Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

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

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

What luck.

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

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

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

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

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super.

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

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

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

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

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

We set off on a walkabout.

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

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

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper Chelsea.

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

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

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

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

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

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

Bless’em.

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

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

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

We all knew what it meant.

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

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

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

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

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

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

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

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

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

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

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

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

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

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

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes on the penalty takers.

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

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

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

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

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

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

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

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

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

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

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

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

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

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

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

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

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

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

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

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

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

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

It had been a good night.

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

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

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

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From Porto : Part Three – Tears

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

It was 9.54pm. As the referee’s whistle eventually blew after seven tortuous minutes, I snapped the view that confronted me in the north terrace of the Dragao Stadium. I wanted to capture the exact moment of us becoming European Champions, just like I had done in Munich in 2012, and also when we became English Champions at Bolton in 2005 too. An image of our fans captured for eternity. The roar that accompanied this moment was surely not as fierce as the one in the Allianz Arena just over nine years ago, but the emotions were similar.

We had done it.

The photo taken, I clambered down off the seat and started to whimper, my bottom lip succumbing to the emotion of the moment, and then I could not hold it any longer. I brought my hands to my face and wept for a few fleeting seconds. My emotions genuinely surprised me. In Munich I had slumped to the floor, absolutely overcome with daft joy and relief. There were tears for sure. Hell, even in Moscow – just before John Terry’s infamous penalty – I trembled too. In Porto, the tears were real, but I soon dried my eyes.

There was a slight thought about my own particular story since 10 October 2020.

I had recovered well from a series of mild heart-attacks. I was now witnessing the second most important moment in the history of Chelsea Football Club – Munich will never be eclipsed, surely? – and it was all too bloody crazy to rationalise.

Football. Fackinell.

All through this craziness, since the semi-finals, the one thought that had been spurring me on throughout the stress and worry of reaching Porto was this :

“If the fans of Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham – the others don’t count – were pissed-off when we won the European Cup once, imagine what they’ll be like if we win it twice.”

Mister 33% was way off the mark.

In reality it was a breeze, a sweet-scented breeze of Portuguese delight softly sweeping up over the terracotta tiled houses from the Douro River.

My fellow fans were running down towards the pitch. There was a lovely melee in the area where I had been stood for three hours. I was soon joined by Luke and – such is the immediacy of the modern life – I wanted to share my moment of joy with the world. Aroha was nearby, and I asked her to take a photograph of the two of us. I think that the photo is worth a thousand words.

I posted the picture on “Facebook” at 9.59pm. The accompanying message was this :

“We’re The Only Team In London With Two European Cups”.

I then joked with Luke that we could now look Nottingham Forest in the eye. And we could at last look down on Villa.

My immediate thought, next, was of Aroha; carrying Luke’s baby. What a story, what a moment of joy for them both, knowing that their child – due in late July – was there in Porto when our club won our second European Cup.

A brief thought of the scorer.

It was all very apt. Kai Havertz, the COVID Kid, hit hard by the virus in the autumn – so much so that his first few appearances for us promised little, if anything – would be the one whose goal had been decisive, wearing number 29 on 29 May.

Perfect.

For ten minutes, everything was pretty much a Blue Blur. I was aware that the Chelsea players had run towards the fans in the western section of the north stand, between the goal frame and the corner flag. Fans were clambering over the seats to get to the front. I was again stood on the seat in front. I could not be any nearer the pitch. A few of us tried to free the official Champions League banner from its moorings but it was fastened solid.

I didn’t even notice the Manchester City players collecting their medals.

At 10.10pm, the victors stood in a line and slowly walked towards the waiting trophy. In Munich, the presentation was up in the main stand – I prefer that – but here the final act of the 2020/21 Champions League campaign took place on the pitch. I stood with my camera poised, making sure that I had a clean and uninterrupted view.

At 10.11pm, Cesar Azpilcueta hoisted the huge trophy into the air.

Blue and white tinsel – correction, royal blue and white tinsel – streamed everywhere. Fireworks flew into the sky. White smoke, not of surrender, but of glory drifted skywards.

A perfect scene.

The City fans had virtually all left the stadium, just as I did after the final whistle in Moscow. I did not relish their trip home to Standish, Stockport, Didsbury and Harpurhey.

It was time for some music.

“One Step Beyond” was especially poignant. We all remember how City mocked us by playing this tune after a victory against us at Eastlands in around 2010.

“We Are The Champions” of course. I am afraid to admit that this was the first single that I ever bought in early 1978. I grew to absolutely detest Queen as I became older, but this song does bring back a nice childhood memory; my blue house team won the school football tournament that year and our team sung this song after the final triumphant game against the red team.

