Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 21 February 2016.
For the first time in ages, two cars from my home town of Frome in Somerset traveled up together for a Chelsea home game. In the Chuckle Bus, I drove up with Glenn, PD and Parky, while Martin and his fourteen year old son Morgan followed us as we headed towards London. I had bumped into Martin at the Frome Town versus Chippenham Town game on the Saturday, and we had arranged to travel up together, with Martin a little uneasy about navigating the streets of Hammersmith and Fulham in order to find a parking place.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Southern League fixture. Despite blustery conditions and a soft pitch, relegation-haunted Frome defeated high-flying local rivals Chippenham 1-0, and – all of a sudden – a precarious position in the relegation places didn’t seem to be so terminal. I had not seen my home town team play since a game against Cirencester in October, due mainly to a ridiculous procession of postponements, and I was genuinely excited at the prospect of watching a long-overdue home game. Frome had played six successive away games, getting fine draws in the last three, and were in desperate need of a win to spark a revival.
A new stand, providing cover for several hundred along one touchline – but not yet fully operational – is the latest in a line of ground improvements undertaken since 2012, and the stadium now looks more professional with each passing season. I wandered down to the touchline at the start of the second half and could not help but notice that the cavernous roof amplifies the most subdued of conversations from the watching supporters. Once it is all completed, it could house a noisy section of the home support.
Frome’s home ground now has substantial cover on all four sides. That we maintain our position in the seventh tier of English football is becoming more and more important to me. I have rediscovered a love of non-league football after the best part of two decades away, and as I have said before, it provides a lovely balance to my fanaticism for Chelsea.
In fact, as I awoke on the Sunday morning, I remembered my roar which met Frome’s winning goal against Chippenham. It was genuine and heartfelt. It made me reflect on things. I actually wondered if I would have trouble getting “up” for two important games on consecutive days.
And I thought about my support of Chelsea, my support of Frome Town, and how the two can co-exist. I didn’t dwell too much on it. I didn’t want it to drag me down or spoil my day, but it did make me think. Chelsea will always come first, but I have to acknowledge how my enjoyment of seeing my home town, which continues to punch above its weight both culturally and sportingly, grows and grows with each year.
I saw my first ever “proper” football match at Frome Town in 1970 and, as time marches on, who is to say that when I reach my latter years I will be returning “home” to Frome Town with increasing regularity?
I am not so sure that the Chuckle Bus will be rolling to Stamford Bridge when I reach my ‘eighties.
Maybe, there will be a conversation which might take place in the year 2046.
“Have you got your ticket for the Frome Town versus Chelsea FA Cup tie, Chris?”
“I’ve got bloody two. One in each end. I just don’t know which one to fackin’ use.”
Before joining up with the usual suspects in The Goose, Glenn and myself enjoyed a small pub crawl of our own, taking in “The Cock And Hen” (where I had my first-ever alcoholic drink at Chelsea in 1984 : Leeds 5-0, oh yes) and then over the road in “The Malt House.”
We chatted about the team, of course, but also turned the conversation on ourselves, and spoke about how things have, in a subtle way, become a little more chilled-out and reflective since a night in Munich almost four years ago. We are both thoroughly enjoying this season, and as Glenn said, it reminds him of the Ruud Gullit era when we just couldn’t be guaranteed what result Chelsea would provide each game. He smiled as he told the story about a conversation between him and some acquaintance that he bumped in to recently in town.
“Don’t suppose you are seeing Chelsea much this season?”
“This season. Chelsea.”
“Of course I am. You think I only go when we are winning?”
Glenn looked at me and rolled his eyes.
“Some people just don’t get it do they, Chris?”
“Indeed they don’t.”
In “The Goose” I was relieved to hear that the Chelsea programme had, at the second attempt, managed to combine the correct photograph of dear Tom with Alan’s touching eulogy.
