Watford vs. Chelsea : 1 December 2021.
It had taken me two-and-a-half hours to drive up to Watford from Melksham. We were parked up at the northern end of Watford’s pedestrianised high street and were soon ordering drinks at the bar inside “The Horns” public house. It was around a quarter to five on another cold winter day. The match was due to kick-off at 7.30pm, the second of three games in the London area within seven days. I was driving to all of them; a total of 670 miles.
Just as I had arrived in Watford, a text from a long, lost mate.
Jesus from California was in town. Parky and I first met him at a game at Goodison Park in May 2011 – the Carlo Ancelotti sacking debacle – but he was a major fixture in that amazing 2011/2012 season when his university sent him on an internship to London for a few months. We met him a few times at Stamford Bridge, but also at Manchester City, Fulham, Arsenal and Napoli. He went to the Champions League games at Benfica and Barcelona too. But then he returned to Calexico and, despite me trying to get him to head back to Chelsea, his studies ended and his new business venture started, and getting away was proving difficult.
The years passed.
A month or so ago, he told me he was heading over – without match tickets – for the games at Watford and West Ham.
PD and Parky sipped on Stellas while I sipped a Diet Coke. We eagerly awaited his arrival. It was all a bit ironic really, since I had two extra tickets in my wallet but which were already promised to another. We waited for Andy to arrive at “The Horns” too. Sadly, he was running late.
At around 5.30pm, Jesus and his mate Rafael arrived. What a joy to see him again. A hug and handshakes. They had been down near Vicarage Road in a pub called “The Red Lion”, trying to source a ticket or two. There was a rushed update on our lives – and football – but I explained that they really needed to head down to the main Chelsea pub, “The Moon Under Water”, and put the feelers out for spares. They set off at about 6pm.
Andy was caught in traffic so I arranged to see him outside the ground.
Suddenly, it was all about tickets.
There is absolutely no doubt that the football public are mad for football once again; for away games especially so. The buzz of away games far outweighs home matches. We all love them.
This was going to be a long day. I was up at 4.45am to enable me to get in to work to do a very early 6am to 2pm shift. We were glad we had set off at just after two o’clock. We had been caught in some heavy traffic as we wended our way around the notorious M25 and Andy was stuck in that same slug of traffic. Apart from the delay on the London orbital, it was a painless drive up to Hertfordshire; the highlight being the sight of two intense rainbows as we drove through rain clouds on the M3.
Ahead, dark grey brooding clouds. Behind, an intense yellow wash over the clouds in my rear view mirror. Above, multicolours.
We set off – coats buttoned, that winter chill was a frightener – at around 6.30pm. We arrived at Vicarage Road just before 7pm. I stayed outside and left PD and Parky to get inside. There was no news of tickets for Jesus, nor any news from Andy battling the M25.
I positioned myself right under the sign at “The Red Lion” and waited for news.
The match-goers rushed past, the short walk from the pubs of central Watford almost over. I love that little walk; it’s absolutely packed full of cafes, restaurants and take-aways of every variation and from every nation. There was a wide variety of spectators too. Young and boisterous youngsters. Middle-aged men with coat collars turned up with scarves tight against necks, the cold biting away. Couples. Little groups. Many solo figures. Folk walking with stares down at the pavement and road, watching out for any uneven bumps. Watford scarves, but hardly any Chelsea colours. A few familiar faces.
“Hello Mark, alright mate?”
The floodlights were turned away from these faces but the light they gave off helped illuminate the night. Hot-dog stands. Gulps from tins. The neon signs of the last couple of take-aways. The quick shuffle of feet. Kick-off approaching.
At last a text from Andy. He was parking up and would be around ten minutes. I kept looking at my watch. This was our first of nine games in December. It was looking like I’d miss the first few minutes of the first one.
At 7.25pm, he arrived with his son, full of apologies.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’re here.”
I squeezed into the away end with the match clock showing “1.11” having elapsed.
I found my seat next to Al, Gal and Parky my pal.
The next few minutes were spent acclimatising myself to everything though I was soon aware that we were enjoying none of the ball on the pitch.
Alan : “you ain’t missed much.”
This was my eighth visit to Vicarage Road. I quickly spotted a rainbow effect in the Elton John Stand to my left. Multicolured T-shirts in deference to the diversity campaign had been placed on all of the seats. However, this highlighted – more than ever – how many of the available seats were empty. And not everyone was wearing the T-shirts. I am not surprised. Donning a T-shirt over a chunky jacket would not have been the easiest task. The two sunsets of the M3 had evidently followed me up and around the M25 and down the A411 to Watford.
No news from Jesus.
I looked at the team, evidently floundering on the pitch against a Watford team looking decidedly waspish in their yellow and black hoops.
From “The Horns” to the Hornets and it looked like we were getting stung. Mendy was soon called into action.
Yeah, so, the team.
Rudiger – Christensen – Chalobah
Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Saul – Alonso
Mount – Havertz – Pulisic
“No Lukaku, then Gal.”
With many key players unavailable, Thomas Tuchel had been forced to shuffle the pack.
Then it all became rather surreal. Play was stopped with about eleven minutes on the clock and everyone’s attention was drawn to the upper tier of the small Graham Taylor Stand to our right. It was clear that a spectator was receiving some medical attention. I am sure in previous seasons this would have taken place with no break in play but in today’s climate, the game was stopped for a few minutes and then the referee led the players off.
There was a row going on close by; a couple had arrived a little late and it seemed that others were in their seats. Some stewards were trying to quell another intra-Chelsea squabble a few rows behind.
Stingray was stood next to Tombsy, talking gibberish to himself as is his wont.
