Tales From Harry Potts Way

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2019.

After Amsterdam, Burnley. The life of a football fan is certainly varied. With the game kicking-off at 5.30pm, there was the chance of a slight lie-in, but only slight. Burnley away is still a gargantuan trip. We did think about staying the night, especially after the exertions of the European soiree to Ajax, but nothing seemed to fit the bill location-wise nor price-wise. In the end, I decided to bite the bullet and drive up and back in one day.

Deepest Somerset to deepest Lancashire.

A round trip of four hundred and eighty miles.

Bolstered by a strong cup of coffee before I left home, I felt surprisingly fresh. After returning from Amsterdam late on Thursday evening, Friday at work was just horrific. It wasn’t particularly busy, it just seemed to drag on and on. But I slept reasonably well on Friday night. I was on the road at just before 9am. I collected PD and then Parky. It would be His Lordship’s first away game since Norwich City on that blissful summer’s day in August.

Burnley in late October was a different proposition.

For the first four hours or so, the rain lashed down under sombre grey skies. But there were reports of it brightening up later in the day. My pragmatic view was that I would rather have the rain and spray when I was fresh in the morning than when I was driving home, tired, after the game and long in to the night.

We stopped at Frankley Services on the M5 and Charnock Richard Services on the M6 just north of Wigan. At the first, we got soaked getting out of the car. At the second, the day suddenly became brighter and a lot more pleasant.

I turned east onto the M65 and headed up over the ridge of land that separates the M6 from the towns of Blackburn, Darwen, Accrington and Burnley.

At Clayton Le Moors, we settled in at a pub called “The Albion” for an hour or so. The City vs. Villa game was coming to an end, and there were a few locals gathered. Two lads wearing Burnley shirts were playing darts, while one Blackburn Rovers fan, wearing a replica shirt too, chatted to PD at the bar. There is certainly no love lost between Blackburn and Burnley yet the fans were sharing the same space with no issues. Clayton Le Moors is right on the boundary between the catchment areas of the two teams’ support. It felt that we were right in the middle of this very private and local Civil War in central Lancashire. Blackburn were playing locally themselves on this day of football; a derby of sorts at Preston North End.

We enjoyed our time in this large and welcoming pub. The prices were a lot more agreeable than those in Amsterdam. Here, two pints of lager and a pint of Coke came to just £8.10.

At about 4.15pm, I got back in the saddle. Ten minutes later, after relishing the wild and unrelentingly Northern landscape ahead of me, we were parked close to the Burnley bus station, itself only a fifteen-minute walk from Turf Moor.

By a strange quirk of fate, our game at Burnley in 2019 came just two days under a year since our game at the same venue in 2018.

At Charnock Richard and at Clayton Le Moors, the weather seemed fine. Once we exited my car in Burnley, it felt a whole lot colder.

“It’s always bloody freezing in Burnley.”

But it was great to be back. The town is a throwback to a different era, and without wishing to drown in worn out clichés, walking a few of its streets helped me escape back to a simpler age when football was at the very heart of this old mill town.

I love walking under the main stand at Goodison Park, my favourite away day experience these days. But a close second is the five-minute walk under the canal bridge on Yorkshire Street, along Harry Potts Way (named after the 1960 League Championship winning manager) to the unpretentious stands of Burnley Football Club. There are grafters selling scarves and badges. There are fast food shops. Many shops have signs in claret and blue. Fans rush past. Police on horseback cast an eye over the match day scene. Pubs overflow with claret and blue clad locals. Northern accents cut into the afternoon air. The faces of the locals seem to radiate a warmth for their club.

While PD and LP made a bee-line for the bar area inside the ground, I went off on a detour. I knew that I would only be allowed to take photographs using my ‘phone, and that the resultant match photographs would be quite poor, so I wanted to capture as much of the colour – or lack of it, this was Burnley after all – of the stadium. So my phone whirred into action. Every few yards, along the perimeter of three of the stands, I stopped to gaze at photographs of some key players in the football club’s history. I didn’t stop and look at every single one, but bizarrely all of the ones that I did stop to look at, I managed to name.

Jimmy McIlroy, Jimmy Adamson, Leighton James, Peter Noble, Steve Kindon, Billy Hamilton, Trevor Steven, Ian Britton.

I stopped my circumnavigation at Ian Britton. It is what I wanted to see. Ian Britton was my favourite Chelsea player from 1974 to 1981 and he famously went on to play for Burnley, scoring a key goal against Orient to keep them in the Football League in 1987. He sadly passed away in 2016 and I went to his funeral at Burnley Crematorium. It was only right that I paid my respects to him on this day.

Ironically, I had briefly chatted to his son Callum at half-time at the Southampton away game.

RIP.

Inside the cramped stands, I was met up with many friends and acquaintances. I still felt fresh despite the long day. I soon took my place, not far from where I watched the game the previous season, and alongside Gary, Parky and Alan. My seat was right on the aisle, right next to the home fans.

Since our last visit, the infill of the corners of the home end has been completed. However, there were gaps in the seats throughout the stadium.

The team?

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta.

Zouma.

Tomori.

Alonso.

Jorginho.

Kovacic.

Pulisic.

Mount.

Willian.

Abraham.

No surprises really. Good to see Pulisic get the start after his excellent cameo performance in the Johan Cruyff Arena.

Did I expect us to win? Yes. There, I said it. There is a confidence about us at the moment and long may it continue.

Jack Cork, now thirty, started for Burnley. It seems only five minutes ago since I saw him play for Chelsea against Club America on a blistering day in Palo Alto in the summer of 2007. It was the only time I did see him play for us. How time flies.

Standing behind me was a chap who I first saw at Norwich. Memorably, both of us were wearing pink polos at the time. We, of course, won our first game of the season that day. Since then, he has worn the same pink shirt at all of our away games.

Three pinks, three wins.

Commendable.

In the first portion of the game, I thought Burnley looked quite capable of getting behind us and causing problems. Dwight McNeil, on their left, was often involved and carried a threat with his pace and movement. On a few occasions, our defence needed to be on their collective toes to snub out a few Burnley attacks. But we looked capable too, and the midfield duo of Jorginho and Kovacic were soon clicking their fingers and prompting others into moving into space, and then sliding balls forward. Without over-emphasising the change from last season, there was a pleasing economy of movement at all times.

A touch, control, a look, a pass, a move continued.

And there was variety too; the occasional long ball, a diagonal.

On twenty-one minutes, and with Chelsea now in the ascendancy, Pulisic raided centrally after robbing Matt Lowton. He sped on, urged on by us in the away stand, but it looked like he was forced too far to his left. Showing real strength, he shimmied, and gained an extra yard. To my eyes, the angle was just too wide. He stretched to meet the ball and rifled a shot low past Nick Pope. We howled like banshees as the ball nestled into the net.

GET IN.

I watched as the young American raced over to the corner flag and dropped to his knees to celebrate.

“Well,” I thought “that is the photograph I should be taking.”

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

This was the American’s first goal for us. And it was a blinder.

Burnley then made a spirited effort to get back in to the game. A header from Ashley Barnes went wide from a corner. And then Erik Pieters forced a fine save from Kepa, the ‘keeper reacting well after the initial shot was deflected. Chances were piling up and at  both ends. Pulisic slashed in a shot which Pope was able to deflect away. In front of us, Barnes wasted a good chance from close in, heading wide once more.

Barnes was the bête noire of the Burnley team and many in my midst were letting him have it.

Another shot from Christian, a shot from Tammy. This was good stuff. All of the way through this first-half, I was involved, watching the movement of the players, looking at their body language, utterly part of it. It is – sadly – not always the case.

Just before the break, Willian pick-pocketed a Burnley defender, and released Pulisic, who made a bee-line for goal – this area of the pitch was fast becoming his very own Interstate – and he drove on. He had a final quick burst and his shot from outside the box took a wicked deflection and we were 2-0 up.

Lovely stuff.

I was aware that there was a get-together of some Chelsea supporters in Austin, Texas for this match, and that they were being featured in some sort of interactive TV show. I just imagined the scenes. It was, to be honest, coming together rather nicely for our US fans.

At half-time, I battled the packed concourse and only got back just in time to see the teams return to the pitch.

After eleven minutes of play, a corner to my right from Mason Mount was headed out, and from the second cross, Pulisic leapt and “back-headed” the ball up and over Pope. It was a fine header.

And Pulisic’s third of the game.

I quickly turned to Mr. Pink and enquired “Is that a perfect hat-trick?”

A left, a right, a header.

It was.

Fantastic.

Well, by now, I could only imagine the “awesome shenanigans” taking place in Austin, TX – and elsewhere in the land of the free, plus six percent sales tax – as their boy shone on this cold day in Lancashire.

