Tales From A Slow Start.

Rapid Vienna vs. Chelsea : 16 July 2016.

By the time that the Austrian Airlines plane had touched down at Vienna’s Schwechat airport at 9.30am on Saturday 16 July, I had already been awake for nine hours. Day one of season 2016-2017, my forty-fourth year of attending Chelsea games, would undoubtedly be a long one. With Chelsea sadly not competing in either of the two European trophies this season, I was easily persuaded to attend the season-opener a week or so ahead of a trip over to the US later in July. European travel would be sorely missed by myself, and thousands of others, this season, but here – at least – was a chance for me to do what I love best; a couple of days in a foreign city following The Great Unpredictables.

I had woken, ahead of my alarm, at 11.30pm on the Friday night. What a ridiculous time to be waking. I set off at 1.30am on the Saturday and headed east. I had arranged to park my car at my friend Michelle’s house in Bracknell, and then her boyfriend Dane would then drive the three of us to Heathrow ahead of our 6am flight. We were checked in at 4.30am and we spotted a few fellow Chelsea on our flight. We grabbed a coffee and a bacon roll, and were soon on our way. “The Blue Danube” – that soothing Strauss favourite – greeted us as we took our seats on the plane. It set the tone nicely. I settled back in my seat and reminisced about previous visits to the Austrian capital.

Back in my early ‘twenties, newly graduated from college but with no idea of where I wanted my life to be headed, I often travelled around Europe by train on various Inter-Railing adventures. My fourth such trip, in the late autumn of 1987, doubled as a chance for me to make a little money on the side by selling British football badges at some European games. A few weeks were spent zig-zagging – if not zigger-zaggering – between Europe’s great cities, sleeping overnight on the trains, and waking up the next morning with that wonderful thrill of exploring a new city, and possibly – who knows? – even making the acquaintance of a mysterious European female with high cheekbones and low morals. These were my wanderlust years for sure. I had visited Austria for the first time on a family holiday with my parents in 1977 – Seefeld, in the Tirol – but my first visit to Vienna was ten years later. On a cold and misty November morning, I alighted at Vienna’s Westbanhof station and headed off for an early morning visit to the wonderful Schonbrunn Palace. There was a certain dark austerity about those grey streets and I wondered if I was in a city further east, such as Belgrade, Budapest or Prague – still under communist law – rather than the sprightlier and more cheerful Austrian capital. I later visited the stunning buildings of the city centre and was immediately impressed. There was a certain class to the whole city. Vienna had certainly left its mark on me.

I would return some seven years later, and this time with the love of my life.

With Chelsea having qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994/1995 (despite only finishing FA Cup runners up to double winners Manchester United), and after seeing off Viktoria Zikkov in the first round, we were paired with Austria Memphis. I had attended the Zizkov game in September 1994 – which had taken place in the small town of Jablonec rather than Prague due to concerns about crowd trouble – and I soon booked myself a return visit to that part of central Europe for the game in Vienna in November. A rather fractious first game at Stamford Bridge had ended 0-0 and there was nerves aplenty as I traveled out to the game in Vienna.

One of the nicest memories that I have of that particular trip was the couple of hours that I spent in a quiet bar, adjacent to the canal that cuts through the city of Vienna as an adjunct to the Danube, where I was able to relax with a few beers, and have a really lovely chat with two lads who I had not met before; Ally and Barney. We bought each other some beers, and enjoyed each other’s company, speaking of our love of the club, our personal stories, and how much fun we hoped to have on a potentially long European campaign in 1994/1995. Remember this was Chelsea’s first European adventure since 1971/1972. It was therefore the very first time that the thousands of fans who had been lured to the club after the twin cup triumphs of 1970 and 1971 had ever experienced such extravagance. That often overlooked European campaign of 1994/1995 is fondly remembered by myself and my friends as our great reward for sticking with the club through a dark period of our history. There had been three depressing relegations, financial calamity, the threat of moving away from Stamford Bridge, a flirt with relegation to the Third Division, hooliganism on the terraces, and much gloating from fans of our rivals. As I sat in that bar in Vienna in 1994, laughing with fellow Chelsea fans among the wooden panels and shining beer pumps, with the game taking place just over the canal, just out of sight, in a few hours, the excitement was tangible. It was just a lovely moment in my Chelsea life.

I would also visit that same bar on a visit to Vienna in 1997 – this time alone, but still savoring the moment – ahead of a game against Slovan Bratislava, just over the Slovakian border. It was, and still is, one of my favourite bars of any city that I have ever visited.

After checking in to my hotel on the Saturday morning, not so far from where I stayed in 1997 in fact, my first priority was to hunt out that bar, sit and reflect on how far my club has come over the past twenty-odd years, and to raise a toast to Antonio Conte as he took charge of his very first Chelsea game later in the day but also to the memory of Barney, who sadly passed away in 2011. I used to bump in to him quite often at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere – Ally not quite so often – and there would always be an outstretched hand and the “hello son” greeting. He was a nice guy. I miss his cheery smile.

For an hour or so, I searched east and west and then east again, but the bar was proving as elusive to pin down as the racketeer Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s atmospheric post-war classic “The Third Man.” As I roamed the streets, I hummed the film’s classic refrain to myself. I looked hither and thither to the sound of the zither but was so disappointed to realise that the bar was no more. As with many cities, there has been much riverside development in Vienna, and the quaint local bar was nowhere to be seen. I was genuinely dismayed that my first pint of the season – last season it was in Newark, New Jersey – could not be on my third visit to “my bar” in Vienna.

The weather was a little overcast and cloudy as I now turned and headed for the city centre.

I walked past a small neighbourhood bar and peered inside. There were a few locals inside, but also the strong smell of cigarette smoke. I turned to leave, but then looked up to see a large poster of former Rapid Vienna and Austrian international Hans Krankl – quite probably the nation’s most famous footballer of all time.

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I then noticed the photographs of a local, lower league, football team adorning one wall. I spotted the green wallpaper and upholstery, hinting at maybe a Rapid allegiance.

“I think I’m staying.”

I ordered a pint of Weiselburger and relaxed. The locals were amazed that I had traveled over for the game. The bar owner – not present – was the president of the local team featured. The locals were Rapid fans. It was great to chat to them. I love a local bar.

I headed on. The streets were remarkably quiet. Only around St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the main shopping area of the old town were busy. I crossed a road but heard a “Chelsea” song being faintly sung. I turned and spotted a few Chelsea flags draped outside the Match Box bar on Rotenturmstrasse. For an hour or so, it represented base camp. I bumped into a few friends and relaxed some more. After only two months after the last game of 2015/2016, we were back on it again. I suppose there was around twenty of us huddled outside the bar. It was not a huge figure. Some had spent the previous night in Bratislava, and had travelled down the River Danube to Vienna by boat. The talk turned to the game. We had officially been given four hundred tickets for the match, which was to mark the opening of Rapid’s revamped stadium, and a fair few had traveled out without tickets.

A few odd-looking characters suddenly arrived on the scene, obviously not English, wearing Harrington jackets with both “Chelsea Headhunters” crests woven into the backs, and with Stone Island patches on the arms. A couple had “Chelsea Headhunters” scarves draped around their waists.

File under “trying too hard.”

They looked, and sounded, totally unsavory. It was time for me to move on.

I headed off at just before 3pm in order to meet up with Emily, a Chelsea supporter from Atlanta, but who has been living in Vienna for a few years, and George, a Chelsea fanatic from the Czech Republic. Both were “Facebook friends” but there had been much communication between us ahead of the game. I was also hoping to meet up with my good mate Orlin, who often gets mentioned in these dispatches, who was desperate for a match ticket. A few days previously, Emily had sourced a spare for him, but it fell through at the last minute.

I walked in to “Flanagan’s” on Schwarzenbergstrasse and was expecting it to be busy. It was very quiet. If we had four hundred tickets, and four hundred fans, we were certainly spreading ourselves thinly throughout the city. I soon spotted the ever-present Cathy, with Becky and Emma. George, with two Czech mates, soon arrived. Emily too. For an hour and a half, we supped a few ales – Weiselburger and then Stiegl – and chatted about all things Chelsea. A few others arrived – Neil and Dave – and we pondered options of how to reach the stadium, which sits on the western edge of the city. We ended up catching an Uber, and off we went through the city’s streets.

The sun-bleached frontage of the Schonbrunn Palace was spotted to my left and I wondered if I would have time to visit it again on this trip. I had recently seen a concert from its grounds a few weeks earlier and it certainly brought back memories of my childhood. Often my father would tune in to some classical music on the radio and he especially liked the music of Strauss. I think his favourite was the Radetzky March. I had been reminded of another memory from the game in 1994; the day after the match, I enjoyed a leisurely walk in the autumn sun. I happened to chance upon a band playing music in celebration of the Austrian president Thomas Klestil’s birthday. For a few moments, I watched as the music whirled around in the Viennese morning air. I had lost my father only eighteen months earlier and I do not mind admitting that the sounds of some of his favourite tunes made my eyes moist. It was a lovely moment for me.

Outside the stadium, we soon spotted a bar, so we quickly decided to have another beer before the game.

With another Italian in charge of the team once more, I was keen to welcome Antonio Conte to our club with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner, which I hand-crafted some twenty summers ago in celebration of the twin signings of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto di Matteo. At the time, who could have possibly have guessed that those two players would go down in Chelsea legend as the managers of twin European triumphs in Stockholm and Munich?

I hastily gathered some troops and we had a photograph.

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Time was moving on.

Emily had a ticket in the home end, so we went our separate ways. With typical Chelsea protocol, I only made it in to the stadium with mere minutes to spare. The away end didn’t seem particularly full. We had been allocated the corner section, and it was clear to see that many locals – or at least non-English, if not wholly Austrian – were in our section. If I was expecting to see many familiar faces among the “400” (now seeming a mythical figure invented by Chelsea), I was to be disappointed. I bumped into Les from nearby Melksham, and maybe a few more, but there were strange faces everywhere. I didn’t spot my good pals Alan and Gary, who would be staying over for the second game in Klagenfurt. There was an odd feel to the mix of supporters. Of course, the big clue that not too many were from England was the predominance of Chelsea shirts in the away end. Emily, George and myself had touched on this subject in the bar beforehand; that Chelsea, specifically at away games, simply do not wear club colours to any great extent.

I made my way to the very last row, overlooked by a row of a bored dozen Austrian policemen. Alas there was nowhere to pin “Vinci.”

The home fans were in the midst of displaying a huge banner announcing “Weststadion” as opposed to the official, and ultra-corporate Allianz Stadium. Like the Allianz Stadium in Munich, I spotted a hill outside, wooded, and with houses.

“Tales From The Vienna Woods” anyone?

OK, the game.

Do I have to?

Clearly, Antonio Conte has only been at the club for a ridiculously short time, and was unable to select a free choice of players since some were still on an extended break. Nevertheless, the team looked like a Chelsea team from a parallel universe, or maybe even last year’s odd start. It could easily have been the team that played Walsall last September. It was a mixture of old favourites and fledgling youth.

Begovic.

Ivanovic.

Terry.

Djilobodji.

Rahman.

Mikel.

Matic.

Willian.

Loftus-Cheek.

Moses.

Diego Costa.

It seemed to be the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 of recent memory. It was lovely, at least, to see John Terry still with us after the conjecture of the last week of the previous campaign.

Like so many fellow Chelsea fans, I was impressed with Antonio Conte during the recent European Championships. He is quietly spoken, but has eyes of steel. He is plainly a passionate man. It remains to be seen whether or not he can repeat that sense of camaraderie and teamwork so evident in his Italian team, overachieving through togetherness, at our club, which has been beset with power struggles and divisions within the changing room over the past few years. My good friend Mario, the Juventus supporter, told me that he is more of a leader of men through his emotional bond with his players, rather than through his tactical nous. This goes against the quickly-gained view by many in France that Conte is a fine tactician. If I heard the phrase “tactical masterclass” emanating from the media and fellow fans alike, I must have heard it a hundred times.

We’ll see.

I certainly wish him well.

“Win For Us” indeed.

Chelsea were in all blue – I still dislike seeing us in blue socks after all these years – with Rapid Vienna strangely choosing away stripes.

The game was dire. We let in a soft goal, allowing a nice one-two to cut us open on just seven minutes as Joelinton rounded Asmir Begovic before coolly side-footing home, and then celebrated down in front of us. Green flares were set off, and the home fans – wearing a lot of scarves despite it being the middle of summer – made a lot of noise. It was quite a din from their sections throughout the game.

We struggled to put anything of note together and – let us not be surprised – looked several yards off the pace against a team that seemed to be at a further advanced stage in their pre-season.

A few shouts of Chelsea support at the start soon gave way to periods of quiet in the away end as the game continued.

Suddenly, Emily appeared next to me. She had explained that she was a Chelsea fan to a steward in the home areas and had been allowed to join us. That she found me so easily was proof that our end was not full.

Willian buzzed around and Diego narrowly shot narrowly wide, but the Chelsea fans in the away section were not impressed.

“Shite, eh?”

At halftime, I made my way downstairs to purchase some beers. It was one of those games where beer was certainly a welcome addition. We were even allowed to bring them back to our seats.

It was more painful stuff in the second-half. Changes were made, with Aina, Oscar, Chalobah, Traore, Kenedy, Atsu and Remy all coming on.

