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.

 

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part One – Red

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 25 February 2018

It had been a near perfect journey north; light traffic on the motorways, cloudless winter skies, bright sun, and only a couple of stops for breakfast and fuel. Four and a half hours after picking up PD in Frome, and then Parky and Young Jake, we were now located at our usual parking space a mile or so from Old Trafford, outside a small unit which would normally be used to sell tyres. The locals – City fans – took my £10 and guided me back alongside other cars. The car would be safe there. We have used it three or four times now. Fearing the worst – near Baltic conditions were forecast – we fastened buttons on jackets and set off towards Old Trafford. This was Young Jake’s first-ever visit to Manchester United. It would be my twenty-third. In my loose circle of friends who grew up locally to where I live, there are only a few United fans. Yet I am sure that my total of twenty-three visits was considerably more than the three or four United fans could muster between them.

It’s a strange one alright.

For a stadium that holds 75,000 – and is nigh on full to capacity every week, please take note Arsenal – you would think that more of their supporters would actually attend games. I just think that it shows how huge a club Manchester United are. Growing up, working, meeting football fans, meeting people who say they are football fans yet clearly aren’t, it seems that you are never far away from a United supporter. There must be several million United fans in the UK alone. I suppose they can’t all get tickets.

Of course, many never intend doing so, which is another topic completely and which, quite frankly – showing the apathy that would make many United fans proud – I simply can’t be bothered to address.

The twenty-minute walk towards Old Trafford was fine, apart from when we crossed the Chester Road and the wind howled.

Chattering teeth yelled out obscenities.

We were apparently in for a wintry week, which would finish with us playing another game in Manchester, at City’s stadium a few miles further east on the following Sunday. Two supremely tough games indeed. It could turn out to be a very cruel month. Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly.

We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

While the other three went ahead for a pre-match pint inside the away section, I decided to spend thirty minutes or so outside, in front of an old abandoned club shop, and observe.

The famous forecourt sloped down from right to left from Sir Matt Busby Way. I watched the match-going traffic head off to their seats inside. In truth, it was a generally quiet scene. But there was still that great sense of occasion that you get ahead of any important football match. That sense of unquantifiable anticipation – and apprehension for some – with the knowledge that something big, huge, will soon be taking place but a few hundred yards away.

The forecourt. It is the definitive Old Trafford “space.”

In the days of my childhood, and then my youth, before I ever visited Old Trafford, the TV camera crews would always assemble underneath the Munich Clock if there was anything worth reporting at Old Trafford. A Tommy Docherty scandal, or a new signing, the reporter would stand underneath the façade at the eastern end of the stadium, and the image would become locked in my memory bank. On my first visit to Old Trafford – a night game in 1986 – I suspect I only glanced at the Munich Clock as we had arrived late and I am sure I was in a rush to get in. In those days, the forecourt stretched all of the way down towards the corner of the United Road Stand. Since then, the stands have grown exponentially at Old Trafford and the huge megastore now sits on a large portion of the former wide open space.

It was the site of many a battle in the hooligan era. We all remember the scenes from that “ICF” documentary in 1985 when West Ham got rather lippy with some United lads on the forecourt and along the terraced streets nearby. I can remember myself some punches being thrown at a few United versus Chelsea games over the years on this concrete slope. There is an understated commemorative plaque overlooking the remaining forecourt quadrant now, and of course the Munich Clock remains. It is a myth that the clock shows the actual time of the crash; although once a day it does.

I remembered back to our game on a sunny afternoon in late August of 2013 when I spotted Sir Bobby Charlton unobtrusively walking through the forecourt and being thrilled that I was able to shake his hand. That was a great memory for me. One of the better “non-Chelsea” spine-chilling moments of my life. I remember a United supporter waxing lyrical about the importance of the forecourt in the club’s history and how it’s relatively gradual slope tended to resemble the north face of the Eiger after a particularly painful defeat.

There have been additions on three sides at Old Trafford since 1994. And although there are still discussions rumbling on about increasing the capacity of the oldest stand, now named the Bobby Charlton Stand, by building over the railway line behind, I can’t see the capacity increasing in the near future. As I stood for a few final minutes, I realised that the curved quadrant above the away turnstiles at Old Trafford is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium still intact. Those red bricks could tell a few stories I am sure. Underneath, there is a permanently shuttered serving hatch, which may well have sold scarves, hats and favours in the past. How quaint. The megastore now takes care of all that.

One sallow youth wearing a lopsided beanie hat managed to get a few Manchester United fans, and then Chelsea fans, to squeak and yelp into his handheld camera. I inwardly tut-tutted. But he had something special for me. A few minutes later, a United fan in a black away shirt and a Chelsea fan in a blue home shirt – probably friends, possibly even brothers – and each with a half-and-half scarf, both posed and yelled at the camera.

“Go United. Go Chelsea.”

I rolled my eyes to the clear blue heavens.

Oh well, there have always been dickheads who go to football.

I began chatting to a bloke from Madrid, who was taking some crowd shots – some mood shots as I call them – with a couple of cameras. I wanted to warn him that bags, and cameras, would need to be checked before entering the game. But he had no match ticket, he was simply drawn to the game, to the stadium, to capture the pre-match buzz. He was a Real Madrid fan, and we joked about the upcoming Barcelona versus Chelsea game. As my normal camera was abandoned at home, I made sure that I took a few basic shots of the stadium using my mobile phone, focussing on large blocks of colour rather than the up-close and personal details of match action that I usually capture.

Old Trafford is a very photogenic stadium, if you know where to point.

Inside and up the steps and I immediately bumped into the lads; Young Jake, Lord Parky, PD were chatting to John, Alan and Gary. Alan had left his house at 4am that morning and would not be home again until the small hours. We had passed two of the three Chelsea coaches on the M6 at around Stafford earlier. It is the knowledge that loyal supporters like Alan, Gary and John – and hundreds more – make these horrendous journeys for our away games up North each season that fires a lot of my rude responses to many knob head Chelsea fans around the world who mope and moan at the slightest dip in form.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions blah blah blah” – yes, and many of them strike me as being fucking worthless.

There was quiet optimism among our little group. Personally, I predicted a 0-0 draw.

I ascended the final few steps of the day, and gulped in a breath of expectation.

This stadium had provided me with some fantastical memories over the years. Let’s hope for one more.

James and “Sit Down” was on the tannoy. How apt.

We had great seats, row eight, right on the curve behind the corner flag. The stadium took a while to fill. With fifteen minutes remaining, I went down to the concourse to turn my bike around before kick-off, and fortunately just missed “ten men went to mow” and beer being thrown over everyone.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

The manager had chosen to go back to a 3-4-3 with Alvaro Morata given the nod. I had wondered if Fabregas would be dropped in favour of Danny Drinkwater; he was.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

With a quarter of an hour remaining, in a vain attempt to engender any sort of atmosphere, the United DJ played “Dirty Old Town” and then a newer version – with a female vocalist – of “Take Me Home.”

“Take me Home, United Road.

To the place, I belong.

To Old Trafford, to see United.

Take me Home, United Road.”

Chelsea soon responded with a few loud salvos of our own.

It was the first pre-match sing-song of the day and it was almost kick-off.

Bloody hell. In days gone by – “here he goes again” – the singing before the game was an expected appetiser ahead of the match. It set the mood. It got us all ready.

I remembered back to the days when we used to be given that slim little paddock behind the goal. It is where I stood, crammed in with thousands of others like bloody sardines, for my first three games at Old Trafford in 1985/1986, 1986/1987 and 1987/1988. In those days, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise. The lads in the seats behind us used to stand and bellow out “United, United, United, United” as if their lives depended on it. It was a spine-chilling sound, even more so when there used to be tales of pool balls being launched from the seats behind us into that small away paddock.

