Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 December 2013.
As strange as it seems for me to write these words, this was only my sixth sighting of Crystal Palace as a Chelsea supporter. During my teens and ‘twenties when my ability to attend matches was hampered by lack of money, there were some teams that I wittingly or unwittingly avoided. Admittedly our paths didn’t cross every season, but given the choice of travelling up from Somerset to see the boys play Tottenham or Palace, there would have been only one winner. My first-ever game was an away encounter at Selhurst Park in the autumn of 1991; a dull 0-0. There has only ever been one other visit to Selhurst Park for me to see us play Palace; a pre-season friendly in 2003 when the Arthur Waite Stand was overrun with a huge Chelsea army excited at seeing one of the first games of the Roman Abramovich reign. In fact, another odd statistic; I’ve visited Selhurst Park on five occasions, but only two games have involved Palace. The other three games were against their tenants Charlton Athletic (1989) and then Wimbledon (1996 and 1999).
So, this would only be my fourth Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace game at Stamford Bridge. I can remember the game in November 1992 when I watched on the Shed, uncovered, in spitting rain, with my mate Daryl. Our respective paths had crossed a year or so earlier as fans of baseball – the Yankees in particular, Daryl produced a Yankee fanzine and I contributed on occasion – but it only became apparent a year or so into our limited communication that we were both Chelsea fanatics. We arranged to meet up for a pint in The Black Bull before that game over twenty-one years ago and we have become the very best of friends since. I met Daryl’s brother Neil a month or so later for another game. It’s fascinating to me how these Chelsea friendships are forged. Daryl, Neil and I hope to celebrate our fiftieth birthdays watching baseball in New York in 2015. Meeting new fellow fans in that era was rare; at the time I usually travelled up from Frome by myself, meeting only Alan on occasion, and most commonly in the Black Bull. In those days, Gary used to call by occasionally. There were other acquaintances, but many have fallen by the wayside.
I remember introducing Daryl to Glenn at the Makita at White Hart Lane in 1993, then Alan a year or so later. For the 1994 F.A. Cup Final, Daryl and I watched the game together. The following season, we travelled to Prague and Zaragoza together. In Prague, we bumped into long-time Chelsea stalwart Andy from Nuneaton and friendships blossomed.
With each passing game, my number of match-going Chelsea mates grew one by one. One day I might sit down and type out a chronological chart of when friendships began.
A Chelsea Family Tree, if you will.
Alan, Walnuts, Leggo, Mark and Simon 1984.
Daryl and Neil 1992
Andy and Neil 1994.
Jonesy and The Youth 1995.
Ironically, Daryl and Neil would not be in attendance for this one; instead, they were back in Guernsey to celebrate their father’s 70th. birthday.
I collected Glenn (from 1983, though we first met in 1977) at 8.45am and soon picked-up Parky (2000) too. Glenn always berates me for not wanting to talk too much about the football on the drive to Chelsea, but on this occasion there was lots to talk about. Players were discussed, performances analysed, games examined. There was hope that we could despatch Crystal Palace and stack up three points ahead of the pre-Christmas showdown with Arsenal.
Before the usual pre-match in The Goose (a friend since 1999), all three of us made a quick pilgrimage to the “CFCUK” stall to purchase Mark Worrall’s new Chelsea book. Detailing the first ten years of “The Roman Years”, it contains many anecdotes from Chelsea regulars, a selection of photographs and a forward by Sir Frank Lampard. My small contribution details the day of Frank’s 202nd and 203rd goals at Villa Park.
“Only £16.99, HURRY UP.”
It was a lovely pre-match in The Goose. The Manchester City vs. Arsenal game was garnering a fair bit of attention and yelps of approval greeted the City goals. Some may say that a draw would be the best result, but I just wanted a heavy Arsenal defeat so that their season could start its inevitable implosion in December 2013 rather than March 2014. I personally think that the league is City’s to lose. Being brutally honest, if we are not to win it – a tough ask, let’s admit it now – I would rather the title ended up at City rather than Arsenal.
There was chat with Rob (2005), Sophie (2000), Barbara (2011) and Eva (2012). Tim (2009) and the Bristol Boys were nearby.
As the goals rattled in at Eastlands, the laughter increased. A great time.
Rob warned that although the Crystal Palace “ultras” come in for a lot of stick, they would make a lot of noise.
And fair play to them. This would be their first visit since they were gubbed 4-1 in the 2004-2005 Championship season – WHEN EVEN MATEJA KEZMAN SCORED TWICE – and I was sure they would enjoy their visit regardless of the result. I’ve lost count of the number of games I have seen this season when Selhurst Park appears to be rocking, yet the only fans seemingly involved are the little knot of 200 “ultras” in the bottom corner of the Holmesdale Road End. They appear to be “miked” too.
I mentioned this to Alan.
“Of course” he replied. “The TV love that, miking the fans that make a racket, making out the atmosphere is loud throughout the stadium.”
On ascending the steps to the upper tier, confirmation that two very late goals had been exchanged in Manchester.
City 6 Arsenal 3.
Let the implosion commence.
As we entered the seats, I was given a Christmas card from Joe (1997) who sits nearby with his son Gary. Joe is now eighty-five. We love him to bits.
There have been few Chelsea versus Crystal Palace “classics” but the one game that always seems to grab the attention of my generation came in 1976 during our F.A. Cup campaign. As a struggling Second Division team, we were drawn at home with Malcolm Allison’s Third Division Crystal Palace in the fifth round of the cup. This fixture really captured the imagination of the London public and, with Stamford Bridge’s vast terraces able to withstand the demand, over 54,000 attended. Sadly, we lost 3-2 but it is an afternoon that I can easily recount some 37 years later.
