West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 November 2017.
This would be my twelfth visit to The Hawthorns with Chelsea. My first was in January 1986, a second one came in April 1989 but the third visit was not until March 2003. There have certainly been more frequent visits in recent years since their promotion in 2006. For many seasons, it was my closest away venue. It was known as our manager’s graveyard, but then we had the emotion and celebrations of last May. What a stunning night that was. Just like Grimsby and Bolton – to say nothing of Athens, Stockholm, Monaco, Munich and Amsterdam – it is a ground that will surely be remembered fondly within our ranks for ever. Seemingly random away stadia now intrinsically linked to Chelsea Football Club. Let’s hope that there will be many more in the years to come.
The Hawthorns sits on a piece of grey urban land, hemmed in on all sides by industrial and retail units, with red-bricked houses to the south beneath the angled floodlight pylons of the trim and compact stadium, and the growling M5 motorway only a few hundred yards to the west, thus cutting it off – in essence – from the town of West Bromwich, whose small municipal centre sits farther west still. On match days, the Chelsea support is split. Those travelling up by train from London tend to shelter in pubs and bars within the shadows of Birmingham’s New Street train station. Those propelling themselves under their own steam tend to aim for two venues just off the M5. For ever and a day we have parked at the Park Inn, along with many other Chelsea fans. It is conveniently close to The Hawthorns; only a fifteen-minute walk away. This year, we fancied a change.
A few years back we met up with the London contingent in the Birmingham city centre. The plan on this day in November 2017 was to do the same; to meet up with Alan, Gary and others including J12 from Los Angeles in The Briar Rose. However, as the traffic slowed at around 11am and the heavens opened, we decided on a change of plan. Rather than risk getting soaked on the walk to The Hawthorns train station to whip us in to Brum, we decided to come up with a Plan B. For the first-ever time, we decided to try the second of the two venues much-beloved by the Chelsea away contingent; The Vine pub, no more than a quarter of a mile from both the Park Inn and the stadium alike.
We were suitably impressed. We were in the pub at 11.30am. Beers were ordered. In addition to being a drinker’s pub – home and away fans mixed with no hint of bother – it has already earned a reputation for serving excellent food, and curries are their forte. While PD and Lord Parky supped some lagers, Glenn disappeared off to get himself some chicken tikka.
The idea of curry in the morning didn’t thrill me I have to say.
A fair few friends appeared over the next few hours. Brian, one of the oft-mentioned Bristol Posse, was celebrating his two-thousandth Chelsea match. A few of us spoke of the upcoming trip to Baku next week. I have to be honest, it has dominated my thoughts throughout the past few weeks; the thought of it has kept me going through the barren fortnight of the international break and a few difficult shifts at work. In some respects, I had found it difficult to concentrate too much on the West Brom game.
At around 2pm, we headed off to the game, first passing through a dark underpass beneath the M5 and then along a walkway adjacent to the train line. We passed the West Brom academy and continued up the hill to the stadium. The Hawthorns is famously the highest stadium in the professional game in England, though the lofty locations at Burnley and Oldham seem higher – and more desolate. We soon appeared outside the metal gates of the stadium which lead us towards the away turnstiles.
Ah memories of that night last May.
The players were soon to enter the pitch and for a few moments I watched as they went through their drills. However, I soon turned my back on the players – our men, our boys, our heroes – and kept an eagle eye on our fellow supporters hoping to spot some familiar faces. There’s a metaphor for my current stage of Chelsea fandom if ever there was; turning my back on the players, looking out for mates.
I was on a special lookout for J12, who I was to learn took a cab from The Briar Rose to meet us in The Vine, only for the cabbie to take him and another mate, Rob, to a different pub of that name.
Always keen to spot what is hot and what is not, I noticed many Canada Goose and Moncler jackets among the away contingent, as in The Vine earlier on. This boy’s obsession with football and fashion shows no signs of abating.
There were noticeable gaps in the corners of the home end opposite and the large stand to my right. West Brom were the latest club in crisis, with many of their supporters wishing that the manager Tony Pulis would get sacked.
The team was announced, and it took me a while to get the 3-4-3 out of my mind to enable me to fit the players in to their respective places.
Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill.
Zappacosta – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso
Hazard – Morata
Chelsea were in the much-derided off-white away kit. Fucking hell, I’ve got tea towels that are whiter. West Brom were in a predominantly white kit too, but with a solid block of navy on the rear of their shirts. I used to remember that teams wearing the same colour shorts were not allowed. For example, every time United played at Goodison, they had to wear black shorts. Newcastle wearing white shorts at Sunderland. These days, the likelihood is of second and third kits getting an extra outing.
Not long in to the game, the noisy bunch of home fans who share the Smethwick End were having a dig at us.
“Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? We’ll sing on our own. We’ll sing on our own.”
We rallied with the usual response.
“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of England. We know what we are.”
Then, the usual shite.
I harked back to that game in 1986. I spoke to Alan alongside me –
“The gate was 10,000…we must have had 3,000. So, 7,000 of them. And they sing about us?”
