Tales From Super Bock City.

Sporting Lisbon vs. Chelsea : 30 September 2014.

Monday 29 September 2014.

This was a long-awaited trip to Lisbon in Portugal for our first Champions League away game of 2014-2015. Of course, there were many reasons for this; relaxation, travel, football, comradeship and all of the standard words and hackneyed phrases could be thrown in to the mix. But there was one distinct reason why this “European Away” would be a little bit special; it would be Parky’s first Chelsea away in Europe since the ECWC Final in Stockholm in 1998. Of course, I never knew him then as our paths would cross a few years later. But we’ve become solid mates over the past five or six seasons. It hurts me to say that Parky missed Moscow, Munich and Amsterdam and all other cities too since that memorable night in Sweden over sixteen years ago. This would hopefully be a thoroughly enjoyable trip for him.

I woke at 3am – truly the dead of night – and, in an hour, I was off on another adventure over land and sea. It would be my twenty-ninth away game in Europe with Chelsea.

It was a foggy drive through the dark Somerset and Wiltshire countryside on the twenty-five minute trip to collect Parky. I had decided to call him “Parkao” for this trip and this trip only.

I soon sent a text to Alan in London to let him know that I was on the road.

“Jak Kerouacao.”

He replied “Reg Varney.”

He was on a night bus in order to catch a coach up to Stansted Airport.

Parkao was buzzing as I collected him at 4.30am. We drove through Bath, and then headed up to Bristol Airport for our 7.05am Easyjet flight to Faro. The check-in process was delayed a few moments as Parkao’s metal leg brace set off the security alarms. After several attempts, he was successfully scanned.

He cost £1.72.

Once on the plane, I texted Alan again :

“Freddy Laker.”

He replied “Al Murray.”

He was obviously in the bar at Stansted. We would be all in the same hotel later in the day.

There was a slight delay as we waited for the food for the flight to arrive. The steward lost some credibility when he claimed that they needed the food on the plane to help balance the load. I remarked to Parkao “I’ve never heard a plane crash ‘cus it was missing a few sandwiches.” Eventually, we were up, up and away over Somerset, Devon and then over the channel, France, Spain and Portugal. We grabbed a little sleep. The time soon passed. The only surprise was that there was no other Chelsea on it. We were headed to Faro, on The Algarve, because the only option out of Bristol to Lisbon involved a Sunday to Thursday stay. The plane touched down at a sun-drenched Faro at around 9.45am. We caught the 11am “Vera” coach to Lisbon and we could relax.

I first visited Lisbon on the third of my Inter-Railing trips around Europe by train in 1987. I and two college mates – Ian and Trev – had graduated in the June and had worked a few jobs over the summer in order to get away for three weeks in September. We arrived in Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia station after an overnight train from Madrid. My memory is that we only stayed a couple of hours in the Portugal capital – just passing through on the way to The Algarve – but my diary entry for Tuesday 15 September 1987 informs me that we arrived at 9am, and caught the 2.10pm ferry over the River Tagus to Barreiro, so were in the city for longer than I thought. There was time for a stroll around the streets – the weather was very hot – and also time for a couple of beers in a street side café. I remember being taken aback by the sad sight of beggars without limbs at the station, and several people tried to sell us some hash. I also remember fake Lacoste polo shirts on sale by the ferry terminal, which abutted the main square. The city looked fascinating, with ornate architecture, wide piazzas and there were hints of a rich history. It felt horrible to be only in town for four hours. As the ferry took us over the massive river, I vowed to return one day.

I believe that Chelsea played Benfica in a friendly around fifteen years ago and also – for certain – in the 2011/2012 Champions League season, but I did not attend those games in Lisbon. Of course, our defeat by Atletico Madrid last April meant that there would be no Chelsea trip to Lisbon in May 2014, either. However, I had already booked a flight to Lisbon and hotel in Albufeira and so decided to go over for a few days’ break anyway. Hundreds of other Chelsea fans had exactly the same opinion. My stay in Lisbon in May was even shorter than in 1987. Before catching a train south, I just had time for a few beers in a quiet bar near the slightly run-down area around the Entre Campos station.

As I sat, alone, in that small bar it felt like I should be there for a Chelsea game. It was a very odd sensation. I kept expecting friends to poke their heads around the door to join me for a brew. Little did I know that I would be back in just over four months and that the hotel I would choose would only be half-a-mile away from that very bar.

It was a fine, relaxing trip north. The coach was air-conditioned and the scenery – at first the white villas of The Algarve, then the green hills, then the arid farmland – was excellent. We caught up on yet more sleep – maybe an hour at most – before we eventually noticed the suburbs around Setubal. We soon saw the deep red supports of the April 25 Bridge, which majestically spans the River Tagus, then the formidable statue of Christ the King which looks down on humanity from the south bank of the river. It is very similar to the Christ the Redeemer in Rio. We were soon heading over the bridge and our welcome to Lisbon could not have been any more dramatic. The city centre, kissed by a hot afternoon sun, and shimmering to our right, looked magnificent, with hills rising up from the river to the suburbs in the distance. I spotted the iconic Monument to the Discoveries, on the river bank, to my left. With an eye for such things, I soon spotted the spindles of the Belenenses floodlights too. They are the city’s third football team, and if we are to believe, Jose Mourinho’s first love. He played for them many years ago, though not to any great standard. Ahead, was the aqueduct, which I photographed from the train in May. The city was quite beguiling. It was fantastic.

“What a welcome, Parkao.”

We soon located our hotel and had a little chat with the receptionists.

“Are you over here for the football?”

“Yes…Chelsea.”

“Tomorrow, we are with you.”

They were the first of the many Benfica fans that we would encounter during our stay.

A helpful lady assisted in our fumbling attempts to buy metro tickets and we soon alighted at Restauradores in the heart of the city. The sun was beating down and everything looked perfect. We spotted Alan and Gary outside a bar in the corner of Praca Dom Pedro IV. The steins of Superbock – around two pints apiece – were just seven euros. A few familiar Chelsea fans – Brighton Tony and his mates – joined us, then a few others.

“And relax.”

The only negative part of all this was the ridiculous amount of flies which kept buzzing around.

“Maybe there’s a Spurs fan nearby.”

We spent the best part of three hours sat outside in the afternoon sun and it was just brilliant. On the subway back to the hotel, we were a giggling quartet of silliness.

Parkao was in his element.

From Gary and Alan there was an array of double-entendres. The ensuing ribald laughter from all four of us caused a few glances to be aimed our way.

“I hope none of you can speak English” I begged to the others in the compartment.

After a quick shower, we were out on the town at 8.30pm. We headed south again, but had no idea where we would end up. We decided to go for a meal in an Italian restaurant on the large piazza which overlooks the river, and where I undoubtedly visited, albeit briefly, in 1987. We were soon joined by my mate Foxy, who I first met in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships. He was with his good lady Ashley and also Kev, a Hearts and Chelsea supporter from Edinburgh. The banter began again. The restaurant was superb, though quite quiet. It was, after all, only a Monday.

I politely enquired what factors resulted in Kev becoming a Chelsea fan. Foxy supports Dundee United – fine by me, I’ve had a soft spot for them since Peter Bonetti and Eamonn Bannon signed for them in 1979 – and his Chelsea roots are well known to me. I was just intrigued to hear Kev’s story. I’m well aware of the Chelsea/Rangers link, and also the Chelsea/Hearts partnership. You often see Rangers and Hearts flags at our away games. I suppose I wanted to know what inspired Kev to choose us as his other team. His reply pleased me; he mentioned Eamonn Bannon, who we signed from the Jambos in 1979, but also mentioned the name of Tommy Walker, a famous Hearts player, manager and director, who also played for us in the immediate post-war years. Additionally, for seven successive seasons in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, Chelsea played friendlies against Heart of Midlothian at the behest of Tommy Walker; at Tynecastle one year, at The Bridge the next. I mentioned my two visits to Tynecastle – the first way back in 1982 – and we became misty-eyed with the thoughts of those deep terraces, maroon stands, claustrophobic setting amidst the Gorgie tenements and the odorous fumes wafting over the spectators from the nearby brewery.

After another beer with a few more Chelsea fans outside another bar, we decided to take a cab to the lively Bairro Alto to the immediate west of the centre. The cab turned and twisted up steep and narrow streets until we reached the summit. Small sets of traffic lights allowed single-file cars to drive small sections of narrow roads. We peered in to an Irish bar as some Chelsea fans were singing “Willian.” The area was jumping. For a Monday night, it was amazing. Street vendors tried to sell us all sorts of tat. We took refuge in a small bar as it pumped out some dance music. I began with a mojito, and then got stuck into three morangoska cocktails, which were just unbelievable. These were made with strawberries, blackberry juice, sugar and vodka. They were beastly black. They tasted magnificent but were undoubtedly evil.

As the night grew older, there were more giggles bouncing off the buildings of Bairro Alto.

“Having a good time, Parkao?”

“It sure beats Trowbridge on a Monday night, son.”

There were back-packing types, international students, and locals milling around the cobbled streets, filling the night air with alcohol-induced merriment. My memories are unsurprisingly vague…

However, rather disappointingly, the bars closed at 2am and we shuffled along, past a posse of chanting Chelsea fans, towards a cab rank. We reluctantly returned back to the hotel. It will surprise nobody to hear that we did not discuss the game once the whole night.

One photo, sadly deleted in error, showed all four of us in the hotel lift, pointing our tongues out; all were blackberry black.

It had been a top night in Lisbon.

Tuesday 30 September 2014.

At 9am my alarm sounded just as I had dreamt that Andre Schurrle had raced past an opponent, reached the goal-line and pulled back a cross for Bobby Isaac to head home.

Morongoskas will do that to you, I guess.

Surprisingly, I was only a little, er, “delicate” in the morning. I was – thankfully – able to join the boys downstairs for an excellent breakfast. We decided to take Alan’s advice to utilise a hop-on / hop-off Lesbian (sorry – Lisbon) sightseeing bus tour. It only took a few minutes of Portuguese sunshine and fresh air for the last lingering remnants of a hangover to disperse.

Flies.

For the next two hours, we toured Lisbon and relaxed. We were driven down majestic streets, flanked by houses of various shades, some with tiles and mosaics, and some with gables and delicate balconies. We were driven through wide piazzas with statues, obelisks and fountains. We were driven up ramps which afforded stunning views of the city centre, baking in the September sun, and equally pleasing vistas of the wide, fast flowing Tagus. Out at Belem, having been driven under the momentous April 25 Bridge, we were driven past the ornate monastery, the quaint Belem Tower, then the piece de resistance; the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a stunning sculpture, depicting the various leading lights from the time when Portugeezers ruled the waves, and it is a statue that I have wanted to see in person for years. We decided there and then to return to Belem on the Wednesday. The bus returned us to the city centre, passing yet more fine houses, but also a funky mixture of more modern buildings, the type of which we never seem to get in the UK.

Flies.

To be truthful, I only half-heartedly listened to the audio guide during the tour – I was too busy taking photographs and chatting to Parkao – but  the overly cheerful Englishman’s voice did not mention sport during the entire two hours. This is a pet peeve of mine. Why do city guides – books, video, audio – continually neglect sport in their range of topics covered? Only a few days before the trip, I had bought a fine guide book on Lisbon, but within the 192 pages, there is just this pathetic entry about football :

“Lisbon’s main football stadiums, built for the 2004 European Football Championships, are Estadio Jose Alvalade and Estadio da Luz. The Portuguese football cup finals are held at the Estadio Nacional-Junior.”

There was no mention of Benfica, nor Sporting Lisbon, nor Eusebio, nor Luis Figo and the golden generation, nor Cristiano Ronaldo, nor Jose Mourinho. Yet two whole pages about music and three whole pages about bloody shopping. For many in Lisbon, football is at the centre of their lives, and the two – sorry, three – clubs within the city are surely worthy of more attention than this.

Flies.

Parkao and I split up from Alan and Gary and we slowly walked down through the centre, stopping off for a bite to eat and a drink at a café, before finding ourselves at the water’s edge, just south of the grand Praca Do Comercio. From here, there is a stunning view of Christ the King, arms outstretched. I wondered if anyone has attempted to put a Benfica or Sporting scarf around the neck. In Glasgow, you can be sure of it…

During the entire day, I had seen just one green and white hooped shirt of Sporting Lisbon. We returned to our hotel to freshen up, and then hopped on to the subway bound for the stadium. At last, there were now some football colours on show. We reached Campo Grande – the stop adjacent the home end of the stadium – and decided to try to get a drink in a nearby bar. Unlike other parts of Europe, there doesn’t appear to be a significantly violent underbelly in Portuguese football, and we were not met with any animosity throughout our stay. Lisbon, it seemed, was proving to be a near perfect city.

We began making our way across a dusty car park, when we stumbled across a chap with an ice box selling cans of Super Bock for 1.5 euros.

“Get in Parkao, son.”

“Superb.”

This was perfect. We then found another vendor selling them for one euro each.

“God bless the black market Parkao, let’s buy two more each.”

Sporting fans drifted past us wearing a variety of shirts, from various vintages. The main two stadia in Lisbon are within a mile of each other and, in both cases, were built adjacent to the original stadia of each club. I suspected that the car park where we were stood once housed the previous Sporting ground.

Estadio Jose Alvalade is brightly coloured outside, with green roof supports, multi-coloured panels, green-tinted windows, and plenty of space for non-football activities. Whereas Benfica’s stadium resembles The Emirates, though slightly bigger, the Sporting Lisbon stadium is only two-tiered, yet seems huge from the outside. We walked around, buoyed by a quick intake of Super Bock, and entered the stadium at the away turnstiles. Sadly, I had to hand my telephoto lens in, but I was assured it would come to no harm. All of the stewards were pleasant. Inside the concourse, both Chelsea and Sporting fans were able to mix, which was a new one on me. Here was another clue that hooliganism wasn’t particularly rife in Portugal.

