Tales From Another Semi

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 22 April 2018.

It was around 7.30pm and we had just bought a round of drinks in “The Swan”, a high-ceilinged public house placed between the two buildings which form Hammersmith tube station. It had taken a while to leave Wembley Stadium, what with the wait for our eventual train south, and then changes onto the underground system and we were momentarily paused on our way back to Barons Court where my car was parked. We sat on stools at a high table, soon toasted ourselves – “the final” – and quietly chatted about the day. There had been blue Chelsea flags for everyone in the Chelsea section at Wembley, and Glenn had placed our four on the table. They would eventually be handed out to young Chelsea fans that we know; a nice little gift for the youngsters. Only last week, I had called in to see a neighbour who was looking after eight-year-old two twin boys for the day – the sons of my once next-door neighbours who moved to a nearby village a few years back – and I passed over a blue and white chequered flag from a few years back to Alphie. His face was a picture. I did feel a little embarrassed that I had nothing for his brother Isaac – who purportedly favours Manchester City – but I had to laugh when Isaac told me that he liked Chelsea too. I quickly put him in his place

“You can’t support two teams!”

And then I felt guilty that I had publicly chastised him.

Anyway, I had plans to give one of the Chelsea flags from Wembley to Alphie  – “you’ve made the wrong choice, Isaac, sorry” – and send the other one over to a young relative in Australia, who I recently learned was a Chelsea supporter. They would be nice reminders of yet another semi-final victory.

It had been a long day. I was awake at around 7am and I had collected the three other Chuckle Brothers by 8.30am. We would not be home until 10.30pm at least. This football lark can be tiresome.  The chat slowed and we stared at our drinks. Then, a chap with a Boss T-shirt and a pint of Guinness spotted the four Chelsea flags and approached us. It looked like he had enjoyed a few drinks as he was slurring his words slightly, and his girlfriend was hanging back a little.

“Why are you looking sad? You are Chelsea fans. You won, right?”

It was clear from his accent that he was from mainland Europe – I initially thought he was Dutch – and his words touched a nerve. Although I smiled in response, inside I was hurting. Had we become something that we had long hated? Had we become so used to success at Chelsea that we were blasé about yet another semi-final triumph? Was I at that stage in my long journey of Chelsea support that I had secretly dreaded? Was I taking all of this for granted? I experienced a few uneasy seconds as I tussled with the severity of the thoughts in my head. We replied that – indeed – it had been a very long day, and that he had caught us, maybe, at a weak moment. After all, what would he really want us to be doing? Constant somersaults and cartwheels on a Sunday evening? Anyway, we chatted about the game – “never really looked in trouble, just took a while to make it safe” – and the chap revealed that he was from a small town in Southern Denmark. He was in absolute awe that we went to every game – “a three-hour drive home, wow” – and he told how he was at Stamford Bridge for the Manchester United game last autumn. It seemed that they had watched from a corporate area. I wasn’t sure if he was a Chelsea fan too but his friend had been solemnly told that he couldn’t wear a Chelsea shirt – “that’s bullshit” – and we pulled faces of shock and astonishment, though I had heard long ago that colours are indeed not allowed in such areas. He gleefully admitted that his girlfriend – still keeping her distance – was a Manchester United fan, and he seemed happy that United had lost that game. I looked over at her and smiled but deep down I thought “it’ll never last.” For some inexplicable reason, none of us mentioned the FA Cup Final which would pit Chelsea and Manchester United once again. After a few more minutes, our drinks finished, we excused ourselves and left to head back to Barons Court.

At exactly 8pm, I pulled away from Barons Court, and pointed The Chuckle Bus west. Ahead was a fine drive home in the aftermath of another lovely day in the nation’s capital, with the sun slowly dipping beyond the horizon – but first a quick glimpse of the Wembley arch shining away in North London – and a clear night sky.

It had indeed been a good day.

After missing the excellent win at Turf Moor on Thursday – which was followed by the ridiculous over-reaction by many to that Alvaro Morata’s miss – it meant that it would be two consecutive Chelsea versus Southampton games for me. We had certainly been given a fantastic chance to reach an FA Cup Final with a semi against the relegation-threatened team. As for the first semi-final, played the previous evening, I could not have been happier. I was travelling back from a Frome Town game at Gosport Borough – the less said about that the better – and did not even listen to the match on the radio. But I was very happy that Spurs had lived down to expectations. A potential final against Manchester United would be absolutely fine. The thought of losing to Mourinho’s team in the final would be tough, but not nearly as horrific as a loss in an FA Cup Final to Tottenham. Beating them, of course, would be wonderful, but it was just too much of a risk. The stakes would be too great. A loss to Spurs in the final would go straight into a top three of most miserable Chelsea games.