These two grainy photos are from the September 1987 fixture when we sadly lost our first league game at OT in ages; we always had a fantastic record up there. We had gone unbeaten in thirteen league visits to Old Trafford since 1965/1966. My very first two visits to United’s home resulted in two back-to-back wins within five months in 1986. What a fantastic couple of matches; King Kerry with all three goals and Tony Godden with two penalty saves.

Of course the view was crap; but as an away fan we knew no different.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner. I was waiting for the noise to snap, crackle and pop.

It never really did.

The self-generated atmosphere at Old Trafford back in those early visits sizzled like a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976.

In 2018, it was eerily similar to the ambiance of a mid-‘seventies Berni Inn; softened muzak, embarrassed silences and prawn cocktails.

Despite the cold gusts of arctic air outside, the temperature inside was fine. Not a cloud could be seen above. There were good vibes in the away end. I still fancied a draw. Tottenham were still drawing at Crystal Palace.

The game began.

And how.

We began on the front foot with an early corner.

Soon after, with only two minutes played, Toni Rudiger ran and ran from the Chelsea half – “keep goin’ Rudi”- to deep inside the United half. It was a barnstorming run, which summed up our early dominance, and free-flowing football. The away fans certainly sensed that we were on top.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Right after, a sublime move allowed the ball to be played out wide to Marcos Alonso, who volleyed a cross at waist height towards Alvaro Morata. The ball crashed onto the cross bar. It was a stunning start to the game from us and set the tone for the first-half.

Without wishing to over-exaggerate, it felt like it was all Chelsea.

Time after time we played a long diagonal over to Victor Moses, who seemed to be United’s forgotten man, he was in so much space. Once or twice, he played the ball in, but far too often there was the trademark extra touch, or – even more frustrating – the desire to beat the same man twice. Throughout that first-half, Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante stifled many a United attack. Eden Hazard and Willian hopped, skipped and jumped away from tackles; they were the stars alright.

The atmosphere from the home areas inside Old Trafford was virtually non-existent. Even I was shocked.

A new song from the away fans made me chuckle.

“Your city is blue. Your city is Blue. Just like London your city is blue.”

(I wonder if we will be quite so magnanimous next Sunday…)

There wasn’t much of a reaction from the United lot, whose only song was aimed at Merseyside.

We continued to find space between the lines. United were clearly second best.

However, a half chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, usually so prolific inside the box, so we were all relieved when his shot was easily gathered by Thibaut. It had been United’s first real effort on goal. Not long after, just after the half-hour mark, the twin threats of Willian and Hazard combined magnificently. Willian, his toes twinkling, ran with the ball from inside our box and the space opened up in front of him. He pushed the ball on to Hazard, who continued the move, and spotted the Brazilian’s “underlap” and returned a perfect pass into space. The whole away end lent forward. This smelled like a goal. After one touch, Willian smashed it past De Gea.

Manchester United 0 The Champions 1.

GET IN.

I saw Calvin race down to the front of the aisle and – in a scene which reminded me of a late winner against Tottenham – I joined him. The away end was on fire. I overlooked the balcony wall at the bottom of our section and punched the air.

FUCKING YES.

It was certainly deserved. The Chelsea support had been providing constant noise during the entire match, but the noise levels increased again. My college pal Rick – a season ticket holder in the back row of J Stand, at the other corner of our end –  always rates our away support at Old Trafford. He has told me that we are consistently in the top three or four. I wondered how he was rating the noise in this game. I was certainly proud of our racket. Of course it helps that the team was playing well – “helping each other” – but I always think we should be making tons of noise regardless of how well the team are performing on the pitch.

I grew nervous when some supporters started singing “Jose, what’s the score?”

…mmm, not at just 1-0, lads.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

Inexplicably, and against the run of play, United countered and the large and looming presence of Romelu Lukaku held up the ball in a central position. The ball was pushed back to a waiting United player. Despite a great deal of congestion in our box, Martial found Lukaku, who did well to steer the ball past Courtois.

United 1 Chelsea 1.

BOLLOCKS.

Lukaka, the big Belgian lump, took great pleasure in crossing his arms in front of his chest and sneering at the three thousand away fans.

“Noted.”

We broke again, but the entire end was left fuming as Eden raced into the box but bizarrely opted not to shoot. The moment was gone. The ball broke to Alonso, but his rushed shot cleared the bar. It is one aspect of his play that is lacking.

As one or two Americans are prone to exclaim : “He needs to shoot the ball.”

Shoot. Shoot will do. We all know there is a ball involved.

So, all square at half-time. I reviewed our players’ performances in that first forty-five minutes. All came out positively apart from that man Moses, who so infuriates, and Morata, who was largely quiet, and relatively uninvolved. I had kept looking over at Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, both dressed in black, as the first-half developed. For some reason, maybe an air of inevitability, I have been a Chelsea fan for too bloody long, I sensed that although United had been lucky to escape with just one goal conceded, Mourinho just might have the last laugh.

The second-half began. As always, United attacked the Stretford End.

Mourinho’s men were certainly more involved, but we kept pressing and probing. Another fine run from Willian set up Morata in the inside-left channel, but rather than hit a first-time effort, decided to turn back on himself and shoot meekly at De Gea. A few Chelsea attacks tended to peter out rather lamely, and United were now the dominant force. They are such a big and physical team. Pogba, Matic and Lukaku suddenly seemed to grow an extra few inches. On the hour, De Gea fumbled a long shot from Drinkwater and Alonso, busting a gut, could not reach the loose ball. Our chances were becoming rarer and rarer.

Lukaku dramatically attempted a spectacular overhead kick but Courtois did well to finger-tip it over.

The home crowd were uttering the occasional song of support, but the atmosphere was still surprisingly quiet.

A Willian free-kick, way out wide, caught us all unawares as he chose to target De Gea’s near post. Although De Gea was well positioned to gather it, the low trajectory surprised him and the ball bobbled on the line before he finally grabbed hold.

These were crumbs of comfort as United, I sensed, were gathering momentum.

To our surprise, Conte decided to take off Eden. He was replaced by Pedro. I watched for a handshake. There was one, though only just.

A popular view was this :

“Fackinell Conte, are you fackin’ sure? Eden is our best player, our match winner. Why take him off? Why not take that useless facker Morata off?”

My view was similar, but without the swearing.

Morata had disappeared, really, as the second half continued. I lost count of the amount of times that he went down too easily, holding some sacred body part, eyes glaring at the referee.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Lukaku controlled the ball and sent over a perfect cross for the substitute Lingard to head home. There seemed to be no challenge, nobody close.

BOLLOCKS.

United 2 Chelsea 1.

Conte replaced Moses with Olivier Giroud. I presumed that Pedro would revert to right wing-back, but here was an odd line-up for sure. We were playing with two lanky centre-forwards…on the pitch…at the same time…bloody hell. Just after, Cesc Fabregas replaced Danny Drinkwater.

The personnel change and the shape change can be discussed from here to eternity, or at least until next Sunday, but there is no doubt that the new mix of players looked ill at ease with each other. On more than one occasion, with the ball out wide, we chose to play to feet in front of the box, rather than hit high balls in for Morata and Giroud. But we kept attacking, we kept trying. A linesman on our side of the pitch was quick to flag when Alvaro Morata drifted into a slightly offside position. His effort on goal was hardly applauded since we all saw the flag early.

In the last moments, at a corner, deep in to five minutes of extra-time, Thibaut Courtois raced up field to try to put pressure on the United goal. It amounted to nothing. The ball was cleared.

The final whistle went seconds after.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Not offside.”

I had to think. What offside? Oh, the Morata one? Blimey. That was a surprise. Looked it to me.

