Tales From The Group Phase

Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest : 11 December 2013.

When the European Cup became the Champions League over twenty years ago, Chelsea Football Club looked on from afar. Until that point, European football was a rare treat. However, within the football fan community, there was immediate disdain of the participation within it of league runners-up. The “Champions League” suddenly became a misnomer. Then, the cut-throat knock-out nature of the old competition was thrown away in favour of a mini-league format. Football fans, showing considerable unity throughout the continent of Europe, were again dismayed. Most saw  its formation as UEFA appeasing the fat cats at the top table, virtually guaranteeing them all top level competition on an annual basis and staving off threats of a breakaway pan-European league. Since those days, Chelsea’s participation within the competition has been a regular event. This would be our eleventh season in a row. For us supporters, the real advantage of the Champions League group phase, played under lights in various degrees of midweek darkness every autumn, has been to pick and choose which of the three away games we are able to attend. Very often, the home games – especially on match day five or six – offer little distraction.

The Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest game, in itself our fourth match-up with the Romanians in nine months, was therefore hardly filling me with enthusiasm during the day. In fact, if truth be known, as the day progressed, I kept questioning myself as to why I was bothering to attend. Our passage into the last sixteen was already assured, there would be a tiring drive into London, probably a poor atmosphere, little drinking time before the game and a late finish in the small hours of Thursday morning.

I came to the conclusion that the main reason, on a personal level, was for me to witness – let’s hope – the immediate and entertaining upturn in our play since the Stoke City defeat on Saturday. I simply hoped for goals, attacking football and a reaffirmation of our collective love of Jose Mourinho.

A hope for better things.

A just reward for my Wednesday evening sortie into town.

It reminded of the days of following the club in the era, much doted upon by Chelsea supporters of a certain vintage, of “the drought” when we didn’t expect entertaining football at Stamford Bridge, or even a win, but we just attended games out of blind devotion and the hope, however small, that our patience would be rewarded with an entertainment-ridden goal fest.

Due to patchy fog in Wiltshire and traffic congestion in London, the drive to Chelsea took three full hours. Parky and I jostled into the boozer just after 7pm. There was a quick “hello goodbye” and then I was off with Alan to The Bridge. There was time to mull over a few talking points.

Within parts of the Chelsea fan base, there had been surprising reactions to the defeat at the Britannia Stadium. There was the call to move Petr Cech on and recall Thibaut Courtois. I found this to be rather harsh. At the Stoke game, he certainly erred for the first goal, but could hardly be held responsible for the others.  There was also a desire among some fans for Mourinho to recall David Luiz; his errant behaviour, much-frowned-upon and castigated by many of those same fans, forgotten. There was even frustration with Mourinho himself.

My thoughts?

Chill.

We all know that this team, this squad even, is changing.

I’d rather have Jose in charge than anyone else.

Anyone.

That is not to say we should bow down and follow blindly. There is always room for opinion and debate. Even I have tired of Mourinho’s snipes at our strike force’s lack of goals. However, as always, there is a thin line between quiet and constructive criticism as opposed to loud and knee-jerk negativism.

Regarding the lack of goals from Fernando, Demba and Samuel, Alan wisely noted –

“We can’t win. We should be happy the goals are being spread out among the team. If only Torres or Eto’o was scoring, people would be bemoaning the lack of firepower from elsewhere.”

Football fans are never happy.

We were inside Stamford Bridge as early as 7.25pm and my immediate concern was the vast amount of blue seats clearly visible. By 7.45pm, my fears had subsided. It was yet another near full house for a Champions League night. Our support, often derided, should again be applauded. Steaua brought a full 3,000 in March; tonight it was around 2,000. As the teams entered the pitch, the away end was lit with the many lights from the travelling Romanians’ mobile phones. There were obviously Steaua fans in the East Upper too; lights there also.

Mark Schwarzer was in goal, Ashley Cole was at left-back, David Luiz was partnering JT,  Frank was paired with Mikel in the anchor roles, Willian and Oscar recalled alongside Hazard, Ba upfront.

Chelsea began positively and a goal came under just ten minutes. Willian sent over a corner which was flicked on at the near post by Oscar and Demba Ba pounced.

Good start. Nerves settled. Let’s go to town.

Alas, the rest of the first-half offered little to cheer. In fact, Steaua could easily have levelled the score, only for Iancu to shoot wide. On several occasions, they worked the ball into our box but – thankfully – the ball tended to miraculously avoid an away player. Both Oscar and Hazard were quiet. Mikel had started poorly, managed to get himself booked, but then redeemed himself with a few cool pieces of play. At a Chelsea corner, I watched as an unmarked Lampard on the edge of the box signalled for the ball to be played out to him. The resultant volley was spectacular but was hit high of Tatarusanu’s bar.

Lots of huff and puff in the first-half, not much quality.

