Tales From The Yellow And Blue

Dynamo Kiev vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2019.

Full length murals on the sides of grimy apartment blocks. Raised wooden walkways. Flowers on recent roadside memorials. Soaring residential buildings brutally blotting out the sky. Clusters of ornate gold-topped domes. The wide expanse of the Dnipro River. The striking faces of tall young women. The wrinkled faces of crouching old men. The awkwardly ornate buildings circling Independence Square. Statues and monuments. Cellar bars open twenty-four hours. Prostitutes walking the pavements. The storied governmental buildings of Kreschtayk Street. The “D” of the local football team. The pride of the city. The Cyrillic alphabet. Fading memories of recent siege and riots. The orange revolution and snipers on the streets. Steep cobbled roads. Men pestering for photographs with monkeys. Outlines in white paint marking where innocents fell in 2014. The yellow and blue of the national flag. The sadness of strife.

This was Kiev.

And another magical trip to a far-flung part of Europe with the love of my life.

Back in the autumn of 2015, I didn’t attend our 0-0 draw in the Champions League in Kiev against Dynamo as had I elected to go to the other two group phase games in Portugal and Israel instead. Those who went to Ukraine reported back that it was a historical city, with some great sights, but it had been rather dicey in places. I easily remembered that some innocent Chelsea supporters in a city centre bar were attacked by local hooligans on the night before the game – I distinctly recollect searching for the location of the bar on Google Earth on my home PC that evening – and there was talk that several mates were very thankful that a heavy army and police presence was available to escort the away hardcore to the stadium.

But this time, in 2019, I simply had to attend. The lure of an edgy, historic city was just too much to resist.

Flights – with Air France from Heathrow via Paris CDG – and accommodation in an apartment on Independence Square were booked. Car parking at LHR was booked. Match tickets – the ridiculous sum of £1.50 – were bought. It was a great price; it worked out at £225 for three nights.

The fun began at 2am on the morning of Wednesday 13 March. I collected PD, then Parky soon after. The M4 had a closure, so I changed track onto the A303 before hitting the M3 and M25. We reached our parking spot at Terminal Four at around 4.15am. It had been a breeze. The flight left at 6.25am. At Paris, we bumped into two brothers from Stockton-On-Tees who I first met in Stockholm in 1998. The five of us were the only Chelsea on the flight. I caught up on some shut-eye on the three-hour flight to Kiev’s Boryspil airport. We touched down to clear blue skies bang on time at 1.55pm. I soon bumped into Steve and Neil, who had just flown in via Warsaw. Our cab was waiting outside to take us to the apartment.

I was buzzing.

Here we were.

In Ukraine.

In my pre-trip thoughts and daydreams, I had already conjured up a phrase that might turn out be relevant to describe the city. I had surmised that Kiev might well be grubby, and not just around the edges, but in the centre too. As we clambered into a dirty cab – its windows needing a clean, the aroma of its upholstery rather piquant – and as we drove into the city on a wide and dusty main road, I wondered if grubbiness might well dominate the entire trip. In retrospect, this initial impression turned out to be wide of the mark; although Kiev was to show signs of battle fatigue, its streets and pavements were ridiculously litter-free and the locals were smart dressers.

The cab ride, which took about forty-five minutes, gave us a scintillating introduction. The scale of the city exhilarated me. Many new apartment blocks were being built on the eastern side of the Dnipro River, and everything reminded me of Moscow in 2008. The residential blocks were simply huge. We careered over the massive river, then caught a glimpse of the large and impressive statue of the Motherland Monument, passing right underneath it. Soon there would be the first of many domes of churches and cathedrals. We hugged the river. There were cobbled streets. The sun shone. Kiev was charming me. Then, a real treat. We turned left down another cobbled street and I soon spotted the architectural joy of the white columns marking the entrance to Dynamo Kiev’s own stadium – right in the city centre – which the club uses alongside the larger Olympic Stadium a mile or two further south. It is named after the former Dynamo Kiev and Russia – before partition – team manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Five minutes later, up a steep hill – more cobbles – and then down to our apartment. It was perfect.

A quick change and we were out at just before 5pm. We had spotted a couple of cafes near our digs, but chose a bar on the corner of our block which intimated that it was open twenty-four hours. In we went. In this cellar bar – “Copper Bar” – we soon spotted Scott and Paul, who I remember bumping into in Baku last season, and we sat down at a table with them for a good two hours or so. Six pints of “Lvivske 1715” later, we were well on the way. We had a good old natter about all things Chelsea. Scott rarely misses a game. There was talk of the game in Boston in May that Paul and Scott are attending, but that will be a game too far for me. They were both in Perth in July, so their travels this season will see Chelsea play on three continents, or four if we get to Baku. Respect.

They then had to go off and meet others for a meal in the city and we tentatively agreed to meet up with them at a restaurant outside the metro stop at the stadium at 5pm on the following day. Stan from High Wycombe then duly arrived with two other Chelsea lads, and the chit-chat continued. Luke and Aroha then showed up. Things were warming up nicely.

At about 8pm or so, we clambered into a cab and were soon climbing up the hill behind the square. I had ear-marked the best rooftop bar in Kiev – “B Hush” which sits on top of the Intercontinental Hotel – and this turned out to be a fine diversion. The five of us settled in to a quiet corner and three more beers soon followed. There was the beat of music in the background. This was as chilled as it gets. It was so relaxing. Outside, the night was cold, but we did not care. The V shaped roof-terrace overlooked a square which housed St. Michael’s Cathedral and a large governmental building with pillars, both floodlit, to the left. To our right, a building was lit with the yellow and blue of the national flag, with the ornate tower and domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral floodlit beyond. In the distance, a myriad of lights, shapes, blocks. It seemed like we had the whole of the terrace to ourselves, and perhaps even the city. All really was quiet outside, but my heart was beating.

I was in my element.

I found myself out on the terrace a second time, alone with my thoughts and a glass of lager, and I stood there in my polo shirt and jeans, the cold night air biting at me. Luke came out to check on me and we just stood, looking out, disbelieving that we were there, in Kiev, at that moment, with friends, with Chelsea. Luke is quite a traveller with both club and country and he visited Russia for two or three World Cup games last summer. He loves foreign fields. But we both agreed how wonderful this European club football can be.

We were mesmerized by it all. The view. The history. The architecture. The lights. The city. The night.

“A million sparking lights, a million sparking stars, a million sparking lives.”

We had heard that some other friends – Dave and Liam – were drinking in a pub called the “Just Beer Bar” and we jumped into two cabs and shot off into the guts of the city. Ten minutes later, we arrived, soon to be joined – quite by chance – by Alan and Gary and Lucio and Pete, in addition to Dave and Liam. We had lost Aroha and Luke on the way, but their places were taken with new recruits. By this time – around 11.30pm, and without food since a meal on the plane over France, we were getting slowly, or quickly, pissed and things were getting blurred, just like the photographs. This bar – quite quiet to be honest, and themed with a nod to Americana – was not far from the Olympic Stadium, and near to the others’ accommodation. It seemed that in Kiev the Chelsea support was either housed near the stadium or Independence Square. Three more bottles of beer were quaffed, but thank heavens we stayed clear of the shorts and shots.

Just after midnight, we hailed a cab and returned back to our apartment, just finding enough time to shovel a horrible cold meat baguette into our respective mouths at a stand in Independence Square.

It had been – undoubtedly – a fine evening.

We enjoyed a little lie-in on the day of the game, and chose a late breakfast in a Crimean restaurant. But I felt a little tired. I felt a little low. I wanted to get a second wind. We soon bumped into Charlotte and Paul, also from Somerset, on the walk to pick up match tickets at the Premier Palace Hotel on Pushinska Street, which was no more than a twenty-minute walk away. This gave us the chance of a leisurely stroll along the sweeping curve of the impressive Kreschtayk Street. We walked past protestors outside a governmental building. The architecture was stunning, surprisingly so. I expected everything to be bleaker, grubbier. We collected match tickets – so good to see Dog, with Cath, at his first European away in around eight seasons – and continued on. We had decided to walk to the stadium. At 1.30pm, we dived into another cellar bar – another one which was open all day and all night – called the “Fat Lion” bar. Bars were scarce in Kiev. But we did well to spot a few. Three beers were quaffed. I loved this bar. There were a few Kiev fans enjoying a pre-match meal. The beer was excellent. The barmaid was stunning. I had my second wind.

Around a corner, a craft ale bar in a building which resembled a potting shed. This was really quiet. The IPA was tough to stomach.

On we went. We dived into the third cellar bar of the trip, and chatted to a Kiev fan underneath a Ukrainian flag. This lager had an odd, soapy taste.

We reached the metro outside the stadium bang on 5pm, but struggled and then failed to spot Scott, Paul and the others. We spotted a local restaurant – so busy – and enjoyed a fantastic, cheap and tasty meal, washed down with a couple of varying lagers. The beer definitely tasted better the previous night in the first pub on Independence Square. Opposite us were three Dynamo fans, demolishing plates of food, glasses of lager and a bottle of vodka like their life depended on it.

“England?”

“Yes. Chelsea.”

“Ah. Chel – see – eh.”

One was wearing a scarf. He intimated that he was troubled why we were not wearing a Chelsea scarf.

I felt like replying “so we don’t get slapped by your fucking ultras, mate” but I suspect it would have been lost in translation.

Outside, the night had fallen and there were bustling crowds outside the metro stop. The temperature had only dropped slightly, thank heavens. I had previously had visions of a shivering night inside the concrete of the Olympic Stadium. We began walking towards the lights of the stadium, which was no more than a hundred yards away. In the shadows, we were lucky to bump into a few Chelsea including Leigh from Basingstoke. He quickly reminded us that – as per the Chelsea website instruction that I had clearly forgotten – we were to divert away from the immediate vicinity, past some restaurants, up a dimly lit hill and finally into a narrow walkway which was not signposted at all. It wasn’t a huge and frustrating diversion away from the ground as at Barcelona this time last season and although the authorities, I am sure, insisted on this approach was for our own benefit, it still seemed a risky walk. There were no police close by and there was the threat of “ambush” in the air. Thankfully we made it into the compound of the stadium. We soon spotted lots of familiar faces.

We were safe and among friends.

The Olympic Stadium – an expansive roof added over its two tiers in 2011 – hosted last season’s Champions League Final. It’s an impressive stadium. Its seats mirror the Ukrainian national colours; two shades of yellow, two shades of blues – plus one shade of white for contrast – and although there is a random placing of these colours, the bottom tier is predominantly yellow and the top tier is predominantly blue, mirroring the two bars of the national flag. It’s a pleasing look.

We picked a row and took our spots. We didn’t have as many as the one thousand two-hundred in Budapest. The younger element was missing. The figure of five-hundred or so from the UK seemed right. This was augmented by a few hundred supporters from Ukraine, Belarus and other nearby countries. These foreign fans could easily be spotted; these were the ones wearing Chelsea scarves and tops, waving flags, clambering onto the fences at the front of our enclosure and generally being far too happy.

The UK supporters stood, as is our wont, with our hands in our pockets, comparing pre-match drinking adventures and grumbling about everything within sight.

It’s our way.

It’s what we do well.

The stadium took ages to fill up. I severely doubted that it would be anywhere near its 70,000 capacity. In the ‘sixties, it held over 100,000.

The team news had come through earlier.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Rudiger – Christensen – Alonso

Kovacic

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

Willian was the captain for the night.

It was, of course, pleasing to see our Ruben and our Callum in the starting line-up. I had forgotten what our Davide looked like.

The teams came on, and our kit mirrored that of the stadium seats, but blue down below and yellow up top.

It was clear that the Kiev ultras were facing us at the opposite end, to the right of the access tunnel. They formed a dark and densely-packed mob, easily distinguishable from the rest of the home spectators. As the teams walked onto the pitch to the sound of the Europa League anthem (titled “Thursday Night Ersatz”) the ultras hoisted mosaics which formed an amalgam of the Ukranian flag and their club colours.

I was in a row alongside PD and Parky, then Lucy and Gary, Aroha and Luke, with Paul and Spencer from Swindon a few rows in front. Behind us, Scott and Paul. To my left, Kev, Tom and Russell. Alan, Gary and Raymondo a few rows behind. Other faces dotted around.

Chelsea in Kiev.

The game began.

There were a few Chelsea songs to mark the start of the match. Luke led the way with a barrage of ditties.

The home team – playing in all white for this one – attacked early but we coped with the danger. Over in the “north curve” a selection of eight or nine flags was waved with gusto, including a subtle black and white image of that man Lobanovskyi.