But then it got a little silly.

Possibly.

Here are my thoughts as a pragmatic and objective observer of all things Chelsea.

A large and noisy section of our support – which I would later learn included Suggs from Madness – spontaneously started chanting “USA USA USA USA.”

I didn’t join in.

But I am going to give the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt. My thoughts at the time were that this was all a bit ironic. A bit of a giggle. It was a typically English way of praising a player, a new addition, but also with a major dollop of sarcasm too.

If so, perfect.

The “USA” chant is such a dull and unimaginative addition to major sporting events, and I’d like to think that it was a side-swipe at that. If, however, there was no self-deprecation involved, no irony, no humour and that we are to be treated to “USA USA” every time our boy Pulisic performs then I fear for the future of mankind.

Only two minutes later, a lovely step-over from Willian in the inside-right channel on the edge of the box allowed an extra yard of space to shoot. His low effort was drilled low and found the far post perfectly. The net bulged.

GET IN.

Pulisic’ three goals had been – cough, cough, you know it is coming America – awesome.

Now this was just foursome.

FOUR BLOODY NIL.

Norwich : 3-2.

Wolves : 5-2.

Southampton : 4-1.

Burnley : 4-0.

Mr. Pink was beaming.

After the ludicrous 9-0 by Leicester City at Southampton the previous night, I wondered if we could get close. It seemed that it was one of those evenings where everything we hit resulted in goals.

Some substitutions, keeping it fresh.

Reece James for Marcos Alonso.

Olivier Giroud for Tammy Abraham.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Willian.

Myself and everyone around me thought that Callum had been clipped and expected goal five to come our way from the resulting penalty. Of course, there was the usual tedious wait, the match-going fans out on a limb, left stranded. Jorginho picked up the ball and walked purposefully to the spot.

“Just give the pen, and let’s get on with it.”

But no. No penalty. And Callum booked for simulation.

Oh well.

Bizarrely, in a repeat of the Wolves game, we let in two late goals. First, a dipping smash from distance from Jay Rodriguez on eighty-six minutes. Then a deflected effort, not dissimilar to Pulisic’ second, from McNeil.

Burnley 2 Chelsea 4.

Oh crazy day.

I looked at Gary.

“It was 4-0 last season. We’ve got worse.”

We serenaded the management team as they all came over to clap us. It is lovely to be a Chelsea fan, right here, right now. May these times continue.

We headed back to the car and I was soon driving home on the long road south. We stopped at Charnock Richard again. To honour our boy Pulisic, we devoured some “Burger King” fast food, just as he would have wanted. Via two further stops for petrol and “Red Bull”, I kept driving and driving while the others slept intermittently.

I reached my house, eventually, at around 1am on Sunday morning.

It had been a fine morning, afternoon, evening and night.

On Wednesday, another magical evening under the Stamford Bridge lights is in the offing. It might only be the League Cup but it is Manchester United.

This will be the seventy-fifth time that I will have seen them play Chelsea, the most of any opposing team.

It is potentially a cracker.

I hope to see some of you there.

 

Tales From The Johan Cruyff Arena

Ajax vs. Chelsea : 23 October 2019.

It had been a surprisingly long and tedious journey to the stadium from Amsterdam’s Central Station – standing room only, everyone pushed together, all of us getting warmer by the minute, around fifty minutes all told including a change of trains en route – and at last the towering roof of the stadium appeared to my left. I was with PD, who I had travelled out with from Bristol the previous morning, and Alan and Gary too. The train stopped. We exited en masse. We were back at the site of our Europa League Final victory against Benfica in 2013. It was just after five o’clock in the evening and night was yet to fall.

There was the usual rush of adrenaline that accompanies the arrival at a stadium, especially a foreign stadium, especially the home stadium of Ajax, one of the most revered clubs of the European scene. We clambered down the steps and escalators at the station and were soon out into the cool of the evening. Everything was well signposted. Ajax straight ahead. Chelsea to the left. I stopped to take a few long distance shots of the stadium – some twenty-three years old now – and my gaze focused on the image of Johan Cruyff that welcomed all. The stadium was simply called the Amsterdam Arena in 2013, but since the passing of the Dutch master in 2016, the place has been re-named in his honour.

Johan Cruyff.

What a name.

What a player.

Cruyff, along with Netzer and Muller and Beckenbauer and perhaps Eusebio, was one of the very first European players that had caught my eye in the early ‘seventies. These players, revered by the football commentators and TV pundits of the day, stirred our senses. The Ajax team, which provided many of the Dutch side, were simply in a class of their own. They oozed style. Their football was fluid. The long-haired maestros played liquid football. Everything was so seamless. Those of a certain vintage will remember Cruyff guesting at Stamford Bridge in the autumn of 1978/79 when we played New York Cosmos. Cruyff also pitted his skills against us when we played the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979/80. And he also guested for the little-known team DS79 in 1980/81. I had mentioned the DS79 game to my friends Mark and Paul – from England, now living in The Netherlands – when they took time out of their day to meet the four of us for a pint on Rembrandt Corner, away from the masses, earlier that afternoon. It was a game that most will have forgotten. His appearance at Stamford Bridge during three consecutive seasons was one of the oddities of those years. His name, perhaps because of this, was often linked with our club.

Back in those years – oh we were awful in 1978/79, millions of the new fans of today would not have touched us with a barge pole – I was always amazed that we were linked with Johan Cruyff, and Kevin Keegan of Hamburg too, even though we were playing in the Second Division. I suppose it illustrates the point that we have always been a glamour club, and have always been linked with some of the great players. When Keegan announced that he was leaving West Germany for Southampton in 1980, I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporters who felt snubbed.

I let the others walk on as I took it all in. After I had taken a couple of photos, I showed my ticket at the security check, but was then forced to hand in my SLR. My far from comparable phone camera would have to suffice for the game.

I met up with the others again and they told me that we were getting the lift up to the upper tier where the 2,600 Chelsea were to be housed. A female steward had seen PD limping and had walked straight over, bless her. We walked through some security gates, and took the lift up to the seventh floor. She told the funny story of how a few of the Ajax stewards had travelled to Lille a few weeks back, but had been met with hostility when the local police saw their yellow tabards.

We walked through the home concourse – an odd feeling – and joined up with our own.

I was more than happy that we were in the upper tier. For our game in 2013, we were stood in the lower tier behind the goal. At least we were watching the game from a different viewpoint. Memories of Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic came flooding back. It was never on the same scale as Munich the previous season, but it was still a mighty fine night out in Europe.

I remembered one song from that night which never stood the test of time :

“Strippers and whores, Ivanovic scores.”

The “we won in Munich, Munich” chant never lasted too long either.

All these memories, what lucky souls we are.

2013

The stadium was as I remembered it. Two simple tiers, but a towering and presumably ridiculously heavy roof. Under the trusses were banners illustrating the many trophies that Ajax had won over the years. It was quite a haul.

I was aware that they had played at the much smaller De Meer stadium for the period of their huge successes in the ‘seventies. I had almost seen Ajax play for the first time in 1988 when I was on one of my badge-selling circuits around Europe. I plotted up at the Olympic Stadium, which PD and I had passed in a taxi from Schipol on the Tuesday morning, for the Ajax game with Young Boys Bern, but did not sell a single bloody badge. There were other stalls selling British football badges; the niche market that I had exploited in Italy was nowhere to be seen. I was gutted. Had I sold some, I might have chanced getting a ticket. As it was, I returned back into town with my tail firmly between my legs.

The younger element aired a relatively new, if not overly original, song.

“Tammy’s on fire. Your defence is terrified. Tammy’s on fire.”

As kick-off neared, the stands filled to bursting. There were hardly any seats not in use. There was the dimming of the lights, then a dramatic use of spotlights focused on the Champions League logo. It was time for both sets of fans to perform. The noise in the Chelsea end had been sporadic, but as the yellow “Chelsea Here Chelsea There” flag was hoisted over the heads of us in the central area, the chanting increased. I took a few photos through the flag. One shot, for some reason, turned the flag green. It was as if the haze of marijuana that had followed us around central Amsterdam was now clawing at us in the stadium.

The home areas were full of white and red mosaics.

One huge banner was draped at the opposite end.

“VASTBERADEN.”

Determined.

The teams entered the pitch. Chelsea would be wearing the all black kit, with a touch of Dutch – orange trim – for good measure.

