Tales From A Day Of History

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2013.

Chelsea’s game at historic Villa Park was our last domestic away match of the season. Our encounter was the only Premier League game taking place on Saturday 11 May. The F.A. Cup Final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic was set to kick-off at 5.15pm but, for some ridiculous reason, our game was not shifted with the rest of the programme to a Sunday. I can’t even begin to understand the reasoning for this; in fact, I have long given up on the FA’s ability to organise football in this country. I am sure that they would cite the Champions League Final being played on Saturday 25 May as reason enough to slot the Cup Final into a normal league programme, but why we had to share the billing with the Wembley final I do not know.

Despite a 12.45pm kick off in deepest Birmingham, I didn’t have to leave home too early. Unfortunately, Parky was still unable to accompany me to an away game. This has been a lonely old season for me on my travels around England for Chelsea’s away games. I have missed his company I must say. His last game outside of SW6 was the Community Shield game in August, ironically at Villa Park, when we lost to City. Since then, I have attended fourteen of the allotted nineteen away league games. I missed the games at Newcastle United, Sunderland, Norwich City, Everton and Liverpool. This would be my 54th. game of the season. It has been another arduous trek; I can’t say I have enjoyed it as much as I would have liked. I am sure none of us have. The away games at Arsenal and Tottenham in that gorgeous autumnal afterglow of Munich, with us four points clear, seem like they took place in another season altogether.

The road since the sacking of Roberto di Matteo in November has been rocky and there have seemed to have been hundreds of diverting and destabilising sub plots along the way. Having Rafa Benitez at the helm has been difficult. I have coped, in the main, by ignoring him.

Of course, at times our play has been breath-taking. Just think of some of the scores…eight against Villa, six against Wolves and Nordsjaelland, five against Manchester United, Leeds and Southampton. Our tricky trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar have given us sustenance in times of draught. Their play has been magnificent. Eden Hazard, after a slow start, has certainly come to life in the past three months. There have been many positives.

And so – here we were. After the disappointment of three dropped points against Tottenham on Wednesday – in which, ironically, we strengthened our league position by going two points clear of Arsenal and three clear of Spurs – we faced two remaining league matches in order to grind out the requisite three points to secure that modern Holy Grail, Champions League qualification.

As I set off at 9.30am, there was no over-riding feeling of Armageddon or Doomsday about our lunchtime encounter with Villa. I ate up the miles as I headed north to Birmingham. I turned off the M5 and drove past The Hawthorns, where a placard told the story of the next game to take place at West Bromwich Albion’s neat stadium.

Manchester United – Sunday 19 May.

I found it ironic that the graveyard for Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea stewardship will also witness the denouement of another manager’s club career.

It was midday and the traffic then stalled as I drove through the dowdy residential areas of Handsworth and Perry Bar. I received a text from Andy out in California, informing me that it was 4am and he was “on the road” to the Olde Ship in Santa Anna where his crew would watch the game. It re-emphasised how lucky I was to be able to attend in person.

“Don’t ever take all of this for granted, Chrissy-Boy.”

Thankfully, I was parked up on Willmore Road at 12.15pm and I then walked the fifteen minutes to Villa Park, with memories of drizzle last August when the area was over-run with the sky-blue followers of Manchester City.

I hadn’t dwelt too much on the make-up of the team which Benitez might chose, but one question dominated my thoughts –

“Will Frank Lampard start?”

I walked alongside a few Villa fans and I always find it interesting to “ear-wig” comments from other fans about Chelsea. I could tell that they were nervous. One son soon reeled off the Chelsea team that he thought might start to his father and I was suitably impressed. It proved that our players in our team are well known among the football world. Could I, in comparison, name many of the Villa players?

No. Quite clearly, no.

I had plans to take time out and photograph the red brick façade of the Holte End – which took its inspiration from the famous old stairs on the old Trinity Road Stand – but time was running out. I rushed pass the souvenir stalls and the fanzine sellers…”CFCUK” and “Heroes & Villains”…and there was a busy line at the away turnstiles. Thankfully, I was soon inside. Villa Park is one of the grand dames of English football stadia. Due to its central location it has often hosted F.A. Cup semi-finals. Chelsea played two consecutive semis at Villa Park in the ‘sixties, losing to Sheffield Wednesday in front of 61,000 in 1966 but beating Leeds United in front of 62,000 the following year.