We shuffled the ball from one side of the field to the other, but with little thrust or incision into the Rapid area.

It was slow.

Out of nowhere, Orlin appeared below me. He too had been lucky and had found, miraculously, a ticket. This was all very strange though. There were gaps in our section throughout the game, yet Chelsea had sold four hundred. Answers on a postcard.

Ola Aina played a ball in from the inside-left position, aiming for some onrushing attackers, but the ball avoided everyone before hitting against the left-hand post. The keeper was beaten, but watched as the ball rebounded away to safety. That this unintentional strike on goal would be our best attempt on goal the entire game summed it all up.

Sigh.

With ten minutes left, a defensive error between Ivanovic and Terry allowed the home team to strike. The ball was played out wide, and a shot on goal followed. An attempted clearance only set things up for Tomi to follow up.

Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

More flares and flags.

The game ended.

We shuffled off, with our hands in our pockets, and with faces being pulled.

“Bloody hell, that was crap.”

I suppose I am spoilt. I have seen so many enthralling and entertaining games with Chelsea over the years. This was just a friendly, just the first in a long season, just a training session in reality.

Outside in the drizzle of a Viennese evening, we waited for transportation.

“Bloody hell, this seems like Wigan in the rain in November not Vienna in July.”

Our spirits had taken a bit of a knock, but I must admit to being so pleased to have made new friends with some good people.

George kept shouting “Vinci Per Noi” and I smiled.

We caught two trams back to the centre of Vienna, and I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza. It would be my only sustenance since the bacon roll at Heathrow. I chatted, solemnly, to Emily and aired a concern that I have had, and shared here, for a few years; that my passion is waning, that things might never reach the heights of – when? Vienna 1994? Wembley 1997? Stockholm 1998? Bolton 2005? Munich 2012? – but then I smiled as the thought of another campaign entered my head. We dropped in to “Flanagan’s” once more but my lack of sleep and the first glut of beer of the season suddenly took its toll. At around 9.30pm – yes, probably as early as that – I made my way back to the hotel. I was so tired.

For me, at least, it was a solemn case of “goodnight, Vienna.”

I awoke on the Sunday, miraculously with no hangover. My flight back to Blighty was not until 8pm, so there was plenty of time to explore Vienna on day two.

The first part of my day would be a personal homage to that game in 1994 against Rapid Vienna’s cross-town rivals. Vienna’s two main teams have monopolised the trophies in Austria, with Rapid winning 32 championships and Austria Vienna 24. Back in 1994, Austria Vienna were known as Austria Memphis, after a short-lived sponsorship deal with a cigarette manufacturer. There is a third team, First Vienna, but they have suffered in recent years. Another club, even smaller, Wiener Sport Club, played us in the Fairs Cup in 1965.

When I left that bar in 1994, I walked over the river towards the Ernst Happel Stadium and memorably heard shouts of “Carefree” from the huge Ferris wheel – the Wiener Reisenrad – at one end of the Prater park. In 2016, I rode on the Ferris wheel for the first time. It is a fantastic experience, and offers lovely panorama views of the whole city. I remembered a famous scene from “The Third Man” between the two main characters which took place on the wheel. As in 1994, there is an amusement park at the Prater, and I recreated my long walk that evening twenty-two years ago, ending up underneath the stadium. There has been a new roof canopy slung on top of the concrete bowl since 1994, but being there brought back lovely memories. It has hosted some memorable European finals in its day. Back in 1994, it was used for our game rather than Austria Memphis’ smaller Favoriten stadium. It was recently the home of Rapid, too, while their new stadium was built. I was able to peer in and spot that the seats were now Rapid green, rather than the multi-colours of yesteryear.

There is something very dramatic, in my mind, about a resting football stadium.

My mind raced back to 1994.

Such were the rules with UEFA then, that only two or three “foreigners” were allowed in the ECWC. With injuries to other players, this meant that manager Glenn Hoddle’s hand was tied. His team selection on that memorable night tells its own story –

Kharin.

Hall.

Barness.

Johnson.

Spackman.

Newton.

Rocastle.

Myers.

Shipperley.

Spencer.

Wise.

I remember Nigel Spackman was forced to play as a central defender. Young Neil Shipperley lead the line. I had a seat, among home fans, but with other Chelsea too, along the side, with an army of around four thousand away fans in the middle tier of the end to my right. It was one of the greatest nights of my life until that point. We went ahead in the second-half after a memorable breathless run by John Spencer – it seemed to go on forever – resulted in him dropping his shoulder, edging wide of the ‘keeper and slotting home.

“Get in.”

What wild celebrations.

I remember falling arse over tit on the Vienna fans next to me.

I was so new to European football, that even when the home team equalised, it took me a few seconds to realise that we still held advantage. The Chelsea fans were in great form that night; it was a proper old school following, and the songs echoed around the half-full stadium. I remember “God Save The Queen” and even “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – a rugby song – being sung with gusto. At the end of the game, with Chelsea through to the next round on a brilliant European night, I bounced out of the stadium and walked south to the nearest U-bahn station, almost too excited for words.

It was one of the very greatest of feelings.

At last, at the age of twenty-nine, I had a European adventure all of my own to tell fellow friends about.

Chelsea were back.

It was fucking brilliant.

I took a few photographs of the Ernst Happel Stadium, then retraced my steps south again.

Throughout this trip, 1994 would be forever on my mind.

“Vienna. 1994. It meant something to me.”

Later in the day, I visited the palatial majesty of the Belvedere Palace – a mini Schonbrunn – and met up with Emily once more. We sat in the al fresco bar outside the Palace and spoke about all things Chelsea. Emily was keen to hear some of my stories and some of my tales. There was talk of US tours, football fan culture, rivalries, past games, the entire works. It transpired that one of Emily’s relatives – her grandmother’s first cousin – played for Manchester United in the 1940’s, and I laughed that many United fans living in the UK would give their right arm for that kind of lineage to Manchester. If you ask them why they are United fans, you often get them looking away, avoiding eye contact, before they utter some unconvincing tripe about their relatives coming from Manchester. What a load of old rot. Emily has visited Stamford Bridge twice before, 2011, and promised to make a return visit as soon as she could. I look forward to that.

I walked back to the hotel – time for one last curry wurst – and I met up with Michelle and Dane before we returned to the airport.

It had been a long two days in the Austrian capital.

We heard that there would be another pre-season game in Bremen, another lovely city, on a spare Sunday in August. That would be for others, though, not for me. My next game is in Ann Arbor, college-town USA, against Real Madrid.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From The Black And The Blue.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 18 April 2012.

There is a delicious irony in Chelsea’s recent love affair with the Champions League over the past ten years. Way back in 1955, just after our first ever Football League Championship, Chelsea could have been the very first winners of the inaugural European Cup which was played during the 1955-1956 season. However, for whatever reason, the out-of-touch octogenarians in the English F.A. strongly advised the club to forego participation. Instead, Real Madrid won the first ever European Cup (and the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth) in 1956 and Chelsea had to wait until 1999-2000 to participate again. There have been few games which have produced the same “buzz” of anticipation than that of that first ever game against Milan in September 1999; a pulsating 0-0 draw at The Bridge was a classic.

If only we knew then what we know now; we have since taken to the competition like the proverbial duck to aqueous solution. We reached the quarter-finals in that first season before losing to (guess who?) Barcelona. Since then, we have been one of European football’s top performers in the World’s premier cup competition. Our semi-final against Barcelona this season would be our sixth since 2003-2004. These have been heady days. Spring time at Chelsea has recently involved football on multiple fronts. It’s a beautiful period in our history; breath it in, let it fill up your senses, these days will not last for ever.

…but oh, the memories.

2004 – a defeat by AS Monaco, fresh on the heels of that game at Highbury in the previous round. Claudio Ranieri at his infuriating worst, tinkering to distraction, just to prove a point to the club management who had already hinted he would be leaving the following season.

2005 – a nauseating defeat to Liverpool. The result of Mourinho not “going for it” in the home leg, the result of the Luis Garcia “ghost” goal at Anfield. We were the best team in Europe that season, having discarded FCB in the quarters.

2007 – another hateful defeat to Liverpool, this time on penalties at Anfield after Joe Cole and Daniel Agger goals gave both teams 1-0 home wins. Again, Mourinho failed to attack Liverpool sufficiently. Would we ever get to the final?

2008 – joy unbounded as we drew 1-1 at Anfield and then won 3-2 at a pulsating Stamford Bridge on one of the most emotional nights that English football has ever witnessed. Frank Lampard inspired us and we were on our way to Moscow.

2009 – a resolute performance by Chelsea at Camp Nou and a 0-0 draw. A despicable performance by a certain Norwegian referee at The Bridge. Michael Essien scored his best ever goal, but Iniesta equalised with virtually Barca’s only shot on goal. Pure, unadulterated sadness.

Our record in the Champions League semi-finals is therefore 1-4. Throw in our ridiculously close defeat in the final in 2008 and has ever a team come closer to winning the World’s greatest club competition, yet failing, than Chelsea?

During the day, I pondered our chances for 2012 against the mesmeric talisman Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team mates. Not even our stupendous win against Tottenham on Sunday could dispel many of my very real worries and concerns. My biggest fear was that of humiliation. This has been a strange old season; our team was creaking under Villas-Boas, but has been rejuvenated under Roberto di Matteo. Our form has returned, yet we are still an old team in transition. In my mind, there was a real chance that this would turn out to be one game too far for the battle-scarred veterans. After our fortuitous refereeing decisions against Wigan and Spurs, I was also aware that all of our Lady Luck Tokens had been used for this season. And yet, I can easily recall a conversation that a few friends and I had in The Goose before that 2000 game against Barcelona; we had performed miracles during that CL season and we decided that we were realistically not going to progress further. That Barcelona team, including Figo and the like, was a class act. What did we know? On that incredible night we stormed into a 3-0 lead and produced a breath-taking performance. A late Figo goal took the edge off the night, but it had taught me not to write off Chelsea Football Club.

I hoped for a similar response in 2012. However, I was still uneasy. In an email to some friends, I summed-up our chances on the night as follows –

Barcelona win 50%
Chelsea win 25%
Draw 25%

I added that I thought that we had a 20% chance to progress to the final over both legs.

These were my thoughts before the trip to London.

I pulled out of Chippenham at 4pm. Parky and I were headed east once more. It was a drizzle-filled Wiltshire evening. I wondered if the extra zip to the pitch in London would assist Barcelona’s quick passing.

As I approached Reading, my thoughts on the night’s game were waylaid; my friend Rob, who had been tasked to collect my ticket for the away game in Catalonia, called me on my phone. He was very agitated and told me that the Chelsea box office had no record of my purchase.

“What?”

Surely I applied for my ticket last week?

“Oh fcuk.”

For thirty minutes, I tried to recollect if I had bought the £73.50 ticket. It has been a busy old spell, with many match tickets needing to be purchased; maybe I had, indeed, forgotten to get one? I tried to call the box office, but they were closed. I mulled over my options. I realised that I could pop into the internet café opposite The Goose and apply there. Rob confirmed that the box office would be open for thirty minutes after the evening’s game for collections. I could relax.

Phew.

I parked up at 6.45pm. By 6.55pm, I had purchased my away ticket and Parky had bought me a pint of Peroni in The Goose. I thanked Rob for his efforts and he handed me back the form I had filled out detailing my travel details; I would need that to claim my ticket. I met up with Alex, a work colleague, who had asked me if I had the chance of getting him a ticket as soon as we had beaten Benfica. Alex works for one of the hauliers that my company uses to move our client’s products in Europe; he is from Vienna and has been working in England for a year or so. We had spoken on the ‘phone, but had never met before. He has no team in Austria; Chelsea is his team. He is typical of the new type of supporter our club has attracted of late; not from Ashford, but Austria, not from Cheam, but from California, not from Gravesend, but from Germany. He was clearly ecstatic to be able to see only his second ever Chelsea game. He was off back to Vienna in May. It was great to see him so happy.

I was in a rush to head down to The Bridge as I wanted to get some banners up in good time. I was in so much of a rush that I sped off with Parky’s match ticket still in my bag. He caught up with me, but then disappeared into The Maltsters for “just one more pint.”

Alex and I rushed down to The Bridge; the half-and-half scarves sellers had been busy. I can understand the allure of a friendship scarf for European games; in fact, Parky often gets one for Jill. The St. George flag on the FCB badge always looks great in my mind. Monday is St. George’s Day, of course, and a few Chelsea fans will be celebrating our patron saint’s day deep in the heart of Catalonia.

We reached our seats at 7.35pm just as Neil Barnett announced “the anthem”; the recording of “Blue Is The Colour” by an opera singer. I personally wish they would stick with the original 1972 recording to be honest; this new version is slightly too slow, slightly too forced. Alex and I scrambled up to the back row of the MHU and we pinned my two banners up.

“Vinci Per Noi” dates from the summer of 1996.

“Peter Osgood” dates from March 2006.

The blue and white flags had been handed out once again and were being waved furiously as the last few bars of “Blue Is The Colour” gave way to “The Liquidator.” Then, the two teams strode out onto the wet turf, past the Champions League flag, on to the west side of the pitch.

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What a rushed pre-match. However, as I took my seat next to Alan and Tom, I took off my jacket and tried to settle down just for a few moments. I worked out who was playing for Chelsea a few moments into the game. The only surprise was Meireles; this just signifies how far Michael Essien is off his game.

