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 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.

Tales From Porto : Part One – The Blue Room And Beyond

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

I had set the alarm on my ‘phone for 12.30am in the very small hours, small minutes even, of Saturday. I had only fallen asleep at around 8.30pm on the Friday. This was going to be a trip that would likely end up with battles against tiredness as the day would draw on. But I wasn’t concerned about that. I had overcome larger battles over the previous eight months. And some smaller ones, of a different nature, over the previous week or so.

I closed my last match report with an open question :

“There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.”

After what seemed like an agonisingly long wait, Chelsea stepped up to the mark. With the 2021 Champions League Final bumped from Istanbul on the Bosporus to Porto on the Douro, there was a tense wait. With rumours of Porto being used as an alternative to the Turkish city, and the more logical stadia of Wembley and Villa Park, I had originally been tempted to gamble on flights before the Wembley FA Cup Final. But I held firm, and hoped for the club to answer some prayers. With an uncanny knack of timing, most unlike the club these days, on the afternoon of Wednesday 19 May it was announced that there would be club-subsidised day trips to Porto for £199.

Within half-an-hour of the announcement at 3pm, I was in.

The game was a mere ten days away and things were moving fast now. If you blinked, there was the chance of missing key information. As I was on the club’s trip, my application for a match ticket was taken care of by the travel company and Chelsea. I surely had enough points to be sure of one of the 5,800 tickets offered to the club. Independent travellers would be able to apply on the very next day, the Thursday (D-Day minus nine), but it was soon apparent that many were unsuccessful. Of course, for various reasons, others decided not to apply for tickets. There was a mixture of protest against UEFA, of not being able to afford the trip with all of the extra add-ons, of the rigorous tests for the COVID19 virus, and of course the real fear of the virus itself. There was no control on where it might flare up once more.

When I returned home from work on the Thursday, I was elated to see that Sportsbreaks had debited my credit card to the tune of £199 for the flight and £60 for the cheapest match day ticket available.

I was immediately grateful, unapologetically ecstatic and calm at last.

And well done Chelsea. Although Sheik Mansour had paid for a sizeable percentage of City’s supporters to travel to Portugal for nowt, the club dipped into its reserves to subsidize official travel. Thankfully, the rumours of a far-from edifying “bubble” was not going to be in place once we were to land in Portugal, but – there is always a but these days – all supporters had to follow strict guidelines to enable us to attend. It all took a fair bit of deciphering, and I didn’t want to fry my brain with worry immediately, so I gave it a day or two. But it eventually all made sense. We had to have a PCR test to cover our outbound and inbound travel. After a couple of deliberations on the timings, I eventually booked a test for 0900 on Thursday 27 May in the nearby city of Bath. We also needed to book a similar test on our return from Portugal, and to have evidence on our ‘phone – or hard copy – of both. The cost for those two beauties? A cool £315. Wallop. There was also the requirement to complete locator forms for both Portugal and the UK. I kept reading and re-reading all of these instructions. Over and over and over. It was a worry; I am not ashamed to admit.

Against the backdrop of all this activity during the week leading up to our third Champions League Final, the actual football match was at the bottom of my list of priorities of thought. Like everyone, I had to work, and to fit in all of these activities around work patterns. I worked from home for the most part, but then did an early stint on the Friday in the office to ostensibly give me an extra few hours to settle myself before heading away for the game.

But then there was an extra worry. When I visited the Dragao Stadium in 2015 for our game with Porto, my SLR camera was confiscated and I had to rely on my mobile ‘phone for match photos. With much annoyance, the ‘phone battery died and I only took a handful of mediocre snaps that night. For a good ten days, I was mulling over all sorts of plans of smuggling my SLR in, a “Great Escape” in reverse, and I even thought about tunnelling in, with tunnels called John, Frank and Didier.

It was frying my brain. In the official UEFA blurb for the final, it strictly mentioned no cameras with long lenses. Damn, there it was in black and white. And it also stated that only a very small A4-sized bag would be allowed. I needed a Plan B. I didn’t call Maurizio Sarri. I decided to buy a bum bag – how 1989 – for the camera that I had bought especially for my trip to Argentina last season. Then, with disbelief, I could not track down a charger for the camera. This was killing me. I remembered Moscow in 2008 and how my SLR ran out of charge two hours before the game and I again had to rely on sub-standard ‘phone photos. Not a good precedent.

My Plan B involved calling into “Curry’s” in Trowbridge after work on the Friday and purchasing a new camera. In my haste, I overlooked being able to simply take my existing camera in and getting a charger. My brain was clearly frazzled.

Friday arrived. My PCR test was negative. Phew. At the shop in Trowbridge, I spotted a Sony camera that met all the requirements.

“Sorry, it’s not in stock.”

It is mate, there it is there, I can see it.”

“That’s just a display model.”

“Fucksake.”

But there were two in stock in Salisbury. Off I drove to the “Curry’s” in the spired city of Salisbury, an hour away. I quickly purchased it. The assistant was Chelsea, a nice twist. I eventually reached home at about 6pm.

I chilled out a little, prepped my clothes and travel goodies and then prayed for a solid four hours of sleep.

Match day began in deepest Somerset and would end in deepest Portugal. It seemed so odd to be travelling so light. And alone. None of my local usual travelling companions would be going with me. I only knew of one local lad, Sir Les, who would be in Porto. The previous night, I had laid out all of my clothes in the front room, on a sofa, away from the piles of books and magazines on my coffee table in my main living room and away from all the other detritus of day to day living. I wanted a little clarity.

And it suddenly dawned on me how apt this was. Over the past year, my house and garden has undergone a major tidy-up, and a main part of this has resulted in my front room becoming part home office and part Chelsea museum. I have named it The Blue Room. It is my pride and joy. There are framed, signed photographs of various players, framed programmes, photo montages, framed posters, framed shirts.

Immediately above the sofa – blue – where my clothes were placed were three items.

At the top, a canvas print of my photo of Didier’s penalty in Munich. A sacred memento of the greatest day of my entire life.

In the middle, a much-loved present from relatives in around 1980, a pub-style mirror featuring our total trophy haul up to that point; the 1955 League Championship, the 1965 League Cup, the 1970 FA Cup and the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup. For years upon years I used to gaze up at it and wonder if my club would ever win a damned thing in my lifetime. I became a supporter in 1970, remember nothing of that final nor the 1971 one, so in my mind I had never seen us win a bloody trophy. I was thirty-one years of age in 1997. New fans will never understand how magical that day was. Many new fans now want a fourth place finish over FA Cup glory. It seemed that Thomas Tuchel was of the same opinion a fortnight ago.

At the bottom is a photograph of myself with my favourite-ever footballer, Pat Nevin. The photo was taken pre-match in Moscow in 2008 and is signed by the good man. I have recently started reading his very entertaining autobiography. Not only was he a winger for Chelsea, he loves the Cocteau Twins and went out with Clare Grogan. The holy trinity in my book. However, when I read – open-mouthed – that at the age of eight he was able to do ten thousand keepy-uppies, I just hated him. My record is 246. How could he do that bloody many at eight? Git.

So beneath these three images, I dressed and made sure everything was packed. As a superstition, I decided to take a light top that I wore on that magical night in Barcelona in 2012. I needed something to protect my fair arms from the sun. My light beige Hugo Boss top served me well high up in Camp Nou. I hoped for a similar outcome in Porto. I also took a New York Yankees cap for a similar reason; my thatched roof is getting thinner and thinner these days. I wore a New York Yankees cap in Moscow in 2008, but fear not. This was a new one, not the unlucky one of thirteen years previous. The old one was lost in Bucharest on CL duty in 2013.

Superstitions, there were two more.

The first was easy.

Before the European finals in 2012, 2013 and 2019 I had bought breakfasts the day before travel for the office team at work. I continued the tradition this year.

The other one is a little more bizarre.

In 2012, on the Thursday, my car was absolutely spattered with bird shit. Remembering that if this horrible substance lands on you personally, it is regarded as a good luck charm, I decided not to wash it off. It’s worth a gamble, right? I memorably was hit by a pigeon in The Shed during the first game of the 1983/84 season – the famous 5-0 clobbering of Derby County – and I took this as my CFC reference point. 1983/84 is still my favourite-ever season. In 2013, guess what? Splattered again. Before my jaunt to Baku two years ago, my car also took a direct hit. This is no surprise; seagulls nest in and around our premises. Once a month a chap with a hawk appears and tries to scare the buggers away. On Friday, I popped out to my car mid-morning to make a call. Imagine my elation and amusement when my bonnet and lower windscreen had appeared to have been drenched by a pot of Dulux. Ha.

