Tales From Level One And Level Eight

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 6 October 2019.

By a rather strange twist of fate in the odd world of the scheduling of football matches, the two teams to which I am most emotionally tied were playing within six miles of each other on the same weekend and just twenty-three hours apart.

Frome Town of the BetVictor Southern League Division South were at AFC Totton at 3pm on Saturday 5 October.

Chelsea of the Premier League were at Southampton at 2pm on Sunday 6 October.

These two divisions represent levels one and eight of England’s football pyramid.

Premier League, Championship, Division One, Division Two, National League, National League South, Southern League Premier South, Southern League Division One South.

As the weekend approached, the lure of seeing two football games became increasingly tempting. With a little more planning, I could have – at a push – stayed over in Southampton on the Saturday night, but that would have meant that I would have been unable to have a pre-match beer before the Chelsea game as I would need to drive home under my own steam. My pal Glenn had volunteered himself for driving duties for that game. It would mean a rare chance for a few pints before a game for me. That was too tempting to resist. Going in to Saturday, I carried out a few chores and soon decided that a trip south to Totton was too tempting to resist too.

So, a bit of a first here. I know that I have briefly touched upon the exploits of my local team on this site on several occasions (Frome Town were, after all, the first team that I ever saw live, in September 1970), but due to a couple of reasons that will become self-evident, I will include a little match report here.

This would be my fourth Frome Town game of 2019/20. There was an entertaining 1-1 draw with Evesham, a good 3-1 win against Barnstaple, but a poor 1-2 defeat against Slimbridge. All of these games were at home. The three crowds averaged around 220. Frome had enjoyed a fine start to the season, but had weakened recently. “Dodge” – as in Dodge City, our little nickname for this once wild town of The West – were still in third place. The game at AFC Totton, on the western edge of Southampton, would be my first Frome Town away game of the season. It’s only an hour and a quarter’s drive from Frome; straight down the A36, through Salisbury, easy. I was parked-up at 2.15pm ahead of the 3pm kick-off. It was £9 to enter. Their stadium has an impressive stand on one side, where I took a seat, a low cover opposite and open-air enclosures behind both goals. I soon spotted club crests for both AFC Totton and Southampton Football Club on the gate leading onto the pitch. AFC Totton occasionally hosts Southampton youth team fixtures. There is the tie-up. The pitch was exceptional in fact. I spotted a couple of Saints shirts during the afternoon.

Frome Town raced into a two-nil lead with goals from Rex Mannings and Joe O’Loughlin in the first quarter of an hour. Our play was quick and incisive. Just as I texted a mate back home to say “it’s all us”, we let in two quick goals. The second effort was superb; the nippy right winger cut in, Robben-esque, and dipped a magnificent curler high into the far corner. I was right behind the flight of the ball. I stood up to applaud. It was sensational.

The little band of fifteen Frome Town supporters changed ends at half-time. I chatted to a mate who I often see at Frome; Jamie is an exiled Arbroath fan, now fully behind Frome Town. We both explained how we would much rather watch Frome Town live rather than Premier League or international games on TV.

In the second-half, it was a lot scrappier, but the home ‘keeper was sent-off for handball outside the box. A central defender went between the sticks. Jon Davies smacked the resultant kick against the wall but was on hand to rifle home the rebound. With a 3-2 win, Frome rose to second in the table behind local rivals Paulton Rovers. The gate was 248, a common amount for this level. At the end of the game, all Frome players walked over to clap the travelling band of supporters, a good half of which I know, and shook hands with every single one of them.

Lovely stuff.

So, there you have it. Frome Town. Level Eight.

Who knows, one day when I feel the need, I might even set up a Frome Town website of my own. I could call it “Well Dodgey.”

People always remember when Mork and Mindy first appeared on TV in an edition of “Happy Days”. Followers of Frome Town – of which I know that there are a few in the US, lured in by my love of both Chelsea and Dodge – might look back and remember it gracing this website first.

Nanu fucking nanu.

Well Dodgey

On the Sunday, Glenn collected me at 8.45am. Well, he actually showed up a whole hour early – he got his times mixed-up – and we soon collected PD, PD’s son Scott, and Scott’s mate Dan, who featured in the League Cup Final tale from last season. In another report recently, I noted the sad demise of my local village team – Mells & Vobster United – but I am pleased to report that it has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to stake a place in the Mid-Somerset League Division Three. I can’t even begin to fathom at what level in the pyramid this represents. But this pleased me. My grandfather played for Mells & Vobster in the 1920’s. I made my debut for the reserves aged thirteen in 1978 and played a few more games in the ‘eighties. Dan is on the committee too. It’s all good stuff.

Another little quirk of fate. Dan is soon moving into a bungalow in Frome which is currently owned by a Chelsea couple – Dave and Karen, erstwhile match day travel companions of The Chuckle Brothers – and which was originally built by my grandfather’s brother Jack before he emigrated to Australia, whose grandson Paul I met out on tour with Chelsea on the Gold Coast last summer.

“Chelsea World Is A Very Small World” – Part 862.

Sadly, this particular Chelsea Away Day was soon hit with a problem. Skirting Salisbury, Glenn’s Chuckle Bus lost power and we stopped as he checked a few things. He turned the ignition again, but there was a puff of blue from the exhaust, and just like Tottenham Hotspur’s claim to be a top-ranking club, our journey went up in smoke.

Glenn had no choice but to dial for roadside assistance. The four of us took a cab into Salisbury and nimbly caught the 1013 train to Southampton Central. We then enjoyed our usual Southampton pre-match routine of a Full English and a few pints of “Peroni.” Sadly, Glenn was unable to report a quick fix and was on his way home on the back of a recovery vehicle. At least we soon sold his match ticket to a fellow fan.

The time soon passed. We caught a cab up to the stadium; PD has just had an operation on his leg, just like Parky – the missing warrior – and so he can’t walk too far. On the walk towards the stadium, we passed through a little tunnel which is bedecked in Southampton images and features their current marketing battle cry of “WE MARCH ON.”

In the darkened concourse under the away seats, I squirmed as I heard more than a few – youngsters, to my ears – singing the “Y” word to “The Famous Tottenham Hotspur.”

Twats.

We were inside with about fifteen minutes to spare. The usual seats, low down, row five, sunglasses on, the sun occasionally hot.

Outside And Inside

The team?

We were back to a 4/3/3.

I do like how Frank can mix it around. The big news was that our Callum was starting for the first time this season. And Jorginho was still anchoring.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Hudson-Odoi – Abraham – Willian

I was stood alongside PD, Alan and Gary.

“We don’t often lose down here, Gal.”

We were the first team to play at this stadium in 2001 – a win – and, after ten subsequent league visits, we had lost just once in the league, a terribly weak capitulation under Rafa Benitez – who? – in 2012/13.

I had seen all of eleven games at St. Mary’s. It’s an easy away game for me, after all.

The flags waved – “WE MARCH ON” – and the jets of flame burst into the air in front of both main stands. We were last at St. Mary’s almost a year to the day ago; Sunday 7 October 2018. This was remembered by myself as a fine Chelsea performance, a 3-0 win, almost a high-point under Sarri. Ross Barkley and Eden Hazard were on fire. Even Alvaro Morata – who? – scored. Another repeat performance please.

Flags And Flames

The Chelsea choir were in good voice as the match began, and Chelsea – in all blue – were defending the goal in front of the 3,000 loyalists.

In the first few minutes, the home team looked eager. In fact, from the kick-off taken by Tammy, we lost possession and failed to stop a move developing. A rasper from Nathan Redmond flew narrowly over Kepa’s bar. Our game slowly improved. Marcos Alonso was often involved in setting up attacks, and we started to look capable of breaking into some areas that would hurt the home team. A low shot from distance from our Tammy, set up by our Callum, was easily saved by the Saints’ ‘keeper Angus Gunn.

With a quarter of an hour played, Callum spotted a burst from Tammy and played a lofted ball into the inside-left channel. The ‘keeper raced out to the edge of the box, but there was no AFC Totton style handball. Instead, Tammy lobbed the ball high – ridiculously high – into the air and over the ‘keeper and we then watched as the ball dropped right on the line. It had been up in the air so long that Tammy was able to sprint forward and watch from very close range as a Saints defender Maya Yoshida tried to hook the ball clear.

Was it a goal?

To me, it looked like it.

Tammy celebrated, a good sign.

No loathsome VAR required this time. Goal line technology to the rescue. A quick decision. A quick roar from the Chelsea faithful.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

I caught Tammy’s leap of gleeful celebration if not the goal.

Off to a good start, lovely stuff. The mood in the Northam Stand improved further.

There was the latest, of many, versions of the “Tottenham get battered song.”

In Baku, it started out as this :

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham’s got battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

This season, the complexities were ignored and it soon became :

“Tottenham gets battered.

Everywhere they go.

Tottenham gets battered

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

It now seems to be this :

“Tottenham got battered 7-2 at home.

Tottenham got battered 7-2 at home,

7-2 at home”

We also aired Callum’s “Buffalo Soldier” song – with full intro, which not all of us know – and this soon morphed into “The Banana Splits.”

It’s all a bit messy.

“We’ve won it all” was – falsely – sung too.

As a few of us have mentioned, let’s win the World Club Championships before we can even think of singing that. And even then, it seems a pretty loathsome chant.

On twenty-four minutes, we engineered a great move again in the inside-left channel. We put the home team under pressure, and some slick passing from Jorginho and Willian found Mason Mount, who coolly slotted home. His celebration was caught on camera too. His hands were cupped over his ears; our Portsmouth-born pup was enjoying this. Two more efforts from Mount – one just over, one screwed well wide – were evidence of our upper hand.

But poor defensive play on the half-hour mark set us back. From a throw-in on our left, Yan Valery set off on a solo dribble past what seemed like – and was – half of our team. It was awful defending.

“After you, Claude.”

His astute low cross was prodded in by Danny Ings.

Fackinell.

“No clean sheet this week, either.”

The dangerous Redmond was put through but his shot hit the side-netting at Kepa’s near post. Thankfully, with forty-minutes played, Alonso found himself in acres of space on the left. He found Willian, who found Kante. I begged him to hit it to Gunn’s left, where I could see space. His shot hit a defender, and wickedly deflected to where I had originally hoped.

We were 3-1 up.

GET IN.

I captured the celebrations in the haze of the shadows at the Chapel Stand end.

Thankfully, Jorginho was able to clear a goal-bound shot on the edge of the six-yard box when Fikayo Tomori gifted the ball to Ings.

“Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

His rebirth has been amazing. It shows, I think, how fickle us football supporters can be.

Egg on faces for some who chose to lampoon him last season? Sure.

It had been an open and eventful half of football. Surely there would be other goals? Pre-match, I had predicted a 3-0 win for us. I was hopeful for further efforts and chances. At times our expansive and high-energy football was a joy. It was a beautiful antidote to the over-passing under Sarri. It was so enjoyable.

