Tales From Happy Monday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 1 April 2013.

The Easter weekend of 2013 was turning out to be a bitterly cold one. After our meek capitulation at Southampton on the Saturday, Chelsea were not able to give us any added warmth on that particular afternoon. As Easter Sunday passed, thoughts turned to the Easter Monday F.A. Cup replay with Manchester United. In all honesty, I wasn’t too worried. After years of supporting the club through thick and thin, it would be “typical Chelsea” for us to follow up a poor performance against one of the division’s lesser teams with a sterling victory against one of the giants. And yet, it would also be “typical Chelsea” for our fine performance in the first game – which seemed like ages ago – to be unrewarded with a defeat in the replay.

Inevitably – everyone knows how my mind works by now – I thought back to previous games in the F.A. Cup with United. In recent memory, there have been two. And the vibes were not great. In 1998-1999, we did well to eke out a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, despite getting Robbie di Matteo sent off, but then lost in the replay. I didn’t attend the second game; it was the days of doing shift-work and so I had to listen in on the radio at work. I wondered if a similar scenario might exist in 2013. I certainly didn’t fancy a repeat of the horrendous F.A. Cup game of 1998.

We, of course, were F.A. Cup holders; a phrase which we had been unable to utter for a full 27 years. Manchester United were the reigning League Champions. Ruud Gullit was our manager, Dennis Wise was our captain. Our team included some well-loved players; Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Mark Hughes. We met United in the third round. It was our first game as defending F.A. Cup holders. What followed was probably one of the most humiliating trouncings that I have ever seen at Stamford Bridge.

At one stage, we were losing 0-5.

Yes, that’s correct.

0-5.

That we scored three very late goals to give the score line a vague hint of acceptability did not fool anyone.

We had been found out.

Not long after, we lost to United again in the League. We also lost to Arsenal in the League and League Cup in quick succession. Soon after, Ruud Gullit was given the sack, with rumours of contract negotiations causing problems in the relationship between the chairman Ken Bates and our dreadlocked manager. As a fan base, we were saddened and confused. That our first manager to bring us a major trophy in 26 years could be dismissed within nine months seemed crazy, cruel and heartless.

Does this ring any bells?

Thought so.

In truth, the team was brilliant one minute, awful the next. I’d say that the football that we played in the autumn of 1997 was the best ever. The midfield of Poyet, Di Matteo, Wise and Petrescu was magnificent. Upfront, we had Hughes and Zola. Great times. But how they can soon change.

Travelling up to Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday 2013, I was sure that there wouldn’t be a 0-5 score line confronting me at any stage of the upcoming game, regardless of Rafa Benitez’ inadequacies.

In the pub, there was a lovely little Tokyo reunion; Mike was over from Brooklyn, Foxy was over from a ship off the coast of New Zealand, via Nottingham. It was great to reminisce about that most magical of foreign trips, regardless of the end result.

Parky was with us too. He has had a rough week or so. His spirits are always up, though. I have to admire his resilience. He came out with a piece of “Classic Parky.”

“Yeah, they wanted to see me in the hospital. I stayed in there a few hours. They gave me a check up. They hooked me up to the scanner. Apparently I cost £2.20.”

On the walk down the North End Road – the cold wind added to the freezing temperatures – we spotted five or six Manchester United fans. To the uninitiated, there would be no clue; they were not wearing scarves, shirts, caps, or even small pin badges. But we knew. The way they were dressed, the fact that they were silent, the fact that they looked a little concerned.

They were United.

The days are gone, really, of having to run the gauntlet at away matches, but there is no point in advertising to the world of your allegiance at certain away games. Anyway, they made their way unhindered. The Shed would be full of 6,000 Mancs for this one; I feared that their noise would drown ours.

As I checked the starting line-ups, my spirits were raised. Juan Mata and Eden Hazard started for us. I checked out the opposition; Manchester United fielded a decidedly unglamorous team, and their personnel suggested a more prosaic form of football, far from their swashbuckling style much admired throughout the footballing world. Crucially, Wayne Rooney was injured and Robin Van Persie was on the bench. This confused me. United have virtually won the league and they are out of Europe; why would Alex Ferguson not start the most prolific striker in British football?

