Tales From A Twin City

Chelsea vs. Milan : 3 August 2016.

I drove from Ann Arbor in Michigan to Minneapolis in Minnesota in one ridiculous hop. It totaled out at 672 miles, took me over eleven hours and became the longest car journey of my life. There have been some long road trips for me watching Chelsea in the US (North Carolina to Pittsburgh, North Carolina to DC, North Carolina to Chicago, LA to Palo Alto, New York City to Charlotte, Charlotte to DC), but this one was the grand-daddy of them all. I only stopped four times – once for fuel, once for lunch, once for a drink and once at the Minnesota welcome centre – and thankfully the time went OK. I didn’t feel tired at all. The American Road kept me happy. I delved into a selection of FM radio stations to reduce the boredom, but you can only hear Chicago and Peter bloody Cetera so many times without going insane. I therefore hopped around some different stations a bit when things got tedious. I stayed clear of “Culvers” butter burgers, and all was fine.

The landscape was pretty flat around Michigan, but I noted many vineyards and wineries, which surprised me. I then swept wide and west past the suburbs of Chicago, my first port of call on this, my nineteenth trip to the USA. The Sears Tower, or whatever incarnation it is known by these days, was away in the distance. After I stopped at a down-at-heal “Hardees” for a burger and fries – can’t get more American than that – in Roscoe, Illinois, the scenery slowly changed and became more stimulating. The hills broadened, the fields turned greener, the sky opened up a little. Even the clouds looked more interesting. It became a lovely car trip.

I crossed the state line in to Minnesota as the rush-hour traffic was beginning to fade. My final approach seemed to electrify me. I shot past the little nest of downtown skyscrapers of St. Paul, the lesser of the two Twin Cities, and then continued on a further ten miles towards the far more impressive skyline of Minneapolis.

I genuinely knew little of the city to be honest. Cathy and myself had stopped for a few hours at the city’s airport on our long flight to Los Angeles in 2007, but I had not visited it in its own right. It was the home of Prince, bless him. It was the home of the Minnesota Twins, who were the opponents for my very first New York Yankees game in 1990. It was home to the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. The area was settled by many Scandinavians. There was a huge shopping mall in its suburbs. The city had skyways to keep people off the cold streets of winter and the scalding streets of winter. That was it.

For a geography graduate, I should have known more.

Ah, but there was also an Everything But The Girl song called “Twin Cities” from their 1991 album “Worldwide” and I loved it to death. It came out just after I had visited the US for the first time. This particular song was an ode to travel throughout that vast continent. It seemed to strike a chord for me. That particular band often wrote about travel, of foreign cities, of wanting to be elsewhere, and a few of their songs get me dreaming of foreign lands.

“And now I’m standing in a city that’s as pretty as an ocean in the night.

And we are twin cities. And we are that ocean. From the standing still. We are set in motion.”

At about 6.45pm, Minneapolis opened up before me and I-94 threw me right into the heart of the city. As I took a broad curve down over the river, the incredible black irregular block of brick, steel and glass of the US Bank Stadium greeted me. It was a definite jaw-dropping moment. Of course, I had done my homework – I knew we were opening it up, as we did with Dallas’ new pad in 2009 – and I had studied images of it from inside and out. But the stadium looked incredible. Its irregular surfaces defied rational description. Was this a mere stadium, or some sort of space-ship about to take off into the night?

For the second time in five days, I had a feeling that a stadium would prove to be the star of the show.

I met up with a few friends down at the anointed pub – “Brits” – on Monday and Tuesday evening, and it was a pleasure to bump into a few old friends for the first time on this trip. On the way to the pub on the Tuesday, I had spotted a young lad with a Chelsea shirt in my hotel and so I spoke to him and his mother about the game. They were from Kansas and this would be their first Chelsea match. Soon after, we were sharing a cab down to “Brits” and Erica and Cooper – only seven – were soon meeting up with a roomful of Chelsea fans from all over the US. However, not long into the night, with Neil Barnett and both Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers turning the air blue with some of their tales from the past, I noticed that the two of them had disappeared outside in the warm summer evening air. I hope that we had not scared them away.

On both nights, I didn’t get back to my hotel, no more than a five-minute walk away from the stadium, until 2.30am. Thankfully, on the mornings after, there was no hint of a hangover.

Minneapolis seemed a fine town, but devoid of too many pedestrians. I suspect that the skywayss have a lot to answer for. I noted a fair bit of quirky architecture and the usual smattering of corporate skyscrapers.

On the day of the game, I started off with a pint of Leinenkugel’s summer shandy in a bar near my hotel. It was 1.30pm. There were still seven hours until kick-off.

“Blimey, that’s like me having a pint at 8am on a Saturday matchday.”

I’d enjoyed a similar grapefruit shandy from the same company at the Detroit Tigers vs. Houston Astros game on the Sunday. What a refreshing drink. The summer shandy was cloudy and not half as refreshing. I walked to “Brits” and bumped into ex-pat Kev / Clive (old joke, ask Parky) on the way. He had travelled by 650cc motorbike from Detroit for the game and we swapped stories. Things were pretty quiet in “Brits” to be honest. I met up with Bob and Danny, both from California, and Phil from Iowa. A few more pints went down well. Bob and myself moved on to another bar called “Cuzzys” which was a fantastic place. Its floors sloped, and its walls were festooned with dollar bills hanging from every surface. It reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar in Key West “Sloppy Joe’s.”

Back at my hotel, we met up with Danny, Mike, Tim and Eugene, lads that I have met over the years on my travels around the US. More beers, and a few more laughs. Time was moving on and so at just before 8pm, we walked towards the spanking new stadium. Throughout the past few days, we had hardly seen any Milan shirts. There was also a gnawing realisation that the good people of Minneapolis were out in force to witness the opening of the stadium rather than to see a football match. In a few bars, we had even seen fans – presumably going to the game – with the violet of the Vikings jersey on show. We envisaged another quiet night in the Chelsea section and the stadium as a whole.

There seemed to be a little confusion about access into the stadium and the most direct way was unable to be followed due to fences blocking our path. This was evidence that the stadium’s immediate areas were still requiring attention. Bob and myself took a lift to a quiet, air-conditioned, carpeted walkway – a skywalk, I suppose – which took us into the stadium midway up. In all honesty, at this stage, it all seemed a little too alien for me. It did not seem like a sports stadium. It seemed like an airport. There were wide concourses, and signs pointing here, there and everywhere. It did not seem right.

Then, we came out onto a viewing area – again, lots and lots of space – and we were able to see inside the stadium for the first time. Outside, the irregular shape of the stadium is said to resemble a Viking long-boat (for some reason, I used to love drawing those at school) with its angled lines and suchlike. Inside, the stadium appears huge, almost too huge, or at least too high. It was another jaw-dropping moment for me.

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I have been inside a few NFL stadia over the years – though I am yet to attend a game, no surprise there – and the last one that I visited which was equally stunning was the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. This one in Minneapolis though seemed almost perfect. At the Cowboys stadium, there are layer after layer of executive boxes where the corporate world can watch in air-conditioned isolation, but this leaves less seats for the common fan (if one exists in the NFL – it certainly seems a working class sport attended by the rich middle-class). This one seemed to have a larger proportion of general seating, even though the seats at the very rear of both side stands seemed to be so high as to be needing oxygen masks. It certainly ranks as the highest stadium I have seen. Probably higher than Dallas, probably higher than Camp Nou, certainly higher than the North Stand at Old Trafford.

At each end were massive TV screens. Everywhere, the violet / purple of the Vikings.

We took an elevator down a level and found our seats among the Chelsea section in the western side of the stadium, directly behind the goal. I looked around; just beyond our section, which continually stood for the duration of the game, there was the usual mixture of Real / Milan / Juve / Inter / Barca / Arsenal / Manchester United shirts. However, Chelsea was in the majority.

Back in 2005 – at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey – I attended another Chelsea vs. Milan game, but on that occasion, Chelsea were outnumbered by four or five to one. I know the demographics of the New York area are so different to that of Minnesota, but that just shows how far we have traveled in such a short period of time.

I spotted a few familiar faces in our ranks. Gary Chivers and Garry Stanley were a few rows below me.

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The players finished their pre-match routines and the clock ticked-down. The US flag fluttered as a tattooed girl sung the national anthem. The teams entered the now jam-packed arena. The players appeared so close to us.

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Antonio Conte’s team was again strong.

Courtois.

Aina.

Terry.

Cahill.

Azpilicueta.

Matic.

Fabregas.

Willian.

Traore.

Costa.

Moses.

The 4/4/2 aligned Costa and Traore for the first time.

It was good to see Diego back in the team.

Milan – playing in virtually an all-black kit – attacked the end where the Chelsea supporters, numbering possibly no more than five hundred at most, in a little tight block, were stood. Of course, there were Chelsea fans elsewhere, but this was the equivalent of an away section, the notion that movers and shakers in charge of these tours are only vaguely acquainted.

My friend Steve Rea, from New Orleans – who writes blogs on the official website – had asked me about my thoughts about my travels over to the US for these tours. I shared a few things with him, and included a moan about “other” fans getting tickets in apparently Chelsea-only sections. Things can often get a little tetchy in some cases. I remember getting annoyed by some Barcelona fans standing right in front of me in DC last summer. My closing comment to Steve for his article was – knowingly controversial – “sometimes segregation is a good thing.”

It didn’t surprise me that this line was cut from the final edit.

But certainly, for football games, it is surely key.

Who wants to be stood next to opposing fans?

Get us all together, one block, one voice, one song.

Us and them.

Make some noise.

Milan were the first to cause problems when Abate was able to ghost in at the far post to connect with a cross, after drifting inside a dozing Dave. Milan looked quite sharp and I hoped for better things from us.

We had torn shirts as Traore and then Diego were manhandled. Diego headed over from a Traore cross. Milan then broke well and we had to rely on a fine Courtois block, with his legs, to avoid us conceding.

The noise in the Chelsea section was not great and I had rolled my eyes as a couple of “waves” were attempted around the stadium. Thankfully, they did not get far, unlike at Ann Arbor on Saturday. On that particular afternoon, I found it so ironic that the only section of fans not joining in with this loathsome and tiresome activity were the ones that had been trying to sing all afternoon. Sometimes I come away from games in the USA and think “yes, you’re getting it” but on that day, in The Big House, I marked America down.

After one wave faltered, I thought “enough of this shite” and bellowed out twelve “Zigger Zaggers” (a personal best, thank you very much) and the Chelsea support around me rallied a little.

Chelsea played a little better and had a few attacks on goal. Victor Moses, as is his wont during these games, had a forceful run out left. Another of his runs ended with a shot which rebounded nicely for Bertrand Traore to head home from close range.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

It pleased Minneapolis-native Tom, standing in-front of me, that the PA played “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince to mark the first goal scored in his city’s sparking new stadium.

Dave drove hard at the Milan goal but his shot breezed past the far post. We seemed in control.

Sadly, before the break, we conceded a free-kick just outside the box, and Bonaventura – pet detective – curled a stunning shot over the wall and past Thibaut.

Chelsea 1 Milan 1.

Milan started a little stronger at the start of the second-half. By now, the Chelsea support was quite pitiful. Hardly any songs were heard. The manager then shook things up a little, bringing on N’Golo Kante for his Chelsea debut – how small he looks, so reminiscent of Claude Makelele – and then there was a huge cheer for the introduction of Eden Hazard. They replaced Moses and Traore. It was lovely to see Kante dart around, but first he posed for a photo. Bless him. Welcome to Chelsea, N’Golo.

