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.

 

Tales From The League Cup

Chelsea vs. Everton : 25 October 2017.

After parking the car, and before we were able to enjoy a very pleasant pre-match drink-up in two Chelsea pubs, I could not help but notice that there were posters advertising the Moscow State Circus at Eel Brook Common, no more than half a mile from Stamford Bridge. At times in Roman’s fourteen years at the epicentre of Chelsea Football Club, a few of my mates have often likened proceedings to that of the famous Russian spectacle.

I silently hoped that I would not have to reference said circus in a negative way during the match report for the evening’s game.

The five Chuckle Brothers were split up for the visit of Everton and their dog’s dinner of an away kit for the League Cup tie; I was alongside PD and Glenn in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding wraparound, Parky was in the Parkyville section of The Shed Lower, while Young Jake was watching in what is officially the Matthew Harding Upper, but what is really the connecting section of the East Upper.

It was another mild night in SW6, and I expected a mild atmosphere too if I was honest.

Over in The Shed, there was a yawning gap where the missing one thousand away fans should have been. Two-thirds of a Nike swoosh was visible instead. The away section took ages to fill; I was full of disdain when I first saw how empty it was at about 7.30pm. Everton do not always bring the numbers to Stamford Bridge. The evening’s match day programme was another retro edition and I immediately recognised the font and design from season 1985/86, and I am sure that our League Cup game from the late autumn of that campaign against the same opposition was the inspiration. It brought back memories for me of midweek afternoon jaunts by British Rail to London from Stoke for Chelsea games. On that particular evening – Daryl had to remind me that the game ended 2-2 – I well remember how few Evertonians had bothered to attend. They numbered around five hundred. Remember, back in 1985 they were reigning champions. In the league match at Chelsea a month earlier, they had only brought a thousand. A poor show on both counts in my book. It seemed that the Everton tradition was continuing in 2017. However, I soon remembered back to our League Cup semi-final at Goodison in 2008 when we sadly failed to fill our three-thousand allocation. A Joe Cole goal on the break gave us a narrow 1-0 win on that very pleasing night on Merseyside – there have been a few – and the game is remembered for the best Chelsea away support of that particular season. I woke up the next day with a sore throat. The way it should be. It was the last time that the two clubs met in the League Cup.

On the walk from the bar to the stadium, I had announced that Danny Drinkwater was to make his debut for the club. There were also, possibly predictable, starts for Charly Musonda and Ethan Ampadu.

Our manager had certainly rung the changes since the weekend.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Ampadu – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Musonda

If ever there was a Chelsea “B” team, this was it.

The Everton line-up included a lad with the most ridiculously Scouse name that I think that I have ever heard; Johnjoe Kenny.

“Sound, la.”

There was, quite evidently, another full house for a League Cup tie at HQ. Quite fantastic.

For a great part of the first-half, the football formed a backdrop as Alan and myself chatted away about the players on show, our recent performances, our plans for the trip to Rome, and the days when the League Cup actually meant something. If the FA Cup has fallen from glory over the past two decades, them this is even more true of the nation’s secondary cup competition. We remembered how crestfallen we were when we lost to Sunderland in the 1985 semi, the QPR quarter final in 1986, away at Scarborough in 1989, the Sheffield Wednesday semi in 1991, away at Tranmere Rovers in 1991, at Crystal Palace in the rain in 1993, Bolton 1996, the list goes on. It felt – stop sniggering at the back – that for a decade or more the League Cup represented Chelsea Football Club’s only realistic chance of silverware.

These days, it is way down our pecking order. An irrelevance? It hurts me to say it, but yes.

Unless we play a major rival of course.

Are Everton a major rival? Not quite.

Danny Drinkwater soon impressed with a display of crunching tackles and solid passing. Alongside him was Ethan Ampadu looking like a crusty at a Levellers gig circa 1991. At just seventeen years of age, although not his debut, this was a huge night for him. In that first half, with his nerves jangling, he did not look out of place though some of his long-range passing was amiss.

The two-thousand away fans could not seem to get past their one song.

“And if you know your history it’s enough to make your heart go…”

However, no Chelsea songs were forthcoming from us, save the rousing “Antonio.”

Alan and myself chatted about our players.

We hardly noticed Charly Musonda. He was having a very quiet night. I noticed a passing resemblance of Davide Zappacosta to Groucho Marx. I wondered if our right back’s moustache was real. I pondered if Michy Batshuayi would have a memorable a game as his white undershirt.

My mind was clearly drifting…

After twenty-five minutes of huff and puff, but not much quality – nor any noise – we had our first corner, in front of the away fans in the far corner. Willian played it short to Musonda, who sent over a long cross towards the far post. We watched as Rudiger, falling back, did ever so well to head the ball back across the goalmouth, over ‘keeper Jordan Pickford, and into the far corner of the goal. The crowd loved that.

We were up one-nil, get in.

Everton created hardly anything during the first-half. Wayne Rooney was as innocuous and insipid as his grey shirt. A tame effort from Michy straight at Pickford was the only effort on goal. One from Groucho rippled the side netting.

There was wholesome applause from the Chelsea faithful at the break, but there was a realisation that this was in support of the youngsters, the fringe players, the manager, rather than for a recognition of any great period of play. However, Willian had been predictably busy, Christensen looked so natural, and everyone warmed to Zappacosta’s honesty and desire, to say nothing of his ability to stoop low, twiddle a cigar between his fingers, and crack one-liners to the West Lower.

But it had not been a memorable forty-five minutes.

At the interval, Bjarne Goldbaek trod the sacred turf. Forever etched in our minds is that thunderbolt of an equaliser at Three Point Lane in 1998. He looked well, bless him. I’m sure for many new fans – why do I always think of that prick Jeremy Clarkson when I talk about new fans? – it had might as well have been Barney Rubble out on the pitch.

We had heard that Tottenham were winning 2-0 at home to Wembley. There was the rival that would undoubtedly make the competition interesting.

The second-half started.

I commented to Alan that there did not seem to be a weight of expectation on the players. If mistakes were made, especially by those without much first-team exposure, there were less boos than normal.

The second-half had more urgency, and the challenges became more physical. Without warning, the away team turned the screw. Their resurgence was a shock.

Willy Caballero was right in the thick of it. A fantastic save from Rooney drew loud applause, but then soon after a terrible clearance from the ‘keeper gave us all kittens. Thankfully, he cleared before an Everton player could capitalise.

An effort from right under the bar at the Shed End was diverted over for a corner. Everton were on top for sure.

On the hour, the Chelsea support – realising that the team needed us – suddenly roared.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Danny Drinkwater, possibly our best player until then, was substituted and replaced by Cesc Fabregas. The former Leicester City player with the classic footballer’s name was given a very fine round of applause. There is just something about players with the same letter starting both of their first names and last names; Joey Jones, Damien Duff, Didier Drogba…Steve Sidwell. Er, perhaps not.

Our man Caballero kept pulling off some stunning saves. This was becoming a man of the match performance.

In a rare break, Willian ran at pace but drilled his shot wide of the near post.

Pedro replaced the unimpressive Musonda.

Everton still bossed it.

However, it was so gratifying to hear that the Chelsea support was back in the game. The quiet first-half seemed a distant memory. Batshuayi pick-pocketed a loose ball and touched it past Pickford, only for himself and his undershirt to see the back-tracking ‘keeper recover and push the ball away. Michy smacked the upright and for a few minutes looked like he had done himself a classic ‘seventies sitcom “mischief.”

An Everton effort rattled the top of Caballero’s bar.

Alvaro Morata replaced Michy.

We took an ineffectual short corner. I moaned to Alan.

“I bloody hate short corners. By all means, do it to get a different angle and whip the ball in early, but don’t just play it to a team mate, idly, then ponce about with it for a few moments. Certainly don’t bloody receive it back from the person you passed to.”

With injury time being played, Fabregas played a short corner to Willian. He shimmied and danced past Tom Davies, then played a sublime one-two with Fabregas who had accelerated away into space. Willian caressed the ball past Pickford into the Everton goal.

Chelsea 2 Everton 0.

I turned to Alan.

“As I said, I bloody hate those short corners.”

In the aftermath of the goal, Willian was mobbed by his team mates right down below us in Cathy’s Corner. He had been, I think, our star performer on the night.

 

 

As an afterthought, Dominic Calvert-Lewin toe-poked a goal for Everton. How typical of football that a team chasing a game admirably could only score once they conceded a further goal.

Into the last eight we went. Not a great game, not one that will live long in my memory, but a win is a win is a win is a win.

On the walk back to the car, I could hardly believe that Tottenham had managed to lose 3-2 to West Ham. Oh how I laughed. Not even Groucho Marx makes me giggle as that lot from N17.

Back in the car, we all agreed.

“Bristol City away please.”

IMG_0052 (2)

 

Tales From The Gang Of Four / 四人帮派故事

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 July 2017.

I remember when I first heard about our game in Beijing. We were hopping between some familiar pubs in the West End of London before our home game with Tottenham way back in late November. I was with Glenn, Parky and PD, plus a few Chelsea lads from Kent that we had bumped into en route. The news of the game suddenly popped up on social media. It immediately piqued our interest.

“Beijing. Fancy that Glenn?”

“Too right.”

There and then, Glenn and I mentally signed-up for a trip to China’s capital, secretly hoping that there would be a secondary game – maybe in Shanghai – too.