I noted that the scoreboard above the away fans was showing that Demba Ba had scored for Steaua and we were losing 1-0. I wondered if the work of Nicolae Ceausescu was still being done.

At half-time, a lovely moment.

Our much-loved former right-back / wing back / midfielder Dan Petrescu was given a lovely introduction by Neil Barnett. Dan was the first “foreigner” to play two hundred games for us. How we loved his shuffling style and his incisive passing. He was serenaded by Chelsea fans and Steaua fans alike. He played for Steaua in the 1989 European Cup Final versus the mighty Milan. I love it that he now manages Dynamo Moscow; a club forever linked with the history of Chelsea Football Club. At The Shed, he momentarily picked up a Steaua scarf and the away fans lapped it up.

Superb stuff.

That was probably the highlight of the night.

As the game restarted, a few fans in the Matthew Harding attempted to “get things going” and I, at least, joined in. But generally, it was quiet. There was not one single song from the 12,000 spectators in the West Stand. The Shed were quiet. It was one of those nights.  I often wonder what a lost soul from the “drought years” would make of these European Nights at Stamford Bridge these days. What would an exiled Brit, maybe now living in Australia, returning to a revamped Bridge for the first time since 1990 make of it.

“Fackinell, I used to dream of nights like this at Chelsea. The stadium looks brilliant. Everyone close to the pitch. Flags everywhere. Loads of colour. Should be made for nights like this. But why is nobody fackin’ singing?”

There were few highlights in a very low key second period.

Ba had a great chance soon into the second period but blasted high.

Andre Schurrle, who had probably his best game in a CFC shirt in Bucharest, was introduced by Mourinho and soon enjoyed an impressive run at the heart of the Steaua defence. His direct play pleases me. On this occasion, he struck at goal and the rebound was headed over by Hazard.

Ba was played in and volleyed home, but was ruled offside.

As the match continued on, for once I was egging the clock to reach “90.”

Not to signify a Chelsea win, just for the game to end and for me to get home.

This was clearly a mediocre Chelsea performance. I sensed a great feeling of numbed disappointment in the lack of attacking verve rather than euphoria about cementing pole position in our group. There was little there for me to admire.

As I left the stadium, I walked around to touch the Peter Osgood statue; a bit of a superstition on Champions League Nights for me.

A quick touch of his right boot.

And thoughts of Athens, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Milan and Leverkusen.

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Tales From The Internationalists

Steaua Bucharest vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2013.

There was a moment during the breaking hours of Monday, as I circumnavigated the M25 from the M3 to the M1, when I was lost in thought, already planning my next travel burst. Even though I was headed out for a first-ever visit to Romania for our game with Steaua Bucharest the following evening, here was proof that I am never happier than letting my mind wander and allowing it to flit from city to city, dreaming of possible itineraries, buoyed by the knowledge that another destination will soon be awaiting me. I suppose this is the definition of wanderlust; always wanting to be elsewhere, the constant preoccupation with other lands, other cities, other experiences. If life is a journey, does this mean that I am unhappy with my own journey, since I am forever willing myself to new lands? Who knows? Not me. Especially at 5.30am on a drab Monday morning.

Back to basics; for now, Bucharest was my destination.

I had left home at just after 4am and there was the inevitable text to a few night owls in the US to let them know that I was “On The Road.”

“Jack Kerouacu.”

All of my goods and chattels had been forced rather strenuously into a 42cm x 30cm x 25cm Karrimor ruck-sac. It was the maximum size allowed for an item of hand luggage for my Wizz Air flight from Luton to Bucharest Coandi airport. In truth, my trusty camera and lenses took up around 40% of this space; there was no room for a pullover. I might be freezing in Bucharest, but at least I’d be able to record it all on film.

Stonehenge looked even more spooky than usual as I shot past it on the A303. I dropped into Fleet Services for a coffee. All was quiet. On the M25, I glanced across at Heathrow’s Terminal Five and, with memories of that building being the starting point of a trip to Philadelphia with my dear mother in 2010, came a cavalcade of yearnings to be elsewhere. That my craving for foreign lands has been partially-satiated by the international travels of Chelsea Football Club, of course, is one of the joys of my life. The trip to Bucharest would be my twenty-sixth Chelsea game in mainland Europe .

I reached Luton airport at 6.30am. On the bus from the long term car park to the small terminal building, with me unable to stifle the early-morning yawns, I spotted the first Chelsea fan of the trip (“face familiar, name unknown”) and I knew there would be more as the morning progressed.

It is one of the great annoyances of following Chelsea in European competitions that we always seem to get drawn against teams that we have already met. How is it possible for us to continually meet Porto, Valencia, Barcelona, Schalke, Juventus, Lazio et al? In this year’s CL Group Phase, UEFA had tucked us up even further; not only have we played all three group members before, but we only met Steaua and Basel last spring. Have they never heard of wanderlust, damn it?

