Tales From The Hunger Game

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 23 December 2013.

Although it would be foolish to call the Arsenal vs. Chelsea encounter a “championship decider” – surely there were no fans of either club so intoxicated with pre-Christmas cheer to let their red or blue optimism rise that high – this always felt like a massive game.

Our biggest match of the 2013-2014 season thus far? Probably.

Pre-match thoughts were mixed. Our form has been patchy of late. The lack of a killer punch in front of goal, defensive frailties, an unsettled starting eleven, much chatter from the drinking classes; November and December 2013 had seen a derailment of our earlier form of September and October. August seemed distant.

I’ll be honest. I feared the worst. If things went against us, this one could turn out to be a heavy defeat. Thank heavens that Arsenal’s much talked-about ability to implode after a heavy defeat was part of the equation too. Six goals against at Manchester City was just the fillip that I needed to balance my negativity.

Against this back-drop of concern for our chances in North London later in the day, the worsening weather conditions added to my worry. A text from Parky suggested that the game might even be called-off due to the expected heavy rain and high winds.

At 3pm, on the last full day of work before the Christmas shut-down, I left the office and collected Parky from the rain-lashed pub car park opposite. The extra hour to travel up the M4 to London would hopefully mean that the journey would be as stress-free as possible.

I often describe this journey to the nation’s capital in these reports with colourful passages of prose; to do so on this occasion will not take long. Suffice to say, the two hour trip was very tiring. The rain fell, the gusts of wind rocked my car, the spray made concentration difficult, the winter gloom enveloped my car. Grey, grey, grey.

The Scots have a word for it; dreich.

I have a word for it; shite.

The Piccadilly Line would be our mode of transport from Acton in West London to Highbury in North London. We actually had tons of time to spare; we alighted at Earl’s Court and had a drink at “The Courtfield” pub opposite the tube station.

“Merry Christmas, mate.”

“And you, sir.”

The pub was quiet, save for a few tourists, sightseeing over for the day, enjoying a pint and a meal. I love London pubs; this one had an old-time feel, with a high ceiling and mirrors behind the bar. It was a perfect staging post for our trip further north.

However, in the back of my mind, there was the constant churning over of our current ailments of this season. Wait a moment :

“Ailments? Bloody hell, win tonight and we’ll be equal top at almost the half-way point of the season.”

Quite. And yet this negativity was typical. Maybe I’ve been a Chelsea fan for too damn long. Maybe it’s part of my psyche to become fearful where no threat exists or to over-analyse perceived faults when none are real.

The table can’t lie can it? We were in fifth place, right in the mix, ready to strike hard in the congested Christmas period.

And yet, and yet…even the most ardent and devoted Mourinho disciple would surely admit that our form has stumbled of late. I’m certainly no expert on tactics, formations and suchlike and so I won’t tarry too long describing all of that. I’ll leave that to others.

It is clear to me, though, that Mourinho has clearly inherited a different mix of players in 2013 compared to the all-conquering squad of 2004. In some respects, he is blessed, in others he is hampered. Straight comparisons are so difficult though.

A young Terry versus an old Terry?

A young Lampard versus an old Lampard?

Carvalho versus Luiz?

A cool and steady Paolo Ferreira versus a tough and physical Ivanovic?

Gallas versus Cahill?

Duff versus Willian?

An unfettered Robben versus a raw Schurrle?

A show-boating Joe Cole versus a show-boating Eden Hazard?

Makelele versus Mikel?

A young and erratic Drogba versus a troubled Torres?

Petr Cech.

We have to give Jose Mourinho time to sort this all out. It’s ironic that in one sentence us Chelsea supporters collectively say “we will give him time” (meaning in essence that we might have to take a step back before several forward) and yet in the next are up in arms immediately bemoaning a loss.

I guess this is the nature of the beast.

I guess that we need to re-learn patience.