So, yeah – breakfasts and bird shit. Covered.

I set off – “Jack Kerouac” – at 1.45am. I turned the radio on as I backed out of my driveway.

“I wonder what song it will be? Wonder if it will sum up my thoughts, or be a sign for the day.”

“Even Better Than The Real Thing” by U2 assaulted my shell-likes, and I quickly turned it off. But the words “the real thing” struck home. After a year of ersatz training-game football, this was indeed the real thing, no doubt. As I mentioned in the FA Cup Final report, I have really struggled with watching us on TV this season. At last, here was a game I could witness in person with all of the accompanied involvement and sense of belonging. The FA Cup Final was OK but I struggled acclimatising myself with live football after fourteen months away. I hoped for a better feeling in Porto. Maybe it really would be better than the real thing.

I made really good time en route to Gatwick. Passing over Salisbury Plain for the first time in ages, I passed an owl perched on a roadside post. I imagined it thinking –

“Ah, Mister Axon. I have been expecting you.”

The roads were clear. Hardly anything as I drove past Stonehenge and then onto the deserted A303 and M3. Even the M25 was devoid of much traffic. I pulled in to the car park at Gatwick North just a few minutes before four o’clock.

Four AM. Fackinell.

There were already masses of Chelsea folk in the departure area. I joined the queue. “Hellos” to a few faces – Luke, Aroha, Doreen – then John and Maureen, all on the same 0700 flight. But familiar faces were in short supply. I hardly recognised anyone. To my chagrin, a few were sporting the 2021/22 Zig Zag monstrosity. I was eternally grateful the club chose not to repeat wearing it for this final. Another good decision, Chelsea. This will have to stop; you’ll be ruining your reputation. Many lads chose the bum bag option. Many were in shorts. The usual assortment of Stone Island patches, Lacoste, Gant, Ralph, CP, Adidas trainers a-go-go. But there was a proper mix; more replica shirts than usual for a European trip.

I handed over my passport and the various forms to the official and there were no exclamations nor questions. It was satisfactorily smooth, there had been no balls-ups from my underpaid PA and I was checked in. Inwardly, I did a somersault of joy.

Panic over.

Others had a customary pre-match bevvy. I met up with some good friends; Charlotte and Donna completed the Somerset Section. Rachel from Devon. Rob from Chester. An “A Squad” of European travellers no doubt. I spent a good few minutes chatting to Charlotte who is the same age as me. Charlotte was diagnosed with cancer a while back, has since undergone chemotherapy and is on the road to recovery. We traded health updates. Everyone was pleased to see that I was doing well after my heart attack in October. I wandered a little, spotted a few faces, a chat here and there.

On reaching Gate 49, I spotted Andy and Sophie, father and daughter, good friends from Nuneaton. I famously first met Andy to talk to on Wenceslas Square in Prague after the Zizkov game in 1994 although he was always a face I would spot everywhere including in Glasgow for a Rangers versus Motherwell game in 1987. Andy and Sophie were in Baku, that final being exactly two years ago to the day. I was in Baku for six days two years ago. I would be in Porto for sixteen hours in 2021.

Another anniversary for 29 May.

Heysel Stadium 1985.

Never forgotten.

More of that later.

I wasn’t too happy that TUI’s corporate colour was City sky blue but was just happy to be en route to Porto now. There would be a light breakfast, but also the chance for a small sleep. Every minute counts on breaks like these. While waiting for clearance on the runway, I was just drifting off but I heard my name being called out.

“Chris Axon.”

“Oh God, what have I done now?”

The CFC steward was handing out match tickets, alphabetically, and I was one of the first to be mentioned. Stadium seating plans were studied. I was down in a corner behind the goal in row three, just like at Wembley against Leicester City. A bad omen? Possibly.

I chatted to the two lads to my right. We were seated in the very last row. None of us were too confident. I reckoned our chances to succeed to be around 33%, maybe the same mark as against Bayern in 2012. Against United in 2008 it was bang on 50% from memory. I posted a photo of the ticket on Facebook, turned the phone off and waited.

Flight TOM8400 took off at 7.30am.

After a while, the seatbelt signs were turned off and there ensued a rampage to join the queue for toilets situated right behind us. But the male air steward wanted to start serving breakfast.

“Please go back to your seats, there is no room for so many in the queue. I can’t get past.”

There was no reaction. Eye contact was avoided. Quiet murmurings of discontent. English people queue for fun, and especially for comfort – or discomfort – breaks, nobody was moving.

“Please can you all go back?”

With that, the steward began pushing his trolley down the aisle. The passengers backed off.

I turned to the lads next to me :

“Fucking hell, Chelsea ran by a trolley dolly.”

The flight soon passed. We landed at Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro airport at 9.30am. There was a fair wait at passport control. Social distancing simply did not take place. But we all were negative, so I guess it was irrelevant. I handed over my passport and forms. I was in. Another great moment. Andy and Sophie were waiting for me. We had agreed to spend some time together before the day got going. I made a quick visit to the busy gents. While I was turning my bike around, there was an almighty explosion taking place in one of the cubicles behind me. One wag joked :

“Bloody hell, somebody has smuggled someone else in.”

I replied :

“Yeah, a Tottenham fan.”

We were given yellow wristbands on boarding a coach to take us into the city. This would act as evidence of our negative test result and meant we did not have to show security at the fan zone or stadium our forms. A good move, although one friend would later comment that it signalled to the outside world that we had tickets and might be the target for pickpockets. In 2015 on our visit, a few friends were pick-pocketed including my dear friend Alan and Wycombe Stan.

There was cloud overhead but the rising sun soon burned through. We were dropped off at the fan zone on Avenue dos Aliados. It wasn’t far from our hotel in 2015. We decided to enter and kill some time. It was pleasant enough. Andy and Sophie had a beer. But I promised to be tee-total all day long. I had not dropped a touch of alcohol since the first day of September. And the thought of me drinking even a few pints under a burning sun scared me. I wanted to be completely in charge of my senses on this day, especially should there be any sort of plea-bargaining regarding my camera at the stadium.

There was music, a few sideshows, and I met my friends Kenny and then Leigh, lovely Chelsea folk. My good friend Orlin from Sofia appeared outside but did not have his identity wristband so was denied access. We chatted, farcically, through the barricades…we would keep in touch and see each other later no doubt.

Andy spotted Billy Gilmour’s parents, with his two lookalike younger brothers. Billy’s parents looked relaxed and were drinking beer too. As we decided to move on, we walked past them just as Leigh presented Billy’s mother with a “Scottish Iniesta” sticker. I had stopped and decided to say a word or two to Mrs. Gilmour.

“I am sure you are as proud of your son as we are. I hope he goes right to the very top” and gave her a fist-bump. She was lovely.

“Awe, thanks very much.”

Outside, the three of us stood outside a small bar. Beers and Cokes. Andy spotted Michael Gove walk past. Regardless of any political persuasion, he surely has to have the most slappable face in Westminster. A friend back home reminded me that we once saw him walk past “The Three Kings” in West Ken on a match day a few years back. Apparently his son supports us. I reminded Andy how he – much to the bemusement of Sophie – berated former MP Tony Banks, and Chelsea fan, outside the Monaco stadium at the Super Cup game in 1998.

“Leave it out mate, I am here for the football.”

We giggled.

Andy and I have seen some things. We remembered how he said in Monaco “there’s a Real fan in Madrid right now saying…”

I continued “Chelsea always beat us.”

We wondered what he thought about the semi-finals this year.     

Andy and I travelled together to Stockholm and Monaco in 1998. We were both in Moscow in 2008, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013. I saw him in Baku in 2019. We had heard that City were all mobbed up down by the waterfront. This top part of the town centre was all Chelsea. Everything was pretty quiet to be honest. A few sporadic shouts. We saw Pat Nevin on the stage inside the fan zone.

…mmm, I saw him in Moscow, but not in Munich. Was that a bad sign? Time would tell.

