Tales From The Depths Of Winter

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 15 January 2022.

I was up at 5.15am and by 7am I had collected both PD and Parky. Outside, the weather was cold and we were on our way to Manchester City. We always seem to get City away in the depths of winter, eh? In contrast, just think of all those end of season matches at Old Trafford over the years. Yet we always seem to have to endure an often chilly trip to the Etihad, or the City of Manchester Stadium or Eastlands as it was originally called.

I enjoy the vast majority of our current away trips in the Premier League. West Ham is an exception; such a crap view, plus – so far – the games have tended to be early kick-offs, thus eliminating the chance of a pub-crawl or suchlike. But the other exception is Manchester City. There is nothing of note surrounding the ground – not for away fans anyway – and although the stadium is decent enough, it’s all a bit anaemic. It also has no real history. Once I set foot inside, I am not overwhelmed with memories of games from the depths of time that visits to Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton provide.

Or maybe I am turned off by Manchester City’s new stadium because of our poor record in recent seasons. I had been present at our previous thirteen league visits to the stadium – last season excepted – and although our record is 4-1-8, in the last ten visits it is even worse; 2-1-7.

All three of us were hoping for a draw. We were realists. I am sure that in our support base of millions, not many were expecting us to win.

I was parked up at around 10.45am.

It had been freezing when we stopped for breakfast at Strensham Services on the M5 and although the weather had warmed slightly, it was still “hands in pockets” on the fifteen-minute walk to the stadium.

The stadium is at least recognisable; it’s shape is unique, what with its towering roof supports and San Siro-style helix exit ramps.

For the second visit in a row, I was up in the towering top tier. We were officially in row C, but with the first two rows blocked out, we were effectively in the front row. With a good half-an-hour to go before the game began, it was clear that more than a few fans had purchased some inflatable silver cups in the shape of the European Cup. I suspected a few songs about that night in Porto as the day developed.

The time soon passed.

Before I had time to think, the teams were on the pitch on the far side and “Blue Moon” was booming. Suddenly, more and more inflatable silver cups appeared throughout the three tiers of our support. It annoys me – I can’t explain why – that City sometimes adopt an all sky blue kit in preference to their standard one with white shorts. I may be picky, but that’s the mark of a lesser club in my opinion.

The game was now in sharp focus. In my mind, too, were the two recent extremes.

2017/18 : Conte giving up possession, defending deep and narrowly losing 0-1.

2018/19 : Sarri going for it but getting beaten 0-6.

There was just time to acquaint myself with the team that Thomas Tuchel had selected :

Arrizabalaga

Sarr – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kovacic – Kante – Azpilicueta

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

We all hoped for a performance akin to what we had witnessed in Porto, but I certainly wasn’t getting my hopes up.

The four of us in the front row of the upper tier joined the formation.

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Every man was needed.

It was 12.30pm.

The game began and, no surprises, City enjoyed most of the ball. Soon into the game, it became readily apparent that when we were out of possession the shape collapsed as below :

Arrizabalaga

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

A bank of five and a bank of four, squeezing space as best they could. Ironically, despite City’s opening domination, we had the game’s first real chance on ten minutes. A run from Lukaku up field, with us willing him on – if we were jockeys, we would have undoubtedly had the whip out – but just as he looked set to shoot, he bizarrely passed to the offside Ziyech.

Fackinell.

The game soon settled into one monotonous pattern. City were in control, we were sitting deep, but tried to build the occasional break. However, despite Kante’s usual prowess in intercepting passes and setting attacks in motion, we were hindered by Lukaku’s remoteness and the poor support play of Ziyech and Pulisic. Playing out from the back, using those little triangles that Tuchel must dream about at night, we fell prey to the manic way that the home team closed down space.

There were mixed views in the away section. Some were urging the team on, some were getting frustrated with certain players. I wasn’t too upset with our shape, but I just wished that we were more aggressive.

There is no doubt that at moments of high pressure, with City’s front three running at us and closing down space and then winning the ball and running again, it almost looked like this :

Arrizabalaga

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

Off the pitch, there were battles in song. This was our chance to shine.

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

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

“So here’s to you Vincent Kompany. Have you won the European Cup? No. No.”

“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions league.”

City’s responses were concerned with the English title.

How parochial.

Kepa was involved on a few occasions. There was a simple save from a John Stones header and then a catch at the near post from a Kevin De Bruyne shot from an angle.

With the half-time break approaching, we lost possession and Jack Grealish was through, one-on-one. He appeared to draw the ‘keeper, and I was fully prepared to see the net ripple. Thankfully, Kepa was up to the challenge and made the save of the match thus far, his spread-eagled legs blocking the goal bound effort. A shot from De Bruyne was wild and flew over the bar.

Christian Pulisic was not playing well. There was one moment when he held on to the ball for far too long, thus missing the chance to play the ball out to a free Dave on the wing and in acres of space but then also missing the chance to play a simpler ball inside. Later, I just found myself getting irritated with the way he played a square ball behind Alonso rather than in front of him; the momentum of that move was lost and City recovered.

Alan chirped :

“Captain America? More like Captain Mainwaring.”

However, we reached the base camp of half-time with the score 0-0.

All along, I would have settled for a draw. Is that too negative? I call it being pragmatic. Despite us getting the upper hand in May, City are arguably the best team in the world right now. In the build-up, I kept calling them an established team. Each player knows his role. They swarm like fireflies at the opposition. But we were half-way there. Half-way to paradise.

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking the three thousand in three tiers in the South Stand.

In the first minute, a heavy first touch from Lukaku was pounced upon by City and the end result was a raking cross from the left that begged out for a City striker to prod home. I heaved a sigh of relief. Soon after, in the next move almost, we broke and Lukaku’s curling shot was well saved by Ederson. The rebound was lofted high into tier four by Ziyech.

Just after, a wild shot from Alonso reached tier five.

Fackinell.

On the hour, a De Bruyne free-kick from distance drew a very fine save from Kepa.

And then just after, a perceived poor decision by the referee stirred the home support into making a racket for the first time in ages. Chelsea joined in too. It was bubbling along nicely now. What a lovely din.

On more than one occasion, both sets found themselves singing exactly the same tune – “Hey Jude” – but with different lyrics.

Next it was our turn to feel aggrieved; a rotten challenge on Ziyech on the far touch line went unpunished.

Fackinell ref.

Raheem Sterling, tormenting Alonso all game yet without too much end product, dragged a shot wide.

Overhead, the sun broke through. There was a blue and white mottled sky over a sky blue stadium. But my God, my feet were cold.

On sixty-nine minutes, a double-switch.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Ziyech.

Sadly, a minute later, a fine City move cut through our bank of four and the ball found the advancing De Bruyne. He dribbled, moved the ball out of his feet, and curled a breath-taking shot past Kepa.

“Great goal.”

The stadium erupted. What noise.

Ugh.

We attacked soon after, but an effort from Werner was well saved by Ederson.

Another change.

Mason Mount for Alonso.

I had given up on our formation now.

Stupid me, as the game reached its final few minutes, I still had this silly notion that – out of nowhere – we would somehow conjure up a late, very late, equaliser.

I must have read too many “Roy Of The Rovers” as a kid.

The equaliser never came of course, and in the end, I took the 0-1 loss on the chin.

“City, tearing Cockneys apart again” rang out once more.

And the City fans were full of taunts from behind the metal wall that separated the two sets of fans as we descended the many flights of stairs to reach the concourse outside. The line of police was tested at the bottom.

“Handbags” really.

We walked solemnly back to my car; a very familiar walk of late, hands in pockets again, heads down, well beaten.

Thankfully I made good time on the drive home, and we were able to call into “The Vine” at West Bromwich once again, our third visit in a month. Friends Michelle and Dane had the same idea; they walked in five minutes after us. I am tempted to write “if only the Chelsea team had shown such togetherness” but that would be slightly churlish. We were beaten by a very fine team. Was Tuchel wise to go for a cautious approach? I am not sure. To be honest, it almost came off. It wasn’t as if City had twenty shots on goal.

Of course, the doom mongers were out in full force after the game had finished in Manchester. A million fans, a million opinions, a million different formations, a million different moans.

But, that’s to be expected, right?

As one son of Manchester once wrote “everybody’s clever nowadays.”

As I have said before, everyone is entitled to air their views. But some of the over-reactions were quite laughable. I took it all with a pinch of salt. To be honest, this game won’t be long remembered. It won’t define our season. It won’t make or break us. Tuchel is no mug. He’ll learn from this.  

Next up, a Tuesday night trip to Sussex by the sea.

Let’s go to Brighton.

Tales From West View

Chelsea vs. Chesterfield : 8 January 2022.

Not long into the game, the six thousand supporters packed into The Shed, in both tiers, roared out as one :

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

It was just a shame that this loud and passionate outburst came from Chesterfield supporters.

For this was CFC vs. CFC and for the first time in decades. It was certainly the first time that I had seen us play Chesterfield, the Spireites, named after the town’s crooked spire, and it is not bloody surprising. We played them in the league in our first two seasons and then in the FA Cups of 1911/12 and 1949/50.

This was our first game against them, then, in seventy-two years.

This was the third round of the FA Cup too of course. What little romance that is left in modern football is found in these early rounds of the world’s oldest competition. It was also our fourth and final home game in just eleven days.

And I have a strong feeling that it was our first-ever home game against a non-league team in the FA Cup. I remember an away game at Scarborough in 2004; themselves had only just left the league, just like Chesterfield in fact.

One day, maybe, we will get to play a proper non-league team.

Weymouth. Spennymoor. Dulwich Hamlet. Frome Town.

Maybe.

I was looking forward to this one. It represented a little respite from the two huge games against Tottenham in the League Cup. That particular competition has faded of late, but it is surprising how important it has suddenly become since we were drawn against Tottenham in this season’s semi-final. I felt exactly the same three seasons ago. Whisper it, but part of me was just happy, so happy, that we had beaten Tottenham in that semi-final and, thus, the appearance in the final almost seemed like a bonus.

We’re weird creatures, eh?

A part of me was looking forward to seeing a game from the newly-created West View which is effectively the West Upper but now rebranded for a new clientele and a new pricing range set to kick in next season. In reality, having seen the prices being quoted for 2022/23, I knew that this would almost certainly be my last ever visit to the West Upper.

I was also looking forward to see a bubbling mass of six-thousand away fans amassed in The Shed. I was hoping they would bring some songs and an atmosphere, though I knew very well that the home areas would struggle to keep up with them.

The FA Cup though, eh? We have enjoyed such a wonderful record in this old competition of late that is has been rather difficult to comprehend the last two finals. It has to be said, though, that the Leicester loss in the rain in 2021 seemed an awful lot more depressing than the loss to Arsenal in the heat of August in 2020 which took place at the height of lockdown misery and alienation. I was over that loss within an hour. The Leicester defeat annoyed me for a week or so.

I love the way that I usually catch an early FA Cup game in August or September and then the competition rumbles along towards the back of my consciousness until the time for the third round draw before Christmas; it’s always there, but I don’t pay it too much attention, a bit like Millwall.

My two early games this season, as always, involved my local team Frome Town. There was a home game against local rivals Paulton Rovers in late August. A nice crowd of 398 saw the Robins win 3-1. In September, an even better crowd of 586 saw Frome defeat Conference South outfit Oxford City 2-1. This represented Frome’s first win in the FA Cup against a team from two divisions higher in the pyramid for around four decades. This second game was simply a magnificent encounter, full of quality football and tension, and I loved it to bits. Sadly, Frome went out to Bath City in the next round in an away fixture at Twerton Park – gate 1,473 – by the score of 0-5. I didn’t attend that one as I was at Chelsea versus Southampton.

The FA Cup 2021/22 – number one-hundred-and-fifty, I remember the centenary final in 1972 between Arsenal and Leeds United, the first one I ever watched – was now back in my life again.

As I left my house at ten to nine on Saturday morning I suddenly thought to myself “why the fuck am I leaving my house at ten to nine on Saturday morning?”

The game was to kick-off at 5.30pm.

We are nothing if not keen.

I collected PD and his son Scott, who I last saw on that fun-filled trip to Hull in the FA Cup at the start of 2020, and then made my way over to pick up Lord Parky. Chopper was making his own way up for this one; my next date chauffeuring Chelsea royalty will be for the Tottenham league game in a couple of weeks.

It was a horrible journey up to London. There was rain, rain and more rain. But at least the roads were relatively clear of traffic. I dropped the three passengers off outside “The Eight Bells” at ten to midday.

Three hours for a door to door service; happy with that.

It would be well over two-and-a-half hours before I would see the lads again.

Traffic lights on the North End Road meant that it took me a frustrating thirty minutes to reach my usual parking spot just off Lillie Road. We knew that the District Line was closed from Earl’s Court to Putney Bridge and so my plan was to simply walk to “The Eight Bells” rather than walk to Fulham Broadway and then get a bus to the pub. The rain was still falling and I so I waited for half-an-hour in my car before I heard the rain drops suddenly stall. At one o’clock, I made my way south.

