Tales From The Banks Of The Chao Phraya River

Thai Premier League All Stars vs. Chelsea : 24 July 2011.

Day One : The Madness.

From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok …my flight landed at around 1.15pm on Friday 22nd. July. No time to dwell too much on the muted team performance the previous night in the cauldron of the Bukit Jalil stadium. Another city to explore and, on Sunday, another Chelsea match. But first, some fun.

I quickly made my way through customs at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport – sleek, slick and functional – and I soon met up with my mate Adie, who had just arrived on a domestic flight from his home city of Chiang Mai. Adie was in the same year as me at Frome College from 1978 to 1983 and was one of the stars of the school team. Adie played with distinction as a covering centre-back in a back four and had lovely positional awareness, close control and tackling ability. I played on the right wing in the 1978-1979 season, but soon fell out of the first team the following year. Adie went on to play many games for the school first eleven, but my football career fell away as my support for Chelsea grew and grew. Adie went out to Thailand in 1996 as a VSO worker, met his wife Waraya (who was his Thai language teacher) in Bangkok and moved north to Chiang Mai a few years ago. Adie visited Frome last year just as our championship season was concluding and attempted to sway me into visiting his new home in the near future. Well, as we all know, our tour of Asia was announced a while back and so I quickly decided to go ahead and book flights to encompass football and friends. Rather than follow the team on to Hong Kong, I wanted to visit Adie and Waraya in Chiang Mai instead.

There was slight drizzle outside as we quickly hopped into a – wow – pink taxi cab. In the 45 minute drive to our hotel in downtown Bangkok, we soon updated each other with news from both our lives. Over to our right, I spotted the curves of the Rajamangala Stadium where the game against the Thai League All-Stars would be played on Sunday. I quickly realised that Bangkok was on a different scale to that of Kuala Lumpur. KL had its share of skyscrapers, for sure, but they were in that condensed area of the Golden Triangle. Bangkok’s skyscrapers were all around. Adie pointed out the tallest one as we sped west. We curled round, off the elevated freeway, then down into the craziness of the city itself.

Our hotel – the Ibis Riverside – was nestled in a curve of the Chao Phraya River as it flowed south through the western part of central Bangkok. We checked in and I pulled the curtains in our room back.

“Oh wow.”

The view that greeted me allowed me another one of those “moments.”

Below me was the fast-flowing river, visible over tropical tree tops, and there were several small boats navigating their courses. On the eastern bank, there were several high-rises to complete the scene. It was a real jaw-dropper. It was another sight which will be saved forever in my memory bank of images. I could have stayed there, nose pressed against the window, for hours, or at least until Nando scored again. Adie was the person to thank – or rather his wife Waraya, who had booked the room on the back of her previous stay at the hotel as a VSO employee.

At 4pm, we headed out, the whole night in Bangkok ahead of us.

Here we go.

We managed to locate a small ferry boat to take us across the river. While we were lining up at the ferry pier – which was typically surrounded by a fast food and drink stall – Adie pointed down to the ground, just to my right.

It was a pig, sleeping in the afternoon sun.

“Bloody hell, mate. A pig!”

We made our way across the river on a little flat boat and the fare was just 7 baht, or just 15p. I snapped away like a fool, capturing every riverboat we passed. I didn’t want to miss anything. We had heard that Chelsea were to stay at the Shangri La Hotel – just across the river from us – and so our first port of call was in this hotel. Two beers, some nuts, plus more chat about our personal lives. Adie had visited Frome back in April, but there is always gossip to share. No sightings of any CFC personnel, so we decided to move on. We were headed into town on the monorail. However, just as we were queuing up for our tickets at the Saphan Taksin stop, Adie quickly advised me to stop talking and to stand still. The Thai national anthem is played over tannoys at every public space at 8am and 6pm and so we stood still for thirty seconds, along with everyone else on that platform.

Another “moment” for sure.

Three stops away, we alighted at Sala Daeng and I was ready to breath in whatever Bangkok had to throw at me. For thirty minutes or so, we wandered the close streets of Patpong 1, 2 and 3, right in the epicentre of the fabled Bangkok show bar area. Street stalls, open air cafes, fake DVDs, fake designer gear, locals eating noodles and rice, fake football shirts, noise, colour and a little sleaze, with a few chaps hustling us to enter the various show bars which opened up onto the streets. I peered inside and wondered “shall I, shan’t I?” I bought a “Clockwork Orange” T-shirt for just 200 baht from a busy stall under the monorail. I spoke to Adie about one of Juve’s firms being called “Arancia Meccanica” and the real world, the football world and my world overlapped once again.
And still the street hustlers wanted us to pay a visit to the local delights…

“One Night In Bangkok” indeed.

Adie fancied some food and so from about 7pm to 9pm, we sheltered in the relative calm of an Irish pub – “O’Reilly’s” – and had three pints of Singha…they are Chelsea’s beer sponsors after all. We ordered some food – chicken in satay sauce and some spring rolls – and had a great time. We spoke about our school days and our time in the same school and cricket teams. A few other topics were aired, but we kept coming back to football, the game that ties so many of my mates together. We spoke about Asia’s particular love of English footy, way ahead of any other league, way ahead of Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga. Adie kept asking me why English football was so loved and I did my best to respond. I guess I used the words “history, passion, humour, noise and tribalism.” Dotted around the bar were several western male tourists “of a certain age” sitting with local Thai boys. The pub was busy and I half-expected a familiar Chelsea face to appear…maybe Saturday night. Sitting in a bar in a foreign land, I was reminded of one of my favourite jokes, which I shared with Ade : –

“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman were shipwrecked and found themselves on a deserted island. Within a few weeks, the Irishman had found a way to ferment the local fruit to make alcohol and had opened a pub. The Scotsman had got into a fight with the Irishman and had been banned from the pub. And the Englishman was waiting to be introduced.”

Next up was the appearance of The Better Band, a local Beatles tribute band, and they played many Beatles’ songs. In their wigs and suits circa 1964, they did a good job to be fair. Paul McCartney even sang with a slight Scouse accent, which I guess is no mean feat. I spoke to Ade about the reports that I have been writing for CIA and we tossed a few ideas about what the Bangkok edition should be called. Adie suggested “Tales From The Big Mango” in lieu of the city’s modern nickname. It would certainly be better than “Tales From The City Of Angels, The Great City, The Residence Of The Emerald Buddha, The Impregnable City (Of Ayutthaya) Of God Indra, The Grand Capital Of The World Endowed With Nine Precious Gems, The Happy City, Abounding In An Enormous Royal Palace That Resembles The Heavenly Abode Where Reigns The Reincarnated God, A City Given By Indra And Built By Vishnukarn”. Bangkok has the longest place name in the world, allegedly. Feeling on top form, we then continued our walkabout and we ended up outside, and then inside, “The Finlandia” show bar. Twenty minutes later – and after just one beer, costing a couple of quid – we were back in the crowded streets and our lives were richer with another Bangkok moment.

For the record – ‘cus I know you all want to know – there were no table tennis balls but just 30 pretty bored Thai girls a-dancing on stage.

It had to be done, though. Tick that box, so to speak.

Next up, some more food and Adie sat us down at a cheap and cheerful café, with me just kicking back, enjoying some banter and aiming plenty of puns at poor Adie. We had a few local delicacies, including a crab which had been fragranced with a selection of Thai spices. I haven’t eaten too many crabs in my life and I was getting more and more frustrated as I toiled away, attempting to get as much flesh out of the little sucker as possible. At least the Singha beer was going down well. As I finished the meal, I spotted a local Thai gentleman in a Liverpool shirt and so I quickly showed him video film on my phone from the 3-1 game at Anfield in 2008. He growled and so I blew him a kiss and his little group of friends roared with laughter.