On just five minutes, we won a corner on our right. Willian struck the ball into the heart of our box, Ruben headed the ball on – and crucially down – into a few spare feet of space in front of the goal for Olivier Giroud to easily readjust his feet and guide the ball past Boyko.

I screamed with pleasure, the tie was safe now.

Dynamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 1

Not long after, Ruben wriggled in from the left after a fine series of passes but his daisy-cutter was palmed away by the Kiev ‘keeper.

To our right, above us in the home section, we spotted a few locals wearing the red, white and black bar scarves of Manchester United. A banner was quickly hoisted but I was not quick enough to spot the wording before it was forced to retire. A small United flag stayed throughout the match.

“Bit pathetic, that” I thought.

Behind me there was a running gag with Scott.

“We need one more. We’ll be safe if we get to five-nil on aggregate.”

“Yeah, they’d have to score six.”

Smiles.

Scott had met up with a few other Chelsea at a restaurant just around the corner from us. He had enjoyed a lovely rib eye. I told him that I had opted for a Chicken Kiev.

“Oh, and I had some borscht for a starter. Very nice. Only trouble was, I had to queue up for it for two hours.”

We controlled the game. The Chelsea songs came and went. Thankfully the temperature was fine and this was no bitter night in Kiev. A few crosses into their box tested their ‘keeper who was already having a busy game. They had a free-kick which didn’t cause us any harm. A break on their left ended up with a shot being placed past Kepa by Garmash but the Kiev player was clearly offside as the ball was played.

Next up from the ultras was a show of colour with hundreds of blue and white scarves held up over heads, and very effective it was too. I was surprised that there were no flares on display, but they were determined to put on a good show for us despite trailing heavily.

I thought to myself : “Fair play. That’s the embodiment of support. Making a racket. Making some noise. Always.”

On the half-hour, Ruben withstood some challenges and played the ball forward from deep to a raiding Alonso. With the entire defensive back-line backing off, the left-back slipped in a perfect ball into the path of Giroud who had an easy one-touch finish.

Dinamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 2

“Still need one more. They’ll need to score seven, then.”

A fine clipped corner from Willian found a leaping Giroud at the near post but his header was over. It could, and perhaps should, have been a perfect first-half hat-trick…left foot, right foot, header. Just before the half-time whistle, another fine move allowed Callum to race onto a fine through ball from Giroud to set up Alonso from close-in.

Dinamo Kyiv 0 Chelsea 3.

It had been a perfect first-half. The home team had been so poor, though. They just could not cope with our movement. And they looked so rusty. But the running gag continued.

“We still need another. I can see them getting eight.”

A few Chelsea left at half-time.

Answers on a postcard please.

Kiev had us all in stitches early into the second-half when Sydorchuk followed up Kepa’s fine save from himself with a rushed effort against the post with the whole goal gaping. Immediately after, another offside decision ruled out another Garmash goal.

“Bloody hell, they’re crap.”

As the hour approached, I spotted clusters of white lights in the home areas. Phone torches had been turned on.

“What’s this, a bloody Barry Manilow concert?”

The lights lit up most of the home areas, although I admired the fact that the solemn block of three-thousand ultras did not participate.

“Good on them.”

I noted that several half-hearted attempts from the home fans above us to instigate a “wave” didn’t ever materialise. This crowd were clearly split into two. The ultras and the rest. But although parts of the home support were visually impressive, there was not great booms of noise. No thunderous racket. It was no Istanbul. To be honest, the single chant of “Dee-nah-moh” was rather meek.

With the torch lights still on, Willian waited to take a free-kick down below us in the corner. His fantastic cross was met with a magnificent header from Giroud. There was his perfect hat-trick.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

D KNIB 0 Chelsea 4.

Although, it has to be said, the marking was again non-existent. I reckoned that half the defence had buggered off to start queuing up for some beetroot soup. A swipe from the foot of Alonso at a free-kick forced a magnificent save, arching back, by the overworked ‘keeper Boyko. Next up from the ultras was something that Leeds United used to do at half-time around fifteen years ago; the stripping off of shirts and jackets. Over in the far quadrant, there were several hundred skins.

I pictured an image of David Brent : “Ooh. You’re hard.”

Jorginho came on for Kante.

Dave came on for an injured Davide.

Pedro replaced Willian, who handed the armband to Captain Dave.

On seventy-eight minutes, a lovely through-ball from Giroud played in Callum, who raced through and calmly slotted past the hapless Boyko.

Chickens 0 Lions 5

Scott tapped me on the shoulder.

“That’s it. We’re safe. They won’t score nine.”

The joke had run its course and so had the tie.

Chelsea 3 Dynamo Kiev 0.

Dynamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 5.

This was my biggest ever away win in Europe.

It had worked out at 30p per goal.

Bargain.

The gate was announced as a very healthy 64,830. And the vast majority stayed until the end. At the final whistle, the Kiev ultras were still holding their scarves aloft. They had provided us with quite a show. Our players walked over towards us, with Olivier Giroud clutching the match ball. To be honest, we had never really moved out of second gear the entire night. Kovacic and Willian had done well. Giroud had scored three nice goals. It was as easy a night in Europe as we have ever had. We applauded them, and they applauded us.

As we waited for around twenty minutes or so for the home legions to be cleared, I admitted to anyone that might be listening “the trouble is, we haven’t honestly played anyone in this thing yet.”

The boisterous foreign fans – Chelsea Ukraine scarves, Chelsea Belarus flags – then began to serenade each other with the “Chelsea Alouette” and caused the UK fans to giggle. You had to admire their passion.

I was one of the very last supporters to leave the entire stadium. I had gone down to take some shots of the empty bowl from the bottom of our section. It was still a mild night. I slowly walked to the top of the away section, and I was the very last Chelsea fan to leave. As I walked out of the gates, around fifty police walked with me, their employment for the night over.

That’s what I call a police escort.

I bought a cheap Dynamo fridge magnet from a cheery local woman out on the main approach. I was certainly surprised how relatively empty the streets were. Certainly all other Chelsea had disappeared into the night.

It did not take long for the three of us to hail a cab and head back towards Independence Square.

In the last match report, the home game with the Wanderers of Wolverhampton, I had mentioned “Sliding Doors” which had begun with a scene or two at the old Fulham Broadway tube station.

Intrigued?

The cab driver asked for our destination.

I remembered that I had slipped a map of Kiev, picked up at the Chelsea ticket collection point, into my back pocket. I retrieved it and pointed to Independence Square.

“Ah. Maidan.”

This was the local name. We sped through the city and were deposited right outside our apartment. It was only a five-minute drive. As soon as we set foot on the pavement, a couple of Hungarian Chelsea fans walked past us and, soon realising that we were Chelsea, and from England, told us that they were headed to a pub called “O’Briens.” I had remembered this pub from a chat that I had had with our main client in Ukraine who, at one stage, was keen to meet up with us on our stay. Keen to visit as many bars as possible during our stay, we followed them up the hill. It was only a five-minute walk. The pub was surprisingly quiet. I am not a huge fan of Irish pubs – apart from in Ireland – but this one was passable. The barman spoke great English and we enjoyed a relaxing hour or so.

The Hungarian fans, from the lovely city of Budapest – this season’s Europa League adventure keeps looping back on itself – were good company. Two lads, two girls, though not couples. Just in Kiev for the Chelsea. They were just amazed how cheap everything was in Kiev.  I told them how much we had enjoyed their city in December. Also in the pub, quite randomly, were two Slavia Prague fans, this time a couple, and the bloke laughed about how he wanted to visit London in the next round, but his girlfriend was not keen on the idea. There was a little banter between the people from Prague and Budapest – local histories, rivalries – and the three of us from Somerset and Wiltshire just sat back, bemused.

“Another pint?

At around 1am, we left the pub – “see you in the next round” – and walked back down to our digs. On the corner of the square, right outside the “Copper Pub” we spotted a few police.

There was nothing to see really, so we turned in.

It had been a fantastic end to a very fine day.

The cab driver asked for our destination.

I uttered the words “Independence Square.”

He looked blankly at me. I looked blankly at him. I needed to bring my geographical skills into operation. I had a pretty good notion of which way we needed to go, so I pointed ahead. At a junction, quite close to the “Fat Lion”, I inadvertently chose the wrong road. For around ten minutes, we veered slightly away from where I knew we needed to be headed and we ended up taking a few more wrong turns. We found ourselves up on the high area to the east of Independence Square, but we eventually reached a little area off Kreschtayk Street. We slowly walked under the still busy road, using the eerie underpass, and made our way up to our apartment. We looked at the “Copper Bar” and uttered the words “nightcap”. At the top of the stairs, I spotted a few security staff. Inside, the bar was a mix of Chelsea and a few locals. We sat at the bar, and ordered more “1715.” A Chelsea fan then stunned us with the words “there’s fifty of them up in the square.” I found this hard to believe as we had seen no Kiev fans anywhere since we had left the stadium. On our gentle stroll through Independence Square, there had been no Kiev fans, hooligans or ultras waiting in shadows or anywhere else. I dismissed it as a silly rumour.

Ten minutes later, there was a commotion in the other bar – more a walkway – and then around six or seven Dynamo Kiev fans appeared in our bar, no more than four yards away. I remained calm, but inside my head was spinning. How many were upstairs and on their way in? Did they have weapons? Was this going to be a horrible repeat of 2015? Their main man, horrible eyes, a grin on his face, looked around. He shouted.

“Hooligans!”

He was flanked by mere kids. He threw something across the bar, hitting one or two. There was a commotion, a rush of bodies. The sound of glasses being smashed. The Kiev fans were chased out. Parky, PD and I had not moved from the bar. It was all over within a few seconds.

We remained in the bar, calmed each other, and others, and finished our drinks. At around 1am we called it a day. Outside the pub, thankfully we spotted a few police.

There was nothing to see really, so we turned in.

It had been a very odd end to a very fine day.

Friday was a day of rest, relaxation, a little sightseeing, a few more beers, and then some more beers. We had another lie in, and breakfasted locally at a Parisian-style restaurant. The food, and coffees – much needed – were superb. The three of us headed over to check out the Dynamo stadium, and in the ten-minute walk, using the underpass again, we soon spotted memorials to locals who had fallen during the demonstrations and battles of Maidan in 2014. Images were etched onto stone. There were flowers. Some of the fallen were young. On a few occasions we noticed the painted outlines of bodies, marking the location of where innocent people were gunned down by the army as they protested the Ukrainian’s prime minister’s wishes to become closer to Russia. It was a cold and sobering moment.

The stadium, glistening in the late-morning sun, improved the mood a little. I loved the pillars, the iconic “D” of the Dynamo badge, the magical statue of Lobanovskyi – on his bench – looking over at Independence Square.

A penny for his thoughts.

Alas, we couldn’t enter the stadium, but we walked up a leafy walkway and I was able to take a few panoramic photographs. The floodlights were pure Eastern Bloc. The trees added a natural touch. The blue of the seats were so vivid. It was a stunning setting for a football stadium. I am pleased that the club still regard it as its base.

I continued a walk through the immediate area, then met up at the “Copper Bar.” We soon learnt that we were to play Slavia Prague in the quarter finals. We decided to give it a miss, then hope for Benfica – cheap flights from Bristol – rather than Frankfurt. Although from memory, that stadium is nicely nestled in some woods too. Either city would be a joy.

I left the boys to some more drinking as I headed up to the historic area of the Golden Gate, St. Sophia’s and St, Michael’s. I took plenty of photographs and I lost myself for an hour and a half, away from the madding crowd, away from the beers, and I enjoyed every second of it. On returning to the bar at about 5pm, the Bristol lot – Julie, Tim, Kev, Brian, Pete and Sam – had dropped in. This was their third visit to Kiev, after a flying visit en route to Donetsk in 2012 and again in 2015. Tim tellingly reported that there was devastation around Maidan / Independence Square on the second visit, with evidence of buildings being fire damaged. The area has certainly seen some action over the past few years.

Later that night, with the other two returning to the apartment early, I had the whole night to myself. There were a few beers in “Blues Bar” with a local duo playing some fine music. When they heard I was from London, they wanted to take a selfie with me. I found that odd, but touching. I returned to “B Hush” for a few more beers and some lovely food.  I was alone with my thoughts once again.

The night continued on.

Kiev had been a wonderful host city.

I would return in a heartbeat.

Tales From The Quiet Neighbours

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 3 March 2019.

It seemed to be all about sequences.

We were playing the fifth of seven consecutive games in London. We were playing the seventh match in a row of fourteen that did not include a Saturday game. And we were due to play the tenth game in a run in which there had been alternate wins and losses in the previous nine.

