Travels With The Chels – Amsterdam

So, here we are, talking about another trip to a European final, exactly 12 months to the day after the Blue & White Army made its way back to Blighty following that epic night in Munich. Munich was history, chaos and ultimate triumph. Other than the result, Amsterdam was different in every way.

It started on the morning of the draw for the semi-final, when I had an attack of “Early Booker’s Syndrome”. I had made my mind up. If we were drawn against Basle, with the second leg at home, I would organise the trip and secure a flight and hotel at hopefully a reasonable price, rather than wait until after the first leg. This course of action does require a certain degree of commitment; if you book a cheap (i.e. non-refundable) flight, you either have to be prepared to say goodbye to the cash or go ahead with your trip whatever happens. So I waited with baited breath for the draw and – bingo.

Having spent some time earlier that morning negotiating the time off work, and sourcing a flight, as soon as Basle were the third team out of the hat I pressed select for my £120 flight to Amsterdam and followed this purchase up with a reservation for a four star boutique hotel near the Rijksmuseum that didn’t have to be paid for until the day, and could be cancelled with no charge. The hotel location was a matter of some deliberation. Having experienced the bedlam around Munich railway station after the 2012 final, there was no way that I was going to spend precious sleeping hours listening to the sound of breaking glass. There was also the issue of who else would qualify for the final; the Benfica fans were definitely more likely to make for a quiet night than Fenerbache’s fanatical support.

As the week of the semi-final first leg approached, I watched the price of my flight climb northwards. After the narrow first leg victory, it became steadily steeper, and I prided myself on my foresight. By the time the aggregate victory had been secured, it was vertical. May Bank Holiday weekend found me paying a visit to Old Mother Baby in Birmingham. After we’d watched Chelsea’s brilliant victory against Manchester Utd, I decided to show my nephew @THEREALMODDERZ how much the flight would cost if booked now. It was a staggering £593.

The final came around very quickly – a bare 13 days between reaching the final and the game itself. I had been liaising with the usual suspects who had been making their travel arrangements separately. I was flying from London City. Mr E, who has now decided that he really doesn’t mind the publicity generated by this column and will henceforth be known by his nickname of CeleryCelery (Celery for short), was flying out from Southampton.

H., having relocated to the West Country, was undertaking a nightmare outbound journey in order to keep costs down of coach from Taunton to Amsterdam – just 21 hours – and flying back. Dazza A. was also flying from London City, albeit on a different flight to myself. Celery had booked the boys a budget hotel in De Wallen –€120 for the three of them. Normally the room costs €80. I looked at the website. It looked….adequate.

The good thing about London City is it’s my nearest airport, so there was going to be no overnight stay, and the fare there would simply be a deduction from the PAYG element of my monthly Travelcard. My flight was at 08.40, so I wouldn’t need to get up till 5am, but unfortunately 3.39am saw me wide awake. I lay there listening to the wind and hoping it wouldn’t affect the flight. Last time I’d flown out of London City had been to Nice with The Former Mr Baby when Chelsea played Monaco in 2004. I’m not exactly keen on the runway – planes take off almost vertically.

At 04.50, I heaved myself out of bed and got dressed slowly, making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything crucial like my passport or match ticket. Almost everything else was expendable. It only took 50 minutes to get to the airport via bus, tube and DLR. Indeed, the security check seemed to take longer. Unfortunately, despite all my efforts, something triggered the alarm and I was given a severe and thorough search by a boot-faced female official. Recovering my equilibrium, I headed for Departures in search of breakfast, which consisted of porridge and cappuccino. As my flight was called, and I headed to Gate 2, I heard my name being called. It turned out Dazza A was boarding the BA flight that was due to depart slightly before mine. We greeted each other enthusiastically and looked forward to meeting at the designated pub in Amsterdam.

I had no idea how short the flight to Amsterdam actually is; only 40 minutes. Although we didn’t get in the air until 08.55, we touched down on Dutch soil at 10.30 local time. Fantastic, I thought. Be at the hotel by 11.30. The problem with Schipol is that it’s absolutely massive. It makes Heathrow look like Altenberg (outside Leipzig), which is almost literally a portacabin. And if you’re coming in from the east, you land about 10 miles from the terminal and taxi in, so it was almost 11.00am before we reached the stand. I honestly thought we were driving all the way to Amsterdam. Eventually, however, the passengers, many of whom were Chelsea, staggered off. It took ages to get to Arrivals – I found it confusing that we seemed to be coming out through Departures.