The second-half began, with Chelsea attacking the away section. Our noise was good all game long. The home fans only really got behind their team when they scored. It was to be a poor showing from them.

A Braziliant run from deep from Willian was the first notable show of skill in the second period. His burst through the middle, eating up ground voraciously, was followed by a well-aimed pass to Callum, whose low shot across Gunn was deflected wide after a leg was flung out at the last minute.

There was a Southampton free-kick from James Ward-Prowse which failed to trouble Kepa. A rare shot from Yoshida was easily saved.

“His only save this half, PD.”

We were well in control of this game despite the quality of the first-half.

On eighty-minutes, some substitutions.

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount, who had run his royal blue socks off all game.

Christian Pulisic for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who had been a lively threat when we were purring.

With six minutes remaining, Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham, who had enjoyed another sensational outing.

Eight goals this season.

Beautiful.

As the Chelsea hordes changed from singing “Is There A Fire Drill?” – tedious – to “Oh When The Saints Go Marching Out” – much better – we kept attacking as the home team tired.

“One Man Went To Mow” boomed around the away section as a fine move developed. Alonso kept the ball well on the far touchline. The song reached its conclusion.

“Ten men, nine men, eight me, seven men, six men, five me, four men, three me, two men, one man.”

To Jorginho. He waited for movement. A pass to Michy.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Michy to Pulisic. A superb give and go. Michy in behind. A sublime touch from Pulisic. Michy in space.

A low shot through Gunn’s legs.

GET IN.

More celebrations, this time right in front of us.

Celebrations

AFC Totton 2 Frome Town 3

Southampton 1 Chelsea 4

A perfect double.

PD is never Willian’s biggest fan, but even he admitted that he had been exceptional all game.

“Man of the match for me, P-Diddy.”

Prince Willian

The whistle soon blew and we all waited for the players and management team to walk down towards us. More photographs. This was, I think, the most enjoyable part of the entire day, the entire weekend. Just as Frome Town’s players had joined in with the celebrations at the end of Saturday’s match, here were the rank and file of Chelsea Football Club joining forces to completely revel in the moment.

Frank’s hugs with his players and his smiles towards us?

Priceless.

We loudly serenaded our beloved manager.

“Super Frankie Lampard” and it felt good, it felt very good.

Frank and Friends

We left the stadium with a bounce in our step.

This was a fine win.

The day continued its take on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with another cab to the station, another train to Westbury, a car to Frome and the second van of the day to Mells.

It had been a very fine weekend.

We are sitting pretty in the league, we are in the mix in the Champions League, we play the worst Manchester United side that I can remember for a long time at home in the League Cup, Tammy is among the goals, the youngsters are the talk of the town, Frank is the gaffer and we are one.

Next up, Newcastle United at home in a fortnight.

I will see you there.

Tales From The Return Of The Blades

Chelsea vs. Sheffield United : 31 August 2019.

Sheffield. My first memories of Sheffield football involved United and not Wednesday. Back in the early ‘seventies when I first became enchanted by football, and all that went with it, it was Sheffield United who were involved in the top flight while their bitter rivals and near neighbours Sheffield Wednesday were playing football in the old Second and Third Divisions.

Names such as Tony Currie, Trevor Hockey and Alan Woodward starred for the Blades in that period. They were a mid-table team and, at times, an entertaining team. In those days, Wednesday – even though they were the bigger of the city’s two clubs, with a few more trophies and a larger stadium – were off the radar for me. Wednesday’s plight mirrored that of Aston Villa who were also loitering in the middle two divisions in that era too.

Although Chelsea played Sheffield United at regular intervals in the ‘seventies, we did not meet throughout the ‘eighties. Instead, Wednesday became one of our biggest rivals in that decade. We met United a few times in the ‘nineties, but our last meeting was in the 2006/7 season.

In all of this time, I have only ever seen them play at Stamford Bridge on three occasions, and there has only ever been one trip for me to Bramall Lane.

The first time that I saw Chelsea play Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge came in season 1991/92 in the fifth round of the FA Cup. I remember that Daryl and I spotted David Lee and Robert Fleck enjoying pre-match pints in “The Stargazey” – alas no more – on the Fulham Road before the game. But don’t worry, they weren’t playing. We won a nondescript game 1-0 with a goal from Bobby Stuart. However, the most memorable part of the entire day took place in a pub in Camden several hours after the game had ended when myself and a couple of college mates, enjoying a quiet pint, noticed an influx of United’s lads – the Blades Business Crew – who were evidently playing cat and mouse with Chelsea and also Sheffield Wednesday who, remarkably, had been playing a league fixture at Highbury that very same day. Thankfully, we managed to sidestep any problems that arose that evening, albeit narrowly. The escapades that took place that night have been well documented elsewhere. It was, evidently, quite an evening.

The most famous Chelsea vs. Sheffield United game of the past three decades, however, was the final match of the 1993/94 season. Chelsea, under Glenn Hoddle, had struggled in the first part of the campaign, adapting to a more expansive and possession based style of football – ring any bells? – but had enjoyed a resurgence after Christmas. We had, monumentally, reached our first FA Cup Final since 1970 too. The home game against Sheffield United was to be our final preparation for the Cup Final. All of our focus was on that game. It was, however, to be the final day of The Shed. We had heard that the club was to demolish the famous old terracing during the summer in preparation for new developments.

I remember travelling up with Glenn, meeting up with Daryl and maybe a couple of others in “The Stargazey” but then deciding at the last minute to get tickets in the East Stand Upper rather than stand on The Shed for the last ever time. I remember that it was raining heavily and there would have been no guarantee of cover in The Shed. So, in one of my most shocking Chelsea decisions ever, I chose not to experience The Shed on its final day. I still shudder at this ludicrous choice twenty-five years on.

“What was I thinking?”

As the North Stand terrace had been demolished around Christmas 1993, the only place left to house the away fans was the East Upper. Lo and behold, Glenn and I found ourselves just a few rows in front of the large and boisterous Sheffield United contingent. The Blades were threatened with relegation, though from memory were unlikely to go down as they were several places above the drop zone. Other teams were in the mix too and it never really dawned on me that relegation would be an option for them. Famously, Everton were right in the mire. Jostein Flo – Tore Andre’s older brother – put the away team 1-0 up and the away fans bellowed “The Blades are staying up.” Jakob Kjeldberg equalised, but Glyn Hodges quickly restored the lead. This was looking good for Sheffield United.

“Now you’re gonna believe us…the Blades are staying up.”

But this was anything but good for us. We had lost 2-1 at home to Coventry City the previous Wednesday evening at Stamford Bridge – in front of a miserable 8,923, maybe everyone was saving their hard-earned for Wembley – and now we were losing to a poor team on the Saturday. It was hardly good preparation for Wembley. Then, miraculously Mark Stein – the season’s unlikely hero – scored in the seventy-fourth minute and again on ninety to give us a dramatic 3-2 victory. Elsewhere none other than Bobby Stuart – or Graham Stuart, now that he had left us – had scored for Everton to give them a late win at home to Wimbledon, and – much to my sadness – we soon realised that Mark Stein’s late winner, a poacher’s goal in front of The Shed, had relegated Sheffield United.

The away fans went deathly quiet.

It was a game that we wanted to win for sure, with Wembley coming up, but it was horrible to witness at close hand the absolute sadness being experienced by the Blades fans. Some younger fans were in tears.

It was the first time that they had been in the bottom three all season.

It was a bizarre experience. And, I’ll be honest, I really felt for them.

Glenn and I sloped away, quiet too.

My pre-match activity for the game in 2019/20 involved more history. I joined up with twelve other Chelsea supporters who had signed up for Rick Glanvill’s historical walk along the Fulham Road. Rick is the official club historian and is heavily involved at Chelsea, having written the official book celebrating our centenary in 2005 – what timing, what a year – and writes for the match programme to this day.

From 11pm to 12.30pm, Rick effortlessly guided us from the Fulham Town Hall to Stamford Bridge – the bridge, not the stadium – and from 1905 (and before) to 2019. It was a thoroughly entertaining ride through our history, with fascinating insights into key moments in our formation and subsequent decades. It’s probably best that I don’t report too much detail of the content and undermine Rick’s further tours, suffice to say that I heartily recommend them to anyone with a passion, like me, for social history, geography, football and a good yarn.

Rick painted a wonderful picture of the area before Chelsea Football Club was formed. And there were whimsical stories about the founding fathers, music hall performers, the club’s first official photographer, music studios, a local lad who became one of the first ball boys and the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945.

It was right up my street, or rather Fulham Road.

One of the same I guess.

I met up with the lads at “Simmons” and it was a real pleasure to see Dave once again. Dave now lives in the South of France with his good lady and their young lad – who, with perfect timing – was born a couple of hours before we won the league at West Brom in 2017. And no, Dave’s son’s name isn’t called Michy.

We last saw Dave on a good old pub crawl around the West End before the debacle against Tottenham at Wembley last season.

It was a joy to see him again.

One of our party was missing however, and it felt odd. Parky was recuperating in a Bath hospital after his hip operation on Thursday. After work on Friday, PD and I had visited him and he was doing well, and in fine form.

This is code for “we couldn’t shut him up.”

With or without Parky, everyone was having a blast. I met up with a few of the usual suspects for the first time of the season in “Simmons” and it felt great. It is a very popular little bar among people I know.

To tie things up nicely with Rick’s pre-game tour, the son of our former chairman Brian Mears was in attendance.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Dave, and the fifteen-minute journey was riddled with ridiculous laughter.

Good times.

On the forecourt, I tussled with my conscience and for the first time ever, I chose not to buy a home programme. I have tended to only flick through them of late, even though they are a good read, but I have crossed the Rubicon. I gave up buying away ones a good few years ago. I haven’t bought the 2018 FA Cup Final programme, nor the 2019 Europa League programme.

There is only so much space in my house for Chelsea paraphernalia.

Ugh.

Once inside Stamford Bridge, I had a few moments to settle and prepare myself for the game, which until then, had hardly entered my thoughts.

I looked over at the away section and wondered where two supporters were located.

On the Friday, I had received a lovely message from my friend Simon, who is a Sheffield United supporter, and who I have known for over three decades. On my only visit to Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006, I met up with him at his house and we drove in together. It summed up his take on the current regime, and really brought home how lucky we have been as Chelsea supporters over the last twenty-five years.

“Big match for us tomorrow. Unfortunately, I won’t be there. My brother Chris and nephew Archie will. Either me or Chris need to be around for Mum so it’s difficult for us to go on away trips together. As for the Blades, most fans are in agreement that these last few seasons have been the best ever, certainly in terms of the quality of football and also that Chris Wilder is our greatest ever manager. The season before Wilder was appointed 2015/16 was awful, I remember watching us lose consecutive home games to Bury and Colchester and we finished mid-table League 1. A couple of players from that season are still involved (Billy Sharp and Chris Basham). Before that we had all the Ched Evans stuff, supporters were falling out with each other and it really felt like we’d hit rock bottom. I remember seeing us go down to the old Div 4 in 1981 but this somehow felt much worse. So we’ve come a long way in a short period of time and the pride is back in the club. We’ve made a good start this season and so will be interesting to see how we go tomorrow. Hope you are well Chris and maybe we can meet up at Bramall Lane later on this season.

