Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 14 October 2017.
My eyes were firmly focussed on Andre Marriner, the referee, as the Crystal Palace supporters continued their euphoric and boisterous backdrop of noise, and as the last few seconds of the five minutes of added time ticked past. In those five minutes, rather than allowing a late reprise for Chelsea, it was the home team who enjoyed most of the possession. A few Chelsea fans around me had left minutes earlier. I waited for the final shrill toot of the whistle. Such was the noise from the Palace fans, I heard no whistle, but just the simultaneous movement of hand to mouth from Marriner, the celebratory thrust of Palace players’ arms into the air and the roar from the crowd at a raucous Selhurst Park.
There was deflation. Another three points dropped, Chelsea. Three losses out of just eight league games. Two consecutive losses. Losing to Manchester City was tough, of course, but we all knew that we had encountered a very fine team two weeks previous. But Crystal Palace were different; without a win in seven games and not even a single goal to their name. There was bewilderment within me, and all around me too. There was no point in trying to move away from my viewing position way down at the front of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand. The aisle ways were full of exiting away fans. Besides, I wanted to see how many of the team, the squad, would come over to the away fans to acknowledge our patronage and support. A few moments passed. I saw a few murky grey Chelsea shirts head down to the players’ exit on the far side, tucked between the towering curved roof of the Holmesdale Road stand and the slight slope of the ancient main stand. Those players were gone, out of my consciousness for a few moments. I spotted four Chelsea players continue their handshakes with a few of the opposing victors in our half of the pitch, and waited to see who would decide to walk over to our corner. Surely the captain Gary Cahill. Surely Cesar Azpilicueta.
I picked up my camera from beneath my seat. An over-zealous steward had warned me not to take any more photographs after he saw me take a close-up of a haring Davide Zappacosta in the first few minutes of the second-half. By then, though, I had taken more than enough for my match day quota, shielded from prying eyes by Ed and Parky, my two blockers. There is an increasing war of nerves between myself and stewards at away games these days. With the game over, and the stewards drifting away, uninterested, I brought the camera up to my eyes, and waited for the remaining Chelsea players to walk over.
Marcos Alonso, Gary Cahill, Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta.
There were pained expressions from all four of them.
They clapped us. We clapped them. There were no boos. There had been no boos as the game had reached its conclusion. For some reason – I suspect they are plain and obvious – our away support tends not to lower ourselves to collective boos. Of course there had been a rising tide of moans and groans, accompanied by every Anglo-Saxon curse known to mankind, throughout the game from frustrated supporters, but there was nothing orchestrated on a larger scale. My view has always been the same. I go to watch Chelsea to support the team. I try to be as positive as possible. Of course my frustrations get the better of me at times, but I always do my damnedest to find positives where I can, and to encourage those who need it most. In all of my time as a Chelsea supporter – Crystal Palace was game number 1,155 – I can only remember booing a player once; Frank Leboeuf in 2000, down below me as he came over to receive a throw-in the Matthew Harding wraparound, when it was thought that he was one of the main perpetrators in needling out Gianlica Vialli as manager. I was not the only one who booed him on that occasion. Leboeuf, previously a crowd favourite, looked visibly shocked that so many were booing him. I immediately felt terrible. What a fucking twat I was. I vowed never to do so again.
By all means berate players, if deserved, in private chats in pubs, clubs, bars and cars, but never at a game. Always be positive. Always provide backing. That surely has to be one of the Chelsea fundamentals.
At Chelsea games, we are supporters, not critics.
I took a few photos of the four players, standing, immobile, their faces still distraught.
I wondered what was going through their minds. I wondered what words from Antonio Conte would be awaiting them on their return to the waiting changing room.
It had, from the very first few minutes, been a below-par Chelsea performance. The home team, managed by the old man Roy Hodgson – it was only ten weeks ago we bumped into him in Beijing at the Chelsea hotel – and coached by former favourite Ray Lewington, were first out of the traps, with Zaha and Townsend full of skill. An early goal, a Cabaye shot deflected in off the hapless Azpilicueta, surprised none of us. Whereas we all expected to win the game easily, I would hazard a bet that 95% of us knew that Palace would score their first goal of the league season against us. There was just something in our collective psyche that warned of this. That it only took eleven minutes was even more predictable. In my mind, before the game, my thoughts were –
“Concede an early goal, but win 3-1.”
How the Palace fans celebrated that league opener.
