Tales From The Old And The New

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 23 November 2021.

Back in February 2020, not long after Chelsea were given a masterclass in elite football by Bayern Munich, I had walked back up the North End Road with my friend Jaro. He had been in town for both the Tottenham game – good, very good – and the Bayern game – bad, very bad – and we said our goodbyes at the intersection with Lillie Road. He was heading back to his hotel before an early morning flight to whisk him back to his home just outside Washington DC. In the intervening twenty-one months, who could have predicted what would have happened to the world and to Chelsea Football Club?

It was 5.40pm, and I stepped into the Italian restaurant next to “The Goose” on a cold London evening. It was a mere ten yards from where Jaro and I went our separate ways all those months ago. This time Jaro was in town with his son Alex and they had just arrived to secure a seat for a quick bite to eat before the Champions League group phase game with Juventus. My travel companions Parky and PD came in to see the two visitors – handshakes and hugs – before they popped into “The Goose” for a drink or two.

I settled down, perused the menu, and ordered a beer and a pizza.

Time to relax a little, time to start talking football, time to think about the game. But first I thanked Jaro for his friendship over the weirdest time of our lives. He has been a good friend of mine in this period – on-line chats, occasional phone-calls – and I wanted him to know it was appreciated. Alex’ only other visit to Chelsea was for a league game with Newcastle in the early months of Frank Lampard’s short tenure as manager. To say both were excited about being back in London again would be a grave understatement.

The evening would unfold in due course, but I had a little teaser for them both before the evening got into full swing.

I poured a small Birra Moretti into a half-pint glass.

“Right. Bearing in mind tonight’s game and the two teams involved, what is the significance of this beer?”

Puzzled expressions. I added another few words.

“This beer is a thirst quencher, right? Well maybe it could be called a first quencher.”

Still puzzlement.

I then realised something else.

“Ah, it’s in a half-pint glass. A half. That’s a clue too.”

Jaro and Alex were stumped. The conversation moved on a little, and I realised that they weren’t going to be able to solve my little riddle.

Out of interest, it is worth saying that a few tables down from us, a lad was wearing a long-sleeved red Bari training top. This acted as another clue for those playing along at home, if not for Jaro and Alex.

To re-cap.

Birra Moretti.

First-quencher.

Half.

Bari.

Give up? OK, here goes.

Despite the game at Stamford Bridge being the sixth game between Chelsea and Juventus in the Champions League, the very first encounter took place in the southern Italian city of Bari in August 2002 in the Birra Moretti Cup. On the same night, Chelsea played half a game against Juventus (drew 0-0, lost on penalties) before losing 0-3 to Inter in another forty-five-minute game. I remembered watching it all unfold on Chelsea TV.

In those days, Juventus of Turin, of the whole of Italy, were European royalty. I still find it hard to believe that Juventus of Turin and Chelsea of London have both won the same number of European Cups.

The pizza was damned fine. The little restaurant was full of Chelsea supporters. We chatted about pandemics, Champions League Finals, heart attacks, Chelsea and Juventus.

In the dim and distant past, when Jaro was a teenager back in Poland, Juventus must have tugged a little at his heart strings. I remember that he told me that he had got hold of, I know not how, a Juventus scarf, which must have been quite a capture in communist Poland. He had since mislaid it. However, in packing for this trip he had stumbled across an old suitcase and – lo and behold – the old Juventus scarf was unearthed after many a year. Jaro thought that this was undoubtedly a good sign ahead of his trip across the Atlantic.

Outside, yes, a cold night. I was glad that I had worn an extra top beneath my jacket. I didn’t see a single Juventus fan on the walk down to the ground with PD. Jaro had spotted little knots of them in the afternoon as he circumnavigated the stadium not once but twice.

We all made it inside Stamford Bridge earlier – much earlier – than usual.

I was inside by 7.15pm, a good forty-five minutes before kick-off. I spent a few minutes at the rear of the Matthew Harding upper tier, right above where I sit, and took a few shots of the scene. In my quest to photograph every square yard of Stamford Bridge, inside and out, for my pleasure if nobody else’s, it was a well-spent ten minutes. Over in the far corner, the travelling Juventus supporters were positioned in two tiers. The Champions League logo – a large plastic flag – was lying still over the centre circle.

As I walked down to share a few words with Frank from Oxford, who sits in the row behind me, and then to re-join PD, the players of both teams entered the pitch for their choreographed drills and pre-match routines. Very soon the entire pitch was covered in people. Not only the starting elevens, but the substitutes too. A few coaches, maybe a few of the medical staff. Around ten chaps forking the pitch. UEFA officials swarming everywhere. God knows who else. Easily a hundred people were on the pitch. It was ridiculous.

I immediately spotted Jaro and Alex in the second row of The Shed, right by the corner flag. At this time of year, I know that many US supporters travel over – making use of cheaper than usual international flights at Thanksgiving since the vast majority of Americans only travel domestically to see family members – and I knew that many were close by in Parkyville.

These Autumnal group phase matches – part and parcel of our game now – can be viewed as an unnecessary burden by some. Are they an integral part of the calendar and a key part in the selection of the fittest and finest teams to head into the latter stages in the new year? Or are they simply money-spinning stocking fillers before Christmas, ostensibly nothing more than extra games, the source of extra revenues with the accompanying extra chatter, extra debate, extra noise?

I think we know the answer.

The saving grace, of course, is that this format allows match-going fans of a certain disposition – step forward, you know who you are – the chance to watch their idols play in three, hopefully, interesting and exotic cities each time qualification is gained. For that reason alone, I am glad that the bloated Champions League format exists though, deep down, the simpler knock-out style of European competition pre-1992 has many admirers too.

The minutes ticked by. PD and I were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Alan from South London in The Sleepy Hollow.

