with a trip to Vienna for the Rapid friendly, but I could not recollect another T2 / CFC trip. As I crossed the threshold into the departure zone, I looked to my right and just caught sight of a concrete tablet which stated that the terminal was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in late 1955.

I liked that. 1955. An omen. I liked that a lot. I was grabbing at anything. At work the previous day, as before Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013, I had bought breakfasts for the office team. It was one of a few superstitions that would hopefully play out. There was lucky bird shit on my car too; again a repeat of those two trips.

I was on my own now, for the first time this season. I will be perfectly honest; ever since I had booked my flights and accommodation, fortuitously, and the dream of six days in Baku became real, there was a strong element of guilt inside me. It did not feel right that many close friends – some who had travelled to all other European away games this season – had been priced out of this trip. This feeling was with me for a large part of these first few hours of travel.

Inside the building, there were the usual little tremors of concern that accompany modern travel; had I packed all the essentials, had I overlooked one key ingredient, had I remembered all the chargers, leads and adaptors, had I packed the Nurofen and Imodium?

In the line to check in, I spotted a chap of around my age in an Arsenal shirt from around 1993. In the interests of goodwill – and with a nod to the feeling that, with the final being played so bloody far away from anywhere, we were in some respects “all in this together” I approached him, and his son, and shook their hands. I was wearing a Chelsea polo – rare for me – which enabled them to see straight away that my allegiances were with the other team. We chatted away and instantly clicked. They were from the Isle of Wight, went to a few games each season, but told me of their huge problems, for example, in getting back to their home after midweek games in London. Will, the father, and Noah, the son, soon started asking me about my thoughts about the game, of Baku, of my experiences this season, of my past travels with Chelsea in Europe.

Not long into our chit-chat, Noah – who is fifteen I think – came out with a beautiful line.

“Of course, Chelsea are European royalty aren’t they?”

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

“The boy is being tactically naive, there” I thought to myself.

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

“Do you two want to close ranks and have a moment? Bloody hell. Should he be saying that in public?”

We all laughed.

European royalty, eh? Bloody hell. Is that how – some – others see us? Of course Arsenal’s last final was in Paris in 2006 and so this was their first one for thirteen years. It might explain why Arsenal had allegedly sold more tickets for Baku than us. Since 2006, we have experienced European finals in 2008, 2012 and 2013.

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

(…mmm, Paris 2006, Arsenal versus Barcelona…they almost became the first London team to win the European Cup, leading 1-0 until very late on…I immediately had trouble remembering the name of Juliano Beletti, who poached the winner, as my memory failed me for a few annoying minutes).

At the check-in, the first scare of the trip. The woman seemed to be struggling with my e-ticket and after a few minutes she shot off to see her supervisor. Panic. Blind panic. For three minutes I was left in limbo, with many gruesome scenarios hurtling through my brain. But all was good. She soon processed my details and even let me off with heavier-than-allowed hand luggage. Phew. I was on my way.

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

The Turkish Airlines flight from Heathrow, due to depart at 10.15pm, eventually left at 11pm. I only had a few moments of fitful sleep. We landed at Istanbul’s swish new airport to the north of the city at 4am. On the bus to the terminal, I chatted to three other Arsenal supporters. We sat and killed time by chatting away. Our flight to Baku was due to leave at 8.15am. Sanjay, who was with his son Chris, was from Crouch End but worked in Tottenham. He had visited the new Tottenham stadium, on a freebie through work, at the end of the season and was brutally honest as he extolled its virtues. It was so noisy. It was such a great stadium. His honesty was refreshing. Over the two or three hours of waiting at the airport, the prospect of “that lot” winning against Liverpool in Madrid was a dark, dark shadow which haunted us all. We all agreed how every team in London hates Tottenham.

The biggest London rivalries, involving the “big four”? Here is my ranking.

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

Sanjay bought me an orange juice. He was another good lad. The other Arsenal supporter was from Northampton, though I did not catch her name. I was outnumbered five to one. We spoke of loyalty points, season tickets, membership schemes, how our two clubs ride roughshod over our emotions. Interestingly, there would be no beam back at Arsenal either. There was ground improvements penciled in for the week. So, beam backs at Liverpool and Tottenham, but not at Arsenal or Chelsea.

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

Will and Noah departed as they were on their way to Tblisi where they were staying for two nights before getting a coach to Baku. I wished them well, though wondered if I would bump into them again on this trip. At the departure gate, I spotted a young lad wearing a CP top and a Chelsea badge. I smiled and approached him. He was Alex, with his mate Alan, and both from Moscow. It was my first Chelsea interaction of the trip. About bloody time.

Sunday 26 May : 12.45pm – Heydar Aliyev Avenue, Baku.

The flight from Istanbul to Baku, again on Turkish Airlines – no complaints, two great meals on the two flights – took three hours and the last ten minutes will live with me for a while. Approaching from the west, and above the bay, I was able to look out to my left and see the distant, dreamlike, sandy buildings of Baku. The sweep of the bay. The flame towers. The curved peek of the Heyday Aliyev Centre, which beguiled me as we drove past it in a cab on my first visit to Baku in 2017, and which I so wanted to visit in 2019. As the plane swung north, the dry earth of the land below.

We landed on time at midday. There was a little nervousness when I handed over my visa at passport control, but all was fine.

Stamp.

The small arrivals hall was bedecked with UEFA Europa League signage and I made a conscious decision to descend the escalator which was next to the roof column covered in photos of Chelsea players. I was taking no chances. It was the one to the left. I was happy. On my ascent up the stairs of the Matthew Harding, I always keep to the left. Oh those superstitions.

I exchanged some money and easily battled a cab driver down from forty manat to thirty manat. A cab to the city for £15? Perfect. On the way in, on Heydar Aliyev Avenue, I recognised a few landmarks from my early morning cab ride in with my friend Nick in 2017. We glided past the Olympic Stadium. Next up was the flame-like Socar Tower. As I mentioned in my Baku 2017 trip report, the furniture company for whom I work fitted out all forty-two floors back in 2014. Because of the complexities of the accompanying export paperwork, it caused me much grief. It almost saw the end of me if I am honest, as it added a massive workload to my already busy demands. Driving past it once more – on a wide boulevard with lamp posts covered in Chelsea colours – did raise a wry smile.

It was magical to be back in Baku.

Sunday 26 May : 1.30pm, Kichik Qala Street, Old City, Baku.

The cab ride in to the city only took twenty-five minutes. The sun was shining. The traffic grew busier with each passing mile. The cab driver, his mouth full of odd-shaped teeth, had been given my hotel address in the old city, but was struggling with its whereabouts. His driving style was rather erratic. He kept using his mobile phone. He changed lanes constantly. Into the city centre we went, curving south past the modern additions, past the designer shops, onto the boulevard where the Formula One race hugs the Caspian Sea. The city was festooned with the yellow and orange of UEFA. I recognised so much. The Maiden Tower, up the hill, past the glass prism of Icharishahar metro station, and we landed right outside the old Gosha Gala city gates.

“I’ll walk from here.”

Within a few seconds, my spirits had dropped. The row of three or four old-style restaurants, no more than wooden shacks, within one of which I enjoyed a £6 meal in 2017, had been pulled down and it looked like modern versions were taking their place. My heart dropped. It was the one abiding memory of my last visit; a huge stone oven, the smell of smoke, the wooden shutters clattering in the wind. I had planned a return for old time’s sake. Alas it was not possible.

“Progress” I thought.

My hotel was entombed within the old city. The sun was beating down as I pulled my two suitcases up and down Kichik Qala Street. Nobody had heard of my hotel. Up and down I went. I asked many locals. My bags were getting heavier. I immediately thought of our cossetted players – the image of Eden swanning onto the Chelsea plane that took the squad to Boston recently was centre stage in my mind – and wondered if they had any inkling of the tribulations we go through. Eventually, I stumbled across two friendly policemen. One of them ‘phoned my hotel, as had the cab driver en route to the city, but the number was not known.

An invisible hotel and a ‘phone number that does not work.

Fackinell.

The policemen then took me to a nearby hotel, only ten yards away, where I presumed they would ask for directions.

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

My booking, via Expedia, did not immediately feature on the lovely receptionist’s computer – I wanted to marry her there and then – but I have to be honest I suspect that there was a double-booking involved. There seemed to be genuine surprise at my appearance. After five minutes of double-checking, I was shown my room in the adjacent annex.

I had made it.

Fackinell.

Sunday 26 May : 9pm – 360 Bar, Hilton Hotel, Baku.

Being sleep deficient, I crashed out for four hours. I dreamed of work spreadsheets and I dreamed of work routines. The subconscious was not letting me forget work.

I was awoken by an English voice. It must have touched an inner trigger. A shadow of a memory of another time, a whisper from my father –

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

In fact, my father’s stock waking call was not this at all. It was a standard Royal Air Force line, which my father used to constantly use to get me out of bed on work days. It is a typically quirky and whimsical phrase that RAF pals would utter to others, enjoying deep sleep, and at any time during the night.

“Want to buy a battleship?”

I had no need of battleships in Baku, nor anywhere else, but I quickly came to the conclusion that, by God, I had needed this holiday. Within seconds the feelings of guilt that had been pecking away at me for ages quickly evaporated. Although I would miss the immediate company of my usual laughter buddies, perhaps I needed to be alone – certainly on the first two days of this trip before others would start rolling in – so that I could be left to unwind and relax.

I could be my own boss.

I love the company of others, but my own company is a true joy. I have the best of both worlds.

That first evening, I had one goal; to locate the 360 Bar atop the Hilton.

I was out at 7.30pm. It took me an hour of idle meanderings to reach the hotel, but I was in no rush. I enjoyed the Baku evening and quickly dipped into the fan park next to the Caspian. I couldn’t see many Chelsea from the UK participating at this. It was far too regulated. Far too happy-clappy. We like to hide in the pubs and bars, inside the deepest cracks and fissures of host cities, only emerging at the last minute to head on to the stadium.

I made my way east and soon found my goal. I noted lots of UEFA signage at the hotel reception and I was whisked up to the twenty-fifth floor. I settled in a comfy chair, ordered the first of five local Xirdalan lagers. They were only seven manat – just £3.50 – and were served with some crisps and popcorn. I booked a table for Tuesday when some friends would be in town.

And I relaxed. The revolving bar offered fantastical views of the city. My camera had trouble getting clear images, but my memories remain strong. The Flame Towers were the obvious stars and the lights flickered and danced with varying images…the red, blue and green of the national flag on individual towers, the flames, the Azerbaijani flag over the three towers, three figures waving national flags, sparking stars, and – oddly – the three towers as vessels filling up with water,

I was enchanted.

With wifi, I was able to toast absent friends on Facebook.

I left at midnight, took a cab into town, slowly guzzled three more bottles of lager in a bar called “Room” and relaxed some more. I chatted to a Serb from Belgrade – a Red Star fan – who remembered, and loved, Petar Borota who played for Chelsea from 1979 to 1982 and for Red Star’s great rivals Partizan Belgrade before joining us. It had been a chilled-out evening, just what my brain needed, but I felt that I was just touching the surface of Baku.

Monday 27 May : 7pm – Mugam Club, Old City, Baku.

There was more – beautiful – sleep on Monday. I did not wake early. Thankfully there was just enough cold air emanating from the air-conditioning unit to allow for a pleasant rest. Suffice to say, I missed breakfast.

Over the past year, I have watched “The Art Lovers Guide – Baku” on three occasions. I caught up with it again on iPlayer a few weeks back. The two guides – a troubling mix of excellent informative analysis but awful pretension – visited the “Mugam Club” where indigenous music is played while local food is served. The one song featured briefly in the programme was magical and my interest was piqued. Luckily, this was only five minutes from my hotel. I visited it, and enjoyed it all. Several musicians played. Some local music was mixed in with Western music, which spoilt it a little. A salad, some chicken in pomegranate sauce and some rice, all washed down with a bottle of Xirdalan. A lovely little distraction from the football-themed mayhem that would soon envelope the city.

Outside, my next goal was to get up close and personal with the Flame Towers. On the way, on the main square to the west of the Old City (I have to keep reminding myself how close everything is in Baku, it is a wonderful place to leisurely walk between sites), I spotted a Sky Sports reporter doing a live piece to camera. I chatted to him briefly. He had heard that the players were staying at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel. He also spoke to me about Frank Lampard, who I was sad to see had just lost to Aston Villa at Wembley.

Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United next season then. Two good trips there. Villa is just a bit tedious.

Monday 27 May – 11pm, Harry’s Bar, Baku.

Alas the funicular railway had closed, so at 9pm I ascended the six-hundred steps to the area by the Flame Towers. I spent a good ninety minutes or so underneath the dancing lights, and I was in my element. On the ascent I had spotted a terraced walkway lit up with pure white lights. A real stairway to heaven. The city was charming me with every turn of the eye. Adjacent to the towers was a beautifully constructed area – Highland Park – with a war memorial, fountains, and with outstanding views of the city. The minuets of the Sehidler Xiyabani Mosque contrasted wildly with the flickering LED of the towers. Baku was beguiling me again.

Very soon I found myself in the heart of the city, and I wandered south of Fountain Square into the quarter of a mile block that holds most of the city centre’s bars.

I passed a cellar bar – “Harry’s Bar” – and an English chap was coming up for air.

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

It was 11pm. I needed a drink as I was gasping. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed until 8am.

For the most part, there were no more than five or six people inside. I got talking to Bob and his son Chris – from Swindon, Arsenal – and we again had a great laugh. I was still yet to spot another Chelsea supporter in Baku. The pub was next to the “Red Lion” and I kept calling in to see if any friends had yet arrived. They hadn’t. That pub was pretty quiet too. But I was in no mood to travel too far. The first beer I was served was a five manat bottle of Efes, but I soon learned that Bob and Chris were on three manat pints. So I soon joined them. Within ten minutes of my arrival “Blue is the Colour” was booming around the small bar.

The night continued, the beers flowed steadily. We bought beers for the barman and his charming wife. Locals occasionally dropped in but for hours the cast involved just five people. Bob chatted to a local girl – the girl with no name, I would continually bump into her over the next few days – and I just sat at the bar with Chris, drinking away. Three o’clock came and went. Seeing Bob attempt to walk back down the steps into the bar from an excursion into the open air was the funniest thing I have seen for ages. Four o’clock came and went. I was in still no mood to leave.

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

There was then a very intense “domestic” between the barman and his wife. Then the bar owner showed up and things started to unravel. There was a tense moment of monies being counted and recounted and it all got a bit heated. It was as if Bob, Chris and I were watching some great Shakespearean tragedy unfold in front of our eyes. At about six o’clock – light outside now of course – and after the two Arsenal lads left, I was alone with a beer.

In walked Carl and Ryan from my old haunting ground of Stoke-on-Trent (last featured in the Barcelona away report from last season, another ridiculous night) and three lads from Gloucester. They were newly arrived in town, and had to kill a few hours before being able to book in.