Chelsea were in blue, Barcelona were in black.

In the far corner, the 3,000 away fans presented a vivid and varied scene. Not only were the FCB colours of blue and claret represented, but also the Catalonia colours of red and yellow. Lots of replica shirts, lots of scarves, lots of colourful banners draped over the balcony wall.

Let battle commence. Let the nerves be tested. Let us play. Let us pray.

Despite our wishful thoughts about us “taking it” to Barcelona, it soon became apparent that the away team simply took over the game, strangling us with possession, for us to enjoy any real periods of dominance. All eyes were on Lionel Messi, the World’s greatest footballer, who was there in person, no more than twenty yards away from me at times. I was transfixed by this little man – quiet, unobtrusive, walking around the pitch, head low. How could such a benign looking figure have the potential to cause us so much heartache? It all seemed to be about him. I followed his movement in and amongst our players, his movement at times no more than a slow walk. We would have to stifle his every move. Elsewhere, there were familiar faces, all equally-placed to cause anxiety to defenders and fans alike. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas.

The Barcelona players pushed the ball around at will and the passes were usually inch perfect. Short passes were common, but even cross-field balls were inch perfect. In contrast, Chelsea chased and harried, closing down space, avoiding rough tackles. I got the impression that we were being slightly too reverential. I longed for a 50-50 challenge – not a dirty foul, no need to draw a booking – but a hard, strong tackle that would let Barca know we were serious. It would also help to involve the crowd. When I play five-a-side, I am not great a great tackler – I am more a nibbler, someone who can get a toe in to rob the opponent of the ball, someone who can read a pass and intercept.

However, when the need arises and I can sense a pure 50-50, there is no greater feeling that hitting the ball and player’s leading foot together with a strong tackle.

Slam.

I longed for Chelsea to do the same.

The first chance of the game fell to the men in black. Andres Iniesta picked out the on-rushing Sanchez, who nimbly beat the offside trap and delicately lobbed the ball over the ghostly figure of Petr Cech.

“Here we go” I thought.

We waited to see where the ball would end up – time stood still, that old cliché – and were mighty relieved to see the ball drop against the bar. Soon after, Messi’s first real involvement took him in to the penalty area with one of his breath-taking runs, the ball seemingly no more than six inches from his toes throughout. A Chelsea challenge could easily have sent another Barcelona player tumbling, but to his enormous credit, the little Argentinian stayed on his feet. He passed to Iniesta but his close-range shot was wonderfully parried by Cech. The rebound seemed to take Fabregas by surprise and we sighed again.

On 19 minutes, a rare Chelsea chance resulted in Juan Mata slashing over the bar.

Soon after, Barcelona were awarded a corner down below me. As Messi slowly walked towards the corner flag and stooped to collect the ball, more than a few Chelsea fans in the MHU clapped his appearance and I was suitably impressed. We don’t usually do this sort of thing in England – apart from inside cricket grounds where opposing “boundaries” are often clapped by opposing fans – and this was a sure sign that the Chelsea public recognised talent when they saw it. Messi – so young, but so great – is already knocking on the door of Pele and Maradona.

As Barcelona’s possession mounted, I really wondered if we could keep up this constant defending for ninety minutes. Barcelona’s away support was relatively quiet; the only three chants I heard were “Bartha, Bartha, Batha”, “Meeeeee-si” and the club anthem which ends “ Bartha, Bar-tha, Baaaaaaaar-tha.”

Drogba was putting in a typical performance; strong in the air and winning defensive headers one minute, rolling around like he was the victim of a sniper’s bullet the next. He was clearly disrupting Barca’s flow, though whether he had been told to do this by club management is a moot point. I suspect not; I suspect it comes natural to him. I had hoped he could channel the frustration he felt after the 2009 “it’s a fcuking disgrace” game in the right way. However, despite his physical strength, he wasn’t a threat offensively and we were getting a little annoyed with his antics during the game.

The sky filled with misty rain as Barca passed the ball at will. The otherwise dependable Mikel lost possession amidst growls of discontent and the mercurial Messi set up Fabregas. His goal bound effort flew past Cech but slowed slightly, allowing the excellent Ashley Cole to back-pedal, re-adjust at the last minute, and hack the ball to safety with his favoured left peg.

Phew.

At 8.30pm, I received this text from Del, a Liverpool fan from work –

“Be nice to see you nick one. Reckon your boys have set up pretty well, great shape and rode your luck a couple of times. Only downside is that useless prick up front – twenty two and a half minutes on the deck, the other twenty two and a half offside.”

Within twenty seconds of receiving this text, Lampard robbed Messi on the half-way line and quickly pushed the ball to the rampaging Ramires. This was our chance and we knew it. I snapped a photo as the little Brazilian switched feet to play in a ball towards the six yard box. That man Didier arrived to sweep the ball in to the net, just missing the despairing dive of Valdes and we were 1-0 up. Despite a rush of blood, I remained calm enough for five seconds to snap the ensuing huddle down near where Parky resides. After, I bellowed a euphoric “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSS!”

And then, at 8.32pm – a text to Del.

“You were saying?”

Oh boy…one shot on goal, one goal, one delirious Stamford Bridge.

At the break, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink was on the pitch, and Journey were on the PA.

“Don’t Stop Believing” is a totally incongruous song to be played at a football ground in England; it certainly says nothing at all about our life as UK Chelsea fans. But I can understand why the club chose to play it.

“Don’t Stop Believing” indeed.

The second-half performance by Chelsea will go down in the annals of our club as one of the most resolute and brave performances the spectators at Stamford Bridge has ever seen.

Barcelona began again strongly. Adriano drew a superb save from Cech. Sanchez shot inexplicably wide of Cech’s post. Alves blasted over. Block after block – Cahill, Terry, Mikel – stopped Barcelona’s goal-bound efforts. Despite his detractors, even Meireles was putting in a solid shift. The only player under-performing was Juan Mata, but he is not built for defensive duties and can hardly be blamed for the game passing him by. Barcelona enjoyed several centrally-placed free-kicks, but shots were either blocked (Messi) or ballooned over (Xavi). This was proving to be almost too difficult to watch; it was certainly too tense to enjoy. I was still in my shirt-sleeves. I avoided putting my jacket on as I superstitiously thought it would jinx things.

“We scored with my jacket off, let’s leave it off.”

When I was a kid, watching games with my parents, I had the same superstition with chewing gum. If we were winning, I’d keep the same piece of gum in my mouth. If we were losing, I’d discard it.

Old habits die hard.

The noise levels grew throughout the match as the crowd sensed that the boys needed our help. “Amazing Grace” was re-worked once again and this Proper Chelsea classic provided the backdrop to the second-half master class in defending –

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

The crowd did the boys proud. We didn’t neglect the watching Tottenham fans at home, either –

“We won 5-1,Wembley.”

“Harry For Tottenham.”

I was amazed how quickly I felt the time was going…60 minutes, 65 minutes, 70 minutes. The manager replaced Kalou for Mata – fresh legs. The Barcelona pressure continued. Our only chances in the second period involved a Frank Lampard corner, whipped in, but avoiding the trio of Chelsea players at the far post and a break involving a great pass from Drogba finding Kalou who dinked over Valdes’ bar.

Tick…tick…tick…

Another Messi free-kick with five minutes remaining. He chipped the ball in towards Puyol, who flicked the ball on with the deftest of touches. I was right in line with the flight of the ball as it bounced up towards the goal. It was surely the equaliser. Out of nowhere, Cech scrambled across to turn the ball away for a corner.

Superb. The save of the match.

Bosingwa on for the magnificent Ramires – more fresh legs.

The assistant linesman signaled just three minutes of time to be added on. I looked at my phone and it was 9.33pm.

9.36pm and we’re halfway to paradise.

Time for one last agonising moment as Messi moved the ball out to Pedro. He was well outside the box, at an angle, but his low drive avoided all players in the packed penalty area and struck Cech’s far post with a dull thud. The ball rebounded out to Busquets, who ballooned it high into the Chelsea fans in The Shed Upper.

It was 9.36pm.

The referee blew.

The Bridge roared and Alan, Alex and I smacked each other’s backs. I, for one, could not believe it. I had just witnessed a miracle. Of course, we had ridden our luck, but what a gutsy performance. I lost count of the number of blocks which our defenders used to thwart Barca. I was breathless and almost light-headed as the players clapped the crowd from the centre-circle. There was no overblown triumphalism from the team at the end. They knew we were only half-way there. But we have a foothold in this tie and we will, I am sure, go out to Barcelona with a plausible reason to be optimistic of our chances.

“One Step beyond” got us all bouncing.

I skipped past the Peter Osgood statue – I made the point of touching his leg as I passed – and quickly joined the line of around 100 fans collecting Barcelona away tickets. With great relief, I was handed my ticket. I met up with Steve from the NYBs, who was close to tears with emotion.

“That’s the best noise I’ve ever heard at Chelsea.”

The London night was now dirty and wet with rain, but inside our heads we were drugged-up with Chelsea. We met up with Parky and Jesus in The Goose to let the traffic subside. Rob and Les from nearby Melksham were enjoying “one last pint” and these two scallywags will be on the same 6.55am flight from Bristol as me on Tuesday.

What a beautiful night in Catalonia that could be.

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Tales From An April Evening.

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 4 April 2012.

Chelsea went into the return leg with Benfica nursing a 1-0 lead from the first game the previous week. The advantage was clearly with us. However, during the day, I commented to a few friends that I was strangely subdued about the game in the evening. We were clearly in a great position to advance to the semi-final, but maybe it was the daunting task of facing the Barcelona colossus which was weighing heavy on my mind. I was also uneasy with us being in a relatively good position. We are usually faced with greater struggles on the path of that elusive first-ever Champions League trophy. I commented that it would certainly be a very odd evening if, for example, we glided into an early lead and then added another security goal in the second-half. As a Chelsea fan used to hardships and heartbreaks, that sort of scenario would be most surprising. I even had a title for my match report worked out; “Tales From UnChelsea.”

Well, I needn’t have worried. If ever there was a “typical Chelsea” performance, this was it.

I collected Parky from The Pheasant car park just before 4pm, just as a passing rainstorm had deposited a few drops of rain. He quickly scrambled inside, we shook hands – “here we go again, son” – and we departed. Parky was clearly under the weather; he had a bad cold and was suffering. There was even a slight risk of him not attending.

We chatted relentlessly on the drive east and the trip to HQ followed a typical pattern. We made good time until the approach into London, but then the traffic slowed. I eventually pulled in at 6.45pm. It had taken us almost three hours to travel 95 miles.

Inside The Goose, things were relatively quiet, but my closest Chelsea mates were gathered together. Time for a single pint. Jesus arrived late but we had just enough time for a small chat. I set off ahead of the rest as I wanted to get in to pin up the “VPN” banner. As I passed Fulham Broadway at 7.30pm, there was a lovely match day buzz taking place, with paces quickening, voices chattering. There were a few stray Benfica fans darting in and out of the moving mass of Chelsea supporters, but nowhere near the number of Napoli supporters in the previous round.

The façade of the West Stand was adorned with two large Champions League banners and, down below in a central position, the statue of Peter Osgood was standing out clearly.

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There was no line at the MHU turnstiles; remember the capacity of this stand is cut by around 4,000 for Champions League knock-out games. I sidled past a young couple and overheard the girl say in a broad London accent –

“Oh, I hate these scanners. I had trouble with them when I went to The Arsenal.”

I turned around just as her bloke gave her an old-fashioned look. I rolled my eyes and commented –

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

I got to my seat at 7.40pm and I scrambled up to the back wall of the upper tier to pin up “Vinci.” Steve gave me a hand and then went down to assist Daz with the unleashing of the flag. I reached my seat just as the teams appeared onto the pitch. We were all given free flags again and for a few fleeting moments, Stamford Bridge was a picture. Benfica’s fans were bristling with noise and colour in the opposite corner. I noted how bright the Benfica shirts were; almost a pink hue to their shirts. Benfica brought more flags than most other European teams to The Bridge. There was a Union Jack and a flag of St. Georges; clearly the London branch of their supporters club was out in force. I took a few photos; Champions League Nights are so photogenic, what with the teams walking past the fluttering CL flag and then the formal line-up, the stands rippling with colour. The balconies were festooned with Chelsea flags and banners; we had clearly made a special effort. The game was live on national television and we needed to make an impression. The match kicked off and I quickly scanned the line-up; I presumed we were keeping the 4-2-3-1 formation. Brana fit, Lamps in, Kalou in, Torres alone up front.

We began the match attacking “my” end, the Matthew Harding Stand, and it again felt strange. Benfica began strongly. However, a lovely volley from a lurking David Luiz was smashed in from an angle, but a Benfica defender blocked it. We hoped that further attacks would be soon cascading down on the Benfica goal. Just after, Juan Mata was clearly offside before he shot home and I really couldn’t believe how many fans in close proximity had cheered the goal. I quickly checked on the linesman, raising his flag, when I saw Mata break . Who are these people?

On twenty minutes, Ashley Cole raced on to a lofted ball, deep in the Benfica box, and was sent sprawling. Ashley threw up his arms in protest, but I wasn’t convinced from my angle. It looked like a confluence of bodies to me. My friend Alan had already taken an immediate dislike to the Slovenian referee, but we were both smiling when we saw him purposefully point to the penalty spot. As always, I thought back to the “four penalties that weren’t” against Barcelona and had a little chuckle to myself.

