Tales From Harry Potts Way

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2019.

After Amsterdam, Burnley. The life of a football fan is certainly varied. With the game kicking-off at 5.30pm, there was the chance of a slight lie-in, but only slight. Burnley away is still a gargantuan trip. We did think about staying the night, especially after the exertions of the European soiree to Ajax, but nothing seemed to fit the bill location-wise nor price-wise. In the end, I decided to bite the bullet and drive up and back in one day.

Deepest Somerset to deepest Lancashire.

A round trip of four hundred and eighty miles.

Bolstered by a strong cup of coffee before I left home, I felt surprisingly fresh. After returning from Amsterdam late on Thursday evening, Friday at work was just horrific. It wasn’t particularly busy, it just seemed to drag on and on. But I slept reasonably well on Friday night. I was on the road at just before 9am. I collected PD and then Parky. It would be His Lordship’s first away game since Norwich City on that blissful summer’s day in August.

Burnley in late October was a different proposition.

For the first four hours or so, the rain lashed down under sombre grey skies. But there were reports of it brightening up later in the day. My pragmatic view was that I would rather have the rain and spray when I was fresh in the morning than when I was driving home, tired, after the game and long in to the night.

We stopped at Frankley Services on the M5 and Charnock Richard Services on the M6 just north of Wigan. At the first, we got soaked getting out of the car. At the second, the day suddenly became brighter and a lot more pleasant.

I turned east onto the M65 and headed up over the ridge of land that separates the M6 from the towns of Blackburn, Darwen, Accrington and Burnley.

At Clayton Le Moors, we settled in at a pub called “The Albion” for an hour or so. The City vs. Villa game was coming to an end, and there were a few locals gathered. Two lads wearing Burnley shirts were playing darts, while one Blackburn Rovers fan, wearing a replica shirt too, chatted to PD at the bar. There is certainly no love lost between Blackburn and Burnley yet the fans were sharing the same space with no issues. Clayton Le Moors is right on the boundary between the catchment areas of the two teams’ support. It felt that we were right in the middle of this very private and local Civil War in central Lancashire. Blackburn were playing locally themselves on this day of football; a derby of sorts at Preston North End.

We enjoyed our time in this large and welcoming pub. The prices were a lot more agreeable than those in Amsterdam. Here, two pints of lager and a pint of Coke came to just £8.10.

At about 4.15pm, I got back in the saddle. Ten minutes later, after relishing the wild and unrelentingly Northern landscape ahead of me, we were parked close to the Burnley bus station, itself only a fifteen-minute walk from Turf Moor.

By a strange quirk of fate, our game at Burnley in 2019 came just two days under a year since our game at the same venue in 2018.

At Charnock Richard and at Clayton Le Moors, the weather seemed fine. Once we exited my car in Burnley, it felt a whole lot colder.

“It’s always bloody freezing in Burnley.”

But it was great to be back. The town is a throwback to a different era, and without wishing to drown in worn out clichés, walking a few of its streets helped me escape back to a simpler age when football was at the very heart of this old mill town.

I love walking under the main stand at Goodison Park, my favourite away day experience these days. But a close second is the five-minute walk under the canal bridge on Yorkshire Street, along Harry Potts Way (named after the 1960 League Championship winning manager) to the unpretentious stands of Burnley Football Club. There are grafters selling scarves and badges. There are fast food shops. Many shops have signs in claret and blue. Fans rush past. Police on horseback cast an eye over the match day scene. Pubs overflow with claret and blue clad locals. Northern accents cut into the afternoon air. The faces of the locals seem to radiate a warmth for their club.

While PD and LP made a bee-line for the bar area inside the ground, I went off on a detour. I knew that I would only be allowed to take photographs using my ‘phone, and that the resultant match photographs would be quite poor, so I wanted to capture as much of the colour – or lack of it, this was Burnley after all – of the stadium. So my phone whirred into action. Every few yards, along the perimeter of three of the stands, I stopped to gaze at photographs of some key players in the football club’s history. I didn’t stop and look at every single one, but bizarrely all of the ones that I did stop to look at, I managed to name.

Jimmy McIlroy, Jimmy Adamson, Leighton James, Peter Noble, Steve Kindon, Billy Hamilton, Trevor Steven, Ian Britton.

I stopped my circumnavigation at Ian Britton. It is what I wanted to see. Ian Britton was my favourite Chelsea player from 1974 to 1981 and he famously went on to play for Burnley, scoring a key goal against Orient to keep them in the Football League in 1987. He sadly passed away in 2016 and I went to his funeral at Burnley Crematorium. It was only right that I paid my respects to him on this day.

Ironically, I had briefly chatted to his son Callum at half-time at the Southampton away game.

RIP.

Inside the cramped stands, I was met up with many friends and acquaintances. I still felt fresh despite the long day. I soon took my place, not far from where I watched the game the previous season, and alongside Gary, Parky and Alan. My seat was right on the aisle, right next to the home fans.

Since our last visit, the infill of the corners of the home end has been completed. However, there were gaps in the seats throughout the stadium.

The team?

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta.

Zouma.

Tomori.

Alonso.

Jorginho.

Kovacic.

Pulisic.

Mount.

Willian.

Abraham.

No surprises really. Good to see Pulisic get the start after his excellent cameo performance in the Johan Cruyff Arena.

Did I expect us to win? Yes. There, I said it. There is a confidence about us at the moment and long may it continue.

Jack Cork, now thirty, started for Burnley. It seems only five minutes ago since I saw him play for Chelsea against Club America on a blistering day in Palo Alto in the summer of 2007. It was the only time I did see him play for us. How time flies.

Standing behind me was a chap who I first saw at Norwich. Memorably, both of us were wearing pink polos at the time. We, of course, won our first game of the season that day. Since then, he has worn the same pink shirt at all of our away games.

Three pinks, three wins.

Commendable.

In the first portion of the game, I thought Burnley looked quite capable of getting behind us and causing problems. Dwight McNeil, on their left, was often involved and carried a threat with his pace and movement. On a few occasions, our defence needed to be on their collective toes to snub out a few Burnley attacks. But we looked capable too, and the midfield duo of Jorginho and Kovacic were soon clicking their fingers and prompting others into moving into space, and then sliding balls forward. Without over-emphasising the change from last season, there was a pleasing economy of movement at all times.

A touch, control, a look, a pass, a move continued.

And there was variety too; the occasional long ball, a diagonal.

On twenty-one minutes, and with Chelsea now in the ascendancy, Pulisic raided centrally after robbing Matt Lowton. He sped on, urged on by us in the away stand, but it looked like he was forced too far to his left. Showing real strength, he shimmied, and gained an extra yard. To my eyes, the angle was just too wide. He stretched to meet the ball and rifled a shot low past Nick Pope. We howled like banshees as the ball nestled into the net.

GET IN.

I watched as the young American raced over to the corner flag and dropped to his knees to celebrate.

“Well,” I thought “that is the photograph I should be taking.”

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

This was the American’s first goal for us. And it was a blinder.

Burnley then made a spirited effort to get back in to the game. A header from Ashley Barnes went wide from a corner. And then Erik Pieters forced a fine save from Kepa, the ‘keeper reacting well after the initial shot was deflected. Chances were piling up and at  both ends. Pulisic slashed in a shot which Pope was able to deflect away. In front of us, Barnes wasted a good chance from close in, heading wide once more.

Barnes was the bête noire of the Burnley team and many in my midst were letting him have it.

Another shot from Christian, a shot from Tammy. This was good stuff. All of the way through this first-half, I was involved, watching the movement of the players, looking at their body language, utterly part of it. It is – sadly – not always the case.

Just before the break, Willian pick-pocketed a Burnley defender, and released Pulisic, who made a bee-line for goal – this area of the pitch was fast becoming his very own Interstate – and he drove on. He had a final quick burst and his shot from outside the box took a wicked deflection and we were 2-0 up.

Lovely stuff.

I was aware that there was a get-together of some Chelsea supporters in Austin, Texas for this match, and that they were being featured in some sort of interactive TV show. I just imagined the scenes. It was, to be honest, coming together rather nicely for our US fans.

At half-time, I battled the packed concourse and only got back just in time to see the teams return to the pitch.

After eleven minutes of play, a corner to my right from Mason Mount was headed out, and from the second cross, Pulisic leapt and “back-headed” the ball up and over Pope. It was a fine header.

And Pulisic’s third of the game.

I quickly turned to Mr. Pink and enquired “Is that a perfect hat-trick?”

A left, a right, a header.

It was.

Fantastic.

Well, by now, I could only imagine the “awesome shenanigans” taking place in Austin, TX – and elsewhere in the land of the free, plus six percent sales tax – as their boy shone on this cold day in Lancashire.

But then it got a little silly.

Possibly.

Here are my thoughts as a pragmatic and objective observer of all things Chelsea.

A large and noisy section of our support – which I would later learn included Suggs from Madness – spontaneously started chanting “USA USA USA USA.”

I didn’t join in.

But I am going to give the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt. My thoughts at the time were that this was all a bit ironic. A bit of a giggle. It was a typically English way of praising a player, a new addition, but also with a major dollop of sarcasm too.

If so, perfect.

The “USA” chant is such a dull and unimaginative addition to major sporting events, and I’d like to think that it was a side-swipe at that. If, however, there was no self-deprecation involved, no irony, no humour and that we are to be treated to “USA USA” every time our boy Pulisic performs then I fear for the future of mankind.

Only two minutes later, a lovely step-over from Willian in the inside-right channel on the edge of the box allowed an extra yard of space to shoot. His low effort was drilled low and found the far post perfectly. The net bulged.

GET IN.

Pulisic’ three goals had been – cough, cough, you know it is coming America – awesome.

Now this was just foursome.

FOUR BLOODY NIL.

Norwich : 3-2.

Wolves : 5-2.

Southampton : 4-1.

Burnley : 4-0.

Mr. Pink was beaming.

After the ludicrous 9-0 by Leicester City at Southampton the previous night, I wondered if we could get close. It seemed that it was one of those evenings where everything we hit resulted in goals.

Some substitutions, keeping it fresh.

Reece James for Marcos Alonso.

Olivier Giroud for Tammy Abraham.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Willian.

Myself and everyone around me thought that Callum had been clipped and expected goal five to come our way from the resulting penalty. Of course, there was the usual tedious wait, the match-going fans out on a limb, left stranded. Jorginho picked up the ball and walked purposefully to the spot.

“Just give the pen, and let’s get on with it.”

But no. No penalty. And Callum booked for simulation.

Oh well.

Bizarrely, in a repeat of the Wolves game, we let in two late goals. First, a dipping smash from distance from Jay Rodriguez on eighty-six minutes. Then a deflected effort, not dissimilar to Pulisic’ second, from McNeil.