As the months passed, the game in Beijing dominated our thoughts – I can’t exactly remember when our opposition was announced as being Arsenal, but that seemed almost irrelevant. Eventually, the rest of the Chelsea tour took shape. After our game in China, we would play two games against Bayern Munich and Inter in Singapore. Glenn and myself chatted about options. Although it would be a long way to go for just one game, we soon realised that we were happy with just a Chinese holiday, with a few days in Shanghai after our stay in Beijing for the football. An onward flight to Singapore – another six hours of travel – would have added extra expense and lengthened our holiday. And although I am sure Singapore is a fine destination, it didn’t tick too many boxes for me. It has a reputation for being rather staid and bland, plus supremely expensive, and I wasn’t too enamoured about seeing two games in the same stadium. My dear parents had stayed in Singapore, after a few days in Hong Kong, on their round-the-world trip in 1991, and even they commented that it was a rather sober destination.

Back in March, I took the bull by the horns and booked us on a Finnair flight from Heathrow to Beijing via a small stopover in Helsinki. The price was pretty reasonable. Since then, the holiday took shape, and I loved how excited Glenn was getting with each passing week. We decided, indeed, to head down to Shanghai for three nights after Beijing – travelling by bullet train to save money, but to also add to the sensory experience. I just fancied seeing what China was all about. I booked a day trip to The Great Wall; regardless of the footy, this would make Glenn’s holiday since he has always wanted to visit this famous landmark, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Hotels were booked, again at very reasonable prices; around £50 per night for single rooms. Lastly, there was the visa application process. A day trip up to London resulted in myself appearing in person at the visa application centre deep in the city, but despite sweaty palms and a beating heart, our completed forms were accepted, and we were on our way.

Our good friend Big John, who sits a few rows in front of us in the MHU, would be attending the game in Beijing too. Every time that we chatted at a game, our conversations would consist of these two phrases :

“How’s Glenn? Excited?”

“Excited? Like a dog with two dicks, mate.”

My mate Foxy, from Dundee, who I last saw at the Middlesbrough away game, just before Beijing was announced in fact, also decided to join us. He too was not bothered about Singapore; he had visited it many times before, but had not visited China. He was happy to join us in Shanghai after the game in Beijing too. Foxy would be able, also, to squeeze in an extra day to visit the famous Terracotta Army in the ancient city of Xi’an.

So, the plans were set in stone.

The days and weeks ticked by.

The League Championship was won. The FA Cup Final was lost. The long dull days of summer reached out in front of us.

My last act was to book the bullet train tickets, which only went on sale three weeks before the date of travel.

China. The mere mention of the word made me slightly light-headed. This would, surely, be one of my most wonderful adventures.

On the way over to Tokyo in December 2012, I had spent five long hours at Beijing airport – deep snow outside, a horrible meal inside – and I suppose that it didn’t realistically count as a proper visit. At the time, though, I remember being highly excited about being locked inside Sir Norman Foster’s huge sweeping terminal, just twenty miles from Tienanmen Square.

In July 2017, I would be able to – gulp – step outside.

In the build-up to the holiday, I bought a couple of guide books to the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I also purchased a fine piece of travel writing by Rob Gifford called “China Road” which, although published in 2007, contained a lot of pertinent historical information about the changes which have been experienced in the great nation – empire – of China over the years. His book details his travel from east – Shanghai – to west on route 312, and he interspersed his modern day experiences along its length with fascinating sections about China’s rich and interesting past. Within the opening chapter, Gifford referenced “The Grapes Of Wrath” and also “On The Road” and so I immediately knew that I’d be on to a winner. There was so much to take on board though. I felt like I was only skimming the surface of China. Thankfully, help was at hand. In the very last week, we were lucky to see TV programmes devoted to Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and a re-run – from 1997 – of a Michael Palin travel documentary involving a rapidly changing China. Memorably, his short stay in Shanghai involved him looking out past the tug boats and barges on the Huangpo River at the new builds across the water in Pudong. In 2017, that same view is much changed and I could not wait to see the updated view in person.

China. This mysterious nation, the world’s most populous at 1.3 billion, and one which was changed by the hard hand of Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in 1976, and has since been bitten hard by capitalism, but which is still a one party state. This complex behemoth of the east would surely bewitch and beguile me.

Visiting from the far more liberal and relaxed west, I would be an occidental tourist.

The days evaporated. We were on our way.

I collected Glenn in Frome at 5am on Tuesday 18 July. We had a perfect drive up to Heathrow, an easy flight to Helsinki, and a pretty reasonable flight over Finland, Russia, Mongolia and we landed at Beijing International airport at around 7.30am on Wednesday 19 July. I remembered the terminal from my visit in 2012. It was wonderful to be back. We quickly made our way through the immigration checks and hailed a cab to take us to our city centre hotel. It was early morning rush hour. My eyes – not tired – were on stalks. My first observations on that hour long cab ride? –

Road signs in Chinese and also English.

Car registration numbers with western style letters.

No advertisement hoardings along the road sides, nor on street corners, nor anywhere.

Shiny Western cars – Audis, BMWs, VWs – alongside unknown Chinese makes.

Cars weaving in and out, hardly bothering with indicators.

Huge high-rise apartments. Like Moscow. Almost brutal.

A clogging urban haze enveloped the city, making visibility difficult.

Massive skyscrapers – some under construction – in the financial district to the east of the city centre.

Traffic. Traffic. Traffic.

We arrived at our hotel, paid the cab driver – 129 yuan, or around £15, get in – and I practiced the only words of Chinese that I had learned.

“Xiexie” is pronounced like a gentle, soft sneeze, and I thought it was difficult to get it right. The cabbie seemed OK with it.

The hotel was rather dated, but suited our needs. It didn’t seem particularly busy. For this reason alone, I suspect, we were upgraded to a suite apiece on the seventh floor. Downstairs, we bumped into Cathy, who was staying in our hotel too. She had arrived via Warsaw an hour before us. Cathy had already booked a couple of local tours. The three of us hoisted the first beers of the trip – the crisp and tasty Tsingtao – before disappearing upstairs to our suites for some power naps.

In the late afternoon, Glenn and myself slapped some sunscreen and mozzy repellent on, and marched out along Qianmen Street. Unlike in 2012, Tienanmen Square was just a ten-minute walk away. The first few minutes were difficult. The heat was stifling. We walked on. We reached the square at its southern edge, alongside the imposing Mao mausoleum. The square was very impressive and it took my breath away. I could not – honestly – believe that I was there. It is, allegedly, the largest public square in the world. In the middle, a large column, surrounded by red flags. They were not Chinese flags, with gold stars, but plain red ones. The effect was stunning. To the east and west, two huge authoritarian buildings, the one to the west the largest building I think I have ever seen. And to the north, the dark red – almost vermilion – walls of the Forbidden City. In the centre, just about discernible, the face of Mao Zedong.

Gulp.

We were in China. In Beijing. In Tienanmen Square.

Not surprisingly, there were thoughts of that ridiculously iconic image of the lone student protesting against an army tank in 1989. In those protests, hundreds were slain in the very square in which I was stood. The world whirled around me. In my thoughts leading up to this trip, I reached right back to my earliest memories. Before Chelsea even. Pre-1970. My earliest memories. Before I went to school in 1970, my father used to return home from his shop in Frome for lunch every week day – apart from Wednesday, market day – and we used to have lunch (the biggest meal of the day in those days, how times change) while listening to “The World At One” on the radio. Although this takes me back to the age of three or four, I can always remember the exotic sounding names of various places and people to this day and how I used to love the way the announcer pronounced them. For a while, it was something I listened in for.

Mao Zedong.

Chiang Kai-Shek.

Hi Chi Minh.

I was joining up some pretty old dots on my life-journey on this trip for sure.

We took some photos – there would be hundreds more – but the ones from that very first evening in Tienanmen Square will remain very precious to me. On the walk back across the vast space, we kept bumping in to a family from Glasgow and it soon became apparent that the husband was Rangers, and Chelsea. He was visiting his son, who had been studying Mandarin at a local university since September. He loved the city and wished us well. Without a word of warning, he started singing “Blue Is The Colour” and we joined in.

The red flags were flying above us but, for a while, Beijing was blue.

Foxy, newly arrived from Dubai, was booking in as we strode back in to the hotel. It was fantastic to see him again.

That evening, Cathy joined us in the bar for a beer and we ended up across the road in a local restaurant. The portion sizes were huge – oh, and cheap – and we had a fantastic feast. The food was, actually, remarkably similar to the Chinese we are used to back in England. For some reason, I expected marked differences.

Sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao chicken, spicy prawns, fried rice, sweetcorn soup – in a huge bowl – and of course Peking Duck.

And bottles of Tsingtao.

Bang on.

Foxy, Glenn and myself walked a mile or so east and then north and found ourselves in the main shopping street of Beijing – all the Western shops you can think of, plus more – and soon settled for bottles of Yanjing adjacent to a street market. Just a few yards away wer stalls selling scorpions, skewered and fried, grubs, and all sorts of oddities. I was glad that I was not hungry. Wanting one last beer, we marched on to an Irish bar, only because it seemed that bars and pubs were very rare in central Beijing. We sat in the dark boozer, sipping at cool beers, and chatted about various things, with the whole of Beijing within our sights. Funnily enough, I had spotted only one sports jersey of any description during the first five or six hours in the city. One Chinese lad was spotted wearing – oddly – an Atletico Madrid shirt. Not only were there no Chinese team jerseys being worn, nor were there any foreign teams’ jerseys. Nor – tellingly – any US team paraphernalia that still seems de rigueur in most cities around the world.

