Tales From A Road Less Travelled

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 11 January 2014.

My seemingly never-ending trail around the highways and byways of England and Wales, after consecutive away days in Hampshire and Derbyshire, now had me heading up to Yorkshire for Chelsea’s lunchtime encounter with Hull City. I once described Hull as England’s forgotten city, but following Hull City’s promotion to the top flight in 2008, at least football fanciers are now aware of the city on the banks of the River Humber. This would be a long day, but one that I was relishing.

At 5am the alarm sounded and I was soon cobbling together my match day essentials. I noted that a few fans were already referencing an “Only Fools And Horses” episode on “Facebook.”

“To Hull and back.”

I soon collected Parky at 6.30am and we soon dipped in to McChippenham for our standard football breakfast.

Within minutes, we had crossed the M4 and were heading north on the straight-as-a-dye Fosse Way once again. This ancient Roman road, which stretches from Exeter to Lincoln, is especially picturesque in The Cotswolds, linking small knots of hamlets with larger market towns, each with dwellings built from the local golden stone. At around 7.30am, we saw the sun rise to the east. The road was quiet. The Cotswolds were as photogenic as ever, even in the height of winter. By 8.30am, there was nothing but a clear blue sky overhead.

“I love this time of the day, Parky. Dawn breaking, with a long trip ahead. Perfect.”

Our route eventually took us right through the heart of much-maligned Coventry. The inner-city ring road hurtled us past the two recent former homes of the city’s football team. I would imagine that most Coventry City fans are rueing the club’s decision to move out of Highfield Road, a perfectly fine stadium in the heart of the city, and then decamp to the now abandoned Ricoh Arena. Coventry’s football club now play at Northampton Town’s stadium and this is just a miserable state of affairs.

“This town is coming like a ghost town.”

Our F.A. Cup visit to the Ricoh in 2009 may turn out to be our solitary one.

Just after 9am, we collected Andy from his house in Nuneaton. I’ve been good mates with Andy for almost twenty years (Prague 1994). However, for almost ten years before that, his was a face that I often used to spot at various stadia. I recognised him at first from our travels back to the midlands from Euston station after Chelsea home games. For a spell, it seemed that I couldn’t help noticing him at home games – he used to stand in front of the Bovril Gate in The Shed – and most away games too. I even remember spotting him in Glasgow for a Rangers game in 1986 on a day when there was no Chelsea match.

“Bloody hell, I can’t get away from him.”

Twenty-eight years later, we were headed off to Hull City in the same car.  It’s weird how these things work themselves out.

We then stopped at a nearby village to collect Alan (aka “The Youth”) and his twelve year old son Seb (collectively known as “The Two Ronnies”). In the same way that my home town of Frome used to supply around six to eight fans for many Chelsea games, Andy’s home of Nuneaton used to supply even greater numbers. Whereas, Frome’s presence has dwindled to just a couple, many of the Nuneaton boys still go. On one memorable occasion in 1997, we arranged to play a Chelsea South (essentially Frome and London) versus a Chelsea Nuneaton six-a-side game at a sport centre off the King’s Road on the morning of a Chelsea vs. Manchester United match. The Nuneaton chaps were clear winners, winning 6-1 if memory serves. Good times. We’re long overdue a re-match.

For the second time in under a week, I was headed up the M42. Rather than turn off for Derby, I joined the M1. After all of my journeys up the west side of the midlands for games in Lancashire and Merseyside, this made a refreshing change. Due to the reluctance of both Sheffield teams and Leeds United to join Chelsea in top-flight football, this was certainly a road less travelled. A solitary game at Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006 has been our only league match at these two cities for ages. It is likely that some new Chelsea fans are completely unaware of the existence of Sheffield Wednesday – unwilling to look beyond the Premier League – such has their status plummeted over the past fifteen years. Maybe some fans believe Sheffield Wednesday to be a type of cake, or a breed of cattle, or a type of rifle.

As I drove north, we spoke of previous visits to see Chelsea play at Hull City.

“Didn’t we play them twice in the F.A. Cup years and years ago?”

“Yeah, 1982…and then again, when the third round was played before Christmas, in 1999.”

“There was that 4-0 League Cup win.”

“Two midweek league games.”

This would only be my second visit to the K.C. stadium to see us play.

“That Frank Lampard chip.”

Surprisingly, I spotted no other Chelsea cars headed north. In addition to the smoke billowing out from the cooling towers of several power stations, there were many wind turbines on the hills to the distance. Here was evidence of the changing face of England in 2014. We swung around, passing Sheffield and then Doncaster, before heading due east on the M62. The sky was still a brilliant blue. Eventually, the Humber Bridge – once the World’s longest single span suspension bridge – came in to view. It’s quite striking, to be honest.

Then, the city of Hull.

A while ago, this grey city ranked “numero uno” in a list of “Crap Towns of Britain” but I can’t honestly comment, since my visits have been such short-lived affairs. If the football club remain in the top flight for more than one season, and if the kick-off slot is more conducive, I promise to take a walk around the recently rejuvenated dock area and try to eke out some worthwhile sights. In 1973, on a family visit to nearby Grimsby, we spent a day in Hull and I remember a visit to the William Wilberforce Museum, devoted to the man who is most credited for abolishing slavery within the British Empire.

Back in the early ‘eighties, one of my favourite bands were formed at Hull University, taking their name from a slogan used by a furniture shop.

“For all your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.”

Hull, like Wigan, is a rugby league town. I’d imagine that Hull would be quite content to emulate Wigan Athletic; in the top flight for eight years with an F.A. Cup and European football thrown in for good measure. Our approach into the city was along Clive Sullivan way, named after one of Hull’s favourite rugby league players. Very soon, we spotted the white floodlight pylons of the K.C. Stadium and we were soon parked-up.

It was 11.45am.

The cold wind was a shock to the system, but we were soon inside, amongst familiar Chelsea faces within the concourse behind the northern goal. There was just time for a pint and a pie. A proud banner reminded us that the city had been awarded the title of the U.K. City of Culture for 2017.

I reached my seat a few moments before the teams walked out. I’d imagine we had around 2,500 tickets for this game, together in one tier behind the goal. It was clear that the “gobby” element of the home support were adjacent, to our left, just like at Wigan in fact.

Still clear blue skies.

As the game commenced, I quickly scanned the team and approved.

Luiz in midfield alongside Ramires? No complaints.

However, despite my liking of the Cole/Terry/Cahill/Azpilicueta defensive line, Ashley Cole was continually tested in the first period of the game by several Hull City bursts. We seemed to take a while to get out of the traps and the home team managed a few efforts on Petr Cech’s goal.

The banter on the terraces had started early. The home fans in the corner were firing some bullets our way.

“Here for the culture. You’re only here for the culture.”

“You’re soft. You’re southerners.”

“We support our local team.”

…bollocks, you were all Leeds fans ten years ago.

John Terry gave the ball away right in front of me, but thankfully Sagbo snatched at his shot and the ball flashed wide of the far post. Soon after, our first real chance was provided by an excellent piece of attacking play by Cole and Hazard. Our Belgian maestro crossed the ball to the waiting Oscar and the entire Chelsea end expected a goal. The Brazilian’s shot, though powerful, was right at Alan McGregor, who ably deflected the ball over. I turned away, mouthing “great save” and noticed a few others saying the same.

The home fans were again singing.

“Silverware, we don’t care. Hull City everywhere.”

In truth, there was little noise emanating from the Chelsea faithful as the first-half wore on. Maybe it was the early kick-off which affected our quietness. A late free-kick from David Luiz forced another fine save from the Hull ‘keeper, but there seemed to be a general malaise from team and supporters alike in the lunchtime sun. Both Alan and Gary, who had travelled up from London by train, were of the same opinion as me; we needed to up the tempo, create space, move for each other. Very often, Hull were able to smother our play.

“Bloody hell, we can go top today. That should be all the motivation the players need.”

“I’m sure Jose will sort it at the break.”

Soon after the restart, a ridiculously high and wide effort from Luiz almost reached the corner flag.

“Bloody hell.”

Thankfully, our pressure steadily increased. We were awarded another free-kick and again David Luiz took control. With Gary Cahill standing in the wall, he turned and broke away, allowing Luiz to aim for the space he had vacated. In truth, the dipping ball was easy for the ‘keeper to shield.

A gorgeous dribble from Hazard right into the Hull penalty area, but his shot was smacked wide. Just after, a fine interchange between Luiz and Cole set up Eden Hazard. What happened next was pure joy.

Hazard advanced at speed, sold the defender the most delightful dummy by feinting to shoot, then slammed the ball in at the base of the left post.

Get in!

The Chelsea end roared and Hazard ran to milk the applause, with a knowing smirk which shouted “yeah, I know, that was the bollocks, wasn’t it?”He was soon mobbed by his team mates. We were on our way.

At the birthplace of Everything But The Girl, Eden had registered a hit.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea choir soon greeted our goal with the most obvious chant of the season –

“We are top’o’the league. Say, we are top’o’the league.”

Is it me, or does anyone else think that this chant always seems to be carried out in a Geordie accent?

The noise from the Chelsea fans clearly upset the home fans, who responded with the dreary “City Till I Die” dirge.

Chelsea then responded –

“Hull City Tigers – You Know What You Are.”

Ouch. That must’ve hurt. However, I have a feeling that this particular ditty must have been sung at Hull on many other occasions this season because their response was quick, loud and most definitely to the point.

“I’d rather be a tiger than a cnut.”

A few Chelsea smiles greeted that one.

Chelsea again tested Hull with a few more efforts and Hull were fading fast. However, Mourinho replaced Oscar with Mikel and we expected a tightening of our play.

A 1-0 victory would do for me.

With the game heading towards its conclusion, Willian – who had enjoyed another all-action display – played the ball through to Fernando Torres. Torres had toiled hard all game, but had been fed just scraps. Here was a chance for him to excel, enjoying the exact type of ball with which he so often thrived at Anfield. He pushed the ball forward, drifted past his marker and once inside the box quickly dispatched the ball low with his left foot. McGregor was beaten and the net rippled.

No smirking from Nando. Just relief that his weaker left peg had not let him down.

2-0, game over.

I pulled out of Hull bang on 3pm and I then battled the falling sun as I headed due west. There was a small amount of reflection on the game. In truth, we were hardly troubled. The concern at half-time soon disappeared as the second-half developed and Chelsea’s superiority told. Another three points, top of the league, having a laugh.

It was a tiring drive home. I fought the yawns with copious supplies of caffeine. There were plenty of laughs as we headed south.

We bade our farewells to Alan and Seb :

“It’s goodnight from me.”

“And it’s goodnight from him.”

And then Andy :

“See you next Sunday, God bless.”

As so often happens, I inevitably contrived to get lost in the Bermuda Triangle just south of Coventry. Every damn time, this happens. If ever I go missing over the next few years, I suggest they send a search party out to search the roads around bloody Warwick, bloody Kenilworth and bloody Leamington bloody Spa.

As we headed south on the Fosse, Parky played a couple of CDs from the ‘eighties. We passed Moreton-in-Marsh to the sound of ABC, Stow on the Wold to the sound of The Beat and Cirencester to the sound of Bauhaus.

I eventually reached home at 9pm, fell asleep on the sofa, missed “Match of the Day” and awoke at 4am. I turned over and fell back to sleep.

Top of the league, I’m having a kip.

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Tales From Three Days In May

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 15 May 2013.

Tuesday 14 May began with a “who the hell is phoning me at this ungodly hour” call from Les at just after 7.30am. Les lives in nearby Melksham and was already at Bristol airport. He was phoning me to check if I was on the same early-morning flight to Schipol; I told him that I would be on the 3.20pm flight instead. He was just about to board the plane by the sounds of it. This was a good sign. I wasn’t sure how many Chelsea would be in Amsterdam for our Europa League Final with Benfica – surely not the 40,000 at Munich – but the fact that Les was going told me that we would have good numbers out there. Les isn’t a season-ticket holder, so I presumed that he was going without a ticket. He told me that two other lads that we knew – Westbury Mark and Trowbridge Andy – were heading off much later by coach. They were without tickets too, I believed. These lads, and thousands like them, were travelling in blind faith with no guarantee of a match ticket. Fair play to them all.

As I got my things together for my three days in The Netherlands, Munich was dwelling heavily on my mind. I have never thought myself to be too superstitious about football, but as I slowly decided on what items of clothing to pack, my view soon changed.

Timberland shoes – no, I had them in Moscow. A definite ‘no.’

My new Nike trainers – yes, I’ve only worn them twice…at Old Trafford and Villa Park. Two wins. Absolute certainties.

Hugo Boss top – yep, I wore that in Barcelona last year, I’ll wear that on Wednesday for the game.

One significant omission for my pre-Amsterdam planning, sadly, was my friend Glenn who was unable to make it this time. How the two of us revelled on that Friday together; travelling together out to Prague from Bristol and enjoying each other’s company, before joining in with the madness of Munich on the Saturday. Was it really almost a whole year ago?

During last year’s trail to European glory, I was indebted to bird shit. Let me explain. Just before I travelled out to Spain for the Barcelona game, I was unwilling to wipe off some birds’ mess which was on my car. Now, this is seen as good luck in the UK, if not elsewhere. I joked with my work colleague Mike about this on my return after a most improbable semi-final victory was secured (…thanks to the birds’ mess, and Messi’s miss). Imagine my worry when I had to turn in my car – which was a hire car – for another one, just before travelling out to Munich. I was all for keeping the car – and, crucially, not washing the mess off. Then, miraculously, on the Friday I spotted fresh birds’ mess on my new car. I texted Mike the good news. The rest, as they say, is history.

After Didier scored the winning penalty in Munich, Mike was soon to text me –

“The bird shit worked!”

The relevance of all this…er, shit?

As I opened my front door at about 12.30pm in readiness for my quick jaunt to Bristol airport, I quickly spotted the new addition just above the driver’s window.

A fresh dollop.

Oh boy.

Incidentally, just to prove that I can weave any old – er, crap – into a story about Chelsea, I can well remember being in The Shed for the 5-0 thrashing of Derby County in August 1983…yes, you’ve guessed it. A pigeon crapped on me. I am not sure if I considered it lucky at the time, but we went on to win the old second division championship that season.

I was parked at Bristol airport at 1pm. I wondered if Young Dave and Pav would be on the flight, just as they were to Prague in May 2012. I bought a pint of Heineken – of course! – and made my way over to the same part of the lounge area where Glenn and I sat last year. Yes, more superstition. Who should be there but Cookie, a lad from Frome who I used to work with in 1988-1989. He was from the year below me at school, a good footballer; I have often chatted to him at Frome Town this season. He was with another lad from Frome; they were both without tickets, but willing to spend £200 apiece. I chatted to them about our chances in the final. To my immense guilt a few days before the game, I could only name one player from the Benfica team – Cardozo – without referencing the internet. I then remembered a few names, including Nemanja Matic who fleetingly played for us three years ago. We obviously spoke about Munich too; it was never far from my thoughts.

I told Cookie about the amazing story of Pav’s famous home-made VIP pass which enabled him free access to the Allianz Arena last May. I had seen on Facebook before leaving home that Young Dave was helping to finalise Pav’s 2013 version. I wondered how successful Pav would be this year. On lining up at the gate, I spotted Graham – and his wife – from Melksham who were also travelling out with no tickets. I’d guess there were around 25 Chelsea lining up at the gate.

Just as I was about to enter the airplane at the top of the steps, I turned around.

It was Pav. He was right behind me.

“Alright mate!”

As with last year, he was wearing a badge with a lovely picture of his dear mother, who sadly passed away a few months before the Munich final.

“I hear you have made a VIP pass for this year too, Pav.”

“Yes, mate. It’s laminated this time. Very professional.”

