Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 26 January 2014.
The build-up to our F.A. Cup Fourth Round tie with Stoke City was somewhat overshadowed by the intrigue involving the transfer of Juan Mata to Manchester United. Rather than obsessing about the intricacies of the move and its possible Machiavellian undertones, my mind was elsewhere. My mother had been taken ill the previous week, thus providing me with ample reason to dismiss the ramifications of this surprising transfer and instead concentrate on much more important issues. As the week progressed, thankfully my mother’s health improved. I visited my mum for an hour on Sunday morning and Lord Parky, bless him, made his way over to the Royal United Hospital in Bath for us to make a speedy getaway just after midday.
As I drove east, headlong into yet more English winter rain, we were able to discuss Mum’s past week. To be honest, nothing else mattered. That I was going to be able to have a couple of relaxing hours with friends was – of course – a wonderful medicine for my own worries, but I couldn’t help but think as I passed the usual landmarks on the M4 that this was all superficial stuff.
I was parked-up just in time for the two of us to nip into The Goose for a pint of Peroni apiece. On the TV, a meagre crowd at Bramall Lane were watching the Sheffield United vs. Fulham cup tie. An even more meagre crowd in the pub was paying attention to it. It seems that with every new round of the F.A. Cup, I need to go back and reiterate again and again why the competition has lost so much of its twinkle in the past twenty years. I won’t do that again on this occasion.
However, it dawned on me that – in some ways – it seems like the Champions League has taken on the role of the F.A. Cup for Chelsea Football Club since our first youthful advances in the 1999-2000 season. The glamour, the atmosphere, the fascinating sub-plots, the magnificent away games; it is all there. However, I think I’m being honest enough to say that Chelsea has certainly given the F.A. Cup more respect than most other teams. Damn it, we’ve won it four times in seven years and we play to full houses in the competition at Stamford Bridge. Quite why other clubs feel different is not for me to answer.
Inside Stamford Bridge, it was the same story as ever; four packed stands save for a paltry away following. When we played The Potters in the F.A. Cup in 2010, I am sure they brought 1,400. On this occasion, it was less than half that number. Maybe it was just a matter of weighing up priorities; maybe the money to be spent on league away trips was more important. I shrugged my shoulders and settled down for the game.
Over on The Shed balcony wall, a fine new flag, with critically placed gold star.
CHELSEA FC – BY BIRTH – NOT BY GLORY
I admired those sentiments.
Except for…um…shuffle shuffle…cough cough…
I wasn’t born in to a Chelsea family.
Far from it.
My father didn’t follow a particular team. My maternal grandfather had soft spots for Aston Villa and Newcastle United in his youth.
I started primary school in my Somerset village just after Easter in 1970. The Cup Final was earlier than usual that year because of England’s preparations for the Mexico World Cup. I am not sure of the exact dates, but school began for me just as Chelsea beat Leeds in the F.A. Cup Final. Talk about serendipity. Sadly, I have no recollections of either the first game at Wembley or the replay. But I do know that I used to watch the older schoolboys play football in the schoolyard at break times. Up until that point, I had shown little interest in the sport. I guess I looked on in awe at the skills of the boys. One team would be Leeds United and the other team would be Liverpool or the next week, Manchester United and Arsenal or maybe Chelsea and Tottenham. I think (and this is the story I always tell) that I heard that either Chelsea were a good team or they had just won a big game. There must have been something in the mention of Chelsea that drew me in. Maybe it was just the sound of the name. I think that is how it all began. Who knows…maybe on that fateful day, I perhaps joined in with the bigger boys for the first time and maybe I was in the Chelsea team. It would be nice to think so. I wonder if I mentioned to my mother, as she collected me from the school gates on that eventful day, that I had discovered Chelsea a few hours previously. Anyway, from the littlest of acorns do mighty oaks grow – from that initial mention of the name Chelsea, they became my team.
Looking back, I suppose that I would be classed these days, even though I was only four years old at the time, as a glory hunter.
There I said it.
That we won bugger all from 1971 to 1997 serves me right, eh?
The game began and Samuel Eto’o swivelled low inside the box and dragged a low shot just wide of Begovic’ post. At the other end, former Chelsea season ticket-holder Peter Crouch slashed wide. It would be the last real Stoke chance of the half. Chelsea monopolised possession and took a stranglehold on the game. The darting runs of Hazard and the steady prompting of Oscar helped us dominate.
What a sublime strike from Oscar from that free-kick. I was able to capture on film – click! – the exact moment that he made contact with the pink match ball. As the ball flew through the air, careering away from the Stoke ‘keeper in an arc of pure fantasy, I was dumbfounded. It was as perfect as it will ever get. As he ran away to the south-west corner, I roared with joy. And then, a little tremor went through me; how typical for Mourinho’s man Oscar to open the scoring at the first match without Mourinho’s discarded man Mata.
It had to be him.
Immediately after the goal, a couple of minutes of sun bathed the otherwise bleak London sky in light.
A scintillating run from Eden Hazard deep into the box gifted the recalled Frank Lampard with a fine chance but Frank slapped it over the bar. Then, a shot from Oscar rattled the base of the near post. Then, Lampard – again – blazed over.
It could’ve been 3-0 at the break.
Stoke weren’t in it. Their fans were unsurprisingly silent.
At the half-time break, Frank Blunstone made a lovely appearance on the pitch and milked the applause. A member of both the 1955 Championship team and the 1963 Second Division promotion team, he amassed well over 300 appearances for us. His face was a picture.
I absolutely love the way our club honours all of our ex-players.
The second-half was a cavalcade of intricate passing and surging runs. Andre Schurrle blasted against the bar. Oscar was so strong and his passing almost perfect. Samuel Eto’o was always involved and looks better with each game. In midfield, playing alongside the more offensive Lampard stood the impressive Nemanja Matic. As the game progressed, he really stood out. OK, Stoke hardly threatened, but he looked very natural and at ease. He won headers, he tackled, and he covered. One slide rule pass to Ramires was the best of the entire afternoon.
A curling shot from Oscar after neat possession had us all gasping; it drifted just wide.
A lone effort from Jonathan Walters ended up in the Shed Upper; Stoke, quite simply, were awful.
However, despite some 40,000 “home fans” at times there were moments of almost complete silence.
Yes, I know.
After seventy minutes, I noticed the bloke to my right struggling to stay awake.
A Lampard shot was hit low, but did not trouble Begovic. Still the second goal would not materialise. Yet another mesmerising run from Hazard (I love the way he stands, teasing, and then suddenly explodes past his marker), teed up Ramires and Eto’o but to our bewilderment the ball stayed out. The last real chance for Chelsea was a thunderbolt of a free-kick from David Luiz which the ‘keeper managed to thwart.
On any other day, we would have rattled in six.
A late Stoke rally caused us a little worry, but the danger was averted.
Into the last sixteen.
Walking along the North End Road, past the shops and pubs, a fan called out that we had been drawn away to Manchester City.
“Two tough away games in two weeks up there.”
“Time for Nemanja Matic to stand up to Yaya Toure?”
“You bet. A battle royal beckons.”
Parky and I soon made tracks. For the second week in a row, we stopped off in Marlborough for a pint. Last week, it was “The Green Dragon” and this week “The Royal Oak.” Within a few months, we will hope to have ticked-off every pub on the A4 from Devizes to Hungerford.
The road to Wembley begins in Wiltshire, right?
In a quiet corner, we supped another pint of Peroni apiece.
A chat and a chance to unwind a little.
On a day when my mind was occupied with concerns for my nearest and dearest, at least good old Chelsea was able to bring me a little cheer.