Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 17 March 2013.
I was decidedly under the weather on Friday and Saturday. The drive up to London for the West Ham United game did not overly excite me, despite the prolonged after-glow of the second-half comeback at Old Trafford and our progression into the last eight of the Europa League. With Parky unable to attend again, I set off for London at 10.30am. By the time I had reached Warminster, I was shocked to see the higher ground dusted with snow. We are rarely troubled by snowfall in mid-March. By the time I had headed up and over Salisbury Plain, I was surrounded by the white stuff. I needed to put my sunglasses on; the glare was intense.
The recent story concerning Chelsea’s trip to the United States being tagged on the end of the current season – still nothing more than a tabloid rumour at this stage of course – had left me rather confused and underwhelmed. If true, it just about summed the season up, one which is already on its way to being the longest and messiest in our history.
To recap once more; eight different competitions, two managers, Civil War amongst the supporters, games from Seattle in the west to Yokohama in the east, games in Kiev and Kazan, five games against Manchester United, possibly four games against Manchester City, possibly three Cup Finals, the games go on and on, mile after mile, time zone after time zone.
And at the end of it, when the players are almost down and out, a return trip to New York?
To me, that makes no sense.
In fact, personally speaking, I was totally disinterested by the prospect of a US tour. I’ve been lucky enough to attend games at each and every one of our 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012 US tours and yet this one, to be possibly added at the end of this hangover of a season, left me cold. My ambivalence truly shocked me.
“You know what, Chelsea – I’m boycotting it.”
In truth, with a potential Europa League Cup Final taking place on Wednesday 15 May, it will surprise nobody to know that I’d be unlikely to be able to do both. Contrary to popular opinion, I do show up for work occasionally.
I tried re-focusing on the game against West Ham United. I wondered if Joe Cole might play a part. Should he do so, I was convinced that we would shower him with thanks and applause in lieu of his seven years with us, rather than mirror the venomous scorn which greets Frank Lampard every time he plays West Ham. They are truly obsessed by him, aren’t they? How very unhealthy for them. All that negativity. I guess they will never change.
I collected Bournemouth Steve at Amesbury at 11.30am and the weather soon deteriorated further. We were hit with a grey melange of rain and road spray. The driving conditions were terrible. Steve’s last game was against QPR – what a shocker that was – and we spent a few minutes reviewing the state of affairs at the club. I answered a few of his questions and – maybe it was the weather which darkened my mood – my responses obviously surprised him.
“You seem disillusioned, Chris.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
This has been, after all, a pretty shambolic follow-up to our coronation as Champions of Europe last May.
I stopped for a coffee at Fleet and then made good speed on the approach into London. I travelled in past Twickenham, then over the Thames. A mile or so to the north, Chelsea were playing Juventus in the Next Gen Cup at Brentford’s Griffin Park. Had I been feeling slightly better, there’s no doubt I would have attempted to catch that game on the way in to London. Instead, I was only “up” for the main event.
I strolled into the busy pub at about 1.45pm. There were St. Patricks Day hats being worn by the bar-staff and clientele alike. I had made a conscious decision of not choosing a green pullover for the day out of protest. The lads were already up to their eyes in lager. Feeling rather groggy, I was giving it all a rather large swerve. Dave, one of the New York Blues who now resides in London, arrived and we had a good old natter while Sunderland and Norwich struggled to attract our attention on the TV screen above. The length of the current season caused us much amazement.
Dave exclaimed “we could still have eighteen games to play yet!”
I was, to be quite plain, stunned.
Eighteen more games? I quickly did some arithmetic.
League – ten.
Europa – five.
F.A. Cup – three.
Yep – eighteen games.
If you add in the potential US tour, twenty games plus.
“Stop the season. I want to get off.”
It was a cold and wet walk down to Stamford Bridge. By the time Dave and I had reached the turnstiles to the MHU – he had tickets a few seats away from me – my jacket was sodden. We decided to head inside to “Jimmy’s” to dry out and for yet more dissection of the current state of affairs at Chelsea Football Club. We spoke – in general terms – about the size of our club and, specifically, of previous US tours and our American fan base, the reluctance of the club to seriously consider plans for stadium enlargement, the thorny subject of ticket prices and the idiosyncratic way in which Roman runs the club. After our chat, there is little wonder that the mood was hardly lifted.