We slowly – slowly – got back in to the game as the first-half developed. A header by Tiemoue Bakayoko from a Cesc Fabregas corner was wildly celebrated and set off the September Song. However, a second goal from Palace, by the impressive Zaha, right before the break brought further gloom.
There were changes soon into the second-half with the very disappointing Michy Batshuayi going off to be replaced by the zip of Pedro. Charly Musonda then replaced the equally frustrating Willian. It was all change. Our attack had been invaded by mini-men. Eden Hazard was asked to lead the line, but at times the game totally evaded him. I kept thinking that if Hazard is truly to be regarded as one of the attacking greats of the modern game, then this is just the sort of match that he needs to grab by the horns and cause mayhem. He did nothing of note. Sure, Fabregas hit the bar, and Musonda volleyed over, but our play was erratic all day. We missed Kante, holding things in midfield. Oh how we missed Morata. Long diagonals to Zappacosta worked well, and he seemed pacey and engaged, but an equaliser never ever looked like coming. Our passing was off. We were second best in a few areas. In those closing moments, with the game stretched, Palace had further chances. Our support, mirroring the malaise of the players, was average at best. There is usually a good sing-song at Selhurst. On this day, it was all rather flat and lethargic. The lazy sexist comments aimed at Sian Massey, running the line, were just painful. Must do better.
The players walked a couple of paces towards us. There was still applause from the Arthur Wait stand. Marcos had tried his best, but had found little space out wide in order to play penetrating balls in. There had been the usual effort on this mild, but bleak, Saturday afternoon in South London for our Spanish left-back. Gary Cahill had a mixed game. There had been brave blocks and strong headers, but he often looked all at sea when the ball was played on the deck. As captain, he bore the defeat heavily on his shoulders. Thibaut walked closer, taking off his bright orange jersey, and eventually gave it to a fan in the crowd. He has never had all of the Chelsea support with him during his three seasons at Stamford Bridge, but our tall Belgian often stays behind to thank us for our support. Does it mean anything? I think so. Alongside him was Cesar Azpilicueta, our Dave, his face showing the pain of defeat. It was an expression that was matched by myself. Everyone loves Dave. He had a typical 7/10 performance and was unlucky with his deflected own-goal. I wanted him to make a block on Zaha during his run into the box for the second goal, but for once his limpet-like man marking did not get him close enough to the Palace striker. Whereas others in the Chelsea support would be quick to castigate Azpilicueta, I was happy to give him some slack. He rarely lets us down.
Joining the four was Tiemoue Bakayoko, who took off his shirt and rolled it up before launching it into the away support. It landed in the grasping hands of a fan a few yards away. Without Kante alongside him, Bakayoko was asked to cover simply too much ground. Alongside him, Fabregas had a mixed game too, a few fine passes, a few crunching tackles, but the game then by-passed him at times.
The five players turned and retreated back across the pitch.
Crystal Palace 2 Chelsea 1.
Let’s all admit it. We all presumed that we only had to show up at Selhurst Park to get three points. Going in to the game, on the drive up to London and through the terraced streets of South London – why is Selhurst Park such a bastard place to get to and from? – we were adamant that we would be victorious. With six games coming up in just eighteen games in October, here was a game that, even with a slightly weaker team, we should have surely won. There were no complaints from the four of us about the team selection prior to kick-off. But the manager must feel pain that his preparatory work amounted to nothing.
And it was complacency at its best, and worst, from many.
After the game, all the experts had their say – I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek, of course, some of the post-game hyperbole was embarrassing – but there are a few truths which can’t be ignored.
Our lack of options up front, especially, must be a worry. I spoke to Ed during the game about the halcyon days of 1997/98 when our first team squad boasted Mark Hughes, Tore Andre Flo, Gianluca Vialli and Ginafranco Zola battling for places in attack. How times change, eh? Conversely, we have an over-abundance of central defenders, with Christensen, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta and Rudiger vying for three places. Christensen has not put a foot wrong so far. Let’s see if the manager takes the plunge.
We have to trust the manager. He has proved to be a fine tactician in his short Chelsea career thus far. It’s time for a reaction from our beloved players. And what is better than a potentially classic Champions League game against Roma on Wednesday to look forward to. As we drove home on Saturday night, we quickly warmed to the excitement of another European night under the lights at Stamford Bridge.
We are lucky people. I can almost hear the anthem. See you there.