Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 January 2014.
During the half-time break at the Hull game on the previous weekend, I stood with my hands in my pockets, far from enamoured by the performance on the pitch of the Chelsea team and certainly unimpressed by the relatively quiet showing from the away supporters. It had been a long drive up to Humberside and I would soon be heading back. Had I really driven all of that way for a pint, a pie and ninety minutes of football? Oh boy. It would be a quick “in and out” mission for sure. I began to wonder if my devotion to all things Chelsea was being tested there and then. Was it starting to wane?
“I should be enjoying this a whole lot more.”
An hour later, with a 2-0 win tucked in our back pockets, things were considerably brighter. However, “half-time at Hull” might be remembered in years to come – or maybe months? – as a defining moment for when I find myself going to less Chelsea games. I know I have touched on this delicate subject before and I am sure I will again.
“Haven’t seen you much this season, Chris? You OK?”
“Yeah, mate. I just decided to cut back a bit.”
“Oh. At least you still go.”
“Yeah. The terminal tipping point will be Game 39.”
Whether this conversation takes place in 2015, in 2016, in 2020 or in 2025 remains to be seen.
Thankfully, the next game for Chelsea Football Club was one of the games of the season, a home match with the champions Manchester United. Surely – surely! – I would be overflowing with enthusiasm for this one?
Parky and I walked into “The Lillee Langtry” at around 1pm. One of the plusses of going to Chelsea is the vast quantity of watering holes which are within walking distance from Stamford Bridge. I also like the fact that supporters can alight at a choice of four – at least – tube stations on match days and still get to the stadium with ease. There are pubs at Fulham Broadway. There are pubs at Parson’s Green. There are pubs at Earl’s Court. There are pubs at West Brompton. The Lily Langtree is one of the latter. I get the impression that more and more Chelsea fans are using West Brompton these days. And, typically, these boozers tend to be frequented by that oft-talked breed of Chelsea fan “the old school” leaving the tourists and the new breed to pay higher prices in the pubs around the ground. Within a hundred yards of the West Brompton station, a little knot of pubs are within easy reach; The Prince Of Wales, The Lillee Langtree, The Atlas and The Imperial. At a push, supporters can also use Barons Court and even South Kensington, embark on glorious pub crawls, and still be in the ground with the minimal difficulty.
Long Tall Pete was enjoying his sixtieth birthday bash with some friends. I was soon telling him that I had very positive vibes about the game. I felt horrible tempting fate, but I told Pete that I fancied some goals being scored in our favour. Pete even dared mention a 6-0 score line to match his birthday. I was caught up in the pre-match optimism too, mentioning a possible repeat of the 5-0 game in 1999.
“I just hope the team aren’t as confident as we are.”
Over-confidence is an unwelcome guest at football, but I was sure that Jose Mourinho would be emphasising the need for his players to expect a dogged fight from Manchester United, despite their patchy form throughout the current season.
Or, in football parlance, they would be “up for it.”
There was a proper mix of supporters in the pub; from a few “faces” from the past to some regular fans, and many were familiar to me. In the mix were two friends from the US; Tuna (Atlanta) and Andy (Los Angeles). It re-emphasised, not that I needed a reminder, of how our support has grown over the past twenty years. Our support has grown a hundredfold in the internet age and we now boast supporters all over the globe. Another lovely part of supporting Chelsea is the fact that there seems to be no real snobbery about fans from outside London and the south-east. When I first started to attend games in The Shed all those years ago, my accent was often met with a friendly “where you from then, mate?”
When I replied “Somerset” I was always met with a welcoming smile.
Other teams – step forward Liverpool – have supporters who are considerably less welcoming of fans from outside the local area. Talking of which, Manchester United are often mocked for their rather disparate fan base – to put it rather mildly – but most of Europe’s top clubs now have fan bases which extend further than their stadium’s post code. I think what grates, possibly, is the type of foreign fan that England’s top teams attract. Football clubs, in my opinion and those like me, should be for life. Very often, I get the feeling that football clubs are favoured by the more distant fans, without a real understanding of what football in England is all about, and then discarded as frequently as flavour-of-the-month boy bands. Football surely shouldn’t be like that. Pick a team, stick with it. This is not to say that only foreign supporters change teams. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of Manchester United fans in Cambridge, Uttoxeter, Nantwich, Tenby and Spennymoor who initially used to favour their arch rivals Liverpool in the ‘eighties.
