Tales From The Chelsea Corner

Chelsea vs. Palmeiras : 12 February 2022.

Our passage into the final assured, it would be natural to think that there would be a reasonable amount of contentment in the air on the Thursday. Well, yes and no. Everyone had agreed that our performance against Al Hilal was middling at best. The way our form nosedived in that terrible second-half was concerning. We also factored in the huge amount of Palmeiras supporters who were now amassed in Abu Dhabi; not on the same scale as their Sao Paolo rivals Corinthians in 2012, but still so impressive, especially since we were in the middle of a global pandemic. We presumed that a total of around 1,500 Chelsea supporters would be over from the UK for the final. In comparison, we estimated an easy 10,000 from Brazil, most of whom had endured a seventeen-hour flight. We feared that the game at the same stadium would be akin to a home game for them. We sensed that they really would be the oft-cited “twelfth man.”

Lingering in my mind too, was the last PCR test, slated to take place at a nearby walk-in clinic on the Friday.

Inside my head : “chill mate, let Friday and Saturday take care of themselves. This is a holiday.”

There was another relaxing morning by the pool on the Thursday, but there was a special treat planned for the afternoon. JD had booked seven of us on a desert safari and so PD and I took a cab over to his hotel early on Thursday afternoon.

JD met us in reception and we relaxed for a while by the pool with Andy and Kev, and were then joined by Liz and Mark. We piled into a 4 x 4, then set off for the desert. We had a whale of a time. The drive inland to the sandy interior took about an hour. The driver parked up, deflated the tyres to gain more traction, and then gave us a twenty-minute adventure through some sand dunes. I have not laughed so much in ages.

At a stopping-off point, a few Palmeiras fans posed for a photograph with us and their flag was held up between us. We were then driven to an encampment where we had a beer or two, took a ride on some camels, were joined by around fifty other tour groups – a good three-quarters of which were Palmeiras – and were served a lovely al fresco meal before night fell and a belly dancer performed for us. Alas, a Brazilian had given her a flag too. As the end of the evening approached, the host suggested that we just did a little stargazing, but our little group bellowed out “Blue Is The Colour” to disturb the serenity. However, the two or three hundred Palmeiras fans then completely drowned us out.

Bugger.

I had to admire their passion. Having seen some Argentinian games two years ago – almost exactly – I knew only too well what football means to South America. Think the UK is a football hotbed? It is, but South America is on a different scale.

We had loved every minute of the desert adventure. And I think it tired us all out. The drive back to the city was mainly in silence, save for a few worried conversations about the final.

Friday arrived and it was another cracking day. PD and I soon sorted out a PCR test – only £12 – and we then arranged to meet up with Julie, Tim, Pete, Brian and Kev at their hotel in the afternoon. The Radisson Blu was where I had originally booked PD and myself, only for Etihad to bump our homeward flight from the Sunday to the Monday. We relaxed by the pool area which abutted the inlet of the Persian Gulf. By mid-afternoon, our Alhosn App was updated with the negative test result from the morning.

Big grins all round. We were now clear for the final on Saturday and the flight home on the Monday.

That evening we spent drinking in the hotel bar with “the Bristol lot” but also Paul and Spencer from Swindon. We had a riot.

Saturday arrived. Game day. The day of the final.

Nervous?

Yes.

This followed a similar pattern to Friday. We cabbed it over to the Radisson Blu, where our pal Foxy was staying too. There was another lazy afternoon by the pool, where we were serenaded rather loudly by some Palmeiras fans, and we then trotted back to Foxy’s room where we showered and changed into our clothes for the final. We met up with the Bristol lot – OK, South Gloucestershire, right Tim? – and enjoyed a few quiet pints during the bar’s Happy Hour. Della and Mick were nearby, both worried stiff that their Alhosin App was malfunctioning. It seemed that many people were experiencing problems with it, not least myself; somehow I was registered as Christopher David Cox.

Foxy, PD and I caught a cab to the game, though the cabbie took us initially to the city’s other football stadium where the third and fourth place play-off was due to start. Luckily, the correct stadium was only five minutes away. The crowds were far greater than on Wednesday. The three of us were allocated tickets in the lower tier of the western end of the stadium, the section used by the Al Hilal support previously. There was quite a wait to reach the security checks. Palmeiras fans again dominated; the green and white was everywhere. I noted how many of the Brazilians had adopted the local Arabic headgear, again in green and white.

“Can’t see that catching on among our lot to be honest.”

My Alhosn App had gone grey where it ought to have been green, but I was waved through.

Phew.

Then, a personal hell. A “jobsworth” told me that I had to hand in my small camera. His supervisor said the same. I kicked up a bit of a fuss and they went off to see another supervisor. Thankfully, another chap allowed me to take it in.

“Thank you my friend.”

In an exact copy of Wednesday, we were in with an hour to go.

I took my position. Seat 8. Another red seat. Oh well, it worked on Wednesday.

Inside, my first thoughts were dominated by the realisation that there was no worthwhile segregation present in the entire stadium. How easy would it have been for FIFA to have given us one stand? It annoyed me because not only were around 10,000 Palmeiras fans crammed in at the other end (although, mysteriously, with a little section of around three hundred Chelsea fans in one corner), our area was adjacent to a section with around 5,000 Palmeiras fans. I wasn’t worried about it kicking off at all – far from it – but I just wanted a solid block of Chelsea so that we could noisily get behind the team.

I spotted many people that I recognised in our section. As kick-off time approached, the ground swelled. The lower tier of the western end really was full to bursting, the central section especially. It looked like this was the home of their ultras, “La Manche Verde” – the green spot – and many seemed to be wearing special edition white shirts.

The minutes ticked by.

Throughout, the Brazilians were in fine voice. Many songs were aired.

One chant dominated :

“Pal – meeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiir – as.”

With the middle syllable stretched out forever.

At the back of our terrace, a large banner proclaimed “Palmeiras Dublin.”

We were pretty quiet at this stage; outnumbered and out sung.

I looked around.

Foxy was a few rows in front. Mike and Frank were down the front. Close by were the South Gloucestershire contingent, the couples Liz and Mark, Karen and Feisal. My good mate Andy from Nuneaton was there too. Welsh Kev called over for a photo. Over in the corner I spotted Big Rich who had suffered for a day or two after being given a positive test result on arrival. Thankfully he tested negative soon after and was able to attend both games. He was with a few people I recognised; Darren, Ryan, Denise, Andy, Rob. King Kenny and Rob were there. Then in the front row of the side stand, the north stand, I spotted Della and Mick, Clinton who had flown in for the final – along with Tombsie who I saw outside – and Darren and Leigh.

There were a hundred or so Chelsea fans, dressed all in blue – how quaint – from the local Dubai supporters’ group. JD had mentioned a large contingent from Kerala in India at the Al Hilal match; they were here too surely.

There was more “Chelsea – are you ready?” hoopla (no, let’s just call it “bollocks”) but at least it managed to quieten down the Brazilians.

With kick-off approaching, the stadium lights were dimmed and some fearsome fireworks exploded into the sky.

Then, the teams.

Chelsea in blue / blue / white.

Palmeiras in white / white / green.

A few years back, I worked with Bruno – from Fortaleza in the sweltering north of Brazil – who was getting some local work experience while taking a Masters’ Degree at the University of Bath. He is a Palmeiras supporter. On his last weekend in the UK, I took him to Arsenal vs. Chelsea – 2016, a Diegoal gave us the points – and leading up to this game we had been in contact again. We had wished each other well.

But now it was time for friendships to be put on hold.

This was serious stuff.

Thomas Tuchel, himself only just returned to the fold after a bout of COVID, chose these players to bring home the…er, bacon in the Abu Dhabi night.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Hudson-Odoi

Mount – Havertz

Lukaku

“Big night for Callum.”

How many Chelsea fans were in the stadium? It was so difficult to hazard a guess. Maybe four thousand all told, including those from the UK and elsewhere. This compared to around slightly more than fifteen thousand Palmeiras. That leaves around twelve thousand neutrals, mainly locals. I spotted shirts of the other competing teams.

The game began.

From the off, it was obvious that Palmeiras were more than happy to let us have the ball. And we had it in spades. I was amazed how far Thiago Silva was allowed to carry the ball; over the half-way line and beyond. In modern parlance, this was a very low block.

Off the pitch, the Brazilian fans were on fire. Their noise dominated. Curls of white paper cascaded down from the Palmeiras fans above me in the upper tier. It felt like we were in a hornets’ nest.

Palmeiras enjoyed a couple of half-chances but Edouard Mendy was not bothered. On ten minutes, Kai Havertz to Callum Hudson-Odoi but his shot was blocked. On twenty-two minutes, Mount misjudged the pace of the ball as it dropped into the six-yard box and he let it run on. Soon after, two shots from Havertz were screwed wide.

Out of nowhere, a lightning break from Palmeiras but the aptly named Dudu slapped his shot well wide. It was, however, the half’s biggest chance. Sadly, on the thirty-minute mark, Mount was injured and was replaced by Christian Pulisic. I was honestly surprised that Ziyech was not given the nod. Every time that Silva advanced, I just wanted him to go another five or ten yards, drop his shoulder and rattle in a shot on goal. At last, a few moments before half-time, he did just that. The beautifully named Weverton leapt to force it around the post for a corner.

Half-time came with the game scoreless.

Although we were finding it hard to break down this Palmeiras side, I was relieved. I was relieved that they were clearly not as able as I had presumed them to be.

At half-time, more “bollocks” as the lights were dimmed and spectators were asked to shine their mobile torches. It brought me immense pleasure to see one corner of the stadium not joining in.

It was akin to the blackout during the Second World War, for those who enjoy such hyperbole.

The second-half began and maybe noticing that the Palmeiras fans were in a moment of quiet and rest, the Chelsea corner were roused and our loudest chant of the night cheered me.

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

Good ol’ “Amazing Grace.”

Other teams mock us when we sing that, but it’s ours and ours alone.

A Rudiger rocket was blasted at goal. We continued to dominate. The ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi on our left. He had not enjoyed a great game thus far to be honest. I bellowed at him :

“Come on Callum, dig it out.”

Well, dig it out he certainly did.

His cross was well hit, on the money, and a bullet header from Lukaku at the near post sent us all delirious.

Two games in Abu Dhabi. Two goals for Lukaku. A part of me wanted it to end there. He is not enjoying a great spell right now. I wondered if Lukaku getting both our goals might just set him off on a run of form.

Just after, a shot from Pulisic was drilled just wide.

“Ooooooooh.”

A very rare attack on our goal followed within ten minutes of our goal. The ball was lofted into the box from a throw-in and a shot was smothered by Mendy with ease. The moment passed. But then some commotion and some noise. There was a VAR review.

“Bollocks.”

The penalty was given and I had no complaints after seeing the replay; Thiago Silva’s arm was up at an angle, a definite penalty.

Raphael Veiga converted.

Game on.

We drifted a little now, our impetus broken a little. But we still carved out chances with Havertz and Pulisic going close.

Timo Werner replaced Lukaku and Saul replaced Hudson-Odoi on seventy-six minutes. To be fair, their fresh legs helped us. We turned up the heat but Palmeiras defended well.

With five minutes to go, fresh green and white vertical streamers were held aloft over the lower tier of the end opposite. I guess this was to spur their team on in the last portion of the game. I always remember that we used to sing “Chelsea” to “Amazing Grace” during most second-halves back in the ‘eighties. It was “our thing.”

The last kick of normal time saw Mateo Kovacic blast high over the bar.

We settled our nerves for an extra thirty minutes and – gasp – possible penalties. Foxy came and stood with PD and little old me.

“Hope you’re our good luck charm, mate.”

Into extra-time we went.

Malang Sarr for Christensen.

Hakim Ziyech for Kovacic.

I had been standing for hours. My “lucky” yellow Adidas trainers – Porto – were starting to pinch. I was tired and weary.

“Come on Chels.”

More Chelsea domination, more Palmeiras resistance. A rare Palmeiras break, but Rudiger held firm with a sensational shoulder charge. He had been exceptional all game. I spotted rows of Palmeiras fans in the opposite end gently swaying from side to side. Another sight that you don’t see back home.

Into the second period of extra time we went. The night was drawing on. And to think that one of my initial travel options had been to catch a 2.55am flight home on Sunday morning.

We found new life again. Werner wriggled and went close. The game became tense. I willed us on.

“Come on you blue boys.”

With only four minutes remaining, a Ziyech corner was swung into the box. It was knocked down and Dave swung at it. There was a block from a defender and the three or four nearest Chelsea defenders instantly appealed for a handball. Play continued but when the ball went out of play, the referee signalled for another VAR review. PD and Foxy was adamant that we’d get the decision. The Australian referee again trotted off to look at the pitch side screen.

Penalty.

I loathe VAR but I could not resist a yelp of joy.

Then ensued pure drama. Dave, the one who had won the penalty, the captain, claimed the ball. My immediate thoughts?

“Dave? Shades of JT in Moscow. Oh bloody hell. Brave man.”

The Palmeiras players were in Dave’s face for ages. Or what seemed like it. Then, a dialogue with Timo. Give it to him? Not my choice. Then, the last twist; Dave calmly handed the ball to Kai Havertz, the hero in Porto.

A moment of stillness.

A moment of drama.

I held my camera ready.

The run up.

Click.

He sent the ‘keeper the wrong way, shades of Didier in Munich, the ball flew in.

YES!

I yelled with joy and looked to the sky. But I then became light-headed. By the time I had steadied myself, Havertz had run to the Chelsea corner and was being mobbed by everyone.

Click, click, click.

Joy.

Joy.

Joy.

The Palmeiras fans were quiet now. The Chelsea section was buzzing.

One last twist; the Palmeiras player Luan, after another delay, was sent off for wiping out Havertz the scorer. Just after the resulting free-kick was taken, the referee blew.

At around 11pm on a balmy night in Abu Dhabi, Chelsea Football Club became World Champions.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Abu Dhabi.

Tales From The Arabian Peninsula

Chelsea vs. Al Hilal : 9 February 2022

Of the many irritants involved with my recent footballing past, nothing continually manages to annoy me more than the Chelsea chant “We’ve won it all” which is sung with gusto by thousands, some of whom should definitely know better. I roll my eyes every time I hear it. I am pretty sure I have never sung it. The fact of the matter is that due to our meek 0-1 loss to Corinthians in Yokohama in 2012, there was still one prize remaining for us to claim. In those days it was known as the World Club Championships. Earlier, when it was a one-game final between the South American and European Champions, it was known as the Inter-Continental Cup. Now, rebranded again, it is known as the FIFA World Club Cup.

After our win in Porto last May, we were presented with the chance to have another stab at it. I openly hoped for a return visit to Japan; I loved my time there in 2012, an almost perfect trip. We waited and waited. There were rumours of the United Arab Emirates, there were rumours of Las Vegas. Talk about one extreme to the another, eh? In December, it was decided that the delayed 2021 World Club Cup would take place in Abu Dhabi in February 2022.

My immediate response was this.

“I’m going.”

But then I became slightly side-tracked with my boycotting of the Qatar World Cup of 2022, and pondered whether it would be hypocritical for me to go to Abu Dhabi. All things considered, I decided that Abu Dhabi was “on.” Initially, a few friends seemed interested too. In the end it boiled down to PD and myself. On the face of it we are an unlikely pairing, as different as chalk and cheese – with me a very soft brie – but we are good friends and I began preparing a list of things that we needed to sort out.

But.

The worry of COVID19 tests, registration procedures, and the possibility of the pandemic flaring up again, and the risk of getting caught in Abu Dhabi, COVID-positive and thus forced to miss even more time off work ate away at me.

Heading into the last few days of 2021, I was still 50/50 about the whole damn thing.

Then the game dates were announced. Others began booking. I re-examined all the clutter that would get in the way of a trip to the Arabian Peninsula. The tests, the forms, the costs, the risks.

And then I did it. I booked our flights. We were on our way.

But did the stress, anxiety and worry disappear? No. Did they fuck.

However, with each passing week, things began to drop into place. I sought advice from a few good friends. Other friends sought advice from me, the fools.

The Alhosn App would haunt me for weeks.