At the gate, I noted a few Chelsea fans – FFNU – but then spotted a trio of very familiar faces; Rob, Callum and DJ. Here were three members of the very loyal band of Chelsea supporters who – quite literally – follow Chelsea over land and sea, and Bucharest. Only a couple of friends had travelled out to see us take on Steaua in the Europa League last March – I believe we only took around 200 to 300 – but their comments about the city made me choose Romania over Germany and Switzerland in 2013. Although a German trip is always brilliant, a previous visit to a grim Gelsenkirchen in 2007 easily dissuaded me. Basel? No. Bucharest it was.

The flight lasted around three hours; thankfully I was able to catch up on some sleep. The rest of the trip was spent chatting about various flights, travel options and prices of current trips and of previous escapades following Chelsea. There is no doubt that Chelsea supporters – like those of the other clubs in England who have been blessed with European competition – are masters in the art of winkling out the cheapest route from the UK to any given city in Europe. It seems that certain fans know the schedules of Ryanair, Easyjet, Wizz-Air and others off by heart. Often, routes are quite bizarre.

London to Berlin, then to Madrid.

London Gatwick to Bergamo, then to Bucharest, but returning via another airline via Vienna to London Heathrow.

London to Porto, then train to Lisbon, but back via a train to Faro then home.

All to save £20 here and £20 there.

Top marks to everyone. Top marks to the Chelsea Internationalists, the masters of budget air travel. In fact, among the talk of flight combinations and ridiculous routes, there is almost a hidden agenda to come up with the most tortuous itinerary of all, but only if a cash saving is to be had.

“Yeah, I travelled out on a flight to Paris for only £20, but I knew that there was a budget coach going to Milan every second Tuesday in the month for just £5. I hopped on that. From Milan, I caught a train to Como using my Italian mate’s rail season ticket and then cycled, like James Coburn in “The Great Escape,” over the border into Switzerland. Job done, son.”

The rumours were true; it was raining in Bucharest as our flight landed at 1.30pm. The airport looked bleak; tired concrete buildings and associated fittings. Rob and I managed to get ourselves on a bus into the city for a ridiculously cheap price. Patiently waiting on the bus, just arrived from Heathrow on a Tarom flight, were Alan, Gary, Tom and a few other familiar Chelsea fanatics. Good stuff. The bus ride in to the city reminded me of the journey into Moscow in 2008; rain beating down on the windows, slow-moving traffic, but vast warehouses, garages and superstores lining the road.

Carrefour, Ikea, Porsche, BMW, Harley Davidson.

We passed the Romanian version of the Arc de Triomph and continued along the main artery into the city. We alighted at the end of the line at Piata Unirii, the large central square, surrounded by large shops to one side, the hint of the old town to another, and the vast open space of the east-west Bulevardi Unirii to the south. It was teeming with rain. Tom, Alan and Gary made their way to their hotel in the old town, while I headed off in another direction, with my pronunciation of a street name drawing nothing but consternation from a local policeman.

I reached my hotel on Strada Mantuleasa at 3.30pm. On the twenty minute walk from Piata Unirii, the rain hadn’t stopped. It was time to have a shower, dry my clothes and take a power nap. It was going to be a long night ahead.

At 7pm, I met up with a work acquaintance, Elena, who I have been communicating with on email and the occasional phone call, for the past seven years. She works, just a few miles to the north, right next to the Dinamo Bucharest stadium in fact, for an office furniture company. We hopped next door in to the adjoining restaurant and spent an hour or so chatting about work, Bucharest, her personal family history under the old communist regime, and the particular circumstances that brought me to her home city on an autumnal day in 2013. It was, of course, fascinating to hear her speak of the old regime and, I am ashamed to say, made me realise how little I knew – or know now, even – of the countries in the former Eastern bloc and how they all existed before the walls came tumbling down, quite literally, in the late ‘eighties. Elena spoke of her parents who both worked at a factory making engines. I made the stupid mistake of asking the name of the company. Of course, there was no company; her parents were working for the state. In that exact moment, my mind did cartwheels attempting to understand what it must have been like in the old regime where poor productivity was hidden, where objectives and goals were masked in a cloud of bureaucracy and where the fear – in Romania especially, one of the most terrifying communist states – of being investigated by the state was omnipresent.

In truth, I could only imagine. And I was sad that I would just be brushing the surface of Bucharest on this trip. There was a long day ahead on the Tuesday, but – if the rain continued to fall – I wondered how much of the city I would actually manage to see.

At 8.15pm, Elena kindly deposited me on the eastern edge of the old town, with the flashing neon of the advertisements in Piata Unirii, a hundred yards to the south. Within a minute, I had stumbled upon Base Camp Bucharest 2013.

