Fun in the...snow!

It is 20 years since we played Norwegian side, Tromso, in incredible snowy conditions. Our resident American blogger has given his recollections of his favourite ever 'away day'...

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 and last season the headmistress of our opponents called off our 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. It was a wee bit nippy at 4pm, the scheduled kick-off, but that was it. I took the girls training instead and the sun shone.

Rather than lecture them about today’s mollycoddled teenagers, I sent a YouTube video of a match I went to back in October 1997. A pre-Abramovich Chelsea against Norwegian club, Tromso, which saw the contest take place deep inside the Arctic Circle at the ground of the most northerly top-flight team in the world.

Chelsea were managed by Ruud Gullit and were flying high (-ish) but not at the stratospheric level they would reach thanks to the millions from the Roman Empire. I had been a Blues fan for more than two decades, my mum taking 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.

But by the mid-nineties we were done with yo-yoing between divisions. Glen Hoddle had led us to the 1994 FA Cup final, Gullit, our dreadlocked Dutch player-manager took us to another semi-final in 1996 and then became the first foreign manager to win the trophy in 1997. We had Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola, Mark Hughes, Roberto di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf. It was an exciting time to be a Chelsea supporter after years of cup defeats to lower-league outfits like Scunthorpe. Now, here we were in the second round of the European Cup Winners Cup, a campaign that would end in triumph with a 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 by UEFA. I wanted to make it to all 50-something territories who were members of the governing body, so on my list were San Marino, the Faroe Islands and Andorra, places with populations smaller than the crowd who cram the Superdome to watch the other type of football here in the Big Easy. Any excuse and I was off – I followed the Northern Ireland U-16 team to Belarus and Ukraine, booked a daytrip 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.

Anyway, I had never been to Norway and this was the perfect excuse to take in the tie and add on a stay in Bergen and a cruise around the fjords. I persuaded two mates to join the jaunt 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 or so listed in the town, so I stayed late at the office one night and spent hours huddled over the fax machine. Eventually one answered and we had a triple room booked.

The flights came next, Belfast to London, then to Oslo, onto to Bergen and then finally to Tromso. Now all we needed was a ticket to the game at the Alfheim Stadium with a capacity of around 6,000, the only way you could guarantee a ticket was by traveling on a club-organised day trip from London.

We woke the morning of the match to what euphemistically might be called a ‘bracing’ day. Between snow flurries, we meandered around this small, clean, nondescript football outpost on a hunt for tickets.

Our first stop was the team hotel (not hard to locate, the only four-star establishment in the town), and inside I spotted Chelsea managing director Colin Hutchinson. I showed him my club membership card and asked as I’ve travelled all the way from Belfast, whether he could 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,’ came his reply. Actually, the weather did seem to have deteriorated severely.

Outside we were approached by the two worst ticket touts in sporting history. They were about 14 – why weren’t they in school? – and asked if we needed tickets as they had a pair. The face value was the equivalent of about 15 pounds and they wanted almost double, something like 25 a ticket. We declined and continued walking.

About 100 yards down the street was ex-West Ham legend Trevor Brooking, part of the BBC commentary team, and jokingly I said as we passed, ‘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 retort stopped me in my tracks. Of course, he was right. We had spent a small fortune on flights and hotels and I was turning down a ticket because I may save a few quid later. We turned around, went back, and bought them.

But after they had handed the tickets over, it was the turn of the youths to have second thoughts. They realised that they hadn’t asked enough and – I swear to God – asked if they could have them back so they could sell them to someone who would pay more. We politely declined the request, later that afternoon our third friend scored a ticket from a Chelsea fan whose friend had not made it out, and we were set. The weather worsened.

So we found a bar and warmed up, then headed to the tidy little ground perched on top of a hill on the edge of town. We were in with the locals but everyone was full of festive fun and as the match kicked off it had even stopped snowing.

But at half-time, an almighty storm hit and it continued throughout the second period. Twice they had to stop play to brush snow off the field and attempt to clear the line markings. It was hard to see 10 feet in front of you, never mind actually try to play football, and great mounds of snow were banked pitch-side as the Scandinavians feverishly swept it off the playing surface.

And, as the conditions got worse, Tromso got better.

The Norwegians went 3-1 up against the international superstars and World Cup winners. Ruud was apoplectic on the touchline, arguing with the officials and demanding that the game should be called off. Heading into the final minute two goals behind, we were trying to cross our frozen fingers that it would be replayed.

But then Vialli stumbled his way through both the snow and the Tromso backline – two defenders just lost their footing and fell over, seriously, watch it on YouTube - and his second of the evening made it 3-2. Everyone was happy; they earned a famous victory against the big boys, only their second in Europe, and we were confident we would overturn the tie in London (we won the return leg 7-1).

So we slipped and slid down the slope as we departed the ground. Fans clung to each other and parents inched along the sidewalk, reaching out to grab children before they glided off into the polar night. The locals were safely at the bottom of the hill and launched a barrage of snowballs into our direction. A free-for-all broke out as white projectiles flew through the sky, tribal football loyalties temporarily forgotten as everyone threw snowballs blindly at one another. Back at the pub, we were cold and dusted in snow but giggled like kids as we began to warm up.

Amazingly, at the bar were two Chelsea fans who 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, I was there when we beat Real Madrid in Monaco to lift the European Super Cup a few months after that, and I was 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? Best away trip ever.