A text from Tullio in Turin : “let’s go to work.”

Despite my soft-spot for Juventus, I fended off the need to buy a half-and-half scarf. Out in Turin, the nearest I got to it was a “I was there” jacquard scarf depicting the date of the game and the venue.

This would be my thirteenth Juventus game. I hoped it would be unlucky for them and not for me.

The first dozen :

1987 : Juventus 3 Panathinaikos 2.

1988 : Juventus 1 Internazionale 0.

1988 : Juventus 3 Napoli 5.

1989 : Juventus 1 Fiorentina 1.

1992 : Juventus 0 Sampdoria 0.

1995 : Rangers 0 Juventus 4.

1999 : Juventus 2 Fiorentina 1.

2009 : Chelsea 1 Juventus 0.

2009 : Juventus 2 Chelsea 2.

2012 : Chelsea 2 Juventus 2.

2012 : Juventus 3 Chelsea 0.

2021 : Juventus 1 Chelsea 0.

In the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled. There were around one thousand away fans opposite me.

The Chelsea team was almost the same one that ended the game against Leicester City.

Mendy – Rudiger, Silva, Chalobah – Chilwell, Kante, Jorginho, James – Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic, Ziyech

The stadium packed to capacity, save for a few late arrivals, the teams appeared.

First Chelsea, with blue tracksuit tops, then Juventus also in blue tracksuit tops.

I remember hating the sight of Juve, back in 2009, showing up at Chelsea in a bronze away shirt. Thankfully on this occasion they opted for the Notts County “hand-me-downs” of black and white stripes, but there was something about their uniforms that didn’t strike me as being particularly “Juve”. Were the stripes too narrow? Were the shorts not baggy enough? Did I miss seeing “Ariston” and the “Robe di Kape” labels? No. Of course it was the black socks. Ugh.

I clapped the former two Chelsea players Juan Cuadrado and Alvaro Morata.

Neither looked happy to be back.

“We hardly knew you.”

The game began. Nobody was expecting Juventus to come at us like their life depended upon it, but our dominance in the first five minutes was astounding. It took them until the sixth minute, I think, for them to get the ball out of their own half.

With both Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku on the bench, it was left for Christian Pulisic to take over from Kai Havertz as the central false-nine, and Alan commented early on how high King Kante was playing on the right.

A “sighter” from the currently impressive Ben Chilwell was fired over the bar. We enjoyed a lot of early possession, and it settled the whole stadium.

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

Juve attacks were rare, and efforts from Chalobah and Hudson-Odoi caused panic in The Old Lady’s defence. Our youngsters were raiding at will, and the watching bianconeri in The Shed must have been impressed with our fluidity. The ex-Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szvsazvxsaeneszxeyezcsy was involved early and involved often. He ably stopped a fine free-kick from our man of the moment Reece James.

When we were awarded a corner, Alan commented that he wanted Morata to find himself inside the six-yard box and to awkwardly jump and head a ball past his ‘keeper.

“Knowing our luck, the fucker would be offside, Al.”

As Hakim Ziyech trotted over to take a corner in front of the away support on twenty-five minutes, I noticed more than a usual number of Italian flags being waved. It struck me as a little odd. It’s something that club teams tend not to do on travels around the continent. I have certainly not seen this from Juventus before, nor other Italian teams, where local identity and allied tribal imagery is usually much more important. Maybe somebody had them on sale in a local Italian restaurant.

The ball was floated in, Antonio Rudiger rose, the ball ended up at the feet of Trevoh Chalobah.

Smack.

Goal.

One-nil.

“YES.”

The Bridge erupted.

I captured the slide down in front of the away fans.

Unlike “Song 2” by Blur – of all bands – being used by the Juventus PA out in Turin in September when Chiesa scored, there is no song used by Chelsea when we score and long may this continue. It would be just another nail in the coffin.

We are Chelsea and we make our own noise.

Woo Hoo.

While we were waiting for the game to restart, there was a rumour of a VAR check, but nothing was really made clear.

“Whatevs” as the kids say.

A text from Tullio : “volleyball.”

The defensive highlight of our game then thrilled us all. Locatelli unlocked our defence with a fine chipped lob to Morata, and with Mendy flummoxed and on his arse, the Spaniard was denied a certain goal when the back-peddling Thiago Silva hooked the ball away.

The applause rang out from all four stands.

The old man had thwarted the Old Lady.

However, I equally enjoyed the Rolls Royce-like burst from Silva down our left flank when a Juventus attacker threatened him. His effortless glide past the hapless striker was an absolute joy to watch.

Efforts from James and Rudiger towards the end of the half made sure that the Juve ‘keeper was kept busy. I can’t remember Mendy, the Morata cock-up aside, ever being in danger.

Sadly, there was an injury to Kante, and he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

At the break, much positivity.

“Pulisic is quiet though, Al.”

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking us in the Matthew Harding. We continued our domination.

I loved it when I spotted Thomas Tuchel fist-pumping and demanding some noise from the adjacent fans in the East Lower; it’s the family section, someone should tell him.

On fifty-five minutes, a cross from Ben Chilwell down below us was headed on its way. It fell to the feet of the lurking James on the angle. A chested touch to control and take out the defender was followed by a low pile driver that flew into the net.

I captured that bastard on film.

What a strike.

Despite bubbling over, I managed to snap the subsequent shrug from Reece and then the triumphant pose in front of the MHL.

Two-up on the night, we were now top of our group.

A couple of minutes later, a cracking move involving Rudiger, James, Ziyech and some lovely close-in dribbling from Loftus-Cheek set up Our Callum. Once this final ball was played in, there was that glorious feeling knowing that a certain goal was just about to be scored.

Bosh.

3-0.

I reached for my camera and tried my best to capture Callum’s wild euphoria. He was mobbed by all. Great scenes.