I circumnavigated passport control by choosing the quicker queue of ‘EU Passports Only’, and made my way through towards the exit. Another vast space. Where was the train station? Where could I get a ticket? I was feeling decidedly disorientated. I managed to find the ticket office and parted with €4.40. I located the correct platform for departures to Amsterdam. There was a text from Celery saying he’d emailed me details of the pub. I hadn’t received it. He texted back he’d send details. I just missed a train and had to wait 15 minutes for the next.

I’m very partial to a double-decker train as we don’t have them in the UK. I found myself sitting opposite someone who sits in the row behind me in the West Stand. At Amsterdam Central I skirted the crowds by following the locals to the other end of the stairs. A nice man in the ticket office directed me to where I could buy tickets for the trams and metro. As I crossed the square, I was stunned by the number of English touts trying to sell tickets for the game. My two-day travelcard secured, I made my way over to the tram stop, and, after an anxious twenty minutes, found myself at Hoobestrat, just around the corner from my hotel, where I received a warm welcome and was able to check in straightaway. The room, though small, was extremely well-appointed and comfortable. I doubted if the boys would be able to say the same of Ben’s.

By this time, Celery had texted to say the pub was “The Wildman”, but failed to provide an address, so I took this information to my new friends on reception, who were able to tell me exactly where it was. Back on the tram, tracing my way back into town, I judged the correct stop to get off and, much to my surprise, found my way to the pub, which is actually called Indewildman, where Celery and H. were already in situ (Dazza had gone for a fag).

The boys were already on their second half-pint, but I declined a drink. I wanted to have lunch, and had spotted a little Italian restaurant a couple of doors away. We were expecting as many as half a dozen other people to turn up for drinks/collect tickets, but by 2.30pm Celery was getting tetchy as 2pm had been the appointed muster time. I started rocking forward and backwards, moaning ‘I’m hungry, daddy’. Eventually at 3pm, H and I had had enough and sallied forth to the Italian, where we rapidly consumed pizza and tortelloni respectively. When we returned to the pub 45 minutes later, the rest of the party had arrived, and I decided it was probably time for a drink.

As usual, the continental measure of vodka turned out to be a treble. After that, my curiosity got the better of me and I went for a little wander around the narrow alleyways surrounding the pub. I passed an English pub proudly displaying a Chelsea flag with the legend ‘MINGE, PUFF & BEER TOUR 2013’. I decided against investigating further. Arriving back at the pub, I found myself feeling dizzy. This I attributed to my stroll, the streets around the pub being full of smokers. And I don’t mean Benson & Hedges. I decided another drink would make me feel better.

About 5pm, the Irish Bruvvas, together with Dazza A., decided they’d head for Dam Square, where they heard Chels were out in force, but Celery wanted some food prior to heading out to the ground. So we went into a nearby coffee house and had some more drinks. The Bruvvas and Dazza then headed towards Dam and the rest of us wandered off towards the Central Station, albeit unwillingly in the case of myself and H., being partial to some blue mobhandedness ourselves. So Celery sent us off to the Dam, but unfortunately we couldn’t find the rest of the firm and wandered about a bit. Then we decided we’d get the Metro out to the ground, and H. decided to take on Benfica all-comers in a singing contest, and a nice chap offered me a seat, which I gratefully took. The train we were on was an express. Good. Problem was it didn’t stop at our end of the ground. Bad. So we had to hike from one end of the stadium to another, but we stopped for a pint of Grolsch between us and had another passive smoke.

We finally reached our gate and H. spotted what looked like a Portuguese camera crew getting ready to interview some Benfica fans. He decided he was going to divebomb it and spent the duration hanging around in the background. It was nearly 8pm by this time, so we decided to head into the ground, and managed to keep our celery intact.

