Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2015.
In all of my Chelsea days past, present and future, this one would surely stand alone. It would be a day of mixed emotions in two cities, remembering the past, appreciating the present and contemplating the future. At lunchtime, there was the sadness of dear Tom’s funeral in South London, with three of my closest friends. Then, a drive north for an evening match in the East Midlands. In between, and after, all points of the compass; heading east, heading north, heading south, and heading west. A circle of life in sixteen hours.
Sadness, joy, hope, fear.
Here are my recollections of the day that we said goodbye to Tom.
I collected Glenn from his house in nearby Frome just after 9am. Of course, despite the sadness of losing Tom, who sat alongside us at Stamford Bridge in the North West corner for almost eighteen years, there was a very tangible element of relief that the Footballing Gods had aligned Tom’s funeral on the very same day as a Chelsea game. Glenn and I were thankfully able to take a day’s holiday to combine the two. Alan, the fellow South Londoner who regarded Tom as his “football Dad” was able to do the same. The moons had aligned and we were so thankful. Alan had commented that Tom would have been livid if the three of us would miss a Chelsea game because of his funeral. To that end, there was a deep contentment that we were all able to attend both. Parky, not quite as familiar with Tom as the rest of us, was collected at 9.45am and we made our way east into London.
We all knew that this would be a testing day.
From my perspective, it was all about Tom.
With the M4 devoid of rush hour traffic, we made good time. We stopped at Heston just as the news of the Champions League draw came through at about 11.15am. Fate had drawn the cities of London and Paris together once again, for the third year in a row. In 2014, great memories of a trip to Paris and a fine Chelsea victory at Stamford Bridge. This year, darker memories with both of the games coming either side of my own mother’s passing. I had already decided that I would not be bothering with an away game at Parc des Princes in 2016 should we draw PSG again. I was nervous enough about Tel Aviv. Paris for a game of football? Thanks, but no thanks.
I pressed on, down the Fulham Palace Road and past Craven Cottage. Over the River Thames at Putney Bridge and further south, I was in relatively unfamiliar territory, but ironically in Chelsea heartland. Outside Lambeth Crematorium, stood Alan, awaiting our arrival. I wound down the window and shook his hand. I gripped it strongly. I was glad to see a sizeable crowd had gathered in the car park.
Also representing Chelsea Football Club were Steve and Frank, faces from our section of the Stamford Bridge stadium, who originally sat with Tom in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies. A hug for Tom’s daughter Debbie, who is now living only half an hour or so from Glenn and myself in Somerset, alongside her daughter Anna, and other family members. We watched as the hearse slowly drove towards the chapel. Heads were bowed.
As we took our seats in the small chapel, “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra was played.
“That’s life (that’s life) that’s what all people say.
You’re riding high in April.
Shot down in May.
But I know I’m gonna change their tune
When I’m back on top, back on top in June.
I said that’s life (that’s life) and as funny as it may seem.
Some people get their kicks
Steppin’ on a dream.
But I just can’t let it, let it get me down,
‘Cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin’ around.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate,
A poet, a pawn and a king.
I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing.
Each time I find myself flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.”
A Chelsea flag was pinned on the platform where Tom’s coffin rested. It was a lovely memorial service. Tom’s story was told. Born in Battersea in 1936, his national service was in Kenya. Tom worked many years for Watney’s, the brewers, in Whitechapel, before moving on to work for Hammersmith and Fulham Council. He lived in Sutton, further south, and was truly a proper South London Chelsea man and boy. The word “Chelsea” in fact dominated the eulogy. His love for the club shone through. It seemed that his TV was perpetually tuned to Chelsea TV.
Of course, no surprises, “Blue Is The Colour” was played in the middle of the ceremony.
My eyes were moist. I am sure I was not alone.
At the end, “We Are The Champions” by Queen – probably not Tom’s favourite, but chosen by Debbie because, well, just because – was played and the curtains in front of the coffin were closed.
We all said a little silent prayer for Tom.
“God bless you mate.”
Outside, there were a few bouquets, but three blue and white floral tributes stood out.