The atmosphere was good, but not at a stratospheric level. The Juve fans kept singing throughout. It’s what they do. I gulped when I spotted a “+39” banner in their section.

Sadly, Ben Chilwell was injured and had to be assisted off. He was replaced by Captain Dave, a rare sight these days. Other late substitutions followed. Timo Werner for Pulicic, then Mason Mount for Hudson-Odoi.

The Chelsea choir to the luckless ‘keeper : “You’re just a shit Fabianski.”

Juventus enjoyed their best spell of the game, and the otherwise out-of-work Mendy did ever so well to save from the American Weston McKennie. However, as the game drew to a conclusion, I always fancied us to score a very late goal. Ziyech grew as the game continued and drew another fine save from “triple points score in Scrabble” as Chelsea continued to pile on the pressure.

On the ninety-five-minute mark, we were rewarded.

We watched in awe as James sent over an absolutely perfect ball – with just the right amount of spin, dip and fade – towards Ziyech. We were a little lucky in that a Juve defender mistimed his interception, but the Moroccan’s cross was so good that not even Werner missed it.

Goal.

On a splendid night in deepest SW6 when so many Americans were present, there was only one phrase needed.

“Totally foursome.”

It was a night when three academy players scored three goals against a tough Italian defence. It was a night when our youngsters – aided and abetted by one masterly old’un – totally dominated against La Vecchia Signora. It was a night when our new guard drew praise from everyone.

How ironic that Juventus means “youth.”

Move over, Juve, there are new kids on the piazza.

We headed out into the cold London night.

A text from Tullio : “no words.”

In the style of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, and its incredibly tough way of ranking players – I have never seen a ten, even nines are ridiculously rare – here are my player rankings.

Mendy : 7 – a night-off, but one fine save when called-upon.

Rudiger : 8 – solid as ever, and an occasional threat in the opposing box.

Silva : 9 – calm, cultured, a masterclass in defensive nous.

Chalobah : 8 – a fine game, took his goal well, never embarrassed.

James : 9 – a thunderously fine performance, solid defensively, always a threat going forward, man of the match, man of the moment.

Kante : 7 – a little bit of everything until an injury took him out of the game.

Jorginho : 7 – understated but so efficient, he kept the team focussed.

Chilwell : 7 – a good overlapping threat, sadly his night ended with a bad injury.

Hudson-Odoi : 8 – at last he is fulfilling his great potential, always a handful.

Pulisic : 5 – a quiet game, not involved in many key moments.

Ziyech : 8 – arguably his match thus far, he grew in confidence and stature as the game continued.

Subs : Loftus-Cheek 7, Azpilicueta 6, Mount 6, Werner 7

Chelsea : top of the Premier League.

Chelsea : top of the Champions League.

Frome Town : top of the Southern League Division One South.

Next up : Manchester United at home.

Life : good.


Tales From A Must-Win Game

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 2 October 2021.

It had not been a great five days. A 0-1 home defeat against Manchester City on the Saturday was followed by a 0-1 away loss at Juventus on the Wednesday. There was much introspection and self-assessment. The second-half at Tottenham suddenly felt a long time ago. Were we not as good as we had thought after we bounced along the High Road? We weren’t wholly sure. And although the two defeats were not thumpings – far from it – they were worrying enough. We suddenly looked an average team – “bang average” as the football chatters would have it – and we needed some sort of salvation against the Saints of Southampton.

There was one phrase that was surely being used throughout the various Chelsea nations.

Chris, England : “This is a must-win game.”

Boomer, Scotland : “Fucking must-win, game, no?”

Kev, Wales : “Must-win game, this.”

Russ, Australia : “Must-win game. Fackinell, mate.”

John, USA : “This is a freaking must-win game.”

Leigh-Anne, Canada : “Must-win, game, eh?”

I had returned from a sensational four days in Turin at around 9pm on the Friday night. At 5.30am, I was up and ready for the next chapter of the season. I called for PD at 7am and Parky at just before 7.30am. It felt odd to be driving east on the A303 and then the M3 just twelve hours after I had been heading in the opposite direction. To be honest, my head was full of Turin, and this just seemed like “The Italian Job, Part Two.” With no fuel drama on this occasion, I was parked up at around 10am. While my co-supporters made a bee-line for “The Eight Bells” I spent a little time at Stamford Bridge, chatting to a few acquaintances and sorting out something at the box office.

At around midday, I met up with PD and Parky in the tiny interior of the best pub in Fulham. We had a typical pre-match. We were joined by friends from near – Ray, Watford – and far – Courtney, Chicago. I first bumped into Ray, who was meeting a former work colleague, at the Rapid friendly in Vienna in 2016. I had never met Courtney before, but he had been reading this blog, the fool, for a while and fancied meeting up for a chin-wag. It was good to see them both.

Courtney was “fresh meat” for PD and Parky who were full of tales of Chelsea’s far-from pristine past, and there was even a tale of a more modern, ahem, bout of boisterousness at Arsenal from a few years ago. There was a bit of rough and tumble at Arsenal before our 1-0 win there in early 2016 and Parky was nowhere to be seen throughout the first-half. During the half-time break, he showed up in the away seats, alongside Al, Gal and myself, but with an ear heavily bandaged.

“Fackinell. He looked Vincent Van Gogh.”

Courtney laughed.

“Anyway, do you fancy a beer, Parky.”

“No. I’ve got one ‘ere.”

Boom.

We were inside Stamford Bridge in good time once again. The three thousand away fans were already settled into the away section, and this already had the feel of a good old-fashioned football Saturday. The pleasant weather of late was now replaced with grey clouds and rain. It had the air of a traditional autumnal football game. Some would say “run of the mill” but I was pleasantly excited as the minutes clicked towards the old-fashioned kick-off time of three o’clock.

