Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 31 October 2015.
While lining up at the crowded turnstiles underneath the Matthew Harding Stand, it was clear that many fans had miss-judged the weather. Here we were, on the very last day of October and the weather was gorgeous. Thankfully I had left my jacket in the car – I made do with just a long-sleeved shirt and pullover – but the sun was causing me a little discomfort. There were surely no complaints from the three visitors from Southern California that had joined us in The Goose ahead of the game. One of the three, John, had presented me with a lovely tee-shirt from the main Chelsea pub in Los Angeles – The Olde Ship in Santa Ana – and I was well aware that there would be a few keen Chelsea supporters assembling at around 4.45am on a Californian morning in this pub which, along with Legends in New York City, is the most famous Chelsea pub in the United States, to watch our game against Liverpool. John’s mate Andy had been alongside me at West Ham the previous weekend; this time it was the turn of John, Janset and Rich. We had also enjoyed the company of four of the New York chapter in the pub too; Mike, Frank, Eugene and Tim.
I remember saying to somebody, I do not remember who exactly, when questioned about the outcome of our lunchtime game, that I was convinced we would not lose. There had been positive signs – if you looked hard enough for them, baby steps and all that malarkey – in our two most recent games, and I was hopeful that the team would rebound after some poor performances this season with a key win.
Of course, the rumour mongers were out in force, and some sections of the media and the Chelsea support were talking about the game against Liverpool as the pivotal moment in Jose Mourinho’s future as manager. I found this odd, in the extreme. There would be, after all, an equally important match at home to Dynamo Kiev on the following Wednesday.
The team that Mourinho had selected had been met with a general degree of pleasure in the sunny beer garden. It was now time to get behind them.
I made it inside with around five minutes to spare. The match programme featured a photograph of a stern John Terry on the cover, red poppy woven in to his shirt. Down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag – featuring club crest flanked by poppies – was being held aloft centrally. The players entered the pitch.
The sun beat down, causing small and defined areas of bright sunlight on the pitch.
I was supremely hopeful that this would be a Chelsea day to remember.
Soon in to the game, the ball was played down into an area of intermittent light and shade in front of the Liverpool fans. We had encountered a small section of the away support at Heston Services; with their jagged accents and penchant for tracksuit bottoms (not shell suits please, nobody wears them anymore, not even scallies) they were easily spotted. They love their trackie bottoms, the Scousers. For the club that kicked-off the casual subculture in 1977/1978, their standards have certainly dropped over recent years.
Trackie bottoms and YNWA scarves.
We held on to the ball for quite a few moments and the ball was played purposefully between several Chelsea players. One moment – iconic, to be honest – immediately came back to me. In our history-defining game against Liverpool in May 2003, with a place in the Champions League at stake, and with a young and successful Russian billionaire ready to pounce, Gianfranco Zola entered the fray as a late substitute. His magical dribble in that far corner, beating off challenges from what seemed like the entire Liverpool defence, was a sublime last memory of the little magician. It would be his last ever appearance in our colours; ironically it was the first game in which we wore our 2003/2004 and 2004/2005 “Fly Emirates” shirt from “Umbro.” How odd that his last appearance for us would be in a shirt that we would eventually wear on that fateful day in Bolton in 2005. If only he had been with us on that day.
Anyway, I digress.
The ball was passed to Cesar Azpilicueta, deep in an area that I sometimes call “Zola Land”, and our solid defender picked out the run from Ramires perfectly. His diving header sent the ball low past Mignolet in to the Liverpool goal. I was right behind the flight of the ball.
It was a superb goal.
Needless to say the packed stands of Stamford Bridge roared. I jumped up, yelling, screaming face to face with those next to me.
A fantastic start. I was hoping for further goals.
It was 12.49pm.
I stood, arms outstretched, and joined in the deafening wall of wild sound engulfing the stadium.
At 12.51pm, my ‘phone rang. It was from my friend Ian, whose young son had attended the Southampton home game four weeks previously. My initial thought was that he was calling me to say that young Ben was happy that we had begun the game so well. Then, my second thought brought a different reaction and a sense of foreboding. Ian’s mother has been suffering with cancer for the best part of twelve months. I steadied myself.