Sophie had heard from two friends who were further south so we trotted down the street to meet up with them. I was waiting to hear from Orlin, who had promised to bring along a power pack for me to charge up my quickly dwindling moby. The City shirts now outnumbered Chelsea ones. Porto tumbles down to the Douro, it is a lovely city, and the streets looked quite familiar. Orlin, who I bumped in to in Porto in 2015, texted me to say he was at a restaurant. We walked on, with City jeers of “Rent Boys” aimed at Chelsea fans every fifty yards or so. We walked into a small square and Andy and Sophie’s friends shouted out from a table outside a restaurant. Lo and behold, who should be sat four yards away but Orlin. What luck. The three of us joined them for lunch at 1.30pm. I was sat with several of the Chelsea Bulgaria contingent. Their flag was near me at Wembley. Two of Orlin’s friends are on the UEFA Away ST Scheme so were sure of tickets. Orlin had to search the black market for his.

It was magical to spend time with him again. We updated each other; travels, health, mutual friends, a little talk about football. He was a lot more confident than me. I always call him “Mister 51%” because he says he is more of a Chelsea fan now, in preference to Levski, his boyhood team.

I remained as Mister 33%.

I had the briefest of words with two City fans in the restaurant itself, the only ones I would talk to all day.

“Good luck tonight. I have no problem with City. We have both had a similar history really. Second Division and all that.”

“Third Division for us. Cheers mate.”

Another fist bump.

I soon realised that we were sat outside on exactly the same table where Parky, Kev and I had an equally enjoyable meal on match day in 2015. Shit, we lost that time. I enjoyed a meal of grilled vegetables and flat breads. Not only no alcohol but a vegetarian meal.

“You’ve changed.”

We said our goodbyes and I needed a little time to myself. It was three o’clock and as I descended to Praca da Ribeira – City Central – some fears enveloped me. There seemed to be way more City in the city than us. This area was mobbed with every City shirt imaginable; like us they have had some shockers. All of this was eerily similar to United dominating Moscow in 2008.

This was my worst case scenario pre-departure from England :

“I won’t meet any close friends, I’ll get sunburned, the bars will be too packed, I won’t enjoy it, my camera will get confiscated again, we’ll concede an early goal ten minutes in, we’ll have to chase the game, City will rip us apart, I think we will get pummeled, delays at the airport, misery in masks.”

Mister 33% for sure.

I left City behind me and slowly ascended a few tight streets. It was close and humid down by the river but nice and airy further north. I popped into a deserted café for a gorgeous fishcake and another Coke. Blue skies overhead. As I slowly walked towards Chelsea Central, I saw a Chelsea Belgium flag draped over a balcony. I inevitably took a few photographs of this highly photogenic city. I loved its trademark blue and white tiled houses. Like Wedgewood or Delft pottery.

Snap, snap, snap.

I met up with the “A Squad” again and bought myself an iced-tea from a nearby shop. The shops around the fan zone were stocked with Super Bock and were doing a fine trade. A large group of around three hundred Chelsea were in good voice…I joined in. We were starting to get our vocal chords prepared. Donna was interviewed for a live piece on “Sky News.” Luke was nicely buoyed by Super Bock. His lovely wife is seven months pregnant. How lovely if we could win tonight so their first-born could claim being present at a European triumph.

My oldest friend Mario sent through a photo of his youngest son Nelson in a Chelsea training top and my heart leapt. Mario lives in Germany and his local team is Bayer Leverkusen. Two of his three boys are Leverkusen fans. Mario and Nelson are ST holders. Nelson met Kai Havertz at a training session a year or so ago. Mario also supports Juventus – he is Italian – and on this date in 1985 he was meant to be in Section Z at Heysel, but had too much school work that week so it was decided he would not attend. And thank God.

On 29 May 1985, I was in England and supporting Juventus in a European Cup Final.

On 29 May 2021, Mario and Nelson were in Germany and supporting Chelsea in a European Cup Final.

Football. Fackinell.

Time was moving on now. Charlotte and I had decided that we would leave earlier than the rest. Chemo has tired Charlotte a little. We needed to allow ourselves plenty of time to travel by subway and then the final mile or so by foot to reach the stadium. I was more than happy to leave. I had thoroughly enjoyed my day thus far. The negative vibes were starting to subside though I had not dwelt on the game at all. We left the others behind at 5.15pm. A subway stop was just a few yards away. We had been given a subway card on the coach with our match ticket; a nice touch.

We walked down the steps into Aliados station just as a huddle of Chelsea fans had the same idea.

We were on our way.

Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

Saturday 25 May : 7.30pm – Heathrow Airport Terminal Two.

It had been a relaxing Saturday thus far. I had driven up to my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton, where my car would be safe for a week, and he then took me over to Heathrow for just after 7pm. The season had, in fact, begun in the very same way; Glenn and I drove to Russ’ place before our jaunt to see Chelsea in Australia back in July. Two things struck me. The game in Perth seemed relatively recent. Yet the away game at Leicester City – what a yawn fest – seemed comparatively distant. It was, perhaps, typical of the strangeness of this season that times and places seemed to be swirling in a bewildering and confusing fashion. This was, undoubtedly, one of the oddest seasons I had ever experienced. Eight goals were conceded in ninety minutes of football in consecutive away games; the second-half at Bournemouth and then the first-half at Manchester City. A generally disliked manager attempted to implement a new brand of football against a baying and increasingly unappreciative support. The league form just about recovered in time as we stumbled to third place and guaranteed Champions League Football next season. And two out of our three cup competitions were to end in final appearances. The jury was out in many minds as to whether or not it had been a “good” season.

My thoughts were : “not enjoyable, but successful.”

Sometimes life is like that.

Russ, with his wife Kim, waved me off as I pulled my two bags towards the terminal. This was a rare departure place for me. My 2016/17 season had begun here with a trip to Vienna for the Rapid friendly, but I could not recollect another T2 / CFC trip. As I crossed the threshold into the departure zone, I looked to my right and just caught sight of a concrete tablet which stated that the terminal was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in late 1955.

I liked that. 1955. An omen. I liked that a lot. I was grabbing at anything. At work the previous day, as before Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013, I had bought breakfasts for the office team. It was one of a few superstitions that would hopefully play out. There was lucky bird shit on my car too; again a repeat of those two trips.

I was on my own now, for the first time this season. I will be perfectly honest; ever since I had booked my flights and accommodation, fortuitously, and the dream of six days in Baku became real, there was a strong element of guilt inside me. It did not feel right that many close friends – some who had travelled to all other European away games this season – had been priced out of this trip. This feeling was with me for a large part of these first few hours of travel.

Inside the building, there were the usual little tremors of concern that accompany modern travel; had I packed all the essentials, had I overlooked one key ingredient, had I remembered all the chargers, leads and adaptors, had I packed the Nurofen and Imodium?

In the line to check in, I spotted a chap of around my age in an Arsenal shirt from around 1993. In the interests of goodwill – and with a nod to the feeling that, with the final being played so bloody far away from anywhere, we were in some respects “all in this together” I approached him, and his son, and shook their hands. I was wearing a Chelsea polo – rare for me – which enabled them to see straight away that my allegiances were with the other team. We chatted away and instantly clicked. They were from the Isle of Wight, went to a few games each season, but told me of their huge problems, for example, in getting back to their home after midweek games in London. Will, the father, and Noah, the son, soon started asking me about my thoughts about the game, of Baku, of my experiences this season, of my past travels with Chelsea in Europe.

Not long into our chit-chat, Noah – who is fifteen I think – came out with a beautiful line.

“Of course, Chelsea are European royalty aren’t they?”

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

“The boy is being tactically naive, there” I thought to myself.

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

“Do you two want to close ranks and have a moment? Bloody hell. Should he be saying that in public?”

We all laughed.

European royalty, eh? Bloody hell. Is that how – some – others see us? Of course Arsenal’s last final was in Paris in 2006 and so this was their first one for thirteen years. It might explain why Arsenal had allegedly sold more tickets for Baku than us. Since 2006, we have experienced European finals in 2008, 2012 and 2013.

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

(…mmm, Paris 2006, Arsenal versus Barcelona…they almost became the first London team to win the European Cup, leading 1-0 until very late on…I immediately had trouble remembering the name of Juliano Beletti, who poached the winner, as my memory failed me for a few annoying minutes).

At the check-in, the first scare of the trip. The woman seemed to be struggling with my e-ticket and after a few minutes she shot off to see her supervisor. Panic. Blind panic. For three minutes I was left in limbo, with many gruesome scenarios hurtling through my brain. But all was good. She soon processed my details and even let me off with heavier-than-allowed hand luggage. Phew. I was on my way.