Outside, we walked up the north face of the Eigur and the United faithful were goading us with songs about “that big Russian Crook.” On the walk back to the car, we dissected the game. In my mind – call me biased –  I thought we had deserved a point, no doubt.

Once inside the car, I turned the radio on. Like a voice from the grave, someone spoke about Tottenham getting a late winner at Crystal Palace.

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

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

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From The Beautiful South

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 16 February 2018.

During the pre-match chat ahead of the West Brom game on Monday, all was going well until I was reminded that we were playing Barcelona at home on the following Tuesday. Bloody hell, that made me gulp. As at 7.59pm on Monday, we were a team and club that appeared to be low on confidence. Antonio Conte’s honest admission that his team lacked “personality” at Watford seemed to sum things up succinctly for me. Thankfully, we brushed the hapless Baggies away without too much fuss on Monday, and we looked forward to a second home win of the week against Hull City in the FA Cup as the week progressed. However, there is no doubt that the looming shadow of Barcelona dominated my thoughts for a few days. On Thursday, we had to apply for tickets for the Camp Nou game.

Tickets were purchased. Roll on Tuesday 20 February – another gulp – and Wednesday 14 March – and another.

We will be there.

The working week finished, I was a relaxed and smiling soul as I met up with Parky and PD in the pub opposite work. I was not initially a fan of Friday games – all that travelling after a hard week at work seemed a nightmare at first – but as I drove the lads to London, the realisation that I could have a lie-in on Saturday morning was a lovely thought. Outside, it was a sunny and crisp afternoon. There was a nice vibe in The Chuckle Bus. The traffic slowed a little on the M4 and it took me a little shy of three hours to reach London.

I met up with Andy and Antony from Los Angeles, and a handful of a few more locally-based faces, in “Simmons Bar” at just before 6pm. It was a lovely pre-match. Everyone seemed so relaxed, but maybe it was just me. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with Andy, who helped form the famous or – infamous – “Orange County Hooligans” (who knew Americans could be ironic?) a decade or so ago. I have met his pal Antony at a couple of stateside shindigs. I first met Andy in Santa Monica in the summer of 2007. I had arrived at LAX with Cathy for our series of three games in Palo Alto and Los Angeles, and the plan was for Cathy, Beth, Andy and me to head a few miles inland to watch Hollywood United play in the evening. That was the plan. Sadly, we managed to get a little lost on the freeways of LA, and only arrived as the second-half was starting. We had just missed Frank Leboeuf playing the first forty-five minutes, which was particularly galling. I do remember a Hollywood United strike from distant being one of the best goals that I have ever seen. Thankfully, Leboeuf joined us all for a boozy question-and-answer session at the Chelsea pub a week later.

Andy and Antony were over for the Hull City and Barcelona home games – a whirlwind trip to Prague and Brussels was planned between the two matches – and Andy informed me that the Hull City match was his fifty-ninth Chelsea games, a superbly impressive figure.

“When I get to one hundred, I’ll retire” he said, far from convincingly.

I picked up a copy of the match programme, and in-keeping with other cup games this season, the front cover was based on a previous encounter with the opponents. This time, the season featured was 1981/1982. The memories flooded back; this was a season which marked going to games by myself for the first time, aged just sixteen. I remember one school friend being quite shocked that I was OK to head up to London by train on my Tod. I might have been a rather quiet and shy youngster, but travelling alone never scared me. In season 1981/1982, I subscribed to the home programme for the first time and I would always wait with great anticipation on the Monday or Tuesday for the programme to drop through the letter box. Invariably, I would devour every part of it. I always used to enjoy reading the pages from our past which were magnificently penned by Scott Cheshire. From these pages, I learned about players such as Tommy Law, Hughie Gallacher, Ken Armstrong, John Harris, Tommy Lawton and Vic Woodley, and my interest in our history was re-ignited.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I wondered again if the attendance would hold up. Clearly, as with West Brom on Monday, the away section was far from full. But generally, there was a good show. Only the top seven or eight rows of the East Upper – at the top corners – were not used. Deep down, what with our run of midweek games of late, I wondered if we would struggle to sell 32,000 to 35,000 tickets.

Another good show from our support.

With it being a Friday might game, there were many more children dotted around our area and it was great to see.

“I’d best tone down the swearing tonight.”

The team was a mix of fringe players, first team regulars and youngsters.

Willy

Toni – Ethan – Gary

Davide – Danny – Cesc – Emerson

Willian – Olivier – Pedro

In a repeat of Monday, the lights were dimmed and the teams then appeared. Hull City had around eight-hundred supporters.

The game began with a perfect start. A Hull City move broke down and Olivier Giroud pushed the ball on to Willian. Maybe a top-tier team would not back off, but Willian was able to shuffle the ball between his two feet and gain a clear view of the goal. He adeptly curled a fine shot into the goal. It was such a fine strike.

Only two minutes were on the clock.

The Hull accent is neither particularly well known, nor easy to do. Apart from the locals using “I nerr” – for “I know” – all the time, it has little distinguishing features. But Alan and me had a little stab at it.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect start, happy days.

The singing was good at the start, but I inwardly tut-tutted every time I heard the tedious “Steve Gerrard / Demba Ba” chant and the equally tiresome “Frank / 200“chant. Shouldn’t we be singing about current players? Certanly not about Liverpool players. I suspected, actually, that Lampard and Gerrard had been spotted in the TV studio above the MHL.

Willian was on fire in the first part of the match. The next chance fell to Giroud, staying onside, after Pedro shovelled a lovely over-the-top dink to him. He slammed the ball over. We were well on top, moving the ball well. As usual the crowd yelled our support of the manager, and the man in black was soon clapping us for our support. Let’s all hope that recent horrible blip will act as a stimulus for positive change. The debutant Emerson had begun well, showing an ability to seek out space down the left.

I wondered if his middle name was “Lake.”

Emerson Lake Palmieri.

I’ll get my coat.

On twenty-seven minutes, Cesc Fabregas received the ball from Giroud inside our half and played an inch-perfect lob ahead of the on-rushing Pedro. He caressed the ball with a lovely touch, bringing it down, and then steering it low into the goal. What another lovely goal. Superb.

Five minutes later, we built another attack, and again Giroud was involved. He passed to Willian, raiding at will, and he raced at the back-peddling Hull defence.

“They can’t live with us, Al.”

Indeed, they couldn’t.

Willian steered a low shot into the goal, just clipping the far post en route.

Alan had mention that he had bumped into Andy from Trowbridge on the walk to the stadium and Andy had said that he had us to win 4-0.

“Bet he’s getting excited now.”

Lo and behold, just before half-time, a poor Gary Cahill shot was not cleared and the ball fell to Emerson, who did well to send over a low cross towards the near post. Giroud was on hand to deftly tap home. Get in. It had been a fine show of finishing, and Hull had been blitzed.

“Andy is probably thinking we need to declare now.”

I wondered what was in store for us in the second-half. Alan was hoping that Callum Hudson-Odoi would play a large part in the proceedings. He was happy to see that the manager agreed. He replaced Pedro. As the second period began, I realised that Callum’s shirt number – 70 – was as good as it gets for a player called Hudson.

I have to say that the resulting forty-five minutes was a pale imitation of the first forty-five.  Hull began far brighter than us at the start of the second period. Ethan Ampadu was forced to clear off the line, but a braindead foul by Cesc inside the box gave Hull City a penalty.

All thoughts were on Andy and his 4-0 bet.

After a little delay, David Meyler slammed the ball at goal. Willy Caballero flung himself to the right and saved. The hero from the Norwich marathon had done the job once more. Alan and I cheered and smiled.

The bet was still on.