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

I wasn’t sure who was more surprised to see each other. Chelsea laughs and Chelsea giggles all over. A Chelsea / Gloucester flag was draped from the bar ceiling. At last I had met some Chelsea fans in Baku. The drinking continued – at a slow pace, I hasten to add, I was in no rush – and the night didn’t want to end. Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel with the early morning sun warming my back.

Tuesday 28 May : 11pm – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

My hotel room had “occasional wifi” and I was able to observe during Tuesday how many friends and acquaintances were arriving into town. I trotted down to the centre and it was just so odd to be in Europe with Chelsea yet to hear another English team’s songs echoing around the streets. I aimed for “The William Shakespeare” on the main street for bars in Baku. On the intersection of this street and another, I spotted Will and Noah about to tuck in to some food in a street side café.

“Good to see you!”

They had thoroughly enjoyed Tblisi, but were now relishing the delights of Baku.

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

At last, a time for the gathering of the clans.

The “Shakespeare” pub was busy and getting busier by the minute.

Virtually the first people that I met were Andy and his daughter Sophie. I was especially pleased to see them because – I am sure they will not mind me mentioning it – Andy’s wife Karen passed away just after Christmas. If anyone remembers, I heard about it just minutes before the start of our game at Selhurst Park. I was just so pleased that they had been able to make it. I first met Andy – to talk to – on Wenceslas Square in Prague right after our afternoon game in Jablonec twenty-five years ago, although I had recognised him from my train journeys to London from the midlands as way back as 1985. I have known Sophie since she was a very young girl.

Bless them both.

I soon met up with Luke and Aroha and their pals, then Dave and Neil. Then Russ, Albert, Nathan and Shari from Australia. Callum. Eva. Carl and Ryan, the two Stokies. Nick from Weymouth. Martin from Gloucester. Calvin. A few more. I bumped into Orlin, another good lad who has featured in these tales for many years. I first met him before an Arsenal away game in April 2012, ironically in “The Shakespeare Tavern” at Victoria, and we would meet up again in Turin, Tokyo, Bucharest, Istanbul, Porto, Vienna and – er – Sunderland. We very rarely see each other at Stamford Bridge. He lives partly in San Francisco and partly in Serbia. He is a lovely bloke. There were a few fellow Chelsea Bulgaria in the pub. They are quite well known to the regulars at Chelsea. They are good lads.

Respect to the four Chelsea fans based in Australia, who I met out in Perth, who had travelled.

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

They would be part of a little band – of ten – who were in Perth and would be in Baku.

From the UK – Cathy, Rich, Scott, Paul, myself.

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

A few of us jumped into cabs and headed off to the 360 Bar for 9pm. My booth was waiting for me. Ruslan, the barman who looked after me on Sunday, welcomed me and we ordered some drinks and a little food. The others – Aroha, Doreen, Luke, Russ, plus three of Luke’s mates – loved it. The views were again stunning. We all then met up at “The Shakespeare” for community singing. We had heard that Arsenal had commandeered two pubs – “Finnegans” and the smaller “Red Lion.” As far as we could tell, we just had “The Shakespeare.” I don’t think this was anything official. It just transpired to be like this. All three pubs were within fifty yards of each other, like the trenches in the First World War. Throughout the evening, there were no police mobbed up outside our pub, unlike many European aways. There was a very laid back – surreal – atmosphere. I am not so sure there would have been the same vibe if Tottenham had been in town. In the pub, one song dominated the night. At one stage, with me trying to order a beer at the bar, it went on for bloody ever.

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was a fantastic rendition of “Blue Day” too. Everyone singing. Very emotional. Magical. And – of course – “The Liquidator.”

I bumped into, quite unintentionally, four Chelsea fans from the US; Jean, who I had met in “Simmons” at a European game during the season, Robert, James and Paul. Three from Texas and one from new Jersey. Three new acquaintances, and one re-connection. In fact, there was a gentle influx of Chelsea fans from outside the UK. Lots of scarves. Lots of replica shirts. They looked both amazed and bemused at the same time. We moved next-door, and downstairs, to another bar, and I then traipsed over to see how the two bartenders at “Harry’s Bar” were shaping up. All was good, but it was desperately quiet. I wondered how on earth they survived on such little turnover. I bought some pizzas for us and left there at 5am. Bloody hell.

Wednesday 29 May : 5pm – Fan Festival, Baku.

Match ticket in hand, obtained from the Landmark Hotel, I made my way back in to town. I walked in the shade as the sun was still beating down. I met up with Steve down at the Fan Festival. He had popped into the Hilton earlier, had spotted Florent Malouda and Deco, but also the extremely well packaged UEFA Cup (sorry, Europa League Trophy) as it arrived from Nyon in Switzerland. He hoped that the spotting of it was a good sign for him, for Chelsea, for all of us.

I had strolled into the Hilton too, just after the collection of the ticket, and used their wifi again. There were UEFA signs everywhere. I was half-hoping to bump into a famous player from the past, but I saw nobody of note. But you can just imagine what high-level schmoozing had been happening in this building over the past few days. Of course there had been much wailing about the decision to reward Azerbaijan with this year’s final. I have tried to be as objective as possible. Isn’t it right that every member nation within UEFA should host a major final at least once in their existence?

Er, yes.

But then it gets cloudy. I have always advocated the placing of the major finals to be within a central area of Europe, with the majority of host cities to run from Lisbon and Porto in the west to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and up as far as Copenhagen or Stockholm in the north, down through to Warsaw to Budapest in the east and down as far as Rome and Naples in the south. Ninety-five percent of likely finalists would be encompassed within that area. With the emergence of formerly Soviet states and the splintered Balkan states, maybe the odd and occasional flit – as has happened – to Istanbul, Kiev and Moscow.

But Baku?

It is the most easterly outpost of UEFA, not taking into the vast hinterland of Russia which lies east of Moscow.

It always was a mad decision.

But it was all about money, wasn’t it? It was all about Baku fancying itself as a Dubai on the Caspian Sea – oil rich and eager to impress on the global stage –  and UEFA went hand-in-hand with it all. The final straw was UEFA’s awful explanation for the awarding of so few tickets to the finalists. They themselves admitted that it would be a ridiculously difficult place for most fans to reach. It is enough to make anyone want to cry. UEFA might be financially rich but they are morally bankrupt.

I took some photos of the huge Azerbaijan flag which fluttering away like a flame. Its colours are horizontal bars of green, red and blue. Although the colours represent Islam, progress and its Turkic heritage – thank you Wikipedia – my take on it is this.

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

In footballing terms, I found it easy to work it all out.

Blue – Chelsea – above red – Arsenal – above green – the pitch.

Sorted.

Back at the hotel, a quick freshen up and out again.

I had, unremarkably, not thought too much about the game at all. The match would take care of itself. If pressed, I would say that we were slight if not firm favourites. There certainly wasn’t the fear of Munich in 2012. The vibe matched that of Stockholm in 1998 and Amsterdam in 2013. I was quietly confident.

The game was at 11pm, and I hit “The Shakespeare” at 7pm. I took it easy. I had enjoyed a few “cokes” during the day. I only had three beers before the game. I had a wry smile at the sight of a few working girls trying to muster up some business in the pub. On the night of a European Cup Final, with the kick-off approaching, they had surely miss-read their customer base? The crowds started drifting towards the stadium. About ten of us – all together, looking after each other – walked the fifteen minutes to Sahil metro station. We were on our way.

Wednesday 29 May : 10pm – Koroghlu Metro Station, Baku.

Out into the warm Baku night, and the stadium, burning with the orange and yellow hues of UEFA’s newest trophy just a few hundred yards ahead, we walked on. There were Arsenal voices and Chelsea voices now. The most voluble ones were from the UK. But of course there were other fans from near and far too. And I began to notice other club shirts. I had seen one or two Eintracht Frankfurt shirts in the city; it was obvious many had gambled, like me, but had lost. But there were Galatasary and Fenerbahce shirts. There were Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts. There were shirts from the local Azerbaijani league. It was all very strange. I walked on, but then excused myself from the others as I tried to capture a few photos of the stadium’s striking exterior. Just eighteen months previously, the stadium’s shell was more delicately coloured with shades of pink, lavender, red, purple and white. On that night, I circumnavigated the stadium alone and took some photos too. I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Who should walk past me but Orlin, who I had bumped into the previous day just outside my hotel in the old city. It was typical of the week that I would keep seeing the same faces. In addition to the girl with no name, I also kept bumping into a local who I had asked for directions while looking for my hotel, and also a policeman who kept appearing near my hotel. I called them my guardian angels. Orlin had taken the free bus from the muster point near Sahil Park, but had been dropped off a good fifteen-minute walk away from the stadium. He was far from impressed. I think our choice of the metro – free for three days with use of a match ticket – was the better option.

The photographs continued.

Wednesday 29 May : 11pm – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

I had reached my seat with about fifteen minutes to go. On the pitch, the last few moments of a quite inappropriate musical sequence were taking place. It was all very “Superbowl” and all very tedious. Where is my “go to” comment about modern football? Ah, there it is.

I hate modern football.

The booming noise emanating from the speakers meant that there was simply no point in us even attempting any Chelsea songs and chants. It seemed that the event was bigger than us, far bigger. It felt like we were just pawns rather than kings. I looked around the stadium. There were empty seats everywhere. I glanced over at the Arsenal section. The thin sliver was pretty packed apart from a half-full upper deck, not too far from where we had watched the Qarabag game – getting increasingly colder – not so long ago. There was a mixture of fans in jeans and shorts. It was a warm night and very pleasant, despite the late kick-off slot. I spotted a few familiar faces. Kev from Port Talbot – one of those on the two Thomas Cook flights from Luton – was down below me. Kisses and handshakes for the “Bristol lot” as they walked past me. I had chosen the most expensive seat available – as had many people I know by the look of it – and I was rewarded with a seat in line with the goal line. It would prove to be a treasure, a gift from the footballing Gods.

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

Through the smoke of the fireworks, I was just able to take a photograph of the teams on the far side.

Phew. Here it is then.

My game number fifty-six, from Australia to Azerbaijan.

The team was not a surprise, but we were of course greatly relieved to see N’Golo Kante starting. Emerson and not Alonso, a big game for the lad. Giroud upfront, good. Pedro instead of Willian.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

For Arsenal, I was only interested to see if Petr Cech was playing.

He was.

Before the match, before the trip, I had been quite sincere with a prediction of a “0-0 then penalties”.

The game began and I had to make my first decision. Although the section to my left – behind the goal – was standing, most in my section were sat. I saw that Kev and Gary were stood a few rows in front, but it looked like I would be forced to sit. I felt terrible about sitting. It felt like I had lost the battle. I didn’t sit in Stockholm, nor Moscow, nor Munich, nor Amsterdam. I glanced across at the Arsenal section. They all seemed to be standing.

Bollocks.

Not long into the game, I saw a chap wearing a black Manchester United jersey file past me and I could not resist a few words of abuse. In front of me was a bloke in a Galatasaray shirt. To my right, no more than ten seats away, was a bloke in an Arsenal shirt.

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

And how on Earth had these fools managed to get tickets in the 6,000 Chelsea section? I would really love to know that.

A large stadium that was barely two-thirds full. Other team supporters sitting in our section. Chelsea supporters from the UK split up over three tiers. Chelsea fans sitting. Hardly any noise, nor songs, nor chants, nor laughter, nor atmosphere. Because of the factors mentioned, it was a truly agonising first-half. It was horrible. It was one of the worst halves of my footballing life. It was a totally shameful atmosphere. It honestly felt like a summer tour game in the US or Thailand or Australia. I will be honest, the pre-season game against Arsenal in Beijing in 2017 was way louder.

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

Many times during the first forty-five minutes, I felt that this was the end of the road for me. It was that upsetting.

On the pitch, it was a very quiet start, with lots of shadow boxing. Arsenal had more possession, though, and Aubameyang’s shot flashed wide of Kepa’s post after ten minutes. There were general mutterings of unrest in the seats around me as Arsenal continued to dominate. However, a penalty appeal involving Lacazette as he lept over Kepa never looked like resulting in a penalty, despite the audible howls from the Arsenal section. In that first-half, I could discern a few chants from that end. Our end seemed to be ball watching, not involved, distant. Slowly, Chelsea woke up and began to get involved. Kante, who had worried me in the first quarter of the game with a few odd errors, broke down the right and his cross towards the near post towards Giroud had us on our feet. sadly, the Frenchmen’s feet got tangled and the chance was lost. Pedro had been free just behind him.

Xhaka struck a very fine effort towards goal, and the rising drive clipped the top of our bar.

At last the game was evolving, slowly, into a final worthy of the name.

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

Emerson and Hazard were linking up well on the far side. Occasionally, Eden would wander over to the other flank. A turn, a spin and a twist would result in Arsenal defenders reaching for their sat nav. Emerson forced a block from Cech. With five minutes to go before half-time, a fine move involving Jorginho and Hazard ended with the ball at Giroud’s feet. He pushed the ball into space and shot low with his left foot – not a clean strike – but Cech was able to drop to his left and push the ball around the post.

I met up with Kev and Gary at half-time and we formed “The Baku Half-Time Moaners Club.”

You can imagine our chat. Back at my seat, I wondered if we were in for another second-half implosion, our motif of the whole season.

Thursday 30 May : Midnight – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The second-half began with Kovacic and Giroud in the centre-circle. A push of the ball backwards and we were away again. Eden was immediately a live-wire and he seemed to suddenly have more space than before. After just five minutes, the ball was played to Emerson, not so far away from me, about ten yards in from the touchline. I snapped my camera as he struck a cross towards the waiting Giroud. The ball was waist high and our striker fell to his knees to meet it, some fifteen yards out, reaching the flight of the ball just before Koscielny could react. His header was perfection. I watched as it flew low into the corner of the net past Cech’s hopeless dive.

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

My camera did not capture the header but although I was boiling over inside, I remained calm enough to capture the scorer drop to his knees and point both forefingers to the skies, eyes closed. Giroud had found his footballing nirvana.

Section 114 was going doolally.

Team mates swarmed around. Some dropped to their knees too. A kiss from Jorginho for Emerson, the supplier of the killer cross. Photos taken, I was able to punch the air and scream and shout.

GET IN.

It was the Frenchman’s eleventh goal in Europe this year. Thoughts of him being a former Arsenal player fizzed through my mind.

Ha.

It was all Chelsea now. Prompted by Jorginho, Kovacic and Hazard ran at the troubled Arsenal rear guard. The Chelsea section, on life-support in the first-half, was now roaring back to life. And for the rest of the game I stood. This was more like it, Chelsea. Then minutes after the first goal, Hazard was allowed too much time and space in the Arsenal final third – “table for one, sir?” – and spotted Pedro lurking on the edge of the box. He rolled the ball square. Pedro clipped it in.

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

Pete suddenly appeared next to me, holding two plastic glasses of “Amstel.”

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

Lager never tasted sweeter. I gulped my pint down pronto. I had to, since I was worried about missing another goal and another photo. My very next photo was of Pedro holding off a challenge in the “D”, the next was of him pushing the ball through to Giroud, the next the challenge by Maitland-Niles.

