West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 September 2018.
With Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham all winning on Saturday, it seemed imperative that we should be victorious on Sunday afternoon – at West Ham United – too. Not that I have realistic thoughts about winning the league again this season but just that, well, a win is a win is a win. Why not keep this run going for as long as is humanely possible? So far, our perfect start to the league campaign – five out of five – had certainly surprised me, and here was a game that was immensely “winnable.”
The drive through Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and into London had been memorable for only two reasons. The bastard weather was awful, the worst of the season. Saturday had been horrible; wind and rain. And Sunday was just the same. I drove into three hours of rain and spray. It was not fun. Slightly funnier, though, was the sight – around Maidenhead I think – of a cyclist heading east in the near lane of the M4, quite illegally, and signalling with his left arm to leave the motorway at the next exit. The Chuckle Brothers all had to rub our eyes at the sight.
At just after 11am, I turned off the A4 and parked up outside Barons Court tube station. Waiting for us outside were my two Czech mates George and Petr, who live in Prague, and who I last bumped into together at the Rapid Vienna friendly two summers ago. They had contacted me over the summer about their unquenchable desire to see a Chelsea away game and, although I was far from confident of being able to come up with tickets for the West Ham match, some good fortune came my way a month or so ago and the boys were in luck. They then booked flights, and then accommodation. Their enthusiasm for the day’s events, despite the dreary conditions, was palpable.
As we headed east on the Piccadilly line, and then the Central line, we were surprised at the lack of West Ham, or Chelsea fans. But, for once, we were early. We always seem to leave it unfashionably late at West Ham. At Stratford – tons of home supporters now – we doubled-back on ourselves and alighted at the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane station. At last, the rain had virtually stopped.
Although from the Czech Republic, make no mistakes where George and Petr’s affections lie. They are thoroughbred Chelsea fans. I asked them how the Czech league was shaping up, and it warmed me a little to hear that they were not honestly sure about the placings; Petr thought it was Viktoria Pilzen, Slavia and then Sparta. But it seemed an irrelevance to both of them. I approved.
They were, as if it needed proving, proper Chelsea.
I had mentioned to the lads – The Czechle Brothers – as we passed through Bethnal Green and Mile End, that the area is, or at least was, the stereotypical East End, from which West Ham garnered much of their local support. There is nowhere else in London which is so tied to a football club; Arsenal and Tottenham might share north London, and much of its hinterlands, and Chelsea might draw support from the west and south, and share it with other clubs too, but from the traditional East End out to Essex, that acute angle of support is solidly West Ham.
As we alighted at the final station, with modern high-rises surrounding the former Olympic village, the contrast between the tight terraced streets around Upton Park and West Ham’s new neighbourhood could not have been greater. It is, simply, a stark, modern, airy environment. Everywhere you look are vast blocks of concrete. However, I am sure that the vast majority of West Ham fans still prefer the claustrophobic tightness of Green Street, the Queens Market, the Barking Road and the pubs which made West Ham the club it once was, but is no more.
There was time for a couple of drinks of overpriced lager from plastic glasses in the bar area outside the away sections. With George and Petr lapping up the pre-game thrills of a London derby, I nodded to the two hundred or so Chelsea fans within the area.
“No Chelsea colours.”
In fact, I was exaggerating for effect; there were in fact two people with Chelsea shirts.
“Probably tourists”, I joked, and they laughed.
They probably didn’t get the email.
Weeks ago, I had warned Petr and George about not wearing Chelsea shirts, scarves or hats. But they already knew the score and were well-versed in the dos and don’ts for a London derby.
The team had been announced.
No risks being taken with Pedro. Willian came in. And it was Olivier Giroud’s turn to lead the line.
No complaints. Happy with that.
With a quarter of an hour to go until kick-off, I walked up the steps and into the upper section of the away end. This time, better seats; we were in the fourth row back.
PD and Glenn were low down in the tier below and The Czechle Brothers were way beyond us in the last few rows of the upper section. I had warned them it would be a fight to get much noise flying around the away section. That huge void between the sections is no help.
