Travel broadens the mind, so we’re told. So there’s nothing finer ahead of our trip to Zilnia in the Champions League than to look back to previous away trips in Europe with The Chels.
I’m a sporadic European traveller. It tends to be either the famine or the feast with me, depending on the state of my finances, and I am perfectly willing to admit that prior to 2003 I didn’t even have a passport, thus ruling myself out of every Cup Winners Cup campaign in the 90’s and the seminal first Champions League season.
I also couldn’t afford to go to the Champions League final against the Mancs in 08, but hey, I know I’m not alone there.
So let’s start at the beginning with that 2003/2004 season. It’s a very good place to start. November 2003 saw my first trip to Italy, the game against Lazio in Rome.
Highlights of this trip included our hotel which proved to be a Catholic retreat venue by the Vatican, where the bar refused to open on the day of the game, citing a forthcoming conference. One friend of dubious appearance being dubbed “il blond bandito” by a huckster outside St. Peter’s, and the sheer quantity of Chelsea shirts wandering around the Basilica and other popular sights.
Outsiders give our fans a reputation of being Neanderthals with no interest in anything other than rucking, drinking and other things ending in “-ing”, yet on any trip I’ve been on, I’ve always been hugely impressed by the numbers doing culture, and their genuine interest and enthusiasm for what they see. One friend no longer takes “proper” holidays, preferring to see the world via his beloved Chels.
European grounds are a law unto themselves. Some are great. I’ve only ever been in two grounds in Italy, the Olimpico in Rome and the San Siro, but they are two of the most rubbish grounds I’ve ever been in anywhere.
In Rome we got to the stadium too early and were advised by the Carabinieri not to go back into town “for our own safety” which resulted in an alcohol-free 90 minute wait for other friends. I was probably more sober at this game then any other European away match I’ve been to.
The loos in the stadium were the dreaded “toilet a la Turque”. For the uninitiated, that basically translates as “hole in the ground”. The experience still haunts me to the extent that I resolutely refused to use the stadium toilets in Milan.
The one good thing about Lazio was the canned, self-heating, rocket fuel coffee. Simply shake to boil. And full of sugar too.
And what a memorable night it proved to be on the pitch. We’d arrived with hopes of a draw against a Lazio side managed by Roberto Mancini and featuring quality players like Dejan Stankovic and Simeone Inzaghi. What we got was one of the club’s greatest ever (at that time at any rate) European nights.
Goals from Crespo, Gudjohnsen, Duff and Lampard, a couple of fantastic saves from Carlo and a Spit the Dog, pantomime-villain turn from Sinisa Mihajovic left us breathless with joy, the only disappointment during the game being Glen Johnson’s red after two bookings.
As those who were there will remember, things took a slightly more sinister turn after the match when those too anxious to make a quick getaway found themselves at the wrong end of a batoning. There is never any justification for Police brutality but when travelling away in Europe there is one rule to remember, that the Police will let you out when they’re ready and not before.
So about 11.45pm local time we were released from the stadium to find a fleet of orange buses waiting outside to take us back into town. Winding our way through some very dark roads was a hairy experience and our boys and girls started banging on the roofs and windows and singing “The Self-Preservation Society” from the Italian Job, and waving as the buses overtook each other.
We were eventually decanted back into town and managed to locate an Irish bar, and subsequently a club in a back-street where we had to pay two Euros and sign ourselves in, using a variety of false names for the purpose.
Unfortunately not having had much sleep the previous night, four “continental” vodkas and lemonades, i.e. 12 of the English equivalent, quickly rendered me somnolent, occasioning the first of a series of photographs of me asleep in pubs on European trips.
At 5 o’clock I woke up and wanted a proper bed, so a couple of pals took pity on me and let me go back to their nearby hotel for a 3 hour kip instead of waiting for the Vatican party, which resulted in an unforgettable taxi trip back to the hotel in the Roman rush-hour.
If you think London’s bad you’ve never lived until you’re sitting in a cab which gently bunts into the car in front resulting not in an exchange of insurance details, but a philosophical shrug from each driver.
We had a late lunch prior to the early evening flight back to London. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Guy Fawkes’ fireworks lit up our flight path in the same way that Ranieri’s Rockets had illuminated Rome the previous night.
Sadly I won’t be in Slovakia next week, but no doubt the happy band of travellers will come back with some tales to tell.
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