Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 1 March 2011.
At work in the morning, I had a little chat with one of my work colleagues, a Manchester United fan.
“If you’re involved in the loading of the vehicles today, I want everything done sharpish as I have an evening’s entertainment to attend.”
“Oh, you’re playing tonight are you? Who against?”
“Uh – yeah. You may have heard of them. From Salford. Play in red.”
The penny dropped, and he was full of embarrassment.
Such is the way with United fans, all the world over I guess.
With my workload eventually completed, I left Chippenham at just after 4.30pm and I could relax a little. For once, I was travelling alone. Parky had taken the “slow boat to China” option and had travelled up by coach. Due to concerns about getting away on time, I had warned him that I might be away late. On Monday, for example, I didn’t leave until 6.15pm. A repeat would mean that I would be trapped in rush-hour traffic and would be unlikely to reach The Bridge until half-time. So, Parky caught a coach at 11.30am and eventually reached Earls Court at 3.30pm. By the time I was leaving Chippenham, he was probably on his third pint in The Goose.
As I drove past the Griffin Park floodlights at around 6pm, I switched over to listen to the sports bulletin on the radio. Carlo Ancelotti confirmed that Drogba and Torres would both take part in the game against United, though he didn’t say if both would be starting. After a delay getting in to London, I eventually walked into The Goose at 7pm. Parky was especially glad to see me as it meant that he wouldn’t have to wait around for the 2am return coach trip. James (zippy) from Kansas City had been in touch during the build up to the game and I had pointed him in the direction of The Goose, Parky and the rest of The Bing. He had enjoyed the pre-match hospitality and it looked like a good time had been shared. I took a couple of swigs from Parky’s pint and we were soon on our way up the North End Road. There was a chill in the air but our jackets kept out the cold.
Chelsea versus Manchester United. The Blues versus the Reds. The South versus the North. The Good Guys versus the Forces of Darkness. I have been lucky enough to attend every single one of the last twenty Chelsea vs. Manchester United league games at The Bridge and, of course, there are tons of memories. Our last defeat against them at home was way back in 2002 – we have certainly held the advantage in recent years.
For a change, I had a seat in The Shed Lower – not far from where Lord Parky resides – and I found myself near James, too. Luckily, there was a spare seat next to him, so I soon sat alongside. Our seats were just three rows from the back of the lower tier near the SW corner flag, underneath the overhang. If my memory serves, the last five rows were originally part of an enclosed corporate area when the stand was built in 1997. To be quite honest, the seats were cramped and the overhang gave a claustrophobic feel to the area. I’d hate to watch from there every game – Shed or no Shed. I longed for my usual perch, way up in the Matthew Harding wraparound. However, I had my camera at the ready – as ever – and I was preparing myself for plenty of shots from a different angle for a change.
I had only ever visited the Shed Lower on two other occasions. Ironically, on the fifth anniversary of the passing of the legendary Peter Osgood, I was reminded of that emotional Sunday in October 2006 when I attended The King’s memorial service, including the burial of his ashes at The Shed End penalty spot. Everyone who was there will remember the rain shower during the service, but then the sky lighting up with sun just before the casket was taken to its final resting place. I watched, with quiet and stony-faced reverence, on that saddest of days, from around Gate 5 in the Shed Lower. Then, in May 2007, I was back in the same corner for the Chelsea vs. Manchester United encounter. I took Judy’s boy James – a United follower – along for that one and it was a bitter-sweet experience…we had just relinquished our title to a resurgent United and so we had to give them a guard of honour as they entered the pitch. To be honest, both teams put out B teams and it ended 0-0. It was enjoyable, though, to be able to share my passion for Chelsea with James and he certainly got a kick out of seeing United up close. We had the last laugh, of course, later that month…F.A. Cup winners against United at the new Wembley.
Back to 2011 and all of those United memories evaporated in the noise as the teams entered the Stamford Bridge pitch.
