Chelsea vs. Everton : 16 December 2021.
My dear father was born on 16 December 1923, and I thought it quite apt that we were playing Everton at Stamford Bridge on his birthday. Everton’s Goodison Park was the only football stadium that my father, who was more into swimming, diving, tennis and badminton, ever visited before I came along. Since my first game in 1974, he was with me on many trips to Stamford Bridge, Ashton Gate and Eastville in Bristol and the County Ground in Swindon in my childhood and beyond.
In total, Dad saw Chelsea play around thirty times. And it was again quite fitting that his last ever game was against Everton bearing in mind his Goodison Park visit in around 1944. This last match took place on New Year’s Day in 1991. I had travelled by train to spend New Year’s Eve with some college mates and then met up with my parents in the West Stand before the match. Watching the game with us were a couple of family friends and a young lad Edward, about eight years of age, attending his very first Chelsea game. When one of those family friends passed away – Jack lived four doors away and reached the grand age of ninety-eight – Edward’s father spoke about that day in 1991 and it pleased me that Edward is still a Chelsea fan. For the record, despite us going ahead with a goal from Kevin Wilson, Everton equalised at The Shed End in the first-half via Graeme Sharpe. In the second-half, to my horror, Pat Nevin pushed the ball across the six-yard box and it deflected in off Jason Cundy. We lost 1-2. The gate was just 18,351. I was on the dole at the time, not even drifting, and the game summed up the gloom in my life at the time.
Everton have never been relegated from the top flight, unlike their neighbours across Stanley Park, and so it is not surprising that I have seen them play a fair few times; thirty-five games at Stamford Bridge, twenty matches at Goodison, a Cup Final at Wembley.
PD, my work-colleague Simon and I were on our way to game fifty-seven. Sadly, Parky was unable to join us. There was the usual midweek dip into “The Goose” and then “Simmons” and I could not help notice that both places were much quieter than usual. We had noted light traffic en route to London too. It certainly seemed that this “Lockdown / Plan B” was having a real impact on people’s ability to get out and about as per normal. In both pubs, talk was of COVID19, and there were very real concerns that this football season might be pulled out from under our feet, if only for a few weeks. In the back of my mind, there was the eerie memory that the very last game before lockdown in 2020 was our home game against Everton.
There were reports of three of our players being out with fresh cases of COVID19; Lukaku, Werner and Chilwell, though were other rumours too of a couple more. As we supped our drinks, I was genuinely expecting the news to break that our game against Everton would be postponed. Regardless, we walked to Stamford Bridge, and I slapped on a face mask just outside the West Stand forecourt. I wore it all the way to my seat as per the new advice though it was clear that I was in the minority.
Not only was Chelsea’s team depleted with injuries and now COVID19, but Everton’s too. We heard on the grapevine that there would be a couple of debuts for them. Over in The Shed, the best part of three thousand Evertonians were amassed. Elsewhere, as kick-off time rapidly approached, it was clear that thousands of seats that would not be filled. In The Sleepy Hollow alone, we were missing one or two. Alan was still away with COVID19 – he hopes to be back for Wolves – and the elderly chap who sits next to PD was also absent. Simon was taking Clive’s ticket alongside me. Thus, in our little section of five seats, two were empty. Our friend John sits in the same row but around fifteen seats along. Next to him were six or seven empty seats that were never occupied the whole game.
I looked around Stamford Bridge. Easily five thousand empty seats, probably more.
We learned that Callum Hudson-Odoi was out with COVID19 too.
So, the team?
Dave – Thiago – Rudi
Reece – Jorgi – Ruben – Marcos
Hakim – Christian – Mase
The Everton debutants were Jarred Branthwaite and Ellis Sims.
It was a very mild night in SW6. I didn’t bother with my coat which was draped over the back of my seat.
As is so often the case at home, we dominated early on and it continued throughout the first-half; for Manchester United and Leeds United, read Everton. We were soon peppering the Everton goal. A slick ball out to Reece from Jorginho set up our right wing-back, but his shot was sliced past the near post netting at The Shed End. Then came a low shot, wide, from Mount that should have hit the target. Ziyech looked keener than usual in the opening quarter and a lovely spin and turn – it drew gasps – and his pacey burst set up Pulisic with an opportunistic flick but Pickford was his equal.
The chances, pardon the pun, mounted up. I counted six in the first twenty minutes. A shot from Ziyech, two efforts from Reece, a free-kick from Alonso.
Everton rarely got out of their half.
Thiago Silva played a quarterback role again, teasing others to show for him, playing neat passes to feet and lofted chips out wide.
There was a nice little atmosphere brewing I felt. Everton had their standard selection and so did we.
“We don’t care what the red shite say…”
“Carefree wherever you may be…”
The chances continued at The Shed End.