On the Thursday, Foxy, Glenn and myself assembled at around 9am, gulped down a couple of expensive coffees in the hotel and set out on our very own version of Mao’s long march.

We visited Tienanmen Square. We visited the Forbidden City. For each separate part of the vast area – thousands upon thousands of rooms – there were lines for tickets. We decided on just the main courtyard and the Meridian Gate, which overlooked Tienanmen Square to the south. The haze spoiled the view but it did not matter too much. We made sure we hydrated throughout. While seated on a bench within the first courtyard, Foxy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed quickly.

A mother was holding her daughter up as the youngster peed in to a rubbish bin.

“You don’t see that outside Buckingham Palace, Foxy.”

We took photographs of the vast walls, the golden pagoda roofs, and the innate stillness, despite the crowds. Outside, the surrounding moat thankfully cooled the air. Everywhere were green-shirted army guards and black-shirted security guards. It was a fascinating walk. We walked south and spotted the huge modern curve of the national centre for performing arts. We sought sanctuary from the heat for an hour. Inside, there was a small art gallery. We stopped for a light snack. The main auditorium housed opera. Within an hour we had experienced ancient and modern Beijing. We walked on, heading towards the serene Temple of Heaven, maybe a mile or so to the south. However, we were soon side-tracked.

One of Beijing’s most beguiling features are its hutongs; single-story working class dwellings which surround the central area, and which – I am amazed – have not yet been bulldozed away in the name of progress. We spent an idyllic hour wandering past houses, motorcycle repair shops, grocery stores, cafes, clothes shops, fishmongers, butchers, all the time having to move out of the way of bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters, mopeds, and some of the most ridiculously small cars on the planet. Overhead electricity cables swayed low over side-alleys.

At the lovely, peaceful Temple of Heaven we were virtually the only Westerners. The deep midnight blue of the roof contrasted well with the white marble of the steps. We were mesmerized by its beauty.

We caved in – I for one was exhausted now – and caught a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. Of course we almost collided with various people on bicycles and scooters, but – hey – nobody was killed. Back at our digs, Glenn reliably informed us that we had walked nine miles during the day. I almost feinted.

That evening, we disappeared over to our local restaurant – “the freak show is back” – and gobbled more local cuisine. I tried the Peking Duck – when in Rome, eh? – and very nice it was too. Not crispy as we have in the UK, but simply roasted. It hit the spot. At around 9pm, the three of us met up with Big John, newly arrived at his hotel, only a ten-minute walk from our accommodation. We began with a beer on the terrace overlooking central – hazy – Beijing, but soon disappeared inside as the rain began to fall. We had a few bottles of Tsingtao, plenty of laughs, and we made plans for the rest of our stay.

The Gang Of Four had finally assembled.

On the Friday, we had arranged to meet up at John’s hotel at 10am. The temperature had decidedly cooled, thank heavens. There was a “McDonalds” next to his hotel, and – let’s be truthful – I soon came to the realisation that I could not survive for nine days of Chinese food only. I dived in for a breakfast. It hit the spot. We dived in to a cab and headed off on the elevated inner ring-road to the east of the city to collect our match tickets. It was a simple transaction, but a relief to have them in our hands.

We then headed further out towards the Danshanzi district. I had highlighted the 798 Art District as a venue that I fancied visiting; I didn’t expect it, but – bless ‘em – the other three fancied it too. It was delightful. The sight of many old military industrial units, factories and warehouses, the whole area now houses a rather off-the-wall arty area featuring galleries, cafes, bars, shops, venues, but also a few businesses; I spotted both a Volkswagen HQ and an Uber HQ abutting its periphery. It was an interesting area. The relics of its industrial past were left to provide a somber backdrop to the modern artworks on show – rusting pipes, darkened towers, tall brick chimneys, red brick buildings. Many of the artworks were funky and humorous. Graffiti was allowed, unlike – presumably – elsewhere in the city. We stopped at two cafes and enjoyed beers in both, along with wide-ranging Chelsea chat. The second café was housed in a former train station – an old-style loco outside – and was named after the Ace Café, formerly a bikers’ café on the North Circular in London, which I had read about on the internet only a couple of months previously. The area was certainly atmospheric. At times it felt that we were walking through an Anton Corbijn photoshoot for a Depeche Mode album. It was as if the Chinese state had detailed this little parcel of land for avant garde expression, well away from the city centre, the masses, the rest of the city.

“Here. You can express yourself here.”

I loved it.

We assembled again – Cathy too – in the evening, and headed north. We had been tipped-off by…um, someone we met wearing an ironic green Mao uniform and smoking a Gauloises cigarette in the 798 District and answering to the name Agent 1905…that the Chelsea team were staying in a hotel adjacent to the Birds Nest Stadium. We dressed accordingly – smart, er, casual – and hoped to be able to meet up, however briefly, for a chat with either the management team or the players. Luckily, our route – never to be forgotten – swept us past a floodlight Forbidden City, with an illuminated Mao looking down on us, and out on one of the five-lane boulevards which then joined up with an elevated expressway, past modern hotel blocks as we zoomed north. The night had now fallen. It was an intoxicating ride. We soon spotted – to our right – the red and gold of the Birds Nest Stadium and the cool blue of The Water Cube, both used during the impressive Beijing 2008 Olympics.

We were deposited right outside the hotel. We spotted barriers to our left, with local Chelsea supporters awaiting the arrival of the team coach from a training session. Inside, in the large lobby, were more Chelsea fans. We waited outside. Nobody approached us; I think we were under the radar. We spotted former England manager Roy Hodgson arrive with a couple of colleagues. We called out his name – he is a decent football man – and he seemed genuinely happy to be spotted. His eyes twinkled. A local lad, wearing an Arsenal shirt was roughly manhandled away from the area. Soon, the Chelsea coach arrived just yards away from where we stood and the players quickly entered the hotel. It was pandemonium inside. Lots of shrieking. I think a fair few players stopped to sign autographs, but we really could not see what was happening. After a while, the security people were forcibly pushing back the frenzied Chelsea supporters. It was all done and dusted within four or five minutes.

Upstairs, in an open area, we spotted the staff signing various items laid out on tables. I seized the moment. I drifted past a hotel worker and slowly – I’d say nonchalantly if I meant it – walked up some wide stairs. A photo of Antonio Conte – boom. Before I was chased away, I edged forward.

“Antonio.”

He looked up and I approached…thinking, “oh bollocks, what shall I say to him?”

“Grazie mille.”

He smiled, almost bashfully, and said – as quiet as you like – “prego.”

With that, a Chelsea club official asked who I was. I suspect that he didn’t know who Agent 1905 was, so I said “just a fan.” He politely asked me to leave. We were to find out, later that evening, that the club were hosting a Q and A with some local supporters – complete with lanyards et al – and I suppose this is par for the course these days. I found it typical that Antonio and the players were signing, in addition to the usual shirts, a couple of Yokohama tyres.

Downstairs, Cathy, John, Glenn, Foxy and myself spent a good few hours chatting about Chelsea and football in general. It was a lovely time, actually. We spotted Carlo Cudicini walk past and take his seat a few yards away alongside several other coaching staff, including Antonio’s assistant Angelo Alessio. I took a photo of Carlo with Cath and Glenn. I spoke to Angelo – can I call him that? – about me being a Juve fan too and seeing him play in Turin in the late ‘eighties. He seemed very amicable. A lovely moment. Around eight of the Chelsea staff were in this little group, and they stayed together for around an hour. Of course, we hoped that Antonio might join them, but he never did. This was at around 10.30pm I guess. The chap that had shooed me away appeared with a bagful of Chelsea 2017 Asia Tour badges. A nice gesture on the face of it, but how nice would it have been for the club to recognise those who had traveled out from the UK on this trip. Just a five-minute session with a few players? That would have been superb. On the US tours, it is only the US based fans who ever get to meet the players at any formal event.

But, it is what it is. For a couple of hours, sharing the same space as a few Chelsea faces, it felt lovely. And I mentioned this to Cathy. That it was lovely how we all still got excited, like kids in a sweet shop, about chatting to Carlo Cudicini, for example. May I never lose that childlike awe of meeting our heroes.

So. What about this season? Prior to setting off for China, the internet was in meltdown about our lack of new signings. Within days, the signings of Rudiger and Bakayoko calmed things. Just before leaving, Morata was snatched from Real Madrid. We chatted a little about the transfer dealings and the much-debated academy process. There are many different opinions here and I have always tried my best to be a fan and a supporter rather than a tedious expert. If I was an expert on football, I wouldn’t spend forty hours a week shipping office furniture around the globe. Opinion is clearly divided. Some lambast our academy – and Emenalo, especially, though many can’t even pronounce his name correctly – and the clear lack of youngsters making the first team whereas others have a different approach, backing the club to an extent, and realising that the academy is there, in the main, to provide a professional career for the lads who come through the ranks. Where do my thoughts lie?