There was a little talk of Alan and Gary’s trip to Paris. Thankfully, after various concerns, the whole event passed with no real incident, and they both seemed to enjoy themselves. It had been a fine, mature performance from us, and sets things up beautifully for the return leg in March.
Fair play to West Ham United for taking seven thousand to Ewood Park for their FA Cup tie, which we halfheartedly watched in the pub. For a team with little silverware, there is obviously a desire among their support to cheer their team all of the way to Wembley. I fancy them to do well in the competition this year.
The magic of the cup certainly exists for them.
I was inside Stamford Bridge with time to spare.
In and around our usual seats, there were many unfamiliar faces. Some regulars had evidently decided to stay at home to watch the game on the Beeb, but it was pleasing to see some youngsters dotted around. One little lad, sitting down below Glenn, was one of the youngest supporters that I have seen in our section for ages; he was no more than five, replica shirt on, excitement raging.
I had heard whispers than Manchester City had returned some of their allocation, but it was evidently too late in the day to sell them on to Chelsea supporters. A block of around five hundred in the Shed Upper were empty. This surprised me to be honest. Surely a club with aspirations on being one of the major players in not only English football, but across Europe too, could have done better. I immediately thought back to our FA Cup game on a similar Sunday in 2014, when we took close on 6,000 up to the Etihad. In 2016, City had brought barely 2,500 down to London.
It was a poor show.
Alan commented that he found it surprising. When City plummeted down through the Football League a while back, residing in the third tier for one season in 1998/1999, they managed to keep a sizeable support base. And now, with success commonplace, they were struggling to show up in numbers for the FA Cup’s tie of the round.
There were stories of course of City’s sour-faced manager Manuel Pellegrini playing a purposefully weakened team – with a key Champions League tie in Kiev in midweek – and as I scanned the line-ups, there could not be a greater contrast. Chelsea’s starting eleven was completely unchanged from the PSG game, while City’s team contained few first-teamers, a couple of fringe players, plus many youngsters that I had not previously heard of.
Garcia, Garcia, Adarabioyo, Celina, Ineanacho, Faupala.
It sounded like a Latino version of “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub.”
The news that we were fielding a very strong team was met with the “thumbs up” in the boozer beforehand. It emphasised yet again how seriously we take the competition. With the FA floating the idea of abandoning cup replays – and thereby scraping yet more luster from the tradition of the world’s oldest football competition – at least we could hold our head up high. Over the past twenty years, we have continually fielded strong teams, and played to full houses at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup. Last season’s patchwork team against Bradford City was a rare deviation from the Chelsea way.
The FA Cup? We take it seriously.
Of course, in this strangest of seasons, the cup represented our strongest chance of silverware. As the game began, on a mild afternoon, I hoped for a safe passage into the hat for the quarter final draw at 6pm.
City appeared before us in a ghastly highlighter yellow away kit and began the game slightly livelier, with Faupala breaking away and causing Thibaut Courtois to save low at the near post. Despite a stronger team, on paper, there was already nervousness among the home fans. Gary Cahill collapsed on the grass, and we feared the worst. With Kurt Zouma out for months, and John Terry out too, the last thing that we wanted was another defensive problem. Thankfully, he soon recovered.
Soon after, a delightful interchange between Cesc Fabregas and Pedro resulted in a shot which bounced back off the far post with Caballero well beaten.
Around me there was little noise. The City fans sang the occasional ditty, but in general things were rather tame. The game, despite occasional flashes, was struggling to ignite. We were enjoying possession, but – well, you know the rest.
Thankfully, with ten minutes to go in a rather disappointing first-half, a lovely Chelsea move carved City apart. Fabregas was allowed space to flick a ball outside to Eden Hazard, who had been rather quiet until then. His pinpoint cross was headed home by a completely unmarked, but masked, Diego Costa. It was a goal of crisp simplicity. At last, Stamford Bridge flickered to life.