The Amsterdam Arena is a strange ground in that it appears to be on stilts. Usually if you are in the lower tier of a stadium, you don’t find yourself having to walk up several flights of stairs. My knees were giving out by the time we got to the top. I hope those who were in the upper tier had access to an escalator. I decided to visit the facilities (two toilets for the whole of the Chelsea female support) and bought a €10 payment card for some half time refreshments. I then went to find my seat and was delighted to see that I was effectively in the front row, with no-one sitting around me and I would have an unencumbered view of the game and be able to sit down as much as I liked.

I managed to spot where the reunited Celery, H. and Dazz were sitting, and went over to tell them I’d bring them a cooling drink at half-time. Then it was time for the opening ceremony, which was rather pretty, involved windmills and tulips, and for some reason was reminiscent of Euro 96. Patrick Kluivert brought the trophy out. Then the teams came on to the pitch and lined up for the sci-fi-esque Europa League anthem and pre-match handshakes.

Benfica spent large parts of the first half all over Chelsea, however, the Blues negotiated the first half safely. On 40 minutes I decided to beat the rush for the two loos, and discovered that Amsterdam Arena’s plans to mitigate queues at kiosks had resulted in most people not being arsed to buy payment cards, so I swiftly purchased two cups of water and an alcohol-free beer and took them to share with the grateful chaps. My route back to my seat also enabled me to stop off with various friends dotted around the lower tier.

As the second half got under way, it was clear that Chelsea were upping their game. Attack followed attack and then, in the 60th minute, it happened. Cech’s long punt upfield cut through a sloppy Benfica defence and found Torres, who showed immense composure to round Artur, frantically scrabbling at the forward’s ankles, and slide it into the net. The Chelsea end of the stadium erupted, and all around the ground pockets of celebration broke out. But our joy was short-lived. Just seven minutes after taking the lead Benfica equalised through Cardozo’s penalty after Azpilicueta was adjudged to have handled the ball. Stalemate. Surely we weren’t going to have to suffer extra-time for two years in a row?

After 82 minutes, we were lucky not to be 2-1 down, as Cech brilliantly tipped a 20-yard volley from Cardozo over the bar. Another minute later and Jardel nodded a corner over the bar. We were hanging on for dear life. And then, on 88 minutes, Frank Lampard’s brilliant shot hits the crossbar from 30 yards. Every Chelsea supporter in the stadium seems to put their hands on their head.

It became clear that if either side scored now, that would be the end. Three minutes of injury time. It looked like another late night. Then, in the third minute of injury time, Branna Ivanovic rose in the air like a salmon to meet Mata’s cross, and his header looped over Artur. Cue every Chelsea fan jumping around like a thing madder than Mad Jack McMad, winner of last year’s Mr Madman competition.

Well over the three minutes injury time allotted, the referee blew his whistle. I stood there with my hands on my head and watched the players celebrate. Munich was such a massive turning point in our history that my main recollection is being hugged by friends and crying. This time I wanted to remember seeing the players celebrate their success. Then I watched as they formed a deserved guard of honour for the defeated Portuguese. You could see Platini looking decidedly miffed as he handed out the losers’ medals. It’s pretty certain that this time last year he would never have guessed he’d have had to hand out UEFA’s top prizes to us twice in the space of a year.

And then it was time for the players to go up. It had been announced that Branna had totally deservedly been awarded the man of the match award. John Terry surprised virtually no-one by turning up in full kit to collect his medal. Eusebio looked sad, but was extremely gracious in defeat, and then as the puffing UEFA chairman struggled to get the awkwardly shaped trophy into the optimum position for lifting, it was celebration time once more. As the players posed for the obligatory picture on the pitch, the stadium P.A. launched into a Chelsea medley including Blue Is The Colour, The Liquidator, Blue Tomorrow and a joyous One Step Beyond. Branna was on the crossbar. Again. David Luiz had spent some time praying on the pitch. I hoped that SW6 was having a good party.

Finally, the fans started drifting out of the stands. I’d arranged to meet the boys by their gate and we invested the remnants of the payment card in another cup of water. The way down the stairs was much easier than the way up. We met Dan The Badge Man, collecting the Flight Options punters. This time we were going to the train station nearest our stand. And here was the one part of the day that was disappointing. Stewarding and policing had been very light, however, the entrance to the train station is through a tunnel and then you funnel off to the various turnstiles. Unfortunately, because there are always those who can’t be arsed to wait for just a few minutes longer, mainly because they can’t wait to get back to the pub, there was quite a lot of pushing and it became rather dangerous. ‘Don’t worry!’ boomed Celery. ‘I’ll protect you’.