Blur’s “Park Life” got the juices flowing further as it was aired with ten minutes to go.

“All the people. So many people.”

It just seemed to add to the air of anticipation.

The teams entered. There was a minute of applause in memory of one of England’s 1966 winners, the recently deceased Roger Hunt.

RIP.

The rain was falling as I checked the Chelsea team.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Werner – Lukaku – Hudson-Odoi

In Thursday’s “La Gazzetta”, Mateo Kovacic was judged to have been our best player on the night against Juventus, scoring a 6.5 mark out of 10. Federico Chiesa was quite rightly judged to be Juve’s star performer with a justifiably fine 8.5. Most of Chelsea’s troops scored 5 and 5.5. It was a fair summary to be honest. Against Southampton, we needed a few players to score 7 and 8 or more. But our opposition would be no mugs. They still boasted the Munich man Oriol Romeu but also the new acquisition Tino Livramento.

Martin Atkinson blew his whistle and the game began.

The malaise in our midst seemed to have been exorcised after only a few minutes of play. We started very well, brightly probing away in all areas of the pitch.

After just nine minutes, a corner from deep in Parkyville – near where Courtney was watching – was taken by Ben Chilwell. It swing in and reached the leap of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the edge of the six-yard box. His flick on bounced down and Trevoh Chalobah stooped at the far post to head it home. There was a roar from the Chelsea faithful – “back on track” – as the scorer ran over to the other corner flag, sliding on his knees, triumphant.

“Nice one, Clever Trevoh” and I suddenly realised that Clive, sitting alongside me, deserved an assist for this goal. He had just been mentioning a concert coming up involving Ian Dury’s son Baxter.

“Knock me down with a feather.

Clever Trevor.”

One-nil to Chelsea and everything was alright in the world again.

We attacked with pace, and found space, but it certainly helped that the away team were happy to attack us when they could. This opened up the game and we fully exploited the spaces to be found in their defensive third. It was already proving to be an entertaining game. In their most fruitful attack, the trusted boot of James Ward-Prowse sent a shot narrowly wide.

A peach of a volley from our Ruben went narrowly wide too.

Next up, Ben Chilwell advanced but a shot was blocked.

“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

But Saints were not playing dead, and Theo Walcott should have finished with a goal but his header was wide. The away fans were not particularly loud but their “Oh When The Saints” was a constant backdrop in the first half of the first half.

Antonio Rudiger embarked on a typically spirited dribble up through the inside left channel, and players backed off. He shaped to shoot, but instead played in Lukaku with a deft pass. The striker turned it in. I celebrated for a nano-second but soon saw the raised yellow flag in front of the West Lower.

Bollocks.

I loved the way that Ruben was playing. Strong, determined and running in straight lines, how old-fashioned. Long may he flourish.

With four minutes of the first-half remaining, the ball was switched from one side of the box to the other. Near the goal-line, Callum Hudson-Odoi took his time to review his options. A fine scooped cross easily found the leap of the often lambasted Timo Werner. His leap was clean, as was his header from close-in.

Get in.

At last a goal for the under-fire German. How he celebrated. How we celebrated. Two-up, happy days. But…there is often a but these days. There seemed to be a delay. To our obvious dismay the TV screen signalled “VAR Review : Possible Foul Play.”

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Not only was there no recollection of a foul in the build-up to the goal, the decision took a while to come through.

No goal.

Boos. Lots of them. An incandescent Tuchel was booked.

Bollocks.

It transpired that Dave had committed a foul on a boy wearing an Athletic Bilbao striped shirt when he was a mere twelve years old, thus rendering Timo’s goal illegal.

Oh boy.

This last action spoiled the first-half, but there was much to admire. Chalobah looked in fine form, strong in possession, and positive when under pressure. Loftus-Cheek was a lovely revelation. We hoped for further dominance in the second period.

We began well enough with the honest endeavour of Timo the highlight. But then we seemed to fall apart a little. I found myself thinking “this isn’t joined up” just as Clive spoke about things being “disjointed.”

On the hour, a terrible lunge by Chilwell on Livramento inside the box gave Atkinson the easiest of decisions.

“Nailed on penalty. What was he thinking?”

Ward-Prowse tucked the ball in.

Bollocks.

Tuchel exchanged Mason Mount for the disappointing Hudson-Odoi. There was a slight improvement, but only just. We stumbled along and Southampton looked a little stronger.

“We could lose this.”

Another half-chance for Werner.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

With the substitute trying to scoop the ball out to Rudiger after a Mendy faux-pas, he was brought to the ground by the scorer Ward-Prowse. The Italian seemed to make the most of it to my eye. Atkinson waved a yellow at the Southampton midfielder, but then VAR wriggled its way into the game again. Another delay. A few people chanted “VAR.”

“I ain’t cheering if this is a red. Looked like Jorginho went down too easily to me. Bloody VAR.”

We waited and waited.

Red.

I didn’t cheer.

The rain was falling heavily. The stadium had a typical autumnal vibe.

“Don’t fancy the walk back to the car, PD.”

Chelsea, maybe seizing the advantage now, suddenly looked stronger.

Barkley for Loftus-Cheek, who had tired in the second-half.

Chelsea dominated again now, and a sublime lofted pass that split the defence from the last substitute Barkley out to the raiding Azpilicueta was simply sublime. A first time cross from Dave picked out the run from Werner, who guided the ball past McCarthy in the Saints goal.

Get in.

“WHATAFUCKINGGOAL.”

The Bridge erupted. A slide from Timo this time. He was then mobbed justifiably, by his team mates.

Superb.

