I live in New Orleans. In Louisiana when the temperature dips into the low twenties the locals dress for a trip to the supermarket like Scott of the Antarctic traipsing to the South Pole.
I coach football at a girls’ school. Last season the headmistress of our opponents called off a game due to “health reasons” because it was only five degrees. No snow, no freezing fog, no driving rain, no swirling maelstrom of sleet and hail. I took the girls training instead and the sun was shining.
Rather than lecture the team about today’s cosseted teenagers, I sent around a YouTube video of a match I went to back in October 1997. It was a game that took place deep inside the Arctic Circle at the home of the most northerly top-flight team in the world, as a pre-Roman Abramovich Chelsea side faced Norwegian club Tromso.
Chelsea were managed by Ruud Gullit and were flying high(ish) at the time, but not yet at the stratospheric level they would reach thanks to Abramovich’s millions. I had been a Blues fan for more than two decades. My mum took me on my first trip to Stamford Bridge from our home in Northern Ireland in the seventies – a scoreless draw with Liverpool the year we were relegated.
By the mid-nineties Chelsea were done with yo-yoing between divisions. Glenn Hoddle led us to the 1994 FA Cup final, while our dreadlocked Dutch player-manager took us to another semi-final in 1996. The following year he became the first foreign manager to win the trophy.
It was an exciting time to be a Chelsea supporter with the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola, Mark Hughes, Roberto di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf in the team. After years of cup defeats to rubbish lower-league outfits like Scunthorpe, here we were in the second round of the European Cup Winners Cup. It was a campaign that would end in triumph with victory over Stuttgart eight months later.
Back then I owned a travel agency in Belfast and was on a mission to visit every country in Europe. Not countries as defined by the United Nations, but instead those acknowledged by UEFA.
Any excuse and I was off. I followed the Northern Ireland under-16 team to Belarus and Ukraine, booked a day trip to Estonia from Leeds, and hit Latvia and Lithuania with Chelsea on Champions League qualifiers. When I emigrated to the States in 2004 I had fallen one short – Moldova – although since then UEFA has added Kazakhstan, Montenegro and Kosovo.
When the Tromso tie was drawn, I’d never been to Norway, and so it was the perfect excuse to take in the game and add on a stay in Bergen and a cruise around the fjords. I persuaded two mates to join me and set to work.
The internet was in its infancy, so the first challenge was finding somewhere to stay. I had an international hotel directory with a dozen listings and, like a desperate football manager on transfer deadline day, I stayed late at the office one night huddled over the fax machine. Eventually one of the hotels answered and confirmed our booking.
The flights came next: Belfast-to-London-to-Oslo-to-Bergen-to-Tromso. Now all we needed was a ticket to the game at the 6,000-capacity Alfheim Stadium, as back in the fag-end days of hooliganism the only way you got a ticket was by traveling on a club-organised trip from London.
We woke the morning of the match to what could politely be termed a bracing day. Between snow flurries we meandered around the small, nondescript Arctic outpost on the hunt for tickets. Our first stop was the team hotel (not hard to locate, the only four-star establishment in town), and inside I spotted Chelsea managing director Colin Hutchinson. I showed him my club membership card and asked, as I’d travelled all the way from Belfast, could he help me out.
“I’m just concentrating on trying to make sure that we can play the game and that it’s not going to be cancelled,” was his short reply. Actually, the weather did seem to have deteriorated.
Outside we were approached by the two worst ticket touts in history. They were around 14 years old – why weren’t they in school? – and asked if we needed tickets as they had a spare pair. The face value was the equivalent of around 15 pounds and they wanted almost double, so we declined and carried on walking.
About 100 yards down the street we bumped into West Ham legend Trevor Brooking, who was part of the BBC commentary team. As we passed, I joked: “Mr Brooking will help us get a ticket.” He laughed and said: “Lads – it’s a long way to come without a ticket.”
His throwaway comment stopped me dead. Of course he was right, we had spent a small fortune on flights and hotels and I had inexplicably turned down two young touts because I may save a few quid later. We turned around and quickly went back and bought them.
After they had handed the tickets over, it was the turn of the youths to have second thoughts. They realised they hadn’t charged enough and, out of cheek or naivety, asked if they could have them back so they could sell them to someone who would pay more. We politely declined, and later that afternoon our third friend scored a ticket as the weather worsened.
By this time it was pretty bleak outside, so we found a bar and warmed up before heading to the tidy little stadium perched on top of a hill on the edge of town. We were in with the locals but everyone was full of festive fun. Even the weather had cleared up a bit.
It turned out it wasn’t for long, though, as at half time an almighty storm hit that continued throughout the second half. The officials had to stop play twice to brush snow off the field and attempt to clear the line markings. It was hard to see ten feet in front of you, never mind play football, and great mounds of snow were banked pitch-side as the stewards feverishly swept like Cinderella on speed.
As the conditions deteriorated, Tromso got better. The Norwegian part-timers went 3-1 up against Chelsea’s international superstars and World Cup winners. Gullit was apoplectic on the touchline, arguing with the officials and demanding the game be called off. Heading into the last minute two goals behind, we were trying to cross our frozen fingers that it would be replayed.
But then Vialli stumbled his way through the snow and the Tromso backline – as two defenders just lost their footing and fell over – to score his second of the evening and make it 3-2. Everyone was happy: they earned a famous victory against the big boys – only their second ever win in Europe – and we were sure we would overturn the tie in London. We were right to be confident: the second leg finished 7-1.
As we left the stadium we slid down the slope back to town. Fans clung to each other, inching along the pavement as parents reached out to grab their kids before they glided off into the polar night.
When we finally reached the bottom of the road, we met a group of locals waiting to hurl a barrage of snowballs. A free-for-all broke out as everyone got involved, tribal football loyalties temporarily forgotten in the freezing night air.
Back at the pub we dusted ourselves down and met two Chelsea fans at the bar. They had made the 1,400-mile trip from London but decided it was too cold to attempt the last 500 yards and stayed put listening to the game on the radio. In Norwegian.
I followed Chelsea in Europe a lot. I saw us win the Cup Winners’ Cup that season in Stockholm – our first European trophy in almost three decades – and was there when we beat Real Madrid in Monaco to lift the European Super Cup a few months later.
I was also in the San Siro when Dennis Wise scored a fantastic equaliser against AC Milan that Chelsea fans still sing about to this day. But that match in Tromso? That was the best away trip of them all.