Tales From The Stalemate

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2013.

Chelsea Football Club’s first domestic away game of the fledgling season was a jaw-dropping excursion to Manchester United. However, the programme planners at Sky TV, no doubt in league with their lackeys at the FA, had ordained that the match should take place at 8pm on the bank holiday Monday. The friction of distance may have made life uncomfortable for the 75,000 attendees, but larger obstacles were likely to be overcome during the 2013-2014 season.

We’ll be there.

I was hoping that the drive from my village in rural Somerset to the red brick and white steel of Old Trafford might take around three-and-a-half hours; surely there wouldn’t be too much bank holiday traffic on the M5 during the early afternoon? I pulled out of my drive bang on 1.30pm and began the long drive north. The weather was stunning; blue skies, warming sun, just perfect. For others, the bank holiday was in full swing, with trips to the seaside, country pub lunches, village fairs, pony rides, cycling trips, triathlons and picnics. As I headed towards the next village, the roadside hedges were ripe with blackberries amidst the brambles; I wondered what pickings lie ahead for Chelsea later that evening.

My soundtrack for the early afternoon – yes, the traffic was fine, remarkably light – consisted of The Kings Of Leon and The Ramones. I usually head off to Raintown with New Order and The Smiths blaring at me, but I fancied a change. This was a new era, in more ways than one. Sir Alex Ferguson had finally relinquished his vice-like grip on the day to day operations at United, while our very own handsome devil Jose Mourinho was limbering up to have a tilt at Fergie’s able successor David Moyes. It seemed only a few months ago that Moyes was being touted as Chelsea’s next incumbent. In reality, the thought of Moyes at Chelsea now just seems too implausible for words.

No. Jose was back and this was a match made in heaven.

Moyes versus Mourinho.

Boom.

I raced past The Hawthorns and then the Bescot Stadium. I didn’t see my first “football car” until I had passed Stoke; a white mini-bus packed full of replica-shirted United fans from Devon, Dudley, Droitwich or Devizes. Approaching my usual turn-off into Manchester – the A556 – I saw signs that there was heavy traffic expected. My diversion north over the Thelwall Viaduct, the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal worked in my favour. I was parked-up dead on 5pm; as planned, three-and-a-half hours since leaving leafy Somerset. I only hoped that Mourinho’s planning was just as good.

Outside, it was warm. Balmy even. Too hot for Manchester. I parked up in my usual place but a local lass warned me that new parking restrictions were in place – “there’s a game on love, just warning you” – and so I dutifully paid £10 for a parking place in front of an old industrial unit. Then, the short and familiar walk to Old Trafford. It seemed only five minutes since my last visit. This would be my nineteenth Manchester United vs. Chelsea game at Old Trafford; more times, I mused, than most United fans had even thought about visiting.

Songs emanated from The Bishop Blaize once more. I picked out the new song of the moment, to the tune of “Cum On Feel The Noize.”

“Come on David Moyes. Play like Fergie’s Boys. We’ll go wild, wild, wild.”

I was soon drifting in past the United fans, crowding around the chippies, before heading down Sir Matt Busby Way, past the grafters and fanzine-sellers. Dave Johnstone thrust a copy of “CFCUK” in my hand, but a bigger thrill was coming up. None other than Sir Bobby Charlton, looking dapper in a light grey suit and United tie, walked straight across my path. This was too good an opportunity to miss.

“Let me shake your hand.”

What a thrill. A football legend. A survivor of Munich. A World Cup winner. I briefly chatted to two United fans – and a childhood memory soon returned. Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United took place at Stamford Bridge in May 1973 (Chelsea won, Ossie scored) and I can well remember the buzz at school on the Monday when school chums spoke about the “We all love you Bobby Charlton” chants which echoed around the three-sided Bridge that afternoon. I ended my little history lesson for the two United fans – who were oblivious to the Stamford Bridge game – with the words;

“Enjoy the game. I don’t think you’ll enjoy the season, but you might enjoy this game.”

