Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

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

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

What luck.

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

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

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

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

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super.

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

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

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

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

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

We set off on a walkabout.

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

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

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper Chelsea.

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

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

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

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

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

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

Bless’em.

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

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

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

We all knew what it meant.

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

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

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

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

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

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

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

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

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

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

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

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

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

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

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes on the penalty takers.

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

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

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

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

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

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

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

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

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

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

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

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

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

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

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

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

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

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

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

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

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

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

It had been a good night.

On the Thursday, there was a visit to the area near the Titanic Museum, a hop-on and hop-off bus tour of the city and even a quick flit over to East Belfast to cram in another football stadium. The Oval is home to Glentoran, Linfield’s main rivals, nestling underneath Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the nearby dock area. It is so different to Windsor Park, but I loved it.

It was a perfect end to a magnificent three days in Belfast.

We caught the 10pm flight home and I was able to look down on the lights of the city as we soared high above. The memories will stay a long time.

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From The Working Week : Friday

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2017.

Our week of work had begun with a win against Middlesbrough on Monday evening. This was a pleasing and reassuring performance; an easy 3-0 win – the second in succession – and it meant that we needed just one more win at West Brom on the Friday to secure our sixth League Championship. My Friday started well. The first four hours flew past. But then, as I noted hundreds of Chelsea supporters heading up to the West Midlands, the time slowed to a standstill. It was as if everyone else’s burst of freedom compared miserably to my last four hours of work. It seemed that I was the very last to head north. At 3.30pm, I eventually left work. As I reached the village where Parky lives – only a ten-minute drive away – “Three Lions” by The Lightning Seeds was booming out of my car. We were looking to bring the Premier League trophy home. It seemed wholly appropriate. Soon after, Glenn and PD arrived. Glenn had kindly agreed to drive up to The Hawthorns. We poised for a photo outside Parky Towers, with “Vinci Per Noi” fluttering in the breeze. There was a hint of rain in the air. At around 3.45pm, we set off.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

There was a threat of rain throughout the drive north and this added a little gloom to my thoughts of what might happen over the next few hours. For a few moments, I wasn’t optimistic, but I kept my feelings to myself. Elsewhere in the Chuckle Bus, the mood was good. I blamed it on the cider.

Glenn made good time, and we were soon turning off the M5 at around 6pm. As always, we use the parking facilities at the Park Inn – where I am reliably informed that Chelsea used to stay for their games at West Brom in days gone by – and we soon met up with a few familiar faces. We guzzled back two pints of lager and chatted to a plethora of fellow Chelsea fans. There were long lines at the bar. While I was waiting to give Parky a hand with his drinks, I spotted Kirk Brandon, lead singer from the ‘eighties bands Theatre of Hate and Spear of Destiny. I had known that he was a Chelsea supporter for a while and he was featured in a recent Chelsea magazine. I popped over to say a few words. I had only just recently seen him support Stiff Little Fingers in March in Bristol. We had arrived fashionably late to just catch the very last song “Do You Believe In The Westworld?” Little did I think that I would soon be chatting to him before a Chelsea game. I didn’t ask him if he had a ticket; I hoped he had. Many in the bar didn’t. Parky chatted away about his time in London in the ‘seventies, watching as many punk bands as he could. Kirk seemed genuinely pleased to chat to us. I mentioned to him that I am friends with SLF frontman Jake Burns – albeit only on Facebook, though our paths almost crossed in Chicago in the summer – and for a moment it was all a bit surreal. I sent Jake a little message to say that I had been chatting to his mate and he soon replied “good luck for tonight.”

We set off for the ground. We were about to liberate the Premier League trophy.