Best wishes, Simon.”

Since that match in 1994, the two clubs really have enjoyed mixed fortunes, eh?

The place slowly filled up, everyone took their seats. The away team were to be backed by a full three thousand. There weren’t too many away shirts dotted around the away section. I had walked past three Sheffield United fans a couple of hours earlier, each wearing the striped home shirt, looking like they had been refused entry from one pub and were on the search for another. They looked so forlorn. Neutral colours would have at least helped. Some people never learn.

The team was announced and – sadly – N’Golo Kante was missing. No place for Toni Rudiger either, still not match fit. It was a surprise that Tomori started, only his second game for us. Mason Mount was out wide again. Another start for Pulisic. Tammy leading the line.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pulisic – Barkley – Mount

Abraham

I was a little disappointed that Sheffield United didn’t show up in their famous red and white stripes. Instead, they chose all white with red socks. Their most famous kit of all was the admiral one from 1976, with black edging on the red stripes. I mention this as it is a kit that my home village side Mells & Vobster United  – or at least the first team, the team I never quite managed to play for – used to wear in that same period too.

I can still see Alan Ford turning away, arm raised, after scoring a belting free-kick in around 1977 wearing the Sheffield United shirt.

There were a few banners adorning the away section.

One, half out of view – said “Hated, Adored” and I presumed that the part of the banner out of view said “Never Ignored.”

Stolen from Manchester United.

Must do better.

The game began, and the atmosphere was so-so. But we began well, with almost total domination of possession. It wasn’t as good a start as against Leicester City, but it wasn’t bad. A few chances came and went. There was an early repetition of the move which lead to our first goal against Norwich City with Christian Pulisic knocking the ball out to an overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta, but the firm cross evaded both the on-rushing Ross Barkley and Tammy Abraham. On twenty minutes, a very similar move earned dividends. Barkley won the ball, moved it to Pulisic and then it was played to Dave, who was deeper than before. His cross was headed down and towards goal by Tammy, and the Sheffield United ‘keeper Dean Henderson had great difficulty in gathering the ball. Under pressure from Pulisic, he could only knock it straight into the path of our young striker.

Playing for Bristol City a few seasons back, Abraham was known as “Tammy Tap In” and he lived up to his reputation.

Chelsea 1 Sheffield United 0.

GET IN.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Tammy’s celebratory run and slide in front of the away fans was just joyous. It was, of course, his first goal at Stamford Bridge.

Beautiful.

We continued to excel.

Ross Barkley was heavily involved in many of our attacks, ably supported by the passing of Jorginho and the runs into space of Kovacic, but very often Barkley simply moved the ball on rather than played an incisive ball into danger. I thought Mason Mount was quiet, and Pulisic struggled to get involved. Kovacic flashed a firm shot past the far post. Sheffield United themselves had a couple of quarter-chances. A quick turn and cross from Chris Basham almost resulted in a stooping headed goal from Callum Robinson

A meek shot into the wall from Ross Barkley free-kick summed up his half.

One moment frustrated us all. The fall fell to Jorginho, centrally positioned and within sight of the goal. Rather than look to fire an effort in on goal, he lofted a pass over the heads of everyone, including the intended Tammy, and the attack died. I commented to the lads that there just must have been something in Jorginho’s footballing DNA – after years of behaviour-inducing drills – to stop him from shooting.

The away fans were relatively quiet all first-half.

Alan and I spent a few moments chatting about the wonderful Ronnie Barker in “Porridge” and we quoted some pearls.

“What, from here?”

“With these feet?”

“It was a green one.”

“He’s doing rather well.”

On the pitch, we were in command, but drifting a little, hence the brief comedic diversion.

Thankfully, with two minutes to go before the break, Jorginho lofted another high ball towards the box and Tammy pounced after a blunder from two of United’s three centre-backs, and picked up a loose ball. He found space well, picked his spot and although the ‘keeper touched the ball, the pace beat him. It crept in, lovely stuff.

Chelsea 2 Sheffield United 0.

“That’s all Tammy has to do, just keep hitting the corners.”

I captured his run and jump on film too.

“Four goals in three starts – love it.”

And all was well with the world at half-time. Dave came over to join us, we took some photos, happy days indeed.

Sadly, the second-half began awfully, and it brought back shocking memories of last season. With less than a minute played, they moved the ball far too easily down our right flank. Enda Stephens wriggled past a non-existent challenge from Dave, and his pacey low cross was flicked home by Robinson. The away end erupted. They were back in it.

We sighed.

The away fans were now ignited and there was a slight whiff of “A gallon of Magnet”, one of the best football songs ever.

“You fill up my senses
Like a gallon of Magnet.
Like a packet of Woodbines.
Like a good pinch of snuff.
Like a night out in Sheffield.
Like a greasy Chip Butty.
Like Sheffield United,
Come fill me again.”

The sky turned darker, to match the mood, and there was a surreal quality of light as rain fell.

We countered relatively quickly. Some gorgeous control from Dave and an intelligent ball in to the box – the epitome of the word “dink” – resulted in a side-footed stab at goal from Tammy that was clawed away by Henderson, down low, and close to him. It was a brilliant save.

Sadly, this was a very rare attack for us in the second-half. The away team sensed that confidence was seeping out of every pore of our being and grabbed hold of the game. They moved the ball well, and we lacked leadership. We looked a poor team suddenly. A couple of chances were exchanged. On the hour, Barkley was replaced by Willian, and we hoped for a far better performance from the Brazilian than against Leicester City. Mount switched inside, surely a better position for him.

Our attacking play was immediately bolstered by a couple of energetic runs from Willian, but that didn’t last. Sheffield United looked the more likely to score and the atmosphere within the stadium became rather tetchy. A lone chance fell to Kurt Zouma but he headed over from a corner. I can rarely remember a half of football which included so many mis-placed passes from so many different players. It was a shock to the system; a visual clue that confidence was low.

Michy Batshuayi replaced the impressive Kovacic, and Billy Gilmour – surprisingly – replaced Tammy Abraham.

I caught Gilmour’s first touch on his debut; a header.

Our attacks stumbled along though. It wasn’t cohesive. I didn’t like the way sections of the crowd grew noisily restless with every miss-placed pass. Rather than a cheer of encouragement there tended to be noisy swearing.

Not good.

Not good at all.

We know our role this season, don’t we?

Shouldn’t we be supporting the lads a little better?

I think so.

Mount went close with a volley. At The Shed End, a timely block from Tomori and we reacted with our heads in our hands.

Fackinell.

Sadly, sadly, sadly the game ended as we had perhaps feared.

Another raid down our right, another “after you Claude” moment, and another whipped-in cross. I could not discern who managed to get the final touch – it was evidently Kurt Zouma – but the ball flashed high into our goal.

This time, the away fans really exploded.

Bollocks.

Another second-half meltdown had left us all rather shell-shocked. As I made my way out, alongside fellow fans who were pursing lips, shaking heads and muttering, I looked up and saw the away supporters enjoying their moment.

Remembering 1994, I clapped too and whispered “well played Sheffield United.”

There was the usual “Bramber Road to Barons Court Post Mortem” in the car, and we honestly wondered if the two late substitutions were wise, but I then reminded ourselves that Frank Lampard OBE has forgotten more about football than the three of us combined will ever ever know, so we quickly shut the fuck up.

To cheer me a little, I heard that my local team Frome Town had gone top of their division with a fourth win out of four, and to cheer us all up, we had heard that Parky was home from hospital.

It was turning into a good day after all.

Chelsea under Frank Lampard is clearly a work in progress. I am not going to waste any time, effort and words on those in our midst who are unnecessarily negative.

Let’s all move on positively.

I will see some of you at Molineux.

 

Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

Exactly one year after our first league game of last season, we were on the road to a northern city once again. On the eleventh day of August in 2018, we assembled in Huddersfield for new manager Maurizio Sarri’s opener. That day felt like a huge step into the wide unknown, and a step outside of our comfort zone. It was meant to be intoxicating and different, with a new system, new players and a new approach. It wasn’t a bad day out at all to be honest. It was an easy win. At the end of that game though, I noted that the new manager did not walk over to us at the end of the game. I was to learn later that it was one of his many quirks and superstitions to never enter the pitch on game day.

What an odd fellow he was.

But one thing is for certain. If somebody had suggested that come the opening league game of the following season – and despite a third place finish, a domestic cup final appearance and a Europa League win – Frank Lampard would be our manager, there would have been widespread surprise and disbelief.

But this is football these days. Or, rather, this is Chelsea these days. Nothing is for certain, nothing seems constant, nothing seems ordinary.

Yes, dear reader, season 2019/20 was upon us with our beloved and admired former midfielder in charge and the general consensus within the Chelsea Nation was that it was time for the nonsense to stop. We just wanted a period of stability within the club. We wanted Frank Lampard to oversee a calm period. The transfer ban meant that for a year or so, we would have to look within ourselves – in more ways than one – and promote from our ranks. Again, the consensus was that we were OK with that, not that we had any choice.

Pre-season had been completed; seven games all told. I had managed to get to two of them; the wins in Dublin and Reading. My season opener against St. Pat’s was a full four weeks ago but it had felt like a short close season and time had soon passed.

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

It was going to be, inevitably, a long day on the road in support of The Great Unpredictables. I had woken one minute before my alarm clock at 7.30am – I suppose this loosely means that I was ready – and I collected PD and Glenn at 9.30am, and Parky at 10am. The first part of the journey was not devoted to football, but rather an update on various health issues that have affected the four of us, and some of our loved ones, over the summer. Thankfully, news was generally upbeat. Of the four of us inside The Chuckle Bus, I was able to report – perhaps – the healthiest news. I have been on a diet of late and am pleased with my progress.

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

“Happy with the ‘keeper. Not sure about the defence, especially now that Luiz has gone. That might be a big loss. He’s experienced and a good presence. But – let’s be frank, or even Frank – if he didn’t want to fight to retain his place, then he is best away. We are over stacked in midfield. Some real talents there. Especially if Ross and Ruben step up. But our attack worries me. Not sure about either of the three central strikers. Giroud is half a striker. Michy is half a striker. Tammy is half a striker. Real worries exist.”

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

There were periods of rain, periods of cloud, brief periods of sun.

Stupidly, I hadn’t packed a light rain jacket, only a thick coat from last season remained in my boot. I was horrified by my tactical naivety.

We glossed over the games so far. Typical heavy wins for City and Liverpool. A late, horrible, win for Tottenham. I hoped that Arsenal, never good travellers, might come unstuck at the day’s early game at Newcastle.

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

We recalled the horror show which had unfolded at West Ham; the VAR crimes on football, the frustration of ecstasy being denied, the ersatz pleasure of applauding an electronic decision, the mess of it all.