Of course, it would be lovely, bloody lovely, to see a Chelsea team populated with our own academy players. No doubt. There is always a tangible connection with our own boys. But this is not 1977. Our team does not contain the likes of Clive Walker, Tommy Langley, Ian Britton, Ray Wilkins and Gary Locke. In 1977, we were cash-strapped and in the Second Division. Now, in 2017, forty years on, we are cash rich and a buying club.

I tried to put my thoughts into words. I tried to explain things as best I could after a few pints of Stella Artois.

“At this exact moment in time, the manager – perhaps the whole club – has a vision about where the team is going and what style of football it is looking to use, involving an exact mix of various types of players, with various degrees of skills and experience. We have a squad, a base of players. To add to that, do we select from just the relatively young set of academy players we have, which might number just twenty or thirty – at this exact time – or do we look elsewhere, at potentially hundreds of players currently employed by other teams?”

Answers on a postcard.

Roy Hodgson ambled past and, now all of us a little chattier due to the beer intake, posed with him as his colleague took a few photographs of us with him. I like Hodgson. Woefully out of his depth at times, but still a decent man. I told him, boozily I suspect, how his eyes lit up when we had called out to him outside the hotel.

“Blimey, someone recognizes me.”

Foxy asked me to take one last photo of him with Carlo.

“Do you still drive motorcycles?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“Harley Davidsons.”

It was time to head home. We ordered a cab and returned back to our respective hotels. Glenn, using his phone, provided the soundtrack. On came “The Liquidator”, “Blue Is The Colour” and a smattering of ska and reggae from the ‘seventies. As we whizzed past the lights of the skyscrapers of central Beijing, one song got us all singing, Ken Booth’s “Everything I Own.” It was a surreal few moments. My childhood raced up to meet me once more. A song from 1974. The year of my first Chelsea game.

“If there’s someone you know
That won’t let you go
And taking it all for granted?
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And you don’t hear the words they say.

And I would give anything I own
I’d give up my life, my heart, my own
And I would give anything I own
Just to have you back again
Just to talk to you words again
Just to hold you once again.”

It had been a fine night.

On Saturday 22 July our season was to begin. I thought back to the first game of last season, the completely dire defeat at Rapid Vienna. What a shocker that was. I hoped for a better start in 2017. I had the chance for a little lie-in and did not get up until around 10am. It was a gentle start to the day. Thankfully, the weather was again cooler than Wednesday and Thursday. In many ways, it resembled a typical Chelsea Saturday. But it was a strange mixture of a standard Saturday game with a midweek kick-off time. The game was to start at 7.45pm.

Instead of the Gang of Four consisting of Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself and the day beginning with a breakfast in either McMelksham, McChippenham or McFleet, it began with a breakfast in McBeijing. Foxy, Glenn and myself then toured a local shopping mall. Next door to each other, on maybe the third floor, were two shops selling MLB and NHL gear. This really surprised me. This was not some key city-centre shopping mall, but yet here were two US-themed stores. It made me wonder why I had not seen anyone wearing a New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers cap, to say nothing of an NHL team cap. I was still keeping score and, until the day of the game, the number of football shirts spotted thus far had numbered –

Arsenal 3.

Atletico Madrid 3.

Chelsea 2.

Barcelona 1.

We were trying to work out – to put it bluntly – if Beijing was a sports town. We weren’t so sure.

Within the shopping mall, there were Timberland, Fila, Umbro, Kappa, Adidas and Nike stores. The prices were comparable to home, so there was no chance of picking up too many bargains. Outside, on a side street, was a little boutique which sold mainly women’s items, but with a little section for men. We could not resist a peek inside. We poured over a selection by Moncler, Vivienne Westwood, Victorinox and Armani but although the prices were quite reasonable, my goodness the sizes were small. All along, we were chatting about football.

Football and clobber. What Saturdays were made for.

We met up with John at 4pm and again caught a cab. They were so cheap that we did not use the subway throughout our entire stay. We were dropped off right outside the stadium. We were assailed by a number of touts, waving bunches of 100 yuan notes at us. We were not sure if they were buying or selling at the start but we soon realised that they had tickets to sell. I was annoyed to see red shirts in the majority. I then realised that we were probably outside the southern Arsenal end. We spotted a few locals selling Chelsea shirts – at knock-off prices – and we leered over them, taking a couple of photographs. The stall holders must have thought that we were on the lookout for fakes, as they soon bagged their wares and disappeared. I was surprised at the complete lack of a black market economy in Beijing, especially outside the stadium. If only other cities were the same.

We posed with my “VINCI PER NOI” flag in a couple of locations. At the second one, in the middle of a long expanse of open promenade to the west of the stadium, we were told to put the banner away by some very down-at-heal looking security types. I think they were also on litter duty. Talking of which – there might be nine million bicycles in Beijing, but there is certainly no litter. If only other cities were the same. We also posed with Foxy’s lovely “Charlie Cooke’s Flying Squadron” flag, marking the Dundee-based fans who support Chelsea. We enjoyed a nice relaxing wander between the Cube and the Birds Nest. A few beers were taken. John, who is around six feet seven clearly won the prize for “most photographed.” I will never forget the look on a young Chinese boy’s face – no older than three – who looked up at John in stages, his mouth growing wider and wider. A look of comic-book astonishment. So funny. For a few moments, a local TV crew were in attendance and some Arsenal fans began chanting. My guess that this would not be a sell-out. The stadium held 85,000 and there clearly were not 85,000 milling around. We hoped for a reasonable gate. The ticket prices were pretty steep though; £82 for a lower tier seat. After a minimal bag check, we were in.

My camera too – phew.

We were inside at 7pm. Scott and Mark chatted to us at the Chelsea merchandise stall. Punky Al and Stan drifted past. Glenn and I bought a tour t-shirt apiece at 230 or around £26. I was able to utter the immortal phrase –

“230. Chinese dentist.”

Parky would have been proud of me. Glenn groaned.

He soon perked-up : “Gonna be wearing this in the pub first game of the season.”

I have to say that the stadium did not look too full when we first arrived. Arsenal were up the other end. There were not many in the top tier. We guessed at around 40,000 maybe. All of the Chelsea supporters had been issued with the God-forsaken thunder sticks, which many were feverishly bouncing together, in addition to a Chelsea-themed fan – again for clacking together to make noise – the like of which we have had once, just once, at Stamford Bridge.

What’s wrong with just clapping?

Both teams were out doing training drills when we got in. The place filled-up. The lower tier was virtually full at kick-off. From the outside, especially when illuminated from within, the Birds Nest Stadium is stunning. The strips of dull grey steel wrap themselves around the inner shell of the structure, and the effect is wonderful. From the inside, it’s a fine stadium, but an athletics stadium. The pitch is too far from the spectators, a problem that West Ham United are now experiencing in their new pad. But whereas London’s Olympic Stadium is a relatively wide and shallow stadium, Beijing’s version is at least tall, steep and intimidating. The three tiers reach up into the sky and the roof curves high and then low. Of course, Herzog and De Meuron are tasked with designing our new stadium. I am sure that the only thing to say at this stage is that, like the Birds Nest, it will be iconic, unique and designed to the highest standard. I, for one, can’t bloody wait.

“Blue Is The Colour” was played by the PA, and I was impressed that so many locals knew the words. Of course, virtually all were wearing Chelsea gear, fake or not. There were not so many Nike shirts in the stadium. We were then treated to “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer with the Arsenal fans singing along. Is that a Gooner song, now? Bloody hell.

The teams were announced.

Antonio Conte had chosen a very strong starting eleven.

Courtois.

Dave. Luiz. Cahill.

Moses. Kante. Cesc. Alonso.

Pedro. Batshuayi. Willian.

Arsenal included Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mertesacker, Ramsey, Monreal, Xhaka, plus new boy Laazette. If it matters. Which it doesn’t.

For some reason, there were plenty of boos for Kenedy. We had no idea why. No idea at all. Did he play for a team in China at some stage in his career? We were completely flummoxed. The Arsenal fans – thunder sticks too – produced two crowd-surfing flags. Our two were bigger. Before the game began, Carlo and Hilario paraded the League trophy, while at the other end the FA Cup was on show. The weather was great; it wasn’t sticky at all.

The game, and our season, began.

We began very brightly indeed, attacking the southern goal away in the distance. The Chelsea fans around us were well-involved, chanting from the start. Cathy, who was sat next to me, waited for her moment. There was a sudden lull.

“10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

Cathy was away, and Glenn, John and myself joined in. Surprisingly, not many turned around to look. Cathy continued on.

“Zigger.”

“OI.”

“Zagger.”

“OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

We continued to play well, full of energy. Arsenal looked sluggish. This was such a difference to Rapid Vienna last summer. Pedro was full of tricks on the left. We were dominating and carving out a few chances. A Moses shot was saved by Ospina. The locals in our end were going for it, no doubt aided by those bloody thunder sticks.

“Clap clap – clap clap clap – clap clap clap clap – Chelsea.”

Willian drove hard into the heart of the Arsenal box but his shot flew past the far post. Our support was certainly into the game. They loved cheering us on when we attacked. At times the whole lower tier seemed to be chanting together. I turned to Cathy and whispered :

“Hate to say it, but they’re noisier than in the US.”

Michy Batshuayi, with a trim haircut, went close on two occasions.

The new kit looked wonderful, although we were spared a complete 1970 re-boot because of the blue socks. I noticed – as did many – how much the pitch was cutting up. Quite poor, really.