The team, I guess, had chosen itself.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Abraham

I looked around and spotted a few familiar faces, but there were many people that I did not recognise. Many had come over without tickets, lured by the city of Amsterdam and all of its usual charms and pleasures. PD and I had spent a leisurely few hours on a gentle pub-crawl around our hotel in the Vondel Park part of the city on the Tuesday. We had visited three bars, and in the second one, close to the Rijksmuseum, we chatted to the barman who was an Ajax season ticket holder and who would be at the game. He produced a photograph of Johan Cruyff on a visit to the pub. It seemed that we simply could not escape his presence. In the first bar that we visited in the city centre on the Tuesday night, there was an iconic photo of Holland’s greatest son in the classic kit. There was even an image of Cruyff welcoming visitors to the city’s “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” Later that night, I had met up with plenty of the usual suspects in the Red Light District. The drinking continued long into the small hours. I am not saying it turned into a crazy night but I did witness Wycombe Stan buying a round. Good times.

The game began with Chelsea attacking our end, the North Stand. The noise from the Ajax fans, especially those in the South Stand, was impressive.

In front of the lower tier, there were other banners illustrating the sub-culture of European football.

Amsterdam Casuals.

A Stone Island logo.

F-Side.

Perry Boys.

A mod logo.

I loved the goal nets; white with a central red stripe.

The Ajax kit has to be one of the greatest ever.

Talking of kits, I posed a question to Mark and Paul during our afternoon meet-up.

“Why do virtually all of the top Dutch teams have red and white kits?”

Ajax : red and white.

Feyenoord : red, white and black.

PSV : red and white.

Sparta Rotterdam : red and white.

Utrecht : red and white.

AZ Alkmaar : red and white.

Twente Enschede : red.

Any ideas?

Mark and Paul struggled to name any team in The Netherlands that plays in blue. You would think, with its reputation, that Amsterdam might have at least one blue team. Well, I have managed to find one. We played DWS Amsterdam back in the Fairs Cup in 1967/68 – losing on the toss of a coin – and they play in white and blue stripes, albeit in a very low league these days.

It was a very lively start to the match. Before the game, we had all uttered “we’ll take a draw now” and as the play flowed from end to end, it felt that it would be a night of goals. An early handball shout against Marcos Alonso was waived away, and we then got stuck into the game with Mason Mount looking loose-limbed and lively as he brought the ball out through the midfield on a few lovely bursts. One shot from him forced a low save from Andre Onana at his near post.

Fikayo Toomori looked a little edgy at the start of the game but certainly grew as the first-half continued.

On many occasions, Callum Hudson-Odoi found himself in favourable positions, running into parcels of space in the inside-left channel, but on nearly every occasion he seemed to choose the wrong option. He either held on to the ball too long, took an extra stride before shooting, played a ball to an unsuspecting team mate or poorly controlled a simple ball. His shooting was off too. With each error, we saw his frustration rise. That little patch of around twenty square yards of space at the angle of the penalty box seemed to be his very own, horrible, Bermuda Triangle. The frustration was shared by the fans in the away section.

We were all stood.

We sang when we could be heard.

Thankfully, the noise from the Southern end was subsiding.

Gary continually took the piss out of Daley Blind.

“You should stick to walking football, Blind.”

The game ebbed and flowed. I was not overly impressed with Ajax’ defence. They looked neither tight nor awake. Their attacks often petered out too. In the middle, Kovacic impressed me with his quick runs and intelligent passing.

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, a cross from the Ajax right took a deflection and the Chelsea defence seemed unable to recover. The ball squirmed through to the six-yard box – “oh no” I uttered – and Quincy Promes prodded in. I must admit I quickly glanced over to see if the linesman on the far side was going to raise his flag but it stayed down.

The home fans made a bloody racket alright.

Bollocks.

We were 1-0 down.

But, wait.

After a while, we realised that there was going to be a Godforsaken VAR moment.

I will be honest, as honest as I can be. At that moment in time, such is my hatred of all things VAR that I remember thinking to myself “let it stand, for fuck sake, let it stand, I can’t be having with this nonsense impinging on so much of football.”

We waited. And waited.

No goal. Offside.

I did not cheer.

Alan and myself just looked at each other.

Alan : “I’m never going to cheer a VAR decision in our favour.”

Chris : “You and me both.”

Hundreds did cheer though.

Soon after, Dave made a beautiful tackle – the epitome of guts and timing – to thwart Promes. This drew marvellous applause from the away contingent. He may have endured a difficult start to this season but this was evidence that he still has a place to play during the current campaign.

The stats at the end of the first-half showed Ajax dominating possession by 56% to 44% but we had carved out more chances.

It was goal-less at the break, and we wondered how. Just before the game recommenced, “Three Little Birds” was played on the PA. This Ajax song was adopted by us in the latter stages of 2009/10 and it always takes me back to a hideously rainy night at Fratton when we won 5-0 and the away end sung it. Great memories.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

As the second-half began, I mentioned to Gary that I had seen Ajax play Chelsea once before; way back in the summer of 1993 in the Makita Tournament at White Hart Lane.

“Did you go to that Gal?”

“Yeah.”

It was, in fact, the first time that I had ever seen Chelsea play a foreign team. It was also Glenn Hoddle’s first game in charge. I had travelled up with Glenn from Frome, had met up with Daryl, and we watched as Chelsea drew 1-1 in normal time before winning 4-2 on penalties. The Chelsea team that day seems from another age.

Hitchcock

Hall – Johnsen – Sinclair – Dow

Donaghy – Hoddle – Wise – Peacock

Cascarino – Fleck

The Ajax team included Edwin van der Sar, Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer, Finidi George and Marc Overmars. Within two years they would be European Champions under Louis van Gaal. It was a joy to see the Tottenham fans squirm as Glenn Hoddle played for us. It was the first of a two-game set on the Saturday, but while Glenn and Daryl stayed on to see Tottenham beat Lazio in the second game, I shot off to see Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace that evening. It was a perfect Saturday for me.

Oh, we beat Tottenham 4-0 in the final on the Sunday, but I suppose that is a given knowing our history with “that lot.”

1993

The second-half continued. The intensity wasn’t at the previous levels, but it was still a good enough game. On the hour, a low corner down below us was met with a diving header from Edson Alvarez and we watched in horror as his effort grazed the far post.

Phew.

“COME ON CHELS.”

There was less attacking intent than in the first-half.

On sixty-six minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Willian, who had toiled all night long. I remembered one phenomenal gut-busting run from deep to support an attack which left me breathless let alone him. Then Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham who had not had the best of service. We did think that Callum was lucky to avoid being substituted.

With twenty minutes remaining, Pulisic gathered the ball and ran confidently at the Ajax defence. He cut in and sized up his options. His shot from outside the box was deflected up and right into the path of Batshuayi.

This is it, we thought.

This is fucking it.

His wild shot ballooned up over the bar and probably ended up in one of the city’s concentric canals.

Bollocks.

Behind me, an altercation between two fans about Michy.

“He should be burying them chances if he wants a place on the team.”

“Give him a break, he has only been on the pitch for ten minutes.”

Pulisic, looking lively on the left, again advanced with pace and intent. His pass to Batshuayi was returned to him, but he dragged the ball wide. With just four minutes remaining, we again worked the ball down the left flank. Mount to Pulisic, and a fine piece of skill to carve out a yard of space. His low cross was dummied by Alonso and the ball was rifled high – but not too high – by Michy into the roof of the Ajax net.

BOOM.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

The screams from myself and others were wild and unrelenting.

We yelled and yelled, it seemed that we were all as one, the same body shape, the same fists up punch.

The euphoria of a late winner in Europe. What can beat that?

The final whistle was met with wild applause from us all.

The Chelsea reprised the Bob Marley song.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

This was our equivalent of Manchester City playing “One Step Beyond” every time they beat us at their gaff.

This was a fine team performance. I was especially impressed with the four defenders, who looked in control and played as a unit, but kudos to all. All of a sudden, after losing our first game at home to Valencia, we now look to be favourites to go through with two of our last three games at Stamford Bridge.

They kept us in for a good thirty minutes or so, and the return trip to the city was interrupted by a few delays. But we were back in the claustrophobic hub of the city soon enough.

It had been, surely, one of our greatest nights in Europe.

2019

Tales From Three Leaps

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 14 September 2019.

Football – of the right kind – was back after a self-imposed interruption of a fortnight. The international break saw England play Bulgaria and then Kosovo, and despite both matches being shown on “free-to-air” terrestrial ITV, I saw just five minutes of the second game. Even with appearances from Ross Barkley and Mason Mount, I’m afraid that my interest in our national team continues to wane. In the break, instead, I saw two consecutive home games involving my local team. Frome Town drew 1-1 with Evesham United and then beat Barnstaple Town 3-1. Both were excellent matches and I continue to feel an emotional attachment to my most local team, something that I struggle to do with England.

But now it was all about Chelsea.