In Porto, it had a new twist.

“We are the Champions…again.”

But oh those high notes that followed. Ouch.

“Blue Tomorrow” and a memory of our victory in the 2000 FA Cup.

For twenty minutes, we watched as the Chelsea players cavorted on the other side of the pitch. We begged them to bring the trophy over to us in our corner. We watched as the players indulgently took selfies of themselves with their wives and partners. We sang “over here, over here, over here” but it was all to no fucking avail. We were ignored.

At 10.30pm, Aroha, Doreen, Luke and myself set off for home. I took one final photograph of the scene and left the stadium.

I have always loved walking out of various football stadia with a win tucked in our back pockets. An away win on foreign soil cannot be beaten. Often the local police have closed, or blocked-off, roads so that we have a free march in the middle of deserted streets. I can especially recollect a lovely walk back to the nearest subway station on a balmy night in Lisbon in 2015.

Bouncing, bubbling, striding triumphantly, the occasional chant, the occasional song, the swagger of success, locals cowering – or so we hoped – behind windows.

In Porto, as triumphant as it all was, the walk back to the coach was tough. I had made a schoolboy error of wearing a new pair of Adidas trainers for the day and although I had worn them around the house and on a few shopping trips, I had not fully worn them in. My walk – uphill, damn it – back to our waiting coach was a nightmare. My feet were on fire. I hobbled along like Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.”

I took my seat in the coach, turned my phone on, and answered as many messages of congratulations as I could.

There was a sweet air of contentment, and an overwhelming feeling of befuddled bemusement.

I soon shared the astounding news that we were the first – and we will forever be the only – team to double up on wins in the European Cup (2012 and 2021), the Europa League (2013 and 2019) and the now discontinued European Cup Winners’ Cup (1971 and 1998).

I spoke to a couple of supporters about my mate Jaro’s take on the game.

In the few days before the match, he was adamant we’d win.

The first time? 19/05.

The second time? 29/05.

I guess that means that we will need to wait for the Gregorian calendar to be replaced by a new version so we can win it a third time on 39/05.

People were tired. People were weary. Eventually the coach set off for the airport. At 11.45pm, I shared my last photo of the day; the blue-lit interior of our coach on its thirty-minute drive back to the airport. There was complete silence. Not a sound.

I guess we reached the airport at just after midnight. We spotted a few disconsolate City fans milling around. Thankfully, the security checks did not take long. I loaded up on those gorgeous Portuguese custard tarts – pasteis de nata – and gobbled down some Gummi Bears for a quick sugar buzz. We waited until it was our turn to board.

I bumped into Andy and Sophie again, down by Gate 18.

Andy started talking :

“Chris, there’s a bloke, tonight – right – in Madrid…”

And I stopped him in his tracks.

I corrected him.

“Andy. There’s a bloke in a flat in Levenshulme. And he’s saying…Chelsea, they always beat us in Cup Finals.”

From the Full Members Cup at Wembley in 1986 – away you go, new fans, start Googling – to the European Cup Final at Estadio do Dragao in 2021. Artistic licence allows me to forget the League Cup in 2019. Right?

We walked out to the waiting plane and it suddenly made sense. I need not have been too bothered about TUI’s colour scheme.

TUI – two-ey…if ever there was a clue that we were going to end up with our second European Cup, there it was.

The other company that covered Chelsea’s chartered flights was Jet2.

Say no more.

It was – to coin a phrase – written in the stars.

Our flight home lifted off at 2am.

I caught a little sleep, as did many. I had not eaten much the entire day, so I soon wolfed down the roast chicken dinner. The friendly air-hostess even gave me two extra puddings and that, sadly, is not a euphemism.

As I spoke to her about the day, I realised that my voice was deep and croaky. It was clear that I had been singing my heart out that evening. A silly sign that I had been immersed in the game, but it was further proof that I was now back.

We landed at Gatwick bang on 4am.

I had spent around sixteen hours in the spectacular city of Porto. Along with Athens, Stockholm, Munich, Amsterdam, Baku – and Monaco – our list of foreign fields that will be forever Chelsea continues to grow.

And get this.

Chelsea Football Club has now won more European trophies than the rest of London combined.

I was quickly through passport control, there was no baggage carousel, I caught the bus back to the car park. I made tracks at 5am. I stopped at Cobham Services on the M25 – a mere mile or so from our training centre – and demolished an espresso. A handful of Chelsea had similar ideas.

“European Champions only please.”