This would be my fourteenth visit to Villa Park. We have enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years. Despite the size and scale of the stadium, it is not a particularly favourite away ground. I find the Villa fans to be ever so slightly too full of themselves.

I made my way up into the upper deck of the Doug Ellis Stand, formerly the single tiered Witton Lane stand, where I first ventured during two visits in 1986-1987.

There was drizzle at the start of the game; just like in August against City if memory served me correctly. I hoped for a different outcome. Alan was already in the seats; Gary arrived just before kick-off. We were right next to the wooden panels which divided the home and away spectators. The stadium seemed to be near capacity with only the executive seats in the mammoth main stand unfilled.

We took to the field in those awful black and yellow kits once more.

“OK boys, here we go.”

Of course, the sad truth is that we were pretty woeful in the first-half.

From the moment that Baker crudely tackled Juan Mata early on, it was clear that Villa were desperate for the three points. The Chelsea fans derided the home support.

“It’s so quiet, Villa Park.”

Chelsea were content to play the passing game, while Villa were looking to exploit the pace of their forwards and the apparent stiffness of our defenders. Agbonlahor – one of the few home players that I recognised – set off on a run at John Terry way down below us and the Chelsea captain just did enough to quell the danger. I didn’t fancy too many repeats of that, though.

On a quarter of an hour, Delph played the ball through to the physically impressive Benteke. I uttered the words “he’s the one to watch” just as he brushed past Cahill and deftly beat Petr Cech at the near post.

The Villa Park faithful roared.

It was their turn to mock us. The fellow residents of the Doug Ellis, mere yards away, turned towards us and chided us –

“It’s so quiet, over there.”

A claret flare was set off in the North Stand enclosure and the sulphurous fumes soon reached us. The Villa fans were in their element. After the Chelsea supporters begged of them to “speak fackin’ English” they responded.

“You all talk fanny over there.”

At least they can never ever taunt us with –

“Have you won the European Cup?”

On nineteen minutes, we stood and clapped along with the Villa fans in support of Stiliyan Petrov.

Down on the pitch, we were really struggling. Ramires was booked, Delph came close and Villa were in control. We looked tired, so tired. The isolated Demba Ba was only given scraps. However, a lofted ball from Mata found Ba inside the penalty box – alone, having evaded the offside trap, with only Guzan to beat – but his touch was heavy and the chance passed.

There was frustration and, at times, derision, in my midst. Although the Chelsea support was in good form at the start, at times during the first-half it was the quietest for some time. The rain gave way to bright sunshine, but our play was tepid and dull. Moses, especially, seemed to be lacking focus.

Then, a half-chance as Frank Lampard unleashed a free-kick at goal after Hazard was fouled. The shot was knocked onto a post by Guzan but was gathered before a Chelsea player could follow-up. These were testing times. It was also a physical battle. Referee Lee Mason brandished a yellow to Benteke for an assault on Azpilicueta. Then, a yellow card for Terry. Our thoroughly rotten first-half continued as Ramires – stupidly – tackled Agbonlahor with a high boot. His second yellow meant that we were down to ten men.

At the half-time break, all was doom and gloom in Birmingham. I personally saw no way out of this. It looked like it would be “5hit or bust” against Everton next Sunday.

“There’s no way we’ll win this, Gal.”

“The only way back into this is if they get a player sent-off too, Chris.”

We couldn’t even enjoy Amsterdam in the expected manner with the threat of a fifth-place finish on our minds. I thought of David Moyes’ awful away record against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and United; how typical for him to get a first win in over forty games against these four teams in his very last Everton match.

Pah.

Thankfully, Benitez replaced the woeful Moses with David Luiz at half-time.

Villa – attacking the Holte End – began with several half-chances. With their pace, I really wondered if our rear-guard would hold firm. Our support was still quiet. I heard a bird sing in Aston Park.

Then, salvation. A raised foot by Benteke on Terry and – YES! – Mason showed the Villa frontman his second yellow.

“Not only are they down to ten men, Al; he’s their main threat.”

Game most definitely on.

Soon after, the ball was worked to Frank Lampard who was loitering just outside the box. He pushed the ball square – making life difficult for him, I thought – but crashed a left-footed screamer past Guzan in the Villa goal.

There is nothing better than seeing the net ripple.

It was goal 202.