On the half-hour, youngster Kyle & Scott replaced Fabregas. Bloody hell, the kid looked young, with the frailest of frames and a haircut from the ’eighties or modern North Carolina.

“He looks about twelve, Alan.”

The youngster looked at ease though, showing no real signs of nerves at all.

I announced to Alan that “I’m going to call him Kyle & Scott.”

Alan smirked.

Silently, I wondered if he was good in the air.

The voice inside my head replied : “Yep, he’s a nice jumper.”

I’ll get my other coat.

Hull threatened our goal again, who were by far the better of the two teams in the first fifteen minutes of the second-half. Hudson-Odoi raced away and played the ball to Zappacosta, who had the chance to shoot, but instead chose to pass to Willian. His deliberation allowed defenders to recover and his shot was blocked. As the ball then spun loose, Zappacosta forced a low save from the Hull ‘keeper Marshall.

The bet was still on.

As the game drifted past, Alan and I waffled.

Alan : “I’ve seen it all now. The Hull ‘keeper wearing all green. Whatever next?”

Chris : “Not only that, the referee in all black. Stop the madness.”

We then realised that Willy Caballero was wearing all orange, thus clashing rather spectacularly with Hull’s predominantly amber kit. We remembered how such topics were feverishly debated by Brian Moore on “The Big Match”, often eclipsing any talk of tactics and styles of play. I blame Brian Moore for both Alan’s and my continued annoyance with kit clashes.

The minutes ticked by. Hull’s little period of possession had passed now, and we were again in the ascendancy.

I loved the way that with every Willian corner, two young lads sitting behind me were yelling at him, almost feverishly. It was great to see and hear. The noise had been pretty good in the first-half, but had lessened in the second.

With twenty minutes remaining, Olivier Giroud was replaced by Alvaro Morata. The former Hipster Gooner Knobhead was given a fine reception. He is well on his way along the Mickey Thomas path of redemption and acceptance. Danny Drinkwater kept a rising ball down and the driven shot was saved. I found it hard to believe that the score was still 4-0. The last chance of the game – very late on – fell to the game’s most lively player Willian, who advanced and curled a shot towards the goal. The ball spun off the far post, with the ‘keeper well beaten. Alan and I sighed, but soon laughed. Andy, I am sure, punched the air with joy.

Funny game, football.

The bet was won.

The game ended, and there was a hearty roar.

The PA announced that we had reached the FA Cup quarter finals for the thirteenth time in seventeen seasons. As I left the MHU, I realised how much we have owned this competition since 2007. It is time we won it again.

We had all witnessed a fine evening of football.

London 4 Hull 0.

It had been a beautiful night in The Beautiful South.

 

Tales From The Arkles

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2017.

This was our third away game in just eight days. After visits to the Black Country and Azerbaijan, it was now the turn of Merseyside. With a tea-time kick-off at 5.30pm, I was able to enjoy the luxury of a little lie-in before driving the Chuckle Bus north. I collected PD, then Glenn, then Parky. The weather worsened as we headed north on the M5 and then the M6. This would be my twenty-third trip to Anfield with Chelsea. Bizarrely, it would be my first-ever trip with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. His last visit to Anfield was way back in November 1985; that famous 1-1 draw, with 1,000 Rangers fans in their own special section on the Kemlyn Road. On that occasion, he traveled-up from Somerset with the Yeovil supporters on their coach. I had arrived by train from Stoke. We had both been at the game in May 1985 too. Again, he traveled up by coach from Frome and I trained it from my college town.

…all those years ago…we were only twenty and eighteen…yet here we were, repeating the same steps in 2017.

We had parked-up on Utting Avenue, that wide road which shoots off from the city’s ring road, Queens Drive, to the Anfield citadel at the top of the hill. We were headed for “The Arkels” – one of the most famous “away pubs” on our travels with Chelsea – where I had arranged to meet up with a few chaps. There was not the wicked wind of Baku, but it was still a cold afternoon. The rain had momentarily stopped, but a Turner-esque storm cloud was looming in the distance, the fading yellow sun offering a last blast of light as the night fell.

I was reminded of a photograph that I took of the same pub after my very first visit to Anfield in that May 1985 game, which ended with a 4-3 win for the reigning league champions.

The same pub, thirty-two years apart.

We slipped inside “The Arkels” at around 3.15pm. It was frantically busy. It is not an “away fans only” pub – both Liverpool and Chelsea fans rubbed shoulders, but it was the away fans making all of the noise. The landlord welcomed the away fans to his boozer using a microphone.

“Enjoy your visit lads, sing some songs, but please don’t stand on the furniture.”

Although things often used to get a little tense at Liverpool over the years, this particular pub is always welcoming. The locals watched with strained ambivalence as the Chelsea lads sang song after song. I am not convinced that United fans are given equal billing as us. A little gaggle of lads from our home area were already there and The Chuckle Brothers joined them. I spotted my mate Rob and also three good pals from the US. Brian from Chicago was back from his travels to Baku and he was joined by J12 and his wife, and also Cruzer and his wife and daughter.

J12, Jenny, Cruzer, Abigail and Ava all live in Los Angeles.

From La La Land to La Land.

We were in the little room to the left of the bar. It brought back a memory from January 1992 where, on my first ever visit to “The Arkels”, I had found myself drinking at the exact same table. I retold the events of that day to the visitors from across the pond.

I’d like to think that it is worth sharing again here.

I was with my old school mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game and it would be a seismic weekend for him; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we had stayed with friends – my college mate Pete and his Evertonian wife Maxine – and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub on the Saturday lunchtime before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous few weeks direct from Chelsea. In those days, I am sure that you could show your membership card at Stamford Bridge, pay your money, and get handed an away ticket. No internet. No loyalty points. It was as easy as that. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

However, the streets around Anfield were milling with people. Bizarrely, we bumped into an old college acquaintance – a Scouser with the unforgettable name of Johnny Fortune – and our heart sank when he barked at Pete with incredulity :

“The Kop’s full.”

I could hardly believe it either. Our plans had been hit by a wave of optimism by the Liverpool fans, enticed to Anfield in vast numbers after the midweek win. Not a spare ticket was to be had anywhere.

“Bollocks.”

Without dwelling on it, I quickly thrust my ticket for the away section in the Anfield Road into Francis’ hands.

“Take it.”

There was no way that I was going to allow Francis to miss out on his first ever Anfield game. Fran was almost stuck for words, but I shooed him away and told him to enjoy the match. Pete and I, once we had realised that there was no way in for us, retreated back to “The Arkels”, where we took our seats in the same corner where we were standing and sitting in 2017, drank a lager apiece and half-halfheartedly watched an England rugby international.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the news came through that Vinnie Jones had put Chelsea ahead. Liverpool then equalised. With half-time approaching, Pete and I finished our pints and walked past the Kemlyn Road Stand and found ourselves on the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop. The idea was to get some chips. At the half-time whistle, we suddenly noticed that one gate behind The Kop was opened and several – ten, maybe fifteen – Liverpool fans exited the stadium, crossed the road, bought some chips, then returned back inside the stadium.

Pete looked at me. I looked at Pete. No words were needed. We approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright, lads?”

In we went. In we fucking went. We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 Scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete, smirking.

“Fucking get in.”

Anfield was not a friendly place, neither on nor off the pitch. And here I was, stood right among the enemy on the famous Kop. On the pitch, our form at Anfield was shocking. Save for a lone F.A. Cup win at Anfield in around 1965, Chelsea had not won at the home of Liverpool Football Club since 1937.

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-five sodding years.

I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What indescribable joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

“Come on Liverpool. We can beat dese. It’s only Chelsea.”

Inside, I purred with happiness. And I was, deep down, supremely happy to have stood on the old Kop – even though it only amounted to only forty-five minutes – before it was bulldozed two years later.

