Tales From The Long Road To Baku

Chelsea vs. PAOK : 29 November 2018.

As we set off for the game, with PD driving alongside Lord Parky, and yours truly in the backseat, I spoke to my travelling companions.

“You have to wonder why we’re going tonight, don’t you? We’re already through. It’s hardly an important game.”

PD soon took the bait.

“Yeah, but we love our football, Chrissy.”

Indeed we do.

Indeed we do love our football.

Guilty as charged.

PD battled the evening traffic and some appalling weather as I relaxed in the rear seats. I drifted off to sleep on a couple of occasions. I had been awake since 5.30pm. By the time we reached our usual parking spot at around 6.30pm – three hours after we had left – I was suitably refreshed.

In the busy “Simmons Bar” at the southern end of the North End Road, I met up with some friends from near and far. It was good to see Neil from Guernsey again for the first time in a while. He was with his brother Daryl, alongside Gary, Alan, Duncan, Lol and Ed and all seemed to be making good use of the two bottles of “Staropramen” for a fiver deal. On the exact anniversary of his first ever game at Stamford Bridge, Eric from Toronto soon appeared and we bought each other a bottle of “Peroni.” He is over for a few games. His enthusiasm was boiling over and he was met with handshakes and hugs from my little gaggle of mates. Prahlad, now living temporarily in Dusseldorf, but originally from Atlanta, was present too, and it was fantastic to see him once more. The Chuckle Brothers first met him for a good old pre-match in Swansea two seasons ago. He was with his wife; her first game, I am sure. Brenda, who runs the Atlanta Blues, was in the pub too, with another Atlantan, Ryan; his first game at Stamford Bridge for sure.

Everyone together.

Chelsea fans from England; South London, Essex, Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire. From Guernsey. Chelsea fans from Canada. Chelsea fans from the US.

These foreign visitors are not tourists in my book. They are Chelsea supporters. Tourists – that most derided of all at Chelsea and other football clubs in this day and age – happen to find themselves in London and decide to go to a game at Chelsea as part of the London experience. Another box ticked. Buckingham Palace. The Houses of Parliament. Oxford Street. The Tower of London. The Fullers Brewery. Harry fucking Potter. An “EPL” game. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

Eric joked with me; “See I am assimilating nicely. Not wearing a Chelsea shirt this time.”

We laughed.

Prahlad was assimilating nicely too. As he said his goodbyes, I tapped him on the shoulder –

“Nice Moncler jacket, mate. You thought I didn’t notice, didn’t you?”

It was his time to laugh.

Off we trotted to the game. We had heard warnings of many away fans travelling over without tickets – something that Chelsea will be doing when we visit Budapest in a fortnight – but I didn’t see any Greeks outside Stamford Bridge. As I walked with Eric past the touts and the souvenir stalls and the general hubbub of a match day, I heard voices from almost a century ago; my grandfather walking the exact same steps –

“Shall we get a rosette, Ted?”

“I’d rather have a pint of beer, Ted.”

There was a quick bag check and we were in. Eric had a ticket in the West Lower. I’d see him at the Fulham game and the one at Wolves too.

Inside the stadium, the three thousand visitors were stood, and were hoisting banners and flags ahead of the game. There were yawning gaps in the top corners of the East Upper, and similar gaps in the West Upper too. After 39,000 gates against BATE and Vidi, this one might not reach those heights.

But these tickets were only twenty quid. Here was a good chance for our local fans to attend a match at Stamford Bridge; to be bitten by the bug, for peoples’ support to be raised a few notches.

But I was sure that there would be moans about “tourists” the following morning…

For a few moments before the teams entered the pitch, I moved over to the seats to my right, which look down on the West Lower, and which give a slightly different perspective. In my desire to photograph every square foot of Stamford Bridge, it allowed me a few new shots.

The teams took to the pitch and I returned to my usual seat in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team was basically a “B Team.”

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Barkley – Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek

Pedro – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

This was a chance to see how a couple of our youngsters might shape up. In the first-half, our Callum was right over in the opposite corner to me; in the second-half, he would be closer. After seeing him play in Australia, and then again at Wembley in the Community Shield, here was a rare start.