I was enjoying an in-match chat with Simon, and we seemed to share a few opinions. After feeling distanced from football throughout all of last season, although there were frustrations that our almost total domination had not resulted in goals, I felt really involved in this game. It felt like I was back. I didn’t take nearly as many photos either; possible proof that I wanted to concentrate on the match being played out in front of me. I offered encouragement under my breath to our players, joined in with the chants, sang the praises of others.
It felt good.
We continued to dominate. Ziyech blazed over. Everton were defending so deep though and space was at a premium.
Rudiger found himself inside the penalty area and set up Mount just outside the six-yard box.
I was up celebrating the goal.
But Jordan Pickford saved it with a reactionary twitch of his leg.
I turned to Simon :
“Oh please God let this not be one of those games.”
I didn’t think Ruben Loftus-Cheek was looking particularly dominant. It also concerned me that I have started to call him “Rubes” during games. This must be akin to the “Chels” moniker that was always only ever used during games, but now seems to be hideously omnipresent.
With the end of the first-half approaching, there seemed to be warm encouragement from the stands.
I joined in a vibrant “CAM ON COWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
As late as the forty-second minute, Everton struck at Mendy’s goal for the first time.
The half-time stats showed that we had enjoyed eighty percent of the ball.
As the second-half began, I spotted the increasingly more rotund figure of pantomime villain Rafa Benitez gesticulating on the touchline. I for one was pleased that the dull “we don’t care about Rafa” chant was not aired the entire match.
A song from 1984 : “Feed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time.”
For some reason, that always makes me chuckle.
The chances for Chelsea did not occur at the same rate as in the first-half. And the atmosphere was generally quieter.
Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek did not really bother Pickford.
On the hour, there was a guttural roar of support from the Matthew Harding but it was not to be often repeated.
The frustrations were rising all around me. Very often I realised that my head was in my hands.
“Nobody is a threat upfront, Si. Seems to me that the biggest problem with a False Nine is that nobody has the urgency to score. Everyone is too busy running around that nobody thinks it’s their responsibility to fucking shoot.”
It was just my frustration getting to me.
Don’t worry, BT and Sky won’t be calling on me for tactical analysis in the near future.
But the “running around” part of the plan had stalled and both Simon and I were getting annoyed with our strikers being unable to twist and turn a la Vialli or Crespo.
I decided it was time for an Alan impersonation.
I rocked forward and spoke to PD and Si :
“More fucking movement in a Burton’s shop window.”
On sixty-five minutes, Thomas Tuchel did things his way.
Barkley for Loftus-Cheek.
Saul for Alonso.
Pulisic was shunted back to wing back and for a few minutes at least, Saul was centrally placed up front.
I know his options were limited, but that really caught us all out.
On seventy minutes, a breakthrough. Barkley to James to Mount, and we watched as he bore in on Pickford’s goal from an angle. My camera was poised and ready.
I loved that. It looked like the points would be ours.
Just four minutes later, and – honestly – a ridiculously rare Everton attack resulted in a free-kick from wide on their left. Anthony Gordon played a magnificent cross into the oft-quoted “corridor of uncertainty” and debutant Branthwaite touched the ball past the stranded Mendy. Should he have come out? My first thoughts were “yes” but my position was some one hundred yards away. There is no doubt about the outstanding quality of the cross.
But the defending reminded me so much of our defending under Frank Lampard twelve months ago.
The Everton players celebrated maniacally in front of their fans.
It was another head in my hands moment.
There was no final ten-minute push and, if anything, we seemed to play within ourselves. A late Chalobah for Azpilicueta substitution didn’t add to our potency or our desire. From a Barkley corner, Silva rose well and forced a fine sprawling save from Pickford. A towering leap from Rudiger and a header that flew over. But it simply wasn’t to be.
It was a frustrating end to the game.
There were a few boos at the final whistle.
“Will the real Chelsea please stand up?”
I’ll go back to my words from a few games ago; we are still developing, we are still learning about each other. But the frustrations are real nonetheless.
Walking back to PD’s car, it struck me that this might be the last Chelsea game for a while if the Omicron variant continues to wreak havoc. I have a feeling our that our away game at Wolves on Sunday is under threat, and I did wonder if it might be a few weeks before I see another game at Stamford Bridge. Outside forces will govern our football for a while I think.
To be quite honest, despite the possible cessation of top flight football for a while, I am sure that all of the games will eventually be played.
But it is so ironic that on a night that I definitely felt that I was “one hundred percent back” Chelsea might be taken away from us all again.
I hope to see some of you at Molineux on Sunday.
For the record, here’s how Everton shape up in the list of my most-viewed opponents.
Manchester United : 77
Liverpool : 75
Arsenal : 68
Tottenham : 64
Everton : 57
Newcastle United : 52
Manchester City : 46
Aston Villa : 44
Southampton : 41
West Ham : 41
Blackburn : 30
Stoke City : 29
West Brom : 27
Fulham : 26
Leicester City : 26
Sunderland : 24
Bolton : 22
Leeds : 22
Middlesbrough : 22
Crystal Palace : 19