We crossed the roared and flagged down a tuk tuk, that funky three-wheeled vehicle which is such an iconic part of Asian life, and gave the driver instructions on how to reach our next attraction. I had pinpointed the open air bar on the 63rd. floor of the State Tower as a “must-see” attraction on this first night. Well, the tuk tuk drive was magnificent, a real adrenalin rush, with the exhaust roaring behind us and the traffic whizzing past. Waves to fellow tuk-tukkers, smiles to cab drivers.

“One Night In Bangkok.”

As we stepped out onto the roof terrace, my mind went ga-ga. What a sight – a clear dark night, starlit, with the illuminations of a million city lights stretched out to the horizon. Car lights, street lights, hotel rooms, reds, yellows, whites. We stepped into the crowded circular Sky Bar, itself illuminated, and tentatively ordered a couple of expensive beers. The barman was an Italian and so I decided to introduce myself –

“Sono tifo di Chelsea.”

He then told me that Didier Drogba and a few other Chelsea players had been up at the bar two hours earlier. If anything, that validated us being there, two mere mortals from Frome. We took it all in. Deep breathes. Photos of the vibrant Bangkok night down below. We sipped at the beers, wanting them to last forever. It really was a magnificent end to my first night in the Thai Capital. Pigs, river boats, Thai Beatles, Pat Pong’s vices, beer and Thai food, the city below from the Sky Bar above.

Chelsea in town.

There was still time for one more surprise.

“Chris Axon – what the fcuk are you doing here?”

I quickly turned around and a work colleague bounded across the bar to greet me with an outstretched hand.

“Batty – what the fcuk!”

Batty has worked with me at Herman Miller for eight years and, unbeknown to me, had just arrived in town the night before with his girlfriend Jo. He had spent a few minutes on the other side of the circular bar working out “is that Chris Axon???” The penny suddenly dropped…”must be him – Chelsea are in town.” Well, what a small world…what a cliché, but how true. We spent the next thirty minutes rubbing our eyes, sharing a few stories and wallowing in the absurdities of this crazy world. He had just visited Hong Kong and was only in Bangkok for three days. That our paths should cross in a bar 63 stories up in the Bangkok sky is surely a magnificent impossibility.

But, no – nothing is impossible in Chelsea World.

We called another tuk tuk – though it’s all a little blurred – and we raced back to the Ibis, our backsides only a foot or so from the ground, across the bridge over the Chao Phraya River and we collapsed into our beds at about 2am.

Day Two : The Tourist.

Adie was clearly not used to such an alcohol intake and was rather delicate first thing. I felt fine and, after a lovely buffet breakfast, we were out and about at just after 10am. The day was spent fizzing up and down the Chao Phraya River, visiting a few of Bangkok’s must-see sights. Of course, it had to happen; we bumped into Batty, not once, but twice on the Saturday…once on the ferry boat as we headed up to the Grand Palace and once inside the temple which housed the famous Emerald Budha.

“See you in about two hours, then.”

The Grand Palace was magnificent. It was another jaw-dropper. I was surrounded by gold-leaved temples and chedis, or pagodas, and while I snapped away, Adie secretly took a few photos of me. Adie loves his photography, like me, and taught me a few tricks about the art while I was with him. Being surrounded by all of that gold, especially on such a hot day, was almost hypnotic. For a few moments, I experienced what it must be like to be Roman Abramovic. We had to take off our shoes and caps to enter the revered temple of the Jade Buddha and for a few reflective moments, I sat in silence.

We then aimed for the temple which housed the Reclining Buddha or Wat Pho. This was another mesmeric sight. This Buddha is around 50m in length and is again gilded in gold. The toes are festooned in mother or pearl. It’s quite magnificent. With all of this gold around, I dubbed my visit to Bangkok a “gilt trip” and Adie groaned once more.

Death by a thousand puns.

Outside, more street markets; DVDs, Budha mementoes, second-hand toys, second-hand books, sex aids, plastic flowers, fresh fruit, pineapples and bananas, wooden phalluses, dried fish, coconuts, fake T-shirts, fake handbags, tat of every description, West Ham season tickets.

We caught the ferry boat back to the pier by the Shangri La Hotel and I decided to see if any players were hanging around. I waited in the reception area for a good hour or so. I spoke with an ex-pat, who had travelled down to Bangkok from Northern Thailand. He told me that he had paid the equivalent of £35 to attend the so called “High Tea With Chelsea FC” at the hotel on the Friday. He was far from impressed as he was one of around 250 fans and only the manager and four players attended, away on the top table. It was a bit of a farce, according to him. Bruce Buck and his wife arrived and I slowly walked over and greeted him with a memory from last season –

“The last time I saw you was at Frankley Services on the M5 after Stoke away.”

He looked a bit guarded and his response surprised me –

“Did you abuse me?”

I laughed it off and said “no, not at all.” We chatted a little and I asked his wife to take a photo…I had my trusty Yankees cap pinned to my belt and he noted it and patted his chest, saying “ah, close to my heart.”

Soon after, a minibus dropped Josh, Alex and Graeme Le Saux off and I had the smallest of chats with Berge as he raced through the foyer. I knew that the Chelsea squad were off to the stadium at around 5pm for some public training. I spotted Cathy and a few others arrive, back from a hot day visiting the sights. They had plans to visit the training session, but I was giving it a swerve. I lounged around and spotted a few CFC personnel – names unknown – and wondered what their roles were in the grand scheme of things. What were their names? What were their roles? Their motivations? Their qualifications? Their impressions of Andre Villas-Boas? Were they enjoying the trip? Were they missing their loved ones? It made me think. I asked one of them about the team’s departure time for the training session and the fact that he was an American surprised me. Not sure why, though.

I got the nod that the team would be boarding the coach from a tucked-away service bay to the side. For about 45 minutes, with rain clouds threatening, I hung around in the hope of getting some good photographs of the players as they boarded the coach. In the end, the photos were disappointing and I questioned my sanity on more than one occasion. I felt, ridiculously, like a school kid at a pop concert and was tempted to head back to the Ibis. I stuck it out though – and was rewarded when I spun around to get a good shot of JT giving me the thumbs up from his seat. I also made him chuckle when I said “Beth from America says hi!”

On the ferry back across the Chao Phraya, the rain cascaded down and I hoped that Cathy et al had decided to forego the training session.

Saturday night was quieter than Friday – I swam in the hotel pool, while the rain came down and there was occasional sheet lightning which lit up the sky. The boats on the river were still floating past and it was another lovely moment. The rain lashing down on my skin, the swimming pool warm, the smile on my face constant. The rain increased in intensity and it was gorgeous.

“I’m going to swim underwater, Adie – I’m getting wet here.”

Day Three – The Game.

Of all my time supporting Chelsea Football Club, attending games and watching my heroes, the pre-match of Sunday 24th. July 2011 was unlike no other. We were up nice and early and began the morning with a pre-breakfast swim at around 7am. After a hearty breakfast – nice to know that pork sausages, fried eggs, fried potatoes and baked beans have found their way to Thailand – we set off for a walk around the Chinatown area of downtown BK. Across the river once more, then up a few miles on the ferry boat. From about 10.30pm to around 2pm, we slowly walked through street after street, bazaar after bazaar, delicately avoiding oncoming traffic and pedestrians alike.