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

Eden Hazard vs. Peter Cech, team mates from 2012 to 2015, squared-up against each other.

Eden drilled it home.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

The bloke in front of me commented “your voice has gone” and I smiled. I felt like saying “that is because I have been singing all second-half unlike you, you twat” but I felt better of it. The two gents to my immediate right – from the UK, dressed in the monstrosity of next season’s home shirt – hardly sang all night. Why do these people fucking bother?

Four minutes later, the substitute Iwobi unleashed a fierce rising volley – I was right behind the flight of the ball, it was a stunner – that flew into our goal.

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

Yet only three minutes later, a wonderful break from Chelsea saw Hazard exchange passes with Giroud in the box – the lofted “dink” from Giroud was world class, the highlight of the match for me – and this allowed Eden to smash the ball home.

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

I photographed the immediate aftermath. I knew straight away that my photo of Hazard, arms spread, and Cech, crestfallen, was a winner. That £121 seat was paying dividends alright. Only from that vantage point could I have taken that photo. I was a happy man.

There was a song for Gianfranco Zola and he responded with a wave from the bench.

In the last part of the game, Maurizio Sarri made some changes. Just before our fourth goal, Willian replaced Pedro. Then Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic. Willian twice went close with efforts, Cech saved from Hazard. Eden was then fouled, he looked injured, and he was substituted. I captured virtually every step of his last few seconds as a Chelsea player. A hug from Willian, an embrace from Giroud.

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

With the local time at 00.50am, the referee from Italy blew the final whistle.

We had only bloody won it.

Thursday 30 May : 1.30am – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The cup was lifted at 1.05am. There was no Wembley-style ascent to a balcony that happened in Munich and Amsterdam, but the same on-the-pitch presentation of Stockholm. Dave and Gary – how English, like two van drivers – lifted the iconic trophy. It really is a beauty. Dave then spent the next twenty minutes kissing the trophy and I was tempted to shout “get a room.” These were joyous times in deepest Baku.

4-1.

Bloody hell.

We usually squeak by in Cup Finals. Four bloody one. Unbelievable. We heard that Eden was, quite rightly, the man of the match. They all played well. Special mentions for Kovacic, Jorginho, and even David Luiz did well. I just bathed in the glory of it all. These nights do not come around too often. After that odd first-half, in which we gradually became stronger, we just exploded in the second-half. We were afforded so much space in the middle of the pitch and in the attacking third. Jorginho was in the middle of all of it, and once balls were released to our runners, I could not believe the ease with which we found each other. Arsenal seemed unwilling to challenge, or – to be blunt – even compete. At times we were miles too good for them. Maybe, here in Baku, almost three thousand miles from home, we had seen the season’s high water mark of our beleaguered manager’s playing style.

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

“And Arsenal don’t get Champions League football next season.”

“What a second-half.”

In my mind I was thinking all sorts of odd things.

…”bloody hell, I have never seen Chelsea play in Ipswich, but I have seen us play in Baku twice.”

…”God, that first-half was awful, though.”

…”thinking of Parky and PD and Gal and Al and Glenn and Daryl and Ed.”

…”we always score four in Baku.”

…”God, how many photos am I going to have to sift through from that game?”

I took blissful snaps of Kev and Gary, Dave, Leigh and JD.

Everyone smiling.

At last the players walked over to the Chelsea section. They massed by the curving area behind the goal then – again, so lucky – chose to hoist the cup once more right in front of myself and others in section 114. I was a lucky man once more. It will surprise nobody to hear that I was one of the last out of the stadium. At 1.30am, I took a single photograph of my seat in Baku and collected my, unused, souvenir flag, and stuffed it in my camera bag. I made my way to the exits, I was a happy man.

Incidentally, the attendance would be announced as 51,000 in a 67,000 capacity stadium.

A ridiculous figure really. It should have been packed to the rafters.

However, chew on this. At Liverpool’s first-ever European Cup Final in Rome in 1977, involving Borussia Mönchengladbach, the attendance was just 52,000 in a 65,000 stadium.

Thursday 30 May : 5am – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

“I told you seeing the cup at The Hilton was a sign.”

We hugged.

I met up with Calvin, who had just been separated from his father, at the long line for the metro. I had been on my feet for a couple of hours and I was starting to tire. Calvin was good company on that painful journey back in to town. Just like in Munich, I think  I was on the last train. In 2017, it was a much easier – and quicker – journey. On that day, with tickets more keenly priced – ours were £4.50 – over 67,000 attended. Crucially, though, we were well ahead at half-time and many left early. But tonight, damn, the movement out and onto the tube took forever.

At about 2.30am, we flopped on the red line into town. We scowled at a lad who was wearing both a Liverpool shirt and scarf.

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

Exhausted, we plodded back to Chelsea Central; we reached “The Shakespeare” at about 3am. Back with all the people that I had met over the past few days, this was a magical time. Drinks were consumed, songs were sung, all the old favourites. I loved a Jam and then a Style Council segment at about 4am.

“I was half in mind I was half in need
And as the rain came down I dropped to my knees and I prayed.
I said “oh heavenly thing please cleanse my soul
I’ve seen all on offer and I’m not impressed at all.”

I was halfway home I was half insane
And every shop window I looked in just looked the same.
I said send me a sign to save my life
‘Cause at this moment in time there is nothing certain in these days of mine.

We see, it’s a frightening thing when it dawns upon you
That I know as much as the day I was born
And though I wasn’t asked (I might as well stay)
And promise myself each and every day that is

That when you’re knocked on your back an’ your life’s a flop
And when you’re down on the bottom there’s nothing else
But to shout to the top shout.
Well, we’re gonna shout to the top.”

I had not spotted Luke and Aroha since before the game and when I saw them enter the pub, I shouted over to them. This made the person next to me turn around to see who was shouting. Bloody hell, it was Orlin.

“Bloody hell man, how long have you been stood there?”

We crumpled with laughter. I then spotted Alex and Alan from Moscow, the first Chelsea that I had met on this trip way back in Istanbul. Everyone together. Just right. I did not want this night to end. There are photographs of these hours on the internet and they will become priceless reminders of “that night in Baku.” Eventually, the bar turfed us out at 6am.

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

I made do with my second hot dog of the trip on Fountain Square. I returned to the hotel, but my head was still buzzing. I uploaded some photographs from my camera to share on Facebook. I shared the one of Eden Hazard and Peter Cech on Instagram. I was just glad the wifi had decided to work. At 7.30am I was still chatting to pals all over the world. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Thursday 30 May : 8pm – Qazmac Restaurant, Old City, Baku.

I was out in the evening again, relaxing at my own pace in a lovely restaurant opposite where those antiquated huts used to stand on Kickik Qala. I had chosen a light salad and some mutton kebabs. The waiter suggested some bread – fine – but he also recommended some local butter and some caviar. I thought “why not, when in Rome.” Imagine my surprise when he brought out a sizeable pot of the stuff. I asked him “how much is that?” just at the exact moment that he pierced the top of the sealed container.

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

“Whooooah, hang on one minute, I’m not paying that.”

I remember having caviar – for the only time in my life – on a little French stick in Vienna in 1987. It was just a taste then, and I had visions of a very small portion this time too. I clearly wasn’t prepared to pay £100 for a great pot of the bloody stuff. Thankfully, the waiter understood and that was that. But I enjoyed my meal. It was wonderful. With a beer and some lovely ice-cream it came to £12.50. Superb. It had been a relaxing day. No surprises, I had slept well. As my father might have said of my bed in room 304, “it has a lot of sleep in it.”

My main objective on this day was to head over to visit the splendour of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. It was an hour’s walk – I was tempted, I Iove a good walk in a foreign city – but as my match ticket enabled me to travel for free on the city’s metro for one further day, I made use of it. Rain was spotting as walked up to Icarisharer tube, but it soon stopped. I spent an hour or so walking around the curves of the building. This structure was also featured in that TV programme about Baku. I felt as if I knew all about it. Sadly, as there was a concert taking place, I was unable to go inside. Along with a visit to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old city, and that odd site of Yanar Dag to the north-east of the city where there is an eternal flame burning non-stop from natural gasses from deep inside the earth, it will have to wait until my next visit to Baku.

On the second day of my 2018/19 season, I found myself walking around the famous curves of the Sydney Opera House. On this second-from-last day of the season, here I was outside the equally sublime and beautiful curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku.

Where next? The iconic lines of Preston Bus Station? Watch this space.

I loved it there. I loved the use of space. The undulating roof of the building is wonderful. And the whole structure sits on top of a gentle incline, and there is subtle use of grass and reflecting ponds. Typically, there was a large replica of the Europa League trophy at the base of the hill. It combined well with a “I Love Baku” sign. On this visit, the sky above was full of brilliantly fluffy clouds. Dotted around the grass lawns were odd concrete casts of snails and rabbits. It was like a surreal dream. It was bloody fantastic. It is no surprise that it is placed right on the main road into the city. It is surely Baku’s most stunning building.

To cap off another memorable day, I dived in to see a few pals – a couple of pints with Dave who was soon to be heading off to Kiev for one night – in “The Shakespeare” and made another trip down for some beers at “Harry’s Bar.” There were warm welcomes in both. I could hear some Arsenal chants from inside “The Red Lion.”

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

I’ll be honest. I bumped into two small parties of Arsenal that night – from Amersham, and then from Manchester – and they were fine. They were just so fed up with their team and their club.

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

On my last day in Baku, I was out on a half-day tour in a little mini-bus, to see the ancient cave etchings of the Gobustan National Park. I had booked this back in England. Imagine the look on my face when I saw Will and Noah waiting outside the travel agency.

“Of all the people we wanted to see. Hello, Chris.”

What a small world, eh? From a plane at Heathrow to a fifteen-seater in Baku. As I clambered aboard the mini-bus, who else should be on the vehicle but Margaret and Roy, two of the most loyal Chelsea supporters ever. They follow all of Chelsea’s teams, not just the first team like me, all over. I remember bumping into Roy at Bristol City’s training ground in around 2009 when we both watched a couple of Chelsea academy games on a Saturday morning. Again, what a small world. It was a four-hour trip. Alongside Will, Noah and myself was a chap called Tommy – an Arsenal supporter, from London – who turned out to be one of the most boring football supporters that I have ever met. I could not help bristling every time he referred to his team as “The Arsenal.” It is a pet hate of my good pal Alan too, and I thought of him every time I heard it. It did make me smile, though, when Tommy admitted to me “I wish we had Abramovich.”

Game. Set. Match.

The tour took us out on an hour drive to the south west of the city. The Gobustan stone carvings were quite fascinating, but it also gave me a chance to see a little of the scenery outside the city. There were oil rigs in the Caspian Sea and new houses being constructed alongside the roads. There was an abandoned Azerbaijani version of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and an unappetising beach resort. There were oil, water and gas pipelines snaking over the arid landscape, and the inevitable oil refineries. Two companies dominate; BP and Socar. The tour guide was an interesting character; formerly an army captain, formerly an off-shore worker, and a hater of caviar. In his youth, caviar was cheaper than meat and his mother used to feed him it daily. He now can’t stand the stuff.

We were given a tour of the caves. At the end, he led us to the oldest carving of the morning.

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

“Yeah, it depicts the Tottenham captain lifting their last league trophy.”

Friday 31 May : 7.30pm – Fountain Square, Baku.

After a meal in a pleasant restaurant – more salad, more kebabs – I was walking back through Fountain Square. I walked past a local father and son. I overheard the young boy mention Chelsea and Arsenal. I turned around and smiled. I intimated that I was Chelsea and gave the boy a thumbs up. The father explained –

“He wants to know of the history of Chelsea.”

I felt like stopping them, marching them into a café, sitting them down, turning on Google-translate, and entertaining them for three hours.

Later that evening, well aware that I had booked a cab to take me to the airport at 2am, I took it easy. There were some more photographs. I took around 1,750 over the week. My camera is my great companion on these trips around the world with Chelsea. There was time for an iconic shot of a roadside poster of the competing teams and UEFA logos right next to the historic, twelfth century Maiden Tower. Hopefully, another winner.

I sat next to some fountains in a little park on the main boulevard on the shore of the Caspian. I sat alone with my thoughts for many a minute.  I tried to take it all in. One moment touched me. A toddler reached out for her mother’s hand and they walked off together. It was a sweet moment, a lovely moment. I have no children and I do not generally harbour regrets. But this little moment obviously stirred me. At that moment, although not life-defining, I did ponder how different my life might have been had I become a father at some stage.

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

I made one last tour of my two favourite watering holes of the trip. I shared some laughs and some drinks – Cokes for me, I wanted to stay fresh – with Martin from Gloucester in “The Shakespeare” which was returning to some sort of normality after the recent madness.

After a quick visit to “Harry’s Bar”, I decided to head back to the hotel at about 11.30pm. The girl with no name raced after me after she saw me walking past “The Shakespeare.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Not sure, maybe when Chelsea play here again.”

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

I would indeed take a cab from the hotel to the Baku airport. There would be a 5am flight to Moscow, a two-and-a-half hour wait at the city’s Sheremetyevo Airport, another Aeroflot flight back to Heathrow. I would land early at just before midday on the Saturday morning and Russ would soon be there to meet me.

It would soon be all over; the trip, the travels, and the season.

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

Tuesday 18 July : 6.00pm – Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia.

Glenn and I had spent three days in Sydney, and had picked up a car on the fourth day of the trip. We set off to see the Blue Mountains, stopping off at the windy town of Katoomba. We were headed later that afternoon towards Coonabarabran, a good four-hour drive. With the light just starting to fade a little, we made the wrong turning in an old-style outpost called Gulgong, and soon found ourselves on what is known in Australia as a corrugated road. It means that it is not tarmac, not asphalt, not concrete, not paved, but simply a dirt track that has become rutted through use. With the fuel tank showing a red light, I was starting to get a little agitated. I had visions of us running out of fuel on a farm track, miles from anywhere. The road conditions deteriorated a little. I was keen to head back to Gulgong, but Glenn was more gung-ho. After about twenty minutes of lonely driving, we spotted a chap – a farmer – on a quad bike, towing some sort of contraption, away to our right in a field full of alpacas. We slowed down and shouted over to him. He bounded over.

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

Indeed, we were. His statement made us chuckle, but it reassured us. As long as he knew where we were, we were evidently not lost.

We were here.

Panic over.

And it has certainly seemed that, on many occasions this season that we – Chelsea Football Club in a very broad sense, but its supporters on various levels too – have been “lost.” It has felt like our journey was going nowhere. That we had no leadership at any level. That we were rudderless. And at times beyond hope.

But we were never lost.

We were a top six club, and would end up a top three club. At the end of it all, we would reach two cup finals. We would end up with silverware for the third consecutive season. We would end up with our fifteenth major trophy since 2000.

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From The Opposite Corner

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 7 October 2018.