Burnley 2 Chelsea 4.

Oh crazy day.

I looked at Gary.

“It was 4-0 last season. We’ve got worse.”

We serenaded the management team as they all came over to clap us. It is lovely to be a Chelsea fan, right here, right now. May these times continue.

We headed back to the car and I was soon driving home on the long road south. We stopped at Charnock Richard again. To honour our boy Pulisic, we devoured some “Burger King” fast food, just as he would have wanted. Via two further stops for petrol and “Red Bull”, I kept driving and driving while the others slept intermittently.

I reached my house, eventually, at around 1am on Sunday morning.

It had been a fine morning, afternoon, evening and night.

On Wednesday, another magical evening under the Stamford Bridge lights is in the offing. It might only be the League Cup but it is Manchester United.

This will be the seventy-fifth time that I will have seen them play Chelsea, the most of any opposing team.

It is potentially a cracker.

I hope to see some of you there.

 

Tales From The London Lions

Chelsea vs. Dynamo Kiev : 7 March 2019.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Dynamo Kiev, nor even how to spell their name. Was it Dynamo or Dinamo? And should I go all native and plump with Kyiv, or stick with the anglicised version? I knew that they had only just recommenced their league season after a lengthy winter break of over two months. I knew that they were a famous name from the days of the old Soviet League, when their team included the powerful and iconic striker Oleg Blokhin. When the Ukrainian League itself began after the splintering away from the old regime, there was the nimbler Andrei Shevchenko. I wondered whatever happened to him? I recollected, of course, that we had played them in the group stages of the 2015/2016 Champions League. I vaguely remembered a home win in that competition. But I knew next to nothing of their current team or form.

On the drive up to London – PD was doing the honours once again for this midweek fixture – all the talk was of the upcoming trip to the Ukrainian capital. I had booked the three of us onto flights within forty-five minutes of finding out that we would be playing the famous team from the Ukraine (or just Ukraine, as it now calls itself) and over the past few weeks it has been a hectic time. For one thing, there was the slight worry of a new passport but that was returned to me in double-quick time. An apartment on the main square was booked for a very competitive price even though it was worryingly close to where some innocent Chelsea fans were attacked the night before the game in 2015. Everything else fell into position too. Match tickets were purchased at the princely sum of £1.50 apiece. I booked some parking at Heathrow. Everything was good. When we realised that we had Everton away on the Sunday, arrangements were made for that too. We would not be getting home until around 10pm on the Saturday and would be leaving for Liverpool at 8am the next day. So, we decided to stay Sunday night in Liverpool. Six days of football. Or rather six days of Chelsea. Heaven on Earth.

And a two-centre holiday, of sorts, in Kiev and Liverpool.

Insert punchline here.

It was the usual midweek routine.

“The Goose” to meet one set of friends, and “Simmons” to meet some others.

Some of the US supporters from Fulham on Sunday had surprised me though; a healthy group of around eight from Ohio were drinking at a table in “The Goose” when we arrived at about 5.45pm. I flitted between this group – which included a couple of Facebook friends, Billy and Kristen, that I was meeting for the very first time – and the more local friends that reside in that pub. From Brian, Kev and Pete – the Bristol Posse – there was the surprising news that, allegedly, just one hundred Chelsea supporters from the UK had bought tickets for Kiev. I expected many more.

“I expect I know half of them.”

In truth, I expect I will know three-quarters of them at least.

Alan, Gal, Pete, Nick, JD, Welsh Kev, Cathy and Dog – his first euro away since 2011/2012, fantastic – Luke and Aroha, Dave, Brian, Kev, Pete, Julie and Tim, Rich, Pauline, Nick and Ali, Closey, Neil, Cal, Parky, PD and little old me. There are twenty-five or so certs for starters.

Next Thursday, they will be announcing the supporters’ line-up to the team.

Down at “Simmons” the place was filling nicely. As on Sunday in “The Duke’s Head” in Putney, Jim from Oxfordshire had joined the usual suspects. But Jim had a special guest with him, our former midfield dynamo – or dinamo – John Boyle who played for us with distinction from 1964 to 1973. It was a real pleasure to meet John for the very first time. John is a friend of mine on Facebook and it is a wonderful to see him interacting with so many on social media – he is quite prolific – and also with some good friends in the bar. Two other Facebook friends who I had not yet met – Robert from Helsinki and Jean from Houston – arrived too. It was quite an evening for meeting new friends.

There was a lovely comment from John.

“In my mind, there are more legends supporting this club than players playing for it.”

Bless him.

He also reminded me of this fact.

“Callum Hudson-Odoi is the second youngest Chelsea player to play in the Football League Cup Final. Do know the youngest?”

I looked at John and said “I think it was Susan Boyle’s brother” and he smiled and laughed.

Great times.

I soon introduced the fans from Ohio to John Boyle and he was soon regaling them with tales of his time in the old NASL with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in their championship season of 1975, a team that our own Joe Cole played for between 2016 and 2018. They got a buzz to be chatting with John, who became our first-ever substitute when they were allowed – but for only replacing injured players, not for tactical reasons – in 1965.

The team was announced and Daryl was incandescent with rage that our Callum was not featured.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Barkley – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Willian

It was an odd mish-mash of a team. A mix of bona fide A team starters, but then squad players.

In Sarri we trust? Not so sure.

The two pubs had been full. On the walk to the ground, there were the usual crowds. In 2012/2013, our Europa League gates had ranged from 28,817 to 39,403. I hoped for a figure nearer the second of those two numbers. Once inside, I looked over to check how many away fans were present. It was around one-and-a-half thousand and I suspected that many were UK-based. We soon saw that Arsenal were losing 1-3 in Rennes.

“Good old Arsenal.”

I spoke to JD, who was relishing a return trip to Kiev.

“It’s great. What looks good is a trip to Chernobyl.”

I wasn’t convinced.

“It’s like Middlesbrough” chirped John.

The opposition were sporting colours of white / white / blue that were the direct opposite to ours. Their New Balance kit had a broad stripe down the sleeves which reminded me of the Puma kits of the mid-to-late ‘seventies. The iconic diamond badge featured a “D” which was exactly the same to that of Moscow Dynamo, but they don’t like to talk about Russia in Ukraine. Let’s move on.

There were noticeable gaps in the corporate middle tier of the East Stand, but everywhere else was well occupied. I soon spotted the Ohio contingent in the Shed Lower, no more than twenty seats along from Parky. The away fans, like the team, were very quiet. It was as if both team and fans really were coming out of hibernation. I guess I don’t know how cold it can get in a Ukrainian winter.

In the first fleeting moments of the match, Pedro was as lively as anyone. I usually have my camera to hand at key moments, but I sadly missed the opening goal. I was not in my seat. Without putting too fine a point on it, when Pedro slotted in from a sublime Giroud pass at The Shed End, I wasn’t holding my camera.

Again, let’s move on.

Quickly.

In what would become a familiar story during a dominant first-half, Pedro wasted a great chance soon after with a shot straight at the Kiev ‘keeper Boyko. We were purring against a very reserved Kiev team, who hardly threatened at all, and were honestly not too bothered about putting us under too much pressure. Please note that I am trying my damnedest not to over-use the verb “to press” in these match reports. It is the most-quoted word in football these days. Pedro and Giroud combined again, but the Spaniard could not get his shot in.

It took just under half-an-hour for me to hear a chant from the Ukrainians, and it was overly simple.

“Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo.”

A defence-splitting ball from David Luiz, captain on this night, set up Pedro with another chance, but this again went begging. I can’t honestly remember a half in which we had been so dominant. They had not tested Kepa, who was half-way through a Thibaut Courtois word search puzzle book left over from last season. One dominant run from deep by an anonymous Kiev midfielder was their only moment that stood out in the first-half. Long bombs from Luiz and scooped chips from Jorginho were the special moves from us. Surely more goals would follow.

There was a half-hearted “bouncy” from the away fans towards the end of the first period. In general, things were quiet. Our lot were hardly creating a din. I was surprised that Willian was not booed, remembering his time with their arch rivals Shakhtar Donetsk.

There was still time for another Pedro effort, his fifth of the game thus far.

At the break, I hoped for more goals. Or at least one that I would actually see.

But it was a time for quiet reflection.

The match programme sadly contained an obituary for Janet Rainbow-King. On this evening of meeting Facebook friends in person for the first time, this was an awful reminder of the fragility of life. Janet, who worked tirelessly for the club a few decades ago, became a Facebook friend a few years back. I only ever met Janet once when she sat with her husband Colin a few rows behind me for the famous Arsenal 6-0 thrashing in 2014. I thanked her for having to deal with the rascal Ken Bates and Janet got a kick out of that.

Janet, who lived – and died – in Malta certainly loved Chelsea. I was so sad to hear of her passing last week. When I received my Chelsea Pitch Owner certificate in 1993, it was counter-signed by Janet. I will regard that as a fine memorial to a wonderful Chelsea servant. Janet was only sixty. Our club is a poorer place without her.

RIP.

The game restarted.

Guess what? Another Pedro effort. This was getting quite ridiculous now. Kiev were there for the taking. We found it difficult to break them down though. On the hour, there were changes.

N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Jorginho and Ross Barkley – I was surprised that he had started two consecutive games to be honest – with Kovacic moving in to the Jorginho role.

“Yeah, I know.”

Ruben was soon fouled outside the box.

We waited an eternity, but Willian took the ball, stepped back, sized up the options, looked again, then despatched a majestic curler over the wall and into the goal. This time, I captured it all.

GET IN.

Chelsea 2 Dynamo Kiev 0.

Phew.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

We had been here before.

From my 2015 match report, that time a late winner.

“The ball was placed behind a semi-circular flash of shaving foam.

The referee spent a while pacing out ten yards.

Another flash of foam.

The wall retreated.

We waited.

Willian waited.

I had my camera poised. I kept focusing and re-focusing.

“Concentrate you bastard, concentrate.”

I clicked as Willian struck. I looked up to follow the beautiful flight of the ball as it was whipped up and over the redundant wall and watched – these wonderful moments – as it flew into the waiting goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

The Bridge burst.

The noise was immense.”

We were 2-0 up in 2019. But would it be enough? I wasn’t sure and neither was Alan. Oddly, this second Chelsea goal awoke Dynamo from their slumbers and a speculative effort from the boot of Sydorchuk rose and rose before hitting someone in the rear rows of The Shed Upper.

Sarri then replaced Willian with our Callum, whose name had been sung loudly for quite some time.

Kiev threatened a little more in the closing fifteen minutes and things became a more nervous than it really should be. We knew a rogue Kiev goal would change the complexion of the tie completely. Then came a lovely move – the Chelsea of old, memories of Frank Lampard on the counter – which resulted in Ruben and Callum linking with Pedro who fired over. Pedro had also had a goal disallowed for offside in the second period.

