This is something I have been working on for a few months now, when I had the idea of writing an ebook or something similar on my experiences following Chelsea from the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004 to the present day. Let me know what you think.
I will never forget the night of April 30th 2008. Chelsea 3-2 Liverpool, 4-3 on aggregate. It meant we were going to Moscow and the first Champions League final in our history. The atmosphere at the Bridge that night was unlike anything I have ever heard, then or since. It was incredible and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The Matthew Harding Stand was literally shaking and my vocal chords took one almighty pounding.
After the pain of the semi final defeat in 2007 and the five-hour coach journey back from Anfield this was sweet revenge. If you had said to my Dad 20 years ago that he would have the chance to see his team in a Champions League final he would have thrown his head back and laughed. But in 2008 it became sweet reality.
There was no doubt in my mind that we would go, could we really miss the biggest game in the club’s history? My Dad required a bit of persuading I’ll admit. Initially he decided we wouldn’t be going. It would cost us near enough £1,000 each and I had A Level exams – my future – to worry about. I needed two As and a B to get into university and a Politics resit was on the Friday after the final.
Then my Dad realised – he might never see this day again. I have my whole life ahead of me. He had just hit 50 and who knows what the future holds? We took the plunge: we got tickets and return flights for just under £1,000 each. All that was left was to wait for the day to roll around. I vividly remember working in the pub in the run up to the final and dreaming dreams of triumph during quiet moments, with Dad the other side of the bar nursing a pint and no doubt doing the same thing.
I could think of nothing else. This was the biggest game in Chelsea’s history and of my life. Winning the Premier League, Carling Cup and FA Cup was special but nothing would compare to the Champions League. The Holy Grail.
The game dominated my every waking moment. These are the moments that every football fan lives for.
Since this was no ordinary game, our preparations were that extra bit special. We bought home shirts with the match details on it and my Dad got a banner made. It read: ‘Chelsea is our name, keep the faith…With special thanks to Rafa and Riise’. Our gratitude to the Norwegian was self-explanatory. His own goal at the end of the semi final first leg proved crucial. Benitez also helped us get to Moscow – by taking off Fernando Torres when the Reds still had a chance to win the tie.
Gatwick airport. 7:00am, 21st May 2008. This it. We are sitting in the airport’s departure lounge, nursing a Magners over ice. I have been up since 4am. A four-hour flight lies ahead of us. Our pre-flight chat was on one subject and one subject only. The papers were full of news and comment on what for many was the biggest game of football since 1966. I was an absolute nervous wreck.
The hours before kick off flew by. We got lost for a while amidst the hustle and bustle of Moscow, eventually managed to find the stadium and then milled around in the fan zone before heading through the turnstiles to our seats. We were right above the tunnel, Row 16. For a long period of time I just stood there and took it all in, I do not think what I was witnessing had quite dawned on me. This was beyond my wildest dreams.
The big screens were playing classic finals moments on a loop – United’s incredible comeback in Barcelona, Zidane’s volley in 2001, and ‘that night in Istanbul’.
When kick off actually came my stomach felt like a mass of jelly. We started sloppily and should have been a couple of goals down within the first half an hour. We were being run ragged. Ronaldo put the United ahead just before the half hour mark and my heart sank. My legs were aching – I was far too nervous to sit down. I belted out the usual Chelsea chants and tried to keep my hopes up. After all, there was after all a long way to go.
Just before half time we leveled things up. Michael Essien hit a shot and the ball deflected through to Frank Lampard, who stroked the ball past a stranded Edwin Van der Sar. The pandemonium in the Chelsea end was simply unforgettable, I’ve never experienced a feeling quite like it. Gone was my usual reserved nature. I exploded into life, fueled by a cocktail of heady jubilation.
Like most of the night, the half time break was a blur. As the second half progressed I became more and more convinced that this would be our night. The Chelsea side I witnessed in the second half bore no relation to the lethargic imposters I had watched with such despair in the first period.
We had been through so much to reach this moment – Monaco, Barcelona, Liverpool (twice) – I began to develop an iron conviction that we would do it. Every year I had got my hopes up only to have them dashed. Surely tonight would be the night?
We came agonsingly close. Didier Drogba could have won it in normal time but his shot cannoned off the post. Extra-time came and with every passing minute the horrible spectre of penalties loomed ever larger.
