Birmingham City vs. Chelsea : 6 March 2012.
From the league game at The Hawthorns on Saturday afternoon to the cup replay at St. Andrew’s on Tuesday evening – a distance of under six miles – it had been a dramatic time for Chelsea Football Club; three tumultuous days and millions of words of self-analysis by Chelsea fans all over The Blue Planet. Everybody has chipped in with opinions and I have tried to keep an even, objective approach to the latest shenanigans along the Fulham Road. It hasn’t been easy as I tried to weigh up all of the contrasting views. There was an over-riding feeling of gross ineptitude by the directors of our club.
If the club is of the opinion that their approach will be one of “slash and burn” / “hire and fire” – and there is certainly a little validity in the notion that teams and managers become stale after two years and so a change is beneficial – then I think I might be able to buy into this. However, every time the club makes a bold decision and hires a new manager – specifically Scolari, Ancelotti and Villas-Boas – the fans are told of the need for stability and long-termism.
Instead, sackings follow at Earth-shattering speed and the club stumbles from crisis to crisis, with no apparent plan, like a drunk searching for dregs in pint glasses at the end of an all-day bender.
It makes us look amateurish and inept.
It has reached the stage where I would honestly feel sorry – and actively discourage – any promising young manager from the UK or elsewhere to apply for a job at Chelsea Football Club.
What a sad indictment.
Abramovich, Buck, Tenenbaum and Gourlay should be ashamed of themselves.
The last few days have made me contemplate my relationship with our players, our fellow fans, the out-going manager, the in-coming manager, the directors and “the club” – as a distinct entity by itself – and it is clear that there is a monumental difference in my support of Chelsea Football Club and that of its directors. I’ll follow Chelsea whenever, wherever and forever.
But I can’t stomach most of the decisions that the club’s directors make.
I had arranged to leave work at 4pm and Parky had made his way over from his village via a series of buses. The connections worked well and he arrived way ahead of schedule at The Pheasant pub opposite at 2.30pm. This was grave news for me; several pints of lager would be quaffed and he would, I was sure, be even more chatty than normal. I girded my loins for a noisy trip to Birmingham.
“Four pints mate” he said as he sat in the front seat of my car.
“Here – have some mini pork pies, Porky. After Saturday’s lack of pork scratchings, you’ll enjoy these, mate.”
As Parky scoffed them, all was beautifully quiet. I had disturbing visions of myself force-feeding Parky – like one of those worrying types on an Alabama trailer park who wants his overweight girlfriend to become the world’s heaviest woman – in an attempt to silence him.
“Finished, mate? Here – have some more marshmallows, onion rings and doughnuts.”
We touched on the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas as we headed along the M4, but by the time we had joined the M5, Parky was off on a never-ending soliloquy involving a ridiculous array of topics including geese, churches, cheeses, bikers and pasties. It was quite a performance.
Birmingham’s rush hour traffic was less-taxing than London’s. I pulled into the car park of the Ibis Hotel on Bordesley Circus at 6.30pm. The car park was officially full – residents only were allowed in – and so I had to push a £5 note into the hand of the attendant. Jesus, who had travelled up by train and had taken a cab to the hotel, was waiting for us outside. Fair play to Jesus; he has only been in the UK about a month, but has seen numerous Chelsea games, plus games at Wembley, Charlton, Crystal Palace and Brentford. He clearly loves his football. I’m sure he’ll even roll up at Frome Town one day.
There was a smattering of friends and faces in the hotel bar. Despite tickets for this game only costing a very competitive twenty quid, the place wasn’t as busy as on previous visits. I chatted with a few mates. There was a quick synopsis of our current woes but there was no real crisp and clean consensus. Some were in favour of Mourinho returning, some weren’t. The team line-up came through on a few ‘phones and there was a general air of befuddlement. No qualms with the defenders which Roberto chose, but the midfield three of Mikel, Ramires and Meireles caused a few grimaces. With no Essien and Lampard, this could easily have been an AVB midfield. The recalled Kalou garnered a few caustic comments, as always. We were generally underwhelmed.
At 7.20pm, Jesus, Parky and I walked the 400 yards up the hill to the away entrance. I could hardly believe that a street stall was selling blue and white scarves celebrating a recent “Birmingham City 6 Millwall 0” win. Talk about small time. I’ve been to St. Andrew’s a few times and it’s one of my least favourite venues. It is one of the few stadia in the UK that I have not chosen to circumnavigate. This is most unlike me; I usually like to take a tour of stadia in search of quirky buildings, club shops, pubs or car parks. It helps me to fully appreciate the setting.
At Birmingham City, I have only ever headed into the tangled mess of stand supports at the old Railway End and quickly take my place in the large lower tier, which has a slightly curved rake. St. Andrews sits on a plateau of high land and, on the last few yards before the turnstiles and bag search, there is a reasonable view of the Birmingham city centre, which is dominated by the old British Telecom Tower, the Rotunda and the space-age Selfridges building.