Midway through the first-half, the ball was pumped forward for Pedro. From memory, the ball fell in no man’s land, but Ospina clattered into Pedro. It immediately reminded me of Schumacher’s horrific foul on Battiston in the 1982 World Cup. He was down for some time, but was replaced by Jeremie Boga, a forgotten man. He looked eager.

We continued to dominate. There seemed to be lots of shots but mainly weak finishes. Batshuayi struck but the goal was ruled offside. The Chelsea players seemed annoyed at that.

On thirty-one minutes, the Chelsea fans – or a small section of them – donned Antonio Conte face masks and, in unison, started singing “Antonio Antonio Antonio.” Again, we were completely flummoxed. We were to later learn during the night that this was to celebrate the manager’s birthday on 31 July.

“OK.”

John commented : “the noise is good, they just need to work on the melody.”

As the first-half continued, and despite occasional Arsenal attacks, Thibaut Courtois did not have a save to make really.

The lively Willian controlled the ball wide on our left and danced into the box. As he struck a right-footed curler, I snapped. I watched as the ball evaded the lunge of the ‘keeper and we went 1-0 up. There was a loud roar. Soon after, a lovely solo goal from Batshuayi gave us a wholly deserved 2-0 lead. On the rare occasions that Arsenal threatened, they over passed. I remember an excellent block by Gary Cahill – who lead the team out – plus there was the usual solid stuff from David and Dave. Kante was his usual smothering self. This was great stuff indeed. At last, right at the end, Thibaut made a save.

Only Willy Caballero came on at the break.

We were now attacking our end and this seemed to enthuse our support even more. Although the fans were limited to a few songs, the whole end was singing together.

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

“CHELSEA – CLAP CLAP CLAP.”

It was still all us. There was tons of play down our left. After a pass from Fabregas, there was a fine pull back from Alonso to Michy on the edge of the box. His crisp swipe flew past the ‘keeper. Oh, how he enjoyed that one.

3-0 and game over. We were surprised that there were still no immediate subs. Antonio Conte was as animated as per usual on the side-lines. He is worth the admission money alone, these days.

The local fans began singing in unison, but the chant did not register with us.

“What are you singing?”

“Subio” – or something similar – was the word being sung and it translated as “one more (goal).”

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

Arsenal came into the game a little, but we were never really under threat. Conte rang some changes as the game continued.

Kalas, Christensen, Clarke-Salter, Tomori, Scott, Pasalic, Kenedy – more booing – Baker and Remy all played.

Pre-season is an odd-time. A sighting of Remy here, a sighting of Kalas there. Will they play a part in our future?

Answers on a postcard.

The all royal blue kit ended up virtually navy blue with the perspiration of the players.

The boos for Kenedy seemed to affect him; he looked rattled and struggled to get involved. Boga, among the other subs, looked pacey. One for the future, maybe?

Lewis Baker produced a fine effort right at the end from a free-kick – I’m tempted to say Arsenal’s wall was far from great – but the shot was well saved.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

Job done.

Glenn, especially, looked so thrilled to have witnessed this, his first Chelsea game outside of Europe. It had been a pleasure to be there with him. There seemed to be some sort of presentation at the end of the game, and the players certainly looked pleased with their endeavors as they slowly walked down to our end to applaud the fans.

It was again surreal to see and hear so many Chinese supporters singing along to “Blue Is The Colour” at the end of the game.

We slowly walked outside. We were all very happy with the performance and result. We looked fit. We looked hungry. All positives really. The only negative was Pedro’s injury. The official crowd was given as 55,000; we were pretty pleased with that. I’d say the split was around 50/50.

50% Chelsea, 50% knobheads.

Outside, the stadium was lit from underneath with warming orange and red. It looked simply stunning. I wonder if our new pad will be lit similarly with blue (suggestion – only when we win).

We waited for Foxy, who along with his flag, had watched from the other side of our half.

Avoiding the immediate rush for cabs, we retired back to a local restaurant. It seemed that nobody spoke English, but we were thankfully aided by a lad from the US who had recently graduated from a university in South Dakota but who was visiting to set up his own travel guide company. He had been at the game too. He helped us order some lamb and chicken skewers, rice and noodles but only 2.6 percent beer. We all agreed that it had been a perfect evening. Apart from the 2.6 percent beer.

At around midnight, we caught a cab back to our hotel, the roads clearer, the buildings still immense, the city huge, the holiday not even halfway through.

Ahead, there would be a simply unforgettable trip to The Great Wall Of China, a memorable bullet train, the historic city of Shanghai, with its history of trade and commerce – a different beast to the more conservative Beijing – and the towering skyscrapers of Pudong.

But that is another story.

 

 

Tales From Goodison Park

Everton vs. Chelsea : 30 April 2017.

I know that it seems quite ridiculous and implausible now, but there might have been the slightest of chances that my team would turn out to be Everton and not Chelsea. Until I started school in the spring of 1970, I had not shown much of a liking for football, or so my parents were to admit to me later. However, at the village school, after only a few weeks if memory serves, I chose Chelsea. I have told this story many times before so I won’t waste much time on this but this was possibly on the back of our FA Cup Final win against Leeds United. It might have been because some school pals had mentioned that Chelsea were a good team. It might have been because I just liked the name. Let’s face it, Chelsea is such a warm and lovely word, isn’t it? It might have been because the first football game that I played in during the lunchtime kick about was for the Chelsea team. The exact reasons are lost in the mists of time and the midst of time. However, one thing is absolutely certain. My interest in football had been piqued in April and May 1970 and my life – a thunderous orchestral crescendo please – would never be the same again. But, think about it. Everton won the league in 1970. I wonder if they ever entered my consciousness?

As I get older and look back on a life of Chelsea support, I often think back on those early months and years. I am always looking for clues as to why Chelsea hit me and hit me hard. And I have since tried, on here and elsewhere, to piece it all together.

I always remembered that I ended up with a couple of booklets, given away in packets of cereal, which detailed a couple of football teams in the early-seventies. The teams? Chelsea and Everton. I remember opening out the booklets and pouring over the snippets of information, though I am sure that I must have had to ask for assistance from my parents with reading some of the longer words.

Chelsea were my team by then, of course – no turning back – but I can distinctly remember looking at the word Everton, maybe spelling it out and writing it in my thirst for knowledge. Chelsea and Everton. I wonder where it all could have ended. For decades, I presumed that these feint memories of these giveaway booklets would be just that. Then, amazingly, to mark our centenary in 2005, Chelsea brought out a memorabilia pack featuring many facsimile replicas of items from our history, including programmes, cigarette cards, club documents, and – yes, you have guessed it – a full colour copy of that little booklet from the early ‘seventies. I immediately recognised it – oddly, Ian Hutchinson was on the cover – and I was transported right back to my childhood.

On the evening before our game at Goodison Park, I dipped into the memorabilia pack once more, and turfed out the booklet. It dated from 1971. I did a Google search. Within a few clicks, my childhood had returned again. The booklets were featured in packs of Shredded Wheat. And there, right before my eyes, was the cover of the Everton one, with Alan Ball on the front. Eight teams were in the series, oddly named “Cup Soccer 71”; Arsenal, Chelsea, Derby County, Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United.

And it got me thinking all over again about Chelsea and Everton. Around the time that the booklets were published, presumably before the FA Cup Third Round of January 1971, Peter Osgood had further embedded my love for Chelsea, but a year earlier it might have been oh-so different. If only my father had mentioned to me, in detail, that his only visit to a football stadium had been to Goodison Park during his World War Two training, my life might have turned out to be quite different.

But Chelsea I was in 1970 and Chelsea I am now.

And our game at Goodison Park on the last day of April in 2017 would be a real test. Someone somewhere – TS Elliot, which team did he play for? – once labelled April the cruellest month. April 2017 has certainly been a busy month, with seven Chelsea games, starting on the first day of the month and ending on the final day. For a while it looked suitably cruel. It began with two league defeats in four games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United. Then came salvation with two victories against Tottenham and Southampton.

With Tottenham still breathing down our necks, the thought of our game against Everton made me excited and nervous in equal measure.

Worry, worry, worry.

In The Chuckle Bus on the long four-hour drive to Merseyside, Glenn was very laid back, almost to the point of annoyance.

“We can only win our games. Don’t worry about them.”

I felt like slapping him around the noggin. Surely this approach, by not worrying about Tottenham and their threat to our sixth league title, is not how it should be done. To get maximum elation from any potential title win, surely one has to acknowledge all worst case scenarios? Glenn’s approach surprised me. Or maybe, me being me, I was taking this all way too bloody seriously.

I had made good time. I had started my collection of the boys at 8am. Just after midday, we stopped off at a Toby Carvery on Queens Drive and soon funnelled £8.95 worth of a Sunday Roast down our throats. At 1pm, I was parked up in Stanley Park, with both of the city’s football stadia close by. The huge new stand at Anfield dominated the skyline, but the equally dominant main stand at Goodison Park was just visible at the bottom of the gentle slope north.

The team?

As strong as it gets.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

I bloody love Goodison, again for reasons well documented in these match reports for many a season. With news that the club are to move to a new 50,000 capacity stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, a few miles to the north of the city centre, I may only have a few more visits left. There will be sadness on my last visit. A link to my father’s personal story will be extinguished.