The Chuckle Bus carried just two of its Brothers to our game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Parky was still recuperating after his hip operation and Glenn was otherwise engaged. I was parked-up in the city centre at 11.30am, and the two of us – PD and CA – were soon settled in “The Sunbeam” pub outside the city’s bus depot and not too far from the train station, right in the middle of everything. There were signs saying “HOME FANS ONLY” but we skipped past the security guard on the door and were soon inside, despite PD wearing shorts and thus allowing a loud and proud Chelsea tattoo on his leg to be seen by all.

We kept to ourselves and there was no bother nor trouble. This was despite the presence of some locals of a certain vintage who – if their clobber was anything to go by – might have been involved in some fisticuffs a few years back. However, not everyone who goes to football these days who sports a Stoney is a psycho and not everyone who likes the Lacoste label is a lad. We were joined by Scott, Paul and Kim. The mixture of accents must have confused the bouncers, although I suspect that Scott’s Wolves mate, who he met at the Chelsea Legends game at Real Madrid a few months back, might well have aided their entrance into the pub.

The sun was out, we had a good chat, and I liked being able to partake in a little bit of people-watching through the windows. By the time we had decided to move on, there was a large gaggle of Wolves lads drinking outside but the occasional Chelsea fan wearing colours who walked past received no trouble.

“Wouldn’t have been like this in the ‘eighties, PD.”

Wolves fans wearing all different types of replica shirts waltzed past. I soon realised how off the mark the home club was in 2018/19 with the yellow shirt rather than the warmer old gold of the current design.

There were more “home fans only” signs in a few other pubs. One day I’ll make it inside “The Billy Wright”, but maybe not on a match day. We bumped into Alex – originally from Sofia – and he moaned that the “away pub” down near the train station was rammed, so we decided to cut our losses and leisurely walk down to the ground, passing the university buildings and the leafy surrounds of the local church. Molineux was soon spotted, and we disappeared down to the infamous “subway” which was the scene of many an ambush in days of yore.

Despite my decision to forego home programmes this season, I just could not resist purchasing the £5 special edition that marked the one-hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the club moving to their current site. The famous old club was one of the twelve members of the inaugural Football League which began in 1888/89 and Molineux is their fourth home. The programme was wrapped in an evocative panorama featuring an artist’s adaptation of the stadium in 1889, 1958 and 2019. I can well remember the multi-span roof of the stand which used to sit on the land from where we would be watching the game in 2019. The old stadium was in poor repair for many years, but Sir Jack Hayward, whose statue welcomes spectators as they arrive with eyes blinking after walking through the darkness of the subway, helped renovate the stadium with huge success in the ‘nineties and the stadium has since been improved with a new double-deck north stand. It works well. If Goodison Park is my favourite away venue, then Molineux is surely my favourite “new build.” It is ridiculously close to the city centre, there is a perfect use of old gold in much of its structure and it all seems to fit together with a minimum of fuss.

In fact, I bought two programmes. When I was over in Italy during the summer, I spent a few hours in a bar on the beach in which one of the bar staff was a Swedish lad who, after I told him I was a Chelsea fan – I soon get this key fact out of the way pretty sharpish when I start chatting to a stranger for any length of time – he told me that he was a Wolves fan, and had been to Molineux a few times. I decided to send him a copy and he was very grateful when I quickly messaged him.

We waited in the cool of the concourse, PD supping lager, and little old me on my third and fourth Diet Cokes of the day. We welcomed a few friends as they arrived.

We made our way inside and I was well happy with our seats; right on the half-way line, just three rows from the front. For the FA Cup game in 2017, we were located in the lofty heights of the double-decker to my right. For this game, all 2,600 Chelsea were strewn out along the entire length of the lower tier of the Steve Bull Stand. I knew from the off that getting consistent singing from us all would be a difficult task.

I centered my gaze on the ten outfield players going through their warm-ups. There were three centre-halves involved; Christensen, Rudiger and Tomori. I wondered what plan Frank Lampard had hatched.

The sun was beating down. This would not be “Dublin in July hot”, but this was a lovely early autumn afternoon. “Love will tear us apart” by Joy Division improved my enjoyment of the moment, but this was then cut short as we were treated to a prolonged display of pyrotechnics just before the teams entered the pitch. Our faces were scorched by the heat of the flames.

OK – old gold, orange, I get it. I can make the connection between the fingers of flame which darted into the air and the club colours, but on a bright sunny day it seemed rather pointless.

Surely a display at night games only would be better.

Old gold and black.

Perfect.

The teams entered the pitch. We had jettisoned the blue shirts, and even the blue socks from Norwich City, and were in all white.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Christensen – Rudiger – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

It was an Antonio Conte-style 3-4-3.

The game began and it was a quiet beginning. Tammy was soon booed for his Aston Villa connections. On the Wolves right, we were treated to a few lightning bursts from Adama Traore – built like a sprinter or a modern-day winger in rugby – but who (classic football cliché warning) “flattered to deceive.” We looked composed on the ball without creating too much. Things were a little quiet off the pitch too. It took a full twenty-five minutes for a pitch-long chant to unite the Chelsea support. I spotted that Willian and Mason Mount swapped wings once or twice. We tried hard to reach Tammy, but it was a struggle. If I was honest, I’d say that Wolves possibly edged the opening half-an-hour, if only in terms of possession. But there were no efforts on target. A wild shot from Willian which blazed over was our one notable effort. Before the game, in whispered tones, a few of us had been worried about the three games in the next week.

Wolves away, Valencia at home, Liverpool at home.

“We could…possibly…lose all three.”

On thirty-one minutes, everything changed. An attack on our right floundered and the ball was knocked away by a Wolves defender. The ball rolled at pace towards the onrushing Fikayo Tomori and he shaped to hit the ball without the need of a second touch. I snapped just as he connected. We watched, eyes bulging, as the ball made the net ripple.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBASTARD.

Oh my.

What a goal for this match, for this season, for any season.

His leap in front of me was euphoric.

After a few seconds…

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

Chris : “Come on moi little dimonddddds.”

Three minutes later, with the Wolves defence on their heels, we found our way into the box. Mount appeared to be fouled but the ball rebounded off a Wolves leg to Tammy who spun one-hundred and eighty degrees and lashed it in. The net bulged again. There was a kiss to the Chelsea support from an ebullient Tammy, back among the goals again.

Seven minutes later, and after a slight Wolves resurgence, a Jorginho cross was headed out. Alonso picked up the loose ball.

I had commented to Alan earlier that because we only had Tammy up front, our crosses needed to be on the money.

Alonso’s cross was.

He picked out Tammy perfectly and the tall striker headed home with ridiculous ease. It was a fantastic goal. Yet more lovely celebrations. I caught his leap towards the Chelsea support in the corner on film. This was another great celebration. It pleased me that I evidently took a better photograph of Tammy’s leap than that of Tomori.

Bloody hell.

We were 3-0 up at the break.

We could hardly believe it.

We had caught fire in the last fifteen minutes and the Wolves fans standing in the South Stand, the old Kop, were as scorched as we were from the pre-match flames. Our three goals might have flattered us a little, but we cared not. Wolves, after all, had not really forced a save from Kepa the entire half.

During the first forty-five minutes, I had mentioned our 5-0 win at the same stadium in 2003, which was my first-ever visit to Molineux. Alan had then spoken to me about his first visit too.

“To her dying day, my Mum never knew I came up here in 1977.”

Alan was just fourteen – I was eleven – and had been going to Chelsea for a few years. Our famous game in 1977, in which our travelling support was officially banned, was a huge occasion. Alan simply had to be there. He had told his mother that he was out to see friends and stayed out the entire day, via a secret trip to Wolverhampton, returning late. In those days – God, they seem so distant, before mobile phones and constant attention and interaction – kids would often disappear for hours on end. On this day – with Wolves needing a point to secure the Second Division Championship and with Chelsea requiring a point to gain promotion – thousands of Chelsea flooded Molineux. We drew 1-1 and, as I have reported previously, my one recollection of that day was hearing the result on “Final Score” at my grandparents’ house, opening the front door, running up the slope to the main road and jumping up, punching the air in a leap not too dissimilar to those of Tomori and Tammy forty-two years later.

Alan and I chuckled about the ridiculousness of it all.

We imagined Alan returning home at 10pm, in a scene not too dissimilar to that of Perry’s return from Manchester in the “Harry Enfield Show.”

“You’re back late, son.”

“Aye, I yam.”

“Why are you talking funny?”

“What yow talking about? Anyway, I’ve brought you a present.”

“What’s this, pork scratchings?”

“Bostin’ ah.”

Kurt Zouma replaced Toni Rudiger at half-time. Very soon, he was causing a few nervous jitters in the away section. However, we withstood some early Wolves pressure. On fifty-five minutes, Jorginho lofted the ball forward to Tammy. He controlled the ball, stood tall against Conor Coady, twisted into a little space, leaving Coady for dead, then struck a low shot past Rui Patricio.

