Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 14 December 2019.
A Figure In Black And White.
Our home game with AFC Bournemouth, to give them their full name, would be my twenty-fifth match of the current season. I was in London, in Fulham, early and I had a little time to kill. I had dropped the lads off at West Brompton tube station at around 10am, and had then parked the car outside the mews on Bramber Road where James Hunt, the former Formula One champion, had lived for a while. I needed to be in The Goose to collect a ticket for a mate at 11am, and had about an hour to kill. I decided to head down to Stamford Bridge and pop in to the Copthorne Hotel for a coffee and to see who else was around and about.
Everything was pretty quiet. It was a bitterly cold morning. It felt like it was yet to become a match day in these familiar streets. As I neared the site of the old red-bricked Fulham Broadway tube station, I was surprised how still and silent it all was. The long expanse of pavement outside the Broadway Bar & Grill, which then lead on past the former entrance hall of the station, was totally devoid of people. I was touched by the serenity of the scene. I decided to take a photograph with my ‘phone as a scene-setter for my day at Chelsea. I had decided to mention that I loved the fact that my grandfather had probably exited that very same station in the early part of the twentieth century as he made his way to Stamford Bridge, the only stadium he would ever visit apart from a midweek trip with my parents and I to see Chelsea at Bristol Rovers in 1976. I love that on every trip to our home stadium, I walk in his steps.
I steadied myself and was just about to “shoot” when I noticed the figure of a man, cigarette in hand, white silk scarf around his neck, like a figure from the inter-war years. I then realised that it was no ghost from the distant past. It was none other than Tommy Baldwin who I had seen play just once, my second-ever game against Tottenham in 1974, but who was a huge part of our famous team of the ‘seventies.
He was the leader of the team, after all.
I approached him, shook his hand, and he seemed surprised that anyone would recognise him.
It was a lovely little moment.
I continued my advance to Stamford Bridge. It was so early that the fellows on the “CFCUK” stall were only just setting up shop. I walked on, into the forecourt, underneath the old Shed Wall. Past images of our former stars; Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Peter Osgood, Frank Lampard, Ron Harris and all. And one of Gianluca Vialli – the first one if the walk begins outside the hotel – who is still battling cancer. I took some photographs.
So many memories.
I have said before that I can often walk around the centre of my local town for thirty minutes and recognise nobody, but already on this morning in SW6 I had spoken to Mick and Pauline, Tom, Raymondo and the leader of the team.
At Chelsea, I feel like I am at home and I love that feeling.
In the hotel, I chatted to some others, then picked up the ticket at The Goose.
I was then on my way to Putney Bridge, to The Eight Bells, to my “local” some one hundred miles away from my house.
The Chelsea Social.
I arrived at about midday and my travelling companions – Simon, PD and Parks – were already on their fourth pint. Guests of honour were Gillian and Kev from Edinburgh – their second home game in a fortnight – but we were also joined by Gary and John from Edinburgh too. I chatted to Gary and how his local team, Hearts, have instigated – along with many other league teams north of the border – a “keep fit” campaign based at their Tynecastle stadium. I love the fact that Gary is able to use the stadium as a backdrop to his efforts to lose weight; up and down the terraces, stretches against the seats, press-ups in the tunnel. It is inspired. As an adjunct to this, Gary took part in a half-time shootout at Hampden Park during the Scottish League Cup tie with Rangers. He played in goal – in front of 52,000 – and saved three out of five shots on goal. What a great story.
Later, Mike and Courtney from Chicago joined us, and I spent an unusually long time talking to them both about baseball. I admitted to them that part of my fading love of that sport is the simple fact that my team – and Mike’s, definitely not Courtney’s – the Yankees moved out of their historic home in 2008 – dramatic, fearsome, cramped – and into an anaemic and watered down version in 2009. I am always aware of the role that stadia play in our appreciation of sport. Too many resemble shopping malls these days. Balls to shopping malls. Give me stands that drip history, ooze memories and reverberate to the sound of honest fans and not consumers and wannabees. At old Yankee Stadium in 2008, I struggled to squeeze past fans in the claustrophobic concourses which reeked of sweet popcorn, salted pretzels and beer. In 2009, at the new pad, I was able to watch as a butcher took great delight as he went to work on rare cuts of beef behind a glass screen, as some sort of entertainment, and – fuck me sideways – I know what version I preferred.