At the other end, a header underneath The Shed did not hit the target.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Nerves were tightening for sure now. In these closing periods of European games, I always think of Iniesta in 2009.

Thankfully, right on ninety minutes, another fine move resulted in our Ruben setting up our Callum to strike from inside the box.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

It was a good reflection of a match in which our foreign opponents were oh so reticent.

London Lions 3 Kiev Chickens 0.

Game over, and the tie – surely – too.

Next up, the old gold of Wolverhampton Wanderers visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

See you there.

 

Tales From Saturday Tea Time

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 12 January 2019.

This was another 5.30pm kick-off and so PD, Parky and I took the train to London once again. One subject dominated our chat on the journey; the decision to hold the FA Cup tie against either Sheffield Wednesday or Luton Town at 6pm on Sunday 27 January.

Six o’clock on a Sunday evening.

What a ridiculous time.

“And there was much wailing.”

But, the FA had made another crazy decision to play an FA Cup game at a similar time some seventeen years earlier. In 2002, Fulham objected to their allocation for the first-choice venue of Highbury for our FA Cup Semi Final against them. So – and I still can’t fathom the madness of this – the FA chose to send both sets of fans up to Villa Park in Birmingham for a 7pm kick-off on a Sunday. And then, the deepest irony, Fulham failed to sell out, and in fact sold less tickets for the Villa Park game than their initial allocation at Highbury.

Altogether now : “For fuck sake.”

I don’t dislike Fulham Football Club one bit, but this has really tested me over the years.

5.30pm on a Saturday tea time is OK, there is at least Sunday to recover. In fact, it is rather agreeable as it allows for a good session in various pubs beforehand. But six o’clock on a Sunday is just wrong. At best, I would not return home until 11pm – 11.30pm is a more realistic prediction – and I would need to be up early for work the next day.

So, did I get a ticket when they went on sale on Thursday?

Yes, of course I did, but I partially hated myself for it.

File under “I am a twat” ( sub-section two thousand, nine-hundred and seventeen).

Maybe we can walk in after ten minutes, maybe we can turn our backs for the first five minutes, maybe we can produce banners. Some sort of protest would be good. But I won’t hold my breath on this. It would be nice, just once, for the club to see how much these mistimed kick-off choices affect the rank and file Chelsea support. I note that the Chelsea Supporters Trust wasted no time in condemning the time. Let’s see what transpires over the next fortnight.

It was the usual routine; a Paddington breakfast, a tube to Putney Bridge, into “The Eight Bells” for 11.30am.

We had decided to visit the southern tip of Fulham for the fourth time this season as a few friends from Scotland had sorted out tickets and had chosen the Premier Inn opposite the pub as their base. We had met John and Gary in a fantastic pub before our game at Sunderland in 2016 – “that Courtois save” – and had stayed in touch ever since. They touched down at Stansted at 11am and joined us in the cozy boozer at about 1.45pm. They were joined by their two mates Dave and Colin. All four are Heart of Midlothian supporters. It was fantastic to see John and Gary again. We sat chatting about all things football, though not all things Chelsea, and then moved on to “The Kings Arms” around the corner.

After a very enjoyable pre-match sesh we caught the District Line tube back up to Fulham Broadway.

As I have so often mentioned, my first-ever game was against Newcastle United in March 1974. First, my grandfather in 1920 – I think – and then my mother and myself in 1974. I am a third-generation visitor to Stamford Bridge, and doesn’t that sound good?

We were inside Stamford Bridge with a good twenty minutes or so to spare. John was alongside us in The Sleepy Hollow. It was his first visit to the “modern” Stamford Bridge since the rebuilding was completed in 2001. He was enamoured with our seats. We are truly blessed with our view.

But how the stadium has changed over the years. I can remember getting to Stamford Bridge really early before our game with Newcastle United in 1984/85 with the sole intention to take some photos with my little Kodak camera before any spectators were present. I walked up the steps at the back of The Shed and took several photos of a Stamford Bridge lying dormant. From memory, it was a bitterly cold day during a bitterly cold winter. But I am so glad that I took those photographs; I only wish that I had taken more of the old stadium over the years.

The Geordies were at their usual three thousand level despite a solid block of around one hundred and fifty left unused in a top corner. But this was a fine turnout from them.

There was the usual darkening of the lights before the teams entered. More flags, flames and fireworks, which are at least better suited to a 5.30pm kick-off than a midday one.

We half-expected another “false nine” role for Eden Hazard. And Maurizio Sarri did not disappoint :

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic.

Pedro – Hazard – Willian.

There was a reunion of former Napoli managers underneath the East Stand. But Benitez only flitted in and out of my consciousness; it is almost six years since he left us. If only those who claimed that they – still – don’t care about him would stop bloody singing songs about him.

Sigh.

I watched the Newcastle players down below me in a huddle on the pitch as the floodlights came on and the pitch was cleared of banners and the paraphernalia of the pre-match handshakes. It shocked me that I did not recognise many. Twenty years ago, I would have been able to spot a Warren Barton, a Robert Lee, a Temuri Ketsbaia, a Luis Saha, a Philippe Albert.

I have recently come to the conclusion that with so many overseas players – or specifically those signed from overseas teams –  in our game these days, my identification of them has dwindled. I still find it easier to note, identify and track a player that has bedded down in the English leagues for a while and then moves, than a player picked from a team in Europe and parachuted in to a team here. Back in the days of when I used to collect football cards as a child, my knowledge of teams’ players was encyclopedic. This continued as I started attending games, reading ‘papers and buying magazines. And it certainly continued as I subscribed to “Sky” for the best part of ten years.

But these days, I am rather lost, and have probably entered the most recent of “phases” that I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago.

I find it easier to remember a youngster from Torquay United or Tranmere Rovers who joins a Premier League team – I think my love of geography helps, in that I can pinpoint names to places – but I am floundering, if for example a Spaniard playing for an Italian team signs for another top team. There is just something untethered about these players. Give me a player like Chris Wood who played for Leeds United before joining Burnley and I might have a chance. So, unless I make the effort, they are just names to me. Most importantly neither myself nor virtually any of my Chelsea mates spend endless hours playing “FIFA” either, which would – I suppose – aid my knowledge of players, but there are just some things that are best left well alone, like Star War films, the books of J.K. Rowling, cruises and Jeremy Clarkson. Of course, if players take my eye when I see them play and have that something about them – that unquantifiable “je ne sais quoi” – then that makes them endear themselves to me and I track them.

But, Lascelles, Lejeune and Longstaff? Who?

The away team were playing with black socks, which made them look like the Newcastle of old rather than the white-socked team we played at St. James’ Park in late August.

The game began with Chelsea attacking the northern goal for a change.

There was the usual probing from us in the first portion of the match but without too much end product.

Then, on just nine minutes, David Luiz sent a ball from deep inside the Chelsea half into a space where Pedro was running. For so long I have asked that we send in an occasional early ball, just to keep the opposition back-line on their toes more than anything else. A team expecting us to pass through them all the time will not be expecting a long bomb. And this certainly was a long bomb from Luiz. It was sensational. Luiz played it with an almost nonchalant air, a sideways sweep. Pedro took the ball out of the sky and clipped it over the startled Newcastle United ‘keeper Martin Dubravka.

Whatabloodygoal.

At least I captured the celebrations if not the goal itself.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wo’ now, like.”

Chris : “Howay Pet, come on m’little diamonds, like man.”

With Arsenal suffering a surprising loss at West Ham United in the early-kick-off (it had been “on” in the pub but we did not bother watching), here was a fantastic start to our game. If we won, we would go a healthy six points clear of them. All of us have been well aware that we have an intimidating amount of away games to endure in 2019 and that we have to win as many home games as possible.

We still have to play at Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Everton and Leicester City.

Tough games all.

But we did not capitalise and there was growing frustration as we struggled to get past a resolute back five. Our corners were especially poor. There were rare forays up-field from the Newcastle United players.

After half-an hour of huff and puff, Azpilicueta was fouled just outside the box and Willian floated in a cross which Luiz headed over.

There was a shot from Lejeune, but straight at Kepa. Salomon Rondon – “I know him!” – received a ball from Christian Atsu – “I know him!” – but he blazed over. Pedro shot meekly at the other end and then Perez did similarly at The Shed End. But the warning signs were there. With five minutes to go until half-time, a towering corner from Matt Ritchie was headed home by Ciaran Clark. It was a free header.

Bollocks.

The Toon Army went Loony.

It was a rare goal for The Geordies at Stamford Bridge.

I have seen the last thirty consecutive league encounters with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge – this was game number thirty-one, undoubtedly the longest stretch out of all the games that I have seen – and they had won only two of those. In the pub, I chatted briefly to three Toonistas and it did not take them long to mention the two incredible Papiss Cisse goals that gave them their first win at Stamford Bridge in twenty-six years when they beat us 2-0 in 2012.

But that was it. One win since 1986.

A meek effort from Willian and then a wild volley from Ritchie brought the first-half to a close. It was a very mundane performance from us and there was much shaking of heads at half-time. Eden Hazard had been especially ineffective.

Early in the second-period, Kante set up Pedro but Dubravka spread himself well to block. We looked a little more dynamic during the opening moments of the second-half and Kante was the one driving the team on. But we only had half-chances. A Luiz air shot and a scuffed Pedro effort did not worry the Geordies’ goal.

On fifty-seven minutes, the ball was worked over to Willian after some sublime skill from Hazard. He stood, with two defenders blocking his sight of the goal. Not to worry, his trademark hippy-hippy-shake bought him a yard of space and his curling missile found the net, just clipping the post before making the net bulge.

Whatabloodygoal.

With over half-an-hour to go, we obviously hoped for more goals, or at least more efforts, and indeed effort. Pedro had gone close with another chip, but the Newcastle ‘keeper did enough. And although the manager rang the changes – Barkley for Kovacic, Hudson-Odoi for Pedro, Giroud for Hazard) – no further goals followed.

Sarri is under the microscope now, and his man Jorginho is not particularly loved among the Chelsea match-going support. I am still trying my best to work it all out, I am trying to get my head around his philosophy, I am trying to give him the benefit of doubt.

It worked in Italy. Can it work in England?

Time will tell.

For all of the negativity during the game, the match game ended with a 2-1 win for Chelsea which solidified our fourth-place position.

Outside Stamford Bridge on the Fulham Road, after collecting some tickets for some upcoming games, PD and I bit into a couple of hot dogs with onions – the best of the season – as light rain dampened the evening air. Opposite us were a line of seven away coaches, taking the Toonistas back to Ashington, Long Benton, Swalwell, Byker, Jesmond and Gateshead. They would not get back home until 2am or 3am.