Facing me were two of the largest housing blocks of the Clem Atlee Court, which looms over “The Goose” and “The Rylston” pubs and the numerous shops and cafes on the North End Road and Lillie Road. As I walked past one of its entrances, I wondered how many thousands of Chelsea supporters had grown up in this estate since it was built in the ‘sixties. It currently houses a massive twelve thousand people. It is, without a doubt, a last remaining bastion of working-class life in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has undergone immense gentrification since the ‘eighties. Perhaps the more pertinent term would be “yuppification”; no area of England was yuppified more than Fulham in the Thatcher era. It remains as one of the ten poorest estates in Britain.

But I love the way that I often spot Chelsea flags flying from some of the many balconies when I use the little cut through behind “The Goose” on my usual walk to Stamford Bridge. I have never felt threatened on this walk, though, even if it’s hardly a very salubrious part of the capital. It surely remains a bedrock of Chelsea support, though I am also sure that the vast majority of the twelve thousand are completely priced out of modern day football.

I always remember that I spent the entirety of 1983/84 on the dole but I was still able to attend eleven Chelsea games (thinking about it, this actually incorrect; I grabbed a job two days before the last game).

But I am sure that unemployment benefits are not enough these days to allow people to go to football at Chelsea, despite the club’s reduced prices for domestic cup games. And I suspect that those in lower paid jobs who live on the Clem Atlee are unable to attend many of our games either.

I walked past “The Rylston” just as the rain started again. I increased my pace. If nothing else, the one-and-a-half mile walk through deepest Fulham would give me a nice workout. My walking – so regular a year ago – has virtually stopped of late. I need to get back into that. The roads were understandably quiet, devoid of people. In fact, there were more abandoned Christmas trees on the wet pavements than pedestrians.

I was making good time, though a little wet. I stopped at “The Brown Cow” on the Fulham Road and positioned myself, and my jacket, beneath the heater in the ceiling. I ordered a “diet Coke” and dried out. A little time to myself. A little moment of calm before the day would develop. I moved on further down the Fulham Road and – despite the rain – I have to say I was enjoying my little walk.

The upmarket shops on this stretch of road were a million miles away from the stalls on the North End Road.

Same postcode, different lives.

I then dived in to “The Golden Lion” on Fulham High Street. It was quiet save for a few local lads watching the Millwall vs. Palace game on two large TV screens. Another “diet Coke” and another drying-out. I love the intimacy of London pubs. You might have noticed. And none are more intimate than “The Eight Bells”, the last port of call. I walked in at around two-thirty.

PD, Parky and Scott were sat in the far corner. Alongside them was Steve from Salisbury who sits near Parky in The Shed. Very soon into our chat, which would last until around a quarter-to-five, we were augmented by Julie and Tim from South Gloucestershire.

I kept to the “diet Cokes”. To be honest, I could not believe how quiet the pub was. It was half-empty. The lads soon told me that they had been chatting to a couple from Chesterfield, in the pub with their son, and how the son had been invited down to Cobham with hundreds of other Chesterfield academy players. Top work, Chelsea.

I spoke with Julie and Tim about Abu Dhabi. They had already booked flights. I had explained to PD and LP on the drive to London that I was only 50/50 about going. The stress of testing, the forms, the red tape, the risk of getting COVID – again – out there…it was weighing heavily on my poor mind. But chatting to them assuaged my worries a great deal.

Steve told of how, when Pulisic scored the second against Liverpool, he spotted Parky’s blue walking stick fly through the air. It was then quickly followed by Parky who, despite his dodgy leg, raced down the aisle and ended up on top of Steve in his row.

With no tube trains, we caught a 22 bus up the King’s Road. In slow-moving traffic, it passed Parson’s Green and Eel Brook Common before depositing us outside “The Imperial”, a mere five-minute walk away from Stamford Bridge. It felt odd to be approaching the ground from the east.

At around 5.10pm we started queuing to get into West View. Thankfully, the lines were short. Annoyingly, there seemed to be no lift. Parky and PD, both with gammy legs, really struggled with the ten flights of stairs. Parky had mentioned a lift that he had used on Wednesday, but there wasn’t one to be seen. Well, that’s just crap.

I wasn’t able to mooch around the bar areas before the game began due to the lack of time. To be honest, after a couple of minutes, I had seen enough. It’s all rather swish and sleek. But it resembled a posh cinema rather than a football stadium. I wasn’t able to peruse the food and drink options, but I am the last person who would ever get too excited about the quality and variety of food on offer at football. A game last two hours at the most. I hardly ever buy any food at games these days. I just don’t see the point.

We made our way to our four seats in row 23. We kept going and going; more steps for PD and Parky to climb. We ended up in the back row. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It was some view from our seats. I had never been so high in the West Upper before. On my five or six previous visits, I had been, maybe, half the way up. My last visit was also an FA Cup tie, just over seven years ago, against Watford. We were midway into the half towards the Matthew Harding. I looked down and saw Alan in a thin sliver of terrace down below. We were so high that I only saw the lower tier of the East Stand.

The seats are padded, but not as luxurious as those at Arsenal. There are three huge TV screens at the front of the under hang of the roof, with smaller screens further in. I have never really bothered with TV screens while the game is in progress. I soon noticed that the TV feed was a couple of seconds slower than the game itself. I suppose they are fine for watching replays. With nobody behind me, I was able to stand for a massive chunk of the game; old habits and all that.

As soon as he reached our seats – there were empties to our left – Parky totally embraced the luxurious setting and led down on the concrete floor. I half-expected PD to feed him some grapes in the style of a Roman emperor.

Emperor Oscar Parksorius anyone?

I soon spotted plenty of youngsters in our immediate vicinity. Parky saw that a family with three youngsters, aged five to eight maybe, were in the row in front but the kids were having trouble seeing the pitch. There was space alongside us in the back row, so the kids were lifted up alongside us. It meant there was nobody, now, in their way in their former row. I was sure that many regulars had decided not to attend this one. In their place were those who maybe could not afford regular prices. It is often the way on FA Cup days.

So. West View. My thoughts?

The West Upper has always been an expensive part of the stadium. This season, general sale seats are a hefty £95. As a comparison, my seat in the MHU is knocked out for £65 on general sale; for me as a season ticket holder it equates to £46 per game. But for now, those wealthier Chelsea fans who can afford the current West View prices, and if the demographics of our support are correct we have a few, I suppose that £95 per game is affordable; it must be, we are always sold out.

The spectators in the West Upper, one would imagine, are bona fide Chelsea supporters, and thus have a vested interest in the team and the game. There must be around 4,000 of them in the West Upper each match. However, from next season, West View season tickets will cost from £1,500 to £3,900 although I believe that all games are included. Let’s say we play thirty home games per season. For the £3,900 season ticket, that equates to a chunky £130 per game. I would imagine that not all 4,000 seats will be sold as season tickets and thus those left for game-by-game sale to members or the general public will probably be knocked out in excess of £150 per game.

And my point, really is this. Who can afford to pay £1,500 to a staggering £3,900 for a season ticket? Surely not most fans. Surely not those with families. Surely not your average Joe. I’d imagine that companies, in the main, will be buying those tickets, and employees will be hosting guests at most games as part of the corporate schmoozefest that has taken over parts of modern day football. And will those people be Chelsea fans? Not always. Will they be vested in the team and club? Maybe not.

West View seems to be an exact way to further reduce the ability for regular Chelsea fans to attend games. Revenues, if the club has got it right, might increase but surely the atmosphere will be quieter than ever. But most importantly, I feel for the 4,000 Chelsea fans who must be thinking that that they are being priced right out.

That can’t be a good thing.

Kick-off time soon arrived.

It was nigh on 5.30pm.

The lights were dulled, the teams entered the pitch. Chesterfield were in a change kit of all red.

From my vantage point, I soon spotted that the pitch was looking a little worn. These four home games in rapid succession were taking their toll.

A quick scan of the team.

Two debuts, and we seemed to get stronger – or at least more experienced – as we went from defence to attack. As the game began, I tried to work out the formation. You would think that with my sky-high view, which I honestly did not mind for a one-off game, the shape would be easy for me to fathom. Not likely.

Bettinelli was in goal. Christensen and Sarr were in the middle, but I guessed that Hall was in a three with them. Saul and Kovacic were the anchors in midfield. But that must have meant that Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi were the pushed-on wing backs. Pulisic seemed to float around, but strayed often to the right. Upfront was Lukaku and Werner drifted next to him.

The six thousand away fans were making a racket as the game began, and all were standing. The away team had an attack in the first few minutes and thus, officially, had begun brighter than Tottenham on Wednesday. However, they soon mirrored Tottenham’s start to that game. Kovacic broke and slipped the ball to Ziyech. His shot was parried but the ball fell to Werner who stabbed the ball in from a couple of yards.

I thought there might have been a hint of an offside; thankfully not.

Just six minutes had elapsed.

Alan in The Sleepy Hollow : THTCAUN.

Chris in West View : COMLD.

Unperturbed the away team still endeavoured to attack.

“Definitely a better start than Tottenham.”

However, we were creating some nice patterns in the final third with Ziyech the most noticeable. On eighteen minutes, Hudson-Odoi advanced and curled an exquisite shot from the angle of the penalty box into the far post. It was a stunning goal. Whereas my celebrations had been muted for the first with the threat of an offside, this one was loudly cheered by myself.

“Get in Callum.”

Two minutes later, Lewis Hall lost possession on the left flank but quickly won the ball back, a great recovery, and advanced before picking out the run of Lukaku. From inside the six-yard box, this was an easy finish.

The game appeared to be won on just twenty minutes.

“And relax.”

But the away fans were in party mode and were still singing.

“Jump around if you love the town.”

“I’m Spireite ‘till I die.”

And then a chant that aimed a dig at our scorer.

“Romelu Lukaku, he’s Inter Milan.”

Two very similar shots from Lukaku sadly didn’t trouble Sam Loach in the Chesterfield goal. They were two poor finishes.

There was a rare Chesterfield effort on our goal but Bettinelli was untroubled.

The atmosphere wasn’t great in the home areas. But I joined in with every hint of a song in the lofty heights of row twenty-three. I was glad that a surprising number of supporters took part too. On the pitch, there was good movement from Werner, Hudson-Odoi looked lively and Ziyech was creating good options as he danced and weaved into space. Pulisic was, by comparison, rather quiet. Hall, the debutant, was enjoying a fine, solid game.

However, he almost blotted his copybook on a superb debut by slicing a clearance into his net but Bettinelli came to the rescue.

With half-time approaching, a shot from Hall was parried and Christensen was on hand to adeptly loop a header over the ’keeper. It was a fine, cool finish.

At half-time, we were 4-0 up.

There were game recaps at the break on the myriad of TV screens in the stadium. The poxy video supporting the decision to clothe ourselves in Op Art zig-zags was shown. What with watching from so high up, plus the dizzy images on the screens, I might have been forgiven for losing my footing and joining Parky on the floor.

There were some changes for the second period,

Kai Havertz for Lukaku.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic.

Chances were exchanged in the first few minutes of the second-half. The reds were now attacking their six thousand followers in The Shed. “Carefree” with a northern twang sounded so odd.

On the fifty-fourth minute, Pulisic received the ball out wide and attacked. My thoughts were immediately this :

“Get inside the box, win a penalty.”

With that, he got inside the box and won a penalty.

Ziyech smashed it in.

I claimed the assist.

5-0.

I suppose “are you Tottenham in disguise?” is better than nothing.

Some further substitutions followed, and the game took on the appearance of a training session. It became a little hard work to be honest.

Harvey Vale for Pulisic.

Lewis Baker for Christensen.

Ross Barkley for Hudson-Odoi.

The game didn’t flow so well. Ruben and Ross flattered to deceive. The noise subsided further. Fraser Kerr shot wide in front of the travelling hordes at The Shed End.

With ten to go, Akwasi Asante was able to finish off a move after an initial shot was blocked. The away fans, unsurprisingly, went wild. Fair play to them. I had to keep reminding myself that they were a non-league team. The applause from sections of the home areas got louder; I joined in. I felt a bit of a prick, but there you go.

CFC 5 CFC 1.

The four of us slowly navigated the stairs and made our way back to the waiting car.

On the Lillie Road, at “The Anchor”, I bought and then devoured a saveloy and chips. Just behind the small shop, the towers of the Clem Atlee loomed. I wondered how many of the estate’s inhabitants had been tuned in to the game. And I wondered if any had been at Stamford Bridge.

Next up, a game at White Hart Lane. Tottenham away is not for the feint-hearted. I’ll see you there.

Tales From Hi Ho Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 19 December 2021.

Six days before Christmas, we weren’t worrying about expensive gifts; we just wanted our football fix. After Everton on Thursday, many wondered if that was it for a while. I certainly half-expected our match at Molineux to be postponed due to the increase of omicron cases throughout the UK. But despite other games being called off on the Saturday, our Sunday afternoon game against Wolves remained most definitely “on” and so PD, Parky and I set off in good time in order to attend.

Deep down, I was still preparing myself for the news that the game could be called-off while we were heading north towards the Black Country. We kept our ‘phones on during the trip and secretly dreaded any incoming text alerts or ‘phone-calls. To my surprise, there was nothing.