There was time for a crazy denouement. Sustained Chelsea pressure in the Southampton box resulted in the goal frame being clipped not once but twice in quick succession, by Lukaku and Azpilicueta, and the crowd were quickly into convulsed with frustration. The loose ball broke to Chilwell, the left-back. He swiped at the ball as it sat up nicely for him. The goal bound shot looked perfect. McCarthy clawed at it, but from my viewpoint, it looked like it had crossed the line.

Goal Line Technology spoke : goal.

Yes!

To Clive : “Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

The players celebrated wildly down below us.

Chelsea 3 Southampton 1.

Beautiful.

The Saints had been beaten in the October rain.

This indeed was a lovely, action-packed game of football. VAR had been involved, never a good thing in my mind, and had annoyed most of the fans present. But we came away with three points, and three points that put us top of the pile once more. However, our joy was about to be clipped.

Downstairs, my good friend Rob approached me. I had seen him ever so briefly before the game. But he spoke to me in greater depth now.

His face was red.

“Just to let you know. My Mum passed away today. I saw her this morning in the home. The last words I said to her were “I am off to see Chelsea now” but I took a ‘phone call from the home on the way here.”

I gave Rob a big hug. What words are of use at a time like this? It was a terrible end to an otherwise fine day.

“It’s weird because my first ever game at Chelsea was a 3-1 win over Southampton.”

I wished Rob well and I sent him a little text message later in the evening.

We got drenched on the walk back to the waiting car – soaked, absolutely soaked – but that seemed irrelevant.

Betty Luxford RIP.

Tales From The Club With Two Stars

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 September 2021.

Just another Saturday? Hardly.

Even without the added weight of Porto, this was always going to be one of the games of the season. The current European Champions versus the current English Champions. Undoubtedly the biggest game in club football over the weekend, not just in England, but the entire World, was due to kick-off at 12.30pm at Stamford Bridge. And that was the only downer; that such a big game was being played at such an awful time. Well, I hope that the watching millions in Malaysia, Japan, The Philippines et al appreciated the match goers getting up at silly o’clock for them.  I am not so sure the TV viewers in North America were quite so excited; in California this meant a 4.30am kick off. Ouch.

The biggest game in the entire world. That’s quite something. When you grow up with a football club and try to get to as many live games as is physically, economically and geographically possible – why? That doesn’t need an explanation does it? – sometimes it is easy, too easy, to take the match day experience for granted. The grizzled old “every-gamers” can be a curmudgeonly lot at times, and we can sometimes forget to realise how excited those fans who only get to see us live once in a blue moon – sorry, poor analogy that – when the moons align – ditto – and they too join the match-going crowds at Stamford Bridge or elsewhere.

But this never felt like any other game.

I had been relishing it all week. City are a well-established team, tutored by the Catalan Pep Guardiola, and worthy champions in three of the last four seasons. They are still the team to beat this season. Although Chelsea has made great strides – leaps – the past eight months since Frank Lampard was jettisoned in favour of the Teutonic teacher Thomas Tuchel, we are still a work in progress, a team finding its feet, its optimum way of playing, its groove.

And I will say it once again. We are a team that is in a building phase, yet we are European Bloody Champions.

Weird ain’t half of it.

In the packed “Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham, we were all enjoying a lovely, yet brief, pre-match. I had booked a table for five at 10am. PD and Parky were on time. After I had parked the car, I bumped into Kev and Rich on the District Line train as it pulled into Putney Bridge. We joined the fray at 10.20pm. It would leave us barely ninety minutes of “pre-match” but we were not fazed. Kim, Dan, Andy and the Kent boys (including three brothers, the Loaders, a load of Loaders) were already ensconced in the corner, and the three late-comers sidled in alongside. I was driving, so on Diet-Cokes. But that’s fine. The laughs ripped through the cosy pub. We chatted with enthusiasm about the upcoming game, and the pub was noisier than usual. There was a real buzz to the place. One of the most overworked words in modern parlance – along with shenanigans, are you paying attention America? – is “proper”, so excuse me if I lazily use it here.

The “Eight Bells” is a proper football pub.

It is so old school, traditional, working class, call it what you will, that of the one hundred or more Chelsea fans squeezed inside, or overflowing onto the seated area outside, there was not one single woman. I realised this as I walked through as we exited at just after 11.45pm. To be truthful it shocked me. I am all for the fairer sex attending games, but the complete lack of females took me by surprise. To be blunt, I was shocked.

We caught the train, and we were soon walking along the Fulham Road. Rain had been threatening to make an appearance, but thus far all was fine. On the West Stand forecourt, scarves bearing the name of a company – I won’t bother saying which one – and the two club crests were being handed out by a few happy smiley types, who were also trying to persuade the match-goers to take a concertina’d noise-maker too.

I walked by and said “no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

This ain’t fucking Disney World, this ain’t Fulham, this ain’t Leicester.

As club historian Rick Glanvil pointed out as he walked alongside me they were even the wrong bloody colour; light blue, but light blue was the corporate colour involved.

Fuck that.

Anyway, suffice to say, I did not spot one single noisemaker inside the stadium.

Good work everyone.

As the teams took to the pitch – I have to say I miss the walk towards the West Stand – two flags floated above the heads of spectators at both ends of the stadium; a simple outline of the European Cup in The Shed, the “Pride of London” one in the MHL now adorned with two yellow stars.

I absolutely love that the club badge that I grew up with from 1971 to 1986 – with two stars either side of the lion rampant – has now developed a new meaning. If I had my way, this old lion would be reinstated in favour of the 2005 badge which already looks a little jaded.

It was our best badge.