We stood around, not wholly sure of how the evening would continue. As minutes passed, a few folk nearby were quickly redrawing their plans on how to get home. Andy and Tombsy were thinking hard about leaving the game early in order to catch trains to their homes in the north. Dave was thinking about an early exit too. We were fine; we had my car parked up and ready to be used whenever we needed it. The minutes ticked by.
Gallows humour, of course, was to the fore.
“With the start we had, not unhappy we had to go off.”
The short chap helping the Watford ‘keeper Daniel Bachmann warm-up again caught Gal’s eye.
“Oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito.”
For those of you who know Gal, this song was more than ironic.
Al : “Gary doesn’t do irony, mate.”
Word got out that there had been a cardiac arrest. With my heart-attack of last October, you can imagine the thoughts that were running through my mind. The person receiving attention was seemingly taken away and the crowd mildly applauded.
Half-an-hour passed before the teams re-appeared. We then had the odd sight of both sets of players warming up again. Even more bizarrely, Watford made a substitution, with Danny Rose coming on. The ex-Tottenham full-back was roundly booed for the rest of the night.
The game restarted with Watford continuing their domination.
Bluntly, we weren’t in it.
Then, out of nowhere on eighteen minutes, a break in front of us, and Mason Mount slammed a shot from a very acute angle against the near post.
“That was our first attack, Al.”
The game continued on, and I sighed as I said to Alan “we have hardly put four passes together mate.”
Watford were more aggressive and we lacked intensity off the ball and quality on it. Saul was reliving his nightmare debut.
“Shades of Bakayoko up here” lamented the bloke behind me.
Oh God, that performance by Bakayoko in that 4-1 loss in 2018.
Over on the touchline, managers old and new.
I adapted the song of the moment.
“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. A stupid baseball cap. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”
But the trademark cap was exchanged for a ski hat on this particular night. Ranieri chose the same. Ranieri edged the sartorial battle though, if only because Tuchel’s trackie bottoms looked like they had shrunk in the wash.
On the half-hour, at last we looked like ourselves. A long searching ball from Rudiger found the galloping Alonso. His first touch flummoxed his marker and he switched the ball inside to Havertz, surprisingly free. He decided not to shoot, but instead played the ball square to Mason Mount. He smashed the ball in.
He celebrated down in front of us. There was the usual tumble of bodies towards the base of the terrace.
“There’s the four passes, Al.”
There was euphoria but also the knowledge that this was absolutely against the run of play.
Mendy saved well from a low drive from an angle from Rose five minutes later. Sadly, just before half-time, the very disappointing Loftus-Cheek lost the ball and Watford moved the ball quickly and with purpose.
“I don’t like this” I said to Gal, almost impersonating Graham Taylor’s most famous line without even meaning to. Emmanuel Dennis advanced and slotted home.
There were five, I think, extra minutes of time to be played at the end of the half. The half should have ended at 8.15pm. It came to a halt at around 8.55pm.
“Well, that was crap.”
During the break, Tuchel rang the changes.
Thiago Silva for Our Saul.
Chalobah moved into midfield alongside Ruben.
Thankfully, we began brighter in the second period and Silva’s calming influence shone as brightly as the Vicarage Road floodlights. But it comes to something when a common or garden shoulder charge by Havertz gets a round of applause from the away faithful.
Mendy rushed out to intercept a ball but crashed into Tom Cleverley. The ‘keeper was down for a while. There were concerns for his health, but the break in play allowed a new chant to be aired in his honour.
I’ll be honest, I had not heard it before and was both shocked and surprised how many supporters knew it. It was a bloody tough one to work out though. I got the “Edouard Mendy” bit and the “he comes from Senegal” bit but the rest was a mesmerising flow of undecipherable syllables.
It got louder and louder.
I felt like a spare prick at a wedding.
John Redwood mouthing the Welsh national anthem?
No, not that fucking bad.
At least I joined in with the clapping.
With Mendy recovered, the medical team then turned their attention to Chalobah, lying prostrate on the halfway line.
“Fuck sake. This game won’t finish until 11pm.”
Hakim Ziyech replaced Chalobah. The reaction around me was of disbelief to be honest. We needed to toughen up the midfield. We wondered why Ross Barkley wasn’t chosen.
There was a brief chat about the team.
“Nobody has done well tonight really, but Havertz has done the most. At least he has showed for the ball, moved the ball on, an odd dribble.”
Another substitution, Romelu Lukaku for Dave, so the very quiet Pulisic shifted to wing-back.
Within three minutes, a cross from Mount on the left and the ball was flashed into the net. The strike was hit right at the ‘keeper but with just too much pace. But I just saw a confluence of blue in the box; I had no idea who had tucked it in.
As I tracked the celebrations, I realised – gulp, humble pie please waiter – none other than Ziyech receiving the adoration of others.
The rest of the game resembled a battleground. I can hardly remember a game in which so many players were on the floor receiving treatment. This was a game that truly did not want to end.
One last Watford chance, a thunderous free-kick from Juraj Kicka was flicked over by Edouard Mendy and this ensured a noisy replaying of his song.
Six extra minutes.
At last – at last! – the whistle.
“Got out of jail there, mate.”
“Lucky as hell.”
“How did we win that?”
“How much do we miss Kante?”
We slowly walked back to the car, stopping off on the high street for a dirty hot kebab.
I eventually got home at 1.30am.
It had been a long game and a very long day.
4.45am to 1.30am.
But job done and on we go. I am amazed we are still leading the pack. If pressed – high – I still think we will finish third behind City and Liverpool. But we’ll see.
Oh, by the way, Jesus and Rafa got in.
West Ham away next. It won’t be easy. See you there.