Oh, and in the pub, having mentioned that Slavisa Jokanovic, Claudio Ranieri, Scott Parker – their three managers so far this season – were all former Chelsea personnel, I could not resist yelping

“Bloody leave us alone Fulham.”

Ah yes, the pub. Parky, PD and I had set off early on the morning of the game in order to get ourselves lodged into a pub between 10am and 10.30am. I had completed some research and it looked like “The Rocket” in Putney would be open at 10am. Those following along with these rambles this season will know that we have often enjoyed some splendid pre-match drinks in a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham – “The Eight Bells” and “The King’s Head” mainly – but our plan was to avoid those two because they would be undoubtedly rammed with supporters, probably of both clubs, as they were so near Craven Cottage. As has been the case on every single visit that I have made to Fulham Football Club, the plan in 2018/19 was to drink in Putney.

We were parked-up at just after 10am. There was light drizzle. The sky overhead was grey and threatened more rain. As we headed towards “The Rocket” on the south bank of the River Thames, we met up with Andrew from Columbus in Ohio who was visiting for three games. I had last met Andrew in Ann Arbor in 2016 for the Real Madrid friendly although he was over for the Palace home game last March. We located the pub easily but I was gobsmacked when the barman uttered the infamous line “we are open yes, but we are not serving alcohol until midday because of the football.” We could hardly believe it. And this was a “Wetherspoons” too; hardly the classiest of joints.

I uttered the first “fackinell” of the day. There would be a few more later.

In days of old, before more modern means of communication, the telex address used by Fulham Football Club was “Fulhamish London” and I immediately thought of this. A “Wetherspoons” pub not opening until midday because of football? How Fulhamish.

For those whose interest is piqued; our telex address was the far less whimsical “Chelstam London SW6”.

We back-tracked a little, closer to where we had parked-up in fact, and settled on “The Duke’s Head” – again on the banks of the river – where we had visited on many other occasions. We were inside when it opened at 10.30am.

Phew.

The troops started to arrive. Brad and Sean from New York appeared, as did Nick and Kim from Fresno. From closer to home, Alan and Gary from London, Duncan and Daryl from Essex, then Jim from Oxfordshire. We were spilling over onto three tables now. Mehul and Neekita from Detroit met up with us again, fresh from seeing the West Ham versus Newcastle United match on Saturday. I met two chaps from the US for the first time; Steve from Ohio, another Steve from New York. There was the usual chatter, banter and laughs. Brad and Sean had watched John Terry and Frank Lampard go head to head at Villa Park the previous day. This would be their first official Chelsea away game. And they were loving every damn minute of it.

With the US friends huddled close by, I spoke about some events which took place in the first few years of the twentieth century.

“I suppose we need to be thankful that Fulham said “no” to playing at Stamford Bridge, or none of us would be here today.”

And there was a moment of silence and clarity.

A few people seemed to gulp.

Indeed, we were grateful.

“If they had said “yes” there would have been no Munich, Peter Osgood may never have been a footballer, and Gianfranco Zola might never have been a crap manager for Watford and Birmingham City.”

“Blimey, that last bit didn’t pan out the way I was expecting” replied Andrew.

We laughed.

The chit chat continued.

“Another beer, lads?”

When Andrew had posted the obligatory “airport photo” on Facebook on leaving the US, alongside his passport and a pint of Peroni, there was a Chelsea badge styled on The Clash’s “London Calling” album cover. My great friend Daryl had produced these, so I introduced the two lads to each other.

“Chelsea World is a small world” part two hundred and fifty-seven.

I hinted to the lads that I had already come up with a title for the match blog.

“Remember when City started to threaten United and Alex Ferguson called them ‘the noisy neighbours’? – well, Fulham are far from noisy.”

It was a shame to leave the cosy confines of this great pub, but time was moving on and, at just past 1pm, so were we. Outside, the weather was murky. I had visions of being blown to bits on the walk across Putney Bridge, but the predicted high winds were still gathering elsewhere and the rain was only a slight hindrance.

On walking towards Craven Cottage – past the All Saints Church where we stood on Remembrance Sunday in November, past the Fulham Palace, and up into Bishop’s Park – I bumped into Kenny, who reminded me that I said that I would include him in the blog at Wembley, but then didn’t. This time, I am making amends for it, and as the date becomes closer, I will include Kenny’s sponsorship link for the London Marathon. I first met Kenny on tour in the US in DC in 2015, and he was also in Ann Arbor the following year. To say that he has lost some weight since 2016 would be a massive understatement. He deserves our support on 28 April. Watch this space.

In Bishop’s Park, we came across a selection of food stalls – some looked fantastic – and quite a few match-goers stopped to soak up some pre-match alcohol. Bizarrely, however, there were a few stalls that would not have looked out of place at a Farmers’ Market. One stall was selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

How Fulhamish.

We reached Stevenage Road at about 1.40pm and I had just enough time to take a few “mood shots” outside Craven Cottage. The red-bricked turnstiles, the rear of the cottage itself, the Johnny Haynes statue, the carved stone plaques, the black and white timber, the crowds rushing past, the match-day scene in all its glory. Craven Cottage rarely disappoints. The main stand on Stevenage Road – renamed the Johnny Haynes Stand after their most-loved player – is a Grade II listed building and is so protected from demolition. And it is a beauty. I have mentioned it before – and I mentioned it to Sean in the pub before the game, in a little segment devoted to the guru of stadium design Archibald Leitch – that the dimensions of Fulham’s oldest stand are exactly the same as the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge which lasted from 1905 to 1972. The two stadia in Fulham could not be more different, now nor in the past. Of course Craven Cottage is a gem, but part of the reason why the old Stamford Bridge was so loved by us Chelsea supporters was that it felt like a proper stadium, and to be blunt, there was so much of it. It was a rambling beast of a stadium with huge rolling banks of terracing, two forecourts, ranks of turnstiles, cobbled alleyways, ivy-covered offices, huge floodlight pylons, everything befitting the name “stadium.” Craven Cottage has always been slight. It has always been small. It has always only had that one stretch of entrances on Stevenage Road, that long expanse of warm red-brick.

On the old East Stand at Chelsea, the large painted letters “Chelsea Football Club” – in block capitals, mirrored on a wall of The Shed today – used to welcome all to Stamford Bridge and at the rear of the cottage to this day are the words “The Fulham Football Club” – in block capitals too. Like big brother, like little brother. Of course it is a cliché now that Fulham hate us but we are ambivalent to them. In fact, if pressed, most Chelsea have a soft-spot for Fulham, which infamously winds them up even more…bless ‘em.

There was the most minimal of security checks and I was in. Such is the benign nature of Fulham Football Club that home fans in the Riverside Stand use the same turnstiles as the away fans. And there is only one stadium in the realm of UEFA that has a designated “neutral zone”, a nod to Fulham’s non-segregation history of the Putney End.

And that is as Fulhamish as it gets.

I made my way to the back of the stand. I had swapped seats with PD as I had visions of my allotted place at the front being a tough place for cameras, and there was also a very strong threat of rain. Rain and cameras certainly do not mix. As it happened, I was in row ZZ, the very back row.

Row ZZ, but I am sure that I would not be tired of this game.

Fulham versus Chelsea, a very local affair, and a pretty friendly rivalry if truth be told.

“London Calling” boomed but it seemed odd that Joe Strummer’s most famous song was being used by Fulham. Joe Strummer was a Chelsea fan and if Chelsea are The Clash, then Fulham are…well, Neil Sedaka.

“I live by the river.”

The teams walked out from beneath the cottage to my right, the red-bricked chimney pots of the terraced streets behind. I quickly checked the team that manager Maurizio Sarri had chosen. The big news; Kepa was back in. Again, OK with me, move on.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

The management team took their positions in the dug outs in front of the stand to my left. It was announced before Christmas that Fulham would at last move ahead on extending the Riverside Stand in May, thus increasing the capacity of their tidy stadium from 25,700 to 29,700, and opening up the rear of that stand so that there would, at last, be an unrestricted walk from Hammersmith Bridge to Putney Bridge. The images of the new stand looks sensational. During the game, there would be rolling adverts on the perimeter of the pitch for the boat race in April, with Craven Cottage a prime site to bring in some extra income.

I did not attend the game, but I can remember Paul Canoville scoring at Craven Cottage in 1983 on the same afternoon as the boat race. I bet the pubs in Fulham were a very odd mix of clientele that day.

Chelsea in all blue. Fulham in white and black.

I soon noticed that the Fulham support were brandishing those damned cardboard noisemakers.

File under “Fulhamish” once more.

With Tottenham and Arsenal eking out a draw at Wembley on the Saturday, here was a fantastic chance to tighten things at the top. A few weeks ago, we were all adamant that we would finish sixth. As Kepa walked towards us, he was loudly clapped, and he responded similarly.

“It’s Kepa you know. He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

The game began.

Chelsea began well and were backed with some noisy and boisterous singing. The Putney End at Fulham goes back a surprisingly long way, and the last section consists of metal platforms which are extended past the natural bank of terracing below. It allows for a formidable bounce once the away stand gets going.

There was an early outing for the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant, but this sadly finished with more than a few adding the “Y” word at the end…maybe that battle is not yet won, after all.

Gonzalo Higuain was involved early, but dawdled with a chance in front of goal and took an extra touch. He then headed well wide. Down below us, a typically selfless block from Dave stifled a goal scoring chance for Fulham. We were on top, but only just. There was almost a calamity when Kepa rose for a ball, with the red-headed Ryan Babel bowed beneath him. He could only fumble and we watched with a degree of horror as the ball came free of his clutches and bounced. Thankfully, the former Liverpool player was oblivious to the loose ball, our ‘keeper quickly clutched the ball and the moment of panic had gone.

Just after, the move of the match thus far developed below us. Rudiger to Willian, then to Dave. He whipped in a low ball towards the near post. Higuain met the cross and dispatched the ball effortlessly past the Fulham ‘keeper Sergio Rico with one touch. He jumped high in front of the seated denizens of the Hammersmith End.

SW6 0 SW6 1

“One team in Fulham, there’s only one team in Fulham” sang the Chelsea hordes.

We were on our way. Or were we?

After only a few minutes, Fulham tested us. Mitrovic swung a left foot, swiveling, and forced a really excellent save from Kepa, but a corner thus followed. In front of the filigree of the balcony, the grey slate of the roof and the red brick of the chimney stacks of the cottage away to my right, the ball was played short and then long, very long. The cross found the unmarked Calum Chambers at the far post. His down and up shot bounced past Kepa and Fulham had equalised.

SW6 1 SW6 1.

The noisemakers were heard. Just.

“Where was the marking?” I screamed.

Two or three minutes later, Jorginho managed to win the ball and knocked it outside to the shuffling Eden Hazard. Jorginho had continued to support the attack and Hazard easily spotted him. Just like Higuain, he did not need more than one touch. I was right behind the course of the ball as it was slotted high into the net. It was almost too easy.

SW6 1 SW6 2.

I watched as the scorer raced over to celebrate with Emerson, and I am surprised that any photographs were not blurred, such was the bounce in the metal flooring below me.

“Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh” sang those to my right.

“You fickle bastards” I shouted.

Then, just after, a lovely chipped through-ball from Jorginho met the run of Higuain perfectly. The disappointingly wild shot – blasted over – from the striker could and should have made the ‘keeper work. Hazard then ran and shot right at the ‘keeper. Virtually the same move as our opening goal – almost identical – involving a pass from Willian, a low cross from Dave, enabled another first-time shot from Higuain but this time the Fulham ‘keeper scrambled low to his left to save.

At the break, I had memories of the 4-1 win at Craven Cottage in the early winter of 2004, when we – Alan, Gary, Daryl and I from the 2019 party – had met at the Duke’s Head and had witnessed one of the games of the season in Jose Mourinho’s first triumphant campaign at the helm. Would there be a similar score line this time around? I hoped so.

In truth, we struggled for most of the second period and even though we created a few half-chances, there was growing frustration in the Chelsea ranks as the game progressed. Eden struck another low shot at Rico. Willian went close at the near post. There was a strong penalty appeal down below us, but it was waved away. Azpilicueta held his head in his hands and squatted in an odd show of disbelief. I could hardly believe it as the referee Graham Scott repeated Dave’s actions in a clear case of Micky-taking.

“Never seen that before. What a twat of a referee.”

Willian went close but hit the side-netting. A ball was pumped across the face of the goal by Hazard – “too good” I complained to the bloke next to me – but there was nobody close to get a touch.

We found it difficult to create much more. If anything, Fulham finished the far stronger of the two teams. Mitrovic thumped one over and the noisemakers were called into use again.

Sarri rang the changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Pedro for Hazard.

Loftus-Cheek for Barkley.