It was the equaliser, in more ways than one.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

In the melee that followed, I was able to capture his run, his point skywards, his smiles, his moment. The Chelsea fans roared all around me; we were now unleashed. We were ecstatic to get the equaliser, but beside ourselves with elation for Frank to see his destiny fulfilled.

Bobby Tambling 202.

Frank Lampard 202.

With half an hour still to play, we roared the team on. With the fresher legs of David Luiz seeming to energise the players around him, we looked fresher and more confident. Villa, though, still had the occasional chance. After a Gary Cahill shot was blocked, Demba Ba followed up but the ball was again cleared from the goal line. To my eyes, some fifty yards away, I wasn’t convinced that the whole ball had crossed the line. Incoming texts – biased, of course – indicated that the ball was over, but it really was too close to call.

I fancied the day to end in our favour. I turned to Gary and said –

“Frank Lampard. Penalty. Five minutes to go.”

In truth, I was a little dismayed that I hadn’t captured Frank’s goal on film. A penalty would allow me to capture number 203 for sure.

John Terry collapsed on the floor and was clearly in pain. As he was stretchered off, I was truly saddened by the applause and cheers cascading down from the home sections of Villa Park. In all of my time watching live football, I don’t think I have ever seen a badly injured player being booed and jeered as he lay on a stretcher. We turned to the hundreds of nearby Villa fans and vented our dismay at their cruel and callous actions.

I turned to the bloke behind me, incredulous: “We never do that at Chelsea do we?”

That was it. I hoped we would score and send them down.

The chances came and went. Frank headed a chance well over and he looked very frustrated. Free-kicks from Mata and Luiz were poor. The minutes ticked by. Maybe we would have to hope for Stoke to beat Spurs on Sunday for Champions league qualification to be realised. Fernando Torres replaced Demba Ba. The last roll of the dice?

Then, the moment.

Luckily, I pulled my camera up to my eyes as Ashley Cole played the ball to Eden Hazard who skipped deep into the Villa box. I clicked as he pulled the ball back towards the onrushing Frank Lampard. With a rush of adrenalin which happens every so often at football, I watched through my lens as Frank swept the ball home.

I clicked again.

The net rippled.

The away section of Villa Park shook.

The 3,000 Chelsea fans uttered a guttural roar and I continued clicking as Frank was joined by Torres and Mata down below me. The rest of his team joined him and then many Chelsea fans jumped over the advertisement hoardings and engulfed our heroic scorer.

Frank had done it.

203.

It was an amazing turnaround to a game – and possibly a season – that was drifting away from us. How typical for Frank to single-handedly rescue our game in such breathtakingly dramatic style. That the record-breaking two goals should mean so much to our club was – perhaps, whisper it – written in the stars. They were two archetypal Lampard goals too; the blast from outside the box which swerved past the hapless ‘keeper and the classic run, perfectly timed, to meet the ball and sweep home.

The rest of the game was – as they say – a blur. Seven minutes of extra time added to the drama. Unfortunately, Eden Hazard was injured and was taken off. We were down to nine men. We withstood a late Villa rally.

It was time for one last rallying-call –

“We Know What We Are, We Know What We Are – Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

The referee eventually blew.

Everyone around me hugged and shook hands. Our joy was stratospheric.

Quickly, the players walked over to us…first Ash, then Nando, then Frank. The sun was bathing everyone in glorious light.

I snapped away as Frank smiled and laughed, spotting familiar fans in the lower tier, hugging his team mates. He was clearly relieved and overjoyed. I was so pleased for him.

Petr Cech hoisted Frank high on his shoulders and, as I continued snapping away, I fought back a tear.

How wonderful that Frank eventually beat Bobby Tambling’s Chelsea goal haul at the very ground where Bobby scored five for Chelsea against Villa way back in 1966.

Frank – a few words.

You have given me so many wonderful moments as a Chelsea supporter over the years, from the goals at Bolton for that first title in fifty years in 2005, to the emotional penalty against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final in 2008, to the F.A. Cup Final winner in 2009, to the free-kick against Spurs at Wembley last season, to a penalty in Munich, to goals 202 and 203 at Villa Park in 2013. Your professionalism, your dedication, your spirit and your strength are much admired by us all.

We love you to bits.

On the drive home, I was blissfully happy. We had qualified for the Champions League – sure. But the over-riding feeling was of pride in Frank Lampard’s dramatic achievement on yet another momentous day in the club’s history.

…202…203…how about 204 in Amsterdam?

See you out there, Frank.

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