"Life begins at Fulham Broadway," screamed the billboards outside the west London Tube station of the same name. But for the thousands of Chelsea fans who descended on SW6 for a 12-hour jamboree yesterday, it felt like where life ended.
The ocean of blue shirts that washed over Fulham Road from the early afternoon was more redolent of a home game than an away fixture. "This game is the biggest of our lives," one fan said. "It's bigger than an FA Cup final. Tonight's the night for dreams." But by quarter to 11 last night it was a night of nightmares instead.
At 3pm, street sellers could hardly keep up with the demand for the Champions League flags and match-day shirts, going for £5 each.
News filtered through on mobile phones in the early afternoon of 224 Chelsea fans whose cancelled flight to Moscow left them stranded at Gatwick airport. It provided many with the reassurance that in staying in the capital they had made the right decision.
"I've lost count of the number of extra kegs we ordered in tonight but we are into dozens at least," said Nick Webb, the manager of fans' favourite, SO Bar, opposite the Britannia Gate. "We've done more than a strong weekend's business in a single night. The fans come to me because they know I won't chuck them out for singing."
And sing they did. "Chelsea, wherever you may be, we will follow you over land and sea..." A crescendo of noise accompanied each new chant, reaching fever pitch in the minutes before the game and coming with renewed vigour as the final whistle was blown and extra time began.
All the pubs in Fulham were either fully booked or forced to operate a one-in, one-out policy. Queues 30 metres long stretched out from the door to the Slug and Lettuce, where several dozen fans had camped out from 11am.
Brogan's pub across the road was, by comparison, sparsely populated for most of the afternoon. But by mid-afternoon it began to fill so fast that several security guards had trouble regulating the swelling crowd, many of whom hustled perilously close to the busy traffic outside.
A dozen supporters held hands to form a symbolic chain of solidarity outside the Britannia Gate at kick-off. Five minutes' walk away, just off Waterford Road, the Pelican pub was a sea of royal blue, erupting with anticipation. "Come on Chelsea! Come on Chelsea! Come on Chelsea!"
In Cafe Brazil, Christian Ronaldo's slick header after 26 minutes met with a combination of desultory boos and derogatory references to his Portuguese heritage. When Frank Lampard, the local hero, stole a yard to equalise on the stroke of half-time, the cheers could be heard half a mile away. But Chelsea's second half onslaught was greeted with growing frustration.
Drogba's red card three minutes from the end would prove a minor distraction from the drama to follow.
Ronaldo's approach to the penalty spot was met with the biggest boos of the night as chants of "Who are you? Who are you?" grew louder. His miss provided the loudest cheer of the evening and a premature sense of triumph.
But then Nicolas Anelka's miss precipitated a deafening gloom. "To United! On fucking penalties!" was the cry of more than one fan. "JT [John Terry, the Chelsea captain] has gone from hero to zero. He's finished here. We'll never forgive him for this."Reuse content