Inside, up in the wooden floor boarded upper tier, Goodison looked very familiar. Back in 1971, I always remembered the semi-circles cut out behind both goals to stop rowdy spectators throwing objects at the players. Or – at least – making it more difficult for them to hit anyone should they chose to do so. The first Everton team that I ever remember – playing in white socks, which were brought back only recently – included players such as Howard Kendall, Gordon West, Jimmy Husband, Joe Royle and Alan Whittle.

With a few minutes to spare, I was able to pin my well-travelled “Vinci Per Noi” banner to the balcony wall, covering some of those famous Archibald Leitch cross-struts in the process. My plan was for Antonio Conte to spot it during the game, make a bee-line for it at the end of the match – with us victorious, obviously – and to point madly at it. He would hunt me down, phone me, arrange to meet up before the next home game at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, and we would soon become close friends. I would holiday at his summer villa on the shores of Lake Como. We would talk about his time at Juventus. The 1996 Champions League Final in Rome. That goal against Fiorentina in 1999. We’d sip Peronis. We’d laugh at Jose Mourinho. He’d advise me on hair transplants. We’d have a right old giggle.

Alternatively, the banner would fall at the first gust of wind, be trampled on by those underneath, and would be ruined beyond repair.

You’re right. I do worry too bloody much.

The kick-off, at the odd time of 2.05pm, soon came around. There was a muted response from the Everton fans to the pre-match “Grand Old Team” which is sung in the style of Lily Savage, and even “Z Cars” seemed quieter than before. However – no surprises – the Chelsea fans around me and below me were in fine voice. We all knew how important this one was. We were all, unequivocally, up for it. Someone had mentioned that Everton had won their previous eight home games.

Worry, worry, worry.

We spotted the Everton supporters struggle to drape a large banner of Alan Ball – him again – from the top tier of the Gwladys Street. The display marked the ten year anniversary of his passing in April 2007.

Goodison Park has been a tough old venue for us of late, with only that crazy 6-3 win in 2014 to give us any joy. There have been four league losses and one FA Cup loss too.

There was hardly an empty seat in the house.

Everton in 1971 blue, white and white. Chelsea in 2017 black, black, black.

The game had a crazy first few minutes. Ross Barkley moved the ball to Dominic Calvert-Lewin (what is it with double-barrelled names in football these days?) and he rattled the base of Thibaut’s near post. The ball bounced up and thankfully Gary Cahill was able to beat Romelu Lukaku to the ball. Less than sixty seconds had passed. We then enjoyed a little pressure, with Cahill hitting a low raking shot from distance. Stekelenburg fumbled, but nobody was close enough to pick up the pieces. It was certainly a lively opening.

Lukaku chose to wander over to the right, which meant that Dave had the onerous task of marking him. His physique demanded that I kept focussing on him. He is such a size. But Dave stuck close to him.

Eden Hazard was the next Chelsea player to go close, but after collecting a pass from Diego, he was forced wide by the Everton ‘keeper. His snatched shot rippled the side netting. We were definitely on top, and the Chelsea crowd were roaring the boys on. All three of our forward players were taking it in turns to run into space. Alonso on the left was often involved but had trouble in picking out players from out wide. Moses on the right was underused. There was a tendency to over-pass, but we were on top. Diego was holding the ball well.

The challenges were going in hard from both sides. After a Chelsea tackle was met with howls of anger from the Everton players close to the action, there was a classic from Gary :

“More fucking appeals than Blue Peter.”

Nemanja Matic strode forward and unleashed a low shot at the Everton ‘keeper.

Then, the next chance for Lukaku but his shot was dragged wide.

At the other end, Diego set himself up with a header, which bounced high off his head. The whole world seemed to momentarily stop as the ball came down. Unmarked, Diego snatched at it and ballooned it high into the packed stands.

Everton had their moments. I liked the look of Barkley but his impact was nulled by some great tackling from N’Golo Kante and Matic.

At the break, I was able to check that my banner was still in situ. Phew.

During the entire first-half, there had not been a single peep out of the Everton supporters.  I know that they are not known for their volume, but this was a pitiful showing. For a top seven club, not one single song. Shocking.

As always at Goodison, we attacked the Park End – ironically, the newest stand but easily the blandest– in the second-half. We were able to see how ridiculously close Eden Hazard was being marked by Idrissa Gueye. There was a lovely short corner – a Chelsea original – but Moses scuffed wide. Down below us, our raids were becoming more daring. There was nice play between Alonso, Hazard and Pedro. An hour had passed. At last, an Everton song. We plugged away.

A lone voice behind me :

“Don’t worry, it’s coming.”

I replied :

“So is Christmas.”

On sixty-five minutes, Pedro collected a ball from Matic. He turned and shifted the ball on to his left foot. From thirty yards out, he let fly. We watched and prayed that the white netting would bulge.

It bulged.

GET FUCKING IN.

Inside, I was boiling with joy, but I remained cool and snapped away, and hoped that the resulting flurry of photographs were not as blurred as I felt. I caught the pitch invader, mid jump, with Pedro, and snapped away as the ecstatic scorer – and the entire team – raced down to celebrate in front of the lower tier of the Bullens Road. I have not witnessed scenes of complete and unadulterated mayhem like that for ages.

Stay still my beating heart.

There were songs about winning the league, but Alan and I – at least – did not join in.

Lukaku curled a shot high and wide from a free-kick after a foul by Hazard on Barkley.

Hazard was able to eke out inches of space on the left, and he drew a foul from Gueye. We watched – me with my camera poised – as he whipped in a low cross. The Everton ‘keeper, perhaps distracted by those around him, could only fumble again. Captain Gary Cahill bundled the ball over. We erupted once more.

GET IN.

Again, I snapped away like a fool. Gary’s run was almost as euphoric as Pedro’s. There was no pitch invasion this time, but the wild scenes were the same. Cahill’s wonderful smile was captured on film by TV camera and by my camera alike.

There was a little worry as David Luiz fell to the floor after a previous knock took its toll. Not long after, the manager brought on Nathan Ake for Luiz, with Pedro being replaced by Fabregas at the same time.

Willian then replaced Hazard.

On eighty-six minutes, a pass from Diego Costa found Cesc Fabregas who picked out Willian inside the box, and the substitute effortlessly guided the ball into a virtually empty net. Now the game was certainly safe. The Chelsea section roared once more. I clicked away again.

The last photograph taken, I roared unhindered.

The lower tier down below me was a bubbling mass of humanity. Such scenes are a joy to behold.

At the final whistle, a triumphal roar, and then my eyes were focussed on Antonio Conte. He hugged all of the Chelsea players, and slowly walked over to join his men down below us, only a few yards away from the touchline. With just four games remaining, and our lead back to seven points, the joy among the team and supporters was palpable. Conte screamed and shouted, his eyes bulging. He jumped on the back of Thibaut Courtois. His smiles and enthusiasm were so endearing.

Altogether now – “phew.”

The songs continued as we slowly made our way out into the street. A message came through from my good friend Steve in Philadelphia –

“Chris, the image that just flashed on my screen was beautiful. A shot of a cheering Antonio Conte, cheering the away fans, with the Vinci banner in the background. Absolutely perfect shot.”

We reached the car, still bouncing, and I began the long drive home. It had been a fantastic afternoon at Goodison. We had inched closer. We discussed the game. All players had fought tooth and nail for the three points. Pedro had been excellent. Diego had held the ball up well, ran the channels, and had been his usual bundle of tricks. Captain Cahill was excellent. It had been a well-rounded performance after a few scares in the first-half. In the end, Everton were well beaten.

We listened to the Tottenham versus Arsenal game as we headed south, battling some typically slow traffic on the M6. Just north of Stoke-on-Trent, Spurs scored two quick goals. We sighed and we swore. The fuckers won’t go away will they?

With the lead back to four points again – “cat and mouse” – we now have to wait until Monday 8 May for our next game. By then, the lead could be just one point.

During the next week, the worrying will start all over again.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Tales From A Wembley High

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 April 2017.

We all knew how important this FA Cup semi-final was. We had suffered a recent blip in the league with two defeats out of the past four games and so we all realised that this game against Tottenham Hotspur – aka “that lot” – had the potential to make or break our season. A once seemingly impenetrable lead of ten points had been frittered away to a meagre four. A defeat – God forbid – at the hands of that lot at Wembley, we reasoned, would strike a horrible blow to our self-belief, while handing a lifeline to them.

No further build-up required. It was a massive match.

I woke early – again before the alarm – and unsurprisingly nervous. I was, if I am honest, full of trepidation. And this certainly felt odd. In recent years I have rarely felt so unsure of a Chelsea win and, with it, a grand day out from start to finish.

The four Chuckle Brothers – Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – had travelled up by train once again. It brought back memories, thankfully briefly, of the train trip that we all took just a few days after my mother passed away for the League Cup semi-final against the same opponent just over two years ago. On that day, I didn’t feel much like football, but my friends famously pulled me through. We had set off from Frome at 8am, and were soon at the lovely and delightful Paddington Station. There is something quite wonderful about alighting at a grand terminus, especially on a football day out. We had not spotted fans of either team on the journey to London. I certainly expected to bump into groups of “them” throughout the day.