And it is getting worse.
My good friend Steve in South Philly – while we were talking about the new riverside stand at the wonderful Craven Cottage – sent me notice that in his part of that great city, there are plans for a $50M e-Sports venue where – let me get this right – people go to watch people gaming.
I am glad I’ll be dead in thirty years.
We made our way to the stadium. Mike and Courtney were in the Shed Upper – using the same season ticket seats belonging to a friend that Mike met while living in Richmond upon Thames for a year in around 2008 – and I promised that I’d try to spot them with my zoom lens. I did. The four from Edinburgh were dotted around the Matthew Harding. I took my place alongside PD and Simon in The Sleepy Hollow.
The team? Mason Mount in for Mateo Kovacic.
Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson
Mount – Kante
Willian – Abraham – Pulisic
As a contrast to our league of nations, Bournemouth fielded a team consisting of solid, and relatively unknown, Anglo-Saxons
Ramsdale, Stacey, Francis, Mepham, Billing, Cooke, Gosling, Fraser and King. It all sounded like a school register from my childhood.
Bournemouth only average 10,000 home fans so it was perhaps no surprise that there was a section of their three-thousand unfilled.
We attacked The Shed End as the game began.
Fraser on the Bournemouth left immediately made an impression and looked the liveliest of the away team. But we were soon on the attack, and a sublime ball from deep from Jorginho found the advanced run of Mount. From an angle, it was always going to be a tough ask, and his shot drew a save from Ramsdale in the Bournemouth goal.
Little did we know that this effort inside the first ten minutes or so would be our main effort on goal during the entirety of the first half.
The atmosphere was morgue like, and the away fans made more noise.
A lone voice in the Matthew Harding Upper was heard to mutter :
“Fuck off back to your care homes.”
Chelsea were faced with a packed final third as players took it in turns to pass their way around the danger zones as if there was a force field centered on the penalty spot. There were shades of last season – pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – and the home fans sat in sombre silence. On too many occasions players failed to take ownership to make a killing ball. Yet there was poor movement off the ball too. A shot from Tammy midway through the contest narrowly missed the target.
It was all very humdrum.
And, to reiterate, the away team were unwilling to attack and open the game up, more’s the pity.
We were forced to trudge slowly over quicksand.
It was dull stuff.
I willed the boys on, but chances of any real quality were rare. Eddie Howe’s team, on a very poor run of form, seemed to grow more resolute as the tedious half progressed. On their rare forays up field though, such is our fragility these days, it always seemed that they might score.
Sadly, I have to report that there was not one single “stadium wide” song of support and encouragement throughout the first forty-five minutes.
We’re all getting older, we’re all getting quieter, we’re all fighting a losing battle.
The most repeated ball of the half was a long diagonal from Rudiger to Emerson or Pulisic on the left, but I wished that there was the occasional quick ball over the top for Tammy to eat up. On one occasion, nearing the end of the half, a gap was yawning to Tammy’s left, but the ball was played elsewhere and our young striker flung his arms up in frustration. He had a point. In the last dying embers of the first period, a corner from the boot of Willian found the leap of Tammy but the striker could not get over it and it flew over the crossbar.
It had been, definitely, a tough watch.
At least there were no boos at half-time.
Inside my head : “we tend to play better in the second-half, Frank will sort them out, we often make amends for a lacklustre first period with a more determined second-half show. Come on Chels.”
To a pal : “the last time we went in 0-0 at half-time against this lot, we let in four in the second-half.”
The second-half began and, alas, there was no noticeable improvement. If anything, we had deteriorated further, and the away team were more involved in attacking play.
