Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough : 8 May 2017.
Our last five league games of this wonderful season were to take place on two Sundays, two Mondays and a Friday. We would be whores to the TV money yet again. But I hoped that this odd pattern would not disrupt us on our stride towards the title, which seemed a lot more attainable after West Ham’s surprising win at home to Tottenham on Friday.
It left us requiring two wins from our remaining four league games to ensure our sixth league championship.
The first of these games was against relegation-threatened Middlesbrough on the Monday, followed by a game at West Brom on the Friday. These were two monumental bookends to a potentially fantastic five days.
In my comments about Chelsea, I often use the phrase “let’s go to work” to convey a sense of duty to the common good. There is inevitably a back story to this. When I was even more in love with Italy than I am now – if it is possible – I remember seeing a travel programme in 1988 called “Rough Guide” detailing the industrial and commercial stronghold of Milan. There was talk of the “rampanti” – the young and feverish young businessmen, intoxicated by business but also consumed by Italian style. They were the Italian equivalent of “yuppies” (remember them?) I guess.
As one of the presenters said : “The protestant work ethic has gone crazy in Catholic Italy.”
Around the same time, I vividly remember reading a guide to the same city that mentioned that instead of wishing each other “good morning” or “good day”, the business folk of Milan would often utter the Italian equivalent of “let’s go to work” and it immediately struck a chord.
And I am sure that Antonio Conte would approve. And so this would be a working week like no other. From Monday to Friday, Chelsea Football Club would be focused. At the weekend, following the game at The Hawthorns, there might be a chance to relax.
My working week began with Wembley on my mind. My main task on the day of the Middlesbrough game was to purchase Cup Final tickets. I was so absorbed on this objective that I completely forgot to pack my camera for the game later that evening. I would have to make do with my mobile phone. A lack of focus such as this would have been frowned upon by Antonio, no doubt. It is a good job that he is not my boss.
By the way, who thought that in this match report about our game with Middlesbrough – a win and we would consign them to the Championship – that my first comments about 1988 would be concerning Italian yuppies?
Let me explain, if it needs to be explained.
We began 1987/88 in good form but after Christmas we fell drastically down the league. Under manager John Hollins, things went from bad to worse. Chairman Ken Bates replaced Hollins with Bobby Campbell for the last month or so of the season. At the time, the First Division was being trimmed from twenty-two teams to twenty teams over two seasons. Additionally, it was the second year of the Football League play-offs, which featured teams from the top two divisions playing off over two legs. Chelsea finished fourth from bottom of the First Division in 1987/88 and met Blackburn Rovers in the first round of the play-offs. They were easily dispatched. In the final, we met Middlesbrough, who had beaten Bradford City in their first round. At Ayresome Park, we lost 2-0. In the return leg, I fancied our chances to over-turn this. Our team contained some half-decent players such as Steve Clarke, John Bumstead, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gordon Durie and Tony Dorigo. On paper we were no mugs.
In late May 1988 – a fortnight after the Cup Final, virtually the last game of the season – over 40,000 assembled at Stamford Bridge on a bright and sunny afternoon to see if Chelsea could claw back the two goals. I watched, alongside Alan – just like in 2017 – as Gordon Durie guided the ball in after only a quarter of an hour. The noise was deafening. We were watching from the back row of the benches, willing the team on, kicking every ball, heading every clearance. I can remember that such was the appetite to see this game that The Shed was packed early on. Shamefully, the club decided to open up a section of The Shed terrace that had been closed under the safety of sports grounds act for years and years. My photograph of The Shed from the day shows the ridiculous density of people in the rear portions of The Shed and also the overflow, standing on a terrace that should not have been used.
The club had decided to do this for the league game with Charlton Athletic a month or so earlier too. My dear parents, as late arrivals, watched that game from that section of The Shed, sitting on a terrace that had not been used since around 1979.
Remember this was a year before Hillsborough. Not only Sheffield Wednesday snubbed ground regulations in those days.