He had silenced the Yam Yam Boo Boys in fine style with a sublime hat-trick.

Smiles everywhere.

Alan, knowing full well our past, uttered the immortal line :

“We’ve got the draw, let’s go for the win” and those close by chuckled.

Mount was set free and should have scored after darting past the ‘keeper after a magnificent pass from Jorginho, but his effort was wide.

With twenty minutes to go, Wolves grabbed a goal back after a corner was scrambled in after Kepa made an initial save. We would only learn much later that it was Tammy’s fourth of the game. Dave, playing wide, had several gut-busting runs down the right and should have created more with his final ball. At times, we were purring.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic. Michy replaced Tammy. We kept attacking. There was a lovely looseness to everything we did. Michy impressed me in the final quarter and could have scored a couple himself.

Bizarrely, Patrick Cutrone made it 4-2 with five minutes to go, stabbing home from close range after Kepa fumbled.

…maybe Alan was right after all.

“Bloody hell, we are 4-2 up, why are we all as nervous as hell?”

Wolves appealed for a penalty. The referee did not give it. VAR did not give it.

What a fucking non-story.

With six minutes of extra-time signalled, we found ourselves clock-watching.

“Come on ref, blow up.”

In the final minute, Michy controlled a bouncing ball, and fed in Mount in the inside-left channel. With ridiculous ease, he turned his defender and slotted home.

5-2.

Memories of the 5-0 in 2003.

Game, set and match.

Beautiful.

At the end of the game, Tammy grabbed the match ball. What a time to be alive for this young lad. May he go from strength to strength.

We are all right behind him.

On Tuesday, we reassemble at Stamford Bridge for our first Champions League match since Barcelona away in March 2018.

I can hear the music now…

…see you there.

 

Tales From Reading, Writing And Arithmetic

Reading vs. Chelsea : 28 July 2019.

After a hiatus of a fortnight, my season was back on track. I was heading seventy miles east for a Sunday afternoon friendly against Reading. And while Glenn was on the beach in Dorset and while PD was on the piss in Somerset, my loyal travelling companion Lord Parky was coming with me to Royal Berkshire. At about 11am, I collected him from Parky Towers and our season started to gather momentum. He was pleased to see me – and vice versa – and we were soon on our way.

I had begun the day with a breakfast at the local McDonald’s in Frome. These McBreakfasts tend to start all of our trips to watch Chelsea and they feel like an essential part our regular match day experience these days. I am sure that this was my first such meal since last season and, as such, it honestly felt like some sort of quasi-religious ceremony, maybe like some sort of communion, what with it being a Sunday. The breaking of the bread and all that. Not so much the last supper as the first breakfast.

I explained all of this nonsense to His Lordship and he looked at me as if to say “you need to get out more.”

Thankfully, I was and so was he.

We were on our way to the Madejski.

I’ve never really enjoyed the four previous visits to the Reading’s stadium. We hurtle past it every time we drive to London. It’s therefore a familiar sight. And it is too close to home to feel like a credible away trip. The stadium is stranded out on the edge of Reading, close to the M4. And we would be silly to head into the town centre and then have to come back out again. The stadium itself is set among car dealerships, retail parks, offices and hotels, and there are no watering holes nearby. It’s a typically anaemic experience. It’s not my favourite stadium, although it is far from the worst.

When I first visited it in 2003/4 – a midweek League Cup game – I remember liking it. It was a little different to the other new builds such as at Derby, Southampton and Middlesbrough. The seating tiers undulated a little, there were odd angles. On that night, with us playing in the first of our never-ending supply of black away kits, we won 1-0 with a goal from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

2003

My next visit was in 2006/7 and was full of notoriety. This was Reading’s first season in the top flight, and although we won 1-0, the game will forever be remembered for the awful foul on Petr Cech by Stephen Hunt after just twenty seconds, which resulted in our great ‘keeper being stretchered off and missing around three months of football. Later in that game, Carlo Cudicini was injured by Ibrahima Sonko. None other than John Terry played in goal for us for the closing minutes. Reading’s Andre Bikey and Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel were sent off. We won 1-0 with a goal from Frank Lampard, but it was an insane afternoon of football. Things took a turn for the worse when I returned to my car to find that it had been broken into and a few personal effects had been stolen. Not a great day at the office, despite the win.

2006

The following season in 2007/8, it was another midweek visit. We went 1-0 down in the first half to a Bikey goal, but came back to won 2-1 with goals in the second-half from Frank Lampard and a long-range effort from Didier Drogba. There were great celebrations in the away end that night.

2007

Our last visit was in 2012/13, and was typical of our results at times that season. We were coasting 2-0 with goals from that man Frank Lampard – goal number one hundred and ninety-six for us, and pictured – and Juan Mata. We then let in two very late goals to draw 2-2, and Rafa Benitez was never more unpopular. It was a game that we should have seen out. Sigh.

2013

For our game this summer, we were given 2,200 and the £10 tickets were snapped up.

I avoided the tiresome M4 for the short hop to Reading and drove along the A4. We reached Hungerford just after mid-day and decided to drop into The Bear Hotel. There had been pints in Dublin, but this felt like the first real drink of the season.

“Cheers.”

This Chelsea pre-season consisted of seven games in all sorts of far flung places.

Dublin.

Tokyo.

Reading.

Salzburg.

Moenchengladbach.

I don’t know of anyone from the UK who went out to the games in Japan. I know a few did Dublin, a few are going over to Austria and Germany. But this might be a long old season and holidays need to be saved. Not only was this a very squeezed close-season for the players, this was my shortest summer break ever. The game in Baku was in late May and the game in Dublin was only fifty-two days later.

“No rest for the wicked.”

Out in the beer garden, we enjoyed the drinks despite being attacked by a few wasps. It was a cracking day. Just right.

I was parked-up in one of the official car parks at the Madejski at about 1.30pm. Perfect.

We made our way around to the away end. I had never approached the stadium from the north before, so at least I saw something different of the locale this time. It reminded me a little of the Bolton stadium where we won the league in 2005. We spotted the two Robs drinking outside the home stand and joined them. Although it was both of their wedding anniversaries – a thirty-fifth and a second – they were more than happy to be watching Chelsea on this sunny day in Berkshire. We moved around to the away turnstiles, and this is where it went momentarily wrong.

I was asked to have my bag searched, and was stopped from taking my Canon SLR into the stadium.

“But this is a friendly.”

“Copyright.”

I am not completely sure what my hackles are, but I felt them rising.

What to do? The steward told me to retrace my steps and see if the adjoining hotel could check it for the duration of the game. So, back I went. I politely asked at the reception if I could leave my bag there, but as I was not staying at the hotel, I had no choice but to walk all of the way back to the car. I was fuming. I spoke to a chief steward.

“How come there are Chelsea queuing up to get in the home end?”

He looked at me incredulously, as if I was a moron.

“It’s a friendly!”

“So why can’t I bring my camera in, then? It’s ridiculous.”

His colleague agreed.

“But rules are rules. Sorry, mate.”

I walked back to the car, muttering “I hate modern football” to myself.

Evidently, there were Chelsea going to be located all throughout the home areas of the Madejski, and this was not deemed by anyone to be a safety threat of any description. And yet I was stopped from taking my camera in to a friendly.

For fuck sake.

Outside influences keep chipping away at my enjoyment of this beautiful game. It is relentless.

So, I wasted half an hour trotting back to the car. At 2.50pm, I eventually entered the stadium, by which time there had been an announcement that the game had been delayed until 3.15pm.

“Poxy club.”

Parky was still with the two Robs, and I explained my tale of woe. Inside, the place was slowly filling up. We were in row four, quite near the goal. It was lovely to see so many friends. We were stood next to Andy, who I last saw in Baku.

“Don’t know why they just didn’t give us the whole end.”

I agreed with him.

I did find it odd that Chelsea were allowed in the home areas, and I found it odder that a few were wearing Chelsea gear. It seemed that the normal rules of behaviour were being ignored. Our usual away day companion Gary was a row or two behind us.

The teams came onto the pitch and we were wearing last season’s all yellow, thus avoiding a colour clash with either the new blue or white shirts.

The team lined up in a 4-2-3-1.

Caballero

Zappacosta – Christensen – Tomori – Alonso

Drinkwater – Bakayoko

Kenedy – Barkley – Pulisic

Giroud

With no proper camera, I relied on my ‘phone.

With Chelsea attacking the far end, and with me watching from a low angle, I found it a little difficult to track all of the movements of our players. These pre-season games are important for us fans to get back into it again. The old voice boxes need to get used to the workload ahead. The atmosphere was OK, but nothing special, as the game began. My throat survived a few rasping renditions of “Carefree” and I was back in the game.