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Hazard was immediately involved. Willian’s shot was well saved by the Milan ‘keeper. Thankfully, the Chelsea support got behind the team a little more.

More changes ensued, with Ivanovic, Oscar and Batshuayi in for Aina, Fabregas and Costa.

The songs continued and we urged the team on.

A silly handball by a Milan defender allowed Oscar to fire the resulting penalty home.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Chelsea 2 Milan 1.

Eden seemed to be elbowed in the jaw and stayed on the floor for a while. His new jersey did not display a number and the Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were excited to the point of collapse.

Chalobah and my mate Cuadrado were introduced late on.

We lustily sang a chorus of “fackemall, fackemall – United, West Ham, Liverpool” and one middle-aged woman turned around in an adjoining section and gave us the dirtiest of looks.

In front of me, Tommy had his finest moment.

To the old chant of “She fell over!” he sang “He’s Chalobah!” and gained a few credibility points.

That deserves to catch on next season.

You heard if first in Minnesota.

Four minutes from the end, we added to our lead when my boy Cuadrado did ever so well to supply an onrushing Oscar with a deft pass. He tucked it home well.

Chelsea 3 Milan 1.

This was a much better performance from us and I hope and pray we can build on it in Bremen on Sunday.

At the end of the game, it was lovely to see JT head over to sign some shirts before clapping us and heading up the tunnel. I said my goodbyes to a few and at that point my plan was going to head on back to “Brits” for a couple of hours. There were five of us left – Brian (Texas), Danny (California), Josh (Minnesota), Tommy (California) and me (Nebraska) – and we were some of the very last to leave. We posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner and left the stadium.

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And what a stadium it had been.

Sadly, the lure of my hotel bed, a mere five-minute walk away, proved too tempting.

It was time for me to call it a night.

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Tales From The Big House

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 30 July 2016.

It could have easily been a typical Saturday morning back home in England. As I lay in bed, the sheets almost covering me completely, I buried my head deep inside the covers and tried to sleep on for a few more minutes, and endevoured to ignore the depressing sound of the rain lashing down outside the window. It sounded bleak. Following Chelsea during the summer in the US wasn’t meant to be like this. I hadn’t packed a jacket for the trip, that’s for sure. And I knew that there was no cover at the huge University of Michigan stadium. With the tightening of stadium security, I also knew that bags were not able to be taken in to the game.  If the rain continued to fall at the same rate over the next few hours, there was a strong chance of the upcoming game against Real Madrid becoming the worst viewing experience of my life. No roof. No jacket. No bag for my camera. Possibly not even my camera; there was an unclear description of the type of camera which would be allowed inside when I had checked on the stadium website earlier.

“Less than six inches.”

On reading this, I had glanced down at my camera and sighed.

“Looks bigger than six inches to me.”

There was, I suppose, if the occasional thunder cracks continued too, even a slight chance of the game being cancelled or postponed and obliterated from the record books.

Bollocks.

I slept on for a few more minutes. The room had top notes of disinfectant, mixed with a slight aroma of marijuana. Its base notes were of misery. I wondered if this would set the tone for the day.

The rain abated slightly and I became a little more optimistic. I showered, chose jeans over shorts, Moncler over Lacoste, Adidas over Nike, and headed out for the time-honoured tradition of a McBreakfast on the morning of a Chelsea match. This one was not in Melksham, or Chippenham, or at Fleet Services, though; this one was at Ann Arbor, Michigan, a lovely college town situated at arm’s length from the urban sprawl of the troubled city of Detroit. As I finished my coffee, I chatted briefly to a father with two teenagers – the girl wearing a Chelsea shirt, the son wearing a Real Madrid one. It was their first Chelsea game. I wished them well. I wondered if we’d get to see Real’s famous all white kit. It would be a shame to come all this way and not be treated to that. Instead, some ludicrous away kit catastrophe. I have only ever seen Real play once before; in Monaco in the 1998 UEFA Super Cup Final. It was all white on the night for them, but more so for us; a Gustavo Poyet goal gave us a 1-0 win, and prompted my good mate Andy to memorably comment :

“Right now, in Madrid, there’s an old bloke in a bar, saying ‘They always beat us, Chelsea.’ “

Of course, we had beaten them in Athens in 1971 too.

Two games, two wins.

Our paths have rarely crossed since; certainly not in official European campaigns.

On the walk past the motel reception, I spotted a lad wearing a Willian shirt. As I ambled past, I couldn’t resist singing “he hates Tottenham, he hates Tottenham” and this drew a wide smile from the Chelsea fan. There was a spring in my step now. This would be a good day.

My friend John, from Ohio, had kindly volunteered to pick me up in his truck and head in to town for pre-match beers. It was fantastic to see him once again. John studied at Reading University for a few months during the winter of 2008/2009 and I was able to get him tickets, usually alongside the Chelsea legend Lovejoy, for some games. He saw the Juve home match and also took in a game at Anfield. I last saw him at the Baltimore match against Milan in 2009; still widely-regarded by many as the best Chelsea matchday-experience in the US of them all.

On the drive in to town, we caught up with each other’s lives, and John spoke to me about the town’s university, and its myriad sports teams. That John was a “U of M” fan, made this game even more worthwhile for him. I had driven in to town myself on a few occasions since arriving on the Wednesday, but the streets and parking lots were so much busier now. The town was gearing itself for an influx of over one-hundred thousand footy fans.

I had flown in to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on the Tuesday afternoon. I had decided to miss the opening tour game in Pasadena against the Scousers. Los Angeles is not my favourite place, and I wanted to stretch out and unwind a little bit rather than rush between three games. The matches in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis would be just fine. There would be no fun, in my eyes, travelling all of the way out to California to see bloody Liverpool.

“LA?”

“No, la.”

I spent Tuesday night with a few good friends in Chicago, where we spent a few hours hitting a few bars, sharing plenty of laughs, eating Mexican food, and reminiscing about the previous time that I had been in town; the memorable weekend of July 2006 – ten whole years ago, good grief – when Chelsea played the MLS All-Stars, the only game of our US tour that year. I had travelled to the US the previous two summers with Chelsea and had mainly kept myself to myself. In 2006, though, because everyone met up in one pub – “Fado” – and because everything was so well organised (a quiz night, an evening with Charlie Cooke, a practice session, a tour around Chicago in three double-decker busses before heading down to the game), everyone made a special effort to socialise. For me, it was a watershed moment. I met so many friends during those three days of Chelsea in Chicago. Not long after, Chelsea In America asked me to write about a trip to Bremen with Chelsea for their monthly newsletter, and I soon began posting ad hoc match reports on their bulletin board. Ten years later, I am still scribing away with thoughts about what supporting Chelsea means to me and many others.

It has been quite a ride.

I drove from Chicago – sad it was just a fleeting visit – to Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I made the big mistake of stopping by at “Culvers” for a butter burger. It is not a good sign for my future health that the sound effect that accompanied me biting down in to the burger was “squelch.”

But I loved the trip to Ann Arbor on the American road. I find it quite beguiling. The scale of everything is so different to back home.

On Thursday, I drove over to visit my friends Erin and JR, and their three-month old boy Harry, who was born just a few hours after our game at Anfield at the close of last season. It was lovely to see them again. It’s such a shame that simple geography keeps me apart from so many of my closest Chelsea mates. We headed in to Detroit for a few hours. Of course, everyone knows how that city has suffered over recent decades, but I was encouraged to see green shoots of renewal in the city centre, which seemed very chilled and relaxed. I love the way that the city’s sport stadia have remained right in the middle of everything. We relaxed at a great little restaurant. I just fancied a “light snack” and so asked for a Reuben sandwich. However, I was presented with a slab of food so huge that if it had been served in the UK, it would have needed planning permission. JR had shrimp tacos, while Erin had a very healthy salad and rice bowl. The server, a particularly irritating fellow who enjoyed regaling us with a far-too detailed description of the menu, made a point of asking Erin if she required “any protein” with her salad. Perhaps he thought she might soon wither away without added nutrients.

He turned to me and asked if I wanted any fries.

The fucker.

On Thursday night, in Ann Arbor, the Chelsea portion of my holiday kicked-in. Sometimes, I find it a little difficult to focus on events at the start of each season. Because I have witnessed so many games, and have seen us win so much – “things I never thought that I would hear myself say #542” – I usually take a while to get going each season. In “Conor O’Neils” in Ann Arbor, meeting up with a few friends, plus former players Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers, gave me the kick-start that I needed. We spoke about the current team, but also about little parcels of our history. I see Gary Chivers at Stamford Bridge quite often as he works on the corporate hospitality these days. I last saw Garry Stanley at Ian Britton’s funeral in Burnley. We watched Didier Drogba score against Arsenal in the MLS All-Star Game.

Too funny.

Jesus, Brian, Beth and Carlo from Texas were there. The omnipresent Cathy, with Becky, too. Neil Barnett ran through his player ratings – not many high scores, I have to say – from the Liverpool match, which I was unable to track in my motel room, but which we won 1-0. I had my photo taken with Garry and Gary. These were good times.

On the Friday, despite a slow start, the afternoon turned into an evening of additional Chelsea fun. I walked over to the pub at around midday, and spotted two mates – Tuna from Atlanta and Simon from Memphis – who I see on the US tours and also back home at games. They were outside enjoying a pint and a breakfast. They would be the first of many old friends – and a smattering of new – that I would happily meet over the weekend. We had taken over the whole pub – large, cool, roomy – and I spent my time chatting away with many Chelsea faces, clutching a bottle of Corona, and occasionally taking a few photographs to capture the mood. For a while, those outside the pub sang a selection of Chelsea songs, and this resulted in many locals using their cameras to record the moment. I don’t think Ann Arbor was prepared for it. The city centre is a quaint mix of antique shops, brew pubs, eateries, diners, pubs and shops. It is a very typical college town. For a couple of days, Chelsea fans invaded it like a plague of locusts, drank beer, and turned the air blue.

At around 12.30pm on the day of the game, John parked his truck in a multi-story opposite “Conor O’Neils” and we dived into the pub. The rain soon returned, and the University of Michigan store opposite had a run on ponchos. More beers were guzzled, and the pub absolutely roared to Chelsea chants. On the drive in to the city from my motel three miles to the south, the number of Chelsea shirts greatly outnumbered those of Real Madrid. This was a very positive sign indeed. At just after 2pm, thankfully the rain cleared and we began the twenty-five-minute walk south to the stadium. It was very pleasant indeed. The rain had freshened things up a little. We were allocated the northern end of the stadium, and it soon appeared before us. Touts – or scalpers – were doing their best to get rid of spares. Knock-off kits, virtually all Madrid, were being hawked on grass verges. Time was moving on, and the line at the gates were long. I thrust my telephoto lens down into my pocket and hoped for the best. Thankfully, there was a very minimal search and I was in.

“And relax.”

In time-honoured Chelsea tradition, the call of “one last pint” (or in this case “one last poncho”) had been honoured without jeopardising our ability to get in on time.