I noted some signage on the main stand to my left :
“This Is The World’s Stage. This Is For Everyone. This Is London Stadium.”
It seemed the stadium was the star attraction and not the team.
And throughout the afternoon, electronic advertisements flashed constantly on the balcony walls between tiers; music concerts, events, baseball games.
Ah yes, baseball games.
I had to double-take when I saw my team, the New York Yankees, flashed up to my right.
It is the sort of thing I simply do not expect to see while watching Chelsea. In London.
There it was, in broad daylight.
New York Yankees V Boston Red Sox.
My mind wandered, briefly, to next June when the two teams will meet at West Ham’s new home stadium for a two game series. I tried to visualise where home plate would be; probably right in front of the nearest goal to where I was standing. And then I thought of the likely spectators. Yankee fans and Red Sox fans would only make up a relatively small percentage. There would be UK baseball fans from all over; Cubs shirts, Braves shirts, Dodgers shirts, Mets shirts, Phillies shirts. And I paused, again briefly, to imagine a similar scene should our league mirror Major League Baseball and cross the Atlantic.
Imagine a Chelsea vs. West Ham United game in, say, Chicago. It would not only attract fans of those two teams. If my experience is anything to go by, there would be supporters – wearing shirts and scarves – of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and others, to say nothing of the usual smattering of Bayern, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. And each little pocket of fans might well find themselves sitting cheek by jowl with rival fans. It is a scene which brought a wry smile to my face.
70,000 in Chicago.
A 15,000 section for Chelsea. A 15,000 section for West Ham. And a 40,000 neutral zone for all the other top fifty teams in Europe.
As the teams appeared, I spotted a phalanx of people crowding the two teams, separated by black fences. I presumed that this was the West Ham equivalent of Manchester City’s tunnel club, where people pay a dividend to get up-close-and-personal with their heroes.
I was happy that the lanky bugger Arnautovic was not playing.
Don’t we look great in that yellow / yellow / blue?
West Ham added to my thoughts about abandoning their heritage by wearing plain claret shirts, rather than with the blue-sleeves of yore. Maybe it was to honour their highest-ever finish, of second, in 1986.
If we sing about being Champions of Europe, and we sing about London, there is – I am sure people will begrudgingly agree – a slim chance of Arsenal and even Tottenham eventually lifting that trophy, although hopefully not in any of our lifetimes. But what of West Ham? They are easily London’s fourth biggest club, but it would be a minor miracle should they even qualify for the Champions league.
And to think, from 1979 to 1984, they seemed our natural London rivals.
How times change.
This would be my fourth visit to the London Stadium, but I was yet to see Chelsea win. A League Cup defeat, a League defeat and a Depeche Mode concert. I sadly missed our one win which came during our Championship season under Antonio Conte.
Behind me was a chap wearing a “Bulgarian Blues” polo shirt. He seemed involved all through the game. As George and Petr prove, not all of our foreign fans are gormless tools. Far from it in fact.
As the game commenced, I made it a priority to try to analyse the involvement of Jorginho during the next ninety minutes. I also vowed to try to try to keep an eye on Giroud. I confided in Gary alongside me :
“You know what, Gal? It honestly took me a while to warm to Giroud last season, for obvious reasons. But he’s a bloody good player, isn’t he? His lay-offs to Hazard have been excellent of late.”
I thought we played really well in the first twenty minutes or so.
A shot from Hazard forced Fabianski to save low. Our movement was great, full of one touch football, and we were stretching the home team nicely. But chances were certainly at a premium. For all of our attacking verve, it was West Ham who enjoyed the two best chances of the game. Firstly, Antonio broke in on the West Ham left but fired over. Then, Yarmolenko – similar in build to Arnautovic – fired low but Kepa Arrizabalaga smothered well.
One tackle, sliding, beautifully timed, from David Luiz had us all purring.
The grey skies had turned blue and at last there was a blast of sunlight.
I had warned Petr and George that the stadium had no architectural delights. With the slight rake of the lower tier especially, I find it a very bland stadium. It is not dramatic. It has no “wow” factor. The only part of it that seems worthy of comment is the cat’s cradle of steel which supports the roof and the triangular floodlights. Other than that, Upton Park trumped it hands down.