Then at the Brighton game, I was aware that I was coming down with something unpleasant. It knocked me for six to be honest. I was off work for the best part of a week and I even missed the Tottenham league game, damn it. After the tests, it was found that I had been hit with a campylobacter infection. This, I have to admit, just got in the way of the last few things that I needed to do before the trip. These were a few dark days. It absolutely clouded my thinking and hindered my planning.

There was one last remaining worry too. We were off to Abu Dhabi on the first Monday in February. On the Saturday, we were set to play Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Like a few people I know, I didn’t attend the game. I just couldn’t risk catching COVID again at Stamford Bridge. But I still spent the day in SW6.

It was one of the oddest days. Because Parky and PD still wanted to attend, I drove them up but then occupied myself for a few hours. I fancied a walk, rather than sitting in my car for three or four hours, and so I meandered down through the deserted streets of Fulham to Craven Cottage. I arrived at the Johnny Haynes statue bang on 12.30pm, just as the game was kicking-off at Stamford Bridge.

How odd did that feel? Oh, very odd.

There were a few bouquets, wreaths and cards on the gate in front of the cottage in memory of the Fulham fan who had recently died at a game there. One card was from a close relative. It brought a tear to my eye.

With the score at 1-1 on ninety minutes, the game at Stamford Bridge went to extra-time.

But we had other plans. In order to meet pre-flight requirements, I had arranged for PD and I to have PCR tests at Heathrow at 5pm. With that in mind, the lads had arranged to leave on ninety minutes even if extra-time was required. Bless them. Just before 3pm, they joined me in my car. Despite a little problem tracing PD’s registration for the test, both PCR tests were taken and the three of us returned home.

It was indeed, one of the oddest days. Good job we eventually won.

Driving home, I was heard to mutter “would love Luton away, before they move to their new stadium, never been to Kenilworth Road.”

On the Sunday morning, texts came through to both of us. We were both negative.

Get in.

I finished packing early on Monday morning and called for PD in Frome at 5am.

Rather than a flight from London, I had managed to save some money and fly from Manchester. The drive up went perfectly. I had parking booked from 9am. We arrived at 9.05am. There was a long wait to check in…always a nervous time, even in normal times, but our PCR tests were quickly glanced, our bookings reconfirmed, we were on our way. I spotted a few Chelsea fans that I knew in the line too. And, ominously, one Palmeiras fan.

I remembered the 25,000 Corinthians fans in Japan.

It was a lovely irony that we were setting off from City’s airport using their airline. It was even more delicious that other friends were setting off in a “Manchester City” liveried plane at Heathrow.

“Here’s what you could have won.”

The 12.35pm flight was delayed an hour. With the inherent four-hour time difference, we touched down at Abu Dhabi airport at around 12.30am in the small hours of Tuesday.

Glenn and I had spent a few hours in the same terminal building en route to watch Chelsea play in Australia in 2018. Who could have thought that I’d be returning to see us play in the desert in 2022? This almost mirrored my movements in 2012 and 2017. In 2012, I transited in Beijing en route to the 2012 games in Japan. Yet in 2017, I exited the Beijing airport to see us play Arsenal at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2017.

Funny game, football.

On arrival at the airport, we were ushered into a PCR testing area. It was all very simple and straight forward. I was impressed. We then caught a £20 cab over to our hotel, a journey that took half-an-hour. The impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was floodlit as we drove past, certainly an impressive sight.

The “day one” story did not come to a clean and simple ending unfortunately. We arrived at our hotel a few blocks from Abu Dhabi’s beach at around 2am. The hotel had not noted my late arrival – although I had an email to say they had – and so only had us staying for five and not six nights. After six or seven calls to other hotels, the concierge managed to get us in for one night at a lovely five-star hotel.

Phew.

At 3am, we fell asleep.

We woke to see that the infamous Alhosn App had been updated with our two negative test results.

Such relief.

This now cleared us for the game on Wednesday.

The Tuesday was spent relaxing at our original hotel. The management had upgraded us to a lovely suite on the fifteenth floor with a room each. Our rooftop pool was perfect and Paul wasted no time in soaking up some rays.

The view from the terrace summed up Abu Dhabi; white bricked houses and homes, mosques and minarets, high-rise apartments, sky scrapers in a business district on the horizon, the gulf and some man made islands too. We had a brief excursion to see the local beach. Our route took us past three or four expensive car dealerships; Bentley, Lotus and the like. But, like China, there were no advertisement hoardings anywhere. Acres of steel and glass, a modern city, but one that need seem so alien to me. I’d need a month to work it out.

There was a “Fado” Irish pub in our hotel and on the Tuesday night we met up with Della and Mick from Kent before Mike and Frank, veterans from Japan in 2012, strolled in at about 10pm. There were a group of around eight Chelsea fans I semi-recognised at another table. The two ladies of the night soon disappeared due to the lack of interest being directed at them. Pints of Peroni were at the £9 mark. Ouch.

“Another Peroni please.”

Tons of Chelsea stories, tons of Chelsea laughs. It was a great night.

Not so far away, Palmeiras had beaten the Egyptians 2-0. They were waiting for us in the final.

Wednesday was game day. After a late start – due to us both being sleep deficient and the alcoholic intake of the previous night – we welcomed Foxy down to our hotel. He, again, was a veteran of Japan 2012, and due to his life on the ocean waves was well versed to the ways of the UAE having spent many times in Dubai, though only a limited amount of access to Abu Dhabi. We loitered around the pool area and then zipped inside the adjacent restaurant where I had a very healthy pre-match meal of grilled chicken with a pear and blue cheese salad. It certainly differs from a Sunday roast at the Eight Bells or a Greggsfast on the A303.

The game was to begin at 8.30pm, and we wanted to ease into it. We caught a cab from our hotel at 5pm. By 5.30pm, we had gained entrance to the super sleek Dusit Thani hotel opposite the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. The local Al Jazira football team plays at this stadium, but they had lost to our opponents Al Hilal from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia by the score of 6-1 on the Sunday. In the other second round game, Al Ahly from Egypt had beaten Monterrey of Mexico 1-0. By an odd twist, we had beaten Monterrey in our semi-final in 2012.

Al Jazira, Al Hilal, Al Ahly, Alhosin. We just needed Al Yankovic, Al Molinaro, Al Jarreau and Al Davidson to show up and we would be totally flummoxed.

We settled in at a quiet bar in the hotel. I met up with Robert, a Yorkshireman who once lived in Houston, but has flitted between Dubai and Baku in recent years – he is employed within the oil industry – and I last saw him out in Baku. I leisurely enjoyed two pints of Peroni although the prices were a little more expensive than at our hotel; up to £13 here.

Foxy spotted three lads sat at the bar opposite; their shirts were Celtic, Leeds United and Ajax. A lad with a Barcelona shirt was stood behind them.

“Brave or stupid.”

On the next table were two Saudi lads, timidly sipping two small glasses of lager.

“Cheers lads.”

They smiled.

“Bet this is like a trip to Benidorm for them.”

Now the moment of truth. At 7pm, we left the bar and walked over a pedestrian bridge, which went up and over a busy road, to get to the stadium. At the entrance gate, a check of the ticket, a check of my Alhosin App, and we were in. My small pocket camera was waved through too.

After all the worry and stress…my smiles were absolutely authentic.

I was happy. I mean, really happy.

It was 7.30pm. An hour to kick-off. My immediate goal was to try to find the stadium’s wifi password, but this was an impossible task. My data had run out and so I would be jettisoned from the outside world until I could hook back up with a hotel wifi. But not to worry. Life goes on, eh? In the concourse, there was a group of around twenty Muslims, including a few Chelsea supporters, kneeling on mats and praying to the west.

I got mine out and prayed for myself.

Our tickets placed us midway into a half in the lower tier of the northern side stand. The view was decent. Over the course of the hour, we spotted a few familiar faces; Scott, Roy and Margaret, Leigh and Darren. Later, I would spot the increasingly familiar face of Astrijd vlogging away a few seats to my right. Robert from Baku was close by. Dave Johnstone was spotted. Elsewhere in our section, there was a tremendous mix of people. Local Chelsea fans, Chelsea fans from further afield, Al Hilal fans – dressed in blue – and even fans of other competing teams. I won’t lie, it felt odd to be in and among the opposition. I tried to spot Chelsea fans that I knew from home in the lower tier behind the goal. No luck. Lots and lots of Chelsea flags though. Good work!

The consensus was maybe one thousand Chelsea from the UK. Maybe a few more.

At various moments we were treated to the stadium lights being dimmed and then spotlights flying around, but then a couple of morons asking us all to “make some noise.”

The British contingent stood with our hands in our pockets and muttered obscenities beneath our breath.

Using a few screeches from AC/DC as a scene setter seemed a very odd choice I have to say.

Soon, the kick-off was upon us.

Chelsea in all yellow. I loved that. Bollocks to Borrusia Dortmund. Al Hilal in all blue. The teams lined up. The end to my right housed the Saudi militants – perish that thought – and they put on a fine show with steamers and banners.

Chelsea :

Kepa

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Ziyech

Lukaku

Facemasks were worn by many. Mine was on and off every ten minutes.

The game began and Al Hilal soon pounced on an early mistake but a weak shot caused Kepa no concerns.

Soon into the game Al Ultra turned on his loud speaker and tried to stimulate the Al Hilal supporters around him to cheer the team on. It sounded so much like an imam and a call to prayer. It was such a surreal sound.

We grew into the game. It wasn’t a particularly hot evening. I was wearing jeans as were many others. Hakim Ziyech immediately caught my eye and looked to be keen and interested to set up chances for himself and others. Thiago Silva looked his usual composed self. Dave was often wide right, unmarked, but we often chose to ignore him. The chances began to stack up with Lukaku just missing out on passes and crosses. One strong run from him on twenty-five minutes impressed me. If only he could show such willingness to create opportunities for himself more often. Kovacic was running the midfield. We were well on top.

Our support was trying its best but we were easily out sung by the opposition.

Once or twice, Ziyech danced and weaved into the box from the right and attempted that “far post” bender” that he loves. Other shots were blocked. Our dominance continued. Al Hilal were not in it. They hardly escaped their half.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

On the half-hour, Kovacic raced up field and released Havertz on the left. His first cross was blocked but on the rebound, he pushed the ball inside again. The cross hit an Al Hilal defender and the ball fell into the path of Lukaku who smashed it home from close range.

The goal was met by a guttural roar, from me especially.

I punched the air, then caught a few celebratory snaps.

Phew.

I just couldn’t face questions at work the next week : “How did that third and fourth place play-off go, Chris?”

We looked more confident after that goal. It must have calmed us; players and fans alike. We needed another, but Al Hilal now threatened a little. Thankfully, we looked solid and their attacks misfired.

We had dominated possession; 62% Chelsea in the first-half.

At the break, N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho.

Soon into the second period, Kai Havertz broke away down in front of us and kept running. He drew the ‘keeper and chipped the ball over him from inside the six-yard box. It clipped the post.

Bollocks.

Another goal then would have steadied the ship. Sadly, the second-half was a mightily poor affair indeed. Al Hilal warmed to the challenge and threatened us on too many occasions for my liking. Our singing completely faded in the second-half. Their number seventeen Moussa Marega looked half-decent – a more mobile version of Lukaku – and he was aided in attack by Odion Ighalo, who used to play for Watford.

The move of the game brought me lots of pleasure though. A cross from Kante, after he ridiculously knocked the ball over the head of his marker, was headed back by Lukaku and Ziyech “faded” his shot to keep it down. The Al Hilal ‘keeper pulled off a fine save.

There was a magnificent block from Kepa on the hour mark; that man Marega’s shot was adeptly stopped by our young ‘keeper. Mohammed Kanno’s firm drive was then saved at full stretch by Kepa. The boy was keeping us in it.

There was worry and concern among all the Chelsea supporters now.

When Mason Mount replaced Ziyech with twenty minutes to go, there were boos around the stadium; although from The Netherlands and now playing for Morocco, he was obviously a local favourite.

A shot from the impressive Pereira went close.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Malang Sarr replaced Alonso, who had been his usual mixture of raiding wing play but defensive slips. Mount went close at the death, but that elusive second goal never came.

Thankfully, we held on.

Our possession had steadied out to 55% at the end.

It was a rotten second-half, but we had reached the FIFA World Club Cup Final. The gate was given as 19,751. I had said to PD that it seemed about half-full. The Al Hilal fans looked genuinely crestfallen. We just looked relieved.

PD and I slowly returned to the same bar as pre-match. We soon met up with Frank and Mike from New York. I met Dutch Mick too – also there in 2012 – and there was time for one last “Peroni” before PD and I caught a cab back to our digs.

We knew of several Chelsea fans who were flying over especially for the final; I was so pleased for them.

Now it was time to relax. And for a date with some camels.

Tales From Chelsea Smiles In North London

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2022.

It had just turned three o’clock in the afternoon and I pulled up in my car alongside PD’s motor in the pub car park opposite where I work. I clambered out.

“I’ve got to work on lads. You’ll have to drive up and I’ll go solo. Can you give me my ticket?”

Work had been going swimmingly well, but I had just been hit with two problems – in The Netherlands and Ireland – that needed my immediate attention. I sped back to the office and tried to get my head around what needed to be done. Of course, typical, a few other problems arose too. But, thankfully, at around 3.45pm I was able to eventually head off to London.

The race had begun.

I had been awake since 5.45am and, ironically, at around 2pm, when I started to feel a little tired I thought to myself :

“Not to worry, I’ll get a little shut-eye on the drive to London in PD’s car.”

So much for that, eh?

I sped off east towards Salisbury Plain but soon stopped for refreshments and an all-important coffee at a petrol station in Tilshead. A woman at the till who was buying lottery tickets – slowly – wound me up – quickly.

Thinking to myself, again :

“Come on, this is Tottenham away.”

Luckily, the traffic was light, the weather was fine, the roads were dry. I made good time but there was always that risk of getting caught in a London rush-hour in reverse. It’s always a lottery. I reached the M3 at about 5pm and was able to speed on. Thankfully the tiredness that I had feared never enveloped me. I tried to compute my projected arrival time in London and my chances of reaching the all-important main line station at Liverpool Street.

It seemed like ages since I had driven alone to London for a game.

As I passed Twickenham, PD called me and asked for advice on how to get to Liverpool Street. The two Chuckle Brothers were on the loose in London and it brought a wry smile to my face.

“Change at Holborn I think.”

At exactly 6pm, I was parked outside Barons Court tube station, a few car lengths down from PD’s car. There was a slick change of trains at Holborn and I was soon on the short journey to Liverpool Street. I arrived there at 6.35pm.

“Hour and ten minutes to go. Should be OK, but it all depends on the frequency of trains to White Hart Lane.”

As I came out of the underground tunnels and walkways and was almost up at ground level, there was a sound that brought another smile to my now masked face.

“We love Tuchel, we love bugle, Chelsea’s won the Champions league.”

This meant that Chelsea were in the vicinity and – presumably – there was a train to take me to the game in good time.

I quickly glanced at the train timetable.

“Platform 1 : Cheshunt – 1845, stopping at White Hart Lane.”

I had exited the underground station right next to platform one.

Perfect.

I walked all of the way to the front of the train since the rear carriages were full, but also full of Chelsea too. This was going well. The train stopped at around ten stations and the time flew. At Seven Sisters, there was an extended stop of five minutes or more. There was an announcement.

“For those going to the football, please get off here. People on the platform need to get on to use the service.”

I didn’t see one single person alight.

Fuck that.

Eventually, at just gone 7.15pm, we reached White Hart Lane station and everyone shuffled along the platform like penguins. Downstairs, the two sets of fans were forced left and right unlike at any of the previous two games that I had attended at Tottenham’s spanking new stadium.

“Chelsea left please, Chelsea left.”

Once split, the singing began. But beers were thrown at us by the Tottenham fans descending some stairs. The police waded in on a few Chelsea fans who retaliated. I walked on. Outside the station, much-modernised these days, was a row of potted plants, with up lighting, all very modern. Around fifteen Chelsea fans in a strict line, their bladders unable to cope, were watering the plants as if it was part of a military operation.