The “Old City” bar had been used by the Chelsea expeditionary force during the visit in 2012-2013. A return visit in 2013-2014 was a necessity. The owner, Cristian, had again decorated his bar with Chelsea flags and a few of his female friends were wearing blue Chelsea T-shirts. The girls weren’t working behind the bar; they just welcomed us in at the front door and posed for photographs.

Lovely jubbly.

Just inside the door, I soon stumbled into a bevy of good friends; the ever-present Alan and Gary, but also Rob, Tom and Pauline, everyone already deep into beer and vodka. They had been enjoying the warm welcome from the bar staff since around 4pm. The night was already rocking.

“Fasten your seatbelts, Chris, my son, this is going to be a good one.”

Within a few seconds, that Chelsea stalwart “The Liquidator” was booming throughout the long, narrow bar, deep in the heart of Bucharest’s old town; a cramped hotchpotch of cobbled streets, lined with bars, restaurants, ice-cream parlours and fast-food stalls.  Outside, the rain was falling and the streets were near-deserted. Inside, it was noisy and the songs continued.

“Stop dreaming of the quiet life, ‘cos it’s the one you’ll never know.”

There was talk of a myriad number of topics, but laughter was the one constant. The music pounded. At the opposite end of the bar, Chelsea fans in their ‘fifties – all FFNU – were stomping.

“We’re going down the pub.”

Tom soon acquired a navy blue cap from one of the local constabulary and flitted from friend to friend with the look of someone who was enjoying a second – or third or fourth – childhood. His face was a picture. The songs, from my youth, were continuing and we were shouting out the lyrics.

“Echo Beach, far away in time, Echo Beach far away in time.”

Goggles, one of the Fulham OB especially assigned to keep an eye on the Chelsea supporters on our European adventures, was in the bar, chatting to a few faces. What a crazy life for the Chelsea Internationalists.

“It’s just gone noon, half-past monsoon on the banks of the River Nile.”

My good mate Orlin – San Francisco via Sofia – soon arrived with three mates with ridiculously unpronounceable names and joined in the fun. In March, our support in Bucharest was bolstered by Chelsea fans from Sofia and Varna. Orlin told me that around sixty Chelsea fans from his home town of Sofia would be in town for Tuesday’s game.

“When I’m with you baby, I go out of my head.”

Out of nowhere, two Chelsea fans decided to do a streak through the bar.

“I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist.”

As the night rolled on, the local Ciuc beer (7 lei for a pint or around £1.30) gave way to vodka and Red Bull.

“Poor old Johnny Ray.”

The crowds grew and the singing increased.

“London calling to the faraway towns.”

Then, Alan and I camping it up good and proper.

“I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.”

It was 1985 all over again. Rob, Gary and Alan then, predictably, hit the amaretto.

The crowds eventually began to drift away; maybe at 2.30am, maybe at 3am. Then a sudden influx of a few late guests and an impromptu song contest involving some very rare Chelsea songs. At around 3.45am, I teetered out of the bar, the rain still falling, and set off on a walk back to my hotel.

“Get to the main square, Chris, and then it’ll be easy.”

Oh boy.

After walking for around twenty minutes or so, I remember being tempted by an all-night petrol station on the opposite side of the road. My receipt for a sausage strudel indicates it was 4.12am. On exiting, my powers of self-navigation had evidently been upturned. I had no idea where I was and no idea of how I had approached the filling station. I was lost. In Bucharest. I yelled out a shriek of pain. I continued walking. The rain got worse. Passing traffic splashed rain water from the kerbside puddles onto my already soaked jeans. My socks were saturated. I shouted again.

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.”

At a relatively busy road junction by a garage, I flagged down a yellow cab. I hopped inside. I mentioned the name of my hotel, but the cab driver looked befuddled. I tried to remember the name of the street. My mind was blank. There was a moment of silence. He looked at me. I looked at him. He spoke no English. I spoke no Romanian. This was ridiculous. I exited the cab and slammed the door behind me. For around twenty minutes, I sheltered in a bus shelter. I couldn’t have been wetter if someone had thrown me into a swimming pool. At last another cab; let’s try again. Thankfully, this cabbie – a far friendlier bloke – was equipped with GPS and the back-up of a tablet…he soon pumped in my hotel name. Thankfully, it registered.

“Strada Mantuleasa?”

“Yeah, that’s it!”

What relief.

The cab ride was just 20 lei – around £4 – so I couldn’t have been too far from the hotel; maybe a mile or so. At around 5.30am, I entered the foyer of the hotel; it had been an eventful – for the want of a better word – end to the night.

I slept like a baby, not waking until 11.45am. Miraculously, the ten beers and five vodkas (again the bar receipts tell a story) from the previous night had no effect. I had no hangover, nor the merest hint of one. It was the Miracle of Mantuleasa Street. I showered, checked out and…then what?

