Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 20 October 2018.
With the international break over – I watched Frome Town capitulate to Harrow Borough last weekend, thanks for asking – it was time for arguably the biggest match of the season. Say what you like about Manchester United, or the Forces of Darkness as I occasionally call them – but they are always a huge draw. Personally, I’d probably rate the visit of Tottenham as our biggest home game each season, but there is not much between them.
Just the three of us headed east to London early on Saturday morning; Parky, PD and little old me. There was early morning patchy fog as I headed through Somerset and Wiltshire, but the sun occasionally cleared. On the M4 in Wiltshire, the fog and mist descended again. Away in the distance, the view of a line of monochrome trees atop a slightly sloping horizon was so pure that I even got PD agreeing with me as to how stunning it looked.
The sun soon evaporated any moisture as we headed into Berkshire and beyond. It was to be a stunning day for football. We had set off at 7am so as to maximise pre-match drinking time. We settled on “The Goose” for ease more than anything else. As the other two shot on, I stopped to take a photo of a mackerel sky high above the old school flats of the Clement Atlee Estate just off the Lillee Road. These high-rise blocks of low-cost accommodation, hovering over The Goose, The Wellington and The Rylston pubs, must have housed thousands of Chelsea supporters over the years. I would not be surprised if some of the “North End Road mob” of the late-‘sixties and early-‘seventies were housed within. A friend of mine, Paul – now living in North Devon, and a Chelsea supporter – lived within one of the towers. There is a lot mentioned of “proper Chelsea” these days, and I often think, as I gaze up at the windows and balconies of the Clement Atlee, named after the leader of the Labour Party and the Prime Minister of the coalition government for a few years after the Second World War, that this is a good example. Occasionally, I see a Chelsea flag hanging from one of the balconies – there used to be a dusty and weather-beaten “Munich 2012” one a few years back – but I wonder how many inhabitants get to see Chelsea Football Club play these days.
Not so many as in the late ’sixties I’d guess.
In The Goose – I had limited myself to a couple of Peronis – and the beer garden outside, I spent a good hour talking to friends from far and near. There was, as is always the case, little talk of the game ahead.
Deano from Yorkshire, Welsh Kev from Port Talbot, the boys from Kent, Eck from Glasgow, the lads from Gloucester, the Bristol lot, Rich from Loughborough.
I was aware that several friends from the other side of the Atlantic were over for the game.
And we chastise United fans that don’t come from Manchester.
Oh, the irony.
It was a pleasure to meet up with Brad, now living in New York but originally from Texas, and his father who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game.
I say this to everyone : “if we lose, you ain’t coming back.”
Pride of place during this particular pre-match meet-and-greet went to my friends Leigh-Anne and John from Toronto, now married, and dipping into see us play again after a busy holiday in Ireland. I last saw them in DC in 2015. They were to announce the fact that Leigh-Anne was pregnant to all their friends back home – baby due in March – with a photo of them holding up a little Chelsea shirt outside the West Stand.
Now that, my friends, is proper Chelsea.
The time flew past. I supped the last few sips and headed to the ground.
We were sure that Olivier Giroud would start. It was a foregone conclusion.
I hoped that man-of-the-moment Ross Barkley would start.
Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso
Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic
Willian – Morata – Hazard
My main concern was that we might be out-muscled by Matic and Pogba in midfield.
This would be my thirty-second Chelsea vs. Manchester United league game at Stamford Bridge. My first one came in our first season back in the top flight after a five-season break – I like to think of it as our “this relationship is going nowhere and we need a bit of space” phase – when I assembled with 42,000 others just after Christmas Day in 1984. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was super-excited. After my first game in 1974, Chelsea then played seven of the next ten seasons in Division Two, and my sightings of top teams was severely limited. It seems incredible these days, but from March 1974 to August 1984, I only ever saw us play seven home games in Division One.
