Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 21 August 2013.
Chelsea’s 2013-2014 league season began on Sunday 18th. August, but it began without me. For the first time in ten years, I had been forced to miss a league-opener. Back in 2003, my mother was hospitalised and so I missed the euphoria and joy of the first four home games under new owner Roman Abramovich; that strange honeymoon period of stratospheric optimism induced by wave after wave of new signings which brought unbridled hope to Chelsea supporters everywhere. Back in August 2003, Adrian Mutu was the new crowd favourite, “Chelski” T-shirts were worn with pride on the Fulham Road and “Kalinka” was top of the Stamford Bridge hit parade. Ten years later, despite initial fears about the longevity of our Russian oligarch’s long term plan, we have witnessed previously undreamed riches. The silverware has been plundered at regular intervals, the club has become a global super-power and we have all enjoyed the ride of a lifetime. On Wednesday 21st. August, it was time for me attend my own personal opener of the season, to pay tribute to Roman’s ten years at the helm and to welcome back the returning Jose Mourinho. In truth, it felt decidedly odd being late to the party. As I drove into London with Old Parky and Young Jake, music blaring wildly, it felt that I had missed all of the fun from Sunday.
After stepping back inside The Goose, the first Peroni of the season was quaffed and I was back amongst friends. There were Chelsea smiles, Chelsea handshakes, Chelsea backslaps and Chelsea kisses and I soon felt involved once again.
Outside in the beer garden, I stood with Daryl, Alan and Gary. All four of us had lost some weight over the summer but there was a gnawing inevitability that this would be the lightest we would be through the entirety of 2013-2014. All of those lagers, all of those cholesterol heavy fry-ups and all of those stops at motorway service stations would surely take their toll by May. Alan handed me my away tickets for the upcoming fixtures in Manchester and Merseyside. The season was up-and-running. In truth, I have had a dull and uneventful summer, with long hours at work and few memorable days in the sun. I wasn’t too bothered; it was a time to recuperate after the long haul of the previous season. After 58 games in 2011-2012, I tallied 57 in 2012-2013. I have my sights set on a similar number in 2013-2014.
I chatted to Alan and we quickly reviewed the events of Sunday. It was no surprise that we mentioned the typically Mourinho-esque – whether intentional or not – performance from his new Chelsea team. A spellbinding first period (I am sure Jose would have bristled at Graeme Souness’ Barcelona comparison on Sky) saw us leap into a 2-0 lead, only for a more subdued performance in the second-half. This was so typical of the first-era Mourinho team, almost to the point of ironic self-parody.
“Get ahead. Kill the game. After an hour we have won and I am resting players for the next game.”
As Alan and I chatted about Mourinho, the smiles from both our faces were proof that we were so excited to have him back at our club.
After walking past the busy souvenir stalls along the Fulham Road – there always seems to be so much more royal blue in the shirt-sleeved crowds of August than later in the season – I turned towards the West Stand and was soon struck by a change from May. The large pictorial adornments from Wembley and Munich which hung proudly all season long are no more. There is a blank canvas for Mourinho now. What do we expect from him in 2013? A little more adventure? Is that what Roman desires? Will Jose test himself to see if he can win “another way”? With home-grown youngsters? We will wait and see what paintbrushes and what brushstrokes – what colours – he will use on this new canvas. Who can say what trophies will be referenced on that same West Stand wall throughout his second term of office? It’s fun thinking about it though, isn’t it?
Welcome back Jose.
“One Of Us.”
I bought a match programme and was pleased to see further referencing to the 1983-1984 season. My mate Glenn had bought me a programme from Sunday and the 1983-1984 campaign was featured in that one too. There were previously-unseen photos from that lovely 5-0 home opener against Derby County. I’m hoping for a season-long retrospective of that season throughout this one; just like, I hasten to add, I did throughout my 2008-2009 match reports. In further editions of this season’s programme, I’m expecting references to Pat Nevin’s end-to-end run against The Geordies, Joey Jones’ fist-pumping, Mickey Thomas’ goals and many casual comments about the terrace fashions of that crazy era in our lives. Despite the silverware of recent years, I’m still likely to name 1983-1984 as the most enjoyable season ever.
With typical Chelsea-esque inefficiency, one of the five turnstiles servicing the MHU was unmanned, but thankfully I still reached my seat with a few seconds to spare. I just caught the kick-off on film. Phew.
It was a warm and sultry evening. Aston Villa had around 1,500 in the away segment; it sounded like they were buoyant after the win against Arsenal.
A quick check of the team; I think we were all surprised to see Demba Ba in ahead of Romelu Lukaku. I was also surprised that Frank was playing. The main change was Juan Mata in for the impressive Kevin de Bruyne. Oh, Axon in for Gorham.
“Expect a steadying influence there. And lots of photos.”
Stamford Bridge was largely unchanged from May. However, I did note that all of the various supporters’ club flags, with which Chelsea has chosen to decorate Stamford Bridge in the style of badges on a back-packer’s rucksack, were missing from the West Stand.
No Philly Blues. No Hungary Blues. No Pittsburgh Blues.
In the wash? Who knows?
In my desire to capture some of the early match action on camera, the first goal caught me wrong-footed. I actually caught the moment that the ball crossed the line on film, but was only vaguely aware of how it ended up in the goal. Not to worry.
The first “They’ll Have To Come At Us Now /Come On My Little Diamonds” moment of the season.