Alan, bless him, had planned and purchased the last one, and the words are shared here.
“To a loyal and true blue and friend to many. You are very much missed by all of us who had the pleasure of knowing you. Keep the blue flag flying high in heaven. From your friends Alan, Chris, Glenn, Frank, Joe, Gary, Alan and Steve. Rest in peace Tom.”
After, there was an hour or so spent reminiscing about our own particular memories of Tom at the Leather Bottle pub, a lovely old Victorian boozer, smelling of mulled wine ahead of Christmas. I spoke to his daughter –
“Looking back, I’ve only ever seen Tom in two places. Stamford Bridge and Wembley. That says a lot about our football club the past few years.”
“What I remember about Tom, more than one particular thing, is his childlike and giddy enthusiasm for Chelsea.”
And how true this was. I can picture him now, rosy cheeked and bubbling over with joy as he retold a particular goal, or a described a favourite player. Alan joked that he had a particular dislike for West Ham, maybe born out of the years working at Whitechapel, and how Tom would have got a chuckle out of the West Ham fans in the chapel having to sit through “Blue Is The Colour.”
We were some of the very last ones to leave. At around 2.30pm, I rustled up the troops and looked back at Debbie and Anna as I said “come on, let’s go and win this for Tom.”
I wended my way back through Lambeth, Wimbledon and Wandsworth and over the Thames once more. Out through Hammersmith and past Griffin Park, out towards Heathrow, then a quick stop at Heston to change from suits and black ties to jeans and trainers. North on to the M25, then north again on to the M1. The four of us were on the road once more, following the love of our lives.
Parky, who had opened up his first cider of the day not long after a McBreakfast in Chippenham at 10am, passed a can to Alan who was alongside me in the front. This was a rare treat indeed for Alan, usually cocooned without alcohol, and with little leg room, in a Chelsea coach on away days such as this.
I was now heading north – the second leg of a triangle – on the M1, which was quite an unfamiliar road for me, at least this far south. The rain began to fall, but our spirits were raised with some music from Parky’s Magical Memory Stick. There was talk of the evening game against high-flying Leicester City.
“If someone had asked a thousand football fans before the season began which team out of Leicester City and Chelsea would be on one defeat and which would be on eight in the second week of December, not one would have guessed correctly.”
In fact, the sample size could be increased to 10,000 and a winner would not be found.
I eventually pulled in to the anointed parking place about a mile to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 6pm, just as “Up The Junction” by Squeeze sparked up on the Memory Stick. A little bit of South London in deepest Leicestershire. Without missing a word, Al and and I sang along to every single verse. I turned the engine off. We had arrived.
The rain had eased, and we had a good period of time to relax before we needed to turn our attentions truly to the game at 8pm. There were immediate memories of returning to the car, triumphant, after our 3-1 win at Leicester last May when a rather subdued first-half performance was followed by a fantastic second-half, with goals from Didier, JT and Rami. Fabregas’ hat was never lauded so loudly. It was one of the games of the season. As we marched towards the stadium, all four of us were wise enough to know that a repeat would be a very tall order. Leicester City were ahead of us in the league with good reason; from my viewpoint they seemed to boast all of the very qualities that we had so far lacked in this most disheartening of seasons.
Vim, vigour, pace, confidence, togetherness, fight.
If only Chelsea Football Club had shown even half of these attributes thus far in to 2015/2016.
On the flipside, the team had showed signs of the Chelsea spirit of old in the reassuring 2-0 win over Porto the previous Wednesday. All four of us hoped that Fabregas would again not be selected to start. How that hat has lost its magic since May. We plotted up at The Local Hero, a busy bar, looking out on a car park. The view wasn’t great, but the beers were going down well. My two bottles of Peroni were the first of the day and gave me the chance to properly toast Tom.
We gathered together and Alan took a photograph of the four plastic glasses touching.
With the rain falling again, we quickly moved on.