The Shed balcony was adorned with the red / white / black flags of United. There was one which mocked Steven Gerrard’s lack of league titles. He has, of course, twelve less than Ryan Giggs.

The first-half was a strange affair. It was a decidedly slow game; a game of cat and mouse. Chelsea enjoyed most of the possession, but on the first day of the baseball season, it appeared that both teams were attempting a no-hitter. Apart from a slow daisy-cutter from Mikel, the first real shot on target, which warranted a save, took place on 31 minutes; an effort from Demba Ba which De Gaea saved with an outstretched leg. Soon after, Ramires set up Ba again, but his shot was blocked. It took United 37 minutes for their first real effort on goal; an effort from Nani. A lovely dribble from Hazard, a lay-off from Oscar, but Hazard blazed over. Then, a wild, swerving shot from Chicarito was booted clear by Cech.

It had been a strange half. Ashley Cole had pulled up on twenty minutes, of course; we hoped that Ryan Bertrand would cope better than on Saturday.

At half-time, with no match action to distract me, I stood and froze.

The second-half began in a lively fashion. A cheeky back-heel from Ba provided the first attempt on goal. Soon after, the game changed. Mikel won the ball right on the left touchline in our half and the ball was eventually played through to Juan Mata – the king pin – who was in acres of space in the middle of United’s half. Oscar had continued to move up the left wing and I pleaded for Mata to push the ball through for him inside the full-back. Instead, Mata caught us all on the hop. He played a ball which nobody expected, chipping the ball up and into the penalty area. He had spotted the slightest hint of a move by Ba; great vision. With one amazing piece of dexterity, Ba let the ball fall over his shoulder and he cushioned the ball so it flew over De Gaea’s flailing – and failing – body.

The crowd exploded.

I screamed.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Over in the far corner, Demba fell to his knees in silent prayer and was then mobbed by his team mates.

Rio Ferdinand, who had been booed relentlessly, had been the victim of Ba’s magnificent finish. How we laughed.

Chelsea enjoyed a nice period of possession. The United fans – despite their numbers – were not so loud. We had a special message for our friend in the middle of United’s back-four :

“Rio Ferdinand – fcuk off to Qatar.”

On the hour, a most brilliant piece of football. A blistering cross from the right, a fine leap from Chicarito.

I cringed and grimaced.

It was the equaliser for sure. Damned United.

But, no. Petr Cech threw out an arm and the ball was deflected over the bar.

It was the save of the season, no doubt. The applause for our great goalkeeper was loud and heartfelt.

Free beers for him in the bar after.

The chances for Chelsea then came and went in quick succession.

Juan Mata forced a save which rippled the side-netting, but the linesman did not give a corner. Eden Hazard was clean through, but dragged his shot wide. Ramires belted one off target. At the other end, Valencia well wide. There was intriguing physical battle between Ba and Ferdinand. Our play was more direct than with Fernando Torres in the team.

More chances. Mata over, Mata wide.

No matter.

I was surprised – really surprised – that we had reached 80 minutes with no substitutes being made by Benitez. Ferguson had already brought on Van Persie and Giggs.

Oscar shot meekly wide; he is having a tough time of late.

I have to say that I thought that Ryan Bertrand performed admirably at left-back after replacing Ashley Cole. His positioning was much better, his marking tight. One of the other poorer players at Southampton, Branislav Ivanovic, was much better too. Maybe Southampton was just a bad day at the office. Two late chances for Van Persie were wasted and we held on.

As I made my way down the Fulham Road, my phone was going crazy with incoming texts. We were back at the new Wembley for the twelfth time in under six years.

It is our second home and, quite possibly, our third home too.

As I drove home on the westbound M3, I happened to glance over at the Thorpe Park roller coasters which are easily visible from the motorway.

I had a chuckle to myself.

“Don’t waste your money on that. Just get a Chelsea season ticket.”

At 4.40pm on Sunday 10th March, we were virtually out of the F.A. Cup.

At 2.30pm on Monday 1st April, we were back at Wembley.

No joke.

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