Fucking hell.

There had been delays en route, but this is nothing new on the M5 and M6. As with the previous two visits to Old Trafford, we called into The Beehive, just off junction nineteen of the M6. Waiting for us to arrive, at just gone 2pm, was my old college mate Rick, from nearby Northwich, and a long time United season ticket holder. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Since graduating in 1987 and going our separate ways, it was only the fourth time that we had seen each other, but it is always lovely to see a face from the past. We chatted about our summers, our thoughts on the immediate season, and about mutual friends from those grainy days in Stoke-on-Trent in the mid-‘eighties.

“To be honest, we were glad to see the back of Mourinho in the end.”

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

I mentioned to Rick how the highlight of my summer was a weekend flit over to Italy three weeks ago, primarily to meet up with my oldest friend in the whole wide world Mario, who was visiting his father in the town on the Italian Riviera where I first met him in 1975. Mario has appeared within these reports over the years as an endearing token of how football can add so much to our lives through the people that we meet along the way. People are mistaken if they think that football is just about tactics, players, formations, counter-attacks, transition, blocks, presses and assists.

Football is about people. It’s about the fans. The ones we meet. The ones who provide humour and laughter. The ones who provide comfort and support. The ones that you just love meeting again and again.

It’s true with Rick. It’s true with Mario.

In Diano Marina, it was magical to step inside Mario’s family home for the first time since 1988, and to meet his father Franco – now a ridiculously healthy and busy eighty-four-year-old, but still suffering as a long time Genoa fan – for the first time since then. Since those days of my youth, I had met Mario, and stayed at his house, for the Bayer Leverkusen Champions League game in 2011, and then again in 2016 when we toured Stamford Bridge in the morning and saw Leverkusen win 1-0 against Tottenham in the evening.

What memories.

I met up with his wife Gabi, and their football-mad boys Ruben, Nelson and Valentin. They reminded me of us in 1979,1980,1981…absolutely smitten with football, the teams, the players, the history, the colours, the fans.

In Diano Marina, I walked on the section of beach where Mario and I first kicked a ball to each other in 1975, and we re-created a photograph from that summer in his father’s garden, which abuts the Mediterranean Sea, and with a ball always close by.

What memories.

And we thought of potential Champions League match-ups in 2019/20 involving Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen (Mario and two of his sons are season ticket holders, Ruben the lone Borussia Dortmund fan) and Juventus (Mario is a long time Juve fan, he had a ticket for Heysel, it is a story told before) and we thought of return visits to London and Leverkusen.

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

At just after 3pm, we said our goodbyes and set off in our two cars. As the driver, no beers, no Peronis, I wanted to be fresh. There were still clouds overhead. I prayed for no rain, but the forecast was gloomy.

The new A556 link road zoomed us onto the M56, and I found myself navigating the familiar Manchester Orbital once more. At about 3.45pm, we were parked up at the usual garage off Gorse Hill Park. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Manchester United with Chelsea. In all of the previous twenty-four, I had seen us win just five games; 1985/86, 1986/87, 2004/5, 2009/10 and 2012/13.

We had whispered it among ourselves within the first hour or so of the day’s journey.

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

The rain was holding off. The others had light jackets, I just wore a sombre black Benetton – how ‘eighties – polo.

We were soon at Old Trafford, and the same old approach to the famous stadium. Some United fans aired a new song.

“Harry Maguire. Harry Maguire. He fucked off Leicester for Manchester. His head’s fookin’ massive.”

We dived inside pretty sharpish amid taunts of “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

There were handshakes and nods of acknowledgement with many of the travelling three thousand. I immediately sensed a noisier crowd, a far more enlivened crowd, a happier crowd. The Frank Lampard effect? Oh yes.

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

On the way up in the car, Glenn had asked me who I would start up front.

“I’ll trust Frank, but Giroud has the experience for places like this. I’d start him.”

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

It was lovely to see Alan and Gary again. The away club was back together for another season of sunshine and smiles, rain and agony. I stopped to chat to a few in the away quadrant. Our seats were in a similar spot to last season.

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

The rain was holding off. Old Trafford looked the same, apart from one or two new banners.

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

I chatted to JD, who had posted on Facebook earlier that he was a little underwhelmed by it all. He aired a few of my pet peeves – VAR, the farce of Baku, a support base that is full of irksome divs – and I tended to agree with him.

I commented :

“When they announced Frank as the manager, I got a proper buzz, but that seems to have worn off a bit. It’s all the other shite that goes with it.”

But JD is a good man and his humour will see him through.

As kick-off time approached, our section was full of support of the new manager but one song dominated, a song from our last visit.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

United were back to their usual white shorts this season, but with a muted red shirt.

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

The game began and as usual we attacked the Stretford End. It soon dawned on me that United were doing the defending, they were letting us dominate. How different from days gone by when the midfield would be a warzone, with tackles flying in, and attacks jumping to life when advantage had been gained. United let us play. And we looked good. We played coherently with confidence. After only four of five minutes, a corner was not cleared and Tammy received the ball, spun nicely and unleashed a waist-high drive which bounced back in to play off the far post with De Gea beaten.

The away end “ooooohed.”

A Kurt Zouma error allowed Martial a shot on goal but the effort did not bother Kepa.

We were bossing the game. Barkley looked at ease. Kovacic was winning the ball and moving it on. We definitely had the advantage. A cross from Dave, a shot from Mason Mount. It was going well.

Then, on eighteen minutes, Jorginho swiped at a United attacker but play was moved on, and with Rashford advancing at pace into the box – and with me fearing the worst – a horrible lunge from Zouma gave the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

We hadn’t allowed the United cheers to subside before we got behind the team, though.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

United, strengthened in spirit and desire after the goal, now dominated for a little spell, though they did not create too much of note.

But Zouma looked at sixes and sevens. He looked clumsy and awkward, like me in front of a woman. His limbs don’t seem to be programmed correctly. The fans around me noticed it too. But we kept the support up.

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

It is a mystery how United have the most vociferous away support of any in the top flight yet their home games at Old Trafford tend not to fizz these days. The quietness even shocked me. I almost wanted the bastards to make some noise.

United had the ball in the net a second time though every man and woman in the stadium surely realised that the player was a few yards offside. But on came the VAR review and a huddle of sweaty nerdicians in Stockley Park got to work.

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

Mount chose to pass rather than shoot and there was little weep of frustration. But we kept attacking. A shot from Barkley drew a messy save from De Gea and the rebound was not cleared. Jorginho’s follow-up effort was blocked for a corner. The best chance of the closing moments fell to an unmarked Emerson, who picked up a cross by Jorginho that just evaded the leap of Mount. His swipe hit the same post as Tammy’s effort in the first five minutes.

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

At the break, the mood in the camp was positive.

“How are we losing?” was a common question asked.

I certainly had few complaints, though if I was to be picky, I would look at our A to Z.

Tammy Abraham – I wanted him to move his marker more, be more cunning, be more devilish, be stronger.

Kurt Zouma – I wanted him to look more relaxed, to trust himself more, to look more at ease, to gel.

For old times’ sake, The Baku Half-Time Moaners club was revived as I chatted to Welsh Kev, though to be truthful we had little to moan about. On my way back to my seat, I stated the bloody obvious.

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

Overhead, the clouds were classic Mancunian. November in August. Tupperware skies.

I commented to Alan :

“Those clouds have more rain in them and this game has more goals in it.”

The second-half began mildly, with no team dominating. Our chances were rare.

On fifty-eight minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Ross Barkley, who had enjoyed a mixed game and was certainly starting to tire. Pulisic, from Hershey in Pennsylvania, is touted for great things. I have only seen highlights of him, I do not have the time to endlessly gorge on football, but he looks the business. If he can make that tract of land down the left wing his own in the same way that Eden Hazard did from 2012 to 2019, we will all be very happy.

Sadly, on sixty-seven minutes – and with Tammy pole-axed in United’s box – a very quick counter resulted in our defenders scampering around like chickens having glimpsed the pointed ears and bushy tail of a fox enter their coop. A cross from the right from the boot of Andreas Pereira was inch-perfect, but Dave will be unhappy that Martial reached the ball before him. He poked it past Kepa.

We were now 2-0 down.

No way back? Nah. We looked out of it.

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were 3-0 down. I must admit that I missed the long pass out of defence from Paul Pogba which lead to Rashford running unhindered through our defence and poking the ball past a hapless Kepa. In the split second that my mind wandered, I found myself looking at the horrific Chelsea tattoo on the shin of a nearby supporter but don’t worry my concentration levels will increase as I get match fit. I saw the neat finish alright. Fuck it.

The United fans went doolally.

There is a problem at Old Trafford. From the curve of the away section, spectators have an unimpeded view of the home supporters down below us, especially in the paddock in front of the old main stand. Their faces were of delirium. They were bloody loving it. I felt ill.

Our little prince N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho with twenty minutes remaining and I guess that Lampard just wanted to give him “minutes.”

Lo and behold, despite our best efforts to stem the tide and to, maybe just maybe, grab a goal ourselves, the fates contrived against us, and just after an odd moment. Jose Mourinho must’ve been spotted in a TV studio because a sizeable proportion of the United support in the nearby main stand and “Stretty” spotted him and serenaded him

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

With that, United broke – supremely well – and Pogba ran and ran and ran. His cute pass to substitute Daniel James set the debutant up, though he needed two bites of the cherry.

A deflection hindered Kepa and we were 4-0 down.

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

“The biggest loss to them since the 1994 FA Cup Final.”

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

But most of the Chelsea support stayed to clap the boys off. Frank Lampard approached and clapped us too. He had looked the part the entire game, suited and elegant in the technical area, although he did retire up to the seated area in the stand at 3-0.

The four of us regrouped and began the walk back to the car, up the famous forecourt, where I watched one United lad swagger across, smile wide, and bounce right into the middle of us. I half expected someone to get a clump, but there was no “afters.”

There was the usual “Hollow Hollow Hollow” and yet more “Chelsea Rent Boys” schoolyard chants. We kept together, kept our heads down, looked after each other, moving slowly out.

A few United fans, talking among themselves, said that they had been lucky to get four. I had to agree. It didn’t feel like a 4-0 throughout the match, although at the end I felt it certainly did.

Crossing the main road, I spoke about our attacking options.

“I’m not sure Frank knows who is his best striker. I hope he soon decides. If it is Tammy, then he needs time to embed himself in the team, to work with his team mates, to know when to move, to know when to go.”

The game – yes, I know it is only the first one – worried me.

“I just don’t think we’ll score enough goals this season.”

We walked past supporters’ coaches headed for North Wales, for Fife, for Devon.

In the car, we heard Frank Lampard speak intelligently, with clarity, with a little humility, with calmness.

I expected nothing less really, but it was wonderful to hear someone talk so much sense.

Stuck in traffic, I posted a selfie of the four of us in my car, smiles wide and defiant.