We had left at 9am and we were parked-up at a very convenient parking spot no more than a ten-minute walk from the stadium at around 12.30pm. Molineux lies in a dip just to the north of the compact city centre at Wolverhampton. Although the pitch has been shunted a few yards to the east during its rebuilding a few decades ago, Molineux has played host to Wolves’ games since 1889.

The old stadium was so recognisable in past days. And in my mind, honestly, whenever I think of Wolves my mind quickly flicks up images of that old gold multi-tiered roof of the stand opposite the stand that housed the TV cameras in the ‘seventies. The voice of the ITV football commentator Huw Johns – he covered the teams in the midlands – also appears fleetingly before an image of the huge South Bank behind the right hand goal completes the picture. If I hear Wolves, I rarely think of the new stadium. Molineux was Wolves and Wolves was Molineux. It was quite simple. And during my childhood, this was the same for all of the clubs.

Stamford Bridge was Chelsea and Chelsea was Stamford Bridge.

Highbury was Arsenal and Arsenal was Highbury.

Anfield was Liverpool and Liverpool was Anfield.

I am not so sure this works quite so well these days. To my mind, stadia have become similar and there are simply not so many idiosyncratic and distinct stands in modern football. It’s our collective loss and is such a shame.

The old Molineux, before that old treasure of a stand was dismantled in around 1979, was completed by a cranked main stand opposite and, in the circumstances, a rather mundane roofed terrace behind the left-hand goal. In the ‘seventies – the golden age for many – there wasn’t a more interesting nor recognisable stadium in the Football League than Molineux.

Stamford Bridge maybe. But I suspect I am biased.

The three of us made our way to the stadium, emerging from the infamous subway and out into an area housing many food stalls, badge sellers, a tented beer area, and then a statue of Sir Jack Hayward was spotted in front of the turnstiles to the home end, the old South Bank, which now bears his name. The once huge terrace was embedded onto the natural slope of the hill with the pitch way below. Under the statue, a chubby Wolves fan in a blue fleece was sat stuffing his face full of chips.

As we began walking down the slope to the away turnstiles, I was asked by a fellow with a lanyard and a clipboard to show him my COVID pass. Out came my ‘phone. Check. There would be another check – another lanyard and clipboard, a sign of the times – right outside the away entrance at the bottom of the hill. While I waited for a couple of acquaintances to arrive to sort out tickets, I realised how cold it all was. A mist, maybe even a fog, was giving the pre-match something of an old fashioned feel. It felt great, just right. I half expected Billy Wright or Ron Flowers to walk past in monochrome. The fog had accompanied us up on the drive throughout the morning and it showed no signs of shifting as kick-off time approached.

I chatted to a few Chelsea friends in the concourse in the Steve Bull stand. Talk was of COVID and of how Chelsea had asked for a postponement of the game that very morning. I am not sure if I was being selfish or not, but I was just glad that the game was still on.

As I took my place in the second row, not far from the halfway line, it became clear that many had decided not to travel. I am not exaggerating when I say that in the immediate five or six rows behind me, around twenty-five seats remained unused the entire day. The risk of infection, no doubt, had caused this.

News broke not of our team, but of our bench with just four outfield players and two goalkeepers. The same joke about Kepa playing upfront took place in a grand total of one hundred and fifty thousand different locations throughout the world. I just hoped that despite the push to get the game postponed, the right preparations had not been skipped.

At least Emperor Kante was back with Mateo Kovacic on that bench.

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Silva – Rudiger

James – Kanye – Chalobah – Alonso

Ziyech – Pulisic – Mount

Pre-match, with me wishing I had worn another layer aside from a long-sleeved polo shirt and a jacket, everyone in the front rows were wonderfully warmed by the leaping flames that flashed in front of us in the away areas.

“Have you brought some marshmallows, Gal?”

Elsewhere, the fog loomed. The silhouette of a few trees beyond the south-west corner, now devoid of the temporary seats that Wolves used in that area for a while, looked like something from an oil painting of a rural scene rather than from inside a city.

Chelsea fans, stretched out the entire length of the lower tier, were trying hard to make ourselves heard. We were beaten when the home fans, mainly in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand to our right, augmented the team’s pre-game song being played on the PA.

“Hi Ho Wolverhampton.”

The game began with the Chelsea going right to left and with Marcos Alonso hugging the touchline in front of us all.

You all watched it. The first-half was shite, eh?

It began promisingly enough with a few early raids. But then Wolves muscled in on things and I photographed Daniel Podence before he shot from distance at Mendy in front of the now two-tiered Stan Cullis Stand to our right, the second stand to have stood there since the ‘seventies.

Gary, Parky and I were making the most of a so-so start to the game, and were all giggling like fools when we spotted lookalikes in the crowd of Francis Rossi, Mick Hucknall, the bloke out of Boney M and Shirley Crabtree.

You had to be there.

On a quarter of an hour, we wished we weren’t. Wolves went one-up after a ball was flashed across our box and Podence tucked it home.

Snot.

Then, after what seemed an age, and with no VAR signalled, we spotted the lino on our side hoist his flag. The Wolves fans were quietened. Of course I had no idea why the goal was disallowed; we presumed offside, but it could have been for a foul. These days, who knows?

The mist was staying. This really felt like something from the past.

It’s always so difficult at Wolves to get a sing-along started with everyone so distant from each other. We tried our best.

“He came from PSG. To win the Champions League.”

On half-an hour, although Thiago Silva should have met the ball before it bounced, I marvelled at his rapid recovery and how he not only won the ball but how he played it coolly out to a team mate. For a few minutes previously, I thought our great Brazilian had looked a little cold – long sleeved undershirt, gloves – and moved a little cagily but he soon moved up the gears when needed.

There was a smirk when I had mumbled to myself : “should have worn some Long Johns, Silva.”

Thankfully nobody heard me.

The great performance of the half belonged to N’Golo Kante, back to his best; rampaging, striding, probing, passing, eating up space with joyful glee, the engine room. It was a joy to see him again. What a player.

To paraphrase the pre-match anthem :

“You’re everywhere baby.”

Apart from a few corners – oh, I remember a Pulisic chance that wasn’t – there was absolutely no real threat on the Wolves goal throughout the half. There was earnest endeavour but nothing in the final third. Did we force a save? I think not.

At the break, I moaned to an acquaintance “we might have bodies up front, but we have no presence.”

And no presence at Christmas ain’t fun.

In the concourse, the youth were blasting out a reworking of a Jona Lewie Christmas hymn from 1980; rhyming Tuchel with bugle, I can’t see it catching on.

The second-half? It was better, but it couldn’t have been much worse could it?

Thomas Tuchel replaced Chalobah with Saul and we held our breath.

I whispered to Gal : ”Our Saul.”

He hasn’t set the world alight, has he?

Whereas Wolves showed a little desire to attack in the first-half, in the second forty-five minutes it seemed to be all one-way traffic. Yet here’s the thing; not once was I convinced that we would grab a goal. We kept trying to find gaps and spaces in the Wolves half but something was missing. We missed a Fabregas to unlock the defence for sure. But I can’t fault our desire to win tackles and keep the momentum going. Maybe the fog wasn’t helping; cross-field balls to spare wide men were in short supply. Though, to be fair, once balls were played to the flanks, what sort of cross should we play in? Clearly we had no aerial threat. Precision low balls to feet needed to be that; in such a crowded box, there was no margin for error.

On the hour, the return of Mateo Kovacic, on for Ziyech.

There was now more solidity in the midfield. Saul was finding his feet. Our domination continued. But chances were oh-so rare. Shots were blocked, as were intended crosses. With ten minutes to go, the chance of the game and with hindsight perhaps the only chance of the game; Alonso played in Pulisic but his finish was just too close to the Wolves keeper Kilman and a limb defeated us.

Bollocks.

In the ninetieth minute, with the Wolves substitute Adama Traore about to pounce on a punt up field, I watched mesmerised as that man Silva, from a standing start, almost flat-footed, leapt magnificently to head clear.

His performance throughout the game was truly worth the admission money alone. He never panicked, he glided throughout the entire match. What a player.

With a depleted squad and team, a 0-0 draw was half-decent wasn’t it?

I think so.

On the way home, we called in at “The Vine” – along with a few other Chelsea fans – at West Bromwich for a welcome curry. A lamb dhansak and peshwari naan warmed me up. The Baggies might be out of the top flight, but “The Vine” isn’t. It’s well recommended.

I eventually reached home at about 8.30pm, the game quickly disappearing from view in my mirrors.

But, the winter draws on.

Brentford await.

Wear something warm.

See you there.

Tales From A West London Affair

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2021.

I needed that recent international break. After seven Chelsea games in just twenty-one days, involving almost twenty-one thousand words here, for once I was most relieved that there would be a fallow period of a fortnight with no match.

(Things I never thought I’d write #127.)

Last weekend was still spent watching football though. I drove into Oxfordshire to see Frome Town recover from conceding an early goal to wallop Didcot Town 5-1 in the FA Trophy. This almost made up for the 5-0 defeat suffered at the hands of Bath City in the FA Cup, a game that took place at the same time that we played Southampton. By the way, an infinitesimally small amount of time was spent weighing up the chances of me attending a local derby at Bath as opposed to the Saints in a run-of-the-mill league game at Stamford Bridge. It was a no contest to be honest.

Frome Town has been good to me of late, but Chelsea is still number one in my affections.

The away league match at Brentford had been a long time coming. Seventy-four years in fact. Yes, dear reader, the last time that the two West London clubs met in a league encounter was in March 1947. Our meetings with the red and white striped Bees from along the A4 have been ridiculously rare. Aside from friendlies, the two clubs had only met on fourteen previous occasions. There was a flurry of games before the outbreak of the Second World War and in the first of these seasons – 1935/36 – Brentford ended up as the top team in London.

Since those halcyon days, Brentford have toiled away in the lower reaches of the Football League. If I am honest, apart from Ray and Graham Wilkins’ father George and our own Ron Harris, I would be hard pressed to name any of their players apart from those in the current team.

Do Bradley Walsh and Rod Stewart count?

In the grand scheme of things, our relatively recent meetings with Brentford in the FA Cup campaigns of 2012/13 and 2016/17 represent a real flurry of activity.

On the same day that we became European Champions in Porto, Brentford swept past Swansea City in the play-off final to gain promotion to the top tier, and I for one – when I heard the news in the stadium before our game – was very happy. I love the football pyramid, I love the rise of smaller teams (Wigan, Blackpool, Bournemouth in recent years) and I love visiting new stadia. Driving in to London on the elevated section of the M4 over the past five years, we have watched how the new Brentford Community Stadium has risen, not so far from Griffin Park, and the arrival of Brentford in the Premiership was just perfect.

With the game moving to a 5.30pm kick-off, we salivated at the prospect of a Hammersmith to Chiswick River Thames pub-crawl before the game. Yet for weeks and weeks, only Parky and I were guaranteed match tickets. Then, what luck, two tickets became available from a couple of friends who could not attend, thus allowing PD and Glenn to join us. Glenn quickly volunteered to drive. Plans were drawn up, pubs were checked out, a parking slot opposite the new stadium was sorted.

This was going to be a cracker.

But then (I have warned that these days there is often a “but then”) one of my mates caught COVID19 – nothing too horrible, it soon passed – but it meant that I needed to take a PCR test in Bath the day before the game. My very real fear was that I would be informed of a positive test result en route to London and would then be forced to self-isolate in Glenn’s van while the others made merry. It didn’t bear thinking about. My contingency plans for the day now included freeing up my ticket, if needed, to enable my good friend Daryl to attend in my absence should the need arise.

Heading into London at around 10.30am, up on the M3 before it drops down into Twickenham, Glenn was playing a few songs from The Jam in his van.

One song struck a chord.

“That’s Entertainment” is much loved. It charted in 1983 after the band split, and I have always loved its lyrics, an homage to melancholy days in humdrum England, a nod to working class life and culture. The mundane is celebrated, almost embraced. Paul Weller’s words drifted over the semi-detached houses of the outer reaches of south-west London.

“A police car and a screaming siren.”

The skies had darkened a little since we had left our homes and for the past twenty minutes there had been rain. We hoped the wet weather would not last.

“The screech of brakes and the lamplight blinking.”

Glenn drove on and I wondered if the day’s events would turn out to be mundane – surely not – or magnificent and memorable. Again I thought of the millions of Chelsea fans who would be wishing that they were the lucky ones with a match ticket on this day in West London.

“That’s entertainment.”

There had been no PCR test result thus far in. I pondered my day ahead. I would be controlled by outside forces.

“Lights going out and a kick in the balls.”

No, let’s be positive here. I had experienced no symptoms. No symptoms at all. My mood cheered with each of Weller’s squeezed together lines.

“Opening the windows and breathing in petrol.”

The Jam coexisted alongside Chelsea Football Club for me in those exciting and yet horrible adolescent years and here they were again.

“Football, music and clobber” was it Mr. Weller?

“That’s entertainment.”

Glenn drove on into Richmond, up to Chiswick and we were parked up, more or less on time, at around 11am.

There had been a few messages to and from Daryl. We had decided that he would be best placed to look for other entertainment; he was off to see Guernsey’s match down in South London against Chipstead, his non-league team’s first away game since January 2020.

