Chelsea vs. Southampton : 26 December 2019.
At just before seven o’clock in the morning, I made my way into the darkness. I stood, alone with my thoughts, hood up on my jacket, a light drizzle in the air. I was waiting for Glenn, the day’s designated driver, to arrive to pick me up ahead of the Boxing Day game against a slightly rejuvenated Southampton. I heard the village church bell’s strike seven. I wondered what was in store for us.
Glenn duly arrived, with PD alongside him. We soon picked up Lord Parsnips and were on our way. As we headed east, the rain increased making driving difficult for him. I had not seen Glenn for a while; the last time was on the aborted away game against the same opposition in early October. With Glenn driving, this allowed me to indulge in a few drinks – OK, a sesh – for the first time at Stamford Bridge all season. The stretch of largely non-alcoholic home games stood at fourteen. There had been the odd pint here and there, but nothing too wild.
Fourteen games. Bloody hell. That has to be a record.
So, I had been relishing this for a while.
I had awoken early, at 4.30am, and knew that I wouldn’t be getting back to sleep again. My early morning thoughts, evidently, were about pints as well as points.
The rotten rain continued all of the way to London. At just before ten o’clock, Glenn dropped us off at West Brompton tube station and we soon caught a train to Putney Bridge. I had arranged to meet some friends from Germany at “The Eight Bells” and as the train left Parson’s Green, I looked ahead to the compartment in front and there they were.
Ben, Jens and Walt.
The day was off to a good start. Both Ben and I work in logistics. It was perfectly logical, therefore, for us to be on the same train.
I have known Ben for a good six or seven years. He used to work for a company that assists with getting our office furniture delivered in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. I managed to get tickets for the three of them for the Stoke City game just after Christmas in 2017, and Ben and Jens bumped into us after the Crystal Palace away game during the Christmas break last season. It was great to see them again. For this game, a friend had come up trumps for three tickets together in the Matthew Harding Lower.
At about 10.10am, I was the first one to enter “The Eight Bells.”
It felt good to be able to get the beers in.
We soon settled in our corner and the drinking, and not too much thinking, began. Jason Cundy popped in before his busy day ahead working for the Chelsea media team. I quickly pulled up his photo from 1991/92 to show the visitors. On this trip, the lads were again going to the darts on the Friday, and they had picked the West Ham United vs. Leicester City game on the Saturday. Ben supports Borussia Mönchengladbach, Jens supports Hamburg and Walt supports Bayern Munich. I did edge towards asking the three of them which English team they follow but Walt’s answer “not Arsenal” was good enough for me. We were joined by Mark from The Netherlands and his sister Kelly from High Wycombe, who we had not arranged to meet, but who often pop in. Next in were three from the US; Mehul and Neekita from Michigan, Matt from Illinois.
So, modern day Chelsea; England, Germany, The Netherlands and the United States. During the game, I would bump into a mate from Thailand who comes over once or twice a season.
All of us together, all sharing a beer, all having a laugh.
I know that overseas supporters often get a rough ride at Chelsea – and elsewhere – but I get bored reading about it. I know plenty of passionate and clued-up foreign supporters of our club. The problem, at Stamford Bridge specifically, are the tourists – not Chelsea fans – who add us to the list of things to do in London without doing any research or background checks on what is likely to occur at games. That said, it still saddens me that many of the fans from overseas supporters’ clubs still buy game day scarves; surely they are aware of the hatred of these monstrosities?
In February, the boot will be on the other foot.
Let me explain.
I recently booked a flight to Buenos Aires to catch as many games as I can – but no darts, cough cough – and it will be interesting to see how I am treated by the locals.
Why Argentina? Why Buenos Aires?
It is no secret that I love visiting different football stadia, and I am a big fan of Simon Inglis, who has been the doyen of football architecture in the UK for decades. His book “Sightlines” (2000) featured stadia around the world and not just football; stadia devoted to baseball, cricket, rugby union among others are painstakingly detailed. However, underpinning the entire book – every couple of chapters – is the author’s attempt to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five professional football stadia as he can in a crazy few days. This entranced me all those years ago, and I recently re-read it all again. And it started a train of thought.
I wanted to experience South America and I wanted to experience, for sure, South American football. I craved Argentina. It is, undoubtedly, one of the last remaining countries where passionate, to the point of irresponsible and bordering on violent, support still exists. I wanted to delve deep into Buenos Aires but I soon realised that their season runs concurrently with ours and so that would be difficult. I couldn’t realistically plan to miss a few Chelsea games, although I have done so in the past.
This Chelsea thing. I’ve got it bad, right?
So, thoughts turned to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. Theirs is a summer season. I tentatively looked at going over to see Flamengo or Fluminense or Botafogo or Vasco da Gama this summer, but Baku took over.