It was “sit where you want” and so we squeezed in alongside some friends. Gary and Alan were four rows in front. We were behind the corner flag. It was an impressive stadium, the fans in the lower tier were tight behind the goals, but the stands stood way back at the sides. Below, underneath, was a massive moat. The ultras in the home end were already in full voice and many flags and banners were being waved. Hanging from the roof on the far side were large banners depicting the starting eleven of the home team.

As the teams were read out, Nemanja Matic received loud boos, since he of course played for the hated Benfica.

A couple of friends texted me to say that they had spotted Parkao and myself on the TV.

Flies.

As the anthem played, a huge banner was unfurled from the top tier opposite :

“We Are Sporting.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cz9NbHv7Qs&feature=youtu.be

The teams entered the pitch and we were wearing the all yellow kit of Goodison Park. I ran through the team; Filipe Luis in for Dave, Schurrle for Willian. Oh, and a start for Parkao.

After just one minute, Oscar put Diego Costa clear. We held our breath as he stroked the ball low. Surely we would get off to a dream start. Alas not; we saw the ball deflected wide after a block by the Sporting ‘keeper Patricio. Not to be perturbed, we continued to attack and were clearly on top in the early stages. We were in fine voice too. The lower tier was packed at the front, leading to some great “togetherness.” Copious amounts of Super Bock and Sagres helped too. I kept looking across at Parkao and he was loving it.

In the build up to the game, I wondered if Sporting’s new signing from Dundee United – yes, them again – Ryan Gauld, might play a part during the evening, but there was no place for him neither in the team nor on the bench. Instead, Nani was the one familiar face and it wasn’t long before he was serenaded –

“You’re just a shit Michael Jackson.”

The Ultras – Torcida Verde – at the other end were in good voice too and their chanting was relentless. At one stage, I counted twenty flags being frantically waved, though others appeared and then disappeared throughout the evening.

Andre Schurrle then missed three good chances in three minutes. First he rounded the ‘keeper but hit the side netting from a tight angle. A tame header was then fielded easily by Patricio. Then, a low shot, again easily saved. After his 184 wayward shots on goal during the Bolton game, this was getting all too familiar. A few fans nearby wanted to see him subbed already.

I rolled my eyes.

Next, it would be me rolling my eyes. A great run from Hazard set up Diego Costa, who rolled the ball towards Schurrle. We all growled as he pushed the ball well wide of the Sporting goal.

“At least get it on target.”

Ugh.

Soon after, a free-kick on our left was played deep towards the leaping Nemanja Matic, who rose purposefully and sent a looping, dipping header over the stranded goalie and into the net.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.

GET IN MATIC!

THE BENFICA BOY!

Almost immediately, a few fans behind me got going with a new song, at first a quiet murmur, but then growing stronger with each rendition.

“Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.”

I loved that. Suggs would too.

Nice one.

Then, soon after –

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

There were a few half chances for Lisbon, but we were well on top. A handball appeal against Gary Cahill was waved away and the first-half ended with boos ringing in the ears of the referee as the players and officials left the field.

Boos welcomed the referee back on the pitch at the start of the second-half. The natives were clearly restless.

Down below us, we spotted Rob, who came to spend a few minutes with us. He told a warming story. He pointed down at Chelsea fan Charlie, who was with four Benfica ultras. They had been given tickets in our end as an act of thanks for what they did in honour of a Chelsea fan that sadly passed away ahead of the Chelsea vs. Benfica Europa Cup Final in Amsterdam last year. They had spotted on a Chelsea chat site that Blind Gerry, known to many at our club, had passed away just hours after a game at Stamford Bridge. In his honour, they created a banner in memory of Gerry and flew it in Amsterdam before gifting it to Gerry’s friends.

Class.

It was great to have those four among us.

Nani threatened with a curler, but then wasted a great chance when he flicked the ball to…er…nobody, allowing us to clear. The game was remarkably open. Mourinho must have hated it.

Then, a firm shot from Diego Costa which was blocked. Just after, Filipe Luis dropped a ball over the square Sporting back line and Oscar raced through with just the ‘keeper to beat. He appeared to have too much time, and seemingly froze. The keeper foiled us again.

Nani again was involved at the other end, having two shots on goal, but Courtois was largely untested. We begged for a second goal. This was becoming tense.

Diego Costa, with a tremendous burst of pace, flew past Mauricio, but the Sporting defender cruelly blocked him. Costa looked hurt, but it was the defender who was stretchered off. It was a moment which seemed to derail Lisbon for a few moments. However, their fans still sang heartily throughout the second-half. At one point, with them singing their version of “Fields of Athenry” and with their fans holding their scarves aloft, you could easily be mistaken for thinking the game was being played in the East End of Glasgow. I even saw a U2 “Boy” flag.

Willian replaced the hard-working but wasteful Schurrle, then Mikel took over from Oscar. With Mourinho now using Matic and Mikel as a shield, surely our defence would hold firm. Fabregas pushed up.

Diego Costa hit the side netting, and then shot wide after a delightful defence-splitting ball from Matic had set him free. Filipe Luis broke free down in front of us, but his ball into the six yard box evaded everyone. How we begged for another goal. Sporting had a curler which went just wide. In the final five minutes, the Chelsea support roused itself magnificently with the loudest rendition of “Amazing Grace” that I can remember hearing at a European Away. It was stirring stuff. The home team kept the pressure on us as the minutes ticked by.

“Come on Chels, hang on.”

On ninety minutes, Fabregas fed Mo Salah – who had replaced Hazard – and he advanced on the ‘keeper. Yet again, Patricio made a magnificent save to deny us.

“Oh, those three one on ones, Parkao.”

At the final whistle, I roared. This was an enjoyable game of football – thankfully not defensive and dour like so many European aways – and the relief that came with the win was immense. After the draw with Schalke, it was so important that we came away with a win. We soon heard that Maribor, bless ‘em – had eked out a draw in Gelsenkirchen.

Nice one.

Jose slowly walked over to shake the hands of the Sporting goalkeeper who had kept us from winning 4-0. We then clapped as our players walked towards us.

I had thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

In fact, the drama made the game. Had we won by a greater score line, the sense of relief would not have been so great. The support wasn’t massive – maybe 1,600 or so – but it was loud and passionate. Who needs thousands more when we can get by on 1,600 loyalists.

As Alan remarked : “Quality over quantity.”

I soon collected my camera and we walked off, with a quasi-police escort, to Telheiras tube station. There is always something quite joyful, yet eerie, about being given the streets of a foreign city to walk through, all to ourselves, especially after victory. It didn’t quite match Camp Nou in 2012, but it wasn’t bad.

We were deposited in the centre of town – the subway train did not stop until the last three stops – and we met up at our “local” in Praca Dom Pedro IV for two more steins of Super Bock. Foxy, Ashley and Kev joined us, then Brighton Tony, then Charlie with two of the Benfica lads. Parkao was smiling.

“Although it’s been a great trip, the win made it, mate.”

“Yep. Bloody brilliant, Parkao.”

Wednesday 1 October 2014.

We were up, bright and breezy, for breakfast at around 9am. We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed down to Belem once again. We spent a few moments at the Belem Tower, which was once positioned in the River Tagus itself, but which is now adjoined to the riverbank after extensive land reclamation. We made our way to the Monument to the Discoveries, built to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death in 1960, and I was in photographic heaven. The white of the stone contrasted well with the blue sky above. The figures depicted in stone – Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, Fernao Magellen and others – were wonderful subjects for my trusty camera.

Snap, snap, snap.

The floodlights of Belenenses were just a mile or so away. Mourinho entered my head again.

In my Lisbon guide book, I read with interest that Henry the Navigator – the one at the front of the statue – never actually sailed the seas during Portugal’s age of discovery. I drew a parallel with Jose Mourinho, who hardly set the world alight as a player, but who has successfully navigated many teams to success as a manager.

Mourinho as navigator?

“You bet. Hey, listen, after three morangoska cocktails on Monday night, you’re lucky to get that as a footballing paradigm, I’m telling you.”

We relaxed down by the river with a few drinks. It was a calming end to our short spell in delightful Lisbon.

The coach then took us all of the way south to Faro once more, where Parkao and I enjoyed a meal in a restaurant overlooking the town’s marina. The sun slowly dropped behind a palm tree to the west – a palm tree on a Chelsea away trip, whatever next? – and the setting sun turned the sky orange and then lavender. We raised one final Super Bock to one of the best Chelsea European aways yet.

Obrigado, Portugal.

IMG_0105

Tales From Montmartre.

Paris St. Germain vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2014.

Paris St. Germain vs. Chelsea was a hot ticket. In all of my time of travelling to Europe with Chelsea Football Club, I can very rarely remember a game which had elicited so much worry and concern – and then either joy or despair – about the distribution of tickets. There was the annoyance that a stadium that holds around 45,000 only had an away section which held 2,200. The irony was that Stamford Bridge held less, but would house 3,000 PSG fans for the return leg. I was content with the draw. To be honest I can’t remember a stronger last eight in the Champions League in recent years. The obvious exception was the underperforming Manchester United; all other remaining clubs were of top notch pedigrees. PSG – formed in 1970 and therefore a  relatively new club in the grand scheme of things but now boosted by new money and designs on a glittering future – were undoubtedly a fine team, but I clung to the belief that they were relatively inexperienced in the latter stages of the tournament. I was hoping for Paris’ only major football club to choke.

While other friends were arriving in Paris by planes, trains and automobiles, I had a leisurely day away from work on the Tuesday. I was desperate to join them, though. My flight was from Bristol at 4.10pm. I was itching to leave.  Just after 2pm, I texted a few mates to let them know that my journey had begun.

After Jack Kerouacu for Bucharest and Jack Kerouaglu for Istanbul, there was no surprise that for Paris I simply texted –

“Jacques Kerouac.”

I have been steadfastly listening to a New Order album in my car of late and, just as I slowly drove through the lanes, edged with daffodils, of my Somerset village, I turned back to the first track.

“Regret.”

How appropriate.

Paris’ most famous songstress Edith Piaf once sang a similar song.

The flight only took fifty minutes; surprisingly I was the only Chelsea fan on-board. Although I have visited Paris on several occasions (it was often the starting point of my Inter-Rail adventures in my youth), I have never flown into the city. Looking out of the windows of the plane as we approached Charles de Gaulle, I spotted some of the many apartment blocks that infamously house some of the disaffected youth of the French capital. On the train into the city, I have never seen so much graffiti. I took this to be a further sign the city’s edginess. The journey in took around forty minutes; I was in my element. A foreign city, even one which I have visited maybe ten times before, was going to be my home for seventy-two hours and my enthusiasm held no bounds.

I was full of joie de vivre, or at least bonnet de douche, Rodney.

Gare du Nord, such an impressive station inside and out, presented me with immediate memories of my last visit, when three friends and I arrived for the Champions League game in 2004, almost ten years ago. That game marked Jose Mourinho’s first European game as Chelsea manager. On that occasion, we easily won 3-0. A certain Didier Drogba – loudly booed throughout for his Marseille past – scored his first Champions League goal that night. Little did we know then of the circumstances that would mark his last. In 2004, the Chelsea fans arriving at Gare du Nord were met by hundreds of French police in full-on riot gear. It was a mightily disturbing sight; the message was clear.

“You are being watched here. Do not misbehave.”

Chelsea in Paris in 2004 was a fine time for Alan, Gary, Daryl and I. However, many Chelsea fans had a less wonderful stay. We soon heard that many PSG ultras had attacked Chelsea fans on their walk from the metro station towards the south of the stadium to the away section to the north. Thankfully, the four of us had seen no violence; we had used the northern, Port d’Auteuil, stop instead.

At the station there was no welcoming committee from the police this time. As time was of the essence, I quickly caught a cab to Montmarte, where our hotel was located. I was even able to converse to the cab driver in a few minimalist sentences of French. The traffic was heavy around the station, but we soon sped away, the evening sun lighting up the bright signs above shops, the trees lining the roads casting shadows, the locals busy, the jazz on the cab radio most welcome.

Ahead, I glimpsed the famous windmill of the Moulin Rouge. My heart skipped a beat. Our hotel was only one hundred yards away from this most iconic of French landmarks.

After only five hours and ten minutes since leaving my quiet Somerset village, I had bought my first pint of beer in a small bar at the base of the hill that rises up towards the peak of Montmartre. The bar had been busy with the noisy chat from around twenty Chelsea fans for several hours. This, I was convinced, was going to be a great night. Alongside me were Alan, Gary, Andy, Rob, Fiona, Ronnie, Barbara, Pauline, Steve, Peter, Digger and Bob. Bob deserves special mention; newly arrived from San Francisco and over for a week or two of friendship and football. It was the first time that I had seen him since the game in Philly in 2012. An accordion player serenaded us all and Ronnie bought Fi a birthday rose. Behind us, in the bar – out of eyesight but not earshot, were Des and his mates. In a small part of Montmartre, here was Chelsea central. This was emphasised when a car pulled up and “Goggles” – the head of football intelligence at Fulham OB – got out to pay the bar a visit.

“Evening all.”

A second beer and then a third beer. This was heaven.

Feeling famished and in need of some sustenance ahead of a night of more alcohol, I devoured a huge plate of steak with a Roquefort sauce, chips and a salad. It was bloody superb. We then ambled down the hill to O’Sullivans, a large pub right next to the Moulin Rouge.

Let the fun commence.

For over five hours, the beers flowed and the laughs roared. A few more Chelsea fans arrived, including the two Robs – I can’t call them the two Bobs – and joined the fun. Andy and I reminisced about a ridiculously incident packed trip by coach to Monaco in 1998 for the Super Cup Final. There was talk of unruly coach drivers, multiple coach breakdowns, transvestites with shotguns and lots and lots of cheese. A few in the bar were distracted by the Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich game on TV; not me. I simply couldn’t be bothered. Two lads who we chatted to at Palace on Saturday – that seemed like ages ago – sauntered in with some mates. It was quite uncanny that they had chosen this bar. Down in the centre of Paris, they had tried five or six bars but had not encountered any Chelsea at all. Here, it overflowed with Chelsea fans. A few songs were sung. A band played a wide variety of music and then the area at the front of the bar filled up with a younger crowd. As the dance music boomed, a few of the Chelsea faithful showed them how it was done. Beers gave way to shorts. I remember dancing with a rose clenched between my teeth. It seemed like a fine idea at the time. The young New Zealand girl with whom I shared a few square feet of dance floor didn’t object anyway. At one point, the DJ tempted the girls in the bar with free shots if they – er – showed their assets.

