Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

I had just left work on Wednesday afternoon when my mobile phone flashed a horribly brief news update.

Ray Wilkins, my boyhood hero, our Chelsea captain, an England international, a Chelsea assistant coach, had died.

There were no immediate tears, but certainly an excruciating, horrible silent numbness. I drove home in a state of shock. I was as subdued as I can remember. Ever since we had all heard that Butch had suffered a heart-attack, and had been in an induced coma, we had of course feared the worst. The future did not promise too much hope, and with every passing day, I feared imminent news.

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

Ray Wilkins. Just the name sends me back, somersaulting me through the decades to my youth, to a time when Chelsea probably meant more to me than I realised, and to the very first few moments of my fledgling support.

In season 1973/1974, Ray Wilkins had made his debut at the age of just seventeen as a substitute against Norwich City in the October. However, I have to be honest, living in Somerset, I don’t think that I was aware of his presence that campaign. I certainly can’t remember seeing him play in any of the – few – games which were shown in highlights on “Match of the Day” or “The Big Match.” In the March of 1974, I saw my first-ever Chelsea game. I like the fact that we made our debuts in the same season. The very letter which accompanied the match tickets for that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match was signed by “Miss J. Bygraves” and this young girl would later become Ray Wilkins’ wife and mother to their two children. By that stage, my then favourite player Ian Britton had been playing for Chelsea a couple of seasons. In that first game, neither played, and I would have to wait a whole year to see my two boyhood idols play, sadly in a lacklustre 2-1 defeat by soon to be Champions Derby County. Chelsea were managed by Ron Suart at the time of that match, but soon after former defender Eddie McCreadie took over. Very soon, he spotted the leadership potential of Ray – or “Butch” as he was known – and made him captain at the age of just eighteen despite the presence of former captains Ron Harris and John Hollins being in the team. Those last matches of the 1974/1975 season were marked by the manager flooding the first team with youngsters; alongside Ray Wilkins and the comparative “veteran” Ian Britton were Teddy Maybank, John Sparrow, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Steve Wicks.

With the influx of youngsters, playing against the backdrop of the sparkling new East Stand, I hoped that the future was bright despite our eventual relegation. If anything, it all got worse. A cash-strapped Chelsea were unable to buy any players for a few seasons, and at one stage it looked like we would be forced to sell both Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. We finished mid-table at the end of 1975/1976, and promotion back to the First Division seemed distant.

It is an odd fact that although I have taken thousands upon thousands of photographs at Chelsea games over the years, in the period from my first game in 1974 to the start of the 1983/1984 season I took just one. It marked the return of Peter Osgood with Southampton in March 1976, but instead of an image of Ossie, the camera is fixed upon the young Chelsea captain, leaning forward to shake hands with his Southampton counterpart Peter Rodrigues.

Ten seasons, twenty-seven Chelsea games, but only one photograph.

And that photograph is of Ray Wilkins. It seems, with hindsight, wholly appropriate.

For season after season, in those dark years of false hope, the threat of financial oblivion, of wanton hooliganism and occasional despair, our young captain seemed to be our one beacon of hope.

He was our Ray of light.

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At the end of that mediocre 1975/1976 season, I can remember being absolutely thrilled to hear that young Butch would be making his England debut.

At the remodelled Yankee Stadium in New York on Friday 26 May, Butch played a full ninety minutes against Italy, playing against such greats as Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, Roberto Bettega and Franco Causio. I can vividly remember seeing the highlights on the following day’s “World of Sport” (I specifically remember the blue padded outfield walls, and the dirt of the baseball diamond).

Butch had arrived.

That summer, I sent off to the “Chelsea Players’ Pool” – remember that? – and acquired a signed black and white photograph. It was pinned close to my Peter Osgood one. Two real Chelsea heroes.

The following season, Chelsea stormed to promotion with Ray Wilkins the driving force. The man was a dream. Equally gifted with both left and right feet, he had a wonderful balance, and a lovely awareness of others. He didn’t merely touch the ball, he caressed it. He made everything look so easy. There was a languid looseness to him. But he was no slouch. Although not gifted with lightning pace, he had the energy and guile to tackle when needed, but to break forward too. His long-range passing was his party-piece. I have no single recollection of one Ray Wilkins pass, but the buzz of appreciation – cheering, applause, clapping – that accompanied a searching Wilkins cross-field pass, perfectly-weighted to a team mate, is what sticks in my mind. And there were many of them. Those were the days when supporters used to clap a great pass. It doesn’t happen much these days.

And he just looked like a footballer. My Dad always commented how Butch had thighs like tree trunks. There was a certain confident strut to him. I always thought that it was a plus point that his legs were slightly – ever-so slightly – bowed, though not as noticeable as, say, Malcolm MacDonald or Terry McDermott. Many footballers did in those days. I am sure it was not in a ridiculous body-sculpting homage to him, but as I grew up, I noticed that my legs were slightly bowed too. Nobody ever took the piss out of me, and what if they did? I would have an easy answer.

“If it’s good enough for Ray Wilkins, it’s good enough for me.”

I am told he melted a few female hearts too. I remember a few girls at Oakfield Road Middle School mentioning Butch to me.

It must have been the stare from those dark brown eyes when Butch was at his most serious.

Back in the First Division, we finished mid-table in 1977/1978 under the tutelage of Ken Shellito. Before the thrilling 3-1 win over European Champions Liverpool in March 1978 (often over-looked in favour of the 4-2 FA Cup win over the same opposition a couple of months before), I was able to obtain Ray Wilkins’ autograph as he came on to the pitch for the kick-about at around 2.30pm. Access to the players at these moments were an added bonus to getting seats in the East Lower. In those days, I would rush over to the curved concrete wall, spending up to twenty minutes or more reaching over towards the players as they passed. To be so close to Ray Wilkins, within touching distance, as he signed by little black autograph book just thrilled me. Forty years on, just writing this, I am getting goose bumps.

Magical, magical times.

Sadly, the elation of promotion in 1976/1977 and consolidation in 1977/1978 was followed by relegation in 1978/1979. During that campaign, we never looked like climbing out of the drop zone. It was such a depressing season. I went through a tough year at school too. It was not a good time in my life.

And I can always remember the pain that I felt during the very last time that I saw Butch play for us, a home game versus QPR in March 1979. It was a miserable day – we lost 3-1, some mouthy QPR fans were sat in front of us in the East Lower – but I was horrified to hear Ray Wilkins getting a fair bit of abuse from the Chelsea supporters around me. It was obvious that the team was at a low ebb, and perhaps too much was expected of our captain, who was still only twenty-two, but every mis-placed Wilkins pass drew loud boos and moans from those close by. Rather than support for a hero when he needed it there was derision. It made such an impression on me that I can remember the sense of betrayal that I experienced thirty-nine years later.

I only saw Ray Wilkins play twelve times for Chelsea, but from March 1975 to March 1979, he was ever-present in all the games that I saw. He wore the number eight shirt in every single one of them. I saw him score just one goal, against Blackpool, in 1975.

He was one of the most revered footballers in the Football League. He was an England regular. It thrilled me each time I saw him play for the national team. He was our sole England international from Peter Osgood in 1973 to Kerry Dixon in 1985. In 1979, he played his twenty-fourth game for England as a Chelsea player, thus beating his former manager McCreadie’s record as a Chelsea internationalist.

In 1979, despite appearing in the Chelsea pre-season team photograph, Ray Wilkins was sold to the hated Manchester United for £825,000. It was on the cards. I knew that we would never keep him. Chelsea certainly needed the money. But to Manchester United? This was just too much. There was a memory of a home programme from 1975 with Butch holding a Manchester United mug at his family home. Had he been hiding some dark secret from us all along?

In the following years, I watched from afar as Ray Wilkins played for the Old Trafford club. From 1979 to 1984, United were an under-achieving team under Dave Sexton and then Ron Atkinson. His goal against Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final was not celebrated by me.

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

And the nickname “Butch” never really followed him to Old Trafford.

He then moved over to Italy to play for Milan from 1984 to 1987.

I saw him play for England – as captain – at Wembley in November 1985 against Northern Ireland on a night which saw a young Kerry Dixon make his home debut, and on a night when the cry of “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” could memorably be heard at the tunnel end.

As the years passed, he played for Rangers and then QPR. I can recollect seeing him early in 1989/1990 at Stamford Bridge, and looking as classy as ever. He was only thirty-three. It would have been lovely to see him come back in West London to play for Chelsea and not QPR, who he later managed, but it was not to be. He then played on with other teams – Wycombe, Hibernian, Millwall, Orient – and then retired to manage Fulham. So near and yet so far.

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

He was often the co-commentator on the Italian games which were shown on Channel Four.

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

In 1998, Butch finally returned home to coach alongside Gianluca Vialli. He worked alongside Luiz Filip Scolari. He took charge for one game at Vicarage Road. He then memorably assisted Carlo Ancelotti – his Milan team mate – and helped us win the double. He was a steadying influence, and a much-loved member of the Chelsea family. His sacking by the club – I am guessing – might well have sent him towards a publicised alcohol addiction.

We felt numbed. For some alcohol is never the right answer, and alcoholism is a horrid disease.

But it felt as though Ray Wilkins has always been part of this club. The red devil mug from 1975 was obviously a red herring. He was not only a season ticket holder, but an away season ticket holder too. There were numerous sightings of our former captain at away grounds – I can recollect photos of him posing happily with some friends of mine – at various away sections, despite the fact that he could have spent those afternoons on the golf course, at home with his family, or out with friends.

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

My good friend Glenn and I only bumped into him at Stamford Bridge a couple of months back. He was warm and friendly, happy to spend time with us, and I am blessed that I was able to see him one last time.

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

…the days passed. Wednesday became Thursday, Thursday became Friday. Friday became Saturday. Saturday became Sunday. Over these days, many stories were told of his decency and his humanity. But this all added to the sense of loss.

Sunday 8 April 2018 would be another emotional day for us all. On the drive to London, it seemed almost churlish to talk about our game with West Ham. We muddled our way through some conversations and predictions. At many moments, my mind was elsewhere.

We had set off from Somerset earlier than usual so that we could visit one of Parky’s old haunts from the days when he served in the army in the early ‘seventies. It was something of an anniversary. Forty-five years ago last Friday – 30 March 1973 – Parky stepped foot inside Millbank Barracks in Pimlico for the first time. An avid Chelsea fan despite being born near Arsenal’s stadium, Parky’s first Chelsea match was as a six-year-old in 1961. Being stationed so near to Stamford Bridge in Pimlico was a passport to football heaven. We had booked a table for 12.30pm at his then local “The Morpeth Arms”, which overlooks the river and the M16 building on the opposite bank.

But first, we popped in to “The Famous Three Kings” near West Kensington station at eleven o’clock for a quick pint and I made a toast.

“Ray Wilkins.”

We then tubed it to Pimlico, and had a lovely time in Parky’s old local. We met up with some pals from Kent and the nine of us had a relaxing and enjoyable time. During the two hours that we were in The Morpeth Arms, we spotted two boats heading west on the river which were bedecked in West Ham flags and favours. Often teams from London take a cruise down the river before a game at Chelsea. The game flitted into my mind, but only briefly, at the sight of the West Ham flags.

Glenn and I then split from the rest, and headed back to Fulham Broadway. In “The Malt House” we had arranged to meet up with pals from Bournemouth, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Toronto. In the meantime, we soon learned that a main West Ham mob had caused a fair bit of havoc in The Atlas and The Lily Langtree, just half a mile or so away. There had been talk of them having a bash at The Goose too. We often frequent those pubs. I am glad we had avoided any nonsense.

It was lovely to meet up with the Jacksonville Blues once again; it was Jennifer and Brian’s first visit, though their pals Jimmy and Steve had visited Stamford Bridge before. Brian had presented me with a Jacksonville Blues scarf while I was over in Charlotte for the PSG game in 2015. It wins the prize as the Chelsea scarf with the finest design that I have seen, bar none. We met up with Tom from LA again, and bumped into Mick from Colorado too. There was a quick hello to Bill, a pal from Toronto who was over for the game. The famous Tuna from Atlanta was in town, but our paths just failed to connect.

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

Overseas fans sometimes get a rough ride from certain sections of our support, but many are as passionate as fans from these isles. They have tended to add to my experience as a Chelsea supporter, not taken away from it.

There was horrible drizzle in the air. The Floridians were finding it a rather cold few days. But their enthusiasm for the game was bubbling over, or was it the alcohol?

