West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 23 August 2015.
This game had it all. Thankfully it had the most precious commodity; three points to us. Because, let’s make no mistake about it, a defeat at West Bromwich Albion would have dealt a huge blow to our immediate welfare and would have given those outside our club reason to swarm like birds of prey over us. Yes, it was only the third league game of the season – and I know titles are not decided in August – but surely everyone connected with Chelsea Football Club was hoping and praying for a win, any win, but a win.
It had been a fairly typical pre-match for a game at The Hawthorns. The morning had started off, however, with a torrential cloudburst and the few miles that I drove to collect Lord Parky filled me with dread for the rest of the day. Surely, it wouldn’t be as miserable and treacherous for the entire journey north? The rain lashed against my windscreen, the spray made visibility difficult and the surface water ebbed and flowed at the kerbside and it was the worst driving conditions that I had encountered for ages. And I hadn’t even left Somerset yet.
The clouds were dark overhead and the mood was sombre.
It clearly wasn’t a good start to the day.
Parky clambered into my waiting car, his bag full of tins of cider for the journey ahead, and we gave each other the usual abusive welcome.
For a change, we had decided to have a breakfast en route at the nearby town of Bradford-On-Avon, and this meant that we could wait for forty-five minutes or so while the worst of the storm, hopefully, would pass. A famous “Boatman” breakfast at The Lock Inn on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal hit the spot. I won’t give full details because it will only give any ex-pats reading both hunger pangs and home sickness. Parky washed his plate full down with a pint of Thatcher’s cider.
It was only 9.15am.
As the calories mounted up, the rain subsided.
We left just before 10am and were soon on the M4 and M5.
West Brom is an easy away game for us. It is barely over two hours from door to door. The pre-match was again spent within the confines of the Park Inn, where we encountered many of the Away Club that we met at the same location before the last away game of last season, and on many seasons previously. There was also the sighting, quite common at this location, of former football presenter Adrian Chiles, quietly drinking with a few elderly friends, and resplendent in in a “Bostin” T-shirt. Talk was of European travels with the club rather than the apparent doom-mongers among our support.
With a 1.30pm kick-off, our time was squeezed. We gulped down a couple of pints apiece. Thankfully, the rain had subsided since the early morning bursts, but the clouds were looming overhead as we made our way across the bridge which crosses the busy M5 and on to The Hawthorns, only a fifteen minute walk away. I noted that many of the home fans were wearing the Albion’s new shirt, which thankfully remains true to their history, with navy and white stripes rather than the strange, unbecoming, white with navy pinstripes of last season. There is only one team that can pull that off, and they reside in The Bronx.
Unlike in May, there was no tedious wait at the turnstiles. We were in with time to spare.
As I joined up with Alan and Gary, plus countless others, there was time to run through the team that manager Mourinho had chosen. If I am honest, I was not at all surprised that Branislav Ivanovic had maintained his place. There had been a clamour among the FIFA16 managers within our support for new boy Baba Rahman to be handed his Chelsea debut on the left-hand side of our suddenly troubled defence with Cesar Azpilicueta shifting over to the right. Rather than risk the young lad in a new team, with new team mates, a new system, a new country, a new league and a new stadium, Jose Mourinho chose the old war horse Brana instead. Debuting in a defence under scrutiny, in a tough “must win” away game is always more difficult, in my opinion, than a new player joining the team further up field, as in the case of Pedro, who was handed a Chelsea start immediately. The other change was Kurt Zouma being drafted alongside John Terry, replacing Gary Cahill. This was an interesting twist really, since several were thinking that the substitution of our captain at half-time at Manchester City would herald a new dawn. Gary Cahill has been a fine servant for us, though I sometimes cringe when he has time on the ball, and when he seems to awkwardly shift from one leg to the other like a cat on a hot tin roof, wondering what on earth to do with the ball at his feet. Regardless, I am confident that he can play a part this season, and the growing transfer talk of John Stones might inspire him. Courtois, of course, was back between the sticks.
Just before the teams emerged it began raining. Although it was August, in the early afternoon, the floodlights were on.
A first look at our third kit. All black, but with a certain degree of nastiness going on with the shorts, as if they had seen too much sun, and faded to grey.
The three thousand Chelsea loyalists were all together in the Smethwick End. In the lower corners of the side stands – the home areas – seats were empty.
As the rain fell, the game began.
It was a lively start from both teams and I was encouraged with the way that Diego Costa battled and held off a robust challenge before giving himself half a yard but then screwing a shot wide. It was just the sort of tenacious play that our number nineteen brings to our team.
A silly challenge by Nemanja Matic on Callum McManaman, with the West Brom player dribbling away from goal, gave referee Mark Clattenburg no choice but to award a penalty kick.
“Oh hell, here we go again.”
Thankfully, the penalty by James Morrison was drilled centrally and Thibaut was able to block with a flick of a trailing leg. The Chelsea support roared.
On two separate occasions in the opening quarter, Eden Hazard slipped away from markers using exquisite skill in tight areas, turning 180 degrees and opening up space in an instant. He is as slippery as an eel. On twenty minutes, Pedro – who had only flitted in and out of the game until then – exchanged passes with Hazard and drove in to the heart of the Albion defence. Within a blink of the eye, our new signing had feinted to create a little space and despatched a low shot goal wards.
