Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 18 September 2011.
What a game. What a crazy game.
With my head still spinning with continued talk of boycotts and the rumbling aftermath of the morgue-like atmosphere at the game on Tuesday, I faced a long journey up to Manchester. I left my home village at around 9.30am. With the nascent development of Andre Villas-Boas’ team still in its opening sequence, I couldn’t help but think that the game with the old adversaries was just a few weeks too soon. There is no doubt that this would be a stern test for the team and supporters alike. There had been a sense of foreboding in the earlier part of the week, but my attitude had changed a little on Friday and Saturday. What was the reason for this upturn in my optimism? The manager himself. He has impressed me in almost all the things he has said and done since being at the helm of our club. He seems placid, yet passionate. He is calm, yet calculating. He seems to fit the bill, alright. We have to trust him.
Of course, part of my excitement about this match was centered upon which team he would select. Thousands of words have been uttered and written since Tuesday on this very subject.
We waited with baited breath.
Unfortunately, the weather which greeted me as I drove the short distance to collect Lord Parky was overcast and gray. I also had developed a slight headache – not through pondering Villas-Boas’ game plan I hasten to add – but I knew that this would be remedied after we stopped to collect a McBreakfast and a McCoffee at McMelksham on the long drive north.
We endured a variety of weather as I pounded the familiar tract north. Talk was of the next batch of games, the plans, the travel arrangements, the tickets, the itineraries.
This would be my sixteenth trip up to Old Trafford with Chelsea and, although we had a superb record from the ‘sixties through to the ‘eighties, our recent record hasn’t been too great. Of the fifteen previous visits, I had witnessed just four Chelsea victories. But – in all honesty – four of the greatest domestic away games ever. A Kerry Dixon brace and a double Tony Godden penalty save in two different games in 1986. A gorgeous 3-1 win after we won the championship in 2005 and Old Trafford as quiet as it has ever been. And then the goals from Joe and Didier giving us a seismic triumph on the way to our championship in 2010. Away victories simply do not get any better than these four.
We hit some slow-moving traffic between Stafford and Stoke and so I veered off through my former college town. We raced past the Britannia Stadium – only five weeks since our opening-day visit – and I was soon back on the M6 and the motorway was relatively clear.
I had hoped to have been parked-up by 2pm, but the delay around Stafford meant that I was running thirty minutes late. This was my third visit to Old Trafford in only six months and the approach on the Chester Road is very familiar now. I drove past the McDonalds where Gumby and I had a pre-match bite in 2006 and then past a few familiar landmarks including a sadly disused art deco-fronted cinema which welcomed me on the slow drive towards Old Trafford. I make a point of mentioning this as the sculptured frontage is a bright sky blue. A statement from its former owner, a proud Manchester City fan, perhaps?
“This may be United territory, but this is our city.”
I’m not so sure about this clichéd view to be honest. Although I always hear accents from all four corners of the UK and Ireland – not to mention many foreign accents – in and around Old Trafford on match days, I’m always surprised how many local “Manchest-oh” accents I hear, too. I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed it, but there seems to be more and more local Manchester banners on show at United games. It’s as if their fans have made a conscious effort to re-dress the balance of this perceived notion that there are more Blues than Reds in the city. A few years back, you would see banners which said “Exeter Reds”, “Devon Reds”, “Dublin Reds” and “Malta Reds” at away games. Today, it seems that you are now more likely to see “Urmston Reds”, “Salford Reds”, Sale Reds and “Clayton Reds.” It’s as if they are reclaiming Mancunia as their own. There always used to be a certain amount of “niggle” amongst local United fans and their fans from elsewhere in the UK. This is certainly true of Liverpool, too. There is a notion that out-of-town United fans are the glory hunters, forever besmirching the name of Manchester United. It was United who invented the derogatory nickname “daytrippers” which described the out-of-towners arriving en masse at Old Trafford, buying United paraphernalia and not really “getting” what United is about.
To be honest, Chelsea have always embraced supporters from all over the UK and I’m proud of this. In my youth, when I was alone in The Shed, Londoners would always welcome my presence at Chelsea.
“Where you from, mate? Somerset? Wow.”
However, the shifting sands of support in the UK at the moment has resulted in a greater resentment of “tourists” and probably no more so than in London. I lose count of the number of times I hear the terms “JCLs” and “tourists” being banded during discussions about the atmosphere at The Bridge getting worse and worse with each season. This is a lop-sided view though. Not all tourists or new fans lack passion. The problem that Chelsea has is that a large proportion of tourists who go to The Bridge just happen to be in London and are not really Chelsea fans. They attend our games because The Bridge is convenient. I’m not convinced that United have this exact problem. I have the distinct feeling that United’s fans – and there are 330 million of them Worldwide – are enticed to Manchester solely to watch United. This might not be correct, but this is my view.