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

There was just time to pay a few moments of silent respect to the little shrine that the club had set up for Ray Wilkins. His photo had been moved along to a more spacious section of The Shed Wall. I was pleased to see the armband that John Terry had left was still in place. The photo of a young Butch in that darker than usual kit from 1977 made me gulp at the enormity of it all. The thought that both Ian Britton and now Ray Wilkins are no longer with us is – I will admit – a very difficult thing for me to comprehend.

I had a ticket in the MHL for this game – alongside Bristol Pete – and it was my first game there since Olimpiakos in 2008. But I was happy that I’d be getting a different perspective at a home game. We were stood, level with the crossbar and just behind the goal.

Very soon, it became clear that some fans in The Shed would be holding up a few banners, and I steadied my camera. The teams entered the pitch, and the spectators rose as one. There were no words from Neil Barnett – in hindsight, I suspect that he might well have decided that the emotion of the occasion would have got the better of him – and very soon both sets of players were stood in the centre circle. The TV screens provided some images, and the words Ray Wilkins 1956-2018 chilled me. We all applauded. Very soon, a blue flag passed over my head. I would later learn that it was a huge tribute to Butch, so well done to the club for producing it in such a short timescale. There was a chant of “one Ray Wilkins” and the clapping continued.

And then the applause softened, and the noise fell away. The game soon started, but my head was not really ready for it. All of that raw emotion squeezed into a few minutes had taken my focus away from the game. I tried my hardest to concentrate on the play, but I found it difficult. There was an extra constraint; I was not used to witnessing a home game from anywhere other than seat 369 in The Sleepy Hollow. I struggled with the perspective.

Antonio Conte had stayed with the choice of Alvaro Morata up front, and all was to be expected elsewhere on the pitch, apart from the return of captain Gary Cahill instead of Andreas Christensen. The first part of the game seemed pretty scrappy but Eden Hazard threatened with a low shot, and we hoped for further chances.

On eight minutes, there was more applause for Ray Wilkins. I spotted the image of the floral bouquet on the Chelsea bench.

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

We feared the worst when Marko Arnautovic managed to get his feet tangled and Thibaut Courtois blocked from close range. It would be the visitors’ only real effort on goal during the entire first-half. I was so close to the action; the nearest I have been to the pitch at Chelsea for years. Being so low, both side stands seemed higher than ever. I wondered what the first-time visitors from Florida’s First Coast thought of their first visit to Stamford Bridge.

There was occasional neat passing in the final third, but our chances were rare. Already there was a feeling of nervous tension starting to rise within the massed ranks of the MHL, who were stood throughout. I can’t remember the last time the MHL and the Shed Lower sat throughout a game; a long time ago for sure. But there wasn’t a great deal of noise either. The usual shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” was noticeably missing. On a day when I had flitted around Stamford Bridge – to the north, to the west, to the east, momentarily to the south – it felt that I was watching the match from the heart of Chelsea. The reduced capacity Shed is not the same place as it was in years past, and the MHL has usurped it in many ways as the epicentre of our support. I looked around and, although I did not spot many faces I knew, I certainly felt that I was in the heart of it.

The away fans were boring me rigid with their version of the Blue Flag, and their ridiculous nonsense about “no history.”

A beautiful move ended with a chance from Morata going just past the post. Then, another delicate move ended with Willian forcing a fine save from Joe Hart. With half-time beckoning, and with West Ham more than happy to sit deep, at last there was a reward for our possession. A short corner – which normally I detest – was played back to Moses. I remember thinking “this is usually Dave’s territory and he usually finds the head of Morata.” Well, Moses found the head of Morata and it was none other than Cesar Azpilicueta who managed to get the slightest of touches to stab the ball home – the crowd roared – before running away towards the away support and slumping to the floor.

Up in the MHU, Alan texted me : “THTCAUN.”

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

And that was that. A deserved one goal lead at half-time against an opponent that had rarely attacked, and I just wanted the second-half to produce some more goals. Our recent form has been abysmal. We desperately needed the three points.

Into the second-half and I was thrilled to be able to witness our attacks from so near the pitch, with the full panorama of a packed Stamford Bridge in view. It was a spectacular sight. Throughout the second-half, there were back-heels and flicks aplenty from several of our players – alas, most were to no avail and drew moans – but a deft touch from Eden Hazard set up Willian, who went close. There were more moans – and a growl of consternation from me – when a cross from the raiding Marcos Alonso was touched back by Morata into the path of Victor Moses. With no defender closing him down, and with time for him to concentrate on getting his knee over the ball, he panicked and thrashed the ball high over the bar.

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

We continued to create chances. Morata headed over from a corner, and had a goal disallowed for offside soon after. It looked close from my viewpoint, and it did not surprise me that the linesman had flagged.

In quiet moments, the West Ham ‘keeper was mercilessly taunted by the front rows of the MHL.

“England’s number four. England, England’s number four.”

“You’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff. And you’re shit.”

…there’s a terrible pun coming soon, by the way…you have been warned.

We still dominated possession. From my viewpoint, all that I could see was a forest of bodies blocking our passage. As I said, there were many attempted “one-twos” and suchlike, but the West Ham defence did not have time for such frivolous play. They blocked, blocked, and hacked away to their hearts content. The groans were growing as the game continued. Hazard, always involved but unable to produce anything of note, was nowhere near his best. He lost possession way too often. His pass selection was off. There was the usual proto typical display of midfield greatness from N’Golo Kante, but elsewhere we struggled. Morata hardly attempted to pull his marker out of position. Moses was as frustrating as so often he is. Fabregas was not the creative influence we needed. Alonso ran and ran down the left flank, but the much-needed second goal just eluded us.

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

At the other end, the distant Shed, West Ham created a rare chance. A half-hearted header from Cahill was chased down by Arnautovic and he was allowed time to cut the ball back for the onrushing Chicarito – a recent sub – to score with a low shot at Courtois’ near post.

It was, I am sure, their first real shot on goal in the second-half.

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

At last, the first real stadium-wide chant roared around Stamford Bridge.

A rasping drive from Alonso forced a magnificent finger-tipped save from Hart, and the ball flew only a matter of feet past my left-hand side. The manager replaced Moses with Pedro, Morata with Giroud. There were shots from Hazard, but there were gutsy West Ham blocks. At the other end, I watched in awe as Kante robbed Arnautovic – showing an amazing turn of pace – inside the box. There was another lovely chase-back from Marcos Alonso to rob a West Ham player the chance to break. A fine looping high cross from Willian found the leap of Giroud, who jumped and hung in the air like a centre-forward of old. We were just about to celebrate the winner when we saw Hart – agonisingly – collapse to his left and push the ball away via the post. It was a simply stupendous save. He was head and shoulders their best player.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The game continued but there was no late joy. A meek header from Cahill and a wild swipe from an angle by Pedro did not bother Hart.

Sigh.

There were boos from inside the MHL at the final whistle.

I had the misfortune to time my exit just as the main slug of away support marched past the West Stand gates. I just walked through them all. Their further taunts of “no history” just raised a laugh from me. And there were moans, of course, once we all met up inside my car on Bramber Road long after the final whistle. As I drove us all home, we chatted about the game, a game that we should have won easily. Those moments when we lack concentration had hit us hard once again. We had our post-game post-mortem. We chose to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Elsewhere, of course, many other Chelsea fans were not so private. As ever, there was much wailing.

I had a sideways look at our current state of affairs.

“We finished tenth in 2016. If somebody had said that we would finish in fifth place and as champions over the following two seasons with Antonio Conte in charge, we would have been ecstatic with that.”

The boys agreed.

“Conte just got his seasons mixed up, the silly bastard.”

The inevitable gallows humour helped us in the immediate aftermath of yet another disappointing result.

It had been a strange day. A day of wild extremes. A day of immense sadness. A day of fine friendships. A day when The Great Unpredictables lived up to their name. A day of memories. A day of melancholy. A day of remembrance. A day of frustration. A day of contemplation.

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

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In memoriam.

Ray Wilkins.

14 September 1956 to 4 April 2018.

 

Tales From Yankee Stadium

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 May 2013.

The silver Amtrak train slowly trundled its way along the tracks deep below the streets of Manhattan and eventually came to a halt. I gathered my two cases and patiently waited until it was time to step down onto the platform at New York’s Penn Station. I edged along among the fellow travellers and then took a couple of steps onto the elevator. As I slowly rose, it hit me.

That New York City Subway smell.

It is difficult to define, but once experienced, it is never forgotten. It is a mixture of sickly sweat, of train diesel, of dirt and grime, of car fumes, of urine, of adrenaline, of oil, of body odour, of perfume and aftershave. It is a heady mix. Without any hint of self-censorship, I blurted out –

“I love that smell.”

I was back in New York.

The story of my return to the US at the end of yet another ridiculously entertaining and tumultuous season following Chelsea Football Club is worthy of a separate dissertation all by itself. Here are the bullet points. Like many others, I was at first shocked that Chelsea were returning to the US for two essentially money-making games against Manchester City. After all that the players have been put through, why not let them rest and allow their bodies time to re-charge over the summer? To me and countless others, it seemed illogical and quite pathetic. Personally, I was also surprisingly underwhelmed. Knowing my love of travelling to the US, my ambivalence truly surprised me. In the words of many a football fan, I was clearly not “up” for this crazy addendum to this longest ever season. My initial thought was to boycott it.

In fact, in all honesty, I was happy with a boycott. After almost 12 years of travelling to the US – and elsewhere – every summer following the Yankees or Chelsea, I was looking to try something different during the summer of 2013. I had already ruled out attending the Asia tour, simply because I had only just visited two of the three cities – Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur – as recently as 2011. No, that would be over-egging it. I wanted to spread my wings. I had thoughts about driving down through Italy, maybe seeing Depeche Mode in Milan and Rome. Maybe a relaxing beach holiday – not my scene at all, really, but something different – or maybe swimming with camels in Norway, cycling around the North Pole, learning to plate-spin in Greece, wine-tasting in Glasgow, scuba-diving in Siberia, maybe even something as simple as a week in London, catching up on all the tourist attractions that I never get the chance to witness despite being in London close on thirty days every single year. I just fancied something a little different.

And then Chelsea, as is so often the case, screwed it all up.

The club announced that the match in New York would be in Yankee Stadium.

Oh boy.

I honestly swear that if the venue had been the Red Bulls’ place in Harrison, the new NFL stadium in East Rutherford or the new Mets’ pad in Flushing, I would have said “no.”

But – damn Yankees and damn Chelsea! – I simply couldn’t resist a trip back to the house that George Steinbrenner III built in the Bronx and so I looked at travel options and my mind became infused with New York once again. I saw my first Chelsea game of 2012-2013 at Yankee Stadium and I would see my last Chelsea game of 2012-2013 there too. These twin games would prove to be two incredible bookends for another crazy season. Way back in the early ‘nineties – when I was just starting out on my own personal baseball journey – if someone had mentioned this to me, I think I would have fainted.

Without too much trouble, I soon sorted flights to the US and I was able to include a three-game Yankees series in Baltimore in my plans too. The baseball and footballing Gods were shining down on me once again.

Penn Station plays a small but significant role in my life as a Chelsea supporter. Just as I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea (Westbury, Wiltshire and Gaviota State Park, California), I can well remember where I was when I heard that Frank Lampard had signed for us. I was at Penn Station. I had been in New York for eight days and I ‘phoned my good friend Glenn, who had been keeping an eye on my mother while I was abroad. In a hurried call, he had told me that Claudio Ranieri had bought both Frank Lampard and Emanuel Petit, with others “to follow.” At the time, I was excited that we were splashing the cash, though undecided about Lampard as a player. I needn’t have worried, eh?

A while back, with Frank unsigned for next season, I was worried that my personal Frank Lampard story would start in Penn Station and end in The Bronx, where his last ever game for Chelsea may have taken place. I love my symmetry, but that would have been tough to take.

I made my way up to street level and soon took a cab to Brooklyn. I had lucked out with accommodation for the NYC segment of the trip; my friend Alex had offered me the use of his apartment in Greenpoint while he was away on holiday in Denmark. I was soon hurtling over the Greensboro Bridge, slightly unsure if the cabbie knew where he was going, but just so excited to be back in one of my favourite places on Earth. The view was phenomenal; the East River down below, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and, hauntingly, the now almost completed new tower at the World Trade Centre.

Oh lucky man.

Alex evidently lived in a great neighbourhood. Rather than charging me rent, all he wanted was a flagon of scrumpy, which I had given him in London on his recent visit, and a few packs of football trading cards to give to a young relative. Greenpoint was clearly a great place to base myself for a few days. There was a subway stop a hundred yards from Alex’ pad. I would be fine. There was an eclectic mix of Polish shops and other ethnic cafes, although the place was swarming with “trying too hard” hipsters. However, I was entranced by the mix of different accents as I walked the streets of Greenpoint . It was so typical of New York.

