Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 19 September 2015.
As soon as I walked into the beer garden of “The Goose”, pint of Peroni in hand, I was met with smiles from the usual suspects. Without wasting any time, Duncan looked me in the eye and asked me of my thoughts for the lunchtime game against our North London rivals. I summed things up quickly.
“I’ll take a draw, now.”
Duncan nodded sagely.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying.”
Daryl was not in agreement.
“We’ve got to win.”
I immediately wondered if this viewpoint might lead to disappointment later in the day. It was clear to everyone that we had not started the season well, and I – for one – was not going to read too much in to our easy victory over our Israeli opponents during the week. The thought of us losing to Arsenal, and therefore garnering only four points from a possible eighteen, was not worth thinking about.
A point would suffice for me.
The football talk continued as we spoke about the team and its well documented problems so far in to the season. I spoke about Eden Hazard. I noticed that there was a moment during the second-half during Wednesday’s game when he came over to retrieve the match ball from a ball boy before flicking it over to Cesc Fabregas who was waiting to take a corner. Eden’s face was anything but a picture; he looked thoroughly down, quite depressed, and his whole body language was off. Here was a man who did not appear to be enjoying his football. He had ballooned a penalty in the first-half and had miss-placed several passes in the second-half. I felt for him. I could not remember seeing a player so obviously suffering a “dark moment” so vividly for ages. I hoped for a recovery soon.
Other facets of our game were discussed.
There certainly seemed to be a lack of intensity, of fight, in most of our matches this season. I wondered if the way that we won the league during the closing months of 2014/2015, plugging away and eking out narrow wins, but under no real pressure from a chasing pack, meant that we had been playing under an “easy” environment for a good five months. Maybe it has proved difficult to re-focus after playing with a particular mind-set for so long.
I don’t know.
However, I certainly didn’t need football pundits and experts with pointy sticks and stop/go technical gadgetry for me to realise that we were missing “bite” in our midfield at Everton, our worst performance of the season, and that we were simply affording opposing teams too much space. That lack drive and urgency from all of our players, a trademark of the first half of last season, was key to our woes in 2015/2016 in my mind.
While we were stood in the beautiful September sun, the team news came through.
Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta.
Oscar, Hazard, Pedro.
Initial reactions were not favourable. We were not keen on Cesc Fabregas remaining in what is basically a defensive midfield position. Ivanovic’ inclusion annoyed many, but did not surprise me. I found it unlikely that the youngster Baba would get two games in four days.
Arsenal’s midfield was discussed.
Ed was forthright.
“We could get run ragged.”
Of course, John Terry was not playing, with Mourinho instead opting with the “Zorro and Zouma” (copyright Alan Davidson 2015) combination instead. Our fastidious manager was backing up his declaration on picking his starting eleven based on current form rather than reputation, though the pace of Arsenal’s attacking thrusts were an obvious reason why our captain was omitted.
The Goose was full of Chelsea. Arsenal would not dare enter within.
Elsewhere there was talk of New York baseball, the lesser known characters in the 1970 sitcom “Porridge” and of China Crisis songs.
It’s not always about football.
I didn’t see a single Arsenal fan on the walk in to the stadium. I have no idea where they did their pre-match drinking, but I am sure it wasn’t in the Chelsea heartland.
There was a case of squad rotation within the stands too. Instead of watching alongside my usual match-day companions Alan and Glenn – who were on holiday and at work – I took my seat alongside my good mates Neil and Walnuts. The weather was holding firm. Next week, at Newcastle, there might well be a different feel. This game, a lovely old London Derby, under a blue sky seemed like the last picture of summer.
Throughout the day – I know why, all will be explained – I kept thinking back to another Chelsea vs. Arsenal game, again in late September, but from thirty years ago.
I can distinctly remember bumping in to Glenn around the pubs of Frome on the day before the game, the Friday, and – because I had not been to any of the three home games so far in that season – Glenn ribbing me about my lack of attendance.
“You’ll get some stick tomorrow.”
I remember smiling. At least I was missed. It made me feel wanted.
It was only the second time that I had witnessed Arsenal down in SW6, and I look back fondly on that game, with Arsenal taking a lead but Chelsea recovering with a Pat Nevin header to equalise and then a late penalty from Nigel Spackman giving us a dramatic 2-1 win. Watching on the benches, right in the midst of it, with Alan and Glenn, and a few other lads who I still see to this day. It was a fantastic result. I remember seeing Micky Hazard play for us for the first time. And Chelsea in all blue for the first time in my life, having jettisoned the classic white socks over the summer. That evening, I always remember, I travelled back on the Chelsea supporters coach from Yeovil, and met up with some school friends on a night out in my home town of Frome, recovering from its annual autumnal carnival. There is a fuzzy photograph of me, post victory beer in hand, in a town pub, wearing a paisley button-down shirt, which was all the rage at football in the autumn of 1985 and it is hard to believe that thirty years have since passed. I would be doing the same after the game in 2015 – no paisley shirt this time – with some school friends from that era, on carnival night too.
History repeating itself, thirty years on.
As the teams came on to the pitch, it surprised me that I had not contemplated the fact that Petr Cech would be returning to his former home. Of course, I gave him a fine welcome back as he walked slowly to take up his position below us at the north end of the stadium.
But that was it, no lingering sense of what could have been. Asmir was our man, now.
It was an evenly-contested first half. Each team had small spells of domination. There was a significant step-up in our performance and the crowd seized on this. The noise was better. The players moved for each other, with several instances of fine play. Oscar was winning tackles, Pedro was spinning out of tight areas, and Hazard was more like his old self. But Arsenal themselves too were causing us occasional problems.
