Tales From A Shock To The System

Chelsea vs. Bradford City : 24 January 2015.

After the Champions League group phase is completed in December, it always feels that the months of January and February are a relatively quiet period of the season before the games ramp up again later. However, this season does not fit this model, with our club active in all four trophies. Games are coming in rapid succession. Blink and you will miss them.

Sandwiched in between two games in the League Cup against Liverpool, came an F.A. Cup game against League One side Bradford City, who were making their first appearance in SW6 since the 2000-2001 Premiership campaign. The headline-making tie with Millwall was averted thanks to the Bantams’ fine 4-0 win in West Yorkshire and I – for one – was relieved. A Chelsea vs. Millwall cup tie might enthuse and excite a sizeable section of our fan base, but I was dreading such a tie, simply because there would undoubtedly be trouble – if not at the game, then in side streets and on train platforms – and the name of Chelsea Football Club would be besmirched once again. It just wouldn’t be worth the – pardon the pun – aggro.

Football hooliganism has played an integral role in the social history of our national game for decades. Although I – like many – get drawn almost subconsciously in to certain aspects of the subculture and I have always been intrigued by it, I have always remained an outsider, an observer, rather than wanting to actively participate in it. For ages, it was part of the game. Growing up as a child and then a teenager who attended games in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, there was no denying its brutal attraction. I can remember sitting, in the relative security of the East Lower, and watching untold scenes of violence at games against Tottenham, Cardiff City and Millwall. The noise and intensity was mesmerising. At the time, it was all part of the football scene. With hindsight, my ambivalence to it was, looking back, quite disturbing. However, after I was punched in the face at a friendly against Bristol City in 1984, I suddenly became more wary of the threat of violence. Things got real. Thankfully, despite near misses at a few games since, I have avoided further encounters with opposing fans intent on causing me physical harm.

Many romanticise the ‘eighties, me included. The noise and passion at games could be mesmerizing. I miss parts of it. However, with hooliganism, came fences to separate rival factions, which added to the brutal landscape of football and almost inspired thuggish behaviour. In addition to grief from opposing fans there was also antagonism from police forces. The match going scene in the early ‘eighties was not for the feint hearted. Part of the away game experience was avoiding getting slapped. These days, I am glad that “trouble” tends not to rear its head too often. I love the noise, passion and tribalism of football, but I’ve never felt the need to hit someone simply because our football teams are playing each other.

So, there would be no Millwall Hoolie-Porn Fest this season. We last played them in 1995. This is fine with me.

I travelled up to London with a few mates and we decided to pop in to The Rylston, rather than head straight in to The Goose. It was quiet. You would never know that there was a game on. Apart from us five, there were no other Chelsea fans present. The Goose, only a five minute walk away, was however rammed with home supporters. In a quiet corner, we chatted about all sorts of football-related topics, though the game with Bradford was hardly mentioned. There was talk of Bristol City – them again – away in the cup in 1990, the brief Chelsea career of Paul Hughes – whatever happened to him? – a few minutes talking about non-league football, fellow Chelsea mates and all sorts of stuff. I was dismayed to see a paltry crowd at Ewood for the televised Blackburn Rovers vs. Swansea City match. The attendance seemed to be around 7,000. Here was awful proof that the FA Cup, despite the hyperventilating rhetoric of every media presenter touting the competition, was dying on its feet. There would be a full house at Stamford Bridge, boosted by six thousand away fans, but elsewhere gates continue to decline. In a climate where fourth place in the league is seen as a better prize, this is no surprise.

I may not hate modern football, but I do hate the way that the FA Cup has had its allure systematically tarnished in the past twenty years.

There was a time, maybe as recently as the ‘fifties, when the winning of the FA Cup was more prestigious than winning the league.

On the walk to the stadium, with the weather milder than I had expected, I spotted several people handing out fliers asking for spare tickets for the Chelsea vs. Manchester City game, with a telephone number brazenly advertised. This was taking touting to a new level. Obviously next Saturday’s game is a massive event – it will probably be this season’s defining moment, along with Parky eventually buying a round – but I have never seen touts so desperate for tickets that they would resort to this.

I always remember, back in the brief period when our capacity in a stadium being modernised was temporarily at the 34,000 mark, in early 1998, touts asking £120 for a ticket for a standard league game with Barnsley. I was staggered. The match day price at the time was around £25. Heaven knows how much tickets for the City game will sell for.

