Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 3 May 2015.
There was a moment a few months ago when I was observing a conversation develop on “”Facebook” – it was one of the oddest things, I felt, about “Facebook” when I first joined, that online chats were now visible to everyone, should you so wish, rather than being kept to selected friends on a private email – between one of my oldest and dearest Chelsea mates and some of his non-believing friends. They were attempting to goad him into admitting that the race for the 2014-2015 title was not as cut-and-dried as was once thought.
My mate was having none of it, but then killed the conversation stone dead by saying :
“After Munich, nothing matters.”
I knew exactly what he meant.
After that most phantasmagorical – seems that this is a real word, my spell checker liked it – night in Germany, when even the most ridiculous dreams of a Chelsea supporter growing up and supporting the team in the grim years were met and surpassed, I have constantly wondered if anything would come close.
It is very unlikely.
Although the other two games which vie for affection in my long history of attending games – Wembley 1997 and Bolton 2005 – were magical moments, Munich blew them out of the water.
And so, there is – in some ways – a gnawing realisation that regardless of how many more pieces of silverware Chelsea Football Club might accumulate over the next decade or more, my enjoyment will sadly pale when compared to the scintillating climax to the 2012 Champions League Final. I remember that I felt the same way in Moscow, just before that miserable game seven years ago.
“This was it then – the zenith of my Chelsea-supporting life. I had thought on the importance of this match for days on end. I realised that, to an extent, there was a certain inherent sadness in this momentous trip. Should we be victorious, this would undoubtedly be the high point, the high water mark, of my Chelsea life…anything else which follows would be therefore of lesser importance, of lesser value…quite a chilling prospect and it haunted me throughout the trip.”
So, as I attempt to unravel the events of Sunday 3 May 2015, I am well aware that things might not turn out as might be expected.
Munich you see. It’s a bugger.
Football is all about journeys and the journey for the championship – er, Premiership – decider began with an alarm call as early as 6.30am. With the early-afternoon kick-off, I wanted to make time to be able to relax and soak the entire pre-match atmosphere up. I collected P-Diddy at just after 7.30am and Lord Parky at bang on 8am. All three of us were in good spirits but we were a little concerned that the weather outside was rainy and miserable. I drove through some depressing and dispiriting weather; it was pretty nasty and tiring driving conditions to be honest. I tried to remember back to 2010.
“Wasn’t it a bit rainy against Wigan five years ago?”
I was grasping for lucky omens. I am sure I was not alone.
As I drove towards London, Parky and I spoke about the game at Leicester. It had been a fine evening and one of the highlights of the season. The three of us then looked ahead to the match against Crystal Palace. Although Alan Pardew, fresh from his unloved tenure at Newcastle United, has managed to get his new team playing some excellent football, with Bolasie and Zaha an identifiable threat, I assured the others that Jose Mourinho would not let the day pass without the team attaining the desired three points.
“He won’t let this day slide by. He won’t let this slip.”
Without even realising it, I was referencing a game from last season.
I slid into my usual parking place on Bramber Road at 10am exactly. The inclement weather had gradually diminished and the roads had been clear of any substantial traffic. Jackets were selected. We walked to The Goose, though were not too sure if it would be open.
Thankfully, it was. The place quickly filled, and I was able to relax in a corner booth as others joined us. During the next two-and-a-half hours, I was able to chat to a few close mates, including Daryl who was sporting a magnificent T-shirt which paraded our Le Coq Sportif kits from the early-‘eighties with a nod to the much-loved Benetton rugby top of that era.
“United Colors Of Chelsea.”
I remember I once owned a “United Colours Of Chelsea” shirt many years ago – featuring English and British flags – but Daryl’s was much better. I’ll have to bag one over the summer.
Friends from the US floated in to the pub, too and they were, of course, filled with joy that their individual trips to London – most planned months previously – had aligned themselves with such a crucial date in our history.
Again, a lot of our foreign fans – without boring everyone – come in for much derision, but please believe me when I say that folks such as Curtis and Karen from Pittsburgh, Brian from Chicago, and Mike, Matt, Brad and Frank from New York do not fit the hackneyed-stereotype of gormless friendship-scarf wearing dolts which some section of our support take great pleasure in deriding.