It was a murky old night in West Bromwich. We marched past the hamburger and hot dog stalls. We bypassed the souvenir stalls. However, I had seen on a TV programme earlier in the season that Albion have produced a set of programme covers this season which feature albums and bands. Once I spotted six of their academy players lined up a la Madness, with the headline “One Step Beyond”, I knew I had to buy a copy. I quickly flicked inside. It looked a substantial read. In the centre of the programme was a complete set of programme covers from this year. Album covers by Blur, Bruce Springsteen, Oasis, Phil Collins and the Sex Pistols – plus others – were tweaked with a football twist. It was very effective. I especially liked the Sex Pistols cover. It was for their FA Cup tie against Derby County, but references an infamous loss that West Brom suffered against Woking many years ago, when Tim Buzaglo scored the winner.

“Never Mind The Buzaglos, Here’s The FA Cup.”

There were handshakes with many in the concourse – which oddly has wooden laminate flooring, interesting fact #574 – and then out into the seats. The cumulative intake of gallons of alcohol throughout the day had resulted in plenty of song. The four of us Chuckle Brothers were right behind the goal, down low. My camera would struggle focussing through the netting all evening. My pessimism had subsided – maybe it was the lager. Surely, so close, we would win this.

We had heard the team and although N’Golo Kante was not starting, we had no issue with Cesc Fabregas playing alongside Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere, the side picked itself.

In a previous edition, I have talked about the home supporters relatively new usage of the twenty-third psalm, and I spotted that the words were now stencilled on the low stand to our left.

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want. He makes me down to lie. In pastures green, he leadeth me, the quiet waters by.”

Only a few minutes before the game began, I received a text message from Dave – often featured in despatches – in France to announce the birth of his first child, a son, only an hour previously. What fantastic news. And this was on a day when my pal JR – in Detroit – was celebrating his son’s first birthday. The signs were good. We surely could not fail.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the PA boomed out “Liquidator” and both sets of fans roared.

It was turning into an evening of songs and singers.

Our end was packed to the rafters. We had heard that many Chelsea had gambled on tickets in the home areas. This would be our first chance to win the league at an away ground since that momentous early evening game in Bolton in 2005. Tickets were like gold dust. But I loved the idea of Chelsea swarming the ground. Just like the old days.

And then the football began in earnest.

Chelsea, the all-blacks, were soon on the back foot when a looping header from Salomon Rondon caused Thibaut Courtois to back-peddle and tip over. Barely twenty seconds had elapsed. To our left, sharing the Smethwick End, the home fans were having an occasional dig at us – “WWYWYWS?”, how original – but were also singing about their two most hated local rivals.

“Oh wanky, wanky. Wanky, wanky, wanky Wanderers” for those to the west and “shit on the Villa” to those to the east. Birmingham City must feel peeved; “no song for us?”

After that initial threat, Chelsea dominated possession. But it was clear from our very first attack that West Brom were to defend deep, resolutely, and space in the final third was at a premium. We only had a succession of half-chances, maybe only quarter-chances. In the away end, the night of song continued as a new ditty aimed at our double Player of the Year was repeated again and again.

“N’Golo. Oh. Always believe in your soul. You’ve got the power to know – you’re indestructible. Always believing.”

It rumbled around for some time.

Altough not aired, I prefer this other one which will hopefully gain traction before now and the FA Cup Final.

“His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. He wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball.”

The home team only occasionally threatened us, with the runs of James McLean drawing boos whenever he approached the away quadrant. It is safe to say he is not the most liked opposition player.

We tried to release Moses – “Is Vic there?” – but only occasionally did he get a ball across the box. We were dominating possession, but we were playing Chelsea Rules and not Arsenal Rules; we needed a goal. The West Brom players were targeting Eden Hazard and he was clumped several times.  Shots were blocked. Shots were miscued. At last a clean strike from Cesc, but it drifted past Ben Foster’s far post. Next up, Pedro unleashed a shot wide. It was all Chelsea, but with little to show for it. A rare Albion attack ended the first-half. It amounted to nothing.

The noise in the Chelsea section, loud at the start, had gradually subsided throughout the first-half.

“Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? We’ll sing on our own. We’ll sing on our own.”

I whispered – “we’re just nervous.”

At the break, out in the concourse, we were still confident of getting a victory.

“We’ll suck the ball in.”

I remembered back to Bolton in 2005 and we certainly struggled in the first-half during that momentous match. During this game in 2017, we had performed better, but only marginally. Oh where was Frank Lampard when you need him?

Soon in to the second period, Moses lost his marker and zipped a firm low shot at goal, but Foster reacted well to fingertip the ball away. Then a shot from a twisting Costa. It was backs-to-the-wall stiff for the Baggies. We watched, urging the boys on. Please let us, somehow, find a way through. Hazard struggled to produce much quality on the left. I kept urging Cesc to unlock the door. But our dominance was increasing. Surely we would score? The first fifteen minutes of the second-half flew past. I looked over to the scoreboard to my right.

“Fucking hell, an hour.”

We went close when a deflected shot squirmed wide. Another Moses shot. Another Foster save.

“For fuck sake.”

The nerves were starting to jangle now. Time moved on.

Seventy minutes.

Glenn turned to me –

“It’s not going to happen is it?”

I was stony-faced –

“No.”

A rare West Brom chance soon followed, when Rondon broke, but great defending saved the day. Then, just after substitute Nacer Chadli – ex-Spurs, oh no – was clear in on goal but stroked the ball wide of Thibaut’s far post. It was a sign for the away end to wake up and increase the volume.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” – how sweet the sound.

Seventy-five minutes.

A gamble from the manager. Willian replaced Pedro. Michy Batshuayi replaced Hazard. This surprised me, I have to be honest. Although Pedro had tired a little and although Eden was not at his best, the introduction of Batshuayi especially seemed a risk. He had begun his season well, with a smattering of goals against Bristol Rovers and Watford, but had rarely featured since. Over the next few minutes, the frustration grew as Batshuayi gave away one foul, then another, then another. A wild shot from Dave did not bother Foster.

This did not look good. The mood in the away end was detiorating. Not sombre, but just a little quiet. It looked like we would have to wait until Monday. I felt for Glenn, who would be working.

Eighty minutes.

“Bollocks.”

Just after, with more Chelsea possession, and the defence suitably packed, a ball was headed back towards Gary Cahill. His rushed shot from twenty yards, spun away into part of the penalty box which was free from defenders. Maybe, just maybe, the West Brom defenders switched off momentarily. We watched as Dave raced towards the ball and was just able to whip a ball in, hard and low. The action was only fifteen yards away from me. We watched as Batshuayi flung himself at the ball. For a split second, the ball was within the frame of the goal, but of course I had no idea if it would result in a late winner.

Twelve yards away from me, the ball rippled the side netting.

We went berserk.

I turned to the bloke to my left and we just roared and roared, jumping as one.

I was only able to utter one word.

“Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi!”

What a moment. The away end was a boiling pot of ecstasy. The noise was deafening. The relief flowed over all of us. I struggled to hop up on to my seat in order to photograph the scenes of wild abandon to my left. I was only able to take a couple of shots of David Luiz, his face pulsing with joy, arms out-stretched.

Hugs with Glenn.

I shifted over to see Alan.

“They’ll av’ta com at uz neow.”

“Cum on moi little dimunz.”

The rest of the game is a blur. Kurt Zouma replaced Moses, but the away end was bouncing in adoration of the manager and team.

“Antono, Antonio, Antonio!”

“We’re gonna win the league.”

“Campioni, campioni” – or at least, this is what it should have been – “ole, ole, ole” – a mixture of Spanish and Italian. How apt.

We bounced in a minute.

Over in the far corner of the Birmingham Road Stand – the home end – a few Chelsea fans were obviously causing havoc, and were lead out. We have all sat or stood in home areas over the years – I have done so at Everton, Liverpool, Leeds United and Arsenal among others – but it must be impossible to keep schtum when your boys have just won the league. For a few fleeting moments, The Hawthorns was transported to 1983.