In the London night there was noise, anticipation, a palpable sense of danger.

Opposite there was a shop that caught my eye.

“Tottenham Hot Spuds.”

That made me chuckle.

“Hate to think what is on sale at Arsenal.”

Down on the High Road, there was more noise, but with scurrying crowds, a few engaged in fisticuffs, a swarm of police and I saw that the road was blocked off. The police had no desire for the two tribes to mix. Things were definitely feisty. As I took a few photos with my camera phone, a police horse reared up close to me and I had to adjust my footing to avoid getting struck.

I raced on towards the away turnstiles, the clock ticking. Outside were more police, and more noise. The bright illuminated cladding of the stadium contrasted with the shadows of the Chelsea supporters clambering to get in to the game in time for the start.

Up the steps, a COVID check, a check of my ticket and then a bag check.

“Camera?”

“Yes.”

“Need to check.”

He called over his supervisor. I was one step ahead. I lifted up the camera with the small wide-angle lens attached. I didn’t open up the bag to show the larger zoom lens.

“Nah, that’s alright. In you go.”

Time for a last minute visit to the gents. “Hellos” to a few mates. I bumped into the bloke who I was stood next to at the Chesterfield game. It was his first visit to the new stadium.

“Brilliant, innit?”

I agreed.

I eventually located block 113, then row 10, then Parky.

“Made it.”

It was 7.42pm.

Fackinell.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

We were right behind the goal and only a few yards from the Tottenham fans.

Oh lovely.

Unfortunately, a few stewards were close by too. I knew it would be a case of cat and mouse with my camera all night long.

The stadium took my breath away again. On the previous two visits I was tucked away in the corner. This time, the view was even more spectacular. Way above the metallic cockerel at the top of the huge South Stand, way up in the clear night sky was the crescent of the moon, as clear as you like. It was certainly a dramatic setting.

The game kicked off and it took me a while to put players to positions. Back to a 4-4-2?

Kepa

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Sarr

Mount – Kovacic – Jorginho – Hudson-Odoi

Werner – Lukaku

Things were pretty even at the start. I tried my best to take it all in. I tried to catch up with Parky. They had arrived at Barons Court at 5.15pm. PD had taken two and a quarter hours just like me. All was good. I was just so relieved to have made it. Another fifteen minutes of work would have killed my timings and connections. I spotted tons of familiar faces dotted around.

As the game developed, we looked at ease and confident. But the home team were not without threat. A shot from Kane at a free-kick was blocked. A forest of “wanking hands” greeted his miss-fire. There was an effort from Moura that went well-wide.

I sang a song from the ‘eighties to myself :

“How wide do you want the goals?”

Timo Werner was full of running in the first part of the game and his lob over the Tottenham ‘keeper from the angle of the penalty box dropped just over the bar. Next up, his striking partner Romelu Lukaku was released with an early ball and he did well to fight off a challenge, bring the ball down and shoot. Sadly, the ‘keeper was able to save. It was a bright start, this.

On eighteen minutes, we won a corner. I hadn’t used my camera too much thus far. But on this occasion, I asked Parky to lean forward to block the view of the nearest steward. Mount swung the ball in. A leap from Rudiger. I snapped. The ball – in slow-motion – dropped into the goal.

Scenes.

Get in you beauty.

There were the wildest of celebrations in the away segment which encompassed two tiers for this match. We had around 5,500 fans and every single one was going doo-lally.

“There’s that third goal.”

The one we couldn’t quite score last week.

“Safe now surely.”

A few minutes later, a steward spotted my camera and I was asked to pack it up. I wasn’t too worried. I knew I’d be able to use it again if I chose the right moment. At least I had nabbed the goal.

The home team threatened with a flurry of misdirected efforts and shots that were blocked. I never really felt that we were in danger.

Of course, the away choir was on fire.

“Tottenham get battered everywhere they go.”

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

I watched as a fine sliding tackle by Antonio Rudiger robbed Hojbjerg outside the box. The Tottenham player then seemed to dive once the ball had gone, but this dive was inside the box. I had a great view. I was adamant that everything was fine. To my horror, the referee pointed at the spot. Well, that seemed ridiculous. Somebody in the crowd reckoned that VAR wasn’t being used for this game. I wasn’t sure.

After a while, it flashed up on the TV screen that VAR was being used.

We waited. And waited. And waited.

No penalty.

Whoop.

As the Chelsea players lined-up in a wall for the resulting free-kick, we spotted Dave squatting behind the wall and peeking through his team mates’ legs. At the last minute he fell to the floor. It was such a bizarre thing to see and I wished that my camera had been able to capture it.

I turned to the couple behind me.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dave.”

Anyway, the free-kick was headed over by a covering defender. The Chelsea support roared. We had quelled a little bubble of resurgence.

Apart from some noise at the very start when, naturally, the home support might have thought that a comeback was possible, the noise from the home stands was pretty minimal. Only on the half-hour did the place shake when a loud “Come on you Spurs” rattled around.

It dawned on me recently that only Tottenham fans call their team Spurs. Chelsea fans tend to say Tottenham.

Interesting fact #547.

The first-half ended. Time for a chat with a few folks. I spoke with the Bristol lot. Since the last game I have taken the plunge and booked up Abu Dhabi. I am going with PD. I am sure there will be a plethora of WCC worries along the way but I had to gamble and go. Let’s hope that the COVID thing doesn’t ruin all that. I chatted to Tim, Kev and Bryan briefly about it the trip. By pure luck, we are all in the same hotel.

At the break, I remembered the comments from a visibly crestfallen Antonio Conte after his new team lost 0-2 at Chelsea last week. He spoke solemnly of how far Tottenham are from Chelsea right now. I still like the bloke, even with his miss-guided decision to join forces with the numpties from N17. I would imagine that his straight-talking must have irritated the Tottenham support, but – lusciously – must have struck a chord too.

They have slid since a few years back. They were a decent team under Pochettino.

No more.

Fuck’em.

I loved the way that we dominated possession in the opening moments of the second-half, killing the game further. We never ever looked in trouble.

A Lukaku header from a corner flew just over.

Just before the hour mark, the away fans were at it.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Now, my immediate reaction was this :

“I know we are 3-0 up on aggregate, but that is a bit premature.”

A ball was immediately pumped forward and Kepa appeared to time his run to perfection to rob Moura with a sliding tackle. To our sadness, the referee pointed at the spot once more. It was as if the footballing Gods had unanimously agreed with me about singing that song. The Tottenham fans roared again. However, much to our joy, VAR was called into play.

The same decision. No penalty.

Now it was time for that chant.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Oh my aching sides.

On the hour, a magnificent save from Kepa from the head of Emerson Royal kept us ahead on the night. The ‘keeper was enjoying a very fine game. It was the save of the night thus far.

But the home team had built a little momentum and we needed to be at our best.

Kepa appeared to go walkabouts as a ball was played into Kane well inside the box. With only a covering Rudiger to beat, he blasted the ball low into the far corner.

The home fans properly roared this time.

It was a horrible feeling, despite our 3-1 lead.

But wait.

Oh my God.

Ha.

VAR again.

And again it went our way.

Chelsea smiles in North London.

I posted on Facebook :

“This is just three easy.”

I always thought that the funniest Chelsea win over Tottenham happened in 2000 when George Weah hopped off a plane at Heathrow and came on as a substitute to score the winning goal in a slender 1-0 win.

But this just might edge it.

Three disallowed goals.

Spur3y.

Tuchel strengthened things with a flurry of substitutions.

Thiago Silva for Christensen.

Marcos Alonso for Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount.

And then N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.

Tottenham fans, all forty-thousand of them :

“Of for fuck sake, Kante. I’m going home.”

And then Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

The shape had changed to three at the back. Thiago Silva was warmly applauded and his song was sung with gusto. Likewise, N’Golo Kante.

“He’s indestructible. Always believing.”

These were great moments as the home support dwindled away. Everyone was so happy. Smiles everywhere. There were gaps appearing all over the stadium too.

“You’ve had your day out, now fuck off home.”

I love that we seem to be the only club to sing that. Is that correct?

I was able to take a few photographs as the game wore on. The stewards, like Tottenham, had given up by now. The fresh legs had re-energised us. We seemed to have more of the ball once again. We finished the game strongly and never ever looked in danger.

Towards the end of the game, a recognisable chant from a few years back quickly spread in the away end. It pleased me.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

I loved that we were at last able to honour Antonio Conte. I loved him to bits. One supposes that if, miracle of miracles, Tottenham had turned it around on the night – no 2002 here – we would obviously have resisted. But there it was. A nod to our former manager who won the league in 2017 and the cup in 2018. It’s just a shame that he now manages that lot.

And I suspect that he thinks exactly the same.

The game over, we waited for crowds to move on. The plan had been to escort all 5,500 Chelsea to Tottenham Hale, a good half-an-hour walk. We were having none of it. We met up with PD and waited. In the shadows, we edged past police near the away end and slowly walked back to an almost deserted White Hart Lane station. It absolutely worked in our favour that so many home fans had left early.

As we reached the platform, a train arrived. We were on our way home.

By 11.30pm, we were in our separate cars, at Barons Court.

At Chiswick roundabout, I turned left towards the M3 and PD drove straight on towards the M4.

Job done.

On Saturday, it’s back to one car for Man City away.

All aboard.

Tales From Simply A Superb Game

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 2 January 2022.

My run of football games over the festive period was continuing.

On the first day of 2022, following on from Frome Town’s 3-3 home draw with Melksham Town, it was time for another non-league match involving my local team. I travelled with my pal Fran over to nearby Paulton Rovers who had been enjoying a decent season themselves. This was one of those fabled games of two halves; in the first a rampant Frome attacked the end housing it’s sizeable travelling support and led with a fine goal from Kane Simpson. In the second-half, a different story as the home team dominated the game yet failed to really trouble the Frome goalkeeper. Frome weathered the storm and scored a late breakaway goal at the end via James Ollis to win 2-0. It kept the team at the top of the division down in level eight of the football pyramid. There was another large gate; 649 was more than four times the average Paulton Rovers attendance of 137. There must have been two hundred away fans. I enjoyed it.

But this was just a pre-curser, an hors-d’oeuvre, before the weekend’s main course.

On the second day of 2022, the last game of my Christmas schedule pitted Chelsea against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. However, as one run of games was ending, we were now overlapping into another sequence of games. Against Brighton, we embarked on a run of four home games in a space of just eleven days. I can’t ever remember a more condensed run of matches at Stamford Bridge.

Brighton followed by Liverpool followed by Tottenham followed by Chesterfield.

Of course, the build-up to the Liverpool game was dominated by Lukakugate. I suspected Machiavellian forces at work with the timing of the release in information of the interview. But oh Romelu, what were you bloody thinking? We waited to hear what the club’s response would be. Of course the most annoying thing about all of this was the fact that Lukaku had scored two in two games and had brought an extra element to our play against Villa and Brighton.

I hate negative noise around Chelsea Football Club. It spoiled my anticipation of the upcoming game a little. But Sunday soon came around.

I collected the same three passengers on the way up to London as for the Brighton game four days earlier; between the four of us in my car, there was a total of seven-hundred and ninety-five games and fourteen goals for Chelsea.

…cough…and I’ll say it again…cough.

There was very little traffic on the road to London. The weather was fine if a little grey. I dropped PD and Lord Parky at “The Eight Bells” and Ron at the bottom of Fulham Broadway. I was parked up bang on 11.30am. The journey had taken me around three hours again.

I walked down to Fulham Broadway tube station. There were a few minutes to wait for the southbound train and so I used the time to take a few photographs. I especially zoned-in on the old stairways that lead to the original station’s booking hall. The memories came flooding back. It’s a bit of a metaphor for Chelsea really. One station but split into two. The antiquated southern part is frozen in time along with my memories of the club before success and money – or money and success if our rivals are to be believed – while the northern part is slick and swish and functional. I used to love being squeezed right out onto the Fulham Road from those exit stairs that were only used on match days, and that I bet most new fans are not even aware of. But these days we walk out through the back of a shopping centre and past an entrance to a car park.

In recent months, I have fallen in love with the short train ride from Fulham Broadway to Putney Bridge. With my driving duties completed, it represents a chance for me to relax a little knowing that I have again reached London without incident nor accident. I have never been a nervous nor anxious driver, but there is always a little bit of me that is relieved once I park up at Chelsea. We pass through Parson’s Green, a famous old Chelsea battleground for those that know and all that bollocks, and I love looking back at Stamford Bridge across the rooftops and then over to the buildings of Chelsea Harbour. The trip is over within four minutes but it’s now a favourite part of my Chelsea day. Putney Bridge is the cutest of stations. And of course I love the thought that within a minute of descending those wooden stairs I will be walking into the friendly and cosy “Eight Bells.”

Talking of which…

I spent from 12.30pm to 3.45pm with PD and Parky, but also with Jonathan, who I was not planning on meeting up with until I realised that he was sat a few seats away from me against Brighton. I sorted out a ticket for him for Liverpool there and then and we agreed to meet up. He came in just as I was about to launch into a plate of gammon, fried eggs and chips, as per PD and as per Parky. Of course, the others were the dedicated drinkers while I was the dedicated driver. PD, Parky and I ran through a few thoughts about Abu Dhabi; I hope to book flights soon.

Jonathan now lives in Tampa and we have a couple of mutual acquaintances that we know through the burgeoning presence of Chelsea fans in the US. Jonathan used to be a referee, and knows Phil from Iowa who is a referee too. I couldn’t escape Chelsea fans who were also referees; at the Paulton Rovers game, I bumped into Young Dave – as featured in the first couple of Mark Worrall’s books – and he runs the line at local games to this day.

Jonathan told me about a game that he officiated in back in around 1996; he was the linesman at a USA vs. England U17 game in Tampa. He mentioned a young starlet who played for England who was a Chelsea prodigy but – although great things were expected – never made the grade with us but instead played for Brighton. Jonathan couldn’t remember his name.

My brain started ticking over.

“Damn, I can picture him. His name is on the tip of my tongue. What I usually do is go through the alphabet.”

PD told Jonathan I’d eventually remember on the way home.

Well, I got there eventually. But I had to go right to the end of the alphabet.

“Zeke Rowe!”

Anyone remember him?

Outside there was a hint of drizzle but the air was still relatively mild. We made it inside Stamford Bridge at just gone four o‘clock. I soon spotted Liverpool players in a very dark red training top going through their pre-match routines. The sight made my hackles rise a little. They remain one of my three most disliked teams; Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool. It’s just the way it is.

This was to be the first-ever “safe standing” game to take place in the top flight of English football. We are in some sort of a four team trial I believe. In reality, of course, those with “rail seating” in the lower tiers of The Shed and the Matthew Harding have been “safe standing” since the start of the season. I am generally in favour of safe standing, though I find it odd that the Shed Upper has been given over to standing in addition to the two lower tiers at either end of the stadium. What I find unpalatable is that those season ticket holders in the three areas of the stadium now covered by “safe standing” were given no say whatsoever in the process. In a nutshell, they were not given the chance to move their season tickets over to another part of Stamford Bridge.

I stand at away games and I could probably ease into standing at Stamford Bridge all of the time with no real problem. But for many in the area of the Matthew Harding Upper where I reside, standing at games would been uncomfortable and painful. Bluntly, not an option. I am glad, therefore, that our tier remained as seating.

I also found it ironic that Liverpool were to be involved in the very first official “safe standing” game in the top flight.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilcueta

Pulisic – Havertz – Mount

Lukaku was not even in the squad.

Just before the game kicked-off, the stadium resounded to a noisy rendition of “Champions of Europe, we know what we are” to remind our visitors of who is on that particular perch at this moment in time.

There was a rip-roaring start to the game. In the first ten seconds, I was buggering about with my phone and so – in all honesty – missed the initial challenge on Cesar Azpilicueta by Sadio Mane that lead to the latter receiving a yellow card. I looked down to see Dave sprawled no more than thirty-five yards from me.