Amidst protests from the Benfica players, there was a long delay. The ‘keeper made a point of not retreating to his line and had a little staring duel with Frank Lampard, the anointed penalty taker. Frank dispatched the ball and the net rippled once more. He very rarely lets us down on Champions League nights from that penalty spot, does he?

David Luiz attempted a typically elaborate turn just inside his own half, but an extra touch lost him the ball amidst groans and jeers from the watching thousands. I pictured the scene in living rooms throughout the UK, from Penzance to Peterhead, from Bexleyheath to Barrow, with millions of armchair viewers berating our Brazilian centre-half.

On the half hour, a well-worked Benfica free-kick resulted in a John Terry clearance off the line. We take this sort of behaviour for granted at times – our captain’s positional sense has always been one of his very strongest skills – but it is always wonderful to see his blue shirt appear at the right place at the right time again and again. We breathed a massive sigh of relief as Brana hacked away the loose ball.

Benfica were in the ascendency, no doubts. I was too busy taking a photograph to see the “studs-up” challenge by Pereira on Mikel. The crowd were soon letting the referee know it was his second yellow and off he went. So much for the “UEFA Hate Chelsea” conspiracy-theorists, we had been given a penalty and Benfica were now down to ten men. Amongst all this, the noise wasn’t great; we could sense that Benfica were still capable of scoring. However, in the closing seconds of the first-half, Ramires sent over a tempting cross which avoided the ‘keeper, but also missed the run of Torres by a few feet. It was only one of a few chances we had crafted in that first forty-five minutes.

At half-time, Alan and I chatted about the half. We had been out-shot by Benfica and had ridden our luck. We spoke about an incident which had taken place mid-way through the half. Juan Mata had been strongly-tackled and the ball ran out for a throw-in, but Mata had been sent sprawling down below us. The crowd roared for a free-kick and Mata stared hard at the referee. It seemed to me that the referee didn’t really think it was a foul, but bowed to crowd pressure and the earnest reaction of Mata, who is not a diver, and gave us the free-kick. It was an insightful piece of play which taught me how difficult it must be to ref at such a high intensity game. Rather them than me.

At the break, Neil Barnett posed a conundrum. The half-time guest was a player, a centre-back, from the early-sixties who had since gone on to manage Benfica. I was stumped. I knew that Alan Harris had been with Terry Venables at Barcelona, but didn’t know he had been involved with Benfica.

It was John Mortimore, who briefly appeared on the pitch for a rousing reception.

Neil Barnett 1 Chris Axon 0.

The second-half began with a superb save from Petr Cech after Cardozo’s effort was heading towards a top corner. The artistry and athleticism from our great ‘keeper in that one moment was just amazing to watch at close quarters. Aimar was narrowly wide just after.

At the other end, the previously quiet Kalou sent a low ball across which was met by an unrushing Ramires. From my vantage point, some 100 yards away, all I saw was a blue shirt and the ball then somehow bouncing away from the goal. My immediate thought was –

“Oh God, that wasn’t Torres was it?”

A Benfica player speculatively struck a lob from way out which didn’t trouble the Chelsea goal. At the other end, Fernando Torres nimbly turned and worked the ball so he could caress the ball in to the left-hand side of the goal. We held our breath, but the shot was deflected for a corner. Just after, a nice little move involving Mata playing a “one two” with another Chelsea player but the shot was saved.

John Terry was substituted by Gary Cahill. Like for like.

Benfica still enjoyed a lot of the ball and had a flurry of chances. Sturdy challenges and well-timed blocked from the Chelsea rear guard stopped an equaliser. Kalou missed a great chance. We grew tense.

The Benfica fans were not the loudest European visitors, but I noted a chant midway through the second-half which struck a chord. I couldn’t, of course, decipher the chant completely, but the words “Michel Platini” rang out clear. I filled in the dots…I guessed that it was something like “Michel Platini – You Got Your Wish” or “Michel Platini – You Only Like Big Teams.” It seems that Platini is disliked by fans all over Europe. It made me smile when I realised that Benfica felt aggrieved too. Platini ranks as one of the very best European players of all time; he was certainly a magical touch player at Juventus, wearing that number 10 shirt, helping to define the role of a “Number Ten” player in fact. However, despite his strengths as a player, he is clearly disliked these days; I still laugh when I think of my Juventus mate Tullio now calling him a “son of a bitch” in his UEFA role.

I commented to Alan that I could rarely remember the time dragging like this one. Sixty minutes played…seventy minutes played…we were a man up, but it certainly seemed that Benfica were playing with a spare man. The clock ticked slowly on…Meireles on for Mata.

On 84 minutes, that man Cech stretched again to prevent Djalo scoring, but the resultant corner ended with a goal. The ball was swung in and Garcia ran unmarked to leap unhindered from a central position. It was a truly shocking goal to concede. The Bridge grew nervier still. Going out was now a distinct possibility and we all felt our emotions being intensified. I leaned forward and concentrated further.

“Come On Boys.”

At last there was noise. The Bridge responded with great bellows of “Chelsea Chelsea Chelsea Chelsea.”

Didier Drogba replaced Fernando Torres. If only he had been on the pitch to head away that corner as so often is his role. There was a very nervy moment when Benfica broke through the offside trap on 87 minutes – it looked offside to me – but a weak shot didn’t trouble Petr Cech.

Deep inside stoppage time, the ball was cleared towards Raul Meireles. I watched his dramatic run from deep through the lens of my camera…I took two snaps as his strong run continued and as he unleashed a goal bound strike, I snapped again. I hardly saw the ball slam into the net, but I certainly heard the roar.

Get In!

I saw Meireles run towards Parky Corner and the Chelsea players joined him. Around us, we were roaring.

We were safe.

That run must rank alongside the cherished John Spencer run and goal against Austria Memphis in the autumn of 1994. It was truly a phenomenal strike. It reminded me, in its timing and execution, of the famous Geoff Hurst goal in 1996 too.

“It Is Now.”

There was a lovely feeling as I bounced down the Fulham Road. We darted into The Goose to celebrate with Jesus, from Mexico, and Rob, from Wiltshire. The air of contentment was tempered slightly by the fact that we were now due to face our old Catalan foes FCB once more. Parky was still feeling ropey but finished off his pint as Rob and his mates chatted about flights to Barcelona. Jesus’ face was a picture; he’s a lucky lad. He’ll be there in Barcelona.

We meet Tottenham on the Sunday and we play Barcelona on the Wednesday. My immediate view would be for us to prioritise the Spurs game. We have a 50% chance of beating Spurs. I’d say we have a 20% chance of beating Barca. In a nutshell, I can stomach losing to Barca, but I cannot – and will not – contemplate losing at Wembley to Tottenham. If di Matteo is mulling over his team selection options for Wembley, my advice to him would be to play his strongest eleven against Spurs. With any luck, Spurs will struggle and we’ll easily dismiss them. Then, on the Wednesday, play whoever is fit and up for it…don’t plan for two games Robbie; plan for Tottenham, then see what state of fitness and mind we are in for the Champions League game.

But then again, who am I? I’m not the manager.

We made great time on the return home to a sleeping West of England. Although Parky was still very groggy, we chatted about our crazy season. Never in my wildest dreams, back in August, did I think we would reach the Champions League semi-finals this year. For our games with Barca, we need a repeat of our performances against Valencia and Napoli. If anything, our faltering performance against Benfica should at least remind us all that we must not be complacent.

It’s a tough ask, isn’t it? I’m just glad we are at home first and I hope we can scramble together a foot-hold in the tie. If we were to play away first, maybe the tie would be all over too soon.

We return to the seemingly mundane league over the Easter Weekend with two games in three days at venues just two miles apart. I have a feeling that our collective minds will be elsewhere, but six points will do very nicely.

Let’s go.

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Tales From The Blue Family.

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 10 March 2012.

With two games in Birmingham behind us, the rambling story of our season returned to London. We have three games in nine days at Stamford Bridge. Three match tickets and an outlay of £136.50. Does anyone think I am complaining? No, of course not. I’m just happy to have a three-pronged attack for silverware as we head into the month of March.

In some ways, the game against Napoli and their rampaging Three Tenors of Lavezzi, Cavani and Hamsik was on my mind more than the run-of-the-mill League game against the brutal threat of the Stoke City kickers and scufflers. Of course, our 2011-2012 season began with that difficult game at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday August 14th. In some ways, it seems only a matter of weeks ago.

As Saturday March 10th 2012 unravelled before me, I acknowledged the truth in the the old adage about the football being an increasingly small part of the whole day out at Chelsea these days. I have my friend Bryan to thank for that. Bryan is 53 and a lorry driver from my home town of Frome in Somerset. He used to travel up with us for a few years a while back; I have a feeling that his first game with us was the 6-2 slaughter of Sunderland in 1997. He used to go to Chelsea in his younger years of course, but grew out of the habit. Anyway, from 1997 to 2002 or so, Frome was well represented at Stamford Bridge. There was Frank and Michelle, Glenn, Bryan and myself travelling up in one car and Dave, Karen and PD in another. Eight of us; a good show. In some respects, this was a bit of a golden age for us Frome followers. Not only were we rewarded with our first successes on the pitch since 1971, but most home games were usually followed up by us calling in at Ron Harris’ pub in nearby Warminster on the way home. They were superb times.

Bryan stopped going regularly to Chelsea in around 2002 but has been back a few times since. Apart from a silly dalliance with Bristol City in his skinhead youth, much frowned-upon by Glenn and me, he has remained true to Chelsea, as his tattoos will testify.

In November, I bumped into his partner Linda in town, but she had some shocking news. Bryan had returned from a job in Spain and had been very ill for a few weeks. He had a stomach ulcer, but further tests identified that he had contracted Legionnaire’s Disease. I called around to his house that morning and, without being melodramatic, Bryan explained to me that it was touch-and-go at one stage if he’d pull through. Thankfully, his spell in hospital enabled him to recover and he was back at work before Christmas.

Bryan hadn’t been to Chelsea for a couple of years and so I was really looking forward to getting him back in The Goose amongst old friends. When I called for him at 8.30am, he was already out on the grass verge, awaiting my arrival. He looked so keen that I imagined that he had been doing press-ups on the lawn in an attempt to dissipate an overflowing and enthusiastic supply of energy which had been welling up. Linda waved us off and we were on our way. I soon collected Parky at 9am and we were London-bound.

Bryan had met Lynda in the Falkland Islands. Parky had served in the Falklands Conflict of 1982. As we zipped past Swindon, the chat centred on those islands in the South Atlantic. Bryan and Parky certainly had lots to talk about. With the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands approaching, we spoke about the past…Port Stanley, Goose Green, HMS Sheffield, the General Belgrano…memories of 1982. We spoke about the present; the noises coming out of Argentina at the moment. We spoke about the recent deaths of the six British soldiers killed in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. I am currently getting the house redecorated (the Chelsea room, specifically) and I was horrified to hear on Thursday that the son of my decorator Steve was in the tank behind the one which was hit. Thankfully, and mercifully, he escaped the immediate attack, though how that young man is coping the aftermath of losing some of his comrades can only be imagined.

I told Bryan and Parky that the club had quickly agreed to a minute’s silence before the day’s game as a mark of remembrance for those six brave soldiers who had been stationed in nearby Warminster but who had lost their lives on a foreign field, thousands of miles away from their homeland.

It makes our silly and superficial worries about our football club pale into insignificance…

At 11.15am, the three of us were tucking into a Saturday Fry-Up and at 11.45am, we were in The Goose amongst friends. The weather was pretty mild and the beer garden was being used in earnest for the first time since the late autumn. While Bryan chatted to Daryl, Rob and Alan, I had a good old natter with Neil and The Youth.

Unsurprisingly, our conversation centred on the recent sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, but also the recent rumblings from the club and the Hammersmith & Fulham Council about the possible development of Stamford Bridge.

Neil is from Guernsey and I don’t get the chance to see him too much. We were in agreement about Villas-Boas. He said that after he heard the news of the sacking on Sunday, he was as low as he has been for ages. He commented that he had never felt more out of touch with the club. I knew what he meant. Many words were exchanged between the two of us. I said to Neil –

‘If you had said to me before the first game of the season that the team would be heading into March still in the Champions League, still in the FA Cup, in fourth or fifth place in the league, I would have said “OK, no worries, that’s alright, what’s the problem?”…I certainly would not have expected us to have sacked the manager.’

Madness.

Of my eight to ten match going mates, my closest mates, the inner sanctum, I think most are of the same opinion.

Chopper from New York suddenly appeared and he was full of smiles, loving the London life and relishing the Napoli game on Wednesday. Jesus flitted past; happy to have seen us win in Birmingham during the week. While I was getting a round in, who should I see but Dave and Karen, from Frome. Dave has been on a diet and has lost a massive five stones; fair play to him. Of course, this just meant that he was the instant target of tons of Micky-taking and light-hearted abuse.

Photographs of all of us. Tons of smiles. This is the life.

Alan passed over my away tickets for Manchester City, Fulham and Aston Villa; another £142. Phew. On the TV, the Bolton vs. QPR game was garnering scant attention. My views on goal-line technology are softening with every mistake made by an official, but my fear, as always, has been that this will be the thin end of the wedge. Before we know it, there will be video replays being used for off-sides and then fouls and handballs. Referees will be undermined further and the lunatics will have taken over the asylum.

