Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 29 August 2015.
As is so often the case after the draw for the autumnal group phase of the Champions League, conversations in the beer garden of The Goose before our match with Crystal Palace were centred upon travel plans rather than the upcoming game. In fact, our chats would have been better suited to a conference on budget air travel.
On the Thursday evening, once I had learned of the dates of our games, I quickly booked a flight from Bristol to Porto for our game at the end of September. I made a call to Parky and he soon joined me, happy to be repeating our fantastic excursion to the same country last September.
I then, to my horror, realised that I had booked a 6pm flight from Bristol on an evening when I would still be in Newcastle (after our away game there on 26 September) until 9pm that night.
I quickly booked myself onto an earlier flight home from Newcastle. Sometimes the clamour to book up European trips can cloud judgements. I escaped, on this occasion, by the skin of my teeth. I get back from Newcastle at 2.15pm and then set off from the same airport four hours later. Those five days following the great unpredictables will be as fun as it gets.
Later on Thursday evening, I persuaded myself that a trip to Tel Aviv would not be as hazardous as I initially thought, and in light of the fact that a good number of friends had already booked flights, I decided to go ahead too.
So, Porto and Tel Aviv adventures to follow.
I can’t wait.
In comparison, a London derby with Crystal Palace seemed rather mundane.
I had travelled up to HQ with a full car load; Parky, PD and Deano were the fellow Chuckle Brothers.
The laughs that we enjoyed in the car continued in the beer garden. Early morning sun gradually faded, and it became comfortably cooler.
After a particularly stressful week at work, it was time to chill.
British summer time, lagers and lime.
The news eventually broke through that the team chosen by Jose Mourinho was the same starting eleven as at West Brom, save for the enforced change in central defence which meant that we were playing with Gary Cahill and King Kurt in the middle.
The continued presence of current “boo boy” Branislav Ivanovic would, I was sure, cause ructions amid some of our support. Of course our Serbian has not enjoyed the best of starts this season – I noted a sub-par performance as early as the game in New Jersey – yet it came as no surprise that Jose decided to play him. He is one of Mourinho’s men. It would be easier to tear out a fir tree from a Serbian hillside with human hands than oust Ivanovic at the moment. All eyes would be on his performance throughout the afternoon. Against the pace of our visitor’s wide men, I was a little concerned that Brana would cope.
The rest of the team picked itself, but that is possibly a critique. With Oscar injured, there are little other creative options at our disposal.
On the walk in to the stadium, after stopping to buy the match programme, I paid a little more notice to the wording chosen for this season on the “Chelsea Wall” which overlooks the West Stand concourse. This marks the western boundary of the grounds of Chelsea Football Club, and separates it from the red brick buildings of the Oswald Stoll Foundation. Just inside the entrance, there is a sign which says :
Welcome To Stamford Bridge.
Home Of Chelsea Football Club.
Heart Of London.
And I suddenly wondered if someone at Chelsea had seen the tag line at the top of this website, but yet wondered why “The Heart Of London” wasn’t used.
And it got me wondering, just fleeting moments of thought, as I bustled past the crowds to take my place at the back of the queue for the MHU turnstiles.
The heart of London.
Were we actually the closest to the very centre of the nation’s capital?
I always remember my father telling me as an intrigued young boy that the centre of London, from where the mileages to other towns and cities are calculated, is not Buckingham Palace nor the Houses of Parliament, but Charing Cross.
And yes, the evidence does suggest that Chelsea Football Club is at the heart of London. It is the closest to Charing Cross, but only by the slightest of margins, with Arsenal and Millwall being just a few hundred yards further out. By contrast, Crystal Palace, out in suburbia, are miles away.
I was handed the match programme and shown a photograph of eighty-seven year old Joe, who has been sitting alongside us since the three of us bought season tickets in 1997. He was featured in one of the “fan pages”, and detailed his history of supporting the boys, as a season ticket holder for over fifty years, but as a spectator since 1933. Sadly Joe has not been well enough to attend the two home games so far this season, but I certainly hope that he can rejoin us soon. Every Christmas, he makes a point of writing a card to “Chris and the Chelsea Boys.” He is a lovely man.
The three-thousand Palace fans were in good voice as the teams lined up. The players were wearing a slight variation of the first Crystal Palace kit that I can ever remember, back in the days of Don Rogers and Alan Whittle in around 1972, when they sported an all-white kit with two West Ham style claret and blue vertical stripes on the shirt. The 2015/2016 version is similar, but with the tones slightly different.
Alan Pardew has developed a promising team down in the Surrey hinterlands since he joined them from his tough time on Tyneside. I looked down and saw Yohan Cabaye playing for them. Here was living proof that this league of ours is getting tougher – top to bottom – than ever before.
Crystal Palace began well and won two quick corners. We took quite a while to find our feet. An incisive break inside by Pedro followed by a sharp curler which narrowly swept past the far post was our first real effort on goal. And that was on twenty minutes.
Diego Costa was often spotted on both wings hunting for the ball, but I would have preferred to see him more central. We struggled to find him, regardless. A shot from Willian went wide. There was a suspicion of offside as Palace broke free past our static defence, but Thibaut Courtois did well to block. Soon after, Palace broke through again in the best move of the match but our tall goalkeeper again did well, falling quickly to push away. Both moves were down our right flank.