Sergei : “What we do here? I want go home Russia.”

Alexander : “We American now. We leave London, big chance in Big Beetroot.”

Sergei : “Big Apple. It’s Big Apple.”

Alexander : “Apple, Schmapple. Whatever.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

In all honesty, this would not be like other trips to the Big Apple. This was a time for me to relax and to chill out at the end of another taxing season. On the plane over, I calculated that this would be my seventeenth trip to the US and my fifteenth time in NYC. There was little that I needed to see. Over the years, I have visited all of the major attractions, most of the main art galleries and museums, all of the sport stadia, all points north, south, east and west.

In a similar vein, Baltimore had been ultra-relaxing. I had landed at 4pm on the Monday and, by 5pm, I was booked in to my hotel a block from the excellent inner harbour and only five blocks from that jewel of a ballpark Camden Yards. By 6pm, I was back at the “Pratt Street Ale House”, which acted as a base for Chelsea fans ahead of our game with Milan in 2009, chatting away to a Baltimore-native and Liverpool fan called Dean. That first evening in Baltimore was magnificent; a lovely time spent high up in the seats beyond third base, chatting to strangers about Baltimore, the Yankees, Chelsea – inevitably – and my love of visiting The States, interspersed with beer and baseball. That I got to see Mariano Rivera successfully close a game in his farewell season was the cherry on the top of the crab cake. The Yankees won 6-4 and I was floating on air. However, after being awake for most of 26 hours, my walk home from “Pickles” – another bar from 2009 – to my hotel is a massive blur. I remember nothing of it.

Tuesday was another relaxing day, which unfortunately ended with a narrow extra-innings loss to the Orioles. On Wednesday, I got my tourist boots on and visited the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, just a few blocks away from Camden Yards, indulged in a Baltimorean crab cake fantasy, went on a speedboat into the Baltimore harbour and visited the World Trade Center, with fantastic views over the city. In the evening, my good friend Steve – who had travelled down from Philly – met me and we went on a little pub crawl before attending the final Yankees vs. Orioles game of the series. We lost 6-3, but still enjoyed our time thoroughly. In my stay in Baltimore, I had casually bumped into two other Chelsea fans; this simply would not have happened in days gone by. Back in the ‘eighties, I hardly bumped into many Chelsea fans in Frome, let alone Baltimore.

Just like 2009, Baltimore had been a blast.

However, I soon learned that my beloved Yankees had signed a deal with Manchester City to assist in the formation of a new MLS franchise, to come into fruition in 2015. This was a shocker and dismayed me. My initial reaction was that Chelsea had missed a trick; surely helping to foster links between a club in the US, with its links to new players, and a club in Europe was an excellent idea. I almost felt that the Yankees had been going behind our back. I felt cheated. It was a strange feeling. I then also remembered that way back in around 1998; the Yankees signed a commercial partnership with Manchester United to develop each clubs’ branding opportunities in both markets. I was irate then, too. I even phoned the manager of the Yankee clubhouse store on Fifth Avenue to tell him what I thought of it. So, the thought of my Yankees hopping into bed with both of the Manchester teams over the past fourteen years certainly annoyed me. Who says the course of true love runs smooth?

Thursday in New York was a relatively relaxing affair. Typically, I was lured in to Manhattan by the prospect of seeing our game in St. Louis against City on a TV screen in “Legends”, which was the scene of much debauchery last summer. First, though, I popped next door for a few pints in “Foley’s.” The bar was festooned with thousands of pieces of sporting memorabilia, from shirts draped from the ceiling, to old seats from Busch Stadium and Tiger Stadium, to signed baseballs, signed boxing gloves to photos and trophies. I settled in at the end of the bar, ordered a pint of “Blue Moon” – despite its City links – and began talking to a couple from Brighton. Mac and Jo were keen Brighton fans, and still lamenting their loss to arch rivals Palace in the play-offs, but soon became engaged in a long conversation with me about football. I think this pee’d off their American friend, who was soon off to see the New York Rangers play the Boston Bruins at nearby Madison Square Garden. This guy, by the way, chose to wear a NY Rangers shirt over his normal work shirt, like some sort of FIFA2013-addicted Uber Sports Nerd. Why do these people do this? As the evening progressed, Mac told me a few funny stories about football. This was the best one –

…Mac and Jo have been together for fifteen years and during the first few weeks of their courtship, all was rosy. They then decided to travel to Gillingham to watch a Brighton away game. The two of them were stood in the away end, when all of a sudden – and to Jo’s horror – Mac began pointing and gesticulating towards a policeman nearby. After a while, the gestures became ruder and ruder and Mac’s language descended to profanity and derogatory name-calling. Jo thought to herself; “oh great…I thought this guy was lovely…looks like he’s just a typical football hooligan…bloody hell.” This continued all game. Each time, the policeman ignored Mac’s taunts. He had good reason. It was Mac’s brother.

Mac introduced me to the bar-owner and the drinking continued. It was a great time. I was at ease with myself. That I could start talking to complete strangers was lovely, though I know only too well that football – not beer – acted as the great lubricant in this chat. For me, it wasn’t always like this.

Here’s another story. I always remember reading about Joe DiMaggio, probably my second-favourite Yankee of all time behind Don Mattingly, and his comments about how he regarded himself. Despite Joltin’ Joe’s fame, he always remained a very shy person. I remember reading about him commenting to a reporter – probably in the famous baseball bar in Manhattan called “Toot Shor’s” – as he looked on as the more gregarious members of the Yankee team of the day greeted friends and strangers alike with hugs, backslaps and laughter –

“I wish I could be like them.”

For many years, these words struck a chord with me.

And this from a man who bedded Marilyn Monroe.

Oh to be at ease in your own skin. Even you, Joe D.

Our 4-3 loss to Manchester City was a crazy end to Thursday. Even more crazy was the fact that there were only two other Chelsea fans in “Legends” watching the game.

Maybe this trip to New York was going to be a let-down after all. After leaving “Legends” I navigated my way back to Brooklyn and hoped for better things.

I awoke on Friday morning and all was well. A coffee and a bagel in a café on Nassau Avenue set me up for another fantastic day in New York; perhaps one of the best ever. I had a plan. Way back in 2008, I had visited Coogan’s Bluff, that high promontory in Manhattan which overlooks the East River and Yankee Stadium. Down below was the former site of the old Polo Grounds, that odd, horseshoe-shaped bath tub of a stadium which once housed the New York Giants, the New York Yankees and even the New York Mets at various stages. It was a sight which thrilled me. I knew only too well of the sporting tales which had taken place on that piece of real estate down by the river…the “shot heard around the world”, the Willie Mays catch, Babe Ruth’s first few seasons in NYC, the rivalries with the Yankees and the Dodgers…well…next in my sights was the old Brooklyn Dodgers’ stomping ground Ebbets Field, deep in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, only some five miles away, but – in my mind – fifty years away…another time, another place.

I hopped on the subway, changed in the heart of Brooklyn and took a second train to Prospect Park. My nerves were tingling. Let me explain. If the Brooklyn Dodgers were still playing ball, I think they would be my team. Just a week before my very first trip to the US in September 1989, I visited that wonderful bookshop “Sportspages” – sadly no more, damn you internet shopping – and bought a book on baseball stadia called “Take Me Out To The Ballpark.” It was to be my first real introduction to a sport that I just knew that I would get to love over the course of my next year in North America. Those black and white photos of Ebbets Field – Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Leo Durocher, Hilda Chester and her bell, the Abe Stark sign, the Dodgers Symphony, the rotunda, the whole nine yards – really struck a chord with me. The Dodgers were the perennial season after season losers, the stadium a rickety treasure, their fans charismatic. At the time, I regarded Chelsea as perennial underachievers. There would have been a “fit” there. There was another dash of synchronicity; the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and Chelsea’s only championship were both in 1955.

Damn you, Walter O’Malley. It could have been a perfect match.

That I chose the Yankees – or they chose me – in the winter of 1989-1990 is of course well known. I loved New York and I loved it that the Yanks were going through a lean spell. I wanted to earn my stripes – or my pinstripes – in support of this fabled team. I didn’t want to be labelled a glory hunter. They were my team. They are my team. I’ve seen the Yankees play some thirty-six times. I have loved reading and writing about the Yankees ever since; visiting The Bronx is always a journey of wonderment for me. Yet, for me to step out of Prospect Park subway station and to walk those same steps that millions of baseball fans took in the glory years of Brooklyn baseball was truly wonderful.

As I approached the intersection of Sullivan Place and McKeever Place, my mind played tricks on me. I easily visualised those famous old photographs of Ebbets Field, the streets busy with cars, hot dog vendors, souvenir stalls, fans of every creed and colour and the famous rotunda behind home plate. In reality, in 2013, I stared at a monumental block of social housing; brown apartments rising twenty stories or more into the Brooklyn sky. I turned and saw a gentleman of around seventy years of age. I felt I had to say something.

“I’m from England. I’m a Yankees fan. But I just love being here.”

“The Dodgers? I saw them play here.”

That was perfect. I slowly walked anti-clockwise around the former site of Ebbets Field…first base, second base, third base and home. It was magical. It stole my heart.

Why do I mention this? Why am I sentimental about a stadium that I never visited and about a team that died in 1958? In 2011, Chelsea Football Club wanted to buy my pitch owner share and initiate a move away from Stamford Bridge forever. In fifty years’ time, I don’t want football fans alighting at Fulham Broadway and making a similar trip to where football was once played.

Later on Friday, I made my way in from Brooklyn to Manhattan once again. I was hoping for a better turn out from the Chelsea Nation than on Thursday ahead of the game in The Bronx on the Saturday. I made my way into Jack Demsey’s bar, again just along from “Foley’s” and “Legends” on West 34th Street. I arrived at about 6.30pm and stayed way into the night. In truth, the night began slowly, with only a few familiar faces making an appearance. Of course, it was great to see Beth, John, Wobbley, Steve from California, Paul from Ontario and Jamie from NYC again. However, I was expecting more faces. Was this a game too far? Compared to previous pre-game parties, this was definitely a quiet start to the night. I got the beers in and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, in a bar a few miles away, the importance of Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium was being discussed.

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Hey, you see they’re playing soccer at Yankee Stadium again tomorrow?”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “What tha fcuk! Again? That grass is gonna be messed up. Who they got playin’?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Two English teams.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Who?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Chelsea.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a girl’s name. Who else?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Man City.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a gay nightclub.”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Forget about it.”

As the night drew on – and on – more faces appeared and I was able to relax in the company of good friends. Brothers David and Scott arrived from their respective home cities, still dressed in their suits, straight from work; a lovely surprise. Nick and Shawn, the two Boston Blues, made a much heralded appearance at around midnight and it was great to see them. Mike and Fun Time Frankie arrived from St. Louis and more beers were quaffed. James, Pablo, Matt, Samantha, Lynda and Jaymee joined the throng and we had a blast. The beers were going down well. It was lovely. In truth, we didn’t talk too much about the team or the players. We just stood around, taking the piss out of each other.

Proper Chelsea.

Before I knew it, the time was 3.30am. Oh boy. It was time to say “goodnight.” A few of us slithered into Fun Time Frankie’s motor and he drove us home.

Unlike my usual commute of 110 miles to see a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, my very last football trip of season 2012-2013 was of just six miles and around forty minutes on a couple of NYC subway trains. On the first of these trains, from Nassau Avenue to Court Street, I spotted two US Bayern Munich fans. It came as a jolt. I had forgotten all about the Champions League Final which was taking place in London in a few hours’ time. Of course, I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them –

“You won’t like me. I was in Munich last year. I’m a Chelsea fan.”

They smiled. I explained that I hoped that Bayern would be successful. Historically, I have never cared too much for them, but the warm welcome given to 40,000 Chelsea last May will not be forgotten. My vote was for Bayern – for Robben, for Schweinsteiger the pigfcuker, for Lahm, for Ribery, for my friend Michaela – though, in truth, I wasn’t bothered.

Eventually I reached “Legend’s” at just before 1pm, a little later than I had hoped. The place was already heaving with bodies. Downstairs, in Jack Keane’s “Football Factory” there was a riot of Chelsea and Adidas royal blue. I had a quick poke around – a “hello” to a few familiar faces – but then came up for air in the top bar, which was full of Bayern, Dortmund and neutrals. Interestingly, there was a precedent to this; in 1996, while in town for a three game Yankees vs. A’s series, I watched my beloved Juventus beat Ajax in Rome in that year’s Champions League Final. On that occasion, I watched in a small bar near Columbus Circle. I think I was the only one watching. How times change.