As we strode out across the busy concourse towards Praed Street, I pointed out the metallic bench seats where the four of us had slumped – silent, stony-faced, sad – after the away game at The Emirates in September, and we all remembered those fleeting moments of pain and worry. The bench really sticks in my mind. It is undoubtedly one my personal totems of this incredible season. It made me think of another football club and one with which our current manager is heavily linked. I always remember that during the ceremony to mark the opening of the new Juventus Stadium in 2011, a bench played a starring role, since the famous old club was formed by some youngsters who met by a bench in one of Turin’s main streets. A replica of that bench was floodlit, in the middle of the pitch, as all other lights were dimmed. It was a simple and fine image. It represented a pivotal moment in time for that club. I promised the boys that if we ever made it to the FA Cup Final in May, we would make a point of returning to sit on that same bench on the Paddington concourse – maybe as league champions – and remember how far this team has come. Imagine returning on the evening of Saturday 27 May after an FA Cup Final with some silverware in our back pockets. Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have travelled in 2016/2017. After that game at Arsenal, it felt like we were down and out. We had a team in need of fresh blood. The mess of the previous season was set to continue. Our new manager had been found out. We were to face a long and testing season.

I had sorted out a little pub crawl. After scoffing a great breakfast outside the station, we were the first patrons to enter “Sawyers Arms” bang on 11am. We had already admitted to ourselves that we were all nervous about the game. Over a “Peroni”, the talk continued about the game. We all admitted that the result at Old Trafford had really been a “bad day at the office” especially when the news broke that a few players had been stricken with a stomach bug. The team had obviously been knocked sideways by the pre-match changes. In retrospect, everything looked out of kilter. But we were sure that the manager would be suitably prepared for the semi-final. Of course, the loss of Gary Cahill would be a tough one. We favoured Nathan Ake over Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

As we approached “The Sussex Arms” I spotted a gaggle of Herberts supping pints outside.

“Oh here we go. This could be them.”

As I got closer, I recognised a few familiar faces. Inside the dark boozer, I recognised even more. Many of the Chelsea fans from our neck of the woods had evidently decided to forego the bars closer to the station. I took my pint of San Miguel and chatted to one of the Swindon lads, Paul. Close by were lads from Melksham, Westbury, Trowbridge and Gloucester. Outside, the banter continued. None of us were overly confident. We were joined by three Chelsea lads from California – Tom, Brad and Mike, all in and out for just the one game – and we then headed off to the next pub on the list.

“The Victoria” is a cracking pub and I last visited it on the day of the 2012 FA Cup Final with Parky. The return visit in 2017 was, I will admit, a superstitious move by myself. But it is a fantastic boozer and it has retained its charm. A couple more drinks went down well. It was approaching 2pm.

We hailed a cab and darted off to “The Green Man” by Edgware Road tube. Daryl, Ed, Gary, Alan, John, Simon and Milo were already there, and the pub soon became swamped with many of the West of England Chelsea that we had met in “The Sussex Arms”. There was a moment when I looked up and each and every one of my London mates were chatting to lads from my part of England. It was a lovely moment. It encapsulated the buzz that I get out of following the team all over this country and beyond. All of us united by our love of Chelsea. All of us loving a beer. All of us loving a laugh.

The pub is nestled under the Westway and we were able to spot the Manchester City team bus that became stuck in traffic It was daubed with the club crest and a huge image of their players doing a “Poznan.”

I hope that Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kopmany appreciated the variety of hand signals that welcomed their slow advance into London.

Believe it or not, we were yet to see any opposing fans. Not one. Or at least, none that were wearing club colours. Maybe a few had sidled past us at Paddington but we would not have known. We had spotted little knots of police at Paddington, but there had been no Spurs fans. We walked to Marylebone train station. On the ten-minute ride to Wembley Stadium train station, right next to the ground, I spotted my first two Spurs fans of the day. One of them overheard me say “oh, there’s one” and apologised.

“Sorry.”

That made me smile.

The team news had broken through and it surprised us. Completely.

Out went Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, in came Willian and Michy Batshuayi.

Wow.

As for Gary Cahill’s replacement, we were right. In came Nathan Ake.

Unlike in previous years, there was no last-minute struggle to get in before the kick-off. We were all in with plenty of time to spare. The four of us were high behind the west end goal. Just like in the 2009 and 2012 finals, we were in that small section right above the TV screen. More positive superstition. Wembley is huge, of course. We preferred to be up high, since the patterns of play are able to be followed easier. Nearer the pitch, it becomes difficult to get much of a perspective.

Overhead, a mixture of sun and cloud.

Hardly any flags and banners were on show. New stadium regulations had meant that flags over a certain size needed to be pre-registered and have fire-certificates, thus stopping most from being allowed in. The cynical view is that banners obstruct advertisements along the balcony walls. Only one winner there, I am afraid.

It was lovely to spot thirty Chelsea Pensioners sitting in the lower deck to my left.

A few songs boomed out of the PA. A white flag wended its way from left to right in the lower tier of the east terrace, a blue flag moved over the heads of our supporters down below us. As the teams entered the pitch, supporters in our end frantically waved thousands of royal blue flags, while the other end depicted “COYS” amid alternate white and navy sections.

The scene was set.

But first, a minute of applause as the football world remembered Ugo Ehiogu, the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender, who had sadly passed away the previous day. He was a fine player. Both sets of players wore black armbands. Towards the end of the minute’s applause, we joined in chanting “Ugo” too.

We stood the entire game as did the majority around us and below us.

The match began and we started very well indeed. We thwarted an early attack which resulted in a corner but a fine Nathan Ake tackle set us off on a rapid attack of our own. A lovely touch from Michy set the raiding Pedro on his way. As he approached the penalty box, he was clumsily tackled by Toby Alderweireld. Barely three minutes had passed. A free-kick in “Willian territory.”

He steadied himself before clipping a fine shot just over the line of defenders. The net rippled and we roared. What a dream start and other clichés. The players raced over towards the side of the pitch, no doubt winding up both the opposing fans and also Mauricio Pocchetino, watching on like Rodney Bewes in a dark grey flasher mac.

I spotted a plane trailing an “ANTONIO ANTONIO” banner.

The pre-match worry had been temporarily lifted. For a while, we looked in control and at ease. Nathan Ake, bless him, looked particularly good. His movement is so natural. Sadly, this purple period did not last. A corner from Cristian Eriksen was cleared but he had a second bite of the cherry. A cross towards the near post was met by a stooping header from Harry bloody Kane, whose slight touch took the ball bouncing into goal way past the dive of Thibaut Courtois.

Ugh.

Game, as they say, on.

There wasn’t constant noise, but the atmosphere wasn’t at all bad. The slow and dirge like “oh when that lot go marching in” was matched by a few “carefrees.”  I was able to spot a few empty seats around and about but this was virtually a full house. There were little battles everywhere. N’Golo Kante was right in the middle of everything. I couldn’t work out why Son was playing at left-back. Victor Moses had a few trademark runs down that flank. That lot began to dominate and our defenders did well the repel their attacks. Luiz was at the centre of those blocks, ably aided by Ake to his left and Dave to his right.

Just before the break, the ball was pushed forward to Moses. He took a touch, but the poorly-timed challenge from Son immediately looked promising. After a split second, the referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.

“Get in.”

We waited. It looked like Batshuayi wanted to take it. Silly boy. Thankfully, Willian grabbed the ball. There was a slight stall as he approached the spot. Hugo Lloris was already on his way to his left as Willian struck it to his right.

“Yes.”

We punched the sky. But whereas there was wild euphoria with his first goal, there was just relief with this one.

The French ‘keeper appeared to touch the ball outside of the box, but we were one hundred yards away. At the break, texts came through to say that the touch was outside the box.

But the mood was buoyant at the break. We were halfway to paradise.

Our old rivals started the second-half the brighter. Luiz was soon heading and blocking in fine style. As Eriksen was allowed a little space, Glenn uttered the immortal words “no, don’t let him” and at that moment, we let him float a superb ball in and Delle Alli was able to meet the bounce of the ball and prod it high past Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

Only seven minutes of the second-half were on the clock.

That lot then dominated for quite some time, though in all honesty rarely threatened our goal. Luiz headed cross after cross away. A strip of sun edged slowly towards the eastern side of the stadium as the game continued. Elsewhere the pitch was in shadow. The songs ebbed and flowed.

On the hour, our manager pulled the strings. Off came Willian the goal scorer and on came Eden Hazard. Off came Batshuayi and on came Diego Costa. After a bright start, Michy had been largely stranded up front as the game continued. I heaved a sigh of relief. What a bonus for us to bring on such quality from our bench. They still had most of the ball though, but again found it so difficult to get behind us or even through us. Our royal blue wall was not going to be easily breached. Time after time, their attacks petered out.

Cesc Fabregas then replaced Pedro, who had also started brightly but was beginning to fade. Very soon, we won our first corner of the game. The ball reached an unmarked Eden Hazard, lurking just outside the box. He took one touch and shot low, through a forest of legs, and we watched – on tenterhooks – as the ball continued unhindered into the goal.

GET. FUCKING. IN.

Our end boomed.

A quarter of an hour remained.

“And its super Chelsea. Super Chelsea FC. We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.”

This was the loudest that I think that I had ever heard us at the new Wembley Stadium.

Five minutes later, our two craftsmen combined inside the box. Fabregas twisted a ball back to Hazard from the bye-line, and Eden took a couple of touches as he ran across the pitch, just keeping the ball under control. The ball was pushed towards Nemanja Matic, some thirty yards out.