The flight from Bristol to Schipol took less than an hour. I was able to read a lovely article about Bobby Tambling in “When Saturday Comes” by the Chelsea fan (and founder of “WSC”) Mike Ticher, who now lives in Australia. Bobby, the antithesis of the boozing and extravagant Chelsea player of the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, has only recently become a Chelsea celebrity by those outside SW6 due to Frank Lampard’s assault on his 202 goals.

Walking through the arrival hall, I realised that my last foreign airport was Beijing in December. I had a little tingle of excitement at that memory; this supporting Chelsea lark sure has its privileges, doesn’t it? Not only the best friends in the world, but an excuse to travel to the four corners of the world too.

Happy daze in Amsterdam.

Pav and I caught a train into Amsterdam and he was able to regale me with the fine details of how the fake VIP passes were planned and printed. At Central Station, he wanted to show them to me; they were excellent. He had one main one, plus a couple of back-ups. Before we went our separate ways, I touched the badge of his Mum for good luck, gave him a hug and wished him well.

As far as superstitions go, things were working out just fine.

Outside the bustling Central Station, I looked around for the correct tram to take me down to Leidseplein where Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed were waiting for me. I was last in Amsterdam in 2008 on a business trip. Back in the ‘eighties, the area outside the train station was grimy with the whiff of desperate guys trying to sell hash. In 2013, things had improved. Amsterdam was going to be my home for three days and I was buzzing.

I met up with the boys at 6.30pm. They had arrived around midday and had already acclimatised well to their new surroundings. They had ventured out in the misty rain for a leisurely bar crawl, followed by some snap; the highlight being Gary’s demolition of almost three racks of ribs.

We walked down to our cosy hotel, just south of Leidseplein. The central area of Amsterdam consists of concentric streets and canals in a largely “U” shape, with the train station at the top. Heading south, there is Dam Square and then Leidseplein. Our hotel was just at the bottom of the “U.”

We freshened-up, then assembled at 8pm. There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a first night in a foreign city; and nights on the town do not get much better than old Amsterdam. I soon realised that I was wearing the same Valentino shirt that I wore out and about in Seville some fifteen years ago; another nice superstition. We won that game too. That it still fits me is a miracle.

We decided to have a bite to eat in one of the many Argentinian steak houses on Leidsedwarsstraat. Steak and chips for all five of us, washed down with pints of Dommelsch. Bloody luvverly.

The toast, as ever was of “Friendship & Football.”

We caught the tram further into the heart of this intimate, exciting and fascinating city. This was my fifth visit. While at college at Stoke, while on a geography field trip, we visited Rotterdam for three nights and Amsterdam for four nights in April 1986. Fantastic memories. In 1987, two college mates and little old me made a return visit. In March 1988, I returned to attempt to sell some football badges at an Ajax UEFA cup match at the Olympic Stadium; it was my worst-ever night’s business during my badge-selling days. I didn’t sell a single badge; the market was already swamped with English footy memorabilia unlike in Germany and Italy. I find it incredible that it took me 25 years to return, save for that flying visit in 2008, when I only really experienced Amsterdam from behind the wheel of a car on a trip from Schipol down to Venlo and Utrecht.

We caught a cab up to Dam Square, which acts as the heart of the city. We bumped into Beth and Cathy, but continued east. We soon found ourselves in the heart of the red light district which is centred on Voorburgwal. There were Chelsea and Benfica fans at every turn. Inside for a beer, we found ourselves watching the Arsenal vs. Wigan game as the score leapt from 1-1 to 4-1. Andy Wray and Steve Mantle were spotted outside; it was clear that we were going to be bumping into friends at regular intervals in the city centre. We continued walking. The red lights were everywhere. The sights and smells were authentic Amsterdam; windows and windows of working girls of various ages, clad in bikinis, tapping the windows for our attention and the sweet smell of dope which permeated every side street and canal-side path. The mood was of boisterousness, of fun, of football. We passed a corner bar – Café Corso – on Achterburgwal. Inside, a famous Chelsea face was sat at a table, surveying the scene. The General was again in town. We took up residence in this bar…the beer was being sold in plastic glasses, but we didn’t mind. I guess we stayed here for around two hours. Alan happened to look outside just as Fun Time Frankie, Mike Neat and Dave The Hat were outside, chomping into some pizza. They looked up as we appeared at the window.

Don’t worry, they couldn’t afford us.

We had a fantastic time in this bar. There were pints of Heineken, plenty of laughs and – of course – tons of photographs. Supporting Chelsea was made for nights like this. We had a cracking time. The music on the juke box was rich and varied; we even got to witness Alan dancing, holding onto his lapels like a proper cockernee, to an oompah song about “Old Amsterdam.” It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, the bar closed ridiculously early at 1am. We were back walking the streets again. The crowds were now heavier, noisier, the bridges over the canals were bottle-necks. Benfica were out in force and were in fine voice. Chelsea were bantering back-and-forth with them. We decided to head home, or at least for further drinking nearer home, where it wouldn’t be quite so likely to “kick-off.” We wandered south. Daryl, Ed and I hung it out until 3am, supping two more additional pints apiece. I hoped I wouldn’t regret it in the morning. Outside the pub on Leidseplein, I looked up and saw Neil Barnett. I popped over for a quick word; there was talk of the game ahead, but also of New York.

We returned to our hotel. It had been a Dam lovely night.

Wednesday 15 May began with the slightest hangover for me. I had – foolishly, what was I thinking? – set the alarm for 7.30am. I made it down to a lovely breakfast at 9.45am. Unsurprisingly, Gary was there; he had been breakfasting for almost two hours. It was a leisurely start to the day; we were in no rush. Out at 11.30am, we again caught a tram into the centre. Unlike Tuesday, there was no rain and the sun was trying its damnedest to burn through the small amount of cloud cover. A coffee, a wander, a stroll down to Dam square where we met Walnuts, newly-arrived by coach. Benfica fans seemed to again be out in force, though that is probably misleading; they were bedecked in the red of their team, and easily recognisable. Chelsea, typically, tended to be more subtle, so blended in with the surroundings. In fact, during the previous night’s action, I had hardly seen a Chelsea shirt or scarf at all.

We ambled through the red light district once more and settled in at “Café Remember” for an hour. Two lads from the flight recognised me and told me of their successful visit to the stadium that morning in search of tickets. Melksham Graham was in the pub and he was relieved to hear of the good news; he soon departed to the Arena to check out the ticket situation. Next, we met Julie and Burger, the Nuneaton boys, Rob and the Kent boys, in a throng of a few hundred outside Susie’s Saloon. By now, the skies were blue; Chelsea weather. It seemed that the night before had passed with no serious incident, although we heard that two Benfica fans had been thrown into a canal. I’m surprised that it was only two.

Alan, Daryl, Ed and I headed back to the hotel to collect our match tickets, via another couple of beers in Leidseplein. There was bar after bar, cheek by jowl, one after the other. We sat outside in the mid-afternoon sun, under trees heavy with blossom. There was a massive echo from Munich; on that wonderful afternoon, my friends and I spent many hours in a gorgeous beer garden, with petals of blossom falling into our steins of Paulaner. With a lovely coincidence, I ordered pints of “Bavaria” lager. The area was full of noisy Benfica fans, but Chelsea soon responded with a few songs of our own. I quickly chatted to one of forty Benfica fans who had travelled over from Toronto. They are a massive club of course; the biggest in Portugal. I could hardly believe that they had suffered the sadness of six consecutive UEFA final defeats. Our single defeat in Moscow seems ridiculous in comparison. Our tickets collected, we met up with Gary and Walnuts back at Dam Square at about 4pm.

Still almost five hours until the game; lovely.

We wandered north, through the busy shopping area, and chanced upon a local restaurant. We spent the best part of two hours in there, enjoying each other’s’ company, knocking back more ale, laughing at a ridiculous array of silly jokes and stories. Alan and I chose the most wisely when we ordered the food. We had “hache” which is a Dutch beef stew, served with a huge pile of mash and a side order of red cabbage – or “Charlie Babbage” as Alan called it.

Yes, it was good.

With 7pm approaching, we headed up to the Central Station. There was a mix of fans in the train as we headed to Amsterdam’s south-eastern suburbs. Like Munich, the city’s stadium is way out of the centre. Thankfully, whereas the Munich subway trains were infamously slow and over-filled on that evening last year, this journey was fine. I stood the entire time, but it wasn’t a problem. Among the songs being aired, the “We all hate Leeds” song brought the biggest smile from me. The atmosphere in the train was fine; Benfica red and Chelsea blue sparring only through song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upZQ4_xKCZQ

The Amsterdam Arena appeared. It was surprisingly tall; it only holds just over 50,000, yet it towers over the buildings nearby. The roof adds extra height of course. We soon bumped into the New York contingent again. I wandered off to take it all in, taking the usual assortment of photographs along the way. The train station was adjacent to the southern end, which was the one allocated to Benfica. I slowly began my clockwise perambulation of the stadium until I reached the north end.

Just like Munich.

The Benfica fans were friendly enough. I had time on my hands. I was enjoying every minute. I bought a five euro beer – I made sure it wasn’t alcohol free, unlike the ones being sold inside – and took it with me on my walk, past the entrance to the Ajax museum, then further on to our end. I bumped into Beth, Wrayman, then a couple of mates from home. A tin of Amstel was thrust into my hands and I supped away. Time was now moving on, though, and I soon got caught up in the rush to get in. I walked in with Jonesy, a friend for almost twenty years. I didn’t bump into him in Munich, so I was doubly-pleased to see him in The Dam. He rarely missed a game back in the ‘eighties. We spoke of how our club has progressed in the past fifteen years. We talked of our joint obsession and, as if to prove the insanity of supporting Chelsea, Jonesy spoke about the trip that he took to Plymouth from his home in Nuneaton – a 450 mile round trip – for a Friday night friendly in around 1988. As he retold the story, it was obvious he could hardly believe that he did it. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A Chelsea fan showed me the two 70 euro tickets that he couldn’t shift. My pre-match calculations – 10,000 with tickets, 20,000 without – were possibly way off. Maybe around 15,000 Chelsea fans were in Amsterdam; maybe they all got in.

Despite arriving at the Arena with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare, the delay at the gates and a further wait to use the toilets meant that I was struggling to get in on time. I was mirroring – unintentionally – my late arrival at Munich and I reached my seat just before kick-off.

Proper Chelsea.

Sadly, I just missed the flag displays. Just inside, I spotted Les; he had made it in and was smiling wildly. I took my place alongside the boys in the lower tier…furthest away to my right was Daryl, then Ed, then Walnuts, then Alan, then Gary, then myself. Rob arrived fashionably late and sat to my left.

The team is the one that I would have picked; preferring Luiz alongside Frank with Ramires out wide instead of Moses. I was just pleased that Frank was playing. Well done Rafa on that one.

The Benfica fans were easily spotted to the south; they took up the entire lower tier and around half of the top tier. We obviously had the same situation in the north.

Just like Munich, red at the south end, blue at the north end.

In the neutral areas, there seemed to be more blue than red. Excellent work, everyone. Although the sky was a brilliant cloudless blue, inside the stadium was dark. There was a strange feel to the stadium; it was impressive, but the infrastructure for the roof added much height. In reality, the seating tiers were not particularly large. I spent the first few minutes catching up on some photographs. Both teams had brought many flags and banners. Big respect to the fans who brought over the ‘Chelsea Adelaide’ flag; last seen in Tokyo.

The first-half, just like at Villa Park on Saturday, was horrendous. I watched on aghast as Benfica started very strongly, with their passing and movement seeming to bamboozle us. A couple of Benfica chances went begging and I wondered if this game was going to follow the same pattern as in Munich; that of dogged resistance after numerous onslaughts. A rough tackle on Ramires away in the distance went unpunished and the Chelsea fans wailed. We again looked very ‘leggy’ and we spent most of the first period chasing shadows. The Chelsea fans around me were openly frustrated by our players and our songs soon dried up. Shots were blocked inside our box as Benfica continued to dominate. Petr Cech, however, rarely had to make a save.

We had a couple of half-chances, but the mood was still grey. One fan behind me berated Oscar, yelling obscenity after obscenity after him. I turned around, glanced at him, yet turned away. I didn’t fancy a confrontation, but his hatred towards a Chelsea player truly sickened me. Benfica threatened again. A free-kick blocked. A shot over the bar. Yet, Cech remained untested. It was a strange game. I momentarily lost my lens cap – it was my glasses in Munich – and so missed our best chance of the entire game, a dipping shot from Lamps which was well saved by Artur.

I sent a text out at half-time :

“Well. Looking at a repeat of Saturday in the second-half.”

Just after the break, Benfica thought that they had opened the scoring but their collective hopes were dashed; the danger man Cardozo leapt and headed in, with no defender close. I saw the linesman’s flag jolt up so was unfazed.

Ever so slowly, Chelsea began contesting the game in a far more positive manner. The Chelsea fans, eventually, responded.

On the hour, a long throw out from Petr Cech and the ball broke for Fernando Torres. The entire Chelsea end realised that this was his ‘once in a game moment.’ Nando was around ten yards inside the Benfica as he received the ball, twisting away from his marker in a deft movement. He set off for goal and I captured his run on film.

Click : after having fought off the trailing defender Luisao, Nando approaches the goalkeeper just inside the box.

Click : he sways to his right and the ‘keeper moves to his left. The duel is on.

Click : after continuing his movement, Nando has enough strength to push the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive at his feet.

Click : with the ‘keeper on all fours, Nando keeps his feet and slots the ball in from an angle.

The Chelsea end erupted. I secretly hoped that this would be his night. Where were all the folk who said that Fernando Torres doesn’t score important goals.

“GETINYOUFCUKINGBEAUTY.”

I snapped his Usain Bolt-inspired pose down at the corner flag, but the photo was blurred and so was I.

Phew.

Alan leaned across and, in his best Portugeezer accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Me, in my worst Portugeezer accent : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our wonderful lead lasted only a short period, but what a period of dreaming that was. I whispered to Rob that “I hope it stays 1-0” (just so Torres can get some glory).

Just after, Azpilcueta handled inside the box. Oh boy. No repeat of Munich though; that man Cardozo slammed the ball in with Cech diving to he left. A single red flare was lit in the south lower.

Chelsea kept going, however, roared on by our travelling support. I could hardly believe that many hundreds in the lower tier sat the entire game. Torres went down in the box, but no penalty. On 81 minutes, Cardozo walloped a screamer at goal, but Petr Cech did ever so well to fingertip it over the bar. It was his first bona fide save of the entire night. Like I said, it was an odd game.

With three minutes remaining, Lampard was way out. I caught his thumping shot on film, and watched as it dipped and crashed onto the bar. I was amazed at its ferocity. I was amazed that it had gone so close.

Injury-time was being played when a Ramires run won a corner down to my left. Shades of Munich, eh? Juan Mata sent over a high ball. Ivanovic, back-peddling, leapt high. The ball began its upwards and then downwards trajectory. I clicked my camera out of habit than expectation. The ball seemed to take an eternity to drop. To our joy, the net rippled.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

The north end exploded.

I looked to my right at Alan and we just screamed at each other. A blue flare in front exploded with a huge plume of smoke. Oh, how we sung.

Almost immediately, Benfica attacked and – I found it hard to concentrate but

PLEASE

CHELSEA

DON’T

FCUK

THIS

UP.

The chance was cleared. Oh boy.

The whistle blew.

YES!

Benfica had lost their seventh consecutive UEFA final and we had won our fourth final out of five attempts. Apart from half an inch of Russian wood, it would have been five out of five.

Athens 1971, Stockholm 1998, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013.

It had been, let’s not kid ourselves, a below-par Chelsea performance on the night. Our ridiculously long season had eventually taken its toll. We looked tired. There was little to cheer, apart from the two goals of course.

Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic – we salute you.

The Chelsea players cavorted down on the pitch and we sung about being Champions of Europe.

You know how the song goes, eh?