I spent most of my time with Steve from Philadelphia, who was chatting to Rick, also from Philly. I had met Rick in The Goose a season or so ago. Thankfully, my friend Roma and her youngest daughter Jenny – who I last saw in Los Angeles for the Galaxy game in 2007 – soon arrived. Roma had driven up from her home in Tennessee on the Friday with Jenny, her son Shawn, her mother Mary and their friend Missy, who was in NYC for the first-ever time. Only Roma and Shawn would accompany Steve and I to the game; the other three were left to explore the sights and sounds of Manhattan. I last saw Mary at that Galaxy game in 2007, too. It was smashing to see them all again. Roma, who dotes on Frank Lampard, has been present every Chelsea tour in the US since 2004. This would be her ninth Chelsea game in the US, her tenth lifetime. In July, her other daughter Vanessa, was with Roma and Shawn for the game against PSG.

Shawn seemed to be more interested in spotting Spiderman leaping between skyscrapers as we walked to the subway stop, but I approved of the Chelsea T-shirt – formerly Jenny’s – that he was wearing. We were soon hurtling north, beneath the streets of Harlem, and we soon found ourselves back in The Bronx. I commented to Steve that I hadn’t seen the area around Yankee Stadium so quiet on a match day since my first ever visit back in 1990. Seeing the white, pinstriped Yankee shirts on sale made me double-take. Was this a Chelsea game or a Yankee game? Who cares, get the beers in.

We called in at “Stan’s” for a “Rolling Rock” and it was so good to be back. It is my favourite bar in America, perhaps the world. The owner Lou wasn’t present but a couple of the bartenders, plus the bouncer, recognised me from previous visits. That gave me a real buzz. Bayern scored a goal at Wembley and I was happy with that. We then popped into “The Dugout” where the main Chelsea pre-game party was in full-flow. On the short walk from “Stan’s”, we heard another roar…this was Dortmund’s equaliser. I had never visited “The Dugout” before; it was quite cavernous, and full of Chelsea. There were even a few City fans dotted about. Roma and Shawn departed to take their seats in the stadium, while I chatted to a few other friends who I have made the acquaintance of over the years. It was lovely to see Chopper, Tommy, Steph and Steve from Connecticut again. Steve and I gulped down a last can of Pabst Blue Ribbon – there was no draught beer left – and we hurried to our seats, since there was only ten minutes to go until the game was due to start at 5.30pm.

As we walked through the Great Hall, we stopped to admire the Yankee greats whose photographs adorn every square inch. Although I am no real fan of the new ballpark, the Great Hall is its best feature. In truth though, I’d rather have the claustrophobic tunnels and alleyways of the original House That Ruth Built. The new stadium will grow on me I am sure, but I still think it has a few design faults. There is far too much exposed dull grey steel, the upper deck should be higher, deeper, without a mid-level break, the old stadium was just so dramatic, the new one is tame. The worst feature, though? The words “Yankee Stadium” high on the outfield wall behind the left-field bleachers.

We fcuking know its Yankee Stadium.

Unlike the game in July, our section was in the mid-level mezzanine – section 212. I was happy with the view. I was well aware that the tickets had not been selling well for this game. Despite the tremendous 48,000 sell out in St. Louis, I feared that around 20,000 to 25,000 would attend this one. I knew that a friend had picked up two for $60 out on the street. The gate for the PSG game in July was given as 38,000. I thought that was rather optimistic. On this cold and grey evening in The Bronx – typical English weather – the stadium was sparsely populated. As the teams did their drills out on the pitch, it was clear that there were far more Chelsea than City fans present. The City section away in left field was hardly full; there were even Chelsea shirts in it. I’d suggest that barely 20,000 spectators had bothered to attend the game. The published gate of 39,000 made me chuckle.

The 5.30pm kick-off never materialised. It was nearer 6pm when Fernando Torres led the Chelsea team out onto the Yankee Stadium turf. For many US fans, this would be the first sighting of Torres, plus quite a few others. Despite Chelsea’s team containing Nathan Ake, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Anders Christiansen, the team that Benitez chose did contain quality through its ranks. The Manchester City team, though, looked impressive. This would be our sixth game against them this season; they were our only real nemesis, on a one versus one basis, throughout 2012-2013 and I wondered if we would be able to match them.

As Rafa Benitez walked to the bench in shallow right field, I wondered what was going through his mind. I never really warmed to the bloke since his appointment in November. It was always going to be a tough relationship between him and us. I was present for his first game against City, I was there to usher him out after his last game against City.

In reality, we found this a tough old game. A goal from Gareth Barry, the world’s most boring footballer, on just three minutes gave City the advantage and a second from Samir Nasri on the half-hour gave City a 2-0 lead at the break. In between, we created a few chances, but the finishing was poor. Despite City’s lead, I heard no City songs. Perhaps they weren’t really here after all. Our section was in relatively good voice, with songs being aired at regular intervals. Our section resolutely ignored the “wave” which circled the stadium on a few occasions.

The “Come On Chelsea” chant just sounded odd, to my ears…it sounded flat, with no intent.

At home, it’s “COME ON, Chelsea” with encouragement in the first two syllables.

At Yankee Stadium, it was “Come On Chel-SEA” and sounded monotone and flat.

Just before the break, Paolo Ferreira came on to replace Loftus-Cheek. He received a magnificent reception from the royal blue hordes.

A goal from Ramires soon into the second-half gave us hope, but Milner – the second most boring footballer in the world – struck low past Petr Cech to give them a 3-1 lead. I was pleased that the New York fans were able to see Juan Mata play; he replaced David Luiz on the hour. Another goal from Ramires made it 3-2 and then Nasri scored to make it 4-2. This was now turning into a very cold evening in The Bronx and I felt for Roma, alongside me, wearing sandals. A delightful free-kick from Juan Mata, captured on film, the last of a long season of goal photos, gave us hope at 4-3, only for Dzeko to seal the 5-3 win late on. There was still time for me to let out a rasping “Zigger Zagger” and the fine fellows around me responded magnificently.

At the end, a few moments to reflect upon.

In the row behind me, a US fan was ranting about the poor performance by the team. In truth, he had been moaning all game. I had a go back at him.

“This is the last game in a long season, mate. Give them a break. It means nothing.”

“They’re a disgrace.”

“No, mate – you’re a disgrace.”

Another chap…an expat…never seen him before, was equally scathing about Chelsea’s performance. Tellingly, he chose to refer to Chelsea as “they” all the way through his tirade. Philly Steve was stood alongside me and could tell I was bristling. I had to jump in.

“You mean “WE” not “THEY” don’t you?”

It irritates me still, the use of “they” in talking about Chelsea. Almost as much as the inappropriate use of “Chels.”

“Ah, fcuk him” I thought…I let him rant away…I was too tired for further confrontation. His argument petered out after being met with indifference from myself and Steve.

At the end of the game, old blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, sang “New York New York” and I wiped away the tears of joy. I love this town.

“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.
I want to be a part of it – New York, New York.
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray.
Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York.
I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep.
And find I’m king of the hill – top of the heap.
These little town blues, are melting away.
I’ll make a brand new start of it – in old New York.
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s up to you – New York, New York.”

Back in Stan’s, we had met up with Andy Wray and were enjoying more “Rolling Rocks.” The place was full of happy Chelsea fans; who cares we lost? However, it was sadly time to say goodbye to Roma and Shawn and they made their way back to meet Mary, Jenny and Missy. A couple of Belgian Chelsea fans joined us, and we then ventured down into the adjacent subway.

There were already around fifteen Chelsea fans down on the platform, along with a Manchester City couple, and so – after a team photo – we decided to start singing. The acoustics were magnificent and we were in great voice. For ten minutes or more, we sang and sang and sang. Almost every song in the Chelsea songbook was aired – “One Man Went To Mow” managed to get the locals particularly interested – and the singing continued on the subway train south. Throughout all this, the two City fans were looking on, silent and bemused. I bet they were thinking –

“Wow. That’s impressive.”

Andy Wray suggested we sang “We Won In Munich, Munich” and I foolishly joined in. After a long day of singing, that one is a real rasper. Oh boy. I have to say, after the away section in Chester for the All-Star Game, the trips to Turin, Tokyo and Amsterdam, a chat with Roman, the wins at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and The Emirates, that subway ride was one of the highlights of the season.

Back at “Legends” it was all Chelsea, the Bayern and Dortmund fans having long since disappeared. I chatted to more friends and the beers continued to flow. Steve set off for home at midnight, but the residual few – you know who you are – kept going until 3am. It turned into a crazy night and it turned into a crazy morning.

I didn’t get home until 5.30am.

On the Sunday, I treated myself to a nice meal in a steakhouse in Brooklyn, with Sinatra still singing in the background. Fun Time Frankie picked me up in Greenpoint and took me through Queens and out to Rockaway – a glimpse of the Atlantic, that body of water that bizarrely connects England and America – before dropping me off at JFK. There was talk of The Ramones, of John Gotti, of the Yankees, of the Mets, of football. We stopped for a slice of pizza at a roadside joint in Ozone Park and looked forward to our next meeting. It was the perfect end to a fantastic few days in New York.

Forget about it? Impossible.

And so, season 2012-2103 has finished. Another eventful campaign has passed. It has been – cough – interesting. There are tours in the summer to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and then, crazily, even a return to the US. Not for me. I need a rest.

I’m done.

…signing-off.

Chris, Sunday 2 June 2013.

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Tales From Both Sides Of The River

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 17 April 2013.

I was able to leave work slightly earlier than usual at 3.45pm. Unfortunately, Parky was unable to attend once more. It would be me – just me – alone with my thoughts on the familiar drive to SW6. There was certainly much to dwell upon. Firstly, my mind was full of thoughts of my father. Wednesday 17th. April 2013 was, sadly, the twentieth anniversary of his passing. My father was taken ill while shopping in Frome during the afternoon of Friday 16th. April 1993. He sadly passed away at the Royal United hospital in Bath in the small hours of the following day. In truth, much of my grieving twenty years later had taken place on the Tuesday; virtually all of the tearful memories and the strongest emotions came from the Friday 16th. April 1993.

Dad wasn’t a massive football fan; his sports were swimming, diving and badminton. He once boxed in the RAF during World War Two. However, once I fell in love with Chelsea Football Club, he soon realised how much the club meant to me. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. I often hear stories of friends saying “my dad hated football and never took me to any games.”

Not so my father – and mother.

My Christmas present in 1973 – the best ever – was the news that my parents were going to take me to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea. Oh my; just writing these words some forty years later brings it all back. That realisation that I’d be seeing my heroes in that iconic royal blue kit – in colour, for real, not on our black and white TV – made me so excited. As I have said before, I owe my parents so much.

My father attended many games with me over the years. His last one was against Everton on the first day of 1991. As I drove past Swindon on the M4, I remembered a game from January 1988. My father finished work in Frome and drove home to collect my mother and I to take us all to Swindon for Chelsea’s Simod Cup (aka Full Member’s Cup ) game against Swindon Town at their County Ground stadium. At the time, we were plummeting towards the First Division’s relegation zone while Swindon was a Third Division side. We were caught up in traffic, however, and found it difficult to find a parking place. The plan was for my parents to sit in the main stand while I joined 2,000 Chelsea in the cramped corner terrace. We were so late arriving that I heard the roars from the home crowd celebrating Swindon’s second goal as I was still trying to get in.

“Oh great. This is going to be a great night.”

In the end, we lost 4-0. We were awful, even though our team contained stalwarts such as Kerry Dixon, Steve Clarke, Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Tony Dorigo; good players one and all. I remember chants of “Hollins Must Go, Hollins Must Go, Hello, Hello” all night long. It was a dire night and it was a grim fore-telling of our eventual fate come May.

We were kept inside for ten minutes while the local hoodlums were pushed away from the stadium. I looked around the terraces where we had been stood all evening. Twenty yards away, looking out of place amongst hundreds of young Londoners, were my mother and father. I trotted over to greet them. It seems that they had arrived too late to gain entrance to the main stand; they had not bought tickets beforehand, we hadn’t thought it necessary. In those days, paying on the day was the norm. My parents had informed the club officials that they were Chelsea supporters and so, unbelievably, had been led around the pitch by stewards and put inside the away pen.

I think if I had seen them, I would have thought “oh no, what have they done now?”

Twenty-five years on, the image of my Mum and Dad, dressed in his suit, with a sheepskin coat, still brings a smile to my face.

Later that season, they were in The Shed for the Charlton Athletic game. But that’s another story for another time.