I can well remember visiting a menswear shop in the nearby town of Warminster with my father in around 1971 or 1972. I had already been gifted a plain blue cotton shirt, but there was nothing to signify that it was “Chelsea.” While my father was talking business with the shop owner, my gaze was fixed on what looked like iron-on patches of a few football crests on display way above the counter. The Arsenal gun, the Tottenham cockerel, the Liverpool bird. I looked at a patch with a lion with “CFC” below and wondered if that was the Chelsea badge. On walking back to my father’s car, I mentioned the badges to him, and to my great surprise and undoubted joy, he marched me back into the shop and bought me the Chelsea patch badge. My mother would affix to my royal blue shirt, but alas it was soon to fade. There must be hundreds of Chelsea fans from that era with a faded Chelsea badge on their shirts.

It’s nice that those two stars, signifying the twin cup successes in 1970 and 1971, now represent the grander triumphs of 2012 and 2021.

Proper.

The minutes soon ticked by to kick-off.

Our team was with a new formation, albeit that which took command in the second-half during that heady game at Tottenham last Sunday.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – James

Alonso – Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante – Dave

Werner – Lukaku

One suspects that there were few complaints about this line up and personnel at kick-off. Be honest with yourself here. It was OK for me, though the duo up front was obviously a gamble as they had only played together in the Wednesday game against Villa late on.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t.

I soon wished that the coach bringing the City players into town had not been able to be refuelled and was stuck on the M25 near Watford. There had been a sudden mania for filling up cars with diesel and petrol amid rumours of a lack of tanker drivers being able to re-fil bunkers of fuel at garages all over the UK. We had witnessed a few queues on the way into London that very morning.

But no. The City players were at Stamford Bridge and were soon running amok. They absolutely bossed the first-half. Jack Grealish, the pantomime villain, was enjoying tons of the early ball down below us, and the energy and running of the City players made our movements look insipid and half-paced. While Tuchel had gone back to the ‘nineties with a twin pairing up front, Guardiola had gone the other way, backing into the future with a false nine in the guise of the diminutive but nimble Foden.

They shook us to our foundations in that first forty-five minutes.

Although we goaded the City entourage with songs from Porto, the City players did the fans’ talking on the pitch. They buzzed around like fireflies, and put us under immense pressure once we had the ball.

Alas, we did not show the same willingness to close them down.

In days of old I would shout “put’em under” and I am resisting to shout the ridiculously over-used word “press” with every sinew in my body. But they did. They pressed us all over the pitch as if it was going out of fashion, and God I wish that phrase would. They hunted in packs like the great United midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Butt. They were relentless.

Early on, maybe five minutes into the game, a ball was launched forward and Romelu Lukaku rose to head it at an angle in the general vicinity of Timo Werner. But it didn’t work, nor did it really come off for the rest of the game.

I turned to Al :

“What did I just see? A big central striker trying to play in a slighter second striker? Can you explain that to me, mate? I have a vague memory, but…”

City gathered momentum and our attacks were rare. Timo Werner bent a forward run to perfection on fifteen minutes to receive a ball from the trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso, and the German prodded the ball in to Lukaku but his effort was blocked. There would be not much else to give us hope and sustenance in that arid first half.

City were penning us in and we were lacking ideas on how to attack once we had the ball. The midfield three that had rampaged at will against Tottenham looked tired and weary. The front two upfront were stranded.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Sadly, just on the half-hour, Reece James was forced to leave the field. He was replaced by the calming presence of Thiago Silva. After being substituted in Porto, it was ironic that he would now enter the pitch in this game with City.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

For all of City’s possession, and it was impressive, Mendy was virtually untroubled. A mixture of wayward shooting from City and some excellent blocks, often from close in, from many Chelsea defenders meant that the game continued without a goal. There was City corner after City corner. A wild finish from Rodri just before the break summed up City’s profligacy.

We were really struggling. There was a massive gap between the midfield three and the two upfront. Nobody was breaking to support.

“Lukaku’s second touch is a tackle.”

City’s defenders had hardly been turned all of the first-half; all of the play was in front of them. This was too easy for them.

It had been a really poor half.

“Have we had a single shot on goal? I can’t remember one.”

It was time for a technical master class from our manager at half-time. While fellow supporters chatted with worried expressions in the stands, I hoped that Tuchel was conjuring up a change of system, or at least a change in attitude.

“Tell you what, Guardiola is going to be gutted, annoyed even, they are still without a goal at the break.”

Chelsea needed to change things around.

What would I have done?

No idea. I am a mere supporter.

Over to you, Tommy, lad.

Sadly, and seamlessly, City’s dominance absolutely continued in the first opening minutes of the second period.

At last an invigorating run from Timo down our right brought a ray of hope.

Al : “Need something like that to get the crowd involved.”

The noise from the Matthew Harding had been sporadic; loud at times, but not often enough.

Not long after, Grealish wriggled free in the inside-left channel and buzzed a low shot just past the far post. The deflection earned a corner which was taken short. Sadly, the inevitable happened. Gabriel Jesus was able to turn and prod the ball home inside a packed Shed End goa. From the northern end, I was unable to pick out an apparent deflection. It appeared to be in slow motion.

But the goal was on the cards.

The City legions boomed :

“We’re not really here.”

Mendy did so well to tip a shot from Grealish past the post.

An Alonso corner summed up our afternoon; it didn’t clear the first man but when the ball ended up at the feet of a tired N’Golo Kante, the French midfielder could only shuffle the ball all of the way back to Mendy.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Silva cleared off the line.

“Fackinell Chels.”

On the hour, Kai Havertz for Kante. I focussed on his chiselled features as he took position up front on the left and dreamed of Porto.

Back to a 3-4-3 formation.

I was up celebrating a Lukaku tap in from an early Havertz ball, but the German had strayed into an offside position.

Bollocks.