All were surprising in their own way.

By now, the rain was falling in SW6 and the wind blew the rain in gusts. The River Thames was cutting up, visible in two slithers to my left. The rather odd corporate boxes at Fulham have been likened to large filing cabinets, and they inhibit the views of the outside environs at Craven Cottage. A few chimney pots and a few rooftops close by to my right, a tall block of flats further away. The river and some trees on the far bank to my left. The top floors of the Charing Cross Hospital above the roof of the Hammersmith End. Craven Cottage is hardly claustrophobic but there is not much to see of the outside world.

On the pitch we were, bluntly, holding on.

Kepa saved low from Cairney and then again from Bryan. The nerves were jangling in the Putney End.

With the clock ticking, we were chasing shadows as Ayite found Mitrovic with a quick cross. The strong striker’s instinctive header was met by a very impressive leap from Kepa and the ball was pushed away.

Fackinell.

I had memories of a late Fulham equaliser from Clint Dempsey in 2008. Remember that?

Fulham had thought that they had repeated this feat in the very last move of the match when their young starlet Ryan Sessegnon tucked the ball in, but I – and possibly three-thousand or more Chelsea supporters – saw the raised yellow flag of the linesman on the far side. The clacking noisemakers were soon silent.

With that, the final whistle.

Phew.

We met up outside the turnstiles on Stevenage Road.

“Made hard work of that, eh? I grumbled.

“Did we ever” replied PD.

The rain lashed against us on the walk back to the car. We walked silently through the park. I had the worst-ever post-game hot dog and onions. At last there was the comfort of my warm and dry car waiting for me on Felsham Road. We eventually made our way home. This game on the banks of the Thames will not live long in the memory. But at last we had two back-to-back victories. But, I have to say that Fulham look like they are down, though. And I think that is a shame. I love our little derby. I love a trip to the southern tip of the borough. I wonder who their next manager will be. He’s due to be appointed very soon.

Teddy Maybank, anybody?

On Thursday, we play Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League at Stamford Bridge.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Mancunian Way

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 10 February 2019.

Sunday Four O’Clock.

This was another away game that would test me. How I miss matches on Saturday at three o’clock. Our game at Manchester City would begin at 4pm, which meant that my footballing exploits over the weekend would not really finish until 11pm, or 11.30pm or maybe even later. This annoyed me more than ever on the Friday and Saturday as I tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the long journey north. City away was a tough trip at the best of times, but four o’clock on a Sunday was the worst of times and it just didn’t seem fair on any of us. Those travelling on the Chelsea coaches would not even be back at Stamford Bridge until almost midnight. The day began with me setting off from home at 9.15am and I collected PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les and we were on the road after a quick breakfast in Melksham at 10.30am. The drive north took me a few minutes’ shy of four hours. I was met with speed restrictions on the M5 and M6, and an odd assortment of weather – blinding sun, rain, sleet, hailstones – against an ever-changing backdrop of various cloud formations, a dull grey bathwater glaze one minute, vibrant and brooding and billowing the next.

Manchester Remembered.

It had been a week in which the city of Manchester had flitted into my mind on a few occasions. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had paid their respects to the Flowers of Manchester, remembering those that had perished on the ice of a Munich runway or in a Munich hospital all those years ago. On the Thursday, the actor Albert Finney had passed away. He was a native of Salford and the star of those cutting-edge “kitchen sink” dramas of the ‘early-sixties, in which the Northern cities in which they were filmed were as much a star as the actors themselves. Manchester was often used as the backdrop in some sort of homage to the scenes depicted by LS Lowry, another son of Salford. I remembered seeing Albert Finney on the pitch at Old Trafford before a United vs. Chelsea game a few seasons ago. And I certainly remembered him in the 1967 film “Charlie Bubbles” in which a small segment is filmed at Old Trafford – outside on what is now Sir Matt Busby Way and on the famous forecourt, inside from the interior of a box above the United Road seats – at a Manchester United vs. Chelsea game from November 1966 (a 1-3 defeat).

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

And then, sadly, we all heard the horrible news that former Chelsea and Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas was battling stomach cancer. Mickey was a mid-season addition to our iconic promotion winning team of 1983/84 and he energised the side from the off with his tenacious spirit and drive, to say nothing of his fine skill which caught us all by surprise. He instantly became one of my most beloved Chelsea heroes, and even now might feature in a “favourite players XI.”

A Drive Down Memory Lane.

The route took me right into the heart of Manchester. It took me through Didsbury, past Fallowfield, past some rented rooms in Whalley Range, and right through Moss Side to Hulme. It took me within a few hundred yards of where Manchester City played football from 1923 to 2003. I only ever visited Maine Road on three occasions. In my mind, it seems more. But three it is; a First Division game on a Saturday morning in 1985, a Saturday afternoon game in Division Two in 1989 and a Sunday afternoon game in the Premier league in 2001. My memories of Maine Road are strong, though. I watched the action from three different sides on those three visits (Anfield remains the only away stadium where I have watched from all four sides) and it was a large and atmospheric old place. I bet the City fans of 2019 miss it terribly. My last visit on the last weekend of the 2000/2001 season – marking the last appearances of Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise in our colours – seems like only yesterday. A few of us stayed the Saturday night in Blackpool and a mini-bus took us down to Manchester, depositing us among the red-brick terraced houses outside the ground and collecting us after. But the main memory from that day – we won 2-1 if it matters – was of the City lads who encroached onto the pitch at the final whistle (or just before it, if memory serves the referee “blew up” early) and stared us down. We were glad to hop into the waiting mini-bus and make our retreat after that game. By then, Maine Road had lost its large, deep Kippax side terrace and its equally cavernous Platt Lane seats. It was on odd and lop-sided stadium by 2001.

One Final Visit.

On a Saturday in 2004, I paid one final visit to Maine Road. City had played their last game there in the April, and I was on my way to our first-ever visit to the City of Manchester Stadium – remember when it was called that? – at Eastlands – remember when it was called that? – but I wanted to call by and photograph it for my own personal satisfaction. The stands were intact at that stage, though cordoned off for safety’s sake, and I took a few snaps. Memorably, “MUFC” was daubed on an adjacent end of terrace house. Also, very poignantly, there was some graffiti in memory of the former Manchester City player Marc Vivien Foe, who had scored Manchester City’s last-ever goal at Maine Road on 21 April, but who had died on a football pitch just over three months later. The City fans, leaving many fond memories at Maine Road, must surely have wondered if this was an ominous warning of the fates that might befall them further east.

They need not have worried.

On that same day, less than half a mile away, I visited one of only two streets in the whole of the UK that feature my surname. There is an Axon Square in Moss Side in Manchester and there is an Axon Crescent in Weston Coyney in Stoke-on-Trent. My surname is geographically strong in both areas (a Percy Axon was the chairman of Stoke City in the ‘seventies) but my surname is centered on Manchester. It is a bloody good job that my forefathers moved to Kent and then Dorset; I wouldn’t care too much to be a City fan.

[I thought about inserting a comment here suggesting that if my father’s grandfather had stayed in Kent or Dorset, I wouldn’t care too much to be a United fan. But then realised that I am a Chelsea fan in Somerset, so had best not be too damning].

On that very first visit to Eastlands, we won a dour game 1-0 and I was warmed to see the Kippax remembered with a banner draped over a balcony wall to my right. However, I have never seen it since.

The Mancunian Way.

With a Style Council CD playing us in, I crept onto the Mancunian Way which wraps itself around the southern edge of the city centre, and found myself driving along an instantly recognisable section of road. Despite only three visits to Maine Road, this would be my fourteenth visit to City’s new stadium. Manchester is a cracking city on a number of counts and my blood pumps and heart bumps on every visit. I deposited the lads right outside the stadium – LP and PD scuttled inside for some beers while Les chanced his arm in a nearby City pub – while I shot off to park up. Rain threatened but did not amount to much. I peered in to see the closing segments of the City Ladies vs. Chelsea Ladies game at the nearby academy stadium. The chill wind bit me. I sorted some spare tickets for a mate and decided to take a slow walk around the stadium. I had to laugh when I saw a lad with a United bag being searched outside the main stand. The steward had not spotted it. I warned her.

“He’s having a laugh, isn’t he, the boy? Ha.”

“Oh, thanks – I didn’t spot that.”

She hid it inside another bag.

Overhead the skies suggested a certain downpour. They were dark, and ominous. But the sun shone through too. It made for some dramatic shapes in and around the towering stadium. A band were playing in the post-modern “fan zone” to the north by the City shop. There were police on horseback. There were half and half scarves. There were a couple of buskers. Hot food stands. On the Ashton New Road stood an old school Fish and Chip shop blinking in the winter sun.

The Lower Tier.

I had run out of things to photograph – with my phone, proper cameras were banned, along with food and drink, file once more under “I hate modern football” – and so reluctantly made my way in with just under an hour to go. There was a security pat down and I was in. I had swapped tickets with PD and made my way into the lower tier for only the second time. The last time was on a very wet day in 2004 when a Nicolas Anelka penalty inflicted on us our only defeat of that season. I was worried about that precedent, but I was worried about a lot more tangible things too; City’s attacking strength, our defensive frailties, their impressive passing patterns, our buggering about with no incision, their Sergio Aguero, their Kevin de Bruyne, their David Silva, their Raheem Sterling.

As I entered the stadium I felt myself thinking “do I have to?”

I made my way to my place, about ten rows back, but close – ugh – to the home fans. The bottom of that tier has very shallow terracing. There was a fleeting memory of the sight lines from 2004. I tried not to dwell on it. We were treated to “Transmission “and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. At least the music was bang on.

Out in the small concourse and the terraces, I chatted to a few friends.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

“Fuck, yeah.”

One fellow fan said “as long as we give it a go” and I grimaced. I knew that we didn’t “give it a go” last season and Antonio Conte took some heat for it. But City were still a very fine team and we – without stating the bloody obvious – aren’t, not yet, not for a while.

I was wary so wary of trying to play them at their game. I picked a number out of thin air.

“I’d rather lose 1-0 than 6-0” (meaning that – and remembering last season –  if we gave them spaces to exploit, exploit they bloody well would).

Yes, we had – somehow, I know not how, I wasn’t there – managed to raise our game and beat City 2-0 at home before Christmas, but boy have we struggled during most games since. The recent 5-0 walloping of Huddersfield Town did not get my pulses racing. I was glad Gonzalo Higuain was in our ranks, but he was new, adapting, possibly not at his fighting weight nor his fighting strength.

I was still worried as the minutes ticked by. Up in the middle tier, I just saw the heads of Alan, Gary, PD and Parky if I stood on tip toe.

We exchanged waves.

Or was it more “not waving but drowning?”

We would soon find out.

The stadium filled up. A few empty seats dotted around, include some in our section. Flags were waved by the City fans to my left. There was a moment of applause for the memory of Emiliano Sala.

RIP.

I had almost forgotten to check our team.

Here it was.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

Four.

The game began. Chelsea, in three tiers, tried to get songs together but it proved so difficult. We threatened at the very start but I knew we couldn’t keep that up for ninety minutes. I was half-pleased at our bright opening but also half-scared to death.

After just three minutes, with Marcos Alonso away with the fairies, Bernardo Silva crossed from our left and the ball found its way to Raheem Sterling. He knew what to expect. I prepared myself for a goal.

Wallop. One-nil. Oh bollocks.

Ross Barkley turned and chastised Alonso, the missing man.

The City fans to my left – 99% male, and local – erupted and gave us loads of verbal. They pushed and shoved towards us. I bloody hated them but admired their passion in equal measure. I bloody hate you football. Soon after, Sergio Aguero fluffed an easy chance from just a couple of yards. It was our turn to smile, but we were not smiling for long. A shot from Hazard was easily saved by Ederson. It fired City up even more. They broke and moved the ball to that man Aguero who curled a magnificent shot past Kepa from outside the box. The PA announced that Aguero had tied two others as City’s all-time highest goal scorer in league football.

We were 2-0 down after just thirteen minutes.

I felt like shouting “blow up now, ref.”

After nineteen minutes, Barkley – for reasons known only to him – headed a high ball back to Kepa. Aguero waited in line and popped it home. He became City’s number one striker.

City 3 Chelsea 0.

We were at sixes and sevens, eights and nines. How worse could this get? On twenty-five minutes, we found out. Gundogan shot low from outside the box with Kepa just unable to reach it.

City 4 Chelsea 0.

We still tried to attack and, ironically, had looked reasonably good at times. There had been a shot from Barkley, one from Pedro, and a well-struck volley from Higuain was dramatically punched over by Ederson.