I stopped at Reading services on the drive east. As I returned to my car, I strangely noticed the incessant roar from the traffic hurtling towards London on the eastbound carriageway of the M4 motorway. I was thrilled by it. I smiled. It reinforced my love of travel, of moving, of visiting new and old places, the constant desire to see new cities, new landscapes, new towns, new villages, new people. There is still romance in travel; from seeing the ocean as a four year old boy – the wonder of that vast body of water – to visiting foreign lands in my middle years. I never want it to stop.

During the last hour of my journey, this was enforced further as I attempted to put some plan in place in order to visit Old Amsterdam for our potential participation in the Europa Cup final and New Amsterdam for our friendly at Yankee Stadium. I have already block-booked that fortnight from work; now for the intricate fine tuning…schedules, dates, hotels, flights, just lovely.

My pre-match plans for the evening’s game at Craven Cottage actually stemmed from my visit to Yankee Stadium in July. After the Chelsea game in Philly, I returned to NYC to catch a Yankees vs. Red Sox game before I returned home. In “Stans Sports Bar” that evening – before and after the game – I got chatting to Britt, an American who was over from London, visiting NYC with friends. I was wearing a CFC T-shirt and she soon announced she was a Fulham season-ticket holder. We exchanged email addresses and promised to meet up for a pint during the season. We had arranged to meet that night at The Spotted Horse in Putney at 6.45pm.

On the approach into London, high on the elevated M4, I was again mesmerized by the panorama of London’s skykline which was particularly clear in the early evening sun; Harrow On The Hill to the north, the Wembley Arch, the Post Office Tower, Canary Wharf away in the distance, a quick glimpse of The Shard, the hills around Clapham to the south. Up close were the new high-rises at Brentford, the old art deco buildings, the Lucozade sign, the floodlights of Griffin Park, Earls Court and Olympia.

Travel. I love it.

I soon drove around the Hammersmith roundabout and down the Fulham Palace Road. No need to turn off along Lillee road this time; I was heading south to Putney, not east to Stamford Bridge. As I drove on, I caught glimpses of the floodlight pylons at Fulham’s classic stadium to my right. At the Golden Lion pub I saw a sign which stated that access was for FFC season ticket-holders or membership card holders only. I was stuck on Putney Bridge for a while as neon-clad cyclists, cars and London buses jostled for position.

Just after 6pm, I was parked up.

Walking past a few pubs by the River Thames – The Half Moon, The Duke’s Head – I soon realised what a lovely pre-match this would be. There is nothing quite like a game of football at Fulham. I looked up and saw a modern red bus crossing Putney Bridge. It wasn’t the old classic shape of a Routemaster, but it was still an iconic sight.

I needed sustenance and so looked for options. Unlike my expensive meal in Turin in November, there was no gastronomic treat for me this time. I ended up with a typical football meal of chicken and chips. Bloody hell, even KFC even sounds like a football club.

I reached The Spotted Horse at 6.30pm. Britt soon appeared and it was lovely to see her again. She was with her bloke Chris – an armchair Liverpool fan – and we had a quick catch up. As I quaffed a pint of Peroni, we chatted about all sorts. In addition to being a Fulham season ticket holder, she also follows Saracens rugby union. She is originally from DC and we spoke about that area’s sports teams. In fact, it was a similar conversation that I have had with various US guests to Stamford Bridge over the years. It felt almost liberating to be chatting to a fan of a rival team though. I had promised myself not to have too many digs at Fulham during the evening; I almost succeeded. In truth, Britt summed things up when she said –

“You don’t care about us, though, do you?”

Broadly she was correct, though I have a little soft spot for Fulham, which I am sure winds most Fulham fans up further. It’s true though. Long may the SW6 derby continue in the top flight.

Before we left The Spotted Horse, I briefly mentioned my father and we toasted him.

“Cheers Dad.”

There was talk of Peter Osgood, my first game, a Chelsea vs. Fulham game from 1982, a game from 2002, the banter was flying, it was super.

We then moved onto an even better pub – The Coat & Badge – and I had another pint while talking to more US Fulham fans. I had to stop and think –

“Shouldn’t I be talking to Chelsea fans? What will my mates think?”

To be honest, I was revelling in the change of scene, seeing new people, new places. I spoke to a Fulham fan from Philly and he was baffled by our club’s decision to sack Roberto di Matteo. To be truthful, I was stuck for words. I couldn’t – still – validate Roman’s decision. I also chatted to a girl – another American – about her experiences watching Fulham and living in London. Her accent suggested she was from The South, but I recognised a few cadences which lead me to believe she was from North Carolina or Georgia. To be honest, her accent was very similar in places to that of Mary-Anne from Knoxville Tennessee. I decided that I had to quell my inquisitiveness and so I asked her if she was from North Carolina or Georgia.

“Yes! North Carolina, Tennessee.”

“Ah, I thought so…you sound like a friend from Knoxville.”

“Knoxville is my home!”

“Damn…I should have gone with my hunch and said Knoxville…would have freaked you out, right!”

At 7.30pm, it was time to depart. We had a fantastic walk across Putney Bridge, with Britt leading the way, nothing getting in her way. It was quite an aerobic workout. I again commented that there is something quite therapeutic and hypnotic about walking towards a football stadium with thousands more.

It was a lovely spring evening as we strode through Bishop’s Park. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race starts on the river at Putney Bridge of course. It’s a lovely part of the world.

I wished Britt and Chris well – “may the best team win and all that bollocks” – and then turned towards the red brick of the away turnstiles where more familiar faces were everywhere I looked.

I soon bumped into two lads from Melksham, near where I work; “no Parky, mate?”

I looked down at my phone…what was the time?

1955.

A good year.

Up into the seats and I was soon alongside Alan and Gary and Kev from Bristol.

We were lower down than usual. Not far from the pitch. Excellent.

Before I had time to blink, the teams were on the pitch, walking across from the cottage to my right. Chelsea were in all blue. Although I love the design of our kit this year, I still think the blue is not dark enough, not vivid enough, too light, too muted. There was to be no show of hostility that we saw at Griffin Park as Benitez strode across the pitch. I quickly ran through the team. John Terry back, Ivanovic at right-back, Lamps back, Moses in, Torres in. I looked at the Fulham team to see if Duffer was playing, but didn’t spot him.

Let’s go to work.

This was a game that we simply had to win to stay in the hunt for a top four place in the league. We all knew that. But it wouldn’t be easy. The last two visits to Craven Cottage were draws.

Gary mentioned that he had seen some American Fulham fans on the tube on his journey from work. I can see the attraction, what with the pleasant setting of Craven Cottage, plus the former US players such as McBride, Bocanegra, Dempsey, Keller and Johnson who have represented Fulham recently. I wonder if those Fulham fans were aware of Fulham’s first batch of American players in the ‘thirties; the often forgotten trio of Lou Schattendorrf, Farmer Boy O’Malley and Chuck Rosencrantz III.

Fulham began strongly, much to our chagrin, and we heaved a massive sigh of relief as Ruiz volleyed over from close in. We weren’t playing well and a Karagounis effort bounced against the top of the bar. There were murmurs of disquiet in the away end. I looked around the trim stadium. I noted small pockets of empty seats, but it was near capacity. The Chelsea choir decided to start mocking our neighbours with a few choice ditties –

“We don’t hate you – ‘cus you’re 5hit.”

“Michael Jackson – he’s one of your own.”

“Nonce for a statue. You’ve got a nonce for a statue.”

I felt that Dimitar Berbatov was their main threat, yet we seemed to be offering him too much space. He was often unmarked. A few half-chances came and went, but it clearly wasn’t a great start by Chelsea.

The Chelsea fans were in good voice, though, with a variety of songs being aired. I could hear some sort of noise emanating from the Hammersmith End – where Britt and Chris were watching – but I couldn’t decipher it. I never heard once their usual “We are Fulham, fcuk Chelsea” song once.

On the half-hour, with frustrations rising, the ball was played square to David Luiz, some thirty-five yards out. Many fans behind me simultaneously yelled “shoooooot!” and I am sure this was mirrored in bars all over the world. Luiz touched the ball once, it sat up for him, and he unleashed a curling, dipping, thunderbolt which crashed into Mark Schwarzer’s goal.

Oh boy.

What a cracker. Schwarzer was beaten before he could move.

The Chelsea end roared.

In truth, the goal had come against the run of play. Until then, we had looked disjointed.

Just after, Emanuelsen had the ball under his spell, looked up and painstakingly aimed a shot at the far post. I was right behind the path of the ball and expected a goal. From the middle of the six yard box, Petr Cech stretched low and touched the ball out for a corner. It was a phenomenal save. Just after, a lovely flowing move out from defence found Torres in space and in the inside-right channel. His shot was crashed over and we sighed.

A shot from Berbatov went wide, a Lampard free-kick went close. Just before the break, the previously quiet Juan Mata floated a cross towards the far post and John Terry, making a great blind run, was able to rise and head home. How he celebrated that one.

With us 2-0 up, we were able to breath a massive sigh of relief. A Ruiz penalty claim was waved away by Mike Dean. We had ridden our luck, but the two goal cushion meant there were smiles at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, with the pressure seemingly off, we were able to relax and sing. The Putney End, which seems to have excellent acoustics, was rocking to a fantastic foot stomping and hand clapping rendition of a song from Munich.

“We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe.”

The place was rocking. What noise.

To be honest, despite the awful anniversary, this was turning into a just magnificent evening down by the banks of the Thames. The jokes were coming thick and fast between Alan, Gary and myself, the boys were winning 2-0 and the Chelsea fans all around me were turning in the best vocal performance of the season.

The majority of Chelsea’s play seemed to be coming down our right flank, with Torres putting in a great night’s performance, full of energy and application. I was able to capture a lot of Hazard’s dribbles on film. The team were creating more chances and the fans were responding. A great Torres cross almost resulted in a goal, but Mata was unable to connect.

A Moses curler forced a fine save from Schwarzer. From the corner, Torres flicked on Mata’s delivery and John Terry made sure, heading it in from beneath the bar. The Chelsea fans in the Putney End believed that Nando had scored and so soon serenaded him. John Terry smiled at us and pointed towards Torres, while Torres dismissively waved away the adulation. Texts soon confirmed that it was JT’s goal.

Whatever.

Fulham 0 Chelsea 3.

Time for more song.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam I pray.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
We are coming in the month of May.”

Towards the end of the game, the Chelsea fans began looking ahead towards Sunday and our game at Anfield by warming up with a smattering of Liverpool songs. This was almost Mourinho-esque…with games won, he would often change the focus, ask players to conserve energy and start to think about the next challenge. Alas there is no Anfield for me on Sunday but I am not disappointed. With all of the noise about Benitez which will undoubtedly dominate the day, I am happy missing it.

There was a cooling wind coming off the Thames as I hurriedly walked back through Bishop’s Park. The lights alongside the river created flickering reflections on the water. It was a lovely scene. The Chelsea fans were still in good voice. The Fulham fans, who must have been taking part in an odd oath of silence since half-time, were unable to be heard.

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Tales From An American Away Day

MLS All-Stars vs. Chelsea : 25 July 2012.

It was game day in Philadelphia.

The Chelsea faithful had traveled down by buses, trains and automobiles from New York and were awaiting the third game of the US 2012 Tour. After the rather average performance by the team against Paris St. Germain, we were all hoping for a better showing against the MLS team in the All-Star game in nearby Chester, a small town to the south, which plays host to the Philadelphia Union team. All of us were adamant that the patchy support at Yankee Stadium would be trumped by some loud and loyal singing from the cramped corner segment of PPL Park, too. In this scenario, less would definitely be more. There would be more passionate fans in a tighter area. It just had to be a winner. It was a theme that resounded throughout meetings with fellow fans in Philly.

However, NYC was still on my mind; my troubled mind. Personally, I was still trying to get to grips with what I had witnessed in NYC. I had seen Chelsea play in Yankee Stadium and yet I was somewhat unsure of the whole experience. To be truthful – and I always knew this – I was still missing old Yankee Stadium. Sure, the record books will show that Chelsea played at the shining new edifice in the South Bronx, but deep down I was struggling to rationalise the reasons why I felt it was so odd to be a spectator in the new place.

I guess the facts speak for themselves. Between May 1990 and June 2008, I had seen 23 Yankee games in old Yankee stadium. Those memories will never be erased. The Mattingly home run in my first-ever game, a couple of magnificent wins against Boston, the first ever Yankees vs. Mets series in 1997, a David Cone master class, a Jorge Posada grand slam…Paul O’Neil, Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez…Derek Jeter…Mariano Rivera.