I tipped my cap to them.

“One win since 1986, bloody hell.”

We made our way back to Paddington where we met up with Parky. Although the game had been difficult to watch – I think it was John who called it “turgid”, a good word – we now enjoyed a healthy six-point gap on Arsenal.

And we play at The Emirates next Saturday tea-time.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From The Three Wise Men

Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.

There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.

I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.

They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.

They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”

“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”

We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.

We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.

“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”

Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.

Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.

I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.

Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.

For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.

The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.

But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.

“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”

I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.

Surely not, Chelsea.

The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.

There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”

Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.

The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.

Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.

In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.

It was Christmas after all.

But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.

“There’s no cutting edge.”

How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.

Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.

A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.

Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.

Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.

Watford 0 Chelsea 1.

It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.

Half-time was just a few moments away.

We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.

Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.

Watford 1 Chelsea 1.

Forty-eight minutes had passed.

Bollocks.

The second-half began.

Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.

Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was  unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.

Penalty.

Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.

For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal”  but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.

Chelsea were in full voice again.

Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.

A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.

A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.

Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.

Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.

On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.

At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.

See you at Palace.

Tales From The Home City Of Puskas, Hidegkuti, Albert And Bozsik

Vidi vs. Chelsea : 13 December 2018.

What with the altered, almost dreamlike, reality caused by the bright neon of the Christmas lights, and the extra-sensory rush of the chilled wintry air, plus the floodlit castles by the river and churches and synagogues and spires of the city, to say nothing of the intoxicating scent of mulled wine and of the tantalising aromas of the hearty food of the Christmas markets, at many times in Budapest it felt like I was in the middle of an Eastern European fairy tale. It truly was a magical time. It was magical enough that I was at last visiting one of the classical European capitals with good friends. That there was football, and Chelsea of course, made it all that much sweeter.

Budapest 2018 was truly wonderful.

The flights and accommodation had been sorted out way back in August. This trip to Hungary, my first-ever visit, was a slow-train coming. It seemed like it would never arrive. As the autumn campaign in the Europa League progressed – a procession for our team – the anticipation rose steadily. I bought a Budapest guide book (a pet peeve of mine; hardly a single mention of football in its two-hundred and seventy pages, and certainly no mention of Ferenc Puskas), and also carried out a little online research. We were lucky in the scrum down of the Virtual Waiting Room, and were sure of match tickets. We knew of many that had not been so fortunate. But many were travelling to Budapest without tickets, lured by the prospects of a proper European city with all of the associated thrills.

Eventually the day came.

The long drive to Stansted began at 3am on the Wednesday, the day before the game. My travelling companions were PD and LP, our third European away game together. Also on the 0830 Ryanair flight out of Stansted were Alan, Gary and Daryl. The flight was bang on two hours in duration. We nabbed a few precious minutes of sleep; we knew it would be a long old day. At the airport, we jumped in a cab and headed towards our apartment on Vorosmarty Utca, about a mile and a half to the north-east of the “Pest” city centre. The skies were clear, with few clouds. Thank heavens there was no rain. As we drove through the roads and streets of this new city, I peered out of the window, eager to take on board all of the new sights.

It looked a quintessential former Eastern bloc city. High rises. Graffiti. Crumbling walls. Old dwellings. But then the brazen modern additions, the hit of capitalism and the gleam of car dealerships, fast food restaurants and roadside billboards. I spotted the four leaning floodlights of Honved, that famous old club, a mile or so to the south. We then zipped past the green tinted steel of the Groupama Arena – the home of Ferencvaros – where the game against Vidi would be played the following day. Over the last few miles, I realised that I had not seen a single shop or bar in the city itself that was open. All had their shutters up. No lights were on in any of the properties.

“Maybe it’s half-day closing.”

It was an odd feeling.

Then, eventually, as we got closer to the centre, a few shops had lights on, and doors were ajar.

I kept looking at the signs, attempting to glean any clue as to what the words meant but there were no familiar Latin or Germanic, or even English, hints. Hungarian is indeed a “stand alone” language.

We had a crash course in famous Hungarians.

Biro and his pen.

Rubik and his cube.

Parky’s mate Laszlo, who I remember wearing the very same blue and white Pringle that I was sporting when I encountered a little gaggle of Chelsea casuals in The Crown in Frome’s Market Place in the summer of 1984.

Puskas, of course.

We pondered if Chelsea had ever had any Hungarian players. We thought not. Apart from the Hungarian heyday of the ‘fifties – more, much more, of that later – the national team has not produced much quality since. Have there been many famous Hungarian players of late? We thought not. At the airport, Daryl had mentioned the former West Brom player Zoltan Gera. The Hungarians have certainly not set the Premier League alight, unlike – say – some Czechs or Serbs that I can mention.

Oh, a special mention for Andrea Temesvari, the blonde tennis player from the early-eighties. I think my love affair with Hungary began with her.

We located our apartment then had a quick lager – Arany Aszok, just over a pound a pint – in a nearby bar. There followed another beer in another bar. Then another. Dave, Glenn and Liam joined us for one. Then some goulash in a fantastic local restaurant. Then a walk to a couple of ruin bars – “Mazel Tov” and then the iconic “Szimpla Kert” – and the meeting up with Alan, Gary, Daryl, and then Andy and Antony, Johnny12 and Jenny12 – all from California, and freezing – and then some more beers and some more and some more. The talk was all of Chelsea and of our fanaticism, but never of the game the following day. We took the piss out of each other. The beers flowed further. It was a great night.

At about 10.30pm, I received a text from Foxy, newly arrived from Dundee via Copenhagen. The instructions about how to enter the apartment were not working. And our phones were running out of charge. We exchanged a few frantic texts. We left Andy and Antony in a bar, excused ourselves, and hopped into a cab. Meanwhile, Foxy had hopped into a cab to meet us. Our cabs possibly passed each other. I had visions of us being stranded outside in the cold. And my phone was now on zero charge. It was a fraught ten minutes or so. We scrambled out of the cab. I entered the code onto the keypad as I had been instructed by the Russian girl eight hours earlier. No luck. I turned on my phone and, out of nowhere, I had three percent charge left. I quickly dialed the letting agency and spoke to a girl, who informed me that the Russian girl had told me the wrong code.

Oh bloody hell.

“7395 – enter.”

“BUZZZZZ.”

We were in.

YES!

“Bloody hell, we’re in.”

To celebrate, we popped around the corner to the first bar we had visited ten hours earlier and ordered two or three more pints apiece. The smiling barmaid had recognised us from before. The bar stayed open past its usual midnight closing slot. The barmaid brought us a round of apricot schnapps on the house. Some seriously inebriated locals befriended us. Laughter, laughter, laughter. We left there at 1am. I had been awake for almost twenty-four hours, minus a very brief power nap on the plane.

We scoffed down some food from a shop that was thankfully open. LP and PD called it a night but Foxy and I chatted away until 2am. He had recently visited Madrid for the Copa Libertadores and we were in full-on “football raconteur” mode. We spoke about how our generation, sadly, might well be the last bastion of old-school football support; the singers, the drinkers, the dreamers. Remembering the last lingering whiff of the terraces, hanging on desperately to the notion of supporting teams at as many games as possible. We feared the future where the predominant football supporting experience might be via a TV or streaming site.

Maybe we got a bit too self-important. But I don’t think we did.

It was a bloody long day, and night, though. Our ramblings drifted off into the night…

The bed hit us at 2am.

Game day arrived and we had a chilled-out and relaxing start in our top-floor apartment – I hesitate to call it penthouse, but this is exactly what it was, sun terrace and all – as we were in no rush to get moving. After a while, we set out for the Novotel on the main street in Budapest, Rakoczi Ut, where we easily picked-up our match tickets. We saw a few familiar Chelsea faces. We then embarked on a slow walk south-west, taking in a few of the sights along the way. Central Budapest was a little weather-beaten at times, but it certainly kept my eyes occupied. It was not as grand as Vienna, maybe its sister city along the Danube in the days of the Austria-Hungarian empire, but it was a lot tidier and beguiling than Bucharest, the only similar city of the former Eastern-European bloc that I have visited. This would be my thirty-sixth game on continental Europe with Chelsea, and I know of many who are up to a hundred or more. Their fanaticism is to be applauded.

We had heard that many Chelsea were plotted up at “Pointer Pub” near the river. We headed for there, and arrived – with perfect timing – just as Happy Hour between 2pm and 5pm began. There must have been two hundred Chelsea in there. We got stuck into the pints of “Hunter” lager – not bad – and had a lovely and relaxing time. Great to see Mr. & Mrs. Burger once again; I remember being with them in Rome ahead of their very first Chelsea away in Europe at Napoli in 2012. This was a relaxing time to be honest. And we still didn’t talk about the game. After a bite to eat, five of us bundled into a four-seater yellow cab. As we turned a rising corner, the cab grounded out. Sadly, one of the occupants – Andy from Kent – would not even attempt to get in to the stadium; he had a ticket but not in his name. Once he saw the lines of interrogation, he returned to the city centre.

The cab had dropped us off right outside the main entrance and the steel of the Ferencvaros eagle welcomed us. It was a fantastic sculpture. We edged our way past a side stand, clearly full of corporate hospitality bars and suites. We lined up at the south-west corner and waited for the passport check. One song dominated.

“We’re on our way. We’re on our way.

To Baku, we’re on our way.

How we’ll get there, I don’t know.

How we’ll get there, I don’t care.

All I know that Chelsea’s on our way.”

Our passport and match ticket were checked twice by stewards and police standing two feet apart, then the ticket again, then a bag search. Despite gambling with both lenses, there was no issue with my camera.

“Result.”

With Vidi playing at the Groupama Arena rather than their home stadium, they were treated to the exposed steel of the neat stands being lit in red and blue. Once inside the away section, we slowly made our way to the top rows. It is a rule of thumb for European aways that everyone sits where they want. There have only been three exceptions to this rule as far as I can remember; Moscow 2008, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013. I chose to wear my newly-acquired red, green and white retro away scarf, what with the Hungary team of the ‘fifties being the inspiration for the kit in the first place. I was expecting more fellow fans to be wearing the scarf. Out of over 1,200 Chelsea fans, I only saw two others wearing it, and one of them was my usual match day companion Alan.

“Good work, mate.”

The stadium is single-tiered and plain, but perfect for a team like Ferencvaros, whose old Albert Florian Stadium sat on the exact same site until 2013. There were executive boxes at the rear of the steep stand to our immediate left. All the seats were green. It reminded me a lot of Rapid Vienna’s new stadium.

We were in with a quarter of an hour to spare. After missing the rotten show at Wolves and the euphoria, and then media-led meltdown, of the City game due to ill-health, this was my first game since Fulham.