But – wait!

This is Tottenham we are talking about.

1993 : Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0.

1995 : Everton 4 Tottenham 1.

1999 : Newcastle United 2 Tottenham 0.

2001 : Arsenal 2 Tottenham 1.

2010 : Portsmouth 2 Tottenham 0.

2012 : Chelsea 5 Tottenham 1.

2017 : Chelsea 4 Tottenham 2.

2018 : Manchester United 2 Tottenham 1.

The pleasure in avoiding Spurs was a view shared by the Kent lads – yes, them again, they love a Chuckle Brothers pub crawl – as we enjoyed our first pints of the day in “The Swan”, a former coaching inn from the eighteenth century at the northern edge of Hyde Park, adjacent to Lancaster Gate tube station, and close to the FA’s former HQ. The pub was dotted with a few Chelsea fans, and one or two Southampton fans too. We then walked out into the bright London sunshine towards Paddington Station, popping into “The Sussex Arms” for one, and then on to “Fountains Abbey” where the London chaps had been based since midday. There was little talk of the semi-final, as so often is the way. We were so sorry to hear that one of our friends – John, who lives very close to Paddington / Marylebone / Edgware Road – had lost his mother on the Wednesday. Gillian, Kev and Rich were down from Scotland and it was great to see them once more. Kev told me that it was his first-ever visit to Wembley. I could tell he was excited. We had heard rumours that neither Chelsea nor Southampton had sold all the tickets available to both teams. This raised a few eyebrows. There was talk of high ticket prices, but I had a distinct feeling that if we had drawn Tottenham or Manchester United, our allocation would have been snapped up. I definitely got the impression that for many it was a case of “Southampton? Can’t be bothered.”

Time was now accelerating away, and it was time to move. We legged it to Marylebone, bumped into the usual suspects at the Sports Bar outside, but then had to wait a while to catch the 2.30pm train. We were certainly leaving it late, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion.

We alighted at Wembley Stadium station at just after 2.45pm.

“Be a miracle if we see kick-off.”

There seems to be more and more construction at Wembley with each visit. Hotels are going up at a fair rate of knots. There is already a designer outlet nearby. If, as seems likely, we will be residing at Wembley in the near future – a subject worthy of a wholly separate piece in itself, maybe even a separate website – then maybe we will eventually decide to drink at the hotel bars nearby. Wembley was festooned with huge advertising. I still loathe the new national stadium. It is as charming as an aircraft hangar.

I took a photograph of Kev with the curve of the arch behind him.

“Enjoy Wembley mate. And don’t break the crossbar.”

We made it inside the upper tier with about five minutes gone, thus missing out on the pre-match presentations. That Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had done us again. Just outside the seating area, in the concourse, there was an “oooooh” as Chelsea went close.

We had seats halfway back in the top tier, above the south-east corner. Southampton had our usual western end. Bloody hell, there were swathes of empty seats in their top tier. And bizarrely, these were the cheapest seats, at just thirty quid. How very odd. There were hundreds and hundreds of empty seats dotted around our two tiers. I looked around and spotted familiar faces in our section; Dutch Mick and Gary, the two Bobs, Scott, Mark, The Youth and Seb.

A quick check of our team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

A quick check of the supporters.

In the lower tier of the western end, it looked to me that every single Southampton supporter was standing.

In the opposite end, down to my right, only the supporters in the sections behind the corner posts were standing.

This, in simple terms, suggested to me that they were more “up for it” than us.

There certainly seemed to me more noise being generated by their red and white bedecked supporters.

Sitting next to me was a young family, parents with two children under the age of seven. The two kids soon looked bored. Over the course of the game, the mother hardly spoke to the kids. I wondered why they were there. Elsewhere, despite the first part of the game being dominated by Chelsea, there was little noise.

I tried to join in when any semblance of a chant tried to get going, but all around me people were sat on their hands.

Watching not supporting.

Fucking hell.

The stadium is so huge, so impersonal, with few – if any – unique features, that it just deadens any enjoyment for me. The Club Wembley level was only half-full at best. Down on the pitch, Chelsea were still dominating, with tons of possession and pretty patterns, moving the ball this way and that, and with Kante the metronome in the middle, keeping the rhythm, and with Willian and Hazard stretching Southampton, we looked like the only team that would score.