We began with all the ball, and on just seven minutes, our position improved further still. With Olivier Giroud chasing a loose ball, a PAOK defender lunged awkwardly at the ball. Giroud tumbled and the referee from Estonia flashed a red. Off went Yevhen Khacheridi. Sadly, Cesc Fabregas shot meekly from the resulting free-kick.

There were attempts on goal from Hudson-Odoi and Giroud. Very soon into the match, Fabregas began sending a few lovely balls from deep towards our forwards. Of course, Jorginho and Fabregas – although both playing right in the middle – are wildly different players, but it was a real pleasure to see Cesc pinging a few beauties to Giroud and Pedro. Pedro took one down immaculately and forced a fine save from their ‘keeper Paschalakis.

A chance fell for Loftus-Cheek and his effort was tipped wide.

The away fans, dressed predominantly in black, and overwhelmingly male and under the age of thirty-five, made a constant din throughout the opening period of the half. They were not the loudest away fans that I had ever heard at Chelsea – I seem to remember Olympiakos, their countrymen, making more noise – but this lot were non-stop. It was stirring stuff.

On twenty-seven minutes, another magnificent ball from Fabregas found Pedro, who controlled magnificently. He spotted Giroud outside him, and he rolled the ball to his right. The finish from Giroud, struck with instinct with his left foot, was perfectly placed into the PAOK goal.

Stavros #1 : “They’ll have to come at us now, peeps.”

Stavros #2 : “Come on my little diamonds, innit.”

Hudson-Odoi went close just after, his curler from distance dropping into the bar with the ‘keeper beaten. There had been a solid effort from Ross Barkley too. Ten minutes after his opener, Giroud doubled our lead. Another Fabregas ball dropped at Giroud’s feet, but his finish was made to look easier than it must have been. Another first-time finish, volleyed home at the far post, the ball squeezed in between the frame of the goal and the luckless ‘keeper.

Amid some fine quality, there was time for a wild shot from Davide Zappacosta which went off for a throw-in.

PAOK’s attacks were rare. A sublime block from Gary Cahill nulled the best chance of their half.

The half-time whistle blew and we were well worth the 2-0 lead. On every seat back, a sticker advertising “The Fifth Stand” had been applied. It seemed that a private game had been taking place in the row behind me; our mate Rousey – he was oblivious – had been “stickered” by many. He even had one sticker stuck on his ski hat. The back of his coat was covered.

I whispered to Alan :

“Not the first time Rousey is going to end up with a lot of sticky residue on his jacket.”

“I dare to think about it” replied Alan.

The match programme, a better read this season I think, produced a few interesting morsels. The news of our game in the summer in Japan was detailed. I won’t be going; Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was a pristine, sublime and wonderful memory. I won’t be going back. It would only pale, I think, in comparison. But I am keen to see where else we are headed in the summer. This was our one-hundredth and seventeenth home game at Stamford Bridge in all European competitions, and we have lost just eight. I always remember the sadness of our unbeaten record going against Lazio in 2000. But eight out of one hundred and sixteen is phenomenal. I have – sadly? Is that the correct word? – been at all of the defeats. Throughout all the defeats, though, nothing hurts more than the Iniesta goal in 2009 and the resulting draw. There were nice profiles of Tommy Baldwin and Peter Houseman, players from my childhood, and who played in the first two games that I saw way back in 1974.

Into the second-half, and our dominance continued. The away team, so obviously lacking the class to combat us, would have found it hard to prise open a vacuum-packed packet of feta cheese, let alone our defence. But their fans were still making tons of noise.

A fine run from Loftus-Cheek – looking loose and confident – forced another good save from the PAOK ‘keeper. Then, the ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi by Fabregas. He took a quick touch and then shimmied a little before striking, the ball being whipped in at the near post with Paschalakis beaten. I just missed “shooting” his shot, but I caught his joyful celebratory run into our corner.

This was just lovely to see. The players swarmed around him. I have to pinch myself to think that our Callum is just eighteen years of age.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Zappacosta and took his place in front of Maurizio Sarri and the towering East Stand.