The stadium, which holds around 110,000, sits on a hill, but does not look large from the outside. Like so many stadia though, the entrances are towards the top of the vast bowl, and the pitch is down below. As I walked in, I was blown away by the scale of it all. It is immense. It is not called “The Big House” without reason. There are rows upon rows of blue metallic bleachers which wrap themselves around on one never-ending single tier. The very last twenty rows are a relatively recent addition. Along the sides are two huge edifices – darkened glass, quite sinister – which house hundreds of executive and corporate suites.

Our section was right down the bottom and it took a while to reach it.

I located my seat, alongside Brij, an Ann Arbor student from San Jose attending his first-ever Chelsea match, and Neil, who was with me in Vienna, just as the national anthem was being played on a trumpet.

I looked around and took it all in.

The guy with the Willian shirt at the hotel in the morning was stood right behind me.

What a small bloody world.

Mosaics were planned and with a great deal of condescension, the announcer painstakingly explained what the spectators needed to do. Thousands of multi-coloured paper panels were held aloft, but I found it odd that the folks in and around me in the Chelsea section held up cards depicting the Real Madrid crest, whereas over in the southern side, the Chelsea crest was visible. Actually, the sections were not cut and dried. To my annoyance, the Chelsea sections of 33,34 and 35 were populated by not only Chelsea supporters, but by those of Real Madrid and many other teams too. The lower sections housed those from the various supporters’ clubs though – New York Blues, Shed End Dallas, Chicago Blues, Beltway Blues, Motor City Blues, Shed End Seattle, Atlanta Blues, Badgercrack Blues – and this lower level housed the bedrock of our support. However, a pet peeve of mine, noted here before, is that it would have been much better to allocate a solid block of one thousand or two thousand just to Chelsea. Over the course of the game, getting the disparate sections, split up and spread more thinly than I would have liked, to sing together was almost impossible.

Elsewhere, there were colours of many teams. If the opposite end was officially the Real Madrid end, there were no noticeable hardcore sections among it. There were no banners, no flags, no “capo” stuff. In fact, if I am blunt, the only section in the whole stadium that tried to get anything going the entire game was in the lower sections of our end.

Real Madrid were in all white, but it was Chelsea that had let me down.

It was black and white, not blue and white, this time.

Antonio Conte had chosen a strong team.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta.

Terry.

Cahill.

Aina.

Matic.

Oscar.

Willian.

Pedo.

Loftus-Cheek.

Traore.

I am so used to seeing a 4-2-3-1 that it took me a while to adjust.

The match began and the support around tried desperately to get behind the boys.

I got my rasping “Zigger Zagger” out of the way early – on around six minutes – and it left me gasping for a sip of beer at the end. I almost didn’t make it. The last “ZZ” almost caused my head to explode in the warm Michigan sun. I turned to Neil and said –

“That’s it. That’s me done.”

As I said, sections of those in blue did their very best to get things going but it wasn’t great.

Sadly, the first-half was truly awful.

Willian had a free-kick which failed to live up to its hype. An ill-judged back-header from Matic caused Begovic to scramble and save. Real Madrid started to dominate.

Two relatively similar goals were scored by Marcelo as our defence opened up before him. This was not going to plan. A third goal from Diaz, whipped in, dipping, but almost straight at Begovic, left us all with concerned faces. I had visions of a 6-0, a cricket score. I had visions of folks back home, at work, waiting to pounce.

“Bloody hell, mate. You went all that way and your lot lost 6-0.”

Neil disappeared at halftime in search of beer, but was never seen again, until later, much later, in the pub.

The manager made widespread changes at half-time.

On came Courtois, Chalobah, Cuadrado, Batshuayi.

Things genuinely improved a little in the second-half.

“Not difficult” I hear you say.

I liked the look of Cuadrado down below me on the wing. At last he looked a little more confident on the ball, and his first touch seemed to be fine. He looked “up for it” and I have a feeling that the manager might well be regarding this as his “special project” this season. He saw him play in depth for Juventus last season. Maybe he can coax something out of his frail shell.

Shots from Chalobah and Batshuayi went close.

The Real ‘keeper Casilla raced out of his area to gather a ball, but Traore pounced, only to see a defender block his shot.

There was a pitch invader, and I – perhaps with a little too much heavy satire – said “shoot him.”

Brij, next to me, told me that there were snipers in the stadium. He pointed up to the two opposing top corners of the roofs of the sky boxes. There were two darkened figures.

I actually felt a shiver go down my spine.

Is this crazy world of ours spiralling out of control so much that we require snipers on stand roofs? I wondered back to the days of the police observation area in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I bet in those days, the only things on display were a pair of binoculars and a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Real Madrid made massive changes and the game drifted on.

Victor Moses, back for his annual pre-season run, was fouled and Hazard went close.

Soon after, with eighty minutes on the clock, Hazard gave the score line a little more respectability when he latched on to a Chalobah ball and rounded replacement ‘keeper Yanez to slot home. My boy Cuadrado looked good, and created a few chances down below us. With an almost copy of his first goal, Eden Hazard was played in by Batshuayi and again rounded the ‘keeper to score a second. As bizarre as it sounds, we all thought that we might salvage an unwarranted draw. We had a little spell right at the end, but with the ball out for a corner, the referee blew up.

3-2 is a lot better than 3-0, but this was not great.

I will make the same comments, though, as I did against Rapid Vienna.

These are just games for us to get our fitness levels back and for the manager to look at options.

Time is moving on though.

We need to improve.

After a slow walk back to the bar, I said a sad farewell to John. After a few more beers, in the bar, we were all chilled and the result was glossed over. The drinking continued. On Wednesday, the locusts descend on Minneapolis.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From A Stroll In The Dorset Sun

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 23 April 2016.

As I was chatting to a few good friends outside the entrance to the away stand at Bournemouth’s neat and tidy Vitality Stadium, I made a comment about our priorities for the remaining five games of the season.

“You know what, I could even forgive them for the last two games if they were saving themselves for Tottenham.”

It was said semi-seriously, maybe part in jest, but it made more sense the more that I thought about it. United might have Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, but Chelsea will be overdosing in Schadenfreude should we royally bugger up Tottenham’s bid for the title at Stamford Bridge on Bank Holiday Monday.

In this craziest of seasons, I was looking for a huge crumb of comfort.

The match at Bournemouth was always going to be a very special highlight of this 2015/2016 season. In the same way that the Chelsea faithful were relishing a beano to Blackpool in 2010/2011, but were then let down with a Monday evening game in March, this was an away game for all to anticipate with relish. That the footballing Gods gave us a trip to Bournemouth in April, on St. George’s Day no less, just seemed too good to be true. While others booked up hotels for the weekend, and hoped and prayed for match tickets to materialise, the Fun Boy Four purchased train tickets, arriving via Southampton in Bournemouth at 11am, and waited expectantly. This was going to be a brilliant day in the sun.

And then things went awry.

For the second successive Saturday morning, fate contrived that I had to work.

Bollocks. No pre-match giggles for me.

Thankfully the journey to Bournemouth is only an hour and a half and I would hopefully be away by 12.30pm. However, the last thing that I wanted was to get caught up in traffic, and get frustrated as I drove around in ever decreasing circles looking for a place to park. Thankfully, my pal Steve came to the rescue. He lives on the border between Poole and Bournemouth, and kindly suggested that I could park at his house and he would then drive me over to the stadium.

Job done.

I left work, thankfully, ahead of schedule at 11.45am. It had been a cold Friday, but Saturday broke with warmer weather, and on the drive south, the sun came out. This was going to be a cracking, albeit truncated, day out with the Champions.

My last visit to see a Chelsea game at Bournemouth was way back in 1994, when I witnessed a 1-0 win in the League Cup, back in the days when the early rounds were two-legged affairs. I watched alongside a visiting uncle from Australia, and one of his friends, in the home end. A Gavin Peacock goal gave us the win. In those days, the stadium was known as Dean Court. Today, it’s the Vitality Stadium, and although the new stadium is on the same site as Dean Court, the axis has been rotated 90%. I remembered it as a small, and tight stadium, and the new place is much the same.

My other previous visit was a personal low point in my days of following Chelsea Football Club. Back in 1988/89, with us newly relegated to the Second Division, I watched aghast from a particularly packed away terrace – with awful sightlines – as we lost 1-0 to Bournemouth, a team managed at the time by Harry Redknapp. I can still remember the solitary walk back to Pokesdown railway station after that game wondering where on earth my club was going. They were sobering times.

The gates at those two games were 8,763 in 1988 and 9,784 in 1994. The gate in 2016 would only be a few more thousand in number. I suspect that the Chelsea contingents in those two previous games were more than the miniscule allocation of 1,200 that we were given this season. This is ridiculously small, but it is in line with the league ruling. No wonder it was a hot ticket. With around 650 on the away scheme, there was only an extra 550 up for grabs for the rest.

Although, historically, Bournemouth was located in Hampshire, the 1974 boundary changes threw it in to the neighbouring county of Dorset. The area was well visited by myself in my childhood. There were day trips to the glorious beach at Sandbanks, now one of the most desirable locations in all of the United Kingdom – still home to Harry Redknapp – and two holidays in nearby Southbourne in 1979 and 1980. My father was born in Wareham, not more than fifteen miles to the west and many summer holidays were spent on the Isle of Purbeck. Although I am a native of Somerset, the area around Wareham is very close to me. It is a wonderful part of the world, with castles and beaches, country pubs, holiday parks, and perfect villages.

My drive south took me past some wonderfully named towns and villages : Longbridge Deverill, Melbury Abbas, Fontmell Magma, Iwerne Minster, Blandford Forum, Sturminster Marshall, Lytchett Matravers.

Just out of range were my two favourite place names of all : Toller Porcorum and Piddletrenthide.

Dorset has all the best names.

It also has AFC Bournemouth, changed a while back for no other reason than being the first club in an alphabetical list of all ninety-two professional clubs in the football pyramid. Before that, they were called Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic. Only as recently as 2008/2009, the club was relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League and were in administration. Their recent rise has been mesmeric.

My aunt Julie, who lived all of her life in and around Bournemouth, played a major part in my recent Chelsea story. She kindly left me a sum of money in her will after she sadly passed away in 2004, and this enabled me to travel out to the US with Chelsea during that summer. Since then, my life has been enriched greatly after meeting many good people – Chelsea folk – from the US, and I owe a lot of this to dear Julie. She always spoke to me about Chelsea and would be pleased as punch to know that I was returning to her town to see the boys play her home-town team. I can remember how upset she was when it looked like Bournemouth might be relegated from the Football League back in the ‘nineties.

As I drove in to Bournemouth, if felt slightly odd that I was apart from my usual match day companions. They kept me updated with their progress though; they were having a blast.

Steve dropped me off at around 2pm, and it was great to be back in the tree-lined streets leading up to the small stadium, situated alongside other sporting grounds in the Kings Park. The slow walk to the stadium was an arboreal treat.

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I spotted a few Chelsea faces, and walked around the stadium, taking it all in. The locals were bedecked in red and black, and there was an expectant buzz in the air. Maybe I miss-read their smiles, but I think there was an air of “I can’t really believe we are playing Chelsea” in and around the stands.

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Everything was neat and tidy. For once, I bought a programme. Inside there was a facsimile of the 1994 edition. It seemed so old-fashioned in comparison to the fine production standards of the 2016 version. The sun was warming the air. A while back, the club changed their kit from all red to the red and black stripes of yesteryear, which were taken from the classic lines of the Milan kit. Outside the away stand, the club training facility was spotted, all sleek and modern, with Italian styling, like their own version of Milanello.

