Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 27 October 2013.
There was a small but steady flow of fellow match goers walking past the rows of gravestones within the confines of Brompton Cemetery. Most spoke with local accents but there were a few rogue Northerners too. There was the occasional royal blue and white bar scarf of the home team. Just the merest hint that a football match was soon to be taking place nearby. However, the light grey steel of the roof of Stamford Bridge’s East Stand was clearly visible above the western boundary wall and the intrusive sounds of the stadium public address system echoed off the surrounding buildings and disturbed the otherwise quiet calm of a Sunday afternoon in England’s capital city. This approach to the home of Chelsea Football Club was a break from the norm for me; I had only ever walked through this central pathway, flanked by military-like ranks of grey gravestones of various sizes and shapes, on one other occasion. Much to my consternation, I had been unable to locate the gravestone of Chelsea founder Gus Mears when I paid the cemetery a visit on a winter evening in 2006. In 2013, the same stone was proving to be just as elusive. Many of the tombstones had subsided and the script on many had faded. In some ways, the cemetery was frozen in time; apart from a few exceptions – new gravestones with fresh flowers – most were dated from 1875 to 1915. I wondered how many of the resting souls had witnessed football at Stamford Bridge during our inaugural years.
The weather was mild; we had been warned to expect rainstorms and thunderous gales, but the day had not brought forth the expected deluge. The sky was cloudy and grey, but the autumnal air was dry.
Let me explain why my approach to Stamford Bridge involved a slow perambulation past the final resting places of many of West London’s most notable Victorian and Edwardian residents. On Friday and Saturday, I had been laid low with a sudden and searing back pain. I came to the quick conclusion that it would not be beneficial for me to be imprisoned in The Goose before the Chelsea vs. Manchester City game; instead, I wanted to embark on a walk through the streets of London and – hopefully – enable my ailing body to keep supple and to recuperate. The last thing I wanted was for it to seize up, mid-pint, in a packed and claustrophobic pub.
So, I was on my own. I had left Lord Parky, Young Jake and Young Kris to head off to the boozer at 12.45pm, while I slowly walked to Earl’s Court. My travels then took me to Knightsbridge and I dipped into a couple of famous shops. It is a part of London that I know well. Famously, our former chairman Ken Bates often used the tagline that Stamford Bridge was “only one and a half miles from Harrods” in his prolonged fight to keep football at our only home. In short, he meant that Stamford Bridge was London’s most centrally-located football stadium and that this key fact should be cherished and protected. In one of Harrods food halls, I had spotted a young boy wearing a Chelsea shirt and I managed a little chuckle to myself about this particular lad’s pre-match routine compared to the crowded interior of The Goose that I am so familiar with.
I had then left the tourists and the shoppers in my wake as I slowly headed west, my back now healing fast; I had made a wise move, I was improving with every step. I walked past the perfectly maintained town houses of Kensington and Chelsea on my slow march towards Stamford Bridge, located in the adjacent borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Parts of the two neighbouring boroughs are quite dissimilar.
The North End Road is not Eaton Square.
Finally, on Fulham Road, more spectators appeared and suddenly the buzz was there. This was a match day; a big match day at that. Although results went against us on the Saturday, here was a chance to put ourselves right back into the mix at the very top of the division. On “Match of the Day” the previous evening, I had bristled with excitement when I heard Alan Hansen summarise this season’s championship race.
“Some people say the race is wide open this year. I don’t think it is. I think it’s between Chelsea and Manchester City.”
I had to agree. Although both Arsenal and Liverpool have begun their respective seasons with surprisingly fine results, I simply don’t see their strength of squads being able to withstand a thirty-eight game onslaught for the title. Manchester United, struggling under a new manager, seem uncharacteristically brittle. Tottenham show promise, but there are question marks. Southampton and Everton are fine teams, but way off a title challenge.
Chelsea and Manchester City however, appear to be best set for a sustained title bid.
As I skirted past the programme sellers by the main gates, I knew that City would provide a very stern test for us. They did, after all, have our number in all of the games – all six of them – we played last season. We only had one measly draw (0-0, Benitez’ first game…) to show for our efforts against the light blues of Manchester. Chelsea were treated to nothing but defeats in Birmingham, Manchester, Wembley, St. Louis and New York. Physically strong in midfield, potent in attack, they were formidable opponents. If anything, despite the loss of Tevez, their team has improved since 2012-2013. And yet…and yet…should Chelsea inflict a defeat on Manuel Pelligrini’s team at Stamford Bridge, City would be staring at three defeats out of just nine league games.
I bristled with excitement again.
I was inside the stadium with time to spare. Manchester City had again sold their full allocation of three thousand; it isn’t always the case. As I have said on numerous occasions, I’ve never really had much of a problem with Manchester City. Their old stadium deep in the heart of South Central Manchester, nestled alongside the red brick houses of Moss Side, was a favourite away ground and their supporters, inflatable bananas and all, always seemed to be able to take the piss out of themselves, which is a trait that I admire. It was always Ken Bates’ boast – sorry, him again – for Chelsea to be the Manchester United of the South. However, for many seasons, as Chelsea lunged and lurched from one near-miss to another, I couldn’t help but think that we were more like the Manchester City of the South. Both clubs had massive potential, exuberant fan bases, but limited successes. Both clubs lived in the shadows of others.