I made my way up the stairs to the upper tier. Once inside, Stamford Bridge looked grey and still. Alan, himself still struggling with a head cold, was able to confirm that Fulham were still beating Tottenham at White Hart Lane. If we could beat West Ham, a little daylight would appear between us and Spurs. With a game in hand on them, we could open up a nice little gap. And here is the strange dichotomy. Despite our warm feelings for last season, we need no reminding that we finished a lowly sixth at the end of the league campaign. This season, despite a tough run-in, I still feel that a third place finish is very achievable.
So – an improvement in the league.
But, my goodness, it doesn’t feel like it does it?
There were plenty of team changes from the win against Steaua on Thursday. In came Gary Cahill, Frank Lampard, Victor Moses and Demba Ba. In the end, Joe Cole was not involved.
What an array of missed chances in the first-half. Demba Ba was presented with the first real chance. He was clean through with only Jaaskelainan to beat. However, against his former team, he had the Fernando Torres jitters and poked the ball well wide. At the other end, Collins crashed a shot over the bar.
John Terry then produced a little piece of pure theatre. He began warming up in front of the family section in the East Lower, but then drifted down to the corner flag adjacent to the baying away support. If the West Ham fans dislike Frank first and foremost, then John is just behind. There were chants about – I am sure – John’s mother. He just stood by the corner flag and took it all. I looked away and then heard a roar. Alan told me that our captain made a point of bending over, with his backside towards the Hammers.
He then walked over to the corner flag once more, turned towards the away fans and began reciting the famous soliloquy from Hamlet –
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”
The West Ham supporters, such Philistines, were clearly no fans of William Shakespeare and the booing continued. Not to be outdone, John Terry then set light to five torches which he then began juggling in front of the claret and blue hordes. He showed great manual dexterity as the torches flew up into the air, then returned, the smoke adding to the drama. Still, the booing did not relent.
“Tough crowd” whispered our captain.
He then produced a flipchart in which he detailed a cure for the common cold.
Still more boos.
“Ah, fcuk you, then…”
On the pitch, a few yards away, a shot from Eden Hazard was cleared, but only as far as Juan Mata. With the West Ham defence apparently sleeping, he spotted the unmarked Frank Lampard and hooked a ball back towards the penalty spot. A looping header easily beat the West Ham ‘keeper.
The Stamford Bridge crowd were in rapture. How fantastic that Frank should reach the magnificent milestone of two hundred career Chelsea goals against his former team and in front of their fans. He raced down to the corner, kicked away John Terry’s flipchart and joined his captain in joyous celebration. The rest of his team mates soon joined in.
Well, not quite. How on earth had I not put some money on Frank to be the first goal scorer?
“Twas written in the stars.”
Just after, West Ham had a goal ruled out for a foul, but then the Chelsea attacks began again. We dominated possession. Efforts from Luiz, Moses and Mata went close. Ba had two more efforts which did not trouble the West Ham ‘keeper.
“This scoring lark isn’t easy, is it?”
Although the forward play of Mata and Hazard excited us, I commented to Alan that it was lovely to see Cesar Azpilicueta play so well. His chasing back and general marking was excellent. By this stage, we had heard that Fulham had held on to win at Tottenham. This was indeed excellent news.
It was more of the same during the second-half. With Mata and Hazard at the heart of all of our attacking play, Alan called them “the fireflies” and I appreciated this term of affection. They were certainly flitting around, with the defenders mesmerized by their movement. Eden Hazard spun away from a marker and initiated a mazy run at the heart of the West Ham defence and soon found himself smothered. With no less than four defenders surrounding him, he managed to extricate himself from this tightest of spots with an exquisite rabona – one of Torres’ tricks – across the box. He was buzzing. Not long after, a lovely move involving the two fireflies resulted in Hazard slamming the ball in with his left foot.
The crowd roared again.
He slid towards us on his knees, down in the north-west corner. He was soon mobbed by his smiling team mates.
As the second-half played on, Chelsea carved out more and more chances, though our finishing was quite profligate. A high shot from Lampard was particularly wasteful. One suspects that the West Ham fans were soon muttering “Scott Canham would have scored that.” Despite our chances, West Ham themselves occasionally peppered Petr Cech’s goal, though he was only rarely troubled.
Sam Allardyce brought on Carlton Cole as a late substitute. The Chelsea fans showed some class by warmly applauding our former striker. I can remember his debut, way back in the spring of 2002.
“See, West Ham. That’s how to honour former players.”
I guess they just wouldn’t understand.