“Gary – put your shirt back on son.”

The time flew past. The drinks were not cheap, but who was counting? Eventually, I had to call it a night. At just after 3am, I left the carousing to others. I climbed the hill to the hotel and drifted into an alcohol-fuelled slumber.

C’etait une bonne nuit.

On the day of the game, the Wednesday, it was a predictably slow start for me. The excesses of the previous night had left me a little fragile. At midday, Bob and I set off for a little tour of Paris. Firstly, I paid homage to one of my favourite French films “Amelie” by visiting the café, just a few doors down from our hotel in Rue Lepic, where some of the scenes were shot. I remember watching this magical film a few days before the Paris trip of 2004; it set things up wonderfully. Now that I have visited one of its locations, I must watch it again.

In a repeat of the route that I took on my very first visit to Paris in 1985, we visited the L’Arc de Triomphe at the very top of the Champs Elysees, before walking south to the always impressive Eiffel Tower. On the way, we dipped into the “Sir Winston” pub – as in 1985, but also in 2004 too. I remember my first impressions of Paris in 1985 like it was yesterday; the scorching sun, the still air, sun, the smell of the metro, the thousands of back-packers, the impressive architecture, the aloofness of the Parisians, the wonder of it all. We had heard that Alan and Gary were drinking down in the centre, just off Rue St. Denis. Bob and I caught a cab to join them. From around 3pm to 7pm, it was a tale of two pubs. Firstly, at the ridiculously-named “Frog et Rosbif” (which, when I first heard it, thought was a joke), we sat inside and chatted to several familiar faces. To be truthful, I was a little quiet; I needed a second wind. I was still tired from the night before and – if I am honest – rather apprehensive of the game ahead. This is most unlike me; I usually make a point of enjoying the moment and not even contemplate the upcoming football match. This time, I know not why, I was worried. I was fearful, if I am honest, of Cavani, Lavezzi, Ibrahimovic.

Former Chelsea player Robert Isaac came over to say “hi” and it was a pleasure to meet him. I can well remember his run in the team back in my – our – youth, especially a game against Arsenal in 1986. The Shed took him into their hearts that day –

“One Bobby Isaac, there’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

The pub was on an intersection of streets and a crowd of around two hundred were outside singing and chanting. The police kept a close eye on proceedings. There was no sign of any trouble. At last, after a few pints, I felt a lot more “with it.” After a quick bite to eat, Bob and I re-joined Alan, Gary, Robert and his wife just outside The Thistle bar, which was just across the way from the first pub. For an hour or so, we saw the crowd double in size. I recognised a few faces. There were a few boisterous songs but there was nothing untoward. In the back of mind though, I had memories of 2004 and the need, therefore, for the Chelsea fans to stay together. Among the assembled crowd outside The Thistle bar, there were some Chelsea characters of yore. The tensions began to rise. After a sudden rush of some fans to my left – with associated shouts and noise – we presumed that some PSG fans had been spotted. In truth, calm was restored within twenty seconds. Now we were all nudged together by a growing line of police with riot shields, who had basically corralled us all together. There was a sudden noisy outburst of song from our murky past. I rolled my eyes to the skies.

After about twenty minutes of steadily rising and then falling tension, the police drifted off and allowed us to walk en masse to the Ettiene Marcel metro stop. Bob and I travelled to the game and thankfully encountered none of the nastiness of 2004. To be honest, I had seen hardly any PSG fans in and around the city. This almost reiterated my personal view that Paris isn’t really a football city, not in the way that Marseille or Bordeaux are. Paris is one of the three or four main cities in the whole of Europe, but has PSG ever really made its presence felt? They have only won the French League on three occasions. As a child, St. Etienne were the most famous football team in France, then Marseille enjoyed a lot of success under Bernard Tapie in the ‘nineties. In my mind, Paris dominates France economically, spiritually and culturally but its sole team hasn’t dominated France’s football landscape. Paris St. Germain still remains one of Europe’s underachievers. Additionally, PSG has had a troublesome past with respect to its hooligan element. I remember reading a while back that the Boulogne Boys – which housed a far-right sub-culture – had been forced to disband, while the other group of fans Ultras Auteuil were allowed to continue for a few seasons before being disbanded too.

Back in 2004, there were sulphurous flares in the Auteuil end, while the Boulogne Boys laughably goaded us with a mention of William The Conqueror And 1066, a flag which said “The Queen Is A Bitch” and – surreally – a banner which called us “Hot Water Drinkers.”

The Parc des Princes, the former home of both the French football and rugby teams, has hosted a few European finals; I remember Leeds United losing to Bayern Munich in 1975, Liverpool beating Real Madrid in 1981 and Real Zaragoza beating Arsenal in 1994. It is hardly a picturesque stadium. Its dull grey concrete exterior is hideous. Inside, it is cavernous and dark with just two tiers of seats. The Chelsea fans in 2004 were housed in the north end. In 2014, we were in the opposite end. In both years, I was in the lower tier. I was surprised at the minimal security checks. We were soon inside.

“Have you heard the team? No striker.”

I groaned. Would this be a repeat of Old Trafford, which was one of the most tedious games of the recent past? My sense of worry increased.

As the teams went through their pre-match drills, I was aware that the home supporters had been given plastic flags to wave. I wondered if this would be augmented by flares and mosaics from whatever remained of the old ultra-groups. On the roof, a large sign proclaimed –

“ICI C’EST PARIS.”

It was a phrase which would be often repeated by the highly excitable announcer all evening.

The PA system was mightily involved in the pre-match heightening of noise and atmosphere. It almost acted like a cheerleader. The teams were read out. There were boos for our players. For PSG, there was the typical European routine of the announcer saying the first name and the crowd bellowing the surname –

“Edinson – CAVANI!”

“Zlatan – IBRAHIMOVIC!”

“Ezequiel – LAVEZZI!”

A squad of around thirty riot police stood right between the Chelsea fans and the pitch. They didn’t block our view, but I found their presence to be rather pointless and provocative.

Meanwhile, on the internet, we heard that there were reports of hundreds of Chelsea hooligans rampaging through central Paris.

What?

The music blared, the crowd were whipped into a frenzy.

“ICI.”

“C’EST PARIS.”

The entrance of the teams. Chelsea in that lovely all-white kit. The anthem. No flares this time. Just lots of flags being waved – red in the upper tier, blue in the lower tier – and hundreds of phone lights in the Auteuil end.

Game on.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

After just three minutes, and with the home team on top, Matuidi crossed into the box. John Terry stretched to head clear but we all watched aghast as his poorly-directed header fell to Lavezzi, who wasted no time in belting the ball high past Cech.

The home fans roared and a lone flare was ignited to my left. However, rather than put us under continual pressure, PSG allowed us to get a foothold. To my eyes, we enjoyed a fair bit of possession. We worked the ball in to our midfielders – all six of them, playing without a real spearhead – but found it difficult to create any chances. Our support was trying hard to battle the 43,000 home fans.

“UNTIL YOU’VE TAKEN MY CHELSEA AWAY…”

It was reassuring to hear the home fans whistling us.

“At least that means that they can hear us, Bob.”

Ramires was booked for a silly challenge. This is becoming a more and more common occurrence. How often does Rami rule himself out of games after being booked in the first twenty minutes? A surreal turn from Luiz allowed him to get a shot in, but only a weak effort ensued. This was a fascinating game with so many great individuals on show. Gary Cahill did ever so well to shepherd the impressive Lavezzi away from goal.

Then, a breakthrough. Willian played the ball into Oscar’s path and was soon bundled over by Thiago Silva. The fall looked almost too pure. I hoped it wasn’t a dive. It wasn’t; the referee pointed to the spot.

Clenched teeth and clenched fists.

“Yes.”

I steadied my aim with my camera just after Hazard steadily aimed his penalty kick into Serigu’s goal.

What a cool finish.

My reaction was anything but cool.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

This time, our end went crazy. A blue flare. Blue noise.

“WE ARE CHELSEA – IN PARIS.”

A shot from Lavezzi. A backward header from Dave cleared by Brana. Then, on a breathless Paris night, a Hazard cross shot thudded against Sirigu’s far post. We groaned.

At the break, a chat with Jonesy.

“Doing fine mate. No problems. Thought that even before we scored we were coping OK. An away goal too.”

Well, what do we know eh? Although we usually tend to play with better togetherness and urgency in second halves, this game was an exception. We gave up possession way too easily and looked more and more disjointed as the game progressed. Our support quietened too. PSG had a few half-chances and were then rewarded a free-kick out wide. That man Lavezzi swung the ball in and the ball ended-up in the net from close in. Nobody was really sure what had happened. It was announced as a David Luiz own goal. There certainly seemed to be chaos in the six yard box.

We were 2-1 down.

Mourinho chose to replace Schurrle with Fernando Torres. At last we had a spearhead, but the attack was seemingly blunted after Torres’ appearance. I have tried desperately to stay on Torres’ side these past three years – it has been difficult – but his performance in Paris was shocking. Another striker – Ibrahimovic – hadn’t enjoyed the best of evenings and this meant that when he was substituted due to injury with twenty minutes to go, PSG did not miss his presence.

Lampard replaced the quiet Oscar.

The two sets of fans goaded each other.

“Where were you in World War Two?”

I spotted a PSG gesturing a quenelle at a Chelsea fan.

Oh boy.

I watched the clock tick.

85 minutes.

89 minutes.

I remember watching the stadium clock reach 90 minutes.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Then, disaster.

Complete and utter disaster.

Javier Pastore scrambled past two – or was it four? – defenders on the touchline and slammed the ball low past Petr Cech at the near post. My heart sunk. I turned around and shook my head. A quick glimpse to my left confirmed what I knew; the PSG fans were jumping around like lunatics. They were sure that they had just qualified for the semis.

We sat in disbelief for what seemed like ages. We sat silently. I couldn’t speak.

Eventually, after about a forty minute wait inside the stadium, we sloped off into the night. There were not many conversations. We all knew. At 2-1, we had a superb chance to progress. That third goal has made it so more difficult. Everyone soon mentioned Napoli of course. The presence of Lavezzi and Cavani reignited memories of that night at The Bridge in 2012.

We dropped in for a single beer near our hotel, but I was in no mood for either a moody post-mortem or another session. I called it a night.

After breakfast on the Thursday, I bade a fond farewell to Andy, Woody, Al, Gal and Bob at the hotel; they were off home in the early afternoon. I stayed in the hotel for a few moments and picked up the paper.

The headline said it all –

“Le but qui change tout.”

My plane wasn’t set to leave until 7pm, so I had promised myself a good few hours of local sightseeing. For a couple of hours, I patrolled the slowly curving cobbled streets in and around Montmartre, an area of the city that I had never yet visited. Despite my displeasure at the denouement of the game, I had a lovely time. I took way too many photos – of course! – but was so pleased to have been able to spend a relaxing time by myself, enjoying such a ridiculously picturesque environment.

I ended up in the iconic Place du Terte, a square which was crammed full of dazzling artists, surrounded by cafes and overlooked by the Sacre Couer. I even had a bowl of onion soup and a chocolate crepe in a small and intimate creperie.

When in Rome.

I then travelled by metro into the centre, took a few steps towards the River Seine, and then caught a train near the always impressive Pompidou Centre to the airport. I had enjoyed Paris. Did I have any regrets?

Non…je regrette rien.

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Tales From A Visit Of Old Friends.

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 19 September 2012.

What a lovely gift from the football Gods. The first game in our defence of the Champions League trophy, which we all hold so dear, would be against the Italian champions Juventus. As many people know, I have always had a massive soft spot for the Bianconeri and so my heart was filled with joy when the two clubs were drawn together in the same pot. Despite my funds being earmarked this autumn for the mind-boggling trip to Tokyo in December, I promised myself that I would go to one of only two European cities in this autumn’s group phase; Glasgow (Celtic) and Turin (Juventus). These two trips could not be missed.

As I watched the draw unfold on my PC at work on Thursday 23 August, I just knew that fate would assure that I would be heading back to Turin once more. True enough, Ruud Gullit helped draw Chelsea and Juve in the same group.

Perfect.

The trip to Turin in November was duly booked.

First, though, the home game.

Alongside me in the Matthew Harding Upper was Marco, the son of my good friend Salvo. I had bought the ticket for Salvo, who owns a restaurant near Earls Court, but he decided to pass the ticket on to his Juve-mad son. Salvo was worried that when he accompanied me to the Chelsea vs. Juventus game in 2009, a Didier Drogba goal had resulted in a Chelsea win and a Juventus defeat. Maybe a mixture of Catholic guilt and football superstition had colluded for this decision.

Either way, Marco and I were getting along famously. On the walk to the stadium from The Goose, we had already swapped several Juventus stories, and it also transpired that Marco was a fan of baseball too; his team being the Detroit Tigers.

We didn’t get in until 7.40pm. I had a quick glimpse down at the three thousand tifosi in the away section. Daz asked for my assistance in lifting the massive flag over the heads of the spectators in the upper tier. Once completed, I was able to head back to my seat and capture the pre-match ritual which is so iconic now.

The entrance of the two teams, the slow walk across the pitch, the players’ route taking them to the right of the black and white flag on the centre circle, the Champions League anthem, the handshakes.

In amongst the Juve fans, around a hundred fans held up their mobile phones and a hundred bright lights lit up that particular corner of The Bridge. Tellingly, I spotted around twenty similar lights in the upper tier of the adjoining East Stand. This was no surprise; though not in the same numbers as the Neapolitans who swamped HQ in March, I always knew that there would be Juventus supporters mixed in to the home areas. Hell, there was even one sitting next to me.