It was a chilled out drive home. I enjoyed a powernap for around forty minutes as I stopped at another services on the A303 at around 7am.

Not long after, I updated my “Facebook” status once more.

“Driving home, nearing Stonehenge. Absolute Radio on. “Teardrop” by Massive Attack.

Gone.

The perfect denouement to thirty hours of following Chelsea Football Club.”.

I called in to see Glenn, then Parky, then my Liverpool-supporting mate Francis. I eventually made it home at around midday.

I joked to all three of them :

“Bollocks to it, I’m only bothering with Cup Finals from now on.”

There was a brief mention of a potential Super Cup in Belfast in August. I had gambled on cheap flights from Bristol a month ago and the decision to go ahead would be with UEFA.

Season 2020/21 was the maddest ever. It was – overall – undoubtedly my least favourite season thus far. I had only seen us play twice. And yet, I had seen us in two Cup Finals. I had seen us win the biggest prize of all for the second time in our history.

But this will be the craziest part of all.

We will all assemble, God-willing, in mid-August to see our team play once again. For the vast majority of fans, people will see Thomas Tuchel in the flesh for the very first time. Normally there would be mutterings of “I hope the new coach gets off to a good start.”

And yet he has already won the bloody European Cup.

And Finally :

Two photos.

One from Porto in 2015 and a nod to the many fine folk who were sadly unable to travel to the game. This photo shows Gary, Alan, Kev and Parky alongside me on that fine bridge that dominates the central area and affords such a splendid view of the city. It has been my screensaver on my home laptop for many years.

One from my friend Donna. It’s probably one of the few photos that I have shared on here that I have not taken myself. It’s self-explanatory really. At last players and supporters as one.

Chelsea Football Club, Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel, its players and loyal supporters : I salute us all.

Very lastly, I have to mention that as I sat down in The Blue Room – where else? – on Monday evening to begin writing Part One, I grabbed a Depeche Mode CD and pressed play. It was one of three CDs in a set from 2004. I had no idea what track would be played first. You’ve guessed it. “Personal Jesus.”



Reach Out. Touch. Faith.

Tales From A New Dawn

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 25 August 2012.

My very first Chelsea game was over thirty-eight years ago. The opponents on that life-changing afternoon were Newcastle United. Since then, our paths have crossed with alarming regularity, including some very memorable battles in the old second division. Our third Premiership game of the new 2012-2013 season would be my 31st Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match at Stamford Bridge. I have only seen Liverpool on more occasions at HQ. In those thirty previous games, our record was excellent; just four defeats. Our 2-0 loss to the Geordies in early May was our first league loss to them at home since a 3-1 defeat in November 1986.

There was a sense of revenge in the air. That game will be remembered, of course, for those two wondrous Cisse strikes. Strangely enough, while I was over in New York recently, I got chatting to a Newcastle United fan at the New York Yankees game on my last night. She had been at the game in May, one of the 1,500 away fans who had been rewarded for their support by a rare away win at Chelsea. I told her that there aren’t many times that I want to check out an opponents’ goal as soon as I reach home, but that was one occasion. We haven’t seen a goal like Cisse’s second strike at The Bridge for quite a while. Its trajectory seemed to defy all laws of physics. It was a cracking strike.

After our maximum six points being garnered from our two league matches, and our play improving over the past three games against City, Wigan and Reading I was truly relishing this one. Newcastle United would be a stern test. It had the makings of a classic. And this brought me a great deal of joy; I love the fact that teams outside of the big four or five have their moments. How boring it would be if our only tests each year were the same opponents.

With the evening kick-off, there was no need to leave until lunchtime. Out shopping in Frome in the morning, I bumped into Dave and Karen, fellow Chelsea fans and season ticket holders for around six or seven years. Regretfully, Dave informed me that they didn’t renew for 2012-2013. A few years ago, there used to be six season ticket holders travelling up from Dodge each game; Dave, Karen, Frank, PD, Glenn and myself. Only the latter two remain.

I collected Young Jake from outside Trowbridge train station at 1pm and Old Parky from his house soon after. There was a look of joyful glee on Jill’s face when I collected Parky; she often calls me her respite carer.

“Don’t worry, Jill, I’ll take care of the old bugger today. Send the cheque to my office.”

We chatted away as I headed east. Parky was fortified by a four pint pack of Foster lager. I made use of the new “Starbucks” drive-in at Membury Services near Swindon; another American innovation that has found its way over the Atlantic. The weather was bizarre; fine one minute, rain showers the next. We must have had twenty individual rain showers on the drive in.