I knew that I was in for a treat when Adie lead me down a slight passageway which got narrower and narrower until we turned a corner and ended up almost entering somebody’s house. There was a blurring of space – “Adie, is this a shop, a private kitchen, or a shared area between several families?” – and it felt like I had entered another world.

In fact, of course, this is just what I had done.

Every spare inch of alleyway was devoted to commercial pursuits. Here comes another list of products, but this could go on forever; food of every description, including raw and cooked fish, exotic fruits of every shape, colour and size, textiles, mobile phones, walking sticks, electric drills, fishing rods, bags, fake DVDs, radios, car engine parts, batteries, toys, shoes, fake designer gear, nuts, vegetables, magazines, old toy cars, bags of fried fish stomachs, hats, caps, jewelry, furniture, mirrors, incense sticks, electronic goods, dried flowers, football shirts, car stickers, anything, everything.

And every few yards, locals were sat on the floor, crouching over little stoves cooking their meals. Bowls and bowls of rice, meat, noodles, fish, vegetables, fruit and a thousand variations. There was a blurring again of what I saw before me; is this a stall selling food, or just simply a worker cooking up their own food?

Adie had taught me a new way to photograph, slowing to a standstill, spotting a subject and shooting from the hip. I took several photos like this and the results were OK. I remember the intense look of concentration of one very small Chinese gentleman who was delicately folding pieces of gold to make intricate origami displays. The look of a bored young girl texting a friend while sat behind textiles and ribbons. A woman devouring some food. A chap sat at a café, smiling with a passer-by.

With every step, a hundred different sights. With every breath, a different aroma.

I said to Adie – “and in four hours time, we’ll watch some millionaires play football.”

We stopped off at a couple of street-side cafes and guzzled some drinks in the heat of the day; an iced cappuccino, a lime cordial, a lychee yogurt smoothie.

And the streets got narrower and narrower. At times it was impossible to move as the people slowed to gaze at the goods on sale. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but at times I just wanted to break free and find some clear space.

Eventually we broke free of Chinatown and headed north, over a canal and towards the Golden Mountain, which was another golden temple on the highest piece of land in central Bangkok. We quickly ascended the steps, took a few photographs and spotted a few skyscraper landmarks. Time was moving on and we needed to head over to the game. We caught a cab – thank heavens for air-conditioning – and soon witnessed another taxi ploughing into a poor woman and her cart of fresh fruit, sending them sprawling onto the road.

On the thirty minute cab ride out west, we sped past a massive advertisement for Singha beer, which used the tagline “Spirit Of Champions” with four Chelsea players’ faces and the CFC badge. It was a remarkable sight, thousands of miles from West London. As we approached the stadium, the traffic slowed, Chelsea shirts were beginning to be spotted and the expectation levels began to rise with each minute.

We were dropped off outside the main – and as far as we could ascertain, the only – entrance to the stadium. The heat was now getting more intense, but my Yankee cap was doing a fine job. After a little confusion about choosing the correct line at the busy ticket booth, I quickly picked up our three tickets. I spotted Aggie from the Cyprus Blues and had a little chat. Thankfully, Cathy, Jim and Jayne soon arrived and I could relax. We decided to head inside and get out of the sun. Cathy and I posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” flag once again. The atmosphere outside was of excitement, but it was quieter than Kuala Lumpur. There were a few tents nearby containing various products, including a Chelsea FC stall, a Coke stall and a local radio tent, with a loud DJ creating a din. The game was dubbed the Coke Super Cup and there was a twenty foot tall Coke “running man” statue outside the stadium. Quite a few locals appeared to be selling tickets and I wondered if the gate might fall way short of a full house. Adie had seen Leeds, Arsenal, Manchester United, Barca, Real and Brazil over the years at the stadium…I hoped and prayed that we would fill it.

Thankfully, we had great seats under the cover of the sweeping roof of the west stand. Middle tier, right on the halfway line. These tickets were 2,000 baht or around #45. There was a cooling breeze and we were fine. Opposite, on the east terrace, thousands of Chelsea fans were sweltering in the late afternoon sun and I noted hundreds of multi-coloured umbrellas sheltering the poor souls. It was time to play spot the Chelsea flag. The lads from Weymouth were sat a few rows in front of us and I am sure their flag was close by. Opposite, we spotted the two Bletchley Blues flags, a Walton On Thames flag, a Pattaya Blues flag, an Indonesia Blues flag, a Singapore Blues flag, a Melbourne flag and a Rising Sun flag. It was a good show. VPN was missing – I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.

The Chelsea players came onto the pitch and went through their choreographed pre-match routines.

The Snappy Dresser –

Chris – pink.

Again, thousands of CFC flags had been draped over some seats and these were waved with gusto. The stadium took a while to fill up. Still the sun beat down.

There were fireworks during the pre-game show and then a Thai couple appeared high above the north terrace on a platform. They were suspended from two cables and slowly made their way to the running track, as if floating on air. Let’s see something similar at Chelsea next season, with maybe Cathy and Dog floating down from the West Stand roof with five minutes to go before kick-off.

The teams appeared down below us and the crowd roared. Difficult to gauge the attendance, but – like KL – the crowd kept arriving deep into the game.

Great to see Petr back between the sticks for the first time this season.

The game began but it was a poor opening thirty minutes or so, with the Thai team showing more spirit and know-how than the Malaysian team a few days earlier. Soon into the game, all was quiet in our section and I shouted out –

“Come On Chelsea!”

…and, much to my amusement, this was met with a few “oohs” and “aahs” and even a few claps from the locals around me. Cathy and I spoke about doing some ZZs later.

Cech did well to get down and block a Thai shot on 31 minutes. That man Torres, still looking leggy and distant, skewed wide on 37 minutes and we all groaned. At times, the atmosphere was very quiet. Then, the ball broke to Frank Lampard and he adroitly despatched the ball low into the goal from over 25 yards out. It was a typical Fat Frank Goal and the crowd roared their approval.

Cathy disappeared at half-time and didn’t re-appear until later in the second-half. I suspect that she was off on the hunt for some Strongbow. Adie asked me how I thought the top six would finish up in 2011-2012 and he was quite shocked when I predicted that the title would go to Manchester United. My top six were: Manchester United, then Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.

I caught both of the next two goals on film. Jose Bosingwa’s cross-cum-shot evaded the despairing, and comical, efforts of the Thai ‘keeper and bounced in off the far post. Soon after, a burst through the middle of the park by Ivanovic and a lovely ball through by Young Josh. He kept his cool and dispatched the ball with aplomb and the entire World and his Dog made cynical comments along the lines of “good job it wasn’t Torres.”

One of the highlights of the game for me was a crunching tackle by John Terry on a Thai player and I suspect that the said player is still having recurring nightmares about it. Josh looked busy and impressed. The star of the show was Hilario, on for Petr at the break, who made a succession of fine saves around the hour mark. Top marks. Ivanovic charged around all over the place and didn’t seem to be affected by the heat, though I am sure it was very humid and draining. Rather them than me.

The place was still quiet, though.

My “Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea” chant didn’t stir the locals and so I left it at that. A couple in front of Adie and I were annoying the hell out of me. They virtually ignored the game and instead kept taking photographs – and sickly ones at that – of each other. It was just as well that Cathy wasn’t around to witness such a pathetic sight. Just after Cathy returned to her seat, Florent Malouda lashed high into the net and it was 4-0 to Chelsea.

Job done.