Willian replaced Pedro.

The away fans still sung.

Olivier Giroud – a great performance – was replaced by Alvaro Morata.

After only three minutes, Cahill pushed the ball towards Hudson-Odoi. He soon spotted the presence of Morata in the box, and his cross was simply faultless. Morata jumped and timed his leap to perfection, even though he was sandwiched between two defenders. It was a classic header – why does his heading ability remind me of Peter Osgood? – and the net was soon rippling.

Chelsea 4 PAOK 0.

Perfect.

Against the bubbles, we hardly squeaked it.

The away supporters among the 33,000 crowd were still singing. Their performance throughout the night was very commendable. As a comparison, I have to sadly report that this was the first Chelsea game that I can ever remember in which I did not sing a single note. However, I wasn’t the only one. It was a sad sign of the times.

With a midday kick-off coming up on Sunday, I am not overly hopeful that the atmosphere will be much better, London derby or not.

But I’ll be there.

I’ll see you in the pub.

Tales From A House Divided

Chelsea vs. Schalke 04 : 17 September 2014.

Since last season’s midweek forays east on the M4 to Stamford Bridge, my working day has changed to 7am to 3.30pm. This basically means that I have more time, and hopefully a less stressful drive, to reach The Goose – er, Stamford Bridge – but it means I’ll be lucky to get four hours’ sleep before the alarm rings the following morning. I guess this can be called taking the smooth with the rough.

The journey, with LP and PD alongside me for the second time in five days, still took three hours though; damn the traffic. We were in the pub for 6.30pm; time for a couple. It was pleasing to see several faces from back home for the second successive home game. In addition to PD and myself from Frome, there were Parky, Andy and Cooky from Trowbridge, Graham and Rob from Melksham and Mark from Westbury. Rob smiled as he told me:

“I’ve only stepped out into the beer garden, but I’ve ended up in the West Country.”

While we were supping our lagers, the news came through that Didier Drogba was playing.

Big surprise.

I was informed of the rest of the starting eleven and my honest, immediate, reaction was this:

“Drogba? The weakest link.”

Although it seems like a sacrilegious act writing those four words, it was a commonly held view. My immediate mates had a little pow-wow. Like many, we had presumed that the manager might rest the in-form Diego Costa ahead of the league game at Manchester City on Sunday, but I’d imagine that most were expecting to see Loic Remy starting, especially since he impressed on his brief goal-scoring debut on Saturday. There were puzzled looks in the pub. Maybe the manager knew something that we didn’t.

[a shout from off-stage : “of course he fucking does, he’s the Chelsea manager, you tit!”]

I pondered it all further. Ever since the re-signing of Didier, my mind has been far from satisfied as I tried to evaluate the pros and cons of the move. He was certainly a once feared striker, certainly a strong character in the dressing room, certainly an experienced head and certainly a modern Chelsea legend. But something jarred. Again I’ll be blunt and honest; I would have much preferred our last ever remaining memory of Didier to be that penalty in Munich.

Never go back.

Unlike the legions of Chelsea fans that only saw the positive aspects of Didier’s game, I also remembered the negatives. The pathetic diving in order to gain free-kicks in the first few seasons, the attitude, the pouting and the posturing and the half-hearted approach in some of the lesser games towards the end of his career. Here was a complex conundrum for me to understand. After jettisoning Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard – both unable to entice contracts from the club – why was Didier Drogba given the green light to return?

His return troubled me then, and it troubled me still. I guess, in Mourinho’s defence, Drogba was seen as a reliable third striker – “been there, done that” – in a period when our striking options seemed to be built on sand. Was Lukaku staying? Was Torres staying? Was Ba staying? Who could we get as cover for the seemingly injury-prone Diego Costa? Could the youngsters be trusted?

We left the pub on a warm September evening and hoped that Drogba would bag a hat-trick and send us all home with our collective tails between our legs, eating humble pie and promising to never again question Jose Mourinho.