A few Bradford fans were spotted, their accents cutting in to the cosmopolitan London air. We rarely get Yorkshiremen and women along the Fulham Road these days; long gone from the top flight are any representation from either West or South Yorkshire. Our old foes Sheffield Wednesday last appeared in 2000, the universally-disliked Leeds United in 2004 and – most recently of all – Sheffield United in 2006. It is odd that Yorkshire’s only representative of late is Hull City, who are based in a city more known for its rugby league.

Inside Stamford Bridge, my focus was immediately drawn to The Shed.

There they were, six thousand strong. No balloons, but many amber and yellow bar scarves, and several flags.

I was in my seat just before kick-off.

Jose Mourinho had certainly rung the changes.

Petr Cech.

Andreas Christensen.

Gary Cahill.

Kurt Zouma.

Cesar Azpilicueta.

Jon Obi Mikel.

Ramires.

Loic Remy.

Oscar.

Mohamed Salah.

Didier Drogba.

As soon as the match began, the Bradford City contingent copied the Watford fans in the preceding round by goading the home support :

“Mourinho’s right. Your fans are shite.”

All of these Mourinho comments about our – admittedly – lack lustre support is very odd. I wish I understood, completely, why he has chosen to do this.

The match began and the first action of any note took place down below us in the goalmouth at the Matthew Harding end. A Bradford corner was met by a fine header from Andrew Davies, but Petr Cech reacted superbly, swatting the ball away for a corner. It was a simply incredible reflex save. We stood to applaud that; magical stuff. We began to impose ourselves, and we took the lead when an Oscar corner was flicked home by Gary Cahill at the near post. I watched as Cahill raced, fist-pumping, away, obviously delighted to score. Gary has divided opinion of late; many fans want him dropped.

On the subsequent replay, both Alan and I responded with one word, spoken at exactly the same time.

“Zola-esque.”

Next, it was the turn of Didier Drogba to turn his marker and force a save from the Bradford ‘keeper. Didier’s inclusion was an odd one for me; poor Remy has hardly had a look in this season, so I would have like to see him spearhead our attack. Drogba generally laboured throughout the first-half. Elsewhere, we looked tired, with Mo Salah being singled out as the most disappointing. Here was a player who was simply trying too hard. He often chose to dribble when easier options were available. In truth, we were struggling. However, a firm Ramires tackle on the half-way line set up a fine flowing move with Salah, and our number seven scored with a shot which bounced in off the post.

We were up by two goals to nothing, but we hadn’t been convincing.

The away fans sang –

“Two nil, and you still don’t sing.”

Just before the break, a Bradford free-kick wasn’t cleared and journeyman striker Jon Stead composed himself well and fired high past the partially unsighted Cech. The away fans roared. Bradford had possibly deserved the goal. At the break, Neil Barnett walked the pitch with three heroes of yesteryear.

Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti, John Hollins.

Thankfully all of the home stands afforded fine responses as these three greats paraded past. I wondered why these fans had been so damned quiet during the actual match.

In an attempt to get a reaction for the formidable away following Neil chirped –

“The conquerors of Leeds…Chopper, Holly and The Cat.”

The Bradford fans, enjoying the moment, applauded heartily.

Growing up, these three players were the three highest-ever appearance makers at our club; only recently have John Terry (number three) and Frank Lampard (number four) breached this little group.

Soon into the second half, and after a flurry of Bradford corners, we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Shots and headers flashed in, but we held on. We had the occasional effort on goal, but both Alan and myself knew that Bradford were in with a chance. Our play seemed to be without flair and purpose, and there were clearly no leaders on the pitch. As the game continued, we went into our collective shell. The limited spirit withered away. Zouma was in the wars, but carried on, but Mikel was forced to be substituted after a clash of heads. In fact, Jose Mourinho made two changes with twenty minutes remaining…Willian for the poor Salah, Fabregas for the unlucky Mikel.

Our play took an immediate upturn, with a couple of chances testing Williams in the Bradford goal.

However, Bradford were still full of fight and running and vigour.

The ball was launched into our box and ex-Chelsea youth prospect Billy Knott forced a save from Cech. The rebound fell invitingly for Filipe Morais to belt home. Both players and fans celebrated wildly.

