Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 2 January 2022.
My run of football games over the festive period was continuing.
On the first day of 2022, following on from Frome Town’s 3-3 home draw with Melksham Town, it was time for another non-league match involving my local team. I travelled with my pal Fran over to nearby Paulton Rovers who had been enjoying a decent season themselves. This was one of those fabled games of two halves; in the first a rampant Frome attacked the end housing it’s sizeable travelling support and led with a fine goal from Kane Simpson. In the second-half, a different story as the home team dominated the game yet failed to really trouble the Frome goalkeeper. Frome weathered the storm and scored a late breakaway goal at the end via James Ollis to win 2-0. It kept the team at the top of the division down in level eight of the football pyramid. There was another large gate; 649 was more than four times the average Paulton Rovers attendance of 137. There must have been two hundred away fans. I enjoyed it.
But this was just a pre-curser, an hors-d’oeuvre, before the weekend’s main course.
On the second day of 2022, the last game of my Christmas schedule pitted Chelsea against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. However, as one run of games was ending, we were now overlapping into another sequence of games. Against Brighton, we embarked on a run of four home games in a space of just eleven days. I can’t ever remember a more condensed run of matches at Stamford Bridge.
Brighton followed by Liverpool followed by Tottenham followed by Chesterfield.
Of course, the build-up to the Liverpool game was dominated by Lukakugate. I suspected Machiavellian forces at work with the timing of the release in information of the interview. But oh Romelu, what were you bloody thinking? We waited to hear what the club’s response would be. Of course the most annoying thing about all of this was the fact that Lukaku had scored two in two games and had brought an extra element to our play against Villa and Brighton.
I hate negative noise around Chelsea Football Club. It spoiled my anticipation of the upcoming game a little. But Sunday soon came around.
I collected the same three passengers on the way up to London as for the Brighton game four days earlier; between the four of us in my car, there was a total of seven-hundred and ninety-five games and fourteen goals for Chelsea.
…cough…and I’ll say it again…cough.
There was very little traffic on the road to London. The weather was fine if a little grey. I dropped PD and Lord Parky at “The Eight Bells” and Ron at the bottom of Fulham Broadway. I was parked up bang on 11.30am. The journey had taken me around three hours again.
I walked down to Fulham Broadway tube station. There were a few minutes to wait for the southbound train and so I used the time to take a few photographs. I especially zoned-in on the old stairways that lead to the original station’s booking hall. The memories came flooding back. It’s a bit of a metaphor for Chelsea really. One station but split into two. The antiquated southern part is frozen in time along with my memories of the club before success and money – or money and success if our rivals are to be believed – while the northern part is slick and swish and functional. I used to love being squeezed right out onto the Fulham Road from those exit stairs that were only used on match days, and that I bet most new fans are not even aware of. But these days we walk out through the back of a shopping centre and past an entrance to a car park.
In recent months, I have fallen in love with the short train ride from Fulham Broadway to Putney Bridge. With my driving duties completed, it represents a chance for me to relax a little knowing that I have again reached London without incident nor accident. I have never been a nervous nor anxious driver, but there is always a little bit of me that is relieved once I park up at Chelsea. We pass through Parson’s Green, a famous old Chelsea battleground for those that know and all that bollocks, and I love looking back at Stamford Bridge across the rooftops and then over to the buildings of Chelsea Harbour. The trip is over within four minutes but it’s now a favourite part of my Chelsea day. Putney Bridge is the cutest of stations. And of course I love the thought that within a minute of descending those wooden stairs I will be walking into the friendly and cosy “Eight Bells.”
Talking of which…
I spent from 12.30pm to 3.45pm with PD and Parky, but also with Jonathan, who I was not planning on meeting up with until I realised that he was sat a few seats away from me against Brighton. I sorted out a ticket for him for Liverpool there and then and we agreed to meet up. He came in just as I was about to launch into a plate of gammon, fried eggs and chips, as per PD and as per Parky. Of course, the others were the dedicated drinkers while I was the dedicated driver. PD, Parky and I ran through a few thoughts about Abu Dhabi; I hope to book flights soon.
Jonathan now lives in Tampa and we have a couple of mutual acquaintances that we know through the burgeoning presence of Chelsea fans in the US. Jonathan used to be a referee, and knows Phil from Iowa who is a referee too. I couldn’t escape Chelsea fans who were also referees; at the Paulton Rovers game, I bumped into Young Dave – as featured in the first couple of Mark Worrall’s books – and he runs the line at local games to this day.
Jonathan told me about a game that he officiated in back in around 1996; he was the linesman at a USA vs. England U17 game in Tampa. He mentioned a young starlet who played for England who was a Chelsea prodigy but – although great things were expected – never made the grade with us but instead played for Brighton. Jonathan couldn’t remember his name.