I am so grateful that I chose the Yankees as my team because I truly felt at home in the tight passageways beneath the towering upper deck of that historic ballpark on River Avenue. The place will always be with me. I guess it was typical New York; grimy, claustrophic, rowdy, monumental.

The new stadium just doesn’t thrill me in the same way.

So, there was all that floating around inside my addled head. For a day or so, I was also rueing the fact that I never really had the chance to say a proper farewell to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn. The plan was for them to meet us down at Legends after the game, but they got caught behind some horrendous traffic and so decided to head up to Roma’s brother’s house in Massachusetts instead as time was moving on. There would be no hugs for them all. It left me a little sad.

However, after the adrenalin-filled action of NYC, Philadelphia was proving to be much more relaxing. The four of us were certainly enjoying our fantastic apartment right on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. From our balcony, we could see the Rocky Steps to our left and the City Hall to our right. The apartment was so big that we had to text each other to communicate. The bedroom had a different zip code to the kitchen. The rooftop pool was a fantastic extra. Philadelphia was superb.

This was my fifth visit to the City of Brotherly Love and I joked that it was “typical Chelsea” that I keep getting pulled back to the same cities in the US as the team does during European competitions; how many times have we visited Porto, Valencia, Rome and Marseille?

Although I would class NYC as my favourite US city, Philly is rapidly becoming a bit of an obsession. I mentioned to a few Chelsea fans that my great great grandparents lived in the city in the middle of the nineteenth century – after getting shipwrecked off the coast of Newfoundland – before returning back to England. My great grandmother was born in England, but at least one of her siblings was born in America. My personal knowledge of this slice of my past is rather sketchy, but my mother always wanted to visit Philadelphia on the back of this story. So, in 2010, my mother and I spent a very memorable week in the city. It is a week I will never forget. On several occasions, I trembled when I realised that Benjamin and Barbara White may have walked the same steps in the 1850’s.

In 2012, Philly was treating me well.

On the Monday, Captain Jack had taken a half-day off work to show a few of us around his adopted city; it was a marvellous walk through a few blocks of the historic centre, ending up with a cheese steak at the legendary “Jim’s” on South Street. This was followed by an equally wonderful visit to see the Phillies defeat Milwaukee 7-6. The others were feeling tired and headed home when the home team were 6-3 down, but I stayed the course and was rewarded with four runs in the bottom of the ninth. This was my fourth Philly game in the city and although the Yanks are my team, I did let my mind wander a little and wonder if I should really have chosen the red of Philly over the navy of the Bronx in lieu of my own personal history.

Nah, what am I thinking?

Everyone knows that Randolph Axon once lived in a little tenement off Grand Concourse in the Bronx in the first few years of the last century.

“I hadda come back to England see. Da police were on my tail and I hadda run.”

Good old uncle Randolph.

On the Tuesday – a really lazy day – we were lucky enough to meet some of the players as they boarded the coach for a practice session outside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, overlooking the City Hall.

We were memorably tipped-off about the players’ hotel on the Monday when we were returning to our hotel. A cab slowed down and none other than Andy Wray shouted over to us. His first words were not about Chelsea, though. Typical Andy; he pointed to a nearby restaurant and shouted –

“That place does great food.”

Welcome to Philly!

Our good fortune in meeting the players reminded me so much of my time in Chicago in 2006. I still rate this as my favourite CFC trip to the US, despite our 1-0 defeat and despite it being the only game of the trip. It was, quite simply, a perfect few days in the Windy City. On the very first night, myself, Roma – plus her daughters Vanessa and Jenny – and my mate Chris met virtually all the Chelsea players outside the team hotel, no more than 300 yards from our hotel just off Magnificent Mile.

On this trip, however, I became more integrated with the fans from America. During my two previous trips – 2004 in Pittsburgh, in 2005 in DC and NYC – we mainly kept to ourselves.

In 2006, though, the floodgates opened and I was lucky enough to meet many US-based fans. Since then, my Chelsea life has taken a wonderful – unplanned – route all of its own.

I’m just so grateful.

After spending a few hours in “Tir Na Nog” on the Tuesday evening – nice and easy, meeting a few new Chelsea fans – we retired to the pub which was part of the same building as our apartment. We were relaxing outside on the pavement, having a bite to eat, supping some ales, when a taxi cab pulled up outside the bar. A chap exited the cab with a couple of friends and I immediately remembered him from a post-baseball game pint the previous night. I had remarked that he was a doppelganger for Carlo Ancelotti. On this occasion, we couldn’t let the moment pass.

As he approached the bar, I started chanting

“Carlo! Carlo! Carlo!”

This elicited further song from The Bobster, Lottinho, Speedy, Jeremy “Army Of One” Willard from Kansas, plus Shawn and Nick from the Boston Blues –

“Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.

2, 3, 4

Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.

2, 3, 4

Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.”

We were roaring with laughter and “Carlo” approached us with an increasingly bemused look on his face. I explained to him about his uncanny resemblance to Carlo and guess what? He was a Scouser.

To be fair to him, he took it all in great spirits and even posed for photographs with us. He said he had been mistaken for Jay Leno the previous night.

As one, all of our left eyebrows arched in disbelief.

By the way, the look on the faces of the other customers at the tables was priceless.

I felt like saying – “yeah, we serenade random strangers all the time back in England.”

We were still laughing about this incident when we arose from our slumber on the Wednesday. We had no real plans for the day, but I soon received a text from Steve Mantle about walking over to the Rocky Steps with the four official Chelsea banners in order for photographs to be taken.

Now, that sounded like a magnificent idea.

Despite the sun bearing down on us, we assembled at Tir Na Nog and set off.

I had previously run up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008 – it is surely the most important thing that anyone must do in Philadelphia – and so I knew what to expect. The steps were perfect for a photograph. I stood at the base and conducted the proceedings. We elicited the assistance of a few willing tourists and I shouted instructions from below.

With everyone in place, I snapped away like a fool, knowing full well that Chelsea would be using some of the photographs in an upcoming magazine or programme. We created a bit of a scene to be honest and I guess it is the nearest I’ll ever get to being part of a flash mob.

We engaged in conversations with a few fellow fans and met a young lad wearing a Frank Lampard shirt who would be taking part in the on-game ceremonies later that day at the game.

In truth, the twenty minutes we spent under the baking sun at the Rocky Steps were one of the highlights of the whole trip.

And, no – I didn’t run to the top of the flights of steps and yell

“Yo Adrian Mutu.”

I changed into my 1989 Chelsea shirt and met up with the Chelsea faithful in Tir Na Nog at just after 5pm. Amongst the mass of blue, I was very pleased to be able to meet Captain Jack’s family; his wife Teri and their three lovely daughters called in to say “hi” and I was able to start the slow but thorough dialogue with Teri which will eventually lead to Captain Jack being allowed across the ocean to see Chelsea play at The Bridge.

In fact, there is a humorous sub story here. Teri once lived in South Kensington for a short amount of time – way back when Chelsea were mere mortals – and has actually stepped foot inside Stamford Bridge.

Come on Teri – let Steve at least even the score.

I then did a very silly thing.

I did a “Zigger Zagger” and scared the three girls to death.

I had a very quick word with Frank Sinclair and I thanked him for his kind comments about my performance on the five-a-side pitch in New York. He seemed to be enjoying himself on the tour. I can pay him no bigger a compliment than this; when we used to call in on Ron Harris in the ‘nineties, Frank was always a player who Ron rated. Frank was maybe not the most skilful, but a player who always tried his hardest. A player of guts and determination.

Good one, Frank.

As I wandered around the pub, bumping into a few old friends – and a few new ones – I noticed some Chelsea fans not joining in with the songs. I secretly tut-tutted to myself and hoped for solidarity later on that evening. It would be no time for shyness or indifference.

At 6pm, we were told to board the fleet of four yellow school buses which had assembled in the little side street outside the pub.

Another surreal experience, another typically American moment, another memory for me to take away with me.

Yellow school buses.

How quintessentially American. How hugely untypically Chelsea.

School buses.

The sight of us piling into the yellow vehicles still brings a smile to my face.

We were allowed to drink beer on the 45 minute journey to PPL Park. As the four buses roared along I-95, and then got caught in commuter traffic, and then raced each other, with fans gesticulating wildly at each other, with the skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia in the background, it was a wonderful moment.

Why can’t all Chelsea away games be like this, full of excited fans, smiling faces, with none of the surliness shown by sections of our usual support?

The beer was going down well and the songs were roaring. We had two Seattle Sounders fans on our bus and they led the way; others followed. Speedy was in good form and I followed with a few old favourites. There is nothing like a beer to keep your throat well-oiled. I chatted to a few new faces and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

In fact, I didn’t really want the journey to end.

We were eventually dropped off way past the stadium. Beth was far from pleased and I could understand her displeasure. Out in the bright evening sun, I soon chanced upon a few familiar faces that were having a little all-American tailgate. Beers were handed out and we even had a little kick-about. Tim from Philly, Mike from New York, Matthew from New York wearing a vintage NASL Memphis Rogues T-shirt.

At the baseball game on the Monday, I had chosen to wear a Philadelphia Fury shirt in honour of the great Peter Osgood who played for them during the summer of 1978.

The time was moving on. Away in the distance, the stadium looked a picture. Beyond, the Commodore Barry Bridge – again, so typically American – was proving to be just as magnificent.

By this time, my head was buzzing, but I knew I had to get inside the stadium in order to get a share of some the pre-match atmosphere. I was also concerned about getting a fair share of photographs.

I began the long walk to PPL Park, with the sun just starting to set to the west. By now, I had lost contact with everyone and was – ahem – walking alone. At the pub, I had met a Chelsea fan who was wearing a bona fide shirt from 1991 – Commodore – and I met another one just outside the stadium.

I had a little banter with a few Union fans; friendly, in the main.

I did wonder, though, why so many fans were wearing scarves.

In July.

It seems that the US “soccer” fan base has clearly decided that a scarf is the de facto mark of football subculture, whereas – in reality – very few regulars wear scarves at Chelsea.

Discuss.

I bumped into Kev outside. Kev sits no more than eight seats away from me at Chelsea and we have been keeping each other updated with stories and rumours of this 2012 tour for what seems like an eternity.

Now, we were both there in the flesh.

Brilliant.

I was amongst friends in the Chelsea section at PPL Park. We were positioned at the top of the terrace. A few yards to my right were Funchficker and Mrs. Funchficker, Lottinho, The Bobster, Captain Jack and Speedy. Alongside me was Rey, from Los Angeles, and I was so pleased to see him again. Behind – a real surprise – was Mike Dutter and I haven’t seen him for ages. Phil was there with the Iowa Blues. Beyond – the OC Hoolifans, Mike Price at only his second ever Chelsea game, the Boston Boys…everyone together, everyone well-oiled and up for it. In front, Mark Coden – like me, an ever present on all of these recent Chelsea tours to the US.

The game against the MLS All-Stars would be my eleventh such game.

I had taken several photographs of the bridge on my approach to the 19,000 capacity stadium but was rather annoyed that its iconic steelwork was out of sight, just beyond the stand to my left. I had admired the way that the roof of this stand seemed to extend out to the bridge.

Above, the sky was slowly turning a deep blue. The moon was strikingly clear above the stand to my right.

The Chelsea fans around me were standing.

And we were clearly in good voice.

The stage was set.

The spectators were urged to take part in a two-part “stunt” but I had neither the time nor the energy for it. I believe the words “Chelsea” were visible on cards held aloft by the fans in the stand to my right, but the moment was lost to be honest.

Secondly, the colours of the American flag were visible.

The entrance of the teams.

Fireworks.

My head was still buzzing and I still needed to concentrate on getting some photographs.

Click, click,click.

The game against the MLS All-Stars in Chester, Pennsylvania will be remembered by those Chelsea fans present not for the performance of the players, nor the result, but for the constant singing, chanting and commotion created by the 1,200 fans present.

We stood the entire game and we sung the entire game.

Steve-O set the tone early on with a trademark “Zigger Zagger” and the chanting continued throughout the match. This was just what we had hoped; that the closeness of everyone would produce a subsection of PPL Park akin to an away terrace at Blackburn, Everton, West Ham or Tottenham.

I noted one chant which was new to me –

“You Play Soccer. We Play Football.”

I liked that. A little jab at the MLS hierarchy. Keep ‘em on their toes.

All the Chelsea classics were aired; too numerous to mention. I’m sure everyone has their own particular favourites.

Over to you.

Halfway through the first-half, I absolutely loved the roll-call which was started by the usual suspects to my right.

For Mary-Anne and Paul –

“Tennessee, Tennessee, Tennessee.”

For the Funchfickers –

“Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.”