At Chelsea, however, this happened years ago.

I set off for The Bridge with Bryan a little bit earlier than usual. I wanted to pin my 16 year old banner denoting “Win For Us” on the back wall of the MHU and I hoped that Roberto di Matteo would see it. I can well remember that I first took “Vinci ”to a game – to welcome Vialli and di Matteo to our club – on the home opener of the 1996-1997 season and I draped it over the MH balcony, no more than twenty feet away from my current seat. On that occasion, versus Middlesbrough, of course it was di Matteo who scored a late winner and initiated one of the most iconic Chelsea celebrations. I was elated to hear that there was a brief mention of “Vinci” in the following day’s “London Evening Standard.”

We taped the banner up – it’s a little tattered these days, having travelled with me from America to Malaysia – and drew the usual stupefied looks from the nearby Chelsea fans. I always have to explain what it means.

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Over in the far corner, the Stoke contingent looked pretty pathetic, duck. Alan joked that it looked like only their notorious “Naughty Forty” – plus a few others – had bothered to travel.

The teams appeared and then gathered on the centre circle. Neil Barnett mentioned that this was our 107th birthday and was our Founder’s Day. He also drew attention to the scarlet-tunics of the seven Chelsea Pensioners who had been given prime seats in the Directors Box in the West stand. Neil then said a few sullen words detailing the six soldiers who had given the ultimate sacrifice during the past few days. Rather than reverential silence, though, there was applause. I’m not so sure I agree with this. I see no problems in applause when one is acknowledging, and celebrating, the life of someone who has lived to the allotted “three score years and ten” – or hopefully more. But I do not feel that applause should be used when we mark the loss of lives so young. We don’t applaud on Remembrance Sunday in November do we? Applauding a life is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK – the Italians have been doing it for years – and the first time that I can remember it being used at a Chelsea game was at Fratton Park in 2005 when the crowd began in silence, but soon started applauding the life of George Best, that famous former Chelsea native, who had recently lost his battle with alcoholism.

Another full house. The sun was out. No need for my jacket; a polo shirt was enough. In the end, Stoke had around 350. There was an additional “Remembrance” banner on display in The Shed; Peter Osgood had momentarily been displaced a few yards. The atmosphere was typically tepid.

The game. Do I have to?

I wondered if Ramires would be stationed out wide in a forward three with Drogba and Kalou, ahead of the midfield of Mikel, Meireles and Lampard. We attacked the MH during the first-half and it felt odd. We don’t often do this, do we?

Early chances came to us. Branislav Ivanovic headed over from a corner and then Gary Cahill had a strong run, followed by a belter which was saved. Bryan, the truck driver, unveiled his iPhone and this was met with some typically derogatory comments from Alan. I wondered if it had any aps which helped Bryan locate the nearest HP Sauce bottle when he was in a greasy spoon café.

Stoke rarely troubled us to be honest. A slip by Terry allowed Walters in, but his effort was blocked by the covering Cahill. Their limited game plan was affected when Ricardo Fuller was given his marching orders for a stupid stamp on the prostrate Ivanovic. To be honest, my eyes were elsewhere and didn’t see the offence. Just after the half hour, there was typical rough and tumble at a corner and John Terry appeared to be manhandled as he tried to gain a square inch of space. Despite these close attentions, JT’s down and up header rattled the bar. A few Chelsea half-chances came and went. The manager decided, after a while, to withdraw Meireles and bring on Mata. It was clear that Stoke would do their dogged best to hang on for a draw. Just before the break, that man Ivanovic struck a thunderous angled drive which rocked the bar. Lampard hit a daisy-cutter which Begovic easily gathered.

We had heard that Bobby Tambling would be on the pitch at half-time. Neil introduced us to a young lad from Cork, who was attending his first game at Stamford Bridge.

“He’s OK though ‘cus he has his uncle with him.”

Bobby Tambling, with his wife Val alongside, was introduced to lovely applause and was able to say a few, halting, words to thank us for all the best wishes he has received during his recent period of ill health. I was able to capture this on film.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10150723999217658

On more than one occasion he referred to his “blue family.” It was a touching moment.

There was a lazy start to the second-half really. David Luiz came on to take over in the right-back berth from Ivanovic. It took a full 15 minutes for us to threaten Begovic’ goal when JT took the ball from deep and let fly with a shot which whipped past the post. We still await JT’s first blooter from outside the box. Maybe he is saving it for a special occasion.

The Stoke fans were quiet and we were no better.

On 65 minutes, Frank was hauled down when apparently through on goal, but Didier’s fine free-kick was palmed away for a corner. Soon after, a moment of pure class.

The ball was played in from Cole into a central position. Mata delicately played the ball through to the unmarked Drogba, who side-stepped the goalkeeper and slotted home. I immediately thought that this was just the sort of ball that Torres has been begging for the past year. The crowd roared and the players danced down to the South-West corner.

I knew what was coming.

Alan : “Thay’ll have to come at us know, duck.”
Chris : “Come on ma little diamonds.”

A lob from Wilkinson evaded Cech and had us all worried, but thankfully was wide of the target. A mistake by JT then allowed Jerome in on goal, but his shot was wide after a strong run. Daniel Sturridge, the last substitute, had a chance after a jink inside. Mata struck the woodwork from a free-kick. One last chance for Sturridge, but again wide.

It was hardly a game to remember.

At the final whistle, Neil Barnett commented that Didier became the leading African scorer in English football. I watched as Didier advanced towards the Chelsea supporters and gave his shirt to a lucky fan in the MHL.

I made good time on the drive home. We listened in as Tottenham lost at Everton. It was the usual end to a Chelsea Saturday with a time-honoured viewing of “Match of the Day”, the national institution. All I can add about the programme is that Liverpool’s 1-0 loss at Sunderland was featured a few games after ours. This was a morsel of comfort for me; in years gone by, any Liverpool loss would be seen as major news. These days, such defeats warrant hardly a flicker of interest by the media.

We reconvene on Wednesday for the visit of the crazy Neapolitans.

It could be an absolute cracker.

Andiamo a lavorare.

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Tales From The Bukit Jalil Stadium.

Malaysia XI vs. Chelsea : 21 July 2011.

Day One : Lift Off.

I left my home village in Somerset at about 7.30am on Sunday 17th. July. I would be heading east once more but this excursion would be taking me well past Portsmouth, the location of the Chelsea game the previous day. For a change, I chose a classical music CD and so had a cool and calm drive up the A303 and beyond. I sent a quick little text to the only friends who I knew would be awake. Four fellow Chelsea fans out in California were the recipients of the simple “Jack Kerouac” text, my way of saying that I was on the road. Quite fitting really – Kerouac, heading west in that iconic road novel, eventually found his home in Northern California, where three of those recipients were residing. For me, the excitement was palpable. After five summer tours to America with Chelsea, I was turning 180 degrees and heading east, following the club to Malaysia and Thailand.

Foreign fields, new experiences, chasing some magical moments.

I dropped my car at my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton. Russ and his two mates Frank and Steve sit two rows in front of us at HQ and it was with some sadness that he told me that none of them would be renewing their season tickets in 2011-2012. That’s a real shame. The grim realities of football pricing out fans once more. Russ quickly drove me the five miles to Heathrow, where Terminal Three was waiting for me. Back in around 1971, a Canadian relative stayed with us for about a week and we took her back to LHR for her to return home to Toronto. My Dad had a little treat for me that day; an hour or so perched up in the airport observation deck, watching the planes coming in and taking off. It is a memory which is still very clear, forty years on. Who would have guessed that my love of foreign travel, plus the obvious love of Chelsea Football Club, would constantly intertwine themselves, enabling me to combine these two passions so perfectly?

I’m a lucky man.

The flight to Bangkok was as near perfect as I could ever have hoped. Fine food and fine company. I soon got chatting to a young Australian lad, Brett, who had been in Europe for two months. He was a budding pro-golfer and had just been watching the Open at Sandwich. Brett was an avid sports fan though and we spent several hours discussing Australian rugby, Aussie rules football, the Australian national team, English football, London rivalries, the New York Yankees and American sport in general. Brett was a keen baseball player, too, and had met the Australian pitcher Graeme Lloyd (NYY 1996) on a few occasions. He was a fan of the Anaheim Angels, or whatever they are called these days. Brett had visited Kuala Lumpur a few times and was able to give me some travel tips, too. So, with all of these common interests to talk about, I was amazed I managed to fit in four of five hours of quality sleep on the plane.

The eleven hours…ahem…flew past.

Day Two : This One Didn’t Want To End.

Touchdown at Bangkok airport early on Monday morning and a three hour wait for the onward flight to KL. One international airport is much the same as the next – adverts for HSBC everywhere, Starbucks, the English language on signs…one world, one world. I waited for the flight to Kuala Lumpur.

As we lifted off into the sky, my window seat afforded me a sight which knocked me sideways. Down below were fields upon fields, acres upon acres, of flooded paddy fields and I quickly realised that I was a long way from home. The view down to my left would live with me forever. It would be one of the moments of my life, just like my first sightings of Rome as I approached on an Italian train in 1986 or the views of Manhattan as our plane circled before landing at JFK in 1989. The view was stunning. As we lifted further, we flew over the bay to the south of Thailand, with the sea full of container ships and barges being pulled by ridiculously small tug boats. Another amazing vista. I spotted the resort of Pattaya, and I knew that Cathy was down there somewhere, staying at a hotel near the fabled “Dogs Bollocks” bar, once owned by probably the most infamous Chelsea fan of them all.

Cathy would be meeting up with me in KL on Tuesday, ahead of the practice session.

The two hour flight from BK to KL was fine. I caught a little sleep, but was soon wide awake, peering through the ridiculously cute and fluffy clouds at the lush green mountains below us.

On arrival at Kuala Lumpur, I quickly collected my checked baggage (always a potentially tense moment) and I had a little chat with the immigration official on the passport desk about Chelsea Football Club. His smile warmed my soul.

“Welcome To Malaysia.”

Then, the 35 ringit (£7) express train to KL Central station and another of those moments. My nose was pressed to the train window as we ripped through Malaysian countryside…plantations of massive palms…and then into suburban KL. Lots of tall apartment buildings, lots of wealth. My preconceptions of Asia were changing with each new sight. I kept looking out of the window, scanning left and right, my head not stopping for one second. My obsessive desire to note everything reminded me of the final contestant on the “Generation Game” who had 60 seconds to remember everything they had seen on the famous conveyor belt.

“Hotel complex, palm trees, mountains, overhead cables, a BMW dealership, a six lane freeway, road signs, more palm trees, tower blocks, pastel coloured housing blocks, shops, malls, natives out in their back gardens, poor houses, more palm trees.”

And then, away in the distance, the first sighting of the twin Petronas Towers, with the less famous KL Tower too.

Snap, snap, snap.

Another of those moments.

At KL Central, I left the mollified air of the air-conditioned train and paced across the tidy station forecourt. I was expecting a wall of heat to hit me, but the temperature was bearable. I spotted the first fake Manchester United shirt and I knew there would be more. Into a waiting red cab and the short 13 ringit drive to my hotel. There was an American country song on the cab radio and all around me were western logos, brands and products. The cab driver said he was a Chelsea fan.

This world is shrinking fast.

Now, I’m usually happy to stay at the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to holiday accommodation; hostels, budget hotels, places to lay my head…in my wanderlust years in the ‘eighties, I slept on trains and at train stations so I know how to rough it. Kuala Lumpur would be different. We had heard whispers that the team would be staying at the Shangri La in Bangkok, so I gambled on staying at the Shangri La in KL. To be fair, it was only £85 a night and I paid that on the North End Road in Fulham last November.

I checked in amidst scented air conditioning, girls in reception in lovely silk dresses and hotel quality that I am simply not used to. My room on the seventh floor (memories of the Squeeze song “Goodbye Girl”) was fantastic and I quickly unpacked and showered. Heaven. On Facebook, I spotted that a local Malaysian fan had posted pictures of the Chelsea team booking in at their hotel and I quickly realised it wasn’t the Shangri La. Drat. No to worry – maybe our paths would cross later.

At 4.45pm, I set off on a comprehensive three hour and four mile circumnavigation by foot around the city centre. Those who know me will know my camera was going into overdrive. From the hotel, I headed south-east past the western-style hotels on Jalan Sultan Ismail. Every so often, the glistening silver of the Petronas Towers would appear, then disappear again behind another tall hotel. I followed the route of the monorail down to the Bukit Bintang area, the rowdy and commercial area of KL, full of shopping malls, street vendors, noise and colour. I noted some massage parlours along Jalan Bukit Bintang. From there, a right turn into Jalan Pudu and a quick succession of various architecture styles, from classic art deco, to modern blocks, from mosques to skyscrapers. My senses were reeling. The heat was bearable still and I was so relieved. I headed down to the old ancient part of the city, where I knew there were a few colonial gems from the days of the British Empire. I quickly found myself headed towards the famous Petaling Street, where Chinese street vendors are packed into a vibrant area. Here, my senses went into overdrive and I was so joyful to be able to see such a cauldron of life. Fake goods were everywhere of course – no surprises there – but it was the unknown fruit on sale which left a special impression.

