Tales From An Unhappy Birthday

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2022.

Just after midnight on the day of our game at Carrow Road, I posted on Facebook the following :

“Happy Birthday Chelsea Football Club. Let’s celebrate it with a win later today.”

This was going to be another long old day. I had booked the day off work but was unable to get Friday off too. So it meant that I would be driving straight back after the match. I envisaged around ten hours’ driving in total. I did wonder if we’d completely fill our section, what with the game being only recently re-arranged, but that was soon to be the least of my worries.

I collected the gruesome twosome and by 9am we had stopped for a McBite to eat in the Wiltshire town of Melksham. Just as we were leaving, a friend messaged a group of us on WhatsApp to say that the government were putting sanctions on Roman Abramovich. My immediate reaction was that I wasn’t wholly surprised. But then, within minutes, the word was that it didn’t look good for us. It didn’t look good at all. I quickly turned my ‘phone off and recommenced the long drive east. PD, alongside me in the passenger seat, relayed some snippets of further information. Only season ticket holders were to be allowed at Stamford Bridge, the club shop was to be closed, but also – most worryingly of all – came the news that we couldn’t be sold.

PD summed it all up : “We’re fucked.”

Driving along the M4, nearing Swindon, I advised the chaps to turn their ‘phones off too. In the way that bad news travels much faster than good news, I suspected that the morning would soon be rife with awful rumours and doom-laden opinions about the immediate future of Chelsea Football Club. For a good hour or so, my car has never been quieter on the way to a Chelsea game. All three of us were stunned.

“And on our bloody birthday too. Stick the knife in and turn it, why don’t you?”

And yet. And yet, I could not help think of the poor people of Ukraine, who were at that very moment in time getting shelled by the Russian invaders. A part of me knew that in the very grand scheme of things the comings-and-goings of a football club seemed way less important.

Still we remained largely silent.

But we did mull over a few thoughts. I will admit, at some stage in that mid-morning mess, the three of us contemplated the most horrible “what if?” of all time.

What if Chelsea ceased to exist? What on Earth would we do?

My answer was obvious.

“I’d watch Frome Town. I know I wouldn’t enjoy it anything as like as much, but that’s always been part of my exit plan.”

I could hardly believe that we were thinking it and that I was discussing it. It was a rotten time. Looking back, that hour-and-a-half drive east along the M4 is a blur, a foggy memory, a fugue.

We hit the M25, the M11, the A11 and eventually the fine city of Norwich. I parked up not long after 1.30pm, some five-and-a-half hours since picking up PD in Frome. Despite the sullen thoughts racing through our minds, we promised each other to make the most of the day. Outside, the weather was mild, and overhead the sky was a cloudless blue miracle. I was parked just outside the city centre, just to the north of the River Wensum. We were honing in on one of my favourite pubs, “The Ribs Of Beef” but first we shot into “The Mischief”, a pub that we visited on the day of our FA Cup game in Norwich in 2018.

We all remembered our last trip to Norwich, only two-and-a-half years previous, but that day seems so distant now. In August 2019 – the sun blazing – we watched as Chelsea won 3-2 and Frank Lampard picked up his first win as a Chelsea manager. So much has happened since that it seems almost ridiculous to contemplate it all.

COVID19, several lockdowns, my heart attack, the dismissal of Lampard, the hiring of Tuchel, Champions League glory, Cup Finals, World Championships, a war in Europe and now the forced departure of Roman Abramovich.

My head is spinning as I am listing all of this.

We spent some quality time in the two pubs, and then hopped over the street to finish off at “The Glass House”, where Adam and his merry men and women of the Eastern Blues were enjoying a pre-match drink-up. It was in another pub on that street, “The Lawyer”, where we bumped into Adam and a few more of his crowd in 2018. Alas, that pub is no more. Sadly, the Eastern Blues lost a fine member the past year – Leigh – and it was in “The Lawyer” that we first met him. He was a well-respected Chelsea supporter and I know that he is dearly missed.

RIP Leigh Reeder.

Morsels of information and disinformation percolated through to us while we were drinking. I had allowed myself a single pint of “Praha” in the “Ribs Of Beef” and tried my best to relax. But what about away tickets for Middlesbrough? Was it true that we could be sold after all? How would a new owner work with the CPO? What about us retaining our players? Buying new ones? Would the club even exist by the end of the season?

We decided to let nature runs its course. We were but supporters, and all we could do was support the current team.

I parked up closer to the ground in a multi-story. After quickly saying “hi” to Rob and Martin in a restaurant, we dipped into “The Queen Of The Iceni” by the river. This is a pub that Parky and I first visited in 2012 and we had a quiet word with Noel and his wife. The mood was sombre and contemplative. But it was good to share a few thoughts. This pub was virtually full of home fans. Chelsea supporters, it seemed, were amassed in a pub on the other bank of the river, and their songs could be head from some distance. But we had given all that a large swerve. None of us were in the mood for it.