After all of these European campaigns, there is still something special about Champions League nights in SW6, even though the experience now seems to include more and more tourists who happen to find themselves at a football match without understanding or buying in to the widely-held view that supporters are there to participate rather than just attend. Outside the West Stand, underneath the Peter Osgood statue, there was a cast of thousands; a broad spectrum of well-heeled voyeurs, with programmes clutched to their chests, friendship scarves hanging around their necks, and with tickets being scrutinised for validity. Chelsea Football Club enjoys the support of thousands of passionate fans in all parts of the world. It is a sad fact of life that many of the overseas visitors to Stamford Bridge cannot be mentioned in the same breath.

I raced by, and soon found myself among more familiar faces in the brief line for the MHU.

Up in my seat, I took stock. I immediately spotted the new floodlights, rather awkwardly placed on the roofs of both end stands. They shone bright, but they were ugly. They disrupted the norm. I took an immediate dislike to them.

This was the third time that we had played the blue and whites from Gelsenkirchen in eight seasons. Last season, in November, we had beaten them 3-0 at The Bridge the day after Guy Fawkes’ Night. I remember walking away from that game feeling rather bored by the whole evening, despite the resounding win. I hoped for a better post-game feel in 2014. The German fans, many holding Nord Kurv scarves, were already in fine voice and I just knew, damn it, that it would be the visitors from The Ruhr who would be singing throughout the game.

Marie-Chantal from Lyon, Jan from Oslo, Kevin from Baltimore, Paolo from Brindisi, Roz from Cape Town, Kyong from Seoul and Pablo from Valencia just wouldn’t be able to compete.

It was another good show from Schalke. Even though they had visited us less than twelve months ago, they still brought around 1,400.

Another near capacity stadium, save for a few hundred empty seats – again – in the “no go” zone in The Shed. Filipe Luis in for Dave, and the midfield jiggled again. Schalke included the vaunted Draxler and the valuable Huntelaar.

The anthem.

It was brilliant to have the Champions League with us once more.

I quickly commented to Alan;

“They’re sponsored by Gazprom, right?”

There were Gazprom advertisement boards surrounding the pitch.

“Yep.”

We gave each other an old-fashioned look, and images of UEFA’s top brass, business executives, hotel rooms and brown envelopes flitted momentarily in to view.

The Germans, wearing the same muted green and black as in 2013, were under immediate pressure from a forceful Chelsea. After only eleven minutes, a lovely pass from Eden Hazard found an advancing Cesc Fabregas, who slotted the ball home. The Stamford Bridge faithful roared while Marie-Chantal, Jan, Kevin and co, stood and clapped, awkwardly looking around to ascertain the correct code of conduct.

There was an immediate chant from the terraces;

“Are you watching Arsenal?”

Defeated in The Ruhr the previous night, the Gooners were now being taunted about the one that got away.

For the next twenty minutes, Chelsea had most of the ball, but didn’t cause the Schalke defence too much concern. A Drogba header here, a Hazard shot there. I felt that we weren’t going for the jugular; that we were playing within ourselves. Then, on thirty-six minutes, the best move of the game thus far. Ivanovic, playing further up field this season in my mind, reached the by-line and hooked the ball back towards a waiting, and unmarked, Fabregas, but his shot was wild and flew over the bar. There was a collective groan from the home support, while in the West Upper, there was a groan from Roz when she realised alcohol is not served at Champions League games.

Despite being behind, the away fans were relentless in their support for their team. Our support was shocking, despite both the spectators in the MHL and The Shed Lower standing the entire half, which is usually a sure sign that they were collectively “up” for it. Occasionally, the fans in these areas attempted a song, but the others were generally reluctant to follow their lead. Not a single song was heard from the two side stands.

There were hushed comments about Drogba’s performance; it was average at best.

Courtois was asked to produce a fine save from Boeteng. Then as the first-half closed, Draxler was allowed to run unhindered past several Chelsea defenders – “after you Fritz” – before sending a low shot past the post. There was a look of pure anguish on his face as he realised how close he had been to equalising.

I read the programme during the break; the 1994/1995 European campaign is set to be featured throughout this season’s UEFA home programmes. We’d best have a long run; we reached the semi-final in the ECWC that season.