At the end of the game, Pete and I raced around to meet up with Francis by the Shankly Gates and my first words were –

“We got in.”

I think it is very safe to say that Francis was very relieved.

“Our first win since 1937 and we got in for free.”

Ironically, in the circumstances, Francis had thoroughly enjoyed himself despite his team’s loss. He commented that the Chelsea fans never stopped singing, never stopped cheering. On more than one occasion, he found himself singing along too; I guess that he was caught up in the emotion of it all. One Chelsea supporter kissed him when Wisey scored. Also – fantastic this – Fran was deeply moved by Micky Greenaway’s urging of fellow fans to get behind the team with his demonic “Zigger Zagger” chant as he walked back and forth. It had been, Francis exclaimed, an incredible afternoon.

The years have flown past since.

I limited myself to two pints of San Miguel, sadly served in plastic glasses. The pub was bouncing with noise from around thirty Chelsea youngsters in the far room. I shared another couple of other stories with the US visitors. I told how my father had watched his only game of football – that is, before his trip to Chelsea with me in 1974 – during his WW2 training on The Wirral at Goodison Park, the equally impressive stadium at the bottom of Stanley Park, no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. I then whispered to J12 and Jenny about that infamous aspect of football on The Kop which the locals termed “a hotleg.”

The pub was thinning out. I re-joined The Chuckle Brothers in the back bar. A few idiots were standing on the sofas. At about 4.45pm, we set off, past the four of five police vans parked right outside the boozer.

I remembered how I had shaken hands with the then England manager Fabio Capello before our 2007 CL semi-final as we crossed the road, past the souvenir stalls, past the tight terraced streets.

The Kemlyn Stand of 1985 became the Centenary Stand in 1992. It is now the Kenny Dalglish Stand in 2017. There is now a car park behind the Anfield Road, where once there were houses, and only just recently a fan-zone. There are, I believe, plans to enlarge Anfield further at this end.

Inside, the Chelsea team were already on the pitch, going through their drills.

The team?

A very solid 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

The three in the middle – the former Leicester City champions plus the new boy Tiemoue – were chosen to dampen the threat of Liverpool’s attacking options. The creativity would have to come from Eden Hazard.

“No pressure.”

The minutes ticked by. A large flag floated over the heads of the Scousers in the lower tier to my left. No end of flags and banners waved in The Kop.

A bittersweet flag – “Iron Lady” – caught my eye. It honoured the memory of the late Anne Williams and her relentless fight for justice after her son Kevin was killed at Hillsborough in 1989.

Thankfully, I am pleased to report only a very short blast of the loathsome “Murderers” chant from the away section all day.

The teams entered the pitch.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I expected a lot more noise. It was four times as loud at the infamous Champions League encounter in 2005; that match had, I am sure, the loudest atmosphere at any game that I have witnessed in the UK.

To my immediate right, a Chelsea banner was held aloft. A blue flare was set off and the smoke drifted up towards the mountainous new main stand to my right.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Philippe Coutinho kicked-off.

Game on.

As so often happens, Liverpool dominated the first twenty minutes. Every game at Anfield seems to start in this fashion. Yet they rarely score. This game was no different. In previous seasons, it is so often Coutinho who impresses, but it was Mo Salah who caught the eye. His nimble footwork seemed to dazzle me, if not our defenders, who were more than able to close him down and stop him making a killer pass to others.

A few Liverpool passes zipped into our box, but we defended well, without any signs of panic or concern.

As the minutes ticked by, I gazed up at the rather old-fashioned scoreboard – no flashy TV screens at Anfield, nor Old Trafford – and commented to Gary :

“Over the years, I don’t think I have consistently watched the time pass on a scoreboard more than the one here.”

Gary agreed.

Tick tock, tick tock.

Liverpool struggled to make any real progress despite having much of the ball. At the other end, Eden began a dribble into a danger zone which was eerily similar to his goal at the end of the 2015/2016 season. A shot from outside the box similarly followed. On this occasion, Mignolet scrambled the ball away for a corner. Not so long after, a simply sublime 180 degree turn on a sixpence and a trademark dribble set up Danny Drinkwater, who could not quite get enough of the ball as Mignolet raced out.

Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. Sadly, Bakayoko really struggled to get in to the game at all. Davide Zappacosta seemed a little overawed. But Andreas Christensen was cool and magnificent. N’Golo Kante was N’Golo Kante; enough said. Hazard was the star though. He was on fire. There were a few Hazard and Morata link-ups, but nothing like at West Brom the previous Saturday.

Eden then set up Zappacosta with a teasing lay-off reminiscent of Pele and Carlos Alberto for Brazil in 1970. Unfortunately, the Italian’s rising shot was palmed over. From the corner which followed, an almighty scramble resulted – penalty box pinball – and there were a few swipes at the Liverpool goal without an end result.

For the record, Daniel Sturridge was having a very quiet game. It is hard to believe that he was a Chelsea non-playing substitute on that night in Munich. How things change.

A free-kick from Alonso flew past a post.

Just before the break, that man Salah shimmied, and curled one just past Courtois’ far post. It had me worried, anyway. It was Liverpool’s only worthwhile effort thus far.

At the break, Glenn shouted up to me from row two.

“We won’t lose this.”

“Nah.”

Hazard tangled with James Milner – the world’s most tedious footballer – on the edge of the box. No decision from Oliver the referee.

Oliver had given us a laugh when he had slipped and stumbled on the halfway line. The Chelsea choir did not waste much time.

“Are you Gerrard in disguise?”

Generally, though, the crowd were quiet. The home fans especially. And although everyone on The Kop was standing, as were the Chelsea fans, the Liverpool fans alongside us in the Annie Road were seated quietly.

Sigh. The lack of noise genuinely surprised me.

Sturridge had a weak effort in front of The Kop. Liverpool had begun better in the second period, but the raiding Zappacosta put in a couple of testing crosses from the right. No Chelsea player was able to connect, save for a ball which bobbled up on to Morata’s chest and flew wide.

“John Terry would have scored that.”

He loved a chest pass, did JT.

Courtois saved well in front of The Kop.

Away to our right, Antonio asked Willian, Fabregas and Rudiger to warm up.

On sixty-five minutes, Liverpool worked the ball in to our box and an attempted clearance from Bakayoko only teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain who touched the ball to Salah.

That horrible moment when you just bloody well know that a goal will be conceded.

“Bollocks.”

Salah guided the ball past Thibaut.

“Bollocks.”

To his credit, our former player did not celebrate.

After an age, Conte made a change. We struggled to work out why it was Drinkwater and not the very poor Bakayoko who was replaced by Fabregas. However, a lot more creativity immediately warmed us. Morata suddenly looked livelier. A few wonderful passes almost paid off.

Pedro replaced Tiemoue.

Tick tock, tick tock.

We stepped it up. I kept saying to the lad with a Mancunian accent to my left –

“We’ll get a goal.”

The away support was warmed by our increased urgency. Another cross from Zappacosta was zipped in. Right in front of me, Alonso met the ball at knee height with a volley. I snapped my camera as his effort flew over. It could have been the best goal that he would ever score. It could have been the best photograph that I would ever take. In the end, both shots were consigned to the delete folder.

Sigh.

With seven minutes remaining, Willian replaced Zappacosta. We kept pushing, with Hazard and Fabregas the main assailants. The Chelsea support roared the team on.

With five minutes to go, Willian received the ball in the inside-right channel. He had a man outside, but pushed on. He chose to send over a teaser towards the far post. The ball seemed to hang in the air for ever. I watched, mesmerized, by the spinning ball. It fell out of the night sky, above the clawing hand of Mignolet, and into the top corner of the goal. As it rippled the net, some nameless photographer at The Kop end snapped his camera.