There seemed to be a ridiculously long delay between the end of the game and the moment when our players ascended the steps to receive the medals. Unlike Munich, my telephoto lens captured the moment when Frank lifted the massive trophy – the old much-loved UEFA Cup – high into the Amsterdam night.

Munich 2012 and Amsterdam 2013.

Two steps beyond.

Congratulatory texts soon came in from Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona fans. Strangely, no mention of the birds’ mess from Mike.

Now, it was time to watch the players enjoying themselves; it was magical. I was so lucky to be close to where the majority of the action took place. Frank Lampard was alone with the cup for quite some time. John Terry, on purpose I am sure, stayed away from the spotlight. Fernando looked blissed out. Brana hopped up on to the bar – the same spot as Munich – all over again. Frank jumped over the advertisement hoardings and revelled in the adulation, beaming with smiles and looking up at fans in the upper tier. Ramires appeared with his son. The four goalkeepers stood together. David Luiz and his T-shirt, sent out funny faces and hand jives to his fans. Mikel and Moses in their trackie bottoms. Benitez, smiling, looking on. Nathan Ake, one for the future, with the huge trophy. The management team, perhaps unsure of the reaction, waited a while but stood together and hoisted the trophy. There was applause from the stands.

The songs…”Liquidator”, “One Step Beyond” and – strangely – “Blue Tomorrow.”

Then, the daddy of them all…a song that takes me back to 1972 and always leaves me wiping my eyes.

“Blue Is The Colour.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSW9H905RGg

We were giddy and excited as we moved away from our seats, waving to fellow friends, hugging others. Soon outside, we descended the many flights of stairs, singing joyously.

“We’ve won it again, we’ve won it again. Champions of Europe, we’ve won it again.”

Down at ground level, it really was Munich all over again.

“We Are The Champions, The Champions Of Europe.”

Happy daze.

Then, a new song.

“Strippers And Whores. Ivanovic Scores.”

We caught a train back to the centre of Amsterdam, shaking hands with many more friends along the way. Munich will never be beaten, but Amsterdam was just so enjoyable. Stockholm meant more – to me, it was magical to replicate the feat of the vaunted 1970 and 1971 teams. At the time, we thought there would be nothing greater than a ECWC win since we all knew that we’d never win the league, nor the Champions League. What did we know? But Amsterdam was bloody fantastic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Back at Leidseplein, I joined in with the post-game buzz. All of the boys together, the square alive with Chelsea smiles the size of an Amsterdam spliff. There were more familiar faces there too; it seemed that everywhere we went in the city, we saw friends. It was bloody lovely. Brighton Tony held court; he was full of forthright opinions and very good company. He first met Gary as long ago as 1977 when they had season tickets in rows one and two of the East Upper. At 3am, we called it a night. We returned to our hotel with our fourth European trophy tucked into our back pockets.

Thursday 16 May was a rainy day in Amsterdam, but we didn’t care. We breakfasted again, and then went our separate ways. I headed off to visit the Rijksmuseum, but first sat in the busy café to enjoy a cappuccino and have a leisurely read of a paper. There was a picture of Nando on the front.

“Read all about it.”

I decided to avoid the long lines at the Rijksmuseum, instead spending a very enjoyable hour at the Van Gogh Museum where I drooled over a few lovely paintings. I bumped into two Chelsea fans there too. Back at the hotel, we all reconvened before saying our “goodbyes.” I caught the tram up to the centre and met up with the New York contingent for two last pints of Heineken in a crowded bar near the station. I was soon on the train to the airport. And then, home to Bristol. It had been a magnificent time. Hearing from Gill that Frank has signed a one-year deal?

Perfect.

And just like in Athens, in Stockholm and in Munich, there will be a foreign field in Amsterdam that will be forever Chelsea. Additionally, we joined Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich as the only teams to have won all three European trophies. And for ten days we are Champions Of Europe and Champions Of Europe Lite.

Did we have a blast?

Dam right.

…and, yes, Pav made it in.

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Tales From Munich : Part One – Petals From Heaven

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

So, where does this remarkable story start? The story surely begins before the two magnificent games against Barcelona, but it obviously encompasses them. It begins before the Benfica games, too. Does it start with the come-from-behind game against Napoli at Stamford Bridge? Quite possibly. But, maybe the story begins with the exemplary Drogba-inspired victory over Valencia in the last group phase game of the autumn? This was a game that we had to win to progress; nothing like leaving it late, eh Chelsea?

Or does the story begin years earlier? The gut-wrenching defeat against Barca in 2009? The crippling loss on penalties to Manchester United in the rain of an unwelcoming Moscow night in 2008? How about the twin losses to Liverpool on two evenings at an obnoxious Anfield? Does the story start there? The ghost goal of Luis Garcia in 2005 and the penalties of 2007? Pain, pain, pain.

How about the semi-final defeat – almost forgotten these days – at the hands of Monaco in 2004? Or another loss to Barcelona at the quarter final stage in 2000 which was at the end of our first ever assault on the biggest prize in European club football?

In my mind, the story didn’t exist in 1998. In that year, Chelsea had defeated Stuttgart in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Stockholm. We had replicated the achievement of the fabled 1970 and 1971 teams by following up a domestic Cup with a European one. I can remember thinking that this would be as good as it would ever get as a Chelsea fan. Chelsea, my team of perennial underachievers, had no hope of the league title; we had reached our glass ceiling in Stockholm. League titles and Champions League triumphs were the stuff for ridiculous fantasists.

The story starts in 1955.

In that year, of course, Chelsea Football Club won our first ever League Championship in our golden jubilee season. In the following 1955-1956 campaign, the good fellows at UEFA organised the first ever “Cup of Champions” for the league winners in all member countries. The story could have only lasted nine months. However, the English Football Association – never the first to support innovation – strongly advised Chelsea to resist European glory and step aside from participation. We timidly obeyed the octogenarians of Lancaster Gate and did not take part.

So, in 1956, Real Madrid were crowned the inaugural European club champions and Chelsea looked on from a distance. In reality, our league season was a pale shadow of the preceding one and our participation might have been rather brief. However, even in those days, we always were a cup side…

So, the story is one which has lasted for 57 years. It disappeared without trace from 1955, but it re-emerged in 1999 and Chelsea has been besotted with the story ever since.

The Champions League.

The European Cup.

The Holy Grail of European Football.

Enough of the history lesson; this is my story of Munich 2012.

I was finishing off my packing – marking off items on the check sheet – when Glenn arrived ahead of schedule on Friday afternoon. His excitement was all too apparent. In fact, he was bursting. Glenn is my oldest Chelsea mate. I first met him at school in Frome in 1977. We were the only lads at Frome College in 1981-1982 who owned Chelsea shirts. I bumped into him in The Shed in August 1983 and our first game together was two months later, the seminal 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle United. We’ve been constant companions, from Sunderland to Seville, from Bristol City to Barcelona, ever since. For Glenn to be accompanying me to the Champions League Final in Munich just seemed right. And yet, we have another dear friend to thank. Parky was unable to travel to Germany and so gifted his match ticket to Glenn, for which he was eternally thankful.

We left my sunny Somerset village at 3.45pm and were soon at Bristol airport for the 6.20pm flight to Prague. We had a couple of pints apiece and bumped into Dave, from Bath, and three of his mates. Dave – or “Young Dave” as he is known in Mark Worrall’s excellent tales of Chelsea obsession – owns a restaurant in the city of my birth. To be truthful, I hadn’t seen him for about four years. One of his mates, Pav, was wearing a large home-made badge showing a photo of his late mother; she had sadly passed away six months ago. Although Pav did not yet have a match ticket, he was honouring his mother – a massive Chelsea fan – by travelling to Munich. He was confident he would find a ticket from somewhere. He was confident he would get in. I wished him well, but I knew deep down it would be a difficult task.

The flight to Prague typically contained a couple of stag parties. When a further hen party boarded, Glenn was all eyes and did his best meerkat impression. The flight was only ninety minutes in length and we landed in Prague at 9pm, a good thirty minutes ahead of schedule. I had arranged, via a work contact in the Czech Republic, for a taxi to meet us at the airport. By 9.30pm, Michael was driving us into the Czech capital and regaling us with current updates on the various football teams which hail from that gorgeous city on the banks of the Vltava.

Prague really is a hotbed of football; Sparta, Slavia, Bohemians, Dukla and Viktoria Zizkov all battle for domination. Michael said he was a Sparta fan, but then admitted that Viktoria was his first love. I couldn’t really work this out; how can you support two teams from the same city? Michael rattled through many stories about famous Czech players who have played in England and I was suitably impressed. He said that a lot of fellow Czech citizens favour Chelsea because of Petr Cech. There was a lovely aspect to our one night stay in Prague. Way back in 1994, Daryl, Neil and I travelled to Prague for Chelsea’s first ever European away game since Atvidaberg in 1971. Twenty-three years of hurt indeed. We played the city’s poor relations, Viktoria, in the return leg of the tie having won 4-2 at a rainy Stamford Bridge. Never had 22,000 made more noise at The Bridge. Due to concerns about possible crowd trouble, however, the second leg was played up in the hills of Bohemia in the small town of Jablonec. Dmitri Kharine saved a penalty and we drew 0-0. Our Euro adventure was on its way…and we all said we would love to one day return to Prague.

Eighteen years later, I was back. We zipped past Sparta’s Letna Stadium and Michael deposited us at Hotel Belvedere bang on 10pm. He had also arranged for his brother-in-law to collect us in the morning. We stumbled across a gorgeous local restaurant. For an hour, we sunk a couple of dark Czech beers, chatted about Chelsea and devoured some fantastic local fare. Pickled sausages, cheese sticks and then goulash with herby potato cakes. It was heavenly. Glenn had visited Prague way back in 1996 with his then German girlfriend Anke. He too was so pleased to be back. I remember he had brought me back a Sparta T-shirt from that trip.

Alongside, four young locals were feverishly debating amongst themselves in the particular way that you sense only eastern Europeans can do. I imagined feverish words being uttered about political unrest in Poland, or maybe the agony inherent in a local artist’s sculptures or the latest sounds from the new ground-breaking underground band in Ostrava.

I looked at the girl as she vented her fury; she slammed the wooden table with her palm when making a point. And my mind wandered…

“No – you fool. Play Kalou on the right. Sturridge is a mere shadow of his former self. You are all idiots.”

We dived into a smoky bar, full of more students, more local beer, more animated chat. Glenn and I observed from afar. What a wondrous feeling to be so far from our home comforts, to be able to witness the lives of others. But to also be on the edge of our own particular date with destiny. After one last beer in the hotel bar, we retired to bed, with nothing but positive thoughts about Munich, about the game, about victory. It had been a perfect night in Prague but the fun was only just beginning.

I awoke at 5.45am and a quick shower sorted me out. Outside, we waited in the cool morning air for our cab to take us into town. The yellow Skoda soon arrived and the tall cabbie spoke;

“Chris Chelsea?”

We were on our way to the train station where we were to catch the coach to Munich. The city looked breath-taking. We shot over the river with the Charles Bridge and the castle on the hill in the distance. We soon reached our destination. The train station is grand, but antiquated and in needing of restoration. We caught the coach outside its flaking exterior at 7.15am.

The coach trip lasted five hours, but the time flew past. We chatted more intensely about the football than the previous night. The Czech countryside was a picture; not dissimilar to the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania or Georgia, with none of the hedgerows of England which make our patchwork of a fields so unique. We noted fields of solar panels; they put us to shame in the quest for new energy sources. The sun was shining brightly. The sky was cloudless. It was magnificent.

We called in at Munich airport en route to the city. Another little bit of my personal history to tell; way back in 1977, my first ever trip by plane was to Munich on a family trip to Seefeld in the Tyrolean Alps. 35 years on, I was travelling on the same road. We soon drove past the white supernatural shell of the Allianz Arena. I was all eyes. It looked superb. I was reminded how far out of the city it is, though; it follows the old American model of being located right on the outskirts of the city. After only five more minutes, we came out of a tunnel on the inner city ring road and the iconic roof of the 1972 Olympic Stadium was in view. Way back in 1977, the only thing I remember of that coach trip was the sighting, late at night, of those flowing lines of the roof which connects the sports hall, the swimming pool and the main stadium. I had watched the 1972 Olympics of Mark Spitz and Mary Peters, the 1974 World Cup of Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner; the sight of the stadium made me gulp in 1977. It made me gulp in 2012, too. I love this stadium, although it is now considered out-dated, with its canopy roof, based on Bedouin tents. Of course, a few hundred yards north, several Israeli athletes had been killed during the siege in that Olympics.

My first real visit to Munich took place in the summer of 1985 during my first traipse around Europe as a backpacking student. The most vivid memory from that stay was my visit to the nearby Dachau concentration camp; the three hours I spent there were both surreal and shocking, the scale of the camp was awful and the photographs will be etched on my mind forever. The four or five Chelsea fans I saw in Barcelona singing about Spurs and Auschwitz and grunting “seig heils” should be forced to visit Dachau and to feel the pain that I felt on that blisteringly hot August day 27 years ago. On that visit to Munich, I also visited the Olympic Park in the northern suburbs; it was wonderful to see up close those wonderful iconic roofs and the towering pylons. It remains one of the most amazing and aesthetically pleasing stadiums I have ever visited. I would soon be returning in 1987 on two separate adventures.

The first time was with two mates for Oktoberfest in late September; what a crazy night that turned out to be. Suffice to say, two friends and I caught a late night (very late night) train to Hamburg to get some “free sleep” only to wake up at around 8am with the train still in Munich. I still haven’t worked out the reasons for that, but I suspect the ever hospitable Germans had simply laid on that train as additional sleeping quarters for the hundreds of backpackers sleeping in the train station that night.

Later that autumn, I returned. After I left college, I part-paid for several trips around Europe by train by selling British football badges at stadia in Italy. I also sold around 60 at this very same Olympic stadium in Munich on a frosty day in November of that year. However, I did not have the required “reisegewerbekarte” (street traders’ license) and so was arrested by the local police. I was taken down into a police cell deep in the bowels of the main stand, sharing it with a neo-Nazi Bayern fan. I had made around £80 that afternoon and the police fined me £75. However, I think one of the police took pity on me (it was a classic case of “good cop, bad cop”) and he let me in to see the game for free. The game was Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Uerdingen and it happened to be Mark Hughes’ first ever game during his loan spell from Barcelona. I left the stadium £5 up on the day, my tail between my legs but with my third ever European game under my belt.

It was clear that the weather in Munich was going to be sensational. Outside, we spotted the occasional Chelsea fan, but the ratio was 50-1 in favour of Bayern. We alighted at the central train station – the Hauptbanhof – and soon deposited our bags in the left-luggage lockers; hotels could wait. I was last in the train station in 1990 after a great night at the Oktoberfest.

Glenn and I caught a cab to the Paulaner beer hall a mile or two to the south where several friends had just arrived. Our plan was to avoid the madding crowds of the central area – long lines at the bar, possible aggro – and stay under the shade of some trees in the beer garden of this old-fashioned drinking establishment. Daryl had even reserved us a table on the Thursday. We stayed here from 12.45pm to 7pm. It was simply magical.

Glenn and I joined the others; Alan, Gary, Neil, Daryl, Simon, Ed and Milo.

Blossom from the surrounding trees was falling on our little party and ended up in our glasses of honey-coloured beer, like petals from heaven. We chatted, joked and laughed for over six hours; it was, of course, the best pre-match ever. Moscow in 2008 was grim and inhospitable, the locals unwelcoming, the weather too. Munich, in contrast, was the complete opposite. The sun was warm, the sky blue. The beer was sensational. The city was the ultimate party town, the ideal venue for a Champions League Final. The smooth beer, 3.60 euros a go, was not too expensive either. At around 2.30pm we all had some food; for me, it was pork knuckle, potato dumplings and cold cabbage salad. It was so gorgeous that Glenn helped himself to it too, the git.