They know our history. They know our songs. They have heard of Micky Nutton.
It was lovely to see them all again.
The mood in the pub was upbeat and I was able to sink a few pints, knowing that I would not be driving home for hours upon hours.
On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, I was vaguely aware of grafters selling poorly-designed and poorly-printed “Chelsea Champions” T-shirts. There was an innate inevitability about all of this that I found slightly odd. This was not the Chelsea way of old, of lore, of ancient history, and it didn’t rest easy with me.
However, paradoxically, this was something that we have experienced before under Mourinho. The 2004-2005 title was won at Bolton glorious Bolton with three games left. Our win at the Reebok – magnificent and much-loved as it was – was on the back of a run where there seemed like a definite inevitability of triumph. The following season, the clincher against Manchester United, was won with two games spare. Again, it seemed sure that we would win the title from a long way out. The last remaining league win that I had witnessed in person, the Carlo Ancelotti double of 2009-2010, was more like a typical Chelsea triumph; behind for most of the season, a few patchy performances, but a magnificent canter past Manchester United in the final furlong with goals being scored with reckless abandon.
The current campaign has seemed a stereotypically Mourinho-type affair.
Calm, calculated, efficient.
To be honest, compared to our previous one hundred years – before Jose – it has been most un-Chelsea like.
From 1905 to 2005, there has been calamity, disaster, underachievement but also swashbuckling style, entertainment and intermittent glory. It has been anything but calm and calculated efficiency to be honest.
Since 2005, our history, our character, has been updated.
As I made my way to my usual seat, with maybe ten minutes to spare before the kick-off, there was a nice buzz in the air. With just five minutes to go, the sun suddenly burst through the clouds and began to bathe Stamford Bridge in warming sun. On the page devoted to the manager’s pre-match thoughts, there were just ten words.
“THREE MORE POINTS TO BE CHAMPIONS. LET’S DO IT TOGETHER.”
There were rumours that Remy might be available, but Jose named Didier upfront. Courtois replaced Cech as expected. There was a late change however; Ramires was taken ill, to be replaced by Juan Cuadrado. I wondered if he would fill the role of Jiri Jarosik – a bit player and a surprise selection – who played at Bolton when we won the title in 2005.
[cue new fans typing in Jiri Jarosik in “Google.”]
[cue old fans saying “I’d forgotten him.”]
Three thousand away fans, Crystal Palace in yellow and pale blue, the sun overhead, the crowd nervous with anticipation, the wait for the referee’s whistle.
Didier knocked it to Willian and the game began, with Chelsea – unusually – kicking towards me in the first-half.
We began well, but the visitors also enjoyed a spell of dominance with a flurry of corners. We came back again and attempted to carve open the Palace defence. A raking shot from Cuadrado whizzed over. To my dismay, despite some degree of noise at the start, the Stamford Bridge crowd was outsung by the away fans, who took great pleasure in singing –
“Mourinho’s right. Your fans are shite.”
We responded with the dull and predictable :
“Oo the fackinel are yoo?”
Speroni was twice tested in quick succession. The second of two Didier Drogba free-kicks dipped maliciously at the last moment but Speroni was able to hack the ball away after momentarily dropping the ball at his feet. A fine block by John Terry kept Palace at bay on the half-hour . We weren’t playing particularly well to be honest and we waited for things to improve. I commented to Alan –
“We weren’t that special in the first-half at Bolton were we?”
A few half-chances came and went. Palace had certainly matched us. A draw would be a huge anti-climax, for all of us, but especially for Matt, Mike and Frank who were not staying around for any more games. Alan went off for a hot-dog just before the break. I spoke to PD about Eden Hazard, so often the main man, having a relatively quiet game. Within seconds, a lovely back heel from Willian was played in to the path of an advancing Hazard, just inside the box. A challenge, from possibly two defenders, it happened so quick; Hazard falling to the floor.
All eyes were on the referee Kevin Friend.
