Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 1 April 2017.
We had whispered a final farewell to winter and spring was upon us. The clocks had sprung forward during the previous weekend, which was amid the most recent tedious international break, and the sun was shining down on a perfect Stamford Bridge. Just as in those black and white French films which seemed to feature regularly on BBC2 in the ‘eighties, when there was an extended period of complete blackness between one scene and another – signifying a time for reflection on what had just been witnessed – it seemed that Stamford Bridge was awakening from an enforced slumber and we were waking with it. A stretch here. A yawn there. A remembrance of the toils of winter before a final push towards the days of destiny in April and May.
Stamford Bridge looked a picture, as it often does in the first blush of spring.
It looked like paradise.
The pre-match had been busy.
Due to a section of the M4 being closed, I chose to divert via a more southerly route, and came in via Stonehenge, the A303, the M3 and past Twickenham. From BA11 it to SW6 it took me three and a quarter hours. Not to worry, The Chuckle Bus was providing laughs-a-plenty throughout. The game against Crystal Palace was the first of three games in a week. Travel plans had occupied our thoughts for a while. After Manchester City’s visit on Wednesday, we are staying the night in Bournemouth – just like a huge section of the Chelsea away support – and there are then away games at Manchester United and Everton to get excited about. Sandwiched in among these league matches, we have the FA Cup semi-final against “that lot”; Parky has us all booked-up for train tickets for that one. A rare break for me and I can’t bloody wait. There have also been long and sustained thoughts of foreign travel.
Part serious, part-whimsical, I told the boys on the drive up :
“You know what, I’m more focussed on our first European away game together in the autumn than I am about us being champions.”
How we have missed Euro aways this season; they are surely at the pinnacle of my experiences following this team over the past twenty-five years.
At just before midday, I joined the usual suspects at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. Our mate Bob was over from California and Dave was over from France. I quickly knocked down two pints of Peroni. But time was marching on.
We walked down the North End Road and briefly popped in to “The Cock Tavern” to quickly say “hello/goodbye” to a few friends over from various parts of the US. It was fantastic to see them all again – too many names, too little time – but I took great pleasure in seeing Dave meet up with several New York Blues again, since he used to live in that great city for a good few years. Clearly his smiles and laughter were mine too. Bloody fantastic.
In the packed pub – an old haunt of mine, it was the very first pub I had a beer at Chelsea – there were supporters from New York, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Elsewhere, fans from Chicago and Fresno were around and about.
Many of the supporters’ groups within the US have set off on a life of their own, attempting to absorb Chelsea fan culture as best they can, but ultimately many cities always seem to have developed an overwhelming American twist. One supposes that this is to be expected. In some respects, the last thing that anyone wants to see is anyone trying too hard to fit in to a perceived notion of what it is to be a Chelsea fan.
But it’s the subtle things that I notice. I like to see US fans meeting us halfway; or at least attempting to learn of our history, our rituals, our style.
With the New York group, I always feel that there are enough ex-pats involved to still provide a distinct cultural backbone to their fandom, whether it be behaviour, attitude, humour, songs, clobber, or a general Chelsea sense of self-deprecation induced by many years of suffering. When the New York Blues show up at tour stops in the US, they get the beers in and they know the score. As an added plus for this particular Chelsea fan, I like it that not all of them are ritually bedecked in Adidas tat nor Chelsea scarves ad nauseam. I like the New York Blues. I have a lot of time for them.
Just before I left, I bumped into Frank from Queens. We always share some ribald banter each other with our support of the Italian teams Napoli – Frank – and Juventus – myself – and I couldn’t resist passing on a little morsel of news from my work. Over the next month or so, we have to plan to deliver four of five artics of office furniture to none other than Juventus Football Club.
Frank’s response – “awesome!” – was quickly followed by a big hug.
The next stop took in “The Malt House.” I promise not to bore the living daylights out of everyone between now and the end of the season with talk of the summer tour, but four of us had a little chitchat about the trip to Beijing in July. Bob, Glenn and myself were able to meet up with Big John, and we had a fruitful thirty minutes. The flights, hotels and match tickets have been paid for. Next on the agenda is the visa application and plans for a visit to The Great Wall.
OK – enough!
Amid the busyness and business of this particular pre-match, I had not heard about the team news.
There was only one change in the starting eleven; in came Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, but obviously this was not a straight swap. Pedro was shifted to wing back, with Cesc pushed up to a place in the front three.
The away fans were initially the centre of our attention. They had arrived with many a flag and banner draped over the balcony. Most notably of all, around one hunded– mainly young – black-clad supporters (the self-styled Holmesdale Road Ultras) were placed right above the banners at the epicentre of their block. Alan and myself pondered why a club like Crystal Palace could easily designate a block of away tickets to a distinct set of fans yet Chelsea Football Club continually finds this simple task beyond their ken. Countless times over the past few seasons, members of the away season ticket scheme have ended up in poor areas at various stadia all over the country.
The ultras, if not everyone within the block of three-thousand, were soon making a racket. Their favourite was a chant that took me right back to my night with two thousand Leverkusen fans at Wembley last November.
“La la – la la la – la la – Crystal Palace.”
However, they soon fell silent. A gorgeous long range pass from Fabregas allowed Eden Hazard to gather and reach the goal-line in front of the Palace fans. He seemed to be gifted too much time to skip past his marker and pick out a team mate. I had spotted Diego Costa supporting the attack, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cesc arrive with Lampardesque timing to touch the ball high past Hennessey.