The chat was varied; internal politics at Chelsea and the scrum for tickets, the potential new stadium at Battersea, the antics of Gary, the increasingly inebriated Glenn. We toasted Parky – the absent friend – and he sent through a few texts as the afternoon progressed. It was the European away debuts for Ed and Milo – the Under Fives – and what a day for them.

But Alan was the star of the show, as so often is the case. He treated us to his usual arrangement of comic impersonations. Firstly, Richie Benaud, Michael Holding, David Lloyd – the cricket commentators – describing the antics of Gary the previous night. Then, Didier Deschamps as Rain Man –

“Oh yeah…I play Wednesdays…I play Wednesdays…Champions League is Wednesdays…oh yeah. No – not Thursdays…Spurs play Thursdays…they play Thursdays. Oh no – Malouda – OH NO OH NO!”

And then – his finest hour.

Alan as Frank Sinclair’s mother, talking about the time her son scored at Coventry City and promptly pulled his shorts down in celebration, spoken in Jamaican patois.

“My boy Franklin. He call me on the phone and tell me to watch the TV. He score a goal and he walk around bearing his backside. Oh my. I tell him I will lick his backside, for sure, bringing disgrace on the family like dat.”

By this time we were all roaring. We’ve heard this routine twenty times but every time it gets better and every time the tears start rolling.

On the coach, Glenn and I had been talking about Kraftwerk and their songs “Autobahn” and “The Model.” He played “The Model” on his iPhone and we imparted a little musical knowledge to the youngsters. Ironic really, since Depeche Mode often accompany me on my travels around England following Chelsea. In the heart of Bavaria, we loved hearing the electro beats from 1982 which no doubt inspired The Boys From Basildon.

“She’s a model and she’s looking good.”

Alan immediately provided the Munich 2012 version –

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Ah – pudding. Four of us had a dessert of apple strudel. Bloody gorgeous.

The time was moving on. Talk of the football game was minimal though. I briefly mentioned that I wanted Torres to start but Daryl had heard whispers that Ryan Bertrand would be playing wide left. This surprised me I must say. That came out of left field. At around 5pm, I had a special visitor. My former workmate Michaela, and her partner Paul, had cycled the 20 miles from their home just to the north of the Allianz Arena to spend some time with us. Michaela worked with me in Chippenham from 2003 to 2007, but had been back home in Bavaria since then. It was lovely to see her again. There had been a call for the natives to dress in red and white on this most special day. Although they weren’t Bayern fans, they were suitably attired; Michaela in red, Paul in white. I spoiled things, of course; I was in blue.

A few of us – I forget who – ended the session with a solitary vodka schnapps.

It was time to move.

It was about 7pm and we walked north to the Goethe Platz U-bahn station. It was at this stage that I noticed Glenn was wobbling all over the gaff. He was impersonating a baby deer. The beer had clearly got to him. I passed over his match ticket and begged him to keep it safe. The streets were eerily quiet actually. Maybe the entire population of Munich were now ensconced in the central bars and the viewing parties around the city. Our subway train arrived and we piled on. With each passing stop, more and more fans squeezed on. We had been told that the journey was only around 20 minutes in length, but it actually took about an hour. We were pressed up against each other and it was pretty uncomfortable. At Marienplatz, the platform was awash with blue and red shirts. Inside our carriage, Chelsea outnumbered Bayern and we began singing a few Chelsea classics, just to let them know who we were.

At a few more stops, fans got more and more agitated as the space inside the carriage lessened. One parent cried out for space as a child appeared to be getting crushed. It was not pleasant. We had avoided the central area, so we had no idea how many Chelsea were in town. I sent out a few texts to a few friends, but our paths did not cross. The train moved slowly north, agonisingly stopping for minutes on end at more than one stop. The heat was sapping my energy. What I’d do for one last beer.

Eventually, we reached the final stop at Frottmaning. We assembled the troops together and ascended the steps. It seemed Chelsea fans were in the ascendancy. We were making all of the noise, singing all the songs. Some of the Bayern fans were ludicrously attired in lederhosen and denim waistcoats (very Stretford End 1977 as any Scouser will tell you) and I vented some scorn on them.

Ahead, the brilliant white shell of the Allianz Arena was way in the distance.

It was time for the long walk to immortality.

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Tales From The Lap Of Honour

Chelsea vs. Blackburn Rovers : 13 May 2012.

After ten months of – cliché warning – highs and lows, the 2011-2012 season was approaching its inevitable conclusion. The game against relegated Rovers was always going to be a strange game and I drove over into Wiltshire to collect Young Jake and Old Parky with a mixture of happiness and sadness. Happy to be paying our respects to the team, at home, before the mammoth game in Bavaria. Sad to be travelling the well-worn path up to Chelsea Town for the last time for a few months.

After opening with a flurry of songs by Stiff Little Fingers, we were soon hurtling east to the sounds of Chelsea fans Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher.

“I’m taking a ride with my best friend.”

Another picture-perfect day. The sky was dotted with white clouds, the sun was out and the green fields of Wiltshire and then Berkshire were awakening from the dull months of winter. We spoke a little about the denouement of this crazy Premiership season. No question who I wanted to triumph.

“I just hope City win it, lads…in the most dramatic and heart-breaking way possible for United.”

We sped past the Madejski Stadium at Reading, then Windsor – Ossie’s town – and then in to London. The Shard was visible way in the distance and the Wembley Arch to the north. The roads were strangely quiet. As I sped in past Fullers’ Brewery at Chiswick, it felt like I was taking part in a city-centre grand prix. The road ahead was completely clear of traffic.

I parked up to the sounds of Depeche Mode’s funky version of “Route 66.”

“Well it winds from Chicago to LA.”

No mention of Beckington, Trowbridge, Melksham, Chippenham, Swindon, Reading, Slough, Brentford and Hammersmith, though.

At 12.45pm, we were inside The Goose and the first person I bumped into was Mark Coden, who some of you know from previous U.S. tours. Unfortunately, he was still without a ticket for Munich, but was going regardless. I wished him well and then met up with a gaggle of mates out in the sunny beer garden. Unsurprisingly, the talk was virtually all devoted to Munich. Most of the people I spoke to were Bavaria-bound and the sense of anticipation was tangible. Everyone wanted to know which route Glenn and I were taking. Everyone seemed to be going their own separate way.

East Midlands to Zurich.
Manchester to Munich.
Stanstead to Stuttgart.
Heathrow to Stuttgart
Bristol to Prague

We all agreed that the next four days of work would be the longest four days of all time. We just wanted to get to Munich and let the party begin. There were a few comments backing up the widely held view that this had been the most unlikely of Chelsea seasons. I always remember two contrasting moments.

Walking through Bristol airport in February on my return from Naples, we were 3-1 down and most likely heading out of Europe.

“Wonder when my next Champions League trip with Chelsea will be?”

At that same airport around two weeks ago, I had a bounce in my step as I covered the same ground. We were off to Munich in the Champions League Final.

Staggering. Stupendous. Ridiculous. Magnificent. Bewildering.

All of these words.

If I was an American, I would no doubt use just one.

Awesome.

Conversations were abuzz all around me. Special mention for two friends; Milo 15 and Ed 22. The trip to Munich, with their fathers Simon and Daryl, will be their first ever away games in Europe. They know how lucky they are. They are great lads and it will be a pleasure to drink with them next Saturday. Our plan will be to assemble in a secret location – a beer hall – far away from the crowded city centre and then see how the mood takes us. We all agreed that we would rather spend four hours in the company of some friendly locals rather than three hours amongst the divs singing “Ten German Bombers” ad nauseum in the Marienplatz. Regretably, Parky isn’t going to Bavaria. This would be his last game of the season and he was celebrating it by throwing pint after pint of lager down his throat.

Andy from Nuneaton is going to Munich with several others of his mates, but he is the only one with a ticket. I wonder how many Chelsea will be heading to Germany without a match ticket? Five thousand? Ten thousand? Maybe more?

Breaking the protocol, Simon and I even spoke about Roberto’s possible team selection for the game in Munich. I ran through my personal thoughts. Hopefully, the twin central defenders Gary Cahill and David Luiz will be fit. If not, we will struggle against the crosses from the flanks aimed at Mario Gomez. I’d pick the speed of Bosingwa over the experience of Paolo. Fingers crossed on that one.

Peter Cech, Jose Bosingwa, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Ashley Cole.

Holding, there are no other options apart from Jon Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard. Michael Essien is past his best – and it hurts for me to write this – and Oriel Romeu is too inexperienced.

Then, the three attacking players.

I’d go with the pace and honest endeavor of Salomon Kalou, the touch and guile of Juan Mata (our kingpin) and then the spirit and skill of Fernando Torres. I can see Kalou and Torres doubling back to thwart the threats of Ribery and Robben. I can’t see Florent Malouda or Daniel Sturridge putting in that same level of commitment, Champions League Final or not.

Up front, Didier Drogba.

If the centre-backs are doubts, one supposes that either of Bosingwa or Ferreira would have to shuffle in to the middle.

It was 2.30pm and time to leave for the last domestic game of 2011-2012. It was simply exhilarating to be able to utter the magical words –

“See you in Munich.”

On the walk down to the stadium, the streets seemed ridiculously quiet. In Vanston Place, we again met up with Scott and Andy from Trowbridge. There are five or six of them going to Munich from Trowbridge, but with no tickets between them.

“We’ll be there, Chris.”

Further along Vanston place, a piece of classic Parky. On the pedestrianised cobble-stones, there are occasional bollards to stop vehicular access. Parky called out to Jake just as he was approaching a previously unseen bollard. Suffice to say, Jake will never be a father.

On the approach into the stadium, there was still a lack of hustle and bustle. Where were the missing fans? Were they already inside The Bridge? I was puzzled. I made it to my seat just before the kick-off. My good mate Alan presented me with two tickets for Munich and it was fantastic – at last – to get my sweaty mitts on them.

First thoughts about the new Chelsea kit were very favourable. Very smart. Very minimalist. Classy. It reminds me so much of the Umbro kit from 2005-2006. Memories of Crespo, of del Horno, of Maniche.

Roberto’s selection was very interesting. Maybe I was getting ahead of myself, but I was intrigued that there were no players from “my” Munich XI playing against Blackburn. Was Roberto thinking the same as me? It was great to see Sam Hutchinson starting a game, of course, and I hoped that Romelu Lukaku would shine in a central location. Over in the far corner, there were more Blackburn fans that I had actually expected; maybe around 400. There was the predictable “Venky Scum Out” banner.

The planned applause in honour of Didier Drogba’s (possible…probable?) last ever game at The Bridge on eleven minutes was pretty disappointing. It only really got going at around the 11 minutes 45 seconds mark. I had to explain it to the lads in front. To be honest, bearing in mind that we were only six days away from the joint second biggest game in 107 years, the atmosphere was surprisingly quiet. I spotted many empty seats all around the stadium. Even after the two well taken goals around the half-hour mark, the place remained docile. Maybe everyone was saving themselves for Munich.

They were two nice goals. A great cross from Lukaku was headed in by John Terry. A strong dribble, away from the goal line – confusing us all – by Michael Essien resulted in the ball being tee’d up for Raul Meireles to toe-poke in. This was yet another goal that I was right in line of. Amongst these two goals, there was the usual exchange between Alan and myself, said in a broad Lancastrian burr, that “they will have to come at us now” and the usual “come on my little diamonds” response. Let’s hope we will be saying this in a German accent next Saturday.

On the TV screen at The Shed End, the tickertape-style updates from other games seemed to be the centre of attention for us all. It seemed that all was quiet and calm at The Bridge, while there was a maelstrom of activity taking place all around us. I likened it to be in the eye of the storm, with other clubs and other issues whirring around in every direction. Blackburn Rovers were already relegated. We were guaranteed a sixth place finish. Two other games were dominating our thoughts – the ones involving the two Manchester teams.

United 1-0 up. Drat.

City drawing.

Arsenal losing. Always good.

City 1-0 up. Good. This might mean QPR will get relegated.

Stoke 1-0 up.

And so it continued. Every five minutes or so, our attention would drift up to the south-east corner as scores were updated. There was genuine shock and then sadness when the news came through that QPR had not only equalized at Eastlands but had miraculously gone 2-1 up. And with ten men. FFS.

Poor old City. What a way to lose it. Always in their shadows. Remember when they won the league in 1968? On the following Wednesday, United won the European Cup. Always in their shadows. Would they ever recover from this?

Down on the pitch, chances were at a premium, but we let Blackburn back in the game when JT was out jumped by Dann, before Yakuba stooped to get a finishing touch. Lukaku had been replaced by Didier Drogba, who was roundly applauded as he entered the fray. What a talisman he has been for us since his arrival from Marseille in 2004. Ramires then hit the bar with a delicate chip. In the last minute, Didier swung in a corner and Sturridge – as frustrating as ever – decided to chest rather than head the ball in from close range.

To be honest, this was a mediocre performance, but nobody was too bothered. I noted with interest that both Torres and Drogba were on the pitch for the last segment. Was RDM thinking along the same lines as me for Munich? It seemed that every part of my being was focusing on the game at the Allianz Arena.

So, the final whistle and the season had finished. Bolton were relegated; no more visits to The Reebok (2005 and all that) for a year or two perhaps. Wins for Arsenal and Spurs had provided them with top four finishes. Well, for Arsenal, anyway. Tottenham needs an asterisk next to it. I was gutted that United had pipped their neighbours to the title. In this amazing season, City had beaten United twice. Their players had lit up the season.They had surely deserved the title. Yet, typical City; just like them to mess up right at the end. The Chelsea players disappeared down the tunnel and I sensed an air of anti-climax. In preparation for a lengthy lap of honour by the playing staff, I disappeared out into the toilets.

And then – a roar.

A mate joked “don’t say City have won 3-2!”

Within a split second, another fan blurted out – “City have won 3-2.”

Well, I erupted with a smile and raced back to see Alan and Jake. City may not be everyone’s cup of tea and I suppose we should be worried that their league title will entice further stars to join their “project” but I for one was very pleased. At last, City managed to trump United – and how. The news of the two injury time goals filtered through and I was transported straight away to Eastlands (hysteria) and the Stadium of Light (mysery), trying to even imagine what the supporters of those two bitter rivals would be experiencing. Give me the City fans and their self-deprecating wit and gallows humour over United’s glory-hunting legions of non-attendees any day of the week.

Good old City.

It seemed that the majority of the Chelsea crowd was in agreement. There would have been no roar had United come from behind in such a manner to defeat City. Just a gnawing pain. I immediately relished the chance to witness the frame-by-frame coverage of the games in Manchester and Sunderland on “MOTD2” when I would reach home later that evening.

But now, it was time for the Chelsea supporters to thank the Chelsea players and management team for their sterling efforts over the past three months. We all love these end-of-season laps of honour. A fair few fans, though, had decided to leave, but I was relieved that most stayed behind. I snapped away as the players and their children slowly strolled around the pitch. The wives and girlfriends watched on from in front of the players’ tunnel; designer handbags and huge Sophia Loren sunglasses to the fore.

First, the triumphant boys with the F.A. Youth Cup, victors against Blackburn Rovers. Not their day, was it?

Then, Neil Barnett introduced Roy Bentley to the crowd; now walking with a stick, but still a joy. After a hug from John Terry, he lapped up the applause cascading down from all four stands. One minute, he was using his walking stick as a conductor’s baton, the next as a snooker cue, the next as a golf club. What a character. Proper Chelsea. The first of the players’ children to raise a cheer were Georgie and Summer; JT’s twins raced towards the near goal and continually scored goals, pushing the balls past the line. Petr Cech’s son was next up and the look of determination on his face was fantastic. Over in the distance, Ramires Junior seemed to be dwarfed by the matchball. Frank’s children were more subdued. On the walk past, everyone was smiling, everyone was applauding the fans. Didier waved to someone in the West Stand and I wondered if it was Gill. Fernando posed with his children at The Shed End goalmouth, enabling the doting fans in the lower tier to take some photographs. I wonder if he knows that I have big plans for him in Munich?