An away trip down to Southampton is an easy one for us. It is only a journey of around an hour and a half. At eight o’clock on a clear, if cold, Sunday morning, Glenn collected me. PD was already on board the Chuckle Bus. We headed for half an hour north and Parky joined us. Glenn then did a one-eighty turn south, soon heading over Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge, yet to be inundated with day-trippers.  Autumnal sun was lighting up the entire sky now. We journeyed on, and everything seemed well in our world. As we neared the city of Salisbury, we passed through an avenue lined with tall and proud trees, and then the road opened out and away in the distance, straight ahead, stood the classic tower of the city’s cathedral, piercing the blue sky. As we drive around the highways and byways of this green and pleasant land, this particular view of the tallest spire in England always takes my breath away.

Salisbury. Who would ever have thought that this historic city would ever play a part in the history of Chelsea Football Club? Any yet, following the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia has been severely tested since the incident in March, and has lead – most people have surmised – to Roman Abramovich seeking out domicile in Israel rather than continuing to live in London. What a strange world we live in.

“Southampton away” now takes a familiar shape. We park at the train station, devour a hearty breakfast at a nearby café, and then get stuck in to some beers before heading off to the stadium on the other side of the city centre. We were parked up at 9.45am, and we were soon tucking into a lovely fry-up along with a strong coffee or two. We then re-positioned ourselves outside in a sun trap, and got stuck into some lagers. The sun warmed us. It was a perfect Sunday morning. We were joined by some friends from our local area; around a dozen of us in total. Unsurprisingly, chuckles of various pitches and volumes rebounded off the concrete of the nearby walls and steps.

“Brilliant. Just like a European away.”

I think Glenn was exaggerating slightly, but we all knew what he meant.

Out in the open air, catching some rays, drinking a “San Miguel”, sharing a laugh with some mates, occasionally talking football – “we should win this one, eh?” was about as far as we got – and generally enjoying each other’s’ company. Real life problems, outside our football bubble, occasionally tried to enter my head, but it was easy to push them aside.

“Cheers, lads.”

It might not have been quite such a perfect Sunday in Southampton. Glenn and PD had missed out on tickets among the three thousand away supporters. We needed to think outside the box, or even the box office. Thankfully, Glenn knows a Southampton season ticket holder – I remember he once came with us to Stamford Bridge to see the Saints some twenty years ago – and two tickets were purchased in the home section, the Kingsland Stand, so all four of us were “good to go.” As at Swansea City in 2014, Glenn and I volunteered to sit among the home support, since – without putting too fine a point on it – PD admitted that he would find it hard to keep schtum for ninety minutes.

This visit to Southampton would be added to the list of away stadia where I have watched Chelsea from the home sections.

Bristol Rovers – 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.

Bristol City – 1976.

Liverpool – 1992, 1992, 1994.

Everton – 1992.

Viktoria Zizkov – 1994.

Austria Memphis – 1994.

QPR – 1995.

Leeds United – 1995.

Blackburn Rovers – 1995, 1995, 1996.

Arsenal – 1996.

Southampton – 1996, 1996, 2018.

Barcelona – 2005.

Portsmouth – 2008.

Swansea City – 2014.

(…and not counting the friendlies at Rangers, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Swindon Town.)

There haven’t been that many in over 1,200 games. I’ve managed to live to tell the tale. Having a mate from Yorkshire – not a Leeds fan, I hasten to add – probably helped my cause in 1995. We lost that game 1-0, and I don’t think I was too quick to spring to my feet after Tony bloody Yeboah scored a late winner. I think his accent – drip-feeding the locals over the whole game – might well have saved me. After Wisey scored a last minute equaliser in a 3-3 at Highbury a year later, the four of us sitting in the last few rows of the West Upper could not contain ourselves. We jumped up – “giving it large” – and I even turned around and stared down the Arsenal fans behind me. I was lucky to get away without a slap on that occasion, methinks.

We caught a cab to St. Mary’s. While PD and LP turned left to join in with the Chelsea support in the Northam Stand, Glenn and I continued on and entered the Kingsland Stand. Our seats, in Block 28, were three-quarters of the way back, quite close to the corner flag, and diametrically opposite the Chelsea support.

I looked around. The supporters close by looked pretty harmless. I didn’t expect there to be any problem on this occasion.

Maurizio Sarri had finely-tweaked the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

No complaints from me.

Ryan Bertrand was the captain of the Southampton team.

The stadium took a while to fill, and there were odd gaps in the home section in the Chapel Stand to my right which ever filled. We were treated to more flames as the teams entered the pitch from the Itchen Stand opposite.

Southampton have disregarded their homage to the Kevin Keegan kit of 1980 to 1982 which they wore last season in favour of more traditional stripes. For the first time, we wore the new third kit.

Glenn : “You know what. From this distance, it looks half decent.”

Chris : “It looks better from two miles away.”

Glenn : “Looks bloody rubbish up close.”

Chris : “Up close, yes. Bloody awful.”

But I had to concede, it didn’t look as bad as I expected. But that isn’t saying too much. I absolutely loathed the God-awful tangerine and graphite kit of the mid-nineties, which the kit is said to reference. It was a minging kit.

If the ridiculous non-Chelsea colour scheme was ignored, there was still too much going on; two-tone grey stripes over-stenciled with a thin cross-hatch, panels here there and everywhere, a hideous badge in an over-sized shield, tangerine epaulets, and for some reason the tangerine of the collar was a different colour tangerine to the main body of the shirt, plus a hideous stone-washed look to the grey resulted in it just looking grubby.

Have I made myself clear? It was fucking hideous.

The game began, without hardly a ripple of noise or appreciation from the residents of Block 28. Over in the far corner, the Chelsea 3K were soon singing.

“Oh, oh oh, it’s Kepa.

You know.

He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

With my zoom lens, I eventually spotted Alan, Gary, PD and Parky.

On the pitch, all was good. In fact, Glenn and I were blessed, being able to watch from close quarters as we dominated the opening portion of the game with mouth-watering possession football, and swift passing between all of our players. Whereas we struggled at West Ham a fortnight previously, we purred in the Hampshire sun. In that early period, with Hazard the main catalyst, shot after shot seemed to be blocked by Southampton limbs. An effort from Willian looped up onto the bar. Around me, I heard whispers of admiration every time that Hazard caressed the ball. In the pub, I commented to the lads that – unlike in previous seasons – we had no “hate figure” in our midst. No Diego Costa. No John Terry. No Ashley Cole. No Dennis Wise. No Vinnie Jones. I would be interested to see how the locals received us.

Two chaps – neutrals maybe – right behind us were in admiration of Hazard. I did well to bite my lip and not give the game away.

I looked around. There really was no noise from our area at all. Nothing. I looked behind me, and the sight made me smart. No more than five feet away was a gormless looking young chap – about twenty-two maybe – wearing, as brazen as you like, a navy blue Manchester United replica shirt.

I was speechless.

Altogether now; “what the fuck?”

I caught his eye, and mouthed “United?”

He nodded.

I scowled and returned to the game.

The phrase “football is dead” is often shared these days and here was damning evidence.

Inwardly, I thought to myself “there’s no way I am going to leave here without saying something to the prick.”

On the pitch, all was sweetness and light. We were playing some sublime stuff, some of the best of the season thus far. Our one-touch, maybe two-touch, stuff was creating havoc in the Saints’ final third. Surely a goal would come?

Well, with that, somehow – I don’t know how – Southampton pulled themselves up with their boot strings and carved out a few chances, mainly emanating down our right where Dave was often exposed. The best chance of the entire game fell to the home team. Nathan Redmond released Bertrand on the left and his cross from the goal-line was inch perfect, but Danny Ings somehow managed to get his bearings confused and made a great defensive clearance from six yards out.

By this time, at last, the home fans were making some noise.

“Oh when the Saints…”

Our stand was pretty quiet though, and to be honest only those home fans who shared the Northam Stand with the away supporters tried to show some support for their team. Everywhere else, people were quiet. I swear blind that the teenager sat next to me, wearing a Southampton home shirt, did not speak the entire game. In fact, it was if I was in the middle of a ridiculous sponsored silence.

“Football Is Dead Part 584.”

Our play was far the sharper. Ross Barkley won the ball off a Saints player and fed Hazard. He was level with us, and we were able to admire his quick snapshot which flew past the Saints’ ‘keeper.

Saints 0 Singers 1.

I looked over to see the away end bubbling away like a big bowl of soup.

With the Chelsea supporters in fine voice for the rest of the game, our section opposite was deathly quiet. I had not heard a single shout of support from any individual the entire game, and I wanted to make my mark and break the silence, if only to be able to get a bizarre kick out of being able to say I was the loudest supporter in Block 28 the entire game.

“COME ON SAINTS.”

Glenn giggled.

I wouldn’t have done this at Leeds United back in 1995, mind you.

There are limits.

More Chelsea shots were blocked. Giroud stumbled in the box but it did not look like a penalty.

At the break, we were 1-0 up and coasting on the South coast. It had been an enjoyable, if not particularly loud, first-half in Section 28.

Oriel Romeu, another Munich Boy, appeared for Southampton in the second-half, adding a little more solidity to their midfield. Over on the far side, Sarri was his usual sartorially-challenged self, while Gianfranco Zola was referencing his first ever Chelsea game (Blackburn 1996, see above) when he pleaded “please, not an XL shirt again” by wearing a rain-jacket which resembled a tent.

But on the pitch, we were looking as good as ever. However, the home team carved out a couple of chances, with Bertrand wasting the best of them. As the second-half continued, I was particularly pleased with the way that Toni Rudiger was defending; he hardly put a foot wrong. Elsewhere, Jorginho was finding others with regularity. Barkley was having a very fine game. Just before the hour, that man Hazard was fouled and we waited for Willian to signal his intent to his team mates. Throughout the first-half, I had spotted his signals at corners; one finger, two fingers, three fingers. Against Vidi on Thursday there had even been a thumbs down. The ball was curled over towards the far post and Olivier Giroud attempted a rather spectacular scissor-kick. The ball bounced through a forest of legs and Ross Barkley was able to score his first Chelsea goal with an easy tap in from inside the six-yard box. His joyous run and leap in front of the celebrating away fans were captured on camera.

Saints 0 Singers 2.

I have always rated Ross Barkley. We might just have found another great English midfielder. Let’s hope so. He has poise and strength. I desperately want him to succeed at Chelsea.

We continued to dominate but play opened up a little. There was more defensive strength from Rudiger. And David Luiz, too. His renaissance has been hugely enjoyable.

Alvaro Morata replaced Olivier Giroud and then Pedro took over from Willian. Then Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

In section 28, still no noise.

The sponsored silence was going well.

We continued to push the ball around with ease.

But then, two Southampton chances to eat into our lead produced fantastic saves from Kepa. Redmond let fly from distance, but our young custodian leapt and finger-tipped over from right under the bar. He hasn’t the height of Big Pete or Big Nose, but if he has spring in his heels like that, who cares? Morata went close when he showed too much of the ball to the ‘keeper. I heard the grinding of three-thousands sets of gnashers from one hundred yards away. And then came the second super-save from Arrizabalaga; a similarly agile jump thwarted Ings. Sensational stuff, and we had great seats to see it all up close.

As the game was nearing completion, and as a Chelsea move was progressing, I was aware that the Chelsea supporters were singing out an “ole” with every fresh touch. I don’t usually like this. It seems overly arrogant. Maybe OK, if we are winning 6-0 but not before. The two neutrals behind me were not impressed.

“…mmm, don’t like that, taking the piss.”

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

The ball was worked to Hazard and with that shimmying approach of his, he created a little space and passed to Morata. This time, there was no annoyance from the away fans. His finish was clean and simple. As he dispatched the ball, Glenn and I spontaneously rose to our feet and whooped a little.

“Great goal.”

The final whistle soon came.

Saints 0 Singers 3.

Glenn and I packed up and watched as the Chelsea players slowly moved over and clapped the away support. They didn’t seem to walk over too far towards the Northam Stand. Maybe the 3-0 win seemed too easy. It was certainly easier than the come-from-behind win of last season which brought more prolonged celebrations at the final whistle.

As I exited row BB, I spotted that the United fan – remember him? – was waiting alone near the exit. I couldn’t help myself.

I motioned towards him, pointing at the United shirt.

“What’s with all this?”

Almost apologetically, he threw his arms back and said “it’s football.”

My response? Take your pick.

  1. “Ah that is fine mate. I know that United are a great club and their tickets are hard to come by. “
  2. “Oh, you’re English. Presumed you were foreign. Not understanding the subtleties of fandom in England. Whatever.”
  3. “And what a game. Cheers mate.”
  4. “You’re a twat.”

He then repeated his first answer and I then repeated mine.

As I walked down the steps, a grinning Glenn was waiting for me.

“You had words, then?”

To be honest, I was surprised that a steward or a home supporter had not approached him to tell him to either put a jacket on and cover himself up, or maybe go into the toilets and turn it inside out. At Chelsea, it surely would have been dealt with differently. I am not an advocate of violence in any shape or form, but honestly. The chap was lucky not to get a slap. He showed complete disrespect for Southampton Football Club.

And it – as is obvious – infuriated me to high heaven.

“Football Is Dead” indeed.

Manufactured atmospheres. Flames and fireworks. Orchestrated flag-waving goal celebrations. Noisemakers. Painted faces. Jester hats. Noiseless fans. People as critics and not supporters. A fan base of nerds.

And now Manchester United shirts being worn at games not even involving them.

For fuck sake.

I momentarily thought back to a time in the mid-to-late ‘eighties when it was pretty difficult to obtain foreign football jerseys. Occasionally, such jerseys were worn on the terraces, although not to any great degree due to the rarity of them.

They had a certain cachet to them. They looked the business. But always foreign shirts. And maybe, at Chelsea, the occasional Rangers one.

In those days, in the era of Half Man Half Biscuit and their football-based singalongs, and The Farm, with their scally heritage, and the music-football crossover, it would be quite common to see bands sporting foreign shirts. I seem to remember that I wore a cotton Kappa Juventus shirt on the benches once or twice in around 1986. It was all part of the burgeoning, and rapidly changing, casual scene which enveloped many of us all those years ago.

But not one of us would have been seen dead in a fucking Manchester United shirt at Stamford Bridge.

Then. Or ever since.

To that div in Section 28, this match report is not dedicated.

And now, damn it – modern football – the dreaded international break and a fortnight of inactivity.

Our next game is against Manchester United.

I wonder if knobhead is going.

See you there.

 

Tales From Under A Super Blue Moon

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 31 January 2018.

After two consecutive cup ties, we were back to the bread and butter of the League and a home game against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. We had already beaten them on two occasion thus far in 2017-2018. As we assembled in the pubs, bars and boozers around Stamford Bridge on another cold midweek night, there was a simple hope for three points, while maybe Tottenham and Manchester United could force a draw at Wembley. It was a night when we hoped to narrow the margins in the hunt for second place. As we met up with some friends, there was minimal talk of Emerson Palmieri and Olivier Giroud among our little group.

I once described Giroud – only last season – as “the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere.”

I am happy to welcome any player into the fold at Chelsea but be warned that it might take be longer than usual with this player.