But, of course, every time that City broke they looked like scoring

There was shock and anger in the away section. Two young lads, northerners, were very vocal but their dexterity did not extend further than “this is shit” and they did not reappear in the second-half. At the half-time whistle, I quickly realised that in the last ninety minutes of football away from the Bridge we had conceded eight goals.

Altogether now; “fackinell.”

At half-time, I met up – briefly – with my friend who had shared her thoughts with me before the game.

She smiled : “it’s all your fault.”

I met up with a few more friends. Blank expressions. Shock.

Gallows humour tried to get us through the half-time break but this was so hard. We had been ripped to bloody shreds. Our midfield was not closing people down; their runners were afforded so much space. It was so sad to see a good man like Dave being given the run around by Sterling. I had lost count of the times that Aguero was able to cause havoc in yards of space. That was inexcusable. I had not honestly realised how formidable Aguero is. Up close he is made for football, he has legs like tree-trunks. Take away his dodgy barnet and he is a perfect striker.

As for us, there were no leaders anywhere.

Oh God.

Six.

Into the second-half, and I noticed more empty seats around me, but most had stayed. I was pleased about that. I prayed for some sort of damage limitation. We had learned that Tottenham, bloody Tottenham, had won 3-1 at home to Leicester City in the early game, and I just wanted the game over. Aguero headed against the bar, but then on fifty-six minutes Dave fouled his nemesis Sterling and Aguero made it 5-0 from the spot.

City 5 Chelsea 0.

My spirits fell as my mind did some calculations.

In the very last away game, we had suffered our worst defeat in the league since 1996. Twenty-three long years. We had taken, now, just eleven days to better it.

Oh bloody hell.

I had never seen us lose 5-0 before. I had been lucky. I was not at our most infamous defeat of all, the 6-0 at Rotherham United in 1981. Nor the 7-0 at Nottingham Forest in 1991. Nor the 7-2 at Middlesbrough in 1979. Nor the 7-1 at Wolves in 1975. I missed the 6-0 at QPR in 1986 and the 6-2 at home to Forest in 1986. But here I was staring at a 5-0 defeat. My mind had gone to be honest. I just wanted the final whistle to blow. I wanted to go out.

A lone shot from Hazard hit the side-netting. By now, Kovacic had replaced Barkley, Loftus-Cheek had replaced Pedro, Emerson had replaced Alonso.

Emerson shot meekly from a futile free-kick at Ederson.

I sighed.

With ten minutes to go, a sublime ball from substitute David Silva split open our defence and the resulting cross was slotted home by Sterling.

City 6 Chelsea 0.

The City fans, at least showing a little self-deprecation, roared :

“Six nil to the Empty Seats.”

I grimaced.

And then – this really is their Joy Division, right?  – reprised a song from last season’s game :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart, again.”

Silence from us. Ugh.

The City fans then sang at those remaining in our area : “you’re fucking shit.”

Horribly, some of our fans joined in. I wasn’t having that. I turned around, wondering who I was going to be talking to, and saw three youngsters, smiling and laughing like simpletons.

“Behave yourselves.”

For the best part of the next five minutes, I heard them mocking me, but I did not bite, nor look around. Let’em have their fun. Fans of other clubs would be doing the same over the next few days. I needed to toughen myself up.

And then at 6-0 we were at our loudest of the entire day.

“Oh Chelsea we love you.”

Good stuff. Proper Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I made a quick retreat to the top of the lower tier but looked around to see Eden head over and give his shirt to a young fan. A few players walked over. Those still in the lower tier clapped them.

I waited outside for Les, PD and Parky. I shook hands with a few others.

Gallows humour got me through :

“They’re having a minute’s silence in Liverpool right now.”

I spoke to a few friends who drifted out into the cold Manchester evening :

“To think Conte was lambasted for losing 1-0 up here last season. They are an elite team, one of the best, that was just suicidal.”

We walked back to the car. My phone had ran out of charge in the last few minutes of the game and it was just as well. I drove along the Ashton New Road to the M60. It was a quick and clean getaway, the highlight of the day. While others in the Chelsea Nation vented on social media, I just drove south. As we saw signs for Wythenshaw, Les told us that his mother was from there, a much tighter link to Manchester than mine. We stopped at Sandbach for food, at Strensham for fuel. It was a long old drive home.

6-0.

Fackinell.

Last season, after the City game I found myself attempting to get inside Antonio Conte’s head – not to be an apologist for him, but to try to work out his game plan – and I wrote this :

“There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.”

Our last four games this season?

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0

Chelsea 5 Huddersfield Town 0

Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0

A penny for Antonio Conte’s thoughts?

As for Maurizio Sarri.

To put it bluntly, I’m not convinced. Are you?

I dropped off Les at 11pm, Parky just after and PD at 11.30pm. I was home just before midnight. Parky’s main task on waking on the Monday morning was to sort out PD’s away ticket for Fulham. We will still go to as many games as we can. It seemed like the end of the world, but I have seen Chelsea relegated in 1975, 1979 and 1988. Everything is relative.

Numbers.

The Manchester City game was match number 1,235 for me.

Of those, I have seen us concede five or more goals on just seven occasions.

I have seen us score five or more goals on fifty-eight occasions.

That does not make the 6-0 loss at Manchester City any less shocking but it certainly helps me cope.

Much respect to those travelling out to Malmo in Sweden this week. My next game is the FA Cup tie at home to the second-best team in Manchester on Monday.

See you there.

For those wishing to donate to a fighting fund for Mickey Thomas, please note : https://www.gofundme.com/help-mickey-t-fight-cancer

Thanks!

 

Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

So, the last game of 2018. Whereas some teams were given a normal Saturday match, Chelsea Football Club ended the calendar year with a game on the Sunday at South London rivals – kind of – Crystal Palace. The game seemed typically out of sync at this odd time of year where nobody really knows what day it is, what to do, nor what day is coming up next. To add to the discombobulation, our game was kicking-off at midday. So, this was another early start for the Fun Boy Four. I set my alarm for 5.30am and was up not long after. I was on driving duties again, but I did not mind one iota. By 7.30am, the fellow Chuckle Brothers were collected and we were soon tucking into a McBreakfast at Melksham.

“Not very busy is it?”

“Not bloody surprising, who else is up at 7.45am on a Sunday?”

Saturday had been a big day football-wise. While I was watching my local team Frome Town capitulate to yet another league defeat at home to Tiverton Town, I was overjoyed to hear that Tottenham had surprisingly dropped points to Wolves at Wembley. Later that evening, we hoped that Arsenal could dent Liverpool’s charge to their first league title since 1990, but an early Arsenal lead was soon overtaken. On Saturday evening, myself and many looked at the bleakest of scenarios. With Manchester City suffering a recent tumble at Leicester, the thoughts of either Liverpool or Tottenham winning the league made many of us shiver.

For Chelsea fans like me, this is a “no-win” scenario. If pushed, and as much as it hurts, I would pick Liverpool over Tottenham. But – grasping at long straws – there is still the prospect of Manchester City, 2014 style, overhauling them both. Chelsea will not win the league this season; like many others, I am hoping that City find some form to pip the other two – hideous – contenders, preferably on the last day and with as much pain to both as possible.

Getting to Selhurst Park in South London from our base in the South-West of England is not the easiest of journeys. From my home, I headed east, then north, then east, then south-east, then north-east, then south-east, then south. At 10.30am, after a journey of three-and-a-half hours, I was parked on a pre-paid driveway within sight of the oddly-shaped barrelled roof of the Holmesdale Road stand, a mere ten-minute walk away. The first friend of many who we met throughout the day – Welsh Kev – caught up with us as we slogged up the hill past the main stand and the busy intersection at the top. The immediate area around Selhurst Park is surprisingly hilly. On this Sunday morning, there were no options to drink in local hostelries. The other three headed inside for a drink while I took a few photographs of a typical pre-match. The floodlights were on at 11am and the air – although mild – was full of an atmospheric glaze of mist. Down the Park Lane, police horses trotted back and forth. The away turnstiles at the bottom of the hill were busy. Programmes were hawked. Lottery tickets were sold. A few good friends walked past. A photograph of Alan and Daryl against the stark red-bricked backdrop of the low wall of the Arthur Wait Stand.

Some stadia are antique and charming – step forward Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and Fratton Park – but Selhurst Park does not thrill many. There are grandiose plans to completely redevelop the main stand – a virtual copy of the Archibald Leitch stand at Fulham, and of the old East stand at Chelsea – and turn it into a curving three-tiered edifice, with plenty of glass to honour the original palace which was dismantled at Hyde Park and rebuilt nearby at Sydenham Hill before being destroyed by fire in 1936.

Many would advocate the modernisation of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand as quickly as possible too.

After bumping into many other friends and acquaintances outside the away turnstiles, there was a slight wait for a body search and bag check. In those few moments while I waited in line, and with the mist hanging heavily over the rising terraced houses of the immediate vicinity, and the chitter-chatter of the Chelsea supporters filling the air, a beautiful bonhomie, I found a new love for this enduring game of ours, still enticing thousands and thousands out of their warm houses every week of the season. Football truly is our national game in this historic and magical land of ours and nothing comes remotely close.

I love football like life itself.

The camaraderie. The banter. The friendships. The laughs. The trips. The players. The teams. The heroes. The stadia. The rivalries. The songs. The humour. The smiles. The tears. The routines. The superstitions. The drinks. The fads. The fashions. The clobber. The game itself.

It’s the bollocks.

There were fleeting thoughts of Selhurst Park which cascaded through my mind. There were images and recollections of previous encounters at the same ground going back into history; the iconic photo of Eccles being lead out by the Old Bill in front of the main stand in around 1969, an infamous game in 1982 involving a certain Paul Canoville, my first-ever visit to Selhurst in August 1989 when thousands of Chelsea descended on the Holmesdale Road after two wins out of two but were humbled 3-0 by a Charlton Athletic team which absurdly contained both Colin Pates and Joe McLaughlin in the centre of their defence, a dull 0-0 against Palace in 1991 when I watched from near the former grass bank in the corner between the Arthur Wait and the Holmesdale, the rain sodden League Cup quarter final in 1993, an equally misty evening in 1996 when we defeated Wimbledon in the FA Cup against a bellowing backdrop of noise from the Chelsea support, a win against Wimbledon in 1999 when I watched from the “Sainsbury’s End”, a Geremi free-kick beating Palace in a pre-season friendly in 2003, the first game in England of the Abramovich era, the recent losses, the recent wins, the constant chanting of “we’re top of the league” in 2014, getting soaked in 2016, and getting abruptly turned over by a previously pointless Palace in 2017.

This had the feel of a very old-fashioned football occasion.

Once inside, I struggled to shuffle through the crowds who were massed in that little area in the corner, where quite commendable dance music was booming out over Chelsea fans nursing plastic bottles of cider and lager, and with occasional community singing for good measure.

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

The Arthur Wait Stand goes back forever. The view from the rear is horrific – I watched the 2003 friendly from this area, it is like watching the game from inside a post-box – and I am not surprised it is the reason why the font rows are always over-subscribed.

“Stand where you want.”

The team news had filtered through; Olivier Giroud was in, as was Ross Barkley.

Kepa

Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

I shuffled down to row six and took my position alongside Gal and Parky. But Alan met me with some grave news. The wife of one of our extended band of Chelsea supporters had passed away overnight. I was silent with grief.

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

I stood, unable to think, unable to talk. What a cruel world.

My mind was spinning as the teams entered the pitch ten minutes later, and I struggled to get motivated. The teams lined up on the centre-circle and the PA announced that there would be a minute of silent remembrance for all of those Crystal Palace supporters that had passed away in 2018. This was a nice touch, and as the whole crowd stood still and in complete silence, around forty names were displayed on the TV screen above the executive boxes of the “Sainsbury End” to my right.

At the end, the names of the Chelsea players who were sadly taken from us this year was shown too, again a very fine gesture.

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

And then, at the end, a photograph of Ray Wilkins.

My memory recalled that he played – fleetingly – for Crystal Palace too. I still find it hard to believe that Ray Wilkins is no longer with us. On this day, how raw, I remembered one other member of our Chelsea family who was no longer with us.

Rest In Peace.

In truth, I didn’t really feel much like football as the game began. Thoughts of our own, my own, immortality crept into my head.

Chelsea, in all yellow, attacked the Holmesdale Road in the first-half.

Almost immediately, without really thinking – my mind certainly was elsewhere – I found myself singing along to “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope” and my mind again went into overdrive, quickly equating what the outcome might be.

“Right, we didn’t sing the word on Wednesday at Watford and a lot of beer had been consumed. Nobody has had much to drink this morning; I can’t see it being sung today either.”

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Tottenham are a load of ssssssshhhhhhh.”

