Sadly the Travels are nearing their end. For various reasons I won’t make any of the away group games this season, so just a couple remain in the locker. So it’s time to go back to what, at the time, appeared likely to be Chelsea’s final Champions League game last season.
I hadn’t originally intended to go Napoli. Indeed when the draw for the round of 16 was made in December, there was an overwhelming feeling that of all the teams we could have drawn, whilst Napoli were beatable, there were certainly more desirable trips we could have had. But that was in December. As the New Year rolled around, with poor results over Christmas redeemed only by a win at Wolves on 1st January, signs that the reign of Andre Villas Boas was running into trouble were becoming increasingly apparent.Whilst the victory at Wolves was followed by a home win against Sunderland, a desperate litany of draws against Norwich, Swansea and Manchester United and a defeat against Everton convinced the faithful that all was not well. So I decided it was time to act, and booked a flight to Napoli at the crack of dawn on the day of the game, returning on Thursday rather than Wednesday to make the trip as economical as possible. The Starhotel by the railway station was offering cut-price accommodation, although the early start would also mean a stop-over at Gatwick the night before. My by this time regular travelling companions Mr E. and H. would also be making the journey. Then the blow fell. Mr E. had been offered a driving job which was so lucrative that he couldn’t afford to turn it down. It would just be me and H.
At least I would still have some company, and as we were booked on the same flight out I met H. in the departure lounge at some ridiculous hour on the morning of the game and we sat down to breakfast at The Flying Horse. We discussed the sorry performance the team had put in against Birmingham City at home in the 5th round of the FA Cup a few days earlier, coming from behind to draw, a result which had heaped even more pressure on AVB’s head. After the usual EasyJet boarding scrum we found ourselves seated towards the rear of the plane and whilst H. folded himself up and went to sleep, I plugged myself into my CD player for what I hoped wouldbe the last time, having purchased an ipod nano at Gatwick.
A couple of hours later we staggered out into the winter sun of the south of Italy. I’d been through Naples airport 18 months previously whilst en route for a holiday in Sorrento so was pleased to remember the layout, and as luck would have it an airport bus was waiting outside the station and filling up with passengers, a lot of whom were Napoli fans, as well as Chelsea fans. I’d been less than impressed with the environs of Napoli when there previously, and the journey into town did nothing to dispell this. Dirty streets, rubbish everywhere, and graffiti all over the place. We disembarked in the Piazza Garribaldi, where my hotel was, and H. walked me over to the entrance and said he’d go to the hotel nearby which Mr E. had originally booked for them both, and meet me in reception in 30 minutes. Happily my room was ready, and after a tidy-up I headed back downstairs to meet H., who was perusing the Gazetta della Sport. I’d looked out a restaurant that appeared suitable for a pre-match feed close to the Castel Nuovo where Chelsea fans were being encouraged to congregate prior to being taken by bus to the Stadio San Paolo. Happily the airbus tickets that we’d bought were valid for any journey within 90 minutes of purchase, so we hopped aboard a bus that was waiting to depart.
The journey down to the port wasn’t quite as depressing as that to the airport, and there is always something marvellous about being abroad on the day of a match. It’s the ultimate away day. I spotted the restaurant as we hauled up the hill prior to turning for the castle, but we found ourselves having to walk back past quite a dangerous set of roadworks. Large parts of Naples appeared to be under construction – there was a glorious view of a large building site immediately outside my hotel; no wonder it was so cheap. We could hear that there were Chelsea fans around due to the colossal drunken roar coming from somewhere, but all we wanted was a good square meal. And we certainly got it. I started with parma ham and melon – and believe me Parma ham in Italy always tastes so much better in Italy than it does in England – whilst H. tucked into classic spaghetti pomodoro. Then I had wonderful bream with saute potatoes, whilst H. had the speciality seafood lasagne (complete with tiny whole squids) which was being served as it was Shrove Tuesday. After this, H. was waving the white flag, but I managed a couple of patisserie. H. had got into conversation with Antonio, il padrone, as he speaks fluent Italian, a legacy of his misspent youth. In fact as a result of this, I more or less gave up the battle with my own poor efforts with the language on this trip and let him do the talking.