Just after the first two Palace goals, thousands of Chelsea teenagers can be heard singing “Chelsea aggro, Chelsea aggro, ‘ello, ‘ello.”
With Chelsea chasing the game, the atmosphere is clearly electric. The old Stamford Bridge, full to bursting, was a grand old stadium in its time. The sight of The Shed holding almost twenty thousand spectators is just gorgeous.
Peter Taylor went on to play for Tottenham. I never liked him.
I had a quick run through the team and two players stood out; Michael Essien, despite having a nightmare two weeks ago, was back alongside Ramires and David Luiz was partnering John Terry. Further forward, Juan Mata, Willian and Eden Hazard were asked to provide ammunition for the recalled Fernando Torres.
Very soon into the game, the three thousand Palace fans were working their way through their own very distinctive repertoire of songs. They were bellowing them out. It was pretty impressive stuff. Maybe I was wrong; maybe Selhurst is rocked by more than those two hundred self-styled “ultras” in that bottom left corner of their home end.
They taunted us : “Is this a library?” and then “Here for the Palace, you’re only here for the Palace.”
We replied : “Here for the season, you’re only here for the season.”
The away team were fighting for every ball under new boss Tony Pulis. However, after only a quarter of an hour, Willian sensed an opportunity to run at goal. His positive dribble took him close and he sent a low shot towards Speroni. The Palace ‘keeper’s dive turned the ball onto the post only for Fernando Torres to pounce on the rebound.
Alan and I did our usual routine.
You know the score.
Immediately after, the Palace fans ignored the deficit and rallied behind their team. Well done them. It reminded of us when we were…er…shit.
We then hit a little purple patch with some lovely play from a strong Torres run and then a Mata touch enabling Ivanovic to strike at goal. His shot scraped the far post. This was good stuff. Maybe more goals would follow. Even the home crowd were getting involved.
A London derby with noise. Just like 1976. Luvverly jubberly.
Until then, Palace had only enjoyed rare opportunities to attack. Sadly, just before the half-hour mark, a Palace move down our right resulted in a ball being whipped in for an unmarked Chamakh to volley home.
We fell silent and the Palace fans bounced in unison. It was a celebration typical of fans from Istanbul, not Croydon.
I turned to Alan : “I don’t care what anyone says. That’s impressive.”
Thankfully, we regained the lead soon after.
Eden Hazard, relatively subdued until then, glided past his marker and passed to an unmarked Ramires. Our little midfield dynamo looked up, aimed and fired a curler into Speroni’s goal.
2-1 Chelsea. Phew.
At the break, Danny Granville – Stockholm 1998 and all that – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. Thousands upon thousands of new Chelsea fans in the West Upper scratched their heads.
In the second-half, Crystal Palace were clearly more aggressive than in the opening forty-five minutes. Our midfield were left chasing shadows and the frustration among the home support grew with each passing minute. Palace raided our goal, but thankfully neither Nicky Chatterton nor Peter Bloody Taylor was on hand to score. Petr Cech was able to smother and repel all of the efforts on his goal. Still the Palace fans sang.
Essien, though clearly not at his best, stayed on as Juan Mata was replaced by Oscar. Our chances had dried up and we were hanging on. Palace were surprising us all. There was a ridiculous scramble at The Shed End on seventy-five minutes, but continued shots at goal were thwarted by desperate defending by the Chelsea rear-guard. A header then flashed past the post. Cech’s goal was leading a charmed life.
And all around me, instead of generous support for Chelsea in our twenty minutes of need, there was little singing and little encouragement.
At one point, after a welcome period of positive Chelsea play, out of over one hundred spectators in our little section, Alan noted only Big John, Alan and myself clapped.
Welcome to Stamford Bridge 2013.
In the last ten minutes, Andre Schurrle replaced Willian and then Demba Ba replaced Torres. This really surprised me. Although there was little defensive options on the bench available to him, Mourinho chose to make offensive rather than defensive changes. Rather than bring on Lamps as extra cover, Jose chose other options. I quickly remembered an infamous game from only last season.
At Reading with us winning 2-1, Rafa Benitez replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. We let in an equaliser.
At home to Palace in 2014, with us winning 2-1, Jose Mourinho replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. I hoped there would be no equaliser.
Our nerves were jangling. We were still hanging on. There was still no noticeable show of support for the boys.
There were two late Chelsea chances at the Matthew Harding. The ball was played through towards Ramires but, with only Speroni to beat, the little Brazilian fluffed his kick. Whereas I sighed in silent frustration, I looked quickly to my left where there were howls of indignation and anger being aimed at Ramires by many in the MH Upper.
These fuckers had hardly sung a note of support for the team all afternoon, yet their faces were contorted with rage at Ramires’ miss and were heaping abuse towards our own players on the pitch below.
Soon after, another Chelsea chance came and went. There was an almighty scramble after substitute Schurrle played a lovely wall pass with Ba, but shot right at the Palace custodian. The rebound came to Ba, but Speroni again saved. A further rebound was sliced wide by the suddenly hapless Rami.
I grimaced as fellow supporters in the MHU spewed vitriol once more.
With four minutes of extra time signalled, I commented to Alan that we were still looking to attack. This was a very different approach to the Mourinho team of ten seasons ago when a tight, nervy game would be notable for ball retention among the back four rather than forward passes.
Despite one more Palace chance, we survived.
However, such was the dreadful atmosphere during the last ten minutes, it honestly felt like we had lost.