Rather embarrassingly, Neil Barnett suddenly appeared with the F.A. Cup and he hurriedly presented it to Roberto di Matteo. With the focus on next Saturday, had the club simply forgot to schedule the F.A. Cup as part of the day’s proceedings?

The microphone was then thrust into John Terry’s hands and he thanked the fans with a few words.

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“Frew the ups and the dans…”

As with Wembley the previous weekend, I was one of the last to leave the stadium. We stopped for a refreshing drink in The Goose and then headed home. It was a glorious English evening, the sun slowly fading, the shadows lengthening and the music on the CD player stirring my senses.

“Don’t turn this way, don’t turn that way.
Straight down the middle until next Thursday.
Reverse to the left, then back to the right.
Twist and turn till you’ve got it right.
Get the balance right.
Get the balance right.”

I said my goodbyes – for the current season – to Parky and Jake. It has been a tumultuous ten months. We will need to raise ourselves for one last time, for one massive challenge, for one ultimate goal and for one final push. Just like Manchester United in 1968, we need to steal the thunder from Manchester City by winning the biggest prize of all.

Five days and counting…

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Tales From The Blue Family

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 10 March 2012.

With two games in Birmingham behind us, the rambling story of our season returned to London. We have three games in nine days at Stamford Bridge. Three match tickets and an outlay of £136.50. Does anyone think I am complaining? No, of course not. I’m just happy to have a three-pronged attack for silverware as we head into the month of March.

In some ways, the game against Napoli and their rampaging Three Tenors of Lavezzi, Cavani and Hamsik was on my mind more than the run-of-the-mill League game against the brutal threat of the Stoke City kickers and scufflers. Of course, our 2011-2012 season began with that difficult game at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday August 14th. In some ways, it seems only a matter of weeks ago.

As Saturday March 10th 2012 unravelled before me, I acknowledged the truth in the the old adage about the football being an increasingly small part of the whole day out at Chelsea these days. I have my friend Bryan to thank for that. Bryan is 53 and a lorry driver from my home town of Frome in Somerset. He used to travel up with us for a few years a while back; I have a feeling that his first game with us was the 6-2 slaughter of Sunderland in 1997. He used to go to Chelsea in his younger years of course, but grew out of the habit. Anyway, from 1997 to 2002 or so, Frome was well represented at Stamford Bridge. There was Frank and Michelle, Glenn, Bryan and myself travelling up in one car and Dave, Karen and PD in another. Eight of us; a good show. In some respects, this was a bit of a golden age for us Frome followers. Not only were we rewarded with our first successes on the pitch since 1971, but most home games were usually followed up by us calling in at Ron Harris’ pub in nearby Warminster on the way home. They were superb times.

Bryan stopped going regularly to Chelsea in around 2002 but has been back a few times since. Apart from a silly dalliance with Bristol City in his skinhead youth, much frowned-upon by Glenn and me, he has remained true to Chelsea, as his tattoos will testify.

In November, I bumped into his partner Linda in town, but she had some shocking news. Bryan had returned from a job in Spain and had been very ill for a few weeks. He had a stomach ulcer, but further tests identified that he had contracted Legionnaire’s Disease. I called around to his house that morning and, without being melodramatic, Bryan explained to me that it was touch-and-go at one stage if he’d pull through. Thankfully, his spell in hospital enabled him to recover and he was back at work before Christmas.

Bryan hadn’t been to Chelsea for a couple of years and so I was really looking forward to getting him back in The Goose amongst old friends. When I called for him at 8.30am, he was already out on the grass verge, awaiting my arrival. He looked so keen that I imagined that he had been doing press-ups on the lawn in an attempt to dissipate an overflowing and enthusiastic supply of energy which had been welling up. Linda waved us off and we were on our way. I soon collected Parky at 9am and we were London-bound.

Bryan had met Lynda in the Falkland Islands. Parky had served in the Falklands Conflict of 1982. As we zipped past Swindon, the chat centred on those islands in the South Atlantic. Bryan and Parky certainly had lots to talk about. With the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands approaching, we spoke about the past…Port Stanley, Goose Green, HMS Sheffield, the General Belgrano…memories of 1982. We spoke about the present; the noises coming out of Argentina at the moment. We spoke about the recent deaths of the six British soldiers killed in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. I am currently getting the house redecorated (the Chelsea room, specifically) and I was horrified to hear on Thursday that the son of my decorator Steve was in the tank behind the one which was hit. Thankfully, and mercifully, he escaped the immediate attack, though how that young man is coping the aftermath of losing some of his comrades can only be imagined.

I told Bryan and Parky that the club had quickly agreed to a minute’s silence before the day’s game as a mark of remembrance for those six brave soldiers who had been stationed in nearby Warminster but who had lost their lives on a foreign field, thousands of miles away from their homeland.

It makes our silly and superficial worries about our football club pale into insignificance…

At 11.15am, the three of us were tucking into a Saturday Fry-Up and at 11.45am, we were in The Goose amongst friends. The weather was pretty mild and the beer garden was being used in earnest for the first time since the late autumn. While Bryan chatted to Daryl, Rob and Alan, I had a good old natter with Neil and The Youth.

Unsurprisingly, our conversation centred on the recent sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, but also the recent rumblings from the club and the Hammersmith & Fulham Council about the possible development of Stamford Bridge.

Neil is from Guernsey and I don’t get the chance to see him too much. We were in agreement about Villas-Boas. He said that after he heard the news of the sacking on Sunday, he was as low as he has been for ages. He commented that he had never felt more out of touch with the club. I knew what he meant. Many words were exchanged between the two of us. I said to Neil –

‘If you had said to me before the first game of the season that the team would be heading into March still in the Champions League, still in the FA Cup, in fourth or fifth place in the league, I would have said “OK, no worries, that’s alright, what’s the problem?”…I certainly would not have expected us to have sacked the manager.’

Madness.

Of my eight to ten match going mates, my closest mates, the inner sanctum, I think most are of the same opinion.

Chopper from New York suddenly appeared and he was full of smiles, loving the London life and relishing the Napoli game on Wednesday. Jesus flitted past; happy to have seen us win in Birmingham during the week. While I was getting a round in, who should I see but Dave and Karen, from Frome. Dave has been on a diet and has lost a massive five stones; fair play to him. Of course, this just meant that he was the instant target of tons of Micky-taking and light-hearted abuse.

Photographs of all of us. Tons of smiles. This is the life.

Alan passed over my away tickets for Manchester City, Fulham and Aston Villa; another £142. Phew. On the TV, the Bolton vs. QPR game was garnering scant attention. My views on goal-line technology are softening with every mistake made by an official, but my fear, as always, has been that this will be the thin end of the wedge. Before we know it, there will be video replays being used for off-sides and then fouls and handballs. Referees will be undermined further and the lunatics will have taken over the asylum.

At Chelsea, however, this happened years ago.

I set off for The Bridge with Bryan a little bit earlier than usual. I wanted to pin my 16 year old banner denoting “Win For Us” on the back wall of the MHU and I hoped that Roberto di Matteo would see it. I can well remember that I first took “Vinci ”to a game – to welcome Vialli and di Matteo to our club – on the home opener of the 1996-1997 season and I draped it over the MH balcony, no more than twenty feet away from my current seat. On that occasion, versus Middlesbrough, of course it was di Matteo who scored a late winner and initiated one of the most iconic Chelsea celebrations. I was elated to hear that there was a brief mention of “Vinci” in the following day’s “London Evening Standard.”

We taped the banner up – it’s a little tattered these days, having travelled with me from America to Malaysia – and drew the usual stupefied looks from the nearby Chelsea fans. I always have to explain what it means.

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Over in the far corner, the Stoke contingent looked pretty pathetic, duck. Alan joked that it looked like only their notorious “Naughty Forty” – plus a few others – had bothered to travel.

The teams appeared and then gathered on the centre circle. Neil Barnett mentioned that this was our 107th birthday and was our Founder’s Day. He also drew attention to the scarlet-tunics of the seven Chelsea Pensioners who had been given prime seats in the Directors Box in the West stand. Neil then said a few sullen words detailing the six soldiers who had given the ultimate sacrifice during the past few days. Rather than reverential silence, though, there was applause. I’m not so sure I agree with this. I see no problems in applause when one is acknowledging, and celebrating, the life of someone who has lived to the allotted “three score years and ten” – or hopefully more. But I do not feel that applause should be used when we mark the loss of lives so young. We don’t applaud on Remembrance Sunday in November do we? Applauding a life is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK – the Italians have been doing it for years – and the first time that I can remember it being used at a Chelsea game was at Fratton Park in 2005 when the crowd began in silence, but soon started applauding the life of George Best, that famous former Chelsea native, who had recently lost his battle with alcoholism.

Another full house. The sun was out. No need for my jacket; a polo shirt was enough. In the end, Stoke had around 350. There was an additional “Remembrance” banner on display in The Shed; Peter Osgood had momentarily been displaced a few yards. The atmosphere was typically tepid.

The game. Do I have to?

I wondered if Ramires would be stationed out wide in a forward three with Drogba and Kalou, ahead of the midfield of Mikel, Meireles and Lampard. We attacked the MH during the first-half and it felt odd. We don’t often do this, do we?

Early chances came to us. Branislav Ivanovic headed over from a corner and then Gary Cahill had a strong run, followed by a belter which was saved. Bryan, the truck driver, unveiled his iPhone and this was met with some typically derogatory comments from Alan. I wondered if it had any aps which helped Bryan locate the nearest HP Sauce bottle when he was in a greasy spoon café.

Stoke rarely troubled us to be honest. A slip by Terry allowed Walters in, but his effort was blocked by the covering Cahill. Their limited game plan was affected when Ricardo Fuller was given his marching orders for a stupid stamp on the prostrate Ivanovic. To be honest, my eyes were elsewhere and didn’t see the offence. Just after the half hour, there was typical rough and tumble at a corner and John Terry appeared to be manhandled as he tried to gain a square inch of space. Despite these close attentions, JT’s down and up header rattled the bar. A few Chelsea half-chances came and went. The manager decided, after a while, to withdraw Meireles and bring on Mata. It was clear that Stoke would do their dogged best to hang on for a draw. Just before the break, that man Ivanovic struck a thunderous angled drive which rocked the bar. Lampard hit a daisy-cutter which Begovic easily gathered.

We had heard that Bobby Tambling would be on the pitch at half-time. Neil introduced us to a young lad from Cork, who was attending his first game at Stamford Bridge.

“He’s OK though ‘cus he has his uncle with him.”

Bobby Tambling, with his wife Val alongside, was introduced to lovely applause and was able to say a few, halting, words to thank us for all the best wishes he has received during his recent period of ill health. I was able to capture this on film.

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On more than one occasion he referred to his “blue family.” It was a touching moment.

There was a lazy start to the second-half really. David Luiz came on to take over in the right-back berth from Ivanovic. It took a full 15 minutes for us to threaten Begovic’ goal when JT took the ball from deep and let fly with a shot which whipped past the post. We still await JT’s first blooter from outside the box. Maybe he is saving it for a special occasion.

The Stoke fans were quiet and we were no better.

On 65 minutes, Frank was hauled down when apparently through on goal, but Didier’s fine free-kick was palmed away for a corner. Soon after, a moment of pure class.

The ball was played in from Cole into a central position. Mata delicately played the ball through to the unmarked Drogba, who side-stepped the goalkeeper and slotted home. I immediately thought that this was just the sort of ball that Torres has been begging for the past year. The crowd roared and the players danced down to the South-West corner.

I knew what was coming.

Alan : “Thay’ll have to come at us know, duck.”
Chris : “Come on ma little diamonds.”

A lob from Wilkinson evaded Cech and had us all worried, but thankfully was wide of the target. A mistake by JT then allowed Jerome in on goal, but his shot was wide after a strong run. Daniel Sturridge, the last substitute, had a chance after a jink inside. Mata struck the woodwork from a free-kick. One last chance for Sturridge, but again wide.

It was hardly a game to remember.

At the final whistle, Neil Barnett commented that Didier became the leading African scorer in English football. I watched as Didier advanced towards the Chelsea supporters and gave his shirt to a lucky fan in the MHL.

I made good time on the drive home. We listened in as Tottenham lost at Everton. It was the usual end to a Chelsea Saturday with a time-honoured viewing of “Match of the Day”, the national institution. All I can add about the programme is that Liverpool’s 1-0 loss at Sunderland was featured a few games after ours. This was a morsel of comfort for me; in years gone by, any Liverpool loss would be seen as major news. These days, such defeats warrant hardly a flicker of interest by the media.

We reconvene on Wednesday for the visit of the crazy Neapolitans.

It could be an absolute cracker.

Andiamo a lavorare.

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Tales From The Golden Mile

Blackpool vs. Chelsea : 7 March 2011.

At last, one of the most eagerly awaited domestic away games was upon us. Chelsea last visited Bloomfield Road for a League Cup game in 1996, but our last league game in that famous resort town was in the mid-‘seventies. A return visit was long-overdue. Ever since The Tangerines gained promotion last May, this away fixture has really caught the imagination of the Chelsea faithful. Why is this? Well, the usual case of “new ground” tells only half the story. Blackpool has been a monster on the holiday map of the UK since cheap railway excursions brought thousands of people in to the town during the Victorian era. It remains England’s most famous resort, much favoured by Northerners and Scots – to say nothing of stag and hen parties. The town has a reputation as a bold and brash – and cheap and cheerful – resort with its famous Golden Mile, sandy beaches, Tower, Pleasure Beach, trams, concert halls, three piers and autumnal illuminations. If you throw in a few casinos and lap-dancing establishments, for some, Blackpool by the sea equates to our Las Vegas. Stop sniggering at the back.

Of course, we just knew that we wouldn’t get Blackpool away on a late summer or spring weekend, but it came as a kick in the teeth when our game at Bloomfield Road was rescheduled for a Monday night. However, there was no doubt that Chelsea would be in Blackpool in good numbers and some went up on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For some, it would have the feel of a European away game.

It was a frosty morning in deepest Somerset as I left my house at about 10.30am. I loaded my car with the usual match day necessities and turned the ignition on. After the slightest of pauses, a favourite song from my youth began and it brought a smile to my face…

“I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”

As I drove the 15 miles to collect Parky, I was filled with a feeling of chilled-out pleasure, the whole day ahead of me, a trip in support of my team – and no worry of work on the Tuesday as I had booked the whole week off. Of course, our recent resurgence, plus a lovely Sunday which saw both Manchester United and Tottenham drop points, only added to the sense of anticipation.

Fantastic.

I collected a smiling Lord Parky at 11am and we were on our way north. Parky’s last visit to Blackpool was way back in 1988, that second summer of love when the dance halls of England were reverberating to acid house for the first time. As we ploughed north, I spoke of my previous visits to Blackpool.

In the immediate post WWII period, my mother became friendly with a Lancashire girl, Muriel,when she spent a week near Rye in Sussex. They were two of the many “land girls” who were gainfully employed by the government to bridge the gap in the agricultural workforce caused by the missing thousands still stationed abroad after the conflict. Muriel was from Burnley and, after marrying Joe, went on to run a bed and breakfast hotel in Blackpool on the bracing Lancashire coast. Mum and Muriel remained friends and so, on a couple of occasions in the late ‘sixties, my parents and I stayed with them at their B&B. This would have been a massive car trip for Dad, in pre motorway days, and I have vague memories of the journey north. The approach into Blackpool, with Dad asking if I can spot the tower, must have been as exciting as it gets for a three year old. There is grainy cine film of myself cavorting on Blackpool beach, wearing a bizarre swimming costume, and playing with my father, trousers rolled up in classic English paddling mode, as the tide gently lapped at the golden sands. There is also film of me riding a famous Blackpool donkey and on a ride at the famous Pleasure Beach. Of all my childhood memories, the time spent at Blackpool with my parents are some of my sweetest. At the age of three, I doubt if my fascination with football had begun, but I do remember very well the moment that Joe had pointed out the stands and floodlights of Bloomfield Road, at the end of a typical terraced street. I can therefore, without much fear of contradiction, say that the home of Blackpool F.C. was my first ever sighting of a football ground.