The team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Ampadu – Christensen – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Barkley

Willian – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We had already qualified as group winners. Vidi were in with a chance of getting through too. The mist had rolled in from the Danube, and it was cold, but not as cold as at Burnley two seasons ago. The game began; Chelsea in “tangerine and graphite”, Vidi in Genoa-style red and blue halves.

There was a little singing from Chelsea, but nothing too loud. There was nothing at all from the home sections. Vidi only play to about 1,500 fans at their home games, and I suspect that the crowd had been bolstered by a few neutrals from the city’s other teams. The Hungarian flag was visible in several locations. The team’s former name appeared on one. Another said “Team Hungary.” Although not on the same scale as Qarabag playing in Baku last season, here was another example of the locals rallying around another city’s team.

“United Colors Of Videoton” anyone?

Chelsea, as predicted, dominated possession during the first ten and twenty minutes. The home team were quite happy to sit back and defend en masse. We kept trying to work openings, but it was an uneventful opening period. The singing in the away section had declined, and we were stood, hands in pockets awaiting something to cheer. Right on the half-hour, Willian – who had enjoyed a couple of lung-bursting sorties down the left-wing, was chopped down outside the box. He grabbed the ball, and we waited for his free-kick. He curled a fantastic effort over the wall and we were a goal to the good. The players celebrated down below.

Alongside me, PD was happy.

“First European away goal I have seen, Chris.”

Sadly, PD was cursing shortly after. A Vidi corner curled in towards the near post and an attacker headed it on. Ethan Ampadu, attempting to divert it, could only head it past Caballero. Nego, who had already forced a save from Wily earlier, then struck a shot which our ‘keeper turned past the post at full stretch. The mood in the away end was of grumbling frustration. We were not playing particularly well, with most of the players under performing.

After a Chelsea move petered out, Alvaro Morata injured himself and Olivier Giroud replaced him.

It was noticeable that some – not many – Chelsea fans left at half-time, presumably to head back to the bars of the city centre. I just do not get it. I hope they didn’t bump into any Chelsea fans who had not been blessed with match tickets in the first place. I noted that virtually the entire stand to our left emptied at half-time as the match-goers headed back inside for the warmth of the hospitality areas.

Into the second-half, Stopira was left completely unmarked at the back stick, but headed over.

On fifty-six minutes, a fine move from Vidi resulted in a floated cross from Milanov being smashed in – on the volley from an angle, in front of us – by Nego. The crowd roared and even I had to admit “great goal.” The Vidi players celebrated right in front of us, the buggers.

We then dominated possession again, but it a lot of our play fell apart due to poor touches or a lack of concentration. Giroud went close from inside the six-yard box. The Frenchman then peeled away at the far post and his sweet volley, in the style of Nego, rose as it left his foot and ended up clearing the bar.

Pedro, who had been energetically warming up in front of us, replaced Willian and immediately spurred us on.

With a quarter of an hour left, Fabregas was fouled and we were rewarded with a centrally-placed free-kick. Barkley stepped over the ball, but it was Giroud who clipped the ball over the wall and into the goal.

Vidi 2 Chelsea 2

“Phew.”

We had most of the ball in the final period, but as the temperature fell, I just wanted to return to the city and thaw out. The whistle went. It had been an uninspiring game, but contained three super goals. The Chelsea fans slowly tumbled out of the steep away end and into the night.

Almost immediately after the game, I spotted that there had been a reporting of “anti-Semitic” songs during the match.

This startled and confused me. What songs? I had not heard any. What was this all about?

I trawled through a few posts on Facebook and it seemed that Dan Levene, on Twitter Twatter, had reported – soon into the game – that a song about Tottenham had been sung which contained the second part to “Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

Now then. I did not hear that song at the game. If it was sung, it could surely not have been very loud. I usually keep my eyes and ears open for any songs being sung at a given game. At the Pointer Pub in the afternoon, however, I did hear the song, in its entirety, being sung by a group of Chelsea upstairs. I often sing that song – it has been sung at Chelsea for decades – but never finish it. I used to finish it. I used to sing a lot of things. But not those words, now, not any more, no longer. Tottenham can sing it and do sing it. That is their problem.

I stop abruptly at “Barcelona, Real Madrid” just as the Buzzcocks’ “Love You More” ends with the words “razor cuts.”

I had to wonder why this song had suddenly been reported. It did not take long to work out. The media had overblown the Raheem Sterling incident. That Chelsea fan had not said those words. The media still needed to prolong their agenda against us. We were in their crosshairs. The shots were taken.

The world was on our case once more.

Sometimes, I hate football.

We walked a few hundred yards along Albert Florian Ut – a famous player from Ferencvaros’past – and caught a taxi cab in to town. After a couple of beers in a gorgeous curved bar on Kiraly Ut, we returned back to the first bar that we frequented the previous day, but we only had time for a single pint before the place closed at midnight.

We slept well.

On the Friday, I had my own magical mystery tour planned. I left the others to their own devices, and caught a tube into the city centre and then out to the south-eastern suburbs to the area of Kispest, home to the fabled Honved Football Club. There was simply no way that I was going to let a trip to Budapest slip by without an attempt to take a few photographs of the former playground of Ferenc Puskas and his famous team mates.

At Kobanya-Kispest station, I still had a forty-five-minute walk ahead of me. It was a cold morning, with a frost, but I set off with a smile. My little mission reminded me of my youth travelling around Europe, heading off to see a city’s football stadium rather than its art galleries and museums. Kispest is a decidedly grubby and working class suburb, full of graffiti’d houses, towering blocks, small shops, tram lines and churches. After half an hour, I spotted two of Honved’s leaning floodlight pylons and my heart leapt. It was a beautiful sight. I waited at a crossing as a train passed, then approached the Bozsik Jozsef Stadium. I was soon learning that in Hungary, the surname always comes before the “first” name. The stadium was guarded by a gate and a security guard did not allow me in to take photographs.

“Bollocks.”

I noted a nearby plaque in memory of Puskas Ferenc, and a wreath. The turnstiles were dilapidated but they spoke of a million memories. I walked away from the stadium, and took some snaps of its heavily iconic leaning floodlights.

So Eastern European.

I wandered along a very quiet road, and was just pondering my next move when a miracle happened in deepest Kispest.

On the other side of the road, walking along the pavement by the perimeter wall of the stadium was Sam. Sam is a fellow Chelsea supporter. We do not know each other well, but we “nod” every time we see each other. As I crossed the road, we both exclaimed “what are you doing here?”

Sam was with Dan, a Chelsea fan from London, whose father’s family are from Budapest. Sam was staying with Dan’s family. And here is where things got interesting. Dan’s father – Kalman, another fan I “nod” to when I see him – had arranged for the two of them to meet an employee of Honved. So, we walked back to the security guard, and after a phone-call, all three of us were allowed in. My camera was primed.

We met Vince, who is the director of Honved’s youth academy, and we were given a twenty-minute tour of the academy building, where one hundred boys live and study, and then the entrance hall to the main stand and the stadium itself. I was in my element. What luck. What beautiful luck.

Vince explained that Jozsef Bozsik was the first Hungarian player to gain one hundred international caps. I found it endearing that Honved’s stadium was named in honour of him and not the more famous Puskas. Vince told us that Puskas’ house was within spitting distance of the stadium.

Most incredible of all, Vince told us that in January, the club will play its last game at the current stadium before it is demolished and a new stadium is built on the same site. The current one, a very low bowl with a capacity of 15,000, will be replaced by a new one of just 8,000. We gasped when we heard it was going to be that small.

But Hungary does not have a strong league these days. And Budapest is rich in football clubs. I suppose the club knows its support. In the meantime, Honved are going to share with another club in the city. My work colleague Marton, who runs a company in Budapest, detailed his take on the city’s football landscape in an email to me a while back, once he heard I was visiting. He does not support one team, but has had spells supporting a few of the teams, mainly due to friendships along the way. He even helped form a team which plays in the lower leagues. He admitted that Ferencvaros has the aura and history.

He then summed things up.

“But Ferencvaros are supported by Nazis. Honved are supported by communists. MTK by Jews.”

He did not mention the support base of Ujpest Dosza. Nor Vasas Budapest.

The visit to Honved over, I said my goodbyes to Sam.

“Amazing, Chris. See you in Brighton.”

With that, I hopped into a cab which had just stopped a few feet away.

“MTK Stadium please.”

I was on my way again.

Within twenty minutes, I was stood outside the utilitarian and ultra-modern Hidegkuti Nandor Stadion. This was hugely different to the archaic charm of Honved. The old MTK stadium stood on the same site – it is where that God-awful “Escape To Victory” was filmed – but this new structure was rebuilt in 2016. Sadly, I could not enter, but I took a few photographs as the cold wind chilled me. If I had stepped inside, I would not have liked what I would have seen. The new stadium only holds 5,500 and there are only concrete walls behind both goals. If this is post-modern football, then count me out. Hidegkuti was a team mate of Puskas and part of the fabled Hungarian team that humbled England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest a year later. I believe that MTK were known as Red Banner when they played Chelsea in a midweek friendly at Stamford Bridge in 1954. Hidegkuti certainly played in that match.

Alongside the brutal angles of the MTK stadium, I recognised the older and more ornate sandy coloured brickwork of the day’s third stadium.

BKV Elore play in the national third division, and do not have any famous players. But they surely have one of the most beautiful stands left in Europe. I had read about its charms on a fellow WordPress site last summer and was now able to see it in person. I made my way past the entrance – open to the public – and fell in love with the dark brown of the wooden roof, the angled staircases, the viewing platforms, the innate beauty of it all. On the other three sides of the pitch, there is nothing, just a yellow and blue perimeter fence. There seemed to be a bar tagged on to the stadium, and I ventured in from the street side. Down below at the bottom of some stairs, ten plates of biscuits were laid out on a table. I wondered what on earth was going on. This didn’t look like a bar to me. Maybe it was part of a fundraising event. I stepped outside again.

Originally, I had plans to travel north to visit Ujpest’s stadium too, but time was against me now. I walked back in to town so that I could waltz past the Puskas Ferenc Stadium – formerly the Nep Stadion – which is being rebuilt, but access was impossible. The photographs I took of that stadium are not worthy of sharing. If I ever return to Budapest, I’ll need to visit this new national stadium, plus maybe Ujpest and Vasas too.

But I did OK on this trip to Budapest.

Four stadia in two days.

I met up with the boys at the Pointer Pub again and we laughed our way through five more pints.

In the morning, Budapest was covered in snow as a cab picked us up one final time and took us from our digs on Vorosmarty Utca to the airport.

With a heavy heart, we left this quite stunning city, rich in history and rich in football.

I would love to return.

 

Tales From Camp Nou

Barcelona vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2018.

Some moments in time…

Bristol Airport / Tuesday 13 March / 0700.