We decided to head into the stadium relatively early. As we turned the corner, I half-expected TV crews and reporters to be pouncing on Chelsea supporters as we neared the away turnstiles, but things were surprisingly quiet.

This would be my tenth consecutive Chelsea game away from Stamford Bridge, a run that is never likely to be repeated.

Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton, Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, Crystal Palace, Wembley, Luton, Burnley and Norwich.

I swapped seats with PD so he could be with Parky for a change; they were down the front with Alan and Gary. I was towards the back. There was reassuringly plain and concise talking with Jonesy, King Kenny, Neil, Tim and Cliff. I need not have been worried about the Chelsea crowd. Our section was rammed.

Suddenly, the game was upon us and I flicked my focus to our team.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Christensen

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Werner

What a lovely first-half, eh?

We created more in those first ten minutes than we did in the entire first-half at Burnley in the previous game. After just two minutes, that rare thing; a Chelsea goal from a corner. Mason Mount slapped it in from the far side and a leap from Trevoh Chalobah did the rest. His glancing header down flew into the net, and the Chelsea contingent roared.

Soon after, the chances mounted up, oh dear please excuse the pun. Two efforts from Kai Havertz were followed by the same player sliding the ball square to Mount, who shimmied and struck high into Tim Krul’s goal. His subsequent slide towards us was euphoric, pure emotion, pure Chelsea.

More of the same please.

The Chelsea crowd were noisy and continuously so.

There were loud chants of “Roman Abramovich” but not everybody joined in.

Ironically, a friend in Detroit – hello Andy – asked me a few months back why we no longer shout Roman’s name at games. I had no real answer to this question. Maybe only on days when we are presented with league trophies at Stamford Bridge? I can’t remember any other occasions in recent times.

I also saw the home fans’ reaction – “Scum! Scum! Scum!” – and I simply didn’t want to contribute to that particular debate.

I remembered the famous exchange in 2005.

“We’ve got a super cook, you’ve got a Russian crook.”

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

They don’t write them like that anymore, eh?

Back to 2022, and there followed a bizarre chant from us :

“Chelsea get sanctioned everywhere they go.”

Answers on a postcard.

And then, the rarest of songs.

“Chelsea Til I Die.”

This has always been a song that failed to register at Chelsea games, despite many fans thinking that it did. In my mind, and a few friends, it always seemed to be sung by lower level teams for some reason. Yet here we were in deepest Norfolk, and hundreds of Chelsea were giving it an airing for the very first time that I can ever remember.

I guess on this particular occasion it can be forgiven.

Though, to be honest, I’ll be supporting Chelsea after I die too.

We kept pouring forward. Every attack seemed to be with pace, at last, and the front three were continually on the last line of the defence, waiting to pounce. Dave’s energy levels were amazing to witness at close quarters. I lost count of the number of runs he made; many were inch perfect, but sadly many were ignored too. I was impressed with Mase, a bundle of energy, racing forward one minute, tackling back the next.

That shimmy from Thiago Silva as he brought the ball out of defence.

“Now you see it, now you don’t”

Sublime.

A flurry of corners caused concern in the Norwich penalty area. Kovacic and Christensen went close. It was as dominant half of football that I have seen for a while. Oh, since the second-half at Burnley anyway. Norwich were simply not in it. How come we only scored bloody two?

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Dave at the break. He looked out of place at right wing-back; my eyes took a while to adjust.

In contrast, a stark contrast, the second-half was poor. There was such little quality in the first twenty minutes that I wondered what on Earth the Chelsea players had drunk at half-time. It was the home side that looked the more aggressive as the game continued and Chelsea looked to be tiring. The noise in the away section died a little. On sixty-five minutes, there was a shot that hit a Chelsea defender. My reaction was “handball” before Teemu Pukki gathered the loose ball and Mendy saved well.

The initial handball was given though.

A penalty to Norwich.

Pukki drilled it low, Mendy going the other way.

Bollocks.

“On The Ball City” boomed.

Oh – and another – “Yellarmy!” as encouraged by electronic displays.

Yellarmy. I ask you.

Norwich fancied their chances now, and I didn’t fancy ours. But we needed a win here to silence the baying hordes in the outside world. We needed to hang on.

With five minutes to go, a double flip.

Romelu Lukaku for a poor Timo Werner.

N’Golo Kante for a tireless Mateo Kovacic.

The big Belgian fluffed a chance from inside the box.

“CAM ON CHELS.”

On ninety minutes, Kante passed to Havertz and our slim and silky German thundered the ball high into the goal.

Norwich City 1 Chelsea 3.

Phew.

We walked slowly back to the waiting car. Our mood had been brightened by the result. We tried to be positive. The road west was waiting for me. I eventually reached home at 3.15am.

It had been the strangest of days.

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