This was here, this was now. Let’s go to work.
Being so low down, I immediately found the viewing position very frustrating. I spent the first few minutes acclimatising myself to my new surroundings. Having been tuned to see Chelsea in a standard 4-3-3 for the past six years, it took me a while to work out if Florent Malouda was the third striker or out wide in a flat 4-4-2. I think it took me all of the game to work it out and, even by the time he was subbed deep into the second-half, I still hadn’t sussed it.
I thought we began brightly and had the majority of the early ball. Fernando Torres was finding himself in lots of good positions and his movement and enthusiastic play was good to see. He seemed to especially enjoy drifting into the space out in that wide area in front of me, and I was transfixed with the way we worked the ball between Torres, Ramires and Ivanovic. It certainly was fantastic to be so close to the action. I snapped away as Branislav, in particular, sent balls into the area. Soon into the game, Anelka sent a ball in to the area from the inside-right berth, only for Malouda to fluff his shot, hitting it straight at Van De Sar. This sort of finishing was often repeated in the first quarter.
After our left-back’s stupidity at the training ground, the Matthew Harding was shouting “shoot” every time he touched the ball. What Ashley thought of this is not known, thank heavens.
Midway through the first period, I spotted Roy Bentley, no more than thirty feet away from me, sitting in the last remaining part of the old corporate area. As The Shed Lower curves around to the West Stand, there is one little private box left – and I got the impression that there were a few players’ wives and partners sat alongside Roy. Despite this being the hottest of tickets, most of the seats in the area were unused.
Then United’s presence grew and dominated the rest of the first-half. Paul Scholes, that old warhorse, was repeating his performance at last summer’s Community Shield, sitting deep and sliding other players in. Our midfield was giving United far too much respect and space and the frustration amongst the nearby home support rose. Rooney headed over on twenty minutes and a cross from Nani screamed across our six yard box soon after. Then, calamity. We backed off as Rooney was allowed to turn and, from about twenty-five yards out, drill a superbly accurate shot into Cech’s goal.
Silence. Not just from the Chelsea support, but for a split second, from the United support too. But then, rather than being subjected to the triumphal roar that I am used to hearing from the away fans, instead there was an eerily muffled noise. I looked over to my right, above the heads of silent Chelsea fans, to the lower tier of the away section. I saw a forest of pumping arms and joyous faces, but – quire bizarrely – the overhang of the top tier and the thousand or so Chelsea fans had acted as noise insulation and the United fans’ obvious roar was ridiculously quiet. What a strange feeling. I’ll be honest, from my position in that cramped corner, I hardly heard a United song throughout the entire game, though I am sure they were in good voice. I suspect that they went through their usual repertoire. The Chelsea support responded with a ditty which amused James; I guess he hadn’t heard it before…
“Live round the corner, you only live round the corner.”
United were in their pomp and our midfield was missing. Frank Lampard and Michael Essien were so poor as to be not worth comment. The moans continued and our support quickly waned. Then, bizarrely, we upped the tempo briefly in the last few minutes of the half and an amazing chance fell to Ivanovic after a goalmouth scramble from a free-kick. From my position, the ball seemed to hang in the air with just the slightest touch required to send the ball over the line, an open goal at his mercy, but the ball didn’t go in. The ball was hacked away amid absolute astonishment from all of us. Astounding. We needed an action replay – “what happened???”
James and I met up with Lord Parky in the crowded area below the seats at half-time and the mood wasn’t great. We wanted Carlo to change something – the shape, the system, something. We weren’t sure what needed to be done – we just hoped for the best. I feared further United goals and humiliation.
Well, what a second-half. Our appetite was noticeably different and our midfield – at last! – pressed United at every opportunity. We grew with each passing minute and the home support grew louder with each thunderous tackle, each rampaging run, each towering header. Every man stepped up and it was a joy to watch.
