Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 15 March 2014.
Villa Park is a familiar away ground. This would be my fifteenth visit with Chelsea, not including the 1996 and 2002 F.A. Cup Semi-Finals versus Manchester United and Fulham respectively. I have only seen Chelsea aways at Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal on more occasions than at Aston Villa. In the fourteen other games, there have been five Chelsea wins, five draws and four Villa wins. This was another Saturday evening kick-off and, after a particularly long and frustrating week at work in which I longed for the weekend to arrive, I was buzzing. In fact, I was buzzing more than Buzz Lightyear and Buzz Aldrin getting electrocuted while playing “buzz” in a bee’s nest with vibrators up their arses.
It’s an old cliché about football on a Saturday being the outlet for the working man’s pent up feelings of containment – and possibly resentment – at work during a working week, but this really hit home on this occasion. The previous five days in the world of logistics had certainly tested my patience. Things were so out of control that on one or two occasions I found myself chirping the circus theme and the music to a Benny Hill chase.
Thankfully, Saturday came.
Time to relax, chill a little, time to start thinking about the jaunt to Birmingham.
Weeks are made for Saturdays and Saturdays are made for football right?
I collected Lord Parky from Parky Towers at 1pm. There was a little update on our plans for the next handful of games – a little logistical planning, if you will – and we were then deep in banter and bullshit mode. That we had to win at Villa Park later in the day was imperative for our title challenge. My week had been so messy that, apart from the Manchester United vs. Liverpool encounter on the Sunday, I was oblivious to other games taking place on this particular weekend.
To be blunt, I was only interested in Chelsea. But you knew that.
We are usually creatures of habit for away games and this was no exception. I turned off the M5 at West Bromwich and began my approach to our usual parking place for an away game at Villa Park. I drove past The Hawthorns; our game there about a month ago is only one of three league games that I have missed this season. Just after 3pm, I was parked-up on Willmore Road, a tatty terraced street, strewn with litter. It was safe though. We entered our usual pub for Villa away “The Crown & Cushion.” This has been our pub of choice ever since that Chelsea vs. Fulham semi in 2002. This game, I think, was the first time that Parky and I had met up for a drink. Somewhere on the internet, there is a photo of the two of us, twelve years ago, looking much younger, in the beer garden of The Crown & Cushion. The pub was pretty quiet, save for a few Villa fans and a few locals of West Indian descent. On the menu board were Caribbean specialities such as patties and ackee and saltfish. We promised each other “next time.” The barman soon sussed we were Chelsea, but there was no bother.
Inside the men’s’ toilet, there was some graffiti which issued the proclamation –
“This pub is 100% underclass.”
Just as I was finishing my second pint, I was very surprised to see a familiar face enter the pub. Roy is a well-known Chelsea supporter who sits within range of Alan and me in the MHU. Roy explained that he had “done” most pubs within a two-mile radius of Villa Park and was simply keen to experience a new boozer. I have to admit, I’ve only “done” two pubs at Villa. The area around the stadium is far from salubrious.
The familiar walk to the stadium was over within fifteen minutes. The red brick of the Aston Hotel blended in with the red brick of the old industrial units and the tramway building. Ahead, the red brick and the steel cladding of the Doug Ellis Stand on Witton Lane were visible. On my first few visits to the ground between 1986 and 1991, there were terraced houses on Witton Lane and the existing stand was a simple single-tiered structure. Villa Park is certainly a grand old stadium – or it was before extensive rebuilding over the past three decades – and so of course it is now a grand, largely, new stadium. The oldest current stand is the two-tiered North Stand, which was built in the late ‘seventies. Chelsea were massed within it for the Fulham game in 2002. I was impressed with the small circular pin badges being sold by a street-side “grafter.” In addition to the Villa lion, each badge featured “Aston Villa” at the top and a selection of areas of Birmingham beneath. What a great idea.
“Aston Villa – Balsall Heath.”
“Aston Villa – Castle Bromwich.”
“Aston Villa – Erdington.”
“Aston Villa – Sutton Coldfield.”
“Aston Villa – Solihull.”
I am sure that Birmingham City fans will protest that their club controls the southern areas of the city and Villa the north, but surely this is Villa’s city. They’ve always been a large club. I remember my maternal grandfather saying that he had a soft spot for them.
Just before we met plenty of familiar faces outside the away turnstiles, I asked a WPC to take a photo of Parky and me outside the stadium and the inevitable bustling street scene. Photograph taken, we walked past five PCs.
Parky quipped – “that’s Crimewatch taken care of.”