It was just after midday. The game was almost ten hours away. Despite no hangover, boy was I tired. Despite the lure of heading back to the Old City bar, I resisted. I wanted to see, at least, a little of the city. I walked a few blocks in search of a coffee house in which to shelter from the rain which was still falling. Not only is Bucharest devoid of bars, except in the old town, it is also deficient in cafes and restaurants. I walked along uneven pavements, with flagstones at every angle possible, avoiding further puddles (there are a lot of puddles in Bucharest) and was dismayed to witness only fast food outlets with no room to sit inside; just a serving counter onto the pavement.

“Bloody hell.”

From 2pm to 3.30pm, I sheltered in a “Subway.” The wind was howling outside. The trees which lined the street were being blown to the left and to the right. The rain – God, the rain – still fell. In truth, it reminded me of travels in distant cities in my youth when I had time to kill, little money, and when I waited for the next train connection – to Verona, to Stuttgart, to Genoa – in a local café and observed the locals. It was OK.

Then, typical me. I emptied the chest pocket of my still wet jacket; although it was rather sodden, there was the Bucharest city map that I had deposited before I set off the previous evening.

Oh boy.

If only I had remembered; my lonely traipsing of the streets of Bucharest would have not happened.

I growled.

I set off to take a few photographs of the Palace of the Parliament, the massive edifice constructed under the guidelines of the ruthless dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the ‘eighties. The building is huge. I had to take some photographs of it while in Bucharest, if nothing else. Ceausescu, who was shot during the uprising in 1989, never lived to see it finally completed. It remains the largest civilian building in the World. At Piata Unirii, there was a feeling of complete bleakness. The wide boulevard to my left and to my right, and the wide open void of the square, just made me contemplate the absolute greyness of life in the old regime. I took a few atmospheric wide angle shots with my camera as the rain fell and cars flew past. Away to my left, the Palace beckoned me; I walked slowly towards it, the rain still falling. Although Bucharest was known as Little Paris in the inter-war years, with wide streets and pleasing architecture, it was clear to me that this was not one of Eastern Europe’s jewels. This was not Budapest, nor Prague, nor Krakow, each with charismatic architectural treasures and beauties. This was Bucharest, tarnished with the brush of communism and struggling to acclimatise to a new world.  I had noted a few ornate churches, but the city centre had shown little to charm me.

At the western end of Bulevardi Unirii stood the imposing monument to Ceausescu. Its subtle and delicate light brickwork belied the building’s dark secrets. I pointed my camera, shielding it from the rain, and snapped some photographs. I sheltered on the steps of an adjacent governmental building, under the yellow, red and blue of the Romanian flag and let my imagination run away with me for a few short moments; what secrets could these buildings tell? During the days of the communist bloc, my sole foray behind the iron curtain took place in 1976 when, on a family holiday to Italy, we paid a visit to some impressive caves in the former Yugoslavia. I remember my father informing me at the time that Yugoslavia was probably the most welcoming of communist states. Not so Romania under Ceausescu. A trip to Romania for football thirty years ago would not have been anything like a visit in 2013.

With that sobering thought, I headed back into the old town, where I knew that a warm welcome awaited me. At the bottom of Strada Selari, I sat in The Bankers pub for a while, but the place was empty. As I headed north, past more bars, Chelsea fans were conspicuous by their absence. I wondered just how many fans were in town.

At the top of the cobbled street, the Old City was overflowing with Chelsea fans. As so often happens on foreign trips, this was evidently “the” Chelsea pub. Inside, the place was rammed, and I sat quietly in a corner, happy to watch on as others continued on at the same pace as the previous night. The Bristol boys arrived. Orlin and the Bulgarians were over in the far corner. The five blue-clad Chelsea girls were again happy to pose with photographs. A TV crew were present and Pauline made a couple of appearances. One of the bar girls hopped up on to the bar and did an impromptu dance routine. The owner had clearly done his research; his CD of Chelsea songs even included the rarely heard Cup Final song from 2000 : –

“Now the blue tomorrow gets closer each day.
We will follow the Chelsea
Til our dying day.
Just look over your shoulder
See the army dressed in blue.
We’ll go where you go.
And fight every fight with you.”

There was talk of buses taking us over to the stadium from 7pm. The game was to be played at the National Arena, a new structure which hosted the 2012 Europa League Final. Steaua – the team of the army in the old regime – have their very own stadium to the west of the city. For big games, they decamp to the larger national stadium. I can remember the stadium’s predecessor which was typically named “August 23 Stadium” from an England game in 1979. I remember the stereotypical shallow banks of terracing, but especially the central platform, or loggia, where dignitaries watched the games. It was like nothing I had seen at a football stadium before or since.

Four buses took the Chelsea fans from the city centre out to the stadium at around 8.15pm. Our bus featured around twenty of the Bulgarian chapter; it was they alone who were singing on the way to the game. Everyone else was quite subdued; I guess we had seen it all before.

I commented to Alan : –

“I hope they are singing good things about us. Or, at least, bad things about Tottenham.”