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

The drive home went well, maybe those tedious trips south after games at Manchester United are a thing of the past.

I was back home at 11.30pm, a little bruised, but still proud to have been at Old Trafford.

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

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 Sunshine And Schadenfreude

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2019.

It seemed quite apt that Chelsea Football Club should end its domestic travels in 2018/19 in a city in the East Midlands which is situated on the River Soar, with a population of 330,000, which hosts cricket, rugby and football teams and is home to the world’s largest crisp factory. Where else could we end up? Our visits to away cities throughout the league campaign, chronologically listed, mirrored the words of a certain song.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea: Huddersfield, Newcastle, London, Southampton, Burnley, London, Wolverhampton, Brighton, Watford, London, London, Bournemouth, Manchester, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Leicester.”

This season, although certainly not the most-loved, has zipped past at a ridiculous rate of knots. Our first game in the sun of West Yorkshire seemed only recent and it seemed implausible that this one was the final game of the season. But game thirty-eight it was. With qualification to next season’s Champions League assured, the game at Leicester City took on a much more relaxed air than we had expected. I collected PD at just after eight o’clock and LP at just after eight-thirty. It was a stunning Sunday morning; not a hint of a cloud, the sun out, and a fine chilled-out air of relaxed anticipation. After travels north, east, south and west, the league fixture list had saved me – possibly – the best to last.

A three-hour drive along the Fosse Way, the old Roman road – straight as a die, from Exeter to Lincoln – is always a treat for me. It didn’t let me down. I thoroughly enjoyed the undulating road as we swept past quintessentially English place names on our way through the Cotswolds.

Stanton St. Quentin, Malmesbury, Cirencester, Ampney Crucis, Bourton-on-the-Water, Upper Slaughter, Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh, Stretton-on-Fosse.

We had breakfasted at Melksham. We stopped for a drink in “The Star” at Moreton-in-Marsh. After heading off the Fosse, and after skirting the lost football city of Coventry, through Warwickshire and into Leicestershire, we stopped at another pub “The Hinckley Night” on the outskirts of the town with the same name.

It was quite apt that I had chosen the Fosse Way as our route. Way back in the mists of time, Leicester City were first known as Leicester Fosse.

At about 2pm, after our breaks for sustenance – we watched a little of the Old Firm game at the second pub – I was parked-up. There were clouds in the sky, and we all decided to take jackets “just in case.” Leicester City’s stadium is a mile to the north of the Leicestershire cricket ground and half a mile to the south of Leicester Tigers rugby stadium. While PD and LP popped inside for a top-up, I circumnavigated the stadium, which lies just a couple of hundred yards to the south of their old Filbert Street ground. This old stadium was ridiculously lop-sided with two large stands on adjacent sides and two minuscule ones opposite.

I took in the pre-match atmosphere. This was only my fifth visit to the new place. I was on holiday in the US at the time of our first visit in the FA Cup campaign of 2003/4 and I have missed the two recent cup fixtures too. It’s a relatively neat, yet overwhelmingly bland stadium, with no real distinguishing features. “King Power” is everywhere. On the rear of the north stand is a large image of their former chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who so sadly perished in the helicopter crash at the stadium last October.

I took the usual smattering of photographs. Their new shirt – laced with gold Adidas stripes rather than white – looked neat and tidy.

Inside the stadium, and into the concourse, I soon spotted a few mates.

A standard greeting was “going to Baku?”

I gulped down a soft-drink – no alcohol at all for me on this day – and met up with Alan and Gary in the seats. Bringing a jacket, I soon realised, was being over-cautious. The sun was relentless. I wasn’t the only person who had over-dressed. My jacket was placed on my seat.

The teams soon appeared.

A hand-written banner was held up in the away end:

EDEN HAZARD BLEEDS BLUE.

CHELSEA IS YOUR HOME.

We were in all yellow, and it brought back memories of our huge 3-1 win in 2014/15 when the Fabregas song stole the show. I remembered, too, how the Morata song was a strong memory of last season’s league game. With what has happened since – another song, another place – it is actually hard to believe that fans were singing the “y” word so forcefully and loudly only twenty months ago. Leicester City had reverted to an old-style blue / white / blue. It did look like a neat kit.

Our team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Azpilicueta – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Loftus-Cheek – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

I had a look around at those in the away end. For some reason, there seemed to be a disproportionately high number of old replica shirts on show; many more than usual. I even spotted a Chelsea Collection number from 1986/87. I only saw two of the 2019/20 shirts.

Our game began.

And so did all the others.

Three games stole the show; Brighton vs. Manchester City, Liverpool vs. Wolves and Tottenham vs. Everton.

Ross Barkley went close within the first few minutes, after a good ball from Jorginho, but his shot hit Schmeichel. It was a chance that promised good things, but was a false dawn. The home fans to my left – I was only a matter of a few feet from them, were noisy as hell in that first part of the game. They sang of their former owner.

“Vichai had a dream.

To build our football team.

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

We play from the back.

We counter attack.

“Champions of England.”

You made us sing that.”

Indeed, they do counter-attack. And we smother the ball and pass to ourselves to oblivion. It was a massive difference in style between the two teams. Leicester broke at pace with Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans looking useful. We passed the ball here there and everywhere, but did not create too much.

Liverpool went, unsurprisingly, a goal up at Anfield.

Then, a score flash which made us groan.

Brighton had taken the lead at home to City. Then, just as I was passing on the news to a few close friends, a noticeable cheer in the Chelsea end. My spirits were raised.

City had equalised.

On the pitch, there was lots of square passes, with little quality penetration. The banter in the stands was proving to be more entertaining. The Leicester fans alongside us had sung about Eden Hazard leaving for Madrid.

We retorted “He’s won more than you.”

There were schoolyard taunts from them. Then came the killer blow, loud and with venom :

“Eden Hazard. He won it for you.”

Fair play, the Leicester lot clapped that. I winked at a few of them, a “thumbs up” here and there.

Ha.

In the other game of interest, Tottenham had scored a very early goal against Everton. We needed to match that to finish above them. But we had to rely on the out-of-sorts Gonzalo Higuain. He slammed one shot wide of the post on the half-hour mark.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

A Vardy header from a free-kick forced a save from Willy Caballero.

The bloke behind me then cheered me : “City have got a second.”

Phew.

In the closing moments of the first-period, a slip from David Luiz allowed Vardy to race on but his ball through to Tielemans was overhit and the chance went begging.

Then, right before the whistle, Higuain missed from only a few yards out, his brain doing the waltz, his feet doing the samba.

“Fackinell.”

Leicester City 0 Chelsea 0

Brighton 1 Manchester City 2

Liverpool 1 Wolves 0

Tottenham 1 Everton 0

Things were going our way in the title hunt, but not our way in our more local battle with Tottenham.

At the break, I bumped into Alex and Reece.

“Would you keep Sarri, Chris?”

Oh God. Me on the spot. Yes, I would.

“I have never warmed to the bloke. He is so one-dimensional. But has he got his own players to play his system? Not yet. I am full of doubt, but give him a full pre-season, give him time. We have the chance to finish top three. We have reached two cup finals. We would have taken that in August. In February we would have for sure.”

The lads were in agreement, with reservations.

“What do we know, we’re not experts.”

But – oh – the football has been so poor at times this season. It has proven one thing; Chelsea supporters want to be entertained. It is in our DNA.

Neal 1983/84

Gullit 1996/97

Mourinho 2004/5

Ancelotti 2009/10

Conte 2016/17

The best I have known…

The second-half began and my forehead was starting to burn up. Parky arrived back from the bar.

“You haven’t missed anything, mate.”

If the first-half was tepid, the second-half was turgid. Chances – real gilt-edged chances – were so rare. A Leicester volley did not hit the target. Barkley shot wide.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – but without the movement from the players to allow the passes to hurt the tight Leicester defence. Elsewhere, goals were being scored. Manchester City went 3-1 up and eventually 4-1 up, and Liverpool scored a second. The title was City’s.

I hummed “Blue Moon” to myself.

The away end was loving it. We were loving it even more when Everton equalised. And then – to a chorus of “it’s happened again” – we heard that Everton had gone 2-1 up. This was turning into a fantastic afternoon despite the poor game taking place before my very eyes. The noise from the home fans had long since subsided.

There had been, on sixty minutes – and while a player was getting treatment – a minute of appreciation, with white scarves being held aloft by the Leicester supporters in memory of their former chairman. Many Chelsea fans joined in. Good stuff.

Eden Hazard replaced Willian.

His last game in England? Almost certainly.

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

Olivier Giroud replaced the lackluster and lazy Higuain.

Tottenham scored a second.

Our game petered out.

A Chelsea draw and a Tottenham draw.

“As you were.”

I did not wait around too long to make a move. I saw a few players walking over. There were several – eight? ten? – fans with cardboard signs asking for shirts. There were a few adults among them. One sign was eight-foot long.

I hate modern football.

Outside, I shook hands with many.

“Have a good summer.”

“See you in Baku.”

I don’t think we will sell remotely close to our allotted 5,800 in Azerbaijan. But at least I was cheered to speak to a few that were going. I just have this dread of Arsenal heavily outnumbering us. Of my closest one-hundred Chelsea mates, maybe only fifteen are going. It is a sign of the absurdity of UEFA choosing such a host city. But that is a story for another day.

Outside, I chatted briefly to Long Tall Pete and Liz. We all loved the fact that both Chelsea and Tottenham drew. It was pure comedy gold. All that Tottenham had to do, with hindsight, was to win a home game against Everton and the twats would have finished above us. To think that they were being touted as possible title contenders at Christmas…

Third in a two-horse race in 2015/16.

Fourth in a three-horse race in 2018/19.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Back in the car, it was time to drive south, and complete this story of our 2018/19 league campaign. Huge respect to PD for attending all thirty-eight games, I think for the second time in three seasons. I ended up missing two, the back-to-back games at Wolves and at home to City.

It has been, as the saying goes, emotional. But it has also been excruciating at times. There have only been rare games where I have been genuinely entertained. It has been a grueling slog. I have watched as supporters splinter into pro-Sarri and anti-Sarri factions. I have struggled with it all. I have struggled with this new type of football. I have become bored reading the never-ending appraisals of how – I hate this word, I rarely use it – “Sarribal” is meant to work.

I have lost count of the many deeply earnest and wordy explanations of “Sarribal” on social media that I have studied over the past year. All of a sudden “regista” is a buzz word. After virtually all of these appraisals, I have been so tempted to write “I bet you are fun at parties.” I see a worrying new sub-section of Chelsea followers who are not died-in-the-wool supporters in the most basic sense of the word, but critics and self-appointed “experts.”

Football, to me, is about passion, involvement, support, belligerence, suffering, humour, laughs, beers, a shared kin-ship, a devotion to the cause. And maybe some trophies thrown in for good measure.

OK, rant over, as the kids say.

We stopped at the pub in Hinckley for some nosebag. I continued enjoying the drive home, the spring colours fading as the sun dipped.