The stadium was only a ten minute walk and we were soon outside the away end. Leicester City’s stadium is one of those much-maligned identikit stadia which have been built over the past fifteen years or so. Outside, it is nothing special. Inside, although it is neat and tidy, there is not one single design feature which lets you know that you are at the home of Leicester City. How different it is from the lop-sided and intriguing Filbert Street, which once stood not more than a few hundred yards away. Filbert Street’s large main stand and double-decker behind one goal contrasted wildly with the ridiculously petit stands on the other two sides. Ironically, the one feature that sets the King Power Stadium apart from all others is seen only by spectators within the concourses. Oddly, the steps leading up from the ground level to the upper level, double back on themselves to provide a viewing platform of the lower concourse, and from where I got sprayed with beer when over-excited members of The Youth went a bit doolally before the game.
There were familiar faces in the away corner, which seemed to be deeper than that of most of the new stadia. We quickly learned that – yes! – the team was unchanged from Porto. At last Mourinho and the fans were on the same page, even if it did have several names scratched out and then written over again. Alan was especially confident that we would win. I was not so sure. Anything but another defeat for me please.
Kick-off approached and I sensed a palpable air of expectation from the home ranks. The touchlines were lined with youngsters waving flags. The unique sound of the “Post Horn Gallop” was piped through the PA. As the teams entered, the corner section away to my left – I noted they were the noisiest of all back in May – held up shiny blue and white mosaics. I also noted – sigh – that the home fans had been given thousands of those damned noise-makers again.
So much expectation and so much build up, but what a shocking first-half. It left us at half-time fully depressed and lamenting, again, our demise into woeful mediocrity.
As the game began, the home fans were constantly pounding out noise to support their team. We were in good voice too though, quickly singing across to our beleaguered manager.
“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”
Across the technical area stood our former manager Claudio Ranieri, unbelievably back in England with his quaint version of the English language, but also even more unbelievably looking to take his team back to the top of the table.
The lively Mahrez quickly forced a fine save from Thibaut Courtois and I worried every time that Leicester City broke in to our half. There were echoes of last May as Leicester quickly lost a player, Danny Drinkwater (who?), replaced by Andy King (who?) but they never looked perturbed.
We struggled to find any rhythm as the first-half progressed. Our main attacking threat seemed to be – not finding Diego Costa early, nor playing in Eden Hazard – pushing the ball eventually out to Branislav Ivanovic, who tended to take a touch before hitting the back of a defender’s head. As every sideways pass was played, the sense of frustration increased in the away corner.
Hazard was fouled and received treatment. It is such a rare event to see our Belgian disappear from the pitch, except for a late substitution, that we looked on with horror as he appeared to be too injured to continue. He then seemed to step back on the pitch. But then walked away. There was confusion among the Chelsea fans. I think – I hope – some were jumping to the wrong conclusions.
“Hazard didn’t want to know.”
Regardless, Pedro replaced him.
Then, calamity. A rapid Leicester break out to their right and Mahrez was able to whip in a waist-high cross towards the penalty spot. Jamie Vardy, who else, appeared from nowhere – or rather with John Terry and Kurt Zouma nowhere near him – to majestically volley past Courtois.
That feeling is all too prominent this season. Leicester had harried and chased us all evening but had not created a great deal. One gilt-edged chance and a goal conceded. Here we go again. All eyes were on John Terry really. A player of his distinction should have got closer to Vardy. The away end muttered three thousand swear words.
I turned to a couple behind with a pained expression.
“Confidence is draining out of us at every turn.”
At the other end, miracles of miracles, Matic rose to meet a header, but the ball flicked away off the bar. We were not fooled though. In a first-half of dwindling penetration, our play was tepid. Matic looked slower than usual, and the attacking players around him only rarely provided any moments of intelligent passing.
You know the score, we’re losing.
I’ve not seen so many long faces at the break in a long time. Although it is always lovely to bump in to many good friends at half-time, it seemed that all of us were going through some sort of post-Armageddon zombie-like state, trying to work out how we had reached this stage in our Chelsea life. Some were hiding the feeling through beer, but the sense of befuddlement was still there. Some didn’t even come back for the second-half, preferring to drink and chat down in the concourse with a few others. Grasping at straws, Alan and myself reminded each other that we were 1-0 down at half-time in May.