On two occasions that the ball was played centrally into the Liverpool box, water splashed up from the turf and I wondered if a little too much water had been sprayed onto that particular area. There was an early exchange of chances in the first few minutes. A defensive mix-up allowed Mane to play a ball across the goal towards Mo Salah but Edouard Mendy was able to save. At the other end, Kai Havertz put pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold and the ball broke for Christian Pulisic with only unknown Liverpool ‘keeper Caoieaihoieamhouin Kelleher to beat. However, our slight striker could not convert. In fact, the ‘keeper made a fine reaction save, scooping the ball away well.

After nine minutes, another defensive blip from a stooping Chalobah allowed the ball to run to Mane who rounded Mendy to score despite the presence of Dave’s lunge on the line.

Ouch.

Despite this, the noise levels remained high.

“He gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

I hate us singing this when we aren’t even playing Liverpool, but on this occasion I joined in.

We kept going and it felt like we were dominating the game. There was a low shot from Mason Mount that was blocked. Then a trademark Chelsea move of the past four years or so; we all had our hearts in our mouths when a deep cross from Dave on the right was played towards Marcos Alonso on the left. Alas, Alonso was stretching just a little too much and the shot was wild.

I spoke to PD : “We ain’t playing too badly here.”

Mateo Kovacic was showing great energy in our two-man midfield, and alongside him N’Golo Kante was at his usual high standard of play.

Alas, on twenty-six minutes, an incisive move down the Liverpool left found Salah breaking inside the box. I pleaded for Alonso to get tighter, but a shimmy and a shake from Salah allowed him to drift past. From an acute angle, he opened up his body and slammed the ball twixt ‘keeper and post. I was in a direct line with the shot. There was, eerily, a moment of silence in Stamford Bridge. The Liverpool fans down the other end waited for the net to ripple, and then there was a further slight pause for the wall of noise from one hundred yards away to hit me.

Fackinell.

I had immediate visions of 0-4, maybe even 0-5.

Fair play to Salah for not celebrating in front of us.

The noise died a little.

But then the away fans sang out “Allez allez” and this resulted in a hugely impressive “Carefree” from Chelsea.

Bloody excellent.

With the half-time break approaching, a foul near the far goal line on Havertz by James Milner raised our hopes. We watched as Alonso sent the ball in, only for Kelleher to punch up and away. I had my camera up to my eyes from the free-kick and watched through my lens as the ball ballooned up. It was falling towards Kovacic but he had to back-peddle to accommodate the arrival of the ball. As it fell, he volleyed with his right foot. The ball flew goal wards. We watched open-mouthed. It crashed into the right hand post. A moment of pure drama followed. Would it bounce out or bounce in? It bounced down and across the goal. Only when the net nestled did we celebrate. It was the Scousers turn to be engulfed by a wall of noise.

Whatafuckinggoal.

My immediate response?

Essien, Barcelona.

I snapped the goal scorer’s triumphant race back towards the centre circle. The place was buzzing.

The goal also reminded a little me of the volley that John Terry scored in the same goal against Wigan when he had to quickly readjust his feet. But that was from a lot closer in. This Kovacic goal was something else.

But then…but then.

An audible groan when it was announced that VAR was poking its big fat nose into our moment of joy. We waited. What was it for? Nobody knew.

Thankfully, the goal stood.

But then, I noted Jordan Henderson berating the referee. That’s Jordan Henderson the Liverpool captain. This made my blood boil. The referee should have carded him for that. Prick.

Just three minutes later, and into stoppage time, a Toni Rudiger clearance was pushed on by Kante with the deftest of touches.

We watched. The boy Pulisic was one on one. He was through. That lovely moment of expectation. I wanted to see him drop a shoulder and drill it low towards the far post. Instead it bounced high and he chested it down before lobbing the ball in.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I yelled and yelled. PD alongside me was shouting with both his arms raised. I reached down and took a few out-of-focus shots of the players celebrating. Many seconds later, I looked over at PD and he was still in celebratory mode, still in the same stance, still yelling, still cheering.

What bliss.

There’s always something special about two important goals being scored so close together. This was absolutely one of those moments.

Unbelievably, there was further drama in the minute or so left of the first-half. Alonso swept the ball over to Havertz who, despite close attention from a red defender, got his shot in from inside the box. The ball broke to Mason Mount but his shot was awkward and the ball rolled agonisingly past the far post.

There was just time for another ear shattering “Carefree.”

What an incredible match. What an incredible five minutes.

There was beautiful disbelief at the break.

Phew.

I couldn’t have been the only person who was warmly remembering the FA Cup tie against Liverpool almost twenty-five years ago? Two-nil down at half-time, on came Mark Hughes, we won 4-2. It remains as one of our very greatest games.

Twenty-five years ago, though? Fackinell.

Stamford Bridge was on fire then as it was in 2022.

Of course, the half-time whistle probably came at the wrong time and other clichés. Our momentum, not surprisingly, was so difficult to recreate. But the noise levels at the start of the second-half were surprisingly quiet. I wanted us to roar the team on to further glory.

For a player that we purchased as a defensive midfielder, Kante sure knows how to break forward with the easiest of pace changes; he glides, he turns, he keeps the ball moving, he passes. Once or twice in that early part of the second period he was an absolute joy.

A shot from Alonso flew over.

On the hour mark, one, then two then three saves from our man Mendy kept us in the game. The best by far was a magnificent reach after a speculative effort from distance from Salah. The Liverpool striker had decided to test our ‘keeper’s awareness. He’ll know better next time.

I was totally immersed in this game. It was a tantalising show from both teams. It was, frankly, a joy and a pleasure to be present.

On more than one occasion, after we were awarded corners, Rudiger and Pulisic turned to the supporters in the MHL to sing louder, stronger. They needed us.

A cross from Havertz and a volley from Pulisic was well-saved.

On seventy-minutes, a change in personnel and shape.

Jorginho for Chalobah.

We now had a three-man midfield, with just Havertz and Mount up top. Pulisic was moved to wing-back with Dave moved centrally. The American really grew into the game and proved to be a jinking, probing menace on the right. In one of the photos that I took of him, I noticed that he was smiling while in possession of the ball, probably looking at options. This rarely happens in modern football. More power to him. A shot from Christian, right winger, curled just over.

The whole team seemed to tire as one.

With ten minutes to go, we freshened things up further.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Havertz.

We enjoyed the best of the last part of the game. Callum injected some good pace and was able, for once, to speed past his marker rather than dawdle and play within himself.

A shot from Mount, which followed up his blocked free-kick, whizzed towards the goal but Kelleher saved well. One last header always looked like going wide of the far post.

The final whistle blew.

2-2 on the second day of 2022.

Exiting the stairs, I simply said “superb game of football” to a few friends.

I said as much on “Facebook” with the extra comment :

“Lukak’who?”

Thankfully, this match was a good case of addition by subtraction. Nobody really knew what the next step in the Lukaku saga would be, but with a steep run of games coming up, including three against Tottenham in just eighteen days, this match provided a magnificence boost to our morale.

And yes, it was a simply superb game of football.

Fulham Broadway.

The Eight Bells.

Stamford Bridge.

Tales From The London Stadium

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 4 December 2021.

This was another early start. At 7am I called for PD and at 7.30am we collected LP. Another cold day was on the cards as I pointed my car eastwards. As with any other Chelsea trip, there was the usual early-morning sequence of chit-chat, laughs and piss-takes. Outwardly, my main conversation point to my two travelling companions was this :

“Never bloody seen us win at their new place.”

For it was true.

26/10/16 : League Cup – lost 1-2

6/10/17 : League – won 2-1 (I did not attend – work)

9/12/17 : League – lost 0-1

23/9/18 : League – drew 0-0

1/7/20 : League – lost 2-3 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)

24/4/21 : League – won 1-0 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)

Inwardly, I was humming a tune to myself, but I was not convinced that I would be able to remember the exact words later in the day if required.

The key word was “zangalewa.”

“Tsamina mina, eh, eh.

Edouard Edouard Mendy.

Tsamina mina zangalewa.

He comes from Senegal.”

After the really lucky win at Watford on Wednesday, everyone seemed to be of the same opinion ahead of our game with West Ham who were surprisingly flying high, albeit not from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park.

“Tough game coming up.”

Despite the undoubted strength of our overall squad, despite the fine managerial nous of Thomas Tuchel, despite our fine showing in several recent games, there were of course questions everywhere. But this is to be expected. We are still a learning team, a growing team, a team in embryo.

Despite our real worries about our fate in East London, we were on our way.

One of these days, the Premier League fixtures will be kinder to us for an away game at the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Of my three – soon to be four – visits, one has been a night game and three have been early kick-offs. We have a traditional East-End pre-match lined up to take place at some point in the future; a pint at “The Blind Beggar” and some pie and mash somewhere local. Time was against us on this visit, but one day we’ll do it.

I was parked-up at Barons Court at bang on 10am. Our race out east involved three railway lines and changes at Green Park and Canary Wharf. We arrived at Pudding Mill Lane at bang on 11am. The walk to the away turnstiles took just ten minutes.

Just over four hours from PDs’s door to an Iron door.

Ideally, I wanted to circumnavigate the stadium for the first time to take some photos but we were soon funnelled into the away turnstiles. I had taken a photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit on the walk to the stadium, but it was a terribly flat photo. I had been hoping to take other photos of not only it but of the stadium too. Again, some other time maybe.

It was all rather ironic that I chose to wear a classic navy New York Yankee cap on this cold day in London. Back in June 2019, the Yankees played two “away” games against the Boston Red Sox at West Ham’s stadium and it was natural that many of my friends expected me to attend as I have been a long-distance admirer of the Bronx Bombers since 1990. But I wasn’t having any of it. As a vehement opponent of the “thirty-ninth game” or any variant of it, it would have been pretty hypocritical of me to watch the Yanks outside of North America.

We were inside with a long wait until kick-off and I was able to chat to many good people in the large concourse area outside the seating bowl.

It was fantastic to chat to Tommie and Kevin for the first time in a while. Both follow Wales over land and sea. They feel ill at ease contemplating a possible place in the finals of the Qatar World Cup. They feel conflicted should Wales win their two play-off games. Both dislike the idea of that nation hosting the tournament; the ridiculous heat, the lack of a local football culture, the obvious back-handers involved in the process of choosing that country, the deaths of migrant workers in the construction of the shiny new stadia, the human rights violations.

I feel for them.

Personally, I have decided to boycott watching the FIFA 2022 World Cup. It’s a personal choice. I recently decided not to watch any qualifiers either.

Talking of the Arabian Peninsula, I heard that a few fellow fans had already booked their passage to Abu Dhabi for the long awaited World Club Championships. This is now finalised for the first few days in February. I want to go. Under normal circumstances, my flight and accommodation would be booked. There are of course other outside influences to consider. A couple of The Chuckle Brothers are interested too. Let’s see how COVID behaves over the next few weeks.

I sense an incoming barrage of “whataboutery” questions heading my way.

Is it hypocritical of me to boycott Qatar but to embrace Abu Dhabi?

Possibly. I’ll do some research. I’ll get some answers. It might prove to be a difficult decision. It might be an easy one. This is what Tommie thinks about Qatar too.

…a voice from the gallery : “you OK on that soap-box, mate? You finished pontificating?”

Well. If you insist.

I saw that the Chelsea U-21 team again took part in the autumn group phase of the “EFL” Cup, which was originally known as the Associate Members Cup when it was originally floated back in the mid–eighties. For years and years, this was the sole preserve of teams in the third and fourth tiers of the professional pyramid and gave the competing teams the chance to reach Wembley Stadium. For a while this was known as the Johnstone Paints Trophy, and allowed Southampton to have a self-deprecating dig at us in recent years.

“Johnstone Paints Trophy – you’ll never win that.”

Premier League teams have been allowed to enter their U-21 teams since 2016 and I – and many others – are dead against this. I see no merit in it. It could potentially rob a smaller club of their day out at Wembley. In 1988, for example, Wolves beat Burnley 2-0 in the Sherpa Van Trophy in front of 80,000 supporters at a time when both clubs were floundering. As recently as 2019, over 85,000 saw Portsmouth beat Sunderland.

Seeing Chelsea U-21 at Wembley in a final would not thrill me; far from it. Despite us playing at nearby Bristol Rovers and Forest Green Rovers in the past month, I boycotted those two games. No interest, no point and just wrong in my book.

The two Robs appeared.

“Have you got the Mendy song sorted?”

I replied I wasn’t sure but I thought there was mention of the word “satsuma” somewhere within it.

I made my way up the steps to the upper level of the seating bowl. This was my first time back in over three years and I had forgotten how ridiculous a stadium it really is. I was in row thirty-six, so heaven knows what the view was like in row seventy at the rear. That vast amount of wasted space between the two end tiers is such an eyesore. For a one-time Olympic stadium, I am always struck with how undeniably bland it all is. The only unique feature about it is the upturned triangular pattern of the floodlights. The “running” track area is now claret-coloured, the one change since 2018.

On the balcony of the main stand, or at least the one with the posh boxes, which is the only one not named after a former player, a potted history of West Ham’s successes is listed.

The list does not extend too far.

FA Cup 1964

ECWC 1965

FA Cup 1975

FA Cup 1980

Not much of a list, really.

I said to Gary : “I am surprised they haven’t added ‘East 17 Xmas Number One 1994’ to it…”

To be honest, silverware-wise, Chelsea and West Ham were scarily similar for decades; only four major trophies apiece up until 1997. Since then, well…our two trajectories have differed.

We knew that Thomas Tuchel was still battling injuries but we had also heard that Reece James and Jorginho were to return.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Alonso – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – James

Mount – Havertz – Ziyech

Still no sight of Romelu Lukaku in the starting eleven; we guessed he wasn’t 100% and was being eased back in.

Ex-Chelsea favourite Kurt Zouma was in the West Ham team.

Chelsea, in yellow and black, attacked the home end in the first-half and quickly dominated possession.

In the opening few minutes, the two sets of fans went with some tried and tested chants :

“From Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, stick your blue flag up your arse.”

“You sold your soul for this shit hole.

On six minutes, the mood in the stadium dramatically changed as an image of the murdered young boy Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was shown on the two giant TV screens. It seemed that everyone stopped to clap. What a terrible waste of a beautiful young life. I have rarely felt such sickening sadness and anger as when I saw, and heard, his sweet voice on the TV.

Bless you Arthur. Rest in peace.

Despite our dominance, West Ham were actually ahead on chances created in the first quarter of an hour, with one shot from Jarrod Bowen going wide and a free header from another who I thought was Mark Noble but then realised he wasn’t even playing. It is, after all, a long way from the pitch in the away end.

All of the noise seemed to be coming from us.

A well struck shot from Reece James was easy for Fabianski to hold.

“One shot on goal in fifteen minutes, Al. That equates to just six in the whole match.” My eyesight might have been shite, but my maths was up to scratch.

Another chance to the home team, but Mendy saved from Craig Dawson.

In the wide open space between the two tiers of Chelsea support, around twenty police were positioned.

“Most Old Bill I’ve seen inside an away ground for ages, Al.”

It had made me chuckle just before the match had started to see Goggles, the football-liaison officer at Fulham Police Station, chatting away to a known Chelsea hooligan, admittedly of yesteryear. It also made me laugh to see, at various stages of the match, all twenty police officers avidly watching the game, seated in a separate section, rather than eyeballing the crowd.

I called it The Goggle Box.

At last, another effort on the West Ham goal; on twenty-five minutes a very fine cross from James picked out the unmarked leap of Kai Havertz. Sadly, this was saved.

A corner followed, and then another. Mount crossed to meet the unhindered leap of Thiago Silva inside the box. His header forced the ball downwards and it bounced up and into the goal. The net rippled and the three-thousand Chelsea fans roared. The goal immediately reminded me of the first Chelsea goal that I ever saw in person, another “up and down” header from Ian Hutchinson in 1974.

Twenty-eight minutes had elapsed and all was well in the world.

“Maybe I will see us win here after all.”

We spotted Joe Cole and Gianfranco Zola, and Rio Ferdinand, out in the open, in front of the BT studio no more than thirty yards away.

