Sunday, 27 April 2014

Liverpool 0 Chelsea 2

Life changes for a football fan who has regularly attended his beloved team's matches throughout his existence when he has children. At one stage it meant giving up my season ticket for two years assuming that fewer matches would be attended - when in reality even as a member I attended the bulk of games home and away. Today was one of those days where having spent three days in Madrid, a day spent at home was required. And it was a day that I wanted to spend with my closest family - wife and two kids.

It was spent at Chessington Zoo.

I have always tried to be holier-than-thou as a fan... I won't do this or that... if I break this rule then it means I can no longer count myself as a genuine fan etc... but finally reality is dawning that not being able to attend every match in person is not the end of the world. And more importantly, I felt the same passion, stress and desire for Chelsea to win today as I would have done being in person at Anfield.

But in typical bloke fashion I had forgotten to record the game. My daughter asked me why I was punching the seat when I realised this in the restaurant at lunch today where there was surprisingly as much salad as pizza. I finally figured out how to remotely record the game and looked forward to watching it later upon my return home. No checking for results and time to ignore telephone calls and texts. This is something I had not done for a very long time.

There was some poetry on the way back from Chessington. We decided to drive down some country lanes on the way home and accidentally passed through Cobham. Police had blocked off a lane we wished to peruse and this being after the match had ended I wondered if there had not been some kind of altercation in a pub between rival football watchers.

Back home and having unpacked the bags a man passing my car was speaking to his son about football. I closed my ears but too late - only I still heard him mutter something about some team that had scored one goal - did this mean that Liverpool had scored? What was the second part of the score? 1-0? 1-1? 1-2? I had started humming to myself just in time not to hear the full result of whichever match they were discussing.

The anxiety was killing me. My face felt red with pulsation as I sat down to watch the game that I had recorded. Part of the redness to the cheeks was down to me being a typical city dweller not used to the gentle country breezes encountered today. Sky as per usual tried to Hollywoodise the home support but ironically cut off for adverts just as their home anthem was reaching the crescendo that it does pre-kickoff.

The Chelsea line-up still looked solid despite one newcomer to the side. Chelsea held their own and crosses were well intercepted. It was interesting to see Liverpool miss a couple of easy chances. The Ba goal had me jumping to my feet in my living room with my two daughters staring at me in bewilderment before breaking into smiles. The bigger shock was seeing Willian score in injury time which was too good to be true.

A simply tremendous performance and our manager is correct - if it were not for key refereeing decisions this season we would have had the title more or less wrapped up by now. However, it was also interesting to see that Liverpool were not at their best and did not give their full concentration at key moments. We not only have a master tactician for key games but also one with a truly remarkable understanderding of psychology.

There is little else to write about and no point dwelling on minor issues such as Liverpool not throwing the ball back to us when we kicked it off having an injured player. Nor is it even worth mentioning how our club is described as one with no class and yet opposition fans of a club with so much "history" concentrate the bulk of their chanting against the team they are playing! Let's see how the "neutral" media's ever-changing formulas for what makes a great team do this week. Oh, and I noted some sarcasm from the match official towards Chelsea players at several stages during the match - is this not the lowest form of wit? Rant over.

We might not win the league and yet be the best club in the country. Go figure that one out. Good luck against Atletico you Blues and may league results go our way!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Madrid (a) Part 2