My mouth is open. My eyes are wide.

No words are necessary.

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Pandemonium in the Annie Road.

GETINYOUFUCKER.

A scream and a shout. Arms everywhere. I clambered onto my seat – “please do not stand on the furniture” – and caught the blissful celebrations just yards away. What a moment. The goal was nothing more than we deserved.

In the final moments, a magnificent save from Courtois from Salah was met with thunderous applause.

The final whistle blew.

It was our third consecutive 1-1 at Anfield.

I suppose we should have no complaints, but I cannot help but think that if the game had continued for another five minutes, we would have found a winner from somewhere.

It had taken forever to drive up to Anfield – a few minutes’ shy of five hours – and it took an equally long time to retrace our steps. There was slow-moving traffic on Queens Drive, heavy rain on the M6, and a 50 miles per hour speed limit too.

At a Balti House in West Bromwich, we enjoyed some curries while watching our game on “Match Of The Day.”

“Willian, did you mean to shoot?”

“Of course.”

We weren’t so sure.

After setting off at 9.45am, I was back home at 2am. It wasn’t as far as Azerbaijan, but bloody hell it felt like it.

On Wednesday, we return home to Stamford Bridge to play Swansea City.

See you there.

IMG_1642 (2)

 

Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

Qarabag vs. Chelsea : 22 November 2017.

Sandwiched between two Saturday away league games at West Bromwich and Liverpool was a European away game that had tantalised myself – and many others – ever since the Champions League draw way back in August. Our game in Baku in Azerbaijan against Qarabag represented Chelsea Football Club’s longest ever trip for a UEFA game. Only the two games in the World Club Championships in 2012 in Yokohama, Japan – FIFA not UEFA – were further away from our home in SW6, with friendlies on the west coast of the US, South America and Australia not included.

On the evening of the draw, I booked myself onto an Aeroflot flight to Baku, via Moscow, and it soon became apparent that many good friends had decided to travel too. Only a few were going direct. Most had decided to go via Istanbul, but a fair few had chosen the Moscow route.

I had missed the last minute drama of the Michy Batshuayi winner in Madrid, but was there in Rome five weeks ago to see us lose 3-0. Bizarrely, Qarabag’s draw in Madrid that night dampened the pain of that loss to Roma. A win in Baku would see us through to the knock-out phase. It added a little drama – if it was needed – to this most lengthy of adventures.

Did this trip need a little drama to add a certain piquancy?

I was in two minds.

I have recently begun reading a book written by the revered Paul Theroux – “The Deep South” – which details his travels, experiences and insights of that fabled sub-section of the United States. In one of the first chapters, he details how travel books often engineer some sort of false logistical conflict in order to add a degree of tension and drama to the narrative. I have often thought that this was true of television travel documentaries – probably my favourite type of TV programme if I am honest – and I lay the blame solely at the feet of Michael Palin. His ground-breaking “Around The World In Eighty Days” travelogue from 1988 was enjoyable but there were endless “will I catch the correct plain/train/coach/car?” scenarios which I could not help but think were added to give the series an extra edge and a sense of danger.

Theroux was having none of this and it struck a chord. Certainly travelling within the US – he was to drive by car from the small towns of the Carolinas, through Appalachia and down to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico – there was surely no recognisable conflict. He was wealthy, he owned a good car, the fuel was cheap, the roads were wide and easy to navigate. There was no need to add any drama to his movement through the area.

However, on the day before I was set to leave for Baku, my friend Dutch Mick reported of a nightmarish experience in Moscow. He was not allowed on the waiting plane to take him to Baku. Then, once arrived in Baku – ten hours late – his son had paperwork issues with his Azerbaijani visa and had to wait for a new application, but there were subsequent issues with that too. I was then horrified to read that he commented that Aeroflot often cancel flights to Baku without any notice.

“Oh bollocks.”

Of course there are always usual worries linked to foreign travel – those horrid doubts about having neglected to pack that all important passport, visa, credit card – but as I left work on the Monday, I remembered how one friend had lost both his passport and wallet and another pal had lost his passport in Rome. Then came this extra worry of cancelled flights. I had no margin for error; my flight was only getting in to Baku at 5am on the day of the game. It is fair to say that I felt myself remembering Paul Theroux’ comments about enforced conflicts with a wry smile.

I hoped that the only conflict within this particular edition of my travels with Chelsea would be result-related and not due to any logistical snafu.

The English portion of the trip began well. I set off from my home in Somerset at 9am. At just after midday, I had parked my car in my friend Nick’s driveway in the small Berkshire town of Twyford. Although Nick has been going to Chelsea since that horrible relegation season of 1978/79, our paths have only recently crossed; in China of all places. We were over in Beijing for the Arsenal friendly in July. The Aeroflot flight took us out of London via Gatwick but back in via Heathrow; by parking at his place, potential problems from the English section of the trip were smoothed.

Nick’s wife was able to take us to Wokingham train station, from where we caught the hour long train to Gatwick. On that train journey, Nick and myself chatted relentlessly about our travels around Europe with Chelsea. Interestingly, our team’s performances were rarely mentioned; the buzz was all about foreign cities, unbelievable itineraries, excessive beer intakes, endless laughs and various “characters” that we both knew, of which Chelsea has many. Nick was full of tales and many brought a smile to my face.

He began one story by shaking his head and uttering the immortal words “I was sure I told her.”

One day, Nick received a text from his wife asking if he could pick up his son David from school in the afternoon as she would be busy with work.

He replied –

“I can’t. I’m in Bucharest.”

And he was, for our 2013 Europa League game. Classic.

Bearing this story in mind, plus a few others that reinforced the notion that Nick was as “football daft” as myself, I recalled the look that Nick’s wife gave me when I shook her hand back in Twyford.

“Here’s another bloody idiot.”

This would be my thirty-second trip abroad with Chelsea for a UEFA game. I was able to delve into a few of my personal memories. Off the top of my head, a top ten would be Munich 2012, Tel Aviv 2015, Turin 2009, Stockholm 1998, Barcelona 2012, Seville 1998, Lisbon 2014, Vienna 1994, Istanbul 2014 and Prague 1994.

There was time for a couple of pints at Gatwick. On the four-hour flight to Moscow, there were around twenty other Chelsea supporters. I wondered how many tickets we had sold; I hoped for at least one thousand.

Ah Moscow, bloody Moscow. After the memories of that damp and depressing evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, I swore never to return. But returning I was, and to the same Sheremetyevo airport too, although the Aeroflot terminal, built in 2010, was vastly superior to the now demolished northern terminal that we used in 2008. There was time for a few beers – Spaten, ah Munich – using some of Nick’s roubles from the Rubin Kazan game in 2013; the surly barman reminded me of the welcome we had from the locals on my only previous visit. Although it was around 11pm, all of the retail outlets were open – manned by bored shop assistants staring blankly at their mobile phones – and I was again reminded of how pervasive US commercial activity has proven to be; “Victoria’s Secret” and “Burger King” among others were peddling their wares in deepest Russia. A gaggle of Maribor players returning to Slovenia after their game against Spartak Moscow brushed past us. An enthusiastic Chelsea fan from Munich regaled us of his train trip from Southern Germany to Moscow for the 2008 Final; sixty hours there, sixty hours back. Suddenly Baku did not seem so far away.

I caught a little sleep on the Moscow to Baku leg. We touched down at bang on 5am. Outside, the night, everything dark and mysterious. We were quickly through the passport and visa check; “phew.” I exchanged some sterling for the local currency. The terminal was eerily quiet. A line of white taxi cabs was parked outside and the drivers seemed a little ambivalent to us. Eventually, we knocked back one driver who wanted 60 manat and finally negotiated a 25 manat cab into the city; this translated to around £12.