From around 11.30am to around 4.30pm, we visited five pubs on the northern bank of the River Thames, replicating a pub-crawl that Parky and I first enjoyed before an Arsenal away game in 2015. With each pub, we bumped into more and more friends and acquaintances. At “The Blue Anchor” we were joined by the two Robs, then Luke, Aroha and Doreen – the last time that I have seen all three since Porto, smiley face – and we then sauntered next door to “The Rutland Arms”. We joined forces with Rob Three, Feisal, Brian, Pete and a few more at “The Dove”, and I chatted to Nick and James – Dublin, 2019 – out on the small terrace overlooking the river. By the time we had reached “The Old Ship”, the party was almost twenty strong. It seemed that we were not the only ones who had come up with the idea of this most wonderful of pub crawls. Around the corner at “The Black Lion” were five or six familiar faces from our local area who had honed in on this idyllic spot in West London.

That’s entertainment.

We had sat alongside a few QPR fans at the “Blue Anchor”, no doubt heading off to see their team, and eventually lose, at Craven Cottage. We all thought how odd it was for the Met Police to sanction all of West London’s four teams to play – against each other – on the same day.

On several occasions, I spoke in hushed tones about how fearful I was of the game at Brentford. It had all the hallmarks of a Chelsea banana skin. I likened it to our game in the autumn of 2011 – one week away from being ten years ago exactly – when we went to newly-promoted neighbours QPR and lost 1-0. I am sure I was not the only one in our ever-growing party, or worldwide, who had this fear of defeat. Brentford had certainly settled with ease this season. They would be no pushover. Their fans would be, er, buzzing.

The lager was hitting the spot. But time was moving on. Just as we were thinking about mustering the troops together to head west to our pre-paid parking spot on the A4, I received a text message. I nervously looked.

“Negative.”

Phew.

“You shall go to the ball.”

We said our goodbyes as others worked out their best ways to travel the two miles or so to the game. We shoehorned nine of us into Glenn’s Chuckle Bus and off we went. I wasn’t sure about getting a cab nor travelling on buses, and there were no slashed seat affairs.

This was a West London affair and we were on our way.

We were soon parked up. Luckily, the stadium was just a ten-minute walk away. I was just so relieved that we had the sense, after surely a gallon of lager, to leave the Thames side pubs in good time, and that we could now relax and enjoy our walk all of the way around the grey cladding of the stadium and reach the away turnstiles in good time. It was around 5pm.

Good job I work in logistics.

Once inside the away concourse, virtually the first person that I bumped into was Daryl.

“Wow. You got a ticket then mate!”

Fantastic.

“Yeah, it would appear that rocking horses do occasionally go to the toilet.”

We had evidently not been the only little group of Chelsea fans enticed into West London hostelries for a few bevvies. The singing in the concourse was loud, and it continued into the stadium itself.

I knew what to expect of the Brentford Community Stadium. A few years back, as a certified stadium buff, I subscribed to updates from Brentford Football Club as their new stadium took shape. This mirrored my fascination with its steady growth with each trip in to see a game at Chelsea. Imagine my shock when, presumably because of my free subscription to these stadium updates, I started to receive offers to become a Brentford season ticket holder at the new place.

Easy now.

It’s a decent stadium. Every inch of available space has been used, and the stands abut roads and railway lines. Sound familiar? The stadium holds 17,250. The main stand dominates everything, but its upper reaches are an ugly mix of dull grey roof trusses and unsightly executive areas. I like the way that the tower of the Kew Pumping Station can be glimpsed between the main stand and the western home terrace, a much slighter structure. The roof drops down drastically at two of the corners. The seats are multi-coloured – no doubt to give the impression of them being filled even when they aren’t – but as kick-off time approached it was clear that this would be another full house.

Our away take was around 1,600.

Thankfully many faces that I recognised were in. Behind me was Rob Three, who was joined at various times by H, and then Des, who seemed intent on popping up in every section in the entire away end at various intervals of the entire match. A special mention for Clinton and his son Bailey who were stood a few rows behind me. Hailing from Stirling in central Scotland, Bailey played football during the morning before they flew down to Gatwick in the afternoon and then took a cab to Brentford. There was Luke in the front row of the top section, joining in with the chanting, arms spread. I spotted Daryl in the front row behind the goal. Faces everywhere in fact.

We knew there would be changes due to injuries and as the kick-off approached, the team was flashed on the TV screen which was perched rather precariously atop the main stand roof.

Mendy

Sarr – Christensen – Chalobah

Chilwell – Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Azpilicueta

Werner – Lukaku

I was alongside Alan, Gal and Parky in a jam-packed quartet in row five.

“They shall not pass.”

My first thoughts as the game began were two-fold.

Firstly, after games where we had been rather reticent at the start, I was just so pleased that we were able to take the game to Brentford in the first five, ten, fifteen minutes.

Secondly, bloody hell, we were making a racket. From a good few minutes before kick-off, and into those first twenty minutes, the noise from the 1,600 Chelsea fans in the north-eastern corner was non-stop.

“That’s more like it.”

And I couldn’t believe how quiet the home fans were. It shocked me.

As the two managers, Thomas Frank and Thomas Tuchel, cajoled their troops from the side-lines, the Chelsea choir let it rip.

“Super Chelsea FC.”

“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”

“Timo Werner.”

But the loudest and – ahem – proudest (?) chant was directed at the referee, Anthony Taylor.

Look away now if you are easily offended.

“You’re a James Hunt, you’re a James Blunt, and you’ll always be a Stephen Hunt, you’ll always be a Berkshire Hunt, Taylor, Taylor.”

It seemed to go on forever.

It might sound stupid, even childish, but this chant reinforced the notion that despite modern football’s desire to cleanse and sanitise the current football experience, the faces in the away section, cheering loudly and at times with profanity, have been the heartbeat of the club for decades. In short, unlike at some home games, it felt that the right fans were at this game.

The every-gamers, the loyalists, the ones with one thousand, two thousand Chelsea games to their names, the faces you know, the names you might not know, the drinkers, the thinkers, the old school, the Shed, the North Stand, Gate Thirteen, The Benches, the Matthew Harding, The Shed Lower.

Chelsea on tour.

We dominated the play and Ruben Loftus-Cheek looked like he wanted to take the game by the scruff of the neck. One strong run through the middle was enjoyed by us all. The new boy Sarr looked decent, and didn’t look out of place. The hustle and bustle of Kovacic and Kante, the Kryptonite Kids, ensured that loose balls were charged down and Brentford could not develop many passing routines.

However, after a series of Brentford corners and free-kicks, the home team obtained a foothold. A high ball in from their right was kept alive by their attackers, and the ball fell to Mbeumo whose volley ricocheted back off the near post. From here, the ball was shielded by Ruben before Kovacic took it away from the defensive third with the Brentford team having left many up field. The ball was played wide to Werner. His low cross was turned in by Lukaku, but he had strayed – diabolically – offside.

Bollocks.

We regained control and a Kovacic free-kick threatened Raya in the home goal. A shot from Timo just swept past the post. It was all Chelsea, but there was frustration in the away end as our domination often petered out. Right on the stroke of half-time, a breakthrough came. A sustained spell of pressure, pegging the home defence back, resulted in a cross from Dave. Lukaku got something on it, and the ball dropped invitingly for Ben Chilwell. His volley was well controlled – not unlike the goal against Southampton in that respect – and the ball flew into the net.

Brentford 0 Chelsea 1.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Phew.

The night had fallen by the time the players returned onto the pitch for the start of the second-half. Whereas the first-half belonged to us, if only in terms of possession despite the goal, the second-half absolutely belonged to Brentford, and I wondered how or why they were allowed to dominate us for such long periods. This was the Brentford that I had been expecting to see all along, and at last the home fans were involved too.

Tuchel replaced Kovacic with Mason Mount half-way through the half. Lukaku wasted a golden opportunity after a Werner shot was blocked. Lukaku’s blast over the bar was met with groans and wails.

Brentford, by then, were warming to the task of getting back into the game. The previously quiet Toney looked lively, and Mbeumo saw his weak shot hit the left-hand post. Mendy was being called into action to safeguard our slender win, and he rose to the challenge magnificently.

Our ‘keeper was able to smother a shot as Ghoddos attacked from an angle and, oh Ghodd, we watched in pain as the ball was kept alive by a few desperate Brentford tackles. Thankfully, Chalobah was suitably switched-on to be able to hack a resultant shot off the line.

Brentford were making a racket now.

“About time.”

Next up a point blank save from Jansonn; the man Mendy was having an immense game.

Fackinell.

By now, our nerves were being strained and pulled and stretched in all different directions. Kai Havertz had replaced Lukaku and I felt that our attacking options had effectively been turned off.

Hang in there, boys.

Reece James for Dave.

At the death, an overhead kick from Norgaard drew an incredible reflex save from our goalkeeper. Mendy reacted so quickly, his fingers touching the ball over the bar.

This drew immediate and loud applause from us.

Just who is the five o’clock hero? Dunno, but Edouard Mendy was the seven o’clock one.

At last the final whistle.

This was hardly a classic, we knew that. Our play promised great things in the first quarter of the game, no doubt. But we just couldn’t switch through the gears when we needed to. Credit goes to Brentford for a great second-half performance, and – let’s be honest – they deserved a point.

I checked the scores again. A Manchester United loss at Leicester City. Liverpool had won at Watford. A Manchester City home win against Burnley.

But, it was true, we were top of the league. Gulp. At present we are surely a team whose total value is less than the sum of its constituent parts.

I posted, almost hard to believe in the circumstances, on Facebook :

“Catch Us If You Can.”

The way this season is going, it might take me until May to work out if this current Chelsea team are any good. And by then, who knows, we might even be League Champions.

See you on Wednesday.


Tales From Three Stadia In Turin / Racconti Da Tre Stadi Di Torino

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2021.

Are you ready to go to the match with me?

“Let’s go. Andiamo!”

It was just after four o’clock. This was a full five hours before the Juventus vs. Chelsea game was due to start at the Allianz Stadium in Continassa to the north of Turin’s city centre. But I was heading south. I had decided that I would undertake a magical mystery tour of the city’s footballing past before our second Champions League game of the autumn. I was ready to immerse myself once more in the city’s footballing heritage and in my football history too. I had sorted out the timings. I was sure it would all work itself out. I would have five hours to soak myself inside Turin’s story.

I was ready.

There was no need for a jacket or top. The weather in the Northern Italian city had been exemplary, a surprising antidote to the increasingly changeable weather back home. I set off out into the warm afternoon wearing the football staples of a polo, a pair of jeans and trainers. In my camera bag, in addition to my Canon SLR and lenses, was the small Sony camera that I had purchased specifically for Porto in May, just in case the stewards at the Juventus stadium were overzealous and would decide that my long lenses were unable to be taken inside. Also inside the bag was my passport, my match ticket and my proof of two vaccinations against COVID19.

My hotel was tucked into the narrow grid of streets to the immediate south and east of Turin’s Porta Nuova train station, and I walked a few hundred yards to the Marconi tube station. The city’s one tube line would serve me well. I caught the train to Lingotto, the site of the famous old Fiat factory with its test-track on the roof, so memorably featured in the wonderful “The Italian Job” from 1969. On my last visit to Turin in 2012, I had enjoyed a very fine meal at the rather posh restaurant on the roof terrace, and had walked around the test-track, a life-time wish fulfilled.

Lingotto was the nearest metro station to my first footballing port of call; Stadio Filadelfia which was around a mile or so to the west. However, when I checked the quickest way to reach this famous old stadium, I was mortified to see that there was no quick walking route from Lingotto.

Bollocks.

It was perhaps typical that my plans had quickly taken a turn for the worse. In the build-up to this away game, there had been much anxiety as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly I needed to do to get myself to Italy. There had been tests, forms, emails, pdf attachments, vouchers, and stress at every turn. For example, when I sat down to take my “pre-flight” lateral flow test at home on the preceding Sunday, I discovered that the liquid within the vial had leaked in transit and so I had to use the kit intended to be used in Turin for my flight home. This would mean that I would need to locate a chemist’s near my hotel to take my second test. What a palaver. Even on the seemingly straightforward drive from deepest Somerset to Stansted in the small hours of Tuesday, there was extra worry. With many garages short of fuel, I became obsessed at how fast my fuel gauge was fading. I was sure that I was OK for the trip to Stansted, but I needed to fill the car with petrol in readiness for my return trip on Friday evening. Four filling stations on the A303 had no fuel. Thankfully, Fleet Services on the M3 were open and fully stocked. There was a heavy sigh of relief. With a section of the M25 closed, I then ludicrously spent twenty minutes following diversion signs that then deposited me back to where I had left the M25 and I found myself heading west and not east. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thankfully, I arrived at my pre-booked parking spot bang on my allotted start time of 4.45am.

Phew.

Undeterred, I returned to the Lingotto subway station and quickly took a train north – retracing my very recent steps – to Carducci Molinette. From here, the stadium was around a twenty-five-minute walk away. I made haste and sped westwards. My route took me over a wide bridge that rose over the train tracks into the city’s main station.