For Lottinho, Dennis and Detroit Bob –

“Michigan, Michigan, Michigan.”

And for little old me –

“Somerset, Somerset, Somerset.”

Lottinho then pointed at Dennis –

“Puerto Rico.”

Out on the pitch, I will admit to being thrilled to see David Beckham play one last time, way out on the right in a rather withdrawn position. I have a lovely shot of him joking with John Terry.

The MLS team went a goal up through a Wondolowski effort from close in, only for John Terry to rise high and head home from a corner.

At the break, I rushed down to buy a beer, a hot dog and a match programme. The beer did its job because soon into the second half, I let rip with another “Zigger Zagger.” I was elated to hear the thunderous response to each guttural yelp. However, I knew I was reaching the end of my capabilities when I reached the closing moments.

“Ziiiiiiiiiger” (Oh God – I have to do a big ending here.)

“OI.”

“Zaaaaaaaaager” (Oh God – I’m barely going to be able to make this.)

“OI”

(Here we fcuking go – in for a penny, in for a pound.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER, ZIGGER ZAGGER” (…only just!)

“OI OI OI.”

A nice tap in from Frank Lampard gave us a 2-1 lead, but – much to our annoyance and disbelief – the MLS team not only equalised through Pontius but scored the winner in the “nth” minute of extra time with a ridiculous looped shot from Eddie Johnson which ricocheted off David Luiz’ leg and into an empty goal with Ross Turnbull beaten.

We were not deflated, though. We kept singing till the end.

It was a proud night in Pennsylvania.

If the long walk back to the bus wasn’t tiresome enough, we were then kept waiting for all buses to depart. Canners was on my bus back and I leaned towards him and said –

“Fcuking hell Paul. I saw your Stamford Bridge debut thirty years ago and now, here we are, on a school bus in Philadelphia.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous.

It was a quiet bus ride back to Philly.

Throughout the evening, Roma’s daughter Vanessa had texted me a few times to see what time we would be getting back into town. It seemed that they were halting their long drive back to North Carolina especially to call in to see me in Philadelphia. I gave them instructions of how to reach Tir Na Nog, but I wasn’t sure if they could delay their drive home for long.

I quickly darted back to the apartment to drop off a few things and made my way to the pub.

I was in mid-text to Vanessa when I looked up to see the three of them walking towards me.

Ah, that cheered me up no end.

With typical disregard for authority, Vanessa had simply parked her car right on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, right underneath a sign which plainly said “no parking.”

Now that, my friends, is Proper Chelsea.

They, of course, were horrified to hear that Chelsea had lost.

“Yep, we always lose to the MLS All-Stars. I don’t think we’d better play them again.”

We returned to Tir Na Nog and met up with the usual suspects once more. The mood among my Chelsea mates was defiant. We all agreed that the singing and the atmosphere amongst the “away” fans had been magnificent. I was certainly full of praise, if not full of voice.

I was croaking again.

The time was moving one. It was past 1am. I knew that the night wouldn’t last forever. With real sadness, I said my goodbyes to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn. This was the first time that I had met Shawn and I wanted to have a little moment with him. I crouched down and babbled out something like –

“Shawn – it has been so good to see you. It was great to see you in New York. And it has been even better to see you tonight. You’re a lucky boy. You have a great mother and a great sister. And you’ve seen Chelsea play! Now, until I see you again, I want you to know that we all love you.”

To which he smiled and said –

“I just farted.”

My words had obviously impressed him.

I waved them off as Vanessa drove away into the night.

Back in the apartment, Lottinho, Speedy and I spent a few philosophical moments as we looked out into the city from our balcony. It had been a simply superb time and we had enjoyed ourselves immensely in Philadelphia.

Until we do it again.

“Phriendship And Phootball.”

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Tales From The South Bronx

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 22 July 2012.

It was all so different in 1989.

My first trip to North America, almost a year in duration, was in 1989. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime away. In other ways – because many of the memories still remain vibrant and strong – it seems like last week. In September 1989, my college mate Ian (with delicious irony, a Rotherham United fan…and yes, he went to our 6-0 defeat in 1981) and I touched down at JFK. Our flight had been delayed due to an almost calamitous malfunction just before take-off at Gatwick. A tyre had burst as the jumbo hurtled down the runway and had flew up into the engine causing severe damage to the engine and our hearts alike. Thankfully, there was enough room left on the runway for the pilot to slow down. Several passengers were visibly shaken, but Ian – on his first ever trip on a plane – remained remarkably calm. We were delayed for eight hours as an alternative plane was located and this resulted in us not getting to New York until around 10pm. Our plans to travel in to Manhattan by bus were jettisoned and our first real sighting of North America was through the dirty windows of a yellow New York cab as it took us on a rather circuitous route through Queens, with the glistening lights of the Manhattan skyscrapers beckoning us closer and closer to the heart of the city. Once over the Brooklyn Bridge, the slow ascent up one of the north-south avenues of Manhattan is a memory that remains strong to this day. The cab driver seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in telling us that a local had been killed just opposite our hostel near Times Square the night before. I can vividly remember trying to fall asleep on the upper bunk in a youth hostel dorm as police sirens wailed outside. My head was spinning. I was scared and exhilarated in equal measure.

Welcome to America.

I remained in North America until June 1990 and my travels took me to many states. We cycled down the east coast, from Virginia to Florida, and I particularly enjoyed the cities of New York, St. Augustine, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. I snorkelled off the Florida Keys, saw basketball in Denver, baseball in New York and Toronto, ice hockey in Vancouver. In many ways, it was the time of my life.

But throughout that entire ten month period, I only ever bumped into one other Chelsea fan. Before heading down to Florida for one final month, I stopped off in New York for my first ever New York Yankees baseball game. On the day after that momentous match in the South Bronx, I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and chanced upon an ex-pat wearing a particularly hideous umbro Chelsea training shirt.

Ten months, many cities, many states, many people, but only one other Chelsea fan.

Twenty-two years later, things have changed a million fold.

In 1989, I arrived in America with Chelsea as second division champions.

In 2012, I arrived in America with Chelsea as European champions.

Let’s recap on 2011-2012. Of course, it began on an overcast summer day at a downbeat Fratton Park as the previously trophy-less season under Carlo Ancelotti was laid to rest. The very next day, I flew off to Kuala Lumpur for the first game of the Asia tour. Little did I know, but the season would prove to be the most unbelievable and tumultuous season of my life. Mid-way through it, at the nadir of Andre Villas-Boas’ reign, I had visions of our worst finish for twenty years. The team was in a desolate state of health. The spirit – at Goodison Park especially – was horrendous. Even I was at a low ebb. I began to wonder if my support would be tested during the last painful months of the campaign. That the season would finish with tears of happiness in Munich would have been seen as a simply ridiculous and unattainable vision, conjured by some foolish fantasist.

But the resurgence of Chelsea under Roberto di Matteo on the European trail was just one of a plethora of equally marvellous moments.

Back in October, the SayNoCPO campaign defeated the heavy handed desire by a patronising board of directors to loosen the CPO’s hold on Stamford Bridge. Never have I felt prouder to be a Chelsea fan as we exited that EGM, the club defeated, the fans high on euphoria.

We thumped our old enemies Tottenham 5-1 in the F.A. Cup semi-final and went on to defeat our new enemies Liverpool in the final. It was our fourth such triumph in just six seasons. The youngsters again won the F.A. Youth Cup. Arsenal went trophy less of course. Tottenham too. Manchester United – never my most liked of teams – lost the league title in the most ridiculous and heartbreaking of circumstances in the last few minutes of a long season to arch rivals Manchester City. A trophy for Liverpool unfortunately, but there was a certain element of glee in the way that they celebrated their Carling Cup victory against Cardiff City…on penalties…as if they had won the league. My local team Frome Town enjoyed a strong first season at the highest ever level in their history. A new stand had been built in time for the March 31st deadline and more than a few Chelsea friends in America had donated funds to help. Further afield, my favourite European club team Juventus had christened their first season in their new trim stadium with a championship involving not one single defeat.

With victories against Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern, Chelsea had become European Champions for the very first time and – in doing so – had relegated Tottenham to a season in the shadows on Thursday nights.

Munich was the best weekend of my life, the best night of my life.

Yes – 2011/2012 was some season.

Our greatest ever season.

In some ways, there was certain reluctance on my part to even contemplate thinking about the next one. My focus, if anything, was for the World Club Championship, way ahead in December. And Munich was but a heartbeat away. This is a familiar comment from me, but I don’t think I was ready for 2012-2013 to start. Yet again, my main focus as I crossed the Atlantic once more was to meet up again with old friends. The football, most certainly, was of secondary importance.

I flew into Boston on the night of Saturday 14 July. For six days, I relaxed at my own pace, basing myself in the historic town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I drove up the Maine coast a few times and also inland to Vermont. I’ve had a pretty hectic period at work and I certainly enjoyed the tranquil change of pace.

I caught a train from Boston to Penn Station on Friday 20 July. After almost a week of – in the main – my own company, I was ready for the madness of New York. The tribes were gathering and, despite a torrential downpour on my arrival in Gotham, my fervour could not be dampened.

I was ready for all that New York City – after Stamford Bridge, maybe my third home – could throw at me.

Here are some highlights.

8pm, Friday 20 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

Down in the cellar of The Football Factory at Legends, a dark but atmospheric epi-centre of football fandom underneath the considerable shadow of the Empire State Building, the first troops were greeting each other with backslaps and handshakes. I spotted Paul Canoville, wearing a brightly coloured shirt and a trademark baseball cap, who I had met on a couple of occasions before. At the South Station in Boston earlier that day, I had bought a copy of the New York Post. An article had made me giggle and I knew that it would amuse Canners too. The former NBA player Dennis Rodman, while on a tour of The Philippines with an exhibition team, had met his father – the wonderfully named Philander Rodman – for the first time since he was a very young child. There was a photo of them greeting each other. Rodman Senior had been living in Manila for many a year, but I was staggered to read that he had fathered 26 children with 19 different women.

Here was a story to share with Canners, who himself had fathered a similarly large brood, with a variety of women. Canners smiled as I shared the story with him and he enjoyed hearing it, no doubt, but there was another tale, which I did not dare to mention, underneath this one.

Canners was separated from his father too, but memorably met up with his dad for the first time since his childhood on the night at Hillsborough in Sheffield when he tore Sheffield Wednesday to shreds in his greatest ever game for Chelsea. We were 3-0 down at half-time, came back to lead 4-3, only for an infamous Doug Rougvie foul to gift Wednesday a late penalty. I didn’t dare ask him if that emotional meeting had inspired him to greatness on that night in 1985. Some questions are best left unasked.

I had seen his first ever game at Stamford Bridge against Luton Town in May 1982. Thirty years ago. That game – our last game in a mediocre season at the second level – does seem like yesterday. Strange how some games drift off into oblivion, but the memory of Paul Canoville, the local boy from Hillingdon, coming off the bench to be met with a mixed reaction from The Shed is a strong one.

It was great to see him in America.

1pm, Saturday 21 July – Chelsea Piers.

As the fans tournament, involving four teams of Chelsea fans from throughout the US, was coming to an end, I was as nervous as I have been for years. I had been chosen to captain the Chelsea team to play in the Friendship Cup game against Paris St. Germain. When I had heard this news a few weeks back, I was very humbled, certainly very proud, but the over-riding feeling was of fear. I hadn’t played for two months and I was genuinely concerned that I may pull a muscle, or jar my once troublesome right knee, or give away a penalty, or run out of gas after five minutes or just look out of my depth. This is typical of my times in various school football teams over thirty years ago when I would tend to be shackled by fear and a lack of confidence in my ability on the pitch.

Once the game began, my fears subsided and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We lead 3-1 at the break, but soon allowed PSG to scramble some goals. At 4-4, I managed to squeeze in a goal and my heart exploded. Could we hang on? In the end, PSG went 8-6 up and there was no Canoville-like inspired recovery at the end. Canners, plus Frank Sinclair, were the refs and what a pleasure it was to be on the same football pitch as them both.

Upstairs in the gallery, no doubt making a few humorous comments, was Ron Harris. When I saw my very first game at Chelsea in 1974, Ron was playing. Now, 38 years later, he was watching me play.

Now that, everyone, is just beautiful.

9pm, Saturday 21 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

As a lot of people know, Ron Harris used to live in the town of Warminster, no more than eight miles from Frome, my home on the Somerset / Wiltshire border. It was with growing pleasure – and disbelief – that a few mates and myself got to know Ron rather well. We used to call into his bar on the way home from Stamford Bridge from 1995 to 2000 and he always made us feel very welcome. To see him in New York, thousands of miles from England, was magnificent. I couldn’t help but sidle up to him and tell him that I saw him play around fourteen times for Chelsea, but I was still waiting to see him score a goal…

He, however, had seen me score for Chelsea that very day.