On that day in May 1988, we tried and tried but could not break Middlesbrough down despite having tons of possession. Their side, containing Gary Pallister and Tony Mowbray at the heart of their defence, rode their luck and held on. They were followed by around 7,000 away fans who were packed into the sweeping north terrace to my left.
At the end of the game, and with Chelsea relegated to the Second Division for the third time of my life, we did not take defeat well.
At the final whistle, hundreds of Chelsea fans scaled the fences at The Shed and raced on to the pitch, and ran at the away fans. I remember some stewards opened up some exit gates at The Shed. Of course, only a very small percentage of our fans bothered to trespass on to the pitch. Most were in a state of shock at our demise. Most just looked-on aghast. I remember feeling a mixture of emotions. I was just so sad that we were relegated. There was no desire for me to get on to the pitch. I dare say that a lot of this was bravado and posturing by the Chelsea fans, rather than a desire to go toe-to-toe with ‘Boro, who were, of course, unreachable, penned in by themselves.
This was immediately before the UK’s 1988 Summer of Love when a fair proportion of old school hooligans throughout the UK found dance music and ecstasy and gradually turned away from knocking lumps out of each other for a while. This was an era of jeans, trainers, Rockport boots, Timberland shoes, England “Invasion of Germany 1988” T-shirts, denim button-down shirts, jade away shirts, and a subtle selection of new casual brands such as Marc O’Polo, Chevignon and Chipie. This was pre rave, pre Smiley-face, pre acid-house, and at times all very grotesque.
“We’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose” was about right.
So – relegation. What a bitter pill to swallow. In 2017, we have thoughts of The Double. In 1988, there was only double-denim.
Outside, as I marched dejectedly down the Fulham Road, the venom from the waiting Chelsea fans outside the away end was palpable. There would be running battles for hours after. By which time, I had returned to Paddington for the train home, feeling totally depressed. We had become – and remain – the only team to finish fourth from bottom of the top division and still be relegated.
One wonders how millions of modern day Chelsea fans would cope with all that.
In Germany, a few weeks later, England were humiliated in the European Championships and there was mayhem as the English hooligans fought the locals and opposing fans alike. At the start of the 1988/89 season, Chelsea were forced to play our first six home games with no spectators allowed in The Shed nor North Stand.
They were pretty bleak times.
Oh, and worst of all, we sold Pat Nevin to Everton in the summer too.
I think it is fair to say, from a football perspective, 1988 was the worst summer of my life.
Fast forward to May 2017 and we live in a different universe.
Outside the stadium, I had bumped into my pal Jason from Texas – over for one game only – and we headed over to The Chelsea Pensioner to meet up with Kathryn and Tim from Virginia, themselves over for one game only. We skipped past a twenty-five strong bunch of Chelsea fans, all scarves and replica shirts, from Poland. In The Butcher’s Hook, the mood was of quiet confidence, though if I am honest, I was still a little nervous. We heard that N’Golo Kante was not playing, nor even on the bench.
I joked that we would win 1-0.
Scorer : Kante.
What a superhuman season he has had.
Unlike in 1988, ‘Boro had only brought 1,500 fans, and one flag. Very poor.
I was hoping for a red hot atmosphere from the very start, or from even before the start. I was a little dismayed, but not at all surprised, that the noise levels were not as tumultuous as I had hoped as the game kicked-off.
There was an early foray into our half by Middlesbrough, but our first real attack was a joy to watch. We moved the ball quickly and purposefully from centre to right to left and Marcos Alonso crashed a volley towards goal, only for us to gasp as the ball was deflected by Brad Guzan on to the bar
In the early stages, ‘Boro looked to release their right winger Adama Traore as often as possible. He looked a bit useful. Alan said that he was reminded of Forest’s Franz Carr – ugh, a 6-2 loss at home in 1986, Jon Millar still has nightmares.
I noted that Middlesbrough’s awful shirt ideally represents their gradual decline this season; that ridiculous white diagonal goes from sixteenth place to nineteenth place.
Slowly, the noise picked up.
Chelsea : “We’re top of the league.”
‘Boro : “We’re going down.”
Chelsea (missing the joke ) : “You’re going down.”