It was, of course, my first sighting of the American Wunderkind Christian Pulisic who took up a position on the left wing. I have to admit that there were a couple of instances when, only naturally, I had a mental image of Eden Hazard appearing as if by magic and causing havoc.

But those days are gone.

There were a few early flourishes from the home team. On just thirteen minutes, Reading moved the ball well inside our defensive third and, after the ball broke to Josh Barrett out on their left, we watched as he adeptly lobbed the ball over Caballero.

Here was the first “fackinell” of the season.

The home crowd – especially the five hundred strong section to our left, who were all oh-so young – roared. There had been the usual “we support our local team” stuff from them in the first few minutes – a song that I remember well from all the previous visits – and they were now in their element.

Gits.

We struggled to get going and the game ambled along. We created a couple of half-chances. On twenty-two minutes, Olivier Giroud was fouled in a central area. Ross Barkley waited and waited. I spotted that the ‘keeper was marginally too far to his left. I predicted a sweeping curving shot over the wall and into the corner to the ‘keeper’s right.

We waited some more.

As Barkley struck and as the ball began its ascent I firmly spoke.

“That’s in.”

We watched as the ball curled just as I had expected it to. We roared. The woman to my right turned to me and smiled as if to say “you were bloody right.”

Get in.

It was only Reading. It was only a friendly. It was only a glorified training game. But a beautiful goal needs to be celebrated.

Lovely stuff.

Pulisic began to grow into the game with a few nice touches.

The young American was at times playing on the same part of the Madejski Stadium pitch as Boris Johnson occupied when the charismatic toff / shambolic buffoon (take your fucking pick) made that ridiculous rugby-tackle on the poor German player Maurizio Gaudino in a charity football match in May 2006. The look on team mate Ray Wilkins’ face was a picture, but the stricken Gaudino was an Eton mess after that bone-crunching attack. Maybe Stephen Hunt had watched Boris and had been inspired. The lunge on Cech followed in the October of 2006. Either way, what a Berkshire Hunt.

Reading rallied a little, but then Giroud headed wide from a deep Barkley free-kick.

There were a few Chelsea chants.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

The hideous “We’ve won it all.”

Just before half-time, Kenedy – who had looked eager to impress – slammed a shot wide. A few minutes later the same player took a swipe from outside the box. The ball seemed to move in the air, like a knuckleball pitch in baseball – and the Reading ‘keeper either misread it, saw it late, or saw it and still couldn’t gather it.

We were 2-1 up at the break.

There was time to say “hello” to a few friends at the break.

In the second-half, only Caballero remained.

As with the first-half against St. Pat’s, the team lined up in a diamond 4-4-2.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Pedro – Kovacic

Mount

Batshuayi – Abraham

Matt Miazga played the second-half for Reading. Charlie Adam played too. Where’s Boris Johnson when you need him?

There were defensive frailties in our ranks in the opening period and Reading equalised after only four minutes. A long cross found Mark Morrison unmarked and able to tap in at the far post. As with the first Reading goal, the stadium PA boomed out a dance track and the muppets joined in.

…if that ever happens at Chelsea.

Sigh.

The game opened up now, and we began to play some sweet stuff. From one of many second-half corners, David Luiz controlled a ball well, brought it down, touched it out from his feet and curled a majestic effort against the bar. It deserved to go in. Sublime.

Just before the hour, Tammy Abraham advanced from deep, but when his cross was intercepted, Mason Mount pounced and coolly slammed the ball past the Reading ‘keeper. There was something Lampardesque about that finish. Almost uncanny.

I kept urging both Tammy and Michy to be selfish and attack their defenders. They were full of endeavour. Kovacic looked strong. We were moving the ball well, but were using fewer touches than last season to reach dangerous areas. Pedro looked neat. His smile is so infectious.

On the hour, a Reading mistake gifted Mount a second goal. The ‘keeper Walker erred, kicking straight to Michy who passed to Mount to slot home.

A new chant was aired.

“Ole, ole. Ole, ole. Mason Mount Mount Mount. Mason Mount Mount Mount.”

Simple but effective.

Jamie Cumming replaced Wily in our goal.

On seventy minutes, Reading sliced through our defensive and Sam Baldock finished a fine move. There were further chances for us to increase our lead including an acrobatic effort from Tammy, but the game ended with no more goals.

Frank – our Frank – came over to us at the end and he was serenaded in fine style. I enjoyed the game in the main, but it was a typical pre-season run out which lacked real intensity. But it was another good excuse to see some friends, to have a beer and to get the vocal chords warmed up for the rigours ahead.

I am not – honestly – reading too much into any of these pre-season games. They are, let’s be honest, little more than glorified training sessions. And I think that Frank, Jody and the management team are paying more attention to the stuff that goes on behind the scenes in the confines of Cobham and elsewhere. The attentiveness of the players. The willingness of the players to try new things. The interaction within the squad. The discussions. Their confidence. The body language. The small details.

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So, that was Reading.

This has been me writing about Reading.

And if my arithmetic is not mistaken, this was a game that involved twenty-two Chelsea players and it also marked the third game in a row in which I have seen Chelsea score four.

And it all adds up. Frank looks in control. I think we are in good hands.

Sadly, we now have to wait two whole weeks for the league opener at Old Trafford.

But I cannot bloody wait.

Who’s going?

If you are, you are a lucky bugger.

I’ll see you there.

The Bear Hotel, Hungerford, Berkshire.

 

Tales From A Good Excuse

St. Patrick’s Athletic vs. Chelsea : 13 July 2019.

Back in the summer of 2003, just after Roman Abramovich took over the reins at Chelsea Football Club, I really wanted it to be like this.

All those summers ago, it felt rather odd to me – if nobody else – that our club suddenly had huge spending power. To put it bluntly, it didn’t feel quite right. There were noticeable feelings of guilt at the way we splashed cash, at times indiscriminately and without purpose, in those first crazy months. It didn’t seem – to use a much-used phrase in football these days – “proper.” Whereas some supporters loved every minute of every million-pound purchase, I can sincerely remember that I hoped that some of the obscure Russian’s monies would go towards a top level academy where we could grow our own in the footballing equivalent of The Good Life. I distinctly remember an interview with my biggest Chelsea hero of all, Pat Nevin, in which he hoped too that funds would be diverted to some long term vision of the club nurturing its own. It seemed a lone voice at the time. Others saw no harm in flashing cash on anything that moved. But it is what we did in those first few years, and with fearsome results. But now, in the summer of 2019 – some sixteen years later – we are presented with the sudden chance, through an imposed transfer ban, to turn away from purchases and instead look inwards, promoting from our cast of thousands. And here we are with Frank Lampard as manager.

Here we are.

I am sure our path to this point in our history was not planned. But it would be foolish not to embrace the situation that we find ourselves in. Maurizio Sarri’s short, sweet and sour period as Chelsea manager is over. In the circumstances, a transfer ban would probably prove detrimental in luring a top-level coach to our club. Yes, of course Frank Lampard’s arrival as Chelsea manager is probably a few seasons too soon, but in some ways it is the perfect fit.

Frank knows the club. He respects the club. He is adored by all. He will be given time.

It does, to be frank, seem to be all about him at the moment.

As the world knows, there are many aspects of modern football that are gently eroding my love of the game. There are the unstoppable ways that commercialism have taken hold over the past couple of decades, but that is accepted with a long deep sigh these days, as irreversible as ever. Other particular grievances seem to irritate me more and more. Shall I name a few? Kick-off times changing to the detriment of match going fans. Games on Monday nights up North. Matches at 6pm on Sundays. The omnipresent threat of the thirty-ninth game. The perceived notion by many fellow fans that our club have a negligent attitude to match-going fans. The farce of Baku, and the lack of any desire at all by the club to engage with its fans in attempting to help with the costs of match tickets or travel options. The first half in Baku, which was the most surreal atmosphere that I have ever witnessed. The farce of VAR – loathed by many of my friends – and the solemn realisation that we are in for a very tough season ahead as it eats away at our enjoyment of every single goal celebration. More than anything else, VAR could tip me over the edge.

There was a key moment during the summer. I genuinely felt more excited that my local team Frome Town had re-signed two former favourites Matt Smith – a complete midfielder – and Jon Davies – a very skilful forward – than I was when I heard that Petr Cech had resigned with Chelsea. Of course, the Cech return was no surprise. The return of Matty and Jonno were big surprises. I guess everything is relative. But it is worth noting for sure.

So, against all these horrible negatives, I regard the arrival of Frank Lampard as Chelsea manager as my one beacon hope.

Only you can save me, Frank.