Smack.

The ball crashed in off the underside of the bar, Lloris beaten, the whole team beaten.

Our end roared once again.

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Oh my bloody goodness.

At the other end, red seats started appearing. They had seen this all before. They were off home. In 2012 we administered their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. Now, in 2017, we had given them their seventh in a row.

Incredibly, Hazard and then Costa came close in the final few moments. A Kane free-kick in the dying embers of a fantastic game was saved by Courtois.

At the final whistle, of course many more red seats visible now, the joy of reaching another FA Cup Final almost matched the joy of beating “that lot” in a hugely important game in this most incredible, mesmerising, entertaining and dramatic of seasons.

The players cavorted down below. The manager looked breathless. The twin staples “One Step Beyond” and “Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

“Sing Chelsea everyone.”

The return train trip into the centre of London was full of smiles. At a bar outside Marylebone station, we met up with more Chelsea pals. Outside the redbrick hotel opposite, we spotted the Manchester City coach. Apparently, the Chelsea team had stayed at the very same hotel the previous night. We caught the 10pm train home, and there was time for one last gin and tonic from the buffet. Looking back, I should have asked for a double.

We reached home at midnight. It had been another fantastic day.

On Tuesday, the show rolls on. There is no time to rest. Southampton at home. See you there.

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Tales From The Clarence

Chelsea vs. Peterborough United : 8 January 2017.

In the pub, there was only the briefest most-mortem of the loss at Tottenham on the previous Wednesday. A few of us had been present at the game; others had watched on the TV. We all agreed that we hadn’t been atrocious. We all agreed that Tottenham hadn’t ripped us to shreds. In the circumstances, a run-of-the-mill 2-0 loss at one of our toughest away venues of the season was met with a gentle acceptance. A few mentioned that Marcos Alonso – I honestly could not remember him from his spell in England with either Bolton or Sunderland – has not performed too well of late, and I had to agree. There was a slight mention of the transfer window, but nobody had too much to say about that. Where does our squad need strengthening? Maybe a left-back, then, and maybe another striker. With Kurt Zouma about to return against Peterborough United later in the day, and – presumably – with Andreas Christensen due to return from his very successful spell at Borrusia Moenchengladbach in the summer – there is surely no need for the club to sign a central defender, despite the constant rumours linking us with Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, in the January window.

Around ten of us were trying out a new pub for the first time. After the demise of The Goose – it’s still frequented by some, but some of us fancy fresh pastures – we are still trying out new options. On this occasion, it was the turn of The Clarence. Heading north along the North End Road from The Goose, are three similar old-style pubs; The Elm, The Old Oak and The Clarence. These are small parlours and are strikingly similar in many ways. Old-fashioned décor, tired carpets, darkened wooden panels, fixtures from the ‘seventies, no frills and thrills, faded framed paintings and packets of crisps as the only bar snack. There was a time when all match-day pubs were like this. Our old haunt The Harwood Arms – 1995 to 1999 – certainly was.  The Seven Stars is no more, but that used to line the North End Road too, just opposite The Clarence. Then up at West Kensington is The Famous Three Kings. Since The Clarence housed only around twenty customers on this particular pre-match, we surmised that this pub just about marked the most north-westerly outpost of Chelsea drinkers on match days. It was OK. At least the beers were served in glass pints. To be honest, it filled a need but it was anything but posh.

I had spotted only a handful of Peterborough United supporters on my pre-amble to the boozer. They were to be six thousand strong, but I didn’t see any of them in any of the pubs around the stadium. I suspect a lot of them were doing their drinking around Earls Court. There had been a brief chat with some usual suspects at the CFCUK stall about the game at White Hart Lane – “I’d prefer this to be a league game to be honest, let’s get back in to the routine and get some points in the bag” – alongside talk of Adidas trainers and the imminent new stadium planning presentation to the local council on Wednesday evening.

That will surely prove to be one of the most historic nights in our history.

I spotted a new selection of royal blue pennants lining Fulham Broadway and Fulham Road. There were images of our silverware, along with pennants showing the words to two Chelsea standards; “Blue Is The Colour” and “The Blue Flag.”

Inside the stadium, the six thousand away fans took up the entire Shed End. Parky had been pushed to a seat in the West Lower, the poor bugger.

I approved of the retro-style programme cover which mirrored that of our 1965 FA Cup Quarter Final against Peterborough United; a nice touch.

We had been told that both Kurt Zouma and Michy Batshuayi would start against The Posh. In the pub, the starting eleven chosen by Antonio Conte, puzzled us a little. We found the thought of Branislav Ivanovic as a starting wing-back too weird for words. And Pedro, too, for that matter. Who would ever have thought that these two players would be playing the same role in a Chelsea starting eleven? We live in tactically-interesting times, eh?

Begovic.

Zouma, Terry, Cahill.

Ivanovic, Fabregas, Chalobah, Pedro.

Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi, Willian.

It was obviously lovely to see King Kurt back after a very lengthy spell out. I wasn’t sure about Ruben playing in a wide position, but it gave him a chance to impress.

We played Peterborough United in the same round of the competition in 2001 and won 5-0. On that occasion, the visitors wore a lurid lime green kit. This time, it was a lurid yellow. The game began, and I was a little disappointed that the away fans seemed quiet from the off. Despite a bright start from their home town heroes, they mainly stayed seated. There were no FA Cup balloons, another dying tradition.

Our first chance came from a near post flick from Gary Cahill after a low Willian corner, which caused an immediate scare in the away end. The ball bounced back into the arms of the ‘keeper – lurid pink – off the post. At the other end, a scare for us. A fine cross into our box was met by a lunge from a Peterborough striker. Asmir Begovic’ point blank stop looked exceptional, though this was just a save brought about by exceptional positioning than dynamic ability. A volley from John Terry ended up being planted straight at the Posh keeper’s stomach, and then Peterborough threatened Begovic again. It was quite a start for them.

Zouma reached row Z of The Shed with one effort, and then Willian reached row W with another. It was a very bright opening.

Following a shot from Chalobah which was palmed back out by the ‘keeper McGee, Pedro controlled the loose ball, lost his man with a deft shimmy, and smacked the ball in – high – at the far post.

Get in.

Pedro made a point of running down past the away fans to the far corner. Somebody obviously failed to tell him that The Shed wouldn’t be housing any home fans on this occasion. He looked a bit sheepish.

We put the Peterborough goal under pressure, with efforts from Batshuayi and Loftus-Cheek. Pedro, in a copycat move, slammed the ball high, but this time the ball crashed against the bar.

Just before the break, a fine move involving a hooked past from Willian to an advanced Ivanovic, resulted in Batshuayi calmly slotting home after a delicate lay-off from Loftus-Cheek.

Coasting now, 2-0, but I whispered to PD and his son Scott : “remember Bradford City in 2015.”

Willian had enjoyed an excellent first-half, full of running and intelligent passing.

It felt odd watching JT, the returning war horse. I watched on, seeking to praise him at every opportunity, in the same way that I would a youngster from the ranks. In this, surely his last season, I do not want to see him embarrassed again in the same way as he was at West Ham in the League Cup.

At the break, misty rain appeared. Neil Barnett introduced winger Bert Murray from that 1965 game, which we won 5-1.

Not long in to the second period, we broke with ease up the left flank. A marvellous pass from Cesc to Pedro who pushed it on to Willian. A touch inside his marker, and the ball was adeptly dispatched low past McGee. There was a lovely little celebratory dance with Kurt Zouma.

I turned to PD : “there will be no Bradford City today.”

We kept pressing at every opportunity. However, I had to admire how everyone chased and harried once the opponents threatened. I lost count of the number of times that Pedro ran at pace at defenders one minute, but was then seen deep in our own penalty area clearing an attack, or making a timely tackle. If it had been Willian’s first-half, it was surely Pedro’s second. There was one run which I captured on film – click, click, click – which featured a ridiculous high-speed step-over. I almost fell over just watching it. He is surely having one of the best seasons.

Ola Aina – perhaps unlucky not to start – replaced Gary Cahill on the hour.

A rare Peterborough break then caught John Terry unawares. Angol pushed the ball past him, and Terry lunged. It looked awfully messy, but my immediate thought was that, although a red card was possible, Ivanovic was covering. The roar from the away fans put paid to that notion.

A red card for John.

In a reshuffle, Dave replaced Loftus-Cheek, who had been steady rather than spectacular. Of the other youngsters, Zouma looked a little rusty. Batshuayi held the ball up well and a goal for him will boost his confidence. Chalobah was fine.

Against the run of play, Peterborough worked the ball down our left-flank and a low cross was turned past Begovic by Nicholls.

A slight Bradfordesque tremor? Not really. Conte played a strong card from the bench, replacing the excellent Willian by the redoubtable N’Golo Kante. Aina pushed the ball up to Batshuayi, who set up the waiting Pedro. The man of the match quickly slotted the ball home, low past McGee.

Chelsea 4 Peterborough United 1.

We still kept going, searching for more goals. There is no mercy rule in English football, and why should there be? Goals breed confidence, and despite no more ensuing goals, there was certainly a feel-good atmosphere bouncing around Stamford Bridge at the final whistle.

On Saturday evening, it’s back to the league campaign with an away trip to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City.

Just champion.

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