Alonso was finding tons of space out on our left. Sadly, a second effort did not trouble Guzan. Pedro was everywhere, picking up the loose ball, passing it on, involved. He may not be our most influential nor best player this season, but he surely embodies the Conte work ethic like no other. Cesc Fabregas, heavily involved, was stroking the ball around majestically. Eden Hazard set Fabregas up, but his low shot was well off target.
The same player then set up Diego Costa, but his teasing and tantalising cross just evaded the lunge from Diego. In The Sleepy Hollow, I turned and demanded answers from my fellow fans :
“How the fuck did that not go in?”
A lovely long ball, across the box, from Fabregas found Diego Costa, who steadied himself and stroked the ball home.
There was the opening goal. Get in you bastard.
Vic Reeves : “They’ll have to come at us now.”
Bob Mortimer : “Come on my little diamonds.”
The crowd was in the game now. A medley of songs rang around the stadium.
“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re coming for you.”
“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re waiting for you.”
“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re laughing at you.”
Another goal quickly followed. Dave looped another long ball over the heads of everyone and picked out Alonso. Stretching at the bye-line, he did well to connect at all. Imagine our joy, and relief of course, when we saw the net ripple.
We were 2-0 to the good. Fackinell.
“Another goal now Alan, and we could score a hat-full.”
Efforts from Moses – running into space on the right – went close and that man Alonso curled a free-kick just over. We were well on top.
All of that pre-match worry seemed ill-placed. It had been a lovely half of football.
Soon into the second period, we went close again, with the effervescent Pedro lashing a ball against the top of the bar from twenty yards. Alonso’s shot was almost touched in by Diego. The look on our forward’s face was of pure agony. Gary Cahill was next to test Guzan, shooting with power from thirty yards. It seemed everyone wanted a touch of the ball. How different to last season. Man of the moment Fabregas touched a shot wide. Amongst all this, Eden Hazard was having a relatively quiet game, save for a mesmerizing spin away from a marker and a strong run, which was typically ended by a clumsy challenge. Hazard, of course, is heavily marked these days, but other players are primed to intelligently exploit the space he leaves elsewhere.
With twenty minutes of the game remaining, another lovely move ended up with Fabregas clipping a delightful ball towards Nemanja Matic. He chested it down and smashed it home.
Three-naught. Get fucking in.
The crowd sang “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in.
Hazard was substituted by Willian (we have a song for him, Tottenham, if you are watching.)
Pedro fired over. Moses went close.
I turned to Alan : “It could have been seven, tonight.”
David Luiz raced up field and clearly wanted to score. It was one of those nights. This was a very mature performance from Chelsea. We looked at ease in our own skin, at ease with each other. There had been a couple of silly defensive errors in the first-half from Cahill and Luiz but they soon redeemed themselves. ‘Boro’s infamously goal-shy attack did not get a sniff.
Some of the away fans could be heard singing a song of never-ending support. A few Chelsea around me clapped, but were soon dwarfed by louder shouts of disdain. We had revenged 1988 but in truth our Wembley victories in 1997 and 1998 had sorted that out years ago.
Nathaniel Chalobah replaced Pedro and, to a hero’s welcome, David Luiz was replaced by none other than John Terry (we have a song for him, Tottenham, if you are watching.) Every one of JT’s three or four touches were warmly applauded. I was pleased that a gaggle of pals from the US had seen the captain play, albeit for only a few easy moments. Everywhere we purred, none more so than Alonso, Pedro and Cesc.
Alan : “That young lad Kante will struggle to get back in for Friday.”
In the end, it was a cake-walk. A walk in the park. A piece of cake.
I commented to Alan that it seemed so strange that our humiliation of Tottenham last season – that goal, that game – has been mirrored, although on a far grander scale, throughout the past few weeks of this season.
“It is almost as if last May was a dummy run for this May. Bloody love it.”
There was a gorgeous and joyous atmosphere as we walked down the Fulham Road. There were hugs and handshakes with a few good friends. That horrific walk from 1988 could not have been more different.
One game to go, Chelsea, one game to go.
Is it Friday yet?