Newcastle United – 1974
Tottenham Hotspur – 1974
Derby County – 1975
Aston Villa – 1977
Liverpool – 1978
Tottenham Hotspur – 1978
Queens Park Rangers – 1979
(…it would appear this random sample would support my theory of Tottenham being the biggest game each season in my mind.)
December 1984, with me on the benches with Alan and Glenn, and a few other close friends, and the visit of Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United. It was a huge game. We were doing well in the league, and United were in the mix too. There was an expectant buzz before the game, and we were in The Benches early, as always, and watched the large and sprawling North Stand fill up with United fans.
“Not as many as Liverpool earlier this month” I remember thinking at the time.
These days, we are so used to inflated gates with clubs being scared to death to publish actual “bums on seats” at games, instead going for the number of tickets sold. It is why Arsenal always announce gates of 60,000 despite swathes of empty seats in the latter years of the Wenger reign. In those days, it was the exact opposite. Why pay tax on the income generated by 45,000 if you can announce the figure as 35,000? Nobody would ever check. So, in those days with that cunning old fox Ken Bates in charge, there were many times when we scoffed at some of the gates which were announced. In May 1984, Stamford Bridge was packed to see us beat Leeds United to clinch promotion but the gate was only 33,000.
“Yeah right, Batesy.”
Sitting in The Benches in those days, I always used to keep a check on the top row of the East Stand. If every seat was taken, I expected a 42,500 capacity figure to be announced.
Very often it wasn’t.
Sadly, we lost 3-1 that day and I was as disappointed as I had felt for a good few years as I exited Stamford Bridge and took the train back to Somerset. It was our first big loss at home after promotion the previous year and the little doubts about our place in the new world order were beginning to peck away.
Our home record against United used to be bloody awful, and yet paradoxically our league record at Old Trafford was excellent; from 1966/677 to 1987/88 we were unbeaten in thirteen league matches, a very fine record. And we have intermittently nabbed good wins at Old Trafford in the past thirty years.
Our home form has certainly improved.
From that game in December 1984, we lost eight out of seventeen league games at Stamford Bridge.
Since 2002, we have lost just one of sixteen.
For once, I was confident – not even quietly confident – of a Chelsea win.
“God knows where our goals will come from, but I am sure we’ll win.”
It has been a mystery to me why the movers and shakers at Adidas decided to jettison the classic Manchester United red / white / black in favour of a red / black / red this season. It was a classic kit. Why the change? All I know is that none of the United fans that I know have bothered to mention it. Perhaps they haven’t noticed.
After the usual “Park Life” and “Liquidator” segment gave way to the flag waving and flame-throwing bollocks of the immediate pre-match, the teams appeared.
United oddly chose to wear white shorts for this one match. But the kit still looked a mess.
A new Eden Hazard flag – simplicity itself – surfed over the heads of those in the tier below me.
I looked around. Ken Bates or no Ken Bates, nobody could lie about the attendance for this one. It was a full-house for sure.
Except for a few of the boxes in the West Middle.
The mind boggles why these tend to be empty every game.
Another TV game. The nation, and parts of the world, was ready.
The game began and there was a decent buzz in the stadium. I only rarely looked over to spot Mourinho and Sarri. The red of the United substitutes was very light, almost pink. Liverpool have gone darker, United have gone lighter. Anything to distance themselves from each other. By comparison, there was more immediate noise at the Liverpool home game, but everyone was in the boozers, all fifty-two of them, for much longer three weeks ago. These lunchtime starts are usually quieter affairs.
United were singing, as they always do, in the far corner, but Chelsea had the best of the opening period of the game. There was far greater fluidity from our ranks. Hazard was hacked down by Young, but no card was shown. Soon after, Eden was fouled just outside the box, but Willian curled the free-kick way over the bar. United had a little spell; it made a change to see them in our box. Lukaku headed wide. It would be the last that we would see of him for a while.
At the other end, we dominated again.
On twenty minutes, we won a corner. Willian struck a firm cross over towards the penalty spot where Toni Rudiger rose, seemingly unhindered and at will, to thump a header past De Gea. Again, I had a clear view of its trajectory. I knew that it was a goal straight away.
