Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 26 December 2017.
We bloody loved the trip up to Everton at the weekend. It had been a text-book away day, apart from that elusive win. And here we all were again, heading up to Chelsea once more for the Boxing Day encounter with newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion.
The four Chuckle Brothers were joined by PD’s eldest Scott, who is an occasional visitor to Chelsea with us. Within minutes, Glenn was confusing his name with PD’s other son. This seemingly embarrassing faux pas is not unusual. Very often, PD himself confuses the two. I blame it on the cider. Within minutes, a new song was soon invented :
“Scotty Daniels, we’ll just call you Grant.”
The chuckling had begun.
I had left Frome at 8am and, at 11am, I was parked-up on Bramber Road, amid acres of empty parking spaces. The idea was for a quick couple of pints in “The Rylston” for a change, but they were not open. We de-camped to the familiar confines of The Goose, and took residence in a pokey corner.
“Peroni please, mate. Cheers.”
Brighton. It had dawned on me the previous evening that, barring a pre-season friendly against them in 2012, I had never seen them play Chelsea. I knew that we played them in two Second Division seasons in the ‘eighties, but I attended none of those four games. Was that it? Just four games? I had to investigate further. Indeed, those four games in 1983/1984 and 1988/1989 were our only games against them in the league. It seemed slightly implausible, to be honest. But it was true. The team from Sussex by the Sea spent most of their history in the lower levels of the Football League, and gained promotion to the First Division in 1978/1979 for the very first time – along with their rivals Crystal Palace, an enmity born through necessity I suspect, every team needs a rival – just as we were relegated from the top tier. By the time we were to meet for the first time in the league, just after Christmas in 1983, Brighton had been relegated, but not before an FA Cup Final against Manchester United. Another meeting in 1988/1989 was then followed by a huge fall from grace for Brighton, who were forced out of their idiosyncratic Goldstone Ground – which I once visited with Scunthorpe United, please don’t ask – and a ground share at Gillingham, some seventy miles away in Kent. There then followed a spell at the unloved Withdean Athletics Stadium in Brighton; but at least they were home. In 2011, they moved into the Amex Stadium at Falmer. Their story, like that of Charlton Athletic and AFC Wimbledon, is a heart-warming tale of how a football club can re-establish itself after years in the wilderness. Their promotion in May must have brought many a tear to some of their older fans.
My mate Walnuts lives in Brighton, and through him, I got to know several Brighton-based Chelsea supporters a while back. On this day, though, I was looking forward to meeting up with a Brighton season-ticket holder in The Goose prior to the game. I bumped into Mac in a lovely bar in New York prior to our game against Manchester City in May 2013, and through our shared love of football, we got on like a house on fire. We kept in touch via the occasional football-related text, and then reconnected via Facebook after my old phone died. With no trains from Brighton to London on Boxing Day, Mac had managed to bribe one of his friends, Nick, to drive up. They were soon parked up on Bramber Road and it was a pleasure to see Mac once again.
I spent a lovely time chatting to Mac, Nick, Mac’s wife Alice, and another friend Bruce in our corner of the pub. It has certainly been an enjoyable time for them this season, though I could tell that the memory of a woeful Albion performance at Huddersfield recently was still raw. We shared a few stories and a few chuckles. It was lovely.
I was reminded of a story that Mac shared with me in New York of that pre-season game at the Amex in August 2012, which Parky and myself attended. It took place on a Saturday afternoon. Nothing too surprising or unremarkable about that, eh? Apart from the fact that it was the day of Mac’s brother’s wedding. Mac was itching to leave the ceremony as soon as he could, though nobody really expected him to carry it off. Midway through the reception, Mac sidled off and – without letting his brother know – zipped over to the game to watch as Albion beat us 3-1. I had to admire his nerve. To make it better, when Mac arrived back at the reception, he brazenly asked his brother “where have you been hiding?” and his poor brother had to apologise for “avoiding” him for three hours.