We were deposited right outside the stadium. With the lights shining from underneath the roof, the new structure certainly looked impressive. Its main feature was the roof itself; hoisted high on supports, adding height to the structure from inside and out. We were, unbelievably, searched an incredible seven times, involving seven different people, on our way in to the stadium.

One – a ticket check.

Two – a full body tap down.

Three – a full body tap down and bag search.

Four – a check of our upper body.

Five – a check of our pockets.

Six – a check of our legs.

Seven – at the turnstile, a full body and bag search once more.

With the rain still falling, we just wanted to get inside the stadium. Although there was no unpleasantness from the police and the security, this was surely being overzealous? I was just glad I was allowed to take my camera inside. We assembled high on the upper tier, a little knot of Chelsea fans in the cavernous stadium.

If we had 200 at the game in March, I’d guess we had 400 at this one. The Bulgarians lead the chanting as the players went through their drills down below. In truth, I was still feeling the effects of my sightseeing; although my jacket was slowly drying out in the cold wind, my socks were still soaking. All around me, fellow fans stood, shuffling from one foot to the other in an attempt to keep warm. The crowd appeared quite sparse. The stadium only looked half-full. In March, Alan had said it was virtually a full house. We couldn’t work it out, although Alan mentioned that the price of tickets for the game in March was half the price of the 90 lei demanded for this one.

The local kick-off time was 9.45pm. The players took to the field, with the tarpaulin of the large roof keeping the night sky out of sight and giving the stadium a strangely surreal feel. The Chelsea players looked smart in the new white / white / blue.

At the northern end, many flags were constantly waved by one group of Steaua ultras in the lower tier. Down below us, another group of ultras were clapping and cheering throughout the game, with capos at the front leading the orchestration. The Bulgarians in our section taunted them. What pleasantries were exchanged is not known.

“Romanian cheese tastes sour and is overated.”

“That’s nothing; Bulgarian cheese tastes like my grandfather’s socks.”

Who knows?

This was clearly a “must win” game after our surprising defeat against Basel. Our early play, in which Andre Schurrle out on the left wing was heavily used, promised that this would be a good night of football. All of our possession was met with a wall of whistling from the home fans. After a few raids, we were all sad to see Fernando Torres replaced by Samuel Eto’o. We were unsure of his injury. A rare Steaua attack was thwarted. We opened the scoring on 19 minutes after another break from Schurrle, who passed to Eto’o. He lost control but Ramires was on hand to stab the ball home. The net bristled and the Chelsea fans cheered in relief rather than an outpouring of elation. Soon after, we sung “Jose Mourinho” and our manager, looking smart himself in trademark coat and scarf, waved back.  Our chances kept coming with the German Schurrle still standing out with his direct runs at his marker. Elsewhere in the midfield, Mata and Oscar kept probing away. Ramires and Lampard, playing deeper, were not afraid to support the forwards. There was little cheering or singing in the away section; the shuffling continued.

Cech saved well down below us, thwarting a cross shot with his left hand.

Just before the break, Mata played in Eto’o. We held our breath as he aimed. His shot was parried by the ‘keeper but the rebound struck the hapless Georgievski.

2-0 at the break. Easy.

During half-time I asked Alan if, during the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, he could ever imagine himself seeing Chelsea play in Bucharest twice within six months. He looked wistfully across at home fans in the other half of the stadium and smiled.

Both teams exchanged chances soon into the second-half, but we added a third goal when more diligent work from Schurrle on the left flank was rewarded when his pass found Oscar, who played in an advancing Ramires. His shot was struck hard past the home ‘keeper.

3-0. Cruising.

Juan Mata smacked a ball against the near post. The home fans’ whistling had now subsided. We were well on top. Some Chelsea fans left on the hour; the lure of a warm bar was too much. At the other end, Steaua’s Tanase struck at goal; Cech back peddled and flung his hand up to push the ball over the bar. We watched on, horrified, as he crashed into his left post. It looked quite horrific. He stayed down. After a few minutes of concern, he rose to his feet and we were mighty relieved.

Shots from Schurrle and Eto’o caused the Steaua ‘keeper to save again. In the last minute, substitute Willian was found by Eto’o and he set up Frank Lampard who calmly struck a low shot past a crowd of players in the box. The ball grazed the far post and crept in.

4-0.

More songs for Mourinho. He again waved.

Job most definitely done.

At the end of the game, long after the Chelsea players had applauded us as they had walked off, the home players, although clearly disconsolate, walked slowly right up to within yards of both of their ultra groups at opposite ends of the stadium and applauded them. I thought this was a lovely gesture. Even the Chelsea fans applauded the Steaua team off.