As I drove past Slough to the north and Windsor to the south, it was obvious that London was in the middle of a pretty intense rainstorm. The sky was wild and wonderful. A great towering cumulonimbus cloud dominated the vista in the centre, but huge billowing white and grey clouds were everywhere I could look. We spotted occasional lightning forks. It was like a gatefold album cover from some hideous prog rock group in the ‘seventies. I almost expected to see dragons, serpents or bare-breasted Nordic goddesses.

Calm down Parky.

But then it got serious. The rain became heavier. We got drenched as we had a quick pit stop at Heston. The last twenty miles into town were painful. The rain came down in a never-ending deluge and the traffic slowed. The spray made visibility difficult. We drove past Brentford’s Griffin Park and saw that the floodlights were already on, even though it was only 3.15pm. Heading around Hammersmith, the rain bounced back up off the road and we saw great puddles of surface water.

“Honestly can’t see the game taking place, Parks…all this rain, bloody hell.”

The streets and pavements were virtually deserted. The sky was a brooding, dark shade of grey. It felt like a mid-winter evening, not a summer afternoon. The lightning strikes grew more frequent. There were even thunderclaps.

At least there were no text messages to say that the game had been postponed. We spoke about the last time that a match was called-off on the day of the game at Chelsea; we have been lucky, it was as long ago as 1998. Jake needed to meet Mick down at the Copthorne Hotel and so I decided to drive down to Stamford Bridge as the poor tyke would get soaked if he was to walk from The Goose. I turned left at the bottom of the North End Road and onto the Fulham Road. Where was everybody? Again, the streets were deserted.

It was, without doubt, a very eerie sensation. As I headed past the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall, the rain continued to fall. There was an apocalyptic air to what was before me; these familiar streets, usually so full of brightly coloured pedestrians and football supporters, were virtually devoid of people, save for a few poor souls sheltering under shop fronts and secluded nooks and crannies.

Dark skies, incessant rain, the wind howling and solemn streets devoid of life.

Like a terrible vision from the future.

Is this what Fulham Broadway will be like when Tottenham next win the league?

We dropped Young Jake outside the main entrance -“go, go, go!” – and I then drove around the block, past The Black Bull, The Finborough and up to the Brompton Road. Then, miraculously, the rain eased. By the time I drove past West Brompton tube, the newly-arrived passengers were briskly walking towards the gaggle of pubs as if the thunderstorm had not happened.

I then saw a sight which saddened me and stirred me in equal measure. Chelsea fan Kyle Broadbent tragically passed away during the week. He was just 26. Although I did not know Kyle, the eulogies being posted on Facebook during the week were enough for me to know that he had touched so many lives and was loved by many people in the Chelsea fraternity. Draped over the metal railings of the “Prince of Wales” pub, I spotted a damp, limp flag which simply stated –

“Kyle Broadbent 1986-2012.”

Several of his friends had walked that morning in his honour from Euston Station, some three miles away, to Chelsea. It seems that Kyle often went on wild and wondrous walks at various Chelsea games; it was his thing.

Oh boy. What to say?

Rest in peace, Kyle.

Miraculously, the rain stopped just as I parked up on Bramber Road. A few minutes later, Parky and I were with the usual suspects in The Goose. Another pint of Peroni. I’ll get a new nickname at this rate; “One Pint Axon.” I guess it’s better than “Half Pint Axon.”

The scores were being monitored on the TV screen. The place was packed. A little group of around ten away fans were spotted a few yards away. No malice, times have moved on. However, I don’t think Chelsea have any real problems with Newcastle. Everton fans are sometimes spotted in the pub. West Brom, Blackburn too; no big deal. None of our main rivals would take these same liberties, though.

It simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen.

For once, The Goose was rocking with loud and boisterous singing, no doubt inspired by the presence of the away fans. We all joined in. We couldn’t let the Geordies win that battle. With our trip to Monaco for the UEFA Super Cup coming up, Andy and I spoke about our memorable coach trip to the 1998 game in Monaco when we beat Real Madrid 1-0.

The coach broke down on three separate occasions on that trip; it was, however, a great excursion which was full of many great memories. A few lads from Burnham-on-Sea in my county of Somerset were on the coach and soon got stuck into many flagons of “Rich’s” cider. One of the lads, attending his very first football game, unfortunately bore a striking resemblance to the notorious killer Fred West and his experience on the night of the game proved to be the funniest moment of the whole trip.

Fred West – I can’t remember his name – was out on the Nice seafront in the small hours after the match had long finished, chatting with a few ladies of the night. After things got a little boisterous, one of the street-walkers approached Fred and, to his absolute horror, pulled her skirt down to reveal that “she” was in fact a “he.”