In some respects, the loyal fans of United and Chelsea – plus all of the big clubs in the Premier League – are experiencing these self-same notions of being disenfranchised, being priced out, being taken advantage of. It’s just the scale and timings which differ. Fully expect Manchester City’s long-suffering legions to be complaining about their club’s new fans next.
Locals were attempting to usher me in to a variety of match day parking lots – ₤5 a car – but I ignored them and parked outside the same house as I did for the fated league game in May. The only change to the immediate locale was the appearance of two new floodlight masts at the nearby Old Trafford cricket stadium.
Parky and I donned our jackets and made the twenty minute walk to the stadium. It dawned on me during the week that I have never ever had a beer in a pub outside Old Trafford. The over-riding reason for this is the paucity of options and – hence – the fact that all the pubs are for home fans only. There was the usual singing emanating from The Bishop Blaize and the usual mobs of red-clad United fans by the chip shops. As I turned and walked down Sir Matt Busby Way, I spotted more grafters selling their wares; the infamous half-and-half scarves.
At just past 3pm, I joined Alan and Gary inside the stadium, at the Chelsea only bar – Bar 68, named after Wembley 1968, the European Cup Final and all that – in the South Stand. A bottle of Singha for ₤3.10. On the TV screen above the bar, Tottenham were thrashing Liverpool, but we were ambivalent. Gary had been to the Surrey versus Somerset cricket final at Lords on Saturday and it was no surprise that his county beat mine.
The Chelsea team was flashed up on the screen and I approved. It was the team that I would have chosen. It elicited a few moments of discussion with Alan about the manager’s game plan.
“To be honest, it could work in our favour to be under pressure if Torres sits on the last defender and we break at pace and hit him early. Important that the wide men up front, Mata and Sturridge, drop back and cover United’s wide players. We need Bosingwa’s pace. Ashley will be OK.”
“All sorted. I hope the manager is listening.”
Before the game, Mickey Thomas – all suited and booted – was interviewed on the pitch and he made a few comments about the game. A former Chelsea legend, it still grates to hear him refer to United as “we.” He spoke of United’s fine start to the season and he used a phrase that I have used recently –
“United have hit the ground running.”
At least Mickey said that he thought we would represent United’s biggest threat, not those mischievous fellows across the city.
Old Trafford seemed to take ages to fill up. Long gone are the days of the ’eighties when most of a 40,000 crowd would be inside with half-an-hour to go, chanting and trading insults with each other. The build-up to the kick-off used to be great in those days, the noise levels increasing minute by minute. My seat was along the side, slightly beyond the goal line. I like how the pitch is raised on a bed – like a stage – at Old Trafford, with a steep decline down to the terraces. In the immediate ten minutes before the game’s commencement, we were in great voice and United weren’t singing at all.
We had the first chance of the game as the effervescent Ramires troubled the shaky de Gea but the United ‘keeper thwarted the effort with his feet. Soon after, Anderson lost possession to Fernando Torres, who quickly advanced but fluffed his shot wide. Sturridge was looking lively down below me. I had spoken to Alan about the absolute need not to concede an early goal – certainly not a repeat of the opening goal within the first minute back in May. Well, those plans went up in flames.
We weren’t sure about the foul which resulted in the Nani free-kick and the powerful leap from Chris Smalling. But the former Fulham player appeared to have an unhindered leap. The United support roared for the first time.
After twenty minutes, a lovely flowing move found Torres but he again shot wide.
Soon after, a gorgeous through ball by Mata allowed Torres to beat the offside trap as he raced past the United back line. He was through on goal but decided not to shoot. My immediate thoughts were of Tuesday night when his unselfish play aided others. He squared the ball to Sturridge and we held our breath. In the end, the firm strike was well saved.
We had a little conference amongst ourselves and I said that if Studge had scored, we would all have been saying what a great ball it was from Torres. To be honest, it was a great ball and Studge should have scored.
All three thousand Chelsea were standing and bellowing our support. The United legions, basking in the September sun, appeared to be very docile in comparison.
Sturridge picked out Torres again, but his overhead kick whistled wide.
Then a rasping drive from Sturridge, from an angle, well saved by de Gea.
We were playing well and the two wide men were tracking back and adding numbers to our midfield. We seemed to be well on top when our world caved in. We allowed Nani time and space to shot and his perfect shot rattled into Cech’s top corner. The United fans momentarily roared, but there was not a reverberating depth of noise which was present, for example, at the Champions League game last season. However, we did not let up. We chased every ball and pressed with determination. Nice movement upfront. We were still in it.