His joy, running over to the far corner, was matched by ours.
We were on our way.
“Are you watching Man-chest-er?”
On the half hour, we broke quickly – for once – and Willian found Pedro on the right, who drove on. I snapped my camera just as he appeared to shoot, but the ball was more of a cross, which the surging Diego Costa was able to meet with a perfectly-timed slide.
We were 2-0 up, and loving it. Diego fell to his knees in front of the home fans in the Birmingham Road end.
“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”
However, in an open game, West Brom pulled a goal back when new signing Rondon did well to keep a ball alive and hooked it back to Morrison. He managed to drill the ball low through some covering defenders.
The home support alongside us were now making some noise of their own. We countered, poking fun at the empty seats to our left and right –
“Your grounds too big for you.”
A Willian miss, after good work from Pedro, caused us all to groan. However, soon after we restored our two goal lead. A move down the right found Diego Costa, who appeared to be fouled. All of my attention, and maybe that of the sleeping home defence, seemed to be on that, because nobody picked up the raiding Azpilicueta who nipped in to slip the loose ball home.
There were smiles at half-time and quite rightly. This was more like it Chelsea.
In the crowded concourse, full of beer and ribaldry, the “Juliano Belletti” chant of a few years back was reworked, though I am not quite sure how we managed it, with fewer syllables up for grabs:
“Ped-ro-oo Rodriguez, Ped-ro-oo Rodriguez.”
Soon in to the second half, our world seemed to crumble. A long ball was pumped forward towards Rondon and with Courtois seemingly unable to intercept, John Terry challenged with what appeared to be a clumsy tackle. I immediately smelled fear. Without too much deliberation, the red card was brandished. This was a little similar to what befell John during the opening period of the second-half in our game at the same venue in May. Then, a penalty after a last ditch challenge. This time, the same. But no, wait, thankfully the challenge was just outside the penalty area.
The resulting free-kick thankfully came to nothing.
But we were down to ten men with many many minutes remaining.
Willian was sacrificed to allow the masked man Cahill to enter the fray.
Further doubts entered our collective minds when Morrison’s leap inside the box resulted in the ball looping up and in above Courtois’ despairing hands.
3-2 now and the Albion fans were the noisiest of the entire game, singing songs that only they could decipher.
This was going to be a long thirty minutes.
We didn’t retire into our shell, nor did we submit territorially. We kept plugging away, though the game seemed to bypass one particular player. For one who allegedly starts seasons on fire and then fades, Cesc Fabregas has hardly set the world alight in August. Some would say he is too lightweight to anchor the midfield, but on this occasion he failed to knit much together offensively. I hope for greater things from our number four. His magic hat seems to have been mislaid.
Matic came close with a free-kick. Diego Costa created a good with a typical piece of aggressive running. Down at the Birmingham End, Rondon belted a good chance wide and we all knew that we had escaped. This was tense stuff. There was more to come. The Chelsea faithful, inside the stadium and outside, were being tormented every time the Baggies attacked.
McManaman should have equalised for West Brom, but the ball whistled past the post. Another coat of paint, and the ball would have hit the upright. We breathed in as the ball was struck, we exhaled as it flew in to the advertising hoardings.
Among the onslaught, Kurt Zouma seemed to repel everything. His distribution might lack a certain refinement, but his defensive strengths are evident for all to see.
We still created half-chances. Another for Diego Costa, who was then replaced by Falcao, who himself narrowly missed after failing to properly connect. I remember our last win at West Brom, back in 2011, when Fernando Torres was mired in his own personal hell, and when he was ridiculously unfortunate not to open his Chelsea account. I wonder what the future holds for our current number nine.
Our new starlet Pedro was replaced by Jon Obi Mikel, and I welcomed his addition as we attempted to dampen the attacks.
I commented to Alan that it wouldn’t be long before Chelsea fans near and far would be irritated by his very presence on the pitch.
He was soon showing his prowess in nullifying our opponents though, nibbling at any potential threat, and then playing the ball simply.
I was able to admire the close skills of Eden Hazard, dribbling his way around several nameless West Brom defenders down below me in the near corner. By this stage, late on, this bewitching show of twists and turns, shimmies and feints, were mainly in the guise of maintaining possession and – dare I say it – time wasting, but, even so, was a joy to watch. How he accelerates away with that ridiculously low centre of gravity, is one of the great joys of watching Chelsea in 2015. He even came close after a lovely ball from the hard-working Matic.
In the last ten minutes, the sun appeared. We would be saved from getting drenched on the march back to the car.
Courtois was involved throughout the last ten minutes of normal time and the five minutes of extra time. He did not let us down.
The minutes passed.
A few shouts for the ref to “blow up.”
The game continued.
The whistle blew and we could relax.
It was our eighth game of the season – I have seen them all – and our first win, not including those odd wins on penalties in Charlotte and DC.
We are still, obviously, on our road to recovery and there are still issues surrounding our team, but – boy – it was wonderful to finally get three points on the board. Did I enjoy it? I enjoyed the final whistle. These tense games certainly take it out of you. I felt like I had aged ten years over the second-half.
There were a few handshakes with a few good friends. The mood was of relief.
Rob, who learned on the Thursday that his son was finally cancer free, suddenly appeared to my right. A handshake and a smile for him, especially.
I said just a few words.
“It’s been a good week.”
Rob’s smile said it all.