Over in “The Goose” it was frantically busy. I sought respite out in the less-crowded beer garden, where I found a clearly jet-lagged Orlin, newly-arrived from San Francisco, and a few of the Chelsea Bulgaria contingent. What was I saying about our global fan base?
Heading down past the stalls outside the town hall with Tuna, I bumped into Big John. There was only one topic of conversation.
“Have you seen the team?”
There then ensued a short dialogue – with raised eyebrows from myself – which I would imagine was being repeated in Chelsea circles not only in SW6, but throughout London, the south-east, the rest of England, Europe and around the world. Maybe the inhabitants of the European space station circling the Earth were discussing it too.
“No Torres. Eto’o instead.”
“And Ivanovic at right back.”
John had dolloped some of his hard-earned on us to win 4-0. There was, clearly, an air of un-Chelsea like optimism in the air.
There were fond farewells with Andy at the entrance to the stadium and then the quick walk past the Ossie statue with Tuna before we took our seats in the MHU. The United section was full of three thousand reds, but there were only a couple of flags. Soon there would be another, which was held up in protest at the continued presence of the Glazer family at Old Trafford. Foreign ownership has proved to be an almighty gamble for clubs in England, but Lady Luck has given us a heady decade under the ownership of Roman Abramovich since 2003. There have been times of concern – well documented here and elsewhere – but compared to the experience at other clubs we have fared well. Interestingly, though, most United fans that I know – and there are not many – speak of team troubles rather than ownership issues. Maybe the days of the green and gold protest have passed; maybe the United fan base, outside of The Stretford End and the highly politicised match-going hardcore, is largely ambivalent to the presence of their US owners.
Regardless, the United fans were in good voice, as always, as the teams entered the pitch.
The blue/blue/white versus the red/white/black.
What a sight to stir the senses.
As the game began, the two sets of fans were soon singing fractious verse at each other.
United : “Fcuk off Mournho, fcuk off Mourinho.”
Chelsea “ Fcuk off David Moyes…”
To add to the heated atmosphere, referee Phil Dowd gave several decisions to United and the home support all around me were bellowing disapproval.
I quickly remembered a recent article in the excellent “When Saturday Comes” in which a father spoke of his giddiness in taking his six year old son to a historic first-ever game. Very soon into the match, though, the youngster was upset and turned to his dad and asked “why are all these men so angry?” The boy only lasted until half-time. The father, I’d imagine, spent the rest of his day having an earnest and thorough look at his love of the game and whether or not the boy should make a quick return visit. I certainly hope so. At my first game, I don’t remember angry men. Maybe times have changed.
Well, what a start by United. All of that lofty optimism looked like being blown to smithereens as the away team probed our defence, with the tricky new starlet Adnan Januzaj at the heart of their play. The game’s first few chances fell to United. The best chance, by the unliked and loudly booed Ashley Young, was thankfully saved by Peter Cech. The first quarter of an hour belonged to the visitors.
After a couple of Chelsea raids on the United rear-guard, Samuel Eto’o made a run into the final third and, despite Willian being available in an excellent position to his right, the centre forward chose to soldier on alone. He nimbly cut in, deftly dragging the ball on to his left foot, before striking for goal. I noted the slight deflection from a Carrick lunge and watched, disbelieving, as the yellow ball spun up and over the back-peddling De Gea. Yet again, I was right behind the line of the ball.
Despite feeling light headed from my sudden leap, I steadied my camera to catch Eto’o’s lovely run back to the Chelsea bench. The reasons were unclear at the time, but I guessed all would become clear.
Alan and I went all Oasis and did our usual goal routine in the guise of Noel and Liam, fighting back the laughter all the while.
I was frankly amazed that we were ahead. Our goal had come, most definitely, against the run of play.
The jousting continued on the pitch with a couple of chances for each side. I am sure that if Robin Van Persie had been on the pitch, the visitors might well have been drawing at least. A Wellbeck shot was saved by Cech.