In 2013, the two clubs have been twinned once again; new money, an expanding fan base, success.
If I’m honest – brutally honest – I’m finding it hard to develop much of an antipathy for them. Chelsea has obvious long-standing loathing of Tottenham and Leeds, maybe even Arsenal and Manchester United. We have nurtured a relatively new dislike for Liverpool since 2005. Is there room for another club to hate?
“Only if City are successful” I hear the cry.
My usual match day companion Alan was on holiday in Spain and so I chatted to Tom, who was concerned for my safe passage back to Somerset later in the day in light of the threat of gales and rain.
The teams entered the pitch. After Tuesday in Gelsenkirchen, it was no surprise that Fernando Torres got the call. Elsewhere, Juan Mata had missed out in favour of Andre Schurrle. At the back, Gary Cahill continued to partner John Terry. Jose Mourinho again favoured Ramires and Sir Frank. It was reassuring to witness the return of Ashley Cole.
City’s team of superstars included the excellent Toure, Aguero and Silva.
We were forced to attack the Matthew Harding in the first-half.
We began well and Gary Cahill squandered a great chance within the first few minutes, but Manchester City soon rose to the challenge. After a while, the youngsters Kris and Jake sidled in next to me.
“Good time in the pub, boys?”
Throughout the match, I was constantly annoyed to see that Toure was afforded yards of space. His was a brooding presence, pacing around the midfield, waiting to pounce like only he can do.
Then, Torres had a couple of chances to strike. Although he looked offside on the second one, he shot wildly over with only Joe Hart to beat. Instead of yells of abuse, the crowd were seemingly sympathetic.
In the far corner, the City fans were quiet, rousing only occasionally.
“We’re Not Really Here.”
I have to be honest, despite a 4pm kick-off (code for “more beers”) and a top-of-the-table clash, the atmosphere was pretty quiet. Then, the game changed. Torres picked up the ball around thirty-five yards out and decided to run at Clichy. On some occasions, Nando appears to be running in quick sand. On others, he glides past players. With his turn of pace catching Clichy on the back foot, he easily outpaced the former Arsenal left-back. He drilled a low ball across the six yard box and the trailing Demechelis was unable to stop the ball reaching the onrushing Andre Schurrle.
1-0 Chelsea and The Bridge awoke in a crescendo of noise. Schurrle pumped his fists towards the MHL and then pointed towards Torres. It had been a superb run. Torres’ earlier miss was soon forgotten.
Next, Torres on fire, down below me, teasing a City defender before striking a rasping shot which curled enticingly on its trajectory toward goal. The ball thundered against the bar. It was a fantastic shot. How unlucky. City issued a warning signal in the dying moments of the half as Aguero shot at Cech from an angle but our ‘keeper fought away the strike with the minimum of effort.
It had been an interesting game of football in the first-half. I sensed that it had been bubbling along nicely and that, as so often is the case, the game would provide more adventure in the second period.
Sadly, Manchester City soon struck in the second-half. Samir Nasri sent through a slide-rule pass to Aguero, with our defence unable to match his movement. With hardly any back lift, the striker unleashed a bullet which beat Cech at his near post.
1-1. Game on, again.
Although I think we edged the first-half, Manchester City now seemed to step up a gear and were on the front foot. Our defence, previously well-marshalled by the excellent Terry in the first-half, appeared vulnerable. In midfield, there was little bite. However, with the indefatigable Ivanovic charging up and down the right flank with all of his old spirit, we managed a foot hold in the game. A header from Torres was aimed straight at Hart and a Terry effort was touched over. Cech saved superbly from Silva. This was brewing up to be quite a game. The mood inside the stadium was of nervous concern though; here was evidence enough that the home supporters viewed City as an accomplished team. The atmosphere again struggled to get going.
Mourinho rang the changes. A clearly tiring Lampard was replaced by the steadying calm of Mikel and Schurrle was replaced by Willian. A few chances were exchanged and then Samuel Eto’o was chosen to replace Hazard. I was still nervously expecting a City goal at any moment. A free-kick from Willian flew past the far post at The Shed End.
The minutes ticked by.
Then, with not long to go before the final whistle, a Willian header was lofted high into the City half. Nastasic was being chased by Torres and headed the ball goalwards, but his touch was heavy and cleared the on-rushing Hart.
The stadium gulped.
We watched, breathlessly, as Torres continued his run and then stabbed the ball in from an angle.
Mayhem. Absolute mayhem.
The place was pumping now alright.
Torres raced over to the corner and was soon mobbed by team mates. I was so pleased for him. Please God let him enjoy these moments of salvation. Under the astute man management skills of Mourinho, there is a bright future ahead. I’ve certainly noticed a greater show of strength from Torres this season; he looks more robust, his chest seems more muscular, his body more tuned for the rigours ahead. If his head stays positive, goals will follow.
In the ensuing thirty seconds, I still expected City to score.
We all did, right?
The ball was pumped into the Chelsea box one last time.
It was cleared.
All eyes were on the much maligned Howard Webb. I punched the air as he signalled the end of the game.
Manchester City – one of the title favourites – had now lost three out of nine league games.
Chelsea – on a roll – were up to second place.
The future looks fine.
And back ache? What back ache?