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On the red brick wall surrounding the northern boundary, keeping out the prying eyes of suburbia, there were large posters – evidently weather-resistant – of past teams and past eras. Bournemouth have certainly had their fair share of different kits over the years, but the red and black resonates throughout.

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Lastly, there was a nice remembrance of times past. The Jubilee Gates from 1960. The image conjured up potting sheds, Woodbines, the home service, The Goon Show, and men sitting in deckchairs on Boscombe beach wearing not only shirts, but ties too. Another era.

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Just before I entered the away turnstiles – how I love the click click click of those typically British contraptions – I will admit to being worried about the game ahead. This was just too nice a day, too nice a setting. It almost seemed like a pre-season friendly. Would we be fully focused? Would AFC Bournemouth hand us the A to Z on attacking and incisive football on this hazy day on the south coast? Hiddink had selected a strong team with Eden Hazard recalled, but there was surprisingly no room for Rueben Loftus-Cheek. Elsewhere, Jon Obi Mikel was preferred to the raw American Matt Miazga. Asmir Begovic replaced the suspended Courtois. Sadly there was no place for John Terry. One wonders if we will see him play again this season, and indeed if this season will indeed be his last in our colours. If fit, surely deserves a start against Tottenham.

I was half-expecting many of the Chelsea faithful to be stuck in the town centre as the kick-off approached, unable to coordinate the final leg of their match day plans. In the final twenty minutes, there was a late surge and most people were in. I met up with all the usual suspects. Everyone had had a blast in the busy town centre pubs. Bournemouth, with golden sands, high cliffs, sunken gardens, and white-faced hotels everywhere, is a very fine seaside resort.

Chelsea were playing in all white, and we had a great view of the action, along the side of the pitch, and with a similar vantage point as that cold night in Blackpool in 2011.

Bournemouth began marginally brighter, but we took the lead on only five minutes when a well-worked move, involving Hazard and Costa, found Fabregas. His fine forward pass, which dissected the centre-back and full back, found Pedro who adeptly lifted the ball over Artur Boruc. We were one-up, and it was time for Alan and myself to go through our Tommy Docherty-inspired celebration.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The game continued with some crisp passing from both sides, and with the Chelsea fans in good voice. All of that beer and cider had the desired effect. Joshua King wasted a good opportunity, slashing the ball over the bar, and Bournemouth then got the bit between their teeth, especially exposing our right flank. They had a few chances, and could easily have scored if their finishing had been better. A nice Chelsea move, again involving Fabregas, then picked out the previously quiet Hazard. He let fly with a speculative effort, which Boruc was unable to stop from reaching the net. It was – read it and weep – Hazard’s first league goal of the season. It was late April. Oh boy. However, the ‘keeper really should have done better. This was against the run of play to be honest. We were 2-0 up but Bournemouth were giving us a few moments of concern.

We spotted Cesc’s pink and yellow boots. It looked like he was wearing one of each.

“Rhubarb and custard” said Gary.

My pal Kevin was stood behind me and was talking to me about the bet that he had put on before the game.

“I got a bet that we’d win 3-0, so let’s see how this goes.”

In the very next two seconds, Elphick rose higher than anyone else and nodded a slow header past Begovic’ despairing dive.

I turned to Kev, smiling, as his betting slip became Chelsea Confetti.

“Ha. Perfect timing mate.”

Soon after, Bournemouth came close on two occasions, while Pedro skied a shot from a similar angle as the opening goal. I will be honest; we were lucky to be 2-1 up at the break.

After I returned to my seat alongside Glenn, Alan and Gary during the break, I could smell the sulphurous fumes of a flare which had evidently been let off by our support. The OB were swarming around, but there was no animosity anywhere.

As the second-half began, I was really pissed off to see so many empty seats in our section. So much for everyone wanting a ticket for Bournemouth. Immediately behind me, and right behind Kevin, there were around fifteen seats which had been vacated. Now, let’s get this straight. I acknowledge that going to football never has been “just” about the football and the pre-match and post-match drinks are as much a part of football culture as songs, pies, Adidas trainers, banter and boredom, but for fuck sake.

Leaving a Chelsea game at half-time?

Please fucking explain that to me.

Everyone likes a drink or two, but surely drinks could wait for forty-five minutes? The pubs would close in seven or eight hours’ time. Why the need to fuck off before 4pm? I especially thought of many good friends, and quite a few bad ones, who had missed out on a ticket for this game and would be watching on with a mixture of feelings from afar.

This was a very poor show.

Ironically, the absentees missed a much-improved performance from us in the second period. Diego Costa ran and ran, holding the ball well, challenging for the ball, leading the line well. Pedro was all hustle and bustle, a fine game from him. But the star was Cesc, teasing openings for our forwards, and looking at ease in the middle of all of our attacking plays.

There was a song or two for JT.

“John Terry – We Want You To Stay.”

“Sign Him up, Sign Him Up, Sign Him Up.”

Baba, seeing a lot of the ball in front of us, set up Matic who drilled a low ball across the box. Diego Costa stretched, but could not get enough of the ball. Stanislas curled a fine effort past Begovic’ far post, but we were hogging the ball, and threatening the home team at every opportunity.

Hazard skipped in to the box, but decided not to shoot – why? – and the chance went begging.

There was a little banter between the two sets of fans, but a song from us annoyed me.

AFC Bournemouth, a small club who almost went out of business not so long ago, and who exist on gates of 11,500, were being picked on by the mouthier elements of our support –

“Champions of England – you’ll never sing that.”

Again. Embarrassing.

Take the piss out of Tottenham, West Ham or the like with that song.

But not AFC bloody Bournemouth.

Kevin spoke about the embarrassing moment at Villa Park three weeks ago when the younger element of our support were taunting the home fans with “Champions of Europe – you’ll never sing that.”

Equally embarrassing.

With twenty minutes remaining, that man Fabregas picked out Willian and our little Brazilian waited for the ‘keeper to advance before guiding the ball past him.

3-1, get in.

Costa played in Pedro, who attempted a cheeky bicycle kick. We were pouring forward now and the home fans were starting to head home. Then, the mood changed.

Out of nowhere, from behind me and to my right, came a new chant.

“Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham. Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham.”

I joined in.

I had to.

It summed up everything.

It begged a question of our team’s application. The perception was that we could play well if we felt like it. If we fancied it. If we were in the mood. Well, against Tottenham the players had better be in the mood. We have a twenty-six-year record to protect and, should Leicester City falter, we needed to extinguish Tottenham’s title hunt.

Ugh, even writing it.

”Tottenham’s title hunt.”

The noise was deafening, and it really developed when the play was over on our side of the pitch. There seemed an immediate schism between team and support; not something that I would normally advocate, but on this occasion, at this moment of time, at this stadium in Dorset, it seemed absolutely correct.

“Beat fucking Tottenham.”

And I immediately noticed the exact words used.

“You’d better beat Tottenham” and not “we’d better beat Tottenham.”

That divide. That gap. The supporters were laying everything at the feet of our under-performing players.

When Eden Hazard poked home a deserved fourth, the applause seamlessly merged into the same mantra.

I bet the players were thinking “oh, here they go again.”

They heard us. It would be hard for them not to. The players looked sheepish. Not one looked towards us.

The message was loud and clear.

Don’t let the club down on Monday 2 May.

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Tales From The Malt House

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 8 August 2015.

The same four Chelsea supporters that had battled the awful traffic for last season’s league opener at Burnley were back together, twelve months later, for the first league game of 2015/2016. I was joined on my trip to London, the home of the champions, by three good friends; Glenn, PD and Lord Parky. And although the early evening game against Swansea City would be my sixth Chelsea match of the season, there was no doubt that all of the other encounters, to various degrees, were much less important than this one.

This one would matter.

Game one.

Game on.

Slowed by some traffic around Swindon, I sped away and made good time. Although we had been chatting away like mad at the start, by the time we had reached Reading, the conversations had dwindled. As I pulled out of the M4 services, almost apologetically – everyone knows how much I dislike discussing upcoming games ad nauseam – I suggested that it was appropriate that we ran through our projected line-up for the game ahead.

I took the lead.

“Well, the back five picks itself surely? Courtois, Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana. I think he’ll go with Matic and Fabregas. I am thinking Willian, Hazard and Oscar. And let’s hope he is fit, Diego Costa.”

Glenn agreed. Parky and PD stuck to their ciders.

“There’s the team sorted then.”

We passed the town of Slough, where my local team Frome Town were opening up their league campaign of 2015/2016.

It was a full on day of football.

The waiting was over.

After calling in at The Goose, with the beer garden sun kissed and overflowing but with fellow supporters being rather guarded about how well they thought Chelsea would fare this season, Glenn and I popped down to The Malt House. By that time, John – an acquaintance visiting from Los Angeles – had joined us. He has been living in London since March working on the score of the latest of the Mission Impossible series of movies.

“Mission Impossible.”

I wondered if our defence of the league championship might be similarly-named. Some friends in The Goose might have agreed with that working title. As for myself, I was relatively confident in our chances, though expected Manchester United to press us harder than any. I felt that Arsenal would flatter to deceive – that lovely football phrase – while I had doubts about Manchester City’s team spirit. Above all, we have Mourinho. He may irritate me at times with his outbursts, but lest we forget that he is one of the very best coaches in world football.

We bumped into Big John and his son Chris in The Malt House, which was decidedly less popular than The Goose, due in part perhaps to the more expensive prices. We enjoyed a good hour or so of banter. I chatted about my enjoyable trip to the US for the summer tour and we discussed the rise of football in that part of the world. John, clearly happy to be among some Chelsea “lifers,” spoke about how he became a Chelsea supporter and cited Gianfranco Zola as a deciding factor in choosing us, over Arsenal especially, in 1996. Big John was keen to hear about our support on the other side of the Atlantic. I warned him that many of the US supporters appear to love talking about tactics and trades. John smiled, and I know him well enough to know where he was going :

“I know a lot about Chelsea, but I know fuck all about football.”

We laughed.

For a change, we left enough time to calmly reach Stamford Bridge before the crush.

The news had filtered through about the team.

“Costa starts.”

It was the same team that I had named earlier.

Inside, I was saddened to see a large wedge of empty seats in the Shed Upper. They were obviously some of the 3,000 away tickets which Swansea City had not managed to sell. This is disappointing. It meant that around five hundred tickets were left unsold.

As the teams entered the stadium, I spotted a large and Italian-style banner, being held aloft by the inhabitants of the first few rows of the Shed Upper.

“We Are The Shed.”

Sadly, the two pensioners in our row – Joe and Tom – were not present. We wondered if they would be well enough to attend many more matches at all.

As the game began under a perfect London sky, the atmosphere was bubbling. There was cut and thrust in equal measure from both teams in a lively start. The hulk of Bafetimbi Gomis rose to meet a corner, but his header thankfully passed the post. As he was defending the part of the Stamford Bridge pitch closest to my seat, I could not help but notice that the first four times that Branislav Ivanovic was involved in the game, he either miss-controlled, lost his marker or missed a tackle. After a far from impressive start, I felt I had to keep an eye on Brana throughout the game. Usually so reliable, his form has worried me thus far this season. I’ll give him the benefit of time, though.

Good old Brana.

We looked impressive as we attacked the Shed End, with fine movement and intricate passing. Oscar again looked in fine form.