The big news was that Oscar was making his home debut for us. A big night for him.

The other big news, personally, was that Juve were playing in the famous black and white. It was an irritant that they chose to wear the muted gold shirts in 2009.

This was the real deal.

Chelsea in blue and white.

Juventus in black and white.

My two teams.

Of course, we all know the real story. Chelsea are my team. Chelsea are the team that I follow over land and sea, the team that has had a vice-like grip on my emotions since I was a young boy. The team which has brought me sadness one moment and happiness the next. In comparison, Juventus are a more frivolous object of desire. My history with them is still sizeable, though and Marco was getting snippets of “my Juventus story” throughout the evening.

The time I met Momo Sissoko in a Torinese restaurant. The time I saw Maradona at the Stadio Communale. The time Antonio Conte scored a last-minute winner at the Delle Alpi against Fiorentina and infamously picked up the corner flag and taunted the seething Viola fans. The time I received a Roberto Bettega signed photograph. The time I saw Vialli and Ravanelli at Ibrox.

This game would be my 904th. Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

I can well remember asking some friends a while back about the various sports teams which they support and asking them to rate the importance of the teams. If I was to add my other major love, the New York Yankees, I can remember that my results were –

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

This game would be my 904th Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

For comparison, I’ve seen the Yankees play 32 times.

Quite bizarrely, these numbers mirror my percentage points rather well.

946 games in total.

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

How weird is that?

Over in the far corner, I did my best to scan the banners which were fighting for space on the balcony wall. It surprised me that I didn’t recognise any of them. There was one from a town – Trezzano sul Naviglio – where my client’s warehouse is based. Down in the lower tier, six juventini wore T-shirts spelling out the word “Drughi.”

Drughi are one of the many Juve fan groups which have evolved since the mid-seventies. They are named after the “droogs” which are featured in the iconic film “A Clockwork Orange.” There was also another Juve group –since disbanded – called “Arancia Mecanica” – and I remember a famous photograph of these quasi-hooligans in a police escort in Milano wearing bowler hats to a game at San Siro.

The history of the various Juve fan groups and their rivalries for prominence warrants an encyclopaedia all by itself. Dig a little and you will be rewarded. I have a book, which I bought at that Fiorentina game in 1999, which painstakingly tells of some of these groups in a series of breathtaking photographs.

The Juve fans were soon in good voice.

“Tutta La Curva!” (meaning, in theory, “We are the curve”, or the home end.)

“Forza Ragazzi!” (meaning “Come On, Boys.”)

During the first-half, just for a split second, with the Juve fans singing loud, I was transported back to an evening in November 1987 when I saw my first-ever Juventus game. It was a UEFA Cup match against Panathinaikos and I was watching high up on the Curva Maratona – the opposite end to the home Curva Filadelfia – at the Stadio Communale. The stadium was a cauldron of cacophonous noise, full of Italian passion, full of memories which would last forever.

It was a major stepping stone in my football journey.I had been bitten by the glamour and buzz of European football and – twenty-five years on – it still has the power to exhilarate and humble me in equal measure.

I exchanged “good luck” texts with my two Italian – and Juventus – pals Mario and Tullio and quickly got into the game. And what a fine game it was.

We began brightly and I noticed that the three support players – Hazard, Oscar and Ramires – were hitting Torres early. I sat and hoped that tonight would be his night. And then, with each passing minute, Juventus started making more and more inroads into our half.

Andrea Pirlo, playing deep, was the main worry and my gaze was kept being drawn towards him. This was my first sighting of this respected player, whose stock seems to rise with each passing year. I’m surprised that Milan let him go in 2011 and to a major rival, too. This, however, is typical of Italy. How often do major players flit between the main Italian teams? I can think of many examples. Marco’s personal favourite Roberto Baggio played for Milan, Inter and Juve for example.

Another story from my Italian past. In September 1987, two friends and I were in Venice and had finished a whirlwind sightseeing tour. I bought a copy of the pink sports paper “La Gazetta Della Sport” and saw that Inter were playing newly promoted Empoli. Without much thought, we made plans to hop on a train to Milano and catch the game. I remember that an article in the ‘paper about the Inter player Aldo Serena brought a few quizzical frowns from myself. His career to date had seen him play for Inter (three times), Milan, Torino and Juventus. That a player would play for these rival teams really shocked me. Can anyone imagine Joe Cole – say – play for Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal?

Incredibly, Serena then went on to eventually play once again for Milan.

Such is Italy.

Upfront, Vucinic (who played against us for Roma in 2008 ) and the diminutive Giovinco (who played against us in 2009) were creating a few good chances, ably abetted by Marchisio and Vidal. I thought Pirlo had a relatively quiet game. As far as I could remember, only Chiellini and Buffon remained from Juventus’ last visit to SW6.

Mid-way through the first-half, Juve were edging it. I always knew they would be tough opponents, coming off a completely unbeaten league season in 2011-2012. Anyone who thought that this group would be relatively easy was deluded. To be honest, I had visions of us being hit for a few goals.

Over in the far corner, the Juve fans were memorably producing a new twist on the ubiquitous “I Just Can’t Get Enough” chant, the Depeche Mode song from 1981, which has travelled around Europe like a virus.

Not exactly “sotto voce” and “fortissimo”, but certainly with two differing tones.

Nobody does football songs like the Italians.

On thirty minutes, the ball broke to our young Brazilian number eleven and he let fire from outside the box. I was right in line with the shot. It was deflected away from Buffon and into the corner of the goal.

The crowd roared and I went very light-headed.

Get in!

It was against the run of play, possibly, but we were ahead.

Two minutes later, we witnessed one of the greatest Chelsea goals of the past twenty-five years. The ball was played into Oscar, with his back to goal. He pushed the ball away from the goal, at a bizarre angle, and seemed to move in a mysterious way as if he was unable to be seen by the defenders close by. The ball reappeared at his feet, but he was still facing away from the goal. Instinctively, he thumped the ball goal wards and we watched with open-mouthed amazement.

The ball spun up, the ball spun out, the ball spun down, the ball spun in.

2-0 and the Stamford Bridge spectators were awestruck.

What a home debut from Oscar. I imagined the headlines being typed out already.

Our amazing lead was sadly short-lived. A neat move found Vidal who slotted past Petr Cech.

It was 2-1 at the break. In the match programme, there was a nice article and three great photographs from the match in Turin in 2009. What a trip that was. Apart from Munich, it is probably my favourite ever European jaunt. If the trip this November is half as good, I’ll be very happy. There was also a photograph in the programme of Kev from Bristol, who was celebrating his 1,000th game that night. Staggeringly, he is only 31. Amazing.

Soon into the second half, I fed more Juventus stories to Marco as the game progressed.

I asked Marco’s views on the pronunciation of the word “Juventus.” Of course, long gone are the days when ill-educated English fans pronounced it with a “J.” My question was aimed at the second of the three syllables. I have often thought that Italians “almost” (and I underline the word “almost”) pronounce the “v” as a “w.”

In my mind at least (and especially when I am with Mario and Tullio), I perhaps subconsciously pronounce the word “You-when-tus.” Or at least with the slightest hint of a “w.”

Thankfully, Marco agreed.

And further, I’d suggest that it has three and a half syllables.

EE’OO-WHEN-TUS.

I mentioned to Marco that there was a strange comfort to these group stage games and especially the first of the six. They certainly have a different feeling to the do-or-die knockout games. The tension just isn’t there. Will it matter too much if any team – Chelsea included – drew the first one rather than won it? The tension tends to build in these autumn fixtures and 2011-2012 was a perfect example. By the time we met Valencia in December, the tension was as taught as a violin string.

The second-half was again rather even. Chances came and went, but both goalkeepers were not often tested. A penalty claim on Hazard was waved away. A Lampard free-kick thumped against Buffon’s body. Mata, the substitute, shot wide. Torres was always involved, but role seemed to be more of a support player. Of the two holding players, Mikel was the more impressive, forever blocking Juve’s forward thrusts. I’m surprised that Frank played ninety minutes, on the back of two full games for England and the one against QPR; he didn’t have his best game in Chelsea colours.

For the first time that I can remember – maybe because of the clear, cloudless sky – I particularly noticed the lights on the passing planes. For those unaware, Stamford Bridge is right on the flight path of Heathrow. I often see planes fly overhead. Back in the ‘eighties, it was often a welcome attraction from the dire football on the pitch.

On this occasion, I particularly noticed the green and red lights on the plans’ wings, in addition to the white light at the cockpit.

Green. White. Red.

The colours of the Italian flag.

Ominous? You bet.

With ten minutes remaining, Mikel gave the ball away and Stamford Bridge groaned. There was a dull ache of inevitability when Quagliarella was fed in and nimbly slotted home.

The Bianconeri erupted in the south-east corner. Marco grabbed my arm and I had the slightest of contradictory emotions flash through me.

Was I happy?

Maybe 1%.

As the game came to its end, I soon received two incoming text messages.

From Mario in Bergisch-Gladbach – a friend since 1975 – “A nice game.”

From Tullio in Turin – a friend since 1981 – “So, we are still friends.”

And so the defence of our trophy has begun. This indeed will be a tough group. I am convinced that the two games that we will have, back to back in October and November, against Shakhtar Donetsk will be all-important. However, one thing is certain. Throughout these games, plus our excursion to Denmark, I feel that the tension will be mounting all of the way through until we make a return visit to the Piedmont city of Turin on November 20th?

Am I excited about that?

100%.

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Tales From The Old Guard.

Chelsea vs. Napoli : 14 March 2012.

This was an evening which reconfirmed everything that I love about football. This was an evening in which the busy streets around Stamford Bridge were invaded by thousands of fevered Neapolitans. It was an evening of almost terrifying drama. It was an evening of raw emotion. It was an evening of boozy camaraderie. And it was an evening when the players, and supporters, of Chelsea once again worked together to provide the watching public a devastating game of football.

Make no mistake. The evening of Wednesday 14th March 2012 will go down in our history as one of the magical nights of European football at Stamford Bridge, alongside the “come-back” nights against Bruges in 1971, Bruges in 1995, Vicenza in 1998 and Barcelona in 2005, to say nothing of the ridiculously dramatic games against Liverpool in 2008 and 2009.

The day began in Chippenham. I came in to work a little early and aimed to leave at 4pm. During the afternoon, I needed to be distracted from thoughts about the evening’s game. I emailed a few friends and we chatted about a whole host of subjects – specifically “unChelsea” – in an attempt to stop my wandering mind focus on the game. It has to be said, I was not confident about us being able to turn around the 3-1 deficit from that underwhelming first leg in the crumbling bowl of Stadio San Paolo. I mentioned to a few work colleagues, that if I was a gambling man, my money would be on the visitors.

I collected Lard Porky from The Pheasant car park at just before 4pm. He had already had a few pints on a little pub crawl of his own and was his usual ebullient self. I made superb time on the M4 – probably the best yet – but the traffic drew to almost a standstill around three miles from Chelsea, just as we hit the Hogarth roundabout by Fuller’s Brewery. The Hammersmith flyover is still down to one lane and the last three miles took me an hour. It was a frustrating time as I knew that my mates would already be quaffing a few liveners in the pub.

As we edged along the A4, we listened to BBC Radio Five Live to catch the sports headlines at just after 6pm. To my considerable annoyance, the four or five sports stories did not mention us once. This really annoyed me. I knocked the dashboard with my fists –

“Hello? Remember us? Hello! There’s a game at Stamford Bridge tonight!”

The minutes ticked by and the car was going at a snail’s pace. Funny the things you notice in a stationary car in a street that is usually seen at 40 miles per hour. A pub in a side street – The Black Lion – which appeared to back onto the River Thames (“could go there after, for one, Parky?”), a blue plaque on a house denoting a former residence of black activist Marcus Garvey, the smug face of Jose Mourinho on an advertisement on a London cab.

I pulled into the North End Road at around 6.30pm just as a gaggle of around twenty Napoli fans were being lead away from the direction of the stadium by around ten policemen in high-vis jackets. Although they wore no team colours, they were obviously Italians, with baseball caps, shiny puffa jackets, scarves pulled high around their chins. Parky said that he saw one with a much bloodied nose. We parked up, and then walked past around eight further policemen on the crossroads of Lillie Road and the North End Road. There were no sirens wailing, yet, but I suspected that the streets would be busy with activity before the night fell.

We reached the bar at about 6.45pm and the place was surprisingly quiet. Out in the beer garden, conversations were taking place all over and I rued the fact that Lord Porky and I had arrived late, almost three hours of travelling already behind us. Apparently, a mob of Napoli fans had tried to enter The Goose, but were seen off by a few Chelsea. It seems that Lord Porky and I had just missed the fun. There was talk of a confrontation down by West Brompton tube too.

My mate Alan, who has been out of work for a while, pulled me to one side and told me that he had learned that morning that he has got a job at his old employers, at the Department of Trade & Industry in Victoria, and this was the best news all season. Fantastic stuff.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Jesus once again (since the Stoke game, he had been to Venice and Rome…my goodness, this boy is living the life) and then, over in the corner, was Napoli Frank, who was with Mike and Chopper from New York. Frank is from Queens and I christened him “Napoli Frank” when I first met him in NYC in 2008 when I met up with the NY Blues for a Mets game (which was rained-off, but that’s another story.) Frank’s team is Chelsea – has been for years – but has family from the Naples area. He travelled out to Italy three weeks ago and had a seat in the home areas at the San Paolo. He carefully explained to me how he came in for major grief when a Napoli fan spotted his Frank Lampard wrist-band. Thankfully, his uncle was able to say “he’s with me.” Lard Porky and I only had time for a single beer. I got the impression that a lot of my mates had been in the pub for quite a while. The perils of being a long-distance Chelsea fan hit home again.

I made haste and left the boozer at 7.10pm. I overheard many Italian accents. This was turning into just the sort of night I had expected. Lots of noise, tons of atmosphere and a little menace thrown in for good measure. As I passed The Slug And Lettuce, more puffa jackets, more Neapolitan swagger. A line of around twenty police dogs were facing the tube station in front of the town hall. This was indeed a rare sight. My pace quickened as I turned and bought a programme on the West Stand forecourt. Yet more Italian accents. I smuggled my camera in to the ground, despite the painful attention of a steward.