And then I felt like admonishing myself for honestly caring about a song when a good mate’s wife was no longer with us.

Fucking hell, football.

Being so low down, the action in front of the men in black, the Holmesdale Ultras, in the corner to my left was a mystery to me. I struggled to get in the game. At the Frome Town game on Saturday, I had revelled in being able to stand behind the goal at the club end and move to my left or right to get a better view. It felt natural. Here, hemmed in my seats and fellow fans, I was stuck in a poor-viewing position, and it did not help my enjoyment of the game. The pitch had been well-watered before the game and was slick. I wished that our passing was slick, too. For all of our possession – apart from a few early forays into our box, Palace were happy to sit back and defend deep – we struggled to hurt their defence.

Wilfred Zaha began as their main threat – a very nimble skip past three Chelsea challenges even drew muted applause from a few fair minded individuals in the Chelsea section – but as is his wont his role soon diminished.

Chelsea attempts on goal were rare throughout the first-half.

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

“Bloody hell, shoot. The pitch is wet. If the goalie fumbles, we can pounce on the rebound.”

We were limited to a few speculative efforts. We had been especially hard on Jorginho, to either release the ball early or to shoot. With that, he took aim from distance and thumped a ball ridiculously high and wide of the target. This was met with howls of self-deprecating laughter.

“Ah, fuck it, you’re right, don’t bother next time.”

Ross Barkley was neat and tidy, economical in possession, moving the ball well. Eden Hazard tried his best to twist and turn, to run at players, to cajole others into action. Willian was under-used out on the right wing, a spare part. Olivier Giroud struggled to get involved. N’Golo Kante was everywhere, chasing balls, nicking possession, moving the ball early, just magnificent.

A foul on Hazard, surprise surprise, allowed Willie to clip a ball against the post, just beyond the dive of the Crystal Palace ‘keeper. Bizarrely, the referee gave a corner. From this, my view was blocked but Barkley hot the same post. Another effort from us forced a bona fide save from the ‘keeper Guaita.

A fine shot, from an angle, from Giroud which beat the ‘keeper was flagged for offside, but my view was impeded that I hardly saw the shot nor the flag.

At the break, there was a noticeable gloom amidst the Chelsea support in the murky twilight of Selhurst Park.

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

As the half-time break continued, I turned my back to the choreographed Lycra nonsense of the Palace cheerleaders and the lame penalty shoot-out, and tried to spot a few friends in the crowd. I had already spotted Lynda and T from Brooklyn a few rows behind us before the game. In the depths of the Gents, I had bumped into Mick from Denver, over for just one game. Somewhere in the home section of the Arthur Wait was my work associate Ben, from Germany, who was visiting these shores again. To the day, it was a year ago that I welcomed him to Stamford Bridge for the Stoke City game, when with his friends Jens and Walt, we enjoyed a lovely pub-crawl around Fulham before the match.

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

After six minutes of action, with Palace massed in defence and closing our players down, we watched as Kante spotted an avenue of space, and ran from deep. For us in the Chelsea section, this was great viewing, as his run was in line with all of us. He ran past several blue and red shirts and a perfectly lofted ball – not sure from whom, my eyes were on Kante exploiting the gap – was chested into a yard of space and then the ball was turned low past Guatia. The ball just about rolled over the line.

“GET IN.”

We were treated to an N’Goalo.

He was mobbed by his team mates and with good reason. The run and finish was quite exceptional.

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”

“Luiz.”

“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Over Christmas, I had re-watched the famous clip of Tommy Doc in the press box at Stamford Bridge after a Chelsea goal when he uttered his famous phrase –

“Go on my little diamonds. They’ll have to open out now.”

We had joked about how we managed to get it all wrong, all arse about face, but agreed that our little superstition would continue on regardless. I am sure Docherty would not object, it is not like we are paying him royalties.

Was there a reaction from the home side? Not at all.

The game rumbled on but still with little likelihood of us increasing our slender lead. The noise around us was quiet, but louder towards the rear. A couple of efforts, from Willian – out of sorts in this game – and Barkley peppered the Crystal Palace goal. The long lost, and probably forgotten, Connor Wickham came on for Palace. There was another disallowed goal for Giroud, who cleanly converted a Willian pass, but then injured himself in the process. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata, cue lots of hilarious “bants.” We still waited for Palace to “come at us now.”

Eden walked towards us and, on hearing his name being bellowed, clapped and gave us a thumbs-up.

Two late substitutions followed; Emerson for Willian (an odd game for our number twenty-two, he really struggled to get involved) and Mateo Kovacic for Barkley (“he’s not given the ball away much, but he hasn’t done much with it”).

A wild shot from Palace went the same way as the Jorginho effort an hour earlier. But things were now getting nervy in the away section. If we could hang on, we would be a mighty five points ahead of Arsenal. In the last five minutes, Palace at last found their compass and their attacking boots. That man Wickham thankfully slashed a rising ball over after a headed knock-down.

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

With a cheer, he blew up and the game was won.

There is a common phrase, possibly “proper Chelsea” – please God, not “Proper Chels” – and maybe even Chelsea-esque which is doing the rounds these days and it is this :

“Bloody hell, we made hard work of that.”

And dear reader, without more quality in front of the goal, we will hear this phrase again and again.

The players came over to see us, but Sarri did not join them. He likes to keep his distance, which I find a little odd. Alonso threw his shirt into the crowd and there were waves from Luiz and a defiant “Keep the Faith” from captain Dave.

Job done.

We slowly made our way to the top of the stand, and dived in to use “the facilities” one last time. The gents’ toilets at Selhurst are rather primeval, and you need a certain constitution to use them. There were jokes about having to wear Wellington Boots, and to avoid the deep end, but as I descended into hell, I met Alan coming up the steps and he chirped :

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

Outside, as we gathered together and turned to set off up the slope, Ben from Germany suddenly appeared with his two mates. It was perfect timing. They had attended the darts on Thursday, the Fulham game on Saturday and had now seen Chelsea play once more. It was great to see them again. I had been certain that I would bump into them some when during the day.

We trudged back to the car, and I then headed slowly north and our escape route took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge. Over Wandsworth Bridge, the Thames looking greyer than ever, and then up towards Fulham Broadway. We stopped for food on the North End Road – “can’t keep away” – and I pointed the car west for one last time in 2018.

As I deposited Parky, Glenn and PD off at each of their homes, I said the same thing to all of them.

“Thanks for your friendship this year. See you on Wednesday.”

It has been a great year again. I remember gasping earlier this week when I saw one Chelsea fan describe it as “difficult”; well fuck that, we won the FA Cup in May.

Turning inwards, a word of real appreciation for those of you who continue to support me in my efforts with this website. Just before Christmas – on Christmas Eve no less, almost perfect timing – I was happy to see that I had reached one hundred thousand views since I set this all up in the summer of 2013. And, over the next few hours, last year’s total of 23,847 views will surely be eclipsed (currently on 23,835) although total visitors this year is down.

In those five years, I have seen the UK viewing figures increase and that means a lot to me. Originally on the “Chelsea In America” website from 2008, I have witnessed a decrease in views from the US, but levels have grown elsewhere. I like that. So, thanks to all once more.

For those interested – who does not like a list? – here is the Top Ten.

  1. USA – 41,409
  2. UK – 38,568
  3. Canada – 2,471
  4. Australia – 2,018
  5. Ireland – 1,197
  6. India – 1,002
  7. Germany – 965
  8. Indonesia – 841
  9. Belgium – 679
  10. France – 606

Here’s to 2019. I hope that everyone stays healthy and happy. After a particularly stressful year for me – in a nutshell, work – I am looking forward to a more relaxed twelve months ahead. It really is all about staying healthy and well. Everything else really is gravy.

I will see some of you at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

Tales From The Three Wise Men

Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.

There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.

I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.

They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.

They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”

“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”

We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.

We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.

“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”

Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.

Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.

I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.

Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.

For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.

The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.

But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.

“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”

I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.

Surely not, Chelsea.

The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.

There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”

Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.

The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.

Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.

In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.

It was Christmas after all.

But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.

“There’s no cutting edge.”

How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.

Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.

A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.

Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.

Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.

Watford 0 Chelsea 1.

It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.

Half-time was just a few moments away.

We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.

Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.

Watford 1 Chelsea 1.

Forty-eight minutes had passed.

Bollocks.

The second-half began.

Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.

Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was  unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.

Penalty.

Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.

For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal”  but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.

Chelsea were in full voice again.

Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.

A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.

A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.

Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.

Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.

On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.

At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.

See you at Palace.

Tales From Brightonia

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 16 December 2018.

On my return from Budapest on Saturday afternoon, I ended up battling almost four hours of treacherous weather on the motorways of south-east and then south-west England. There was no let up to the rain. By the time I reached home at around 6pm, I was exhausted. But the memories of Budapest buoyed me up. There was just time to run through some photographs from the trip and share them on “Facebook”, catch a little “Match of the Day” and then crash out at midnight. At 5.45am, the alarm sounded and the second instalment of “Budapest, Brighton and Bournemouth” began.

“Tiring stuff, this football lark.”

I collected PD at 7am and LP at 7.30am. And we up and running for only my third ever Chelsea away game at Brighton & Hove Albion. Billowing storm clouds appeared to the south over Salisbury Plain, and I feared the worst. Luckily, the weather was fine on the two-and-a-half hour drive down to Sussex-by-the-Sea. I had decided to park the Chuckle Bus at nearby Lewes and then take the train to Falmer, just a ten-minute journey. It seemed that other Chelsea fans had the same idea. We had kept bumping into the “Bristol Lot” – Julie, Tim, Brian, Kev, Sam and Chloe – over in Budapest and to our amusement, both of our cars arrived at the Lewes train station car park at exactly the same time.

“Are you following us?”

It was only £2.15 to park on a Sunday; result.

It seemed that parking at Lewes was a popular choice among the travelling support. In the five minutes it took to sort out payment at the ticket machine, I had said “hi” to fellow Chelsea fans Ian, Zac and Aki. Having a match ticket for the game at the Amex entitled the ticket holder to free travel on the train. What a great idea. This was going well. Even the publicised rain was holding off.

I had a good old walk around the stadium for the first time.

PD and LP popped in to the ground for a few pre-match liveners, while I waited outside the away end to sort out some tickets for fellow fans. There was a small contingent in from New York. It was lovely to see Alex again, who was over for the FA Cup Final in May, and his girlfriend Mariane. I met Dan, his girlfriend Shelly and also Anshu for the first time, even though – Chelsea World Is A Small World Part 814 – he was sat opposite us in the plane returning from Budapest.

I shook hands with a few good friends. Talk was off the song in Budapest. Regardless of anyone else’s thoughts about the right, or otherwise, of fans of our club or fans of Tottenham to sing a certain word, I know for a fact that one person is not pleased about it.

Roman Abramovich.

But this game in the town of Brighton – immoral to some, liberal to others – certainly threw up the potential for problems if some sections of our support were not wary of what they were saying, or singing. We had endured alleged, but unfounded, racism against Manchester City, had been accused of anti-Semitism out in Budapest, and now there was a risk of homophobic chanting (there was an admittedly small amount last season…) now in Sussex.

The media were out to see if we would trip ourselves up again.

It almost overshadowed the football.

But one thought had dominated the thoughts of many; Dan Levene had done himself absolutely no favours in his quickness to report the singing in Budapest. I don’t know the bloke. I have met him only very briefly at a CPO meeting in 2014. But it seemed that in the previous few days, it was evident that he was a journalist first and a Chelsea fan second.

Not good. Not good at all.

As I made my way into the roomy and airy away concourse and then the slight tier of blue seats in the away end, I noted a subdued air among the away support which numbered 2,500. I had swapped tickets around so people could be together. I was sat over to the right hand side of the goal, and was sat right next to Anshu.

Chelsea World Is A Small World Part 815.

I have said before how I like the stadium at Falmer. Quirky angles, different tiers, sloping angles, extra viewing platforms, it is quite different to the much-derided identikit design of Southampton or Derby or Middlesbrough. The West Stand to our left was surprisingly tall.

It was time to suddenly start thinking about the football. The team was a copy of the one that had vanquished the champions Manchester City.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Brighton in broad mid-blue and white stripes. Chelsea in all yellow.

I spotted the “Brightonia” banner in the same far corner as last season, with the “North Stand Kollective” tag added for good measure. The game brought together two different support bases for sure; Brighton with a notable leftfield, if not left-wing, support and Chelsea with a notable right-wing support.

I wondered how things would develop on the terraces as the game began.

In truth, maybe due to the early-afternoon start, everything was pretty quiet in the stands. In fact, as Chelsea completely dominated the play in that opening forty-five minutes, the home support was ridiculously quiet.