We feared that we would be kept inside for ages after the game, but the wait was not long. In fact, even the rain had stopped once we slowly exited. The buses were waiting for us. With a police escort, we were returned to the city centre. There was a mood of cool relief at the outcome of the game. A Chelsea fan from Abu Dhabi, in Romania especially for the game, chatted to us about his fanaticism for the team. He had been present at the game in Barcelona in 2012 too. His enthusiasm was heartening.

“It’s a religion” he exclaimed.

Chelsea truly is an international club these days; off it as well as on. I had inadvertently bumped into a lad from Sweden during the game too. England, Bulgaria, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates. Our appeal knows no bounds and no geographical boundary.

Truly over land and sea.

As my flight home was to take off at the ungodly hour of 6.15am, there was simply no point in paying for a second night in a hotel. I took a bus back to the airport at 1.30am, past the illuminated Arcul de Triumf, and waited patiently in the terminal building for the return to England.

At least I was dry.

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Tales From Thursday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest : 14 March 2013.

I wasn’t one of the 150 or so Chelsea who ventured out to the Romanian capital last week for the first leg of this Europa Cup tie. From what I have heard, it was one of the best European trips for a while. Because there were so few travelers, everyone kept together and a boozy time, aided by ridiculously cheap alcohol, resulted in a fine trip. The game, as is so often the case, was the least enjoyable part of the trip. In The Goose before the return leg, I briefly chatted to Mick, who had been one of the 150. The strangest thing during his short stay was being greeted by a family of locals who were sleeping in the lobby of the apartment he had rented for the three days. By the time he had awoken in the morning, they had disappeared. Mick shrugged it off. I wondered if this sort of thing was common…in Liverpool.

Parky and I had reached The Goose in good time, but I soon realised how quiet the pub seemed to be. My good friend Orlin, the Bulgarian who now lives in San Francisco, was in town en route to Sofia and soon joined us. We had managed to wangle a spare ticket for a mate of his too, so everything was looking rosy. I noted that the Chelsea website mentioned that ticket sales for the game had been suspended, which obviously indicated that tickets had still been on sale. I was asked during the day what I thought the gate might be. I really had no clue, though the figure of 32,000 stuck in my head.

Daryl mentioned that it was exactly one year to the day since that amazing 4-1 victory over Napoli. Our greatest ever journey started that night. In comparison, the game with Steaua seemed to be something of an afterthought. Personally speaking, a lot of my focus was still on the F.A. Cup tie with Manchester United. However, going into the game, I had no real fears about us exiting the competition to Steaua. They were for the taking, despite the woeful performance in Bucharest.

Alan had sold my ticket for the game in Romania to one of around twenty Chelsea supporting Bulgarians from Varna. I mentioned this to Orlin, who was one of the leading lights in setting up the oft-seen Chelsea/Bulgaria Supporters Club. As I have mentioned before, Orlin’s club of birth is Levski Sofia; he still holds a season ticket at the stadium. The price? A whopping £35. Parky and I almost spat our drinks out when we heard that. Anyway, Orlin mentioned the various friendships that exist between clubs in Sofia and further beyond in the old communist bloc. For example, Levski’s main rival is CSKA Sofia, the old army team. It seems that supporters of the three “army” clubs of Bulgaria, Romania and the former Yugoslavia (CSKA Sofia, Steaua Bucharest and Dynamo Belgrade) often cross borders to attend each other’s games. Additionally, there are many Levski / Chelsea fans. Therefore, for the game in Bucharest, Orlin explained that many Levski fans travelled to Romania to support Chelsea and many CSKA fans travelled to support Steaua.

With that, I looked up and spotted a “Bulgaria Spurs” banner at the San Siro.

What does this all prove? Maybe that the standard of Bulgarian football is not so great and football fanatics will travel vast distances to get their fix.

From Bulgaria to Tottenham, though? Oh boy.

Of course, Chelsea has their own little band of allies in Rangers, Hearts, Linfield, Feyenoord and Lazio. We spoke briefly about the chances of meeting Spurs in the final in Amsterdam. Tottenham, of course, has a link with Ajax, the old Jewish club of Amsterdam, so the thought of a Chelsea versus Tottenham in Amsterdam, with a side portion of Ajax versus Feyenoord thrown in for good measure brought wry looks from the two of us.

Orlin’s mate arrived just in time to see William Gallas put through his own net to tie things at the San Siro. The pub exploded with glee. To see that lot go out would set things up nicely before we set off for the match. We crossed our fingers as we set off for the stadium. It was another cold night in SW6. There were many Romanians outside Stamford Bridge, obviously without tickets. A chap was using a tannoy to dissuade away fans from entering the forecourt. There were more police than usual on show.

Outside the turnstiles, all was quiet. Deathly quiet. There was no line, no queue. I wondered how low this attendance could possibly be. Please don’t embarrass me, Chelsea.

Once inside, I glanced across at the East Stand and it was just over half-full.