There were five minutes of time added on.

At the whistle, I was slightly subdued. I then pointed to the sky.

“Thanks Mum, thanks Dad, thanks for game one in 1974.”

Game 1,140 had ended with us with our sixth league championship and our fifth of my lifetime. Our fifth in thirteen seasons.

Crazy. Just fucking crazy.

For half-an-hour or so, the players and management team raced over to join in our party. My eyes were on Antonio Conte. His face was a picture of joy. Elsewhere, the players were enjoying every second. I struggled to capture it all on film because hands were pointing, arms were waving, a line of OB were in the way. But I managed to capture a few nice moments. I loved that Antono Conte, John Terry, Pedro and then N’Golo Kante – his song booming – were given the bumps.

The bumps in Boing Boing Land.

Willian was serenaded with “his song” and he gleefully danced a little jig, his hands covering his mouth, as if sniggering.

This felt fantastic.

The pitch was flooded with Chelsea personnel. In the middle, Antonio Conte alongside Angelo Alessio – I remember seeing him play for Juve in the late ‘eighties – but also with a cast of thousands. Everyone involved. Everyone happy. Frank Lampard was somewhere, though I did not clock him. A song for Roman.

All of us, there.

Together.

Almost lost in the middle of everything was a small green flag :

“Premier League Champions 2016/2017.”

Get in.

We bounced out of the away end. Handshakes and hugs all round. We strolled down that old-style exit ramp which lead down to a nearby road. Time for another cheeseburger with onions.

It tasted champion.

At the Jeff Astle gates, I took one last memento of the night. As we drive past exit 1 of the M5 on every Chelsea trip north in the future, we will gaze east and spot the angled floodlights of The Hawthorns.

And we will smile.

IMG_5505 (2)

Back at the Park Inn, the mood was of relief but mainly of pride and joy. Two more pints, a gin and tonic. The Bristol lot gave me a little plastic cup of champagne. We posed with flags and banners. I was able to wear my “Chelsea Champions 2016/17” badge which Big John gave me on Monday.

It felt fantastic.

This felt better than in 2015. Miles better. It felt better than in 2006. I’d say it was on a par with 2010, only behind that evening at The Reebok in 2005. This one was just so unexpected. At the start of the season, there were probably four – maybe even six – teams that could win the league. I, perhaps optimistically, guessed that we would finish third. Remember, in 2015/2016, we finished tenth. After Arsenal – or ground zero – I would have been ecstatic with a top four.

But we did it. We won the bloody thing.

Fackinell.

Dedicated to those who shared 12 May 2017 with me :

Parky, Glenn G., PD, Nick H., John R., Mark Boswood., Zac, Big John, Kevin A., Kevin H., Ian, Long Tall Pete, Liz, Julie P., Tim P., Rich, Kev, Brian, Charlie, Tim R., Mark Barfoot, Callum, Jason, Carol, Welsh Kev, Alan, Gary, Pam, Becky, DJ, John C., Maureen, Allie, Nick, The Youth, Seb, Scott, Neil S., Andy, Sophie, Jokka, Chopper, Neil P., Glenn D., Mark C., Ludo, Rick, Steve, Burger, Julie F., Rob, Peter, Jim, Trizia, Paul, Dan, Millsy.

And a special mention to those non-Chelsea supporters who wished me congratulations :

Sally, Leicester City.

Francis, Liverpool.

Jake, Newcastle United.

Ian, Rotherham United.

Rick, Manchester United.

Michael, Arsenal.

Tim, Leicester City.

Mimmo, Juventus.

Pete, Manchester United.

Mark, Cardiff City.

Rick, Portsmouth.

And – especially – for Harry Lotto, born 12 May 2016 and Jared Easter, born 12 May 2017.