For once – and for the first time in years – we were sat in the Lower Tier. I was happy with that; we’re usually shoved up above, usually right at the back. I hoped that I’d enjoy being closer than usual to the action than normal. Despite all of the changes at Villa Park over the years, there is a part of me which appreciates that the wildly off-centre players’ tunnel has stayed in the same location. I was very happy with the team; possibly our current strongest starting XI? With many Chelsea having been stationed in the city’s pubs for a right royal blue sesh, the away fans were in fine voice. I briefly chatted to Jeremy, a Chelsea fan from Kansas; his first ever domestic Chelsea away game. I could see that he was buzzing too.
News had filtered through that Manchester City had eked out a 2-0 win at Hull City, despite having Vincent Kompany dismissed. The pressure was back on us to keep on winning…
As the game began, I certainly enjoyed being so close to the action – Cesar Azpilicueta especially – even though I was a good fifteen rows from the front. At such close quarters, you get a lovely appreciation of the sheer speed of the game. As both teams toiled to impose themselves, I was increasingly distracted by the setting sun behind the gap twixt the Trinity Road and North Stands. Chances were at a premium, although we seemed to dominate possession. Despite Torres’ runs, Willian’s energy and Hazard’s obvious silky skills, we were unable to carve out many chances. Benteke occasionally threatened. Torres had a couple of efforts. This was hardly a classic. After a corner from the left, the ball fell at the feet of Nemanja Matic, possibly our best player thus far, who slotted home. The away support feverishly celebrated, but then came the gnawing realisation that the goal had not been given. But surely I saw the referee Chris Foy point to the spot? I quickly looked around at the faces of others in my midst, and confusion reigned. Nobody was sure.
Then – it immediately dawned that a free-kick had instead been awarded.
To add insult to injury, a rampaging Ramires was stopped in his tracks but only a yellow was deemed necessary.
Not to worry. After Fulham and Tottenham, a strong second-half was almost expected.
Now it was time for me to really revel in my closeness to the skills of Willian, Hazard et al. Firstly, though, the more robust Ivanovic sent in a lovely cross into the Villa box which caused all sorts of mayhem. However, a mixture of dogged defending and pure luck kept the ball out. We were well on top now, but goal scoring chances were very rare. A weak effort from the quiet Oscar summed it all up.
Villa’s best chance of the game came on the hour when Weimann’s effort flashed past Cech’s post. Then, the game changed. Watching live, down low, my immediate view was that Willian just got too close too soon to Delph and the entanglement of bodies was almost inescapable; in that moment when Foy dished out a red, I immediately remembered that Willian had previously been booked. Willian showed naivety in getting so close to his man when he was already on a yellow. A chase from behind rarely ends with a clean tackle.
A text soon came through stating that the second yellow was very harsh.
Just like Frank’s game last season, Chelsea were down to ten men at Villa Park.
A Hazard free-kick didn’t threaten the Villa goal. I was still convinced that we would get a win, though. A free-header from Villa drifted wide.
With just ten minutes to go, we lost possession and the otherwise impressive Matic missed a tackle and Delph broke away. The ball was played out wide to Albrighton. As soon as the ball was played quickly in, there was a grim inevitability about what would happen next. Delph readjusted and the ball bounced goal bound. Before it hit the net, I was already shouting out in pain.
Branislav Ivanovic was pushed forward in the closing moments as we chased goals. This is a Mourinho ploy; I similarly remember Robert Huth playing upfront in the closing moments of “that” CL game at Anfield in 2005.
In the end, our exploits were frustratingly hindered further when Ramires, sprinting away from our defensive third, lost possession and lunged at a Villa player. I was unsighted to be honest. However, another text was damning; it was a terrible foul.
A deflected effort from Delph spun up and crashed off the bar in extra time. A second goal would have been the final straw, the final twist of the knife. Immediately after the final whistle, all the talk – no, the bile and hate – was of referee Foy. Over the entire game, though, we had not created enough chances. We were, quite simply, not good enough. There was – yet again – a lack of desire and drive in our play. I would hate to think that Tuesday’s encounter with Galatasaray was the reason for our malaise.
Outside, there were minor scuffles as home and away fans goaded each other. A Villa fan held out his hands and bellowed –
“Yippeeh aye ay.
Yippeeh aye ooh.
Holte Enders in the skoi.”
Parky and I just walked on. We were quiet. As I drove through Perry Bar and Handsworth, trapped behind slow-moving traffic, I confided in Parky –
“I know it hasn’t been a great day. We played poorly. But I still love this life, mate.”
On the weekend that marked my fortieth anniversary of my first ever Chelsea game – 16 March 1974 – I was hoping that the occasion would be marked with three massive points. It wasn’t to be.
Let’s hope that there is a celebration on Tuesday night.