My seat was high up and central. There were thousands of empty seats all over the stadium. Our away end seemed to pretty full; we had 3,000 tickets. Before I had a chance to take a breath, the away support were in song –
“You’re not welcome here. You’re not welcome here. Fcuk off Benitez – you’re not welcome here.”
This was met with my immediate approval; that, everyone, would be a bitter pill to swallow.
Chelsea, in the all white with navy and yellow trim, resembled Tottenham and I disapproved. Birmingham City’s blue kit was washed out and insipid. Soon into the game, we sung an old favourite –
“One di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”
To be followed by a more recent chant –
“Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho.”
In all honesty, the first-half was poor and none of us enjoyed it. After a Mata shot was saved in the first minute, our play reverted to type with slow approach play and tons of sideway passes. It took us until 17 minutes for the next memorable shot, a blast from Ramires, to cause the home team any concerns. The two lads in front of me were the leaders in the “Ivanovic – Chelsea’s Number Two” chant which went on for a few minutes. A few sticks of celery were thrown in the air, with the necessary musical accompaniment. These distractions took our minds of the football, which was hardly enthralling. It was a typical performance of late.
And then came the most cringe worthy song of the season –
“Roman Abramovich – He sacks who he wants.”
I could hardly believe that hundreds of Chelsea fans were joining in this asinine chant. This was thoroughly embarrassing. There is no doubt that despite our thousands of fine fans, we have attracted some of the most brain dead fools in England.
Birmingham City had a couple of chances which threatened Petr Cech in the Railway End goal down below me, but in general, our defence was well marshaled with Luiz and Cahill performing well. The midfield was bumbling along…our attacks were sporadic. A break found Fernando Torres in the inside left position, but his weak left-footed shot went wide of the far post. The home fans howled their pleasure.
There were moans as the half-time whistle sounded. It was the same old Chelsea of late. I chatted to a few more at the break. The news that Arsenal had roared into a 3-0 lead against Milan hardly improved things.
With Chelsea now attacking us in the second period, we hoped for greater penetration and goals. It was hard to believe that our last win of any description was the narrow 1-0 win at QPR in the previous round.
We only had ten minutes to wait for our salvation. There was a crazy scramble just outside the six yard box. Players from both teams attacked the bouncing ball, with their feet and legs stabbing wildly in a drunken homage to “Riverdance.” Eventually the ball landed at the feet of Juan Mata and the ball was slashed home. We heaved a massive sigh as the players wheeled away to the corner flag.
The two lads in front were singing again –
“Super Juan Mata, he drinks Sangia…”
Before we knew it, a loose ball was walloped home by the lurking Raul Meireles and we were 2-0 up. It was a fine thump and I saw it all of the way from its inception to its net-billowing conclusion. I was stood right behind its rising trajectory. Meireles hardly celebrated, just choosing to walk away. The other players were all over him. Meireles began his time in a Chelsea shirt rather well, but has since lost his way. I hope his confidence returns and his form improves.
The two lads in front –
“Raul Meireles, Raul Meireles – He’s got 5hit hair, but we don’t care, Raul Meireles.”
Juan Mata had a couple of chances either side of the second goal. We were playing better. Mikel was becoming more dominant. Ivanovic was forever raiding the right flank. A great run by Torres on the right resulted in a defender clearly tripping him. We bellowed –
“Torres! Torres! Torres! Torres!”
Instead, Juan Mata took the ball, but shot weakly. Three-nil would have been perfect; we would have been safe. Instead, the Chelsea fans around me were still completely convinced that we would weather a late Birmingham storm. Torres was now seeing more of the ball and a great cross from his boot was whipped in. It fell to the substitute Daniel Sturridge, but he inadvertently stepped on the ball only six yards out. It was almost Nando-esque.
Marlon King appeared as a substitute for the home team and was the instant victim of some pointed abuse from the travelling Chelsea fans.
“She said no, Marlon, she said no.”
Thankfully, the lone chance which King was presented with was dispatched straight at Petr Cech.
The Chelsea choir serenaded Roberto di Matteo during the closing minutes – Eddie Newton, too – and it made me realize how many of that iconic 1997 Chelsea team went on to become managers and coaches. Step forward Dan Petrescu, Steve Clarke, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Gus Poyet, Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. We held on for a win and I was just relieved. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the evening if I am honest. It had felt rather like a one game repeat of the entire 1988-1989 season; the game should have been finished in the first leg and we just needed to get the job done. In 1988, we shouldn’t have been relegated and the following season was purgatory, with only occasional moments of joy. I bumped into Burger and Julie on the way out. They had witnessed Parky’s crutches being launched into the air after the first goal. Let’s hope those same crutches are launched skywards after the Leicester City game in the next round, too.
Ah…Leicester…1997 again…Erland Johnsen, where are you know?
As an added bonus, we heard that Milan had held on to go through at Arsenal’s expense. As we filtered out of the away end and in to the cold night air, time for just one more song –
“One team in Europe – there’s only one team in Europe.”
The wayward bus has been righted after a few months in the wilderness. Let’s hope the journey continues against Stoke City and Napoli.