At 2.30pm, we all left the pub and headed off to Stamford Bridge.
A match programme was purchased.
On the front cover was a cheesy photograph of Davide Zappacosta and Alvaro Morata in Chelsea Christmas jumpers.
Kill me now.
No surprises, Brighton had brought a full three-thousand, but – strangely – not one single flag.
We had briefly chatted about the likelihood of Antonio Conte choosing 3-5-2 over a 3-4-3.
It looked like a 3-5-2.
Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger
Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Alonso
Hazard – Morata
There are always a few empty seats at Boxing Day games, but there were not many around us. This was a good show by the inhabitants of The Sleepy Hollow. Children are rarely seen in this part of the season for regular league games, but a couple were spotted. Christmas treats, no doubts.
This was our fifth consecutive home game on Boxing Day, and our eleventh of the past thirteen Boxing Day games. It means that these games are relatively easy for us to attend, ironically easier than many who live in London, who have to rely on multiple buses and restricted train services. It has, however, taken away a little festive buzz from this most traditional of football fixtures. Oh how I would enjoy a Boxing Day game at another venue for a change.
As the game began, I had visions of thousands of folk across the US wishing co-workers a “happy Boxing Day”, expecting a stony-silence, awaiting the chance to enlighten them on this most English of traditions, but being met by the same response.
Brandy : “You’re an English soccer fan, right?”
Candy : “Ugh…yeah.”
Brandy : “AWESOME.”
Candy : [exit, stage left, crestfallen]
In my thoughts about this game, I was fully expecting Brighton to line-up in their yellow and “colour of indiscernible hue, maybe green, maybe brown, maybe grey” – a Nike disaster – but instead they opted for a more conservative all black.
I had already spoken to Glenn about the Brighton players; “Apart from the boy wonder Dunk – what a name – and his own-goal exploits of magnificence, I am going to find it difficult to name any Brighton player.”
I had to laugh at the Brighton player Propper.
“Bloody good job they have no player called Chels.”
In the pub, a few of us had spoken about how much we loathe the phrase “Proper Chels.”
[gasps from the gallery]
For that matter, the word “Chels” annoys me to death if it is used outside of the ninety minutes of a match. You will never catch any of us saying “going to London to watch Chels”, “I thought Chels played well last night”, “Hazard is a great Chels player”, “I’m a big Chels fan.”
I can feel my teeth grating as I write this. Anyway, those of you who have been reading these match reports over the past ten seasons, will certainly be smiling at all this. My views don’t change much with age.
We began the stronger and Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard had a shot apiece in the opening ten minutes. Over in the far corner, unsurprisingly the away fans were leading the way in the community singing department. There was a reprise for the song which was sung by our visitors from Bournemouth a few weeks back.
“Just like The Emirates.”
It must be a south coast thing. On a quarter of an hour, the visitors enjoyed a little possession, but this soon petered out against the formidable defensive block of Toni Rudiger, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta.
There was more Billy Ray Cyrus from the away section.
Stamford Bridge was like a bloody morgue once again, though, and I struggled to find much enjoyment from the match being played out in front of me because of it.
“If I am a Chelsea fan, and you all are too, then why on bloody Earth are so many of you so determined to utter not a word of encouragement nor a song of praise? How can I possibly enjoy spending this most sacred of times with so many of you who do not share my passion. What has happened? Why is everything so different now? I hate it and I hate it as much as I love Chelsea.”
A snap shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko following a Rudiger header at the back post after a Cesc Fabregas cross went wide. We were in control, but with little end product. A beautiful, lofted pass into space from Fabregas allowed Victor Moses to advance, but his shot was smothered at the near post. Rudiger picked out Fabregas with another well-placed lob – a feature of his play, I think – but the ball ran on too quickly.
Chances were as rare as a wise man on Talk Sport and a virgin in Romford.
There was a rare shout of support from the home fans.
“ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”
The Brighton fans replied :
“We forgot that you were here.”
So had I. Our play was middling at best, not awful, but just average. But it was the woeful atmosphere that had discombobulated me so much.
Was I here?
I wasn’t sure.
It worried me that Brighton’s Ezequiel Schelotto appeared to resemble a character in “Gladiators”, a show that I have never watched…
I was clearly slipping away into some outlandish world of make-believe…
Needing to jolt out of this, I let out a few desperate yelps of encouragement.
“COME ON CHELSEA.”
“COME ON CHELS.”
I am sure Mac heard me in the Shed Lower.
Fabregas planted a low drive straight at the Brighton ‘keeper Ryan. It was our first shot for a while. I had just commented to Glenn that Morata had not yet been involved. To prove me wrong, just before the end of the half, Dave curved a high ball towards Morata. Unfortunately, the Spanish striker headed well wide.
And that was that. One of the dullest forty-five minutes of the season. Thibaut had finished two word search compendiums. I reiterate, the players had not played poorly en masse. Brighton had defended deep. We just lacked a cutting edge.
But the supporters had certainly had a ‘mare.
The one bright spot concerned the news from Old Trafford, where Burnley were winning 2-0 against Manchester United. In our quest for second-place, this was a piece of very good news.
The second-half began and it began with an almighty crash of theatre and noise. From a slightly wider position than his cross in the first-half, Dave thumped one into the Albion box. It is a scene which is particularly familiar this season, but we will never tire of it.
A cross from Dave. A leap from Alvaro.
A downward header, a slam past Dunk, and a beautiful goal.
“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”
At last there was noise.
There are miracles at Christmas in 2017 after all.
With the goal, came a noted upsurge in confidence from the players and a lot more involvement from the home supporters. But I still found it ironic when the Matthew Harding Lower rounded on the away fans :
“You’re not singing anymore.”
There was a fine layup by Bakayoko – better than in a few of his recent performances – to Hazard, but the shot went wide. We were awarded a free-kick, and both Alonso and Fabregas lined up to take it. Glenn thought it was too far out for Alonso. I wasn’t so sure. Our Spanish left-back swiped and the ball flew over the Albion wall, only for Ryan to provide the save of the match thus far. From the resulting corner, that man Alonso saw his header saved by the ‘keeper. It was all Chelsea now and corner followed corner.
On the hour, Cesc zipped a low corner into the six-yard box, and Alonso did well to reach the ball first. His glancing header forced the ball into the waiting net.
Oh you beauty.
The game was surely safe now.
Just after, we broke with lightning speed, first through the little legs of N’Golo Kante and then via Eden Hazard. Of all people, Dunk recovered to clear off the line. Own goal number four of the season would have to wait. Just after, Hazard was forced wide inside the box, with Bakayoko only able to steer his pass wide of the post.
The Albion fans were still digging us out.
“Two nil and you still don’t sing.”
Willian replaced Hazard. Along with the zest of Moses and Alonso, he had been the star of our second-half renaissance. Elsewhere, Kante was as solid as ever. I liked Rudiger; his stock grows with each game.
Brighton enjoyed a few late efforts on our goal with the game virtually over – “typical” I can hear Mac saying – but our goal never looked like being breeched. Antonio brought on Michy Batshuayi for Morata. There was a shot from distance from N’Golo Kante just before Conte replaced him with Danny Drinkwater. Shots from Willian and Dave did not bother Ryan in the goal down below us.
“Blue Is The Colour” rang out as we exited Stamford Bridge. It had been – cliché warning – a game of two halves, but one which we surely deserved to win. As we walked down the steps, the news drifted through that United had battled back to draw 2-2.
Not to worry, we were now only one point adrift of the fuckers. The season is only just over the halfway mark. I am very confident that we will pip them, and all the rest, for second place.
Stoke City visit HQ on Saturday. I will see some of you there. Please make sure that you bring your songbook.