A David Luiz free-kick early on did not trouble Ryan in the Brighton goal. We slowly got into the game and began to move the ball well – and early – and were in control. It took a while for Eden Hazard to get into the game, playing between the lines, dropping deep occasionally, not left-wing, nor right-wing, a footballing maverick, but once he found his footing he was unplayable.

Kepa punched a string cross out of the danger area, but was otherwise quiet.

On seventeen minutes, Hazard weaved his magic in the inside-left channel, and turned the ball across the face of the goal, and with the ‘keeper stranded at the near post, the perfectly-timed run of Pedro resulted in the ball being smashed home.

Brightonia 0 Chelsea World 1.

There was a save from Kepa from Solly March, but chances – for all of our possession – were at a premium. Then, on thirty-three minutes, a blunder by a Brighton player was pounced upon by Willian who quickly pushed the ball on to Hazard. He advanced quickly – “damn this counter-attacking football” – and ran deep into the Brighton box. He drew the ‘keeper and slotted home to his right. It was a beautiful run and finish and Hazard leapt high in front of the silent home fans.

The North Stand Kollective 0 The South Stand 2.

The away fans chose a strange song to have a dig at the Brighton support :

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

Er, right.

The home fans could take no more of it. They hit us with a low body blow.

“A club full of racists, you know what you are.”

Groan.

But everything else was subdued. It definitely felt like there was an uneasy quietness in the away section.

“You’re just a shit Crystal Palace” was as loud, and as vindictive, as it got.

A towering Rudiger leap at the far post resulted in a header missing the target. But at half-time, we were 2-0 to the good and all was well in the world. Kovacic was enjoying a good game, Luiz was splaying some lovely passes out of defence, and our forwards were testing the packed Brighton defence. We were in a good place.

Soon after the restart, a fine move and a cross from Dave on the right could not be touched home by Hazard. My viewing position was over by our left-wing, almost in a corner. It’s always a pleasure to see the speed of these top players. Willian and Alonso often combined but the final ball in was often delayed. Without a physical presence in the box, the ball was often played back to the “D.”

There was a moment of hilarity in the ranks when the ball was played back to David Luiz and he had time to touch the ball, but then purposefully took a moment to sweep his hair back from over his eyes – “yeah, you sort yer hair out first.” I can’t imagine Ron Harris doing the same.

Marcos Alonso struck a thunderous shot against the post from twenty yards out. A third goal would have killed the game there and then.

This seemed to breath some life into Brighton, who until that moment were looking a very poor team, not worthy of their creditable mid-table position.

On a couple of occasions, a Brighton attacker was free to jump unhindered at the far post but, thankfully, with little consequence. Then, on sixty-six minutes, a long cross from the Brighton right was met with another towering header at the back stick and March did well to spin and turn to guide the ball in.

Brighton & Hove 1 Hammersmith & Fulham 2.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Pedro and looked to cause a few problems with his directness.

Ross Barkley replaced Mateo Kovacic, but then failed to impress, shooting ridiculously high from distance.

I optimistically opined “that’s just a sighter, he’ll get better.” Sadly, he didn’t. We had heard that Southampton were beating Arsenal a few counties along the South Coast, and things began to get nervy in the away end. Thankfully, unlike in Budapest, nobody left early.

Olivier Giroud replaced Eden Hazard, who had surprisingly stayed on after getting clumped a good fifteen minutes earlier.

The home fans were baying for blood in the final five minutes when Alonso seemed to stop March in his tracks, but he remained on the pitch. We held our breath, but March wasted the free-kick. Brighton certainly had a little late rally but we held on.

Arsenal had lost in Hampshire. We had won in East Sussex.

Phew.

Brighton keep the bar area open after games as they acknowledge that there is a royal scrum down to get on to trains at the nearby station. This is a very wise move. We were able to relax and enjoy a pint of lager. We chatted to a few pals from near and far. Johnny12 and Jenny12, plus Sujin, from California had enjoyed the visit to Sussex by the Sea. There was one young Chelsea fan who – on his own – blurted out “Barcelona, Real Madrid” but was immediately “hushed” by his little band of mates.

Good. We had policed ourselves well all day. I had commented earlier that we can, as a collective, police ourselves. It has happened once or twice before before. Back in around – when? 2007? – when “The Bouncy” first made its appearance on the Chelsea, mainly away, terraces, the version (mirroring the Rangers original), involved the words “if you don’t do the bouncy, you’re a Y-Word.” Over time, and I am not sure if there was any defining reason for the change, this segued into “bounce in a minute, we’re gonna bounce in a minute.”

The infamous Morata song, aired only really at Leicester last season, soon died out too.

So, it can be done. We just need to find another word that rhymes with Madrid.

We were ushered out of the stadium and walked slowly down the ramp to the Falmer Station. There was time, as we waited to catch the 5pm train to Lewes, for the best burger, thus far, of the season.

I had enjoyed Brighton. It had been another fine away day. Sadly, the rain returned on the drive west, and as I eventually reached home at about 9pm, I was again exhausted.

Budapest, done. Brighton, done. Bournemouth, next.

The story continues.

Tales From The Home City Of Puskas, Hidegkuti, Albert And Bozsik

Vidi vs. Chelsea : 13 December 2018.

What with the altered, almost dreamlike, reality caused by the bright neon of the Christmas lights, and the extra-sensory rush of the chilled wintry air, plus the floodlit castles by the river and churches and synagogues and spires of the city, to say nothing of the intoxicating scent of mulled wine and of the tantalising aromas of the hearty food of the Christmas markets, at many times in Budapest it felt like I was in the middle of an Eastern European fairy tale. It truly was a magical time. It was magical enough that I was at last visiting one of the classical European capitals with good friends. That there was football, and Chelsea of course, made it all that much sweeter.

Budapest 2018 was truly wonderful.

The flights and accommodation had been sorted out way back in August. This trip to Hungary, my first-ever visit, was a slow-train coming. It seemed like it would never arrive. As the autumn campaign in the Europa League progressed – a procession for our team – the anticipation rose steadily. I bought a Budapest guide book (a pet peeve of mine; hardly a single mention of football in its two-hundred and seventy pages, and certainly no mention of Ferenc Puskas), and also carried out a little online research. We were lucky in the scrum down of the Virtual Waiting Room, and were sure of match tickets. We knew of many that had not been so fortunate. But many were travelling to Budapest without tickets, lured by the prospects of a proper European city with all of the associated thrills.

Eventually the day came.

The long drive to Stansted began at 3am on the Wednesday, the day before the game. My travelling companions were PD and LP, our third European away game together. Also on the 0830 Ryanair flight out of Stansted were Alan, Gary and Daryl. The flight was bang on two hours in duration. We nabbed a few precious minutes of sleep; we knew it would be a long old day. At the airport, we jumped in a cab and headed towards our apartment on Vorosmarty Utca, about a mile and a half to the north-east of the “Pest” city centre. The skies were clear, with few clouds. Thank heavens there was no rain. As we drove through the roads and streets of this new city, I peered out of the window, eager to take on board all of the new sights.

It looked a quintessential former Eastern bloc city. High rises. Graffiti. Crumbling walls. Old dwellings. But then the brazen modern additions, the hit of capitalism and the gleam of car dealerships, fast food restaurants and roadside billboards. I spotted the four leaning floodlights of Honved, that famous old club, a mile or so to the south. We then zipped past the green tinted steel of the Groupama Arena – the home of Ferencvaros – where the game against Vidi would be played the following day. Over the last few miles, I realised that I had not seen a single shop or bar in the city itself that was open. All had their shutters up. No lights were on in any of the properties.

“Maybe it’s half-day closing.”

It was an odd feeling.

Then, eventually, as we got closer to the centre, a few shops had lights on, and doors were ajar.

I kept looking at the signs, attempting to glean any clue as to what the words meant but there were no familiar Latin or Germanic, or even English, hints. Hungarian is indeed a “stand alone” language.

We had a crash course in famous Hungarians.

Biro and his pen.

Rubik and his cube.

Parky’s mate Laszlo, who I remember wearing the very same blue and white Pringle that I was sporting when I encountered a little gaggle of Chelsea casuals in The Crown in Frome’s Market Place in the summer of 1984.

Puskas, of course.

We pondered if Chelsea had ever had any Hungarian players. We thought not. Apart from the Hungarian heyday of the ‘fifties – more, much more, of that later – the national team has not produced much quality since. Have there been many famous Hungarian players of late? We thought not. At the airport, Daryl had mentioned the former West Brom player Zoltan Gera. The Hungarians have certainly not set the Premier League alight, unlike – say – some Czechs or Serbs that I can mention.

Oh, a special mention for Andrea Temesvari, the blonde tennis player from the early-eighties. I think my love affair with Hungary began with her.

We located our apartment then had a quick lager – Arany Aszok, just over a pound a pint – in a nearby bar. There followed another beer in another bar. Then another. Dave, Glenn and Liam joined us for one. Then some goulash in a fantastic local restaurant. Then a walk to a couple of ruin bars – “Mazel Tov” and then the iconic “Szimpla Kert” – and the meeting up with Alan, Gary, Daryl, and then Andy and Antony, Johnny12 and Jenny12 – all from California, and freezing – and then some more beers and some more and some more. The talk was all of Chelsea and of our fanaticism, but never of the game the following day. We took the piss out of each other. The beers flowed further. It was a great night.

At about 10.30pm, I received a text from Foxy, newly arrived from Dundee via Copenhagen. The instructions about how to enter the apartment were not working. And our phones were running out of charge. We exchanged a few frantic texts. We left Andy and Antony in a bar, excused ourselves, and hopped into a cab. Meanwhile, Foxy had hopped into a cab to meet us. Our cabs possibly passed each other. I had visions of us being stranded outside in the cold. And my phone was now on zero charge. It was a fraught ten minutes or so. We scrambled out of the cab. I entered the code onto the keypad as I had been instructed by the Russian girl eight hours earlier. No luck. I turned on my phone and, out of nowhere, I had three percent charge left. I quickly dialed the letting agency and spoke to a girl, who informed me that the Russian girl had told me the wrong code.

Oh bloody hell.

“7395 – enter.”

“BUZZZZZ.”

We were in.

YES!

“Bloody hell, we’re in.”

To celebrate, we popped around the corner to the first bar we had visited ten hours earlier and ordered two or three more pints apiece. The smiling barmaid had recognised us from before. The bar stayed open past its usual midnight closing slot. The barmaid brought us a round of apricot schnapps on the house. Some seriously inebriated locals befriended us. Laughter, laughter, laughter. We left there at 1am. I had been awake for almost twenty-four hours, minus a very brief power nap on the plane.

We scoffed down some food from a shop that was thankfully open. LP and PD called it a night but Foxy and I chatted away until 2am. He had recently visited Madrid for the Copa Libertadores and we were in full-on “football raconteur” mode. We spoke about how our generation, sadly, might well be the last bastion of old-school football support; the singers, the drinkers, the dreamers. Remembering the last lingering whiff of the terraces, hanging on desperately to the notion of supporting teams at as many games as possible. We feared the future where the predominant football supporting experience might be via a TV or streaming site.

Maybe we got a bit too self-important. But I don’t think we did.

It was a bloody long day, and night, though. Our ramblings drifted off into the night…

The bed hit us at 2am.

Game day arrived and we had a chilled-out and relaxing start in our top-floor apartment – I hesitate to call it penthouse, but this is exactly what it was, sun terrace and all – as we were in no rush to get moving. After a while, we set out for the Novotel on the main street in Budapest, Rakoczi Ut, where we easily picked-up our match tickets. We saw a few familiar Chelsea faces. We then embarked on a slow walk south-west, taking in a few of the sights along the way. Central Budapest was a little weather-beaten at times, but it certainly kept my eyes occupied. It was not as grand as Vienna, maybe its sister city along the Danube in the days of the Austria-Hungarian empire, but it was a lot tidier and beguiling than Bucharest, the only similar city of the former Eastern-European bloc that I have visited. This would be my thirty-sixth game on continental Europe with Chelsea, and I know of many who are up to a hundred or more. Their fanaticism is to be applauded.

We had heard that many Chelsea were plotted up at “Pointer Pub” near the river. We headed for there, and arrived – with perfect timing – just as Happy Hour between 2pm and 5pm began. There must have been two hundred Chelsea in there. We got stuck into the pints of “Hunter” lager – not bad – and had a lovely and relaxing time. Great to see Mr. & Mrs. Burger once again; I remember being with them in Rome ahead of their very first Chelsea away in Europe at Napoli in 2012. This was a relaxing time to be honest. And we still didn’t talk about the game. After a bite to eat, five of us bundled into a four-seater yellow cab. As we turned a rising corner, the cab grounded out. Sadly, one of the occupants – Andy from Kent – would not even attempt to get in to the stadium; he had a ticket but not in his name. Once he saw the lines of interrogation, he returned to the city centre.