Tackles were made, bodies crashed against each other. I had heard that the first-half of the recent Manchester United vs. Liverpool match had been a tepid and timid affair, with none of the passion and intensity of yester year. Well, by contrast, this contest between “soft Southerners” was full of bite.
The main chant emanating from the replica shirts and the scarves of the travelling Goons in the Shed End was this :
“Fuck Off Mourinho.”
And they question our class.
We countered :
“Ashley Cole’s Won The European Cup.”
A few chances were exchanged by both sides. It was a fine half of football.
A determined run by Eden Hazard deep in to the Arsenal box ended up with a coming together with Gabriel, but the referee Mike Dean chose to rule that both were guilty of tangling arms and legs.
A fierce effort from King Kurt zipped over Cech’s bar from forty yards. Pedro tested him too. We were in the ascendency, but only by a narrow margin.
Then, the game’s big talking pint.
I didn’t see Costa’s flailing arms as he ran with Koscielny, but I did see the chest bump, which resulted in the Arsenal defender falling back and ending up on the floor. I feared the worst. Thankfully the linesman on the far side did not flag anything untoward. Then, with me not really paying too much attention to the ongoing chat and back chat between several protagonists, they walked back towards the centre of the pitch. The dialogue seemed to be continuing for a while. Nobody really knew what was going on. Then, a rise in the noise from the crowd and a brandishing of a red card to Gabriel, which resulted in a roar from the home support and incredulity from the Arsenal players.
Of course, the viewing millions throughout the world were better placed than myself and those watching in SW6. It was all a bit of a mystery. One thing was certain, though. Diego Costa was agent provocateur in all of this. A couple of texts and posts on Facebook from a couple of respected friends backed up my initial thoughts. Our man Diego was lucky to stay on the pitch. His combative nature is admired by many, but his pernicious tendencies do not sit well with me. Of course there are two sides to every story here. If we ask Costa to reign himself in, we might well dampen his effectiveness. Yet I remember the first couple of seasons of Didier Drogba at Chelsea, when his play-acting disturbed me. After channelling all of that negative stuff in to more positive play, he became a better player, a more respected team mate and a more potent striker.
I wonder if Diego Costa will change.
I won’t hold my breath.
At half-time, John Dempsey – a scorer in Athens – was paraded at half-time. The away fans again showed their class :
“Oo The Fackin’ell Are Yooo?”
Dempsey conducted them, then gave them a full blown “double V.”
With Arsenal a man down, I wondered if Daryl’s wish might come reality.
Pedro went close with a volley. Then, seven minutes in to the second-half, a foul by an Arsenal defender resulted in a free-kick to us. I waited as Cesc Fabregas sent in a magnificently placed ball deep in to the Arsenal box. I snapped as Kurt Zouma rose – with no Arsenal defender in sight – and headed down past Petr Cech. In a blur, the net rippled, the crowd roared and I watched through my lens as King Kurt sped off on the best celebratory run so far this season. He bounded along the goal line and jumped for joy.
Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.
I knew I had a couple of beauties among that little lot.
My photos taken, I roared my approval.
From the island of Menorca, a text message from Alan : “THTCAUN.”
From Stamford Bridge : “C1-0MLD.”
Our young defender had shone defensively in the game thus far – one magnificent tackle the highlight – but now he was writing himself in to Chelsea folklore. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from Cech, but Sanchez and Walcott fired shots in on Begovic too. More chances to us. This was more like it.
Ramires replaced Oscar.
An errant, miss-timed tackle by Cazorla on Fabregas, meant that Mike Dean had no choice but to award Cazorla a second yellow. Off he went. We howled with pleasure.
Arsenal were down to nine.
Surely we were safe, now?
With Diego Costa getting in the face of Arsenal players everywhere, it was no surprise that the manager chose to substitute him. To lose him to a second yellow, and a subsequent ban, would be silly. Of course, he exited the pitch to a deafening roar of approval. He was replaced by Loic Remy.
For a while, it looked like we would play the ball to oblivion, across the back four, keeping possession, not threatening, waiting for the time to tick by.
The fat lady was gargling, off stage.
We waited for the final whistle.
However, Eden Hazard had the last laugh. The ball came out to him on the edge of the box and he slammed the ball goal wards. It took a wicked deflection, Cech was beaten, and the ball nestled in the net.
This was a much better performance from the boys. Even the recently lampooned Branislav Ivanovic, captain for the day, so often out of position this season, did well. The star of the show, though, was King Kurt. He was immense. This was clearly a much better performance from the boys. There was much to admire, and – God bless him – Eden Hazard was obviously enjoying himself on the Stamford Bridge turf once more.
In fact, it was so good, it could have been from September 2014.
On the drive home, the airwaves were full of Diego Costa, as I knew they would be. Thousands of different opinions, thousands of different viewpoints; it’s never boring watching Chelsea.
To top off a cracking day, West Ham won at Manchester City.
I had enjoyed myself immensely, but the fun was only just beginning. I met up with the class of 1985 (…followers of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds United, Portsmouth and Derby County) in a Frome pub at 7.45pm, and we then set off on a lovely pub crawl, and chatted about all sorts of nonsense – but mainly football – deep in to the night. I bumped into my Uncle Mike, whose father we used to take to Chelsea games in the mid-to-late ‘seventies, and we reminisced on how Uncle Geoff used to love those trips to Stamford Bridge.
Football, always football.
Six mates, six pints, five pubs, three points and one large doner kebab.