I was worried that Alan was not back at his seat. Thankfully, I spotted him a few yards away, entranced by the scene below. I waited and waited, camera poised of course, for Eden to shoot.
It was a weak shot. I clicked.
Speroni easily saved, but thankfully the ball flew up to a reasonable height and Eden nodded the rising ball past the hapless ‘keeper into the far corner.
The crowd roared and I was just so relieved. With my camera in hand, I calmly photographed the run of Eden down to the corner flag below me; how lucky I am to have such fantastic seats, perfectly placed for numerous goal celebrations. It often seems that I am eavesdropping on their private parties. I captured the ensuing huddle and the players’ screams and shrieks of joy. And I screamed too.
A little time to relax at the break. Michael Duberry on the pitch. Forty-five minutes to go. Forty-five minutes to our fifth league title.
A typical Mourinho move at the break; Mikel, the closer, replaced Cuadrado.
A rasping drive from Branislav Ivanovic flew wide, and then – that rare event – a Mikel shot was grasped by the ‘keeper down low. This seemed to inspire the Chelsea crowd, who for ten minutes serenaded some key personnel in our recent history.
“Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich.”
“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”
“Oh Dennis Wise.”
“Born Is The King.”
“Super, Super Frank.”
“Gianfranco Zola, La La La La La La.”
“One Di Matteo.”
“Oh Jimmy Jimmy, Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink.”
“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”
“He’s Here, He’s There, He’s Every Fuckin’where, Frank Leboeuf, Frank Leboeuf.”
“Eidur Gudjohnsen, Eidur Gudjohnsen.”
Fantastic stuff. The place was alive, thank heavens.
No songs for Mineiro, though.
Then one more –
“WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED.”
After a docile period of play, chances came again, with Palace starting to threaten, but with our defensive five in imperious form. Didier and Willian spurned chances to make the game safe. This was getting to be a predictably nervy end to the game. I dreaded a Palace equaliser. It seemed that the away team had decided to pack all of their attacking punch in to the last five minutes of the game. They had crosses, they had corners, but our defenders stood tall. A block by Courtois near the end was the only real time that he had been caused to make a save of note.
Two minutes of added time.
“Blow up ref.”
More Palace pressure. More Chelsea clearances.
Number five was ours.
We were 2014-2015 English champions.
I stood, quite numb, and if I am honest, a little flat. I think that the toll of the last two or three months, losing my mother and coping with the grief, had left me a little distant. On previous games, some quite recent, I had loved the cut and thrust of the title run-in. However, at that exact moment in time, I was just relieved and quietly contented. It was a similar feeling to that which I experienced at Wembley against Tottenham.
Streamers filled the sky, “We Are The Champions” boomed out on the PA. There were whoops of joy all around me, and I gave Alan a warm hug. I knew what he was thinking. The players soon ran down towards The Shed and dived headlong in to history.
There was another loud cheer.
The Chelsea trio of club songs…
“One Step Beyond.”
“Blue Is The Colour.”
The Stamford Bridge crowd slowly drifted off and out in to the afternoon sun. I knew that I had to have a little quiet time with my thoughts. I thought about my dear mother, who had watched alongside me from my seat on two separate occasions during the 2004-2005 and 2009-2010 seasons, but would not be there to greet me with her usual smile at the end of this victorious campaign.
The Chelsea PA played another song, but this just tipped me over the edge.
“Cos the blue tomorrow gets closer each day.
We will follow the Chelsea.
Til our dying day.”
Alan appeared from nowhere and we hugged again.
I decided to stay on my own for a further few minutes. Alan walked off to join the rest of my mates at the “Lillee Langtree”. The stadium looked a picture. I am often one of the very last to leave at the end of the final home league game each season. This was no different. I was one of the last still there. I sat alone with my thoughts. After another five minutes, I decided to move. I had a quick chat with Darren about my mother as we descended the stairs.
Mum was hardly an avid Chelsea fan, but she loved to see me happy when we had won. Even in the last period of her life, suffering from dementia, Mum was able to reel off the names of a few Chelsea legends.