Four stadia down and four to go. Having been kept in our end for what seemed like an eternity I slept well happy to be cosy in my warm hotel bed that had a beautiful view of the Royal Palace. The walk back following the Atletico match felt safe and following the course of the river northwards seemed quite poetic.
So where was the first destination for Wednesday? AD Alcorcon. A club that plays in the Spanish second division occupying mid-table in their Santo Domingo Stadium. Again, it was a place where one was made welcome and of all the grounds visited my favourite. The pitch was in pristine condition although the groundsman did have to do a double take as I fell to my knees to sample the beautiful smell of the freshly cut turf while he was mowing it. The stadium is cute and it was a delight to see that it was part of a whole sporting village. I watched the players train and had some stares in my direction as I wore my macho blue and yellow jacket with "CHELSEA FC" emblazoned in large letters on the rear. It struck me how much hard effort they needed put in and how this must compare with Chelsea players who we only ever really see inside Stamford Bridge. We moan at them being overpaid so-and-so's but it is by no means an easy job - and one that requires a hell of a lot of discipline if you wish for your career to last. Oh, and not that I condone graffiti but nice to see we are slowly taking over the world having seen this little tag on a park bench near the stadium...
Back onto the metro and a rather circular route to take. Off at Julian Besteiro station and time to find Estadio Municipal de Butarque - home of Club CD Leganes. Of the clubs visited this was one which unknowingly had the most relevance to me as a Chelsea fan. Flicking through the clubs history on the Wikipedia page I had printed out while back in Blighty, I only noted while at their ground that of their notable former players a certain one called Samuel Eto'o had been on their books. Apparently this was the club where he had started his professional career on loan from Real. A lady showed me to the club shop to prove the pictures that showed him playing. The friendly staff member there also showed me in their current squad photograph a player who we have out on loan there - Jhon PĂ­rez. Later, the club added me to their Twitter feed too. Not something that I regularly use to be frank (as you can tell by my posting two replies with two different usernames)! Even more embarrassing when studying the squad photo was to later realise that the lady who had showed me around but had now disappeared was also the club's President!
Two clubs left to visit and both from La Liga... so four clubs from Spain's capital play in their highest division compared to our six in London. First stop was Getafe who play at the Alfonso Perez Stadium. No joy getting entry with not a single soul on duty in or around the ground. Even a walk around the circumference yielded nothing more than some frightened rabbits next to a motorway and personal genuine fear that I may be attacked by some homeless tramp. Woeful photographs of the stands were made through tiny, vertical gaps between concrete blocks. It was siesta time, but surely a club playing in their highest division would at least have a shop open for the odd (and I admit that I am odd) tourist?
The same said of Rayo Vallecano's Campo de Futbol de Vallecas. A club known for its left-leaning supporters and beautifully placed right next to the Portazgo underground station. You literally walk up the steps to exit the tube and you can touch the stadium with your hand. This was an intriguing place as the ground floor of the stadium was used for restaurants, a gym and even a car repair garage. The sign outside the club shop helpfully informed me that it would be reopening at 5.30pm... er... siestas are something one is not quite used to in the UK! And yes, this is pretty much the best photo I could take of any stands - although I trust you will admire my artistic skills to capture the working man's life contrasted with the nature of community provided by such a stadium. Hmmm....moving on...
So back to the hotel for a quick snooze. Despite being in my mid-30s these powernaps are much needed after a hard day's stadium hunting. Another quick tramp's wash and following a Spanish meal that contained half a bulls arse with some rice it was off to try and blag a seat for the Real Madrid vs Bayern match. Leaving things to the last minute worked. Should I take the ticket from a tout that was 260 Euros face but offered to me for 120 Euros? Or should I take the single ticket from an old grandad for 80 Euros that was 70 Euros face? I chose the latter as the former seemed to good to be true. I have set myself a rule to try to not watch any club matches unless they involved Chelsea but this one was too much of an opportunity to miss. Having seen Chelsea win the Champions' League in person I secretly wanted us to draw Real in the semis as I had not ever been to see a live game at the Bernabeu. Before the match the streets were full of drunk Spaniards and Germans all wearing their colours. No problems that I saw and an excellent view form the cheapseats - even being up in the Gods. "Puta mierda" was the new phrase I learnt every time Di Maria miskicked the ball. No health and safety stewards either with fans smoking weed and sitting in the aisles.
The atmosphere was fantastic although the Real Madrid fan behind me honestly noted it was only like this for the big games and fans were quick to get on the back of the players - sound familiar? It was only a few days earlier that a half-empty Camp Nou saw white hankies being waved as soon as Barca fell a goal behind. This is the danger we face as a football club going forward - instant gratification and perfection required at every step.
The whole stay in Madrid awoke something in me... how important it is to remember that ultimately you are part of a club. We forget this sometimes with the current footballing largesse and we could end up ultimate victims of our own success and drive to be a brand - rather than a football team with us as the twelfth man. It was something I explained to the club shop worker at CD Leganes when he mentioned that Chelsea did not seem popular with neutrals in the UK - if his club was to suddenly become successful and win La Liga several times it would not be long before the media would be pining for traditionally strong clubs to return to the fore. After all, a Champions League semi-final containing Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan would seem far more of a television draw than one containing Everton, Borussia Dortmund, PSG and Roma to "neutrals" (and more likely, sponsors).

Mourinho still has the reputation of "parking the bus" but few seem to remember that his Real Madrid side scored the most goals and earned the most points when he won La Liga with them. This among his many other successes.

The stay was simply fantastic - a city which was good value for money. Excellent transportation. One where you felt safe with friendly locals. It will be one that I shall be returning to as soon as I can. Many thanks to all those who made me feel welcome at their football clubs and may the best team win next Wednesday. And CD Leganes - I shall be looking out for your results in the future!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Madrid (a) Part 1

Eight different stadia to visit in Madrid was my plan. Sod the boring musea and time to express my visit for what gives me most passion - football. If they would let me into the stands then even better. If not, then a walk around the ground to sample the community where the clubs were based would suffice. No spending all day in an Irish Pub for me - and being a solo traveller meant things could be done at my own pace.