Thankfully we managed to untangle ourselves from the crush and made our way through the turnstiles and up to the platform. It took three attempts to get on a train, but we were back in town at 11.45pm, all in agreement that other than the crowding outside the train station, it had not been anywhere near as bad as Munich.

Happily, Indewildeman had said they would be open till 1am, so we staggered back down through De Wallen, with both H. and Dazza detouring in to McDonald’s for some food. However, they took one look at the size of the queue and came out again, only to disappear into the burger shop next to the pub. Celery stood at the bar whilst I scouted for a table. I gave him €20 and told him to get a round in. I managed to snaffle a table and five minutes later he appeared with two beers and a vodka and something that didn’t look like lemonade. It wasn’t. It was tonic. I hate tonic, but I said I’d drink it. At least it was a drink, which was more than I got after the Champions League win last year. I said ‘Where are the other drinks?’ Celery said ‘What other drinks?’ ‘The ones for H. and Dazza’ I replied. ‘There aren’t any. They chose to go and get food’.

Now, in spite of appearances/reputation to the contrary, I’m actually quite a gentle soul. I hate violence and conflict. I rarely row with my friends on the grounds it’s not worth it. However, on this occasion I opined that not buying H and Dazza a beer on the grounds that they needed to go somewhere to eat was a low and scurvy trick, that I had given him €20 and told him to get a round, i.e. everyone, in and he had failed. I went to the bar immediately to rectify matters but it was too late. Last orders were 12.30 and they couldn’t serve any more. I was not a happy baby, I felt terrible for Dazza and H. deprived of a celebratory drink and, by now, outside with their burgers. I went out to explain the situation, but a young chap outside the pub said that the pub literally one yard opposite was still serving, so I went back and drank as much of the vodka and tonic as I could stomach, Celery consumed his two half-pints and we repaired over the road.

Unluckily for me, they’d run out of vodka (disaster) so it had now reached the stage where the boys had drinks but I didn’t. So I perused the wide variety of beverages behind the bar and spotted a magical bottle bearing the legend ‘LICOR 43’. My favourite post-dinner drink in Spain. And one is enough. So I had what appeared to be a double measure with masses of ice. Strangely enough, the pub was getting busier rather than emptier, and Dazza voiced the opinion that there was no point moving on again as the optical evidence suggested other pubs might be closing. By this time (about 1.45am) H. was threatening to go to sleep on the snooker table, and I wondered if I should make tracks for Jan Luijkenstraat if I was to do the cultural bit in the morning. So I bade a fond farewell till Sunday to Celery, and see you next season to Dazz, and H and I left.

After protracted negotiations with a couple of cabbies (I thought €20 back to my hotel was a possible scam), I said goodnight to H. and went off in a taxi. In fairness, even though it was the middle of the night and there wasn’t much traffic, it did seem the hotel was further out than I had thought it was, must have been at least a fifteen minute journey, so €20 was probably just about right. I rang the doorbell of the hotel and stated my room number, and was admitted. It was 2.15am and by the time I’d scraped off my face, put the TV on BBC News to see if they’d mention our win (they didn’t) and had some water, it was 2.45am.

I’d set the alarm for 9am to have a shower and wash my hair, but I was awake at 8.30, so the TV went on again in time to see BBC Breakfast’s handsome account of our triumph. I decided I’d eat breakfast at the hotel in spite of the cost, and managed some orange juice, cereal, scrambled egg, bacon, smoked salmon, pineapple, melon, toast, rye bread, croissant and chocolate brioche, together with a pot of delicious coffee clearly designed for two people. My head ached a little, but other than that, I felt quite well and decided I’d check out of the hotel, leaving my holdall at reception, and visit the Rijksmuseum and then either the Diamond or van Gogh Museum, all of which were five minutes’ walk from the hotel. A sightseeing bus and canal trip would have also been nice, but due to the inclement weather forecast, and the fact I’d need to leave for the airport at 4pm, I decided to do just the two indoor trips.