The pivotal moment in extra time came in the 116th minute. Didier Drogba once again displayed the unsavoury side to his character by slapping Nemanja Vidic. This occurred over the other side of the pitch to where I was standing and confusion reigned in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Someone behind me shouted out that it was Terry that had been given his marching orders.
Then as Drogba trudged towards the tunnel it all became clear. He received some hefty abuse from the fans around me and while I did not join them, I could understand their reaction. Drogba had done his team no good and put them at a disadvantage with a bout of immature petulance. That short walk must have felt like miles for him.
As the whistle blew for the end of extra time I let out a groan. I did not want it to end like this. Chelsea’s record at this point in penalty shootouts was quite frankly shocking: you would had to have gone back to a cup game against Ipswich in 1998 to find the last time we triumphed from the spot. But still, ever the optimist I tried to believe.
To be perfectly honest, given how things panned out I have repressed nearly all of the penalty shoot out. The misses by Ronaldo, Terry and Anelka I remember. When the Portugal international stuttered in his run up and then saw his kick parried by Cech the reaction in the Chelsea section of the ground was sheer mayhem. Supporters around me were celebrating like we had won the thing as John Terry stepped forward in the driving rain and readied himself for the kick that could win us the Champions League.
What happened next was an iconic moment, a passage of time that will never leave the conscience of any fan watching the match. Terry slipped as he took his kick and the ball brushed the post. Van Der Sar had gone the other way and was beaten. A wall of noise from the United end hit me like a slap in the face. Terry lay on the wet turf, crestfallen. A sickening feeling of despair swept over me. I knew then that we had lost it.
Anelka’s soft spot kick was academic. I could tell just by observing his run up and general demeanor that he was going to miss.
The United fans and players were mad with joy and celebrated as such. There are some moments in life that just leave you speechless. What could we say after witnessing what we had just seen?
We stayed to see the United players lift the trophy just to the left of where we were sitting. As the seats around me emptied I sat back down and looked around. The United players were parading the trophy in front of their fans and rogue streams of ticker tape were blowing around the pitch. The dejected Chelsea players and staff were long gone.
I tilted my head back despairingly and looked up to the sky and contemplated the now undoubtedly nightmarish journey home that awaited me. I had no idea how right I would be.
The biting Moscow night cut through me as I walked with my Dad to our pick up point. Hordes of fans from both sides were everywhere, under the watchful guard of the Russian army and police. We didn’t have to wait long to catch a bus. As I sat back in my seat the piercing silence said it all. By this point I’d been awake for nearly 24 hours and I drifted off to sleep, occasionally being jerked awake as our bus meandered its way through the streets of the Russian capital towards Vnukovo airport.
My sense of time was hazy by this point. It was the early hours of the morning Russian time when we walked through the airport towards our gate. What awaited us was akin to a scene from a disaster movie. Hordes of people were massed in front of the departure gates. Amidst all of the confusion I managed to spot a handful of Chelsea’s youth team, which diverted attention away from our predicament for a minute or two.
The procedure Thomas Cook chose for getting us back home was a curious one. We were not given a specific flight back. Instead we went to whichever gate had a flight going back to the airport from where we came from. We would be in the air by 3am at the latest they said.
Suffice to say this did not work too well in practice. Nothing seemed to happen and the hours passed. Frustrations boiled over and our Thomas Cook reps were in the firing line. When we finally got to the front of the gate we were told our plane had a cracked windscreen. A replacement would have to be flown in. ETA?
A rueful smile passed over my face, I was too tired to get worked up about it. People were angry, and the fact that we had lost did not help matters. If we had won I would have been on such a high that I would have probably had a go at fixing the cracked windscreen and then offered to fly the bloody plane as well.
I found a few spare seats and tried to get some sleep. A bar close by had a Russian news channel on, which showed highlights of the game every 20 minutes or so. I did not need much extra incentive to doze off by this point – but here was some more.
The replacement plane came and that afternoon – nine hours later than planned – we were finally on our way home. My phone picked up a flurry of texts when we landed. Most expressed sympathy and said how unlucky we were. I stepped through my front door at 6pm on Thursday, 42 hours after me and my Dad had set off.
When I say to people that I was in Moscow they often say how disappointing it must have been. While it was, my memories of the day are bittersweet. My Dad saw something he never thought he would see in his wildest dreams, as did many of the 21,000 Chelsea fans in the Luzhniki on that night. We witnessed history. Chelsea’s first Champions League final and the first all English one to boot.
We will do it one day, and the pain of Moscow will make that eventual triumph all the sweeter.
It is something that will always stay with me.