I followed my instincts through to the Central Market – and the buildings in these few blocks are remnants of the colonial era. Flaking pastels, tattered windows, at times a little depressing. But then, ahead, the clean lines of the art deco Central Market and all was good with the world. A beautiful building and a real treasure. Lots of arts and craft stalls inside there, but I kept moving. I headed across the river and onto Merdeka Square, a lovely open space, lined with Malaysian flags to one side and a mock Tudor building to the other, the famous Royal Selangor Club. There was a feeling of calm amidst the noise. I noted that there was a large TV screen in the south-west corner showing action from the Copa America, but nobody was paying too much attention.

The last part of my early evening stroll took me through the Islamic quarter, full of carpet shops and tobacconists. As I crossed the road by a massive mosque, the wailing on the loudspeaker of a cleric calling for the locals to join in prayer was mildly hypnotic and took me, momentarily, to another place. For a few seconds, my mind took a tangential leap and I was lost in thought.

There were days when I would have been overjoyed that my hotel room contained a TV or maybe pay-per-view film channels. In Kuala Lumpur in 2011, I was very contented that I had access to an ironing board. The passage of time, eh? The changing priorities. Shirt and linen trousers ironed, out into town. I stopped at a “TGI Fridays” and watched a quick press CFC conference on the TV above the bar. The only problem was that a pint of Paulaner was £8. Ouch. From there, the rest of the night was spent in a variety of bars (Paradize – deserted, Sky Bar – expensive, but unbelievable view of the Petronas Towers, Rum Jungle – relaxing and fun, Beach Club – noisy dance music, a mixed crowd of westerners, locals, and working ladies from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Mongolia.)

On the short walk back to the hotel, several ladies made themselves known to me, but I was not interested.

“I’m only here for the Chelsea.”

Day Three : The Practice.

A lazy morning, overcoming the alcohol, the late night and the jet-lag. I was in no rush to vacate my plush five-star King sized bed.

“I’m on holiday.”

I uploaded some photos on FB in the afternoon and then met Cathy in reception at around 4pm. We needed to use the monorail to get down to the Bukit Jalil stadium, around ten miles out of town to the south. The trip was a breeze, the trains were air conditioned and it was great to chat to a familiar face. I told Cathy how odd it felt at Pompey, knowing that she was in Dubai, watching with some Chelsea ex-pats. I shook hands with the first two Chelsea fans I saw, but soon gave up on that idea when I saw how many replica-kitted out locals were alighting at the stadium stop. The immediate area between the station up to the stadium was full of souvenir and local food stands. Lots of air horns and damned vuvuzelas were on sale, plus souvenirs of the Malaysian team, too.

We had a couple of hours ahead of the session. We took a few photos of the scene outside the impressive stadium, then headed inside to pin up Cathy’s Kalou flag, a gift from the Feyenoord firm in 2006. We spoke to a few locals, then took our seats in the lower tier and waited for the Chelsea team to appear. The self-proclaimed “Malaysian Blues Army” was over in the green gate section, making some noise and waving some impressive home-made banners. We were sat next to a couple with their 7 year old daughter, a big Frank Lampard fan. They shared some sunflower seeds with Cathy and I, but it seemed a lot of effort with little in return. Maybe akin to an Arsenal midfielder feeding in Nicolas Bendtner.

The players came on to the pitch at about 7.30pm and stayed for an hour. A few games involving one-touches, teams of four attackers against four defenders and Villas-Boas at the centre of attention, clipboard by his side, stopping to talk to players every few minutes. One game was played involving the entire width of the pitch, but only half the length. Two normal goals, but two small “hockey” goals out on the wings. I can only surmise that it was two points for a normal goal, one point in the unguarded small goals. I’ve never seen this before and I guess it hints at the emphasis on the importance in width in our play next season. It was odd, though, seeing Anelka dribble past a small goal (they were positioned 5 yards from the goal line) and then put in a low cross. Like something out of the NHL, maybe. I can confirm that Fernando Torres volleyed in a great goal during this practice session, but just missed snapping it. Double drat. Would be worth a few bob, that.

Around 6-8,000 fans were in attendance, but there was no real chanting apart from the MBA on the far side and a solitary “ZZ” from some locals. I so wanted to start singing, but Cathy advised me to “save it for the game.” After the session, I stumbled into Cathy’s nemesis, Chelsea fan-liaison officer Graham Smith, bedecked in CFC casual wear and handing out tour programmes. I told him that Cathy wasn’t far away and suggested that I bring her over for a few words.

“No, you’re OK, mate.”

Well, by the time I had rescued the Kalou flag from the fence, Cathy and the afore-mentioned Mr. Smith were in deep conversation and I know Cath loved that.

We then headed back to Jalan Ramlee and stayed in the Rum Jungle for three hours, knocking back some Carlsberg and a few sambucas. It was only going to be a quiet night, but I don’t think Cath knows the meaning of the word. In a large fish tank above the bar, two baby sharks were swimming and I christened the one with the biggest fin Colin Pates.

Day Four : Relaxing.

After the late night – getting to sleep at 4am – I realised my body clock was still on UK time. Another lie in, but I spent a lovely relaxing time out in the shaded hotel pool area. Time to catch up on some diary days, a read of the paper and to collect my thoughts. There were photos of Chelsea players in the local “Strait Times” (as opposed to what? Wink) and also a very good article about Sir Alex Ferguson. The impression I was getting in Malaysia was that the locals loved their football and the English version especially. On that very first day, I noted that I spotted around eight pieces of Manchester United clothing and one Chelsea…no others. Since then, I had still to see a Spurs shirt and this pleased me. Back up in my room, I belatedly spotted that the MBA had organised a Chelsea gathering by the fountains outside the Petronas Towers, but this had not been pre-advised at all. This annoyed me a little. I had brought over 20 old Chelsea programmes – the same ones I took to the US in 2007 in fact – and I would have liked to have spoken to some of the local Chelsea fans about lots of things. Show them the programmes, dating back to 1947, talk about the tour, talk about KL, maybe even talk about the team. A chance lost. I compared this to the intense planning that went with the CFC USA tours since 2004 and wished that a little Western organisation could have been in evidence. Oh, I also spotted that Chelsea had arranged a “meet and greet” at their One World Resort Hotel on the Tuesday and – of course – nobody in the UK knew about this. How easy would it have been for CFC to politely post on the CFC website that UK fans heading to KL (and let’s be honest, we numbered around 15 to 20) could apply for a pass to this event. A little payback for our efforts. I bet nobody at Chelsea even thought of this as an option.

I spent an hour or so atop the KL Tower – rather similar to Seattle’s Space Needle – which was conveniently located just a few minutes’ walk from my hotel. Again, tons of photos as the sun set to my west, out over the mountains. I located Merdeka Square a mile or so to the south-west and was amazed at the volume of skyscrapers nestled in the central area. As the night fell, all eyes were centered on the Petronas Towers and yet more photographs were taken.

From there, a cab ride into the Bukit Bintang area. I was deposited in Jalan Alor and what a sight. Open air cafes, street vendors, every colour known to mankind, pigs roasting, flumes of smoke wafting across the street, the clamour of street-hawkers. I decided to sit down and have a three course Chinese meal and a large bottle of Carlsberg. The Szechuan hot and sour soup was the star of the show. This all came to 99 ringit or about £23…not cheap, but who cares? It was a fantastic meal and the Chinese waitress was impressed that I had eaten almost everything. I then walked a block onto Jalan Bukit Bintang and paid 25 ringit for a 30 minute foot massage (incidentally, while semi-watching the Uruguay vs. Peru Copa America game above the head of the masseuse next to me). Well, the massage was fantastic, if at times a little painful, and I was impressed that the two nearest masseuses had heard of Chelsea Football Club.

“John Terry, John Terry!!”

I then caught a cab to the Rum Jungle and awaited for Cathy to arrive at just after 11.15pm. We had a great night and were the centre of attention once it became apparent that our waiter was a Chelsea supporter. I showed him video clips of various Chelsea games on my antiquated Sony Ericson phone and Cathy started waving her small CFC flag. The locals wanted their photos taken with us and it was all just lovely. The DJ was an Arsenal fan, from just around the corner from Cathy in Wood Green.

“A big shout out to the Chelsea fans in the house tonight, all the way from London.”

Even a Milan fan from Italy wanted his photo taken with us.

The night wore on – lagers, sambucas and even neat vodka. It was a blast.

In a quiet moment though, Cathy and myself talked business. The business of Chelsea Football Club. It’s easy to poke fun at our legions of fans out in the exotic countries of Asia. I think most of them love the players with a passion that would shame us cynical British. Their enthusiasm at the practice was amazing. I commented to Cathy about Chelsea’s raison d’etre for these tours to far flung places. It has been said that football support within the UK has reached saturation point, everyone one has chosen a team, the colours have been tied to the mast. For heavens’ sake, even people who clearly don’t like football in the UK even get caught up supporting England in tournaments. And these people then get hooked into supporting teams and it’s usually Manchester United. You know the score.

Look how many people are in the UK – maybe 60 million. This isn’t a huge figure. There are billions worldwide. Billions and billions. With the internet and media world getting even slicker by the minute, I am sure there will be a time when the button will be flicked for pay-per-view live streaming of games and new TV contracts. Chelsea wants to be at the very forefront of that race. Hence the desire to – and I apologise for using the phrase – “grow the global brand.” But here, in Kuala Lumpur, here was a city where global brands were on every street corner…McDonalds, Samsung, BMW, TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Café, Manchester United, Burger King, Starbucks, Chelsea Football Club. And make no mistake, we have surfed the internet boom more than most over the last ten years. Without the internet, Chelsea’s support in these exotic locales might well be limited to ex-pats and not the flesh blood of today.

So, Cathy and I chatted about that.

“The bigger picture” Cathy called it.

So, as Chelsea Football Club is supported by hundreds and thousands of new fans with each new Premier League game across the five continents, where does that leave the fans in the UK?

I remember the crazed egotist Silvio Berlusconi saying back in the days when he was just the owner of a new TV company, just setting foot in the corridors of power as Milan chairman, that there would be a time when football clubs would actually pay fans to fill their stadia each week. His point was that 99% of club revenue would come from commercial pursuits and specifically pay-per-view TV. However, the supporters in Singapore, Seattle and Sydney would not want to watch a football game if the local fans had been priced out, resulting in low crowds and little atmosphere. To many, the game is not the whole story. This certainly hit home when I attended my first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

So, think on that, Chelsea. By all means grow the brand, capitalize on the camaraderie and sense of belonging that us UK fans bring to the name of Chelsea Football Club, but please look after your own. If you price us loyal fans out – the singers, the shakers, the celery takers – you might end up with a sanitised Stamford Bridge which does not fit the model that the overseas fans expect. They expect noise and colour, they expect passion, they expect integrity. Not a stadium full of tourists and moneyed middle-classes.

With that, Cathy took a cab back to The Equatorial and I walked 50 yards to the Shangri La, happily avoiding a Lady Boy who resembled Freddie Starr on an off-day.

I chatted on Facebook and went to sleep at 6am. I was still on UK time.

Day Five : The Game.

I rose from my heavy, alcohol imbued, slumber at 2.30pm and headed down to the pool again. Another swim, another read of the paper. Aguero to Manchester City (oh dear) and Eidur to AEK Athens. A comment from JT saying that AVB has inspired him to become Chelsea manager one day.

It is reassuring to know that it took me just as long to decide what to wear to the game in Kuala Lumpur as it does on a normal match day in dear old Blighty; I eventually chose a light cream polo. Down to meet Cathy outside the hotel and she had chosen a light colour too, with her trusty CFC flag tied over her shoulders. We changed trains at the Hang Tuah monorail station and, of course, the trains were flooded with Chelsea fans. I suddenly realised that I had not spotted one single North American baseball cap of any type (NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, NCAA, NASCAR) in my four days in Kuala Lumpur. It ratified my view that there is truly only one global sport. We had been informed that the game was an 84K sell out – bearing in mind Liverpool drew this figure on Saturday – and all thoughts were now on getting to the stadium and getting hold of the match tickets. We alighted at Bukit Jalil at 6pm and I was sent off on a goose chase to locate the ticket pick-up booth. I spotted a familiar face as I navigated my way between vuvuzela blasting locals and souvenir sellers: a chap from Weymouth with two mates and he proudly displayed his famous “Chelsea Dorset” flag for a quick photo.

Tickets thankfully secured, I walked back to join Cathy, who had been joined by two chirpy members of the CYF. They had visited the local “7 Eleven” and offered me an ice-cold beer. Cathy and I posed with “VPN” and tried to get the locals to join in with –

“We Are The Famous, The Famous Chelsea.”

The kick-off was at 8.45pm and we had a long walk to get to the correct turnstile entrance. We bumped into Jayne and Jim from Spain, friends of Cathy’s from way back. A miniscule bag check and we were in. We had tickets for the unreserved seating area of the middle tier, on the premise that we could – if needed – chose to move around a little. We quickly pinned the Kalou and Vinci Per Noi flags up to the fence and took our seats in row one. This plan back-fired because we were forever politely and then not-so-politely asking fans to move on out of our way. It was a hot and humid evening, my shirt was clinging to me and there were people everywhere. When we entered the stadium at 7.30pm, the stadium was barely half-full and my immediate thought was “oh dear – embarrassing.” I had read in the paper that Liverpool had drawn 35K to their practice session, whereas we had drawn less than 10K. I wanted to see a packed Bukit Jalil. I wanted to at least tie Liverpool’s attendance.