Still, I think I felt the same about Mickey Thomas, Graham Roberts and Ashley Cole. And things worked out perfectly well with those three.

The ex-Arsenal target man had appeared as a substitute at Swansea City the previous night, so there was no hope of a George Weah-like appearance from the wings against Bournemouth. I knew nothing of the acquisition from Roma, but hoped that it would give the occasionally jaded Marcos Alonso both cover and competition. Our transfer window had concluded with Michy Batshuayi heading off to Borussia Dortmund on loan. The upshot of all of this was that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang went from Dortmund to Arsenal.

And there was much wailing.

Fans so used to the club spending millions and millions in recent years were clearly not happy. Maybe we need to accept that we will be a little less-active in the transfer market over the next few seasons while the new stadium takes centre-stage. Initially, it was reported that Roman was going to pay for it himself, but then came news that costs had – surprise, surprise – spiraled and that the club was looking for outside investment. Regardless, we may well see a little austerity at Chelsea for a while, and our aims and aspirations might need to be tempered slightly.

So be it. I’m not going anywhere.

Personally, I was just happy that the latest transfer window was over. It is the time of the season that irritates me to high heaven. It is the mating season for the thousands of FIFA-loving nerds who come to life with all sorts of absurd and unlikely transfer options for our club. At least they will be quiet until the summer.

After another stressful day at work, the lager was hitting the spot in our now regular midweek jaunt down the North End Road. There was a relaxation that comes with being among great friends, old and new. The football was an afterthought. The game was hardly mentioned. It made me realise that there is no need for transfer activity among my friends, bless ‘em.

At the top of the stairs leading into the Matthew Harding Upper, there was a quick chat with Daryl, who had been in one of the pubs, but who I had not really spoken to. We summed up our frustrations with how the club is being run in a succinct and memorable couple of sentences.

“If the club said to us that we were in a rebuilding stage – the stadium and the team – and we were going to stick with the manager through all of it, I don’t think there would be many complaints. We’d aim to consolidate – top four, top six, whatever –  and there would be some notion of a plan.”

“That we could all buy into. Yes!”

If ever we needed a five or ten year plan it was now.

The rumours surrounding the manager would not go away, but in all honesty I try to ignore them. I rarely buy a paper these days. I do not suck at the nipple of Sky Sports News. I just concentrate on showing up at Chelsea games and try to support the lads in royal blue. I am tired of the rumours. I am tired of the negativity. I am tired of the bullshit. I am tired of the over-analysis. I am tired of the same old same old. I am tired of the nonsense. I am just tired of it all.

Clearly the manager is a decent coach and he has seemed a decent man over the time that he has been in charge. His last four domestic seasons have resulted in three championships for Juventus of Turin and one for Chelsea of London; this is no mean feat. And yet he has shown signs of frustration in recent months, and I would surmise that this is as a direct result of the atmosphere present in the club. Of course, nobody really knows how or why decisions are made among the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and at Cobham, but my guess is that everything leads to uncertainty and doubt.

It was against the backdrop of rumour and counter-rumour that we assembled for the Bournemouth match. The team had been announced and without the injured Alvaro Morata, the loaned Michy Batshuayi and the unavailable Olivier Giroud, the manager was forced to play a team with no focal point.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Barkley – Hazard – Pedro

On the front cover of the programme were Eden and N’Golo, bearing a “Say No To Antisemitism” message. There was a large banner being held in the centre-circle for a good fifteen minutes before the teams took to the field. I looked over to the West Stand and spotted that Roman Abramovich’s personal bodyguard was stood in the back row of his box.

“Blimey, Roman is here” I chirped to Alan.

Alan replied that it was probably to do with the anti-Semitism theme for the night.

Yes, it probably was. And I saw no issue with that. While there are still morons who sing about Auschwitz following the club, there has to be a desire to remind everyone of this message. I just wished that Roman would appear at more than a handful of games these days. We need leadership, however understated.  Lo and behold, on page five of the programme, the owner had written a personal message about his desire to “create a club that is welcoming to everyone.”

The teams entered the pitch and they were forced to walk around the large circular banner, just as on a Champions League night.

Under a clear night sky – getting colder by the minute – a full moon appeared over the East Stand and it continued its arc as the game progressed. It was, apparently, a Super Blue Moon. In the spirit of the age, I wondered if this was the hallmark of an advertising guru, a brand salesman, taking nature to the next level.

“Get your Super Blue Moon sweatshirts, brochures and DVDs here.”

Nathan Ake appeared in the Milan-esque red and black of the visitors. I caught his wide smile on camera as he shook hands with former players.

As the players broke and sprinted to their respective ends, the Matthew Harding Lower roared –

“We Hate Tottenham.”

It seemed to be a reaction to the theme of the night.

The game began. Around 1,400 away fans. Ross Barkley in his league debut looked a bit lively at the start. Once or twice an early ball was pushed through to the attacking three. With our usual way of playing tending to resemble a game of chess of late, I have often harped on to Alan of late how I would like to see us mix things up a little, knocking the occasional early ball over the top, to encourage uncertainty in an opposition defence.

“Do they drop back, do they push up? Let’s mess with their heads. Let’s do things that they aren’t expecting.”

It was a rather timid and uneventful start to the game in all honesty. There was a desire from all of the front three to “make things happen” but with no real end result. The game moved on and the atmosphere was as timid as the action on the pitch. The away fans were soon having a dig.

“Is this The Emirates?”

I wanted the Matthew Harding to sing “Roman, give us a song.”

On nineteen minutes, the spectators applauded the memory of young Chelsea season ticket holder Jack Winter who had sadly passed away recently. A banner was held aloft in The Shed Upper.

There was a sublime piece of skill down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. A Bournemouth move had developed but there was a split second when the ball was equidistant from a few players. N’Golo Kante appeared to feint a challenge, and the Bournemouth player took the bait. The ball remained loose, in no man’s land, and Kante collected it, adeptly side-stepping a challenge and moving the ball on with the minimum of fuss. From there, a lovely move developed, with some excellent movement throughout the team. The ball was moved up the field and I watched in awe. The ball was played in from the right with a Zappacross but the ball was routinely hoofed clear. It was the highlight of the match thus far.

Bournemouth threatened occasionally.

This wasn’t much of a match.

With twenty-five minutes gone, we were sad to see Andreas Christensen leave the pitch – a strain of some description? – and our young starlet was replaced by Antonio Rudiger.

Things momentarily improved as Gary Cahill headed onto the top of the net from a corner. A cross from Alonso would undoubtedly have been perfection itself if a tall central striker been lurking; Hazard failed to connect. There was some occasionally pleasing play from Barkley. Alonso shaped to volley at the far post but a team mate chose to attack the ball too. The Spaniard headed wide just after.

As first-halves go, it was as poor as I had seen for a while. It was all very humdrum. Was this a sign of tiredness? This was the ninth game in January.

At the break, Neil Barnett introduced the two new acquisitions Palmieri and Giroud.

I applauded, just.

With that, the Super Blue Moon disappeared from my view as it hid above the West Stand roof.

As a metaphor for the evening’s events, it was pretty much spot on.

There was very little Super Blue about the game’s second forty-five minutes.

With us attacking the Matthew Harding, there was hope for a goal when Marcos Alonso steadied himself for a strike on the Bournemouth goal from a free-kick. It was close, but not close enough and Asmir Begovic was not called into action.

After just six minutes gone in the second period, Bournemouth sauntered through alarming gaps in our defence and the lively Callum Wilson slotted home. Ugh. We watched as the away team celebrated at the far end in front of the Cherries away support. This goal somehow inspired the Chelsea faithful to get behind the team.

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

The noise generated from the supporters in the same stand as me brought me great pleasure. This was what supporting a team is all about. In adversity, noise. Great stuff.

Conte chose to replace Barkley – an uninspiring debut – with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped for a little more ingenuity and guile. The fans were still getting behind the team.

And then the lads and lasses in The Shed let me down.

They goaded the away fans with “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

This was AFC Bournemouth here. They were in the bottom tier in 2010. Their ground holds less than 12,000. Truly, truly pathetic.

There seemed to be a tangible improvement in our play. Eden huffed and puffed and tried his best, but often ran into a wall of red and black. Antonio Rudiger crossed low but there was nobody in a danger area to tap home. We obviously missed a target man. A lovely ball found Eden, who forced a save, but was flagged offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, we went further behind. Bournemouth cut through our stagnant defence and Junior Stanislas slotted home after racing away from Cahill.

The away players again celebrated in front of their supporters.

Another “ugh.”

I then spent a few seconds watching, with increasing incredulity, as the Chelsea team walked back to their positions for the restart. Their body language was awful. They walked slowly, heads mainly down, silent. I focused on Gary Cahill. He did not speak. He did not talk to his fellow players. He did not engage with them. He did not encourage them. He did nothing to endear himself to me.

He simply dropped to his knees and tied his bootlaces.

For fuck sake, Gary.

I popped down to have a moan with Big John who shares the same opinions as me on many facets of supporting this great club.

“Shocking. No leadership.”

So true.

The manager brought on Callum Hudson-Odoi – wearing the very iconic number seventy, a Chelsea number if ever there was – to take the place of Zappacosta.

Just after, a run by Stanislas was not stopped and his low shot was touched past Courtois by Ake.

Chelsea 0 Bournemouth 3.

Bollocks.

I have to be honest, our defence at this time looked blown to smithereens. We were all over the place. But by the same token, this didn’t seem like a 0-3 game. They had simply taken their chances, whereas we had not enjoyed a cutting edge to our play and therefore – no real surprises – our attack was blunted. The rest of the game was played out against a decreasing amount of home supporters. There were tons of Super Blue seats on show with each passing minute.

We had a couple of late efforts, but the game petered out.

Ironically, the noisiest few salvos of support during the entire game occurred right towards the end of the match with thousands scurrying out to their respective homes.

On ninety-two minutes, Stamford Bridge roared.

“CAREFREE. WHEREVER YOU MAY BE. WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.”

I roared along with the rest. Bloody hell that felt good. It reminded me of years gone by when we made some noise irrespective of on-field glory.

I suppose that there were only around ten thousand – probably many less – present as the game came to its conclusion. It would be easy for me to make some comment about the fans who chose to leave early. That might upset a few people, eh? I am not so sure I care too much. Imagine if the game had finished with no fans present. What sort of message would that give the world?

So, yes. I stayed to the end.

However, you can be sure that there were a few Chelsea fans who would be making some snide remarks about “new fans” and “plastic fans” and “tourists” being the ones who left early. I am not so sure. There is a bit of a myth that “old school” supporters have always supported the team through thick, thin and thinner. Although we have enjoyed some fantastic periods of support, not always have Chelsea packed Stamford Bridge to the rafters in the way that we do know.

Think back to 1994, long before Stamford Bridge was inundated with tourists, day-trippers, new fans and the moneyed classes.

We had reached our very first cup final – the FA Cup no less – in twenty-two years. In our second-from last home game of the season, we played Coventry City on a Wednesday night, a mere ten days before our date with Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. Our capacity at Stamford Bridge that season – no North terrace – was around 29,000. Was our stadium packed to the rafters on that Wednesday evening, cheering the boys on to a fine finish to the season ahead of the Cup Final?

No. The gate was just 8,923.

We have come a long way, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in the past few decades.

On the drive home, all was quiet. We didn’t even bother to listen to the rest of the results. I was sure, though, that the bitching and the moaning was lighting up the internet. And I am so fucking tired of all that too.

See you at Watford on Monday.

IMG_4433

Tales From A Stroll Down The Fulham Road

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 28 January 2018.

Our eighth out of nine games in the month of January saw a return to the FA Cup and a good old-fashioned battle with long-standing adversaries Newcastle United. On the drive up to London, we briefly chatted about the meek second-half surrender at Arsenal on Wednesday, but forward to the next run of games, and made transport plans for a few of them. There were a few moments lambasting the shocking mess of the VAR system, which stumbles from one farce to another with each game. Get rid of it now.

After having worked on eighteen of the previous twenty days, here was a much-needed day of rest, though it was my turn to drive after Glenn and PD took a turn at the wheel for the two previous games. But there were no complaints from me. Football acts as a release-valve as much today as it ever did. I ate up the miles and made good time. The weather was mainly mild but overcast.

Previous FA cup games against Newcastle United? There was an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in 2000 of course. This was a fine game of football and should have been the final itself. Gus Poyet was the hero of the day with two headers after Rob Lee equalised for the Geordies. I remember their end resembled a huge bowl of humbugs. It was a fantastic game. By comparison, the 1-0 win over Aston Villa at old Wembley’s last-ever Cup Final was such a dull affair.

There was also a win against them at home in 2006, but that 1-0 win does not ring many bells. Once the draw was made, I immediately thought back to a game from 1996, when Newcastle United were riding high in the league – it was the season that saw them infamously over-taken by Manchester United – and when we had already beaten them 1-0 at home in a thrilling game in the December. In a third round tie at Stamford Bridge in January, we were winning 1-0 with a goal deep into injury time from Mark Hughes. Sadly, a stoppage-time equaliser from Les Ferdinand took the tie to a replay, which we famously won on penalties. We made it to the semi-final that year.

We popped into “The Goose” but I left for the ground a little earlier than the rest to take a few un-hindered photographs of the pre-match scene. Deep-down, I also wanted to feel a special FA Cup buzz around the stadium, but – apart from the nauseous presence of few more touts than usual trying to hawk tickets – there was little different to this game than others, except for maybe more than the usual amount of kids with parents and grandparents. I wondered who was more excited.

As I walked on past the old and new tube stations, the town hall and the CFCUK stall, I mused that the famous lyrics to the song by Suggs should now be updated :

“The only place to be every other Saturday lunchtime, Saturday tea-time, Sunday lunchtime Sunday tea-time, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Friday night is strolling down the Fulham Road.”

I took a photograph of the fine frontage to the Oswald Stoll buildings, which have been part of the match day scene at Chelsea for decades. It houses veterans from the armed forces. I love that. It underlines the role of the army, navy and air force at Chelsea, in addition to the more famous pensioners from the Royal Hospital. During the week, I read that the foundation is thinking of building a new residence elsewhere, and there is the chance that they will offer Chelsea Football Club the chance to buy up some of the existing property adjacent to the existing West Stand. There will be no added capacity to the new Stamford Bridge, but simply more space for spectators to enter and exit the cramped footprint of the stadium. I guess the board needs to weigh up the options. Is it worth the added expense of buying up more land? Possibly. During the week, there had been a CPO meeting. Though I did not attend, I was pleased that the CPO board and the CFC board have never been closer.

For the people who constantly moan about our reduced presence as a major player in the transfer market, I’d suggest they need to re-value their thoughts. In the autumn of 2011, with the threat of us moving from Stamford Bridge to an unloved new build away from our ancestral home, we would not have worried too greatly about a few years of treading water on the pitch if our future at Stamford Bridge was secure.

I’m strongly behind the new stadium. I’ll say no more than that.