Cirencester, Malmesbury, Chippenham, Melksham, Bradford-on-Avon, Frome…home. Just in time to tune in to the highlights on “MOTD2.” Old habits die hard.

I will see some of you next season.

I will see some of you in Baku.

Cheers.

The Star, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire & The Hinckley Knight, Hinckley, Leicestershire.

Tales From Two Hours And Penalties

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt : 9 May 2019.

A Gamble.

I had been looking at flights to Baku for ages. It was proving to be a tough nut to crack. In the back of my mind – or perhaps at the forefront of it – was the gnawing truth that by attending our second-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, it would undoubtedly mean that I would not be able to pounce on any standard flights to Baku as soon as the game had ended. The scrum-down would be even worse should Arsenal reach the final. The cheapest flights that I had seen – tying in with my need to get back to work on the Friday – were at the £550 mark.

Remember that I had originally messed up at work. Another colleague had already booked a holiday on the week of the final but thankfully my boss had allowed me three days off. But the thought of travelling to Baku was still very messy.

I was, sadly, looking to rely on an expensive flight with the club or with a travel company. But I guessed that the price for that would be not much shy of £1,000. Moscow in 2008 was around a grand, and with no accommodation. I went with the club to Stockholm in 1998 with one night in a hotel for £450, which seemed obscene at the time. For Baku, I suspected that a club trip would be another “in out” trip with no overnight stay too. That would hardly be fun. I’d be exhausted on the day of the game and also once I returned.

Thoughts of Baku were proving to be irritating rather than pleasurable. This was not how it was meant to be. When I visited Baku in 2017 for the Qarabag match, I only scratched the surface and I would like to see more.

In my match report for that trip, I ended with this comment :

“It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.”

But on Tuesday, things changed ever so slightly. At work, I learned of the job-sharing planned for the office staff to cover those four days when two would be off work. It looked like our little team would not be over-exposed.

That night, I opened things up. I looked at the cost of travelling out to Baku on the previous weekend and returning on the Saturday after the game.

I liked what I saw.

Six nights at a “three-and-half” star hotel right in the heart of Baku old town and some favourable flights from Heathrow to Baku via Istanbul – going – and Moscow – returning – would cost £979.

On Wednesday, cap in hand, I explained my thoughts to my manager.

He gave me the Friday off.

I thought again about the cost. But I am not following Chelsea to Boston nor Tokyo in the summer. I’ll probably go through the summer without any extended holiday anywhere. This would effectively be my summer holiday.

It was going to be “Baku or Bust.”

On Wednesday night – nothing like leaving it late, boy – I gambled and booked it all up.

Game Day.

On Thursday, the day of the game, I mentioned my plans to a couple at work, but my lips would be sealed at Stamford Bridge. I honestly did not want to be the ultimate Jonah and jinx it.

In the back of my mind, if we did not reach the final, and if Arsenal made it, I would bugger off to a coastal resort for the Thursday, thus avoiding it all. Should Valencia reach Baku, I would try to get a ticket and go to the final. There had been a personal precedent. Like many, I gambled in 2014 and spent four or five days in Albufeira on The Algarve  – along with two hundred other Chelsea – even though we had not qualified for the Champions League Final in Lisbon.

My mind was set. I assured myself that I had made the right decision.

Andy, a Tottenham fan, commented – “you’ll be fine, you’ll get through tonight.”

I was working a slightly later shift than I would have hoped. PD and Parky had met up for a romantic lunch earlier and, when I set off for London at just past four o’clock, they were travelling separately and so were well on their own way to Stamford Bridge, although not without a scare. I had purchased all three tickets for the game a while back, but Parky had not received his. He had presumed that his ticket had showed up at my house. It hadn’t. Sometimes Chelsea box office sends tickets individually, occasionally to the purchaser. Irritatingly, there is no standard procedure. He would need to pop in to the ticket office, cap in hand, before the game.

My route again took me south – leaving later, I feared horrific congestion on the M4 so I would go in again via the M3 – and my drive began with a little section over Salisbury Plain. It took me back to my time when I worked in Westbury, and to a specific day in April 1998 when Glenn and I drove along the very same road on the way to our European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second leg against Vicenza. On that day and this one, the weather was wet and the skies were grey.

1995 and 1998.

Of course there was the ECWC semi-final against Real Zaragoza in 1995 – one that rarely gets a mention these days – but in 1998 we travelled to London with a very real chance to progress to our first European final since 1971. In 1995, we had been thumped 3-0 in Northern Spain and we held little hope of progressing. Although we won 3-1 on the night, we narrowly missed out. Had we progressed, we would have met Arsenal in Paris.

But 1998 felt different.

Our team that season was a lot more credible, a lot more fancied. We had narrowly lost 1-0 in Northern Italy – I did not go – but were very confident of turning it around in the second-leg. For the first time, we watched the game in the newly-built Shed End, and we watched as Chelsea did a pre-match huddle for the very first time. We played, oddly, in our yellow away kit. Our team included such Chelsea greats as Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. It was a rotten and wet night, and when Vicenza scored a vital away goal, our spirits dropped. Thankfully, a crucial tap in from Gustavo Poyet just before half-time gave us hope. A fantastic cross from wide on the right wing from Vialli found the head of Zola, whose magnificent leap and header made it 2-2 over both legs, but with Vicenza still ahead. Mark Hughes came on with twenty minutes to go and after just six minutes, his ridiculous header to himself tee’d up the shot which smashed into the goal at the Matthew Harding end.

Everyone quotes the Bruges game in 1995 for the best atmosphere since the stadium was rebuilt, but Vicenza 1998 pushes it close. Only 33,810 were present, but we each played our part. We were euphoric. In those days, and many since, Alan’s lucky wine gums sent us on the way to victory and the subsequent final in Stockholm. We reconvened immediately after in our then local “The Harwood” – for those interested, this pub was featured in “The Football Factory”, or at least the outside scenes, and was also where Raquel Welch stopped for a drink while filming “Bedazzled” in a local film studio in 1967 – and downed a few celebratory drinks.

Our own little song during that evening in The Harwood was “The Self-Preservation Society” from “The Italian Job.” It felt right.

But there is an odd end to the story of our 1998 semi-final victory. The very next day, I was made redundant. It was one of the oddest twenty-four hours of my life. To add to the sadness, my – quite unexpected – redundancy came on the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. From the highest high on Thursday to the lowest low on Friday.

I would go to Sweden unemployed. It was an odd few weeks in my life.

In the end, my redundancy money funded a few holidays – Chelsea in the main – over the next few seasons, and my career took a very worthwhile tangential leap from quality assurance to logistics.

I have not looked back, apart from in these match reports.

Hello Goodbye.

I drove to London and it was probably my first solo drive to Stamford Bridge since…when?…many years ago. Maybe ten years? I don’t know. The weather was dire. Rain, rain, rain. And the traffic was slow once inside the M25. I texted a few friends to say that I would not be there until seven o’clock, maybe later. My mind continually went over my “Baku or Bust” gamble. Fucking hell Chelsea, don’t let me down.

I convinced myself to purse my lips if anyone asked my about my travel options. I convinced myself that I’d mutter some nonsense and folk would think me odd.

Ugh.

I thought about the game against Frankfurt not once.

Eventually, at around 7.10pm, I parked up at Queens Club. I briefly popped in to say hello to the troops at “Simmons” one last time this season. I was only there for five minutes. A very brief “hello goodbye” to a few chaps – I had to bite my lip when Daryl asked if I was going to Baku – and out into the evening. Thankfully, the rain was only slightly spitting.

Another European Semi-Final.

We have contended so many in recent years, eh? I have lived and breathed these ones.

1995 – Real Zaragoza, lost.

1998 – Vicenza, won.

2004 – Monaco, lost.

2005 – Liverpool, lost.

2007 – Liverpool, lost.

2008 – Liverpool, won.

2009 – Barcelona, lost.

2012 – Barcelona, won.

2013 – Basel, won.

2014 – Atletico Madrid, lost

Our Opponents.

I made my way to Stamford Bridge, past many Frankfurt fans, many with half-and-half scarves and many without tickets. There were rumours of ten thousand travelling to London. They are one of the big names of German football. They will indelibly be linked with Real Madrid and Hampden Park. But I have been aware that they were recently enjoying the pleasures of the German second tier if only for a few seasons. I found it odd that they have rid themselves of their red and black stripes in favour of an all-black home kit. They lost 6-1 at Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend.

I have no real Eintracht Frankfurt story to tell, apart from this one.

In the summer of 1988, the European Football Championships took place in Germany and while I was over in Germany in the March of that year, I wanted to enquire how tickets for games would be made available. I had a notion of going over to follow England. On one afternoon, with light fading, I made a bee-line for the HQ of the “Deutsche Fussball Bund” – the German FA – which was based a few metres from the old Wald Stadium of Eintracht Frankfurt. I popped in and asked a few questions. I remember a large terraced stadium, surrounded by trees, way out of the city centre. That stadium was replaced for the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Not much of a story. Not much of a 1988 tournament, England lost all three, including a 3-1 defeat to Russia in Frankfurt.

3,965 Kilometres.

By the long wall to the left of the West Stand forecourt, I noted that there was, again, a special Europa League display on show. On it, were the words “Distance to Baku 3,965kms, one match to go, together to Baku.”

What patronising bullshit.

“Thanks for fucking reminding us all how far away it is.”

“Together to Baku? With only a rumoured seven thousand tickets for a club with over twenty-thousand season ticket holders and with forty thousand regulars, how can we all be together?”

The Team.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – David Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mateo Kovacic – Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

Pre-Match.

PD was inside with Al when I reached my seat.

“Doesn’t seem dark enough to be a European night.”

I soon spotted Parky. He was in.

The German supporters were jammed in with fifteen minutes to go. Their banners and flags were out in force. The dominant colour was black, with only occasional hints of red. The teams came on to the pitch. The away end turned white. “The Shed” flag surfed over the heads of our fans in the Shed Upper. The Eden Hazard banner did the same below me. His last-ever game at Stamford Bridge? Almost certainly. We were given blue flags to wave, but the thrill of that has gone.

There was more “Together To Baku” bullshit signage inside Stamford Bridge.

0-45.

The game began. We were in our usual kit. The visitors were in white, white and black. They had the first real chance of the match, a well-claimed header from their star forward Luka Jovic. But we started well, and Olivier Giroud showed some good link up play in the first part of the game. We carved out a couple of chances and were dominating possession. Willian sent in a ball that Giroud miss-controlled at the near post.

The German fans were singing – not super loud, others have been louder – but certainly constant. The upper tier waved their flags, then the lower tier. It was a great sight.

With a quarter of an hour gone, Kepa flung himself to his left and reached and reached. He tipped a fine volley over the bar. It a second stunner in the past two games.