City, despite an early flourish, had not made major inroads into our defence, so it was with a fair degree of surprise that they equalised in the very next move. The ball was played down the right, and one of the Pugh twins pushed the ball in to the box. Cesar Azpilicueta, back-peddling, covering ground, re-positioning under pressure, could only kick the ball against Faupala, and the ball ricocheted in.
The City youngsters, a blur of yellow, celebrated right in front of the Chelsea fans in the far corner.
We came close with efforts from Pedro and Willian, but we were level at the break.
Daryl joined us at half-time. He was evidently sitting close by, not in his usual season ticket seat, but was hopeful that there was a spare seat near us, since the people that he was sitting alongside were evidently getting on his “thruppeny bits” with their constant moaning and grumbling.
“Where do these people come from?”
I had my own problems. I was now sweating on a potential replay, which would put the kibosh on our planned jaunt to Norwich in ten days’ time. I have taken two days’ holiday, and booked the usual suspects in to a hotel for that one. A replay at Eastlands would royally bugger those plans up.
A Chelsea win please, oh footballing Gods.
Meanwhile, there was no magic of the cup for Tottenham, 1-0 losers at home to Palace.
It was a lively start to the second-half, thankfully, and within three minutes Willian collected a pass from Eden Hazard, and adeptly struck a low shot past Caballero at the far post.
2-1 and the trip to Norwich was on again.
The crowd were buoyed again, and the players seemed keener to attack at will. A Hazard cross was deflected towards Gary Cahill who took a swipe at the ball. It slammed in to the net, too low and – ironically – too close for the ‘keeper to adjust and block.
3-1 and more noise.
Songs of Wembley and of Frankie Lampard…scoring two hundred…against the pikies.
Some of our play was wonderful to watch, albeit against a team of rusty fringe players and youngsters with too many vowels in their names. Pedro particularly took my eye, with his energy and enthusiasm. His spins and runs were almost Willianesque. On many occasions, Fabregas played that killer ball, the one which dissects centre-back and full-back. When played correctly, it is so pleasing to watch. Of course, it only works if the runner trusts the player in possession to pass. So often under Mourinho, that trust seemed to be missing. Of course, confidence helps, but for a while our play was fantastic. There were signs that we were back to our best.
Baba, after a fine game in Paris, continued to race up and down the left flank at will. Where there was concern, there are now glimmers of hope.
Hazard was fouled centrally and we wondered if he or Willian would take the free-kick.
Eden struck and sent it goal wards. Caballero appeared to be stuck in cement.
I now had dreams of cricket scores, or at least hockey scores. After four, I always start dreaming.
Hiddink replaced Costa and Pedro with Traore and Oscar.
Demichelis was adjudged to have fouled Traore down below us – a little harsh to be honest – but Oscar tamely hit the penalty kick at the City ‘keeper, who palmed it away.
It stayed 4-1.
Mikel, with another steadying performance (“it’s my ball, and you are not taking it off me”) was replaced by Matic, and he was given a standing ovation. Whereas there were elements, possibly, of sarcasm at Crystal Palace, the singing of his new song, and the warm applause meted towards him, proved to me how much he means to large segments of the Stamford Bridge crowd.
Even Glenn, never his biggest fan, has warmed to him of late.
Traore, neat in possession and confident too, struck the post, but then was luckier when he flicked on an Oscar cross, which looped up and over the hapless ‘keeper and in to the only unguarded two square feet of the entire goal.
Job well and truly done.
To be fair to the travelling City fans, virtually all of them stayed until the end, and I commend them for that.
Back at the car, we learned that we had been paired with an away trip to Goodison Park for the quarter final tie.
Six thousand tickets up for grabs? Who’s in?
I know that I am. It’ll be some occasion. My favourite away ground and an invading army of Chelsea fans.
[…incidentally, Daryl’s annoying neighbours left with ten minutes to go. The magic of the cup only goes so far, it seems]