On sixty-seven minutes, our first shot on goal. But this would be an Alonso free-kick, in prime territory, that hit the wall. Soon after, at last, a bursting run from Kovacic warmed our spirits, but it all petered out rather too predictably.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Edouard Mendy was keeping us in the game, or so we naively hoped, with a succession of fine saves. To be truthful, all of the defenders in that central three had been excellent; no complaints. It was just our attacking players that had struggled all day long with the tenacity and hunger of the away team.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced the very poor Jorginho with a quarter to go. The noise increased as the crowd sensed that a sudden late upsurge in our play might entice a slightly unwarranted goal from someone in our midst. Despite some nice flourishes and a little more bite and energy from our Ruben that had been sadly missing, the late substitute just couldn’t ignite the team. The other substitute, Havertz, had offered little.

Mendy made one last save, a super one at that, from that man Grealish, but the game was done, the game was over.

City had totally deserved the win. A hundred thousand post-mortems would suddenly be happening at once all over the world. But the manager is no fool, no simpleton, and he will be soon at work to identify what decisions, including his own, engendered such a poor performance.

Don’t worry. We are in good hands.

We reconvened in the austere beer garden at “The Goose” to meet up with Kev and Rich before their evening return from Gatwick to Edinburgh.

Poor Kev’s last three visits to Stamford Bridge – Bournemouth, West Ham and now Manchester City – have all ended up as 0-1 Chelsea losses.

Imagine what Tottenham fans must feel like.

We headed home, philosophical, but pleased that both Manchester United and Liverpool had dropped unexpected points. However we couldn’t disguise how poorly we had played. On a day when the United Kingdom scurried around in search of fuel, it certainly seemed that Chelsea had been served two-star petrol, while City had been issued turbo-charged four-star.

Before I returned home, I was pleased to be able to fill my tank at my local garage in preparation for my early morning jaunt to Stansted on Tuesday for my, hopeful, flight to Turin.

I just need to get a negative reaction to a lateral flow test.

Juventus lie in wait.

I will see some of the famous five hundred out there.

Andiamo.

Tales From The B Team

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 22 September 2021.

This was our – literally, the team’s and my – fourth game out of five in London in just fifteen short days. What with my decision to go to Turin next week, the Aston Villa game in the League Cup (Carabao, my arse) would be the midway point of seven matches in a run of twenty-two days. After that little lot, I’ll need the next International Break.

Unlike the team, I had no alter ego, no reserve, no Chris-Lite, no twelfth man, no substitute to take my place for this game in a competition which was undoubtedly the lowest priority for the team, domestically, this season. What a great trick that would be, eh? To summon up a personal substitute at times during our lives when our full attention can’t be guaranteed.

Listening to a pub bore drone on, attending a dull meeting at work, watching a sub-standard film, watching England play football, listening to Queen. That sort of second-grade activity.

“No Real Chris, today?”

“No, he’s saving himself for the John Cooper-Clarke gig.”

I finished work, at home, bang on 3pm and – as with the game against Zenit last Tuesday – PD was parked on my driveway, with Parky riding shotgun, ready to whisk me away for an evening of football in deepest SW6.

Unlike last week, I grabbed a few minutes’ kip in the back seat as The Mother Road was devoured mile by mile. We were parked up at 5.20pm alongside the pot-infused Normand Park and we were in the first rub-a-dub at 5.30pm. As I walked through The Goose to the waiting beer garden, there seemed to be a discernible case of deja-vu. Both Robin and Russell were sitting at exactly the same places around the same table as last week. This week, though, I just didn’t fancy a beer. In “The Goose” and “Simmons”, I drank diet-Coke and PD, the conscientious driver, just drank water.

“How the mighty hath fallen.”

There was a little Frome / Westbury / Trowbridge / Melksham reunion in the beer garden of “The Goose.” Good to see chat to those lads, friends with each other for decades and decades.

There was also a chat with Kev, Brian, Julie, Tim and Rich in The Bristol Corner. Kev – a very seasoned traveller, he was recently in Vilnius in Lithuania – has been a great help in sorting out my pre-Turin plans and I bought him a pint of Doombar in recompense for his services.

In “Simmons”, a smaller, briefer Chelsea Chicago reunion.

Thankfully, there was no nightmare wait at the turnstiles before this midweek game and I was inside at around 7.30pm ahead of the 7.45pm kick-off.

This would be a nice test for our support. But the club always seems to get the pricing of these League Cup games just right; only £25 for tonight’s game against, almost certainly, the respective B teams of Chelsea and Villa. I was pleasantly surprised with the crowd; not a full house, but pretty damn close. I had noted that Leeds United had visited the borough on the previous night and had packed out the entire end at Craven Cottage; a very respectable 5,000 in the Putney End. And tonight, for the second time in September, Villa had sold their allocation of 3,000 at Stamford Bridge. Well done to them.

I definitely noted a different dynamic among the home support in and around the Matthew Harding, if not all the other areas; a younger support, many more replica shirts than usual, almost a boisterous air. I surmised that, for many, this might well be the first sighting of Chelsea for some time. There is no doubt the cheaper tickets entice a different fan base than the league games – where tickets are scarcer – and the European nights, which seem to entice a more cosmopolitan support. Tonight’s crowd was younger, more local, noisier.

After the sad passing of Jimmy Greaves on Derby Day, it came as no surprise that Chelsea were honouring our greatest ever homegrown goal scorer – Ossie was a creator too, a slightly different breed – and his face appeared on the cover of the programme, and on the TV screens before the match as the players from both teams circled in the centre of the pitch before kick-off.

The applause for Jimmy Greaves was heartfelt.

Tottenham had Greaves, but we had him too. And we had him first. Let’s not forget that.

He was, and is, one of ours.

Bless him.

Time for a quick run through of our team.

“Bloody hell, Kante is playing. What a strong side, so much for a B team.”