Hakim Ziyech was involved in some nice flourishes, and the fleet-footed trio up front were causing West Ham more problems than they would have wished. There was still a reluctance for any of our team to take a pop at goal though. It was infuriating the hell out of Alan and myself. At last, an effort from distance from Mason Mount – nothing special to be honest – cheered us.

“Need to do more of that. Get players following up, it might squirm away from the ‘keeper, let’s keep firing shots in, deflections, touches, make the ’keeper work.”

Two more shots at the West Ham goal followed.

West Ham were still offering an occasional threat, though. Sadly, on forty minutes, an under-hit back pass from Jorginho put Edouard Mendy under all sorts of pressure. Knowing that our fine shot stopper is not gifted with even average distribution, we always wonder Why The Fuck do we seem obsessed in playing the ball back to him, especially when opposing teams are putting us under pressure in our third. It is fucking unfathomable. Well, surprise surprise, a heavy touch from Mendy followed, and as he saw himself lose control, he took a low swipe at that man Bowen.

It was a clear penalty.

Fucksake.

Lanzini smashed in the equaliser from the spot.

Only four minutes later, a fine move involving Ruben Loftus-Cheek pushing the ball out to Ziyech resulted in a long cross-field pass to Mount, unmarked, in the inside-right channel. His first time effort was incredible; a potent mixture of placement and power, the shot being cushioned with the side of his foot, but with so much venom that Fabianski did not get a sniff. It crept in low at the near post.

It was a fucking sublime goal.

There were generally upbeat comments at the break. The noise hadn’t been too loud throughout the half, but it is so difficult to get the away support – in two distinct areas – together to sing as one. I hardly heard the Mendy song, but on its rare appearance, the young bloke behind me was making a spirited effort to mangle every syllable in the entire song.

I kept quiet. I knew I would hardly be any better, satsuma or not.

At half-time, Lukaku replaced Havertz.

“Is it me, Al, or has he put on some weight? He was pretty trim when he returned from Italy.”

He must love Greggs’ steak bakes and sausage rolls. And their doughnuts and yum yums.

There was a little nip-and-tuck as the second-half began. Ten minutes in, Gal chirped “the next goal is massive.” Within a minute, West Ham broke with ease down our left and just before Bowen struck, I feared the worst and sighed “goal”; it was therefore no surprise to me to see the net ripple again, this time at the far post.

Bollocks.

Our Callum came on in place of Ziyech; a tad unlucky I thought, but maybe he was tiring. Callum began up front in a three and had a few nibbles. But ten minutes later, Alonso was replaced by Christian Pulisic, so Callum reverted to a left wing back. We enjoyed a little spell of around ten minutes when we looked to be knocking on the Irons’ door, but I have to say that the integration of a returning Lukaku – either unable or unwilling to shake off markers – was a problem. We enjoyed reasonable approach play but floundered in and around the box.

“Hit the fackin’ thing.”

Our efforts on goal hardly caused Fabianski to break sweat.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Callum’s reluctance to drift past his man was frustrating. On the rare occasions that he was in a good position to shoot, he declined.

Sigh.

With three minutes to go, and with a few Chelsea fans already trickling out of the away end, a relatively rare West Ham move found itself wide on our right.

Out of nowhere, Arthur Masuaku took a swipe at the ball, no doubt intending to send a cross into our box for the impressive Michail Antonio – much more agile than Lukaku – or anyone else who was nearby to attack. To our horror, the ball appeared to be sliced. It made a bee-line for the goal, and Mendy – expecting the cross – was caught out. His back-peddling and side-shifting was a terrible sight to see. Again that same net rippled.

The home fans, I have to say, made an absolute din.

Ugh.

With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans poured out of both tiers.

Alan, Gary, Parky and I stayed to the end, but I had packed away my camera long before the final whistle.

“Still not seen us win here.”

The Chelsea crowd shuffled out. Jason – another Chelsea fan from Wales – cheered me with a positive spin on things.

“Tough one but we move on mate” and a smile.

On the walk away from the stadium, there was honest annoyance but also a little pragmatism too.

“Should have won that. Fluke goal, the winner. A mate reckoned it deflected off Ruben’s leg. But we didn’t create enough clear chances. God, we miss Kante.”

As we walked on, the mood shifted further. Let’s not get too silly about this. Nobody likes losing but on this day, a day of two Arthurs, maybe a little perspective is needed.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes.

Arthur Masuaku.

Do I have to spell it out?

The return trip out west went well. Pudding Mill Lane station was soon reached. It must be one of London’s hidden secrets; we never wait too long there. In the short line for the lift to take us up to the platform, a West Ham fan, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bernie Winters, soon sussed that we were Chelsea but when he heard that we went to all the games could not have been friendlier.”

“Good lads.”

I finally took my photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit from the platform as we waited for a train to whip us back to Canary Wharf.

We were back at Barons Court for around 4pm. Our trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset was quick and uneventful, but one moment disrupted us.

“Liverpool just scored. Ninety-fourth minute.”

With Manchester City winning too, we suddenly found ourselves in third place. There will be no dishonour if this fledgling Chelsea team, still learning about itself and its manager – and vice versa – finishes third this season.

Personally, I’ve got my beady eyes on the World Club Championships. If we win that, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy really won’t matter at all.

There is no midweek flit to Russia for me, so next up it’s the old enemy on Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Leeds United.

Salivate away everyone.

I’ll see you there.

Tales From The Mother Road

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 11 September 2021.

It is a familiar motif from these match reports – I am tempted to say “stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before” – of games from the early part of our campaigns that I usually need a few matches to get back into the swing of things. I was doing fine this season. I was acclimatising reasonably well, I was getting back into live football, the games were seemingly important once again and even my vocal chords were coping. It all felt a little different this season, though. Our forced absence from the game for so long was playing heavily on my mind and I suppose the crux of it concerned my fears that I wouldn’t get the pre-COVID19 buzz back.

But here was a real test. After seeing Chelsea Football Club play just seven times in five-hundred and thirty-eight days (an average of one every seventy-six days), I was now about to embark on a burst of five games in just fifteen days (an average of once every three days for those who failed CSE Maths). This represented, in my mind at least, a test, a litmus test, for my enthusiasm. I certainly hoped that this spell of five games in London would rid me of the considerable disconnect that has hounded me since March 2020.

We all live in a place called hope, right?

I woke again way before the alarm, and gathered my tickets, trinkets, passes and thoughts ahead of the 10.30am departure. A new car, a new Chuckle Bus, was parked on my drive-way and this would be its first journey of note, its maiden voyage with me at the helm and it’s first trip up my version of Route 66 – in fact, Route A303 would be very apt as it arrived with just 303 miles on the clock – to London SW6.

It would be its first trip along the Mother Road.

I collected PD and Parky in good time.

There was talk of these upcoming games (the printing-off of some of the tickets at home was proving to be a far from a straightforward task) and some matches even further out. Just like holidays, I get a great deal of pleasure in planning these games, especially the away games, and these sometimes awkward tasks feed into my Obsessive Chelsea Disorder. Tottenham was almost complete, Brentford was a work in progress, but Newcastle was sorted. More of those three trips later. Turin, Malmo and Saint Petersburg away games were taking a back seat. Not that I would plan on all three anyway, but travel within Europe was so much “up in the air” right now – or not, as the case might be – that I wasn’t wasting energy on plans for those three destinations just yet.

One potential destination that had ruled itself out of my plans was Tokyo. It had recently pulled out of hosting the World Club Championships in December, and I was now hearing that maybe Las Vegas or maybe Qatar would step in like some gallant knight in shining armour. This was met with growls of disapproval from me. I am not a fan of Vegas. And even less of a fan of Qatar. From one extreme from the other. From “anything goes” to “strictly forbidden.”

Such was my feeling of abhorrence when Qatar was handed the 2022 World Cup a few years back, that I made the conscious decision not to watch a single second of the finals on TV. And I just recently decided not to watch any more of the qualifiers too. So, the recent International break absolutely passed me by. I may have lost England forever.

In the circumstances, the lingering presence of Qatar in talk of the World Club Championships focussed my mind further. I would be a hypocrite to avoid Qatar in 2022 as some sort of moral crusade – stop sniggering at the back – and yet blithely sign up to watch Chelsea in Qatar in December. So, let’s see how that all pans out.

No pressure, Vegas.

We only stopped at Fleet Services for a quick pit-stop en route from Somerset to London, but from then on in, we became embroiled in some nasty traffic. It usually takes me three hours from door to door (my door to the door of The Eight Bells in Fulham) but it took me just over four hours on this occasion.

I dropped PD and Parky at West Brompton, then about-turned to park my car just off Lillie Road. Then a quick flit by tube to Putney Bridge. Job done.

I had booked a table for 1.30pm, and the hosts had very kindly kept it for us when we arrived an hour later.

I met up with Mark, from Norwich, and his son Matt. We had been talking during the build up to this game how our first Chelsea match in 1974 was the very same one; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974. We are the same age. We both live out of town. A few nice similarities in fact. He is the first Chelsea fan I have ever met whose first match was the same as mine. I was quite thrilled when Mark shared a couple of previously unseen on-line photographs from that day forty-seven years ago. We chatted and reminisced about tons of Chelsea games, especially from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, and we found ourselves finishing off each other’s sentences on a few occasions as the memories and reference points interweaved and overlapped. That’s always a good sign.

I have to admit to being taken aback on a few occasions during our lovely conversation when I spotted a rather stern looking fellow, with a mop of white hair looking up at me from the other side of the bar.

Oh, it was me in a pub mirror.

The passing of time, and all of its crimes, is making me sad again.

Note to self : must smile more.

Kim, Andy, Dan and the Kent lads arrived and it was the first time that we had seen them since last year. It was superb to spend time together once again; around a dozen of us in our cosy corner of The Eight Bells, all meeting up again, trying our best to prove that football is real life, and not a TV programme. I totally understand that many can’t attend live football due to finance and geography, but it seems that so many these days do not make the effort. Is modern football now a diet of watching games on TV in pubs, streaming at home, fantasy football and betting accumulators?

At Putney Bridge tube station, there were a group of boozy and cheerful Villa fans. One chap, of a certain age, approached me and told me that he liked my yellow Adidas SL76 trainers. Thirty-five years ago, the conversation might well have been different.

“You got too much for us today. Think you’ll beat us 3-0.”

I concurred. It was my prediction too.

At Fulham Broadway tube, the lad at the Krsipy Crème stand spotted my Boca Juniors T-shirt and asked if I was from Argentina.

My colours on this day of football were yellow and blue, in-keeping with the current Chelsea offering, but without me looking too much like a Billy Smart’s Circus reject.

There was further talk of South American football with Clive in The Sleepy Hollow. A few months before my visit to Argentina last year, he had visited Brazil, and had caught an itoxicating Flamengo game at the Maracana. He highly recommended Brazil. The World Club Championships in Brazil has a nice ring to it. Chelsea at the Maracana? Where do I sign up for that beauty?

From 1993 to 2016, my desire to witness new sporting stadia outside of Europe was clearly focussed on North American baseball stadia; twenty-one major league and four minor-league. I have a feeling in the future my focus will now be on South American football.

We had heard that ten-men Tottenham had succumbed to three late goals at Crystal Palace – how we laughed – but a Cristiano Ronaldo brace had helped Manchester United beat Newcastle. All of this fizzled away into insignificance as our collective thoughts focused on the game against Villa.

The sun was out despite some clouds, and the extra hours of drinking meant there was a bubbly atmosphere as kick-off approached.

The teams entered onto the beautiful green lawn. A new Mason Mount flag surfed below me.

I checked the team.

The inclusion of Saul Niguez surprised everyone, possibly none more so than him himself.

It seemed an oddly thrown together team, but one which was representative of the pressures put on members of our squad during the international break. No Mount. No Dave. But an injured Kante too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Hudson-Odoi – Kovacic – Niguez – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Havertz

Romelu Lukaku was to play in his first game as a Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge since a substitute appearance against the same team in August 2013. All the rail-seating was in now. The banners around the pitch lay heavy with the early evening humidity. “The “knee” drew boos but then louder applause. The game began.

A few early Chelsea raids acted as mere foreplay for the full-on end to end session that followed. The game was a cracker. A zipped-in corner on our left from Callum avoided everyone but hit a knee, I think, of a defender and bounced up onto the bar at The Shed End. The first thing of beauty that I noted was a deep and high ball from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva which dropped perfectly and pleasantly at the feet of the advancing Marcos Alonso. People talk of a deep-lying midfielder pinging balls like a quarterback, but here was Silva doing the exact same. It reminded me of Ruud Gullit and then Frank Leboeuf doing similar.

It turned out to be a precursor to an even better ball from Mateo Kovacic. Breaking away in that busy style of his, he spotted the advanced Romelu Lukaku. A magnificently-placed ball, cutting right between two scuttling Villa defenders, and curving and dropping into the exact place that both Kovacic intended and that Lukaku had expected, landed perfectly. Lukaku sized up the options, turned Tuanzebe’s limbs into a pretzel and dispatched a low shot past Steer into the Villa goal.

It is fair to say that The Bridge boomed.

Lukaku raced past Parkyville, and led on the floor, facing the sky.

At last we had a finisher in our midst, not a finisher in the mist, out of sight, lost.

A magnificently noisy and rude “Carefree” enveloped the entire stadium.

Bliss. Absolute bliss.

But Villa, who had already enjoyed a few moves into our half, were not put out and only a sublime save, low and late, from Mendy at his right post from a Watkins drive saved us. Halfway through the first-half, and with Villa vibrant, Saul Niguez surrendered possession and that man Watkins rounded Mendy. A goal looked on the cards, but Silva is an experienced fellow and he nimbly recovered to block the shot admirably.

Our Saul was struggling with the pace and tenacity of the early exchanges.

“Our Saul, you say? More like a fackin’ arsehole. Wake up you caaaaaaaaant.”

I turned to Clive :

“Well, they’ve had their chances.”

This was a good game, possibly a great game. I was involved, and I appreciated the moment. It was an intriguing game of football, but one which was causing Chelsea increasing problems.

On thirty-three minutes, our man Mendy threw himself to save a rocket from Mings, but was able to scramble to his feet to push away the follow-up from Konsa. These saves were simply sublime. They sent me spinning back to Wembley 1973 and the Jim Montgomery double-save.

This was becoming a disconnected and disjointed performance from us with only occasional flourishes. Ziyech was quiet. Saul was getting over run in midfield. There were only flashes from Havertz. Lukaku was hardly fed anything save the pass for the goal.

Callum Hudson-Odoi was again a disappointment. It was as if the well-worn football phrase “flattering to deceive” was invented for him and for him only. On several occasions he was presented with a few one on ones, but inevitably chose a soft option.

I moaned to Clive : “I wasn’t a great winger, but when I received the ball, my one thought was to get past my marker, not look behind me.”

It was Villa who grew in confidence as the first-half progressed and by the time we all reached the interval, there was a mixture of relief and worried expressions in The Sleepy Hollow.

“We should be 3-1 down. Villa must feel robbed.”

Lo and behold, Thomas Tuchel – still without a song, I still feel I don’t know him too well – spotted the obvious and replaced Saul with Jorginho at the break. It would be a move that we all wanted and that would help to solidify our position in the second-half.

Just four minutes into the second period, Lukaku lost possession but then harassed and harried Tuanzebe and the ball was rushed to Mings whose attempted back pass to Steer was ably intercepted by Kovacic. He doesn’t often find himself in such forward positions, but his finish was impeccable. It had something of the Pedro about it; an instinctive and incisive flick past Steer, and in off the far post it went.

GET IN.

Initial thoughts : “bloody hell, Villa must be spitting feathers.”

But the relief was palpable. We were now 2-0 up and able to consolidate things. A Havertz drive slid past the far post. Thankfully, the Villa offensive was not as potent in the second-half.

On fifty-eight minutes, I was poised to clap in memory of the wonderful comedian Sean Lock, a regular at Stamford Bridge for years, who sadly passed away recently. At the start of the dedicated minute, not many joined in, but thankfully at the end the applause was taken up by many. It extended past the minute mark. The Matthew Harding then started our own song of remembrance :

“One Sean Lock, there’s only one Sean Lock.”

Bless him. He was one of my modern day favourite comedians.

