Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 19 December 2021.
Six days before Christmas, we weren’t worrying about expensive gifts; we just wanted our football fix. After Everton on Thursday, many wondered if that was it for a while. I certainly half-expected our match at Molineux to be postponed due to the increase of omicron cases throughout the UK. But despite other games being called off on the Saturday, our Sunday afternoon game against Wolves remained most definitely “on” and so PD, Parky and I set off in good time in order to attend.
Deep down, I was still preparing myself for the news that the game could be called-off while we were heading north towards the Black Country. We kept our ‘phones on during the trip and secretly dreaded any incoming text alerts or ‘phone-calls. To my surprise, there was nothing.
We had left at 9am and we were parked-up at a very convenient parking spot no more than a ten-minute walk from the stadium at around 12.30pm. Molineux lies in a dip just to the north of the compact city centre at Wolverhampton. Although the pitch has been shunted a few yards to the east during its rebuilding a few decades ago, Molineux has played host to Wolves’ games since 1889.
The old stadium was so recognisable in past days. And in my mind, honestly, whenever I think of Wolves my mind quickly flicks up images of that old gold multi-tiered roof of the stand opposite the stand that housed the TV cameras in the ‘seventies. The voice of the ITV football commentator Huw Johns – he covered the teams in the midlands – also appears fleetingly before an image of the huge South Bank behind the right hand goal completes the picture. If I hear Wolves, I rarely think of the new stadium. Molineux was Wolves and Wolves was Molineux. It was quite simple. And during my childhood, this was the same for all of the clubs.
Stamford Bridge was Chelsea and Chelsea was Stamford Bridge.
Highbury was Arsenal and Arsenal was Highbury.
Anfield was Liverpool and Liverpool was Anfield.
I am not so sure this works quite so well these days. To my mind, stadia have become similar and there are simply not so many idiosyncratic and distinct stands in modern football. It’s our collective loss and is such a shame.
The old Molineux, before that old treasure of a stand was dismantled in around 1979, was completed by a cranked main stand opposite and, in the circumstances, a rather mundane roofed terrace behind the left-hand goal. In the ‘seventies – the golden age for many – there wasn’t a more interesting nor recognisable stadium in the Football League than Molineux.
Stamford Bridge maybe. But I suspect I am biased.
The three of us made our way to the stadium, emerging from the infamous subway and out into an area housing many food stalls, badge sellers, a tented beer area, and then a statue of Sir Jack Hayward was spotted in front of the turnstiles to the home end, the old South Bank, which now bears his name. The once huge terrace was embedded onto the natural slope of the hill with the pitch way below. Under the statue, a chubby Wolves fan in a blue fleece was sat stuffing his face full of chips.
As we began walking down the slope to the away turnstiles, I was asked by a fellow with a lanyard and a clipboard to show him my COVID pass. Out came my ‘phone. Check. There would be another check – another lanyard and clipboard, a sign of the times – right outside the away entrance at the bottom of the hill. While I waited for a couple of acquaintances to arrive to sort out tickets, I realised how cold it all was. A mist, maybe even a fog, was giving the pre-match something of an old fashioned feel. It felt great, just right. I half expected Billy Wright or Ron Flowers to walk past in monochrome. The fog had accompanied us up on the drive throughout the morning and it showed no signs of shifting as kick-off time approached.
I chatted to a few Chelsea friends in the concourse in the Steve Bull stand. Talk was of COVID and of how Chelsea had asked for a postponement of the game that very morning. I am not sure if I was being selfish or not, but I was just glad that the game was still on.
As I took my place in the second row, not far from the halfway line, it became clear that many had decided not to travel. I am not exaggerating when I say that in the immediate five or six rows behind me, around twenty-five seats remained unused the entire day. The risk of infection, no doubt, had caused this.
News broke not of our team, but of our bench with just four outfield players and two goalkeepers. The same joke about Kepa playing upfront took place in a grand total of one hundred and fifty thousand different locations throughout the world. I just hoped that despite the push to get the game postponed, the right preparations had not been skipped.
At least Emperor Kante was back with Mateo Kovacic on that bench.
Azpilicueta – Silva – Rudiger
James – Kanye – Chalobah – Alonso
Ziyech – Pulisic – Mount
Pre-match, with me wishing I had worn another layer aside from a long-sleeved polo shirt and a jacket, everyone in the front rows were wonderfully warmed by the leaping flames that flashed in front of us in the away areas.
“Have you brought some marshmallows, Gal?”
Elsewhere, the fog loomed. The silhouette of a few trees beyond the south-west corner, now devoid of the temporary seats that Wolves used in that area for a while, looked like something from an oil painting of a rural scene rather than from inside a city.