Blackpool stayed off the radar for more than three decades, with holiday destinations getting more and more exotic with each passing year. By the time that I next visited Blackpool, in 2001, there had been achange to my holiday destinations; more and more were becoming football, er Chelsea, based. Trips to Barcelona and Bratislava had replaced trips to Blackpool and Bournemouth. In fact, my last European beach holiday was to Corfu, way back in 1992. Since then, virtually all European holidays have been with Chelsea. Give me the buzz of a football city rather than a hot beach any day.

In the 2001 to 2003 period, Chelsea’s European trips almost dried up. Neither myself nor many of my mates travelled abroad in these “UEFA cup years,” and so to keep our team bonding intact, we instead supplemented our week-to-week meet-ups with three end-of-season trips to Blackpool (2001 – Manchester City away), Scarborough (2002 – Middlesbrough away) and Brighton(2003 – Liverpool at home).

Seven of us (Alan, Glenn, Russ, Daryl, Neil, The Youth and I) had a lovely time in Blackpool in 2001. It certainly helped that our mini-bus excursion to Maine Road resulted in an easy2-0 Chelsea win against a poor City team. This was our last ever game at City’s old home ground, but the memory was scarred by an angry pitch invasion from the City lads just before the final whistle. I took a few photos of these stereotypical Mancs, all Gallagher-esque posing and designer jackets, eyeballing us all in the away stand. For once, we didn’t retaliate. With a line of Manchester police to protect us, we just stood and stared them out. Our mini-bus was parked in the grim streets just outside the away end and we had a quick getaway. We would never return to that famous old stadium. This also proved to be the last ever Chelsea game for Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise. Back in Blackpool that evening, after a quick change from match-going jumpers, jackets, jeans and trainers to smarter attire, we had a legendary pub crawl deep into the night.

Almost ten years have since passed. Where does the time go? I suppose the smart-arse answer to that is “the time goes winning trophies.” Is it any wonder that the time has flown by? Three league titles, three F.A. Cups and two League Cups. Thank you very much and more of the same please.

Judy and I paid a quick visit to Blackpool, mainly to see the famous illuminations, after the Wigan game in the autumn of 2009. I was reminded of how brash the town was, but never expected to be soon returning with Chelsea. However, that’s it for me – just two visits to Blackpool in around 43 years.

For once, the trail north – M4, M5, M6 – seemed to be clear of heavy traffic and I made good time. The Smiths were followed by Everything But The Girl and then The Killers.

On the final approach to Blackpool, with blue skies overhead, we spotted the famous tower and then drove straight past Bloomfield Road before parking in the town centre. Most of the locals seemed to be wearing scabby tracky-bottoms – they must be getting their fashion advice from the nearby Scousers – and I had the feeling that the town had nosedived further since 2009. At a few minutes past 3pm, we had joined Alan, Daryl, Neil and Gary in The Walkabout. They had travelled up on Sunday morning. Daryl explained that the highlight of the previous day had been the sight of big Tommy Murphy, one of Lovejoy’s mates, taking to the floor during a Northern Soul segment at a local bar. The image is still burning in my mind; wish I had been there to see that! I had a good chat with Neil, who has experience of travel in Asia, ahead of my trip out to Malaysia and Thailand with Chelsea in July. We were then joined by Mike and Danny from New York amidst talk of Eric Cantona and the New York Cosmos, Danny’s scrape with Newcastle United hoolies in the early ‘eighties and the Coney Island like charms of Blackpool.

We dipped into another pub on the short walk down to the ground and bumped into a few more Chelsea mates. General consensus was of a heavy Chelsea victory – maybe by four goals to nil. Blackpool, to be honest, had the feel of a ghost town at this stage. We had hardly seen any home fans in and around the town centre and I guess their fans had been busy at work.

Just outside the away entrance, a jovial Blackpool steward regaled Parky and me with his memories of the last top-flight Blackpool vs. Chelsea game way back in the autumn of 1970. Blackpool had stormed into a 3-0 half-time lead, but – much to the amusement of his best mate, a Chelsea supporter – we came back to win it 4-3. Famously, Ron Harris includes this particular game in his recollections of past matches. The story went that the Chelsea players had hit the town the previous night and were heavily feeling the effects of their drunken binge during that woeful first-half. However, after four second-half goals, surely the boss Dave Sexton would have been happy. Well, Sexton was fuming at the final whistle and laid into all of the Chelsea players in no uncertain terms. After a few minutes of vitriolic abuse, Peter Osgood could take no more and chirped –

“Leave it out boss. If they hadn’t run out of lager, we would’ve scored eight.”

Bloomfield Road has been slowly redeveloped over the years and the large Kop to the north of the stadium was taken down quite a few years ago. It is now a trim, but pretty bland, single tiered stadium, albeit with a thin line of executive boxes under the roofs of the west and south stands. The east stand, hastily erected during the summer, is a temporary structure and this was where the 1,600 away fans were assembling. I took a few photos of Ashley Cole, Fernando Torres, John Terry, David Luiz – the new hero – and Frank Lampard as they finished their pre-match routines. I had a good seat in row K. The temporary seats were surprisingly padded but everyone stood. The beery Chelsea fans were in good voice and the tight away stand was rocking.

In the home end – the new-look Kop – the Blackpool fans held aloft a banner…

“Jesus satisfied 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Ian Holloway has satisfied millions with 11 tangerines.”

Big Pete, one of the CSG stalwarts, was standing a few rows behind and his 6 foot 6 inch frame was augmented by a massive David Luiz wig. He looked a picture, though he probably blocked the view of the poor people in the rows behind. Alan, Gary and I were again sat near Mark, Nick, Robbie and Charlie – familiar fixtures at away games. It made me realise that all of the staunchest of Chelsea supporters were in Blackpool; we had all made the effort, paid the hotels, paid the train tickets, paid for the petrol, taken time off work, made the effort. May it long continue.

Drogba in for Anelka, Bosingwa in for Ivanovic, Zhirkov in for Malouda. Game on.

The new David Luiz song – “You brighten up my life, I’ll let you shag my wife, I want curly hair too” – was soon aired, but Blackpool began the stronger team. A bursting run from The Captain found Didier, but his attempt was smothered by Kingson. Andy Reid, the rounded Blackpool winger who reminds me so much of former Forest player John Robertson, was enjoying lots of space in the midfield and there was growing concern that our midfield was again sluggish. Blackpool, full of energy and team work, certainly dominated the first twenty minutes.

Despite the long wait and the sense of anticipation, clearly Blackpool’s charms had not impressed some of the Chelsea support. We reworked the standard Blackpool chant – “This is the best trip, I’ve ever been on” – with a more discouraging set of lyrics…

“We want to go home, we want to go home – Blackpool’s a 5hit hole, we want to go home.”

Print that on your T-shirts!

Then, a Frank Lampard corner away to my right and my camera focussed on the run by Luiz towards the near post. I almost missed the subsequent unhindered leap by John Terry, but saw the ball bounce down and into the Blackpool goal.

Phew. The applause was surprisingly reserved – not sure why.

The songs continued and we clawed our way back into the game. A rising drive from the left foot of Jose Bosingwa was ably palmed over by Kingson. However, Blackpool was still giving as good as they got. Stephen Crainey, the left-back, was augmenting Reid’s forays into our defence with several timely runs. Jason Puncheon waltzed past Luis and struck a low shot, which PetrCech fingered onto his near post. This was a near miss and further galvanized the home support. Just on half-time, however, the best move of the match which involved four of five players in a flowing passage resulted in a left-footed shot from Ramires which was turned around the post. Despite a slim lead, we knew we had rode our luck.

At the break, there was general disquiet amongst the Chelsea faithful.

Our twin strikers were not really working together and the midfield were not playing as a unit. This was another substandard show from Messrs’ Lampard and Essien. Ramires was again the star of our midfield four. Chances were exchanged as the match progressed, but it was not until Salomon Kalou entered the fray on the hour that we began to look livelier. Drogba, suffering with one or two knocks, had been hobbling around for a few minutes and we all expected Anelka to get the nod. Instead, Kalou breathed new urgency into the team. Firstly, he won the penalty with a strong run deep into the box.

Frank calmly despatched the penalty and we were two to the good.

This goal was celebrated with the releasing of a purple-blue flare towards the back of the Chelsea contingent. The smoke drifted across the pitch, but soon dissipated. This was followed up with a stand-shaking bouncy. Good times.

That man Kalou then delightfully played in Frank, and our number eight ably converted with the minimum of fuss. As he reeled away, I was reminded that both of our goal scorers, JT and Frank, were tied at 471 in total Chelsea games. These two stalwarts, our true Blue Brothers, have been at the very epi-centre of our successes since 2001 and we would be supporting a very different Chelsea Football Club without them. They embody our spirit and character. Although Frank has not been himself this season, he always chimes in with key goals and JT is JT. He was one of our best players yet again. Fernando Torres was pretty quiet all game and his best chance was a nonchalant flick with the outside of his right foot which did not threaten the Blackpool goal. His goals will come. Young Josh – “he’s only thirteen,” the away fans bellowed – entered the game and enjoyed some nice touches. With Malouda’s fresh legs exposing tiredness in Blackpool’s defence, we fully expected a couple more goals for The Champions, but it was Blackpool who enjoyed the last goal of the game, a low drive from Puncheon leaving Cech stranded. To be honest, we went to sleep in the last few minutes and the Blackpool support was encouraging their team on. A few chances flew past Cech’s goal, but we shakily survived.

The other lads were headed back into the town, but Parky and I soon found our way back to my waiting car. We rolled out of town at 10.30pm and Chelsea had three much needed points tucked inside our back pockets. It hadn’t been a great performance, but – oh boy, I’m sure everyone has worked out the mathematics – those three points gained on a blustery night on the Lancashire coast could be vitally important come May.

After a coffee stop on the outskirts of Stoke and with music from The Stranglers and then Echo And TheBunnymen keeping me going, I eventually reached home at just after 3am.

We reconvene in nine days’ time for the visit of Copenhagen to Stamford Bridge.

See you all there.

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Tales From Our Attempt To Win A Hat Trick Of F.A. Cups

Chelsea vs. Ipswich Town : 9 January 2011.

What a beautiful sunny Sunday morning. As I left the house, the sky was completely devoid of clouds and there was a lovely bite to the winter air. However, on the 30 minute drive to collect His Lordship from Parky Towers, my car was sliding on black ice. It was the worst I had ever known to be honest.I soon heard on the radio that there had been many accidents overnight and in the first few hours of Sunday morning. My other route up to The Smoke, the A303, was closed in Hampshire due to a smash. Not to worry, once I got onto the A350 and the M4, the dodgy road conditions were behind me.

On the Saturday evening, we had both attended a 50th birthday party for Andy, a Chelsea fan from Trowbridge, who I first met in 1984. He is mentioned, in fact, in my little segment in Mark Worrall’s “Chelsea Here Chelsea There” book. It was a great night and a few Chelsea fans “of a certain age” were in attendance from the surrounding towns…I was flying the flag for Frome, Mark from Westbury was there, plus Les from Melksham, to say nothing of Steve, Ashley, Mick, Shep, Parky, Andy and Ally from Trowbridge. It made me think about my youth as a Chelsea fan in the Somerset and Wiltshire area. Certainly in Frome, there weren’t so many Chelsea fans around. The chosen few certainly stuck together…and once our travels to games broadened our experiences, the other local lads soon became friends. I think this is different to the fans – say, in Frome – of the big two teams of Liverpool and Manchester United. Of a school year of 200 boys, there were probably 20 United fans and I am guessing that, because United fans were so widespread, I bet there was no special bond. Why would there be? Chelsea fans however – rare in Frome, for example – clung together desperately. It was a case of strength in numbers. For example, at Frome College in 1981, there were no Chelsea fans in the sixth form, I was the only Chelsea fan in my year and there were four Chelsea fans in the two years below me. So, only five Chelsea fans in a school of 1,300 kids (there were no Chelsea female fans of course, which goes without saying…it was the ‘eighties.) And we knew who we were alright…Chris, Dale, Richie, Troy and Glenn. The Famous Five.

I saw Troy at our game at Ashton Gate in 1976, I saw Dale at games in the ‘eighties, I sit next to Glenn at games to this day but I think Richie didn’t use to go to Chelsea. But we knew of each other alright. I think fans of “lesser” teams always have that bond. With our appeal so much bigger today, I really wonder if that relationship is there for the youngsters in the Frome area. I personally doubt it. However, for us lot – plus PD, Dave and a few more – we’ll always stick together. I think that barren spell in the ‘eighties helped to forge this special friendship and long may it continue.

For the entire length of the journey to London, the sky remained clear and cloudless. I had a quick breakfast and then joined the boys in The Goose at 12.45pm. There was a good turnout for this F.A. Cup game with Ipswich Town. A few of the lads had their children in tow, lured by the cheap ticket prices. It was £25 for an adult for starters. Surprisingly, my home area was only represented by Parky and myself, but the Midlands was represented by Burger, Andy (plus 2 children), Jokka, Neil, Chopper (plus wife and 2 kids), the Home Counties by Daryl, Simon (plus 1 child), Rob, Russ and Gary and finally The Channel Islands by Chris ( plus 1 child). Towards the end, I met up with four from the North – Phil (plus 1 child) and Malcolm (plus 1 child), lads I see rarely these days, but acquaintances from a while back.

So – 24 all told.

A good show.

Guernsey Chris informed me that his son’s first game was against Ipswich in 2001 and he is yet to see us lose. That just goes to show how successful we have been in that period, eh? The United versus Liverpool game was on TV, but not many were paying too much attention – why would we? I mentioned to Gary that I would be soon approaching my seventh anniversary of consecutive Chelsea home games – the first game in this run was on January 18th. 2004 – but Gary puts me to shame. He has missed just one Chelsea first team home game since 1975. To be honest, there should be an asterisk on my run because I missed the first team friendly against Celtic in August 2006, but I’m not counting that (though, if I am honest, I ought to…) Now I have put all of my Chelsea games on a massive spread sheet, expect more and more of these little statistical nuggets over the season. You have been warned.

I’ve mentioned before that the F.A. Cup does not seem to have the allure of times past; despite which ever TV channel has coverage of the games informing us otherwise. Thirty years ago, F.A. Cup games would warrant an extra 25% on the gate, but these days, it seems that the Cup attracts 33% less. Except at Chelsea, where we play to sell out gates at virtually all games, much to my pleasure. However, this is no doubt due to the cheaper tickets at domestic cup matches…one of the best innovations of recent seasons at Chelsea.

With perfect timing, I reached my seat just as “The Liquidator” was rousing the support – after each musical break, “CHELSEA” was lustily bellowed by all and sundry. This was a good sign. I had hoped that our fans would rally behind the team, putting recent past performances to one side.

The team was a pleasing mixture of old and new. Cech in goal, Boso at right back, JT and Brana in the middle and the promising Van Aanholt on the left, a midfield of Frank, the improving Ramires and young Josh, with Kalo, Anelka and Sturridge in attack. No complaints there. Ipswich had 3,000 away fans but no flags.