Inside my head : “that will help us, draw them in then counter-attack them with pace.”
But this never really happened.
Rejoice – on fifty-one minutes, at last a Chelsea song joined us all together. It was hardly deafening, but it was a start. Willian struck the red and black wall from a far-too-central free-kick and then Pulisic broke through with a trademark burst but seemed to lose his footing as a shot skidded wide.
But the mood in the Stamford Bridge stands was not good at all.
I kept silent – lips pursed, hands in pockets, the occasional scowl, the look of a worried man – but elsewhere others were happy to howl and swear and yell obscenities. That upset me a bit. I hate that a misdirected pass – of which there were an increasing number – drew five times as much noise as a fine touch.
To hear someone close by call our players “fucking wankers” was one of the low points of my year.
Aren’t supporters meant to rally behind our team when players need encouragement? I get the frustration, but at times it was too much, too audible, and I am adamant that it affected the players’ collective confidence. It reminded me of the “you don’t know what you’re doing” phases of the Scolari, Villas-Boas and Sarri eras when it was possible to see players undergo some sort of meltdown with misplaced passes and poor control as they fell apart.
But that’s my standard view. It hasn’t fucking changed in years.
Managers manage. Players play. Supporters support.
It took a fantastic last-gasp tackle from Kurt Zouma to get the crowd in a positive mood. But elsewhere, everything seemed to be falling apart. We over-passed, and at times the passing was so poor. Misplaced balls from Rudiger and Zouma from deep, misplaced passes from Jorginho, and even from Kante who was – a tell-tale sign – being dragged down to the level of others after a strong start to the game. Rudiger, actually – everyone’s favourite when he was side-lined – had a ‘mare and to see his form deteriorate over the second forty-five minutes was equally surprising and shocking in equal measure. In fact, nobody played well.
On sixty-five minutes, a double substitution.
Mateo Kovacic for Pulisic.
Callum Hudson-Odoi for Willian.
After a ridiculous bout of pinball in the penalty area below me, Emerson headed straight at Ramsdale. From the angle where I was watching, it looked like it hit the bar. The crowd groaned.
Abraham stretched but saw a header go wide. But we barely created anything of note.
Frank went for two upfront as Michy Batshuayi replaced Jorginho.
With ten minutes to go, a Bournemouth attack and the ball was lofted up into the box.
An offside flag.
But the ball was lobbed goal wards.
Dave seemed to clear it.
The Bournemouth fans celebrated.
I did not react.
“Offside, you wankers.”
A bad sign.
And nobody that I was sat with really knew what was going on. We presumed the bloke wasn’t offside, but there was no real clear explanation.
CFC 0 AFCB 1.
Only in the fading moments of this dire game did we seem to want to go at their defence. A couple of thrusting runs from Hudson-Odoi hinted at the kind of football that we should have been producing all afternoon but it was too little and too late.
At the final whistle there were boos.
I know – I am not stupid – this was a bloody poor performance, but are people so mean spirited that the “give our kids a chance, we’ll be happy with tenth this season, Frank knows the club” mantra has been so easily jettisoned?
For many, it would appear so, eh?
But there again, the league table doesn’t lie, and we are fourth from bottom and out of the Champions League. And we have spent £200M on new players since the end of last season.
As I drove home, I was relieved – so relieved – that my ‘phone was off and I was not able to see the reaction – over reaction? – of so many on social media. Again, I get the passion, and I get a lot of constructive analysis, but some comments I would later discover were just excruciating.
I trust Frank. He knows football. He knows more about football than you and I. I’ve never wanted a Chelsea manager to succeed more than Frank.
In his post-game interviews, he was clearly rattled, as he should be, and – again – I loved his honesty and intelligence, and how we need to improve all over the pitch for the game at Tottenham. Despite his annoyance, his desire to get it right shone through. And unlike last season under Sarri, at least Frank understands what it means when we play at Tottenham.
I will see some of you – the lucky ones – there.