Bloody hell. Twenty years ago. This was the season when we were but Chelsea European novices and every away game was a huge adventure; Jablonec, Vienna and Zaragoza for yours truly.

What fantastic times.

The second-half began. It was more of the same from an apparently jaded Chelsea. Chances were rare. Hazard blazed over. There was growing concerns that the Germans were edging back in to the game. John Terry was booked for shooting at goal after the referee had given a free-kick for an apparently loose challenge, amidst boos from the home support.

On the hour, Didier was narrowly wide.

Then, a rapid Schalke break, with Chelsea all at sea, and players and fans feeling aggrieved for a foul on Fabregas in the build-up. I sensed danger throughout the advance.

My comments to PD as Huntelaar was played in were succinct;

“They’ll score here…told ya.”

Then, something that warmed me. An immediate, loud and passionate response from the Matthew Harding.

“Carefree, wherever you may be.”

The Bridge was shaking with noise for a few blissful moments.

“That’s more like it” I thought.

“Wow” exclaimed Marie-Chantal.

“Awesome” shouted Kevin.

With Drogba looking a shadow of himself, we inevitably started to discuss his performance. It was almost inevitable that I would end up taking extended, studious and contemplative looks at his play throughout the night. He looked slower than the Drogba of old, and it was obvious that his general play was missing several attributes of Drogba in his prime. It felt absurd at times to be talking so bluntly about a loved player – for that is what he is – after just one game but we knew that our views were shared by many.

As he was subbed, I admitted to Alan;

“Drogba, no more than four out of ten tonight.”

And it felt wrong again.

Sigh.

Mourinho, now chasing for a winner, had replaced Ramires with Oscar, now brought on the fifth cavalry in the form of Diego Costa and Remi. Alongside Drogba, Willian was substituted. Almost immediately, Costa looked hungry and involved. Remy’s header was cleared off the line. We were begging for the winner. Two dropped points against Schalke could prove costly. In Maribor, Sporting Lisbon were 1-0 up.

Damn it.

Things were getting desperate. The crowd urged the team on. On two separate occasions, Mourinho had to run and scramble after the ball after it had left the field of play; Jose as ballboy.

Hazard shot over after good work from Diego Costa. Then, a cross from wide found a stretching Eden Hazard, completely unmarked, but his prod was remarkably saved by Neustadter in the Schalke goal. In was quite a final onslaught – too little too late – but a couple of headers in the last few moments did not worry the German goal.

At the final whistle, there was thankfully no boos, but there was many a grumble from the spectators in and around me. On the walk out into the London night, I overheard many share comments similar to the ones expressed by Alan, PD and myself. I cringed as I felt myself agreeing with them.

“Remy should have played.”

“Drogba’s past it.”

“Didn’t attack’em enough.”

“Two dropped points.”

“Blame Mourinho for that.”

I searched for positives. I grasped at the idea of this being a wake-up call ahead of the trip to Manchester City on Sunday.

“This will hopefully bring us down a peg and help to concentrate our minds.”

“At least it sets up the away game at Lisbon. Adds a bit of bite to it.”

“At least they only drew.”

Outside a chip shop, Andy from Trowbridge spotted PD and me, and we must have been looking decidedly glum. He called out and imitated Mourinho at Arsenal in 2007 –

“Chin up, come on, chin up, remember that? Chin up! Remember Cambridge and Rotherham and Swansea. Come on!”

We met up with Parky back at the car. He was seething at the lack of support from the people in his section of The Shed.

“All bloody tourists. Nobody sang. Crap.”

So, the evidence from Parky’s Shed End backed up the commonly held view among Chelsea’s hardcore that on Champions League nights, there is a real chasm between the regulars and the once or twice a lifetime visitors. I take no pleasure in reporting this. And I’m not being particularly xenophobic, either. A silent one from Guildford is just as prevalent as a silent one from Gothenburg these days. Either way, a divided house is not good.

It’s not good at all.

With road works on the M4, it was another tiring three hour journey home.

Mile after mile, mile after mile.

Home at 1.30pm, sleep at 2am.

The alarm clock would soon be ringing.

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