The game…yes, it finally came into my mind. It would be a tough one. United would have guns blazing. Deep down, I easily envisaged a United victory. Pessimist? Realist? I don’t know. I was just aware of the danger of over-confidence. This may be Mourinho, but these were still early early days.

While I waited on the famous United forecourt – under the Munich clock, with the the Sir Matt Busby statue and the Trinity statue nearby – I bumped into a few familiar faces. I noted, with disdain, that the hawkers were peddling hundreds of “half-and-half” scarves to the day-trippers. I then noted that on the reverse of the “Chelsea” half – out of view to the buying public – were the words “You can’t buy class.” I’ve never seen that before; a friendship scarf with a hidden piss-take. I grumbled to myself and moved on.

I was inside at 6.45pm; or rather, huddled in the sauna-like atmosphere of “Bar 68” alongside Alan and Gary, guzzling a Singha from a plastic bottle. There was talk of the new season and specifically the trip to Prague. I’m not going due to work commitments, but we have allegedly sold our full allocation of 4,900, a number which I find staggering. Maybe it’s the Mourinho factor. We sold around 2,000 for Monaco last summer. In 1998, it was nearer 750.

There was much debate amongst the little gaggle of friends about the team that Mourinho had chosen.

No recognised striker. OK. I don’t think anyone could have expected that.

Cech – Brana, JT, Cahill, Ash – Ramires, Lamps – Schurrle, Oscar, De Bruyne, Hazard.

I was amazed that Frank Lampard was chosen again for his third start out of three. Jose obviously likes that Ramires and Lampard combo. But no striker? Not Torres. Not Ba. Not Lukaku. I joked that we were in no position to complain about Jose’s predelictions.

“I don’t even have a road safety badge, let alone an FA coaching badge.”

Was this the Spanish “False Number Nine” formation or the Scottish national team’s “All Oor Strikers Are Shite” formation? I guess we’d soon find out. It certainly seemed that Jose had come for the draw. His formation seemed to suggest defensive pragmatism rather than a swarming offensive formation, with the four advanced midfielders breaking at will. In my head, I thought about containment. United, in comparison had Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck.

Gulp.

Inside, the first song on the PA was Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

The stadium seemed to take forever to fill. Time to look around and check any new additions to the formidable array of United banners. Now that the “City clock” is no more, there is a new “clock” – currently depicting the words “20 times.” Never slow in taking a dig at their bitter rivals along the East Lancs Road, there is a sign alongside this lampooning Liverpool –

“Not Nineteen Forever.”

The Chelsea section grew to its full three-thousand strong number. We were in good song. Pre-match, United were quiet. The minutes ticked by. As the teams entered the arena, I noted Jose walking towards the dugouts with his arms around Ryan Giggs, sharing a joke and a laugh.

Soon into the game, Dave Johnstone – stood a few rows in front – was incandescent (Daniel Levy incandescent) with rage at sections of our support whose pronunciation of the simple word “Jose” was incorrect.

FFS Chelsea, at least get his name correct.

“Jo-se” not “Ho-se.”

It’s not rocket science.

With that, Alan alongside me took the Mick out of DJ.

“Honly a pound. Hurry up.”

Maybe he should call himself Dave Hohnstone.

Oh boy.

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centering on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly reveling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

The Chelsea support was roaring, with Van Persie and Rio Ferdinand bearing the brunt of the away fans’ distain. I even blushed at some of the stuff being sung about Rio’s brother. On the pitch, the game struggled to life. Of the four midfielders, we expected new signing Schurrle to take up the central position, but he in fact appeared all of the way along the front line. At times, I confused Schurrle with De Bruyne, such was their propensity to pop up at irregular locations as we pushed forward. The game lacked the expected intensity from the start and the 75,000 crowd soon hushed with very little goal-scoring action on the pitch. A long range poke from Oscar in a central position was virtually our only shot of note in the first thirty minutes. Wayne Rooney, the subject of Jose Mourinho’s apparent desires, buzzed around and looked at ease on the ball, splaying the ball out to the wings and encouraging others with his intelligent prompting.