I had set the alarm for 3am in preparation to collect PD at 4.30am and then Parky at 5.00am. But, in reality, I had woken at 1.45am and could not get back to sleep. I was evidently buzzing with excitement. After picking up the lads, it was obvious that the others were buzzing too. I headed out through Bath and some narrow countryside lanes as day broke. We were parked-up at 6am. Check-in was easy, and we were soon able to relax. We were on our way. Not surprisingly, there were a few Chelsea fans from our part of the world on the same flight as us. A Chelsea fan – I forget his name – from Falmouth. Kev from Port Talbot. Emma from Bridgewater. A few Chelsea supporters from Wincanton. Plus several more, all with West Country accents. There were not as many as on the early-morning flight for the 2012 game, but still a healthy presence. I just knew that “2012” would be on my mind continually over the length of our trip. There was only a small amount of talk about the game on the Wednesday. We had a chance, of course we did. But if I was a betting man my money would have been on the home team. The flight was due to depart at 7.30am. It left around twenty minutes late.

On the flight, I tried to catch up on a little sleep. But I also flicked through a “Lonely Planet” pocket guide to Barcelona to whet my appetite. Additionally, in my build-up to the trip to Catalonia, I had worked my way through Colm Toibin’s “Homage To Barcelona” and although I struggled with the density of prose, it certainly helped me appreciate some of the history of the city. Before my first trip to Camp Nou with Chelsea in 2000, I had devoured Jimmy Burns’ monumental “Barca” and this proved a perfect “hors d’oeuvres” to that trip. This time, I wanted to read a little about the city rather than the football club. The city has at various times enjoyed periods of opulence and then decline as a major port and a centre of commerce. There have been highly-charged politics, and anarchy, throughout its history. There has been stunning architecture. The city has enjoyed a status rivalling Paris as a centre for the arts in the past two centuries. Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso have called the city their home. As the trip approached, I wanted to devote a little of my forty-eight hours in Barcelona to a little of the city’s history. I had visited Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in 2012 and I had spotted a few of his wonderful and dreamlike buildings on that trip too. We had seen the wide spread of the city’s architecture on a bus top tour prior to our game at Camp Nou in 2005. I fancied something different this time. I delved a little deeper, and centered on Joan Miro. His paintings appealed; I can’t say why. They looked other-worldly. I realised that he had designed the iconic “Espana ‘82” poster for the World Cup of thirty-six summers ago and there was the reference point that I needed. On the Wednesday, I had my itinerary set. For others, I knew that a day of bar-hopping would suffice. But this would be my fourth trip to the city with Chelsea, and sixth in total, and I wanted to try something different. I wanted my visit to Barcelona in 2018 to be “more than a pub.”

Aeroport de Barcelona El Prat / Tuesday 13 March / 1045.

Our mate Foxy, from Dundee, was waiting for us as we swept through the security checks at the arrivals hall. As we walked towards the metro station – quite a walk – my eyes were set on the hills that circled the city. Way north, the peaks were stunning, and a little like the rounded peaks of Montserrat. The view bewitched me.

La Soca 2/ Carrer de Mallorca / Tuesday 13 March / 1600.

There was a metro ride into the city, a couple of beers in a bar while we waited to be allowed in to our apartment of Carrer de Floridablanca, and then a bar-hopping walk to where we needed to collect our match tickets. There were more Catalonia flags draped over balconies than in 2012. Our tickets were rightfully collected. We could relax further. Opposite, we spotted a street-side bar – number four of the day – and decided to order some crisp “Estrellas.” Very soon, we were joined by some good friends; Jason, the two Bobs, and Andy. Others joined us. We had a great natter. I enjoyed it immensely. A proper discussion about the current state of the club with some wise old heads. And yes, of course, the beer was going down well, some would say too well.

Eclipse Bar At W Hotel Barcelona / Tuesday 13 March / 2200.

After our lengthy spell at “La Soca 2” we dived into two more bars on our way back to our apartment. As workers made their way home after completing their duly grind, we must have looked an incongruous sight, laughing and giggling as we walked past them. There was a quick change of clothes at about 7pm, and we then hailed a cab to take us down to a restaurant on a little point of land overlooking one of the city’s beaches. Inside “Pez Vela” the fish soup and mussels were gorgeous, if not particularly filling. We were joined by Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, our partners in crime in Rome, and we then made our way up to the bar high up inside the W Hotel, just above the restaurant, which is shaped like the sail of a ship. There were simply incredible views looking back towards the city, with lights as far as the eyes could see. It was a brilliant moment. The drinks were still flowing, and we were clearly on a mission. We were joined by a couple of Chelsea fans from Stoke. More drinks. There was a certain inevitability that things were going to career out of control as the night continued. We split into three groups, with Foxy and Parky heading back to the apartment, PD and Kev and Rich heading back to the city, while I disappeared into a time vortex with Ryan and Jack from Stoke. The Estrella gave way to gin and tonics. One of the Stokies bought some champagne. Oh my goodness. The alcohol had taken its toll, and while the two Stokies were able to head inside “Pacha”, I was refused entry – the horror of seeing me on the dance floor after a gallon of Estrella was thankfully aborted – and the lads sent me off in a cab to their hotel, since I had given my apartment keys to PD. As nights go, it had certainly been messy.

O’Barazal Restaurant / Carrer de Blasco de Garay / Wednesday 14 March / 1330.

After finding my way back to the apartment at around 10am, there was just time to have a “what the hell happened last night?” post-mortem with the others. Ironically, despite the apartment having four bedrooms, only Foxy and Parky managed to make it back the previous night. Miraculously, I had no hangover. The others soon set off into the city, and I knew that there would be another momentous drinking-session ahead, so I politely declined. I needed to recharge my phone batteries – zero charge – and my own personal batteries too – just over zero. After an hour or so, I set off on a walk south towards the Montjuic hill which overlooks the city. I was enticed into a busy little restaurant and enjoyed a lovely long and leisurely lunch; a hearty tuna salad, some bread and tomatoes, and then some lamb cutlets, chips and grilled vegetables.

Joan Miro Foundation / Wednesday 14 March / 1500.

I made my way up the hill, through a square which reminded me of Montmartre. Yet more Catalan flags. And lots of yellow ribbons tied to trees and streetlamps. I made my way inside the Miro art gallery, and wandered through the various rooms. I so wanted to see the original of the poster from the 1982 World Cup; I was defeated. There wasn’t even one on sale in the shop. But I had a lovely time, and I enjoyed seeing the sculptures outside in the open air which were able to be framed against the cityscape to the north; the houses nestled into the hills, the TV tower at Collserola, the huge church at Tibidabo – the Barcelona equivalent of Turin’s Superga – and the fading sun. From one viewpoint, I was able to locate the mid-grey mass of Camp Nou, its ‘fifties concrete shell topped with a series of fluttering flags. Thoughts of 2012 once more. But also thoughts from 1986, too, when I travelled around Europe on an Inter-Rail pass, and stopped off in Barcelona, primarily to visit the stadium. I remember thinking that there was nothing like it in the world; certainly there was nothing comparable in the United Kingdom. It was huge. And stunning. I was over-whelmed. Of course, it is very much an aged stadium these days. But it is so impressive in size, in mass, in grandness. It just makes my jaw drop every time. On my descent down in to the city, I passed five or six teenagers knocking a football around between them. They were all Spanish. Two of them were wearing Chelsea shirts. I certainly would not have seen this in 1986. I gave the two lads a thumbs up and they smiled back.

The Daily Telegraph / Carrer de Paul Claris / Wednesday 14 March / 1900.

It was time to meet up with the lads, but I wasn’t sure if they were heading back to the apartment to pick up tickets, and change into warmer gear before the game. A text from Kev told of their location and I was on my way. I walked from the apartment through the bustling city as night fell, with many people wearing FCB scarves, and past the sublime floodlit curves of a Gaudi building on the main shopping street of Passeig de Gracia. I spotted the restaurant where I had met up with a former work colleague – a Barcelona socio – before the game in 2012. The memories of that night would not go away. PD and Parky – with Kev, Rich and Gillian – had evidently spent their day on a lengthy drinking session, and as I joined them inside the small and dark pub, I was pleased to see Daryl and Gary with them. There was time for one pre-match beer and a single shot. I was itching to leave and head off to the game. We left at about 7.30pm.

Carrer de la Maternitat / Wednesday 14 March / 2048.

We had taken the subway from Passeig de Gracia, and we had heard whispers that Chelsea supporters should alight at Palau Rieal, which was to the north of the stadium. This surprised me somewhat because the away section sits at the south-east corner of the stadium. At Les Corts, further south and east, we decided to follow many Chelsea supporters and headed out into the night. What followed was three-quarters of an hour of madness. Rather than be allowed to enter at the nearest gate to our section, as in 2012, we were diverted back towards Les Corts, up a quiet side street, around a hospital, and then – after a good twenty-minute detour – we spotted the entrance for Chelsea supporters to the north-east of the stadium. It honestly seemed like we were being diverted in order to cause as much annoyance as possible. On the walk, I passed a bar where I had a post-game beer in 2012. A Chelsea fan told us that Olivier Giroud was playing. This surprised me a little; would we get hurt being a little more expansive? But at least it met with the approval of most. We set off down a narrow street, but were held back for ticket checks on two separate occasions. Here, the blue-clothed police were in charge. There were rising tensions among the group of around seventy Chelsea fans who were pressing to get in. As we walked on, we heard the pre-match Barca anthem filling the air. In front of us, Camp Nou was a huge wall of concrete. It seemed that we would never scale it, neither physically nor metaphorically. Eventually, we made it down to the final barrier, manned by stewards with green tabards. There was a further ticket check. But maybe just three or four turnstiles for the six-thousand fans. What a farce. There were still lots of pushing and shoving – to say nothing of swearing – but to be honest after such a long day spent by many in pubs and bars, the absolute majority of away fans were well-behaved. Thirty years ago, I think there might have been a different story. My camera was allowed in after the briefest of checks.

Just as we were walking through, there was a roar from inside. It was too loud for a Chelsea goal. We were losing one-nil and we weren’t even anywhere near the away section yet. The word came through that Messi had scored. Bizarrely, we now had to scale a rickety bridge in order to reach the ramps of the stadium. My only thought was that its presence allowed the movement of vehicles – cars, but also the emergency services – below it, but I simply wondered why we had to clamber over it. Why could we not have just walked through? My guess was that Spain is not used to six-thousand away fans, and this is the best solution that the mighty FC Barcelona could muster. It was laughable at first. But as we started to ascend the fifteen or twenty steps, the damned structure began rocking. There were maybe fifty fans on it, and we were all in a rush to get inside, and for a split second – with my balance threatened – I honestly thought that I was going to fall. I am sure I was not the only one. Losing 1-0, a huge ramp ahead of us, we walked on. I was with PD, slowly ascending the ramp which – another 2012 memory – we had gloriously descended six years previously. Parky was away in the distance and we lost sight of him.