And then, it dawned on me that for the first time ever, there would be a winter break in English football in 2019/20. This meant that there would be a window of opportunity to visit Argentina. I looked at the dates. I preliminarily booked two weeks off in February to cover all eventualities. Around ten days ago, the TV games were firmed up for the Premier League reaching into February, and our free weekend would come between an away game against Leicester City and a home game with Manchester United.
I honed in on the Primera Division games planned for the weekend of Saturday 8 February, knowing that there would be a spread of games over four or five days.
I threw caution to the wind and booked my flights and I booked a hotel.
With superb timing, the very next day – Christmas Eve – that weekend’s games were confirmed and it meant that I would, hopefully, get to see four games, probably five, during my stay.
Friday : Estudiantes vs. Defensa Y Justicia.
Saturday : Lanus vs. Newell’s Old Boys.
Sunday : Independiente vs. Arsenal Sarandi and River Plate vs. Banfield.
Monday : Huracan vs. Aldosivi.
And it got me thinking about football tourism. I began to question why the Premier League seems to be the main destination for visitors outside our national boundaries. Is it because of our historical role as the birthplace of the sport? Is it because of the way the Premier League is marketed? Is it because of the language? Everybody speaks English, right? Is it because, by and large, we are a friendly lot? I do not know of the figures, but English football has always attracted visitors from Europe, but it seems to be the main footballing destination for visitors outside Europe too. Yet, for me, there are valid alternatives for visitors from Brisbane, Beijing, Bangkok and Baltimore. Certainly for a more visceral experience, visitors from distant lands might be better placed to visit the leagues of Germany and Italy or even the former communist countries of the old Eastern Bloc. The noise and intensity. The real deal. Not some watered down version. Because I will say it, yet again. Apart from away games, following Chelsea these days gets quieter and quieter with every passing season. And fans at Old Trafford, The Emirates and other venues say the same.
How about a Belgrade derby, a match in Moscow or a Legia Warsaw vs. Widzew Lodz battle?
Thought not. I think those games might be just a little outside many peoples’ comfort zones. I am keen to hear if Borussia Dortmund supporters are getting slightly weary of all the football tourists heading over to be part of “The Yellow Wall” which has to be a bit of a cliché by now. And what of the thoughts of Barcelona and Real Madrid fans? There must be just as many football tourists who plot up at the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu as at Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge these days?
Of course it could be a double-edged sword all of this. A quick immersion in to the passionate and noisy nature of Argentinian football might make me realise how anaemic our football has become. A couple of mates, seasoned travellers themselves – Tommie from Porthmadog in North Wales and Foxy from Dundee in Scotland – have assisted in my plans for Buenos Aires, and two others, who I have not yet met, have both declared that it is the best place to watch football these days.
Watch this space.
We popped over the road to “The Temperance” and the drinking continued. Mark, who is local to the area despite having lived in The Netherlands for ages, spoke of how the pub used to be a snooker hall, and how he remembers playing there many years ago.
What a great name for a boozer. None of us fancied joining any latter day temperance movement, though, and the drinking continued at a pace.
On the drive to London, we had briefly touched on Southampton. Not so long ago, it seemed that Southampton, Norwich City and Watford were certs for relegation, but the Saints had shown a sudden resurgence under Ralph Hassenpfefferstadenschnitzelheimerhuttel. None of us were making grandiose comments about a sure fire win, despite the magnificence of our play at Tottenham.
This was Chelsea, after all.
On the final few hundred yards to the stadium, the rain had stopped but the skies were dull and full of cloud.
OK, the game…once again : “do I have to?”
Please bear in mind that this was a very poor match from start to bloody finish and I had been knocking back “Birra Moretti” and “Peroni” since 10am, so this one isn’t going to win any prizes.
My guess after Tottenham was that the 3/4/3 might well be replaced for the standard 4/3/3 but Rudiger, Zouma and Tomori kept their places.
We lined up as below –
Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori
Azpilicueta – Kante – Jorginho – Emerson
Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi
The Sleepy Hollow lined up as below –
Chris – Alan – Glenn – PD
The old team were back together again for the first time since Brighton in September.
Southampton had a full three thousand, an easy away game for them. Rather than their usual red and white stripes, they showed up in a waspish black and yellow. The “Munich Two” were involved, with Ryan Bertrand starting but Oriel Romeu only on the bench.
Chelsea again dominated possession early on but were met with a solid wall of deep-lying midfielders and a solid defence. It was clear that we needed a little intuition and some pace out wide to get through the massed ranks of Southampton players. They were solid and defended tenaciously. It was like trying to manoeuvre a way through a variant of The Terracotta Army.
“They shall not pass.”
Soon into the game a beam of sunlight lit up a small section of the East Upper, but this also exposed the fact that there were pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium. And the absent foreign supporters from all over the world surely couldn’t be held totally responsible for every single one of those.
