Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 February 2012.
On the Saturday, most of England was hit with a snowstorm. As I hardly live around the corner from Stamford Bridge, I am always faced with a dilemma when the weather conditions take a nose dive. Even if the weather had cleared in the morning, there was always the risk of further snow on the Sunday, with the possibility of myself being stranded in London. Late on Saturday night, I decided that I would not be too upset if Chelsea were to call the game off. If so, this would have followed the same pattern as in 2010-2011. Our game in December against United was postponed until March. At the time, we were going through Ancelotti’s “bad moment” and so it all worked out for us. Obviously, we are hardly firing on all cylinders right now and so there was an additional reason behind my ambivalence to the game going ahead.
Let’s play United when we have a full set of players to choose from. Let’s regroup. Let’s beat them later in the season.
And yet, there was a further problem. I was well aware that there were five friends from various parts of the US who had travelled over to see the game. None of them had the added security of an extra Chelsea match, so my heart went out to them. What a terrible shame if their mission to see Chelsea play was derailed at the last minute.
I awoke on Sunday morning and quickly peered out of the window; no further snow in rural Somerset. The roads were icy but clearly navigable. However, I wondered now the Home Counties had fared. By the time I had collected Lord Parky at just after 10am, I had already received a text from Alan to confirm that Chelsea had confirmed that the game would go ahead. OK – glad to hear that. I knew that the guests from across the pond would be elated. On the drive east, the fields adjacent to the M4 showed more and more signs of snow with each passing mile. We diverted into Reading and swapped cars at my mate Russell’s. He had kindly volunteered to drive the last forty miles. This meant that I could relax a little and have a few beers as I wouldn’t be back in my car until around 7.30pm that evening.
The weather was actually quite mild, though the visibility wasn’t great. It was a murky old day in London. For a change, we didn’t head straight to The Goose. I have often commented on how lucky we are at Chelsea; Stamford Bridge is surrounded by pubs and restaurants, bars and cafes. There must be twenty-five boozers within a fifteen minute walk from the stadium. I can’t say I have visited everyone, but every season we say we’ll try out some new ones. To this end, Russ parked a good mile and a half away from Fulham Broadway and we had a mini pub crawl.
First up was The Pear Tree. Jesus was already inside, nursing a pint at the bar. Inside, the décor was of an Edwardian front room and the place was packed with Sunday diners launching into their roasts. To be honest, we stuck out like sore-thumbs. This was clearly a pretty expensive gastro-pub and we stood at the bar like uninvited guests at a society wedding. I have often wondered how far out Chelsea fans drink on match days. Well, there were no Chelsea fans in this one. The pretty Australian barmaid actually asked us the question –
“Are you watching the rugby?”
We gave her a withering look and explained we were off to Chelsea.
Soon after, Parky spotted another barmaid slowly pulling the pump on one of the draught beers.
“Looks like you’ve pulled” he said.
It was now his turn for the withering looks.
“Is that a joke?” she replied.
With that, we decided to move on.
A hundred yards along, we called in at The Idle Hours, a pub which had obviously been recently modernised. It was very quiet though. Still no other Chelsea fans. Jesus, who loves his stay in London on his internship, had decided that he could not afford to miss the United game and so had paid out a mighty £150 for his MHU ticket. He was very worried that he had bought a fake, but it looked fine to my trained eyes. The seller had made a tidy £90 profit on the ticket; nice work if you can get it. Jesus is clearly in love with football (he has already visited The Valley and Selhurst Park during the past fortnight) and is getting wrapped up in the football culture of these isles. He reminds me so much of Farmer John, who was with us for four months in 2009; a football fanatic, overdosing on Chelsea. As long as we have passionate overseas fans such as Jesus we’ll be fine. We chatted about the differences between sporting culture in the US and the UK. Jesus sneered that many US gridiron fans change their teams as often as they like. Over here, it’s different. We both quoted the famous line –
“You can change your job, your politics, your name, even your sex. But you can’t change two things; your mother and your football club.”
I like the addendum to this –
“Never trust anyone who changes their football team.”
The red brick wall of Queens Club was to our left as we continued our slow walk towards The Goose. The icy pavements were turning to slush and we had to watch our steps; Parky especially. I mentioned to Jesus about the Stella Artois tennis tournament which takes place at Queens, just ahead of Wimbledon each June. Next up was the tiny Colton Arms and at last a couple of Chelsea fans. I’ve often driven past this pub, but this was my first visit. The place was tiny and the snug was only around eight feet wide. Another bottle of beer, more football chat, more corny jokes from Parky. We even had the chance to give Jesus a little history lesson; 1066 and all that…King Harold, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the Battle of Hastings and the Bayeaux Tapestry.