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

The Turkish Airlines flight from Heathrow, due to depart at 10.15pm, eventually left at 11pm. I only had a few moments of fitful sleep. We landed at Istanbul’s swish new airport to the north of the city at 4am. On the bus to the terminal, I chatted to three other Arsenal supporters. We sat and killed time by chatting away. Our flight to Baku was due to leave at 8.15am. Sanjay, who was with his son Chris, was from Crouch End but worked in Tottenham. He had visited the new Tottenham stadium, on a freebie through work, at the end of the season and was brutally honest as he extolled its virtues. It was so noisy. It was such a great stadium. His honesty was refreshing. Over the two or three hours of waiting at the airport, the prospect of “that lot” winning against Liverpool in Madrid was a dark, dark shadow which haunted us all. We all agreed how every team in London hates Tottenham.

The biggest London rivalries, involving the “big four”? Here is my ranking.

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

Sanjay bought me an orange juice. He was another good lad. The other Arsenal supporter was from Northampton, though I did not catch her name. I was outnumbered five to one. We spoke of loyalty points, season tickets, membership schemes, how our two clubs ride roughshod over our emotions. Interestingly, there would be no beam back at Arsenal either. There was ground improvements penciled in for the week. So, beam backs at Liverpool and Tottenham, but not at Arsenal or Chelsea.

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

Will and Noah departed as they were on their way to Tblisi where they were staying for two nights before getting a coach to Baku. I wished them well, though wondered if I would bump into them again on this trip. At the departure gate, I spotted a young lad wearing a CP top and a Chelsea badge. I smiled and approached him. He was Alex, with his mate Alan, and both from Moscow. It was my first Chelsea interaction of the trip. About bloody time.

Sunday 26 May : 12.45pm – Heydar Aliyev Avenue, Baku.

The flight from Istanbul to Baku, again on Turkish Airlines – no complaints, two great meals on the two flights – took three hours and the last ten minutes will live with me for a while. Approaching from the west, and above the bay, I was able to look out to my left and see the distant, dreamlike, sandy buildings of Baku. The sweep of the bay. The flame towers. The curved peek of the Heyday Aliyev Centre, which beguiled me as we drove past it in a cab on my first visit to Baku in 2017, and which I so wanted to visit in 2019. As the plane swung north, the dry earth of the land below.

We landed on time at midday. There was a little nervousness when I handed over my visa at passport control, but all was fine.

Stamp.

The small arrivals hall was bedecked with UEFA Europa League signage and I made a conscious decision to descend the escalator which was next to the roof column covered in photos of Chelsea players. I was taking no chances. It was the one to the left. I was happy. On my ascent up the stairs of the Matthew Harding, I always keep to the left. Oh those superstitions.

I exchanged some money and easily battled a cab driver down from forty manat to thirty manat. A cab to the city for £15? Perfect. On the way in, on Heydar Aliyev Avenue, I recognised a few landmarks from my early morning cab ride in with my friend Nick in 2017. We glided past the Olympic Stadium. Next up was the flame-like Socar Tower. As I mentioned in my Baku 2017 trip report, the furniture company for whom I work fitted out all forty-two floors back in 2014. Because of the complexities of the accompanying export paperwork, it caused me much grief. It almost saw the end of me if I am honest, as it added a massive workload to my already busy demands. Driving past it once more – on a wide boulevard with lamp posts covered in Chelsea colours – did raise a wry smile.

It was magical to be back in Baku.

Sunday 26 May : 1.30pm, Kichik Qala Street, Old City, Baku.

The cab ride in to the city only took twenty-five minutes. The sun was shining. The traffic grew busier with each passing mile. The cab driver, his mouth full of odd-shaped teeth, had been given my hotel address in the old city, but was struggling with its whereabouts. His driving style was rather erratic. He kept using his mobile phone. He changed lanes constantly. Into the city centre we went, curving south past the modern additions, past the designer shops, onto the boulevard where the Formula One race hugs the Caspian Sea. The city was festooned with the yellow and orange of UEFA. I recognised so much. The Maiden Tower, up the hill, past the glass prism of Icharishahar metro station, and we landed right outside the old Gosha Gala city gates.

“I’ll walk from here.”

Within a few seconds, my spirits had dropped. The row of three or four old-style restaurants, no more than wooden shacks, within one of which I enjoyed a £6 meal in 2017, had been pulled down and it looked like modern versions were taking their place. My heart dropped. It was the one abiding memory of my last visit; a huge stone oven, the smell of smoke, the wooden shutters clattering in the wind. I had planned a return for old time’s sake. Alas it was not possible.

“Progress” I thought.

My hotel was entombed within the old city. The sun was beating down as I pulled my two suitcases up and down Kichik Qala Street. Nobody had heard of my hotel. Up and down I went. I asked many locals. My bags were getting heavier. I immediately thought of our cossetted players – the image of Eden swanning onto the Chelsea plane that took the squad to Boston recently was centre stage in my mind – and wondered if they had any inkling of the tribulations we go through. Eventually, I stumbled across two friendly policemen. One of them ‘phoned my hotel, as had the cab driver en route to the city, but the number was not known.

An invisible hotel and a ‘phone number that does not work.

Fackinell.

The policemen then took me to a nearby hotel, only ten yards away, where I presumed they would ask for directions.

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

My booking, via Expedia, did not immediately feature on the lovely receptionist’s computer – I wanted to marry her there and then – but I have to be honest I suspect that there was a double-booking involved. There seemed to be genuine surprise at my appearance. After five minutes of double-checking, I was shown my room in the adjacent annex.

I had made it.

Fackinell.

Sunday 26 May : 9pm – 360 Bar, Hilton Hotel, Baku.

Being sleep deficient, I crashed out for four hours. I dreamed of work spreadsheets and I dreamed of work routines. The subconscious was not letting me forget work.

I was awoken by an English voice. It must have touched an inner trigger. A shadow of a memory of another time, a whisper from my father –

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

In fact, my father’s stock waking call was not this at all. It was a standard Royal Air Force line, which my father used to constantly use to get me out of bed on work days. It is a typically quirky and whimsical phrase that RAF pals would utter to others, enjoying deep sleep, and at any time during the night.

“Want to buy a battleship?”

I had no need of battleships in Baku, nor anywhere else, but I quickly came to the conclusion that, by God, I had needed this holiday. Within seconds the feelings of guilt that had been pecking away at me for ages quickly evaporated. Although I would miss the immediate company of my usual laughter buddies, perhaps I needed to be alone – certainly on the first two days of this trip before others would start rolling in – so that I could be left to unwind and relax.

I could be my own boss.

I love the company of others, but my own company is a true joy. I have the best of both worlds.

That first evening, I had one goal; to locate the 360 Bar atop the Hilton.

I was out at 7.30pm. It took me an hour of idle meanderings to reach the hotel, but I was in no rush. I enjoyed the Baku evening and quickly dipped into the fan park next to the Caspian. I couldn’t see many Chelsea from the UK participating at this. It was far too regulated. Far too happy-clappy. We like to hide in the pubs and bars, inside the deepest cracks and fissures of host cities, only emerging at the last minute to head on to the stadium.

I made my way east and soon found my goal. I noted lots of UEFA signage at the hotel reception and I was whisked up to the twenty-fifth floor. I settled in a comfy chair, ordered the first of five local Xirdalan lagers. They were only seven manat – just £3.50 – and were served with some crisps and popcorn. I booked a table for Tuesday when some friends would be in town.

And I relaxed. The revolving bar offered fantastical views of the city. My camera had trouble getting clear images, but my memories remain strong. The Flame Towers were the obvious stars and the lights flickered and danced with varying images…the red, blue and green of the national flag on individual towers, the flames, the Azerbaijani flag over the three towers, three figures waving national flags, sparking stars, and – oddly – the three towers as vessels filling up with water,

I was enchanted.

With wifi, I was able to toast absent friends on Facebook.

I left at midnight, took a cab into town, slowly guzzled three more bottles of lager in a bar called “Room” and relaxed some more. I chatted to a Serb from Belgrade – a Red Star fan – who remembered, and loved, Petar Borota who played for Chelsea from 1979 to 1982 and for Red Star’s great rivals Partizan Belgrade before joining us. It had been a chilled-out evening, just what my brain needed, but I felt that I was just touching the surface of Baku.

Monday 27 May : 7pm – Mugam Club, Old City, Baku.

There was more – beautiful – sleep on Monday. I did not wake early. Thankfully there was just enough cold air emanating from the air-conditioning unit to allow for a pleasant rest. Suffice to say, I missed breakfast.