With that, Fred started to recoil in horror, only for the same individual to pull out a shotgun, which was fired into the air.

The image of a startled Fred West sprinting back to the hotel had his friends roaring with laughter. I bumped into one of Fred’s mates at the Reise game at Anfield in 2009; Fred hasn’t been to a football game since.

Ed bought Parky a double Jack Daniels and Coke. I wondered if he should have bought me a shovel, to allow me to scoop Parky out of my car when I would eventually drop him off later that night.

We left the pub just as the Tottenham let in a late – a very late – equaliser.

Happy days.

At “the stall” I had a quick chat with a few acquaintances. Mark W had lost a lot of the new edition of “CFCUK” during the deluge’ leaving Dave to try to hawk a few dry copies of the August edition. Cliff A gave me a flier about a “test the water” meeting to look at setting up a Chelsea Supporters’ Trust. The meeting is scheduled to take place after the Stoke game; watch this space. I accompanied Steve M on the walk to the ground; we spoke about the great time we had in the States.

Despite the torrential downpour which had hit south-west London, the pitch looked stunning. There was no surface water at all. Well done the ground staff. Neil Barnett introduced the new signings Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta before the game. There were team changes from Wednesday; the big surprise was Raul Meireles partnering Mikel at the base of our newly-evolving midfield.

The game was indeed a cracker.

Despite the concerns over the summer about the new players taking a while to settle, we produced a very mature performance, with all players interacting well, against one of the fancied teams of the division.

The Bridge was soon rocking to the newest song of the moment. Out on the pitch, our play flowed in a way that was missing for vast tracts of last season. We simply purred. We began the livelier, with a few chances being carved out, with only sporadic Newcastle retaliation. In the 22nd minute, Fernando Torres spun into space and prodded the ball past a Newcastle defender. An outstretched leg, a fall, a penalty.

Three games, three penalties.

With Lamps side-lined, we pondered the options. Mata has missed a few penalties of late and so it was no surprise when Eden Hazard stood up.

A short run, a confident finish.

1-0 to the European Champions.

Alan and I had our “YHTCAUN – COMLD” exchange in a Geordie accent and, indeed, spoke in Geordie accents for the vast majority of the game.

The 1,500 away fans in the corner were clearly not impressed with the volume of our support and hit us, predictably, with the boring “Your Support Is F***ing S***.”

We yawned.

Fernando Torres, clearly now enjoying his permanent role at the front of our team, touched the ball past Coloccini and fell. Much to our horror, not only was a free-kick not awarded, but the Spaniard was booked.

Revenge came soon after. Although Alan was full of moans about Phil Dowd’s decision to allow five minutes of extra time at the end of the half, we were smiling in the 50th minute. A quite delightful move, which resulted in a Hazard back-heel into the path of an on-rushing Torres, ended with a delicate flick from the outside of Torres’ right boot. The ball simply flew into the net and The Bridge erupted.

Two goals in two games; Fernando Torres, you know what you are.

We all agreed how well we had played amidst our half-time chat. Out on the pitch, Neil Barnett was with former striker Joe Allon – famous for his jump over the Shed End advertising hoardings during a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon in 1991…but not much else.

Newcastle came at us in the first part of the second period. Our flow had been interrupted by the half-time break and the visitors’ new found thrust. But, in all honesty, we were hardly troubled the entire game. Ryan Bertrand hardly put a foot wrong. Both Mikel and Meireles covered a lot of ground and were the unsung heroes.

Three moments to cherish from the second period.

As the heavens opened again, a delightful back heel from Eden Hazard which almost reached Torres. I think we can expect similar moments of inspiration from our new Belgian as the season progresses. I noted that he has a very low centre of gravity – always an advantage for a dribbler – and, once he sets off on a forward run, he almost hugs the turf.

Fernando Torres was a man reborn and often ran at the Newcastle defence. His close control is one of his brightest assets. When he was on the edge of the Newcastle box, he fooled everyone by crossing the ball with his right foot from behind his standing left foot. Lovely stuff.

Eden Hazard, now full of running, teased Coloccini down below me and left him for dead over ten scintillating yards. His change of pace was amazing.

Newcastle had two or three goal scoring chances at the Shed End. We were slightly edgy, knowing that a goal from the visitors would bring them right back into it.

We held on. It had been a lovely game, which augers so well for the rest of the season.

With no trip to Monaco for me next weekend, I now have to wait three whole weeks for my next game; a feisty trip to our neighbours at Loftus Road. Who knows, by the time we reconvene there, we might still be top.

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