Don’t worry, I got away from him before he could tackle me.

1am, Sunday 22 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

My mate Millsy – another season ticket holder – had flown in on work (strangely involving trips to NYC, Philly and Miami – wink) and was regaling us all with some of his rough-and-tumble tales from life on the edges of the murkier aspects of supporting Chelsea. His exploits from Rome in 2008 – when I first met him and the legendary mad Scot Davie – had us rolling in the aisles. From punching a transvestite to waking up in a warehouse after a night on the ale in a Rome night club, to staying a few days in a Spanish jail…the stories came thick and fast. I briefly mentioned that I had turned down the chance to attend a “Q&A” with Ron Gourlay at the Chelsea hotel in Manhattan as I was concerned that I might say the wrong thing. Somebody asked our little group, which included Rick “Funchficker” Finch and Boston Ben, what we would say to Ron Gourlay if we had the chance.

As one, both Millsy and Funchficker said –

“Why are you a c**t?”

1pm, Sunday 22 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

Despite the game against PSG not starting until 7pm, I had arrived at Legends bang on midday and awaited the arrival of friends. I soon bumped into Tom, a fellow Chelsea home-and-away season ticket holder, who was revelling in his first ever visit to the US. His comment to me struck a chord.

“This is the most surreal experience I’ve had, Chris. This pub is full of Chelsea, but I don’t know anyone.”

Of course, to Tom, this was akin to supporting Chelsea in a parallel universe. I think he was amazed at the fanaticism from these people who he didn’t personally know. For Tom, it must have been unnerving. This scenario is so different to our experiences in the UK and Europe where the close-knit nature of the Chelsea travelling support has produced hundreds of friendships. In Wigan, in Wolverhampton, in Milan, in Munich, there are faces that are known. On this afternoon in the heart of Manhattan, fans kept entering the pub, with nobody leaving. I wondered if it would collapse with the volume of people in both bars. Thanks to my previous travels to the US with Chelsea, wherever I looked, I managed to spot a few familiar faces. I was sat at the bar, chatting with Scott from DC, his brother David from Athens, Phil from Iowa, Mark from England, Andy from California, Stephen from New Orleans. The blue of Chelsea was everywhere. Down below in the basement, a gaggle of around twenty-five PSG fans were singing, but their chants were being drowned by the boisterous chants of the Chelsea fans.

It dawned on me that, unlike in 1989, the Chelsea fans that I would be encountering were not just English ex-pats or not just Americans of English extraction, but Americans with ancestors from every part of the world. Just the previous week in Portsmouth NH, I had met a young lad who had seen me wearing a pair of Chelsea shorts and had declared himself a massive Chelsea fan. His birthplace? Turkey. I asked him if he was a fan of Galatasaray, of Besiktas or of Fenerbahce, but he said that Chelsea was his team. This frankly amazed me. It confirmed that Chelsea has truly gone global.

The simple truth in 2012 is that people like Tom and me, plus the loyal 5,000 who make up our core support at home and away games in the UK and Europe are in the massive minority amongst our support base. For our millions of fans worldwide, the typical scenario is just what Tom had witnessed at first hand in NYC; a pub in a foreign land, bristling with new Chelsea fans, fanatical for success.

I found that quite a sobering thought.

4.45pm, Sunday 22 July – New York Subway.

I travelled up to the game at Yankee Stadium with Scott and David, plus Josh from Minnesota and Stephen from New Orleans. The idea had been to get the subway bouncing with Chelsea songs, but there were too few of us to kick start this idea. Stephen contributes to the official Chelsea website as “A Blogger From America” and I first met him in Texas in 2009. He is full of football anecdotes and very good company. We swapped humorous tales from the world of football. He spoke of a game in Romania between club sides from Romania and Bulgaria. During the pre-match kick-in, the players heard music being played. The Romanians thought that it was the Bulgarian anthem and so stopped in their tracks and stood still. The Bulgarian players saw this and presumed that the music was of the Romanian national anthem. Both sets of players were stood perfectly still.

The music was from a Coca-Cola commercial.

I had recently seen a similar video. Two teams were lining up at the start of a game, facing one way, as a national anthem was being played. A TV cameraman was jostling for position, holding a huge camera in a hoist around his waist. He lost his footing, stumbled and fell. He lay motionless for a few seconds. As the national anthem played on, a team of medics attended him and he ended up being stretchered off, the two teams trying their hardest to stifle some laughs.

5.30pm, Sunday 22 July – Stan’s Sports Bar.

My friend Roma and her two children Vanessa and Shawn were on their way to find a parking spot near the stadium and so I had told Roma to meet me in “Stan’s”. I have known Roma since that very first trip to America in 1989 and she has been ever-present at all of the Chelsea US tours since 2004. They travelled up from North Carolina on the Saturday and had stayed overnight in New Jersey. Well, knowing Roma and her infamous logistical planning, “New Jersey” could mean anywhere on the eastern seaboard of America.

Roma had briefly called in at “Legends” at about 4pm, but had simply parked her car outside Penn Station. I had told her to rush back in case it got towed. Since she left New Jersey at around 11am, I struggled to understand where she had been for five hours. However, at least she was in New York City. It was a start.

As I waited for them to arrive, I enjoyed a few beers with Josh. “Stan’s” is my bar of choice when attending games at Yankee Stadium. I first ventured inside its cramped, yet atmospheric, interior in 1993. It was then that I became friends with Lou, the owner. I had seen him featured on a sports programme from 1991 when the Yankees were at a low ebb and a TV crew entered a deserted “Stan’s” for opinions. I had recorded the programme on tape – such was my passion for baseball in those days – and I arranged to get a copy sent over for Lou. Ever since that day, I always stopped by for a few words on each visit and I often brought him Chelsea stuff as gifts; a pennant here, a t-shirt there. I forget the number of free bottles of Rolling Rock I have had on the back of this.

Lou now lives in Santa Barbara and flies over for most home stands. I last visited “Stan’s” in 2010 when I was over in the US with my mother. On that occasion, I was so annoyed that I had just missed him. On this occasion, I was so pleased to see him behind the bar and we had a chat about Chelsea playing in Yankee Stadium.

Yes, that’s right.

Chelsea at Yankee Stadium.

When I first heard about this game, I was overcome with happiness. For my favourite team to play at the home stadium of my second favourite team is – to be honest – beyond description.

My trips to the US have been truly blessed. This one would surely top the lot.

Inside “Stan’s,” it didn’t take me long to meet up with three young girls – one dressed in the blue of Cruzeiro – who had obviously done their research and had brought their own little plastic sealed bag of celery. Now, this was a photo opportunity which was too good to miss.

My goodness, it wasn’t like this when I first set foot in New York in 1989.

Chelsea fans. Girls. Celery.

Pass me the smelling salts please, nurse.

My good friends The Bobster, Lottinho, Captain Jack and Speedy arrived and joined the merry throng inside “Stan’s.”

“Where’s Roma now, Chris?”

“Bunker Hill, maybe.”

I had almost given up hope on Roma reaching “Stan’s” in time. It had reached 6.30pm and I promised myself that I wouldn’t be late for the pre-game singing and the anthem. In Baltimore in 2009, Roma arrived fashionably late for the Milan game and I missed Drogba’s goal as I waited outside for her. I had been selected as one of Chelsea’s “fan photographers” for this trip and so I was worried that I might miss some great photo opportunities. I was literally in the process of handing over the envelope with Roma’s three tickets for Lou to take care of until she arrived when Vanessa tapped me on the shoulder.

“Oh boy. Am I glad to see you?”

Finally, I could relax. We headed off into Yankee Stadium to see the European Champions.

More smelling salts please nurse.

7pm, Sunday 22 July – Yankee Stadium.

This was a game in which I needed to be in many different places at once and to be able to do many different things at once. I wanted to be able to meet friends, take photographs, sing songs, concentrate on the game, analyse the behaviour of fellow fans, kick back and relax, compare to previous visits to see the Bronx Bombers and compare to previous Chelsea games in the US.

In the end, it was one glorious blur. It was simply too surreal for me to say too much about to be honest.

However, I see these Chelsea players every ten days back home during the regular season and so it is always my main goal on these trips to look instead at the faces in the stands, the fellow Chelsea in my midst.

What were my findings?

The hardcore of the Chelsea support – maybe 2,000 in total – were spread out along the first base side, like different battalions of confederate soldiers at Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg, ready to storm the Yankee lines.

Down in the corner, behind home plate, were the massed ranks of Captain Mike and his neat ranks of soldiers from New York. Next in line were the battalion from Philadelphia and the small yet organised crew from Ohio. Next in line were the wild and rowdy foot soldiers of Captain Beth and the infamously named CIA company. On the far right flank stood the massed ranks of the Connecticut Blues who were mustered under the command of Captain Steve.

It was really fantastic to see our section fully adorned with the four official banners which Steve had arranged to bring over from Stamford Bridge (Peter Osgood, Matthew Harding, John Terry and Frank Lampard). They don’t go for banners in American sports in the same way do they?

Within the CIA ranks, where I watched the first-half, the stars were the songsters from Captain Andy’s OC branch, with Steve-O leading the singing with a perfectly pitched “Zigger Zagger.” Nearby, Ben, Shawn and Nick from the Boston branch were ably assisting the support of the team.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9j_6q…&feature=g-upl

However, as the play developed on the pitch in front of us, quite a few noticed that the singing was rather intermittent and there were pockets of Chelsea fans that were quite happy to sit and keep still and keep silent.

More than a few of us sung the sadly truthful “our support is fcuking shit” fighting song in an attempt to shame the silent ones into belated action.

On the pitch, a deflected shot gave Paris St. Germain a narrow 1-0 lead at the break.

I had told Roma to head up to my section as soon as she could, but there was no sign of her. At half-time, I wandered down to see if I could spot her. Thankfully, despite stringent ticket checks by an over-efficient Yankee steward, I managed to sneak in alongside Roma, Vanessa and Shawn who were sitting, unknowingly, very close to Ron Harris and Paul Canoville among the New York Blues. This was the first time that I had met Shawn, who has the curly locks of David Luiz and a wonderful personality. He is only five. I even caught him singing “Chelsea” a few times. That boy has a great future ahead of him.

I was now able to take photographs from a different perspective; two views for the price of one.

In truth, the game wasn’t fantastic. With our players attacking the goal in left field, underneath the 500 PSG fans, I found it even more difficult to concentrate on the game.

It was fantastic to see John Terry back on the pitch. I took several photos of him adjusting his armband after taking over from Frank. The noise which greeted him was the loudest of the night.

The stadium was nowhere near full. The new stadium holds just over 50,000 and the attendance was given as just 38,000. However, I think that this was total ticket sales. I honestly think that the actual number of attendees was only around 30,000. Compared to 71,203 in Baltimore in 2009, I’d imagine that Chelsea will be disappointed. However, the vast majority of spectators inside were favouring Chelsea. And PSG aren’t Milan.

As the second half continued, the Chelsea fans in the seats along the third-base side (the area not dedicated as being solely Chelsea), mustered a chant of their very own. It mirrored the chant – the bog standard US sports team chant – which we witnessed in Arlington in 2009.

“Let’s Go Chelsea.”

I know I grumbled about this in 2009, but I was more favourable this time around. I couldn’t fault their desire to get involved. However, I just hope that there were a few neutrals or a few new Chelsea fans who had been inspired by the singing of the massed ranks on the first base side.

Apart from the players putting on a show, it’s just as important that we, the fans, put on a show too.

To this end, mid-way through the second period, I screamed out a blood-curdling “Zigger Zagger” of my own which got everyone singing and which elicited a wide grin from Canners to my left.

A neat finish from substitute Lucas Piazon gave us a share of the spoils, for which we were so relieved.

At the end of the game, Paul Canoville kindly posed for a few photographs with Roma, Vanessa and Shawn.

It was the perfect end to an amazing few hours in the South Bronx.

Late night, Sunday 22 July – Manhattan.

Roma had to race off to collect her car and I joined up with Captain Jack, Lottinho and Speedy as we caught a slow-moving train back to Manhattan. In our carriage, we chatted to a few Chelsea fans from Toronto who were in the middle of a crazy footy and baseball road trip.

Back at Legends, I realised that my voice was fading. I devoured a few more beers as I chatted to more friends before heading off with Lottinho and Speedy for a late night snack at a classic American diner.

In the city that never sleeps, it was time to get some shut-eye.

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