Chelsea fans, stretched out the entire length of the lower tier, were trying hard to make ourselves heard. We were beaten when the home fans, mainly in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand to our right, augmented the team’s pre-game song being played on the PA.
“Hi Ho Wolverhampton.”
The game began with the Chelsea going right to left and with Marcos Alonso hugging the touchline in front of us all.
You all watched it. The first-half was shite, eh?
It began promisingly enough with a few early raids. But then Wolves muscled in on things and I photographed Daniel Podence before he shot from distance at Mendy in front of the now two-tiered Stan Cullis Stand to our right, the second stand to have stood there since the ‘seventies.
Gary, Parky and I were making the most of a so-so start to the game, and were all giggling like fools when we spotted lookalikes in the crowd of Francis Rossi, Mick Hucknall, the bloke out of Boney M and Shirley Crabtree.
You had to be there.
On a quarter of an hour, we wished we weren’t. Wolves went one-up after a ball was flashed across our box and Podence tucked it home.
Then, after what seemed an age, and with no VAR signalled, we spotted the lino on our side hoist his flag. The Wolves fans were quietened. Of course I had no idea why the goal was disallowed; we presumed offside, but it could have been for a foul. These days, who knows?
The mist was staying. This really felt like something from the past.
It’s always so difficult at Wolves to get a sing-along started with everyone so distant from each other. We tried our best.
“He came from PSG. To win the Champions League.”
On half-an hour, although Thiago Silva should have met the ball before it bounced, I marvelled at his rapid recovery and how he not only won the ball but how he played it coolly out to a team mate. For a few minutes previously, I thought our great Brazilian had looked a little cold – long sleeved undershirt, gloves – and moved a little cagily but he soon moved up the gears when needed.
There was a smirk when I had mumbled to myself : “should have worn some Long Johns, Silva.”
Thankfully nobody heard me.
The great performance of the half belonged to N’Golo Kante, back to his best; rampaging, striding, probing, passing, eating up space with joyful glee, the engine room. It was a joy to see him again. What a player.
To paraphrase the pre-match anthem :
“You’re everywhere baby.”
Apart from a few corners – oh, I remember a Pulisic chance that wasn’t – there was absolutely no real threat on the Wolves goal throughout the half. There was earnest endeavour but nothing in the final third. Did we force a save? I think not.
At the break, I moaned to an acquaintance “we might have bodies up front, but we have no presence.”
And no presence at Christmas ain’t fun.
In the concourse, the youth were blasting out a reworking of a Jona Lewie Christmas hymn from 1980; rhyming Tuchel with bugle, I can’t see it catching on.
The second-half? It was better, but it couldn’t have been much worse could it?
Thomas Tuchel replaced Chalobah with Saul and we held our breath.
I whispered to Gal : ”Our Saul.”
He hasn’t set the world alight, has he?
Whereas Wolves showed a little desire to attack in the first-half, in the second forty-five minutes it seemed to be all one-way traffic. Yet here’s the thing; not once was I convinced that we would grab a goal. We kept trying to find gaps and spaces in the Wolves half but something was missing. We missed a Fabregas to unlock the defence for sure. But I can’t fault our desire to win tackles and keep the momentum going. Maybe the fog wasn’t helping; cross-field balls to spare wide men were in short supply. Though, to be fair, once balls were played to the flanks, what sort of cross should we play in? Clearly we had no aerial threat. Precision low balls to feet needed to be that; in such a crowded box, there was no margin for error.
On the hour, the return of Mateo Kovacic, on for Ziyech.
There was now more solidity in the midfield. Saul was finding his feet. Our domination continued. But chances were oh-so rare. Shots were blocked, as were intended crosses. With ten minutes to go, the chance of the game and with hindsight perhaps the only chance of the game; Alonso played in Pulisic but his finish was just too close to the Wolves keeper Kilman and a limb defeated us.
In the ninetieth minute, with the Wolves substitute Adama Traore about to pounce on a punt up field, I watched mesmerised as that man Silva, from a standing start, almost flat-footed, leapt magnificently to head clear.
His performance throughout the game was truly worth the admission money alone. He never panicked, he glided throughout the entire match. What a player.
With a depleted squad and team, a 0-0 draw was half-decent wasn’t it?
I think so.
On the way home, we called in at “The Vine” – along with a few other Chelsea fans – at West Bromwich for a welcome curry. A lamb dhansak and peshwari naan warmed me up. The Baggies might be out of the top flight, but “The Vine” isn’t. It’s well recommended.
I eventually reached home at about 8.30pm, the game quickly disappearing from view in my mirrors.
But, the winter draws on.
Wear something warm.
See you there.