I was inside at about 7.30pm. Despite the hundreds of Napoli fans outside the stadium, I was pretty amazed that the away section was full to bursting. With that, I received a couple of texts which said that there were, indeed, many ticket-less away fans outside the stadium and in various pubs. I quickly scanned the balcony for Napoli flags and saw many small ones, rather than a couple of large ones. I spotted a Confederate flag; a common sight in many football stadia throughout Europe, along with the skull and crossbones, the mod symbol, the flag of St. George and the celtic cross.

Napoli fans as rebels, the underclass, the outsiders, the vagabonds? I can see that. That makes sense.

The new banner – “Chelsea FC – London Is Ours” – had been moved from the NE corner to The Shed and had essentially swapped positions with the “Born Is The King” banner. I was well aware that this game was live on national TV in the UK. We needed to make a big impression in the minds of the viewing nation. This was almost as important as the team’s performance in my mind. I wanted us to create an old-style Chelsea atmosphere. I wanted people talking about us.

Banners, songs, flags, noise.

The playing of “Blue Is The Colour” signaled the mass-waving of thousands of blue and white chequered flags. I’m in too minds about this. Half of me thinks that it is cheesy and naff. Half of me thinks that it adds great colour to the match day experience. The problem I have is that the flags are imposed upon us by the club. I’d much rather we were given free reign to bring our own adornments. I didn’t wave mine; I was too busy filming.

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The Mantle twins let loose the massive flag in the upper tier. It floated over the smaller flags and it was a pretty impressive sight.

The teams strode past the large Champions League flag which was being waved on the centre-circle. Napoli were wearing a mucky grey kit. Our kit looked pristine in comparison. At the playing of the anthem, a hundred or so Napoli fans held their phones aloft, with the light mode on. Ah, that must be their “thing.” Worryingly, I saw a few lights in the home sections of The Shed and the West Stand, too. Maybe the Napoli fans had staged a massive undercover operation and were hiding in every section of The Bridge.

Roberto chose his team and there were no complaints from me. In the Napoli team, all eyes were on the Three Tenors; Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik. At the kick-off, I was still not buoyed with any new-found confidence, though. In the back of my mind, I had the notion that a single goal mid-way through both halves would it be just fine. Nothing rushed, nothing manic. Just a night of calm pressure. Well, I could not have been more wrong.

The game was a classic. The advantage lurched from one team to another, leaving me ecstatic, worried and breathless in equal measure.

At the kick-off, the home support was roaring but Napoli enjoyed the better of the first quarter. By the fifteenth minute, first Hamsik, then Cavani, then Lavezzi made breathtaking raids on our goal, but a mixture of bad finishing and instinctive saves from Petr Cech ensured we did not concede. In retrospect, the opening twenty minutes resembled the Manchester City game before Christmas when we were completely out-passed and out-classed.

Our midfield was giving the Napoli team far too much room to move the ball at their will. Upfront, chances were rare. Drogba was not firing on all cylinders. I was deeply worried. However, our fortunes were soon to change in a most dramatic piece of play.

Didier’s flying header from a Ramires cross was as magnificent as it was unexpected. The ball flew into the Shed End goal and The Bridge erupted. I jumped to my feet and went dizzy for a few seconds. All around me, euphoria. There was that goal mid-way through the first-half I had dreamt of. Our play improved and shots from Essien and Luiz started troubling the Napoli ‘keeper.

At the break, I rued how we had ridden our luck, but had shown a growing degree of resilience to withstand the attacks against us. Dennis Wise and his (now) 12 year old son Henry appeared on the pitch with Neil Barnett. Ah, memories of the last F.A. Cup Final at the grand old Wembley. The Simple Minds’ anthem “Alive And Kicking” boomed out on the PA; very apt.

Soon into the second-half, a corner on the far side and Big John chose this moment to bang the balcony hoarding with his hand; a familiar part of the Stamford Bridge routine over the past few seasons. Frank lofted the ball in, slightly over the head of Didier, but – as I snapped with my camera – John Terry leapt. I just saw the ball fly into the top corner of the net and that was it; The Bridge erupted again as the captain ran over to that far corner, where Frank was still stationed. Advantage Chelsea. If no more goals ensued, we would progress.

However, Alan lent towards me and sad –

“I don’t want to appear picky, but we’ve scored that too soon.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

Lo and behold, a ball wasn’t cleared and I watched on, aghast, as a sweet strike from Inler flew into the bottom corner of Cech’s goal. In my seat in the MHU, I was right in line with its path. Oh, that hurt. This was now a pulsating game of football and was now in Napoli’s favour.

Did anyone really think we would keep a clean sheet?

Fernando Torres substituted the increasingly disappointing Daniel Sturridge. His fresh impetus inspired us. We now enjoyed a fine period of play. A fine Drogba swivel and shot flashed past the post. At the other end, Napoli attacked, but our defenders often stuck out legs to block goal ward shots. It was a superb game.

What relief when, after a massive shout for handball, the referee quickly pointed to the spot, touching his arm at the same time. After all of those infamous penalty appeals against Barcelona in 2009, what joy to receive a penalty in our favour. The sense of anticipation was amazing. The chap in front of me turned away and couldn’t bare the tension. I held my camera up and waited for Frank to strike.

Click.

Strike.

Roar.

The net billowed and Frank reeled away down to “his corner” and I clicked again. A point skywards to the heavens but his face showed a business-like resilience. He wasted no time in waiting for adulation, but simply raced back to the half-way line for the re-start.

It was now level again. Let’s see how Napoli reacts again. To be honest, the rest of the game is a blur.

Ninety minutes of play ended and we took a momentary pause. The PA system at The Bridge jumped to life in the brief period of rest until the extra-time period began. First, “Three Little Birds” and then “Blue Is The Colour” and there were hundreds of Chelsea fans joining in.

I couldn’t immediately get back “into” the game as it restarted. I had felt that I had already experienced too much emotion for one night, thank you very much. Play was nervy and cagey. I struggled to get “up” for the game again. My mind wasn’t working. It was a strange feeling.

Then, the tumultuous fourth.

An advance from Drogba on the right and he sent a low ball towards the penalty spot. Brana slammed the ball high into the Napoli net and The Bridge exploded once again. Despite my emotions running wild, I caught the sliding Brana and the immediate celebrations on film; I never know how I manage to do that.

We held firm. Luiz was superb, Torres too. The midfield grew stronger as the game progressed. Even the addition of the two lesser lights Malouda and Bosingwa didn’t work against us. Chances came and went at both ends; a few half-chances for the industrious Torres would have sealed the night for us all. With two minutes of extra time to play, I had awful recollections of Iniesta in 2009. A similar denouement in this game would have been too much for any of us to cope with. It was nerve-tingling stuff. Every thwarted attack was met with pained exultations of joy. I lost count of the number of times I held my head in my hands.

At last it was over.

“One Step Beyond.”

Bounce, bounce, bounce.

The texts started arriving and continued in to the night. The Chelsea family was together, as one.

Alan, Gary and I were some of the last to leave the Matthew Harding. Gary showed typical kleptomaniac form and gathered together around ten flags from the seats around us; I said to Alan that Gary would be making leisure shirts out of them for the next game. Outside, yet more Italian voices. The place was swarming with Napoli fans; not sure if they were London-based Neapolitans, or whether a substantial volume had travelled from Naples minus tickets, intent on getting tickets from touts or maybe more mischievous means. I wondered if the girl we met on the train from Naples to Rome had made it.

Many fans began chanting various Chelsea songs as we slowly walked down past the tube station. A little group of puffa jacket wearers were being interviewed by a TV crew. There was a mood of ecstatic bewilderment along the North End Road. I was slightly numbed by the evening’s football. My previous experiences of life as a Chelsea fan had prepared me for this to be a night of great calamity and disappointment. The fact that we had overturned a 3-1 reverse had totally surprised me. I met up with Parky at 10.45pm and we soon realised that we just had enough time to call into the “Black Lion” for a drink before I battled fatigue and the fog on my weary way back to deepest Wessex. Porky was in fine form and so was I; it was a fun trip back, full of nonsense and stupid jokes.

I eventually reached home at 1.45am.

It’s difficult to piece together how we managed to prevail against a clearly skillful and talented Napoli team. The old guard was certainly at the core of our triumph. We rolled back the years against Napoli and the night had me blinking my eyes at the stellar performances from Didier, Frank, JT, Ess and Ashley. I’m wise enough to know that this core may not be able to raise their games in similar fashion during the rest of this year’s competition. To advance further will be very difficult. To win it, will be a miracle. If nothing else, I’m a realist. However, as soon as United and City fell by the wayside this year – and then Arsenal joined them – I really wanted Chelsea to be the last man standing from these shores in the Champions League this season. On a superb night of football, we achieved that goal.

Job done.

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Tales From The Banks Of The Chao Phraya River.

Thai Premier League All Stars vs. Chelsea : 24 July 2011.

Day One : The Madness.

From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok …my flight landed at around 1.15pm on Friday 22nd. July. No time to dwell too much on the muted team performance the previous night in the cauldron of the Bukit Jalil stadium. Another city to explore and, on Sunday, another Chelsea match. But first, some fun.

I quickly made my way through customs at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport – sleek, slick and functional – and I soon met up with my mate Adie, who had just arrived on a domestic flight from his home city of Chiang Mai. Adie was in the same year as me at Frome College from 1978 to 1983 and was one of the stars of the school team. Adie played with distinction as a covering centre-back in a back four and had lovely positional awareness, close control and tackling ability. I played on the right wing in the 1978-1979 season, but soon fell out of the first team the following year. Adie went on to play many games for the school first eleven, but my football career fell away as my support for Chelsea grew and grew. Adie went out to Thailand in 1996 as a VSO worker, met his wife Waraya (who was his Thai language teacher) in Bangkok and moved north to Chiang Mai a few years ago. Adie visited Frome last year just as our championship season was concluding and attempted to sway me into visiting his new home in the near future. Well, as we all know, our tour of Asia was announced a while back and so I quickly decided to go ahead and book flights to encompass football and friends. Rather than follow the team on to Hong Kong, I wanted to visit Adie and Waraya in Chiang Mai instead.

There was slight drizzle outside as we quickly hopped into a – wow – pink taxi cab. In the 45 minute drive to our hotel in downtown Bangkok, we soon updated each other with news from both our lives. Over to our right, I spotted the curves of the Rajamangala Stadium where the game against the Thai League All-Stars would be played on Sunday. I quickly realised that Bangkok was on a different scale to that of Kuala Lumpur. KL had its share of skyscrapers, for sure, but they were in that condensed area of the Golden Triangle. Bangkok’s skyscrapers were all around. Adie pointed out the tallest one as we sped west. We curled round, off the elevated freeway, then down into the craziness of the city itself.

Our hotel – the Ibis Riverside – was nestled in a curve of the Chao Phraya River as it flowed south through the western part of central Bangkok. We checked in and I pulled the curtains in our room back.

“Oh wow.”

The view that greeted me allowed me another one of those “moments.”

Below me was the fast-flowing river, visible over tropical tree tops, and there were several small boats navigating their courses. On the eastern bank, there were several high-rises to complete the scene. It was a real jaw-dropper. It was another sight which will be saved forever in my memory bank of images. I could have stayed there, nose pressed against the window, for hours, or at least until Nando scored again. Adie was the person to thank – or rather his wife Waraya, who had booked the room on the back of her previous stay at the hotel as a VSO employee.

At 4pm, we headed out, the whole night in Bangkok ahead of us.

Here we go.

We managed to locate a small ferry boat to take us across the river. While we were lining up at the ferry pier – which was typically surrounded by a fast food and drink stall – Adie pointed down to the ground, just to my right.

It was a pig, sleeping in the afternoon sun.

“Bloody hell, mate. A pig!”

We made our way across the river on a little flat boat and the fare was just 7 baht, or just 15p. I snapped away like a fool, capturing every riverboat we passed. I didn’t want to miss anything. We had heard that Chelsea were to stay at the Shangri La Hotel – just across the river from us – and so our first port of call was in this hotel. Two beers, some nuts, plus more chat about our personal lives. Adie had visited Frome back in April, but there is always gossip to share. No sightings of any CFC personnel, so we decided to move on. We were headed into town on the monorail. However, just as we were queuing up for our tickets at the Saphan Taksin stop, Adie quickly advised me to stop talking and to stand still. The Thai national anthem is played over tannoys at every public space at 8am and 6pm and so we stood still for thirty seconds, along with everyone else on that platform.

Another “moment” for sure.

Three stops away, we alighted at Sala Daeng and I was ready to breath in whatever Bangkok had to throw at me. For thirty minutes or so, we wandered the close streets of Patpong 1, 2 and 3, right in the epicentre of the fabled Bangkok show bar area. Street stalls, open air cafes, fake DVDs, fake designer gear, locals eating noodles and rice, fake football shirts, noise, colour and a little sleaze, with a few chaps hustling us to enter the various show bars which opened up onto the streets. I peered inside and wondered “shall I, shan’t I?” I bought a “Clockwork Orange” T-shirt for just 200 baht from a busy stall under the monorail. I spoke to Adie about one of Juve’s firms being called “Arancia Meccanica” and the real world, the football world and my world overlapped once again.
And still the street hustlers wanted us to pay a visit to the local delights…

“One Night In Bangkok” indeed.