JT looked rather embarrassed to collect another cup, but all thoughts were quickly forgotten as a glittering array of fireworks lit up the Bangkok night. It was a spectacular end to the night’s entertainment and provided a fitting end to my two Chelsea games in Asia. This was a much better performance than the game in KL and the team looked more at ease. I hoped that the man with the clipboard was starting to make an impact.

Adie and I let the crowds subside and were some of the last to leave the stadium.

I collected twenty plastic cups from the terraces which were all logo’d up with “Coca Cola Super Cup Thailand 2011” and had the images of Didier, Frank, JT and Nando on them. They will go to a few close friends.

Outside, the crowds were still to disperse. There was a noisy atmosphere out in the streets, with buses and cabs racing past us as we walked a few miles west to get away from the congested area. Adie also pointed out motorbike taxis, but that would have to be a Bangkok experience for next time. Lots of smiles with fellow Chelsea fans as Adie and I marched on, walking at pace away from the stadium. It felt, actually, just like a walk away from a game in Europe. Maybe Rome or Barcelona. Lots of shouts, lots of noise, lots of colour. I had to keep reminding myself that – no – this was Bangkok.

I said to Adie “at least there’s no chance of getting whacked out here.”

I also commented that although Bangkok was a wilder city than Kuala Lumpur, the atmosphere was not half as good.

At around 9am, sirens wailed behind us and the Chelsea team coach – also logo’d up in the colours of Coca Cola – raced by. I punched the air as the coach drive by and realised what a lucky soul I had been. The next time I would see the boys play would be in Stoke, but that seemed a lifetime away.

We dipped into a 7-Eleven for a bottle of ice-cold green tea and then luckily nabbed a cab back to our hotel. Time was running out for a Thai buffet, so instead, I devoured a burger and fries, along with two bottles of Singha. Not until now do I realise that these were the only beers that I had to drink the entire day. And what a day. That wonderful day in Chinatown and Chelseatown.

That wonderful day in Bangkok.

Postscript :-

After Bangkok, I had a relaxing time in Chiang Mai and one moment brought a smile to my face. On the last day, I was busy visiting a last few sights and was just about to leave a temple when a local lady in her ‘sixties approached me. I think she was aiming to get me sign up for a local tour. She asked me where I was from and as soon as I said “England” she was keen to ask me another question.

“Ah – which football team do you support?”

It made me laugh…one world, one game, one team anyone?

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Tales From The Bukit Jalil Stadium

Malaysia XI vs. Chelsea : 21 July 2011.

Day One : Lift Off.

I left my home village in Somerset at about 7.30am on Sunday 17th. July. I would be heading east once more but this excursion would be taking me well past Portsmouth, the location of the Chelsea game the previous day. For a change, I chose a classical music CD and so had a cool and calm drive up the A303 and beyond. I sent a quick little text to the only friends who I knew would be awake. Four fellow Chelsea fans out in California were the recipients of the simple “Jack Kerouac” text, my way of saying that I was on the road. Quite fitting really – Kerouac, heading west in that iconic road novel, eventually found his home in Northern California, where three of those recipients were residing. For me, the excitement was palpable. After five summer tours to America with Chelsea, I was turning 180 degrees and heading east, following the club to Malaysia and Thailand.

Foreign fields, new experiences, chasing some magical moments.

I dropped my car at my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton. Russ and his two mates Frank and Steve sit two rows in front of us at HQ and it was with some sadness that he told me that none of them would be renewing their season tickets in 2011-2012. That’s a real shame. The grim realities of football pricing out fans once more. Russ quickly drove me the five miles to Heathrow, where Terminal Three was waiting for me. Back in around 1971, a Canadian relative stayed with us for about a week and we took her back to LHR for her to return home to Toronto. My Dad had a little treat for me that day; an hour or so perched up in the airport observation deck, watching the planes coming in and taking off. It is a memory which is still very clear, forty years on. Who would have guessed that my love of foreign travel, plus the obvious love of Chelsea Football Club, would constantly intertwine themselves, enabling me to combine these two passions so perfectly?

I’m a lucky man.

The flight to Bangkok was as near perfect as I could ever have hoped. Fine food and fine company. I soon got chatting to a young Australian lad, Brett, who had been in Europe for two months. He was a budding pro-golfer and had just been watching the Open at Sandwich. Brett was an avid sports fan though and we spent several hours discussing Australian rugby, Aussie rules football, the Australian national team, English football, London rivalries, the New York Yankees and American sport in general. Brett was a keen baseball player, too, and had met the Australian pitcher Graeme Lloyd (NYY 1996) on a few occasions. He was a fan of the Anaheim Angels, or whatever they are called these days. Brett had visited Kuala Lumpur a few times and was able to give me some travel tips, too. So, with all of these common interests to talk about, I was amazed I managed to fit in four of five hours of quality sleep on the plane.

The eleven hours…ahem…flew past.

Day Two : This One Didn’t Want To End.

Touchdown at Bangkok airport early on Monday morning and a three hour wait for the onward flight to KL. One international airport is much the same as the next – adverts for HSBC everywhere, Starbucks, the English language on signs…one world, one world. I waited for the flight to Kuala Lumpur.

As we lifted off into the sky, my window seat afforded me a sight which knocked me sideways. Down below were fields upon fields, acres upon acres, of flooded paddy fields and I quickly realised that I was a long way from home. The view down to my left would live with me forever. It would be one of the moments of my life, just like my first sightings of Rome as I approached on an Italian train in 1986 or the views of Manhattan as our plane circled before landing at JFK in 1989. The view was stunning. As we lifted further, we flew over the bay to the south of Thailand, with the sea full of container ships and barges being pulled by ridiculously small tug boats. Another amazing vista. I spotted the resort of Pattaya, and I knew that Cathy was down there somewhere, staying at a hotel near the fabled “Dogs Bollocks” bar, once owned by probably the most infamous Chelsea fan of them all.

Cathy would be meeting up with me in KL on Tuesday, ahead of the practice session.

The two hour flight from BK to KL was fine. I caught a little sleep, but was soon wide awake, peering through the ridiculously cute and fluffy clouds at the lush green mountains below us.

On arrival at Kuala Lumpur, I quickly collected my checked baggage (always a potentially tense moment) and I had a little chat with the immigration official on the passport desk about Chelsea Football Club. His smile warmed my soul.

“Welcome To Malaysia.”

Then, the 35 ringit (£7) express train to KL Central station and another of those moments. My nose was pressed to the train window as we ripped through Malaysian countryside…plantations of massive palms…and then into suburban KL. Lots of tall apartment buildings, lots of wealth. My preconceptions of Asia were changing with each new sight. I kept looking out of the window, scanning left and right, my head not stopping for one second. My obsessive desire to note everything reminded me of the final contestant on the “Generation Game” who had 60 seconds to remember everything they had seen on the famous conveyor belt.

“Hotel complex, palm trees, mountains, overhead cables, a BMW dealership, a six lane freeway, road signs, more palm trees, tower blocks, pastel coloured housing blocks, shops, malls, natives out in their back gardens, poor houses, more palm trees.”

And then, away in the distance, the first sighting of the twin Petronas Towers, with the less famous KL Tower too.

Snap, snap, snap.

Another of those moments.

At KL Central, I left the mollified air of the air-conditioned train and paced across the tidy station forecourt. I was expecting a wall of heat to hit me, but the temperature was bearable. I spotted the first fake Manchester United shirt and I knew there would be more. Into a waiting red cab and the short 13 ringit drive to my hotel. There was an American country song on the cab radio and all around me were western logos, brands and products. The cab driver said he was a Chelsea fan.