Ugh. The thought of a replay in West Yorkshire made me shudder.

“Filipe Morais…didn’t he play for us? There was a Nuno Morais, wasn’t there? Strange – no mention in the programme.”

Jose replaced Remy with Eden Hazard.

At last – AT LAST! – the home support rallied behind the team and the noise seemed to inspire our play, with Hazard full of energy.

Ridiculously, though, it was Bradford who kept attacking and kept stretching us. A well-worked move involving Stead allowed the ball to be tee’d up for Halliday to thump past Cech.

Oh shite.

The away end exploded. What a sight.

Things were now deadly serious. The mood changed and all around me, instead of passive support, the spectators were instantly nervous and vocal.

In an echo of past times of when Mourinho sent Robert Huth upfront at Anfield in 2005, Kurt Zouma was deployed alongside Drogba. Both, agonisingly, then wasted fantastic chances to spare our ignominy with an equaliser.

Sections of the home crowd were now incandescent with rage. A few songs of support urged us on.

A lifeline was handed to us when the referee signalled a massive seven minutes of extra time.

There was hope.

Yet it was Bradford who kept the pressure on us and Stead, again – the key to their attack – did well to set up Yeates to nonchalantly prod past the spread-eagled Cech.

Chelsea 2 Bradford City 4.

Hundreds left for the exits.

We were beaten.

We were well beaten.

I wondered if this FA Cup defeat was the biggest shock, at home, for decades.

I was numb.

Crystal Palace in 1976…Wigan in 1980…Oxford City in 1991…Millwall in 1995.

Ugh.

The reasons for this pitiful performance?

My own take is that Jose has been too loyal to the usual starting eleven for our league games. The fringe players simply haven’t had enough worthwhile playing time this season. Yes, we have a very busy schedule at the moment – four games in just twelve days – but I am not convinced such wholesale changes were needed for this game. The players used against Bradford were just too unfamiliar with each other’s style. With more exposure and match-day experience throughout the season, our play might have been more cohesive.

As for desire and hunger and fight, only the players can answer why these key elements were in such short supply.

As others silently left, I made sure that I clapped the players…both Chelsea and Bradford City, especially Bradford City, off the pitch. Down at The Shed, it looked like they were having the time of their lives.

As I walked back to the car, my thoughts were centered on two games within four days in January 1986, when we were turfed out of the two domestic cups, both at Stamford Bridge, by Liverpool and QPR. I traveled down from Stoke from both of them; Kerry Dixon was injured in the Sunday FA Cup game with Liverpool, and Eddie Niedzwiecki was injured in the Wednesday League Cup game with QPR. Neither player would be the same again. Those two crushing defeats still hurt to this day.

On Tuesday, I’m expecting all of us – manager, team, support – to ensure that 1986 is not repeated.

We travelled back to Wiltshire and Somerset in a state of shock. We had certainly witnessed one of the most almighty cup shocks of living memory. With a little gallows humours and a few ciders – for the others – we managed to survive.

As I dropped Parky off, I wound down the window, and paused.

“See you next Tuesday.”

The car jolted with laughter.

I watched “Match Of The Day” later…I must be a glutton for punishment…and people might find this odd, but I actually reveled in seeing the ecstatic expressions on the faces of the travelling Bradford fans as each of their goals were scored. It was just fantastic. Fans and players together, enjoying the moment, jumping up and down in joy, faces so happy, as one.

As it should be.

It reminded me of other times, when us Chelsea fans used to celebrate wildly, when success was hoped-for and not expected, when things were different.

Sigh.

Well done Bradford City.

An enemy of Leeds United is a friend of mine.

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2 thoughts on “Tales From A Shock To The System

  1. “As I walked back to the car, my thoughts were centred on two games within in four days in January 1986, when we were turfed out of the two domestic cups, both at Stamford Bridge, by Liverpool and QPR. I travelled down from Stoke from both of them; Kerry Dixon was injured in the Sunday FA Cup game with Liverpool, and Eddie Niedzwiecki was injured in the Wednesday League Cup game with QPR. Neither player would be the same again. Those two crushing defeats still hurt to this day”

    I was at both games, Chris, and you’re right, neither player was the same after, and that season spiraled out of control culminating in shipping 10 goals over Easter to West Ham & QPR. I was at Loftus Road when we lost 6-0. Steve Francis was doomed from that moment.

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