Over the past year, I have watched “The Art Lovers Guide – Baku” on three occasions. I caught up with it again on iPlayer a few weeks back. The two guides – a troubling mix of excellent informative analysis but awful pretension – visited the “Mugam Club” where indigenous music is played while local food is served. The one song featured briefly in the programme was magical and my interest was piqued. Luckily, this was only five minutes from my hotel. I visited it, and enjoyed it all. Several musicians played. Some local music was mixed in with Western music, which spoilt it a little. A salad, some chicken in pomegranate sauce and some rice, all washed down with a bottle of Xirdalan. A lovely little distraction from the football-themed mayhem that would soon envelope the city.

Outside, my next goal was to get up close and personal with the Flame Towers. On the way, on the main square to the west of the Old City (I have to keep reminding myself how close everything is in Baku, it is a wonderful place to leisurely walk between sites), I spotted a Sky Sports reporter doing a live piece to camera. I chatted to him briefly. He had heard that the players were staying at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel. He also spoke to me about Frank Lampard, who I was sad to see had just lost to Aston Villa at Wembley.

Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United next season then. Two good trips there. Villa is just a bit tedious.

Monday 27 May – 11pm, Harry’s Bar, Baku.

Alas the funicular railway had closed, so at 9pm I ascended the six-hundred steps to the area by the Flame Towers. I spent a good ninety minutes or so underneath the dancing lights, and I was in my element. On the ascent I had spotted a terraced walkway lit up with pure white lights. A real stairway to heaven. The city was charming me with every turn of the eye. Adjacent to the towers was a beautifully constructed area – Highland Park – with a war memorial, fountains, and with outstanding views of the city. The minuets of the Sehidler Xiyabani Mosque contrasted wildly with the flickering LED of the towers. Baku was beguiling me again.

Very soon I found myself in the heart of the city, and I wandered south of Fountain Square into the quarter of a mile block that holds most of the city centre’s bars.

I passed a cellar bar – “Harry’s Bar” – and an English chap was coming up for air.

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

It was 11pm. I needed a drink as I was gasping. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed until 8am.

For the most part, there were no more than five or six people inside. I got talking to Bob and his son Chris – from Swindon, Arsenal – and we again had a great laugh. I was still yet to spot another Chelsea supporter in Baku. The pub was next to the “Red Lion” and I kept calling in to see if any friends had yet arrived. They hadn’t. That pub was pretty quiet too. But I was in no mood to travel too far. The first beer I was served was a five manat bottle of Efes, but I soon learned that Bob and Chris were on three manat pints. So I soon joined them. Within ten minutes of my arrival “Blue is the Colour” was booming around the small bar.

The night continued, the beers flowed steadily. We bought beers for the barman and his charming wife. Locals occasionally dropped in but for hours the cast involved just five people. Bob chatted to a local girl – the girl with no name, I would continually bump into her over the next few days – and I just sat at the bar with Chris, drinking away. Three o’clock came and went. Seeing Bob attempt to walk back down the steps into the bar from an excursion into the open air was the funniest thing I have seen for ages. Four o’clock came and went. I was in still no mood to leave.

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

There was then a very intense “domestic” between the barman and his wife. Then the bar owner showed up and things started to unravel. There was a tense moment of monies being counted and recounted and it all got a bit heated. It was as if Bob, Chris and I were watching some great Shakespearean tragedy unfold in front of our eyes. At about six o’clock – light outside now of course – and after the two Arsenal lads left, I was alone with a beer.

In walked Carl and Ryan from my old haunting ground of Stoke-on-Trent (last featured in the Barcelona away report from last season, another ridiculous night) and three lads from Gloucester. They were newly arrived in town, and had to kill a few hours before being able to book in.

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

I wasn’t sure who was more surprised to see each other. Chelsea laughs and Chelsea giggles all over. A Chelsea / Gloucester flag was draped from the bar ceiling. At last I had met some Chelsea fans in Baku. The drinking continued – at a slow pace, I hasten to add, I was in no rush – and the night didn’t want to end. Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel with the early morning sun warming my back.

Tuesday 28 May : 11pm – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

My hotel room had “occasional wifi” and I was able to observe during Tuesday how many friends and acquaintances were arriving into town. I trotted down to the centre and it was just so odd to be in Europe with Chelsea yet to hear another English team’s songs echoing around the streets. I aimed for “The William Shakespeare” on the main street for bars in Baku. On the intersection of this street and another, I spotted Will and Noah about to tuck in to some food in a street side café.

“Good to see you!”

They had thoroughly enjoyed Tblisi, but were now relishing the delights of Baku.

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

At last, a time for the gathering of the clans.

The “Shakespeare” pub was busy and getting busier by the minute.

Virtually the first people that I met were Andy and his daughter Sophie. I was especially pleased to see them because – I am sure they will not mind me mentioning it – Andy’s wife Karen passed away just after Christmas. If anyone remembers, I heard about it just minutes before the start of our game at Selhurst Park. I was just so pleased that they had been able to make it. I first met Andy – to talk to – on Wenceslas Square in Prague right after our afternoon game in Jablonec twenty-five years ago, although I had recognised him from my train journeys to London from the midlands as way back as 1985. I have known Sophie since she was a very young girl.

Bless them both.

I soon met up with Luke and Aroha and their pals, then Dave and Neil. Then Russ, Albert, Nathan and Shari from Australia. Callum. Eva. Carl and Ryan, the two Stokies. Nick from Weymouth. Martin from Gloucester. Calvin. A few more. I bumped into Orlin, another good lad who has featured in these tales for many years. I first met him before an Arsenal away game in April 2012, ironically in “The Shakespeare Tavern” at Victoria, and we would meet up again in Turin, Tokyo, Bucharest, Istanbul, Porto, Vienna and – er – Sunderland. We very rarely see each other at Stamford Bridge. He lives partly in San Francisco and partly in Serbia. He is a lovely bloke. There were a few fellow Chelsea Bulgaria in the pub. They are quite well known to the regulars at Chelsea. They are good lads.

Respect to the four Chelsea fans based in Australia, who I met out in Perth, who had travelled.

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

They would be part of a little band – of ten – who were in Perth and would be in Baku.

From the UK – Cathy, Rich, Scott, Paul, myself.

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

A few of us jumped into cabs and headed off to the 360 Bar for 9pm. My booth was waiting for me. Ruslan, the barman who looked after me on Sunday, welcomed me and we ordered some drinks and a little food. The others – Aroha, Doreen, Luke, Russ, plus three of Luke’s mates – loved it. The views were again stunning. We all then met up at “The Shakespeare” for community singing. We had heard that Arsenal had commandeered two pubs – “Finnegans” and the smaller “Red Lion.” As far as we could tell, we just had “The Shakespeare.” I don’t think this was anything official. It just transpired to be like this. All three pubs were within fifty yards of each other, like the trenches in the First World War. Throughout the evening, there were no police mobbed up outside our pub, unlike many European aways. There was a very laid back – surreal – atmosphere. I am not so sure there would have been the same vibe if Tottenham had been in town. In the pub, one song dominated the night. At one stage, with me trying to order a beer at the bar, it went on for bloody ever.

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was a fantastic rendition of “Blue Day” too. Everyone singing. Very emotional. Magical. And – of course – “The Liquidator.”

I bumped into, quite unintentionally, four Chelsea fans from the US; Jean, who I had met in “Simmons” at a European game during the season, Robert, James and Paul. Three from Texas and one from new Jersey. Three new acquaintances, and one re-connection. In fact, there was a gentle influx of Chelsea fans from outside the UK. Lots of scarves. Lots of replica shirts. They looked both amazed and bemused at the same time. We moved next-door, and downstairs, to another bar, and I then traipsed over to see how the two bartenders at “Harry’s Bar” were shaping up. All was good, but it was desperately quiet. I wondered how on earth they survived on such little turnover. I bought some pizzas for us and left there at 5am. Bloody hell.

Wednesday 29 May : 5pm – Fan Festival, Baku.

Match ticket in hand, obtained from the Landmark Hotel, I made my way back in to town. I walked in the shade as the sun was still beating down. I met up with Steve down at the Fan Festival. He had popped into the Hilton earlier, had spotted Florent Malouda and Deco, but also the extremely well packaged UEFA Cup (sorry, Europa League Trophy) as it arrived from Nyon in Switzerland. He hoped that the spotting of it was a good sign for him, for Chelsea, for all of us.