The cab had dropped us off right outside the main entrance and the steel of the Ferencvaros eagle welcomed us. It was a fantastic sculpture. We edged our way past a side stand, clearly full of corporate hospitality bars and suites. We lined up at the south-west corner and waited for the passport check. One song dominated.

“We’re on our way. We’re on our way.

To Baku, we’re on our way.

How we’ll get there, I don’t know.

How we’ll get there, I don’t care.

All I know that Chelsea’s on our way.”

Our passport and match ticket were checked twice by stewards and police standing two feet apart, then the ticket again, then a bag search. Despite gambling with both lenses, there was no issue with my camera.

“Result.”

With Vidi playing at the Groupama Arena rather than their home stadium, they were treated to the exposed steel of the neat stands being lit in red and blue. Once inside the away section, we slowly made our way to the top rows. It is a rule of thumb for European aways that everyone sits where they want. There have only been three exceptions to this rule as far as I can remember; Moscow 2008, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013. I chose to wear my newly-acquired red, green and white retro away scarf, what with the Hungary team of the ‘fifties being the inspiration for the kit in the first place. I was expecting more fellow fans to be wearing the scarf. Out of over 1,200 Chelsea fans, I only saw two others wearing it, and one of them was my usual match day companion Alan.

“Good work, mate.”

The stadium is single-tiered and plain, but perfect for a team like Ferencvaros, whose old Albert Florian Stadium sat on the exact same site until 2013. There were executive boxes at the rear of the steep stand to our immediate left. All the seats were green. It reminded me a lot of Rapid Vienna’s new stadium.

We were in with a quarter of an hour to spare. After missing the rotten show at Wolves and the euphoria, and then media-led meltdown, of the City game due to ill-health, this was my first game since Fulham.

The team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Ampadu – Christensen – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Barkley

Willian – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We had already qualified as group winners. Vidi were in with a chance of getting through too. The mist had rolled in from the Danube, and it was cold, but not as cold as at Burnley two seasons ago. The game began; Chelsea in “tangerine and graphite”, Vidi in Genoa-style red and blue halves.

There was a little singing from Chelsea, but nothing too loud. There was nothing at all from the home sections. Vidi only play to about 1,500 fans at their home games, and I suspect that the crowd had been bolstered by a few neutrals from the city’s other teams. The Hungarian flag was visible in several locations. The team’s former name appeared on one. Another said “Team Hungary.” Although not on the same scale as Qarabag playing in Baku last season, here was another example of the locals rallying around another city’s team.

“United Colors Of Videoton” anyone?

Chelsea, as predicted, dominated possession during the first ten and twenty minutes. The home team were quite happy to sit back and defend en masse. We kept trying to work openings, but it was an uneventful opening period. The singing in the away section had declined, and we were stood, hands in pockets awaiting something to cheer. Right on the half-hour, Willian – who had enjoyed a couple of lung-bursting sorties down the left-wing, was chopped down outside the box. He grabbed the ball, and we waited for his free-kick. He curled a fantastic effort over the wall and we were a goal to the good. The players celebrated down below.

Alongside me, PD was happy.

“First European away goal I have seen, Chris.”

Sadly, PD was cursing shortly after. A Vidi corner curled in towards the near post and an attacker headed it on. Ethan Ampadu, attempting to divert it, could only head it past Caballero. Nego, who had already forced a save from Wily earlier, then struck a shot which our ‘keeper turned past the post at full stretch. The mood in the away end was of grumbling frustration. We were not playing particularly well, with most of the players under performing.

After a Chelsea move petered out, Alvaro Morata injured himself and Olivier Giroud replaced him.

It was noticeable that some – not many – Chelsea fans left at half-time, presumably to head back to the bars of the city centre. I just do not get it. I hope they didn’t bump into any Chelsea fans who had not been blessed with match tickets in the first place. I noted that virtually the entire stand to our left emptied at half-time as the match-goers headed back inside for the warmth of the hospitality areas.

Into the second-half, Stopira was left completely unmarked at the back stick, but headed over.

On fifty-six minutes, a fine move from Vidi resulted in a floated cross from Milanov being smashed in – on the volley from an angle, in front of us – by Nego. The crowd roared and even I had to admit “great goal.” The Vidi players celebrated right in front of us, the buggers.

We then dominated possession again, but it a lot of our play fell apart due to poor touches or a lack of concentration. Giroud went close from inside the six-yard box. The Frenchman then peeled away at the far post and his sweet volley, in the style of Nego, rose as it left his foot and ended up clearing the bar.

Pedro, who had been energetically warming up in front of us, replaced Willian and immediately spurred us on.

With a quarter of an hour left, Fabregas was fouled and we were rewarded with a centrally-placed free-kick. Barkley stepped over the ball, but it was Giroud who clipped the ball over the wall and into the goal.

Vidi 2 Chelsea 2

“Phew.”

We had most of the ball in the final period, but as the temperature fell, I just wanted to return to the city and thaw out. The whistle went. It had been an uninspiring game, but contained three super goals. The Chelsea fans slowly tumbled out of the steep away end and into the night.

Almost immediately after the game, I spotted that there had been a reporting of “anti-Semitic” songs during the match.

This startled and confused me. What songs? I had not heard any. What was this all about?

I trawled through a few posts on Facebook and it seemed that Dan Levene, on Twitter Twatter, had reported – soon into the game – that a song about Tottenham had been sung which contained the second part to “Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

Now then. I did not hear that song at the game. If it was sung, it could surely not have been very loud. I usually keep my eyes and ears open for any songs being sung at a given game. At the Pointer Pub in the afternoon, however, I did hear the song, in its entirety, being sung by a group of Chelsea upstairs. I often sing that song – it has been sung at Chelsea for decades – but never finish it. I used to finish it. I used to sing a lot of things. But not those words, now, not any more, no longer. Tottenham can sing it and do sing it. That is their problem.

I stop abruptly at “Barcelona, Real Madrid” just as the Buzzcocks’ “Love You More” ends with the words “razor cuts.”

I had to wonder why this song had suddenly been reported. It did not take long to work out. The media had overblown the Raheem Sterling incident. That Chelsea fan had not said those words. The media still needed to prolong their agenda against us. We were in their crosshairs. The shots were taken.

The world was on our case once more.

Sometimes, I hate football.

We walked a few hundred yards along Albert Florian Ut – a famous player from Ferencvaros’past – and caught a taxi cab in to town. After a couple of beers in a gorgeous curved bar on Kiraly Ut, we returned back to the first bar that we frequented the previous day, but we only had time for a single pint before the place closed at midnight.

We slept well.

On the Friday, I had my own magical mystery tour planned. I left the others to their own devices, and caught a tube into the city centre and then out to the south-eastern suburbs to the area of Kispest, home to the fabled Honved Football Club. There was simply no way that I was going to let a trip to Budapest slip by without an attempt to take a few photographs of the former playground of Ferenc Puskas and his famous team mates.

At Kobanya-Kispest station, I still had a forty-five-minute walk ahead of me. It was a cold morning, with a frost, but I set off with a smile. My little mission reminded me of my youth travelling around Europe, heading off to see a city’s football stadium rather than its art galleries and museums. Kispest is a decidedly grubby and working class suburb, full of graffiti’d houses, towering blocks, small shops, tram lines and churches. After half an hour, I spotted two of Honved’s leaning floodlight pylons and my heart leapt. It was a beautiful sight. I waited at a crossing as a train passed, then approached the Bozsik Jozsef Stadium. I was soon learning that in Hungary, the surname always comes before the “first” name. The stadium was guarded by a gate and a security guard did not allow me in to take photographs.

“Bollocks.”

I noted a nearby plaque in memory of Puskas Ferenc, and a wreath. The turnstiles were dilapidated but they spoke of a million memories. I walked away from the stadium, and took some snaps of its heavily iconic leaning floodlights.

So Eastern European.

I wandered along a very quiet road, and was just pondering my next move when a miracle happened in deepest Kispest.

On the other side of the road, walking along the pavement by the perimeter wall of the stadium was Sam. Sam is a fellow Chelsea supporter. We do not know each other well, but we “nod” every time we see each other. As I crossed the road, we both exclaimed “what are you doing here?”

Sam was with Dan, a Chelsea fan from London, whose father’s family are from Budapest. Sam was staying with Dan’s family. And here is where things got interesting. Dan’s father – Kalman, another fan I “nod” to when I see him – had arranged for the two of them to meet an employee of Honved. So, we walked back to the security guard, and after a phone-call, all three of us were allowed in. My camera was primed.

We met Vince, who is the director of Honved’s youth academy, and we were given a twenty-minute tour of the academy building, where one hundred boys live and study, and then the entrance hall to the main stand and the stadium itself. I was in my element. What luck. What beautiful luck.

Vince explained that Jozsef Bozsik was the first Hungarian player to gain one hundred international caps. I found it endearing that Honved’s stadium was named in honour of him and not the more famous Puskas. Vince told us that Puskas’ house was within spitting distance of the stadium.

Most incredible of all, Vince told us that in January, the club will play its last game at the current stadium before it is demolished and a new stadium is built on the same site. The current one, a very low bowl with a capacity of 15,000, will be replaced by a new one of just 8,000. We gasped when we heard it was going to be that small.

But Hungary does not have a strong league these days. And Budapest is rich in football clubs. I suppose the club knows its support. In the meantime, Honved are going to share with another club in the city. My work colleague Marton, who runs a company in Budapest, detailed his take on the city’s football landscape in an email to me a while back, once he heard I was visiting. He does not support one team, but has had spells supporting a few of the teams, mainly due to friendships along the way. He even helped form a team which plays in the lower leagues. He admitted that Ferencvaros has the aura and history.

He then summed things up.

“But Ferencvaros are supported by Nazis. Honved are supported by communists. MTK by Jews.”

He did not mention the support base of Ujpest Dosza. Nor Vasas Budapest.

The visit to Honved over, I said my goodbyes to Sam.

“Amazing, Chris. See you in Brighton.”

With that, I hopped into a cab which had just stopped a few feet away.

“MTK Stadium please.”

I was on my way again.

Within twenty minutes, I was stood outside the utilitarian and ultra-modern Hidegkuti Nandor Stadion. This was hugely different to the archaic charm of Honved. The old MTK stadium stood on the same site – it is where that God-awful “Escape To Victory” was filmed – but this new structure was rebuilt in 2016. Sadly, I could not enter, but I took a few photographs as the cold wind chilled me. If I had stepped inside, I would not have liked what I would have seen. The new stadium only holds 5,500 and there are only concrete walls behind both goals. If this is post-modern football, then count me out. Hidegkuti was a team mate of Puskas and part of the fabled Hungarian team that humbled England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest a year later. I believe that MTK were known as Red Banner when they played Chelsea in a midweek friendly at Stamford Bridge in 1954. Hidegkuti certainly played in that match.

Alongside the brutal angles of the MTK stadium, I recognised the older and more ornate sandy coloured brickwork of the day’s third stadium.

BKV Elore play in the national third division, and do not have any famous players. But they surely have one of the most beautiful stands left in Europe. I had read about its charms on a fellow WordPress site last summer and was now able to see it in person. I made my way past the entrance – open to the public – and fell in love with the dark brown of the wooden roof, the angled staircases, the viewing platforms, the innate beauty of it all. On the other three sides of the pitch, there is nothing, just a yellow and blue perimeter fence. There seemed to be a bar tagged on to the stadium, and I ventured in from the street side. Down below at the bottom of some stairs, ten plates of biscuits were laid out on a table. I wondered what on earth was going on. This didn’t look like a bar to me. Maybe it was part of a fundraising event. I stepped outside again.

Originally, I had plans to travel north to visit Ujpest’s stadium too, but time was against me now. I walked back in to town so that I could waltz past the Puskas Ferenc Stadium – formerly the Nep Stadion – which is being rebuilt, but access was impossible. The photographs I took of that stadium are not worthy of sharing. If I ever return to Budapest, I’ll need to visit this new national stadium, plus maybe Ujpest and Vasas too.

But I did OK on this trip to Budapest.

Four stadia in two days.

I met up with the boys at the Pointer Pub again and we laughed our way through five more pints.

In the morning, Budapest was covered in snow as a cab picked us up one final time and took us from our digs on Vorosmarty Utca to the airport.

With a heavy heart, we left this quite stunning city, rich in history and rich in football.

I would love to return.