Camp Nou / Wednesday 14 March / 2100.

Although hundreds were behind us, still clambering up the ramps and steps to the away tier at the top, it seemed – at first – implausible that the two of us would find a spare space to watch the game. The stadium was as I remembered it; we hovered over it, rather than felt part of it. We were so high. Chelsea fans were stood in the aisles. Eventually I spotted the smallest of spaces, around five rows from the rear. We shuffled along. We were in. Phew. So, an echo from 2012. We had conceded an early goal. I scanned around. Andres Iniesta was playing, damn. We were in Real Madrid white. Our support spread out to my left and to my right. It was a highly impressive following. I hoped that everyone who had travelled had got a ticket. Or at least those without tickets had fatefully met those who had tickets but who had chosen to watch the game in city centre bars. A chap next to me told of how Messi had scored his goal from the tightest of angles. I wondered how on earth it was possible. Chelsea seemed to be playing OK in the five minutes that I was able to see. Eden Hazard cut in from the right, but his shock was blocked. With twenty minutes of the match gone – and with us in the stadium itself for just five minutes – we then lost the ball on the halfway line. A couple of challenges did not win the ball back and Messi was able to advance. He drew defenders towards him. I spotted the run on the far side from Ousmane Dembele. And so did Messi. I feared the worst. His shot flew past Thibaut Courtois and we were 2-0 down. Fuck. But this was a pretty similar position that we were in six years ago apart from the fact that we now needed to score two goals to progress and not just one. Courtois kept us in the game, saving well from Luis Suarez. We kept attacking, with a shot from Marcos Alonso drawing a save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen. I lost count of the number of times I imagined a ball to Ramires in the inside-right channel. A shot from N’Golo Kante slithered across the box, but was well wide. Just before the break, Giroud was fouled outside the penalty area, and we waited and waited for Marcos Alonso to strike. Sadly, his pacey effort clipped the outside of the post. We had it all to do in the second-half.

The mood among the Chelsea fans as the team entered the pitch at the start of the second-half was pretty buoyant. As the lads waited for the home team to appear, we serenaded them.

“You are my Chelsea. My only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much I love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away…”

It was stirring stuff. Courtois then had a brain freeze and passed in error to Suarez. Thankfully, he redeemed himself. But we were far from happy with the lanky Belgian’s performance thus far. But we pressed on, and were rewarded with twenty minutes of impressive football. Willian was our best player by some margin, spinning away from danger, running free, showing great energy, as always. Hazard, it pains me to say it, was not of the same standard. There were few direct runs at the defence, but rather silly flicks and square passes. He did not rise to the occasion. Kante was magnificent in the middle, closing and tackling, giving the ball to team mates. There were contrasting fortunes on the wings. Moses was his usual frustrating self, losing possession too easily, and unable to drift past his man. On the near side down below us, Alonso was given tons of space for some reason and kept bombing on and into pockets of space. But for all of our fine football, time was running out. Bizarrely, three people in the row in front left with half-an-hour to go.

Did they not believe in miracles?

Alonso, on the end of another raid into their box, was just about to pull the trigger when Samuel Umtiti stopped him with a sublime tackle. Just after, the same player was spread-eagled by Gerard Pique after a fine move involving Willian, Hazard and Giroud and the whole away section – that thin slice on top of the concrete bowl – were incandescent with anger. Popcorn, coins and water bottles were thrown up in the air and down towards the Barcelona fans in the tier below. Another shot from Alonso; another block.

“COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA.”

The clock ticked on.

A hurried clearance from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Jordi Alba and his touch found Suarez. Out of nowhere, came an unmarked Messi, and – I absolutely feared the worst now – after a couple of pushes of the ball in to space, a shot was slammed low into our goal. Only on the replay were we able to spot that, like his first goal, the ball had travelled through Courtois’ legs.

Game over.

Our little resurgence had been for nothing. We were out. And hundreds of Chelsea fans, fearful of a lock-in, decided to leave.

Courtois saved from a Paulinho header. There was a double substitution from Antonio Conte; Davide Zappacosta for Victor Moses and Alvaro Morata – heavily booed – for Olivier Giroud. As the game continued, the away sector thinned out further. The introduction of Pedro for Hazard brought the loudest chant of the night from the 92,000 home fans.

“Pedro…Pedro…Pedro…Pedro.”

To be fair to the home fans, apart from the last two or three minutes, they had all stayed late into the game. But this was not a noisy night from them; it very rarely is. Toni Rudger slammed a header against the bar from a corner, but it was soon time for the final whistle.

Barcelona 3 Chelsea 0.

Tuesday had been a messy night.

Wednesday was a Messi night.

We waited and waited in the forlorn hope of spotting Parky. We both sent him text messages, but my worry was that his ‘phone did not have enough charge. PD and I were some of the very last to leave. We began the slow descent back to earth. Not the euphoria of 2012 this time; I was reminded more of the misery of 2000. We had almost reached the last exit ramp when we were brushed aside by many stewards, who we presumed were answering a call for assistance due to some sort of altercation between the two sets of fans. There had been pro-Spain chants on the walk from Les Corts before the game, during the match, and now once more at the end.

“Barcelona. You’ll always be Spain.”

Although it was a rather boorish chant, I am sure that this would generally be classed as “football banter” even in these times. I didn’t sing it, I had no need, but this all seemed too strange for words. Was this the reason for the melee down below us? We weren’t sure. We met up with a father and son who had hinted that some Chelsea fans had held a Spanish flag towards the home fans leaving the stadium. This all seemed rather silly an excuse for the stewards to rush past us. We were only to hear later that those self-same stewards had then decided to batter Chelsea fans – one presumes largely innocent – with batons. To reiterate, we had seen nothing with our own eyes. But I had to wonder, later, why stewards were issued with batons. It was an unsavoury end to the night for sure.

We clambered over the rickety scaffold of before and I was saddened to see one elderly lady stricken with terror after her ordeal.

There was still no sight nor sound of Parky.

PD and I traipsed on, past the antiquated building of La Masia, which houses the headquarters of Barcelona’s famed academy. There were Chelsea supporters dotted about in every bar that we passed. No hint of trouble. Everyone drowning their sorrows. We decided to let the crowds disperse and get a cab back to the apartment. But there was still a worry about Parky.

L’abus Restaurant / Carrer de Joan Guell / Wednesday 15 March / 2345.

We spotted a small café, and needing some food, we darted in, saying a quick “hello” to three Chelsea fans by the door. We ordered a bottle of ice-cold “Estrella” apiece, and the taste was sublime. We devoured a plate of ham, eggs and chips apiece. Just the ticket. By some quirk of fate, we were back at Les Corts once again, and we soon hopped into a cab. The journey back to the apartment would only take ten minutes.

When we were only two minutes away from our destination, PD received a surprising call from our friend Mark from Westbury. Mark had just reached his apartment, along with two friends. The sight that greeted him was just amazing. Who should be sat – slumped – outside his apartment door but Parky. Unknown to us, Mark had booked an apartment across the landing from us – a mere eight feet away – and had obviously been startled to see Parky outside it. Even more amazing was that Parky had remembered the apartment address.

We collapsed in a fit of laughter.

We then collapsed in to our beds.

It was time for some sleep.

Tales From The King’s Road Club

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 10 March 2018.

After two tiring – in more ways than one – journeys to Manchester in the previous two games, the home match against Crystal Palace provided a chance for a more relaxing day at football. With our trip to Catalonia now getting very close, here was a nice little pre-cursor. The reason for this upbeat mood? Parky had booked us day return rail tickets which meant that there were no driving duties for me, and there was an added bonus of an elongated pub crawl down the King’s Road before the game.

Bloody perfect.

We caught the 7.56am train from Westbury, and the memories of previous Chelsea trips flooded back. Not much has changed at Westbury over the years. It could easily have been a scene from 1982, 1985, 1988 or 1991. There was plenty of chit-chat between the four of us – PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me – and the familiar stations of Pewsey, Newbury and Reading were reached in what seemed like no time at all. We were joined by another Chelsea supporter on the journey to London, a chap around the same age as us – maybe a little older – who must have spotted PD’s little Chelsea badges, or overheard our Chelsea-related chatter. He sat next to us and we soon got chatting.

“Are you going to the football?” he asked.

“Yeah. Chelsea Palace” I replied.

“Are you Chelsea or Palace?” enquired Glenn.

I smiled and said “he’s too well dressed to be a Palace supporter.”

“Oh, I’m a season ticket holder in the East Stand.”

I had spotted him on the platform at Westbury; waxed Barbour jacket, mustard cords, brogues. I had – erroneously – presumed that he was a rugby fan from his attire. How wrong I was.

“I’m part of a syndicate; three of us share a season ticket” Shane replied.

It transpired that he lives just outside Frome, in a little village called Chapmanslade. I was thrilled that there was another Chelsea season ticket holder from our neck of the woods. I was even more pleased that one of the syndicate lives in Great Elm, a village only one and a half miles away from my house. We chatted away and he told us a little about his past; like Parky he had been in the Army. Parky was in the Grenadier Guards. Shane was in the Coldstream Guards. But whereas Parky went to a local comprehensive, Shane was an Old Etonian. But he was Chelsea and that was good enough for me. And he went up in my estimations when he showed disdain for “egg- chasing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover” I thought to myself.

We chatted about our recent experiences of following our team in the recent weeks and months. There was indeed much to talk about. I am not sure why, but the talk turned to Mo Salah, and Shane asked us the name of “that other Egyptian, who played for Spurs, the one with the big nose.” We struggled to name him.

From the passenger sitting across from Shane – tapping away silently on his laptop – came the word “Mido.”

And I had a little smirk to myself.

I wondered if the chap was a Spurs fan. I wondered if he had been biting his lip during the previous thirty minutes, wanting to interrupt our Chelsea-centric chat, but fearful that he would be shot down in flames as a fan of the team from North London that we always seem to get the better of.

We pulled into Paddington at about 9.30am. The buzz of a day in London was apparent as we walked beneath the arched roofs of the fine old station. After a breakfast of champions, we caught the Bakerloo to Embankment and the District to Sloane Square. The military theme of the day continued as we walked past the former site of Chelsea Barracks, which Parky was familiar with, although during his stay in the army in the early ‘seventies he was based in nearby Pimlico.

I had planned a six-pub crawl, but we exceeded expectations. From just after 11am to around 4.30pm, we visited a total of ten hostelries either along – or just off – the famous King’s Road.