I had strolled into the Hilton too, just after the collection of the ticket, and used their wifi again. There were UEFA signs everywhere. I was half-hoping to bump into a famous player from the past, but I saw nobody of note. But you can just imagine what high-level schmoozing had been happening in this building over the past few days. Of course there had been much wailing about the decision to reward Azerbaijan with this year’s final. I have tried to be as objective as possible. Isn’t it right that every member nation within UEFA should host a major final at least once in their existence?

Er, yes.

But then it gets cloudy. I have always advocated the placing of the major finals to be within a central area of Europe, with the majority of host cities to run from Lisbon and Porto in the west to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and up as far as Copenhagen or Stockholm in the north, down through to Warsaw to Budapest in the east and down as far as Rome and Naples in the south. Ninety-five percent of likely finalists would be encompassed within that area. With the emergence of formerly Soviet states and the splintered Balkan states, maybe the odd and occasional flit – as has happened – to Istanbul, Kiev and Moscow.

But Baku?

It is the most easterly outpost of UEFA, not taking into the vast hinterland of Russia which lies east of Moscow.

It always was a mad decision.

But it was all about money, wasn’t it? It was all about Baku fancying itself as a Dubai on the Caspian Sea – oil rich and eager to impress on the global stage –  and UEFA went hand-in-hand with it all. The final straw was UEFA’s awful explanation for the awarding of so few tickets to the finalists. They themselves admitted that it would be a ridiculously difficult place for most fans to reach. It is enough to make anyone want to cry. UEFA might be financially rich but they are morally bankrupt.

I took some photos of the huge Azerbaijan flag which fluttering away like a flame. Its colours are horizontal bars of green, red and blue. Although the colours represent Islam, progress and its Turkic heritage – thank you Wikipedia – my take on it is this.

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

In footballing terms, I found it easy to work it all out.

Blue – Chelsea – above red – Arsenal – above green – the pitch.

Sorted.

Back at the hotel, a quick freshen up and out again.

I had, unremarkably, not thought too much about the game at all. The match would take care of itself. If pressed, I would say that we were slight if not firm favourites. There certainly wasn’t the fear of Munich in 2012. The vibe matched that of Stockholm in 1998 and Amsterdam in 2013. I was quietly confident.

The game was at 11pm, and I hit “The Shakespeare” at 7pm. I took it easy. I had enjoyed a few “cokes” during the day. I only had three beers before the game. I had a wry smile at the sight of a few working girls trying to muster up some business in the pub. On the night of a European Cup Final, with the kick-off approaching, they had surely miss-read their customer base? The crowds started drifting towards the stadium. About ten of us – all together, looking after each other – walked the fifteen minutes to Sahil metro station. We were on our way.

Wednesday 29 May : 10pm – Koroghlu Metro Station, Baku.

Out into the warm Baku night, and the stadium, burning with the orange and yellow hues of UEFA’s newest trophy just a few hundred yards ahead, we walked on. There were Arsenal voices and Chelsea voices now. The most voluble ones were from the UK. But of course there were other fans from near and far too. And I began to notice other club shirts. I had seen one or two Eintracht Frankfurt shirts in the city; it was obvious many had gambled, like me, but had lost. But there were Galatasary and Fenerbahce shirts. There were Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts. There were shirts from the local Azerbaijani league. It was all very strange. I walked on, but then excused myself from the others as I tried to capture a few photos of the stadium’s striking exterior. Just eighteen months previously, the stadium’s shell was more delicately coloured with shades of pink, lavender, red, purple and white. On that night, I circumnavigated the stadium alone and took some photos too. I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Who should walk past me but Orlin, who I had bumped into the previous day just outside my hotel in the old city. It was typical of the week that I would keep seeing the same faces. In addition to the girl with no name, I also kept bumping into a local who I had asked for directions while looking for my hotel, and also a policeman who kept appearing near my hotel. I called them my guardian angels. Orlin had taken the free bus from the muster point near Sahil Park, but had been dropped off a good fifteen-minute walk away from the stadium. He was far from impressed. I think our choice of the metro – free for three days with use of a match ticket – was the better option.

The photographs continued.

Wednesday 29 May : 11pm – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

I had reached my seat with about fifteen minutes to go. On the pitch, the last few moments of a quite inappropriate musical sequence were taking place. It was all very “Superbowl” and all very tedious. Where is my “go to” comment about modern football? Ah, there it is.

I hate modern football.

The booming noise emanating from the speakers meant that there was simply no point in us even attempting any Chelsea songs and chants. It seemed that the event was bigger than us, far bigger. It felt like we were just pawns rather than kings. I looked around the stadium. There were empty seats everywhere. I glanced over at the Arsenal section. The thin sliver was pretty packed apart from a half-full upper deck, not too far from where we had watched the Qarabag game – getting increasingly colder – not so long ago. There was a mixture of fans in jeans and shorts. It was a warm night and very pleasant, despite the late kick-off slot. I spotted a few familiar faces. Kev from Port Talbot – one of those on the two Thomas Cook flights from Luton – was down below me. Kisses and handshakes for the “Bristol lot” as they walked past me. I had chosen the most expensive seat available – as had many people I know by the look of it – and I was rewarded with a seat in line with the goal line. It would prove to be a treasure, a gift from the footballing Gods.

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

Through the smoke of the fireworks, I was just able to take a photograph of the teams on the far side.

Phew. Here it is then.

My game number fifty-six, from Australia to Azerbaijan.

The team was not a surprise, but we were of course greatly relieved to see N’Golo Kante starting. Emerson and not Alonso, a big game for the lad. Giroud upfront, good. Pedro instead of Willian.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

For Arsenal, I was only interested to see if Petr Cech was playing.

He was.

Before the match, before the trip, I had been quite sincere with a prediction of a “0-0 then penalties”.

The game began and I had to make my first decision. Although the section to my left – behind the goal – was standing, most in my section were sat. I saw that Kev and Gary were stood a few rows in front, but it looked like I would be forced to sit. I felt terrible about sitting. It felt like I had lost the battle. I didn’t sit in Stockholm, nor Moscow, nor Munich, nor Amsterdam. I glanced across at the Arsenal section. They all seemed to be standing.

Bollocks.

Not long into the game, I saw a chap wearing a black Manchester United jersey file past me and I could not resist a few words of abuse. In front of me was a bloke in a Galatasaray shirt. To my right, no more than ten seats away, was a bloke in an Arsenal shirt.

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

And how on Earth had these fools managed to get tickets in the 6,000 Chelsea section? I would really love to know that.

A large stadium that was barely two-thirds full. Other team supporters sitting in our section. Chelsea supporters from the UK split up over three tiers. Chelsea fans sitting. Hardly any noise, nor songs, nor chants, nor laughter, nor atmosphere. Because of the factors mentioned, it was a truly agonising first-half. It was horrible. It was one of the worst halves of my footballing life. It was a totally shameful atmosphere. It honestly felt like a summer tour game in the US or Thailand or Australia. I will be honest, the pre-season game against Arsenal in Beijing in 2017 was way louder.

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

Many times during the first forty-five minutes, I felt that this was the end of the road for me. It was that upsetting.

On the pitch, it was a very quiet start, with lots of shadow boxing. Arsenal had more possession, though, and Aubameyang’s shot flashed wide of Kepa’s post after ten minutes. There were general mutterings of unrest in the seats around me as Arsenal continued to dominate. However, a penalty appeal involving Lacazette as he lept over Kepa never looked like resulting in a penalty, despite the audible howls from the Arsenal section. In that first-half, I could discern a few chants from that end. Our end seemed to be ball watching, not involved, distant. Slowly, Chelsea woke up and began to get involved. Kante, who had worried me in the first quarter of the game with a few odd errors, broke down the right and his cross towards the near post towards Giroud had us on our feet. sadly, the Frenchmen’s feet got tangled and the chance was lost. Pedro had been free just behind him.

Xhaka struck a very fine effort towards goal, and the rising drive clipped the top of our bar.

At last the game was evolving, slowly, into a final worthy of the name.

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

Emerson and Hazard were linking up well on the far side. Occasionally, Eden would wander over to the other flank. A turn, a spin and a twist would result in Arsenal defenders reaching for their sat nav. Emerson forced a block from Cech. With five minutes to go before half-time, a fine move involving Jorginho and Hazard ended with the ball at Giroud’s feet. He pushed the ball into space and shot low with his left foot – not a clean strike – but Cech was able to drop to his left and push the ball around the post.

I met up with Kev and Gary at half-time and we formed “The Baku Half-Time Moaners Club.”