It was now 2.15pm and The Goose was calling us. We turned a corner and I pointed out a blue plaque on the side of one of the red brick houses, denoting the former residence of former Formula One champion James Hunt. As we approached The Goose, youngsters on a rooftop bombarded us with snowballs. Inside, the place was absolutely jam-packed with Chelsea supporters. Over in our corner, beneath a TV showing the Newcastle game, sat Starla, the first of the US visitors. It was great to see her again; having passed her degree recently, this was her gift to herself. Alan slipped my Napoli away ticket into my hand; what pleasures await on that little trip into that crazy city? It’s only two weeks away now and I just hope we get some of our big hitters back for that tough away game.
After quickly guzzling a pint, we had to make one last call before the game began. Starla, Jesus, Parky and I strode down the North End Road and entered the equally busy Malt House. Out in the beer garden, we quickly spotted the other American guests Andy, Tom and Steve-O. More chat and laughter, mainly at Andy’s expense. The last time I saw Tom and Steve-O was for Torres’ debut one year ago. Altogether now – where does the time go?
As we squeezed out of the pub, I bumped into a chap holding a replica of the FA Cup, asking for donations for a charity. Although I didn’t stop to ask for details, I guess the idea was for punters to have their photos taken holding the cup. I wondered if the chap would fare better outside the away turnstiles; the only chance United would get to hold the trophy this season. I walked the last four hundred yards alongside Steve-O, who hails from the far sunny climes of LA. The snowfall that he had witnessed the previous day was the first of his life. Its truly humbling to walk alongside fans such as Andy, Starla, Steve-O and Tom. All this way for one match. Fair play to you all. As we approached the West Stand, Jesus began singing along to the Chelsea songs which were being aired and he did so with a noticeable cockney twang. It made me chuckle. From his home on the US/Mexico border to Chelsea, Jesus was loving it.
He gets it.
At the turnstiles for the MHU, though, he was tense. Would that expensive ticket which he purchased prove to be legitimate or not? He held the ticket’s bar code up to the scanner and the message flashed up –
“Welcome to Chelsea FC.”
I saw him go through the turnstile and he punched the air as soon as he was inside.
The look of joy on his face was one of the highlights of the season.
I arrived at my seat just after the teams had lined-up, so was not able to witness the “will they / won’t they shake hands” nonsense involving Rio Ferdinand. I quickly scanned the players going through their pre-game hugs and I spotted that Branoslav Ivanovic was like a man-possessed, bouncing his chest off several players. Without John Terry, we needed leaders out there.
Over in the far corner, the three-thousand United fans were standing; a solid mass of black, grey and navy jackets with the occasional flash of red. Only two United flags were draped over the balcony wall. I looked over to the other side of The Shed Upper – the west wing – and wondered what was going through the minds of the CIAers. I quickly ran through the Chelsea team. With our squad so depleted through injuries and internationals, I am not so sure the manager had too many options. There was a call for the youngster Ryan Bertrand to start at left-back, in place of the suspended Ashley Cole and instead of Jose Bosingwa. I wasn’t so sure. With Gary Cahill’s debut in defence, I was worried that another fresh face in the back four would be too risky. We all know that Boswinga has his doubters, but I think I would rather play him at left back rather than risk Bertrand. This wasn’t Bolton. This wasn’t Blackburn. This was Manchester United, the reigning champions, never afraid to attack with pace on the flanks. I feared Bertrand being shell-shocked after being ripped apart by the flying United wingers. His time will come – against Birmingham City in the cup, maybe. He’s one for the future.
Elsewhere, the other contentious position was taken by the floundering Florent Malouda. I guess the only other option was to play a midfield of Romeu/Essien/Meireles. Against United, maybe that would have been a sounder bet. But who am I? I haven’t got any coaching badges.
This would be the 22nd consecutive season that I have seen a Chelsea vs. Manchester United league game. This run goes all of the way back to a cold and depressing Sunday afternoon in December 1991, as a Ryan Giggs-inspired United beat us 3-1. I had travelled up with my old school friend Pete’s brother Kevin (a United fan) and we watched in The Shed. Pete (also a United fan) had travelled up separately with his girlfriend’s son, and watched from the old West Stand. We were pretty dire. The weather was cold. The Stamford Bridge pich was shrouded in mist. The crowd was only 23,000. In those days, the away fans were treated to the vast expanse of the open north terrace, holding some 10,000. It’s unlikely that United brought more than 4,000 for that game. The game was live on ITV – quite a rare event really. As was the way in that era, live games would often result in lower gates than usual. Sky TV were not yet at the party, but that would change the following season with the advent of the Premier League. That 1991-1992 season was pretty grim from start to finish for us, under the blundering stewardship of the late Ian Porterfield. The highlight was a run in the FA Cup, but we lost to Sunderland in the heady heights of the quarter-finals (our longest run since 1982 in fact.) In those days – and I’m speaking for football fans in general – we would travel to see our heroes and expect a poor display. Football was more rudimentary in ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, especially the way we played it. Not the silky football of today. Our play involved the full backs pumping the ball up to the attackers, an aerial battle, the midfield tussle for the second ball, aggressive tackles…percentage football. In those days, we would attend games through blind faith that the occasional game would be entertaining. Foreign players were rare. Our foreigners were the twin pillars in defence Ken Monkou and Erland Johnsen. The days of super sexy football involving Gianfranco Zola, Joe Cole, Arjen Robben and Juan Mata were light years away. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same sport.