A lovely Swansea move, involving the strongly-booed Shelvey, found Gomis and a magnificently-timed tackle from John Terry saved our skins. Courtois then saved well from Ki Sung-Yueng. This was evidently a good game of football. The crowd were so obviously paying great attention to every twist and turn, in a way that was so missing from the previous couple of games.

A chance for Diego Costa, and a tumble inside the box, but no penalty. Soon after, a foul on Dave resulted in a Chelsea free-kick. Oscar punched a low cross in to the heart of the Swansea box, and the ball appeared to go unaided in to the far post.

The net rippled.

We rubbed our eyes.

Goal.

Alan and I had our first “THTCAUN / COMLD” moment of the nascent season.

However, on the half-hour mark, Swansea attacked our goal once more and after a fine Courtois block from that man Gomis, it was the nimble-footed debutant Ayew who managed to slide the ball in from the resulting melee.

Just as the Welsh hordes were celebrating with hymns and arias, we worked the ball out to Willian on the left. His attempted cross was wickedly deflected up by Fernandez and over the flat-footed and stranded former Goon Fabianski.

The hymns and arias stopped.

The Chelsea roar took over.

It had been a fine half of football. Despite Swansea’s resolute play, Chelsea had done just enough at the break to go in ahead.

As Paul Canoville – after New York, Charlotte and DC, there is no escaping him – walked the Stamford Bridge pitch at half-time, I dipped in to the match programme in search of entertainment.

Two statistical nuggets to share.

Our opening day results were listed, from 1992. Though, this in itself annoyed me. I had only recently seen someone, at Wembley I think, wearing a T-shirt in “Sky” font stating –

“Football Did Not Start In 1992.”

Anyway, twenty-three games and only three defeats, the last two at Coventry City in 1997 and 1998.

Also listed were the six highest attendances for overseas friendlies. Games in Baltimore, DC, Jakarta, California, Sydney were listed, but top of the pile was the game in 2011 that I was privileged to attend in Kuala Lumpur.

84,980.

Great memories.

Other than that, nothing much has changed in the design of the programme from last season and the season before that and the season before that. Maybe, like the megastore – which I had neither time nor inclination to visit – it needs a major overhaul.

I’ve always fancied myself as our programme editor.

Swansea came out guns-a-blazing in the second period. They peppered Thibaut’s goal with several efforts. Then, a ball from Shelvey released Gomis, who had beaten an offside trap and found himself free. As he approached the edge of the penalty box, Courtois swung a leg and Gomis tumbled. Admittedly, I was not particularly well sighted, being around one hundred yards away, but not only did it look a penalty, I was not surprised to see a red card being brandished.

Ugh.

Asmir Begovic replaced the unfortunate Oscar, who had impressed thus far.

Gomis coolly rolled the ball in from the penalty spot.

2-2.

Begovic, who some in the Chelsea fraternity have decided is not up to the job after only a handful of games, did well to save from Montero. To placate some of our fans, who apparently seem justified in pontificating about the prowess of our players despite not having much football knowledge outside of X-Boxes and Playstations, surely is a “mission impossible.”

Chelsea pressed on. At times the urgency was breathless, though not always with the required degree of skill to accompany it. Willian attacked down the right. Hazard, the little darling, attacked down the left. Without an extra man, though, we found it difficult to work the ball in to the brooding menace of Diego Costa. We urged the team on.

“Cam On Chowlsea.”

Brana headed over. At the other end, a Gomis goal was adjudged to be offside. Begovic saved well again. The ball was worked well to the dancing Eden Hazard, but his angled shot was parried away.

Despite Mourinho ringing the changes in the final quarter with King Kurt replacing a listless Fabregas and Radamel Falcao replacing the ever-willing Willian, in truth our best chances had come and gone. An errant foul by Williams on Costa drew howls of derision from others, but no penalty decision from Michael Oliver. I had noted that Costa had gone down too easily on other occasions throughout the half. Maybe that had worked against him.

In the circumstances, although I was obviously disappointed that our title defence had not opened up with three points, it is obvious that we did well to scramble a draw against a highly proficient Swansea City team, especially as we were reduced to ten players so early in the second-half. There won’t be many better teams than Swansea City who visit us in SW6 this season.

On the drive home, I stopped at Reading Services to refuel car and body. I briefly checked in on what the Chelsea Nation thought about the evening’s game via my smartphone. Although some were calm and pragmatic, others were sensationalist – “we drew against Swansea, therefore we will struggle this season” – and tiresome – “this player was rubbish, that player was rubbish” – in equal measure. For those among us who get pre-menstrual about a draw against a fine team such as Swansea City, I have to wonder if they are really suited to the life of a Chelsea supporter. In that long list of opening day results, there is a line which details a 0-0 draw at Stoke City in August 2011. I seem to remember that season ending rather well.

Next Sunday, we travel to the city of Manchester for an early-season heavyweight bout with one of our title contenders.

See you there.

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Tales From The International Champions Cup

Chelsea vs. Fiorentina : 6 August 2015.

This was a strange evening and a strange game.

In the current climate, a home friendly is a pretty rare occurrence anyway. With our predilection for foreign climes and summer tours, a warm-up match at Stamford Bridge has been a very rare event over the past decade or so. I didn’t bother with last season’s game with Real Sociedad and, if I am honest, the only reason that I decided to attend the game with Fiorentina was because I had attended our other three “International Champions Cup” games in the US. I set off from work, alone, at 3.30pm to complete the set.

My main concern for the evening was the probable traffic chaos in London likely to be caused by the planned one-day tube strike. I sped as quickly as I could along the M4. At Reading Services, I spotted a father and daughter in Chelsea blue.

“Thought I was the only one daft enough to go tonight.”

“Should be a good game.”

Ah, the game. I hadn’t thought much about it until then.

This would be our first ever match with the viola of Florence. My very first encounter with them was on a muggy Sunday afternoon in late May 1989, when I watched a dull 1-1 draw between Juventus and Fiorentina in the home end at Stadio Communale. Apart from my first-ever sighting of Roberto Baggio – the eventual transfer of him between the two clubs would heighten animosities which exist until this day – my main recollection from that balmy Italian afternoon took place with around fifteen minutes of the game remaining.

Around 1,500 Fiorentina paninari – Timberland boots, Best Company T-shirts, Armani jeans, Burlington socks, Invicta backpacks, Schott bomber jackets, sunglasses, attitude – got a signal from their leaders, or maybe a phone call from their Juve counterparts, and quickly packed up their banners in the away end and left the terraces en masse, intent on disturbing the peace of an Italian summer on their way back to the city’s train station.

Ten years later, I was in Turin again, when Juventus boasted Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in their team, and watched as Antonio Conte scored a very late winner against Fiorentina. He famously went down in Juve folklore that afternoon by sprinting over to the visiting Viola fans and taunting them with a black and white corner flag.

As a Juve sympathiser, there was a frisson of excitement about seeing them again sixteen years later.

As expected, I did hit some slow-moving traffic, but further out than expected. Ironically, the last section into London stayed relatively clear. At 6.15pm, I was inside The Goose, but in the strangest of circumstances. Nursing my first SW6 pint of Peroni of the season, I soon realised that there was not one single person in the pub that I recognised. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. This was going to be a strange one alright.

Thankfully, a few friends soon arrived.

Mick mentioned that he might have to leave just after half-time because of the expected ninety minute wait at the two closest mainline stations. For once, I was glad that I was driving and the master of my own destiny. The Bristol Four soon arrived and we chatted about the pre-season. We briefly spoke about Kenedy, the Brazilian lad who appeared in our team against Barcelona in Maryland. We all agreed that we could not remember the last time that a “trialist” ever appeared in our team. It’s an odd one. Like something from the amateur days of the pre-war years.

Although I was not too bothered about seeing the introduction of the first team squad to the spectators at 7pm – a full hour before kick-off – I wanted to have a leisurely stroll down the North End Road and Fulham Road. I soon noticed US-style pennants hanging from street-lights celebrating our Championship of last season, with torso shots of all of our players looking all mean and moody, and intent on repeating in 2015/2016.

I approved. It added a little to the streetscape around Stamford Bridge.

It was difficult for me to judge the size of the crowd. I didn’t expect a sell-out, especially in lieu of the London Underground strike. The place seemed busy enough. I didn’t spot any Fiorentina fans outside the stadium. I had decided to purchase a ticket in the East Upper for a change. What with the chances of the modern Stamford Bridge being demolished within the next few seasons, it might turn out to be one of my last visits. I promised myself to take more than my usual share of photographs. A different angle, a different perspective, lovely.

I had a great position in the towering East Stand, in row seven towards The Shed. The place was filling up nicely. Flags had been positioned by each seat. It was soon obvious that there were many more youngsters in attendance than usual. By all accounts the pre-game introductions were a little over the top with their US-style razzmatazz. What next? Players being parachuted in from the skies above next season?

As kick-off approached, the area around myself was full. There were chattering kids behind me, plus many more within sight. The next generation was well represented and it was good to see.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. I like the fact that each of the four stands are slightly different, with idiosyncrasies, yet there is a common design to all. I am stirred that the new stadium designs echo these slight variances. The usual banners were out, though I noticed a few – Captain, Leader, Legend for example – looking rather faded and forlorn.

Our team contained several surprises.

Begovic – Aina, Zouma, Terry, Traore – Mikel, Loftus-Cheek – Cuadrado, Oscar, Moses – Falcao.

It would be home debuts for four.

I am sure that Ola Aina is in for a fine future at the club, but my main worry is that his name contains too many vowels for a defender.

“Too exotic son. See if you can get yourself some consonants. Work on that and you’ll be fine.”

Am I the only one who thinks our home shirts and shorts are – nicely – a deeper and darker shade of royal blue this season? They are certainly darker than the mid-blue of 2012-2013. Fiorentina, sadly but not surprisingly, showed up in white / white / violet.

Asmir Begovic did well to get down low within the first minute to save a rasping shot from distance after a simple passing move cut into our defence. We then enjoyed long spells of possession and our best twenty-five minutes of the evening. With the sun setting in the north-west corner, lighting up the sky nicely, I was settling down and enjoying this. Victor Moses, one of the stars in the United States, was again showing real promise in his determination and desire. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was impressing with his finesse and strength. We were playing some nice stuff. We were treated to a lovely Rabona from Oscar on the goal-line to my left.

I commented to the young couple to my right “I can do that after seven pints.”

I detected a foreign accent in the chap’s confused response, so I then decided to talk my way through the game with the Shed season ticket holder to my left. We had a good old natter throughout the match.

Mikel had been doing the simple stuff well, but then caused much merriment with an effort on goal which more resembled a defensive tackle.

Fiorentina then gradually took hold of the game. They kept the ball well and our play deteriorated alarmingly. On the half hour, a long raking drive smashed against Begovic’ crossbar. We had been warned. Soon after, Begovic saved well but could not smother the ball leaving an easy tap-in for Rodriguez.

The Fiorentina manager – ex-Juventus player and ex- QPR manager Paulo Sousa – was watching down below from the technical area and was increasingly pleased with his team’s performance. The little knot of away fans, no more than 150 in the bottom corner of The Shed, roared with approval too. They were, surely, mainly ex-pats. There was one “Viola Club Stockport” flag.

Fiorentina gained control and we struggled. The game went flat.

The noise, hardly tumultuous, reduced too.