I’ll be honest, I’m dining out on Munich 2012 for the next five years; if we win nothing for the next few seasons, I won’t be moaning.  I’d be disappointed if we won nothing until 2020, but my vision won’t be clouded by the need for constant gratification.

In the meantime, let’s hope that we can rally behind the manager. Let’s hope he can find that magical mix of personnel to take us forward; a combination of tenacity, guile, physical prowess, belief, confidence, fight, skill, adaptability and flair.

One more word.

Hunger.

Without that hunger – definitely present during that first Jose summer of 2004 – the team will flounder. Hunger should be what drives every squad member to success.

I’ll drink to that.

At 6.30pm, we left Earls Court – what a grand old station it is, hardly changed since I stood on the District Line platform for the very first time in March 1974 – and we descended deep beneath the wet London streets. Back onto the waiting Piccadilly Line train, the carriages full of Arsenal, then the short ride to our destination.

At Arsenal tube station, I always think back to my very first visit – August 1984 and “all that” – and a few of the subsequent others.

At Highbury, I never saw us beat Arsenal. At The Emirates, I’ve seen all three of our league triumphs.

Highbury was a lovely old stadium, especially in its pre-Taylor Report version with two large terraces at each end and two art deco masterpieces to the side. I loved the way that it blended in perfectly with the neighbouring terraced streets. The Emirates, despite what many say, is also a great stadium, but for different reasons. It’s major failing is the lack of identity, the lack of character, the lack of a reminder of Arsenal’s past.

“This could be anywhere.”

Oh, the Arsenal fans don’t help. A more pompous set of self-obsessed whiners I am yet to encounter on my travels the length and breadth of these isles. Additionally, they had the chance to rid the club of its Highbury “library” connotations and turn The Emirates into a hot bed of noise. They have failed.

I was inside the away end in good time on this occasion. I soon met up with Alan and Gary, fresh from work, and we waited for the stadium to fill up. There were familiar faces everywhere. Above me, the several layers of Goonerdom looked down upon us.

Replica shirt : check.

Red and white scarf : check.

“Arsenal, Arsenal, ra ra ra.”

It was clearly apparent that the weather had put many off. Opposite in the lower tier of the west stand, there were many empty seats. Around all sections of the stadium – even a few in the away corner – there were similarly unoccupied seats. However, even when thousands of seats remain empty at The Emirates, Arsenal still publishes full houses to the world.

Soon into the game we sang “your ground’s too big for you.”

Fernando Torres was chosen to be the lone striker, but the players in the midfield caused me a few moments of thought to work out positions and formations.

“With Ramires, Lampard and Mikel, is he playing 4-3-3?”

It wasn’t clear.

Were Willian and Hazard playing in midfield too? Was this a 4-5-1? From my low-lying position in row 16, I gave up on formations and became engrossed in the game. I had been feeling very tired while sitting in the warmth of the pub, but I was wide awake and focussed now. Football does that.

In the first few minutes, Mesut Ozil enjoyed a little early possession alongside Tomas Rosicky. In my mind, we were giving them a little too much space.

“Come on midfield, close’em down.”

I wanted to see that hunger to harry and chase, nullify and contain, then break with pace and vigour.

As the first-half continued, the Arsenal midfield looked less likely to cause us much damage as, thankfully, we denied them much space to work the ball in that old Arsenal way of old. It was clear that this would be a physical battle. Thankfully, the Chelsea team were clearly “up” for it.

A few Arsenal attacks were ably resisted. A Willian cross from wide right found a leaping Ramires, but his header looped over the Arsenal cross bar.

The home areas were supremely quiet. Our section tried its best; at times we were noisy with song, at others disjointed.

With chances at an absolute premium, we then came closest to scoring. A divine ball over the last line of defence by Eden Hazard into the path of a bursting Frank Lampard made us all inhale a breath of expectation. Frank’s fine volley crashed against the bar, then bounced down, but not in. We were unable to scramble in the loose ball. The away fans roared and Chelsea enjoyed a period of domination. Torres, ably winning a string of headers, but quiet in front of goal, at last produced a save from Szcsesny.