The Bukit Jalil stadium was a three-tiered super structure. The stands were far from the pitch and it had the feel of a Maracana. I have heard that it can hold a cool 100,000. There were a few Chelsea flags dotted around – the MBA flag was up – and the Indonesia group had a big flag, too. Our seats were above the corner flag to the right. Chelsea had arranged for those blue and white chequered flags to be placed on seats and these were waved with gusto. The colours of the Malaysian team – yellow and black – were in evidence. There was a group of fans way down to my right with drums. Air horns and vuvuzelas. The constant flow of spectators walking past us.

“Plenty of seats at the back, mate.”

And that was the polite version.

In truth, spectators kept arriving all through the game. Around us, every aisle and every walkway was full, people sitting on steps, people standing, cigarette smoke, noise, the humidity causing me to gasp.

At last, the game.

It was difficult to concentrate. I was exhausted, hot and bothered. There were people in my way. The balcony fence had horizontal bars which made taking photographs a little difficult. Lots of fans nearby were wearing Chelsea shirts and scarves. Ah, the scarf. That symbol of European football loyalty. Do you really need to wear one in Kuala Lumpur with temperatures soaring? A few other shirts of note – Real, Barca, Inter, Milan…even one Newcastle fan breezed by (no doubt on a look out for a pie.) Thankfully hardly any United or Liverpool shirts. Not tonight anyway.

A young lad – 8 years old – was sat in the aisle no more than two feet away from me…clad in a complete Chelsea kit, with “El Nino – 9” on his shirt. His Dad took a call on his moby and at the end, there it was – his screen saver…

A Tottenham cockerel.

Mark it up – the first Spurs fan.

The game, with two completely different Chelsea teams in each half, was not memorable. Yossi Benayoun – the Jew amongst a country of Muslims – was booed every time he touched the ball. Still no Petr Cech. Torres had a couple of half-chances but skewed them wide. Malaysia did not appear to be a threat. Every time they managed to move the ball over the halfway line, the crowd roared their approval. I imagined how manic it would be should they actually score. The best move of the first half, down our right, and a little ball played into Frank, who just couldn’t quite get his toe to it. It reminded me of Gazza against Germany in 1996. How those football memories get replayed time and time again. The ball was bouncing ridiculously high on the bone hard pitch. Tough conditions. Patrick Van Aanholt, I think, crashed a shot against the upright. I noted that Kalou and Malouda, the wide players, swapped over midway into the first period.

There were no songs from Cathy and I. Our cries would have been lost in the constant din.

More of the same in the second period. Sturridge was clean through, but shot at the goalkeeper. A rip-roaring run down from their nippy winger down the Malaysian right got the decibel levels rising, but the move petered out. A few Chelsea shots, a couple of towering John Terry headers.

Then, a free-kick thirty yards out and cameras poised.

Kick. Snap. I caught the exact moment Didier connected.

The ball curled goal wards, hit the post, hit the goalie, the crowd roared, the goalie shoveled the ball out and I didn’t think the whole ball had crossed the line. I quickly glanced at the linesman and his flag was raised. Thank the Lord. The shame of a 0-0 draw was avoided. Very fortuitous, though. In the closing moments, a Malaysian broke through – one on one with Ross Turnbull – but he dragged the shot wide and will probably regret that moment for the rest of his life. By now, many fans had decided to leave and the stadium’s coloured seats were now peeking through.

At the final whistle, relief we had no players injured. Not a good performance, but let’s give everyone time. A moral victory to the Malaysian team, in my book.

As we slowly descended the ramp from the seating bowl, we overlooked a TV studio and there was Graeme Le Saux, no more than 15 feet away, analysing the poor performance for CTV, no doubt. We then breezed past security and waited outside the press-conference in order to quickly snap a subdued AVB. I blagged an official match programme and Cathy blagged two. Then, out into the noisy KL night. We were approached by two chaps and we did an impromptu radio interview for them. We spoke of the club, the trip the city but then became unstuck; the reporter asked Cathy and I to rattle off a few choice words in Malay, but that proved pretty difficult.

I ended my piece by saying “celery, celery” and not even I knew what I was talking about.

It had been one of those nights.

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Tales From The Heart And Soul Of Lancashire.

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 21 August 2010.

An Alternate Title – Boring, Boring, Boring, Boring, Boring, Boring ( that’s six ) Chelsea.

Another early evening kick-off. Another long drive.

Before setting off from Somerset, I replenished my choice of CDs for the trip north…I quickly threw in some CDs by Soft Cell, Portishead, the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey.I haven’t heard those particular ones for a while. Those tunes from the ’80s onwards would form the in-car entertainment for the trip to Lancashire.

This was a solo drive for me, with His Lordship unable to attend. As I set off from home at 10.15am, it took me a good few minutes to get in the groove…the weather was again overcast and, more importantly, the traffic on the way to Bristol was horrendous. It took an hour to go just over twenty miles…however, once through Bristol, things improved…the caffeine from a coffee was doing the trick and I was feeling more at ease.

Chelsea Away – Love It.

Thoughts centered on the town of Wigan, a rugby league stronghold for as long as I can remember but now hosting two teams in top flight sport. I’ve often mentioned that I think Wigan do well to support two professional teams in a town of only 81,000. For a comparison, I thought about my local city of Bath…roughly the same size of Wigan, with a rugby union team packing in 8,000 at The Rec each week, but now with Bath City newly-promoted to the Conference…they drew 800 for their first home league game of the season mid-week. I wondered how many Bath City would get should they promoted to the Football League. Yeovil Town regularly draw 3,500, but I think Bath wouldn’t match that. Wigan were once a non-league team and were promoted in 1978, so their rise has been steady, but highly commendable. Such is the beauty of our football pyramid…I wonder who will be the next non-league team to reach the top tier.

AFC Wimbledon, maybe?

As I headed through Gloucestershire, I had texts from Alan ( coach ) and Burger ( train ) to say that they were on their way…Burger had just bumped into Suggs from Madness at Euston and I could tell he was excited.

“Madness – Madness They Call It Madness.”

One friend who I knew wouldn’t be attending the game was Russ, from Frome, now living in Croydon. He works for the BBC, but is an assistant referee with Surrey F.A. His game in the morning was the Chelsea vs. Manchester United U18 game at Cobham…I emailed him on Friday –

“If you have any borderline decisions, remember Cantona 1994, Moscow 2008 and all the hundreds of United “fans” you grew up with.”

I awaited news of the result as I drove north.

For us in the UK, a trip to Wigan, almost 400 miles there and back, is a big deal, but I always feel immediately inferior to Americans when I start talking road trips.

“Hell, I drive two hundred miles for breakfast every morning, boy.”

However, what Americans don’t understand is our clogged-up road system…for us even the shortest journey can take forever. With the notorious M6 ahead of me, I drove on.

As I passed Tewkesbury, I was reminded of an evening I spent there many years ago with a few friends from Trowbridge. Back in 1992, I was into the rave scene, but for a change one of my workmates suggested I joined her and a few friends for a Northern Soul night at a pub in Tewkesbury. I was aware of this particular music scene, but it had largely gone unnoticed amongst my peers at school.

This was an off-shoot of the mod movement if the mid-‘sixties and gathered momentum amongst UK music enthusiasts as the ‘sixties drew to a close and into the ‘seventies. The key components were all nighters, rare records imported from America and a highly individual dancing style, involving twists, back-flips, somersaults and vigorous peacock-strutting. One of the key venues involved was the famous Wigan Casino, which gathered Northern Soul enthusiasts from all over the UK for many years.

The weather was a mixture of rain showers and brief sunny interludes. I stopped at Strensham Services and noted a couple of coaches of Plymouth supporters en route to Wallsall, virtually everyone of them bedecked in dark green shirts, with the sponsor’s logo – Ginsters Pasties – raising a smile.

Heading through West Bromwich, the traffic slowed to the pace of a rheumatic snail, with West Brom fans heading over to watch their game against Sunderland. I couldn’t spot their ground as it was shrouded in low-lying clouds. I spotted the Sunderland team coach as it left the exit of the motorway. Yet more slow traffic for the next hour or so. Passing familiar roadside landmarks, it didn’t seem real that it was sixteen weeks since the amazing awayday at Anfield.

I was pounding the tarmac and having good vibes.

The Pet Shop Boys were now on the CD, bringing back memories of many a cold night night spent in my student house, writing essays on social deprivation ( I was in Stoke, so I had plenty of local examples )…the house was so cold, I used to wear gloves in my bedroom when I was forced to study. In that 1986-87 season, no song brings back memories of Chelsea games and student discos as The Pet Shop Boys song “Paninaro.”

“Passion and love, sex, money, violence , religion, justice, death.
Paninaro.
Paninaro.
Oh – Oh – Oh.”

The “paninari” were Italian lads, heavilly into fashion in the ‘eighties, bizarrely named after the sandwich shops they used to frequent. This look helped breath new life into the UK casual movement in around 1986, once the sportswear of 1984 had been replaced by paisley shirts, black leather jackets, dark jeans and cords. One of the main components was the Timberland deck-shoe…often worn without socks.

I remember reading of Rangers and Hearts casuals singing a few lines from “Paninaro” at a game at Ibrox in around 1987…I think they mave have focussed on the “Violence, Religion, Justice, Death” segment. But it may have been –

“Armani, Armani, A-A-Armani, Versace, Cinque.”

On the M6, I heard from Russ that despite being 2-0 up, the Chelsea boys had lost 3-2 to United. Russ had had a quiet game, but had picked up a teamsheet from the game – a nice memento. This was his third game at Cobham I believe.

I had a text to say that Burger had arrived at Wigan and was enjoying a pint in The Swan. Alan, too, was nearing the final destination.

After five long and at times tedious hours on England’s marvellous roads, I was parked up in my usual parking place, just 15 minutes from the DW. It was a muggy day, but with rain still threatening. I put my Lacoste rain jacket on, but instantly regretted it as I marched to the stadium. I dipped into The Queens Arms and had a pint with two mates, Andy and The Youth, with their children Sophie and Seb. The pub was half-and-half Wigan and Chelsea, no agro, no big deal. Andy and myself spoke about – very generally speaking – how we are not really too anxious and worried about Chelsea these days….Andy smiled as he said

“I’m not bothered mate, we’ve done it, we’ve won it.”

And I knew what he meant…to be truthful, I’m still enjoying the afterglow oif the title in 2005, let alone 2006 and last year.

We dipped into The Red Robin pub so Andy could pick up a ticket from Lovejoy. This is the main away pub at Wigan, but I had always gone to The Queens Arms on previous trips. A hundred or so Chelsea were out in the beer garden singing The Chelsea Ranger – the more youthful element – while a few familiar faces were inside, enjoying some food and some beer. I was hoping to bump into The Burger Family, but we never did meet up.

I excused myself and sped off to the away end. I smiled as I overheard an irritable mother say to her excited five year old boy – clad in a Chelsea shirt – “just calm down, the game hasn’t even started yet.”

Once inside, I quickly rushed down to the front of the steep single-tiered stand to pin my banner up over the very first two rows. Wigan is ideal for flags, as the first two rows are never used. The Chelsea players were taking shooting practice as I pegged “Vinci Per Noi” to the faded blue seats and I had to duck for cover as Frank, in particular, seemed to be intent on hitting me.

The boys looked great in their crisp white training tops.

Alan and Gary arrived with our mates Nick and Mark and we shared a pre-match natter. No complaints about the team line-up. We were a little concerned that our 4,100 allocation would not be full, but we need not have worried…sure, there were empty seats, but it was a good show. At only £25 a ticket, how could anyone not go?

Wigan came at us in the first half-an-hour and we seemed to be slow in closing players down. Gary to my left and Alan to my right were not happy. Cathy and Dog were sat two rows infront and there were familiar faces everywhere I looked. It was noticeable that the Away Season Ticket Section – the middle blocks – were mainly full of seated fans, whereas the flanks had fans standing.

I noted a new song, an updated version of the Follow Follow song.

“Double Double Double.
John Terry Has Won The Double.
And the S*** From The Lane Have Won F*** All Again.
John Terry Has Won The Double.”

A few half-chances to Wigan, but we rode the storm. Malouda hadn’t been in the game, but he touched in a rebound after a fine, flowing move down the left had picked out Frank, whose flick was initially thwarted by Kirkland.

1-0 – Phew.

Just before the second-half began, the incredibly loud PA played two soul classics – “This Old Heart Of Mine” by The Isley Brothers and “Move On Up” by Curtis Mayfield. I half-expected a few Wigan fans to start doing back-flips.

In the second-half, our football flowed a lot better. To be honest, looking back, it was all a bit of a blur. Mikel was our one strong performer from the first half and he sent through a sublime ball for Anelka…he coolly slotted in at the far post and we went wild. Anelka’s first Chelsea goal was in the same goal in 2008 and he celebated, with Drogba, with a new – slightly odd – celebration. Soon after, Drogba set up Anelka to score close-in with a header and the celebrations were repeated.

By this time, the Chelsea faithful was rocking. Our away support is so different to the home and it’s just great to be part if it. Alex made two stupendous tackles – the first of which I captured on camera – and his name was sung with gusto for ages.