This world is shrinking fast.

Now, I’m usually happy to stay at the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to holiday accommodation; hostels, budget hotels, places to lay my head…in my wanderlust years in the ‘eighties, I slept on trains and at train stations so I know how to rough it. Kuala Lumpur would be different. We had heard whispers that the team would be staying at the Shangri La in Bangkok, so I gambled on staying at the Shangri La in KL. To be fair, it was only £85 a night and I paid that on the North End Road in Fulham last November.

I checked in amidst scented air conditioning, girls in reception in lovely silk dresses and hotel quality that I am simply not used to. My room on the seventh floor (memories of the Squeeze song “Goodbye Girl”) was fantastic and I quickly unpacked and showered. Heaven. On Facebook, I spotted that a local Malaysian fan had posted pictures of the Chelsea team booking in at their hotel and I quickly realised it wasn’t the Shangri La. Drat. No to worry – maybe our paths would cross later.

At 4.45pm, I set off on a comprehensive three hour and four mile circumnavigation by foot around the city centre. Those who know me will know my camera was going into overdrive. From the hotel, I headed south-east past the western-style hotels on Jalan Sultan Ismail. Every so often, the glistening silver of the Petronas Towers would appear, then disappear again behind another tall hotel. I followed the route of the monorail down to the Bukit Bintang area, the rowdy and commercial area of KL, full of shopping malls, street vendors, noise and colour. I noted some massage parlours along Jalan Bukit Bintang. From there, a right turn into Jalan Pudu and a quick succession of various architecture styles, from classic art deco, to modern blocks, from mosques to skyscrapers. My senses were reeling. The heat was bearable still and I was so relieved. I headed down to the old ancient part of the city, where I knew there were a few colonial gems from the days of the British Empire. I quickly found myself headed towards the famous Petaling Street, where Chinese street vendors are packed into a vibrant area. Here, my senses went into overdrive and I was so joyful to be able to see such a cauldron of life. Fake goods were everywhere of course – no surprises there – but it was the unknown fruit on sale which left a special impression.

I followed my instincts through to the Central Market – and the buildings in these few blocks are remnants of the colonial era. Flaking pastels, tattered windows, at times a little depressing. But then, ahead, the clean lines of the art deco Central Market and all was good with the world. A beautiful building and a real treasure. Lots of arts and craft stalls inside there, but I kept moving. I headed across the river and onto Merdeka Square, a lovely open space, lined with Malaysian flags to one side and a mock Tudor building to the other, the famous Royal Selangor Club. There was a feeling of calm amidst the noise. I noted that there was a large TV screen in the south-west corner showing action from the Copa America, but nobody was paying too much attention.

The last part of my early evening stroll took me through the Islamic quarter, full of carpet shops and tobacconists. As I crossed the road by a massive mosque, the wailing on the loudspeaker of a cleric calling for the locals to join in prayer was mildly hypnotic and took me, momentarily, to another place. For a few seconds, my mind took a tangential leap and I was lost in thought.

There were days when I would have been overjoyed that my hotel room contained a TV or maybe pay-per-view film channels. In Kuala Lumpur in 2011, I was very contented that I had access to an ironing board. The passage of time, eh? The changing priorities. Shirt and linen trousers ironed, out into town. I stopped at a “TGI Fridays” and watched a quick press CFC conference on the TV above the bar. The only problem was that a pint of Paulaner was £8. Ouch. From there, the rest of the night was spent in a variety of bars (Paradize – deserted, Sky Bar – expensive, but unbelievable view of the Petronas Towers, Rum Jungle – relaxing and fun, Beach Club – noisy dance music, a mixed crowd of westerners, locals, and working ladies from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Mongolia.)

On the short walk back to the hotel, several ladies made themselves known to me, but I was not interested.

“I’m only here for the Chelsea.”

Day Three : The Practice.

A lazy morning, overcoming the alcohol, the late night and the jet-lag. I was in no rush to vacate my plush five-star King sized bed.

“I’m on holiday.”

I uploaded some photos on FB in the afternoon and then met Cathy in reception at around 4pm. We needed to use the monorail to get down to the Bukit Jalil stadium, around ten miles out of town to the south. The trip was a breeze, the trains were air conditioned and it was great to chat to a familiar face. I told Cathy how odd it felt at Pompey, knowing that she was in Dubai, watching with some Chelsea ex-pats. I shook hands with the first two Chelsea fans I saw, but soon gave up on that idea when I saw how many replica-kitted out locals were alighting at the stadium stop. The immediate area between the station up to the stadium was full of souvenir and local food stands. Lots of air horns and damned vuvuzelas were on sale, plus souvenirs of the Malaysian team, too.

We had a couple of hours ahead of the session. We took a few photos of the scene outside the impressive stadium, then headed inside to pin up Cathy’s Kalou flag, a gift from the Feyenoord firm in 2006. We spoke to a few locals, then took our seats in the lower tier and waited for the Chelsea team to appear. The self-proclaimed “Malaysian Blues Army” was over in the green gate section, making some noise and waving some impressive home-made banners. We were sat next to a couple with their 7 year old daughter, a big Frank Lampard fan. They shared some sunflower seeds with Cathy and I, but it seemed a lot of effort with little in return. Maybe akin to an Arsenal midfielder feeding in Nicolas Bendtner.

The players came on to the pitch at about 7.30pm and stayed for an hour. A few games involving one-touches, teams of four attackers against four defenders and Villas-Boas at the centre of attention, clipboard by his side, stopping to talk to players every few minutes. One game was played involving the entire width of the pitch, but only half the length. Two normal goals, but two small “hockey” goals out on the wings. I can only surmise that it was two points for a normal goal, one point in the unguarded small goals. I’ve never seen this before and I guess it hints at the emphasis on the importance in width in our play next season. It was odd, though, seeing Anelka dribble past a small goal (they were positioned 5 yards from the goal line) and then put in a low cross. Like something out of the NHL, maybe. I can confirm that Fernando Torres volleyed in a great goal during this practice session, but just missed snapping it. Double drat. Would be worth a few bob, that.

Around 6-8,000 fans were in attendance, but there was no real chanting apart from the MBA on the far side and a solitary “ZZ” from some locals. I so wanted to start singing, but Cathy advised me to “save it for the game.” After the session, I stumbled into Cathy’s nemesis, Chelsea fan-liaison officer Graham Smith, bedecked in CFC casual wear and handing out tour programmes. I told him that Cathy wasn’t far away and suggested that I bring her over for a few words.

“No, you’re OK, mate.”

Well, by the time I had rescued the Kalou flag from the fence, Cathy and the afore-mentioned Mr. Smith were in deep conversation and I know Cath loved that.

We then headed back to Jalan Ramlee and stayed in the Rum Jungle for three hours, knocking back some Carlsberg and a few sambucas. It was only going to be a quiet night, but I don’t think Cath knows the meaning of the word. In a large fish tank above the bar, two baby sharks were swimming and I christened the one with the biggest fin Colin Pates.

Day Four : Relaxing.