Our best chance of the first-half fell to the head of N’Golo Kante, after a finely volleyed cross from Willian allowed him a clear view of the goal. It was not to be. The ball skidded wide.
At the break, there were grumbles among the three thousand.
Our positive start had not continued. There was a tendency to over-pass. I had been watching Giroud; there was not much to report. He was hardly moving his markers at all. I had been watching Jorginho too. Lots of the ball – pass, pass, pass, – but yet again no flights of fancy to unlock the door. There had been little running off the ball either – the “third man” was lost in Vienna, or Budapest, or Amsterdam. He was nowhere to be seen in East London.
In the stands, the noise was not great. Only once in the first-half did the home fans make a din.
Chelsea chastised them in the time-honoured fashion.
“You’re not West Ham, anymore.”
“You sold your soul…”
Chelsea attacked us in the southern end in the second-half. Amid the chants of encouragement, there were moans and cries of despair too. In truth, it was pretty pedestrian stuff, for all of our possession. And we totally dominated. And yet Willian and Hazard failed to really make their talents pay off. Hazard kept dropping deep. And he rarely hugged the touchline.
More of the same from Jorginho. Not his best game for us. He often lost possession. His passes were to the side or to players being marked. I was getting frustrated with him.
Giroud, under my watchful gaze, rarely made a move into space. He seemed to continually move towards the man with the ball rather than attempt a blind-sided run (oh, Hernan Crespo, are your ears burning?) to create space.
With twenty-five minutes remaining, Sarri replaced Giroud with Morata.
My thoughts :
West Ham were for the taking. Why not play both up front for a quarter of an hour?
Hazard, in on goal, chose to back-heel to Moratra rather than shoot himself.
Then, from a corner, the ball fell at the feet of Morata. He had no time to think; he pushed a foot towards the ball but we groaned as the shot hit Fabianski in the face.
The frustration rose.
An injured Rudiger was replaced by Gary Cahill.
As the game continued, and as West Ham enjoyed a little spell, I whispered to Gary.
“Fackinell Gal, I bet they will get the ball out wide, we’ll lose concentration, they will hit a ball in to the box, and one of their fuckers will head home.”
Within twenty seconds, Robert Snodgrass (“more clubs than Peter Stringfellow”) crossed into our box and Yarmalenko rose at the far post, completely and utterly unmarked, but thankfully his firm header veered past the post.
We then came on strong in the final period.
We begged for a goal.
Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic, and I liked the look of him immediately. He sprayed balls out to the wings with aplomb. Then, a big moment. Collecting the ball from wide, he looked up and curled a ball towards Fabianski’s far post. The bend on it was phenomenal. We were all about to celebrate when the ‘keeper scrambled down low to save.
Then, the last two chances.
A Willian volley, evading a tackle, but it was sent well wide.
Hazard, a tame shot across Fabianski.
At times, that lone cyclist on the M4 had shown a much better understanding of how to negotiate heavy traffic than our attackers.
It finished 0-0.
This had been our poorest performance of the season. As is always the case, we chatted about everything on the slow trudge across London, and then furthermore on the drive home.
What’s the expression? “More questions than answers.”
That seems about right. The Jorginho / Kante dilemma rumbles on.
On the M4, I summed up my feelings.
“Never mind Saturday. Say we are playing the biggest game in our history. Tottenham in the European Cup Final. A game we had to win. You would want Kante shielding the defence, right? In his best position. Not Jorginho. You’d want Kante there.”
The lads agreed.
And, not for the first time in our recent history, we have ineffectual strikers.
“Morata is half a striker. Giroud is half a striker.”
Just like in 2013/14.
“Torres was half a striker. Ba was half a striker. Eto’o was half a striker.”
More questions than answers.
There is no trip to Anfield for me on Wednesday, but let’s hope we can find some positive answers to these questions on Saturday when we meet Liverpool for the second time in four days.
I will see you there.
Eyes On The Ball.
A Volleyed Cross.
Keeping It Alive.
Working The Space.
Bend It Like Barkley.