Kalou came on and then scored two more goals and the singing continued on. While a Wigan defender was getting carried off, we serenaded Frank, JT, Ashley, Petr, Paolo, Nico and even new boy Benayoun…the Dennis Wise song was aired, and so too was the Peter Osgood tribute. After the Frank Lampard chant went on for more than the usual one verse, Frank looked pretty embarassed by the adulation, bless him.

We even had time to sing the Robert Fleck song.

“We All Live In A Robert Fleck World.”

On ninety minutes, it was 5-0 and all was well with the world. Incredibly, after last week, we hit six again as Yossi slammed in a goal from a perfect cut-back from Paolo, the two subs combining to perfection.

The Chelsea fans still kept going –

“6-0, We Only Win 6-0.”

It had been an amazing game and even the new black and orange looked splendid. No complaints.

I gathered my flag and made my way back to the car. I bumped into Tim from Bristol and we chatted about our current league goal run…since we scored a late goal at Tottenham, we have since scored a ridiculous total of thirty without reply. We weren’t sure but that has to be a UK record.

Thankfully, not so much traffic on the drive south, but it still took me four hours to return home. I stopped off for the usual Red Bull pit-stop at Keele Services, close to my former college stomping ground. I kept changing the CDs as I drove, Morrissey singing about Rome one minute, the Pet Shop Boys singing about West End Girls the next. Then it was the turn of Soft Cell, who put out some memorable pop tunes in the 1981-1982 period. Their classic song is “Tainted Love” – and I suddenly realised that this was originally the de facto Northern Soul song, originally sung by Gloria Jones.

I mused that Wigan might have Northern Soul, but Chelsea showed a lot of Southern Heart.

At 11pm, I was home at last…top of the league and having even more laughs.

Played 2 – Goals For 12, Goals Against 0.

Happy Days.TEW06418556_00095

Tales From The Champions.

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic – 9 May 2010.

What else could I call this?

Oh Boy – What a game.

From the quiet cave of Anfield, subdued apart from three thousand Chelsea loyalists, to the bubbling cauldron of noise and emotion at HQ.

Just a spectacular day.

I will be honest, I was still more nervous than I perhaps ought to have been throughout the build-up to the Wigan Athletic game. A lot of people were telling me to relax, but how could I? This was a potential disaster waiting to happen. The more I thought of the match, the more worried I became. There have been numerous examples of teams failing at the last minute and I couldn’t face my Chelsea being the next. I think it is safe to say that I was just glad that there was no Wigan player called Mazeroski.

The alarm sounded at 6.30am on Sunday and the first task of the day was to decide on match-day apparrel. This often takes a good many minutes as I weigh up the choices. I kept thinking back to the Bolton championship game in 2005 and I remembered that I wore a white Henri Lloyd polo on that incredible day…I superstitiously decided to mirror this choice, but this time the chosen colour was royal blue. I kept the Bolton theme going by wearing a pair of HL jeans that I bought in a store outside The Reebok before the game last autumn. I needed all the good luck charms I could muster. My new Barbour jacket worked a treat at Anfield last week, so that got the nod, too. The weather looked dull and overcast as I set off at 8am.

Parky, sporting some new Forest Hills, was collected at 8.30am and we were on our way. We shot through the familiar towns of Devizes, Marlborough and Hungerford on the A4. Passing through the Savernake Forest, thousands of bluebells were spotted in woodland glades alongside the silver birch trees. It was a spectacular sight. Gill texted me –

“Jack Kerouac?”

I replied –

“Writing And Arithmetic.”

I had been in touch with Jamie ( crowtrobot ) who was lucky enough to be over for Game 38. Jamie was nervous, just like me.

On parking up at Chelsea, the weather was cold but a breakfast soon sorted ourselves out. Frankie Two Times was in the cafe too and he updated us with details of his recent health scare. He’s doing much better now thank heavens. Daryl, Ed andNeil then appeared, all wearing the requisite polo shirts. Daryl was wearing a lovely Fred Perry – and there was an element of superstition about this choice, too.

“If it was good enough for the first game of the season, it’s good enough for this one too” he said.

There was an element of classic Chelsea about it too as the white shirt had green and red trim…shades of the much-loved red / white / green of the 1970’s away kit.

We got the nod that US visitors Ashley and Jamie were close by, so we sauntered off to The Goose. There was a sizeable crowd waiting for Reg to open up. In we went, bang on mid-day. Over the next hour or so, all of my mates showed up and joined the throng. By 2pm, Reg had decided to limit the amount of people entering as it was so full. We had our little corner of the bar, beneath the TV set showing the Leicester vs. Cardiff game ( which nobody was watching…) and the pre-game rituals were taking place. The laughs, the stories, the jokes.

Lacoste Watch

Parky – black

Ed – lime green

Of my mates, Parky and Andy were the most stressed, whereas Daryl and Simon seemed rather chilled out and confident. I still wasn’t sure.

“Bottom of the ninth, Mazeroski swings…”

Jamie and Ashley – plus also Jason and his girlfriend – were being entertained by Lord Parky, the resident CIA-Social Secretary, and the beers were flowing nicely. Talk also included plans for the FA Cup Final pre-match, but also of the friendlies in Holland and Germany. Wes showed up a bit later, thus missing the other Americans who had left to sample the pre-match, and he was buzzing as per normal. He grabbed me and shouted “let’s do this.” I showed a few mates some photos from Anfield, but also from the Chelsea Old Boys game I had seen in Southampton on Monday…great photos of former players such as Johnny B., Tore Andre Flo, Clive Walker, Canners, Ian Britton and Colin Pates.

At about 3.15pm – a bit earlier than normal – we set off for The Bridge. There were lines of fans waiting to get into the packed pubs around Fulham Broadway and I guessed these unlucky souls were without tickets. There was an air of carnival, but I only felt the tension. I quick word with Mark on the CFCUK stall, wearing his lucky trainers.

By 3.40pm, Steve and myself had taped ‘VINCI PER NOI’ up against the back wall of the Matthew Harding Upper, right in my NW corner. Bizarrely, there were still marks from the tape which I must’ve used all those years ago. I used to bring the banner along in the Vialli / Zola era, but ‘VINCI’ was last seen at Stamford Bridge in around the year 2000. My goodness, the years have flown.

Unfortunately, the banner was hid for most of the game by a few fans who had decided to stand. Oh well. I was hoping that Carlo might spot it at some stage.

The Bridge, though under grey skies, was a riot of colour and more flags then usual were dotted around the balconies.

Den Haag.

Newry.

Cornwall.

Polska.

The rumours were true, though – Wigan hadn’t sold all their tickets and I was pretty annoyed with the gaps in that section. There were even clumps of empty seats in the “complimentaries” ( players families, friends, etc ) in the middle of the Shed Upper. Work that one out. Also empty seats in the “Abramovich” tier of the West…

Building up to the game, I had yearned for an early goal – by ten minutes would be perfect. Wigan, in a truly horrendous kit, had the best of the early exchanges though. The Bridge was on fire, however, with everyone seemingly buoyed by extra pints.

“We love you Chelsea – we do.”

On just five minutes, a Drogba free-kick was cleared but the ball was played back in. A touch back from Malouda and Anelka was waiting.

A shot.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

What a start – Oh my, I wanted to explode. After the shouting, the screaming and the back-slapping had died down slightly, Alan turned to me…

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

We then struggled a little bit and I thought Wigan got back into the game. However, just as the crowd was cooling down a little, along came a burst into the box and we were given a penalty, though my view was impeded. Not only that – a red card.

This isn’t happening. This is going exactly to plan.

Frank took the ball. However, Alan had told me that Didier had allegedly been promised a penalty in order for him to get a shot at The Golden Boot. In the imediate build-up to the penalty, there seemed to be “words” between Frank and Drogba.

I caught Frank’s emphatic stab on film and the resultant celebrations. This was wonderful wonderful stuff. The texts started to fly in.

The Bridge was then bouncing like never before…whole sections of stands were joining in…it resembled a sight akin to a bouncing Mexican wave. Heady stuff indeed.

The rest of the half seemed a blur, but we were well aware that Drogba was sulking. I had to remind myself that he was our Player Of The Year. I wasn’t impressed. At the half-time break, I couldn’t help but think that there was still an air of uncertainty amongst my fellow fans.

Two-nil up, Wigan down to ten men and we’re still not convinced.

“Proper Chelsea” I thought.

I heard one soul utter “we only need to let in one goal and…” His voice trailed off, but we all knew what he meant.

At the break, Roy Bentley and Ken Monkou made the half-time draws. Great to see Roy again – was it really a year ago that his antics on the pitch after the Blackburn game gave us so much joy?

The Chelsea eleven re-entered the pitch well ahead of the opposition and – for the first time I can ever remember – had a pre-second half huddle. I imagined that it had kicked-off a bit between Drogba and the others at the break ( maybe out of earshot of the manager ) and now JT was bringing them all together.

“Let’s do this together, boys.”

Well, the second half was an absolute blur. At the end of it all, we were having trouble remembering who had scored or how they had scored. It was the third goal that really made it safe. A lovely one-two between Kalou and Frank and a slick finish. I think I celebrated this goal the most as I just knew we couldn’t be caught. Photos of Kalou, minus his shirt, posing right down below me and in front of Cathy and Dog in the corner.

The Anelka goal – the fourth – was just mesmeric…the deep cross from Ivanovic and the first-time volley. The place erupted again. The players raced over to celebrate in the same corner and the expressions on their faces are a joy to behold.

OK, we were now on 99 league goals and ( despite my nervousness ) I had toyed with the notion of a 5-0 win to give is a ton. It soon came…a great angled header by Drogba from a lovely Lampard cross. Drogba was euphoric.

One hundred league goals!

“Boring Boring Chelsea – Boring Boring Chelsea.”

And so it continued…Ashley was clipped by former blue Mario Melchiot and Drogs was handed the ball. I raced down to the front and steadied myself. Just time for aquick word with Big John.

“I think we’re safe” he said.

Snap.

6-0. The place erupted again. Up to 101 now…

We couldn’t repeat the 7-0 of the very last home game could we? Well, a bit of interplay between Juliano and Joey set up Drogba to push home from close range. On this goal, I just smiled and laughed…this was just crazy.

The songs continued.

Then a break, a shot from Moses – the shot of the game – and a World class save from Petr, who had been a spectator for virtually all of the game. Then – a beautiful moment – and a chant which some fans will not have heard ever before…

“That’s Why We’re Champions.”

Memories of 2005-2006. We’ll be singing that again next season.

Then, the final act of 2009-2010 and the beautiful finish from Ashley Cole after a deep Joe Cole cross.

Eight.

8-0.

Un-believable.

I had received a flurry of late texts and was mid-text at the final whistle. While the rest of the crowd roared, I sent a simple text to a few mates – mainly Chelsea, but also Manchester United, Liverpool and Rotherham United too.

“My team. My life.”

I crouched down, weak with joy, and my eyes were momentarilly moist.

Payback for Moscow.

I hugged a few friends – especially Alan, who is now up to about 140 consecutive Chelsea games, home and away, Europe and all. We love our club and we love our friendship too. I’ve known Alan since March 1984 and we know what it means to be Chelsea. There was Rousey behind, going crazy, there was Tom alongside, quiet and contented, there was Mick behind with his ailing father, there was Kev and Anna, new aquaintances since the California trip in 2007, Russ and his daughter, Old Joe and his sons.

All of us together.

I had taken around one hundred photographs during the game and I then took an equally high amount in the aftermath.

The songs, the banners, the laughter, the build-up to the trophy being handed over to JT.

The colour, the noise, the red of the Chelsea Pensioners, the royal blue in the four stands, the Wigan fans staying behind, the anticipation…

The booing of Scudamore…Game 39 will not be forgotten.

The youth team with the FA Youth Cup – winners for the first time since 1961.

The back-room staff, Ray Wilkins – a big roar – the manager – a bigger roar, the reserve players.

The first-teamers, Michael Essien – a massive roar – the slow build up.

The veterans, Petr Cech, Didier Drogba.

The East End Boys, the Blood Brothers, the vice-captain Frank Lampard and the captain John Terry.

The walk.

The handshake.

The glint of the gold and the silver of the trophy.

The roar.

The sky exploded with white, silver and blue streamers and the next few minutes was joy unbounded. The players did a triumphant lap of honour and it was wondrous. I thought about what must have been going through the minds of Jamie, Wes, Ashley and Beth – especially Beth.

I thought about my mates dotted around the stadium.

We live for days like this.

An hour or so later, we were drinking in The Lily Langtry and the place was mobbed. We had heard that the OB had closed a lot of the pubs around The Broadway and all of the fans were out on the road drinking from cans. It was a crazy scene.

Across the way, a hundred fans outside The Prince Of Wales were goading us in The Lily for a song.

“CAMPIONES – CAMPIONES – OLE – OLE – OLE.”

Later, heading out of London, I called Steve in California and we spoke for a few moments. I commented that the day reminded me so much of the game which clinched promotion from the old Second Division in 1984. We beat Leeds 5-0 that day and there was wild euphoria in SW6 all those years ago. I experienced the same feelings twenty-six years later. It was a phenominal scoreline. As I spoke to Steve, 6,000 miles away, I turned a gentle corner on the M4 and the sky ahead was lit with a sunset of incandescent beauty. To my north, the sun’s rays caught the Wembley Arch. It was a magical moment.

Life…it truly does not get any better.

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