Over coffee, we chatted with Antonio, who is a passionate Napoli fan, but is also a great Anglophile, having spent much of the early 90s in Yorkshire and married an English girl. We decided to forgive him for his admission that Leeds are his favourite English team. By 4pm, we decided we had better head for the port and find out what was going on, but Antonio very kindly invited us to return after the match for a drink if we could get back by 11pm, and offered that he would drive us back to our respective hotels. He even provided his mobile number so we could let him know if we were coming back. We said we would definitely phone him if we were going to be able to get there…
We sauntered down to the port, but in truth, there didn’t seem to be much going on. There weren’t any shops, and there were precious few restaurants and bars. Surly-looking policemen stood around a van, smoking. We met a few faces, but then decided to head for the biggest looking bar. And to be fair, there were quite a few Chels in there. H. ordered a Peroni for himself and a vodka and sprite for me (the usual continental measure was in force). The bar was so full that an American couple asked if they could share our table, and we fell into a pleasant conversation with them. They were “doing” Italy, having travelled from Rome and were en route for Sorrento to take in the notable sights of the Neapolitan Riviera. Having spotted a familiar figure, I nipped outside to greet He Who Must Not Be Named, who was as usual taking CFCUK to the travelling masses. Not long after I got back to the table, I was delighted to see the equally familiar figure of Tim Rolls enter the bar. He had arrived via the club trip, met his mate Ashstead Blue, they eaten pizza and were now up for a couple of beers. After consuming these, they left to catch one of the early buses to the ground. By this time, it was starting to get dark, and H. and I decided that the third drink would be the last. I had a chat with a few fellow Pitch Owners about the way forward, and H. excused himself and headed for the gents’ prior to departing.
It was at this point disaster struck. Someone came rushing back into the bar shouting that the last of the buses to the ground was about to depart. I decided that I’d pop in the direction of the gents and see if I could yell to H. to get a move on. The floor of the bar outside the loos was damp, where customers had obviously been spilling pints (at least I hope that was what had been spilt), my right boot skidded on the floor and I fell flat on my face on the right-hand side. The pain seared through my cheek instantly. I struggled to my feet, stunned. All the more so as I’d been involved in a similar, much more serious incident the morning after the League Cup final win in 2007 which ended in my spending four hours in hospital and from which I still bear physical scars.
The bar staff were horrified and the nearest lady shouted “ice! ice!”. Ice was hurriedly thrown into a clean bag and handed to me to press to my face. H. came out of the loo and I explained what had happened, moaning “I can’t believe it’s happened again”, a chant I kept up all the way across the car park to the waiting bus, which was already packed. I was in quite a lot of pain and kept the ice-pack clamped against my face. I hoped it wouldn’t be long until the bus departed and that the journey to the ground would be a speedy one. Then, to our horror, a Carabinieri started tapping at the bus door, and pointing at me. Our charming lady driver opened the doors and the Carabinieri barked “ITALIAN MAN? ITALIAN MAN?”. It was instantly clear that he suspected that I had been attacked by an Italian, possibly a Napoli fan. I summoned up enough Italian to gibber “ha caduta, ha caduta”, then “tell him, H.”. H. kindly explained in his fluent Italian that I had accidentally slipped on a wet floor, and this satisfied the Carabinieri who hoped I’d feel better soon. It was another 10 minutes before the bus departed (I have a fleeting memory of seeing a Mantle twin having an animated discussion with the Police outside) and it was then the nightmare really began. I’d looked at the city map of the port in relation to the ground beforehand, and anticipated a journey of around 20 minutes. This turned out to be an hour and a half, as the Carabinieri decided to drive us around and around the Napoli equivalent of the M25 in order to avoid any ambush by the Napoli fans. By this time the ice-pack was melting and I had to drop it on the floor of the bus. We finally arrived at the stadium 30 minutes before the kick off. It was now pouring with rain and I staggered into the stadium, in desperate need of the loo and also hoping to see what damage I had done to my face. I was slightly surprised to find that I didn’t actually look like I’d been hit by a truck. The ice-pack had done its work and there was only a little bruising along the jaw-line, which I’d neglected, having been more concerned with potential damage to my cheek. Having satisfied myself with regard to the injury, I rejoined H. and we bought mineral water on the way up to our seats. Whilst there was fencing and curtaining up, at least on this visit to Italy it wasn’t obscuring the pitch, and was designed to keep us safe from the Napoli fans, who were doing some pre-match taunting and gesturing. This was too much for H., who can be a fierce little thing, and he replied in kind (I believe the phrase ‘pikey’ was uttered at one point, amongst Italian expletives).