David Luiz, one of the brighter elements in that staid first half, gave a truly unforgettable performance. He was full of enthusiasm, full of dashing runs, full of character and energy. He made a few reckless tackles to be honest, and he needs to watch that, but the Chelsea crowd immediately warmed to him. Then – his defining moment. From a cross on 54 minutes, the ball was played back to the waiting Brazilian and he slammed the ball into the United net.
What a deafening roar accompanied that strike from Luiz. After riding our luck in that first-half, we were level. With that, we had a lovely spell and our players sensed the chance to dominate a clearly troubled United team. Our defence was supremely marshalled by John Terry and we limited United to just a few chances. On the hour, Carlo changed things and brought on Didier for Anelka. Fresh blood. However, after giving Luiz the slip, Rooney (the target for much abuse from the home support) broke and I feared the worse. I watched, on tenterhooks, as he dribbled closer to Cech and struck a ball which thankfully sailed wide of the far post. On other occasions, Cech’s hands were thoroughly dependable.
The game continued and what a great game it was, full of tempo and pace. The tackles grew fiercer and fiercer. Ramires was everywhere, Torres was running the channels and Drogba was leading the line. Carlo replaced Malouda with Zhirkov and our spritely Russian was soon in the thick of it.
Was it a penalty? I wasn’t so sure. Watching from 100 yards away, it looked like Yuri just ran into the United defender, but to our absolute joy, Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.
Oh you beauty.
With my camera poised, I zoned in on Frank Lampard. He placed the ball on the spot. Snap. He nervously pulled up his shorts. Snap. He approached the ball and struck. Snap.
In that split second between me taking the photo and pulling the camera away from my eye, I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on the flight of the ball, so I just waited for the roar.
There was a roar.
We were 2-1 up.
Screams, shouts, arms thrust skywards, hugs with a stranger to my left and with James to my right. What a joyous moment. We grew even stronger, United went to pieces.
In the closing moments, the substitute Ryan Giggs came over to take a corner, no further than ten yards from me. I took a few photographs. I have a lot of time for Giggs – a tremendous player and, surprisingly, a United player who is not loathed and hated by the non-United section of the football fraternity . This was his 606th league game for United. This therefore tied the United record with Bobby Charlton, whose last ever game for United (yes, you guessed it, at The Bridge in 1973…a game I remember seeing on TV, if only for a comical Ossie goal) was featured in the night’s programme.
Alex came on for David Luiz – one Brazilian for another – and Luiz was given a fantastic reception. And still the tackles thundered in. I could see someone getting sent off and, after a couple of rash challenges, Nemanja Vidic was ordered off. Oh boy –it gets better. Of course, the absolute dream ending to this great game would have been El Nino’s last minute shot going in rather than being blocked.
At the final whistle, a huge roar and the PA immediately played “One Step Beyond.” The Bridge was bouncing and nobody wanted to leave. James, thousands of miles from his home in Kansas and over for one game only, was in heaven. We met up with Lord Parky and I could see he was dewy-eyed.
Chelsea does that to you, you know.
With that, Danny and Mike from the New York chapter suddenly appeared and there were more smiles and hugs.
We sauntered – yes, that’s a good word – through the masses of jubilant Chelsea fans on the Fulham Road and the London night was full of Chelsea songs. Danny and Mike disappeared off to a pub – “see you at Blackpool”- but we needed to get home. The resurgence in our play during that excellent second period surely augurs well for the rest of the season. Carlo is in the middle of a testing spell as he needs to plan his assault on the Champions League campaign this year, but he also needs to look to the future and change the personnel for the new season, too. Let’s push on now and see where this team can take us. As we battled the crowds, I told Parky that a third-place finish in the league this year is well within our capabilities.
At the intersection of the North End Road and Lillee Road, James and I said our goodbyes. He promised a yearly visit to Chelsea in the years ahead and I look forward to welcoming him back. As he headed off towards West Brompton tube, I’m sure I saw him jump up and click his heels.
It had been a lovely, lovely night.