It was along these very tracks that I would have travelled on my inaugural visit to Turin in November 1987, the city bathed in a grey mist that would not disappear all day. I remember sitting alone in the great hall of the main train station and pinning some British football badges onto a board that I had constructed at home prior to my latest Inter-Railing extravaganza. I had bought several hundred football badges from a company in Blackburn and aimed to sell as many as I could at games in Italy and Germany to help finance my travels in Europe. The Juventus vs. Panathinaikos UEFA Cup game later that evening would be my first opportunity to test the water. I had high hopes for this venture, and was equally as excited about seeing Juve, my favourite European team, for the first time.

Why Juve? A quick re-cap. They were the very first “foreign” team that I remembered seeing on TV, a European Cup game in exotic Turin against Derby County in April 1973. I made friends with Mario on an Italian beach in 1975; a Juventus fan, I had found a kindred spirit. In 1981, at the same beach resort, I met his friend Tullio, also a Juve fan. We have been friends ever since. I last saw Mario in that home town in 2019. I last saw Tullio in London in 2018. But these are just the essentials. Our three lives have intertwined for decades now.

As I walked south on Via Giordano Bruno, I stopped at a small shop to buy a “Coke” as my throat was parched. The previous day had been a long one; up at midnight, a flight at 6.45am, a tiring walk from Porta Sousa train station to my hotel, and then two spells of drinking, the second one long into the night with friends old and new at “The Huntsman” on the main drag. I was awake, in total, for around twenty-five hours. The “Coke” gave me just the kick I needed as I approached Stadio Filadelfia.

This stadium was the home of the all-conquering Torino team of the 1940’s, Il Grande Torino, who were so cruelly killed in the Superga air disaster of 4 May 1949. Growing up in England, I had heard Superga mentioned many times. At first I presumed that Superga was a small town near Turin where the plane, returning from a friendly in Lisbon, had crashed. Only later did I realise that Superga was a hill right on the eastern edge of the city. I then, with a mixture of amazement and horror, realised that the plane had crashed into the rear of a basilica perched right on top of that hill.

I always say it was akin to the successful Arsenal team of the ‘thirties crashing into Big Ben.

On the bus from the Turin airport at Caselle on Tuesday morning, I was telling this story to Pete, who along with my great pal Alan (and a host of other familiar Chelsea faces including a fanzine editor, an erstwhile Chelsea media man, a former Headhunter and a porn star) had been on the same Ryanair flight as myself. Just as I mentioned Superga – “you probably can’t see it in this haze” – Pete immediately spotted it away in the distance.

“Is that it?”

Indeed, it was.

As I approached the stadium, which has recently been painstakingly updated after decades of neglect, the memories of a previous visit to Turin came flooding back. In May 1992, three college friends – Pete, Ian, Trev – and I drove through France to attend a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game at Stadio Delle Alpi. On the day after the game, we drove up to Superga on the forty-third anniversary of the crash. We spent some time there. I remember I took my father’s new, and huge, camcorder on this trip and I shot a few segments of our visit. After, we drove down into Turin and parked up outside Stadio Filadelfia and hoped that we could peek inside. In 1992, the terracing on three sides were still intact, if very overgrown. The old main stand was held up with scaffolding. But we were able to walk onto the famous pitch and we even found a football to kick around for a few joyful minutes. The goal frames were still intact. Goals were scored at La Filadelfia. What fun. We then sat on the east terrace in quiet contemplation; Superga in another haze in the distance, the old Fiat factory nearby, the stadium still surrounded by tight working class flats on three of its sides. I imagined the roar of the crowd in those halcyon days. We took it all in.

Then, out of nowhere, we spotted two middle-aged women appear on the far side underneath the faded burgundy of the antiquated main stand. They were carrying two wreaths, and strode slowly on to the pitch, before stopping at the centre-circle to place the flowers on the turf.

It remains one of my most special football memories.

Torino played at Stadio Filadelfia from 1926 to 1960 and then shared the larger Stadio Communale with Juventus from 1961 to 1990. For many years, as the two teams hopped around stadia in the city, it was hoped that Torino would eventually return to their spiritual home. A while back, I was truly saddened to see it was in a very poor condition. So imagine my elation when I recently found out that a startling metamorphosis has taken place. A new main stand has been constructed, and a new pitch has been sewn. It now houses 4,000, and in addition to housing the club HQ, it also hosts the club museum and the team’s youth teams play games on this most sacred of sites.

As I circumnavigated the stadium, I remembered how decrepit the place had become. Its resurgence since 2015 has been sensational. I chatted to a Toro fan as I walked around and took some photographs. He was even wearing a burgundy – officially pomegranate – T-shirt and I thought to myself –

“You can’t get much more Toro than that.”

There is another Torino story, and one that tends to give the city an air of sadness in terms of football, and specifically with regards to the Torino club. I recently read the excellent “Calcio” book by John Foot. One chapter concerned the life and subsequent death of the Torino player, a real maverick, called Gigi Meroni. He joined Torino in 1964 and soon became the idol of the team’s supporters. A skilful and artistic ball-player in the style of George Best – a flamboyant playboy off the pitch, much admired by both sexes – he was out with a team mate after a Torino home game in 1967. Crossing the road near his flat on Corso Re Umberto, he was hit by two cars. He sadly died later in hospital. Bizarrely, the driver of the first car lived thirteen doors down from Meroni on that very street, and idolised Meroni, even adopting the same hairstyle. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. In a bizarre twist, in 2000 the Torino club appointed a new president; a native of Turin, an executive at Fiat. His name was Attilio Romero, who just happened to be the driver of the first car that had hit Meroni in 1967. On my walk to my hotel on the previous day, I had stopped by the memorial on Corso Re Umberto to pay my respects. With the Juventus tragedy at Heysel haunting many in the city, Turin certainly has its share of sadness.

It was approaching 5pm now and I walked a few blocks west. Next up was Stadio Olimpico, formerly Stadio Communale, and the current home of Torino. The two stadia are only a quarter of a mile apart. I walked past a bar where two friends and I had visited in 1989. This was another trip into Turin for a Juventus game with college friends. We caught a bus down to have a mosey around the stadium on a sunny Saturday morning before the game with Fiorentina on the Sunday and spent a couple of hours chatting and drinking and basically enjoying each other’s company. I was twenty-three, we had just won the Second Division Championship, and I was off to the US in the September. At the time, it seemed like a dream weekend in the middle of a dream summer, and it does even more so now. Bob was Leeds, Pete was Newcastle, I was Chelsea. But for that weekend we were all Juventus. I remember we all bought Juventus polos in the ridiculously small Juve store within a central department store.

Memories were jumping around inside my head now. I walked along Via Filadelfia and the years evaporated.

On my first visit in 1987, I arrived outside the home turnstiles as thousands of Juventus fans were singing and chanting a full three hours before they made their way inside the preferred home end of the Curva Filadelfia. I set up shop outside and sold around thirty badges – Chelsea and Liverpool the best sellers – before then plotting up outside the Curva Maratona, selling a few more, then heading inside to see Ian Rush and Juventus defeat Panathinaikos 3-2, but sadly get eliminated due to away goals. I remember the pink flares before the game, I remember the noise of the passionate bianconeri, I remember I was positioned in the very back row of the Maratona, right next to the main stand, Gianni Agnelli and all. Antonio Conte’s right-hand man Angelo Alessio scored one of the three Juventus goals that evening. It is a night I will never forget, my first European night, and my first visit to the home of Juventus, a sprawling stadium with those iconic curved goal stanchions, and the team with those baggy white shorts.

I remembered March 1988 and the visit of Internazionale, their masses of fans packing out the Maratona, while I proudly stood on the Filadelfia for the first time. Two banners in the Maratona : “WIN FOR US” and “RUSH – YOUR WIFE IS FUCKING.” Juve won that game 1-0 with a Marino Magrin penalty.

A visit in November 1988, my first flight into Europe for football, and I watched with my friend Tullio on the distinti as Napoli – with Diego Maradona at the very heart of its team in light blue shirts – defeated Juventus by the ridiculous score of 5-3. Tullio, aware that his Napoli friend Giorgio was in the Maratona, memorably wanted to leave at half-time when the visitors were already 3-1 up.

The game against Fiorentina in 1989, and the memory of piles and piles of the magazine “Guerin Sportivo” lying at the base of the Curva Filedelfia, intended to be claimed by home fans and then torn up as the teams entered the pitch. Instead, I gathered three different copies to take away from the game and to add to my collection. In those days, I would often buy “La Gazzetta” in Bath or “Guerin Sportivo” in London to keep up-to-date with Italian football. In 1988/89, I could probably rattle off most starting elevens of the dominant teams in Italy. In 2021/22, I struggle with the starting elevens of the main English teams.

I guess I have seen too much.

Also from that game, Roberto Baggio, of Fiorentina, getting sent-off in a 1-1 draw, but also the 2,000 strong visiting Fiorentina fans leaving early, possibly to avoid an ambush or perhaps to carry out an ambush en route back to the main station.

As with the scene that greeted me in 1987, there was masses of graffiti adorning the wall opposite the turnstiles. In 2021, all football related, and undoubtedly inflammatory against certain teams. In 1987, graffiti of a more political nature; the names Pinochet and Hess hinted at the rumoured right-wing bias of some dominant Juve supporter groups.  The old adage was Juve, Lazio and Inter right, Torino, Roma and Milan left though those rules seem to have diluted and changed in the subsequent years.

I turned the corner and peaked inside at the main stand. From our 1992 visit, I remember the four of us had sidled into the Stadio Communale unhindered – our version of “The Italian Job” – and had scrambled over to the main stand as easy as you like. The stadium was deserted, it was used occasionally for athletics, and I remember I even spent a few minutes sitting in the old directors’ box, possibly the seat used by either the owner Agnelli or the president Giampiero Boniperti.

As I turned north, with the turnstiles to the Curva Maratona in view, I remembered my very last visit to the stadium, in March 2009, with Chelsea. As you can imagine, what with my Juventus side-line, the meeting of the two teams was pretty much my dream tie. I remember I had gambled on Bristol to Turin flights – £37 – and I well remember my old boss coming into a meeting one morning to tell me “Juventus” when the draw was made. My gamble had paid off. While the unloved Delle Alpi was being demolished and then the new Juventus Stadium rebuilt on the same site, both Turin teams decamped to their former home, now remodelled and upgraded for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now with a roof, and a deeper distinti – but bizarrely looking smaller than the Communale – around 3,000 Chelsea loudly supported the boys on a fantastic evening in Turin, a 2-2 draw enough for us to advance on away goals. It was, indeed, the game of my life.

By the way, the Juventus manager that night? Claudio Ranieri. I wonder what happened to him.

It was now around 6.30pm and I needed to move on. But I liked the view of the Stadio Olimpico from the north. The marathon tower, which I believe was once known as the Mussolini Tower – the stadium was once known as Stadio Benito Mussolini – looks over the roofed stadium and there are huge sculptures by Tony Cragg, similar to those that I saw outside that wonderful art gallery in Baku in 2019. On my hurried walk back to Carducci Molinette – past joggers and cyclists and power-walkers, and folk practising tai-chi – I walked alongside a park that I remembered from my very first visit in 1987, saddened with Juventus’ exit from the UEFA Cup and not sure where – on what train – I would be sleeping that night.

Who would have possibly thought that thirty-four years later, I would be preparing myself for my third Juventus vs. Chelsea game of my life? Certainly not me. That season, Chelsea were relegated to Division Two.

We’ve come a long way baby.

And this was the crux of this whole trip. Despite this trip to Turin coming too soon in a COVID-confused autumn – the first away trip of the campaign – and with the pandemic still active throughout Europe, with all of the allied concerns and stresses, it was the lure of Chelsea playing Juventus that did it for me. I am not bothered about going to Malmo. A trip to St. Petersburg in December would be superb, but maybe too expensive and too “involved”. But Juventus? I just had to be there.

At around 7.10pm, I was headed into the city on the subway and the evening’s game was now in my sights. At every station, I expected more fans to join. But there were hardly any. Admittedly, the attendance would be clipped at around the 20,000 mark – we had allegedly sold 500 of our allotted 1,000 – but I just expected more fans to be on their way north. It was all very odd.

At around 7.30pm, I exited at Bernini station. Here, we had been told on the official Chelsea website, to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. Again, hardly any match-going fans were in the vicinity. The stadium was a good two and a half miles away. I began to worry. What if there was no bus? I toured around all points of the compass and eventually spotted a few likely match-goers at a bus stop. Phew. The bus took maybe twenty-five minutes to finally reach the stadium. Three young Chelsea lads in full replica-shirt regalia were sat close by.

Too noisy. Too full of it. Too eager. Too annoying.

God, I am getting old.

Just after 8pm, the bus deposited us at the northern end of the stadium and I made my way past a few street vendors selling fast food, panini, hot dogs, crisps, wurst, drinks, and also various Juventus trinkets. Outside the away turnstiles, a ring of police guarded our entrance. Ahead stood the two “A” frame supports that are effectively the sole remnants of the old Delle Alpi stadium which stood on the site from 1990 to 2009.