No pressure.

There will be talk of Frank Lampard aplenty in these match reports over the next few months. But I will say one thing now. I was bowled over by his first press-conference as manager. He simply looked the part. He looked in control, he spoke intelligently and with purpose, emphasising all of the things that I hoped he would. He down-played the emotion of the return, and that was a masterstroke. He just impressed me so much. It reminded me of the times when Jose Mourinho spoke in that first season with us, before he disappeared into a bizarre vortex of torment.

I hung on every word.

It was just magical – a real thrill – to see him as our manager.

I shouldn’t get warm and fuzzy about such things. I have just turned fifty-four for fuck sake. But I felt a very real connection with the club once more.

Bravo, Frank, bravo.

The announcement of our two games in Dublin a few weeks ago proved difficult for me to resist. There was no way that I could afford to take three days away from work to see both, so I plumped for the Saturday game against St. Patrick’s Athletic instead of the Bohemians game on the Wednesday. I soon bought plane tickets – reasonable – and a night in a hotel – not so reasonable. For only the third time in my life – apart from layovers en route to the US in 2015 and 2016 – I was heading off to the Republic of Ireland.

And it would be my first ever Chelsea game on the Emerald Isle to boot.

I couldn’t wait.

I was up early – 4.30am – on the day of the game. I soon made my way over to Bristol Airport and the 8am Ryanair flight to Dublin left on time. In order to recoup some of the extra money that I was forced to pay the airline for my carry-on bag, I warned the air hostess and nearby passengers that I would be charging for small talk.

With time the essence – I would only be in Dublin for thirty hours all told – I caught a cab into the city. I chatted away to the cab driver and told him that the 2pm kick-off time was odd, and might throw out my pre-match pub-crawl timings. We can’t even seem to hit a three o’clock kick-off time for a friendly these days, damn it. But the cabbie suggested that the Dublin vs. Cork Gaelic football game at Croke Park at 7pm might have forced the early start for our game.

…mmm, now I was tempted. This game was only thirty-five minutes each way. I could easily zip over to Dublin’s north side for the evening game at Croke Park, but in doing so, would miss some long-anticipated Dublin nightlife. I had some decisions to make. I expected that the lure of a Dublin evening session would outweigh the second sporting fixture of the day.

I spoke to the cabbie of my two previous visits to Dublin in 1991 and in 1995, both for stag weekends for college friends Pete and Jim. Both visits had a slight sporting nature. In 1991, four of us decided to combat our hangovers on the Sunday afternoon with a visit to Dublin’s famous old footballing stadium Dalymount Park where St. Pat’s were to meet visiting Swedish team Malmo in a friendly. We stood on a sizeable side terrace and watched as the two teams huffed and puffed to a 1-1 draw. It was a horrific game of football. I wondered about my sanity at the end of it. My non-Chelsea photographs on this website are very rare, but here are four from that day to illustrate this piece. It appeared from the match footage from the Bohemians game on the previous Wednesday that much of Dalymount Park has stagnated since 1991. It is hard to fathom how it once held almost fifty-thousand.

In 1995, staying in a guest house in Drumcondra, two of us walked the ten minutes to Croke Park and took in an official tour. At that time, the first of the three huge stands had just been built. It was a snapshot in time; the lovely old wooden main stand, the towering new three-tiered stand opposite, the historic Hill 16 to the left, the Canal End to the right. Having heard the tour guide talk of Croke Park’s history, I never ever thought that it would one day host the English sport of association football.

My journey into Dublin continued. The steel of Croke Park was spotted just a few hundred yards to my left. We crossed the River Liffey. The cabbie spoke how it is often the case these days how people use the appearance of their favourite bands in far off and exotic places as an excuse – his word, not mine, but I soon agreed – to visit cities that they would never usually reach. That very weekend, the star of the 1991 weekend Pete was visiting the Italian city of Lucca to see New Order, with his wife Maxine. Last summer, they visited Turin to see New Order. On the Thursday after the Chelsea game in Dublin, I would be seeing New Order in Bristol with Pete and Max.

And indeed, this Chelsea game in Inchicore against St. Pat’s was a bloody good excuse to visit Dublin once more.

My last visit was twenty-four years ago, but as we drove south it felt like only five minutes had passed. Those feelings that I had for Dublin then – uniquely so similar but so vastly different to the UK – were being rekindled. We looked on at the riverside developments, where many trailers office furniture that I help plan have ended up over the years. Dublin, after a lull in 2008, is again a thriving city.

I dropped my bag off at the hotel.

At 10.10am – just an hour and fifteen minutes after touching down at Dublin International Airport – I was ordering a full Irish Breakfast at a bar on nearby Baggot Street Upper.

I thought about the past four seasons.

In 2015, it was at Bello’s Pub and Grill in Newark, New Jersey, with a smattering of Chelsea friends from the US.

In 2016, it was in a smoky Viennese bar, just myself and some locals.

In 2017, it was in the bar of the Capital Hotel in Beijing with Glenn and Cathy.

In 2018, it was at a pop-up bar overlooking Sydney Harbour with Glenn, newly arrived that day.

And now in 2019, my first pint – typically a Peroni – of Chelsea’s season was at “Searson’s” in Dublin.

I toasted us all.

“Cheers.”

The breakfast hit the spot and set me up nicely. It is worth noting, I think, that in the subsequent Facebook album of 116 photographs from this trip to Dublin, no photograph received more likes than the one of my Full Irish. You lot are easily bloody pleased, aren’t you?

Outside, there were clouds, but the sun was bursting to shine through. I knew that my whistle-stop visit to Dublin would simply be too short to see much sightseeing, and so I chose the line of least resistance. From 10am to 2pm, I would meander through Dublin’s city centre and stop off at a few choice pubs. For those who know this Chelsea blog, in fact at times it is a travelogue, this will come as no surprise.

I do love a good pub crawl.

I had visited the General Post Office on O’Connell Street and I had seen Trinity College in 1991. I had seen the Molly Malone statue and I had spent time close to the River Liffey in 1991. I had visited Dalymount Park in 1991. I had visited Croke Park in 1995. I had walked through the city centre around Grafton Street in 1995. In 2019, it would all be about the pubs of Dublin, with a little football thrown in for good measure.

“Any excuse.”

From “Searson’s” – a large and welcoming sports bar in the mould of so many in the US – I turned north. Without realising it, I walked right past a Bank of Ireland building on Baggot Plaza where some of our office furniture is still waiting to make its arrival – “delays at site” a typical operational problem – and then over the Grand Canal. Passing the grandness of the wide Georgian splendour of Fitzwilliam Street Upper to my left, I by-passed a few bars (although, if I am truthful, I wanted to find repose in every single one of them), I enjoyed a second pint of lager in the historic “O’Donoghue’s” on Baggot Street Lower. This was a small, dark bar, heavy on atmosphere, and an obvious hotspot for US tourists if all the dollar bills pinned everywhere were anything to go by. This is where The Dubliners were formed. I am not sure if I was being paranoid, but as soon as I ordered my pint, “The Fields of Athenry” was played on the juke box, a song heavily-linked to the national team, to Celtic, Irish nationalism and now to Liverpool too. I had a wry smirk to myself.

Time was moving on. I passed St. Stephen’s Green, and folk meeting for a morning coffee. In 1995, I remembered that Dublin was overflowing with coffee houses. There seemed to be a “Bewley’s” on every street. The rotunda at St. Stephen’s Green shopping centre reminded me so much of the entrance to Ebbets Field, the old home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I turned into Grafton Street, located the Phil Lynott statue on Harry Street – and immediately started humming “there’s whisky in the jar-o” to myself – before disappearing into “McDaids”. This pub was our base camp in 1991 and I raised a pint of Guinness to Max and Pete. This was another splendid pub. Memories flew through my mind. In truth, in 1991 I was in a far from happy place. I was on the dole, eking by, not going to many Chelsea games, at a low ebb. Soon though, I would pass my driving test, get a car, a job, and some semblance of order would return to my life. I raised the pint to myself this time.

A lad that I first met out in Baku – “M” – texted me to see where I was. I replied that I was on my way to “Grogan’s” and I would soon see him there. This was good fortune, because this pub was on his list too. At around midday, I spotted him outside and we trotted over the road into the fourth pub of the morning. A good mate Kev, who lived in Dublin, not far from St. Pat’s Richmond Park stadium in Inchicore in 1999, had heavily recommended this central pub. It was another beauty. Scandinavian style wooden panels, artwork on the walls, a fridge full of ham and cheese toasties. And another sublime pint of Guinness. “M” is originally from Thailand, and now lives in England. He goes to games with a couple of mutual friends. It was good to chat with a fellow Chelsea fan, and we rambled away about Baku, about the pre-season, about the immediate future.