The game continued, and thankfully most of the visitors’ shots on goal were tame, and often at Mendy. Our crowd was surprisingly buoyant for a decidedly average performance. But we were leading, and I suppose that helped.

Stating The Bloody Obvious #716.

To be fair to them, the Villa fans were pretty noisy throughout the game, and even though they are not known for being particularly vociferous, I had to admit that I was impressed with their performance. The three thousand strong block virtually stayed en masse, despite the game going against them.

The devilish McGinn was running things for Villa, his spirit and energy mirroring that of our Kovacic.  I was really enjoying this battle. As, I think were most. There didn’t seem to be a dull moment. The supporters were enjoying it too, and there was even one rare moment of appreciation of a strong tackle by a Villa player on one of our lot. Is this the new normal? To be fair, this isn’t too uncommon. Great saves by opposition ‘keepers, tackles by opposing players, even the occasional goal against – only as long as we are winning – have been clapped in the past.

On the hour, another change.

Dave for Kai.

Dave to right wing back, Callum to outside left, down in the Hazardous Area below me. Again, he was all flicks but with no real finished product.

“Thing is Clive, he doesn’t have to beat his man over five yards. He has twenty yards to run into. Knock it past him, and kill him for pace.”

The Matthew Harding had twice goaded into getting The Shed to sing in the first half with no response. An attempt to get The Shed involved – this is invariably met with a defiant “Carefree” – again fell on deaf ears. Midway through the second-half, when The Shed did finally get involved, an audible noise able to be heard, the Matthew Harding Lower jumped in.

“We forgot that you were here.”

Not sure what The Shed thought of that, nor ironically if they even heard it.

Former Chelsea player Bertrand Traore was given a nice reception as he came on as a substitute for Ings. A shot of his from distance was deflected narrowly wide.

Alonso had a trademark dig at an angle down below us, but his daisy-cutter fizzed wide.

Villa’s attacks grew weaker and without much intent.

Their fans still sang, but the Liverpool “Allez!Allez! Allez!” needs to be dumped. Sharpish.

Werner, the forgotten man right now, got a late run out, with Tuchel no longer willing to witness the advanced Hudson-Odoi anymore. By now, the game was being played out in a strange murky twilight, the sun long gone, the floodlights on, a hint of autumn in the air.

In the last moments of the game, a typically positive run from Dave down the right was followed by an inch perfect pass into the feet of Lukaku. A slight adjustment, and then –

BAM.

The ball flew past Steer.

Chelsea 3 Aston Villa 0.

Lukaku, attitude and / or arrogance on show, jogged over to our corner, and gave me – and others – a fine photo opportunity. Like the man himself, I don’t miss that easy an open goal.

CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.

At last, after the stern face, Lukaku smiled.

The ref soon blew up.

This had been a hugely enjoyable game. Villa had certainly surprised me though. Absolutely no way they deserved to lose 3-0. As we left the stadium, I shared these thoughts with PD.

“There must be few occasions over the years where an away team has come here and lost 3-0, yet the Chelsea supporters know deep down that they deserved more.”

The top three performers were undoubtedly Mendy for his excellent saves, Kovacic for his growing command of the midfield, his sublime assist and his beauty of a goal and Lukaku, two shots two goals, Goodnight Vienna.

We met up with Parky back at The Anchor fish bar on Lillee Road.

“Saveloy and chips mate, please, open.”

The drive home was a lot less stressful than the trip to London. It was a blissful trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset. I loved this day out. And I am so pleased to be able to report that I am rapidly getting my appetite for the game back.  

Game one of five down, superb, very enjoyable. Zenit on Tuesday, my first European Night at Chelsea since that tough loss to Bayern in 2020. Then Tottenham away – “love it” – and one of the games of any season. Then Villa again in the League Cup (that might be the one that tests me) and lastly a possible season-deciding game against City. I suspect we will give them a few reminders of Porto, don’t you?

Good times. Let them roll. Let the Mother Road lead us back to London time and time again.

See you Tuesday.

Goal One.

Goal Two.

Goal Three.

Tales From The Edge Of The World

Chelsea vs. Corinthians : 16 December 2012.

The manic city of Tokyo was my home for five days and nights. To be honest, despite Chelsea Football Club providing me with the reason for travelling across such a large segment of the Earth’s surface, the trip wasn’t about Chelsea. It was about Tokyo. As always, I’m never happier when I am exploring fresh cities and foreign fields. Tokyo certainly didn’t disappoint.

The excesses of Thursday night and Friday morning, inspired by our safe passage into the final of the World Club Championships, had left me with a large hangover when I awoke at around midday on Friday. The jet-lag had kicked in too. Regretfully, I had to sleep on for a few hours, thus missing out on a trip with Mike, Frank and Foxy to the Tokyo Sky Tree tower in the north-west of the city. I eventually arose from my slumber on Friday afternoon and headed down to Shinjuku on the Fukotoshin line. I knew that I would certainly get my share of sensory overkill in Shinjuku.

Shinjuku train station is allegedly the busiest train station in the world. Down below street level, there was a rabbit warren of tunnels, elevators, lifts, stairwells, walkways to allow for transfers between stations, bustling passengers and a plethora of signs. Luckily, I had my “Pasmo” travel card to hand and found travelling the Tokyo tube relatively easy. Shinjuku station was also a shopping centre in its own right. It was a hive of activity. I made my way up to street level –oxygen! – and was bedazzled by the line of skyscrapers which greeted me. Tokyo even has its own version of The Gherkin, but it cowered in the shadow of loftier buildings. I soon bumped into another gaggle of Corinthians; they were easy to spot amongst the natives. Most were wearing Corinthians scarves, jackets or shirts. I again asked them how many Corinthians were over from Brazil. They commented that 20,000 had flown over, but their ranks were boosted by some of the 350,000 natives of Brazil who now live in South-East Asia. The numbers amazed me.

I walked down a few blocks, my eyes blinded by the neon, my face chilled by the wintry breeze, my ears listening attentively to the different cadences of a strange language which fascinated me. While I waited to cross a busy road, several trains passed over head on an elongated bridge. Tokyo’s transport existed on several levels; underground trains, street level cars and cabs, elevated trains floating over busy streets, rising and falling expressways with cars. There appeared to be apparent craziness, yet everything came together in perfect order. It was a beguiling sight. And everything was clean, so immaculately clean. Apart from the methane. Don’t talk about the methane.

I found myself underneath yet more neon at Yasakuni Dori. This seemed like the very epicentre of Tokyo. An Alicia Keys song was being played on massive video screens and her voice easily drowned out the noise of the traffic down below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDvceBND8Ws

I disappeared into the hub of Shinjuku, my senses working hard to rationalise all of it. Shops selling electrical goods, fast food eateries, girly bars, music shops. All of human life was there. I spent two hours or so walking at leisure in and around the crowded narrow streets. I dipped into a ridiculously cramped “Scottish bar” and sat alongside two whisky-sozzled natives. Before I could order, I was presented with a hot towel to refresh myself. I flicked through the food menu, which included a haggis pizza, but just decided on a drink. I ordered a pint of Strongbow cider, which was on special offer for the night, for 1,000 yen. That equated to £8; oh boy. However, the other regular beers (imports from the UK) were £12 a pint.

I wandered around some more, now needing sustenance. To be truthful, I again felt like a complete outsider. I peered at many restaurants, yet couldn’t decipher much of what was on offer. I entered two nice restaurants, but was told “reservation only.” Damn.

In the end, I chanced my arm on a more down-at-heel restaurant with no frills. Again, I was presented with a hot towel before I had a chance to order. I decided on a set meal which included a small bowl of soup, fried pork and king prawn, a small salad and a bowl of boiled rice. With a beer, this still came to around £23. The weirdest thing about the meal, though, was that the restaurant played a loop of Christmas songs from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties while I was eating.

“Walking In A Winter Wonderland. “

“Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time.”

“They Said There’d Be Snow At Christmas.”

“Well, I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day.”

On my walk back to Shinjuku, I discovered an amazing place. Tucked right against the train lines, was a ridiculously narrow passageway. It immediately reminded me of the madness that I experienced in the Chinatown area of Bangkok last summer. Here, within a space of around thirty yards were around fifty ridiculously small street cafes, seating no more than ten customers at a time, all at the counter, with food being fried in front of them. The smoke was billowing out from inside the kitchen areas and the air was heavy with an array of herbs and spices.

It was simply wonderful.

In that portion of Friday night, I think I managed to take away with me a few sacred memories of Tokyo. I sometimes feel it’s best to explore a foreign city by myself, away from distractions, letting everything slot in to place. I thought about Japan’s physical location on the Earth’s surface; in normal maps, out on a limb and away to the east, almost abutting the International Date Line. And then I thought about what I had so far witnessed. Tokyo was clearly different. So different in fact that I soon came across a phrase which I thought encapsulated my feelings for it.

To me, being in Tokyo seemed like existing on the edge of the world.

Tokyo was a city which was living by different rules, a city inhabited by 18 million polite and orderly natives, a city existing at a different pace and a city which miraculously worked. It was the biggest conundrum ever; it was a maelstrom of order. Tokyo shouldn’t work, but it clearly does. Millions existing together in a sparkling neon fantasy world. This was a space age city of tomorrow which was already here today. And it thrilled me like no other.

I was up early on the Saturday (3am early – my body clock was now officially frazzled) in order to meet the others at their hotel at Ikebukuro at 7am; this was the day of the long-awaited trip to Mount Fuji, the snow-capped mountain which overlooks the city from around 100 miles to the west. Opposite my hotel was a small (everything is small in Tokyo) McDonalds which was conveniently open for 24 hours. With thoughts of many McBreakfasts on trips to Chelsea games with Lord Parky, I ordered two McMuffins and a coffee. It bemused me that the seating area upstairs was populated with customers who were sleeping.

Live and let live.

At 7.30am, we clambered on a coach which took us down to the city’s bus depot. I spoke to Frank about seeing my second famous volcano of the year, after Naples’ magnificent Mount Vesuvius in February. This would be Foxy’s second volcano of the year too; he hails from Dundee, where the city’s less-famous volcano is the now extinct Dundee Law, which overlooks that city on the banks of the silvery River Tay. On the twenty minute coach ride, I saw another sight which made me gasp. Adjacent to the Tokyo Dome – a baseball stadium in the style of the Minneapolis Metrodome which is right slap-dash in Tokyo’s city centre – I spotted a tall roller coaster with associated loop-the-loop shapes that was right alongside it. I was gobsmacked. Imagine a three-hundred foot roller-coaster alongside Madsison Square Garden in New York.

No, neither can I.

Only in Tokyo.

We changed buses and, as Frank and Foxy had a cheeky smoke, they were lucky enough to witness a geisha wedding. Typically, there were a few Corinthians fans on our trip to Mount Fuji.

Ah, Mount Fuji; you mischievous temptress. Although I had already seen the crisp and iconic lines of this fantastic mountain from Mike’s hotel room on the Thursday, on Saturday she was shrouded in mist. We spent from 7.30am to around 6pm on a coach, a cable-car, a boat and a bullet train, but we still didn’t officially see Mount Fuji. It was a major disappointment. The clouds strangled Mount Fuji in a vice-like grip all day. However, at least we got to experience a little of Japan’s scenery outside of Tokyo’s 24 hour neon. The Japan that we saw from the coach was green and mountainous. We stopped half-way for an authentic Japanese meal which I wasn’t particularly enamoured with. There were just too many odd textures and tastes. Never mind, we washed it down with a beer. At every juncture in the day long excursion, we visited shops. This at least gave us plenty of time to witness Fun Time Frankie as he amassed the biggest variety of tat to the east of Coney Island. What he’ll do with a Little Kitty fridge magnet I will never know.

Later that evening, we had a drink in the bar at the Metropolitan Hotel, and then bought some tins of beer in a store opposite Mike’s hotel. We sat in Mike’s hotel room, listened to some music, chatted about football, music, Tokyo and the craziness of our simple presence in the city and watched the self-same city prepare for another night of fun, with lights sparkling down below. We were then out in the winter air, zipping through Ikebukuro train station, with the Christmas music still playing on internal speakers…

“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All The Way…”

(“Oh What Fun It Is To See Chelsea Win Away…”)

In the distance, I also heard a few bars of the de-facto Japanese song of this year and all others; the one I featured in Tokyo Part One –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGs_vGt0MY8

So delicate, so atmospheric, so serene…so Japanese.

It will forever take me back to December 2012 in Tokyo.

We hopped onto a train – dab hands at this now – and revisited the 1863 Bar from two nights previous. A few other Chelsea fans called by too; first a couple of Aussies, then Darren Mantle, who had been to see a Tokyo derby match that afternoon with a few other Chelsea fans. He reported that there had been flags, loudspeaker-toting capos, scarves, rhythmic chanting, but no animosity to the other team.

That simply won’t do.

Despite the lure of an assortment of local nibbles that “Andy” the barman put on the bar for us to tuck into, we were all very tired. With a big match ahead on the Sunday, we called it an early night and I was back at my hotel at about 1am.

Sunday was the big finale.

Typically, Sunday was crystal clear. The skies were magnificent and devoid of cloud cover. I shook a fist at Mount Fuji but was soon thinking of other things. I was on a solo mission to make up for lost ground and I travelled across Tokyo on my Pasmo travel card in order to visit Tokyo Sky Tree. En route, I helped myself to a hot coffee in a tin from one of the thousands of vending machines which seem to be everywhere in Tokyo. That hit the spot; perfect.

I ascended from several layers of elevators at Oschiage tube station and the Sky Tree took my breath away. I was hopeful that I would soon be in the two viewing galleries, with all of Tokyo spread out before me. There was only one problem; the 3,000 yen admission fee. However, this was the least of my worries. The place was ridiculously busy and I was given a ticket (which was not an admission ticket, but simply acted as a ticket to allow me to buy a ticket at a later time that day) which implied that I would not be able to ascend the tower until 5pm, some five hours away.

Oh bugger it.

However, unlike several football managers that I dare not even mention, I had a Plan B.

I back-tracked and headed down to trusty Shinjuku yet again. I had read that the Tokyo Metropolitan Office building allowed visitors to visit the viewing gallery on the 22nd floor – for free, nonetheless. I had also remembered that Mike had said that the bar used the hotel in “Lost In Translation” afforded magnificent views of central Tokyo, too.

As it happened, I stumbled across the hotel – The Park Hyatt – and quickly tried to blend in with the diners at the restaurants on the 44th floor (great views) and the 52nd floor (sublime views) while I took advantage of the clear glass windows. My camera went into overdrive. I spent a good 45 minutes looking out at all points of the compass from the two levels. The views were magnificent. The hotel is right in the very centre of Tokyo, so I was right amongst it. In fact, if “Tokyo” is entered on Google Earth, the “red dot” (how appropriate) is a hundred yards from the hotel.

I was smiling from ear-to-ear as I hopped around the hotel, taking it all in. Tokyo is just simply massive. At last, I was able to photograph it and do it justice. To be honest, I was quite light-headed as I descended the floors and got back to street level. Fantastic stuff. I soon bumped into yet more Corinthians fans. I had heard rumours that Corinthians (or – as they pronounced it…Coreeeeenchia’) fans had sold cars, left jobs and even sold houses to travel to Tokyo. I wanted to know if this was true.

“Sure, it’s true. This cup is massive. We love this team.”

I had a little moment to try and equate what I had just heard with my feelings for the trophy which would soon be “up for grabs” some twenty miles away in Yokohama. There is no doubt that England, if not the whole of Europe, regards the Champions League as the biggest and most prestigious trophy on offer in World football. And – to be honest – I think that this is quite correct. It was the reason why some 40,000 Chelsea foot soldiers invested time and money to travel to Munich in May, yet only 17,500 of those were able to see the game. That only 600-800 had travelled out from the UK to see the two games in Japan did make me feel a little uneasy about how we as a club regarded the World Club Championships. Especially compared to the 30,000 Corinthians who were in every bar, every restaurant and on every street in Tokyo. This, however, was South America’s big moment to shine against Europe. It was their one chance to put one over on the moneyed ranks of UEFA. It was akin, in my mind, to the invasion of 80,000 Scotland fans back in the ‘seventies every two years for the England vs. Scotland game. Scotland owned Wembley in those days. It was their one chance to get one over the auld enemy. Well, in 2012, Tokyo was owned by the black and white Corinthian hordes from Sao Paolo.