Adie fancied some food and so from about 7pm to 9pm, we sheltered in the relative calm of an Irish pub – “O’Reilly’s” – and had three pints of Singha…they are Chelsea’s beer sponsors after all. We ordered some food – chicken in satay sauce and some spring rolls – and had a great time. We spoke about our school days and our time in the same school and cricket teams. A few other topics were aired, but we kept coming back to football, the game that ties so many of my mates together. We spoke about Asia’s particular love of English footy, way ahead of any other league, way ahead of Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga. Adie kept asking me why English football was so loved and I did my best to respond. I guess I used the words “history, passion, humour, noise and tribalism.” Dotted around the bar were several western male tourists “of a certain age” sitting with local Thai boys. The pub was busy and I half-expected a familiar Chelsea face to appear…maybe Saturday night. Sitting in a bar in a foreign land, I was reminded of one of my favourite jokes, which I shared with Ade : –

“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman were shipwrecked and found themselves on a deserted island. Within a few weeks, the Irishman had found a way to ferment the local fruit to make alcohol and had opened a pub. The Scotsman had got into a fight with the Irishman and had been banned from the pub. And the Englishman was waiting to be introduced.”

Next up was the appearance of The Better Band, a local Beatles tribute band, and they played many Beatles’ songs. In their wigs and suits circa 1964, they did a good job to be fair. Paul McCartney even sang with a slight Scouse accent, which I guess is no mean feat. I spoke to Ade about the reports that I have been writing for CIA and we tossed a few ideas about what the Bangkok edition should be called. Adie suggested “Tales From The Big Mango” in lieu of the city’s modern nickname. It would certainly be better than “Tales From The City Of Angels, The Great City, The Residence Of The Emerald Buddha, The Impregnable City (Of Ayutthaya) Of God Indra, The Grand Capital Of The World Endowed With Nine Precious Gems, The Happy City, Abounding In An Enormous Royal Palace That Resembles The Heavenly Abode Where Reigns The Reincarnated God, A City Given By Indra And Built By Vishnukarn”. Bangkok has the longest place name in the world, allegedly. Feeling on top form, we then continued our walkabout and we ended up outside, and then inside, “The Finlandia” show bar. Twenty minutes later – and after just one beer, costing a couple of quid – we were back in the crowded streets and our lives were richer with another Bangkok moment.

For the record – ‘cus I know you all want to know – there were no table tennis balls but just 30 pretty bored Thai girls a-dancing on stage.

It had to be done, though. Tick that box, so to speak.

Next up, some more food and Adie sat us down at a cheap and cheerful café, with me just kicking back, enjoying some banter and aiming plenty of puns at poor Adie. We had a few local delicacies, including a crab which had been fragranced with a selection of Thai spices. I haven’t eaten too many crabs in my life and I was getting more and more frustrated as I toiled away, attempting to get as much flesh out of the little sucker as possible. At least the Singha beer was going down well. As I finished the meal, I spotted a local Thai gentleman in a Liverpool shirt and so I quickly showed him video film on my phone from the 3-1 game at Anfield in 2008. He growled and so I blew him a kiss and his little group of friends roared with laughter.

We crossed the roared and flagged down a tuk tuk, that funky three-wheeled vehicle which is such an iconic part of Asian life, and gave the driver instructions on how to reach our next attraction. I had pinpointed the open air bar on the 63rd. floor of the State Tower as a “must-see” attraction on this first night. Well, the tuk tuk drive was magnificent, a real adrenalin rush, with the exhaust roaring behind us and the traffic whizzing past. Waves to fellow tuk-tukkers, smiles to cab drivers.

“One Night In Bangkok.”

As we stepped out onto the roof terrace, my mind went ga-ga. What a sight – a clear dark night, starlit, with the illuminations of a million city lights stretched out to the horizon. Car lights, street lights, hotel rooms, reds, yellows, whites. We stepped into the crowded circular Sky Bar, itself illuminated, and tentatively ordered a couple of expensive beers. The barman was an Italian and so I decided to introduce myself –

“Sono tifo di Chelsea.”

He then told me that Didier Drogba and a few other Chelsea players had been up at the bar two hours earlier. If anything, that validated us being there, two mere mortals from Frome. We took it all in. Deep breathes. Photos of the vibrant Bangkok night down below. We sipped at the beers, wanting them to last forever. It really was a magnificent end to my first night in the Thai Capital. Pigs, river boats, Thai Beatles, Pat Pong’s vices, beer and Thai food, the city below from the Sky Bar above.

Chelsea in town.

There was still time for one more surprise.

“Chris Axon – what the fcuk are you doing here?”

I quickly turned around and a work colleague bounded across the bar to greet me with an outstretched hand.

“Batty – what the fcuk!”

Batty has worked with me at Herman Miller for eight years and, unbeknown to me, had just arrived in town the night before with his girlfriend Jo. He had spent a few minutes on the other side of the circular bar working out “is that Chris Axon???” The penny suddenly dropped…”must be him – Chelsea are in town.” Well, what a small world…what a cliché, but how true. We spent the next thirty minutes rubbing our eyes, sharing a few stories and wallowing in the absurdities of this crazy world. He had just visited Hong Kong and was only in Bangkok for three days. That our paths should cross in a bar 63 stories up in the Bangkok sky is surely a magnificent impossibility.

But, no – nothing is impossible in Chelsea World.

We called another tuk tuk – though it’s all a little blurred – and we raced back to the Ibis, our backsides only a foot or so from the ground, across the bridge over the Chao Phraya River and we collapsed into our beds at about 2am.

Day Two : The Tourist.

Adie was clearly not used to such an alcohol intake and was rather delicate first thing. I felt fine and, after a lovely buffet breakfast, we were out and about at just after 10am. The day was spent fizzing up and down the Chao Phraya River, visiting a few of Bangkok’s must-see sights. Of course, it had to happen; we bumped into Batty, not once, but twice on the Saturday…once on the ferry boat as we headed up to the Grand Palace and once inside the temple which housed the famous Emerald Budha.

“See you in about two hours, then.”

The Grand Palace was magnificent. It was another jaw-dropper. I was surrounded by gold-leaved temples and chedis, or pagodas, and while I snapped away, Adie secretly took a few photos of me. Adie loves his photography, like me, and taught me a few tricks about the art while I was with him. Being surrounded by all of that gold, especially on such a hot day, was almost hypnotic. For a few moments, I experienced what it must be like to be Roman Abramovic. We had to take off our shoes and caps to enter the revered temple of the Jade Buddha and for a few reflective moments, I sat in silence.

We then aimed for the temple which housed the Reclining Buddha or Wat Pho. This was another mesmeric sight. This Buddha is around 50m in length and is again gilded in gold. The toes are festooned in mother or pearl. It’s quite magnificent. With all of this gold around, I dubbed my visit to Bangkok a “gilt trip” and Adie groaned once more.

Death by a thousand puns.

Outside, more street markets; DVDs, Budha mementoes, second-hand toys, second-hand books, sex aids, plastic flowers, fresh fruit, pineapples and bananas, wooden phalluses, dried fish, coconuts, fake T-shirts, fake handbags, tat of every description, West Ham season tickets.

We caught the ferry boat back to the pier by the Shangri La Hotel and I decided to see if any players were hanging around. I waited in the reception area for a good hour or so. I spoke with an ex-pat, who had travelled down to Bangkok from Northern Thailand. He told me that he had paid the equivalent of £35 to attend the so called “High Tea With Chelsea FC” at the hotel on the Friday. He was far from impressed as he was one of around 250 fans and only the manager and four players attended, away on the top table. It was a bit of a farce, according to him. Bruce Buck and his wife arrived and I slowly walked over and greeted him with a memory from last season –

“The last time I saw you was at Frankley Services on the M5 after Stoke away.”

He looked a bit guarded and his response surprised me –

“Did you abuse me?”

I laughed it off and said “no, not at all.” We chatted a little and I asked his wife to take a photo…I had my trusty Yankees cap pinned to my belt and he noted it and patted his chest, saying “ah, close to my heart.”

Soon after, a minibus dropped Josh, Alex and Graeme Le Saux off and I had the smallest of chats with Berge as he raced through the foyer. I knew that the Chelsea squad were off to the stadium at around 5pm for some public training. I spotted Cathy and a few others arrive, back from a hot day visiting the sights. They had plans to visit the training session, but I was giving it a swerve. I lounged around and spotted a few CFC personnel – names unknown – and wondered what their roles were in the grand scheme of things. What were their names? What were their roles? Their motivations? Their qualifications? Their impressions of Andre Villas-Boas? Were they enjoying the trip? Were they missing their loved ones? It made me think. I asked one of them about the team’s departure time for the training session and the fact that he was an American surprised me. Not sure why, though.

I got the nod that the team would be boarding the coach from a tucked-away service bay to the side. For about 45 minutes, with rain clouds threatening, I hung around in the hope of getting some good photographs of the players as they boarded the coach. In the end, the photos were disappointing and I questioned my sanity on more than one occasion. I felt, ridiculously, like a school kid at a pop concert and was tempted to head back to the Ibis. I stuck it out though – and was rewarded when I spun around to get a good shot of JT giving me the thumbs up from his seat. I also made him chuckle when I said “Beth from America says hi!”

On the ferry back across the Chao Phraya, the rain cascaded down and I hoped that Cathy et al had decided to forego the training session.

Saturday night was quieter than Friday – I swam in the hotel pool, while the rain came down and there was occasional sheet lightning which lit up the sky. The boats on the river were still floating past and it was another lovely moment. The rain lashing down on my skin, the swimming pool warm, the smile on my face constant. The rain increased in intensity and it was gorgeous.

“I’m going to swim underwater, Adie – I’m getting wet here.”

Day Three – The Game.

Of all my time supporting Chelsea Football Club, attending games and watching my heroes, the pre-match of Sunday 24th. July 2011 was unlike no other. We were up nice and early and began the morning with a pre-breakfast swim at around 7am. After a hearty breakfast – nice to know that pork sausages, fried eggs, fried potatoes and baked beans have found their way to Thailand – we set off for a walk around the Chinatown area of downtown BK. Across the river once more, then up a few miles on the ferry boat. From about 10.30pm to around 2pm, we slowly walked through street after street, bazaar after bazaar, delicately avoiding oncoming traffic and pedestrians alike.

I knew that I was in for a treat when Adie lead me down a slight passageway which got narrower and narrower until we turned a corner and ended up almost entering somebody’s house. There was a blurring of space – “Adie, is this a shop, a private kitchen, or a shared area between several families?” – and it felt like I had entered another world.

In fact, of course, this is just what I had done.

Every spare inch of alleyway was devoted to commercial pursuits. Here comes another list of products, but this could go on forever; food of every description, including raw and cooked fish, exotic fruits of every shape, colour and size, textiles, mobile phones, walking sticks, electric drills, fishing rods, bags, fake DVDs, radios, car engine parts, batteries, toys, shoes, fake designer gear, nuts, vegetables, magazines, old toy cars, bags of fried fish stomachs, hats, caps, jewelry, furniture, mirrors, incense sticks, electronic goods, dried flowers, football shirts, car stickers, anything, everything.

And every few yards, locals were sat on the floor, crouching over little stoves cooking their meals. Bowls and bowls of rice, meat, noodles, fish, vegetables, fruit and a thousand variations. There was a blurring again of what I saw before me; is this a stall selling food, or just simply a worker cooking up their own food?

Adie had taught me a new way to photograph, slowing to a standstill, spotting a subject and shooting from the hip. I took several photos like this and the results were OK. I remember the intense look of concentration of one very small Chinese gentleman who was delicately folding pieces of gold to make intricate origami displays. The look of a bored young girl texting a friend while sat behind textiles and ribbons. A woman devouring some food. A chap sat at a café, smiling with a passer-by.

With every step, a hundred different sights. With every breath, a different aroma.

I said to Adie – “and in four hours time, we’ll watch some millionaires play football.”

We stopped off at a couple of street-side cafes and guzzled some drinks in the heat of the day; an iced cappuccino, a lime cordial, a lychee yogurt smoothie.

And the streets got narrower and narrower. At times it was impossible to move as the people slowed to gaze at the goods on sale. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but at times I just wanted to break free and find some clear space.

Eventually we broke free of Chinatown and headed north, over a canal and towards the Golden Mountain, which was another golden temple on the highest piece of land in central Bangkok. We quickly ascended the steps, took a few photographs and spotted a few skyscraper landmarks. Time was moving on and we needed to head over to the game. We caught a cab – thank heavens for air-conditioning – and soon witnessed another taxi ploughing into a poor woman and her cart of fresh fruit, sending them sprawling onto the road.

On the thirty minute cab ride out west, we sped past a massive advertisement for Singha beer, which used the tagline “Spirit Of Champions” with four Chelsea players’ faces and the CFC badge. It was a remarkable sight, thousands of miles from West London. As we approached the stadium, the traffic slowed, Chelsea shirts were beginning to be spotted and the expectation levels began to rise with each minute.

We were dropped off outside the main – and as far as we could ascertain, the only – entrance to the stadium. The heat was now getting more intense, but my Yankee cap was doing a fine job. After a little confusion about choosing the correct line at the busy ticket booth, I quickly picked up our three tickets. I spotted Aggie from the Cyprus Blues and had a little chat. Thankfully, Cathy, Jim and Jayne soon arrived and I could relax. We decided to head inside and get out of the sun. Cathy and I posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” flag once again. The atmosphere outside was of excitement, but it was quieter than Kuala Lumpur. There were a few tents nearby containing various products, including a Chelsea FC stall, a Coke stall and a local radio tent, with a loud DJ creating a din. The game was dubbed the Coke Super Cup and there was a twenty foot tall Coke “running man” statue outside the stadium. Quite a few locals appeared to be selling tickets and I wondered if the gate might fall way short of a full house. Adie had seen Leeds, Arsenal, Manchester United, Barca, Real and Brazil over the years at the stadium…I hoped and prayed that we would fill it.

Thankfully, we had great seats under the cover of the sweeping roof of the west stand. Middle tier, right on the halfway line. These tickets were 2,000 baht or around #45. There was a cooling breeze and we were fine. Opposite, on the east terrace, thousands of Chelsea fans were sweltering in the late afternoon sun and I noted hundreds of multi-coloured umbrellas sheltering the poor souls. It was time to play spot the Chelsea flag. The lads from Weymouth were sat a few rows in front of us and I am sure their flag was close by. Opposite, we spotted the two Bletchley Blues flags, a Walton On Thames flag, a Pattaya Blues flag, an Indonesia Blues flag, a Singapore Blues flag, a Melbourne flag and a Rising Sun flag. It was a good show. VPN was missing – I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.