My first visit here was during that 1992 trip; we watched high up along the western side in the upper tier towards the home Curva Scirea. Sadly, the game with Sampdoria – Gianluca Vialli in attack – was a poor 0-0 draw. A couple of years earlier, of course, the stadium witnessed Gazza’s tears amid the tumultuous England vs. West Germany World Cup semi-final.

My only other game at the old Delle Alpi came on a Sunday after Tullio’s wedding to Emanuela on a Saturday in May 1999. Rather bleary-eyed from the excesses of the wedding reception, I caught a cab to the stadium and arranged with the cab driver to pick me up right after the game with Fiorentina, yes them again, and whip me up to Caselle to catch the flight home. Juventus had just lost to Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final the previous midweek, and the mood was a little sombre. I nabbed tickets in the other side stand, again near the Curva Scirea, and watched as Juventus – Zinedine Zidane et al – beat the hated Viola 2-1 with a very late goal from none other than Antonio Conte. Our former manager went into Juventus folklore that afternoon. After scoring, he ran towards the 1,000 or so away fans located, stranded, in the middle tier, and taunted them by pulling out the corner flag and waving it at them in a show of braggadocio.

The time was drawing on and there was a crowd waiting to enter the Allianz Stadium.

“Good job we have time on our side.”

I patiently waited in line, and spotted a few friends amid the Chelsea faithful. This was where it could have gone all so wrong. After I had picked up my match ticket at the city centre hotel at around 3pm – a police van parked outside just to keep us company – I returned to my hotel room. I almost put my passport to one side – “won’t need that again” – but then remembered that in Italy a passport is required at the turnstiles. Time was moving on but the line didn’t seem to be diminishing too quickly. Tempers were getting a little fraught. Just three stewards checking five-hundred passports. Police spotters – Goggles and his cronies – were loitering, and a few unidentified persons were filming our every move. It did feel a little intimidating.

A familiar voice :

“Hurry up. Only two euros.”

Eventually, I made it to the front of the huddle.

The first check married up my passport with my COVID19 pass, and then there was a temperature check.

OK so far.

Then a passport check against my match ticket.

OK.

Then a quick pat down and a very quick check of my camera bag.

OK.

Then, further inside, another passport and match ticket check.

OK.

I walked on, up the steps, a quick visited to use the facilities and I was inside at around 8.35pm.

“Good job I work in logistics.”

I made my way into the sparsely populated lower tier and chatted to a few friends. A quick word with Ryan from Stoke, with whom I had enjoyed some mojitos the previous night.

“Good night, wannit, Ryan?”

“Was it? Can’t remember getting in.”

I soon spotted Alan and Pete and made my way over to see them. We would watch the match from almost the same position as the November 2012 game.

At the time of that visit, the Allianz Stadium was known as the Juventus Stadium and had only opened in 2011. It was a horrible night, Chelsea suffered a lame 0-3 loss, and the game signalled the end of Roberto di Matteo’s short reign as Chelsea manager. I remember the sadness of the following morning and a text from a work colleague that informed me of the sudden news. Nine years later, I remember little of the game. I know we played with no real striker, a false nine, and Juventus were well worth their win. The loss would cost us our place in that season’s competition.

Oh well. We just sailed full steam ahead and won the Europa League in Amsterdam instead.

First thoughts?

It is a decent stadium. But it was odd to see it at half-strength. I had forgotten that there are odd corner roof supports that rise up and cause an irritating intrusion to an otherwise fine view of the pitch. The stands rise steeply. There are more executive areas on the far side, the East Stand, than on the adjacent West Stand. Down below us, the goal frame where – approximately – Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle saddened us in 1990 and where Antonio Conte scored in 1999 stood tantalisingly close.

The colour scheme is, of course, black and white, and there are three yellow stars – denoting Juventus’ 36 title wins – picked out in the seats of the southern Curva Scirea.

The trouble I have with the new pad is that it is still jettisoned out on the northern reaches of the city away from – in my mind – the club’s historical roots to the south of the city. I first fell in love with that amazing team of the ‘seventies of Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Tardelli, Bettega, Causio, Cabrini et al…then Boniek, Platini, Laudrup, those Ariston shirts, the Stadio Communale, the old lady, the old team, the old club. Juventus at the Allianz Stadium – all flash, all corporate boxes, all show – just seems all rather false.

Modern football, eh?

My visits to the stadia of Turin was now updated.

Stadio Communale : 4 games, 1 visit inside on a non-match-day and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Delle Alpi : 2 games.

Juventus Stadium : 1 game.

Allianz Stadium : 1 game.

Stadio Olimpico : 1 game and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Filadelfia : 1 visit inside on a non-match day ( and at least 1 goal…) and 1 visit outside.

Five stadia, but only three sites. It’s a confusing story, isn’t it?

But there’s more. I helped to arrange a delivery of office chairs to Juventus on Corso Gaetano Scirea a few years ago. And only on the day before I left for Turin, I learned that a company that I use for express vans around Europe takes care of delivering VAR equipment around Europe for UEFA and had just delivered to Juventus.

Small world, eh?

The clock quickly approached the nine o’clock kick-off time. Just as the Juventus anthem was starting to be aired – “La Storia Di Un Grande Amore” – Alan whispered to me.

“Don’t want you singing along.”

I smiled.

“I know the words.”

“I know you do!”

As I changed lenses on my camera, I could not help lip-synching a little. Both teams appeared in blue tracksuit tops. The Champions League anthem played. I was surprised to see a few folk wearing Chelsea replica shirts in the home area to my left, beyond the plexi-glass. They were soon moved along, or out, I know not which.

As the game began, I could hardly believe the amount of Juventus fans wearing replica shirts. There has certainly been a sea change in Italian terrace fashion in the years that I have been attending games in Turin. Just as in England in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, hardly anyone bothered with team shirts. In Italy, more than in the UK, it was all about the scarves in those days. Trends change, and there are more replica shirts on offer than ever before these days, yet a huge section of match-going regulars in the UK refuse to be drawn in. For the English connoisseur of football fashion, many look upon the Italians – “Paninaro, oh, oh, oh” – as excellent reference points in the never-ending chase for style and substance. Yet here we all were, a few of us decked out in our finery – Moncler, Boss and Armani made up my Holy Trinity on this warm night in Turin – yet the locals were going 180 degrees in the opposite direction and opted for replica shirts with players’ names.

Et tu Brute? Vaffanculo.

The Chelsea team?

We had heard that King Kante had succumbed to the dreaded COVID, while Reece James was injured. The manager chose an eleven that we hoped would fare better than in the miserable capitulation to Manchester City a few days previously.

Mendy.

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz

Lukaku

The match began and we started decently enough. There was a stab at goal from inside the box by Roemelu Lukaku from a corner by Marcos Alonso but this did not cause the former Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szcezsaczsaeisniey any anxiety. Soon into the game, the Chelsea loyalists in the tiny quadrant decided to go Italian and honour some of our former Italian greats.

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

“Gianfranco Zola, la, la, la, la, la, la.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

There wasn’t even a flicker from the black and white fans to my left.

Then a memory from a night in Milan.

“Oh Dennis Wise scored a fackin’ great goal in the San Siro with ten minutes to go.”

We lost possession via Kovacic and Chiesa broke away in the inside right channel, but his speculative shot from an angle was well wide of the far post.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the possession in that first-half. Whereas City had been up and at us, pressurising us in our defensive third, Juve were going old school Italian, defending very deep, with the “low block” of modern parlance. And we found it so hard to break them down. It became a pretty boring game, with few moments of skill and enterprise.

I spoke to Alan.

“There’s not much space in their penalty box. In fact, there’s even less space when Lukaku is in it.”

Despite Romelu’s weight loss from his days at Manchester United, he still resembles the QE2 with a turning circle to match.

It just wasn’t going for us. Very rarely did we get behind the Juventus back line. Balls were played at Lukaku, rather than to him, and the ball bounced away from him on so many times. It seemed that he often had three defenders on him.

He was full of De Ligt.

At the other end, Federico Chiesa looked to be Juventus’ main threat, and a shot flashed wide. He followed this up with another effort that did not trouble Mendy one iota. A rising shot from Rabiot was well over. The former Chelsea player Juan Quadrado rarely got involved. Juventus were easily leading in terms of efforts on goal.

At our end, there were hardly quarter chances let alone half chances.

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

The players couldn’t hear us. This was a dull game, and getting poorer by the minute. At half-time, I received a text from Tullio, now living in Moncalieri, a few miles south of Turin, but watching in a Turin pub with friends :

“Boring.”

Tuchel replaced Alonso with Ben Chilwell at the break.

It is my usual modus operandi to mainly use my zoom lens once the action starts, but I often take a few panorama shots with my wide angle lens just at the start of the second-half just to vary things a little. Thus, once the Spanish referee instigated the restart, I lifted my camera and took one and then two shots of the stadium with the game being played out below it. The first photograph was of a Juventus break; the second photograph was of a Juventus goal.

And just like that, crash, bang, wallop, we were losing 1-0.

Fackinell.

The goal was conceded after just eleven seconds of play in the second-half. It was a wicked smash and grab raid by that man Chiesa. The goal shocked and silenced the away fans. In reality, I doubted very much that Juventus, with Bonucci on the pitch and Chiellini waiting in the wings, would let this slip.

We still created little.

On the hour, more substitutions.

Jorginho, Dave and Ziyech off.

Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi on.

Juventus, mid-way through the half, really should have put the game to bed when a long ball was cushioned by Cuadrado into the path of Bernardeschi, but his heavy touch put the ball wide.

The final substitution with a quarter of an hour to go.

Barkley on for Christensen.

We had all the ball but never ever looked like scoring. I just willed Callum to get his head down and get past his man but he rarely did. There was a lame header from Lukaku, and after Barkley – showing some spirit and a willingness to take people on – tee’d up Lukaku, the Belgian striker fluffed his chance close in on goal.

“We won’t score, mate.”

Late on, a lazy header from Havertz only bothered the ball boys and press photographers at the Curva Scirea.

It was, again, a rotten night in Continassa.

In the last few minutes, Chelsea supporters in the top tier had decided to throw beer on the Juve fans to my left, but ended up soaking myself and a few fellow supporters.

For fuck sake.

We made our slow, silent way out to the waiting fleet of around seven buses that took us back to the centre of the city. Sirens wailed as we were given a police escort, with blue lights flashing.

Did I imagine it, or did someone spray “Osgood Is Good” on one of the buses?

I chatted with a bloke who I had not seen before. He told me that of his seventeen trips to Europe with Chelsea, he had seen just three wins. I begged him to stay away in future.

It was, after the stresses of getting out to Turin in the first place, such a disappointing game. We all walked en masse back into the pubs and hotels of Turin. I chatted briefly to Neil Barnett as we slouched along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and we agreed –

“That was a hard watch.”

A chat with Cal.

“Fancy joining us for a beer at The Shamrock?”

“Nah mate. My hotel is just around the corner. I am off to bed.”

It was approaching 12.30am. I darted into a late night café and devoured a kebab, washed down with two iced-teas. It was my first real meal of the day.

It was time to call it a night.

My trip to Turin stretched into Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, there was a quick “tampone rapido” test at a nearby chemist, and thankfully I was negative. I met up with my work colleague Lorenzo and his wife Marina. Although they are both natives of Milan, this was their first ever visit to Turin, despite being in their late ‘fifties. I remarked to Lorenzo, an Inter fan, that it’s “because of Juventus isn’t it?” and he was forced to agree. That Inter / Juve “derby d’Italia” animosity runs deep.

We met up with Serena, who works for a furniture dealership in Turin, and she gave us a super little tour of a few of the palaces and piazzas of the city centre. We visited Palazzo Reale, the former royal palace of the governing Savoy family, and enjoyed an al fresco lunch in the September sun. We later visited Superga – of course – and Lorenzo loved it, despite the sadness. One last photo call at Monte Dei Cappuccini, and he then drove me back to my hotel.

In the evening, saving the best to last, Tullio collected me outside my hotel and picked up his mother en route to an evening meal at Tullio’s apartment in Moncalieri. Sadly, Tullio lost his father last year, so the evening was tinged with a little sadness. But it was magical to see his family again. His daughters Sofia and Lucrezia are into canoeing and rowing. At seventeen, Sofia – who practices on the nearby River Po – is a national champion in the under-23 age group.

We reminisced about our past and remembered the times spent on the beach in Diano Marina in those lovely days of our youth.

Ah, youth.

Juventus.

Maybe that’s it.

On Friday, it was time to leave Turin. It had been, “assolutamente”, a simply superb four days in the sun. At Caselle airport, there was time for one last meal – gnocchi, my favourite – and one last bottle of iced tea. There was a quick chat with a couple of the Juventus women’s team en route to an away game against Roma. And there was time for a raid on the Robe Di Kappa shop, that famous logo reminding me so much of the Juventus kits of yore. There was even a photo of Roberto Bettega in his prime behind the till.

I walked a few yards across the tarmac to board the waiting 3.30 plane home, and I spotted Superga away on the hill in the distance.

Until next time, Turin, until next time.

Stadio Filadelfia

Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino

Allianz Stadium

Postcards From Turin

Tales From Beneath The Whispering Gallery

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 19 September 2021.