We hadn’t heard the team news, so it was only when the two sides came on to the pitch we realised that Torres, Lampard and Ashley Cole had all been dropped. This was a brave move by AVB, especially as JT was out having had a foot operation, although Didier Drogba had returned to the team following the Africa Cup of Nations. However, after 27 minutes we were in dreamland, as Mata capitalised on Cannavaro’s error to take us into a one-nil lead. The travelling faithful flung themselves around in a dervish of delight. But it was a fleeting joy as Lavezzi equalised on 38 minutes, and come half time we found ourselves 2-1 down after Cavani put the home team in the lead. We were downcast but believed that we could still grab a draw. But it was not to be as Lavezzi put Napoli 3-1 up, leaving us with a stiff hill, if not a mountain, to climb in the second leg. At that point, it looked as if the decision to travel to Naples for our last European away of the season was fully justified.
The post-match lock-in consisted of that night’s goals in the Champions League. At one point, it looked like we might be allowed out early for good behaviour, but we were only corralled on the concourse outside, whilst we watched Napoli fans pass by, still taking the mick. Eventually we were allowed out to board the buses. And the ordeal of being driven around the outskirts of Napoli to evade the locals began again. We finally arrived back at the port at 1am. I begged H. to allow me to get a taxi back to my hotel, but he was gently insistent that we should catch a bus, and he was proved right as we subsequently heard tales of fans being ripped off for short journeys. We bade each other goodnight at the door of my hotel, having arranged to meet outside at 11am the next day for lunch prior to his departure. I reeled off to my room, face aching and cut off at the knees from a night on my feet. Due to cost considerations, I virtually never find myself yielding to the temptations of a mini-bar, but on this occasion I decided to make an exception and cracked open a frighteningly expensive miniature of Grey Goose and poured a San Pellegrino limone into a glass. By the time I was ready for bed it was 2am and I fell into a fitful sleep.
I felt a little better in the morning, and after a shower and the usual admirable Starhotels breakfast, found H. downstairs in the lobby. We set off for an aimless walk around the environs of the station. At least we’d be able to say that we’d seen a little of Naples. During our perambulation we found a delightful street market, with fish which had obviously come off a boat in the Bay that day, and boxes of fresh artichokes. The street market was the only delightful aspect of Naples that I found. H. who speaks the language, is well-travelled and a tough little bugger, said that he wouldn’t want to walk around Naples on his own. We did a kind of lap around the station and the hotel, and eventually ended up about 1pm in a pizzeria, where a vecchia cooked authentic pizzas at five euros apiece in an authentic oven. At 3pm, I accompanied H. to the airbus stop, and, having extracted a promise from me that I wouldn’t go wandering outside the hotel on my own in the evening, he waved goodbye. As it happened, there were shops in the railway station, and I spent a pleasant half hour looking around them, before heading back to the hotel for a nap. Sky Italia appeared to be showing our match on a loop. The game was on the TV as I fell asleep, and again as I woke up two hours later, by which time it was nearly time for dinner. I ate in the hotel in accordance with my promise to H. – an excellent pasta starter followed by perfect sea bass and a delicious panna cotta – and had an early night. By this time, the bruises on my face had already sufficiently faded to be almost unnoticeable.
I bade a less than regretful farewell to Naples the next morning, a place which I have no great wish to return to in future unless it’s en route for Sorrento, Capri or Ischia. When you leave for the airport at the end of a European trip, there’s always a sense of sadness, even if the trip hasn’t been one of the greats, as this one certainly hadn’t. You feel sad because you can never quite tell if there’s another trip in the offing. You might not be able to afford the next one. If the first leg has been away and you’ve lost, there’s no guarantee that you’ll win the home leg. In my case issues were complicated by the fact I was already starting to run out of annual leave. But hey. That wasn’t going to be an issue. We were heading out of the Champions League at the round of 16 stage. Or so I thought…
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