I blocked out the noise of the crowd with my right palm, and answered.
I was saddened to hear that Ian’s mother had passed away just two hours earlier.
I was unable to fully hear, so I dashed out and spoke to Ian from the quieter concourse. Supporters were still arriving as I spoke to Ian for a few moments. I can’t remember what we said to be honest. It was all a blur. I passed on my condolences, no doubt, but there were tears from Ian and I felt numb.
I re-entered the seats and I was in a horrible daze.
My mother was taken from us in February and now Ian – my best friend – has lost his dear mother, who I last saw on Ian’s wedding day in 2006, on the last day of October.
2015 I hate you.
I didn’t speak for many minutes, the game continued on down below me, but I could not concentrate. I sat in solitude among over forty thousand, and sent a few texts to a few of Ian’s friends. My mind was elsewhere.
To be so high at 12.49pm and so low at 12.51pm was such an awful feeling.
As I began to look up and take a little interest in the match, it seemed that Liverpool were enjoying more of the ball, but each and every one of their attempts on our goal were – thankfully – right down Asmir Begovic’ throat. Right on half-time, a lack of pressing meant that the ball found Coutinho in space. As he shaped to shoot, I sensed a goal.
All was quiet at the break. My head was still elsewhere.
Soon in to the second-half, the woeful Eden Hazard was replaced by the fresh legs and zest of the boy from Fluminense Kenedy. He immediately impressed with some one-touch football and a shot on goal. We were enjoying our best spell. Willian, the one current player excused from the negative comments being directed towards our team, continued to be our most determined player. His willingness to close down and enforce errors on Liverpool was commendable. There was a desire within Ramires too.
Lucas, who was seeing a lot of the ball in the middle, had already been booked, and appeared to scythe down Ramires in the centre circle. I am not as strong a believer in conspiracy theories against us as many others, but even I was questioning the marital status of Clattenburg’s parents after that. The Stamford Bridge crowd howled their displeasure.
Mikel, who was doing OK in my book, was withdrawn for Fabregas.
Oscar – having a hot and cold game, nay season – won the ball well with a great tackle and spotted Mignolet off his line. His speculative lob from fifty yards was almost inch perfect, but the Liverpool ‘keeper back-peddled and tipped it over.
With that chance gone, Liverpool heaved a sigh of relief and then dominated as we lost our shape. The introduction of Falcao did not fool anyone.
Two late goals from Coutinho – again – and from substitute Benteke sealed our fate.
Our defending was awful for both goals. We were pulled apart.
On Halloween, here was a horror show of defensive miscreants.
To my utter disdain, more than a handful of Chelsea supporters left after the second goal, with a full twenty minutes of play left. When I mentioned this frankly despicable fact to the chap in front, his reply was spot on.
After the Benteke goal, even more left.
At the end of the game, all was quiet. I slowly walked out on to the Fulham Road, my gaze focussing on the red portions of the half-and-half scarves on show. It turned my stomach.
I am usually in a rush to get back to the car, but I can never remember an occasion when my strides have been so heavy and so slow walking up the North End Road. It truly was a depressing and demoralising old day. The football, though, only counted for a small portion of my sorrow. I met up with Parky at the car. He too, was sad to hear that Ian’s mother had passed away. He had met Ian, just the once, ironically, at my mother’s funeral in March. We were soon on our way home, facing a bright autumnal sun fading fast in the west.
At Twickenham, there was a rugby game taking place.
In Egham, close-by, just around the M25, Frome Town were playing a FA Trophy tie.
We avoided the football on the radio as I drove home after another dispiriting Chelsea performance. We were melancholy. In truth, I was still reeling from the phone call from Ian. There was an attempt to grasp at straws of comfort. Despite the exodus of a couple of thousand fans after both goals, thankfully at the final whistle, Stamford Bridge was not a sea of empty blue seats. Most fans had stayed until the end. There were hardly any boos. I am thankful for that.
We are in this together, and we share the pain together.
See you on Wednesday.