Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 13 January 2016.
When I first started penning – or rather typing – these Chelsea match reports, firstly on a rather ad hoc basis, in around 2006 on the “Chelsea In America” website, there was one word which tended to be mentioned with ever more increasing regularity.
For those folks on the other side of the pond, as the old cliché goes, who had never been lucky enough to be able to attend Chelsea games in person, I received many positive comments which thanked me for allowing them to live vicariously through my personal detailing of my match day experiences. It is a word that still occasionally pops up to this day. Ahead of our midweek match with the Baggies from West Bromwich, I was well aware that for a few hours there would be a certain amount of role reversal taking place.
Charles, a Chelsea supporter from the Dallas area of Texas, would be attending his first-ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, and I had planned to meet up with him before the game. I first met Charles in his home town for our friendly with Club America at the spanking new home of the Dallas Cowboys in 2009, and we have chatted on line about many aspects of football and fandom on a regular basis. In addition to being a Chelsea supporter, he is an FC Dallas season ticket holder and he attends the occasional away game too. We both work in logistics – and Charles loves foreign travel, and has written of his experiences on a personal blog too – so we have a few things to talk about outside of Chelsea. I last bumped into him in Charlotte in North Carolina over the summer. Although he has visited Europe twice before – Italy – this would be his first trip to England. He arrived on the morning of the game. I soon sent him a message.
“Welcome to Chelsealand.”
“Thanks! That line at customs ain’t no joke.”
“Need to make sure that Donald Trump doesn’t get in.”
As I muddled my way through my shift at work, I wondered what Charles would be making of the alien streets of London. The new architecture, awkward accents, different streetscapes, a brand new buzz. I was, oh most definitely, jealous of him. There is nothing like, in my mind, a first few hours in a new country, town or city.
His first few comments back to me were revealing.
“So far, London is great. So diverse.”
And indeed it is. Very diverse. And our current team mirrors it. Belgium, Spain, England, France, Brazil, Serbia, Bosnia, Italy, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Colombia.
The day’s work completed, I met up with PD and Parky. PD was taking a turn to drive and I could relax. We were in the middle of three home games in seven days and an evening with The Great Unpredictables was waiting for us in London.
In The Goose, the usual suspects were assembled. We were all very happy with our F.A. Cup pairing with either the Cobblers of Northampton Town or the knobheads at Franchise FC. As we stood in our corner of the pub, it was confirmed that our game would kick-off at 4pm on the Sunday. This was met with predictable groans. It would mean that I would not get home until around 9pm that night.
Charles had made his way to Fulham Broadway and then ‘phoned for directions to pub. He sounded rather tired. I suspected that the jet-lag was having an unfortunate effect. He arrived fashionably late, at just after 7pm, but it was lovely to be able to welcome him to The Goose. I had a pint of trademark “Peroni” waiting for him and then introduced him to a few mates.
“Ah, you’re Lord Parky.”
Before we knew it, it was time to head off to the game. Such a fleeting pre-match, but Charles is in town for the Everton game too, so there will be another chance to serve up some Chelsea hospitality then. I was well aware that Charles had a ticket in the corner of The Shed. His front row seat was the stuff of dreams.
“Great position for when we score and the players go down to the corner flag to celebrate.”
Outside the West Stand, we wished each other well.
“Enjoy it mate. See you Saturday.”
Inside Stamford Bridge, I was stunned by the paucity of the away support. The lower tier, maybe able to hold 500 seemed half-full but the 1,000 seats in the upper tier were hardly used. The section filled a little before the kick-off, but West Brom’s contingent was surely no more than four hundred. I moaned at Alan :
“Bloody hell, the next time we go to their gaff and they sing “WWYWYWS” to us. They’re not even here when they’re good.”
The Matthew Harding soon let them know their feelings.
“Is that all you take away?”
To be honest, the gaps in the south-east corner were matched by many empty seats in the home areas. In just the immediate area of where our season tickets are situated, I counted ten empty seats. Over in the south-west corner, I soon spotted Charles. He is well over 6 feet tall. He is easy to spot. He was standing no more than five yards from Parky. Towards the seventeen away fans in the Shed Upper, a large “Chelsea Poland” banner was spotted on the balcony wall for the first time.
Guus Hiddink had finely-tuned the team since Sunday. In came Thibaut Courtois, John Terry and Jon Obi Mikel. When we arrived in London at bang on 6pm, the weather was milder than I had expected. By the time of kick-off, there was a chill to the air. The lights dimmed again, and there was the dramatic entrance of the teams once more.
“The Liquidator” echoed around the stadium.
Here we go.
There was a bright start from both teams, but Chelsea got into their groove quicker than the red-shirted visitors. Diego Costa, blasting ridiculously high into the Shed Upper, and then Willian wasted good chances. But then the visitors went close too, with chances arguably better. Thankfully, we escaped unpunished.