Only five minutes had passed and we were one-up.
Not long after, just as I was extolling the virtues of our team ethic as Pedro charged down a ball and then David Luiz cleared – chatting away to Alan, but watching the play – I then suggested it would just be our bloody luck that, after all this praise, we would concede. We both watched, aghast, as Wilfried Zaha twisted among several Chelsea defenders and struck a fine shot past Thibaut to equalise.
Just as my words floated off into the afternoon air, Alan was able to say “like that.”
Only two minutes later, we watched as Palace broke with pace and we were cruelly exposed. The once lampooned Christian Benteke ran at David Luiz, with N’Golo Kante too far away to challenge. After a poorly-timed Luiz nibble, the ball broke fortuitously for that man Zaha to play in Benteke, with our defenders at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. With Courtois scrambling out to block, Benteke craftily lifted the ball over our ‘keeper and into the net.
One-nil up, two-one down, we were a terrace chant gone wrong.
In the away section, a red flare appeared behind the flags. The ultras were making even more noise now. If I am honest, it was an impressive sight. They might be lampooned by some, but I can’t fault their desire to make some vibrant noise in support of their team. There is a distinct possibility that they are more famous than their players these days, just in the same way that the social misfits who appear on Arsenal Fan TV are more famous than the Arsenal players at the moment. I know who I favour.
We were 2-1 down.
But only eleven minutes were on the clock; surely more goals would follow?
We enjoyed much of the ball during the rest of the half. We had tons of possession. Oodles of it. But there seemed to be a noticeable lack of incisiveness. I lost count of the number of times that a diagonal was played wide left to Marcos Alonso. This might have been part of Conte’s game plan, but it honestly felt like we were painting by numbers, without individual thought. I was too far away to spot a potential penalty appeal in our favour. Diego tried his best but was not finding space. A Luiz free-kick was wasted. Alonso fizzed a ball across the box but nobody was near. I brought my hands up to my head; it was a reaction that would be repeated again and again as the game progressed. Dave smashed over, Matic forced a finger-tip save from Hennessey, Luiz again wasted a free-kick. Pedro was up and down the right flank like a demon, perhaps – actually – covering too much ground. Elsewhere the bite was missing. Hazard was a little peripheral.
But Palace were defending well.
At the break we were 2-1 down. Damn.
Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal of noise at Stamford Bridge. There were pockets of song, but in general our supporters were losing too.
At the break, a few supporters were presented with their CPO shares and we were treated to a walk around by Celestine Babayaro, who graced our team from 1997 to 2005. He formed a great left-wing alliance with Graeme Le Saux for a few seasons.
We found it inconceivable that the first player to be booked by referee Craig Pawson was Diego Costa. Palace had been swiping at our players throughout the first-half. Diego stretched to reach a ball, but Hennessy reached the ball just before he could get a touch. Diego then had a shot blocked by Scott Dann, who stayed down for an eternity. He was eventually carried off.
Conte replaced Matic with Willian and we went to a four at the back. I bet Pedro never ever thought that he would play right-back when he joined us last year.
Despite us dominating the ball, Palace broke down our right and Zaha, their star player, forced a great save from Thibaut. They had a little period when they caused us a few worries. We kept attacking, moving the ball between our players, but again without a killing pass. I thought our final ball in to the box, from Marcos Alonso especially, was very poor. Balls were swept in low, but defenders cleared. Lofted balls were played deep, but with nobody in Chelsea blue near. A clear chance fell to Diego from a Hazard cross. His header not only lacked power but direction too. It landed, pathetically, yards wide.
The pass of the day from Fabregas between the centre-back and the right-back was a thing of beauty but it amounted to nothing.
The time passed. I had a little chat with Alan, thinking back to previous home games against Palace.
“Bloody hell mate, have we ever lost to Palace in the league in our memory? I remember the FA Cup game in 1976, but have they ever beaten us here?”
PD looked over and said “last season.”
“Oh bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”
Had I shoved the trauma of last season so far in to my memory that I had forgotten that 2-1 reverse?
Michy Batshuayi entered the fray as a replacement for Alonso. Balls from out wide were continually whipped-in, but Palace players blocked everything.
At last – on about the eightieth minute – the whole of Stamford Bridge eventually united in a single song.
“About bloody time.”
Shots from Willian, Cesc and Pedro were saved by Hennessey, who was having a storming game. As the referee’s assistant signalled a massive seven minutes, we willed the team on. But, unlike in previous games, when I felt that a goal would definitely come, on this occasion I wasn’t convinced.
The seven minutes soon passed. In our last attack, we urged Thibaut to join the attack as we awarded a corner. He did so. Dressed in black, he lined up to challenge for the ball among the blues and yellows. It is always the oddest of sights. Typically, Hennessy punched the ball clear.
At the whistle, at least there were no boos. That would have been the last straw.
So, on April Fool’s Day, we had dropped a clanger. This was a very surprising defeat. After we had all met up back at the car, it did not take long for us to thrash through our thoughts of the game. It wasn’t as if any player had performed particularly poorly, it was just that not enough had enjoyed those little moments of top quality.
I was the fool for thinking that our big week of football would begin with three easy points.
And I won’t be making that mistake again in a hurry.
On Wednesday, we face Manchester City at home in a game that could define our season; a Chelsea win, and our position will look a little more secure.
See you there.