However, I do find it odd that Roman Abramovich has only been spotted at one Chelsea game this season; the win against Manchester United. I doubt if he is losing interest, but perhaps it has shifted its focus. I wondered if Roman is one of these people who obsesses about one thing at a time. A company acquisition. A football club. A football team. A new house. A yacht.  A stadium.

I had a vision of him locked away in a room in one of his properties, maybe not as obsessed as Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” as his character builds devil’s mountain out of mashed potato and then debris, but with a 2018 mix of Hornby train sets, Meccano, and Lego bricks – and cranes, lots of cranes – working in unison to replicate the Herzog and De Meuron model.

Inside the current Stamford Bridge, the first thing that I noted was a void of a few hundred seats which were not filled in The Shed. As with Norwich City, The Geordies did not fully occupy their three-thousand seats. A 1.30pm Sunday kick-off is a test though. No surprises that it was not filled.

The manager had chosen a 3/4/3 again and re-jigged the starting personnel.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi – Hazard

For once, we attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half; a Benitez ploy no doubt. The thought of a replay on Tyneside – two days off work for sure – filled me with dread. Absolute dread.

As the game began, the Geordies were making all the noise.

“New-casuhl, New-casuhl, New-casuhl.”

I’d suggest that they started the match with more pressing and more energy than us. Early on, we were concerned when Davide Zappacosta stayed down for a few minutes. Thankfully, he was able to run off his knock and was soon back to his barnstorming runs. On one occasion, he pushed the ball way past his marker and sent over a brilliant cross.

An Eden Hazard free-kick did not trouble the ‘keeper Karl Darlow.

There was a fine leap and header on by Hazard to Michy Batshuayi which took me back to the ‘eighties when the hanging-in-the-air leap of David Speedie often supplied Kerry Dixon with many a cushioned header.

There was a magnificent cross-field pass from Toni Rudiger; one of his specialities. He is surely deserving a regular run in the team. I see a fine player. At the other end, Wily Caballero managed to save from Jonjo Shelvey. Our play certainly looked a little off the pace. It felt like “advantage Toon” at the half-hour mark. We had not got into the game. The Stamford Bridge were quiet. But you knew that. Thankfully, this was to change.

A beautiful and flowing move involving a long pass from Pedro into the feet of Hazard, a touch to Marcos Alonso – a great appetite to join the attack – and the finest of passes to Batshuayi.

“Michy doesn’t miss from there” zipped through my mind. It was virtually an open goal with the ‘keeper lost.

Chelsea 1 Newcastle United 0.

GET IN.

This goal seemed to pump life into the crowd, the team and most especially Michy himself. For the rest of the half, his movement was better, and his appetite too. There was another excellent save from Wily down at The Shed, with our ‘keeper managing to fall quickly at his near post and block an effort from Gayle. A lovely shot from the left foot of Rudiger flew past the post. The game was opening up now.

Pedro and Hazard were hitting some fine form and the former found the latter with a great ball. Hazard picked out Batshuayi – “Nevin to Speedie to Dixon” – and the striker lashed the ball goal wards. There was an immediate groan as the shot was blocked by Jamaal Lascelles, but the noise quickly changed to that of hope and expectation as the ball spun high and over the ‘keeper.

“I like the look of this” I thought.

It dropped into the goal.

Chelsea 2 Newcastle United 0.

The game seemed won. Phew. No replay? I hoped not.

We had that strange experience of us attacking The Geordies and Parkyville in the second period.

The crowd were a little more involved. On two occasions especially. There was a loud and heartfelt “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” – louder than normal it seemed – and it certainly felt like a resounding show of support for him. Soon after, even louder, and with the entire ground appearing to join in there was this –

“STAND UP FOR THE CHAMPIONS.”

It was if these two chants were for the benefit of Roman and the board.

The only problem was that Roman was not present; he was up to his waist in mashed potato in the west wing.

Will manager Conte be here next season? I hope so but I doubt it. I hate modern football and I’ll say no more than that.

A shot from Pedro, and a beautiful volley from Alonso showed our intent as the second-half progressed. Newcastle fell away, but their support remained as belligerent as ever. There were two shots from distance from DD. It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes remaining, we were given a free-kick after a foul on the useful Zappacosta, who we all agreed needs to start ahead of the ailing Victor Moses. I love his appetite.

This was in prime Marcos Alonso territory no doubt. There was a wait for a few moments. We held our breath. Three Chelsea players were in the wall, but the Spaniard struck the ball up and over. It was yet another prime free-kick from Alonso. The boy can certainly strike a ball.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0.

Game most definitely over.

The rest of the game was notable for four significant substitutions.

72 minutes : Ross Barkley for Eden Hazard.

A home debut for our new midfielder. He looked strong and eager to impress. He had been the cover-star on the match programme, another retro one, this time from the ‘forties.

77 minutes : Ethan Ampadu for N’Golo Kante.

He immediately fitted in. Is he really only seventeen? Very soon, he played the ball of the game through to an onrushing Pedro. The lad looks the business, so loose and natural.

80 minutes : Callum Hudson-Odoi for Pedro.

A Chelsea debut, and his first three passes were on-the-money cross-field balls out to Zappacosta out on the right, now enjoying acres of space. All of a sudden, the future seemed brighter, rosier, more positive. Fantastic.

83 minutes : Christian Atsu for Iscaac Hayden.

It was certainly nice to see and hear some warm applause for our former player, who never made it to the first-team. I bet we never got any credit for it on the TV commentary.

The game ended with a fine and free-flowing move from our penalty box all of the way through to a shot from Michy which the ‘keeper saved. By that time the away team were chasing shadows.

But the Newcastle fans kept their support of their team until the end and hardly any left. Top marks. I remembered back to 1983/1984 when, at the end of a completely one-sided 4-0 thumping, the Geordies kept singing, and were rewarded with applause from the home support.

In 2018, the reaction to the bonny lads was not full of such bonhomie :

“You’ve had your day out. Now fuck off home.”

Modern football, eh?

On Wednesday, the month ends with a home game with Bournemouth.

See you there.

 

Tales From A Chelsea Ramble

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 30 December 2017.

Our third game of Christmas, and our last match of 2017, was surely another “winnable” one against Mark Hughes’ visiting Stoke City. Back in September, an Alvaro Morata hat-trick helped secure a 4-0 away win in The Potteries, and although our performances since then have wavered at times, I was confident of a seventh consecutive home league win.

On the drive to London – Glenn was in charge of Chuckle Bus duties for the day – we had a little chat about our season thus far. There were few complaints. We are still enjoying our football, despite some of the negatives which swirl around our game at the moment.

We ran through a few of our success stories, player-wise, and top of the list was Andreas, who has warmed the hearts of all Chelsea supporters this season. The youngster has hardly put a foot wrong. He looks the finished article already. And, perhaps as he was not signed for a ludicrous sum in the summer, or perhaps because he has gone about his task quietly and efficiently, he has performed “under the radar” of many in the usually claustrophobic media. Elsewhere there are many positives; Eden continues to trick his way past players and add some Chelsea-esque panache to our play, N’Golo maintains his amazing abilities to close people down and keep us ticking and Dave is as consistent as ever and possibly our most-respected player. Thibaut rarely lets us down. Last season’s over-achievers Marcos and Victor might find their positions under threat in the next six months or so, but there is much to admire in their play. As a supporter, I always try to get behind players who may not be the most gifted, but those who try their damnedest in a royal blue shirt. I often reminisce on our championship season of 2016/2017 and the image Pedro keeps popping up. His first season in our colours was largely average, but he really stepped up under the tutelage of Antonio Conte. His relentless movement was a constant motif throughout last season. With Conte often choosing a 3-5-2 in this campaign, it is a damned shame that Pedro often misses out. Willian still seems to annoy many, but I have few complaints. Gary infuriates as only Gary can, and I am sure that Antonio might well nurse a little regret that Dave was not handed the captain’s armband at the start of this season. I like the look of Toni, and his game improves with each look. Alvaro may never toughen up in the same way that we would like, but he is a fine player and we need to persevere. Tiemoue has had a tough baptism, often looking lost, but he shows occasional promise. Danny has hit the ground running and I think will be a key fixture in our squad over the next few seasons. Cesc is a quality player, and we are lucky to have him in our squad. Davide is full of enthusiasm but often gets caught flat-footed and out-of-position. Michy is Michy, and I hope to God he tries harder than ever to fulfil his promise. He has a good eye for goal, but needs to expand his mind and expand his game. David, the forgotten man at the moment, is a crucial squad member and able to play in both midfield and defence. To lose him to another team in the January transfer window would do us no favours in my mind. Ethan, despite only a few appearances, is clearly a naturally-gifted footballer with much potential.

The four Chuckle Brothers splintered off on our arrival in London.

PD and LP chose “The Goose.”

Glenn and little old me had a more varied itinerary, which would include a few pubs on a ramble around the high roads and side streets of SW6. Outside the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with Ben, a work colleague from Germany. He is currently visiting London with two good friends – Jens and Walt – and it was a pleasure to welcome them to Stamford Bridge. We soon met up with another great friend, Kyle from Los Angeles, and it was fantastic to see him too.

I had last met Kyle at the same Copthorne Hotel back in the summer of 2016 when he was visiting London for the first time with his family; I drove up to London specially to see him for an evening’s meanderings around Stamford Bridge – alas no game – and we had a fine evening of recollections of summer tours to the US and more local affairs. I was pleased, so pleased, that he would be watching his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in under four hours. The look of excitement on Kyle’s face as I ordered the first beers of the day was wonderful. And I need to make a special note of my friendship with Kyle. When I first started writing these match reports on the old Chelsea In America website around ten years ago, I was indebted to the support of some good friends – and from Kyle in Los Angeles and Steve in Philadelphia in particular – who prompted me to keep going and to continue with these rambling recollections of Chelsea games. Over the years – I first met Kyle in 2007 – we have shared some very fine times and many a laugh. His first game at Stamford Bridge was long overdue. He knew it and I knew it. I wanted to make his game as memorable as possible.

I had only met Ben once before, on a visit to our offices in around 2014, but we are in constant communication on a weekly basis. Often, our work-based emails contain some football chat. Ben, although living right on the border with Switzerland in the very south of Germany, is a lifelong Borussia Monchengladbach supporter. There have been many an email over the past few years in which he has updated me on the performances of Andreas Christensen. He has been my eyes and ears over in Germany. All has been positive.

Up in the bar area, there were some lovely moments with Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Colin Pates and John Bumstead. The smiles were genuine, from both supporters and players alike. I explained to Ben and his friends how important Ron Harris and Bobby Tambling are in the history of our club.

For Ben, Ron Harris is Chelsea’s Berti Vogts.

Down in reception, I spotted Ken Bates, our erstwhile chairman. I could not resist a quick photograph. I had to get Glenn in on the picture. Kyle did the honours. As I approached him, he whispered :

“Oh, this looks like trouble.”

We had a few brief words, and he was pretty amicable, even when Glenn reminded him that he had sold off Benches tickets for the United game in 1985 for a tenner.

With typical abrasiveness, Ken replied “I should’ve charged more.”

I wish now that I had thanked him for setting up the Chelsea Pitch Owners in 1993. There has always been a love-hate relationship with many Chelsea supporters and Ken Bates, myself definitely included, but despite his gruffness and petty-mindedness, the formation of the CPO was an absolute masterstroke. I will always be in his debt for this far-sighted move some twenty-five years ago.

Via a quick stop at The Shed wall, and an homage to the image of Ron Harris – so that the German visitors especially could join some dots – we moved on to The Butcher’s Hook, where our club was formed all those years ago.

There then followed another Chris Axon history lesson – “Stop if you think you’ve heard this one before” – but with added resonance after our chance meeting with Ken Bates. I retold the story of the CPO, the attempted buy-out in 2011 and the “SayNoCPO” campaign; arguably the finest moment in the history of the supporters of our club.

No eyes were glazing over. Result.

On the matter of the new stadium, should anyone wish to keep up to speed with the progress – “or lack of” I hear some saying – there is no website better than Skyscraper City. For those suffering with what Simon Inglis has termed “stadiumitis” – like me – it is a fantastic resource. It will, thankfully, mean that I will no longer need to explain how there can be no huge, single end at the new stadium.

Here is a link to the thread about the new Stamford Bridge.

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1079233

96 pages of diagrams, videos, conjecture, analysis, debate, projections, timelines and more. While you are at it, there are threads detailing the new Spurs stadium – “should you feel the need” – and a relatively new thread devoted to a new stand at Selhurst Park and another one for a Riverside Stand upgrade at Craven Cottage – “ditto”.

We headed past the usual sights and sounds of a typical Chelsea Saturday.

On the walk, Kyle and myself spoke about the monstrosity of friendship scarves. With it, came a funny story about the transience of some US sport(s) fans, who often seem to chop and change teams at a moment’s notice. An alumni of UCLA, Kyle obviously follows them in all collegiate sports, though often he meets friends and acquaintances who follow UCLA in one sport but their bitter rivals USC in another.

Kyle : “They don’t even keep to that most basic of rules, of following one team.”

The laughter continued as we nipped into “The Elk” for the first time in years. As I explained to the visitors, we are truly blessed with boozers around Stamford Bridge.

“One of the reasons why we never wanted to leave this area. Even moving just one mile would be horrific.”

Walt kept mentioning throughout the day that virtually all stadia in Germany are out on the edge of towns and cities with hardly any bars nearby; I could tell that they were enjoying the close proximity of the twenty-five or so bars within a twenty-minute walk from Stamford Bridge.

Long may it continue.

Next up was a five-minute walk to The Mitre on Dawes Road; a pub that we used to frequent for the best part of a season in around 2002. Surprisingly, I seem to be the only one who can remember this. It must have been something they put in the drinks.

Our good friend John, with his son Chris, was celebrating his birthday out in the beer garden. The laughter and banter continued.

This was a fine time.

This was the “sweet spot” of any pre-match at Chelsea.

A few beers to the good, still a couple of hours before kick-off, no worries in the world.

I said to Kyle : “This is where we want time to stand still really.”

How often I have thought this; that a game could be put back a few hours so we can just wallow in the fuzzy camaraderie of friendship and football.

The last sweet spot was back on the North End Road, and we met up with a few fine members of The Bing inside “Simmons Bar”; Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed. I was so pleased that Kyle got to meet some really fine friends on his first visit to Stamford Bridge. There was astonishment on Kyle’s face when I invited Gary over to confirm that he has, indeed, missed just one Chelsea home game since 1976.

I can hear Kyle now : “that is unbelievable.”

We sauntered – sauntered I tell ya! – out of the last boozer and made our way to Stamford Bridge. In the busiest pre-match for a while, the team news had passed me by.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Drinkwater – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

I felt for the four visitors, who had hoped that Eden would start. It was obvious that the manager was saving him – and his bruised shins – for Arsenal away on Wednesday.

We had already heard that the Stoke City team would be hit with injuries, but nobody really expected such a weak B team. Seeing Charlie Adam on the pitch was a real shock, and it was a reminder of how much I disliked him. He has a pasty complexion, a barrel-chested physique and a receding hairline from the 1920’s– and possibly tuberculosis too. I had a feeling that he would soon be sneezing and coughing over Danny Drinkwater. Either that, or kicking lumps out of him.