My brain started ticking over.
“Damn, I can picture him. His name is on the tip of my tongue. What I usually do is go through the alphabet.”
PD told Jonathan I’d eventually remember on the way home.
Well, I got there eventually. But I had to go right to the end of the alphabet.
Anyone remember him?
Outside there was a hint of drizzle but the air was still relatively mild. We made it inside Stamford Bridge at just gone four o‘clock. I soon spotted Liverpool players in a very dark red training top going through their pre-match routines. The sight made my hackles rise a little. They remain one of my three most disliked teams; Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool. It’s just the way it is.
This was to be the first-ever “safe standing” game to take place in the top flight of English football. We are in some sort of a four team trial I believe. In reality, of course, those with “rail seating” in the lower tiers of The Shed and the Matthew Harding have been “safe standing” since the start of the season. I am generally in favour of safe standing, though I find it odd that the Shed Upper has been given over to standing in addition to the two lower tiers at either end of the stadium. What I find unpalatable is that those season ticket holders in the three areas of the stadium now covered by “safe standing” were given no say whatsoever in the process. In a nutshell, they were not given the chance to move their season tickets over to another part of Stamford Bridge.
I stand at away games and I could probably ease into standing at Stamford Bridge all of the time with no real problem. But for many in the area of the Matthew Harding Upper where I reside, standing at games would been uncomfortable and painful. Bluntly, not an option. I am glad, therefore, that our tier remained as seating.
I also found it ironic that Liverpool were to be involved in the very first official “safe standing” game in the top flight.
The minutes ticked by.
The Chelsea team?
Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah
Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilcueta
Pulisic – Havertz – Mount
Lukaku was not even in the squad.
Just before the game kicked-off, the stadium resounded to a noisy rendition of “Champions of Europe, we know what we are” to remind our visitors of who is on that particular perch at this moment in time.
There was a rip-roaring start to the game. In the first ten seconds, I was buggering about with my phone and so – in all honesty – missed the initial challenge on Cesar Azpilicueta by Sadio Mane that lead to the latter receiving a yellow card. I looked down to see Dave sprawled no more than thirty-five yards from me.
On two occasions that the ball was played centrally into the Liverpool box, water splashed up from the turf and I wondered if a little too much water had been sprayed onto that particular area. There was an early exchange of chances in the first few minutes. A defensive mix-up allowed Mane to play a ball across the goal towards Mo Salah but Edouard Mendy was able to save. At the other end, Kai Havertz put pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold and the ball broke for Christian Pulisic with only unknown Liverpool ‘keeper Caoieaihoieamhouin Kelleher to beat. However, our slight striker could not convert. In fact, the ‘keeper made a fine reaction save, scooping the ball away well.
After nine minutes, another defensive blip from a stooping Chalobah allowed the ball to run to Mane who rounded Mendy to score despite the presence of Dave’s lunge on the line.
Despite this, the noise levels remained high.
“He gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”
I hate us singing this when we aren’t even playing Liverpool, but on this occasion I joined in.
We kept going and it felt like we were dominating the game. There was a low shot from Mason Mount that was blocked. Then a trademark Chelsea move of the past four years or so; we all had our hearts in our mouths when a deep cross from Dave on the right was played towards Marcos Alonso on the left. Alas, Alonso was stretching just a little too much and the shot was wild.
I spoke to PD : “We ain’t playing too badly here.”
Mateo Kovacic was showing great energy in our two-man midfield, and alongside him N’Golo Kante was at his usual high standard of play.
Alas, on twenty-six minutes, an incisive move down the Liverpool left found Salah breaking inside the box. I pleaded for Alonso to get tighter, but a shimmy and a shake from Salah allowed him to drift past. From an acute angle, he opened up his body and slammed the ball twixt ‘keeper and post. I was in a direct line with the shot. There was, eerily, a moment of silence in Stamford Bridge. The Liverpool fans down the other end waited for the net to ripple, and then there was a further slight pause for the wall of noise from one hundred yards away to hit me.
I had immediate visions of 0-4, maybe even 0-5.
Fair play to Salah for not celebrating in front of us.
The noise died a little.
But then the away fans sang out “Allez allez” and this resulted in a hugely impressive “Carefree” from Chelsea.
With the half-time break approaching, a foul near the far goal line on Havertz by James Milner raised our hopes. We watched as Alonso sent the ball in, only for Kelleher to punch up and away. I had my camera up to my eyes from the free-kick and watched through my lens as the ball ballooned up. It was falling towards Kovacic but he had to back-peddle to accommodate the arrival of the ball. As it fell, he volleyed with his right foot. The ball flew goal wards. We watched open-mouthed. It crashed into the right hand post. A moment of pure drama followed. Would it bounce out or bounce in? It bounced down and across the goal. Only when the net nestled did we celebrate. It was the Scousers turn to be engulfed by a wall of noise.