You can imagine our chat. Back at my seat, I wondered if we were in for another second-half implosion, our motif of the whole season.

Thursday 30 May : Midnight – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The second-half began with Kovacic and Giroud in the centre-circle. A push of the ball backwards and we were away again. Eden was immediately a live-wire and he seemed to suddenly have more space than before. After just five minutes, the ball was played to Emerson, not so far away from me, about ten yards in from the touchline. I snapped my camera as he struck a cross towards the waiting Giroud. The ball was waist high and our striker fell to his knees to meet it, some fifteen yards out, reaching the flight of the ball just before Koscielny could react. His header was perfection. I watched as it flew low into the corner of the net past Cech’s hopeless dive.

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

My camera did not capture the header but although I was boiling over inside, I remained calm enough to capture the scorer drop to his knees and point both forefingers to the skies, eyes closed. Giroud had found his footballing nirvana.

Section 114 was going doolally.

Team mates swarmed around. Some dropped to their knees too. A kiss from Jorginho for Emerson, the supplier of the killer cross. Photos taken, I was able to punch the air and scream and shout.

GET IN.

It was the Frenchman’s eleventh goal in Europe this year. Thoughts of him being a former Arsenal player fizzed through my mind.

Ha.

It was all Chelsea now. Prompted by Jorginho, Kovacic and Hazard ran at the troubled Arsenal rear guard. The Chelsea section, on life-support in the first-half, was now roaring back to life. And for the rest of the game I stood. This was more like it, Chelsea. Then minutes after the first goal, Hazard was allowed too much time and space in the Arsenal final third – “table for one, sir?” – and spotted Pedro lurking on the edge of the box. He rolled the ball square. Pedro clipped it in.

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

Pete suddenly appeared next to me, holding two plastic glasses of “Amstel.”

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

Lager never tasted sweeter. I gulped my pint down pronto. I had to, since I was worried about missing another goal and another photo. My very next photo was of Pedro holding off a challenge in the “D”, the next was of him pushing the ball through to Giroud, the next the challenge by Maitland-Niles.

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

Eden Hazard vs. Peter Cech, team mates from 2012 to 2015, squared-up against each other.

Eden drilled it home.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

The bloke in front of me commented “your voice has gone” and I smiled. I felt like saying “that is because I have been singing all second-half unlike you, you twat” but I felt better of it. The two gents to my immediate right – from the UK, dressed in the monstrosity of next season’s home shirt – hardly sang all night. Why do these people fucking bother?

Four minutes later, the substitute Iwobi unleashed a fierce rising volley – I was right behind the flight of the ball, it was a stunner – that flew into our goal.

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

Yet only three minutes later, a wonderful break from Chelsea saw Hazard exchange passes with Giroud in the box – the lofted “dink” from Giroud was world class, the highlight of the match for me – and this allowed Eden to smash the ball home.

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

I photographed the immediate aftermath. I knew straight away that my photo of Hazard, arms spread, and Cech, crestfallen, was a winner. That £121 seat was paying dividends alright. Only from that vantage point could I have taken that photo. I was a happy man.

There was a song for Gianfranco Zola and he responded with a wave from the bench.

In the last part of the game, Maurizio Sarri made some changes. Just before our fourth goal, Willian replaced Pedro. Then Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic. Willian twice went close with efforts, Cech saved from Hazard. Eden was then fouled, he looked injured, and he was substituted. I captured virtually every step of his last few seconds as a Chelsea player. A hug from Willian, an embrace from Giroud.

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

With the local time at 00.50am, the referee from Italy blew the final whistle.

We had only bloody won it.

Thursday 30 May : 1.30am – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The cup was lifted at 1.05am. There was no Wembley-style ascent to a balcony that happened in Munich and Amsterdam, but the same on-the-pitch presentation of Stockholm. Dave and Gary – how English, like two van drivers – lifted the iconic trophy. It really is a beauty. Dave then spent the next twenty minutes kissing the trophy and I was tempted to shout “get a room.” These were joyous times in deepest Baku.

4-1.

Bloody hell.

We usually squeak by in Cup Finals. Four bloody one. Unbelievable. We heard that Eden was, quite rightly, the man of the match. They all played well. Special mentions for Kovacic, Jorginho, and even David Luiz did well. I just bathed in the glory of it all. These nights do not come around too often. After that odd first-half, in which we gradually became stronger, we just exploded in the second-half. We were afforded so much space in the middle of the pitch and in the attacking third. Jorginho was in the middle of all of it, and once balls were released to our runners, I could not believe the ease with which we found each other. Arsenal seemed unwilling to challenge, or – to be blunt – even compete. At times we were miles too good for them. Maybe, here in Baku, almost three thousand miles from home, we had seen the season’s high water mark of our beleaguered manager’s playing style.

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

“And Arsenal don’t get Champions League football next season.”

“What a second-half.”

In my mind I was thinking all sorts of odd things.

…”bloody hell, I have never seen Chelsea play in Ipswich, but I have seen us play in Baku twice.”

…”God, that first-half was awful, though.”

…”thinking of Parky and PD and Gal and Al and Glenn and Daryl and Ed.”

…”we always score four in Baku.”

…”God, how many photos am I going to have to sift through from that game?”

I took blissful snaps of Kev and Gary, Dave, Leigh and JD.

Everyone smiling.

At last the players walked over to the Chelsea section. They massed by the curving area behind the goal then – again, so lucky – chose to hoist the cup once more right in front of myself and others in section 114. I was a lucky man once more. It will surprise nobody to hear that I was one of the last out of the stadium. At 1.30am, I took a single photograph of my seat in Baku and collected my, unused, souvenir flag, and stuffed it in my camera bag. I made my way to the exits, I was a happy man.

Incidentally, the attendance would be announced as 51,000 in a 67,000 capacity stadium.

A ridiculous figure really. It should have been packed to the rafters.

However, chew on this. At Liverpool’s first-ever European Cup Final in Rome in 1977, involving Borussia Mönchengladbach, the attendance was just 52,000 in a 65,000 stadium.

Thursday 30 May : 5am – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

“I told you seeing the cup at The Hilton was a sign.”

We hugged.

I met up with Calvin, who had just been separated from his father, at the long line for the metro. I had been on my feet for a couple of hours and I was starting to tire. Calvin was good company on that painful journey back in to town. Just like in Munich, I think  I was on the last train. In 2017, it was a much easier – and quicker – journey. On that day, with tickets more keenly priced – ours were £4.50 – over 67,000 attended. Crucially, though, we were well ahead at half-time and many left early. But tonight, damn, the movement out and onto the tube took forever.

At about 2.30am, we flopped on the red line into town. We scowled at a lad who was wearing both a Liverpool shirt and scarf.

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

Exhausted, we plodded back to Chelsea Central; we reached “The Shakespeare” at about 3am. Back with all the people that I had met over the past few days, this was a magical time. Drinks were consumed, songs were sung, all the old favourites. I loved a Jam and then a Style Council segment at about 4am.

“I was half in mind I was half in need
And as the rain came down I dropped to my knees and I prayed.
I said “oh heavenly thing please cleanse my soul
I’ve seen all on offer and I’m not impressed at all.”

I was halfway home I was half insane
And every shop window I looked in just looked the same.
I said send me a sign to save my life
‘Cause at this moment in time there is nothing certain in these days of mine.

We see, it’s a frightening thing when it dawns upon you
That I know as much as the day I was born
And though I wasn’t asked (I might as well stay)
And promise myself each and every day that is

That when you’re knocked on your back an’ your life’s a flop
And when you’re down on the bottom there’s nothing else
But to shout to the top shout.
Well, we’re gonna shout to the top.”

I had not spotted Luke and Aroha since before the game and when I saw them enter the pub, I shouted over to them. This made the person next to me turn around to see who was shouting. Bloody hell, it was Orlin.

“Bloody hell man, how long have you been stood there?”

We crumpled with laughter. I then spotted Alex and Alan from Moscow, the first Chelsea that I had met on this trip way back in Istanbul. Everyone together. Just right. I did not want this night to end. There are photographs of these hours on the internet and they will become priceless reminders of “that night in Baku.” Eventually, the bar turfed us out at 6am.

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

I made do with my second hot dog of the trip on Fountain Square. I returned to the hotel, but my head was still buzzing. I uploaded some photographs from my camera to share on Facebook. I shared the one of Eden Hazard and Peter Cech on Instagram. I was just glad the wifi had decided to work. At 7.30am I was still chatting to pals all over the world. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Thursday 30 May : 8pm – Qazmac Restaurant, Old City, Baku.