I have said it before and I suspect that I will say it again and again; to me Tottenham is our biggest away game. It’s certainly the one that I look forward to more than no other. It has history. It has substance. It has animosity. It has hate. With Chelsea flying high, and Tottenham faltering, I couldn’t wait to set off for their new spanking stadium that soars over the more down-at-heel shops and houses on the Tottenham High Road and its associated neighbouring streets.

But first an FA Cup tie.

Yes, dear reader, this was another weekend of football that was to give me the twin gifts of League and Cup.

I assembled at Frome Town’s ground Badgers Hill for the 3pm kick-off on the Saturday for a game against National League South outfit Oxford City, a team that we had recently played in the same step of the football pyramid. Since then, the Hoops have advanced one step, while the Robins have descended one.

What transpired was a stunningly perfect afternoon of FA Cup football, played out under a mottled sky, warming sunshine and with a really gratifying attendance of almost six hundred spectators. Frome soaked up some steady pressure in the first-half and an Oxford goal was called back for offside. Two stunning breakaway goals by James Ollis and Joe O’Loughlin gave the home team a surprise 2-0 lead at the break. Frome then improved further, with more attacks, more efforts on goal. But just at the very moment that my mate Francis uttered the immortal words “they look like scoring” and I replied “you’re right” – they did.

Despite an increasingly nervous last quarter of an hour, manager Danny Greaves’ side held on to win 2-1.

My friend Steve, the newly-crowned club historian, believed this to be Frome’s first win in the Cup against a team two divisions higher than us since a 1984 win against Bath City.

So, into the Third Qualifying Round we go. I remember watching Frome Town play against Team Bath at the same stage around ten years ago; a 2-2 draw at home, a heavy 0-4 loss away, at Bath City’s Twerton Park.

We would await the draw on Monday with keen interest.

I collected PD and Parky at 9.15am on the Sunday morning and pointed my Chelsea Blue Chuckle Wagon eastwards. We tend to break up the journey with a Greggs breakfast – being on a diet ain’t easy with all of the miles we travel for football – just before the A303 meets the M3. The woman serving us at Popham Services – Eddie Large in drag – has got to know our ugly faces the past two seasons and there is usually a little football banter while we order baps, baguettes and slices. She’s a Liverpool fan. Yes, you can only imagine.

Just as I slid the car away, PD announced :

“Jimmy Greaves has died, then.”

Oh no. What sad news. I know that he had been ill for some time.

“Did he pass away today? Bloody strange if he did, what with Tottenham playing Chelsea.”

I ate up the miles, and we were parked up at Barons Court tube at 11.45am; as quick and as easy a journey in as I can remember. We would eventually hope to catch the 3pm over ground service from Liverpool Street up to White Hart Lane, but we didn’t particularly care to be surrounded by coke’d up wannabes in the pubs that cluster around that station for a few hours, drinking out of plastic glasses and under the eye of the OB. I fancied somewhere different. We changed from the Piccadilly to the Central at Holborn, then alighted at St. Paul’s.

We made “The Paternoster” our base for a couple of hours or so. In a break from the light drizzle and then steady showers, I sped outside for twenty minutes to take a few photographs of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. I looked up at the huge and impressive dome, and remembered tales of The Whispering Gallery. I had been past St. Paul’s Cathedral once or twice by bus in recent times, but the last time that I had actually stood outside it was on a family trip to London in 1981. While my parents and an aunt toured inside the cathedral, I just walked to Stamford Bridge. It seemed the most logical thing to do in the circumstances.

From one cathedral to another.

I can distinctly remember reading the Jimmy Greaves autobiography “This One’s On Me” around that same time and, thinking back, it was undoubtedly the first footballer’s autobiography that I ever read. I can remember reading how he hated his time in Milan after his forced move from Chelsea. His decline into alcoholism was quite harrowing for a sixteen-year-old to read.

I wasn’t going to have a single beer, but I bought a single “Peroni” to toast his memory.

“Oh, he did die today. How uncanny.”

There was a photograph on the internet of Jimmy Greaves, from around maybe fifteen years ago, being presented pitch side at Stamford Bridge. I must have been there, yet – alas – I have no recollection of it.

Outside, the rain, but only a few spots. At 2.40pm, we whizzed up to Liverpool Street, and then found an empty carriage at Liverpool Street for the last leg of the journey. It was the earliest that we would be arriving in N17 for ages. On the twenty-five-minute journey, PD surprised us all and began chatting to some Tottenham fans. Parky and I kept our silence. To be fair, they were decent lads and we wished each other well, although I am sure none of us fucking meant it.

I wanted to take a few photographs of the stadium, so excused myself. Let’s not waste any time here; the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is a stunner, an absolute beauty, surely the finest football stadium in Europe. That it sits cheek by jowl alongside the same fried chicken joints, nail shops, kebab houses and grimy pubs as the old White Hart Lane gives the place a very odd feeling, as uneven a setting as there is ever likely to be. It might be on The High Road, but it overlooks The Low Road.

Simple black and white images of Jimmy Greaves MBE appeared on the outside and inside of the stadium. His presence was everywhere. Again, how odd and yet fitting that he should pass away on the day of the derby between his two main teams. I was reminded of Dixie Dean passing away at Goodison during the Merseyside derby in 1980.

I whirled away, bumped into some Chelsea acquaintances from Bristol and New York on the High Road, then spun around to enter the away turnstiles in the north-eastern corner.

Just as I entered the away concourse, there was an almighty commotion and I couldn’t quite work out what was occurring.

United were winning 2-1 at West Ham, but there was a late penalty for the home team. Noble then missed. Bollocks.

How’s that for a match report?

This was Parky’s first visit to the new place. I looked at the towering South Stand and could hardly believe how high it extended.

The troops arrived.

Alan, Gary, Foxy and Drew from Dundee, Margaret and Pam, Calvin, Becky and Cath. There were a few chats with many of the usual suspects.

Turin dominated.

I had succumbed on Friday to a four-day trip to the home city of Juventus for our game in a couple of weeks’ time.

I chatted with Patrick, then Ali and Nick, then Alan, then Tim. There were differing levels of understanding of what testing and procedures were required. It would, no doubt, be a stressful time over the next week or so. Preparations for Porto proved to be a drain on my brain and I am sure Turin will be too.

“Mendy’s out.”

Bollocks.

The stadium filled. I couldn’t work out if the seats are all muted slate grey or a dull navy. Regardless, virtually all were filled. We were in row four, right down the front, not far from our spot in the 2019/20 season.

It shows how disconnected we were last season that neither Alan nor Gary nor myself could remember how we did at Tottenham last season.

“Draw, wannit?”

One of the former players being interviewed for the in-house TV Channel was Gary Mabbutt, his Bristol twang taking me back to when he used to play for Bristol Rovers, then Tottenham, then England.

Gary : “Good player, Mabbutt.”

Chris : “His father, Ray, used to play for Frome.”

The team was announced. Not only no Mendy, but no Kante either.

Kepa

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Havertz

Just before kick-off, that same image of Jimmy Greaves appeared on the TV screens in the four corners of the stadium, high above the pitch. Both sets of fans roundly and solidly applauded his memory.

He was loved by the fans of both clubs and the whole of the football world.

Jimmy Greaves was the greatest ever goal scorer produced by the English nation.

I remembered that in 2019, Martin Peters – unlike Greaves, a player in the 1966 World Cup Final – was similarly remembered.

Glenn Hoddle appeared out of nowhere and was given a fine reception by the 3,000 Chelsea fans in the corner as he walked around the edge of the pitch.

The game began. Tottenham attacked our northern end. With them playing in navy socks this year, we were allowed to wear our white socks. I approved. I soon found myself being distracted a little by all of the constant messages being blitzed across the various balconies. Supporters clubs from all over the world were featured. One made me double-take.

Baku Spurs.

Baku? Bloody hell. Probably just one bloke with a Tottenham mouse mat.

There is no denying it. Tottenham were quicker out of the traps than us in the first quarter of the game. We plodded along, and struggled to link passes through our midfield, whereas the home team looked sharper and created a little more.

With the home crowd singing “Oh when the Spurs”, Tottenham were given a central free-kick. The singing continued as the build-up seemed to take forever. Harry Kane was to take it. The singing grew louder.

“Fuck, if he scores now, after that song as a pre-curser, this place will bloody explode.”

He hit the wall.

Phew.

A rapid break in the inside right channel involving Mason Mount got us on our toes – the rail seating is excellent at Tottenham, I was able to lean forward on many occasions – but after a messy one-two with Lukaku, the chance was spurned, pardon the pun.

This was a tight game, and the home team were edging it. Havertz looked out of sorts, and on too many occasions Tottenham were able to cut through us. However, the away support was full of all the old favourites which we love to air in this particular part of North London.

“We’re the only team in London…”

“We won 6-1 at The Lane…”

“And the shit from The Lane…”

Alas, the players were not as entertaining. Tottenham managed a few set pieces, but corners were steadfastly headed away by various defenders. It was all a little underwhelming. After Tottenham – players and fans alike – were found to be bellowing at any perceived Chelsea foul or piece of wrong-doing, the noise levels increased. Gary had his usual response.

“Fackinell. More appeals than Blue Peter.”

Kepa saved well at the feet of the raiding Son, and was injured. Thankfully he recovered. Then an errant back-pass by Rudiger had only just been despatched in time by Kepa. Only a couple of shots from distance – wide and blocked – were forthcoming from the Chelsea attack the entire half. Their ‘keeper Hugo Loris had hardly had a shot to save.

That would soon change.

I turned to Gary : “Well, they can’t play as well as that in the second-half.”

I returned a little late at the break and missed the restart.

“Kante on? Who’s off? Mount?”

As much as we all love Mason, he had not enjoyed a great half at all. In came our tigerish tackler to replace him. I couldn’t quite work out how the new addition would fit in alongside Jorginho and Kovacic, but soon into the second-half I didn’t care.

There soon followed a sublime piece of football that had me purring. Thiago Silva pinged a wonderful ball into space for the on-rushing Marcos Alonso. It cut out everyone. A trademark volley at an angle from the left wing-back was superbly saved by the cat-like reflexes of Loris.

“That’s more like it Chels. Come on!”

The Chelsea pressure mounted. A few corners were whipped in just in front of us by that man Alonso. One more corner was then aimed centrally, from the other side of the pitch, and the silver hair of Silva was seen to rise above all those around him and the ball flashed past Loris into the Tottenham goal.

FUCKINGGETIN.

The goal on film, I remained steady to capture his exuberant run towards the Chelsea fans who had now been let loose into a wild orgasmic frenzy of arms and legs, or “limbs” as the kids say. Such joy. Such happiness.

This is why we go to football.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Donna and Rachael suddenly appeared in front of us after having disappeared a few minutes before the break for some bevvies. They had missed the first goal. But they did not miss the second one. Just after Dier blocked a shot from Alonso on the goal-line, a shot from distance from N’Golo – it could only be termed, at its most optimistic, as “speculative” – took a wicked deflection off Dier. The ball spun goal wards, hit the base of the post nearest us, and we watched – eyes on stalks, balancing on toes – as the ball skewed itself over the line and into the goal.

Laugh? I almost bought a round of drinks.

Oh that was beautiful.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

Kante looked, of course, so bashful. Bless him.

Just twelve minutes into the second-half, and we were now well on top. The home fans were now completely muted.

The whispering gallery had been moved from inside the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the top tier at Tottenham.

One of the many messages flashed all over the LED displays on the balconies at Tottenham mentions the Spurs Skywalk. This takes the unfortunate supporter out onto the roof, where – if they look well – they can just make out the East Stand at Stamford Bridge, the home of the only club in London with not one, but two, European Cups.

I thought to myself :

“Those Tottenham players had best book themselves onto that skywalk. It’ll be the highest they will ever fucking get.”

Kante was everywhere and I mean everywhere. The whole team had been revitalised by his appearance at the start of the second period. Elsewhere, we suddenly had runners, and our attacking performance reached lovely levels.

A lone shot from the hidden, or hiding, Kane was well saved by Kepa. Silva, our man of the match, was foiled by Loris, who was easily the Tottenham man of the match. Yet more saves followed from Alonso – again! – and Timo Werner, a late substitute for Havertz. Lukaku enjoyed a late surge, running centrally on a few occasions at the disillusioned Tottenham defence, twisting and turning, turning defenders’ legs into jelly, Dier and Romeiro pleading for salvation, but Loris foiled both him and Kovacic. The Croatian was one of the stars of that second period. We were on fire.

If it had been the Bernabeu, white handkerchiefs would have been waved.

There was even time for a “Bouncy Bouncy” : how 2013.

Right at the end, with many of the home fans having decided that “enough was enough”, the ball was picked up and Timo Werner did ever so well to pull the ball back for Rudi to pick a corner and drill the ball in.

Tottenham 0 Chelsea 3.

The crowd erupted once more.

There was another ridiculously jubilant run by the scorer to our corner, and with Jorginho absolutely pissing himself, the photos were a joy to snap.

I turned to Gary again.

“We top?”

“Yeah.”

Parky and I met up with PD, who had enjoyed a great view in the back row of our section, and we slowly walked away from the ground. I overheard someone say “three league wins out of three here” – oh, it wasn’t a draw last season? – and maybe it is time to well-and-truly rename the new gaff Three Point Lane.