The game began and we peppered the Ipswich Town goal in the first fifteen minutes, but Daniel Sturridge in particular was guilty of carelessness in front of goal. We were playing some nice stuff, with a couple of flowing moves and there was a good vibe inside The Bridge. However, Ipswich threatened us on 16 minutes with a quick break down our right. The resultant shot was blocked, but Petr Cech appeared to wind himself in the process. He lay prone for a while, but then rose to a loud roar. On 22 minutes, a lovely move found Studge but he decided to leave it for Anelka who took one more touch than was necessary and his low shot was cleared off the line. I held my head in my hands. Soon after, we got behind them and pulled the ball back for Frank in a Prime Time Position.

Frank slammed the ball over. Oh hell – don’t say it’s going to be one of those games!

More efforts went the same way – shots from McEachren and then Anelka flew over the Ipswich goal. Then, at last, a shot from Anelka and a scramble inside the six-yard box and Kalou prodded the ball over – he doesn’t miss from there!

Immediately after, a lovely early ball – fast and low, just like the doctor ordered – into the six yard box from Jose Bosingwa was adroitly flicked in by Sturridge. Get in you beauty. That goal had the entire crowd on its feet. More was to follow – on 38 minutes, a bad tackle on JT and from the Lampard free-kick, the ball was flicked by an Ipswich Town defender into his goal and we were 3-0 to the good.

Phew – things were going well. The only downer was the relatively tough away draw in Round Four – yet another cup tie against Everton. Why does Chelsea always seem to draw the same teams in all cup competitions? How many more bloody times do we have to play Everton, Liverpool, Ipswich, Watford, Barcelona, Valencia and Porto? I was longing for an away game at Torquay, Orient, Burton Albion, Brighton…or Leeds United.

The bloke next to Alan looked a source of much amusement. As is the way with a lot of our supporters these days, he was silent for all of the first-half…throughout the game, he was listening to a radio via a set of little earphones and of course Alan and I suggested a comic reason for this. You know how we operate by now, eh? I suggested that rather than listen to the roar of the crowd and be involved, he was listening intently to the shipping forecast (probably the most boring piece of radio, ever). That then gave Alan and me the chance to air some truly horrendous puns about the various shipping areas, and out of respect to you all, I won’t repeat any of them.

Ex-Chelsea and Ipswich Town striker Kevin Wilson (Willo) was on the pitch with Neil Barnett at the break.

Rather than sit on our laurels, we kept going after the break and we were soon rewarded with a magnificent goal from Nicolas Anelka. After a quick interchange, he struck a lovely low shot from an angle which entered the goal just inside the far post. A superb goal. Three minutes later, the rarest of things – not only a Daniel Sturridge shot with his right foot, but a Daniel Sturridge goal with his right foot. From a Lampard pass, a delightful curler flew into the goal and the crowd erupted again.

At 5-0, the Matthew Harding serenaded our manager –

“Carlo – give us a wave, Carlo, Carlo – give us a wave.”

Despite no Ray Wilkins being alongside to translate, Carlo sheepishly acknowledged the fans.

“CARLO! CARLO! CARLO!”

Then, a period of lovely confident football…McEachren caressing the ball and prompting others, Lampard strong in the tackle and intelligent with his passing, Anelka devilish – the Anelka of old – and Ramires continuing to impress. Over the past five games, I would suggest that John Terry and Ramires have been our most consistent performers.

After the close bunching of our goals, two more ensued within a minute…two Frank Lampard strikes (the first from the edge of the box, the second from two yards out) and the place was bouncing. Frank – admittedly against a lower class of opposition – appeared to be approaching his old form and looked a lot more at ease than at Wolves on Wednesday. This is marvellous news. To be quite honest, we could have scored a few more, make no mistakes. I remember Gael Kakuta blazing over towards the end. Shipping Forecast Man decided to leave, not surprisingly I suppose, with five minutes of the game left. I guess he had endured far too much excitement for one day.

So – seven nil.

The seventh time we have scored six goals or more in a game in the last twelve months. It was just good to be back on track, despite the poor quality of the opposition. A win is a win is a win.

I met up with Parky on the Fulham Road and he was rather bemused. Why? He had slapped £3 on us to win 6-0! He had missed out on £100.

A typical drive home – Fruit Pastilles, a Krispy Kreme doughnut and a Red Bull at Heston Services to give me enough sugar and caffeine to get home safe, then some anthems from my youth – Scritti Politti, Japan, China Crisis, Talking Heads, Kraftwork and Ultravox…and Parky asleep – no doubt trying his very best to erase the memory of Frank’s last goal.

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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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Tales From The Last Chelsea Weekend Of Season 2009-2010

Chelsea vs. Portsmouth : 15 May 2010.

When I was growing up back in the ‘seventies, the only three teams to win The Double were Preston North End, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. I always used to think that the chances of any team replicating these feats were pretty remote. Back in those days, the FA Cup was won by a wider selection of teams than the current era of The Big Four. It was with some amazement when I looked on as Liverpool won the double in 1986 ( and winning the league at The Bridge in the last game of the season to boot. )

Since then, it’s all got a bit crazy.

Manchester United won their first double in 1994 ( and beat us in the FA Cup Final ). Arsenal again won it in 1998 and United won their momentous treble in 1999. Arsenal then repeated winning both League and Cup in 2002 ( and guess who they beat in the Final? ). With all of the power in English football now being narrowed to three or four financially potent clubs year on year, I can only see Doubles becoming more commonplace.

Time, then, for Chelsea Football Club to make our mark.

Throughout the week – what a week, one of the best ever – with my mind full of the thought of being Champions once more, I was buzzing with excitement not only for the FA Cup, but for thoughts of The Double.

The Double.

Just the sound of it makes me go all light-headed.

We had the day planned perfectly – the tickets, the pubs, the logistics, the accommodation, the timings – and when I left work on Friday, the whole weekend lay ahead…a tantalising thought.

FA Cup Final Day 2010 began for me with my ‘phone alarm sounding at 6am. After a few minutes of deliberation, I decided to keep the lucky Henri Lloyd polo theme going – navy blue, this weekend. I left at bang on 7am and I soon received a text from His Lordship.

“Buzzin mate. Are we there yet?”

The last five seconds of a Depeche Mode song came to an end on the CD player and then the familiar synthesised opening sequence of their version of “Route 66” started. The route from my home to Wembley Stadium is becoming my own version of The Mother Road these days. The UK version though – west to east – not the US one, headed west from Chicago to LA, more than three thousand miles all the way.

In three years, this would be Chelsea’s eighth visit to the sparkling and shiny new Wembley.

We live in interesting times, alright.

The weather wasn’t sure. It couldn’t make up its mind. I collected Parky from his house – three Chelsea flags on posts on the front lawn – and flew a similar flag from my rear window.

We were on our way.

The weather brightened but then soon clouded over. Parky opened up a can of Fosters at 8.30am and he toasted our club as we headed past the Madejski at Reading. The mood in the car was super-confident and we were both buzzing. Just a wonderful feeling of anticipation pervaded our conversation. We were parked-up at Chesson Road, just of the North End Road, at 9.30am and soon met up with two visitors from six thousand miles away. Bob Clark and Andy Wray were in town, visitors from The Golden State, and we met up at Bob’s hotel. We then caught a red London bus up to Marble Arch – a lovely route past Harrods and Hyde Park Corner – and we reached The Tyburn at about 10.30am. The sun was out and the vibes were perfect.

Several members of The Bing – Daryl, Ed, Rob, Neil and Alan – had just arrived and we greeted each other and ordered breakfasts and pints. There were a couple of Pompey fans in the pub and I wished them the best of luck.

“I think we’ll need it” said one.

We then sauntered up to The Duke Of York and stayed there from 11.30am to 1pm. The place was busier than previous years and again we spotted a few Pompey fans. Two ladies of a certain age were ridiculously attired in bizarre headwear ( one had an Appache head dress on ) and they both had the Full Monty of Pompey shirts and scarves. It’s all well and good supporting your team in the club colours, but there’s no need to look like Christmas trees. We looked on aghast. A few more troops arrived – Mike and Steve, then Alex, from the New York Chapter.

Lacoste Watch

Parky – lemon
Bob – navy blue
Millsy – white
Daryl – royal blue

Deano was inside the boozer and he had a spare. I made a few phone calls but couldn’t shift it. I’m not sure if it was used or not. I was going easy on the beer intake and didn’t fancy missing the pre-match this year. Andy left us and made his way to The Green Man at Wembley. At about 1pm, we agreed to make a move and we walked the half-mile to Baker Street tube.

We passed quite a few pubs and each one had an assortment of Chelsea fans spilling out onto the pavements. And there, opposite the tube at Baker Street, was the daddy of them all… The Globe. There were about 300 Chelsea out on the pavement, ringed by police, celery flying. We spent our pre-match in 1997 at The Globe, but it gets too manic for our liking. The tourists on the double-decker busses were looking on and I wondered what was going through their minds.

We caught the tube up to Wembley Park, the tube station which sits at the northern end of “Wembley Way” ( or rather Olympic Way to give it the correct title. ) I thought back to my first ever visit. I am not sure of the exact timings, but I am pretty confident that in around 1972 or 1973 ( before my first game at The Bridge in fact ), I managed to talk my father into visiting Wembley Stadium after we had paid a visit to an uncle in Southall. In those days, Olympic Way wasn’t pedestrianised and so my father, in his Vauxhall Viva, parked up outside one of the many warehouses and exhibition halls and we walked up to the grand old stadium, site of so many incredible football games from its debut in 1923. I remember scampering around, walking up to the base of the Twin Towers, like it was yesterday. The abiding memory is of the dirty cream colour of the towers and the battle-ship grey of the stadium walls. It was certainly in need of a lick of paint, but it looked wonderful. It had presence, even to a seven year old.

We – SF Bob, NY Mike, NY Steve, NY Alex and myself – slowly walked towards the stadium, the arch dominating the skyline. The arch is obviously much higher, but nothing can beat the Wembley towers for visual impact in my mind. All that history, all those memories from 1923, 1953, 1970, 1997 and more. The White Horse Final, Sir Stanley Matthews, Ian Porterfield, Bobby Stokes, Alan Sunderland, Ricky Villa, the Scousers scaling the walls in 1986, Robbie Di Matteo…

Outside the imposing Bobby Moore statue, which overlooks the whole area, I briefly met my Pompey mate Rick and his excited eight year old son Matthew. From the darkness of our sixth form days when our teams were in Divisions Two and Three to an FA Cup Final together. What a wonderful moment as we smiled and shook each others hands.

Then, inside the stadium and the walk up to the top level…I was saddened to see that none of the escalators were working. I was wondering if the Tory governmental cuts were already having an effect. We had seats right behind the west scoreboard, as central as it is possible to get. I was inside at just after 2pm. I scrambled down to the front of the upper tier and painstakingly tied “VINCI PER NOI” to the balcony. I didn’t think either team had many flags and banners and I wondered why none of the large Chelsea banners which are ever-present at The Bridge had made it to North London. Looking back, my banner may well have been the longest Chelsea banner present. It was it’s first appearance at Wembley, actually. I hoped Carlo might spot it. At the other end, more Pompry fans were inside early and I noted a couple of their flags –

“Against All Odds.”

“You Can’t Break Our Spirit”

“PFC 6.57”

The sun was shining now, but the place was quite subdued. There was none of the manic noise of 1997. I looked around and thought about how football has changed in my lifetime. When I was growing up, it was all about the atmosphere and the songs, the sense of belonging, the sense of making our own noise. In 2010, each fan was given a flag to wave, but the atmosphere seemed contrived. My mate Alan said as much to me as we chatted, waiting for our other mates to arrive. It’s a familiar irritant – the football may be better, but not the singing. Maybe we’re getting complacent. I don’t think the vastness of the new stadium at Wembley helps.

Unlike last year against Everton, when we arrived late and missed all of the pre-match – I swore never to be so disrespectful to the FA Cup Final ever again – I was able to sit back and take it all in. My match day companions Alan and Tom were in too. At about 2.45pm, the marching band appeared and a young female singer beautifully sang the Cup Final hymn.

“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee.
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Hold now your cross before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks and Earth’s vain shadows flee.
In Life. In death. Oh Lord – abide with me.”

I love this hymn and my bottom lip is usually quivering during the singing of this. However, in 2010, it seemed nobody else shared my sense of occasion and hardly anyone was joining in. This is again different to Cup Finals past. I remember bellowing it out in Cardiff in 2002. Oh well. Thankfully, once the teams entered the field and were presented to Prince William, lots joined in with “God Save the Queen.”

The Chelsea team provided no surprises for us. The new kit looked fine, at least from a hundred yards away. The pitch looked awful. All of my mates were alongside me now. We hoped for no repeat of Louis Saha. At kick-off, I noted many empty seats and some remained unused all game. The attendance was around 1,000 below capacity.

What a crazy first-half.

Chelsea enjoyed so much of the ball and constantly tried to move the ball into the danger areas. Our attacks were frequent and our chances came regularly. The Chelsea fans were in reasonably good voice but were not able to sing together as one unit. Portsmouth were not as loud as I had expected, despite their more rigorous flag-waving. Shots reigned in on the Portsmouth goal – and I almost lost count. A Frank shot flashed wide, then he saw a shot graze the angle of bar and post and Didier Drogba had two attempts blocked by James. On a rare break up field, a Portsmouth shot was diverted and Petr Cexch pulled off one of the saves of the season. Stupendous stuff from Big Pete.

Our support was heavily reliant on the “Campeones” chat and at times we were in good voice.

Ashley Cole had a great run deep into the Pompey box and he set up Salamon Kalou who was waiting in the area, just outside the six yard box and the whole goal at his mercy. We got ready to celebrate. He shot, but it hit the bar and the groan was heard all over the South-East. Soon after, JT hit the bar with a brilliant header. On 38 minutes, Didier hit a swerving shot which David James clawed the ball onto the bar, but the ball bounced tantalisingly close to the goal line. I envisaged the TV crews going into meltdown to see if the ball crossed the line. Texts were adamant that it was a goal, though later in the day, texts had the opposite view. Soon after, Didier hit the post again. This was just ridiculous.

Chelsea 5 Portsmouth 0 – if only!

It seemed that lots of spectators were late in getting back to their seats for the start of the second half, the corporate areas especially.

The first period of the second-half was rather worrying. Our domination had subsided and Pompey were enjoying a marked improvement in fortunes. Our end was quiet.

Michael Ballack was injured and was replaced by Juliano Belletti. It seemed that he had only been on the pitch for a few seconds when he had lost his man. My mate Alan sensed the danger and shouted –

“Don’t dive in! Don’t dive in!”

Belletti made an awful challenge and referee Chris Foy had no choice but to point towards the spot.

I decided not to take a photo of the penalty which followed – some kind of superstition I think. Thank heavens Peter Cech kicked the ball away with his trailing leg as he dived to he left. Seeing the ball bounce away is an image that will live long in my memory. That got us bouncing and the Chelsea end began roaring the team on.

“And it’s super Chelsea – Super Chelsea FC.”

Soon after Cech’s fantastic save, a free-kick was awarded and we waited for Drogba.

How he loves Wembley.

I steadied my aim and held the camera, zoom lens to the max.

As he shot, I snapped. We all saw the ball drift in to the goal off the far post and we erupted in a wild roar. Alan and myself grabbed each other and bounced.

“They’ll have to come at us now – Come on my little diamonds.”

For a moment, I felt dizzy, with blood rushing through my body – what a buzz.

Our end was did a bouncy and reminded everyone who was champions.

Soon after, Kalou shot wide and it hadn’t been his best of days. He was substituted by Joe Cole. Didier was put through, one on one, but James made another great save. The ball rebounded back to Joe Cole but his shot was subsequently blocked. We peppered the Pompey goal, but we had a scare of our own when a rare Portsmouth attack ended up with the ball being struck low across the six yard box. Thankfully no attackers were near.

A new Chelsea song –

“We’re Making History.”