To be honest, it reminded me of us being outnumbered in Munich.

With that, I stumbled across a “Soccer Shop” on the main walk back into Shinjuku. The place was festooned with shirts from clubs in Europe – you can guess which ones – and there were many items representing the World Club Championships, especially its two finalists. Interestingly enough, throughout my stay in Japan, I had not clocked eyes on a Japanese person wearing a single item of merchandise from any European club. Not one. The only such item I saw on the entire trip was a Liverpool scarf being worn by a boy on the London to Beijing stage. Despite better judgement, I stumped up 3,700 yen (or about £30) for a Corinthians T-shirt. I sometimes get souvenirs from my various football trips around Europe (a St. Pauli scarf here, a Juventus pennant there…) so a Corinthians shirt was no big deal. I balanced this by buying a Chelsea / World Club Championship key fob for 1,000 yen.

I zipped back to my hotel, decided on my match-day attire (maybe it was because I was now a Tokyo native, but this now took mere minutes as opposed to a longer period of time on a normal match day) and set off for the game. I again changed at Shibuya, then caught the JR Express to Kikuna and then on to Shin-Yokohama. It only took me around 45 minutes. I strolled over to the Chelsea pub just as Foxy, Matt, Mike and Fun Time were mid song. Anna and Kev were there too. A few other familiar faces from home; the three guys I had met in Kuala Lumpur were sat at a table inside. Outside, of course, the streets were awash with “Coreeeenchia”. Some were sat inside a street side bar with guitars and hand-held drums, blasting out a song for the passers-by. I disappeared off to purchase some tinnies from a store, then re-joined the boisterous crowd. Two locals drove past in a blue convertible which was festooned with Chelsea-flags, but which also had “Blue Is The Colour” booming out of its stereo-system. The car stopped in front of the pub – holding up the traffic – but enabled the Chelsea fans to join in.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pea04tAMGNw

Frank was all over it.

A local – wearing Chelsea scarf and (worryingly) reindeer horns – suddenly appeared in front of me, smiling and acting as if we had arranged to meet up. I guess he was just happy to meet an “authentic” Chelsea supporter. He was carrying his two-year old son, fully attired in Chelsea kit, and as he turned around we saw that the boy had his name – “Sora” – printed on the back above the number “25.”

Maybe this was a Japanese pun. Maybe the father had named his son after Zola and Sora was the Japanese pronunciation of it. Either way, we quickly serenaded him.

“Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora!”

The little lad started laughing and smiling, then clapped his hands excitedly. It was a brilliant moment.

The beer was going down well. The others wanted to head off to the stadium, but Matt and I were more than happy to stay outside the bar, drinking in the atmosphere, lapping it all up. We talked very briefly about our experience in Japan. I said that I found the Japanese to be very reserved, but once a link of communication existed, they suddenly became very friendly, almost to the point of giddiness. As a contrast, I found the Thai people to be more open and friendly from the start. Matt, who has visited around 40 countries and is clearly an experienced traveller, commented that there is an over-riding fear of shame which permeates all of Japanese life; that it is best to stay silent, to be reserved, to keep your cards close to your chest, rather than be socially embarrassed by doing or saying the wrong thing. I found this fascinating.

Although, the third/fourth place game was taking place in the stadium, I had no time for it. With around 45 minutes to go to the kick-off, we eventually made a move. Once inside the entrance plaza, we bolted down some Japanese style fish and chips. We showed our tickets and we were in. The Corinthians fans were still in the ascendency and were full of song. As a solid mark of defiance, I slowly and deliberately bellowed out “Champions of Europe – We Know What We Are” repeatedly for thirty seconds.

Once inside the stadium, the difference between the game on Thursday was very marked.

The place was packed. Not only that, Corinthians banners and flags were simply everywhere.

At the other end, a single banner “Gavioes Da Fiel” took up eighty yards of balcony. This was their biggest fan group and their biggest banner. But elsewhere, there were other banners; too many to name. There were Corinthians behind us in our section, there were banners above us; we were well-and-truly outnumbered in Yokohama.

Your city? Your stadium? Your cup?

Before we had time to think about too much, the pre-game pageantry had begun. News filtered through that Frank Lampard was starting as captain. I hoped that sentimentality hadn’t clouded Benitez’ decision to start him. It was, after all, Frank’s first start for ages. After Luiz’ ground-breaking start in a defensive-midfield position on Thursday, Benitez chose to play Frank alongside Ramires, so Luiz reverted to his central-defensive position alongside Gary Cahill. A surprising start went to Victor Moses, ahead of Oscar.

The teams entered the pitch. The Corinthians at the other end unveiled a large white banner which floated over the heads of the occupants of the lower tier. There were balloons. There were flags. There was a black, grey and white version of the Union Jack. Was this an ominous sign for us boys from Blighty? In response, we managed to squeeze a few blue flags of defiance onto the balcony above us.

It was certainly magnificent to see Frank lining up with the officials and the Corinthians’ captain. The teams then lined up on the centre-circle and the FIFA “Moment Of Hope” took place. I am sure that this was always planned to take place, but I personally thought that it had deeper poignancy after the shocking, yet oh-so predictable, events in Connecticut which so shocked the global community.

The Chelsea support seemed to be more boisterous, yet significantly more nervous too, compared to the game against Monterrey. The terraces were packed. Foxy got the beers in; good lad. I had to juggle beer with cameras, with songs, with support. I was aware that I was remarkably tense and I had to have a quiet word with Frank who seemed to be enjoying himself far too much for a Chelsea game.

Orlin’s wife Katerina told me to relax after a Corinthians effort flew wide.

Relax? I’d like to be able to…

I thought that we looked pretty comfortable in the first-half. Of course, the big moment was the effort from Gary Cahill which the Corinthians’ keeper Cassio somehow managed to block on the line. Our biggest scare was when Cahill seemed to send the lively Guerrero to the floor. Thankfully, the referee waved away the penalty claim. Guerrero was also involved when a move ended with Emerson shooting against the outside of the post. The best move of our first forty-five minutes ended with Victor Moses curling a lovely shot at goal, but Cassio again managed to save, clawing it around the far post.

I thought we were the better team at the break to be honest, although there was little between the two sides. I just hope that our class told. After a noisy start, we had even managed to silence the 30,000 Brazilians in the stadium.

Chances were at a premium in the second-half and I sensed a lack of conviction and enterprise in our play. I certainly sensed a dropping off of our tempo compared to the first forty-five minutes. A few half-chances were traded. Then on 69 minutes, a quick break into the heart of our defence caused me to experience a fear of impending doom. After so many games, I must have some sort of sixth sense. Lo and behold, although an initial shot was blocked by Cahill, the ball spun up and into the path of the waiting Guerrero. Cech seemed to be caught between a rock and a hard place. The ball was headed home with Cech stranded. The two defenders on the line could do nothing.

The Brazilians roared. Flares soon followed. I was crushed.

Benitez rang the changes with Oscar and Azpilicueta replacing Moses and Ivanovic. Our best chance of the entire game then arrived when the ball was sent pin-balling around inside the Corinthians penalty area. Typically, it fell at the feet of Fernando Torres. This was his moment. He only had the falling ‘keeper to beat. He had no time to weigh up the options. His instinctive prod was the wrong response and the ‘keeper blocked.

Oh boy.

Behind us, the Corinthians were making their presence felt. Earlier in the game they had bellowed disdain at David Luiz, the former Corinthians supporter. Now, one of their number waltzed down into our section and waved a large Corinthians flag. There was some shouting and posturing. After a small scramble, the flag’s metal pole was broken in two.

There was little penetration for the rest of the game and our cause was not helped when Gary Cahill lashed out; he was shown a red card. Then, a moment of hope. Oscar broke and sent over a fantastic cross towards the six-yard box. Torres rose and headed home. The ball smashed into the goal, right at me.

Get in!

I turned to my right, briefly saw Orlin going do-lally, but then heard the horrible words “he’s given offside.” Emotions turned 180 degrees. Pandemonium to agony in a spilt second. Mata even had one last chance to equalise, but his shot from an acute angle hit the outside of Cassio’s post.

The whistle blew and I just wanted to leave the stadium. I wasn’t really surprised how much this hurt. This was probably our only chance to ever be crowned World Champions. The only modicum of solace was for the thousands upon thousands of Corinthians who would now go home with a smile on their faces; I had no reason to dislike them.

I walked briskly back to Shin-Yokohama.

I was by myself now.

Walking through the train station at Shibuya, I was still feeling a little sorry for myself. I then realised where I was.

I was in Tokyo.

And I smiled the biggest smile of the five days away from home.

What a trip.

Although the city looked as beguiling as ever, I returned to my hotel at midnight, via one last lingering look at the neon up at street level.

I had to be up at 4am. I was so worried about the alarm not working on my phone that, once I awoke at 2am, I daren’t not go back to sleep again. I carefully packed my bags, tucked away all of my memories and headed down to the hotel lobby. A few Corinthians were coming in from a night of revelry.

It was their time and not ours.

I walked the mile or so south, past bars which were still open, to catch the bus to Haneda from good old Shinjuku station at 4.45am.

On the short thirty minute ride to the airport, I chatted to two Corinthians fans. We were all animated in our love of football and I thoroughly enjoyed the engaging conversation that we shared. One of them favoured Chelsea as his “European” team. I sensed that the other guy favoured Arsenal. They wanted to know about the size of our support and where our support came from. Had we been successful prior to Abramovich? Who were our main rivals? I was able to pass on tons of information for them to take home with them. Corinthians’ main rivals are Palmeiras and Sao Paolo. We had many things in common. For example, all three of us loved our club in a far greater way than our national teams. I was able to review our remarkable march to the Munich final in May and they were aware of every game, every twist and turn. Corinthians had won the Copa Libertadores with a win against Boca Juniors. Corinthians had only 1,500 tickets for the game in La Bombonera; perhaps this half-explained the 30,000 in Tokyo. At least they were assured of tickets in Japan, as bizarre as that seems.

There was a lot of sarcasm aimed at Corinthians in Brazil since they had only won the Copa Libertadores on one occasion. Like us, their biggest ever trophy triumph took place in 2012 and 2012 alone. Additionally in 2000, Corinthians were invited to take part in the inaugural World Club Championships as the reigning Brazilian league champions when Brazil was the host country. The fact that they won that 2000 Final is viewed as being a hollow trophy, by Corinthians and their rivals alike, since they had not won the Libertadores first.

The smiles of the two Corinthians sitting opposite proved to me that they had now won it fair and square.

Fair play to them.

Despite Chelsea’s loss, this football-powered chat high above the streets of an awakening Tokyo on the narrow expressway on the way to the airport was a brilliant end to my stay in the craziest city of them all.

Ah, the bittersweet ache of leaving a city as wonderful as Tokyo.

Over to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBwrx0YHo34

IMG_1835 IMG_2064 IMG_2210

Tales From The Longest Journey

Chelsea vs. Monterrey : 13 December 2012.

I can well remember travelling back from Munich in May when a few of us spoke about the chances of heading over to Tokyo for the World Club Championships. On that flight from Prague to Bristol, my view was that it was “one trip too far.” After the dust had settled and after I had mulled over the possibilities, my view soon changed. The tipping point was the realisation that the date of the final – Sunday 16 December – was my late father’s birthday. Once I heard that, little could stop me. In June I booked flights, in July I sorted a hotel and in October I purchased match tickets. I think it is safe to say that I have rarely looked forward to games with greater relish in all of my years of support of the club. The thought of seeing us become World Champions in Tokyo sent me dizzy.

2012 has truly been unlike no other.

By its eventual completion, I will have seen Chelsea play in Naples, Barcelona, Munich, New York, Philadelphia, Turin and Tokyo.

I need to get out more.

Since the start of 2012-2013, the games have mounted up and I have attended the vast majority. The two games in Tokyo would be games 26 and 27. What another tumultuous season for us all. Even in the opening five months of this campaign, we have had enough success, despair and madness at Chelsea to last a lifetime. The low point was the awful trip to West Ham when there was near civil war in the Chelsea section.

Enough was enough. I wanted to put the past few crazy weeks behind me. An away trip to Sunderland was avoided as I wanted to get my head straight for last-minute preparations for my longest ever Chelsea journey. I spent the Saturday, instead, watching my local team Frome Town. The contrast with my next game would be immense. Saturday gave way to Sunday. Sunday gave way to Monday. The hours passed. And then the minutes.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

As I headed out of Somerset en route for Heathrow on Tuesday 11 December, I couldn’t resist a text to a few close friends.

“Jack Kelouac.”

It seems almost superfluous for me to mention my trip to London when my end destination was many thousands of miles further east. However, for me, every mile counts. The hundred miles that I spent alone, listening to some Depeche Mode, enjoying the winter sun, letting my mind wander was the perfect start for my journey. As ever, it gave me the chance to put some sort of perspective on the upcoming events over the next few days. As I drove past Andover and Basingstoke, I was reminded of my first ever trips by car to Chelsea back in 1991-1992. I learned to drive relatively late at the age of 26 and my first few trips to Stamford Bridge, along the A303, up the M3 and around the M25 to a mate’s house in Worcester Park, were landmark events. It’s funny how certain music takes me back to that time. Those first few trips to Chelsea were often accompanied by rave anthems, but also by several Depeche Mode albums. Every time I hear “Black Celebration” I am transported back to driving home from a Sunderland F.A. Cup game in 1992. A John Byrne equaliser broke our hearts and stopped us advancing to our first semi-final in twenty-two years. It was a long and lonely drive home that night. Twenty years ago, trips to Tokyo to watch Chelsea would have been regarded as the stuff of fantasy.

So, there’s the perspective.

Over the last few miles of my journey, I couldn’t resist playing “Tin Drum” by Japan, a fantastic band from my teens. David Sylvian’s fractured voice, dipping in and out; with synthesisers producing a uniquely sparse sound provided the perfect backdrop for me. One of my favourite tracks from the early ‘eighties was David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s classic “Forbidden Colours.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1YkHJJi-tc

Visions of China and Japan echoed around my brain.

My good mate Russ dropped me off at Heathrow in plenty of time to catch the first leg of my gargantuan trip east. The 5.40pm Air China flight to Beijing left a little late. Chelsea stalwarts Cathy and Maureen were also onboard, plus a couple more fans who I didn’t recognise. We eventually took off, sweeping north and then east over London, before flying over The Netherlands, Germany, Russia – just south of St. Petersburg – and further beyond. My head was spinning at the enormity of it all. I hoped to catch plenty of sleep on the flight but, after a meal, I decided to check out the movies on offer. Of the forty to choose from, there was an over-abundance of Shirley Temple films. I obviously found this odd, but presumed that the People’s Republic of China has an obscure obsession with the tousle-haired child star of the ‘forties. It was proof, if any was required, that things would be getting slightly weird over the subsequent few days. I remembered how Albania was equally besotted with Norman Wisdom, the accident prone comedian from the post-war films of my childhood. Sometimes there is no reason behind anything.

Eventually, I chose “Citizen Kane”, the classic film about an enigmatic multi-millionaire. I didn’t last too long into the film as my eyes were soon feeling tired, but there was time for me to raise a smile at the line –

“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

I had seen the film a few times. A few scenes are marvellous. On this trip, when thoughts of my father would never be too far away, I was reminded of one of my most treasured memories from my childhood. Forget all of the Chelsea trips, the family holidays to Blackpool, Dorset, Italy and Austria and my father’s silly jokes; probably my most cherished memory of my father was when he pulled me, aged around three, on a home-made sled around my village, with snow falling and the two of us just chatting away. It was a rural winter wonderland. Perfect.

It was perhaps my “Rosebud” moment.

Our flight across the frozen wastes of Russia, Mongolia and China took over ten hours. Thankfully, I slept for half of this. I eventually peeked out of the window when we were an hour away from Beijing and saw snow-capped mountains. My heart skipped a beat. We landed in a freezing Beijing at around midday. Cathy and Maureen rushed through to catch their connecting flight to Tokyo, but my flight was much later. I had over five hours at the airport. But not just any airport.