Blue / Blue / White 1 Red / White / Red 0.
Alan – in a Mancunian Red Army accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”
Chris – in a Cockney Reds accent : “Come on my little diamonds”
Young chipped away at Hazard again; this time a card.
Next up, a sublime pass from Rudiger – lofted from afar – caught the run of a raiding Alonso, but the defender’s first touch was heavy as De Gea approached.
A similar lofted pass from David Luiz was so well disguised, none of his team mates went for it.
“That ball had a moustache and false glasses on it, Al.”
For virtually all of the first-half, while Juan Mata was involved in occasional bursts and a couple of dead-balls, the other two former Chelsea players Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku struggled to get involved at all. Matic was his usual ambling self and of little consequence. And Lukaku, sporting ridiculous XXXXL shorts – “If Gary was wearing those, he would have to have turn-ups” quipped Alan – was hardly noticeable. I was mesmerized, though, by the size of Lukaku. His arse must have a postcode all to itself. How times change; when he first joined Chelsea, I wanted him to bulk up a little as he didn’t seem to have the physical prowess to dominate defenders. Bloody hell, since those days, he has bulked up quite considerably. He must eat at every greasy spoon, twenty-four-hour truck stop and all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant between Bournemouth and Tyneside.
It was lovely to see Juan Mata applauded by the home support as he took his first corner over in the far corner. I would expect nothing less, to be honest. Mata is a class act, and will always be a blue in my eyes. There was no show of love or appreciation for Matic and Lukaku.
The play continued to pass Lukaku by. He seemed slow and disinterested, and of no consequence.
In fact, he looked like the biggest pile of shite to be seen on TV from a location in West London since Lulu the elephant had stage fright in the Blue Peter studio.
The first-half came to an end, with Chelsea well in control, but without creating a great deal of chances. It gives me no comfort nor pleasure to report that Alvaro Morata was his usual self; playing in name only. Not much movement, not much guile, not much anything really.
In the much-improved programme, there was time to dip into the contents. Oddly, the Red Banner game that I covered a couple of games back was featured in depth; I learned that the game, on a Wednesday afternoon in 1954, was shown “live” on the BBC.
A Pat Nevin column detailing his love, like mine, of the Manchester music scene, was excellent. Pat has a musical column in the programme this season, similar to his piece in the old “Bridge News” of the mid- ‘eighties and it is well worth reading. There have been a couple of excellent pieces on the internet about Wee Pat of late.
After reading one of them during the morning, Glenn – who was missing the game due to work – sent me a message to say that “Pat is just like you.”
I half-guessed what he meant.
I presumed that there would be a comment about the Cocteau Twins.
“I like driving. I can listen to music. And think about football.”
The second-half began. Early on, Morata would frustrate us further. A Jorginho through ball set him up, he did all the right things, but then meekly shot wide.
With us in charge, but desperate for a second to wrap things up, I hoped the miss would not haunt us.
David Luiz, raiding in the inside-left position, supported the attack and did well to exchange passes with Eden, but his shot was deflected for a corner. I loved the bursting runs of Kovacic which continued to breathe life into our play.
The game then, sadly, changed.
With ten minutes of the second-half played, Kepa did ever so well to push out a firm strike from Mata, but the ball was kept alive. The ball was dolloped back inside the box and although Luiz got a head to the ball, I sensed danger – “they’ll score here” – and it fell to Martial who nimbly poked it home.
London 1 Manchester 1.
United roared, singing some song about Liverpool, if my hearing was correct.
Chelsea then seemed to crumple. Matic started dominating the midfield and Mata looked influential. Lukaku roamed from his central position and caused problems. Suddenly, we looked half the team we were in the first-half.
I grew more annoyed with Alvaro Morata.