The Chelsea players came onto the pitch and went through their choreographed pre-match routines.

The Snappy Dresser –

Chris – pink.

Again, thousands of CFC flags had been draped over some seats and these were waved with gusto. The stadium took a while to fill up. Still the sun beat down.

There were fireworks during the pre-game show and then a Thai couple appeared high above the north terrace on a platform. They were suspended from two cables and slowly made their way to the running track, as if floating on air. Let’s see something similar at Chelsea next season, with maybe Cathy and Dog floating down from the West Stand roof with five minutes to go before kick-off.

The teams appeared down below us and the crowd roared. Difficult to gauge the attendance, but – like KL – the crowd kept arriving deep into the game.

Great to see Petr back between the sticks for the first time this season.

The game began but it was a poor opening thirty minutes or so, with the Thai team showing more spirit and know-how than the Malaysian team a few days earlier. Soon into the game, all was quiet in our section and I shouted out –

“Come On Chelsea!”

…and, much to my amusement, this was met with a few “oohs” and “aahs” and even a few claps from the locals around me. Cathy and I spoke about doing some ZZs later.

Cech did well to get down and block a Thai shot on 31 minutes. That man Torres, still looking leggy and distant, skewed wide on 37 minutes and we all groaned. At times, the atmosphere was very quiet. Then, the ball broke to Frank Lampard and he adroitly despatched the ball low into the goal from over 25 yards out. It was a typical Fat Frank Goal and the crowd roared their approval.

Cathy disappeared at half-time and didn’t re-appear until later in the second-half. I suspect that she was off on the hunt for some Strongbow. Adie asked me how I thought the top six would finish up in 2011-2012 and he was quite shocked when I predicted that the title would go to Manchester United. My top six were: Manchester United, then Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.

I caught both of the next two goals on film. Jose Bosingwa’s cross-cum-shot evaded the despairing, and comical, efforts of the Thai ‘keeper and bounced in off the far post. Soon after, a burst through the middle of the park by Ivanovic and a lovely ball through by Young Josh. He kept his cool and dispatched the ball with aplomb and the entire World and his Dog made cynical comments along the lines of “good job it wasn’t Torres.”

One of the highlights of the game for me was a crunching tackle by John Terry on a Thai player and I suspect that the said player is still having recurring nightmares about it. Josh looked busy and impressed. The star of the show was Hilario, on for Petr at the break, who made a succession of fine saves around the hour mark. Top marks. Ivanovic charged around all over the place and didn’t seem to be affected by the heat, though I am sure it was very humid and draining. Rather them than me.

The place was still quiet, though.

My “Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea” chant didn’t stir the locals and so I left it at that. A couple in front of Adie and I were annoying the hell out of me. They virtually ignored the game and instead kept taking photographs – and sickly ones at that – of each other. It was just as well that Cathy wasn’t around to witness such a pathetic sight. Just after Cathy returned to her seat, Florent Malouda lashed high into the net and it was 4-0 to Chelsea.

Job done.

JT looked rather embarrassed to collect another cup, but all thoughts were quickly forgotten as a glittering array of fireworks lit up the Bangkok night. It was a spectacular end to the night’s entertainment and provided a fitting end to my two Chelsea games in Asia. This was a much better performance than the game in KL and the team looked more at ease. I hoped that the man with the clipboard was starting to make an impact.

Adie and I let the crowds subside and were some of the last to leave the stadium.

I collected twenty plastic cups from the terraces which were all logo’d up with “Coca Cola Super Cup Thailand 2011” and had the images of Didier, Frank, JT and Nando on them. They will go to a few close friends.

Outside, the crowds were still to disperse. There was a noisy atmosphere out in the streets, with buses and cabs racing past us as we walked a few miles west to get away from the congested area. Adie also pointed out motorbike taxis, but that would have to be a Bangkok experience for next time. Lots of smiles with fellow Chelsea fans as Adie and I marched on, walking at pace away from the stadium. It felt, actually, just like a walk away from a game in Europe. Maybe Rome or Barcelona. Lots of shouts, lots of noise, lots of colour. I had to keep reminding myself that – no – this was Bangkok.

I said to Adie “at least there’s no chance of getting whacked out here.”

I also commented that although Bangkok was a wilder city than Kuala Lumpur, the atmosphere was not half as good.

At around 9am, sirens wailed behind us and the Chelsea team coach – also logo’d up in the colours of Coca Cola – raced by. I punched the air as the coach drive by and realised what a lucky soul I had been. The next time I would see the boys play would be in Stoke, but that seemed a lifetime away.

We dipped into a 7-Eleven for a bottle of ice-cold green tea and then luckily nabbed a cab back to our hotel. Time was running out for a Thai buffet, so instead, I devoured a burger and fries, along with two bottles of Singha. Not until now do I realise that these were the only beers that I had to drink the entire day. And what a day. That wonderful day in Chinatown and Chelseatown.

That wonderful day in Bangkok.

Postscript :-

After Bangkok, I had a relaxing time in Chiang Mai and one moment brought a smile to my face. On the last day, I was busy visiting a last few sights and was just about to leave a temple when a local lady in her ‘sixties approached me. I think she was aiming to get me sign up for a local tour. She asked me where I was from and as soon as I said “England” she was keen to ask me another question.

“Ah – which football team do you support?”

It made me laugh…one world, one game, one team anyone?

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Tales From A Champions League Night At HQ.

Chelsea vs. Marseille : 28 September 2010.

This was to be a monumental night in deepest SW6 for one CIA regular – Jules ( ChelseaChickSoCal ) is over for a week or two and is staying with her brother Steve in Cheltenham. The game against Olimpique Marseille would be their first game at Stamford Bridge. Additionally, Jules had arranged for John ( who also posts on CIA ) and his brother George to meet us in The Goose and this, too, would be their debut at HQ. We had arranged for Jules and Steve to drive the hour or so to Chippenham and then travel up with His Lordship and yours truly.

Luckily I had arranged to negotiate an earlier-than-usual “escape time” from work, so there was no stressful scurry up to London. The timings were perfect and we left bang on 3.30pm. Lord Parky had been drinking across the road at The Pheasant from 2.30pm and was already four pints to the good…or bad…for those who know Parky, take your pick.

I made good time amidst the M4 traffic as we chatted about all things Chelsea. I remember reading Jules’ first few posts on CIA and her story is pretty amazing…via a conversation with dear Vic on a stadium tour, she was put in the direction of Andy’s OC Hooligans and Jules hasn’t looked back. Stories of football, Chelsea, fandom and England were swapped between the four of us and it was a perfect pre-curser to the night’s game.

I posed the question to Jules –

“Which three football stadia can be seen from the M4?”

At 5.30pm, we had reached The Goose and the first pints were soon ordered. A few of my mates were already there, soon to be augmented by others as the evening progressed. The Spartak vs. Zilina game was on TV – unfortunately, as I looked at all those empty bright yellow seats at the Luhzniki in Moscow, all I could think of was a certain game in 2008. As Alan said, it looked like the rain hadn’t stopped since.

John, who I briefly met in Baltimore, arrived at about 6.15pm after battling his way through the pub regulars. I reintroduced myself by saying –

“Yeah, photographic evidence would suggest that I was in Baltimore, but I’m really not convinced.”

For anyone who survived Baltimore, you’ll know what I mean.

John had kindly collected the tickets for the four of them at the box office. Within a few moments of arriving in our little corner, tucked under the TV screen, the historic handing over of Jules’ first ticket took place. Jules was beaming as she grabbed the ticket and uttered one word.

“Awesome.”

There was much laughter from us both. You can take the girl out of California…

John and George had been staying down in Winchester and had been doing the tourist trail, including visits to Salisbury and Portsmouth. It’s a nice part of the world. John was trying to talk George into extending their visit an extra week past their planned Monday departure. I immediately made the comment that there was no Chelsea games next week, so why would anyone want to hang around? I was only half-joking.

“Get yourselves home and start saving money for the next Chelsea trip!”

At just after 7pm, Jules, Steve and myself set off down the North End Road, leaving Parky, John and George guzzling with a few of the lads in the boozer. It had been a fine pre-match. I pointed out all of the pubs on the walk down to the stadium – one day we’ll do them all on the best pub-crawl of all time. I took a photo of Jules and Steve outside The So Bar, then headed off inside. I left them with two instructions –

“Enjoy the game and sing like fuck.”

The CL match programmes this year are slightly different…white and not blue, with a spine, like the monthly magazines. The content is the same as the normal ones, though. Same price, too. That’s unlike Chelsea. I’ll talk to Roman about that.

Another midweek game, another full house.

As I settled in my seat, I spotted the four US visitors in row two of the Shed Upper, right behind the Peter Osgood “Born Is The King” banner. Dead central. I had mentioned to them that not only did I want the team to perform, I also ( probably more importantly ) wanted the Chelsea fans to perform too. I wanted them to be buzzing with the noise. For me, that’s what Chelsea is about…the team may not always be title-challengers or cup-winners, but there’s no reason why Chelsea fans can’t make the ground shake.

There were a few empty seats towards the rear section, but the c.3,000 Marseille fans stood the entire game and were in rollicking good form. The balcony was festooned with various banners – one Ultra flag was the largest, but I noted two strange ones, heralding two of the club’s fan groups.

At the front of the lower tier – “DODGER’S”

On the balcony – “YANKEE.”

I had to text a few choice individuals in California with the news that two of baseball’s teams had been spotted in deepest London.

Danny replied –

“Who are these people?”

I replied –

“Educated.”

It was baseball’s biggest intrusion into SW6 since the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox played an exhibition game at Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties.

The game began and there were no complaints from me with our early form. Of course, this was an injury-weakened team, with several first-teamers missing through injury and suspension. Kakuta was given a start again and I hoped he would shine. The Marseille fans wasted no time in hurling tons of abuse at the former PSG striker Anelka and it instantly reminded me of the night in 2004 when 40,000 PSG fans made life very unpleasant for Didier Drogba, as the former Marseille player returned to the Parc Des Princes. Of all the rivalries in France, the PSG / OM one is the most bitter.

Meanwhile, we booed ex-United left back Gabriel Heinze.

Yet another early goal – JT toe-poking in a corner – but I annoyingly missed it as I was mid-text. Ironically, Alan alongside me missed it due to the same reason. We’ve been varying it a bit recently and our “THTCAUN” and “COMLD” contained a horrid mixture of French and English words on this particular occasion. ( Against Newcastle, our two trademark phrases were said with a Geordie twang. ) Anyway, my French teacher from school days would not have been happy…

”Allez vous, mes petite diamonds.”

I texted Jules the original “They’ll Have To Come At Us Now” and she did me proud –

“COMLD.”

The away fans were making a hell of a racket – pointing, chanting, swaying – and were at their noisiest just before we were awarded a penalty. We didn’t get a good glimpse of the handball which lead to the penalty, but I steadied my camera as Anelka – with the OM fans baying – took the smallest of run-ups and scored again via another impudent finish. Two goals right in front of Jules, Steve, John and George – lovely stuff.

We played the ball around nicely for the rest of the first period, with Mikel and Essien dominating the midfield nicely. Not much from Kakuta, though. We missed Frank’s forward runs on a few occasions, especially when the ball dropped loose on the edge of the box a few times.

At half-time, who else but Didier Drogba appeared to a great reception from home and away fans alike…the Marseille fans sang their “tra, la, la, la, las” and everyone was happy.

What happened in the second period, eh?

Marseille began strongly and kept going…probing away, moving the ball nicely. Over the course of that second forty-five minutes, we found it difficult to put two passes together. Ironically, though, although Marseille out-shot us, we had the best two chances. On 66 minutes, we were chanting again for Alex to take a free-kick and the resultant whiz-banger crashed against the post. Then, a lovely pass from substitute Ramires found Essien who blasted against the same post. Despite only glimpses of fluid play, we could have won the game 4-0. Despite Marseille’s dominance, all of their ensuing shots seemed to be down Petr Cech’s throat.

Easy.

Our support seemed to be both frustrated, yet quiet. Where was the passion of last week’s throaty performance against Newcastle when we were 3-1 down and the crowd responded magnificently? I was feeling for our four Bridge Virgins in row two. The Shed Singing Section were quiet for most of the game and the MH too. The Marseille support had one more trick up their sleeves, though. With just a few minutes left, everyone turned around with their backs to the game, linked arms and starting bouncing. It was quite a spectacle, believe me. I had never seen that before I must say.

An Essien chance – the last one – whizzed past the goal and the game petered out.

Everyone reassembled back at the car and, despite typical road works on the M4 ( welcome to England! ), I made good time on the return journey. We stopped for a Scooby Snack at Reading Services – yes, a can of Red Bull for me – and with Parky sleeping in the front, dialogue was minimal on the way home. We had won, of course, but our second-half performance wasn’t great. Steve was philosophical though – the defence was strong – and it goes without saying that Jules had enjoyed herself…no question!

And on Sunday, we’ll do it all again.

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Tales From Plaza Major.

Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea : 3 November 2009.

After a busy week at work – plus an equally frantic period for Chelsea with six games in eighteen days – I couldn’t wait to get myself to Gatwick and on the plane to Spain.

I set off from my home in the small hours of Monday and it was fantastic to be off on my travels again. Meanwhile, Game Four of the World Series was taking place in Philadelphia and I needed to know how my Yankees were doing. Good job I have friends in California – the only ones in the US still awake – and so I texted Bob and Danny and, by the time I had parked up at a mate’s house in South London, I was very pleased to hear that the Yankees had won. One game away from winning it all. I texted Danny to say “my two teams could win the World Series and the Champions League Final in Madrid.”

With my thoughts returning to football, I added up – and lost count a few times – of the number of Chelsea European aways I had done and I worked out it was eighteen…Madrid would be number nineteen. A roll-call, from 1994 to date…Prague, Vienna, Zaragoza, Bratislava, Seville, Stockholm, Monaco, Oslo, Rome, Barcelona, Stuttgart, Paris, Barcelona, Bremen, Gelsenkirchen, Moscow, Rome, Turin and now Madrid.