After the late night – getting to sleep at 4am – I realised my body clock was still on UK time. Another lie in, but I spent a lovely relaxing time out in the shaded hotel pool area. Time to catch up on some diary days, a read of the paper and to collect my thoughts. There were photos of Chelsea players in the local “Strait Times” (as opposed to what? Wink) and also a very good article about Sir Alex Ferguson. The impression I was getting in Malaysia was that the locals loved their football and the English version especially. On that very first day, I noted that I spotted around eight pieces of Manchester United clothing and one Chelsea…no others. Since then, I had still to see a Spurs shirt and this pleased me. Back up in my room, I belatedly spotted that the MBA had organised a Chelsea gathering by the fountains outside the Petronas Towers, but this had not been pre-advised at all. This annoyed me a little. I had brought over 20 old Chelsea programmes – the same ones I took to the US in 2007 in fact – and I would have liked to have spoken to some of the local Chelsea fans about lots of things. Show them the programmes, dating back to 1947, talk about the tour, talk about KL, maybe even talk about the team. A chance lost. I compared this to the intense planning that went with the CFC USA tours since 2004 and wished that a little Western organisation could have been in evidence. Oh, I also spotted that Chelsea had arranged a “meet and greet” at their One World Resort Hotel on the Tuesday and – of course – nobody in the UK knew about this. How easy would it have been for CFC to politely post on the CFC website that UK fans heading to KL (and let’s be honest, we numbered around 15 to 20) could apply for a pass to this event. A little payback for our efforts. I bet nobody at Chelsea even thought of this as an option.

I spent an hour or so atop the KL Tower – rather similar to Seattle’s Space Needle – which was conveniently located just a few minutes’ walk from my hotel. Again, tons of photos as the sun set to my west, out over the mountains. I located Merdeka Square a mile or so to the south-west and was amazed at the volume of skyscrapers nestled in the central area. As the night fell, all eyes were centered on the Petronas Towers and yet more photographs were taken.

From there, a cab ride into the Bukit Bintang area. I was deposited in Jalan Alor and what a sight. Open air cafes, street vendors, every colour known to mankind, pigs roasting, flumes of smoke wafting across the street, the clamour of street-hawkers. I decided to sit down and have a three course Chinese meal and a large bottle of Carlsberg. The Szechuan hot and sour soup was the star of the show. This all came to 99 ringit or about £23…not cheap, but who cares? It was a fantastic meal and the Chinese waitress was impressed that I had eaten almost everything. I then walked a block onto Jalan Bukit Bintang and paid 25 ringit for a 30 minute foot massage (incidentally, while semi-watching the Uruguay vs. Peru Copa America game above the head of the masseuse next to me). Well, the massage was fantastic, if at times a little painful, and I was impressed that the two nearest masseuses had heard of Chelsea Football Club.

“John Terry, John Terry!!”

I then caught a cab to the Rum Jungle and awaited for Cathy to arrive at just after 11.15pm. We had a great night and were the centre of attention once it became apparent that our waiter was a Chelsea supporter. I showed him video clips of various Chelsea games on my antiquated Sony Ericson phone and Cathy started waving her small CFC flag. The locals wanted their photos taken with us and it was all just lovely. The DJ was an Arsenal fan, from just around the corner from Cathy in Wood Green.

“A big shout out to the Chelsea fans in the house tonight, all the way from London.”

Even a Milan fan from Italy wanted his photo taken with us.

The night wore on – lagers, sambucas and even neat vodka. It was a blast.

In a quiet moment though, Cathy and myself talked business. The business of Chelsea Football Club. It’s easy to poke fun at our legions of fans out in the exotic countries of Asia. I think most of them love the players with a passion that would shame us cynical British. Their enthusiasm at the practice was amazing. I commented to Cathy about Chelsea’s raison d’etre for these tours to far flung places. It has been said that football support within the UK has reached saturation point, everyone one has chosen a team, the colours have been tied to the mast. For heavens’ sake, even people who clearly don’t like football in the UK even get caught up supporting England in tournaments. And these people then get hooked into supporting teams and it’s usually Manchester United. You know the score.

Look how many people are in the UK – maybe 60 million. This isn’t a huge figure. There are billions worldwide. Billions and billions. With the internet and media world getting even slicker by the minute, I am sure there will be a time when the button will be flicked for pay-per-view live streaming of games and new TV contracts. Chelsea wants to be at the very forefront of that race. Hence the desire to – and I apologise for using the phrase – “grow the global brand.” But here, in Kuala Lumpur, here was a city where global brands were on every street corner…McDonalds, Samsung, BMW, TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Café, Manchester United, Burger King, Starbucks, Chelsea Football Club. And make no mistake, we have surfed the internet boom more than most over the last ten years. Without the internet, Chelsea’s support in these exotic locales might well be limited to ex-pats and not the flesh blood of today.

So, Cathy and I chatted about that.

“The bigger picture” Cathy called it.

So, as Chelsea Football Club is supported by hundreds and thousands of new fans with each new Premier League game across the five continents, where does that leave the fans in the UK?

I remember the crazed egotist Silvio Berlusconi saying back in the days when he was just the owner of a new TV company, just setting foot in the corridors of power as Milan chairman, that there would be a time when football clubs would actually pay fans to fill their stadia each week. His point was that 99% of club revenue would come from commercial pursuits and specifically pay-per-view TV. However, the supporters in Singapore, Seattle and Sydney would not want to watch a football game if the local fans had been priced out, resulting in low crowds and little atmosphere. To many, the game is not the whole story. This certainly hit home when I attended my first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

So, think on that, Chelsea. By all means grow the brand, capitalize on the camaraderie and sense of belonging that us UK fans bring to the name of Chelsea Football Club, but please look after your own. If you price us loyal fans out – the singers, the shakers, the celery takers – you might end up with a sanitised Stamford Bridge which does not fit the model that the overseas fans expect. They expect noise and colour, they expect passion, they expect integrity. Not a stadium full of tourists and moneyed middle-classes.

With that, Cathy took a cab back to The Equatorial and I walked 50 yards to the Shangri La, happily avoiding a Lady Boy who resembled Freddie Starr on an off-day.

I chatted on Facebook and went to sleep at 6am. I was still on UK time.

Day Five : The Game.

I rose from my heavy, alcohol imbued, slumber at 2.30pm and headed down to the pool again. Another swim, another read of the paper. Aguero to Manchester City (oh dear) and Eidur to AEK Athens. A comment from JT saying that AVB has inspired him to become Chelsea manager one day.

It is reassuring to know that it took me just as long to decide what to wear to the game in Kuala Lumpur as it does on a normal match day in dear old Blighty; I eventually chose a light cream polo. Down to meet Cathy outside the hotel and she had chosen a light colour too, with her trusty CFC flag tied over her shoulders. We changed trains at the Hang Tuah monorail station and, of course, the trains were flooded with Chelsea fans. I suddenly realised that I had not spotted one single North American baseball cap of any type (NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, NCAA, NASCAR) in my four days in Kuala Lumpur. It ratified my view that there is truly only one global sport. We had been informed that the game was an 84K sell out – bearing in mind Liverpool drew this figure on Saturday – and all thoughts were now on getting to the stadium and getting hold of the match tickets. We alighted at Bukit Jalil at 6pm and I was sent off on a goose chase to locate the ticket pick-up booth. I spotted a familiar face as I navigated my way between vuvuzela blasting locals and souvenir sellers: a chap from Weymouth with two mates and he proudly displayed his famous “Chelsea Dorset” flag for a quick photo.

Tickets thankfully secured, I walked back to join Cathy, who had been joined by two chirpy members of the CYF. They had visited the local “7 Eleven” and offered me an ice-cold beer. Cathy and I posed with “VPN” and tried to get the locals to join in with –

“We Are The Famous, The Famous Chelsea.”