At the interval, the Chelsea Women – in coats, they must have been feeling the cold – were introduced by Neil Barnett with the recently-won FA Cup.

Mourinho changed the personnel at the break, with Azpilicueta, Cahill and Ivanovic joining Zouma in defence. Matic replaced Mikel. The impressive Moses was sadly replaced by Ramires after the second of two knocks.

In truth, the second-half resembled the second-half at Wembley on Sunday; we enjoyed the majority of the ball, but found it difficult to break the opposition down. The frustration was starting to seep down to the players from the stands. Ivanovic seemed to be, again, a main source of our attacks, but again annoyed me with his final ball. As the game progressed I saw him getting increasingly annoyed with things. On one occasion he turned to the bench and had a proper rant, his face clearly contorted with rage about something or other.

“He had a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle” as the saying goes.

The comparison with the cool and calm and seldom-flustered Azpilicueta on the other flank could not be more dramatic.

Jose Mourinho, too, seemed to be increasingly annoyed. There were wholesale changes from both teams on the hour mark – on came Willian, Hazard, Fabregas and Remy – and Mourinho took dislike to the amount of time that Sousa orchestrated a similar amount of team changes too. It turned out to be the longest break for substitutes I can remember.

Joaquin, a visitor to Stamford Bridge with both Real Betis and Valencia in previous years, appeared among the viola substitutes. It was one name that I recognised.

“What do you mean Giancarlo Antognoni doesn’t play for them anymore?”

With more established quality in our ranks, surely a goal – and the inevitable win on penalties – would come now. Chelsea controlled possession but seemed to take forever to get going, and I lost count of the number of times the ball was passed laterally. We did improve when Willian, Hazard and Fabregas linked on a few occasions, but chances were rare. A Gary Cahill header from a Fabregas free-kick went close, and we all wondered how Remy, on for the quiet Falcao, managed to shoot wide from close range.

A rather agricultural – no, bloody clumsy – challenge from Kurt Zouma on a poor Fiorentina player – caused much merriment in the seats around me. It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest tackles that I have seen for a while.

The atmosphere, roused at times, was pretty quiet now, and parents with young families began to leave early on their long and tedious journeys home. I had commented to the Shed Ender to my left that I was impressed with the attendance. It looked to be at the 35,000 mark. Imagine my surprise when a full house of 41,435 was announced. Again, even for a friendly game, tickets sold rather than spectators in seats is used. It’s an odd one. Undoubtedly, there were empty seats around the ground too. Even so, on a night of massive travel disruption, this was a great attendance.

Despite five minutes of extra time, no equaliser was forthcoming.

“We could have played until March and not scored.”

The Shed Ender agreed.

“Sorry for the cliché, but as so often happens in these pre-season games, there are more questions than answers.”

He agreed again.

“My biggest worry is that all three of our strikers might be a knock away from being side-lined for weeks.”

I was a little subdued on my slow exit from a warm and sultry Stamford Bridge. And although I wasn’t – honestly – reading too much in to our rather lacklustre performance against a well-drilled Fiorentina team, I knew full well that out there in cyberspace, thousands of virtual Chelsea fans were throwing themselves off the nearest bridge, building or balcony as we endured another pre-season loss.

How these people would have coped in 1975, 1979 or 1988 beggars belief.

I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Sadly, the journey home turned into one of farce as the roadworks on the A303 meant that I was severely re-routed, almost as far as Southampton damn it, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. Others, living in London, were still catching one final night bus.

A strange evening indeed.

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Tales From The Red Seats

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 2 August 2015.

What is the old saying?

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

For the Football Association’s season opener this certainly seems to be the case. Long gone are the days when a trip to Wembley Stadium elicited a warm glow for myself and thousands like me. We are, as another old saying goes, a victim of our success. This would be Chelsea’s ninth such game – Charity Shield, then Community Shield – since 1997, and our eleventh in total. The 1955 game (beating Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge in front of just 12,802) is hardly ever spoken about. The 1970 game (losing to Everton at home, with a gate of 43,547, and Stamford Bridge never looking more sun-kissed) is on the outer reaches of modern Chelsea fans’ awareness. From 1997 though, our appearance in this game – first as F.A. Cup winners and then, get used to it world, as league champions – has been a regular event.

However, as of 2015, it is the one game every season that is starting to pall.

With the summer trip to the United States behind me, and with the league opener against Swansea City not far away, I was trying my hardest to get “up” for our Community Shield game against Arsenal. Of course it would be great to see a few Chelsea mates for the first time of the summer, but as for the game itself, I was struggling. There seemed to be a common understanding among fellow fans that a game against local rivals would add a little excitement to the game. There was talk of a “mark” being set for the season. There was also to be the strange sight of Petr Cech in Arsenal colours. Despite all of this, I was still having difficulties.

It was almost as if I was travelling to Wembley under some sort of strange sense of duty, which sounds rather pompous and silly. But, by the same token, there was no chance of me ever missing it.

“You’ve got me Chelsea, you’ve got me.”

I collected His Lordship at 9.30am. The domestic season was up and running.

On the drive to London, I chatted to Parky about the summer tour, which was over way too quickly, but left me with many lovely memories. Funnily enough, despite the joy of meeting up with a host of old and new Chelsea friends and the three games themselves, I think that the resounding memory for me is the time that I spent on The Great American Road. In my twelve days away, I covered 1,962 miles in my hire car, and the vast majority came in that massive “V” which I cut into the heart of America, travelling from New York City down to Charlotte in one trip and then from Charlotte back up to Washington DC the next. There were journey times of eleven hours and of eight hours respectively, with memories from each to last until the cold winter months and beyond. There was even one song – “Uma Thurman” by Fall Out Boy – which will forever be synonymous with my US trip of 2015, since I could not escape it, no matter what radio station I found. The summer tour also had other totems. The tour beers were “Shock Top”, “Rolling Rock”, “Blue Moon”, “Yuengling” and “Corona.”

From a football perspective, the theme was “penalties.”

And Bobby Tambling.

Good times, good times.

As we rose steadily on the elevated section of the M4, I glanced north and spotted the Wembley arch, clearly visible and with the late morning sun picking it out perfectly against the blue North London sky. We were soon parked at Barons Court. At about 12.30pm we met up with Alan, Gary, John and Dave at The Tyburn near Marble Arch. The last time that I was in this pub, and my last visit to Wembley in March, I was in my own little world of sadness.

As I sipped on a pint of San Miguel, I genuinely felt that a new season would help me move on from the grief which took over the closing months of 2014-2015.

Alan and Gary left for the game at about 1.45pm. Dave, Parky and myself stayed on for – you have guessed it – “one last beer.” We then had to hotfoot it to Marylebone to catch the 2.28pm train. It would be a fight to make kick-off. We never learn, do we? We bumped into the rumbustious crew from Trowbridge and Westbury on the fifteen minute train journey – “Parky!” – and it was great to see them again. To be honest, they would be the only familiar faces that we would see all afternoon. Maybe others were finding it hard to get “up” for this game too.

Inside the stadium concourse, I spotted Alan and Gary behind me.

“Got waylaid, son.”

We reached our seats just as the game kicked-off.

Phew.

We had super seats; row four of the upper tier, on the Royal Box side, midway inside the “Chelsea half.”

With people still lining up for beers in the area outside, the stadium was not remotely full at the start. However, after ten minutes, things were looking better and seats were filling up. It was obvious, though, that there were more empty red seats in our western end than in the Arsenal end. It was also noticeable that the Arsenal supporters in the lower tier were standing, whereas Chelsea were sitting. As an indicator of which set of fans were more “up” for the game, Chelsea were coming in a poor second.

I sighed.

The team contained few surprises, but we guessed that Costa was being protected in light of his recent injury scare in Maryland. Loic Remy deputised

It was immediately disconcerting to see Petr Cech in the monstrosity of an Arsenal kit.

Wembley Stadium was bathed in sunlight, with its huge and cumbersome roof supports causing strong shadows. It is a huge stadium, but I am still finding it a difficult stadium to admire. I still can’t believe that such a complex array of under structure does not support a sliding roof. It is a little ironic that the designing and building process for the new stadium – which took seven long years to be completed – was headed from 1997 to 2001 by none other than Ken Bates. That Chelsea Football Club might be moving in to Wembley for three years while Bates’ “Chelsea Village” is razed to the ground is doubly ironic.

There were few Chelsea banners on show.

One Arsenal banner caught my eye. The standard “Believe” had a yellow ribbon tied around the “I” which alludes to their bespoke F.A. Cup Final song. Quite clever.

I thought Chelsea began reasonably well, but then played second fiddle to a more energised and incisive Arsenal team for most of the first-half. I looked over at the Arsenal team which flashed up on the scoreboard. I must have reached that part of my Chelsea Life-Cycle which results in me being increasingly indifferent to players on opposing teams. In an identity parade, I would be hard-pressed to name Monreal, Bellerin and Coquelin.

It’s all about Chowlsea these days.

As I watched play develop before me, with Walcott finding Oxlade-Chamberlain, there was a clear moment when Dave saw enough of the ball to make a clearing tackle. That crucial moment passed and the Arsenal player struck an unstoppable riser past Courtois into the net. The Arsenal thousands roared, while we sat silently.

Until that point, it had been a relatively quiet affair of the pitch. While Arsenal made some noise, Chelsea retorted :

“Stand Up For The Champions.”

We did our best to get the singing going, but our section was unsurprisingly docile.

It was typical that while we clapped and applauded Petr Cech – though not ridiculously so – Cesc Fabregas was booed by his former Arsenal family every time he touched the ball.

Pathetic, really.

We found it difficult to get our game going in the first-half. To be fair, Willian was our main threat, moving well and more inclined to attack directly than in the past. I lost count of the times Ivanovic failed to deliver a cross by hitting the outstretched leg of his full back.

Two chances fell to Ramires. A shot went narrowly wide, but then a more glaring error. With the goal at his mercy, he headed over from a Remy cross. To be truthful, the ball was slightly too high for him. Or maybe he jumped too soon. It was a clear chance though. Elsewhere we struggled. A goal-line clearance from Ivanovic, with archetypal Goon Mertesacker breathing down his neck, stopped a second goal.

We hoped for a masterful Mourinho tongue-lashing at the break. He replaced Loic Remy with Radamel Falcao. We hoped for good things. Oscar soon replaced Ramires, and I immediately noted a bigger desire from him to attack the defensive lines. On a couple of occasions, he drifted inside and past his markers with ease. More of the same this season please.

On the hour, a second glaring miss of the match. Fabregas played in Eden Hazard, our player of the moment, and we fully expected him to rifle a shot low past Cech. Instead, his shot immediately rose high and flew over the crossbar. Such a rare piece of shoddy finishing from Eden shocked us all.

Fackinell.

A free-kick from Oscar – one of many which we were awarded in the final quarter – forced a save from Cech in the Arsenal goal. It probably looked more difficult than it was. The Arsenal thousands roared.

Kurt Zouma replaced Dave at left-back. That surprised me. On the other flank, Ivanovic was continuing to flounder.

As the game progressed, we never really looked like equalising. The atmosphere was deadening, though few Chelsea fans had decided to leave, which was a good sign.

Victor Moses replaced Terry, and Mourinho re-jigged things. Moses’ pace was not utilised and the equaliser proved elusive. Falcao had chased a few scraps, but his service was not great.