“Ron Harris”, “Peter Osgood”, “Kerry Dixon”, “Pat Nevin”, “Gianfranco Zolo.”
Outside the West Stand, I pictured the – much-changed – scene that would have greeted me after my first-ever game, in the West Stand, in 1974. It all came back to me in an instant.
I loved this club then and I love it now.
Back at the pub, drinks were overflowing, and there was some singing and chanting going back and forth between those outside the “Lillee Langtry” and those drinking outside the “Prince Of Wales.” There was joy, but it was all very controlled and understated. It was not like the euphoria of 2005, nor certainly 1997 nor – of course – 2012. I was sober, but happy to stay for an hour as the lads continued to drink. I bumped in to a few good friends. It was lovely
Daryl, Simon and I spoke about the season. We spoke about us being off the pace in Europe and wondered if we could have a stab at the biggest trophy at all over the next few seasons. We then focussed on the league. I am sure I oversimplified things, but my take on it was :
“Diego Costa carried us for the first few months. Then Eden Hazard. Then Jose Mourinho.”
It has certainly felt as though this season would be ours from a few months ago, as Mourinho turned the screw and pragmatically reverted to a more conservative style of play. The difference in style in our play before and after the turn of the year has been very noticeable and – sigh – the media has surely salivated on reminding everyone of it. Our last real swashbuckling performance was at Swansea in January. Since then, our formidable defensive qualities have shone, though in some quarters it seems that the football world would wish us to lose the occasion game 5-4 rather than grinding out narrow wins.
I’ll be honest, the entertaining football of the autumn was a joy and it would have been nice to maintain this style throughout the season, but with Mourinho’s safety-first approach, it is no surprise that style gave way to substance as the season reached a climax.
I can almost imagine a brief conversation which might have taken place in Roman Abramovich’s office high in the Stamford Bridge stadium in January.
Roman : “Good morning Jose. Are you well?”
Jose : “Sure, but…”
Roman : “What is the problem?”
Jose : “Well. We spoke after Tottenham. It felt like it was not Chelsea playing that night. Five goals, you know? And we spoke, I am sure you remember, about the need to tighten defensively.”
Roman : “Of course. Of course.”
Jose : “I told you, no I asked you, if you would be happy for me to tighten. I need that reassurance.”
Roman : “It is no problem. This is your team. You win the league your way.”
Jose : “And then we score five at Swansea!”
Roman : “Ha. Yes. That mustn’t happen again.”
Jose : “Ha. No. “No, it won’t.”
Roman : “You see this shirt of John Terry from ten years ago?”
Jose : “I see it.”
Roman : “The team scored 72.”
Jose : “Yes.”
Roman : “But conceded just 15.”
Jose : “You remembered.”
Roman : “Do the same this season. Tighten. No problem.”
Jose : “Understood. Thank you.”
Outside the pub, with the sun now heating us all up, the drinks were being quaffed by others. The songs continued.
In a quiet moment, I whispered to Daryl –
“Of course you realise that our global fan base has just increased by a million the past two hours.”
He looked at me; no words were spoken but a lot was said.
At just before 6pm, I drove out of Bramber Road, and headed west with another league championship title to my name. The traffic was thin, the driving relatively easy. In the last few miles, with a drowsy Parky having been poured out of my car and no doubt asleep on his couch, PD and I reviewed the incredible path that our club has taken since 1997. We both remembered how delighted we were to reach the, ultimately disastrous, FA Cup Final of 1994. So much has happened to us all since then.
It has been a magnificent journey.
By 9pm I was at home and devouring all things Chelsea-related on the internet. At the end of a tough time for me, I could relax and watch “MOTD2” and enjoy a few peaceful moments of pride and joy.
We were champions.
No, it wasn’t as good as Munich, but – for the time being – it will do very nicely thank you.
We now stand seventh in the list of champions of England.
Manchester United – 20
Liverpool – 18
Arsenal – 13
Everton – 9
Aston Villa – 7
Sunderland – 6
Chelsea – 5
We are climbing nicely.
Who knows where this magnificent journey will end?