I started off at the Rijksmuseum, which only re-opened at the end of April following a nine year refurbishment programme. The €15 entrance might seem a little steep, but is worth every penny. From the outside, the building is reminiscent of the restored St Pancras in London, but the inside is more akin to the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, and is full of treasures, each of which has room to breathe and plenty of space for visitors to move about. The only exception to this is the salon where Rembrandt’s greatest hits, including The Night Watch, are displayed. That was packed out with visitors. I absolutely loved the dolls houses, each of which contained staggering details, and had little steps on front of them for visitors to be able to see into the top floors. The early rooms – 1100 to 1600AD – also score highly for religious artefacts, many of which date to before The Alteration. If you’re looking for van Gogh, there are a couple of fine works including a self-portrait on display here, but you will need to visit the van Gogh museum (also recently re-opened) five minutes down the road.

After three hours of wandering around, I thought it was probably time for refreshments, but the museum cafes were heaving, so I headed outside, where it was now raining heavily, to the Cobra Café, where I had an excellent cappuccino. I was still weighing up which museum to do next, and decided on the Diamond Museum, so that I’d have an excuse to come back some day and do the van Gogh.

The Diamond Museum is €7.50, and is good value for a couple of hours. An introductory film has an English commentary available, and is an interesting look at the of the diamond trade and its place in Dutch history. You then move through a series of rooms showing various cuts of diamonds and the equipment used to turn them from rough diamonds. There’s an interactive section where you can ‘crown’ yourself, a screen showing famous diamond-related films, and a wall showing some of history’s most famous diamond heists. Another room shows various crowns and is accompanied by coronation/installation film clips. The final room shows Coster Diamonds’ audacious version of the Hirst Skull. The Coster Skull contains 177,000 diamonds – more than the Hirst version. And if you’ve got time, you can visit Coster’s showroom next door to see diamonds being cut. And if you’ve got money, you can buy some. Sadly the House of Baby doesn’t run to such extravagance.

It was still raining and now almost time to head back to the station, so I went back to the hotel to collect my holdall and use the facilities. En route for the loo, the door to the spa was open and I could see a massive jacuzzi bath. I wished I’d brought my swimming costume with me. I only had a couple of minutes to wait for the tram and the double-decker train took me back to their airport with plenty of time to check in so I ram-raided the Leonidas chocolate counter before I headed into Departures. Much to my surprise, other than my passport being checked, there didn’t seem to be any security checks in place. I thought how odd, for a major hub airport. I had put some money aside for @StamfordBluez’s birthday present so I went into the Duty Free shop and got her something nice and girly, and brought a Chanel mascara for myself which has given me lashes like a spider’s legs, as anyone who saw me at the Chelsea Fancast end of season party will attest.

My gate had already been posted, so I wandered towards it, stopping off at the food court for a hot sausage roll and a coke (I was planning on eating between the airport and home in London). CNN was on in the seating area and the breaking news was that David Beckham had announced his retirement. Tosser, I thought. Trust him to take the limelight from our win last night.

When I eventually got to the gate I realised why I hadn’t been through security yet – because it was at the gate. A novel concept, although rather annoying. I’d rather go through security as soon as I get to the airport and get it over with rather than then be trying to divest myself again. By the time everyone had cleared the checks, it was time for the flight to board, and when the plane was preparing for take-off, the single biggest phrase heard was ‘it’s hot on this plane’. The rain continued unabated outside. Even though the air-time was again only 40 minutes, the cabin staff served drinks and sandwiches. And much to my surprise, when we were on the approach to London the sun was shining, affording a splendid view of London from the air. And although London City was busy with business people returning from meetings in Europe and Chelsea fans returning from glory in Europe, the queues at passport control moved swiftly, and within 15 minutes I was on the DLR, bound for a quick meal, home and bed.

I only did one European trip this season. But it’s very near the top of Travels With The Chels.

I’ll be back later in the week with the next in our series Natters With The Chels, when we’ll be having a chat with Acting Chair of the Chelsea Supporters Trust, Tim Rolls. In the meantime you can follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67.