In the closing minutes, Arsenal had a couple of chances to increase their lead.

To be truthful, it hadn’t been a very entertaining match. We had looked a little sluggish, with our key players unable to match the creativity in key areas shown by Arsenal. At the final whistle, the Arsenal fans feverishly waved their red and white flags as if they had won a cup final.

Yes, I know, I sound bitter don’t I?

I was well aware that this reaction would be typical of the Chelsea supporters.

A win, and an important marker for the season ahead in a vital showcase game.

A loss, and an irrelevant result in little more than a friendly.

At the queue for the train back to Marylebone, there was a little chat among a few of us about the possibility of Chelsea using Wembley as a temporary home for several seasons should our planning application for the complete overhaul of our stadium be accepted. For some, Wembley would be a preferred option. For me, coming to London from the south-west, I think I would prefer to use Twickenham. Wembley, in my opinion, should not be used for club games, though you can be very sure that the Football Association would readily accept Roman’s millions for three seasons. It would also, perhaps forever, take away what remaining buzz of excitement that I get from visiting Wembley with Chelsea, if we were to play eighty games there in three years. There are also logistical problems getting in and out of central London. It would extend my day by an extra hour at least. The atmosphere isn’t great at Wembley. How would it cope with 50,000 Chelsea fans? I am not sure. Would we be able to get it jumping? It would be tough.

There is also the painful sight of Chelsea playing home games in a stadium of 90,000 red seats.

Ken – could you not have chosen a more neutral colour?

Royal blue, maybe?

To be fair, despite my moans about added travel time, we were back at Barons Court by 6.30pm.

On the way home, I glanced north once more. The Wembley arch was only just visible now, barely distinguishable against the early evening cloud.

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Tales From The U.S. Capital

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 28 July 2015.

As I have mentioned previously, ten years ago I was in the US to see Chelsea play two of our three tour games that summer. This summer’s trip has a lot in common with that trip a decade ago. In 2005, I flew in and out of Charlotte and saw us play in Washington DC and New Jersey. This year, I flew in and out of Washington and see games in New Jersey, Charlotte and Washington DC.

Three locations are forever tied together in my personal history of following the boys over land and sea.

With two down and one to go on this tour, I left the clean, crisp and charming city of Charlotte at around 11am on the Sunday. I had breakfasted at a busy local restaurant with my good friend JR from Detroit and his family. I am still having gastronomic flashbacks and sugar rushes at the memory of the apple pancakes which I waded through. Another wonderful Chelsea road trip was ahead of me.

Charlotte to DC and another four hundred miles on the American road.

It was a perfect Sunday as we headed north-east. I ate up the miles in my…cough, cough…red Chevy. Oh the irony of driving around the US in the vehicular equivalent of a Manchester United shirt. JR and I chatted incessantly about all sorts on the long drive through North Carolina and Virginia. The time soon flew past. The first three hours seemed like thirty minutes. Others were travelling to DC by plane. Others by train. We were not the only ones travelling by automobile.

Around thirty minutes behind us, JR heard via our friend Janset that she was travelling up in a van with Paul Canoville, Mario Melchiot and a few more of Chelsea In America’s finest. JR also heard that the three from Iowa – Phil, Chris and Sam – were on the road too.

It seemed like a Chelsea edition of “Wacky Races”, but instead of Penelope Pitstop, the Anthill Mob and the Slag Brothers, this edition consisted of The Schmuckle Bus, The Cannersmobile 5000 and The Iowa Hot Rod – complete with blue smoke bombs. We later heard that Jeremy from Kansas was on the road too, but maybe he was taken out early in his Beardwagon by Dick Dastardly.

It is not known if Sergei and Dmitry from Badgercrack, Nebraska ever left the start line in their Facepaint Coupe.

The traffic began to slow, however. A trip that ought to have taken six hours eventually took eight. It was especially brutal north of Richmond on I-95. Thankfully a bottleneck cleared and the end was in sight. As we headed up over a gradual incline on I-395, a magnificent view greated me. Around three miles away stood the thin needle of the Washington Monument, the sun lighting up its west face, and with the white marble of the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the half-dome of the Capitol to the east. Down below us to the right was the monumental bulk of The Pentagon.

I was awestruck. It seemed that I had done all of my sightseeing in DC in a few seconds.

Within ten minutes we had arrived safely at our Hyatt Hotel just over the Potomac River from DC in Arlington, Virginia.

On the Sunday evening, Erin, JR and myself zipped in to DC for a bite to eat – my first burger of the trip – and then walked around the centrally located monuments of The Mall. Each one was floodlit and very photogenic. I took a few snaps, though only with my camera phone. I had neglected to pack my normal camera battery charger and was having a little OCD – obsessive Chelsea disorder – of my own. My number one task on the Monday would be to buy a new one. We had a lovely time, though. It brought back memories of my first time in DC, 1989, when I enjoyed a similar evening walking tour, which was provided free of charge by the youth hostel. There were also memories of that 2005 tour, with Roma, her two daughters and myself running through the sprinklers on those wide grass lawns to keep cool.

In 2015, the torrid summer heat of DC was fading quickly and it was a very enjoyable start to our time in DC. For the first time ever, I took an “Uber” to get back to our hotel.

Monday was another perfect day on this trip. I spent some time writing up “Charlotte” and then met up with Erin and JR again to visit the historic Ford’s Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. This was the number one sight on my list for DC. I have luckily visited most of the other main sites on my other two trips. I have been a keen Civil War enthusiast for over twenty years, and one of my most memorable days in the United States was spent at the stunning Gettysburg Battlefield in 2010. Obviously, Lincoln was the most famous protagonist of all in the seismic war which battled states against states, even families against families, and which almost ripped America apart. To witness the exact place where his life was sadly ended was another interesting and yet emotionally raw experience. The tour guide set up the scene amazingly well – with sensitive comments about the atmosphere and sensory feel of that evening – and explained with fine detail how events unfolded during the hours leading up to the fatal shot.

At the end, we walked over the road outside the theatre, whose large size surprised me, to the house which contained the parlour where Lincoln eventually died from his gunshot wound some seven hours later.

I had to double-take at the sign outside the house which forbade visitors to take in firearms.

Or maybe it was America being ironic.

I certainly didn’t appreciate a sizeable shop adjoined to the house, selling a vast array of Lincoln souvenirs, a mere five yards away from where he exhaled his last mortal breath.

I hot-tailed to Dupont Circle to buy my battery charger; I could relax.

On the Monday evening, I walked the mile or so up to the “Four Courts” pub which is where the local Chelsea supporters group in the DC area – “The Beltway Blues” – meet for matches. This was another long night. Just after I arrived at 7.30pm, Neil Barnet hosted another “Q & A” session with Bobby, Canners and Mario. I had heard most of the stories before, so sat in a quieter part of the large bar with JR and chatted with many other fans. It was another lovely evening, although not as manic as Charlotte. The usual suspects were present.

Andy kindly presented two “OC Hooligans” tour shirts for Parky and myself.

There was a photograph with Cath, Sambuca in hand.

Tim from Philly kindly gave me a few Yankee trading cards.

Photos with many good friends; some old, some very old, but some new.

I met up with Kathryn and Tim, good friends and two of the Beltway Blues, who I met on the bus taking us from Philly to Chester for the 2012 MLS All-Star Game.

I was impressed that Janset was wearing an original 1981-1982 shiny Le Coq Sportif shirt – one of my favourites – and I then gave her a crash course in the casual sub culture 1977 to date, which she really seemed to appreciate.

Many laughs, many smiles, many photographs.

But one thing was missing.

Talk about the game against Barcelona.

I definitely approved of this.

This simply mirrored what happens in my local, “The Goose” on the North End Road, on virtually all match days. As I have said before, Chelsea is what brings us together but the actual football takes up a surprisingly small amount of “talk time” on match days.

On my long and arduous drive down from West Virginia to Charlotte on the Friday, one town haunted me. As I set off early in the morning, a sign on I-81 said “Roanoke 202 miles.” For the next two hours I appeared to be driving in quicksand since the distances took forever to decrease.

“Roanoke 197 miles.”

“Roanoke 189 miles.”

“Roanoke 183 miles.”

“Roanoke 179 miles.”

“Roanoke 174 miles.”

Fackinell.

Well, late in the evening at “Four Courts” I met the chairman of the Roanoke Chelsea Supporters Club. Not only did this give me a wry smile, but it made me gasp. Roanoke is not a huge town – 97,000 according to my own personal information resource Akipedia – and yet it had its very own supporters group.

As the kids say these days –

“Mind. Blown.”

Two lads from London arrived late on the scene, just as the bar was calling last orders, and as I was thinking of heading back to the hotel. They had just come over for the one game on a quick “in and out mission.” We shared a couple of final beers. Then, Danny from Massachusetts and myself headed a few doors down for a gobsmackingly tasty Indian.

It was around 2.30am.

I needed to get back to the hotel.

In a slightly – only slightly of course – inebriated state I shuffled down Wilson Boulevard. I spotted a “7/11” and fancied a nightcap.

A beer?

A short?

Nope.

A “Reece’s Peanut Butter Ice Cream Cup.”

At 3am in Arlington, Virginia I was living the American dream.

I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of peanut butter, curried turnips, naan bread, Benetton rugby shirts and Torres’ goal against Barcelona in 2012.

On Game Day Number Three, I awoke with no hangover. This was a huge surprise. I am surprised that it didn’t make the papers. Rather than head back to “Four Courts”, a few of us were headed in to the city centre to meet my good friend Steve, who was travelling down to the evening’s game from his home in Philadelphia, but also Team Roma, which was already in DC, and taking a time out to show Super Shawn a few of the main tourist sites.

At around 12.45pm, I walked the short distance from Union Station to the Phoenix Park Hotel, where I met up with The Bobster and Steve. It was a pleasure to see Steve again, who I last met on a Friday afternoon in Manhattan last month as part of my baseball trip. In June we met at “McSorley’s” in the East Village, this time it was “The Dubliner” in DC.

Bizarrely, within minutes, three lads from home – two from Dorset, one from Scunthorpe – burst in to the bar and there were smiles all round. Even more strangely, I first met these chaps, and their oft-spotted “South Dorset Chelsea” Union Jack – out in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

Now, it seems, we can’t stop bumping in to each other.

Even more incredibly, JR – who was visiting the American History Museum with Erin – had just bumped into Roma, Vanessa and Shawn a mile or so away.

Chelsea world – I have said it before – is such a small world.

Before the others arrived, we enjoyed each other’s’ company. It was the first time all three of us had been together since Philly in 2012. Food was ordered, the beers flowed and we spoke about a wide range of topics, including the plans for the new stadium. Steve is yet to visit Stamford Bridge and we spoke, seriously, about concocting a robust yet devious plan to appease Steve’s wife Terry into allowing him a visit.

“Steve. You are an architect. That is reason alone.”

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn arrived at 4pm, clearly exhausted after walking around the city for a few hours. They sat and cooled off. It was lovely to see them again.

Outside, we had spotted many more Barcelona shirts than those of Chelsea. This was no surprise, since Barcelona can genuinely lay claim to be one of the big three global names alongside Real Madrid and Manchester United. Steve wondered if we are far away from their level. This was a question which I didn’t really answer, though I suppose we are undeniably one of the fastest rising stars of the modern football scene. I still, honestly, struggle to come to terms with our surge in popularity over the past ten years.