I was out in the evening again, relaxing at my own pace in a lovely restaurant opposite where those antiquated huts used to stand on Kickik Qala. I had chosen a light salad and some mutton kebabs. The waiter suggested some bread – fine – but he also recommended some local butter and some caviar. I thought “why not, when in Rome.” Imagine my surprise when he brought out a sizeable pot of the stuff. I asked him “how much is that?” just at the exact moment that he pierced the top of the sealed container.

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

“Whooooah, hang on one minute, I’m not paying that.”

I remember having caviar – for the only time in my life – on a little French stick in Vienna in 1987. It was just a taste then, and I had visions of a very small portion this time too. I clearly wasn’t prepared to pay £100 for a great pot of the bloody stuff. Thankfully, the waiter understood and that was that. But I enjoyed my meal. It was wonderful. With a beer and some lovely ice-cream it came to £12.50. Superb. It had been a relaxing day. No surprises, I had slept well. As my father might have said of my bed in room 304, “it has a lot of sleep in it.”

My main objective on this day was to head over to visit the splendour of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. It was an hour’s walk – I was tempted, I Iove a good walk in a foreign city – but as my match ticket enabled me to travel for free on the city’s metro for one further day, I made use of it. Rain was spotting as walked up to Icarisharer tube, but it soon stopped. I spent an hour or so walking around the curves of the building. This structure was also featured in that TV programme about Baku. I felt as if I knew all about it. Sadly, as there was a concert taking place, I was unable to go inside. Along with a visit to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old city, and that odd site of Yanar Dag to the north-east of the city where there is an eternal flame burning non-stop from natural gasses from deep inside the earth, it will have to wait until my next visit to Baku.

On the second day of my 2018/19 season, I found myself walking around the famous curves of the Sydney Opera House. On this second-from-last day of the season, here I was outside the equally sublime and beautiful curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku.

Where next? The iconic lines of Preston Bus Station? Watch this space.

I loved it there. I loved the use of space. The undulating roof of the building is wonderful. And the whole structure sits on top of a gentle incline, and there is subtle use of grass and reflecting ponds. Typically, there was a large replica of the Europa League trophy at the base of the hill. It combined well with a “I Love Baku” sign. On this visit, the sky above was full of brilliantly fluffy clouds. Dotted around the grass lawns were odd concrete casts of snails and rabbits. It was like a surreal dream. It was bloody fantastic. It is no surprise that it is placed right on the main road into the city. It is surely Baku’s most stunning building.

To cap off another memorable day, I dived in to see a few pals – a couple of pints with Dave who was soon to be heading off to Kiev for one night – in “The Shakespeare” and made another trip down for some beers at “Harry’s Bar.” There were warm welcomes in both. I could hear some Arsenal chants from inside “The Red Lion.”

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

I’ll be honest. I bumped into two small parties of Arsenal that night – from Amersham, and then from Manchester – and they were fine. They were just so fed up with their team and their club.

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

On my last day in Baku, I was out on a half-day tour in a little mini-bus, to see the ancient cave etchings of the Gobustan National Park. I had booked this back in England. Imagine the look on my face when I saw Will and Noah waiting outside the travel agency.

“Of all the people we wanted to see. Hello, Chris.”

What a small world, eh? From a plane at Heathrow to a fifteen-seater in Baku. As I clambered aboard the mini-bus, who else should be on the vehicle but Margaret and Roy, two of the most loyal Chelsea supporters ever. They follow all of Chelsea’s teams, not just the first team like me, all over. I remember bumping into Roy at Bristol City’s training ground in around 2009 when we both watched a couple of Chelsea academy games on a Saturday morning. Again, what a small world. It was a four-hour trip. Alongside Will, Noah and myself was a chap called Tommy – an Arsenal supporter, from London – who turned out to be one of the most boring football supporters that I have ever met. I could not help bristling every time he referred to his team as “The Arsenal.” It is a pet hate of my good pal Alan too, and I thought of him every time I heard it. It did make me smile, though, when Tommy admitted to me “I wish we had Abramovich.”

Game. Set. Match.

The tour took us out on an hour drive to the south west of the city. The Gobustan stone carvings were quite fascinating, but it also gave me a chance to see a little of the scenery outside the city. There were oil rigs in the Caspian Sea and new houses being constructed alongside the roads. There was an abandoned Azerbaijani version of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and an unappetising beach resort. There were oil, water and gas pipelines snaking over the arid landscape, and the inevitable oil refineries. Two companies dominate; BP and Socar. The tour guide was an interesting character; formerly an army captain, formerly an off-shore worker, and a hater of caviar. In his youth, caviar was cheaper than meat and his mother used to feed him it daily. He now can’t stand the stuff.

We were given a tour of the caves. At the end, he led us to the oldest carving of the morning.

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

“Yeah, it depicts the Tottenham captain lifting their last league trophy.”

Friday 31 May : 7.30pm – Fountain Square, Baku.

After a meal in a pleasant restaurant – more salad, more kebabs – I was walking back through Fountain Square. I walked past a local father and son. I overheard the young boy mention Chelsea and Arsenal. I turned around and smiled. I intimated that I was Chelsea and gave the boy a thumbs up. The father explained –

“He wants to know of the history of Chelsea.”

I felt like stopping them, marching them into a café, sitting them down, turning on Google-translate, and entertaining them for three hours.

Later that evening, well aware that I had booked a cab to take me to the airport at 2am, I took it easy. There were some more photographs. I took around 1,750 over the week. My camera is my great companion on these trips around the world with Chelsea. There was time for an iconic shot of a roadside poster of the competing teams and UEFA logos right next to the historic, twelfth century Maiden Tower. Hopefully, another winner.

I sat next to some fountains in a little park on the main boulevard on the shore of the Caspian. I sat alone with my thoughts for many a minute.  I tried to take it all in. One moment touched me. A toddler reached out for her mother’s hand and they walked off together. It was a sweet moment, a lovely moment. I have no children and I do not generally harbour regrets. But this little moment obviously stirred me. At that moment, although not life-defining, I did ponder how different my life might have been had I become a father at some stage.

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

I made one last tour of my two favourite watering holes of the trip. I shared some laughs and some drinks – Cokes for me, I wanted to stay fresh – with Martin from Gloucester in “The Shakespeare” which was returning to some sort of normality after the recent madness.

After a quick visit to “Harry’s Bar”, I decided to head back to the hotel at about 11.30pm. The girl with no name raced after me after she saw me walking past “The Shakespeare.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Not sure, maybe when Chelsea play here again.”

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

I would indeed take a cab from the hotel to the Baku airport. There would be a 5am flight to Moscow, a two-and-a-half hour wait at the city’s Sheremetyevo Airport, another Aeroflot flight back to Heathrow. I would land early at just before midday on the Saturday morning and Russ would soon be there to meet me.

It would soon be all over; the trip, the travels, and the season.

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

Tuesday 18 July : 6.00pm – Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia.

Glenn and I had spent three days in Sydney, and had picked up a car on the fourth day of the trip. We set off to see the Blue Mountains, stopping off at the windy town of Katoomba. We were headed later that afternoon towards Coonabarabran, a good four-hour drive. With the light just starting to fade a little, we made the wrong turning in an old-style outpost called Gulgong, and soon found ourselves on what is known in Australia as a corrugated road. It means that it is not tarmac, not asphalt, not concrete, not paved, but simply a dirt track that has become rutted through use. With the fuel tank showing a red light, I was starting to get a little agitated. I had visions of us running out of fuel on a farm track, miles from anywhere. The road conditions deteriorated a little. I was keen to head back to Gulgong, but Glenn was more gung-ho. After about twenty minutes of lonely driving, we spotted a chap – a farmer – on a quad bike, towing some sort of contraption, away to our right in a field full of alpacas. We slowed down and shouted over to him. He bounded over.

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

Indeed, we were. His statement made us chuckle, but it reassured us. As long as he knew where we were, we were evidently not lost.

We were here.

Panic over.

And it has certainly seemed that, on many occasions this season that we – Chelsea Football Club in a very broad sense, but its supporters on various levels too – have been “lost.” It has felt like our journey was going nowhere. That we had no leadership at any level. That we were rudderless. And at times beyond hope.

But we were never lost.

We were a top six club, and would end up a top three club. At the end of it all, we would reach two cup finals. We would end up with silverware for the third consecutive season. We would end up with our fifteenth major trophy since 2000.

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.