Every player has a trademark play – the John Terry chest-pass, the Frank Lampard thumbs up run, the Eden Hazard 180 degree turn, the manic Pedro run, the Willian burst, the David Luiz feint – but it seems to me the Morata speciality is holding the back of his head after yet another half-hearted jump at a high ball.
David Luiz seemed to be having a hit and miss game, but I lost count of the times his fantastic interceptions stopped United causing further damage. One run to shield the ball away from the lump of Lukaku was sublime.
A Luiz header went close from a Willian free-kick. The flight of the ball was almost perfect, but the stretching Luiz just had too much to do. But his leap was well-timed. His was an increasingly important role in the game.
Ross Barkley then replaced Kovacic. A round of applause for both.
Kante – not as involved as I would like if I am honest – then let fly outside the box but De Gea scrambled the ball away.
This was a tight game, if not high on real quality. Eden had been shackled all afternoon, often with three players hounding him, but we hoped his moment of genius would come.
Then, seventy-three minutes, a calamity. Luiz mistimed an interception out wide (there had been other similar ones during the game where his timing was spot-on) and this allowed the mercurial Mata to set up Rashford, then Martial. Moving the ball quickly out of his feet, he effortlessly struck a low shot right into the bottom corner of our net.
Nike 1 Adidas 2.
The United hordes roared again.
“U – N – I – T – E – D, United are the team for me.”
And then a song which United have taken on board as a badge of honour over the past fifteen years or so :
“Who the fuck are Man United, as the reds go marching on, on, on.”
Their thought process must be this : ”as if anyone should question who United are.”
It honestly boils my piss when I hear our fans singing this.
It’s their fucking song these days.
“Chelsea Till I Die” is another one. Hardly ever sung at a Chelsea game of any description, home or away, at any time. A song of Football League teams. A dirge much beloved by smaller clubs. A song which seems to have found a firm footing among our overseas fans, though God knows why.
Please stop it.
Immediately, Pedro replaced Willian. Soon after, Olivier Giroud took over from the non-existent Morata.
But he mood had certainly darkened around me. Just like in 1984, we were about to be handed our first big home defeat of the season. And I had a flashback to the Tottenham game last Spring, when an early goal at The Shed was eventually wiped out and overtaken.
Eden became a little more involved. The intensity rose.
I spoke to Alan.
“Barkley to get a goal.”
The referee signaled a whopping six minutes of extra-time.
Hope, however small, existed.
The clock ate up the minutes. A few fans decided to leave.
With time surely running out, Dave swung in a high and deep cross towards the far post. I snapped as David Luiz climbed a step ladder to jump higher than two United defenders. We watched as the ball slowly looped towards the far post.
The ball struck it.
The ball cannoned out and Rudiger headed towards goal.
David De Gea magnificently saved.
Ross Barkley was on hand to smash the ball in.
Chelsea 2 Manchester United 2.
By this time, I was at the top of the steps to my immediate right and I snapped away as Ross Barkley celebrated wildly. I felt my head spinning.
I was light-headed.
I grabbed hold of the hand rail in front of me and steadied myself.
I looked over to see Al and Bournemouth Steve shouting, smiling and pointing.
Alan’s face says it all.
All around me, there seemed to be another wave of noise and then, I wasn’t sure why, a loud “FUCK OFF MOURINHO.”
I immediately thought that this was a little distasteful. Yeah, I know the bloke is – now – a knob head but there were some good times too.
We tried to piece together what had happened, and over in the tunnel, there was a lot of handbags being thrown. Players on the pitch were pushing and shoving each other.
I didn’t care.
The whistle went and it had seemed like a win. After the ninety-sixth minute goal conceded against Liverpool, this was a lot more enjoyable. And Ross Barkley, our token Scouser, making all those Mancunians miserable now?
Unbeaten in nine league games, a nice round dozen in total, we are doing just fine.
And Brad’s father enjoyed the game so much that he soon asked around for a spare for Thursday against BATE Borisov.
He will be sitting, apparently, two runs in front of me.
I’ll see him there.