In the company of heroes

It was going to be another tough day in the office.  I was required to attend a couple of vendor meetings in London, which meant I had to stay in London overnight – to be ready for an early start.  There’s absolutely no point travelling out early in the morning, the ol’ red-eye, as I would simply be too tired.  Funnily enough, the trip just happened to coincide with the Chelsea v Cluj Champions League game at the Bridge, Tuesday 9 December 2008. What a coincidence!

I had never heard of Cluj, and not since either, but discovered that it was a Romanian football club that miraculously made it to the CL group stages by winning the Romanian football league.  They are apparently not having a great this season again, so don’t expect seeing them in next years CL.

This was going to be my first live football game ever.  I mean ever.  I’ve supported Chelsea since 1997, so to see my team Chelsea play at home (at The Bridge) in the Champions League was an extra added bonus.  If things could be even better, then it was about to.  I was invited to attend the game with private dinner, free bar and reserved seats – VIP lounge and seats – fantastic.

I travelled across the water with the supplier just before lunch Wednesday and took the train to London city centre.  For some unknown reason, I have train phobia.  The adrenalin starts pumping when there are too many people around me trying to get on the train, and I start to freak out.  I scream loud, within my head, and frantically look for the nearest door.  Once on the train, I’m fine.  But, what if the doors close on me?  What if I took the wrong train? What if somebody pushes me?  All these thoughts make me weird to be around.  My traveling buddy noticed this and moved slowly away from me as I started to convulse and sweating – all while I smiled at him with two thumbs up!

The train arrived safely at the correct train station and we got a cab to the hotel.  We checked in to the hotel shortly before lunch, dropped the bags and went striaght out again.  It wasn’t cold, despite it being early December, but we still wanted to minimise our exposure to the elements.  There’s no point getting sick on a business trip.

According to the tourist map, the hotel was close to the Stamford Bridge stadium, so we agreed to walk.  After walking for almost 40 minutes, and my travelling partner looking to punch me for persuading him to walk, we agreed to get some food and a drink.  We dragged our exhausted arses into the nearest cafe and had lunch.  I could feel the warmth creeping back into my feet and arms.  My fingers slowly went from blue to pale white (normal winter colour for me) and I could actually feel something again.  Keep in mind, we were two “business” men in suits and shinny shoes, walking through London on a cold (windy) December day.

The cafe happened to be next to Harrods.  I never understood the fascination with Harrods, but based on the cars parked outside, it was the place to shop.  People come from far far away to shop for expensive stuff, like £16,000 hand bags, 24 carat gold and other useless grap.  Even the kids toys seem to be luxury items.  One of the cars parked outside this landmark was an Aston Martin.  Now, I love the Aston Martin, but this dude had done something criminal to his.  He had painted his Aston Martin gold.  But worse, it looked like his kids had done the painting.  Just wrong!

We finally arrived at the stadium and wne t straight to a local pub to get warm and get another pint.  I had promised my kids some Chelsea gear, so I did my fatherly duties and got them the right stuff – all Chelsea of course.  It cost me more than £100, but the smile on their faces when getting it was priceless.  I admit I had difficulties getting the shirt numbers right for John Terry (26) and Anelka (9).  When buying shirts for the kids, I told the guy “I want 8 for Anelka and 4 for Terry!”.  The guy just looked at me and told me that, that was Lampard and 4 is not used!  Quietly, while other fans queued up behind me, I just smiled goofy and told him “I knew that, just checking!”.

After the Chelsea Mega Store staff had robbed me, legally, we went to the VIP entrance.  We made our way to the restaurant and had a nice dinner, with free bar.  Despite being a Chelsea fan, I felt like a complete looser surrounded by hardcore fans.  They knew everything about the club and playes.  Even all the games they had lost or won.  My guess is that they knew more about Chelsea FC than they knew their own kids.  As a result, I kept my moth shut during dinner and while getting beer.

Suddenly, the waiter informed us that it was kick-off time.  I ran to my seat like a little boy running to a toy shop, pushing everybody aside who were in my way.  Looking over my should as I ran, I saw a small boy tumble over and his dad looking angrily in my directions.  Not my fault the kid didn’t look up!  I sat down.  I felt goose bumps rising all over.  I probably looked like a twat taking pictures of the scoreboard, seats, marching band, scarfs and teams warming up, all while holding back tears.  A dream had come through.  Within 15 minutes, the camera was starting to run low on batteries, so I had to use it wisely and only when needed.  Furthermore, there was only space for another 2000 pictures on the memory card – damn!

As soon as the fans started singing, I started crying like a schoolboy.  It was a wonderful and yet strange experience.  Grown men were singing songs and screaming out the names of their heroes as they were introduced.  Like a gobshite, I pretended to know the songs, miming along, while waiving the blue/white scarf over my head.  Nobody cared or looked at me, thankfully, as they were concentrating on the pitch.  Finally, the ref signaled kick-off and the stadium burst into cheers.  I was still holding back the tears, but it was becoming a real problem, so I pretended it was cold and had something in my eyes.

Chelsea scored and the place exploded into blue and white colors.  No stopping us now.  Screams and songs erupted across the Bridge, ears bursting, but what a feeling.  Unfortunately Cluj pulled one back, and before half time it was 1-1.

Drogba came on in second half and scored the winning goal.  The king of Chelsea and goals had returned to help his team.  He was instantly hailed as a hero by the supporters.  It was like watching the gladiators in the Colosseum, fighting for fame and fortune.  Brilliant.

90 minutes passed in 90 minutes!  The game was over and the stadium started to clear.  We went to the private bar after the game instead.  I was longing for a beer to calm me down again, and lost count after 4 beers.  The VIP arrangement finished an hour after kick-off, by which time all the spectators had left and we could calmly leave the Bridge behind us.

On the way out, a few of the Chelsea players left the stadium too, driving their huge Range Rovers.  It was a surreal experience to see the players up close.  However, I refused to ask for their autograph or take their picture – I’m 36 you know!

That night, back at the hotel, I dreamt of hanging out with my heroes at the Bridge, pretending to play football and then back to my gaf for a BBQ.  You are allowed to dream you know.  🙂

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