Spain uses a different system when it comes to building their squads. Their reserve sides are allowed to play in professional leagues and first stop with backpack still on from the airport was  where Real Madrid "B" (or Castilla) play at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium. They play in their second division. It is right next door to where the first team train and despite heaving my lugs off to get there for some reason the security guards armed with guns would not let a sweaty man with a rather large, black rucksack into the area. No, "death to infidels" chanting from me either! It was amazing to see how close the stadium was to Madrid Airport - only a stop away with beautiful mountains in the background.
So how many birds could one kill with one stone? On the same day as the Chelsea match I did the touristy thing and visited the Bernabeu Stadium. 15 Euros with no guide and a pretty regimented route around the ground. The sales staff were quite pushy that you should have your photos taken against a blue background and would not intially accept my polite, "f**k off" as a clue that one did not want to be seen next to Gareth Bale's mug. Changing rooms were seen and a stadium to knock off the list in case there were no tickets available for the Real vs Bayern game the following day. Boy, were they pleased to see me raise my Chelsea/Polska flag in the managerial area to have a photograph taken.
Next stop was the hotel. Dumping the bag, a quick tramp's shower with the old deodorant and off to my third port of call - the third oldest club in Madrid... RCD Carabanchel who play their football in one of the third divisions (of which they have many). Although disappointing to see the club plays on astro turf, it was also great to see some sense of community with fans allowed to be able to watch the club training with the token teenage girls giggling amongst themselves deciding which players they fancied the most. The welcome was warm and friendly and they even invited me to see their trophy room. Their stadium fits 2,000 fans although it is hard to imagine it full... nevertheless the nerd element in me was satisfied having seen a few plaques which commemorate it having achieved Royal status in 1997.
Next off to the most obvious stop - Atletico Madrid's stadium... Estadio Vicente Calderon. It is a fascinating place - right next to the Manzares River that divides the city's East and West parts... but unlike Fulham a stadium that holds nearly 55,000 people. Even more bizarrely is that the club has 65,000 season ticket holders which I still cannot figure out. The main stand is built above a motorway. Yes - a motorway.
The atmosphere from their fans was great with no animosity. The only negative was the usual OTT stewarding and only four unisex workman's toilets for our upper tier that held over a thousand fans. My flag could not be hung over the edge of the upper tier as it blocked the Champions' League logo... but no problems for home fans to do the same. "Why?", I asked.... "Because we have fewer stewards in the home end and cannot police it." My blood boiled.
Now I do not wish to bite my nose to spite my already ugly face, but we seem to be quite lax with the away end at Stamford Bridge. Personally, I like the away fans to bring some atmosphere and colour to the ground and especially during the group stages their antics can be more entertaining than the football itself. It does take away some of the positive feeling you have from trips following Chelsea abroad and with no roof on our end and wind blowing... plus being sober... meant that my posterior was freezing by the night's end.
The match was what should be described as a brilliant tactical away display at a key stage in the most respected, lucrative football competition in the world. We played a side that is above two teams called Real Madrid and Barcelona in their domestic division - and we made them look quite ordinary. Needless to say, the "bus parking" tactics have been used as a criticism... we should remember this should it lead to a trophy parade on a double-decker in London. When it comes to the crunch, our team performs well although without Terry and Cech one does worry and the gut feel is that we go to penalties next week. Thanks for the welcome Atletico Madrid fans... all very down to earth and what real support should be like... just as they were when we met in Monaco. Chelsea please take note of stewarding at aways we attend although we all appreciate the subsidised ticket costs.
Chin up for next week chaps and let's stay positive - noone likes us and we don't care!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Chelsea 1 Sunderland 2

One should never underestimate the psychological power a traditionally strong person or - in this case - a set of clubs can have on the subconscious of individuals. It is not necessarily childish to think in such a manner. The reality of our club's failure to win key matches against alleged inferior opposition is down to a mixture of things. We have not taken our chances in front of goal and that is on a level par with some poor refereeing decisions that have cost us matches.

There are some games such as Crystal Palace away where you hold your hands up and simply admit that the opposition was superior on the day (and has been on a stunningly good run since). Yesterday, we had 31 attempts to score and only managed one goal. To describe our side as one that does not attack is simply untrue. However, the quality of finishing has not been up to standard. Does our concentration occasionally drop against the bottom sides?

The next point is refereeing decisions that have not gone our way. Despite my obvious bias for my club it is difficult to argue against Chelsea deserving at least one penalty during the match. Sometimes there are trips in the corner of the box that are rewarded with a spot kick even if they were unlikely to have led to a goal. But the push on Ramires in the first half as he jumped to head the ball towards an open goal cannot be described as anything less than a foul despite some bizarre conclusions by television experts. You can almost excuse Ramires' ire when yet again he walked a tightrope by slapping a Sunderland player's face during the second half.

Standing in the front row of the East Upper after the final whistle you reflected on the game and on football in general. Then you wonder about our fans who were asked to get behind the team and yet were quiet and impatient for the bulk of it. Do we pay good money now in order to be entertained rather than traditionally support our club when things are not perfect on the field?

There are times when one would prefer to have the blind myopia that the bulk of Liverpool fans have when supporting their club... And should they win the league then well done to them. But it will be a bitter blow to Chelsea if that is the case and you do wonder if invisible, external forces affect the team when the media argues that "neutrals" would prefer others to succeed over our side. Well done Gus by the way - Chelsea legend - and apologies for how some of our fans have behaved to you in the past.