It was a quiet cab ride into town. We were both tired. The road was devoid of traffic. We wondered what was lying in wait. Baku seemed a beguiling city from afar. Soon, the cab driver took us straight past the oddly-named Olympic Stadium (I must have missed that one), which certainly reminded myself of the Allianz Arena in Munich; adjacent to the main road in to the city from the airport, and encased in a plastic skin. It looked stunning. The game would kick-off in fifteen hours. As the cab took us deep into the city, the buildings became more impressive.

Back in 2014, the furniture company for whom I work sent around seventy articulated trailers of workstations, chairs and storage cabinets to the city of Baku. We kitted out the twenty-five stories of the impressive Socar Tower. It was a huge project. Socar is the state-owned oil and gas company. Within ten minutes of landing in Azerbaijan, I had spotted my first Socar petrol station. As the cab neared our final destination in the city centre, not far from the promenade which overlooks the Caspian Sea, I was able to spot a large building bearing the name of the furniture installation company – Palitra – who were involved in the project. It brought a shudder; due to the intricacies of the export documentation required for exporting into Azerbaijan, which were an added burden to my already busy workload, the Socar project represented the most stressful time in my working life. I was certainly relieved when the tower was fully furnished and open for business. I so hoped to be able to set eyes on the tower, which is in the shape of a flickering flame, during my thirty-five hours in the city.

At about 6.30am, the cab driver deposited us right in the heart of Baku; Nick’s hotel was a few yards from the city’s “Hard Rock Café.”

My hotel – where my mates Alan and Gary, plus it would transpire, a few others – was not far away but the room was not ready until 2pm, so I crashed on the hard wooden floor of Nick’s hotel room for a couple of hours. At around 10am, I set off to collect my match ticket at the Grand Hotel, which was around a twenty-minute walk away. A Chelsea fan pointed me in the right direction. I wasn’t prepared for the very strong winds which blew leaves up off the roads and pavements. My bag on wheels thudded on the cobbled streets which lead up a slight hill. During those first few moments, my eyes were on stalks, taking it all in. I was impressed with the architecture; strong and formidable. I walked past small shops…clothes shops, fast food joints, small and intimate. The Grand Hotel was on a busy intersection. The cars flew down the hill but I soon noticed that, although lights were absent, cars always stopped once pedestrians stepped on to the zebra crossings.

My match ticket collected – 10 manat, or £4.50 – I was unsure what to do. Alan and Gary were on their way to the collection point too, but my phone was playing up. I decided to head back in to town, and soon spotted a Chelsea fan, Scott, sitting in a café on Fountain Square with another supporter. I joined him for a coffee. Outside, they were setting up stalls for a German-style market. A large Christmas tree overlooked the pale blue huts. Nearby were large KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds restaurants. The shops and eateries in this central square seemed very westernised. It reminded me of a small German city. Scott had arrived on the Tuesday; I soon wished that I had done the same.

And I was in a slight quandary. I was well aware that the city’s beers were cheap and the bars welcoming and plentiful. But I was sleep-deficient and I had a long day ahead. I wanted to see something of the city. I didn’t want to be tired and drowsy for the football. I wanted to be up relatively early on the Thursday for more sight-seeing. I pondered my options.

I imagined that if I chose to drop my bag at the hotel room and dive into some bars, my destiny might career out of my hands.

The risk of cheap alcohol was real.

I imagined myself stood next to a wheel of fortune and it spinning around, with an array of worrying options.

  1. Drink too much too early and – without food – become a burden, and manage to lose my wallet and match ticket.
  2. Drink too much, spend too much, lose debit card at an ATM, go back to hotel, sponge money off mates and get to game late.
  3. Drink too much and end up in a bar in the wrong part of town and struggle to get to the game in time.
  4. Drink too much, vomit over my jeans, end up in a dishevelled mess in a shop doorway.
  5. Drink too much, get on the metro, take the wrong train, end up miles from anywhere.
  6. Drink too much, simply go back to the hotel, miss seeing my mates, fall asleep, comatose.
  7. Drink too much, drop my camera, get annoyed, head back to the hotel room to charge up my phone/camera, fall asleep and miss game.
  8. Drink too much, fall asleep, wake up on Friday.
  9. Drink too little, but still get lost en route to the game, get in late.
  10. Drink too much and end up supporting Tottenham.

I decided in the circumstances to play it cool. I had drunk enough in Rome. This would be a chilled-out trip.

A young lad approached me on Fountain Square and interviewed me for either a) an Azerbaijan TV station, audience 5,000,000 or b) his YouTube channel, audience 7.

I briefly spoke about Chelsea, Qarabag and the city. Oh well, I knew about one of the three topics.

I reached the hotel, which was centrally-located on a pedestrianised shopping street with a mixture of local and Western brands. Above there were apartments with balconies. They love their balconies in Baku. Luckily, I was allowed into my room early at around midday. I hooked up my wifi; Alan had messaged me to say that he and Gary were out and about.

I slept, fitfully – I think I was too excited – and then went off on a personal tour of Baku for two and-a-half hours. I headed straight down to the promenade. I passed many high-end shops; Burberry, Boss, Lacoste. The wind was still howling. I crossed the busy road – used by the cars on the F1 circuit – and walked down to the steps which were being buffeted by a few small waves from the slate grey Caspian Sea. To the east were cranes, with new building development visible. To the west, the three flame towers dominated the vista, and they towered over the city. Beyond was the spindle of a TV tower. I headed up the hill – more impressive buildings, the warm yellow stone reminded of the Cotswolds – and edged around the walls of the old town. I dipped inside – I would return, I hoped, at length on the Thursday – and decided on a local meal. Just inside one of the gates, there is a row of around four wooden huts which house ridiculously small and intimate restaurants. Brian and Kev – the Bristol lot – spotted me and we chatted; the luck buggers had been in town since Monday.

I entered a small hut – a massive stone oven was right by the door – and the place was full of the atmospheric smoke from the wood which was being incinerated. I sat in a corner, the wind howling outside and rattling the windows, and ordered the national specialty – “plov” – which consisted of lightly scented boiled rice, tender lamb, tomato, onion and a small flat dumpling. Along with a huge slab of bread and a bottle of the local Xirdalan beer, it came to a mighty 12 manat or around £6. There was only one other person in my little section; a local man of around seventy years of age. I wondered what his life story involved. What was his history? I wonder if he had heard of Chelsea.

I took a leisurely walk back to the hotel, the night falling all around me.

I spotted a lone Chelsea fan. I was the first fellow-fan that he had seen all day. His travelogue was beset with “conflict”; he had been stuck in a two-hour traffic snarl-up in his home town and only just made the first of his two flights out to Baku. On the second flight, one of the passengers died. Bloody hell.

At around 6.30pm, Alan, Gary and myself – plus Pete and Nick – caught a cab to the stadium. The roads were full. Not long into the thirty-minute trip, Nick spotted that there were nine lanes of traffic, all going north. To our left, I spotted the magnificent Socar Tower, with the blue, green and red flames of the company logo flickering on the outside. It was a mightily impressive sight, at present the tallest in Baku.

The wind was blowing even stronger on the wide open approach to the stadium. I unravelled “VINCI PER NOI” and posed with it, making sure to grip it tight. I had visions of it flying off into the night.

There was a security check – bags through X-ray machines, a pat-down – and the surprisingly friendly police examined my banner for a few moments. It was allowed in. As there was an hour to kick-off, I left the others to enter, and I walked all of the way around the impressive stadium. It was certainly impressive alright. Towards our northern side, the light panels were dappled pink, orange and red, like a Cocteau Twins album. During the day, in the city, I had not seen a single Qarabag shirt or scarf. And yet there was an expected 67,000 sell-out expected. I had the distinct impression that the locals were jumping on this and treating it like a match involving a quasi-national team. Qarabag – exiled from a town that simply does not exist anymore in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of western Azerbaijan – usually play in a smaller stadium in Baku, but were playing this season’s Champions League games in this much bigger Olympic Stadium.