Enough memories to last a lifetime really. The best three? I’d go for Turin, Seville and Stockholm…even Moscow was magnificent. The worst – by a mile – was Zaragoza.

I must be one of the few Englishmen who has never been on a standard package holiday to a Spanish beach resort. My childhood holidays were always in Italy ( 5 times from 1975 to 1981 ) and I have always felt more “at home” in Italy than Spain. My only ever visit to the city of Madrid was in September 1987 on an Inter-Rail adventure with two mates…we arrived at Chamartin station in the morning and we spent 12 hours walking the city streets until we departed from Attocha station, en route to Lisbon, at night. I don’t remember too much about Madrid…I remember I bumped into a girl who recognised me from my school in Frome ( small world, eh? ) but the main image from that day all those years ago is of a massive, but crumbling Bernabeu Stadium. I think we paid a few pesetas for a tour of the stadium, but this involved rampaging all over the terraces with no guide, no security and basically being able to go wherever we pleased. Later on that trip we visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and I was far more impressed with that grander stadium. All of these memories flitted in and out of my consciousness as I drive through the night.

I met up with Alan, Gary and Neil on a train at Purley at 5.25am. Our Easyjet flight to Madrid Barrajas airport left at about 8am. There were a few familiar Chelsea faces on the plane, including a chap I first met in a bar in Vienna for the Austria Memphis game in 1994.

I caught a small amount of sleep on the plane and we were soon circling the parched Spanish landscape around Madrid. The sky was picture-perfect blue and England suddenly seemed pale and grey by comparison. In a second, I understood why Arjen Robben chose to leave London for Madrid in 2007. We landed at 11.15am.

Our two mates Daryl and Rob were on a slightly later flight from Stanstead. They would soon be with us. Alan provided the first big laugh of the trip as we used the airport toilets. I wasn’t aware he was next to me, but I heard his voice bellow out –

“Just seen Torres outside, looking confused. He doesn’t know which one to go in.”

And before we knew it, the Stanstead Two arrived and we were all together, on a rumbling metro line headed for the centre.

Let the fun begin.

Our hotel was very close to the city centre ( whisper it, but we have provisionally booked it for The Final in May, too ) and the six of us spent from about 1pm to 5.30pm on a very enjoyable walk around the area by Plaza Del Sol and Plaza Mayor. My goodness, that sun was hot. We popped into a few bars and sunk a few Mahou beers. We were relaxing together and I felt the worries of work leaving me with each drink. We sat outside a beautifully tiled restaurant / bar and got stuck into some tapas, followed by a main course and it was all gorgeous stuff. We finished off our spell at the restaurant with a couple of liquors ( one on the house ) which came in chocolate coated wafer cups…the business. On the trot back to our hotel, we dipped into a couple more bars. We spotted quite a few faces in “Moores,” including the famous Chelsea fan Blind Gerry, who was over with Charlie and Nick. Gerry was actually sporting a Chelsea In America T-shirt. I had a chat with Nick and he told me a few funny incidents involving Gerry, who has been a fan of the club for ages. He told me that they gave Gerry the window seat on the flight over.

I’m sure Gerry made the most of it.

Charlie sometimes provides match commentary for Gerry and he once commented ( in all seriousness ), after a beautiful passage of Chelsea play –

“Ooh – you should have seen that, Gerry.”

We stumbled back to the hotel and arranged to meet up in about an hour. I forgot to change the time on my phone, so my alarm went off late…I joined up with the boys, rather sheepishly, at about 8.15pm. They had been joined by some other lads – chaps I went to Turin with – who were at our hotel, too. Woody was well oiled already and was wearing a multicoloured Mohican head-dress which he had obtained from a street vendor. I went off to get a beer as he fell off his seat. We bumped into a few other semi-familiar faces throughout the night and bar-hopped around Plaza Mayor. We had yet more tapas at about 11pm. Not sure what the conversations were about, but the laughter flowed as well as the beer. I met up with Dominic – from NYC – in a packed pub called “The Dubliners” and gave him his match ticket. It was manic in there – loads of Chelsea. I had last seen Dominic in Baltimore and he was so grateful to get his hands on a ticket. We dipped into a couple more bars and – sitting outside one – serenaded the world with a couple of Depeche Mode songs. We back-tracked and entered “O’Neills” in search of more fun.

Amidst all this, Game Five of the World Series was taking place. This was a historic time for Daryl and myself. I only got to know Daryl, in 1991, through our joint love of baseball – or the Yankees in particular. Daryl used to edit a Yankee fanzine for us UK-based fans. Only a year later, when he saw my name in the late lamented “Chelsea Independent” did he realise that we were both Chelsea fans. And that’s how our particular friendship blossomed. Anyway, we live 150 miles apart and had never once watched a baseball game together…certainly not in the US, nor even on TV in the UK. I have lost count of the times we have pondered trips to The Bronx together. They usually always ended –

“One day, mate – one day.”

However, there – like a mirage, was a large TV screen with the baseball. Daryl and myself smiled and toasted our team.

One win away from the Series, I wore a small gold NYY badge on my dark blue pullover and hoped the Yanks could overturn a 1-3 deficit. The coverage was then turned off for some reason. We then heard from Rob – who had disappeared – that the World Series was being shown in “The Dubliners.”

As I entered the pub, Cathy shouted out my name and I went over to have a brief word…the pub was full of Chelsea and the songs were loud. There was a crunch of sticky broken glass underfoot…the pub had obviously seen some heavy action that evening.

There were a few Rangers and Hearts fans in too – they often show up to see us in Europe.

We saw the Phils go 6-1 up and I wondered how long I could last. The beers were starting to have an effect.

The baseball coverage stopped at about 3.45am as the pub closed. I left most of my last pint as I knew I had reached saturation level. We meandered home, shards of glass stuck to my shoes, making me sound like a tap dancer. We reached the hotel at around 4am and tentatively all arranged to meet up in the hotel lobby at 10am.

At 11am I was the only one up! Eventually we all assembled and the eleven of us met up for a coffee in a nearby square.

Lacoste Watch

Chris – lavender
Jocka – light blue
Andy – racing green
Neil – mid blue

My goodness, the heat was strong again. Mirroring my visit in 1987, we then caught a couple of busses up to the Real Madrid stadium…while we waited for the second bus, next to the Madrid Hard Rock Cafe, we saw Ray Wilkins and Gary Staker walking towards us. We were able to get a few photos with Butch and we engaged him in a brief conversation.

Daryl asked him if there would be a full first team out and he replied “well – we’ve got a couple of crafty changes up our sleeve” and he then reconfirmed that “Sunday is a much bigger game.”

The Bernabeu Stadium is located a couple of miles to the north of the city in an area that could be called “plush.” It is set next to a business district full of blue-chip companies and a high-rent residential area and even the shops opposite are top-end boutiques. It is a quite abnormal location for a football stadium. It was once said – back in the mid-seventies, when talking of our un-reached potential – that Chelsea had the best location of any club in Europe, except that of Real Madrid. I was reminded of this when Daryl mentioned the setting of Stamford Bridge as being the best in London and the one stadium comparable to Real Madrid’s pad.

We spent about 90 minutes at The Bernabeu and we loved it. Since 1987, how it has changed. It has now easily leap-frogged Camp Nou in terms of quality. We paid 15 euros for a tour and it was well worth it. The first thing on the tour involved a lift up the outside of the stadium, overlooking the streets below, which reached the top tier in a few seconds. From there, the view was spectacular. The skies were clear blue and mirrored the blue of the seats. The iconic white roof hovered over the steep stands and the scene was just beautiful. Throughout the tour, my mind was doing various permutations of what could happen over the next six months. Would Chelsea be paired with Real in the knockout phase? If we reached the final, who would we play? How spectacular it would be if it was to be Real Madrid. Or – tantalisingly suggested by Daryl – how about Barcelona? The whole of Madrid would be behind us. We would be drinking for free!

The tour consisted of viewing the stadium from several levels, from the upper tiers all of the way down to pitch level by the tunnel. I took lots of photos. There is a museum, featuring old artefacts, game-worn jerseys from as far back as 1902, photos of previous stadia, potted histories of a their famous players and then there is the trophy room, which is superb. There is a wall containing photos of thousands of players. We concluded that there are six players who have played for both teams…Arjen Robben, Christian Panucci, Geremi, Claude Makelele, Lassana Diarra and Nikolas Anelka.

They clearly are an ultra-successful club.

However – for anyone with just a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish football, all of this success hasn’t exactly come as a result of just the honest toil from the players on the pitch. Real has achieved their successes partly via the murky transfer of players, funds from politicians and businesses, decisions from dodgy referees, patronage of the state, favours from every direction, subjugation of others ( a certain team in Catalonia to name but one ) and the like.

When they claim they are the most successful club of the 20th Century, it is almost as if there needs to be an asterisk hovering nearby.

I never have liked Real Madrid, Franco’s club, the fascist Ultra Sur hooligans, the galacticos et al. I remember the booing of SWP and other black players on England duty at the Bernabeu in around 2005, something that certainly shocked me. The fact that Leeds United rebranded themselves in the ‘sixties to copy the all-white kit hasn’t helped either.

However, perhaps they have never liked us…we beat them in Athens in 1971 and in Monaco in 1998. I wonder when the third meeting will be.

You see how are minds were working? We were playing Atletico, but The Final and Real Madrid were always lurking in the background.

We enjoyed a pre-match meal in a quiet central bar / restaurant and caught the subway down to the game. As we approached the stadium, which remained hidden behind tower blocks for some time, we joined a slow-moving group of fans. This is where I needed to keep my wits about me. There were Atletico fans drinking nearby and a few Chelsea fans were singing a few yards away. I kept my eyes on Daryl, Rob, Alan, Neil and Gary to make sure we were all together. We walked past groups of police and I sensed an atmosphere. At last, the concrete walls of the stadium approached and the road widened, souvenir stalls in front and to the side. We walked around to the northern end and via a quick security check, we were in.

Virtually the first person we saw inside was Cliff and he was in the wars again…he had been hit by a bottle on the forehead, thrown indiscriminately into the Chelsea fans as they passed a bar. His shirt was bloodied but he was OK.

As we reached the top tier ( the 3,000 Chelsea visitors were in two tiers ) we heard from many that we had just missed a baton charge by the Spanish police in which women and even a teenage girl were hit. This is clearly disgraceful. I am not sure what the provocation was, but it highlighted how near we came, perhaps, to being attacked. I was struck by a police baton in Zaragoza in 1995 and was doing no more than watching my team. It was a case of “sit where you like” in the top tier and I was right on the end of a row, overlooking the outside of the main stand, which is quite an oddity. The Madrid ring road, next to the Mazanares River, runs right beneath its support columns. I had three or four policemen stood next to me for the entire game and a few mouthy Chelsea youths were prodded and poked throughout the game. Because away travel is virtually non-existent in Spain, I have this theory that Spanish police get freaked out by 3,000 away fans. Still no excuse though.

The Estadio Vicente Calderon is a simple bowl, in two tiers, with a single row of executive boxes perched on the rim – clearly a recent addition. The main stand – which was blocked from my view by a large scoreboard – sits apart from the other three sides though. The top deck is in the colours of the Atletico shirts ( red and white ) while the lower tier is blue, matching the normal blue shorts. I guess they played in red shorts to avoid a clash with us. The stadium was spartan – bare concrete everywhere and was a poor second to the majesty of the Bernabeu.

Banners at the opposite home end signalled two of their ultra groups – Red & White Inferno and El Frente Atletico. As the teams entered the pitch, their fans in the lower tier held their scarves aloft and waved a few flags. This was clearly the hotbed of their support. Elsewhere, the home fans didn’t really get involved.

I looked around at the fans in our support and soon realised that there were not many women and virtually no kids. In fact, 75% of our support were aged 40-55…perhaps more. I have heard stories from many fans that they don’t bother with domestic aways these days and only turn out for Europe.

I can see the attraction…maybe one day. Maybe after I have visited Bolton another ten times.

It was a strange game and we didn’t really impress for most of it. Strange to see Kalou starting and he was his usual frustrating self. Despite a couple of silky flicks, Joe Cole was very quiet and didn’t appear match fit. Alex patrolled the pitch with great conviction and often chased and closed attackers down as if his life depended on it. I liked Ashley’s contribution too.

A delightful move ended with Frank – otherwise quiet – shaving the post and Drogba hit the post in the second half.

Our support, split into two tiers, was sporadic.

Of course, that failed defensive header from JT gifted Aguerro with a goal on the hour and the home support roared their approval. They did a massive bouncy and it was pretty impressive. We came back into it when Malouda sent over an inch-perfect cross for Didi to head home…great celebrations…we just about deserved a point and we’d take it. Then, a superb break from Drogba, fending off two defenders, resulted in a goal when his initial shot was parried.

We went crazy.

Screams. Fists punching the air. Yes!

We couldn’t believe it really. Did we deserve three points? No.

Then, of course, the denouement…the sub Aguerro spun a wicked fee-kick past Cech and our elation turned to dust.

Again the Atletico fans roared.

At the final whistle, a shrug and the realisation that we had reached the last sixteen quickly over-rode any sadness.

The Spanish OB kept us in for about 25 minutes. We had a few songs. A few laughs. We assembled outside and had a partial police escort until they lost interest about fifteen minutes away from the stadium. There was no “afters.” We dived into a bar for a quite exceptional Mahou, served in an iced glass, then caught a cab to the centre.

After a couple of beers and yet more tapas, we called it a night.

On the Wednesday, we all got up late again and walked the short distance to the royal palace. It was an impressive building and we took a few snaps. We didn’t see much of Madrid to be honest, but it was all about male bonding and “being there” more than anything else. As we left the centre, en route back to the airport, I couldn’t help but think that it felt like it was a dry run, a “practice” for May.

Fingers crossed – let’s hope so.

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