The King’s Road was always linked to the swinging ‘sixties and the swinging football team that went with it, but in all my years of going to Stamford Bridge, I have never walked its length before a game sampling its pubs and boozers. Most Chelsea match day pubs along the King’s Road have historically been located “over the railway bridge” in Fulham and I have very occasionally visited a few of those Chelsea staples, though – again – on very few occasions. Most of my – our – drinking has been in Fulham proper, the North End Road, Fulham Broadway and those pubs near the stadium.

We had spoken about a pub crawl down the most famous street in Chelsea for years. At last we were going to do it justice.

“The Fox & Hounds.”

Much to my annoyance, the first one that I had planned was closed. So although, we visited ten, it was something of a false ten. Or a false nine, maybe? Where have we heard that before?

“The Rose & Crown.”

This pub is described as “unpretentious” and I could not have summed it up better. When I walked into the pub, I was met by a pungent aroma of disinfectant, which is surely not the best of starts. Still, they sold “Peroni” and so I was happy. The boozer had a distinct ‘seventies feel to it. No frills, no thrills, but plenty of spills. I wondered, in all honesty, now such a downmarket boozer could exist in such a high rent location. The toilet door was reassuringly etched with many football scribbles  :

MFC.

Up The Boro.

CHELSEA.

MCFC.

WHUFC.

We moved on, and our route took us close to the Royal Hospital, the home of those famous scarlet tunics.

“The Phoenix.”

This was an unplanned stop, just off the King’s Road on Smith Street, but much-needed after the austerity of the first one. Another “Peroni” and – with Parky and PD sampling an “Estrella” apiece –  there were a few a few thoughts about Barcelona. To our left were three Chelsea supporters from Norway, who mentioned they were looking forward to seeing a Norwegian called Alexander Sorloth play for Palace. I had not heard of him.

“The Chelsea Potter.”

Here was a famous Chelsea pub, one that I have often heard mentioned in despatches. The single saloon was packed, and I would soon learn that it was packed with both Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, awaiting the start of the game from Old Trafford. As luck would have it, my stool at a high table was turned away from the TV screen. I did not bother to watch; I shunned it completely. Another “Peroni” helped numb the pain of United racing to a 2-0 lead. We had hoped for a draw.

“The Trafalgar.”

There are a quirky mix of building styles along this stretch of the King’s Road, and a mix of shops too. Parky was pleased to see that the Curzon cinema was still in business, although the art deco frontage suggested that it is now houses a Habitat department store too. Next door was a large blue-bricked boozer, and we dived into its dark and quiet interior. Yet another “Peroni” and it was only one o’clock or so.

“The Builders Arms.”

We walked north a few hundred yards and plotted up inside the elegant and classy interior of “The Builders Arms.” No “Peroni” so I chanced a pint of “Birra Moretti” which is not as crisp as my favourite. Here we went through the events at Manchester City the previous Sunday. For once, we were talking football. Glenn had watched Antonio’s press conference the previous day and I was pleased to hear that he had seemed, apparently, more relaxed and at ease.

“The Sydney Arms.”

On the short walk to the next pub, we were stunned to see the gorgeous warm stone of the surprisingly huge St. Luke’s Church, a hidden jewel. I had not seen it before. It was a lovely treat. The next pub was packed, and many eyes were watching the Ireland vs. Scotland rugby game from Dublin. Here, it was a pint of “Sagres”. There was a small amount of banter with a couple of Chelsea supporters. But this still didn’t seem like the world outside was aware that Chelsea were playing a mile or so down the road.

Out onto the King’s Road, we caught a cab to the next destination. To our right I spotted the benches on Dovehouse Green which I always remember being the meeting – and posing – place of the punks of my adolescence and beyond. In around 1984, I noted it was Carnaby Street for mods and the King’s Road for punks, though time was moving on for both of those cults.

“The World’s End.”

Any pub crawl down the King’s Road, surely has to encompass this pub. We all remember the iconic black and white photograph of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, high on a London double-decker bus, holding aloft the newly-acquired FA Cup with the Worlds End pub behind. Here was a pub that I had visited just once before – the opener against home in 1991 – but is now much changed, and effectively a restaurant and a pub no longer. But the hosts made us feel welcome. During his days in the army, Parky would often walk the length of the King’s Road and would end up in this pub. It was just excellent to be back. I was evidently starting to falter; just a bottle of “Peroni” this time. Just before we crossed the bridge into Fulham, we walked past Slaidburn Street, another location of a famous photograph or two from 1970. Decidedly working class in those days – how times change – this terraced street was festooned with the blue and white banners wishing Chelsea well in the FA Cup Final and a few iconic photographs were taken. I wondered how many residents were Chelsea fans today.

“The Jam Tree.”

Pub number eight was not particularly busy, but it is a boozer that I am sure a few of us visited on an end of season mini pub crawl in 2000. Another pint of “Peroni” please Parky. The game was still over ninety minutes away. I suspect a few of our more local fans – do we have many? – were setting foot outside to make their way to the game. There was talk of this pub featuring in the hideous “Made In Chelsea” TV show.

“The Imperial.”

Another classic Chelsea pub, and visited on a few occasions previously, though each time I visit the bar seems to be in a different place. I was reaching my limit, so went for a bottle of “Corona.” We sat in a quiet corner, but I soon spotted an old workmate from over twenty years ago. Roger now lives in Devon, and I saw him last at that crazy 5-4 League Cup win against Manchester United in the autumn of 2012 when we travelled up together. It was lovely to see him again. He was with his mate Andy, who I last saw in 1997 when he refereed a game at Warminster which involved a Peter Osgood select team including such players as Tommy Langley, Graham Wilkins and Jimmy Case. Where does the time go?

So, nine pubs. Phew. Of course, if I had any sense I would have made sure that we popped into “The Butcher’s Hook” on the club’s one-hundred and thirteenth birthday, to pay homage to where the club was formed.

Maybe next year.

Inside the stadium, I soon spotted Alan and Gary Buchmann who have seats in the same section as us. Sadly, their dear father Joe passed away last Sunday, aged ninety. Joe had been a season-ticket holder for simply decades, and I liked him a lot. I remember he used to give me a Christmas card every year, and on the very first one that he gave me – in December 2004 – he addressed it :

“To Chris and the Chelsea Boys. Chelsea will win the league this season.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

For the best part of twenty seasons we sat with him. We sadly lost our pal Tom in 2015. In 2018, we lost Joe. He was a lovely man, and although he did not attend a game over the past two seasons, he was always in our thoughts. One memory from three years ago is strong. It came after Willian’s last minute winner against Everton in February 2015 :

“I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment. Chelsea smiles everywhere.”

I gave Alan and Gary a hug – “your father was a lovely man” – and took my seat.

The early-evening air was mild. There had been no gulps when we learned about Antonio Conte’s team selection, though there was a place for Gary Cahill.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

I was aware that there were a few trans-Atlantic friends visiting and there were mainly watching from The Shed Lower. I hoped that the Ohio Blues, the Atlanta Blues and the New York Blues enjoyed the next ninety minutes.

The crowd assembled, though our dear pal Alan was not with us. He had fallen on his way to work during the week and was housebound. Gut-wrenchingly, he will miss the soiree to Barcelona.

GET WELL SOON T.

Before the match began, there was a minute of applause for a former champion, a star from 1955, the ginger-haired Derek Saunders, who – like Joe – had reached the grand age of ninety.

RIP Derek.

RIP Joe.

After the defensive shackles against Manchester City last Sunday, there was much more – obviously – attacking intent against Crystal Palace. A shot from Kante was almost flicked into the Palace goal by Giroud. A Zappacosta effort caused Wayne Hennessey to drop to his knees to gather. There were two or three “sighters” from Willian. From a Crystal Palace corner, Christian Benteke was left alone behind a gaggle of players in the middle of the box, but he headed tamely over. Palace, of course, had won 2-1 against us in 2015/2016 and in 2016/2017. It was so good to see our man N’Golo back in our starting eleven once more. Maybe if he had played at City, our game plan might have been slightly different. Andros Townsend fired over.

But it was mainly Chelsea.

On twenty-five minutes, Willian collected the ball and moved effortlessly inside. His low shot took a slight nick off the defender Martin Kelly, and we were ahead. I hope that the transatlantic visitors in Parkyville enjoyed Willian’s celebrations.

From Alan : “THTCAUN.”

I replied : “COMLD.”

Not long after, a nice move increased our lead. The ball was swept into the box by Marcos Alonso. Willian hopped over the ball, after presumably receiving a shout from Eden Hazard, who set up Zappacosta to his right. It was hardly Pele to Carlos Alberto, and the shot took a deflection or two off the hapless Kelly, but it was a deserved second-goal. The celebrations from the players seemed a little sheepish, but that did not matter. The crowd roared its approval.

The Matthew Harding started singing :

“One Martin Kelly. There’s only one Martin Kelly.”

There was certainly not the nimble footwork of Gene Kelly from the Palace defender.

Giroud had been involved throughout the first-half and it felt so much better to have a focal point for our play. There had been some fine movement from all of our attacking players. Only a crazy touchline clearance from James Tomkins stopped our new striker from opening his account. Another Zappacosta effort was saved well by the Palace ‘keeper. A Hazard goal was ruled offside. But all was well at the end of the first-half.

We hoped for further goals to build confidence ahead of the game of the season against Barcelona, but the second-half was more arid despite a fair few Chelsea efforts.

In the first noticeable moment of the second-half, the Nowegian Sorlath crashed a shot against the post after a defensive lapse by Andreas Christensen. Willian went close after switching passes with Giroud. A Hazard effort was saved by Hennessey. Willian caused the Palace ‘keeper to scramble to his left to save from a central free-kick. Willian – the main threat – then created for Zappocosta and Giroud.

We were once again treated to some lovely up close and personal trickery from Eden Hazard. One sequence shows his control over ball and defenders alike.

As space opened up, a run down the left flank by Alonso found Giroud, who steadied himself, but his side-footed shot came back off the far post. It seemed his luck was certainly against him. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata with twenty minutes to go. Palace had a goal disallowed via Sorleth, but that was our signal to leave.

We needed to leave the boys to it in order to make sure our train connections worked. We gathered together and headed down to Fulham Broadway. A quick tube up to West Brompton allowed us to connect at Clapham Junction for our train home, which was taking the southern route via Salisbury. While we waited at West Brompton, we heard that Patrick van Aanholt had scored a late Palace goal. We had, apparently, squeaked it 2-1. At Clapham Junction, the narrow passages echoing to “Chelsea”, we raided the Cornish Pasty concession stand. A Palace fan chatted to us and wished us well on Wednesday. Rival football fan in fair-minded and generous comment shock. Whatever next?

Our train connections went well and we reached Westbury at 10.30pm. We soon caught a cab back to Frome.

It had been a fine day.

On Wednesday, Barcelona await.

I will see many of you out there.