Kepa

James – Chalobah – Sarr

Hudson-Odoi – Saul – Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Chilwell

Ziyech – Werner

As the game began, it seemed that Ruben was the rock at the back of a packed midfield with Kante playing surprisingly forward and often wide. But this was a pretty fluid formation. We hoped Saul would enjoy a better game than in his debut against the same team a few weeks ago. In these days of COVID, not so sure Sarr is well-named. I hear we have cooled in our interest in Ronnie Tuberculosis and Tore Andre Flu.

[editor : “for fuck sake”]

For the first quarter of an hour, the game was played out down below me but I was in deep discussion with Alan about the process and protocols of the ball ache that is involved in following Chelsea to Turin. Hopefully, all of the tests and forms will be sorted out and uploaded in the necessary time-frame to enable me to see the team in Italy. At various times since me booking the trip last Friday, I have solidly wondered “is it bloody worth it?” and I am still not convinced.

The game started quietly, and struggled to “get going” throughout the first period. There was gentle sparring in the first twenty minutes, with the two defences only suffering minor tickling. But the home crowd were definitely in good voice and the Matthew Harding, as early as this, had already goaded The Shed, the East and the West to “give us a song”, admittedly with mixed results.

There was some good running from Timo Werner upfront, and we showed patches of good play but as the first-half progressed, it was the visitors who enjoyed most of the goal chances. It was odd to see Kante as an auxiliary winger, especially with Hudson-Odoi, and even Reece James in the line-up.

“Bollocks, let’s play with three right wingers.”

Ruben made some strong advances from deep and the game warmed up slightly. A rare shot on goal from the otherwise quiet Zyech was easily claimed by Steer in the Villa goal. The clearest chance of the first-half fell to Villa. On a break, Archer forced a fine block from Kepa as he was one-on-one with our ‘keeper, and as El Ghazi prodded a rebound towards the goal, Reece James was able to recover and hack the ball away.

I wasn’t sure why the Villa player Buendia was roundly booed each time he came over to take a corner. Any ideas?

A Villa player was substituted by a lad called Chukwuemeka.

Alan : “He gets knocked down, but he gets up again.”

[editor : “I’ll give you that one.”]

At the break, I was just a little underwhelmed by it all.

There was a change for the re-start; a reversal of Tuchel’s decision at Tottenham.

Then, Kante for Mount. Now, Mount for Kante.

We went on the front foot in the second-half.

I soon realised that the Villa left-back, out of sight in the first period, was none other than forty-seven-year-old Ashley Young, back at Villa after his league win with Inter last season. He was only the third Englishman to win the “Scudetto” in Italy; one of the others was Jimmy Greaves, for his truncated role in Milan’s 1960-61 win.

Our Callum began to look a bit lively – “don’t forget the ball mate” – and the atmosphere seemed to improve. There were a few rousing choruses of everyone’s favourite hymns. You can’t beat a bit of community singing on a midweek night in London.

There was a deafening chorus of “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham.”

Our increase in possession came to fruition on fifty-four minutes. A pinpoint cross from Reece – Al and I had lamented that his crossing hadn’t lived up to the promise that we saw in his first few games for us – picked out Timo Werner who rose with the whole goal in front of him. An emphatic header had Steer well beaten.

He enjoyed that. We enjoyed that.

The TV screen boomed “GOAL.”

We hit a little purple patch and Timo looked as though he wanted to be the recipient of every ball into the box. A shot from Ziyech. A half-chance from Timo.

However, just nine minutes later the game changed.

Just as the Matthew Harding were droning on about “your support is fackin’ shit” – it wasn’t to be fair, for the second time this month the Villa support was solid – the visitors hit a claret patch of their own. After a few fine saves from Kepa, Cash whipped in a long and deep cross that found Archer free at the far post. His header was even better than Timo’s, finding the very top left hand corner of the Shed End goal.

Bollocks.

This was an open game now and chances were exchanged at both ends. Buendia blasted over the bar and with twenty minutes to go, a sublime dribble by Ruben set up Mase with a gilt-edged chance inside the six-yard box. His toe-poke wriggled just wide.

“How the fuck did he miss that, Al?”

More substitutions from Tuchel and the Ross and Romelu show.

Lukaku and Barkley replaced Saul and Ziyech.

Two upfront, bloody lovely.

Dixon and Speedie.

Jimmy and Eidur.

Romelu and Timo? A work in progress.

Shots were powered in on Steer from Mason and a lively Ross. A header down into the ground from the leap of Ruben was our last real chance but it drifted wide.

Thankfully, there was no midweek extra-time, and no late night finish in deepest Somerset.

The game went to penalties.

Villa : El Ghazi – scored.

Chelsea : Lukaku – scored.

Villa : Young – crossbar, missed.

Chelsea : Mount – scored.

Villa : Nakamba – saved.

Chelsea : Barkley – scored.

Villa : Konsa – scored.

Chelsea : Chilwell – crossbar, missed.

Villa : Buendia – scored.

Chelsea : James – scored.

GET IN.

Chelsea edged it 4-3 and we won our second penalty shoot-out of the season.

The second-half, just like at Tottenham on Sunday, was a far more pleasurable forty-five minutes than the first-half. A pretty decent game, a tidy performance, a pleasing atmosphere.

Outside on the Fulham Road, the two sets of fans milled past each other.

“Cheeseburger with onions and chips please.”

On walking back to the car, I heard that we had drawn Southampton.

“Away?”

“No, home.”

“Ugh.”

I fancied a midweek jaunt down to St. Mary’s. Oh well, another League Cup game at home awaits. PD made good time on the drive home and dropped me off, in another mirror image of last week, at 1am. Another win, another decent performance, no injuries. All good.

On Saturday, an early kick-off against Manchester City awaits. You can all start dusting off your Porto songbook now.

See you in the pub.

Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

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

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.