Stoke had only brought around 1,400. It did not surprise me. The match began with the three German visitors down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower and Kyle right behind the Shed End goal.

Over in The Shed, the away fans could be heard, but only faintly.

“COME ON STOWKE, COME ON STOWKE.”

After just three minutes, a cross from a free-kick wide on the right from Willian was perfectly played for Toni Rudiger to leap high at the back stick and to head home. This was as clean a header as it gets. It was a fine goal. We could have not have asked for a better start.

The dream start continued. On nine minutes, Pedro wriggled himself into space out on the left side of Stoke’s penalty area, and after his cross was blocked, the ball spun up towards Danny Drinkwater. The midfielder controlled the ball with his thigh and then purposefully prodded the ball towards the Shed End goal. Time again seemed to stand still. We watched as the ball sailed through the air with the Stoke ‘keeper Jack Butland rooted to the ground. The net bulged and the stadium erupted. What a fine goal, hopefully Danny’s first of many. Perhaps over-burdened in the middle of midfield, Drinkwater’s signing surprised many, but he has to be a fine addition to our ranks. I can well remember the disdainful comments from many when we signed him from Leicester City.

Soon after, we had hopes for another goal, but Alvaro Morata – bursting through in the inside right channel – was sadly denied at the near post by Butland. Kyle was getting all of the action on a plate for him.

On twenty-three minutes, Willian passed to Pedro. With a sublime touch, he turned into space and despatched a low shot towards the far post, a goal that I was able to celebrate before many as I was directly in line with the ball’s trajectory.

GET IN.

Game over? Surely.

The Stokies in the away section responded with an audible dig in that particular twang of theirs.

“Thray-nell, and yeh still don’t seng.”

I had to agree. I could detect a few supporters trying to get things started in The Shed but it was all very piecemeal. In the Matthew Harding, there had hardly been a song in the first quarter of the game, despite our fine play. It is hardly worth me writing that neither the East nor West Stands were joining in; they hardly ever do.

So, the usual moan from me about the lack of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge.

Our dominance continued. We moved the ball around at will. Stoke, on a very rare attack, bundled the ball in via a break from Diouf, but the referee had signalled an offside.

At the break, we all dreamed of a cricket score, with memories of a 7-0 shellacking in our 2010 vintage. Their record at Chelsea in recent years has been simply shocking.

Thibaut was forced to throw his word search back into his goal and block a shot from Berahino as Stoke threatened in the first few minutes. Rather than see us push on and go hell-for-leather in search of more goals, there was a definite air of frustration among the Chelsea fans as Stoke attempted to get the tiniest of foot holds in the game. Nothing really materialised, but it stemmed our flow of intent and desire. Things fell a little flat.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Victor Moses.

Pedro flashed a shot wide.

In an eerily similar position to his chance in the first-half, Morata approached Butland – “you again” – but probably took an extra touch. Butland again blocked.

“Ugh.”

Another strike from Pedro was aimed goal bound but this time a save.

Tiemoue Bakayoko replaced N’Golo Kante. Legs were being saved for Wednesday. Michy Batshuayi replaced Alvaro Morata, who had not enjoyed the best of outings.

With twenty minutes remaining, Willian burst into the penalty box and was adjudged to have been sliced down by a Geoff Cameron. From my vantage point, it looked a soft one.

Willian himself took the penalty. A feint and the ‘keeper was easily beaten by Willian.

The 4-0 score line was a long time a-coming.

Still, the atmosphere was lukewarm.

Only an “Antonio” chant really brought the Matthew Harding together as one.

With two minutes remaining, Zappacosta pounced on a loose ball and smashed the ball low past Butland.

Chelsea 5 Stoke City 0.

Yes, that was better.

Throughout the game, Stoke City had been truly shocking. They offered hardly anything. In some respects, this was some sort of non-football.

Total dominance from one team.

Meek capitulation from the other.

Played out to a backdrop of pitiful noise.

Yes, we have been spoiled over the recent – how many, twenty? – years, and have handed some severe poundings to most teams at Stamford Bridge in that period. In the league alone, we have enjoyed these wins against a few of our main rivals –

Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0

Chelsea 6 Manchester City 0

Chelsea 5 Everton 0

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0

Chelsea 5 Newcastle United 0

Chelsea 5 West Ham United 1

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 0

Chelsea 4 Liverpool 1

In the circumstances, I suppose a 5-0 defeat of a weakened Stoke City team is regarded by many as hardly on the same scale.

Noise or no noise, we jumped past Manchester United into second place. On the drive back to the West Country, the Chuckle Bus was very happy to hear that Mourinho’s men had been held 0-0 by Southampton.

Second place was ours.

Good work boys.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that Andreas Christensen was operating “under the radar” at the moment. The same, could, quite possibly be said of Chelsea as we leave 2017 and look set to enter 2018. While the love-fest with Manchester City is still continuing – and with reason, let’s admit they are playing some lovely stuff – there still remains an obsession with Harry Kane and Tottenham, to say nothing of renewed interest in a Mo Salah-inspired Liverpool. As Mourinho continues to annoy those inside and outside of his Manchester United, the inevitable media circus which follows him around shows no signs of abating. Let the media focus on these teams. That’s no problem for me. And while there are still a few barbs being aimed at the manager by some pernicious buggers in the media, hoping to stir up a little hostility and unrest, I honestly see a calmness from Antonio Conte and a steely desire to keep in contention. There have been few managers in my time as a Chelsea supporter that I have liked more. I desperately want Roman Abramovich to keep a steady head and to give the manager as much time as he needs.

We are in a good place at the moment.

The new year promises much.

On we go, into 2018 and beyond.

IMG_2846 (3)

Tales From The League Cup

Chelsea vs. Everton : 25 October 2017.

After parking the car, and before we were able to enjoy a very pleasant pre-match drink-up in two Chelsea pubs, I could not help but notice that there were posters advertising the Moscow State Circus at Eel Brook Common, no more than half a mile from Stamford Bridge. At times in Roman’s fourteen years at the epicentre of Chelsea Football Club, a few of my mates have often likened proceedings to that of the famous Russian spectacle.

I silently hoped that I would not have to reference said circus in a negative way during the match report for the evening’s game.

The five Chuckle Brothers were split up for the visit of Everton and their dog’s dinner of an away kit for the League Cup tie; I was alongside PD and Glenn in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding wraparound, Parky was in the Parkyville section of The Shed Lower, while Young Jake was watching in what is officially the Matthew Harding Upper, but what is really the connecting section of the East Upper.

It was another mild night in SW6, and I expected a mild atmosphere too if I was honest.

Over in The Shed, there was a yawning gap where the missing one thousand away fans should have been. Two-thirds of a Nike swoosh was visible instead. The away section took ages to fill; I was full of disdain when I first saw how empty it was at about 7.30pm. Everton do not always bring the numbers to Stamford Bridge. The evening’s match day programme was another retro edition and I immediately recognised the font and design from season 1985/86, and I am sure that our League Cup game from the late autumn of that campaign against the same opposition was the inspiration. It brought back memories for me of midweek afternoon jaunts by British Rail to London from Stoke for Chelsea games. On that particular evening – Daryl had to remind me that the game ended 2-2 – I well remember how few Evertonians had bothered to attend. They numbered around five hundred. Remember, back in 1985 they were reigning champions. In the league match at Chelsea a month earlier, they had only brought a thousand. A poor show on both counts in my book. It seemed that the Everton tradition was continuing in 2017. However, I soon remembered back to our League Cup semi-final at Goodison in 2008 when we sadly failed to fill our three-thousand allocation. A Joe Cole goal on the break gave us a narrow 1-0 win on that very pleasing night on Merseyside – there have been a few – and the game is remembered for the best Chelsea away support of that particular season. I woke up the next day with a sore throat. The way it should be. It was the last time that the two clubs met in the League Cup.

On the walk from the bar to the stadium, I had announced that Danny Drinkwater was to make his debut for the club. There were also, possibly predictable, starts for Charly Musonda and Ethan Ampadu.

Our manager had certainly rung the changes since the weekend.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Ampadu – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Musonda

If ever there was a Chelsea “B” team, this was it.

The Everton line-up included a lad with the most ridiculously Scouse name that I think that I have ever heard; Johnjoe Kenny.

“Sound, la.”

There was, quite evidently, another full house for a League Cup tie at HQ. Quite fantastic.

For a great part of the first-half, the football formed a backdrop as Alan and myself chatted away about the players on show, our recent performances, our plans for the trip to Rome, and the days when the League Cup actually meant something. If the FA Cup has fallen from glory over the past two decades, them this is even more true of the nation’s secondary cup competition. We remembered how crestfallen we were when we lost to Sunderland in the 1985 semi, the QPR quarter final in 1986, away at Scarborough in 1989, the Sheffield Wednesday semi in 1991, away at Tranmere Rovers in 1991, at Crystal Palace in the rain in 1993, Bolton 1996, the list goes on. It felt – stop sniggering at the back – that for a decade or more the League Cup represented Chelsea Football Club’s only realistic chance of silverware.

These days, it is way down our pecking order. An irrelevance? It hurts me to say it, but yes.

Unless we play a major rival of course.

Are Everton a major rival? Not quite.

Danny Drinkwater soon impressed with a display of crunching tackles and solid passing. Alongside him was Ethan Ampadu looking like a crusty at a Levellers gig circa 1991. At just seventeen years of age, although not his debut, this was a huge night for him. In that first half, with his nerves jangling, he did not look out of place though some of his long-range passing was amiss.

The two-thousand away fans could not seem to get past their one song.

“And if you know your history it’s enough to make your heart go…”

However, no Chelsea songs were forthcoming from us, save the rousing “Antonio.”

Alan and myself chatted about our players.

We hardly noticed Charly Musonda. He was having a very quiet night. I noticed a passing resemblance of Davide Zappacosta to Groucho Marx. I wondered if our right back’s moustache was real. I pondered if Michy Batshuayi would have a memorable a game as his white undershirt.

My mind was clearly drifting…

After twenty-five minutes of huff and puff, but not much quality – nor any noise – we had our first corner, in front of the away fans in the far corner. Willian played it short to Musonda, who sent over a long cross towards the far post. We watched as Rudiger, falling back, did ever so well to head the ball back across the goalmouth, over ‘keeper Jordan Pickford, and into the far corner of the goal. The crowd loved that.

We were up one-nil, get in.

Everton created hardly anything during the first-half. Wayne Rooney was as innocuous and insipid as his grey shirt. A tame effort from Michy straight at Pickford was the only effort on goal. One from Groucho rippled the side netting.

There was wholesome applause from the Chelsea faithful at the break, but there was a realisation that this was in support of the youngsters, the fringe players, the manager, rather than for a recognition of any great period of play. However, Willian had been predictably busy, Christensen looked so natural, and everyone warmed to Zappacosta’s honesty and desire, to say nothing of his ability to stoop low, twiddle a cigar between his fingers, and crack one-liners to the West Lower.

But it had not been a memorable forty-five minutes.

At the interval, Bjarne Goldbaek trod the sacred turf. Forever etched in our minds is that thunderbolt of an equaliser at Three Point Lane in 1998. He looked well, bless him. I’m sure for many new fans – why do I always think of that prick Jeremy Clarkson when I talk about new fans? – it had might as well have been Barney Rubble out on the pitch.

We had heard that Tottenham were winning 2-0 at home to Wembley. There was the rival that would undoubtedly make the competition interesting.

The second-half started.

I commented to Alan that there did not seem to be a weight of expectation on the players. If mistakes were made, especially by those without much first-team exposure, there were less boos than normal.

The second-half had more urgency, and the challenges became more physical. Without warning, the away team turned the screw. Their resurgence was a shock.

Willy Caballero was right in the thick of it. A fantastic save from Rooney drew loud applause, but then soon after a terrible clearance from the ‘keeper gave us all kittens. Thankfully, he cleared before an Everton player could capitalise.

An effort from right under the bar at the Shed End was diverted over for a corner. Everton were on top for sure.

On the hour, the Chelsea support – realising that the team needed us – suddenly roared.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Danny Drinkwater, possibly our best player until then, was substituted and replaced by Cesc Fabregas. The former Leicester City player with the classic footballer’s name was given a very fine round of applause. There is just something about players with the same letter starting both of their first names and last names; Joey Jones, Damien Duff, Didier Drogba…Steve Sidwell. Er, perhaps not.

Our man Caballero kept pulling off some stunning saves. This was becoming a man of the match performance.

In a rare break, Willian ran at pace but drilled his shot wide of the near post.

Pedro replaced the unimpressive Musonda.

Everton still bossed it.

However, it was so gratifying to hear that the Chelsea support was back in the game. The quiet first-half seemed a distant memory. Batshuayi pick-pocketed a loose ball and touched it past Pickford, only for himself and his undershirt to see the back-tracking ‘keeper recover and push the ball away. Michy smacked the upright and for a few minutes looked like he had done himself a classic ‘seventies sitcom “mischief.”

An Everton effort rattled the top of Caballero’s bar.

Alvaro Morata replaced Michy.

We took an ineffectual short corner. I moaned to Alan.

“I bloody hate short corners. By all means, do it to get a different angle and whip the ball in early, but don’t just play it to a team mate, idly, then ponce about with it for a few moments. Certainly don’t bloody receive it back from the person you passed to.”

With injury time being played, Fabregas played a short corner to Willian. He shimmied and danced past Tom Davies, then played a sublime one-two with Fabregas who had accelerated away into space. Willian caressed the ball past Pickford into the Everton goal.

Chelsea 2 Everton 0.

I turned to Alan.

“As I said, I bloody hate those short corners.”

In the aftermath of the goal, Willian was mobbed by his team mates right down below us in Cathy’s Corner. He had been, I think, our star performer on the night.

As an afterthought, Dominic Calvert-Lewin toe-poked a goal for Everton. How typical of football that a team chasing a game admirably could only score once they conceded a further goal.

Into the last eight we went. Not a great game, not one that will live long in my memory, but a win is a win is a win is a win.

On the walk back to the car, I could hardly believe that Tottenham had managed to lose 3-2 to West Ham. Oh how I laughed. Not even Groucho Marx makes me giggle as that lot from N17.

Back in the car, we all agreed.

“Bristol City away please.”

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Tales From The Long Goodbye

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 21 May 2017.

If ever the old adage of “Chelsea is not just about football” was true, then it was certainly true for our last league game of the season against relegated Sunderland. And although there was chatter among some fans for us to achieve a Premier League record thirty wins, my mind was full of anticipation for the trophy celebrations at the end of the game. To be honest, I thought that the win was a foregone conclusion. Sunderland have finished bottom of the division for a reason. Label me, for once, as being blasé, but I am sure that I was not alone. There was also the emotion of John Terry’s last-ever appearance in a Chelsea shirt at Stamford Bridge. I wasn’t quite sure how that would play out, but it promised to be quite a day.