The noise wasn’t fantastic to be honest, but there were outbreaks of Chelsea cheer. The Germans did a full on bouncy with 90% involvement across both tiers. I suggested to Albert who sits in front that our immediate reply of a similar bouncy would be a poor imitation. It was indeed. Our bouncy has had it day. It peeked at Derby County in 2004, it has been poor ever since.

All of our play seemed to be down our left. We had obviously spotted a weakness there. Our pressure grew. Jorginho back healed out of danger in his own penalty box and we gasped. A couple of half-chances, or maybe quarter-chances gave us hope. Another fine move down our left with Hazard linking well. A Willian free-kick was flicked towards goal by a deft David Luiz header but this was scrambled off the line. Our confidence was rising.

On twenty-eight minutes, some lovely trademark twists from Eden and a fine through pass to Ruben allowed our young midfielder to look up and assess the space. Time stood still. He touched the ball purposefully towards the far post and we watched, almost disbelieving, as it rolled over the line and into the net. The crowd gave it our all.

YEEEEESSSSSSSS.

Alan : “THEY WILL HAVE TO COME AT US NOW.”

Chris : “COME ON MY LITTLE SPARKLEGRUBERS.”

I could relax. A little. We never looked in danger during the rest of the first period. But it was still a nervy night. It was as if we were too nervy to sing. We heard that Valencia had taken a lead, but Arsenal had equalised.

Thoughts of Baku.

46-90.

In the first few minutes of the second period, I spotted – or rather heard – a very rare thing at Stamford Bridge. I think it was in answer to a similar song emanating from the away section, but a few souls in the MHL sang one short bust of “Chelsea Til I Due.” Now then dear reader, this was a first in my memory. I’ve never heard it sung at Stamford Bridge before. I know it gets hashtagged to death, but it has never been a Chelsea song.

A song much loved by lower league teams.

Not us.

Just after, Frankfurt waltzed through our defence – a Luiz half-hearted tackle created space – and Jovic blasted home an equaliser.

I blame #ctid.

And my trip to Baku was now looking problematic.

For fuck sake.

We went to pieces. Our high defensive line of the first-half shuffled back fifteen yards. Our confidence left us. Alan used a lovely phrase, aimed at Lovacic or Jorginho or Willian –

“That’s a tickle. Not a tackle.”

The nerves increased fifty-fold.

The game became scrappy. There was frustration and pain in the stands.

I could not help think about Baku. Arsenal were going through. The thought of all those replica-shirt-wearing muppets was making me feel ill. Maybe I could stay in Istanbul, get a cheap hotel or hostel and a cheap flight home from there. I did enjoy Istanbul in 2014.

There were few shots in the second-half. But plenty of annoyance in how our form had dipped. Jorginho, I will say, was holding things together. We obviously missed Kante. Ruben was drifting through the game, not enjoying his previous spark. On the hour, the loudest chant of the entire night. It reached 1998 levels, but soon petered out. Pedro replaced Willian on the hour and rushed around a lot without doing a great deal. Frankfurt themselves threatened our goal. An away goal would kill us. As the clock advanced, I could hardly believe how nerves were taking over my whole brain and body .On seventy minutes, Christensen was replaced by Davide Zappocosta. A real head-shaker. Azpilicueta moved alongside Luiz.Our back four now consisted of three Daves and an Emerson.

To be fair, Zappacosta – more Fiat than Ferrari – did inject a little energy into our team. One long shot soon tested the Frankfurt ‘keeper Trapp.

Giroud turned to the Matthew Harding to rally the supporters.

This was arse about face.

We should have been rallying the players.

We needed to get to ninety minutes. Conceding a goal in these last fifteen, ten or five minutes would be the end. I checked to ensure Andres Iniesta was not on their bench. With five minutes to go, Ross replaced Ruben. A low shot from distance from Giroud tested the Frankfurt goalie, but he was able to gather the rebound.

Five minutes of extra-time were signalled.

Nerves.

We held on.

Phew.

I chatted to a few neighbours.

“This is our chance now. We are at home. We need to drag them over the line. We need to roar them home.”

Our implosion right after the re-start of the game had proved our undoing once again. There is such fragility in our ranks. How the hell have we secured Champions League football for next season? In the break, a stunning song was aired.

“Heroes” by David Bowie.

91-105.

Our fourth substitute of the game – have we ever had four in a competitive game before? – took place as Gonzalo Higuain replaced Giroud, whose early promise had drifted away. So, we attacked The Shed again. Barkley, looking keen, shot from way out but only narrowly missed the target. A break down our right – with me shouting “get closer” – resulted in a low tempting cross being raked across the goal and the ball was poked goal wards by Sebastien Haller. At first, I thought it was going wide. But a scrambled kick off the line from Luiz – excellent one minute, average the next – saved us. Just after, a corner was headed towards goal by the same Frankfurt player and Zappacosta headed it over.

We were hanging on grimly.

And my nerves were fraying by the minute.

Just before the second period of extra time, “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea is our name.”

105-120.

The players were tired now. Hazard tended to roam, rather than be tied to his usual position, attempting to sniff out areas of weakness and decay in the Eintracht defence. It was tough to watch. It was all Chelsea, but with hardly any real chances being created. A rasper from Zapacosta stung ‘keeper Trapp’s fingers as he tipped it over. My nerves were shot, my heartrate was increasing, my sinews were unravelling. This was just horrible to watch.

With five minutes to go, and from a Hazard cross, Trapp fumbled and Azpilicueta bundled the ball over the line but the referee, rightly, cancelled the goal but not before a nano-second of celebration from me as I saw him point towards our goal.

Penalties.

This was tense as it could ever be.

Tottenham and Liverpool – I hope everyone appreciates how I have not mentioned them until now – and also Arsenal had reached the two end of season European grand finales. England – or some parts of it – was watching to see if we could make it four. Chelsea were being typical Chelsea and going about it the hard away.

I had no real time to think of much. I was pacing around like an expectant father. Nobody was enjoying this. Stern faces in the Matthew Harding Upper. I was beginning to regret no “Maynard’s Wine Gums” had been present.

The penalties were to take place at The Shed.

I set my camera.

“No shaking, Chris.”

Penalty One : Haller – Eintracht – scored, rolled to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Two : Barkley – Chelsea – scored, a confident slice to Trapp’s right.

Penalty Three : Jovic – Eintracht – scored, a roller to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Four : Azpilicueta – Chelsea – saved, a spawling lunge from Trapp to his left.

Hell, Cesar.

My world caved in. Thoughts of Baku, of Arsenal, of Istanbul, but also of Munich when we came back from the dead.

Penalty Five : De Guzman – Eintracht – scored, a confident strike to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Six : Jorginho – Chelsea – scored, that little skip and a chip to the right of Trapp.

At this stage, I had the briefest of thoughts. All three of their penalties had gone to Kepa’s right. Would he go that way? Would he stay still? What the fuck would I do?

Penalty Seven : Hinteregger – Eintracht – saved, straight at Kepa, who just crouched and trapped the ball under his shin.

It was the most ridiculous penalty save that I have ever seen.

Oh now we fucking roared alright.

“COME ON.”

Penalty Eight : Luiz – Chelsea – scored, low and to the ‘keeper’s right again.

The whole stadium on edge now.

Penalty Nine : Paciencia – Eintracht – saved, a faltering run-up and a shot to Kepa’s right that he saved magnificently.

We roared once again.

Advantage Chelsea.

Drogba in Munich.

Memories.

We waited. Eden Hazard placed the ball where Peter Osgood’s ashes lie.

We waited.

Penalty Ten : Number Ten Hazard – Chelsea – his last-ever kick at Stamford Bridge – scored, a small run-up, a dink to Trapp’s right, the ‘keeper going left.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

To say I was happy would be way off the mark.

I was fucking euphoric.

I shook with joy, I screamed, the boys were going to Baku, the boys were going to Azerbaijan, I was going to Baku, I was going to Azarbaijan, oh my fucking goodness.

While PD and Al bounced and hugged and jumped and screamed, I stood shaking.

My eyes were a little moist.

Chelsea Football Club. I fucking love you.

Tales From The United Colours Of Football

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2019.

There was definitely a different vibe going into the away game at Old Trafford compared to the match at Anfield a fortnight earlier. For the Liverpool game, it was all about damage limitation. With hindsight, a draw was a rather fanciful hope. Along with Manchester City, Liverpool have been head and shoulders ahead of the pack this season. A loss against Klopp’s team was almost inevitable. But an away game against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s miss-firing team was an entirely different proposition. Due to our lack of potency in front of goal, I was still pragmatic / pessimistic (delete where appropriate) about us scoring, so my prediction was a 0-0 draw. But this was a result that was far more difficult to call. On the drive up in the car – I won’t bore everyone into the early stages of rigor mortis, our drive up to Manchester United takes the same form as always – I explained my thoughts to P Diddy and L Parky.

“Hey, this could be a game where we play well and lose, or it could be a game where we play crap and win. We could lose three-nil or we could win three-nil.”

This was a familiar drive north indeed.

I was parked up at the usual place, a twenty-minute walk away from the famous crossroads on the Chester Road, where the match day experience at Old Trafford starts to crackle and to ignite. “The Bishop Blaize” pub, the row of take-aways, the Red Devils and Lou Macari fish and chip shops, the coming together of United fans from all parts of the city, the north-west, the United Kingdom, Europe and the world, the “Trafford” pub, the lights of the Lancashire Cricket Ground, the fanzine sellers, the off-licences, the match-day routines.

As I looked over at the “Trafford” pub, I was reminded of a few scenes set in and around Old Trafford during the film “Charlie Bubbles” that featured the recently departed actor Albert Finney – a local boy made good both in this film and in real life – and I remembered that the mock Tudor beams, still visible in 2019, were able to be spotted in the film too.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

This piece of film is from a match day in October 1966, and depicts the walk to Old Trafford – along what is now Sir Matt Busby Way – that Finney and his son took, ending up with a walk across the forecourt. The three of us were taking this exact same route in 2019. There is something warming about that. That the match featured fleetingly in the film was our away game at Old Trafford makes the clip even more poignant.

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I am adamant that Albert Finney was on the pitch before a United vs. Chelsea game in relatively recent times. Maybe the 2-2 FA Cup game a few seasons ago.

This would be my twenty-fourth away game at Old Trafford with Chelsea. That’s one more than the twenty-three that I have made with Chelsea to Anfield. But there have been two FA Cup semi-final visits too, against Liverpool in 2006 and Blackburn Rovers in 2007. On both of these occasions, we were in the Stretford End, mirroring the location of our support in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay. It is not known which end was Chelsea in the Khaki Cup Final of 1915.

2007 A

For the 2006 game, with Chelsea looking likely to dominate English football for a while, we produced stickers which were applied with liberal abandon on anything that we could find.

2006 A

I always rate the London derby with Tottenham as the biggest home game of the season, but I make our annual trip to Old Trafford as our biggest away game.

We have certainly had some history in this famous old stadium, certainly 1915 and 1970, but in recent years too.