My immediate response?
I snapped the goal scorer’s triumphant race back towards the centre circle. The place was buzzing.
The goal also reminded a little me of the volley that John Terry scored in the same goal against Wigan when he had to quickly readjust his feet. But that was from a lot closer in. This Kovacic goal was something else.
But then…but then.
An audible groan when it was announced that VAR was poking its big fat nose into our moment of joy. We waited. What was it for? Nobody knew.
Thankfully, the goal stood.
But then, I noted Jordan Henderson berating the referee. That’s Jordan Henderson the Liverpool captain. This made my blood boil. The referee should have carded him for that. Prick.
Just three minutes later, and into stoppage time, a Toni Rudiger clearance was pushed on by Kante with the deftest of touches.
We watched. The boy Pulisic was one on one. He was through. That lovely moment of expectation. I wanted to see him drop a shoulder and drill it low towards the far post. Instead it bounced high and he chested it down before lobbing the ball in.
GET IN YOU BASTARD.
Stamford Bridge exploded.
I yelled and yelled. PD alongside me was shouting with both his arms raised. I reached down and took a few out-of-focus shots of the players celebrating. Many seconds later, I looked over at PD and he was still in celebratory mode, still in the same stance, still yelling, still cheering.
There’s always something special about two important goals being scored so close together. This was absolutely one of those moments.
Unbelievably, there was further drama in the minute or so left of the first-half. Alonso swept the ball over to Havertz who, despite close attention from a red defender, got his shot in from inside the box. The ball broke to Mason Mount but his shot was awkward and the ball rolled agonisingly past the far post.
There was just time for another ear shattering “Carefree.”
What an incredible match. What an incredible five minutes.
There was beautiful disbelief at the break.
I couldn’t have been the only person who was warmly remembering the FA Cup tie against Liverpool almost twenty-five years ago? Two-nil down at half-time, on came Mark Hughes, we won 4-2. It remains as one of our very greatest games.
Twenty-five years ago, though? Fackinell.
Stamford Bridge was on fire then as it was in 2022.
Of course, the half-time whistle probably came at the wrong time and other clichés. Our momentum, not surprisingly, was so difficult to recreate. But the noise levels at the start of the second-half were surprisingly quiet. I wanted us to roar the team on to further glory.
For a player that we purchased as a defensive midfielder, Kante sure knows how to break forward with the easiest of pace changes; he glides, he turns, he keeps the ball moving, he passes. Once or twice in that early part of the second period he was an absolute joy.
A shot from Alonso flew over.
On the hour mark, one, then two then three saves from our man Mendy kept us in the game. The best by far was a magnificent reach after a speculative effort from distance from Salah. The Liverpool striker had decided to test our ‘keeper’s awareness. He’ll know better next time.
I was totally immersed in this game. It was a tantalising show from both teams. It was, frankly, a joy and a pleasure to be present.
On more than one occasion, after we were awarded corners, Rudiger and Pulisic turned to the supporters in the MHL to sing louder, stronger. They needed us.
A cross from Havertz and a volley from Pulisic was well-saved.
On seventy-minutes, a change in personnel and shape.
Jorginho for Chalobah.
We now had a three-man midfield, with just Havertz and Mount up top. Pulisic was moved to wing-back with Dave moved centrally. The American really grew into the game and proved to be a jinking, probing menace on the right. In one of the photos that I took of him, I noticed that he was smiling while in possession of the ball, probably looking at options. This rarely happens in modern football. More power to him. A shot from Christian, right winger, curled just over.
The whole team seemed to tire as one.
With ten minutes to go, we freshened things up further.
Callum Hudson-Odoi for Havertz.
We enjoyed the best of the last part of the game. Callum injected some good pace and was able, for once, to speed past his marker rather than dawdle and play within himself.
A shot from Mount, which followed up his blocked free-kick, whizzed towards the goal but Kelleher saved well. One last header always looked like going wide of the far post.
The final whistle blew.
2-2 on the second day of 2022.
Exiting the stairs, I simply said “superb game of football” to a few friends.
I said as much on “Facebook” with the extra comment :
Thankfully, this match was a good case of addition by subtraction. Nobody really knew what the next step in the Lukaku saga would be, but with a steep run of games coming up, including three against Tottenham in just eighteen days, this match provided a magnificence boost to our morale.
And yes, it was a simply superb game of football.
The Eight Bells.