On twenty minutes, we were treated to a fine move. Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa who controlled the ball well and fed Willian. He passed outside to the advanced Branislav Ivanovic, whose low cross was turned in by Cesar Azpilicueta. It was a magnificent move and Stamford Bridge ignited. As I spotted Dave running across the goalmouth and towards the corner, I knew that I had to capture the moment. I snapped away as Dave leaped, rather awkwardly, before being met by his team mates. My pre-game comment to Charles was prophetic. There were the celebrations. And there was Charles, capturing the moment on his phone. A perfect moment.
For a while, we played some lovely stuff. Maybe we were buoyed by the goal, but I noted a greater willingness to play the ball early. There was movement off the ball. There was a little more energy. I spotted Dave make some excellent blind-side runs behind the West Brom defence, but the playmakers were unable to spot him. Diego Costa was holding the ball up well. Fabregas almost played the pass of the season. Ivanovic put in a few more good crosses. We were playing as a team. This was good stuff.
And then, West Brom bounced back a little. Their new found confidence was rewarded when Pedro, the one who was yet to shine, weakly gave away the ball around the halfway line. Fletcher fed in Gardner, who was able to advance before unleashing a low drive from outside the box, which disappointingly crept in to the goal, just inside the post.
A couple of chances were traded before the break. Although it had been a reasonable first-half of football, the atmosphere was sadly missing. The temperature was dropping further, and although most fans in the lower tiers behind both goals were standing, the noise was poor. There were songs from The Shed on occasion and I was sure that Charles was joining in, but there was no cauldron of noise which we are occasionally treated to at Chelsea.
Pat Nevin was on the pitch at half-time, chatting away to Neil Barnett. Talking of barnets, Cathy had posted a link on Facebook during the day which detailed Pat’s recent hair transplant. This was a really strange story; of all the people who I would have suspected to eschew such cosmetic procedures – vanity, in a word – it would be Pat. The world is a mighty strange place.
Hiddink replaced the poor Pedro with Kenedy at the break. He immediately impressed, shooting on sight from way out. The kid from Fluminense has great energy. One of my current workmates is from Brazil – a Palmeiras supporter, in case anyone is wondering – and Bruno has a younger brother who is a promising footballer. He is currently staying in London and training with Chelsea, with hopes of signing a contract. He once trained with Kenedy in Brazil at a training camp hosted by a club. Who knows, if things go really well, Bruno’s eighteen year old brother could soon be playing for Vitesse Arnhem.
The referee then became the target of our ire. He had – in the eyes of some, maybe not me – blown for the end of the first-half just as we were breaking away, but then chose not to issue a second yellow card to Yacob for a trip on Diego Costa. Willian curled over from the resulting free-kick.
This was turning in to a feisty encounter. The crowd were suddenly the noisiest for the entire night.
I wondered if Charles was able to decipher the London accent.
The temperature dipped further, and now rain fell. I wondered if Charles was getting wet in the front row. All part of a typical London experience.
Temperatures were rising though in the home stands as West Brom seemed to be time wasting. Their goalkeeper Myhill – a fat Jack Whitehall – was booked as he waited for a team mate to put his boot back on. The referee, hardly flavour of the month, booked others. It was a niggly old game. We struggled to create too much in a poor second-half. Oscar and Fabregas seemed distant. Elsewhere others were struggling too. Zouma, so dominant in the air, found himself out of position and struggling on the ground.
Myhill was still getting it.
“You fat bastard. You fat bastard. You fat bastard. You fat bastard.”
Then, the ball was moved out to Willian, always looking to gain a yard, and he spotted the movement of Kenedy. From behind a grassy knoll, he whipped in a troublesome cross. In a flash, Kenedy lunged at the ball and it flew in to the net, squeezing past the loathed Myhill. Kenedy ran off to celebrate in the far corner, and was joined by many others. Alan suspected an own goal. I was not sure. Regardless, we were winning.
There were just fifteen minutes remaining. Costa went close again. But then the visitors came at us again. Matic, masked like Dave, replaced the poor Fabregas. The minutes ticked by. We seemed to be at risk with every West Brom attack. The place became nervous once more. With just five minutes remaining, a loose ball fell to the equally loathed James McLean who crisply dispatched the ball past Courtois and in, again creeping in by the foot of a post.
We collectively crumpled. If anything, the visitors seemed more likely to grab a – unwarranted – winner. In the end, the final whistle was almost greeted with relief. On walking back to the car, I chatted to PD.
“Just not good enough mate. Whenever we attacked, we were up against a packed defence. When they attacked us, they always seemed to have more space in which to move the ball. Tough game coming up against Everton. Lukaku. Then Arsenal away. Dreading it.”
I am sure that Charles had enjoyed himself, though. And, again, I had enjoyed sharing his evening in deepest SW6. It had been a vicarious evening if not a victorious one. This bloody strange season continues.
Everton at home on Saturday. On we go.