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

Five minutes later I was on the forecourt, scene of much ‘naughtiness’ in days of yore. The new ‘United Trinity’ statue of Best / Law / Charlton was the new focal point. It’s a splendid statue actually, facing the one of Matt Busby, beneath the Manchester United sign on the East Stand. As I took a couple of photos, I noted one middle-aged bloke say ‘who is the bald one?’ I had great pleasure in answering him.

2009/10

And then it happened. A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…

”Go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football? That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row in front. Gary ended up two rows in front. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!”

The consensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care.

2010/11

I texted a curt “well done” to four United friends from back home at the final whistle and I was soon out on the forecourt, battling the gentle slope and the crowing United fans alike. Parky had been delayed in his exit; he had said that two United fans – not from England – had somehow got tickets in the away seats and had unzipped their jackets at the end of the game to reveal red shirts. A punch in the face from an enraged Chelsea fan was the response.

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

A few years back, you would see banners which said “Exeter Reds”, “Devon Reds”, “Dublin Reds” and “Malta Reds” at away games. Today, it seems that you are now more likely to see “Urmston Reds”, “Salford Reds”, Sale Reds and “Clayton Reds.” It’s as if they are reclaiming Mancunia as their own. There always used to be a certain amount of “niggle” among local United fans and their fans from elsewhere in the UK. This is certainly true of Liverpool, too. There is a notion that out-of-town United fans are the glory hunters, forever besmirching the name of Manchester United. It was United who invented the derogatory nickname “day-trippers” which described the out-of-towners arriving en masse at Old Trafford, buying United paraphernalia and not really “getting” what United is about.

2012/13

Inside Old Trafford, we took our seats in row 24, in the side section where the 500 or so away season-ticket holders were allocated. There were familiar faces everywhere. Sadly, I soon spotted a section of around four-hundred seats in the away section which had not been sold. I have never known us not to sell our three thousand seats at Old Trafford ever before. It made me angry.

“The fcuking seats are fcuking red.
The fcuking fans are home instead.
The fcuking seats are full of air.
The fcuking seats are fcuking spare.”

2013/14

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centered on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly revelling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

2014/15

Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked. The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other. I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us. Euphoria.

I had one thought : “Munichesque.”

2015/16

We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

2016/17

I soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

2017/18

Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly. We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

Back to 2018/19…

On this day, thoughts were not only concerned with our game at Old Trafford. I was keeping a close watch on the City game at Burnley. Thank God for Sergio Aguero’s single strike. It was just what I wanted to see. Arsenal, meanwhile, were beating Spurs at their own game, contriving to lose 3-0 at Leicester City. This was opening up ever-so nicely for us. A loss for Tottenham on Saturday, a loss for Arsenal on Sunday. A win – a possibility – at Old Trafford would surely make us favourites for a top four finish.

Perfect.

While Parky and PD made their way in to the stadium, topping up the three pints they enjoyed at a pub just off the M6 an hour earlier, I had my usual walk around the forecourt. There was an image of Juan Mata high above the statue of Sir Matt Busby. I still fidget nervously when I see him in United red.

The entrance to the away turnstiles was now cordoned off with a barrier of solid United red separating us from the home fans. It was not too dissimilar to those red, white and black United bar scarves from the ‘seventies.

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A quick security pat down – no cameras at Old Trafford these days, my phone would have to suffice – and I was in. Up into the crowded bar, I had one thought on my mind.

“Is City still 1-0?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.”

It was clear that we had a full house of three-thousand away fans. There were no gaps. There was no need for a 2013-style John Cooper Clarke rage about unused seats.

I bumped into Harry and Paul, both living in Yorkshire now, and there was a slight worry that Burnley had equalised. There is a photograph of myself on the internet with them, with my smile as broad as a Cheshire cat, as I had just heard that City had indeed managed to hold on to a narrow 1-0 win.

One away club regular was sadly missing. There was no Alan alongside Parky, Gal and myself. I soon texted him a “get well soon.”

The team was announced earlier, of course, and I was surprised that Eden Hazard was not being deployed as a false nine.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

United’s team included the three former blues; Juan, Nemanja and Romelu.

Everywhere filled up. It was to be another massive attendance at Old Trafford. But things were subdued. These must be testing times for the United faithful; a false-dawn under the new manager perhaps, and that awful sense of betrayal, wanting City to win every game they play.

Oh well. Fuck’em.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner and it was the first time that I have seen United this season in their black shorts. They opted for the more traditional white ones at both home games. It doesn’t look right. I have no idea why United took the decision to change it. Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.

1970 is, after all, the catalyst for many of us.

But, here is the thing. I bet that there was not one single mention of the fiftieth anniversary of that tumultuous win against Leeds United in any of the brainstorming sessions at Nike over the past few months.

Anyway.

Khaki. Black shorts. Yellow socks.

It was time for the united colours of football in 2019 to get us all excited.

United – a blurring of red and black,

Chelsea – royal blue and white.

The game began.

First thoughts? Their side is huge. Our midfield is tiny. And United got off to a flier. Lukaku looked ready to run past a stagnant defence but Rudiger recovered to challenge and Kepa saved well. It seemed to be all United. They carved open a chance on eleven minutes, with Lukaku again involved. His dink towards Luke Shaw always looked like causing us trouble. His pass across the box was slammed home. Only when I was returning home a few hours later did I learn that it was scored by Juan Mata, on his birthday too. My eyes, I am sure, would have dropped to the floor immediately after the goal had rippled the Stretford End goal nets. The song that kept going for ages and ages at our FA Cup game in January – which I had not heard, really, at that juncture – was repeated.

“Ole’s at the wheel.

Tell me how good does it feel?

We’ve got Sanchez and Pogba and Fred.

Marcus Rashford – he’s manc born and bred.

Duh du, du du du du du

Duh du, du du du du du

The greatest of English football.

We’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

The noise coming from the Chelsea section was good, though. We always raise our game at Old Trafford. The team, slowly, tried to get a foothold in the match. As ever, it was the tireless energy of N’Golo Kante and the ability to spin out of danger of Eden Hazard which were our main positives. A foul on Hazard resulted in a Willian free-kick but the chance was wasted. We had more of the ball, but could not do a great deal with it. We howled with displeasure when Hazard played the ball out to Gonzalo Higuain out on the right wing, with the entire pitch in his sight, but he was offside.

“Fucksake.”

I looked down at my feet again.

We attempted a few long-range efforts and a few half-chances came and went. But De Gea was untested. After a shaky start, with a few silly and mistimed tackles, Dave was warming to the task in hand. He stayed limpet-like close to opponents as many United attackers tested him. Alonso was putting in a good shift on the other flank, too. As the game developed, I could not help but think that this was a sub-par game in terms of quality, especially compared to some of the other mighty tussles between the two teams in this part of Manchester over the past twenty years.

A lot is made of modern football and the atmosphere getting worse and worse with every season. I have made that point on numerous occasions. Here was a case in point. Over seventy-thousand United fans, yet only a section in the far corner of our stand were really bothering. Nothing at all from the side stands, nor – awful this, really – from the Stretford End, which, by now, is a pale shadow of its former self. It is United’s “home end” in name only.

There was the singing-by numbers chant from us – “Just like London, your city is blue” – but that didn’t get much of a reaction.

They didn’t like this one though :

“Just like the Scousers, you live in the past.”

This riled them up a bit, and for a few moments, the noise was electric as three thousand away fans shouted “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the United fans above us. This was bloody fantastic. Both sets of fans going for it.

It was – briefly, so briefly – life-affirming stuff.

Passionate, loud, venomous.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Gary, meanwhile, had a new twist.

“Just like the Scousers, you live in Norway.”

Surprisingly, United didn’t take the game to us. Only a few efforts rained in on our goal. It was a humdrum game being played under light clouds. The hot weather of the previous weekend was nowhere to be seen. It was a day for jackets and jeans. The referee Martin Atkinson was not reacting to many rugged United tackles. The noise levels in our section were raised at every such occasion. Higuain was offside again.

A look to the skies this time.

With not much time remaining in a poor half, the ball bounced out to Rudiger, some thirty-five yards out. His body shape quickly cheered me.

I screamed “hit it.”

He hit it alright. The ball kept low and De Gea could only clumsily parry it. The ball bounced out to Alonso, who touched the ball past the clumsy United ‘keeper. We watched as it agonisingly bounced in off the far post.

We went fucking doolally.

MU40

My name is Chris Axon and I am a goal addict.

It was just a perfect time to score. Tim, Julie, Brian and Kev – the oft-mentioned “Bristol lot” – were stood behind us, and had parked-up near the cricket ground. They ended up watching the last few overs of the Lancashire vs. Leicestershire game (they got in for free, not sure how that works, county cricket is an odd affair) and I had to make a comment about De Gea.

“If he was playing cricket, you wouldn’t put him in the slips, would you?”

I sensed that we had taken the wind out of United’s sails. We hoped for just one more Chelsea goal as the referee signalled the start of the second period.

We bossed the opening moments. Even Mateo Kovacic, poor in the first period, looked a better player. Kepa was rarely forced into action. There were bookings for Willian and Kovacic. But then a rash challenge on a United player by Kovacic made me wonder if Sarri would take him off.

“He’s lucky to stay on, Gal.”

But then Rudiger went down, and it was Christensen who came on.

Although the second-half was a much better performance – we honestly dominated, easily – it was also a frustrating one. Higuain was offside three or four more times. He was having a ‘mare. There was one moment, soon into the second-half when he broke over the half-way line, but it looked like he was running in treacle. Hazard was twisting and turning and getting into good positions, but how we missed a late-arriving midfielder – no names, no pack drill – to finish it all off. Too often the ball ended up at the feet of Kante or Willian, both who seemed shot shy.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on for Kovacic. But his first few touches were heavy. His shot, later in the game, cleared the Stretford End crossbar by an embarrassing amount. Pedro then replaced Willian. We still controlled most of the ball. Pedro shot wildly over too. But United had the best chance for the winner. Thankfully, Pedro was ideally placed on the goal-line – shades of Ashley Cole in Naples – to head away an effort from Rojo.

The referee signalled a ludicrous seven extra minutes. There was still time for Higuain to fluff his lines at the death.

I looked down at my trainers one last time.

At the final whistle, there was a massive cheer from the away end. It was a priceless point.

The natives were quiet on the walk over the forecourt and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. A few gobby United fans – no more than two or three – were doing their level best to antagonise the Chelsea fans walking cheek by jowl alongside. I heard one Chelsea fan whisper “stick together” but it never really looked like kicking-off. Parky, PD and little old me kept silent.

In the end, the two United youths threw a couple of wayward punches and were soon smothered by a few policemen.

Out on the Chester Road, the United fans were very subdued.

We made a very clean and quick getaway.

“Job done boys, job done.”

On the long drive home, both PD and Parky caught some sleep, no doubt dreaming of German beer and German food ahead of their trip to Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday. I am sure I saw them dribbling.

As for me, my next one is on Sunday against Watford.

See you there.