The return of finals with fans
Last month, I was fortunate enough to attend both the FA Cup and Champions League Finals. Having been starved of attending live sports events for well over a year, I headed for Wembley on the 15th May, brimming with excitement. As a Chelsea season ticket holder, going to matches is a privilege I had taken for granted before the pandemic led to crowds being barred from live sports events back in April 2020. I would have been eager to go even if it was a dead rubber league game, but this was an FA Cup final. I fully expected Chelsea to lift their first piece of silverware for the season in the lead up to the game, but I was in for an unpleasant surprise.
Seeing hundreds of fans walk up Wembley Way having got far too used to empty stadiums and fake crowd noise on TV was surreal, and stepping out of the gate to find my seat to a cacophony of noise was even more so, with 21,000 fans buzzing with anticipation. The Leicester supporters were incredibly loud and produced an electric atmosphere – you could sense how much the prospect of a first ever FA Cup trophy meant to them. Perhaps that was what made the difference in the game; the Leicester City players and fans simply wanted it more, as the cliché goes. Many of the players in this Chelsea side have already won the FA Cup under Antonio Conte’s management in 2018, whereas most of Leicester City’s promising group of players had yet to taste silverware with the club, aside from the few who were part of their astonishing title winning season in 2015/16.
Chelsea had more of the ball, as expected, but Leicester held firm, and were frustratingly organised. The longer Chelsea went without scoring, the more I felt nervousness creep in amongst the ranks of Chelsea fans, and that seemed to be reflected by the players. Then, in the 63rd minute, Youri Tielemans scored with a rocket of a strike to make it 1-0 to Leicester, and the Leicester supporters erupted. Despite being dismayed at seeing my team go behind, I have to admit it was refreshing to hear that thunderous roar again for the first time in over a year, and this was especially loud. Towards the end of the second half, with Leicester looking to hold on to their lead, Chelsea had a flurry of chances, hitting the post, and seeing a good effort from Mount saved. Then, in stoppage time, the Chelsea end reverberated as the ball ended up in the back of Leicester’s net off Wes Morgan, only for it to be disallowed after a VAR check, much to our disbelief. The frustration of celebrating a goal and then having it chalked off by VAR is one thing I hadn’t missed about the match day experience. Leicester then saw out the rest of the game, and although I was of course bitterly disappointed to see Chelsea lose a second FA Cup final in a row, Leicester deserved it, and the elation from their supporters at the end of the game made it clear that this final meant more to them.
Two weeks later, I made my way to Porto for the Champions League Final. The FA Cup is of course a trophy that every supporter of an English club would like to win, but the Champions League is the ultimate club competition – it showcases the highest standard of football of any in the world and is arguably the most difficult to win. Before this season, Chelsea had last reached a final in 2012, when the club won the competition for the first time against Bayern Munich at their own stadium, the Allianz Arena. For most Chelsea supporters (before the 29th May 2021), that was the greatest moment in the club’s history. Chelsea’s opponents, Manchester City, have never won the Champions League, despite winning almost every other available trophy since being bought by the Abu Dhabi Group in 2008, and this was their first appearance in a final.
I landed in Porto at around 2pm, and headed straight to the city’s main square, where the Chelsea fan zone was located. It was already packed with supporters, so much so that it felt almost as if a full-capacity crowd was going to be attending, rather than the 8,000 fans for each team that had been allocated by UEFA. After spending hours in the square, I arrived at the 50,000-seater Estadio do Dragao about twenty minutes before the 8pm kick-off. It is an incredibly impressive stadium, fit for a Champions League final. I took my seat a few rows back from the pitch, just to the right of one of the goals in the end that had been allocated to the Chelsea fans. The excitement and nervous energy was palpable, particularly when the iconic Champions League anthem was played as both sets of players stood side by side just before kick-off. Unlike in the FA Cup Final, the Chelsea fans were in full voice from the start of the game. Despite the stadium being less than half-full, it felt like it was packed, and thoughts of COVID-19 and restrictions were the furthest they have been from my mind since the pandemic began.
Chelsea started strongly, and the confident start lifted the crowd significantly. Just before the end of the first half, Mason Mount played an inch-perfect pass to Kai Havertz, who found himself clean through, one on one with the goalkeeper. As he rounded the keeper, it felt like everyone around me collectively held their breath, before he passed it into an open goal, and pandemonium ensued. I expected City to come back strongly in the second half, but Chelsea largely remained in control, although the 1-goal lead meant that we were squirming in our seats whenever City attacked. Chelsea were attacking the goal we were sitting behind in the second half, and we almost witnessed them put the game to bed, when Havertz laid it on a plate for Christian Pulisic after a superb run, but he put it wide. After the 90 minutes of normal time, a daunting 7 minutes of stoppage time was announced, and that 7 minutes felt like an age, especially with Sergio Aguero having come on, in his last appearance for Manchester City. At last, the final whistle sounded, and the celebrations began. ‘One Step Beyond’ by Madness – always played after important Chelsea victories – rang around the stadium, and heroes from the campaign were serenaded by the ecstatic Chelsea end as the City fans poured out, before we watched Cesar Azpilicueta lift the famous trophy. It was an unforgettable day as a Chelsea supporter, and the first one that made me completely feel for a brief blessed moment as if normality had returned.