We caught a cab over to Inchicore at about 12.45pm.

In “McDowell’s Pub” right outside the ground, there were a few familiar Chelsea faces. There was time for one last pint of Guinness before the game and a photo with Cathy, Dog, Nick, James, M and Dave and the famous “Rising Sun” flag. In the beer garden, if you peeked over the wall, the stadium could be seen below. It was all very cramped, the feel of a lower league ground in England. It looked lovely.

It was time to walk around the corner and go to the game. I had purchased a general admission ticket since the blurb on the CFC website mentioned that there was no allocation. Imagine my surprise when I heard of a Chelsea area (rather than an allocation, I guess) behind the far goal. The game kicked-off just before I was able to take position along the side terrace opposite the main stand. The TV cameras were just a few yards above my head. It felt excellent to be able to stand on a genuine terrace at a Chelsea game for the first time in years.

Just as it should be.

There was a mix of supporters all around the stadium. I’d edge the number of supporters in Chelsea’s favour. And I did notice one thing; there were no other team shirts present. Just of the two teams. That felt right. There were Irish Chelsea fans crowded in around me on that thin terrace. There wasn’t much banter, nor noisy support from any section throughout the game, and the Chelsea section to my left never really pulled off many noisy songs.

But it was a very pleasant experience.

I checked our team.

Caballero

Zappacosta – Tomori – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mount – Kovacic

Barkley

Abraham – Batshuayi

It took me a while to get used to seeing two up front.

Chelsea absolutely dominated the first-period and if it was not for some heroic saves from the St. Pat’s ‘keeper Barry Murphy, we would have been well clear at the break. Obviously it was lovely to see Mason Mount – not an inch of fat on his body – for the first time in Chelsea colours, albeit in the horrendous new kit. I was so close to Davide Zappocosta at times that it felt like I could reach out and tell him how much he still reminds me of Grouch Marx. He is certainly not the most gifted nor admired of players, but Zappa was up and down that right wing as if his life depended on it.

Michy was the first to impress in front of goal, soon forcing a low save from Murphy. Soon after, a thunderous shot from our Belgian striker from outside the box smashed against the home crossbar. On a quarter of an hour, a lovely incisive pass from Mateo Kovacic found the run of Mount and the young midfielder did his best Lampardesque impersonation to flick it past Murphy. We continued to attack and the home team offered little resistance. Shots increased on the goal to my right. Ross Barkley smacked a fine shot against a post with Murphy beaten. On the half-hour mark, Emerson found a little space outside the box and, optimistically, left fly with a low shot. It surprised me that it nestled inside the far corner, and I suspect that the ‘keeper may have been unsighted.

The Chelsea section serenaded “Super Frank” and he waved back. He was the study of concentration all game long.

With us winning 2-0, I was sorely tempted to enquire of the home supporters “are you Arsenal in disguise?” but felt better of it. Their exact copy of the Arsenal kit gave the game an even more surreal feel. There were “oohs and ahs” around me when David Luiz tackled, lifted the ball up over his head, juggled it once then laid it off to a team mate.

It was again the turn of Murphy to take over centre-stage when he made a series of fine saves, including a high leap to deny Michy once more, and another from a Barkley free-kick.

The sun was beating down now and my forehead was starting to tingle.

At the break, Frank and the management team came onto the pitch and watched as some players – those who were down to take part in the second period – went through some drills. As with the game on Wednesday, there were wholesale changes before the game restarted. We lined up as follows.

Cumming.

Alonso – Zouma – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Bakayoko – Gilmour

Kenedy – Palmer – Pedro

Giroud

The second-half was more subdued. With the sun still beating down on me, I was beginning to rue not bringing a baseball cap along. It was great to see Billy Gilmour. What with Happy Gilmour and Happy Zouma on the pitch, it was perhaps time for the Chuckle Brothers to move aside. I was surprised how deep Gilmour often played, but he kept possession well and had a couple of neat runs. The pace of the game dipped, but at times our fitness levels put the home team to shame. There were occasional breaks, and a few shots on goal although that man Murphy was again the star. Pedro looked neat and precise. I thought we might never see Kenedy again at Chelsea, but what with the appearance of Lucas Piazon on Wednesday (Piazon has almost been on as many pre-season tours as me) I guess anything is possible. It was Kenedy’s precise cross out on the left that found a blatantly unmarked Olivier Giroud, who calmly volleyed home to make it 3-0.

Excellent.

It was still a scorcher.

I turned to the bloke behind me and said “who thought I’d come to Dublin for a sun tan?”

The home team made plenty of substitutes as the game wore on. Eric Molloy, who had scored a fine equaliser against us for Bohs on Wednesday, showed up in this game too, a second-half substitute. There was a “wag” standing alongside some fellow St. Pat’s supporters in the front row just down from me. A large man, and full of banter, he played up to his audience. When a rough tackle was carried out by Kurt Zouma, he pleaded “leave him alone, he’s only fourteen” which brought a few smiles, alluding to young Evan Ferguson who played so well against us on Wednesday.

In the closing moments, Giroud chased down a pass, and set off towards goal from a central position. He was forced wide, but aimed at goal from the corner of the box. It was a laser, and crept into the net past the despairing dive of Murphy and into the bottom corner.

St. Patrick’s Athletic 0 Chelsea 4.

Franktastic.

At the end of the game, the crowd cheered our new manager as he walked towards the centre of the pitch and applauded all four sides. It did feel that the whole game, the whole day, was about him. It is understandable, but I am sure that he would agree that it is now all about the players.

Outside, I was so glad to bump into brothers Tim and Declan, who I often see on my travels at Chelsea games. This was their home city. I would have felt bad not seeing them. I met up by chance with M and we agreed to share another cab back to the city. Cabs were a rare commodity, though, and the sun was still beating down. We spotted a pub – Pub Number Six – and popped inside the cool interior for another Guinness apiece. It took a while, but M spotted the “Rising Sun” flag out in the patio area.

Out we went, joining Nick and James, plus two German lads. Both were Chelsea, but one was Chemie Halle and one was TSV1860. The chat continued on. It was pleasing to meet the 1860 supporter since he soon confirmed that he was one of the 1860 fans who followed us around Europe in our 1994/95 ECWC campaign.

Respect.

So, there was no Croke Park visit on that Saturday night. However, I did watch twenty minutes of second-half action in the hotel bar at around 8pm. There was a sparse crowd present. I think that I had made the correct choice. Later, at various locations in the city centre, I would frequent Pub Seven, Pub Eight and Pub Nine. Dublin had done me proud. It really was a friendly city for this friendly game.

I have a feeling that Reading, the venue for my next match, will not be so perfect.

I’ll see you there.

 

Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

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

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

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

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

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

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

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

“When are you coming back?”

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

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

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

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

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

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

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

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

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

We were here.

Panic over.

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

But we were never lost.

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

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From Sunshine And Schadenfreude

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A standard greeting was “going to Baku?”

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

The teams soon appeared.

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

EDEN HAZARD BLEEDS BLUE.

CHELSEA IS YOUR HOME.

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

Our team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Azpilicueta – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Loftus-Cheek – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

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

Our game began.

And so did all the others.

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

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

“Vichai had a dream.

To build our football team.

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

We play from the back.

We counter attack.

“Champions of England.”

You made us sing that.”

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

Liverpool went, unsurprisingly, a goal up at Anfield.

Then, a score flash which made us groan.

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

City had equalised.

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

We retorted “He’s won more than you.”

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

“Eden Hazard. He won it for you.”

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

Ha.

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

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

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

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

Phew.

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

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

“Fackinell.”

Leicester City 0 Chelsea 0

Brighton 1 Manchester City 2

Liverpool 1 Wolves 0

Tottenham 1 Everton 0

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

At the break, I bumped into Alex and Reece.

“Would you keep Sarri, Chris?”

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

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

The lads were in agreement, with reservations.

“What do we know, we’re not experts.”

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

Neal 1983/84

Gullit 1996/97

Mourinho 2004/5

Ancelotti 2009/10

Conte 2016/17

The best I have known…

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

“You haven’t missed anything, mate.”

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

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

I hummed “Blue Moon” to myself.

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

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

Eden Hazard replaced Willian.

His last game in England? Almost certainly.

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

Olivier Giroud replaced the lackluster and lazy Higuain.

Tottenham scored a second.

Our game petered out.

A Chelsea draw and a Tottenham draw.

“As you were.”

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

I hate modern football.

Outside, I shook hands with many.

“Have a good summer.”

“See you in Baku.”

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

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

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

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

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

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

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

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

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

OK, rant over, as the kids say.

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

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

I will see some of you next season.

I will see some of you in Baku.

Cheers.

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