The third goal was a joke. The ball just fell for Wayne Rooney – otherwise quiet – and he swept the ball into the net.
How on earth were we 3-0 down? It seemed that everything was falling into United’s path. What a farce.
The United fans were enquiring “are you Arsenal in disguise?” and we stood silent. We had no answer.
The half-time interval, looking back, was a bit of a blur. We stood around, quite shell-shocked, but there were plentiful smiles and laughter amongst the away fans. We knew that we had played well, with Mata looking very lively in that roving role. Everything seemed to come through him. However, I did quietly say to Alan –
“I hope no more goals are scored in this game” and he grimaced as if to say “I’m with you.”
There was a very bold move at the break when Villas-Boas replaced the under-performing Frank Lampard with Nicolas Anelka. I can’t honestly say that I was aware of the slight change to the formation as my viewpoint was not great; our attacking was taking place in the other half after all.
As the second period began, we were singing “we’re gonna win 4-3” and everyone was smiling.
Losing, but smiling. What a strange game.
Within a minute, Anelka had played in Torres and his delicate flick past the onrushing de Gea found its way into the net. I was stood right in front of CFCUK’s Dave Johnstone and I just turned around, grabbed his arm and screamed. It was a lovely finish, right in front of a silent Stretford End.
Nani’s thunderbolt then rattled the bar with Cech well beaten. In the onrushing scramble – it was all a blur – Bosingwa fouled Nani and Phil Dowd pointed to the spot.
Oh hell. So much for the Chelsea recovery.
I focussed on Petr Cech with my camera and hoped for a wonderful save being captured on film. In the corner of my eye, I saw Rooney approach and then slip outrageously on the damp turf.
Oh, how we howled with laughter. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea fan who thought of Moscow.
Still the chances came. A wonderful dribble from Torres was well saved by de Gea, but Torres blazed the rebound over.
United hit the post.
Then, the moment of the match. Torres gracefully shimmied into the box and used his pace to push the ball past a floundering de Gea. With an open goal gaping, Torres flashed the ball wide with his left foot and we stood in horror. Hero one minute, villain the next. I felt for him. The United fans were wailing and the poor chap looked distraught. What next in the chequered Chelsea career of Fernando Torres?
In a passage of play eerily similar to the profligacy of Torres in the first-half, Rooney broke free but chose to pass to Berbatov rather than shoot himself. Doctor Death’s strong shot was cleared away by a scrambling Ashley Cole.
The minutes passed by and we kept singing. I know it is a cliché to bemoan United’s home support, but they really were quiet. I could tell that they were nervy and, with a little more luck, we could so easily have secured all three points.
From pre-match worry to post game buoyancy. What a transformation. To celebrate the team’s new-found confidence and swagger, we rounded off a great show of vocal support by a deafening “we’re gonna win the league” and I hoped and prayed that the viewers at home realised that it was the bubbling away support shouting those words.
I waited for Parky outside and we couldn’t contain our glee. This was a mighty strange feeling, though; a game we had lost, but we were not bothered at all. Of all the Chelsea games I have witnessed, never have I been as content with our performance following a defeat.
We must be mellowing with age, eh?
We were held in traffic for ages and it wasn’t until 7.45pm (almost two hours after the game had finished) that we reached the southbound carriageway of the M6 – and with it, that great big sludge of United traffic heading back to the southern counties of England, and possibly beyond.
We had enjoyed ourselves. Our throats were hurting from all of the singing, but we weren’t complaining. As I drove south, time for some music. Parky and I are going to see the old punk band Sham 69 on the evening of the Chelsea vs. Arsenal game in late October and so Parky brought along their 1978 album “That’s Life.” Sham’s first album “Tell Us The Truth” was edgier but this second album contains a few gems. In fact, it is probably punk’s first concept album, in that the album tells the story of a day in the life of a London teenager through songs interspersed with dialogue.
Despite the sore throats, we were singing along as we headed south.
It wasn’t a normal day in the life of the main character. He got sacked from his job, won a fortune on the dogs, got drunk with a mate, pulled a girl at a disco, got into a fight and crashed a stolen car.
It soon dawned on me that the game we had just witnessed at Old Trafford had been equally manic.
We stopped off for a coffee at Stafford services and I eventually dropped His Lordship off at just before 11pm. I reached home shortly after, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep for ages. My head was still buzzing and I needed my body to steadily tire before I closed my eyes.
Did I have nightmares about Fernando Torres’ miss?
No, but I suspect he might have done.