Willian, in Willian territory, dipped a free-kick just over the bar.

The Saints fans were still making more noise. Their song reminded me of Tottenham, shudder. Although I live only sixty or so miles from Southampton, I have only known three friends/workmates/acquaintances that have been Southampton fans. One of them, Duncan – a workmate from twenty years ago, who I see once every few years – was not at the game, but he posted a lovely photograph on Facebook of his mother at the game, smiling, flag in hand, Saints scarf around her neck. Her beaming smile was wonderful. She was certainly “up for the cup.”

A rare chance for Southampton came on twenty-five minutes, but Caballero saved from Lemina.

We only created a few half-chances though. Our play seemed to run out of ideas a little, in the same way that we had run out of songs.

Olivier Giroud teed up a chance for himself with a deft flick from a Fabregas cross but his follow-up volley was wide.

At the break, all was quiet in Wembley Stadium.

There had been so much swearing emanating from the mouth of one of the Chuckle Brothers throughout the first-half, that when I got back to my seat midway through the halftime break, and saw the family of four to my left were missing, I did wonder if they had left early, never to be seen again. Imagine my surprise when they returned with hot dogs and crisps costing half a weekly wage. These people were in it for the duration and I was somehow soothed.

The game restarted, and I spoke to Glenn about the huge section of empty seats behind the dugouts – the “Club Wanker” section – and bemoaned, for the fifty seventh thousand time, the state of modern football.

“Twats.”

A Chelsea move built and then a foul. Cesc Fabregas sent over a lovely cross towards Hazard, who did ever so well to pass the ball onto Giroud. My next thought was purely personal.

“Bollocks, I haven’t got my camera at the ready and this looks like a goal to me.”

With that, Giroud seemed to stumble and yet maintain possession. Everything happened in slow motion as he fended off a few challenges, and stabbed a leg out to send the ball home.

Camera or no camera, I roared and we all roared.

GET IN.

Giroud spun away and celebrated with team mates and then the manager.

Almost immediately, there was the usual text exchange with Alan.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Perfect.

There was a salvo of song from the Chelsea end – about bloody time – but we were quietened when Shane Long took a very heavy touch with only Caballero to beat. The ball raced away for a goal-kick and we heaved a sigh of relief.

The first change took place on the hour, and Conte – the pragmatic Italian – went for safety first in an attempt to shore up our shape, replacing the effervescent Willian with the boo boys’ favourite Tiemoue Bakayoko. The boos rang around Wembley. I wasn’t surprised.

Hazard moved forward alongside Giroud, with the midfield bolstered by an extra man. Only the second Southampton chance of the entire game resulted in a Caballero save – somehow, I am not sure how, or with which body part – from Redmond. The game was opening up and, surely, this would be to our advantage. A Hazard thunderbolt was tipped over by McCarthy. The little Belgian then sent over a perfect rabona which Victor Moses just failed to reach. Hazard was at his teasing best, the certain star. Two more substitutions took place.

Pedro for Fabregas.

Morata for Giroud.

After being on the pitch for just three minutes, Morata was able to wiggle between two defenders and head home from another sublime Azpilicueta cross. I managed to capture this on film. The ball seemed to take forever to drop, and it looked like it would eventually go wide from our view high up in section 521. At last the net rippled and the goal was wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Southampton 0.

We felt safe now, but Austin hit the base of the far post from an acute angle. Morata then went close on two occasions at the other end.

At last, the referee Martin Atkinson whistled the end of the game.

Phew.

It was hardly comparable to the semi-final against Spurs exactly 365 days previously, but we had done it. It was the worst atmosphere I have ever experienced at a semi-final and that definitely detracted from the day. But we had reached our sixth FA Cup Final in twelve seasons. What a record. Quite phenomenal. One more win would put us at joint-third in the all-time list of winners – alongside Tottenham of all teams – and only behind Arsenal and Manchester United.

In the queue for the trains back to Marylebone, Pat Nevin waltzed past and it made my day. As the line slowly zig-zagged along, I spotted my friend Duncan’s mother only a few yards away. I had never previously met his Mum, although both Duncan and I grew up just a couple of miles apart, but I was sure it was her. Duncan had told me that his mother had recently been bitten by the football bug and was now a season ticket holder at their home games. The line shuffled along, and eventually I was able to catch up with her and say “hi.” I took a selfie of us and sent it to Duncan. Lovely.

We eventually took the train south, and things felt very familiar indeed.

And here’s a well-used sign-off.

“See you at Wembley.”

For John’s mother : RIP.

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