Others joined us. Rick and Beckie from Iowa. JR and Erin. Dennis and Dre from Seattle. The clans were gathering. Again, the game was hardly mentioned.

Roma met up with a family from her home town in Tennessee, who were in town for the game, but who were – gasp – Barcelona fans. Roma had coached the two young lads, resplendent in Barca shirts, in the local AYSO league. I explained that I was a Chelsea season ticket holder and, without thinking, soon said that I was “at Camp Nou in 2012.”

I then sheepishly admitted to Roma that this was not the most tactful of things to say. We all laughed though. And I think I laughed the longest.

They left to spend time together, and made their way independently to the stadium by car.

Despite warnings of lengthy travel times by car to Fed-Ex Field, which sits on the very edge of the DC conurbation in Maryland, the three of us booked an Uber car to take us to the game. We left at around 6.15pm. The game was to begin at 8pm. We envisaged reaching the stadium at 7pm.

For an hour and thirty minutes we sat with increasing tension as the driver – a cricket enthusiast from India – edged east. While we moaned about the traffic, the minutes ticked by. On the very last section – a mile or so out – we noticed many passengers leaving their drivers to battle on and walk the final distance. We counted the number of replica shirts. It was split something along the lines of 90% Barcelona / 10% Chelsea. Now, I know that the afore-mentioned casual subculture hasn’t really permeated into the US sporting psyche just yet, but even if some Chelsea fans were eschewing club colours, as is the tendency in SW6, this still represented an overwhelming bias in favour of Barcelona.

We wondered if the game would sell out the huge home of the Washington Redskins, which was once the largest in the National Football League. Ever since we heard that the magical skills of Lionel Messi would not be present, I personally thought that the attendance would suffer. As we edged ever closer, touts lined the approach roads offering tickets.

At 7.45pm, we arrived. There was still a ten minute walk – uphill, damn it – to the large and aesthetically messy stadium. On the final few hundred yards, we heard the national anthem from inside. The briefest of bag checks, and we were in. With ridiculous good fortune, we were inside in time for the kick-off. The stadium was not full, but I knew only too well how many were still outside in cars.

Due to my rushed arrival, I took a while to settle.

Again, the usual scan of the team, a scan to see if there were many friends close by, a scan of the setting and a scan of the replica shirts. It was easy to see that Barcelona greatly outnumbered us in the stadium, unless the Chelsea fans had followed the lead of Rick (Lacoste), Steve (Ralph Lauren), JR (Lacoste) and myself (Monclair).

The stadium was more or less as I remembered it from 2005 when we watched Chelsea beat DC United 2-1 with goals from Duff and Crespo in front of 25,000. It wasn’t a bad match to be fair, and we watched from the same eastern end behind the goal as in 2015. Ten years ago, I had driven to the game – no traffic – and had given a brief interview with a local TV station before the game, when the main question seemed to be about the perceived inadequacies of the local MLS team compared to the all-conquering visitors. When we went 1-0 down, I wondered if the interviewer was re-writing his script for his postgame analysis. I remember being scalded by a “soccer Mom” for knocking in to her when Duffer equalised. It emphasised to me how important it is to have segregation at football games. Sharing the same space with fans supporting opposing teams is always a problem, due mainly to the passions involved in our sport.

Chelsea in all white. I like that strip.

Barcelona in Catalan yellow and red stripes, with blue shorts and yellow socks.

The pitch seemed small and very close to the stands. Of course an NFL pitch is relatively narrow. It was not a stadium that I could easily like. It just appeared to be rather ugly, with executive boxes in the middle tiers, upper tiers sectioned off, brutal concrete everywhere. I bet that the Redskins will be building a new one before we know it. The new generation of NFL stadia seem a lot sleeker than this one.

So. Our team.

In goal was Thibaut, the hero of Charlotte.

In defence, Dave at left back, Kurt Zouma and Gary Cahill in the middle, Ivanovic on the right.

In the midfield two, Matic and Magic Hat.

In the three, Oscar, Hazard and…who? I didn’t recognise the chap. Ah, Kenedy.

Washington is as good a place as any for a chap called Kenedy to debut.

Up front, looking mean and menacing, Diego Costa.

Sadly, Roma, Vanessa and Shawn did not make the kick-off. I hoped they would soon be in. Again, as in Charlotte, and as in most US games, “our end” was full of supporters of the other team. I know that segregation is a prickly issue in America, but it can’t be hard to designate – say – one thousand Chelsea tickets to the Iowa Blues, the New York Blues, the North Texas Blues, the Beltway Blues, the Boston Blues, the Motor City Blues, the Roanoke Blues, the Badgercrack Blues et al, and then two thousand to other Chelsea fans fans to bolster that key segment of support. It was clear early on that the two main singing sections were too spread out, and with a horrible mix of Barcelona fans and “quieter” Chelsea fans too.

We began well I thought. An early Zouma header tested Ter Stegen. Matic seemed to impress straight away, winning tackles and prodding the ball intelligently. Although Messi and Neymar were missing, one familiar face and major irritant was playing.

Luis Suarez. I disliked you then and I dislike you now.

I wonder if the Suarez and Ivanovic subplot might continue.

A header from goal machine Mikel, a shot from Oscar. Barcelona were second best in the opening minutes. A magnificent run and dribble, leaving the entire Catalan nation in his wake, enabled Eden Hazard to dance in to the Barcelona box and calmly prod the ball low and into the goal.

Fantastic.

Barcelona countered, but our defence and Courtois especially were able to withstand any attempts on goal. Suarez was always a looming presence, though, and I like the look of Rakitic.A Chelsea free-kick taken by the involved Oscar rattled the bar. We were definitely on top.

Thankfully, Roma, Vanessa, and Shawn appeared alongside Bob and myself. The traffic had been awful. In addition to an ugly stadium, the Redskins also chose an ugly location for their new home.

Despite taking the lead, the Chelsea support in the area where we were based was at best piecemeal. We tried, but to be honest I soon gave up. My throat was still smarting from Charlotte. Every time a Chelsea song – and there was a nice variety – got going, it was drowned out by the annoying single grunt of “Barca!”

There were four FCB fans in front of me. There were two quiet Chelsea fans behind me. It was going to be an uphill struggle off the pitch.

The football was still of a good quality. Diego Costa should have scored after being set up by the neat Fabregas, but his shot was drilled wide. It seemed that Suarez was our main irritant, but Courtois did well to smother his few strikes on goal.

At half-time, we were happy.

Jose made two changes at the break with a Brazilian themed double substitution.

Wilian and Ramires for Oscar and Kenedy.

Soon into the second period, there was a repeat of my 2005 altercation, when a Barcelona fan and I had a few choice words. It was so pithy as to be unworthy of repeating.

I noted that I could see hardly any empty seats. Even the skyboxes appeared packed.

On the pitch, Diego came close, but then Suarez – why did it have to be him? – managed to lift the ball over the advancing Courtois. In a scene reminiscent of Anfield in 2005, the ball was hacked away by Zouma, but after the referee had already signalled a goal. Of course, all of the Chelsea had varying views of the incident. My view – over one hundred yards away – was perfect.

No goal.

1-1.

So…we then watched as Barcelona took over. And I got more and more irritated by the Barcelona fans around me. Having the enemy so close…breathing on me…might be OK in American sports, but it makes me feel uneasy. I’m no hooligan, but my tempers rose with each of their mocking chants.

We had to endure “BARCA / CHELSEA / BARCA / CHELSEA / BARCA / CHELSEA.”

I even found myself joining in, waving the white flag of surrender.

Ugh.

From behind me –

“Mourinho never beats Barca.”

A worry as Diego Costa appeared to be hurt. Please not his hamstring. He was substituted, and replaced by Falcao. On sixty-five minutes, Sandro – linked with us recently – stepped past Moses, who had been one of a flurry of substitutes from both teams on the hour – and curled a sublime shot past Courtois’ outstretched dive.

The stadium erupted, and the four Barcelona fans in front screamed.

“Count to ten Chris, count to ten.”

We somehow worked some chances. An acrobatic volley from Falcao is still in the air as I write, maybe over Florida by now. Ramires, taking a touch too many perhaps, shot well wide. The minutes ticked by. Moses did ever so well down in front of us, but his drilled centre evaded everyone. Our support rallied and we hoped for an equaliser.

The gate was announced as 79,000.

Bloody fantastic.

It could turn out to be our biggest attendance all season long.

Roma, bless her, was shrieking wildly throughout the second half.

“Let’s Go Chelsea” followed by that crazy smile.

With just five minutes remaining, Willian sent over a teasing centre, but the ball was knocked vertically. It seemed to take forever to come down, but a magnificently-timed leap by Gary Cahill met the ball before others could pounce. The ball looped – a la Ivanovic in Amsterdam – up and down before nestling inside the goal.

“YESYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.”

The joy was palpable. It was a friendly, but this meant so much.

Willian and Moses had a very late chance to win it, but inexcusably managed to jump for the same ball on the far post. A late Barcelona chance flew past the post.

2-2.

More penalties.

With perfect timing, Brian from Charlotte spotted me on his way out for a comfort break, and smiled as he said :

“Screw the penalties, let’s go to the pub.”

It was the line of the night.

So, the penalties at our end this time. Everyone stood. I varied my approach as I photographed each one.

Iniesta – Barcelona, goal – a photo of the TV screen behind me : 0-1.

Falcao – Chelsea, goal – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 1-1.

Halilovic – Barcelona, miss – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 1-1.

Moses – Chelsea, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 2-1.

Pique – Barcelona, miss – a photo of the TV screen behind me : 2-1.

Ramires – Chelsea, goal – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 3-1.

Sandro – Barcelona, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 3-2.

Remy – Chelsea, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 4-2.

We roared. Winning a friendly had never been this important.

Fantastic.

As Gill and Graeme, a few rows in front, almost exploded with joy, I too was pumped. My pleasure almost surprised me.

Only a friendly, right?

The post-match celebrations and presentations were over remarkably quickly. Thibaut was handed the man of the match trophy – a pint of Guinness and a packet of pork scratchings – and gave a rather embarrassed “thumbs up” to the camera.

The FCB fans had sloped off. I looked around to see if I could see some friends. Everyone was disappearing into the night, keen to leave by train and car.

Outside, I said my fond farewells to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn.

I slowly walked past the slowly-exiting cars, teetering down the shallow slope of the exit road. There seemed to be more Chelsea fans on the walk back to a local train station than I had expected. Maybe the Barcelona fans really had left quickly. At the station, a wait for a ticket, then a wait to board the train. The crowds reminded me of Munich. At least these ones were air-conditioned. I found myself talking to a Chelsea fan on the train, thus missing my stop. I alighted at the next one, which was conveniently located opposite “Four Courts” and unwittingly extended the night.

Here were all the usual suspects again, plus a couple of Chelsea fans from Toronto – Leigh-Anne and John – who had been hoping to see me all day. That I should bump into them in the last few seconds of the day – after extra-time and penalties if you like – was just perfect.

More beers, more photos, more laughs.

And then sadly, a few goodbyes.

A few of us popped next door for a kebab and one last beer.

Andy, Brad, Shaun, The Bobster, Leigh-Ann, John, little old me.

It was around 2am.

The last and final scene of this magnificent and memorable US Tour was being played out.

On Sunday, it’s back to England and back to London and back to Wembley.

And bloody Arsenal.

How boring.

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