Wellbeck is no Van Persie.
Off the pitch, the United fans’ noise was subsiding. How ironic that their “Come on David Moyes, play like Fergie’s Boys” chant failed to get an airing, yet the Chelsea version was now booming around Stamford Bridge.
A dynamic move, full of pace, down the United right pulled their defence apart. Willian and then Hazard moved the ball with utter disrespect for the floundering United players and the ball soon found Eto’o. His high cross was met by an acrobatic leap from Oscar, but the ball was always spinning wide. This was great stuff and the home crowd were purring.
A Luiz free-kick, with the entire stadium on the edge of their seats, came to nothing, but from a corner, Gary Cahill – of all people – played the ball into what is often called “the corridor of uncertainty” and Eto’o was on hand to poke home. I caught the Cahill cross and the Eto’o strike on film. This was turning into a perfect day.
I commented to Tuna – who was getting stuck in and supporting the boys with plenty of aggressive encouragement – that we had rode our luck a little in the first period.
We hoped – we all hoped – for more goals and, let’s admit it, a rout in the second-half.
Within a few minutes of the re-start, a Willian corner. The trusty camera was in position to capture the leap of Gary Cahill and the downward header. The ensuing scramble caught United flat-footed, but that man Samuel Eto’o intuitively smacked the loose ball home with the minimum of fuss.
His beatific sprint and leap down below me was miraculously captured on film too and my camera clicked away, with the noise booming all around me, to capture the hugs from his team mates. The little jig with Willian and Luiz was just fantastic.
Down below me, John had thoughts of a 4-0 win and Pete, in the front row of the Shed Upper, was thinking of the joys of six.
Soon after, a very rare event.
The denizens of the Matthew Harding Upper – west corner – embarked on a loud “One Man Went To Mow” and – get this – many stood up on ten.
This hasn’t happened since…I can’t remember when.
We continued to dominate. Mourinho brought on Mikel for the industrious Oscar. United tested us on a few occasions. As the minutes passed, the euphoria of a possible rout faded. The noise levels declined. It wasn’t on a par with the noise levels of the 1999 game. Even though the stadium only had a capacity of 35,000 at the time, the noise that afternoon was magnificent.
With fifteen minutes to go, substitute Chicarito – yes, him – then pulled a goal back. On previous visits of Manchester United to Chelsea in the ‘nineties, an away goal at The Bridge was usually met by large numbers of United fans ‘getting up’ in the pricier home seats. Year after year, it was a hideous sight. It was a constant reminder of the enormity of United’s fan base. I remember that before the September 1993 game at Stamford Bridge – which we memorably won 1-0 thanks to Gavin Peacock – hundreds and hundreds of United fans were peacefully lead out of The Shed before the game to join the packed legions in the sweeping north terrace. It was a gut-wrenchingly impressive sight. There were thousands of United there that day. Thankfully, there is none of this at Chelsea now. When Chicarito scored, only the 3,000 United fans in the away segment celebrated.
However, for a few minutes thoughts were focussed on the crazy 3-3 game two years ago.
With Jose Mourinho the puppeteer, surely there would be no repeat now?
He pulled more strings, with Fernando Torres replacing Samuel Eto’o, who was given a superb ovation. After his three-goal haul against United, he can bugger up scoring chance after scoring chance and still be a Chelsea favourite. Then, the returning Nemanja Matic replaced the superb Willian.
The United players were beaten. In the game’s dying embers, the captain Vidic was unceremoniously red-carded for a lunge at Hazard.
The crowd roared.
It was going to be a blue day.
At the final whistle, I punched the air.
“See you Sunday, boys.”
After exiting the stadium to the sound of “One Step Beyond” I was soon walking along the Fulham Road. This was a fine Chelsea performance, but one which, at times, was controlled rather than rampant. With the game won at 3-0, there was no mad desire for a cricket score. Maybe that will come when this team has reached full maturity. However, as I continued my walk past the souvenir stalls, the Chelsea fans around me were full of bounce and cheer. I was happy too, of course, but I couldn’t help but think – a la Hull – “shouldn’t I be enjoying this win a whole lot more?”
I then smirked to myself when I realised…”maybe – but it’s only United.”