The goal sparked some noise at The Shed End and they were in good voice for a while. Villa, never the loudest singers at Chelsea, would not be defeated though and ably battled on, even including a familiar Chelsea tune from last season in their repertoire. Chelsea enjoyed the possession without really providing much in the way of end product. Villa, wearing a kit which harked back to their 1982 European Cup win in Rotterdam, chased and closed us down well. I kept glancing over towards the suited Mourinho, tie limp around his neck, prowling in the technical area. It was a surreal sight for sure. After sowing his wild oats in Milan and Madrid, our man was back.
Midway through the first-half, I glanced around the stadium, twinkling in the late summer evening haze. For once, every seat was taken. It was a joy to behold.
Out of nowhere, Alan and I found ourselves talking about 1988. It seems like a lifetime away now, but the summer of 1988 was a low point in my – and countless others’ – Chelsea life. I had suffered relegation with Chelsea in 1975 and 1979, but my boyish enthusiasm and love for the club enabled me to keep my spirits up on those two occasions. The allure of attending games was reason enough to keep any negativity at bay. Come 1988, though, things were different. Our relegation from the old First Division in May 1988 had resulted in a summer of anxiety for me. Elsewhere, pill-popping Britain was enjoying the second Summer of Love – Acid House parties, smiley T-shirts, M25 raves – but I was fully absorbed in the fear of a sustained spell in the second tier of English football. We had, remember, become the only team to finish fourth from bottom and still be relegated; our team was simply too good to be relegated. And yet, with John Hollins and then Bobby Campbell in charge, we had been relegated amidst scenes of carnage against ‘Boro. Ahead of our league campaign, with our opening medley of home games to be ticket only with the terraces closed, we embarked on a tour of the West Country. I didn’t attend, but I know a man who did.
Alan travelled to Devon, where we played at Saltash, Dawlish and Plymouth. He had booked cheap accommodation at the halls of residence at Exeter University for the duration. Imagine his surprise when he arrived for breakfast on day one to see the entire Chelsea team staying there too. Yes dear reader, 1988 Chelsea was playing football on another – distant – planet. In 2013, Chelsea Football Club jet-setted around the globe playing friendlies in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and U.S.A. and stayed in five star hotels. In 1988, we played in Devon and stayed at Exeter University halls of residences.
I can always remember coming out of the sandstone booking hall of Fulham Broadway for the season-opener in 1988 against a recently-moneyed Blackburn Rovers and meeting up with Alan outside. My face must have been a picture of miserable discontentment because his words were :
“Bloody hell. You look pleased to be here.”
On that occasion – with the terraces shut and less than 9,000 present – we lost 2-1. Waiting at Paddington Station that night for the train home – sick of football, sick of caring too much, sick of it all – is one of the iconic moments that I’ll never forget.
As the match drew on with few chances for both sides, Alan and I commented that Jose Mourinho, if things took a while to gel, would be given slack by the Chelsea support that others could only dream of. And that is the way it is. No qualms from me. Benitez was given no slack. Villas-Boas’ slack was tightened quickly. There was no slack for Scolari. Di Matteo? Let’s not even talk about it.
With the half-time break enticing some spectators to leave for an early pint, Villa moved the ball down to Agbonlahor down in front of Jake, Alan and I in the North-West corner. The pacey Brummie played the ball back quickly and Benteke slammed the ball in off a post.
In truth, it had been a pretty mundane performance and our five midfielders had been rather unadventurous. I caustically commented to Alan;
“If Rafa was still in charge, we would have been booed off.”
The second-half began and the tone inside Stamford Bridge was all rather muted. The Villa fans kept singing, but everyone else seemed subdued. Over in the far corner, a full moon began its slow ascent into the night sky and I was soon under its spell. I took many pictures of its pure white form, occasionally hiding behind breaths of cloud as the players toiled below. I was clearly distracted. I was clearly rusty. My singing was patchy and half-hearted. Maybe I needed a few games to get back to normal.
On the hour, a half-chance but the quiet Eden Hazard fluffed his shot. Agbonlahor was then clean through but blazed over. A move down the Villa left resulted in a deep cross to the far post where two attackers were seemingly unmarked. It was Villa’s turn to fluff their chance. I breathed a sigh of relief.
A double substitution brought renewed energy to our attack, with the much-vaunted Lukaku replacing Ba, who had endured an off-night. Andrea Shurrle replaced an equally ineffective Mata. Schurrle was soon in the action, shooting from distance, but looking at ease. I’ll be honest, from my viewpoint I thought Ivanovic’ challenge on Benteke was clumsy and not vindictive. The Villa players were adamant that an injustice had occurred. Maybe we were lucky.
On seventy-two minutes, a rampaging Lukaku run was brought back to where an infringement had taken place. The ball was swung in by Frank Lampard – click – and a forest of players leaped as the ball continued its venomous course deep into the Villa box. Ivanovic leaped – click – and his header beat the diving Guzan.
Brana raced over to the far side – click, click, click – and the stadium was once again reverberating with noise.
Just after, Lukaku did well to spin and slam a ball towards the Villa goal, only for it to hit the side nertting. Weimann shot low at the other end, but Petr Cech made the save of the day, stooping low to his left and clawing the ball wide.
The referee signalled an extra five minutes. This would be a testing period for us. I looked over towards the brooding Mourinho. In days of yore, at 2-1, we would have slowed the play down and calmly played the ball around the back four. An old-style Jose team would have closed it down more effortlessly. There were hurried punts up field, drastic clearances, our defence at sixes and sevens. There was no calm air of efficiency which was such a feature in the definitive 2004-2006 period. With a minute to go, the ball was punted up towards Frank who gamely raced after it. He soon gave up the race and sprinted back to his holding position. I am sure I heard him say to himself :
“What are you doing Frank? Jose won’t like that. Get back and defend you pillock.”
The whistle blew. Another three points. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t perfect.
But at least it wasn’t 1988.