Oh boy…

Thankfully, the other stands were in better shape. The three thousand Romanians in the opposite corner were in good voice already. As the teams entered the pitch, I spotted many away fans holding up their phones and there were many doing the same in the designated home areas. Our home areas had obviously been infiltrated by Steaua fans. We could be in for an interesting evening.

Alongside me, Alan – like myself – was suffering with a cold and a chest infection. He excused himself from singing too much. He had said that the noise created by the home fans in Bucharest was very impressive. I wasn’t so sure we’d be able to generate one tenth of that, to be honest.

Soon into the game, I texted a few friends to say that I predicted a gate of 28,000.

What did I know of Steaua? Very little. Our paths almost crossed in early 1988 when I sold some English football badges outside the San Siro when they played Milan in a friendly. Only 14,000 were at that Sunday game some 25 years ago, but I was not one of them. I chose to stay outside and attempt to sell some more badges to late-comers and early-leavers. I made £40 that afternoon; enough for a few more meals as I travelled by train between friends in Germany and Italy. Unbeknown to me at the time, the game foretold the 1989 European Cup Final when a Milan team including Ruud Gullit defeated a Steaua team including Dan Petrescu. There was, in fact, a nice interview with Dan Petrescu – what a lovely player he was – in the programme.

The first real chance of the game took place when Mikel lost possession and a ball was pumped through for Rusescu. I thought that there was a hint of offside, but – not to worry – the shot was easily saved by Petr Cech. A couple more away efforts on Cech’s goal signalled that this would be no walk in the park. We were treated to two rare Jon Obi Mikel shots on goal midway through the first period, but the ‘keeper was untroubled. Then, thankfully a breakthrough. Ramires threaded in Mata, who danced a few more steps inside the box and nudged the ball goal wards. It almost apologetically limped over the line.

Phew.

Torres blasted wide, and then the lively Hazard shot at the ‘keeper. However, just on half-time, a Steaua corner was not cleared and Chiriches blasted high into the net from only a few yards out.

Hell.

A hundred or so Steaua fans in the West Lower danced with glee, but were oddly not escorted out.

We now had to score two more goals to advance.

The second-half began slowly, but came to life when we were given a free-kick near the corner flag down below me. I captured Juan Mata’s kick on film. Alan shouted – “Go on JT. Get your head on this, son.”

I then just caught John Terry’s perfect leap to meet the ball and send it crashing down and into the Steaua goal.

The crowd roared and the captain reeled away in delight.

No time to waste. Let’s get another.

Chelsea were now enjoying more and more of the ball as the opposition tired. Their fans, who had spent the first-half noisily whistling every time we were in possession, grew quieter. On several occasions, Eden Hazard was just a blur. One rapier-like sprint into the Steaua box was the most exciting piece of play of the entire match. When he is on fire, he is lovely to watch. However, a fine one-handed save from Petr Cech kept us in the game.

On seventy minutes, Hazard played in Fernando Torres and the whole of the Matthew Harding held their breath. One touch, then a split second to steady himself.

Torres thought of ice cubes, of a bitterly cold wind, of liquid nitrogen, of absolute zero.

It worked.

Rather than a heated, flustered finish, his body froze and he only thought of one thing. He coolly and calmly used his weaker left foot to score, slipping the ball past the ‘keeper at the far post.

Again, the crowd erupted. I watched through my lens as he celebrated with team mates at the corner flag only a few yards away.

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

Only Petr Cech and John Terry did not clamber all over him.

Phew.

Was this the match winner? It looked like it.

Just after, Szukala appeared to clip Torres as he raided the penalty box again. The referee’s assistant behind the goal line was incredibly well placed but – surprise! – elected not to give anything. I am yet to see these officials actively engage in any game I have attended. What a waste of time. Torres must have been clipped as he lay on his front for ages. He was taken off, re-appeared with a shirt which did not have a number, then had to go off to get that replaced. His bloodied nose was not obvious to me.

With five minutes to go, a desperate lunge at the excellent Hazard and the referee rewarded Chelsea with a penalty. I watched as Torres took the ball and – with memories of Sunderland – we all hoped for a similar result.

I chose to photograph the moment of impact.

Snap.

I looked up to see the ball smack against the bar.

Torres in a nutshell…one step forward, two steps back.

A couple more Chelsea chances came and went. The referee blew for the end of the game and we all heaved a sigh of relief. As I walked away, I saw the Steaua team in one extended huddle. They had acquitted themselves well over the two legs and really should have sewn it up in Bucharest. I made my way out into the cold of a London night. Outside the back of the Matthew Harding, a small group of Chelsea fans were singing about Rafa Benitez. I suddenly realised that it was the very first such song that I had heard the entire evening. Outside on the Fulham Road I spotted even more Romanians. It was clear that many had not made it inside.

Before I knew it I was back inside in my car and headed home, sneezing away like a good’un, my cold now making life quite unpleasant.

It was a long and weary drive back to Somerset.

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