Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 26 December 2013.
Boxing Day 2013.
A chance to gain three more points against a Swansea City team which has struggled to hit the heights of the previous two seasons. A chance to follow up a credible and determined performance at Arsenal with a confidence-boosting win. And a chance to sustain our position among the front-runners for the league title.
After my horrendous trip home in the very small hours of Tuesday morning fresh in my mind, I set off from my dormant village at around 8.30am, determined to avoid large puddles. Joking aside, I was just grateful to be able to attend the game. However, soon into my short journey to collect Parky from this village, I received a text from His Lordship pleading for me to travel up to London alone, since his village was virtually surrounded by flood waters.
Lord Parky was stranded, alone in his own personal Land of the Lakes.
With a heavy heart, I knew he was right. I could get myself into all sorts of a pickle attempting to find a navigable lane into his village. It just wasn’t worth the risk. I pointed my car south rather than north.
By the time I spoke to him I had passed Stonehenge, blindingly magnificent in the clear winter sun, and was high on the A303, with a gorgeous vista to my right, with low-lying mist shrouding trees in a frosty cloak.
“Bloody hell, Parky, you should see the view; it’s bloody incredible.”
With that, I wished him well and vowed to meet up on Sunday for the game with the Scousers. Parky probably put the ‘phone down and took a sip from a bottle of Jack Daniels.
The road to London was a familiar one. There was a tiring thirty minutes of fog before things improved. I’d seen worse. I was just happy to be on the road. I stopped at McFleet for a McBreakfast but was soon heading into London, my head clear of wintry weather conundrums. I had made good time. At 11.15am, I drove through the familiar streets around Normand Park, very close to Queens Club and Lillee Road. The streets, usually full of parked cars, were remarkably empty. It seemed as if I was the first Chelsea fan to arrive. Of course, the truth was that many of the locals were away for the Christmas period, visiting relatives and friends in The Shires, and maybe further afield.
Laura and Leo were with the Templeton-Askews in Great Piddlington, Gloucestershire.
Gemma and Edward were with mater and pater in Snot Bottom, Dorset.
Jilly and Billy were with the Fitzsimmons in Lower Minge, Suffolk.
The Polovskis were with Uncle Jarek in Krakow.
Oleg and Dmitry were with Sergei and Alexander in Brooklyn.
Unlike most Boxing Day games at Chelsea, which usually kick-off at lunchtime, this one was a normal 3pm match. After another McCoffee on the McNorth End Road to warm me up, I slowly walked down to the hotel. Things were pretty quiet. It was only 11.45pm. In the hotel bar, I had a quick word with Peter Bonetti but I had evidently just missed Ron Harris.
This was another busy-pre game for me; people to meet, hands to shake, photos to take. I love it. I get just as much pleasure from meeting old friends as from the games themselves. This is the way it should be.
First up, Jens and his wife Suzie from Austin, deep in the heart of Texas, who were visiting for a few days. Jens runs the Austin Blues, the second biggest supporters group in the US after Mike’s New York Blues. They were with a couple of their members. It was great to hear how well their club is doing. As I have said many times, all a supporters club needs is a pub to act as a regular base and a few passionate souls at the top to lead. Jens is always fighting a regular battle to tease people away from their HD TVs at home and join in the match-day fun, though.
“It’s a social club, right?” beamed Jens.
“Yep, with a little football thrown in along the way” I replied.
I ran into Gill and Graeme, from nearer home, Kent to be precise. They had been without power in their home for the past few days.
“Only one way to get around that Gill. Go to Chelsea for the day.”
Back at The Goose, I soon ran into Mitch and Kelly, from California. I first met Mitch over in LA during the summer tour of 2007, and then met him again in Baltimore and Dallas in 2009. This was Mitch’s first-ever trip to London, though Kelly had visited for a few days a couple of years ago. They were staying at a friend’s flat on the King’s Road. Lucky people. They both told me the lovely story of how they met; Baltimore, 2009.
Kelly, from New York, and Mitch, from California, following Chelsea, then meeting, keeping in contact, travelling across the US every month, then marrying.
Mitch often uses this story to entice potential Chelsea fans to become proper paid-up members of the Chelsea Family.
“So, what’s in it for me?” they would ask.
“Oh, you get to join a thriving local supporters club here in LA, you get the chance to get tickets for games at Stamford Bridge, you get to meet great people from all over the globe, you get to meet local Chelsea fans in London. If you’re lucky, you might even get to meet your future wife.”
I mentioned another couple that I know, Robin and Del, who are now wife and husband through meeting up during a Chelsea summer tour to the US; 2007, on that occasion.
Next to arrive was Evo, with his father and brother. Evo is a friend of my good mate Orlin and I had managed to get hold of three Shed End tickets for him. His father and brother were over from Bulgaria. It was their first game at Stamford Bridge. There was a horrible period of doubt in my mind, during the waking hours of Christmas Eve, with my car still awaiting recovery, that I would not be able to attend the Swansea game; with it, the horrible thought that Evo and his family would not be able to attend, either.
Thankfully, everything worked itself out.
The pub wasn’t too busy. There was talk of several spare tickets floating around and about. Boxing Day games are often problematic for fans and the added problem of the recent storms increased the difficulty in attending.