The kick-off was at 8.45pm and we had a long walk to get to the correct turnstile entrance. We bumped into Jayne and Jim from Spain, friends of Cathy’s from way back. A miniscule bag check and we were in. We had tickets for the unreserved seating area of the middle tier, on the premise that we could – if needed – chose to move around a little. We quickly pinned the Kalou and Vinci Per Noi flags up to the fence and took our seats in row one. This plan back-fired because we were forever politely and then not-so-politely asking fans to move on out of our way. It was a hot and humid evening, my shirt was clinging to me and there were people everywhere. When we entered the stadium at 7.30pm, the stadium was barely half-full and my immediate thought was “oh dear – embarrassing.” I had read in the paper that Liverpool had drawn 35K to their practice session, whereas we had drawn less than 10K. I wanted to see a packed Bukit Jalil. I wanted to at least tie Liverpool’s attendance.

The Bukit Jalil stadium was a three-tiered super structure. The stands were far from the pitch and it had the feel of a Maracana. I have heard that it can hold a cool 100,000. There were a few Chelsea flags dotted around – the MBA flag was up – and the Indonesia group had a big flag, too. Our seats were above the corner flag to the right. Chelsea had arranged for those blue and white chequered flags to be placed on seats and these were waved with gusto. The colours of the Malaysian team – yellow and black – were in evidence. There was a group of fans way down to my right with drums. Air horns and vuvuzelas. The constant flow of spectators walking past us.

“Plenty of seats at the back, mate.”

And that was the polite version.

In truth, spectators kept arriving all through the game. Around us, every aisle and every walkway was full, people sitting on steps, people standing, cigarette smoke, noise, the humidity causing me to gasp.

At last, the game.

It was difficult to concentrate. I was exhausted, hot and bothered. There were people in my way. The balcony fence had horizontal bars which made taking photographs a little difficult. Lots of fans nearby were wearing Chelsea shirts and scarves. Ah, the scarf. That symbol of European football loyalty. Do you really need to wear one in Kuala Lumpur with temperatures soaring? A few other shirts of note – Real, Barca, Inter, Milan…even one Newcastle fan breezed by (no doubt on a look out for a pie.) Thankfully hardly any United or Liverpool shirts. Not tonight anyway.

A young lad – 8 years old – was sat in the aisle no more than two feet away from me…clad in a complete Chelsea kit, with “El Nino – 9” on his shirt. His Dad took a call on his moby and at the end, there it was – his screen saver…

A Tottenham cockerel.

Mark it up – the first Spurs fan.

The game, with two completely different Chelsea teams in each half, was not memorable. Yossi Benayoun – the Jew amongst a country of Muslims – was booed every time he touched the ball. Still no Petr Cech. Torres had a couple of half-chances but skewed them wide. Malaysia did not appear to be a threat. Every time they managed to move the ball over the halfway line, the crowd roared their approval. I imagined how manic it would be should they actually score. The best move of the first half, down our right, and a little ball played into Frank, who just couldn’t quite get his toe to it. It reminded me of Gazza against Germany in 1996. How those football memories get replayed time and time again. The ball was bouncing ridiculously high on the bone hard pitch. Tough conditions. Patrick Van Aanholt, I think, crashed a shot against the upright. I noted that Kalou and Malouda, the wide players, swapped over midway into the first period.

There were no songs from Cathy and I. Our cries would have been lost in the constant din.

More of the same in the second period. Sturridge was clean through, but shot at the goalkeeper. A rip-roaring run down from their nippy winger down the Malaysian right got the decibel levels rising, but the move petered out. A few Chelsea shots, a couple of towering John Terry headers.

Then, a free-kick thirty yards out and cameras poised.

Kick. Snap. I caught the exact moment Didier connected.

The ball curled goal wards, hit the post, hit the goalie, the crowd roared, the goalie shoveled the ball out and I didn’t think the whole ball had crossed the line. I quickly glanced at the linesman and his flag was raised. Thank the Lord. The shame of a 0-0 draw was avoided. Very fortuitous, though. In the closing moments, a Malaysian broke through – one on one with Ross Turnbull – but he dragged the shot wide and will probably regret that moment for the rest of his life. By now, many fans had decided to leave and the stadium’s coloured seats were now peeking through.

At the final whistle, relief we had no players injured. Not a good performance, but let’s give everyone time. A moral victory to the Malaysian team, in my book.

As we slowly descended the ramp from the seating bowl, we overlooked a TV studio and there was Graeme Le Saux, no more than 15 feet away, analysing the poor performance for CTV, no doubt. We then breezed past security and waited outside the press-conference in order to quickly snap a subdued AVB. I blagged an official match programme and Cathy blagged two. Then, out into the noisy KL night. We were approached by two chaps and we did an impromptu radio interview for them. We spoke of the club, the trip and the city but then became unstuck; the reporter asked Cathy and I to rattle off a few choice words in Malay, but that proved pretty difficult.

I ended my piece by saying “celery, celery” and not even I knew what I was talking about.

It had been one of those nights.

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Tales From The NW Corner Of The MHU

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 23 October 2010.

I love going to football during the month of October – it feels like the football season is up to full speed, the European campaigns are shaping up, the English countryside is entering its most picturesque period and there is a lovely “nip” in the air. My parents used to guarantee me ”one game before Christmas and one after” and this would often result in a game at The Bridge in October. Back in the seventies, Dad used to park at Ealing Common and we’d get the Piccadilly Line in to Fulham Broadway. I have distinct memories of walking back across Ealing Common at around 6pm, the autumn light fading, my mind full of Chelsea memories from the game we had just witnessed and me kicking conkers across the common, maybe recreating a Garry Stanley pile-driver or a Ray Wilkins blast.

I collected His Lordship at 9am and we were soon heading east. I made the mistake of asking Parky about his army days as we passed Swindon and he was still talking about it as we reached Slough. We were parked at 11am and this was followed by a hearty breakfast and a quick spin around the corner to The Goose.

The usual faces began to appear over the next hour. I spoke with Mark from nearby Westbury and sorted out plans for Anfield. For once, I’m not driving and that will be a nice break for me. Of all the people I would meet in the pub, I’ve known Mark the second-longest. Let’s think…Alan 1984, Mark 1984, Andy D. 1984, Gary, 1989, Daryl 1991, Neil 1992, Frank 1993, Simon 1993, Andy B. 1994, Woody 1998, Parky 2001 and Rob 2006. My closest Chelsea mate ( Glenn 1977 ) wasn’t attending on this occasion. I hate it when work gets in the way of Chelsea. The Tottenham vs. Everton game was on the TV, but nobody was bothering with it. Simon’s son Milo ( 2000 ) was the centre of attention for a few moments…he’s growing up fast these days, his voice is breaking, he’s getting taller…I’m convinced he is noticeably different from the time I last saw him against Arsenal, merely three weeks ago. At his current rate of change, he’s going to have stubble on his chin by Birmingham away and a full beard by the time we play Villa at home on New Year’s Day. He was wearing a lovely Lyle and Scott navy pullover and has long outgrown the desire to cover himself in Chelsea / Adidas / Samsung leisurewear. He’s fitting in nicely with our little family of old school Chelsea die-hards. Milo mentioned his fashion favourites are Fred Perry, Lyle and Scott and Carrhart and I had the distinct impression that he made sure his father was in earshot. It’ll soon be Christmas after all.

Good lad.

The week had been dominated by all of the Rooney nonsense and I was still trying to work out all of the strange developments, the statements, the rumours and counter-rumours. One minute Ferguson appeared crestfallen, the next everything was rosy. I spoke with Parky and Alan about it. I just think it was just horrendous PR from United. I can’t believe that this was a plot by Ferguson and Rooney to engineer funds to become available from the board – especially since the name of Manchester United was dragged through the mud, Rooney’s reputation was hurt and the fans must have been let-down too. I can’t believe Ferguson would have sanctioned that. Let’s hope that the United dressing room is as confused by the events as I am. Let’s hope they continue to drop points. Anyway, that’s enough about United.