Willian and Walcott “came together” inside the box, but Mike Dean wasn’t convinced.

In the closing period of the half, towering headers from Torres and Ivanovic helped contain the Arsenal threat. Gary Cahill was excellent alongside John Terry.

A fine break down our left resulted in Willian shooting weakly at Szczesny after good work from Hazard; there were Chelsea players unmarked in the box. It was a poor choice from Willian. But, at least we were producing chances.

At the break, the fans that I spoke to were positive. It dawned on me that Ozil, their star man, had been quiet. This performance from the boys was more like it. Big games always help us focus our minds.

“We’re in this lads.”

I roamed around for a few minutes during the break, hoping to bump into some mates from afar. A rousing “Zigger Zagger” from Cath was still ringing in my ears as I stood alongside Alan and Gary as the second-half began.

The rain still fell.

The second-half began quietly. Arsenal struggled to get a foothold. Chelsea broke occasionally. A booking for Ramires. This was turning into a physical battle and I wondered if Dean would be soon handing out more cards at Christmas. Fernando Torres leaped high and cushioned a ball for Frank, but his low shot didn’t threaten the Arsenal goal.

At the other end, the Chelsea defence were standing firm. At times, it didn’t look pretty but block after block from Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta and Ivanovic were grimly effective. I lauded their efforts. The tackles still crashed in. The rain still fell. Mikel broke up Arsenal’s play and it was a pleasure to hear the Chelsea fans around me applauding him.

As soon as I had commented to Gary “Mourinho must be happy, there have been no subs” a change took place.

Andre Schurrle for Eden Hazard, then Oscar for Willian.

Ramsey fed Giroud, both quiet on the night, but his shot didn’t trouble Petr Cech. As the away fans sensed that a point was likely to be the outcome, celery was tossed towards the Arsenal fans in the overhanging tier. The Arsenal fans grew frustrated. There was a lack of belief in the Arsenal team throughout the game; as I suspected, the memory of conceding six in Manchester was difficult to erase.

Another chance for Giroud, but Cech foiled him.

We were sternly hanging on.

David Luiz replaced the tireless Torres, and then soon had a chance to send us into Blue Heaven. A free-kick, thirty yards out, Luiz territory. We hoped and prayed. Sadly, his shot was straight at the defensive wall.

A 0-0 draw? I happily took it. It looked to me, at least, that the hunger was back.

A last chance to wish a “Merry Christmas” to a few good friends as we ambled out into the dark North London sky.

I met up with Parky outside the away end and we began the slow walk back to Highbury and Islington tube. Hoods up, we walked. Everyone was drenched. The Arsenal fans, I could tell, were frustrated

A moral victory to the boys in blue?

You bet.

We reached my car at around 11.15pm and embarked on a slow and painful drive west back into the still raging storm.

I dropped Parky off at around 1.30am.

From there, things soon descended into farce.

I eventually reached home at 4.30am, very tired and very weary. This was long after my car had been caught in rising flood water on a quiet Wiltshire road, abandoned, unable for me to push it safe. I was given a lift back to the outskirts of Frome by a kindly policeman in a 4×4, who himself miraculously appeared – a modern day Christmas miracle – just after I had stepped out of the shelter of another car which had been stranded and then recovered. We then almost got caught in a flooded road as we edged through a ridiculously narrow country lane, with main roads blocked by floods. At 3.30am, I walked through the deserted streets of my home town, my jeans soaked to the skin, my feet freezing, but thankfully the rain now stopped.  Lastly, another lift home in another 4×4, this time our journey included a few nervous seconds underneath the branches of a fallen tree, the scene of desolation quite surreal. And all the way through this, I kept thinking to myself –

“All this for football?”

See you all at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day.

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3 thoughts on “Tales From The Hunger Game

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