Late on, we moved forward again and Joe Cole took the left back wide with a great run off the ball. Frank Lampard was able to exploit the space left and he drove into the box. Frank was fouled and we held our breath again. This time I was a little more willing to capture everything on film.

I snapped just before Frank scuffed the penalty wide. It was typical of Frank’s game as he had not enjoyed the best of performances really.

I thought Alex had been magnificent, covering space so well. Big Pete with two fantastic saves. John Terry solid at the back. The inevitable Drogba Wembley goal.

Towards the end, a few hundred fans in the top tier began clapping and urged everyone not to worry.

At the final whistle, I was quite dazed.

We then stood back and tried to take it all in. It was the same feeling as 2009. Just lovely to see everyone so happy.

The Portsmouth fans – and Uncle Avram – were warmly applauded. They received their medals.

We then waited for our heroes in blue. John Terry seemed to want to share centre-stage with the rest of the team and there was quite a wait until everyone was in position. For the sixth time in our ever-growing history, the Football Association Challenge Cup was tied with blue and white ribbons and for the sixth time, a Chelsea captain raised it high.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

The air was filled with silver and blue streamers and – almost immediately, perfectly – “Blue Is The Colour” filled the North London air. This lovely song immediately transports me back to my youth – maybe to around 1972, when houghts of The Double would have been just silly. We all joined in, singing every word, loving the shared experience.

“Cus Chelsea – Chelsea Is Our Name.”

Then, the Black Eyed Peas –

“I’ve Got A Feeling – Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night.”

You bet.

Next up – “One Step Beyond” and the stands were vibrating as 25,000 Chelsea fans bounced.

We made our way back to the Duke Of York and had a lovely relaxing time, drinking, chatting. I had a few more beers and Parky bought me a gin and tonic.

A double – of course.

We caught a cab back to Earl’s Court and ended-up at Salvo’s. After a little deliberation, we decided not to head back to The Bridge, but instead stay for a few hours at this homely Italian restaurant, much beloved by us all. Bob, Parky, Steve and Mike were then joined by Rob, Andy, Sophie and Woody – then Danny. We drank some Peronis and watched the Cup Final replayed on about three different channels – in English, in Italian, in Spanish. We chatted about the season, but also about the future and we raised our glasses to our great club.

We each had some food and it was a lovely, relaxed time. I had visions during the week of throwing beer down my neck in celebration of our historic win, but it in all honesty it was all rather sedate and civilised.

As we said our goodbyes at about midnight, Salvo appeared with a bottle of champagne and sprayed us all with it. It was a crazy gesture – I was stunned – but we were all cowering as the champagne ended up all over our designer clothes. It was a funny and spontaneous end to quite an amazing season.

In a scene reminiscent of Baltimore in the summer, Bob, Parky, Rob and myself settled down to a night in a crowded hotel room. We slept fitfully through the night and by 8am, we were all awake.

On the Sunday, I was still in a Blue Daze.

We had breakfast – The Breakfast Of Champions – and made our way to The Bridge. Inevitably, we found ourselves with the New York Blues, then Pete from San Francisco – and then even more inevitably we ended up in The Imperial – Matthew Harding’s preferred pub – on the Kings Road. We had some more drinks and watched the Chelsea coaches leave the West Stand entrance. At about 1.20pm, we popped outside and waited on the pavement for our heroes to appear.

The first bus appeared over the bridge and I began snapping.

There it was, emblazoned on the bus.

“The Double 09-10.”

At last, it had all sunk in.

Oh boy.

The busses slowly approached us and my camera clicked away. Rob was upstairs getting great video film of the players’ wild celebrations. JT and Frank were at the front and it was magical to see the looks of excitement and joy on their faces.

The front of the bus passed me and I just looked up at the rest of the players, Chelsea scarves knotted around their necks.

“Come On My Boys – Come On My Boys – Come On My Boys.”

Back in the pub, there was Cathy and Mo, who were there right from the very start.

What a blast.

What a weekend. What a week. What a month. What a season.

The best pre-match ever in Baltimore, the last minute winners at Stoke and Burnley, the trip to Madrid, men against boys at The Emirates, the Watford game on my Mum’s birthday, the disappointment of Inter, the car drive home from Ewood Park, the Wednesday night in Portsmouth, the phenomenal trips to Old Trafford and Anfield, the 8-0 against Wigan, the Cup Final, the goals, the goals, the goals.

Our most successful season ever.

Chelsea Football Club – I salute you.

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Tales From The Champions

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic – 9 May 2010.

What else could I call this?

Oh Boy – What a game.

From the quiet cave of Anfield, subdued apart from three thousand Chelsea loyalists, to the bubbling cauldron of noise and emotion at HQ.

Just a spectacular day.

I will be honest, I was still more nervous than I perhaps ought to have been throughout the build-up to the Wigan Athletic game. A lot of people were telling me to relax, but how could I? This was a potential disaster waiting to happen. The more I thought of the match, the more worried I became. There have been numerous examples of teams failing at the last minute and I couldn’t face my Chelsea being the next. I think it is safe to say that I was just glad that there was no Wigan player called Mazeroski.

The alarm sounded at 6.30am on Sunday and the first task of the day was to decide on match-day apparel. This often takes a good many minutes as I weigh up the choices. I kept thinking back to the Bolton championship game in 2005 and I remembered that I wore a white Henri Lloyd polo on that incredible day…I superstitiously decided to mirror this choice, but this time the chosen colour was royal blue. I kept the Bolton theme going by wearing a pair of HL jeans that I bought in a store outside The Reebok before the game last autumn. I needed all the good luck charms I could muster. My new Barbour jacket worked a treat at Anfield last week, so that got the nod, too. The weather looked dull and overcast as I set off at 8am.

Parky, sporting some new Forest Hills, was collected at 8.30am and we were on our way. We shot through the familiar towns of Devizes, Marlborough and Hungerford on the A4. Passing through the Savernake Forest, thousands of bluebells were spotted in woodland glades alongside the silver birch trees. It was a spectacular sight. Gill texted me –

“Jack Kerouac?”

I replied –

“Writing And Arithmetic.”

I had been in touch with Jamie ( crowtrobot ) who was lucky enough to be over for Game 38. Jamie was nervous, just like me.

On parking up at Chelsea, the weather was cold but a breakfast soon sorted ourselves out. Frankie Two Times was in the cafe too and he updated us with details of his recent health scare. He’s doing much better now thank heavens. Daryl, Ed and Neil then appeared, all wearing the requisite polo shirts. Daryl was wearing a lovely Fred Perry – and there was an element of superstition about this choice, too.

“If it was good enough for the first game of the season, it’s good enough for this one too” he said.

There was an element of classic Chelsea about it too as the white shirt had green and red trim…shades of the much-loved red / white / green of the 1970’s away kit.

We got the nod that US visitors Ashley and Jamie were close by, so we sauntered off to The Goose. There was a sizable crowd waiting for Reg to open up. In we went, bang on mid-day. Over the next hour or so, all of my mates showed up and joined the throng. By 2pm, Reg had decided to limit the amount of people entering as it was so full. We had our little corner of the bar, beneath the TV set showing the Leicester vs. Cardiff game ( which nobody was watching…) and the pre-game rituals were taking place. The laughs, the stories, the jokes.

Lacoste Watch

Parky – black

Ed – lime green

Of my mates, Parky and Andy were the most stressed, whereas Daryl and Simon seemed rather chilled out and confident. I still wasn’t sure.

“Bottom of the ninth, Mazeroski swings…”

Jamie and Ashley – plus also Jason and his girlfriend – were being entertained by Lord Parky, the resident CIA-Social Secretary, and the beers were flowing nicely. Talk also included plans for the FA Cup Final pre-match, but also of the friendlies in Holland and Germany. Wes showed up a bit later, thus missing the other Americans who had left to sample the pre-match, and he was buzzing as per normal. He grabbed me and shouted “let’s do this.” I showed a few mates some photos from Anfield, but also from the Chelsea Old Boys game I had seen in Southampton on Monday…great photos of former players such as Johnny B., Tore Andre Flo, Clive Walker, Canners, Ian Britton and Colin Pates.

At about 3.15pm – a bit earlier than normal – we set off for The Bridge. There were lines of fans waiting to get into the packed pubs around Fulham Broadway and I guessed these unlucky souls were without tickets. There was an air of carnival, but I only felt the tension. I quick word with Mark on the CFCUK stall, wearing his lucky trainers.

By 3.40pm, Steve and myself had taped ‘VINCI PER NOI’ up against the back wall of the Matthew Harding Upper, right in my NW corner. Bizarrely, there were still marks from the tape which I must’ve used all those years ago. I used to bring the banner along in the Vialli / Zola era, but ‘VINCI’ was last seen at Stamford Bridge in around the year 2000. My goodness, the years have flown.

Unfortunately, the banner was hid for most of the game by a few fans who had decided to stand. Oh well. I was hoping that Carlo might spot it at some stage.

The Bridge, though under grey skies, was a riot of colour and more flags then usual were dotted around the balconies.

Den Haag.

Newry.

Cornwall.

Polska.

The rumours were true, though – Wigan hadn’t sold all their tickets and I was pretty annoyed with the gaps in that section. There were even clumps of empty seats in the “complimentaries” ( players families, friends, etc ) in the middle of the Shed Upper. Work that one out. Also empty seats in the “Abramovich” tier of the West…

Building up to the game, I had yearned for an early goal – by ten minutes would be perfect. Wigan, in a truly horrendous kit, had the best of the early exchanges though. The Bridge was on fire, however, with everyone seemingly buoyed by extra pints.

“We love you Chelsea – we do.”

On just five minutes, a Drogba free-kick was cleared but the ball was played back in. A touch back from Malouda and Anelka was waiting.

A shot.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

What a start – Oh my, I wanted to explode. After the shouting, the screaming and the back-slapping had died down slightly, Alan turned to me…

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

We then struggled a little bit and I thought Wigan got back into the game. However, just as the crowd was cooling down a little, along came a burst into the box and we were given a penalty, though my view was impeded. Not only that – a red card.

This isn’t happening. This is going exactly to plan.

Frank took the ball. However, Alan had told me that Didier had allegedly been promised a penalty in order for him to get a shot at The Golden Boot. In the immediate build-up to the penalty, there seemed to be “words” between Frank and Drogba.

I caught Frank’s emphatic stab on film and the resultant celebrations. This was wonderful wonderful stuff. The texts started to fly in.

The Bridge was then bouncing like never before…whole sections of stands were joining in…it resembled a sight akin to a bouncing Mexican wave. Heady stuff indeed.

The rest of the half seemed a blur, but we were well aware that Drogba was sulking. I had to remind myself that he was our Player Of The Year. I wasn’t impressed. At the half-time break, I couldn’t help but think that there was still an air of uncertainty among my fellow fans.

Two-nil up, Wigan down to ten men and we’re still not convinced.

“Proper Chelsea” I thought.

I heard one soul utter “we only need to let in one goal and…” His voice trailed off, but we all knew what he meant.

At the break, Roy Bentley and Ken Monkou made the half-time draws. Great to see Roy again – was it really a year ago that his antics on the pitch after the Blackburn game gave us so much joy?

The Chelsea eleven re-entered the pitch well ahead of the opposition and – for the first time I can ever remember – had a pre-second half huddle. I imagined that it had kicked-off a bit between Drogba and the others at the break ( maybe out of earshot of the manager ) and now JT was bringing them all together.

“Let’s do this together, boys.”

Well, the second half was an absolute blur. At the end of it all, we were having trouble remembering who had scored or how they had scored. It was the third goal that really made it safe. A lovely one-two between Kalou and Frank and a slick finish. I think I celebrated this goal the most as I just knew we couldn’t be caught. Photos of Kalou, minus his shirt, posing right down below me and in front of Cathy and Dog in the corner.

The Anelka goal – the fourth – was just mesmeric…the deep cross from Ivanovic and the first-time volley. The place erupted again. The players raced over to celebrate in the same corner and the expressions on their faces are a joy to behold.

OK, we were now on 99 league goals and ( despite my nervousness ) I had toyed with the notion of a 5-0 win to give is a ton. It soon came…a great angled header by Drogba from a lovely Lampard cross. Drogba was euphoric.

One hundred league goals!

“Boring Boring Chelsea – Boring Boring Chelsea.”

And so it continued…Ashley was clipped by former blue Mario Melchiot and Drogs was handed the ball. I raced down to the front and steadied myself. Just time for a quick word with Big John.

“I think we’re safe” he said.

Snap.

6-0. The place erupted again. Up to 101 now…

We couldn’t repeat the 7-0 of the very last home game could we? Well, a bit of interplay between Juliano and Joey set up Drogba to push home from close range. On this goal, I just smiled and laughed…this was just crazy.

The songs continued.

Then a break, a shot from Moses – the shot of the game – and a World class save from Petr, who had been a spectator for virtually all of the game. Then – a beautiful moment – and a chant which some fans will not have heard ever before…

“That’s Why We’re Champions.”

Memories of 2005-2006. We’ll be singing that again next season.

Then, the final act of 2009-2010 and the beautiful finish from Ashley Cole after a deep Joe Cole cross.

Eight.

8-0.

Un-believable.

I had received a flurry of late texts and was mid-text at the final whistle. While the rest of the crowd roared, I sent a simple text to a few mates – mainly Chelsea, but also Manchester United, Liverpool and Rotherham United too.

“My team. My life.”

I crouched down, weak with joy, and my eyes were momentarily moist.

Payback for Moscow.

I hugged a few friends – especially Alan, who is now up to about 140 consecutive Chelsea games, home and away, Europe and all. We love our club and we love our friendship too. I’ve known Alan since March 1984 and we know what it means to be Chelsea. There was Rousey behind, going crazy, there was Tom alongside, quiet and contented, there was Mick behind with his ailing father, there was Kev and Anna, new acquaintances since the California trip in 2007, Russ and his daughter, Old Joe and his sons.

All of us together.

I had taken around one hundred photographs during the game and I then took an equally high amount in the aftermath.

The songs, the banners, the laughter, the build-up to the trophy being handed over to JT.

The colour, the noise, the red of the Chelsea Pensioners, the royal blue in the four stands, the Wigan fans staying behind, the anticipation…

The booing of Scudamore…Game 39 will not be forgotten.

The youth team with the FA Youth Cup – winners for the first time since 1961.

The back-room staff, Ray Wilkins – a big roar – the manager – a bigger roar, the reserve players.

The first-teamers, Michael Essien – a massive roar – the slow build up.

The veterans, Petr Cech, Didier Drogba.

The East End Boys, the Blood Brothers, the vice-captain Frank Lampard and the captain John Terry.

The walk.

The handshake.

The glint of the gold and the silver of the trophy.

The roar.

The sky exploded with white, silver and blue streamers and the next few minutes was joy unbounded. The players did a triumphant lap of honour and it was wondrous. I thought about what must have been going through the minds of Jamie, Wes, Ashley and Beth – especially Beth.

I thought about my mates dotted around the stadium.

We live for days like this.

An hour or so later, we were drinking in The Lily Langtry and the place was mobbed. We had heard that the OB had closed a lot of the pubs around The Broadway and all of the fans were out on the road drinking from cans. It was a crazy scene.

Across the way, a hundred fans outside The Prince Of Wales were goading us in The Lily for a song.

“CAMPIONES – CAMPIONES – OLE – OLE – OLE.”

Later, heading out of London, I called Steve in California and we spoke for a few moments. I commented that the day reminded me so much of the game which clinched promotion from the old Second Division in 1984. We beat Leeds 5-0 that day and there was wild euphoria in SW6 all those years ago. I experienced the same feelings twenty-six years later. It was a phenomenal scoreline. As I spoke to Steve, 6,000 miles away, I turned a gentle corner on the M4 and the sky ahead was lit with a sunset of incandescent beauty. To my north, the sun’s rays caught the Wembley Arch. It was a magical moment.

Life…it truly does not get any better.

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