Soon in to the second-half, Ramires lost possession with a weak header and Leicester moved the ball from wide left to wide right. The mercurial Mahrez twisted in front of Azpilicueta and dispatched a firm shot which elegantly curled past Courtois.
We were losing 2-0.
For fuck sake, Chelsea.
Leicester’s support had mocked us throughout with cries of “going down with the Villa” and taunts of “worst champions we’ve ever seen.” However, much to my chagrin, sections of our away support began singing “we’re fucking shit” which annoyed me. That sort of talk is best left outside the stadium. There was also the self-mocking “you’re nothing special, we lose every week” which would have been funnier if it had been original rather than stolen from other teams’ fans.
All in all, not two of our greatest moments.
But not all was negative. There were no boos for Mourinho. At times our support tried to get behind the team.
Jose made a bold substitution, taking off John Terry and replacing him with Cesc Fabregas. We went with three at the back. The manager sometimes does this, but not usually so far out. Remy then replaced the woeful Oscar. To be fair, we enjoyed a lot more of the ball, but with the home team 2-0 up, they did not need to attack at will. A few crosses caused Schmeichel some moments of worry, but often our crosses were easily dealt with by the massive Germanic forehead of Robert Huth.
There was no doubt that lour play was improving and, with it, the away support rallied too. Now I was truly proud of the away support. The noise roared around the stadium. We went close again and again.
“Get a goal now and we are right back in this.”
The goal came. A delightful cross from an improving Pedro picked out the leap of Loic Remy who headed firmly in past the despairing block of Schmeichel.
And the Chelsea crowd roared.
“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”
The mood was of sudden optimism and of that four letter word “hope.”
“Let’s have a repeat of Geordies away. Two late goals.”
If anything, our goal strengthened Leicester City’s resolve to keep things tight and our players were simply unable to offer further threat. A few late chances were exchanged and despite a further five minutes of extra-time, we slumped to our ninth league defeat of the league campaign.
“See you Saturday, boys.”
As I exited the seats, I looked down to see just Branislav Ivanovic, Cesar Azpilicueta and Thibaut Courtois walk over to thank the loyal three thousand for our efforts on a wet night in Leicester. A lot of us had taken half days and whole days off from work, a lot of us would be back in at work after minimal sleep. Some players would be wrapped up in their warm beds as I would be dropping Parky and then Glenn off in the small hours.
As a quick glimpse at the ailments within Chelsea Football Club at this exact moment in time, the fact that just three could be bothered to walk thirty yards to say “hey, we know we lost again but bloody hell, thanks” speaks volumes.
Maybe we just don’t have that sense of collectiveness anymore. We might be a team, but maybe we are not a family. Maybe the players – despite the quotes of togetherness and spirit – just don’t get on. Maybe there are cliques. Something has to be wrong. Maybe that spirit of 2004 to 2012 is gone and lost forever. And that is so sad.
I soon met up with Glenn and Parky outside and we sloped off back to the car. I was soon spinning around the city by-pass before heading west, then south – the last leg of the triangle – on the M69, the M42, the M5, the M4.
As the night rolled on, I grew tired. I battled the roads.
Our mood was not great. I am sure every Chelsea supporter was equally confused and disappointed with our latest poor performance. Glenn wanted to talk football, but I was simply too tired for that. On a day when we said a final farewell – physically, never emotionally – to dear Tom, it would be easy for me to brush aside Chelsea’s latest capitulation and talk about putting things into some sort of “football, life, death” perspective. However, I am sure that dear Tom, watching from above, would have hated to have seen yet another defeat and I trust he won’t object at all if I say that the loss hit us all hard.
Glenn played me a “You Tube” segment from a post-game interview with Jose speaking about betrayal and my mood slid further.
There is the gnawing realisation that this season will not only be trophy less, but will probably result in our first campaign without European football since 1996/1997. I do not sense that relegation will worry us, but who knows where this season will end?
On Saturday, it’s back to Stamford Bridge and a game with Sunderland.
See you there.