On the Saturday evening, I replayed John Terry’s speech at the end of our last game of the 2015/16 season, when he spoke of the team’s struggles throughout the campaign, but also of his desire to stay at Stamford Bridge for another year, and to indeed retire as a Chelsea man. On several occasions, his voice faltered. Always an emotional man, I honestly wondered how on Earth he would cope one year later. For us fans, a day of high emotion was on the cards. For him, it would be even more intense. I had a feeling that everything would be about our captain. There was a realisation that it would possibly overshadow, if that is possible, the trophy presentation. Oh well. Whatever will be will be, as they say in football circles.

While I was watching John Terry on “You Tube” on Saturday evening, many other Chelsea pals were at an event at Stamford Bridge which paid homage to Eddie McCreadie’s team of the mid- ‘seventies. It represented his first appearance at Chelsea since he was sacked in 1977 – infamously for allegedly asking the board for a company car – and it was a major coup. For decades, he had not ventured from his new home in Tennessee due to his fear of flying. It looked like a top night. For once, I looked on from afar, and lived vicariously through the photographs of others. Many of the players from that era had attended the event. Lovely stuff.

On the Sunday morning, an early start for The Chuckle Bus, I drove up to London for the last time this season. For the FA Cup on Saturday, Glenn is driving; I will be able to relax and enjoy a few pints ahead of a final hurrah at Wembley. Glenn and myself headed down to the ground early on. We made a bee-line for the hotel where I hoped to be lucky enough to bump in to Eddie Mac. We stayed for a while, met a few friends, but our former manager was elsewhere. Not to worry, I got to meet Steve Wicks – our “flaxen-haired pivot” as much-lampooned former programme editor Colin Benson described him during his second spell at the club from 1986 to 1988 – and it is always lovely to meet former heroes. I wondered if Eddie McCreadie would be on the pitch at half-time. I never ever saw him play for us. There was also a quick word of welcome to former manager Ken Shellito, now living in Malaysia. Brilliant.

As we headed back to meet up with the lads in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, we noted that the club were handing out free match programmes. The sun was out. It was going to be a lovely day.

The usual faces had assembled in the pub for our final Chelsea home game of the season. I spotted several Juventus supporters in the little snug upstairs. They were assembling for their game against Crotone which would kick-off at 2pm. It would be a potential league decider. I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them in both Italian and English. It turned out that the boozer is the HQ of the Juve London Supporters Club. What a small world. They spoke of Antonio Conte and of Juan Cuadrado. The two clubs have shared many players and managers over the years, and that’s lovely for me. I showed them a photo on my phone of me at the Stadio Communale in 1988, and this was met with wide smiles. I bellowed “Vinci Per Noi” as I left.

We called in to “The Clarence” – news broke through that JT was starting –  and then made our way to Stamford Bridge, bumping into others en route. On the approach to the stadium, Fulham Road was adorned with signs declaring “The Home Of The Champions.” There already was an air of celebration in the air. The football match almost seemed an afterthought.

I briefly centred my thoughts on our team. I had presumed that JT might come on as a substitute, probably for Gary Cahill, so he could be on the pitch at the end of the game. Antonio Conte had obviously decided upon other plans. Elsewhere, a strong team, and with Fabregas instead of Matic and Willian instead of Pedro.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Terry, Luiz – Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

The hotel was being used as a canvas for two huge murals. To the left was a large image of John Terry and Antonio Conte in an embrace. To the right, the two words being uttered by them both :

“Thanks.”

“Grazie.”

Perfect.

Sunderland had brought down 1,500 from the north-east. It has been a Weary season for them. Their supporters looked like a sea of red-and-white striped deckchairs in the lazy summer sun. The minutes passed by. The usual pre-match Chelsea songs echoed around the packed stands.

It seemed that every seat was being used. Sadly, down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower, one seat was empty. After being recently hospitalised, Cathy was forced to miss her first Chelsea home game since 1976, and only her second one ever since that date. She was undoubtedly in my thoughts, and in the thoughts of others, throughout the day. I have known Cathy as a “Chelsea face” for decades, but only really got to know her via trips to the US in 2006 and 2007. Her support has known no bounds. I hoped that her next match would be at Wembley next weekend.

“Get well soon, Cath.”

The league season had begun with the silvery shimmer of the Italian flag in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the teams appeared on the touchline, The Shed unravelled its most ambitious project yet; yet more shimmering mosaics, horizontal blue and white, with a large image of John Terry centrally-placed, and with trophies in front. Then, a huge sign was draped over the balcony –

“THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.”

There was another JT-themed flag in the Matthew Harding Lower below me. On the pitch, our captain led the team out with his two children Summer and George walking alongside him. It was a spectacular scene. The applause increased. Flames roared in front of the East Lower. Bathed in sunshine, a riot of colour, Stamford Bridge had rarely looked more photogenic.

The game had barely begun when the home crowd boomed “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” and the dapper Italian did a slow 360-degree salute to us.

Soon after, the crowd followed this up with a chant for Roman Abramovich. To my surprise, not only did the bashful owner smile and wave, he stood up too. Bless him. It is only right that we show him some love too.

Our game at the Stadium of Light in December was a 1-0 win – that Courtois save, wow – and had given us three vital away points. It seemed like a highly important victory at the time. It gave us belief heading in to Christmas. How odd that they could not break through on that night, but it only took them three minutes in the home game. A Sunderland free-kick resulted in a ball ending up at the feet of the unmarked Javier Manquillio – who? – at the far post. As John Terry scrambled to cover, the Sunderland player smashed the ball past Thibaut.

Oh bugger it.

There would not be another clean sheet for our ‘keeper.

On six minutes, the away fans in the far corner began singing in honour of their own club legend.

“One Bradley Lowery, there’s only one Bradley Lowery.”

I joined in, momentarily, but I was in the minority. The away fans sang away, bless them. At the end of the sixth minute, we were awarded a free-kick. Marcos Alonso slammed a curler against the bar and we watched with increasing incredulity as player after player passed the ball in and around the packed deck-chairs inside the Sunderland box.

The ball came out to Diego Costa, who shifted the ball to Eden Hazard, who moved it on to George Hilsdon. Then the ball was swept out to Jimmy Windridge, then to Tommy Law, then to Hughie Gallacher. A shot was blocked. Tommy Lawton pushed the ball to Tommy Walker, then to Roy Bentley. Another blocked shot. The ball fell to Ken Shellito, who shimmied past his marker, and touched the ball inside to Barry Bridges. A firm tackle robbed him of the ball, but John Hollins pounced and won the ball back. A fine move involving Clive Walker, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gianluca Vialli and Claude Makelele set up Frank Lampard. His shot ricocheted into the path of John Terry, who swiped at the ball but could not connect. Eventually, the ball reached Willian who smashed the ball home.

Thank fuck for that.

Willian leapt in the air right in front of a gaggle of mates who were watching in the Shed Lower. The ground, unsurprisingly, roared.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

We went close on several other occasions and were in total control. Willian was right in the middle of everything, causing panic in the Sunderland box whenever he had the ball. John Terry caught a loose ball well but his shot was deflected away for a corner. It came from just outside the “D” of the penalty area. It could have been his crowning glory. He still, I am sure, has not scored from outside the box. Moses fired over. David Luiz went close. It was all Chelsea.

On twenty-six minutes, Jordan Pickford booted the ball off for a throw-in.

“Well, that was odd.”

It then all slotted in to place.

It was obvious that John Terry was to be substituted. I remembered back to 2015 and Didier’s last game when he was carried off by team mates. That seemed a little excessive, but seemed OK in the grand scheme of things. For John Terry, things were more contrived. He clapped us all, received hugs from his team mates and a few Sunderland players, including former blue Fabio Borini, and was given a guard of honour by his Chelsea team mates. Of course, the Chelsea crowd were lapping it all up. I was in two minds. A classy gesture or pure showbiz schmaltz? I am still undecided.

Ron Harris’ thoughts would be interesting to hear.

Regardless, he was given a fine ovation. He was, appropriately, replaced by Gary Cahill.

Alan, ever thoughtful, sent a video of the JT substitution to Cathy in her Middlesex hospital.

Willian, the constant danger, went close. For a while, it seemed implausible that we would not score a second goal. With Diego Costa on the periphery, however, we lacked a goal scoring touch inside the box. Diego was booked for a messy scuffle with John O’Shea, the lanky deck-chair attendant. Would it be one of those Diego games?

At the break, it was tied at 1-1 and we could hardly fathom it.

Sadly, Eddie McCreadie did not make it down to the pitch during the half-time break. Neil Barnett did mention him, though. He was watching from a box in the corporate tier of the West Stand. Additionally, we spotted Claudio Ranieri was sitting a few seats away from Roman.

The second-half began and it was much the same as before. Victor Moses took over Willian’s mantle and put in some lovely advances down the right. On the hour, at last we broke through. Eden Hazard drifted in from the left and effortlessly smashed the ball past Pickford.

We were 2-1 up. Get in.

The noise boomed again around Stamford Bridge. We were winning. Eden had just scored. Roman was happy. We were all happy.

“Carefree. Wherever you may be.”

Antonio was serenaded again. The 360 again. He then replaced Diego Costa with Michy Batshuayi. As he strode off, he too did a 360, but tellingly waved both hands to all four stands.

“He’s off to China then.”

When Pedro replaced Eden on seventy minutes, my eyes seared in to his skull and I begged him not to wave too. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Meanwhile, on Humberside, that lot were scoring five, six, seven. I wondered when they would be allowed to play their three extra games to allow them to be champions this season. At Anfield, Liverpool were winning, thus condemning Arsenal to fifth place. When we ended up in tenth place last season, there were no protests nor public outcry, nor a reduction in attendance figures. After Arsenal’s season – “fifth place, how dare they!!!” – expect the end of the world as we know it.

With around ten minutes to go, Pedro nipped in to head home after Cesc’s long ball was not gathered by Pickford. I was reminded of the same player’s rapid strike against Manchester United in the autumn. His gleeful little dance below me was joy itself.

Bizarrely, man of the moment Michy Batshuayi then scored two further goals in time added on for stoppages. Firstly, an opportunist toe poke from a fine pass from Pedro. He loved that. Soon after, wide on the right, he appeared to be offside and almost gave up the chase on a ball that was pumped in to space. He almost apologetically picked the ball up, strode forward and curled a fine shot past the luckless Pickford.

Chelsea 5 Sunderland 1.

The final whistle followed just after.

Just champion.

Unlike in previous seasons – even when we won it in 2015 – virtually nobody left the stadium. We waited patiently for the trophy presentation. But, I guess, many were waiting for John Terry too. The Sunderland fans gradually drifted away. Elsewhere, the stadium remained at capacity. We waited.

Dennis Wise appeared with the 2016/17 Premier League trophy and slowly walked out to place it on the plinth, which was luckily placed at our end of the stadium. We were in prime seats. Dennis kissed the trophy and smiled the cheekiest of grins. Inexplicably, and to my surprise, my eyes became moist. It was Dennis – “The Rat” – who had hoisted the FA Cup at Wembley in 1997, the greatest day in my life at that time. I was sent reeling back in time, and I welled up. Oh how we celebrated at Wembley on that glorious day. Our club was a different beast in those days. In truth, it felt more like my club in 1997 than in 2017 for reasons which are far too profound for me to tackle at this moment in time. Suffice to say, it all felt a lot more personal and pertinent – and relevant – twenty years ago than now. In 1997, we were a tight bunch. We had been through it all. The FA Cup was a final reward for our years of penury. These days, any Tom, Dick and Harriet supports Chelsea and successes seem to be expected by many.

For those who were there, in 1997, I am sure my emotions are easily understood.

I gathered myself, wiped my eyes, and awaited the next stage of the trophy presentation.

Neil Barnett was the MC.

First up, a few squad members who had not featured, including Eduardo and Masonda. Then, the manager Antonio. What a reaction from the crowd. He looked euphoric. Then, each and every one of the first team regulars were announced. Special cheers for N’Golo, for Eden, for Dave (who had, remarkably, played every single minute of our league campaign this season.)

Then Gary Cahill. Big cheers.

Then John Terry’s face appeared on the TV screen. His bottom lip seemed to be quivering.

“Oh, for fuck sake John, keep it steady.”

The captain walked slowly towards the trophy. A pause. Both John and Gary picked it up. Another pause.

And then the joint lift of the huge trophy above heads.

More flames and tinsel.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

  1. 2005. 2006. 2010. 2015. 2017.

How sweet it is.

The players were then swamped by wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters, plus the gentlemen of the press. The central area became crowded and too much was going on. We had a superb view of it all but I felt for the fans in The Shed.

“We sort out the pre-match display and are then the forgotten ones.”

The trophy was passed from player to player. We spotted the Sky team of Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville and Graeme Souness chat to Thibaut and Eden.

Inevitably, eyes turned towards John Terry. A montage of his most famous moments in our colours was featured on the TV screens. He stood, motionless, watching too. It looked like his bottom lip was going again. Neil gave him the microphone. His first act was to thank Steve Holland, off to pastures new with England, and he was given a fine reception. John Terry then walked past the photographers and spoke of the love that Roman Abramovich has for the club. For a moment, with John looking up at the owner in his executive area, speaking with such feeling, it resembled a footballing version of Romeo declaring undying love under Juliet’s balcony.

Roman’s name was again given a resounding roar. More embarrassed waves from the owner.

John then spoke of his love for the club, for us fans, but especially his love of his own family.

“I love you all” and his voice broke.

My eyes became a little moist. Good job I had my sunglasses on.

I then wondered if we had all lost the plot.

It’s only football, right?

Shankly was of course wrong. It’s not more important than life and death. What is?

And yet sport – football for me – does stir these incredible emotions. It is not to be laughed at. Football has given me some of my most amazing moments. I could only imagine what John was going through. His last day at his place of work for the past twenty years. A last goodbye.

I have only experienced something similar once before. My last visit to the old Yankee Stadium in 2008 – after twenty-three visits – left me a blubbering wreck. Heaven knows what I will be like when we move out in two years’ time. After around three-hundred and fifty games at Stamford Bridge, John had every right to be suitably moved.

Football has the power to touch us in so many ways and long may it continue.

I stood with Alan, Glenn and PD, our arms around each other’s shoulders.

It was a proud moment for PD; he had completed a full set of league games for the first time ever.

A hug for John Terry with Antonio Conte. A few words from the manager. A last few photographs of the captain in front of the Matthew Harding.

A wave to us.

And then a slow walk down to The Shed.

For many of our new fans, it must seem impossible for a Chelsea with no John Terry. But this club will continue. And we are in a supremely healthy position; the manager has formed a fine team ethos this season. And I know that many words have been written to describe John Terry, but my last comment for now is that during a potentially frustrating season for him, John has exemplified what a consummate professional he is by not giving the media a single story of negativity nor nonsense. For this reason alone, it has been one of his finest seasons. Bless him.

Who knows, he might even score the winner at Wembley next Saturday.

 

For Cathy.

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