Chelsea fans joined in with ironic cheering of his name and it wasn’t long before we replicated the Victor Moses chant of last season –

“Wayne Rooney – We’ll See You Next Week.”

United created slightly more than Chelsea in that first period, but Petr Cech was rarely tested. A van Persie shot rippled the side netting, Rooney shot meekly. We could only respond with another lame effort from Oscar and a blooter from Brana which troubled the occupants of the Stretford End rather than de Gea in the United goal. In truth, we had struggled to find any fluidity to our play and I found it frustrating to see Hazard unable to pick out any meaningful runs by his team mates. Compared to previous United Chelsea games, this was a tame affair. Just before half-time, a lone black-shirted United fan in the front row of the upper tier of the East Stand drew the ire of the Chelsea supporters, but it was telling that the away fans chose to mock him rather than pay much attention to the game.

At the break, the away end was subdued. The pre-match optimism had wilted slightly. It had been an uneventful game. As the second-half began, I said to Alan –

“Let’s cut and run.”

I would have taken a draw. No doubt.

United, attacking the Stretford End, began livelier. Welbeck shot wide. Although van Persie was quiet, Rooney was involved in everything. Chelsea, with no real focus to our attack, seemed reluctant to take risks, reluctant to break in any numbers. A Gary Cahill effort from way out was well struck, but at a safe height for de Gea to easily save. At the other end, gallant defending – especially from a magnificent John Terry – kept United at bay. A penalty appeal for handball was dismissed by Martin Atkinson.

On the hour, Mourinho replaced the ineffectual De Bruyne with Fernando Torres. At least we had a focus now, but Torres’ runs were often up blind allies and although he kept possession well, there just wasn’t the cut and thrust that we have grown accustomed to. Our play was laboured. Ashley Cole was unable to dig out any crosses; there was often a paucity of blue shirts in the box anyway.

A wonderful header away by John Terry – easily our man of the match – was then eclipsed by a dive at full stretch from Petr Cech from that man Rooney. As the minutes ticked by…Young for Valencia, Giggs for Welbeck, Mikel for Schurrle, Azpilicueta for Hazard…I was still convinced that United would claim victory with a late goal. The home fans, though, were unconvinced and began leaving with five, maybe ten, minutes to go.

“We’ll race you back to London.”

The last chance of the game came to Patrice Evra whose shot thankfully zipped wide. At the final whistle, there was gentle applause from both sections of the support. There was nothing euphoric from us; it was simply a case of “Classic Jose. Job done. Top of the league.” I am sure that Mourinho approaches these tough away games like European games; keep it tight, win it at home. For the return game later in the season, things will have settled down and we can hopefully anticipate a more positive performance. This was never going to be easy though; in the cold light of day, a draw at Old Trafford is excellent.

As I made my way slowly out, I sensed a definite air of disappointment from the United fans. As I walked up the slight incline of the forecourt, the shouts and jostling was at a minimum. There were odd shouts of “We’re keeping Rooney” but nothing more. As I filtered right onto the Chester Road, I passed United fans shovelling mushy peas and overly-salted chips into their mouths using plastic forks from polystyrene trays. The night was still. The cars began their engines and the lights flickered on. The long journey south was about to begin.

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4 thoughts on “Tales From The Stalemate

  1. Hey Chris, thanks for putting us inside Old Trafford with you for Monday night’s match. Your writing is real and entertaining. I look forward to more posts throughout the season! It’s difficult for a football fan from America (who has never been to a match in England) to fully appreciate the environment one encounters at a live match. The drive up, the walk in, meeting a legend — it’s all very gritty. Great stuff!

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