The Stadium.

The Game.

Us.

Our exit strategy was the same as at Christmas 2019; find a fast-food place for a chicken burger and wait for the crowds to disperse. We caught the 7.48pm train from White Hart Lane back into town, and the carriage was full of moaning Tottenham fans. A heavily made up woman with lips that looked like they had been filled with air was the main noisemaker :

“Right. I’ll say it. Don’t care. We are shit. We just gotta acclimatise ourselves into realising we ain’t that good.”

I looked at PD. Parky looked at me.

I whispered : “She’s got a point.”

Unlike Tottenham.

On we go, Villa next, see you there.

The End.

Tales From The Arsenal Petri Dish

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 22 August 2021.

One weekend. One game on Saturday. One game on Sunday. An FA Cup game on Saturday. A Premier League game on Sunday. Two local derbies. One in Somerset. One in London. One four miles away. One a hundred and fifteen miles away.

Football was back.

This was my first footballing double-header in ages, and one which I was – of course – relishing. At work on the Friday, I could hardly believe my own ears as I repeatedly told colleagues that I really fancied us – “us” as in Chelsea, not Frome Town – to do really well at The Emirates and I genuinely meant it. Whisper it, but I even told a couple that I half-expected us to pump a fair few goals into Arsenal. This sort of over-confidence is rare, especially before an away game and especially at a ground where we haven’t always had it our own way in recent times.

It was with a beautiful feeling that I woke on Saturday morning with a near perfect football weekend ahead of me.

First up, a Frome Town vs. Paulton Rovers FA Cup Preliminary Round game. Last weekend, while I was at Chelsea, a local company sponsored the town’s league opener at home to Highworth Town by giving away free tickets to anybody who fancied it. A fantastic crowd of 867 duly attended; it was the fifth highest league crowd in Frome Town’s one hundred and seventeen year history and I was a little annoyed that I could not be part of it. A 1-0 win followed. I had arranged to meet up with a couple of old school friends for the FA Cup game against the local rivals from Paulton. We were treated to a very entertaining game of football. Frome went ahead with a sublime volley from Rex Mannings early in the game. Yet Paulton moved the ball well and came back into the match with a virtual carbon copy of Marcos Alonso’s sublime free-kick against Palace last weekend. The only difference was that the Frome ‘keeper made an effort to save it. Frome then dug in, and found a new resilience to win the game with two late goals from Jon Davies and James Ollis. The gate was a healthy 398. I even bumped into Glenn at the final whistle; he had strolled in late on after seeing another game across the road.

“See you tomorrow at ten.”

“Tomorrow” duly arrived. I collected PD and Glenn in Frome and set off for London. Unfortunately, Parky had contracted COVID19, quite possibly while at Stamford Bridge the previous weekend, and so was unable to attend. It was Glenn who picked up his ticket. I saw Parky briefly – at distance – during the week to collect the match ticket and the old soldier had been hit hard. But he was improving slightly as the week passed. I had both a Lateral Flow and a PCR Test early in the week; both negative, I was fine.

We were parked up at Barons Court tube station in West London at around 12.30pm. The classic green-tiled interior of the booking hall welcomed us. We always park here for Chelsea away games as its just off the A4. I remarked to PD that we didn’t always have great memories of walking up those steps after away games at West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham. But I was still supremely confident. And it didn’t even worry me, which was worrying in itself.

Was this just because the returning hero Romelu Lukaku was set to play his first game for Chelsea since his move back to SW6 from Inter? Yes and no. We are already a decent team, but his presence should round off the team very nicely. It would, hopefully, banish the nerds into blathering on about “false nines” into the wilderness for a few seasons too. Bonus.

I saw Lukaku play a handful of times – four starts plus a handful of substitute appearances – in his first spell with the club. His last appearance was as a substitute against Aston Villa on a midweek game in early 2013/14. I chose just one photo to accompany that match report, as was my way in those days (it was in fact the first-ever fresh match report on this site) and it was of him, shielding the ball below me.

I last got up-close and personal with him three weeks later before a league game at Goodison Park. I happened to be outside the main entrance as he arrived in his car after going on loan at the club and I shook his hand and said “have a great season here, then come back to us next season, God bless you.”

He must have misunderstood my sense of urgency.

The three of us joined up with Alan, Gary and Daryl in “The Euston Flyer” not far from St. Pancras. I was gasping so treated myself to one refreshing “Peroni” before getting back onto some “Diet Pepsi”. I felt a bit awkward admitting to the lads that I fancied us strongly later in the day. It was, no doubt, a most un-Chelseaesque feeling. The Southampton versus Manchester United game was on TV. A huge cheer met the Saints’ goal, a lesser cheer for the equaliser. It was Glenn’s first meeting with the three lads from London since Everton at home in March of last year. There were a few Chelsea faces that I recognised in the boozer, conveniently placed before the short hop up to The Emirates.

I wanted to visit Highbury and take a few photos of the old Arsenal Stadium, so excused myself and left at around 3.15pm. Alas, this didn’t go to plan.

I alighted at Highbury & Islington tube and walked up the Holloway Road, but instead of diverting towards Highbury I made the mistake of heading towards The Emirates first – like a moth to a flame – which was a bit silly really. I was soon entrenched in a line at the slope behind the Clock End entrance and soon realised that to visit Highbury, I would have to go back out and then return again, and I wasn’t keen on two security checks.

“Maybe next time.”

We were kept waiting for twenty minutes. I didn’t particularly enjoy being among the replica-kitted Arsenal fans, but I kept quiet and waited in turn for a security pat down. Unlike Chelsea, there was no COVID19 passport check required and, after getting a body check with a scanner, I avoided eye-contact with the team at the “bag check” tables behind and waltzed in through.

Outside The Emirates, as it curves towards the away turnstiles, I could not help but notice that the signage on the stadium wall now looks really faded. Everything is a light pink and not a strong red. Those images of the interlinked Arsenal players seemed lacklustre. It was as if the Arsenal shirts had been washed in the wrong type of detergent. Inside the stadium, even the famously padded seats looked faded too.

The faded glory of a once proud club?

I hoped so.

Of course hardly anyone was wearing face coverings. On the London Underground, a good 95% of passengers were wearing masks. At the football, it was less than 5%.

I looked out at the undulating top tier and the middle tiers awaiting to be filled, then the gentle slope of the bottom tier and wondered about the safety of it all. Was The Emirates a giant petri dish in disguise? How safe were we? Only time would tell.

I bumped into loads and loads. This was the first proper domestic away since Bournemouth in February 2020. Everyone was greeting each other like long lost friends, which is of course exactly what we all were.

I was down in row six, in line with the six-yard box alongside PD, Gary and Alan. This was my fifteenth visit to The Emirates; I have seen every one of our league appearances at the new place, excepting the 2020/21 fixture of course. It must hurt many of those who, unlike me, never miss a game, to have their records blown to smithereens the past year and a half.

Damn you COVID.

We had heard that many Arsenal tickets had not been sold. There were gaps, but not swathes.

The rain that had been expected was thankfully nowhere to be seen. All three of us had left rain jackets in the car.

Our team was announced and it did not surprise me to see Lukaku in and Timo Werner out. A few raised eyebrows at Marcos Alonso in, though.

Edouard

Antonio – Andreas – Dave

Marcos – Jorgi – Mateo – Reece

Kai – Romelu – Mase

Happy with that. Kante on the bench.

Arsenal’s team consisted of a few names that, due to my abandonment of TV football in 2020/21 could easily have been the names of TV repairmen, taxi drivers and hair-dressers. I fucking hoped that they would be playing like them too.

Pre-match, a few Chelsea warm ups from the terrace to get the vocal chords warmed up. Nothing from Arsenal.

Arsenal in an apparent nod to their 1998/99 kit – but looking a little too “Ajax” for my liking – and Chelsea in their Charlie Cairoli hand-me-downs of all blue.

Arsenal, as always, attacked the Clock End in the first-half and were first out of the traps but a shot from Emile Smith-Rowe, the chartered accountant, was easily dealt with by our man Mendy.

Sadly, the gentle rake of the lower tier and the fact that I am a proud short-arse meant that my view of the game was not great at all. I hardly saw any of the action down our right. I saw a lot of the backs of heads, but bugger all else. Only when the ball was in the other two-thirds of the pitch did I see enough. I felt a bit disjointed. At least the rain was holding off.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was played into Lukaku who touched the ball back to Mateo Kovacic. He then spread the ball out to Reece James and we sensed danger. All eyes were on the wide man, but I suspect that the viewing millions at home were more likely tuned to the run into the box of Lukaku. The ball was played into the six-yard box to perfection and, amidst a bewildered group of window dressers, sous chefs and car mechanics, Lukaku struck.

One-nil to the European Champions.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea crowd went berserk. Unable to focus on the celebrating players, I turned the camera on us. One image is of a beautiful gurning, exhilarated, beatific, orgasmic mess of humanity.

Ah, the joy of football.

It was back.

With no Chelsea goals in his first period with us, it was our new target man’s first Chelsea goal.

“Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romelu Lukaku.”

It is not known what Mateja Kezman nor Fernando Torres were thinking at that exact moment in time.

A header from Lukaku dropped over the bar.

Up the other end, the dance trio Xhaka, Saka and Lokonga combined but Mendy was not troubled.

We were dominating the game and the home fans knew it. The little group next to the away contingent behind the goal were trying to make some noise, but only when a ball was pushed through for the cycle courier to race on did the home crowd make any sustainable racket. Kieran Tierney in front of me seemed to have a lot of the ball but our defence was well marshalled. Efforts on our goal were at a minimum.

On thirty-four minutes, a magnificent move that started on our left but finished on our right, with Reece James free and in space and able to crash the ball past chat show host Leno.

The Chelsea 2 The Arsenal 0.

Magnificent.

I had silly visions of 3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

At that stage it did look possible.

Sadly, in the last ten minutes of the half, the heavens opened. We remained in place, in defiance of the weather. I just had a T-shirt on. I tucked my camera away. I remained stood, and prayed for a respite.

James tangled with Saka. No penalty.

We were playing so well.

But the clouds were darkening overhead and Arsenal’s supporters must have been immersed in the gloom.

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

The rain continued to fall throughout the half-time break and at the start of the second-half. We grimly stood on duty, and at least we were buoyed by a sterling performance from our team. The two goal scorers under Chelsea on the scoreboard were matched by two bookings for Arsenal.

“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

A fine strike from Saka was tipped over by Mendy. It was his first real test. Were Arsenal equipped for a comeback? They only occasionally hinted that it might be possible.

Lukaku played the ball back to Mason but his shot was dragged wide.

On the hour, head tennis in our box and Holding the sixth-form tuck shop supervisor headed over, though I only saw it on the replay.

A third Arsenal booking, a swipe at the marauding Lukaku.

The rain stopped.

Kante for Kovacic.

The entire Arsenal support : “Fackinell.”

With a quarter of an hour to play, Mount slipped the ball in to a central Lukaku. It was a perfect ball. The striker headed at goal but Leno adjusted so well to tip the ball onto the bar.

A third goal would not have flattered us.

Ziyech for Mount.

Havertz went close.

“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

Werner for Havertz.

We saw the game out. Arsenal just missed a cutting edge. They hardly created anything of note. Our lads were excellent and my positive pre-match thoughts were justified. I really enjoyed the physicality of Lukaku. The modern game seems to be drifting inexorably to a “non-contact” sport so there is something gratifying, something that stirs the senses and galvanises emotion, about a good old-fashioned one-on-one battle. It used to happen in midfield in days gone by. Now it tends to be a very rare event. Shades of Drogba and Costa? Oh yes.

We said our goodbyes, and the three from Frome slowly wandered down the Holloway Road before diving into our usual Chinese for a bite to eat.

The drive home was blissful. It was a joy to be back on the road after such a lovely away day.

I pulled in to my drive at just after 10.45pm, and saw the very last of Ian Wright – I think – and his damning assessment of Arsenal’s woes on “MOTD2.”

Next up, another cracking away game.

Liverpool away. Ah, these away days are the best. The absolute best.

Herbert And Some Herberts.

Guns.

Super Dave.

Cross.

Head.

Joy.

Reflections.

Storm Clouds Above.

The Clock End.

Hands.

Out.

Marcos In The Rain.

A Shot Saved.

Serious Business.

Late on Sunday night, I cheekily posted on “Facebook” :

“Catch Us If You Can.”

side note : sadly, the petri dish at Arsenal yielded two further victims to COVID19. Two of my featured pals succumbed to the virus since Sunday and another has lost his voice. I have taken a Lateral Flow Test, and await the result of a PCR too.

Fingers crossed. See you at Anfield? I hope so.

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

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

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

What luck.

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

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

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

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

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super.

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

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

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

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

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

We set off on a walkabout.

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

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

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper Chelsea.

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

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

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

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

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

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

Bless’em.

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

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

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

We all knew what it meant.

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

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

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

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

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

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

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

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

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

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

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

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

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

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

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes on the penalty takers.

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

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

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

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

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

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

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

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

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

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

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

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

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

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

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

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

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

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

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

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

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

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

It had been a good night.