Maybe it isn’t.
At work on Friday, my colleague Mike – yep, another United fan – and I reckoned that the game may not be that great, with both teams going through a far from convincing period of form. Well, we couldn’t have been further from the truth. After the succession of crazy games involving the top clubs this season, this was another game that is quite likely to set this season apart from the rest.
Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0.
Daniel Sturridge weaved his way down to the goal line in his trademark move. This was right down at the Shed End, in front of both Parky and the visitors from the US. I was surprised that his dribble was not snubbed out by a United challenge to be honest. Next, in a scenario uncannily similar to our goal at Swansea on Tuesday, the ball was zipped into the six yard box. I will be honest; I didn’t have a clue how the ball ended up nestling in the goal. And I amazed by myself by not celebrating the goal. It just seemed a strange goal. A goal by default. An apology of a goal. The rest of the ground roared and I was alone and silent. I’ll have to improve on that. Most unlike me. Did we deserve the half-time lead? Only maybe.
“It’s not your own hair. It’s not your own hair. Wayne Rooney – it’s not your own hair.”
Chelsea 2 Manchester United 0.
A move soon into the first few seconds of the second-half found Fernando Torres wide right. He swung in a gorgeous, arcing ball towards the far post. Down below, eight yards out, Juan Mata was waiting. With a perfectly timed movement which took over his entire body, he swivelled his hips and volleyed high into the net. No messing about this time. I roared, I shrieked, I roared again. The entire stadium erupted. What a moment. Did we deserve to be 2-0 up? Perhaps.
Chelsea 3 Manchester United 0.
A Juan Mata free-kick, in a deep position. The hustling Chelsea attackers pulled their United counterparts one way and then the other. Mata swung the ball in. The tousled head of David Luiz was first to the ball and the result was further pandemonium. The Bridge roared again. Did we deserve to be 3-0 up? Probably not, but who cares?
My colleague Mike texted me – “speechless.”
Chelsea 3 Manchester United 1.
A tackle from Daniel Sturridge, way in the distance. My first thought was of a fine tackle, but no. Howard Webb pointed to the penalty spot. Rooney, calm under pressure, hit the ball high into the top corner. Cech well beaten. Oh God. Here we go again. That very familiar Chelsea feeling.
Chelsea 3 Manchester United 2.
A United move. Edge of the box. A blur of two players came together. Webb pointed again. Disbelief and anger. Rooney despatched the ball, low. Now we were very worried.
Chelsea 3 Manchester United 3.
The crowd were on tenterhooks. I sat with my arms folded. Silent, yet knowing full well what was going to happen. A cross from the left and Hernandez completely unmarked in front of the goal. That sickening feeling once again. To my utter disbelief, a sizeable number of Chelsea “fans” could take no more and left.
Well, you always know how United will play. They will attack until the last minute. As the game progressed, there was a gnawing inevitability about this result. The introduction of Paul Scholes, as a deep-lying quarterback on Superbowl Sunday, was a key moment. That our midfielders then chose to ignore him was inexcusable. And yet…and yet. There were positive signs. Gary Cahill had a fine debut. The defence were steady. Torres and Mata flitted around and were at the heart of our best moves. But – the negatives…Malouda was awful and Sturridge was wasteful. I didn’t hear much positive spin on the way out. I guess that isn’t too surprising, really. We’re a moaning, miserable bunch of gits these days.
We listened to conflicting opinions about our play on “606.” Blimey, anybody would think we had lost. At least Parky and Russ tended to share my opinion that we were worth a point. Barring a very questionable penalty decision, we would have beaten the champions and stretched our unbeaten league record against them at Stamford Bridge to eleven games. We were then treated to a Blackburn Rovers fan, from my home county of Somerset, who had been a corporate guest at the Arsenal game on Saturday. He was full of praise for the hospitality afforded him at the game…”we were treated like Kings.” He then cheerily said that is only able to attend one Blackburn Rovers game a season, but was livid with the lack of passion shown by his team.
We returned home to various parts of Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. I was keen to see the match highlights on “Match of the Day Two” and in particular, of course, the two penalty decisions. I had no complaints about the first one, but the second one was a joke. Shades of the two Wembley penalties in 1994. David Elleray and Howard Webb. They will go down in Chelsea infamy.
I went through the usual post-game routine of trawling the internet for the moaners and the groaners who were lamenting our latest performance. Without wishing to bore people rigid, let’s see the positives in this game. We drew with the champions, despite a make-shift team. We were a de Gea fingertip save away from winning it 4-3. I feel Andre Villas-Boas’ growing frustration and we just need to support him. In case anybody needs reminding, he is barely into his sixth month of competitive fixtures. Oh, and we’re unbeaten in 2012. In the background, the Giants and the Patriots were on TV in the Superbowl. I was paying such scant attention that it took me 15 minutes to realise the Giants were playing in white. It was time for bed.