Kelly, Mitch and me set off in good time for the game. There were the usual “Axon guided tour” highlights on the fifteen minute walk to The Bridge.
“The North End Road street market, The Football Factory pub – The Harwood Arms – just out of sight, the Malt House, my first ever pre-game pint in The Cock pub in 1984, the Slug & Lettuce, the old tube station, the 1970 and 1971 cup parades, the café where I had a burger after my first game in 1974, the CFCUK stall…”
For a change, I had swapped with Andy and took my seat alongside Daryl and Ed in the back row of Gate 15 in the MHU. The seats took forever to fill. Swansea’s away support was really poor; maybe only 300. All around the stadium – I didn’t have to look too hard – there were empty seats. Despite a 3pm kick-off, and a few hours of pre-match drinking, there was a subdued air under the clear blue winter skies at Stamford Bridge.
It felt odd to be watching the game from a different viewpoint. I’m so used to my seat in the north-west corner, with the backdrop of the 1974 East Stand, that a change always catches me unawares. The same game, but a different view. The same game, but different opinions from my fellow fans. The same game, but a different experience. I suppose that, if I could travel through time, to around 1970, I would be watching from the strange old North Stand, which was sighted where I sat in 2013. In 1970, there would be a view of the old Shed, with the houses behind, maybe the Lots Road pumping station, the gasometer, and the flats on the Fulham Road. In 2013, there was just the concrete of the rear of the hotel and the steel of the modern stands.
I knew that Swansea were without Michu, Dyer and Vorm.
What of us?
Ashley Cole was recalled, with David Luiz partnering JT, and Ivanovic.
Ramires and Mikel as the deep-lying duo.
Hazard, Oscar, Mata – the three midfield maestros, perhaps.
Let’s go to work.
We began relatively well. There were chances for Oscar, Hazard and Ivanovic before a bouncing effort from JT which Tremmel tipped over. There was a period of sustained pressure which resulted in a flurry of corners, which sadly yielded nothing.
Swansea hardly threatened.
With the crowd urging him on, Eden Hazard received a fine clearance from Ashley Cole on the left and decided to take heed of the Chelsea fans’ advice to go at the defender. He glided past his marker Amat – effortlessly – and ripped a low shot towards goal. Truthfully, a Swansea defender moved in front of Tremmel, thus hampering his assessment of the ball’s path. The ball slid beneath his grasp.
Soon after, Eto’o was up to his old tricks of ghosting in and around as opposing keepers attempt to clear and caused the ‘keeper to misjudge a pass, but Oscar could not pounce.
A lone chance for Swansea just after the half-hour, but Vazquez’ attempt was finger-tipped over by Petr Cech.
As the game progressed, we enjoyed tons of possession, but too much of it in areas where the opposition were not threatened. The Swansea players simply shuffled back into position when the ball was worked from right to left and then back again. The noise which had greeted the goal was soon replaced by periods of quiet, if not complete silence.
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.
I know. I heard it.
With the first period about to end, Samuel Eto’o should have done better when in on goal after a luxurious ball from Mata with just Tremmel to beat. His weak shot was easily parried.
Within only fifteen seconds of the second-half, we were all rueing another Eto’o miss. David Luiz played a gorgeous ball into the path of Juan Mata – if I am honest, pretty quiet in the first-half – and the little Spaniard sent over a perfect cross for Eto’o. He drifted away from his marker perfectly, but his snap effort was very well saved by the swans’ custodian.
There was disbelief amongst the patrons of the Matthew Harding. In that instant, I knew full well what the course of the second-half would be:
Increasing tension and worry as we would slowly but surely let the visitors get a foothold in the game.
Oh boy. Here we go.
Another Eto’o chance went wide.
Swansea began to enjoy snippets of possession. With no threat up front, they look hampered though. However, that didn’t stop the nervousness and tension in the stands increasing with each minute.
Jose chose to replace Oscar – who had enjoyed a solid game, both defensively and offensively – with Frank Lampard. We yearned for a little stability. Frank flashed wide. We begged and begged for a second goal.
That’s all we want for Christmas.
With the clock showing twenty minutes to play, I certainly expected Swansea to equalise at some stage. I turned to Daryl;
“Well, if they are to equalise, rather now than with two minutes to go.”
I was serious. I knew where this one was going.
Andre Schurrle then replaced Mata.
The edginess in the stands reached the players. What I’d give for a home crowd to “bring the team home” with a raucous show of noise from the stands.
As chances dried up, I wondered how long our lack of a killer-punch in front of goal would continue to haunt us. It may well define our season. The more we talk about it, the more Mourinho mentions it, the more the media becomes obsessed by it, the more the mental problem becomes for us all, not least our three strikers. The negativity will snowball and it might eventually consume us. Jose Mourinho needs to work his magic.
That second goal was never looking like arriving.
There was more frustration from the home sections of Stamford Bridge as we failed to capitalise on a few late chances.
The clock ticked down…80…85…87…89…
A chap next to me wondered if we might hear the old Chelsea chant of “blow the fucking whistle.”
Our defence were pinned back with late Swansea pressure. With everyone on tenterhooks, we thankfully resisted a late flurry of threats.
The whistle blew.
We had won.
Another miracle at Christmas.