Just as I commented to PD that I could see no indication that we would be able to pierce the Crystal Palace defence, we stepped up our game. A cross from Azpilicueta zipped across the box, just beyond the lunge of Diego Costa. Just after, at last a penetrating run from Diego Costa in the inside-right channel, and his shot tested McCarthy. The ball pin-balled around in the resultant melee but Pedro was just unable to prod home. At last, there was a murmur from the Matthew Harding.
Then, a fine dribble from Nemanja Matic and a rare shot.
And a big but.
And no time within that opening period were the team nor fans exhibiting any of the intensity shown during the first-half at The Hawthorns the previous weekend. At West Brom, there was a very real sense of togetherness, and a great sense of “we must win this game.”
Against Crystal Palace, no pushover at all, I never got that same feeling.
In a nutshell, the atmosphere was horrendous.
At the break, a friend agreed.
I rolled my eyes.
The atmosphere was as flat as a steam-rollered flatbread lying on the flat lands of Van Flattenberg in The Netherlands.
At least there were no boos at half-time. I half-expected some.
On the pitch, Bobby Tambling, waving and smiling. In the programme, a lovely piece on Pat Nevin standing firmly behind Paul Canoville after a game at Selhurst Park in 1984, when some Chelsea supporters still chose to give our first black player a hard ride.
Soon into the second half, Diego Costa went down in the box, but PD, I and maybe a few other Chelsea fans were not convinced of his vociferous penalty shout. The referee agreed. Chances were exchanged and the noise level increased slightly. There was another fine save from Courtois. Just before the hour I heard The Shed for the first time.
A couple of Chelsea chances, but there was no luck in front of goal.
Amid all of this, Cesc Fabregas played little part. I am not one for lambasting Chelsea players, our heroes, our dream-makers, but our number four is having a torrid time. At times, his passing was atrocious.
With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I said to Alan :
“This time last year, his football was on another planet. Now, we just wish he was on another planet.”
Then, a break down the Crystal Palace left, attacking you-know-who, and the ball was played in. Dave did ever so well to block, but the ball bobbled free and Sako was able to smash home.
Immediately after, the ground managed to rouse itself from its torpor with the loudest “Carefree” of the afternoon.
Falcao for Willian.
Kenedy for Azpilicueta.
With new signing Baba Rahman – a left-back – on the bench, it surprised me that Jose chose Kenedy to fit in at Dave’s position. However, straight away, the kid from Fluminense looked energised and involved. His willingness to burst forward with pace is something that we are not used to these days. After only a few moments, a thunderous low drive from around forty yards made us sit up and take notice. Sadly the effort was right down McCarthy’s throat.
I wondered if it might be slightly unnerving if thousands of Chelsea fans shout “shoot” to Kenedy during future games.
Loftus-Cheek for Matic.
An error from Ruben allowed Sako to fire in a cross. With Courtois scrambling back from his near post, we gulped. Bolasie arrived with the goal at his mercy, and Ivanovic panting behind him, but his shot was off target.
Kenedy continued to impress, and Loftus-Cheek, too.
With fifteen minutes remaining, at last a good Chelsea move. Fabregas picked out Pedro out on the right. He crossed relatively early and his fine ball was met with an Andy Gray-style dive from Radamel Falcao. The Bridge erupted and we were back in it. It was a fantastic goal.
Just two minutes later, a deep cross from the left was knocked back across goal by that man Sako, unmarked at the far post, and some two bit nonentity called Joel Ward headed in from close range.
We collapsed into our seats.
In the last ten minutes, the attempts on the Palace goal mounted up but a mixture of poor finishing, blocks and bad luck worked against us. However, our goal had lived a charmed life throughout the match and we could have conceded more than two.
This was Jose Mourinho’s one hundredth league game at Stamford Bridge, with one solitary lose before. Now there were two.
This was certainly a shock to us all. There were hardly any positives to take away from the game. Many players are underperforming, across all positions. Without Thibaut, to be fair, we could have conceded three or four. As if to heighten the depressing mood, rain met us as we sloped away and back along the Fulham Road. The jubilant away fans contrasted greatly. This was their best performance at Chelsea since that FA Cup game in 1976.
We had been poor.
Players and fans.
Of course those who know me will know that I hate the notion of lambasting players and our manager after just – count them – four league games. Yet there is clearly plenty of work to do. As we reassembled back at the car, I lamented the fact that we had a whole fortnight to stew in our juices, under scrutiny from the rat-like British press, with no chance to rectify our reputation on Tuesday, nor Wednesday, nor Saturday, nor Sunday, nor the following Tuesday and Wednesday. It is going to be a long two weeks.
But I’m not going anywhere. My friends too. We are too long in the tooth to give up this easily. Dean and I soon began making plans for a classic Chelsea away game, under pressure at an old school stadium – a proper away day – at Everton.
In the evening, I noted with disbelief that some fans were already writing off our league challenge.
With thirty-four games to be played and one hundred and two points still up for grabs.
It is not even September.
Give me fucking strength.
Later in the evening, I watched the Football League Show on TV and noted many mid-sized teams, with fine support and storied histories, now struggling in the lower reaches of our league pyramid.
Sheffield United, Portsmouth, Notts County, Coventry City, Luton Town.
It stirred me to see these teams hanging on to their identity and their support despite a change in fortunes and I honestly wondered how many of our suffering and emotional fans, and not necessarily “new” fans at that, traumatised by our poor start, would stay the course under such circumstances.
I hope the majority, I suspect not.
So, two weeks away from it.
See you on the other side.