Inside, I made my way up to section 307. The lads had saved me a spot in the very front row. The stadium was marvelous, a photogenic delight. Three tiered on two sides, with two tiers behind the goals, it was fully encased. The athletics track meant that we were long way from the pitch, but it just felt like a proper stadium. It had its own design. Its own feel. Its own identity. The thousands of light jade seats soon filled. We spotted Dutch Mick a few rows behind us.

Down below us, a small knot of Qarabag supporters were in early, enthusiastically flying a few blue and white flags, and singing all sorts of songs. Throughout the game, many of them would be faced away from the pitch, encouraging others to sing. Football fans are a varied breed. Below us to our left, a gaggle of supporters wearing red were spotted. Maybe supporters of another team. If my prediction was right, this was a proper gathering of various clans.

The Chelsea team was displayed on the huge screens.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

So, no Alvaro Morata. I envisaged the front three swarming with pace at the Qarabag back line.

Just before the game began, we were treated to a cheesy Qarabag club anthem, and then the spectators in the huge stand to our left unveiled a couple of banners amid a sea of mosaics.

“FAR WAY FROM HOME BUT WHERE YOU BELONG.”

The stadium lit up with mobile phones being held aloft in the home areas, then the anthem and the teams. As the game started, a little rain fell. My jacket was warm but others were struggling. The home team in all black. Chelsea in dirty white.

In the first few moments, we started on the front foot but were soon shocked by a couple of Qarabag attacks. We watched in horror as the home team sliced through our defence like a hot knife through butter. The shot from Michel slammed against our crossbar with the defenders looking on aghast. Thankfully, the rebound was well wide. It was a real warning sign for sure. A fine block from Dave followed.

A header from David Luiz flew over the Qarabag bar. On twenty minutes, Eden Hazard pushed a ball through for Willian. As he advanced into the box, he was slightly nudged by a Qarabag defender. Down he went. The referee pointed to the spot and to be honest we were so far away that I was not so sure that the push had taken place inside the box. Next, the referee sent off the Qarabag defender, their captain Sadygov. The home fans were in uproar and I could see why. It seemed a soft penalty, and my eyes saw a covering defender too. Regardless, Eden rolled the penalty home.

Alan : “İndi onlar bizə gəlmək məcburiyyətində qalacaqlar.”

Chris : “mənim kiçik brilyantlar.”

Boos boomed around the stadium.

We were in control now. Pedro was busy. A Hazard header was straight at their ‘keeper. The Chelsea fans – officially 912 – struggled to make much noise but one song joined us all together.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, Willian combined beautifully with Hazard. Willian ran at the defence, played a ball to Hazard, who back-heeled the ball back to Willian. He stroked the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Game over? It certainly felt like it. Apart from that initial flurry in the first few minutes of the game, Qarabag had been no threat whatsoever. At half-time, thousands upon thousands of home fans – maybe not bona fide Qarabag supporters per se – left the stadium.

The temperatures dropped further as the second-half began. A few Chelsea supporters were spotted drinking pints of lager in the seats behind me; authentic too, not non-alcoholic. In this part of UEFA’s kingdom, normal rules apparently do not apply. Chelsea looked to increase the score and were in control. Pedro went close. Antonio replaced Marcos Alonso with Gary Cahill. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from the Qarabag keeper but was then replaced by Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard himself went very close to scoring, just staying onside but just steering his shot wide. The offside trap worked in Qarabag’s favour as a ball from Willian was touched on by Pedro to Azpilicueta. However, Dave had just wandered into an offside position; the resultant cross and goal from Morata was wiped off.

On seventy-three minutes, another weak penalty in my eyes; a slight tug from a defender brought Willian down. A few old-fashioned looks were exchanged in the away section. Cesc Fabregas needed two attempts to score, but score he did.

So, two pretty weak penalties and a sending-off in or favour. The tiresome Chelsea / UEFA conspiracy theorists might need a rethink.

Danny Drinkwater replaced N’Golo.

With five minutes to go, Willian – the man of the night – shimmied and stroked the ball to his right, making space. His fine shot thundered past the ‘keeper.

Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4

We were kept in for around thirty minutes. A gaggle of maybe fifteen Chelsea fans from Iraq – resplendent in Chelsea replica shirts, how quaint – appeared down below us, with a large banner. I bumped into Brian from Chicago right at the end; from one windy city to another, his trip was surely the longest of the night.

Outside, the gales were howling, but thankfully subsided as we walked around the stadium before catching a metro back to the centre. In our compartment, around six or seven local Chelsea fans were singing songs, if a little out of tune. I guess that there had been little pockets of non-UK based Chelsea fans dotted around the stadium. I would like to think that these took our total to over one thousand. Though I am sure some Chelsea fans would argue that these fans don’t count.

Back to Fountain Square at 12.30am, a kebab, and bed.

For a few lovely hours the following day – Thursday – I spent my time walking around the compact old town. It was a relaxing and chilled-out time. I walked to the top of Maiden Tower which offered fine views of the city, which rises quite dramatically from the shore of the Caspian Sea. I bumped into a few Chelsea fans, all heading back on the same 4.10pm flight as myself.

Down below, within a few square yards, various locals were going about their daily routines. Traders were setting their stalls up for passing custom – honey, confectionery, drinks, cakes, pots and pans, rugs, souvenirs – while four men were standing over a backgammon board, and making a considerable noise as they slapped the pieces down. A couple of young back-packers walked past. A model – ridiculously thin and with over-the-top make-up – was being photographed on one of the dusty streets, while three others waited their turn. Large wooden balconies towered over the scene before me. One of the flame towers peaked from a distance. Cars reversed with meticulous care along narrow streets. Space was at a premium. There was a call to prayer in a local Mosque.

This was Baku.

I darted inside a large restaurant. The friendly waitress guided me through the menu. The waiter looked like Andy Kaufman. I decided on stuffed aubergines, a salad, some lamb wrapped in vine leaves, another Xirdalan.

It was time to call it a day.

I met up with Nick and his mate James outside the Hard Rock Café. They sunk their beers and at 1.30pm we took a cab back to the airport. We had loved our short stay in Baku. It is a horrible cliché to say that the city is a city of contrasts. But it is both an ancient and increasingly modern city. If I was return in ten years, there is no doubt that I would witness a very different one. Oil rich and punching above its weight, Baku will surely become inundated with even more startling architecture as the years pass. A substantial area is already being built to the east of the city. I so hope that the very friendly locals don’t change for the worst.

We caught our flight to Moscow. We were homeward bound.

However, deep in the bowels of Sheremetyevo airport, for around thirty minutes, things became rather tense. I was at the back of the queue at the transfer desk, but did not recognise anyone from our flight. All of the signs were in Cyrillic text. Had I missed an announcement while I took two minutes to powder my nose in the gents? I was not sure of the time in Moscow. My mood grew dark.

Our flight was at 7.50pm. Our boarding time was 7.10pm.

I spotted a woman’s watch. It said 6pm. Phew.

“Is it six o’clock?”

“No, seven o’clock.”

With that, I pushed my way to the front of the transfer desk to force my way through. I looked to my right and around ten Chelsea fans were doing the same. An unsmiling Russian woman stamped my passport and I had made it.

“Thank fuck for that.”

That was enough conflict and drama for me thank you very much.

We landed at Heathrow at 9pm and I was soon hurtling along the M4. It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.

Over to you Qarabag.