Schadenfreude has certainly been rife this past week or so…Liverpool are still in a state of self-inflicted turmoil, Manchester United have endured a nightmare spell and at 8.30pm on Wednesday, Tottenham were 4-0 down at the Giuseppe Meazza.

Happy days.

However, I was pretty dismayed to hear that Portsmouth were possibly playing their last game at Hull City, with their former owner demanding payment on monies owed. What a sad story. I just wish the FA would thoroughly overhaul their “fit and proper persons” check…however, I did make the point that football clubs have been run by useless chairmen for years and years. There’s nothing new in football. It’s just the scale of things these days.

2.30pm soon came around and we departed for the match. I noted to Parky that, apart from a quick comment about Didier Drogba coming back into the team, we had not spoken about the imminent game all day. I met up with Bournemouth Steve ( 2005 ), who was having Glenn’s season ticket for the day, outside the tube and we walked past the Peter Osgood statue on the way in to the Matthew Harding Upper. I bought an extra programme for our mate PD ( 1984 ) who is still in a poor way, struggling to come to terms with his horrific ankle injury. The programme contained confirmation of our Asian tour dates next summer – as it stands, I’m thinking about doing just the Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok games. I have a mate, originally from Frome ( the best footballer in my school year, in fact ) in Thailand and I’d like to spend some time with him and his wife. It would be rude to just call in for a couple of days. They were back in Frome in April and May, just as we were nearing the League title, and I promised them a visit over the next couple of years. With us playing in Bangkok, there are simply no excuses. I’ve never visited Asia – it ought to be a wonderful experience.

Yep, Drogba was back in the team. Good.

As the game began, I had the usual scan of the stadium to see what was going on. Wolves had 1,500 fans in the SE corner. The “Devizes-Wolves” flag was present again. In two weeks, a few of us are going to a Ron Harris and Charlie Cooke evening at a pub near Devizes and that promises to be a good craic. I noted that a few permanent banners had been repositioned…the Roy Bentley, John Terry, Frank Lampard and “Fulham Road” banners were now on the rear wall of the MHU. However, not a good move…lots of fans in the back row constantly stand during the game ( I know I would…) and so the banners are partly hidden. A re-think is needed there.

Wolves began brightly, but we then got into the groove. After 12 minutes, Jose Bosingwa made one of his trademark advances deep into enemy territory and was played in. He unleashed a low shot, but Marcus Hahnemann did well to divert it past his right post. I think everyone in the ground believed he had scored. After 18 minutes, we wondered why Drogba was lining up to take a free kick from about 40 yards out. Surely he should be in the box, for heaven’s sake. However, a great free-kick was played in to a leaping John Terry – completely unmarked – who then headed poorly wide. Wolves had a few attacks – a free header being the best chance.

A lovely move involving Nico and Yuri ended with a great ball being played into Florent Malouda. He was just perfectly positioned and coolly finished. I immediately thought of Danny, out in Rancho Cucamonga, whose first game at HQ last November was against Wolves and Malouda scored first in that game too. Like me, Danny used to get so frustrated by Malouda, but we both acknowledge his massive improvement in form. Soon after, Nico was clean through but shot wildly. He didn’t even hit the target. Despite the lead, the crowd were desperately quiet.

The Wolves fans bellowed “1-0 and you still don’t sing” and I sighed.

At the break, Neil Barnett paraded former Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty around the Stamford Bridge pitch and the applause was heart-warming. He’s now 82 years old, but looks very well. As he walked in front of The Shed, he crouched down and put his hand on the penalty spot – his own little homage to Peter Osgood.

Class.

At the start of the second period, Wolves substitute Stephen Hunt was gently reminded of the word with which his surname rhymes.

Soon after the second-half began, Yuri played in Ashley Cole on one of his world-famous overlaps. It was a delightful ball. However, with three on-rushing Chelsea attackers grouped together on the edge of the box, Ashley seemed to be unsure of which teammate to play in. The chance was lost. As the minutes progressed and as Wolves got more and more into the game, the agitation amongst the home support grew and grew. We were definitely restless. But still the crowd were quiet…only moans were heard, not rousing support.

Shots from Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien were blasted high and wide.

A tremendous through-ball from Ivanovic was played into acres and acres of space for Didier Drogba. We held our breath and expected a goal. However, a poor touch from Drogba and the Wolves ‘keeper smothered the chance. Wolves peppered our goal, but Cech managed to be in the right place at the right time on all of the occasions that an attack developed.

More unrest. More anxious yelps. How we craved a second goal in order to kill off the Wolves threat.

I mentioned to Alan that JT was making more and more forward runs from defence – something I have noticed in recent weeks. This is something which would never have happened under Mourinho and – I have to be honest – I am not so sure I approve. However, I am sure that one day, maybe not for a few years yet, John Terry will go on a 30 yard run and hit an unstoppable shot into the net. Of all his career goals, I cannot remember a JT strike from outside the box.

One day.

Salomon Kalou came on for Florent Malouda on 72 minutes. Within ten minutes, a lovely move ended with a perfect pass from Michael Essien into the path of the substitute. Without blinking an eye, Kalou despatched the ball into the net…

“Thank Heavens For That.”

Not a great game, not a great performance. Our finishing was thoroughly atrocious. No attacking player warranted more than 6/10, though the defence was solid. Drogba was in one of his moods and was more miss than hit. On the way home, I dropped in to Reading Services and a Chelsea fan said that Wolves had been the better team. I simply couldn’t agree with that, but they had certainly given us a good game and looked much-improved from last season. Not to worry, teams tend to struggle after long trips back from Champions League games…after the arctic temperatures in Moscow during the week, at least we won. When I got home, I did some maths. Our last eight Premier League games at Stamford Bridge have all resulted in Chelsea wins. Eight in a row. How many goals have we scored in that run? A mighty thirty-two. How many goals have we conceded? None…none at all.

Our form at home is truly remarkable and I am convinced that the lack of a loud and constant support at home games these days is a direct result of this…we have grown bloated and spoilt as our victories have continued . To remind everyone, our last 126 league games at Stamford Bridge have resulted in just 3 defeats. There is every chance that there are many Chelsea fans who began watching us in the Spring of 2004 and have only seen us lose three times at home in the league. Is it any wonder that some fans think that success is easy – expected, almost – and so why should they bother to sing, shout and get involved? I very well remember the horrible boos last December after we “only” drew 3-3 with Everton. Factor in the obvious socio-economic changes in our support since 1996 and this is what we are up against, everyone. We are victims – atmosphere wise – of our own success.

I’m told we have sold over 3,500 tickets for the away game at Ewood Park next Saturday, so at least I’ll be amongst the more passionate element of our much-maligned support. I’ll be there with Burger and Julie ( 2006 ). There will be a certain poignancy about next week – I’d suggest the away game at Blackburn was the low point of last season. We had just lost at home to Inter, we had a grumbling post-mortem in The Fernhurst car park, United defeated Liverpool just before our game began and we only drew 1-1 against Rovers. I hated the drive home…we were adrift of United and time was running out. Here’s hoping for a better day out in Blackburn this season.

Be sure of one thing though – it will be raining.

You’ll need to bring your jacket – see you all in The Fernhurst.

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