In those days, the away support was split between a quadrant of terrace, on the Smethwick End, as in 2017, and the more fashionable seats of the Rainbow Stand. In the ‘eighties, the supporters of London’s teams especially – maybe it was a sign of wealth, the north-south divide, Thatcher’s Britain et al – always chose to head for the seats at away games. In 1986 specifically, it was fashionable to aim for the away seats – nice and cosy to be alongside home fans, ha – along with your black leather jackets, Burberry and Aquascutum scarves, Hard Core jeans and Nike trainers.
In January 1986, we won 3-0 – playing in all red – and we excited the Rainbow Stand singing, and believing, “we’re gonna win it all.”
In the very next game, Kerry did his knee at home to Liverpool, and our season imploded.
It was not to be. Not that year.
As the Chelsea support put together a few songs and chants – “Antonio” the clear favourite – the home fans sang a relatively new one, or at least one that I had not paid much attention to previously.
“Allez allez allez oh, allez allez allez oh. West Brom FC from the Black Country.”
Strangely enough, West Brom enjoyed the first couple of chances. Thibaut Courtois was able to easily save from Jay Rodriguez. We then watched in horror as an effort from Salomon Rondon dropped over the line after Thibaut initially saved well, then fumbled. Thankfully, the offside flag on the far side – in front of the low stand, the only one left from 1986 – cancelled the home fans’ celebrations. It was an even start, but Chelsea soon turned the screw. Bakayoko and Kante began closing down space in the midfield and our passing became crisper.
Just after a quarter of an hour, a fine move found Eden Hazard, who cut in from the right. His low shot was saved, but I momentarily missed the follow-up from Alvaro Morata, choosing to turn and follow up a comment that Alan had made.
The Chelsea support roared and I felt like a spare prick at a wedding.
I don’t miss many.
Alan : “Thoy’ll ave ta com at uz neaw.”
Chris : “ Come on moi little di’monz.”
Eden had begun the game in very fine form, gliding past defenders and passing intelligently. With Cesc playing a central role, the width was forced to come from the two raiding wing-backs. With neither Pedro nor Willian playing in this finely-tweaked Conte formation, their role – out wide – becomes more important.
Six minutes later, a sublime delicate flick from Morata played into space ahead of Hazard had us all gasping. Hazard raced ahead, touched the ball past Ben Foster – from my perspective it looked like the ‘keeper was keen to foul him – and pushed the ball wide before rolling the ball into an empty net.
It felt like game over.
We were well on top. West Brom, I have to say, were very poor. I loved the way that Kante pick-pocketed player after player, guiding the ball to others with the minimum of fuss. Andreas Christensen again impressed. The lad looks the real deal. He just looks so cool. Eden, shamefully, was continually hacked by the West Brom players. I have to wonder if referees are now oblivious to this now. Has a new – unacceptable – norm now been reached?
Fouling : subsection 3, 4 – amendment ix ; “fouls against Eden Hazard do not count.”
The Chelsea choir were in good voice, regaling N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko.
Seven minutes before half-time, at last a foul against Hazard was rewarded with a free-kick. A deep ball from Fabregas – aimed slow and purposefully – was slammed high into the net with a volley by Marcos Alonso. The West Brom defenders were absolutely nowhere to be seen. I think that a few of them had disappeared off to The Vine and were tucking into some goat curry. The scorer raced over to the corner and was mobbed by his team mates.
“Definitely game over now. Let’s get six.”
The second-half began, but there was a feeling from me that we had taken our foot off the peddle. This, of course, was the first of three away games in eight days. We were playing a very dispirited West Brom team. It was no surprise that we – maybe even subconsciously – played within ourselves a little.
We carved out chances, though. Foster saved well from that man Hazard. Morata – full of guile and poise – threatened Foster too.
Just after the hour, Cesc picked out Eden, central and with space, and we seemed to go into slow motion as Eden chose his moment to lose a marker and patiently thud the ball home.
This sparked more celebrations from the buoyant away support, but it also initiated some caustic chanting aimed at the manager of the lacklustre Baggies.
“Pulis Out. Pulis Out. Pulis Out. Pulis Out.”
Even more damning –
“Tony Pulis – Your Football Is Shit.”
There were the expected late changes from Antonio.
Danny Drinkwater for Davide Zappacosta, Pedro for Eden Hazard, Willian for Kante.
The hated James McLean – on as a late sub – raced through but, much to the amusement of the away fans, shot wide. It was the last real chance of the game. At the final whistle, the players and manager paraded in front of us and it – of course – was a lot more subdued than on our last visit. But the players were genuine in their claps of appreciation. I noticed Antonio chatting for a while with the substitute Drinkwater. I wondered what plans are in store for him, and others, over the next week or so.
We filtered away into the darkness of the night. A cheeseburger from the stall at the bottom of the slope. A brief chat about the game. The cold started to bite as we retraced our steps back to the car. With Arsenal managing to grab an unexpected win against Tottenham at lunchtime, but with wins for the two Manchester teams, we had nudged our way into the top three. This was our fourth consecutive league win. We are firmly placed within the high ground of the Premier League as the season rolls on.
It is a good place to be.