Beijing.

Peking.

China.

Oh boy.

I was in China.

It was one place that I never thought that I would visit. Tiananmen Square was but ten miles away. I was not worried that I was locked “in transit” at the airport. This was enough for me. I paced around the airport and then endured, rather than enjoyed, an authentic Chinese meal. I had beef and noodles and so unfortunately wasn’t able to utter the immortal line–

“Waiter – this chicken is rubbery.”

The connecting flight to Tokyo left at around 5.30pm. I was now the only Chelsea fan left. The plane was less than a third full and so I had time to stretch out and relax. More sleep. I awoke with the bright lights of several cities down below. Using the flight map overhead, I soon worked out that we were over South Korea. As we headed out over the ocean, I then saw several hundred golden lights bizarrely stretching out in a diamond shape. They obviously belonged to ships that were passing underneath, some 35,000 feet below. Along with seeing the frantically busy waters near Bangkok from a plane last summer, it was one of those incredible sights of my life.

Oh lucky man.

The Japan coast appeared and, then, the myriad lights of the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. It was another overwhelming sight. The approach into Tokyo Haneda airport seemed to take forever, but we eventually touched down at around 9.30pm. I was amazed how quickly I was through the various checks and by 10.30pm, I had paid 1,200 yen (£10) and was on a “Friendly Limousine” bus into the city. As the driver edged out of the airport, I kept repeating one line.

“I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo.”

It was as if I needed some convincing.

The first thing I noticed was that the bus was being driven on the left-hand side of the road; the same as in Malaysia and Thailand. This genuinely surprised me. I was pretty tired, but the hour-long coach-ride kept me awake. The driver soon climbed onto an elevated expressway, though it was only one lane in each direction. As we weaved around the city centre, we rose and fell, with ramps being surprisingly steep. Then, the next surprise –

Less than half a mile to my right was the gaudily illuminated Tokyo Tower, like an oriental Eiffel Tower, but brightly lit with thousands of gallons of gold paint and thousands of electric lights. I snapped a few photographs as we raced by, alongside darkened skyscrapers and the first few sightings of the many neon signs that so dominate the city.

I was deposited right in the very epicentre of the pulsing heart of the city; Shinjuku. There was neon everywhere. I quickly caught a rather old-fashioned looking taxi-cab, like something out of Yugoslavia in 1976, up to Higoshi-Shinjuku and tried to take it all in. I booked into my hotel just after midnight. I had been “on the road” for almost twenty-eight hours. I was tired, but in no mood to call it a night. After a quick wash in the world’s smallest bathroom, I darted over to a local bar called “Fuma” where I quickly knocked back three small Carlsberg lagers, along with a dish which caught my eye; blue cheese pizza with honey. Believe it or not, it was fantastic. If truth be known, I could have stayed there for ages. I always think there’s nothing like the thrill of a first night anywhere, the visitor being absorbed by every single sight and sound. I quickly noticed that the two wafer-thin waiters were ridiculously eager to please. They seemed to be almost apologetic in their nature and went about their tasks in an endearingly bashful manner. It would be a trait that I would often notice again during my stay.

At 1.30am, I decided to call it a night. Thursday was another day and I couldn’t wait for it to unravel before me.

On Thursday morning, the main objective was get up to Ikebukuro, around three miles to my north. Here, I was to meet Mike and Frank from NYC at their hotel at midday. I trotted down to the hotel lobby and was in the middle of a fragmented conversation with the hotel receptionist when I heard an English voice.

“No photographs, please.”

It was Darren Mantle. He was in the middle of a heated conversation with the hotel manager about the validity of his credit card. Just as it looked like I might become embroiled, Darren intelligently said that he didn’t know me and I was on my way. First, a cup off coffee from the McDonalds opposite and then my first exposure to the vaunted Tokyo tube system. With surprising ease, I negotiated a travel card and headed north on the – wait for it – Fukotoshin line. The tube trains and stations were amazingly clean. I was soon out in the winter sun. it was a gorgeous day, despite a cold wind, and I soon located the Hotel Metropolitan. I soon spotted a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces, including Neil Barnett, enjoying a coffee. They were off to the Imperial Palace.

Mike soon appeared in the grand lobby and quickly updated me on the antics of the previous evening. He had arrived in Tokyo with Frank on a direct flight from JFK at much the same time as me, but had decided to hit the ground running. They had been out in a bar not far from my hotel, with the Mantles and a few others, until 8am. Frank was out for the count, sleeping like a baby, so Mike and I quickly decided to head down by tube to the area around the Imperial Palace.

We caught a tube down to the central area and spent a relaxing hour or so walking around the perimeter of the Imperial Palace grounds. We took a plethora of photographs of the moat and the pagoda-style palace. These contrasted well with the skyscrapers of a business district to the east. We bumped into the first four Corinthians fans of the trip. There had been rumours that there would be 15,000 Brazilians in Tokyo and the number amazed me. Chelsea had 1,000 tickets, but we believed that only around 600 would be attending through the club. I personally knew of around 20 friends who were in Tokyo.

One of the Brazilians whispered to me “here is a secret – David Luiz was a Corinthians fan as a boy.”

Ah, OK…I soon remembered the game in Monaco when Fernando Torres’ boyhood team Atletico Madrid handed us a thumping defeat. I put that memory to the delete folder of my brain.

Another Corinthians fan said “just make sure you win tonight, we want to play Chelsea in the final.”

Yes, indeed. Here was my biggest fear; that we’d go all this way to Japan and yet lose the semi-final. Wouldn’t that be typical? We posed for photographs together and wished each other well. Mike continued his re-hydration by buying drinks at every opportunity and we then caught a train back to Ikebukuro. On our return to the hotel, Frank (who also leans towards Napoli since his family are from that area), was still sleeping. Mike’s words did not arrest his slumber and so I decided to wake him.

“Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo – Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo.”

It worked.

Mike’s mate Foxy from Scotland, who I had not previously met, came down to join us and we then spent many minutes encouraging Frank to get out of bed, take a shower and get ready for the game.

The game. Yes, there was a game on in four hours but none of us had given it any thought.

Frank then tried the patience of all of us by unpacking and then re-packing all ten of his Chelsea shirts before deciding which one to wear. He then did the same with his socks. He then unpacked and packed his camera, toiletry bag, belt, computer, cigarettes, wallet and wristbands.

“No rush, Frank.”

To be honest, there was an amazing view of Mount Fuji from the hotel window and although Foxy and I were pulling faces of agony at Frank’s frustrating tardiness, the outside view compensated. Eventually, we left the hotel at around 4pm. Matt, another NY Blue, had joined us too. He had seen the Corinthians victory the previous night in Nagoya. I called in to my hotel to pick up a few things and we were soon on our way to Shibuya, a few miles to the south where we needed to change trains. The buzz was now there.

Tokyo away. Love it.

The journey down to the stadium was a manic blur. At Shibuya, we were right in the middle of the Tokyo rush hour and passengers, some with those infamous face masks, were rushing everywhere. Foxy lead us out from the tube station into the neon-lit mayhem outside, before we dipped into another part of the station which housed the Japan Railways service. It was frantic stuff, but we were soon on the right train. We were packed in like sardines, or maybe tuna. There was little interaction with the locals at this stage, despite our English accents. I expected a few people to be asking us about the game. Frank was still feeling rough from the previous night’s excesses in Shin-Okubu. As we changed trains one last time, Frank calmly vomited in the six inch gap between train and platform at Kikuna. I told him that I hoped that Fernando Torres was as accurate later that evening.

At Kikuna, we avoided the first train because the carriages were simply at bursting point. However, we soon alighted at Shin-Yokohama and noted a few Japanese fans with Chelsea colours, plus three Mexicans with requisite sombreros. Outside, on the walk towards the stadium, there were many street traders with a variety of dodgy souvenirs on offer. Most of the half-and-half scarves (Chelsea / Monterrey and, not surprisingly, Chelsea / Corinthians) were being hawked by English chaps.

“Wherever I lay my tat, that’s my home.”

We dipped into a store and bought some tins of Kirin for the short walk to the Nissan Stadium, but then soon stumbled across a bar on a street corner, which was full of Australian Chelsea. They were full of song. Oh, and beer. We soon decided to head on up to the ground which was a further 15 minutes away. This stadium hosted the 2002 World Cup Final. A quick Axon Stat coming up…this was the fifth such venue that I have visited, along with the stadia used in 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1990.

On the slow incline up towards the gates, we caught up with Cathy and Maureen, and then posed for photos with Dave Johnstone. Surreal is a word that can only describe seeing familiar faces so far from home. The small entrance plaza was full of sponsor tents and fast food stalls. There was a Coca-Cola truck parked up and I couldn’t resist a quick photo with the female Santa. Never has a red and white kit looked so appealing. Away in the corner was a substantial Chelsea stand where I entered a draw to win a trip to London so I could get my hands on a Japan 2012 lanyard. Local kids posed with Stamford and there was a massive line for this photo opportunity. Good to see.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

A few Mexicans were singing on the steps leading up to the second set of turnstiles and their antics were being recorded by a TV crew.

I entered the stadium and met up with the Chelsea contingent, most of whom had opted for the cheaper ticket option in the lower level behind the goal. In among our support were many locals. At the north end, we spotted a few Monterrey flags, but there was no real way of guessing their total number. To my left, the main stand was only a quarter full. To my right, the other stand contained barely 1,000 spectators. I looked around and spotted some familiar Chelsea faces from home. The teams soon appeared from beneath the main stand; Chelsea in blue, Monterrey in a change strip of Blackpool tangerine. The stands were set back from the pitch and, to be honest, it was difficult to see any action at the far end. It was reminiscent of Stamford Bridge until 1994. Behind me on the upper tier balcony were a few flags; notably one of The Rising Sun, named after the public house – now the Butcher’s Hook – where the club was formed in 1905. Darren and Steve had managed to get the “Super Frankie Lampard” banner up too. Orlin and his wife Katerina soon appeared behind me. I’ve only known Orlin since meeting him before the Arsenal away game in April, but it seems I have known him for ages. I last saw him in Turin. I was therefore huddled with the US contingent; Matt, Fun Time Frankie, Mike, Orlin and Katerina. Cathy and Maureen were away to my left and the Australian lot, complete with inflatable kangaroo, were beyond. I just missed photographing the large Monterrey flag which had been held up at the other end of the stadium.

The game began and it was all Chelsea, with Eden Hazard and David Luiz causing much concern to the Mexican defence. Luiz was again playing in a deep midfield role, much to the blissful contentment of all the FIFA13 obsessives among our support. To be honest, I always thought this a better option than playing him at right back, which was a common request a while back. The Chelsea support, chilled in the Yokohama evening, was hardly vocal. A chorus of “We don’t care about Rafa” (which I find pretty dull and uninspiring – I’d much rather sing about positives) had already been aired when we reached the sixteenth minute. A respectful minute of applause began and I joined in; in memory of Munich and Di Matteo. I commented to Fun Time that “wouldn’t it be great if we scored now.” With that, the ball was worked into Mata, from the left wing, who calmly slotted home.

Get in.

The rest of the half was played out in near total silence. The Japanese fans in the stadium did not utter a word. To be honest, the Chelsea fans around me were remarkably quiet too, apart from a stirring “We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.” Monterrey only threatened a few times. This was going well. It was certainly reassuring to see the team, invigorated by the win at Sunderland, to be playing so well and seemingly en route to the final.

At the break, 800 yen beers were purchased from a girl who was carrying a cask among us in the stadium. What a nice idea.

“Arrigato.”

The second half began with a large proportion of the Chelsea fans still outside in the concourse. Sadly, a lot of these missed our two quick-fire goals which effectively killed the game off. First, a nice move from Hazard allowed Fernando Torres to score via a deflection. After his new-found confidence after the two goals on the Saturday, I for one hoped that he had finally turned the corner. I even forgave him for scoring (and not once, but twice I tell ya!) without me in attendance. Within a minute, we were 3-0 up after a strong ball into the six-yard box by Mata was deflected in by a Monterrey defender.

Phew.

Start celebrating; we’re going to the final.

The rest of the game was easy. We enjoyed serenading all of the Chelsea substitutes – Frank especially – as they warmed-up in front of us. In fact, Frank’s appearance in place of David Luiz drew the biggest applause of the night. At last the locals were awake. In truth, Frank should have scored with a clipped shot from close in just after he came on. He had another shot which sailed over which he was visibly upset about. It was annoying that we let in a cheap goal through De Nigris in the very last minute of play.

The final whistle blew and some of the players trudged over to the near goal and clapped us. I rather naively hoped that all of our players would hop over the advertising hoardings and get close to us. Of course, this never happened. Had the 1983-1984 team played in Tokyo – with 600 or more Chelsea fans from the UK in attendance – there is no doubt that the entire team would have been mere yards from us, probably throwing their Le Coq Sportif shirts at us.

More perspective.

After the players had left the pitch, it was now the turn of us to be the focus of the Japanese fans’ attention. We were all asked to pose for photographs, with scarves and flags being brandished, while the locals smiled and giggled excitedly. By this time, we were all giggling too. I then explained to five young lads about Peter Osgood (who is a screen saver on my mobile phone), but of course they had never heard of him. Mobile phones were used to film us singing and we all joked about being on “Facebook in the morning.”

I had been in Tokyo for less than 24 hours, yet was already wildly in love with the crazy place.

On the walk out of the stadium concourse, we were again mobbed by passing fans and were asked to pose for yet more photographs. We handed out “US Tour 2012” wristbands to a few of the younger members of our supporters.

Their faces were a picture.

On the walk away from the stadium, I succumbed to a half-and-half scarf after we managed to barter down from 2,000 yen to 1,000 yen. For a World Club Cup Final, I was ready to make allowances. We dipped into the pub on the corner and stayed for around two blissful hours, drinking and chatting, toasting the team and the city. I had always planned this to be the big night for drinking; a berth into the final was a fine reason to celebrate. Even if we ended up as World Champions, too many of us would need to be up and early for flights on the Monday. We raced back to Shin-Yokohama and caught the last train back to Shibuya. From there, we caught a couple of cabs to the little bar at Shin-Okubu where Mike and Frank had spent the previous night.

It was the smallest bar that I’ve ever witnessed, on the second floor of a narrow building. It was adorned with European football pennants and patrons were able to play FIFA13 on the large TV screen. Rounds of Kirin were ordered and we settled in for the night. There were a few of the Australians present. “The Liquidator” was played. The owner brought some bar snacks, while Orlin and Katerina tucked into some food at the end of the bar. I was buzzing. The beers were flowing. I had a good old chat with Foxy, who is a Dundee United fan too. This made me smile because many years ago, I kept a look out for their results. Foxy and I spoke about Tannadice, The Shed, Eamonn Bannon, Willie Pettigrew, Hamish McAlpine, Paul Hegarty and Paul Sturrock. Fun Time Frankie took his iPod out and arranged for a few songs to be played through the bar’s speakers. Songs from Stiff Little Fingers and The Smiths reverberated around the cosy confines of the “1863 Bar” and I was a happy man. Good times. Steve Mantle then arrived on the scene and, when the rest departed, I sat with him at the bar discussing a whole host of interesting topics such as songs, new fans, the board, football culture and the banners on show at The Bridge.

We eventually left at about 7am.

I began walking in a happy, warm and fuzzy state, with dawn breaking and early morning commuters sliding past, oblivious to my blissed out condition. Feeling hungry, I dived into a convenience store but simply didn’t recognise a single item of the food on offer. I walked on, but was totally unsure of which direction I was headed. I can honestly say that I have never felt in such an alien or surreal environment. In some ways, I could easily have walked for another few hours, ready to experience whatever I would stumble upon. With a sudden jolt, I suddenly came to my senses and realised that this was silly.

I was in Tokyo and had no idea where my hotel was.

I quickly flagged down a passing cab, mumbled something about Higashi-Shinjuku and made my way home…or whatever “home” was at 7.30am in Tokyo.

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