Our build up play was slow and ponderous, and it took an age for our first shot on target of note. My camera was hardly used in the first part of the game, but I miraculously caught Callum Hudson-Odoi’s swipe at the ball which was deflected wide.
The game struggled to get out of first gear.
Ten minutes later, a Southampton attack down our left flank resulted in Michael O’bafemi – the young Irish lad – being allowed to twist into space and we watched as he ripped a fine effort high past Kepa to give the visitors a surprising lead, and a blow to us.
The Southampton players celebrated down below us, the gits.
Was there a reaction?
The crowd stood and sat in some sort of Turkey, roast potatoes, Brussel sprouts, parsnips, peas and carrot induced torpor, and the players looked out of sorts too. It was brewing up to be another frustrating match at Stamford Bridge. The moans and grumbles continued throughout the first half as we struggled to break down the resolute defence.
I took a photo of my pal Rob, sitting a few rows behind me, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his very first game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Southampton, 1969.
He was with his son Joe.
Well done Rob. Fantastic stuff.
Down below us on the Stamford Bridge pitch, there was stagnation. It was all very dull and all very predictable. There was no spark. It was shocking stuff. We hardly caused the Southampton ‘keeper to make a save in anger. There was a real reluctance to shoot on target and the extra wide men simply did not deliver.
At the start of the second-half, Frank reverted to a 4/3/3 as Mason Mount came on to replace Kurt Zouma. We hoped for some forward runs, some penetration, and soon into the second period, my infrequently-used camera miraculously captured our second real attempt on goal. Tammy Abraham was set free but lashed wide from an angle, only bothering the side netting.
Southampton became a little more adventurous and then Hudson-Odoi struck from outside the box, but the ball touched the top of the net, and the Saints ‘keeper was untroubled. By now, the mood in the home camp was deteriorating.
My very first Boxing Day game at Stamford Bridge came along as late as 1992. Until then, with no car and few local Chelsea mates that I knew, and with my parents solidly staying at home on every Boxing Day, and with no train service to London, I had been unable to attend a single game on all other Boxing Days. When I eventually did attend a game, it felt as if I was attending some sort of “Londoners only” event, a special match for invited guests only. It felt lovely. On that occasion – I have written about it before – I managed to smuggle my father’s bulky camcorder into the East Upper and my over-riding memory of that day – enhanced by playing the ten minutes of film that I shot – was the real increase in noise (clapping, shouts, voices from the crowd, encouragement) as the ball was sent into the Southampton half. In those days, it was a massively different style of football and much of it involved midfield battles. But as soon as there was a sniff of an attack, the crowd were on it and involved. Even in the East Upper.
In 1992, the gate was 18,344 but it felt as though everyone present was there to support the team. We had won nothing in twenty-one years and a trophy was still five years away, but it felt as though we were all in it together.
On Boxing Day in 2019, any fan involvement was not worthy of the name.
The game continued in front of a quickly worsening atmosphere.
Christian Pulisic came on for a very poor Hudson-Odoi.
Nathan Redmond should have made it 2-0 but Kepa saved well after a quick break.
With twenty minutes or so remaining, the dangerous Redmond finished off a long Southampton move with a delicate touch past Kepa.
Chelsea 0 Southampton 2.
Pedro replaced Willian late on.
Pulisic created the final shot on goal, but typically off target, screwing a low shot past the right hand post.
By this time, the atmosphere around me was caustic and abrasive.
I wanted to go home.
Sadly, this was another woeful performance. Whereas a couple of months ago, match-going fans were supremely positive with the way things were going, now many have changed their tune. Fair enough, each to their own. But this is still a long term project and we need to stick with it. And I’d like to see a more positive atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, but that’s just me.
Postscript 1 :
Glenn would later tell me that while he was waiting in the concourse with Les from Melksham before our match, the Tottenham vs. Brighton game was on TV. As Tottenham scored a second goal, a voice – a Chelsea fan, from England – was heard cheering. Les reprimanded him, rather strongly.
“What are you doing?”
“He’s in my fantasy team.”
I hate modern football.
Postscript 2 :
On the two other recent occasions of Chelsea losing at home to poor teams – West Ham United and Bournemouth – at least wins on both occasions for Frome Town helped raise my spirits slightly. On this occasion, no such luck; a 4-1 loss at Les’ Melksham Town.
Postscript 3 :
In the after game interview, involving Jason Cundy pitch side with Frank, there were no punches pulled. But Frank took everything on the chin. He answered all of the questions honestly and without serving up silly excuse after silly excuse. I totally admire his approach in these interviews. I am longing for us to turn the corner. For him, for all of us.
Postscript 4 :
At the halfway stage in the league season, we are in fourth place.
See you at Arsenal.