Chelsea vs. Brentford : 2 April 2022.
This was a game that, if I am honest, I wasn’t particularly excited about. Work had been busy since our previous game up at Middlesbrough – a cracking day out, a classic away trip – and with everything else in the world dragging us down, this match at home to Brentford just wasn’t doing it for me. Nonetheless, as always, the pre-match was excellent. I spent it with friends from California, Oregon, Virginia and Vietnam – the returning Steve, last seen in Perth, Australia – and also from Edinburgh, Kent and, nearer home, Salisbury and Bristol.
At “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, it seemed all of the world was in one place.
Even though I was in the ground early enough, I didn’t make a note of the team line-ups when they were announced by the PA and shown on the screen. So when the game began my mind went into “scurrying around mode” trying to put a plan of attack – and defence – together with the players that I saw lining up on the pitch below me.
I tried to piece it all together.
“Mendy in goal. Now then, was that a back four with Alonso and Dave the full backs with Silva and Rudiger in the middle? Surely Ziyech out wide isn’t a wing-back in a 3-4-3? Nah, that’s a four. Right, the midfield. That’s easy; Kante, Loftus-Cheek and Mason. But Ruben seems to be starting quite deep, almost as an anchor. His tour of the ten outfield starting positions continues, eh? Upfront, a recalled Werner on the left with Havertz in the central role and that man Ziyech out wide on the right. Is that it? Is that ten outfield players? Check.
My first assignment of the game was concluded with only a minute or so gone. It was a good job that I hadn’t been drinking.
No room for Rom. Again. We have all made up our own conclusions about our miss-firing and miss-fitting (is that a word?) Belgian and these have tended to converge. Indeed, all of the evidence honestly suggests that Thomas Tuchel agrees with us.
Bugger. It wasn’t meant to be like this was it?
Brentford were in all yellow. Why? Who knows.
The game got going and after an early Chelsea attack down our left, Brentford quickly got into their groove. In the first two minutes, Christian Eriksen fancied his chances with a free-kick from distance but Mendy was untroubled. The Danish international’s return to the game is both magnificent and yet shocking at the same time. I remember watching in stunned silence as his fate appeared to be in the balance during the Denmark vs. Finland game last summer, one of the few games that I bothered with in the whole of the 2020 European Championships. Yet here he was playing professional football once again.
I turned to Alan.
“Fuck that. If I had almost died on a football pitch, it would be pipe and slippers for me.”
When the former Tottenham midfielder appeared below us to take a corner, I joined in with the hundreds of Chelsea fans around me who showered some warm applause upon him. But we only did it the once. We knew our limits.
There were mainly blue skies overhead. It was a decent day in SW6. It wasn’t warm, but the sunshine gave the afternoon a Spring-like feel.
On the pitch, the visitors were warming up quicker than us.
We love Edouard Mendy but oh! His distribution at times is catastrophic. Ivan Toney – when he first appeared on the scene, and without seeing him play, I wondered if he was a relative of Luca Toni – intercepted an errant pass from Mendy but his lob was high. The same Brentford player then made space for himself inside our box but Mendy fell to his right to push the ball nervously past his near post. Toney’s third effort in quick succession was a header but thankfully it did not trouble us.
So, in the first ten minutes it was Brentford who were setting the pace. On another day, we could easily have been 1-0 down or worse. We, meanwhile, were struggling to get out of first gear.
In the first quarter of an hour, our sole attack of note resulted in Werner collecting the ball thirty yards out and dribbling the ball forward, but forgetting to stop dribbling past the goal line.
A much more refined feint and dribble from Ziyech on the right was easier on the eye, but that was again full of false promise.
Chelsea’s attacks were rogue at this point; not wholly convincing, not well planned.
In fact, it took a whole twenty minutes – count’em – for our first real strike on goal. Mount took the ball, advanced and struck a curler that flew narrowly past David Raya’s right-hand post.
All was quiet.
It took until the twenty-eighth minute – again, count’em – for me to hear a credible chant from the home support; the Matthew Harding Lower rumbled a half-hearted “Come on Chelsea” and I, and a few others in the Upper, joined in. But the game was being played out in front of a thoroughly tepid atmosphere. Not even the away fans could be bothered.
Suffice to say, there were no “Roman Abramovich” chants, but there were hardly any other chants either.
I heard a pigeon coo in Brompton Cemetery.
On the half-hour mark, there was a nice dribble, centrally, from Ruben but his shot was hit straight at their keeper’s midriff. Next up was a beautiful lofted pass from Kante into Mount but his volley was aimed at the ‘keeper again. We were slowly getting the upper hand but it was hardly stirring stuff.
“Wednesday on their minds?” offered Alan.
Our best effort of the first-half came from the boot of Ziyech but his fearsome shot was tipped over by the Brentford ‘keeper.
Down in front of us, I purred at the way Thiago Silva calmly brought a ball down and delicately tapped a ball over the limbs of an onrushing Brentford player to Dave in a few yards of space. The man makes everything look so easy. Utter class.
The first-half apologetically ended.
Brentford had enjoyed the best of the first quarter of the game while we slowly engineered some sort of reaction in the second quarter.
But, really, this was lukewarm stuff.
As the second-half began, nobody within Stamford Bridge could possibly have predicted the events of the ensuing forty-five minutes.
Chelsea were now attacking us in the Matthew Harding and after three minutes of play, the ball was pushed square towards Antonio Rudiger. He must have been thirty-five yards out. With one touch to set himself up, he swiped at the ball and we watched as the missile flew goal wards. It looked on target. So often his efforts are wild. But on this occasion the ball hit the left-hand post before glancing in.
And not just from the fans, but from the goal scorer too. After my initial scream of joy, I quickly harnessed the camera that was hanging around my neck at the time – I don’t always have it “up and ready” – and snapped away at the scorer’s uninhibited and ecstatic run of celebration. From my vantage point – behind him – it looked like he was losing it, and possibly gesticulating and gurning in a way that he might later regret. He ran, maniacally, towards the Chelsea bench and flung himself into the arms of the manager.
“Get a room, lads.”
It was some strike. Because of where it was on the pitch, it immediately reminded me of a Frank Leboeuf screamer against Leicester City in 1997. That late goal gave us a1-0 win. This goal, almost twenty-five years later, sadly signalled the start of a crazy period in the game.
After our goal, I left my seat and sauntered off to turn my bike around. Just as I was about to disappear into the North Stand concourse, I heard a roar and looked around to see a Brentford player reeling away in front of The Shed with the Brentford fans celebrating wildly behind him.
I got back to my seat and Alan filled me in with the details; a sweet strike from Vitaly Janelt. This had come after barely a minute of play since our goal.
We immediately attacked but a Werner effort was blocked easily. Sadly, Brentford broke with pace as they attacked The Shed again, and three Chelsea defenders sprinted towards the ball-carrier Bryan Mbeumo. This left two yellow perils unmarked inside the box – spotted by myself with an impending sense of doom – and it was no surprise when one of them, Eriksen, slotted the ball in.
Oh crap. What terrible defending.
Our fine recent form was now facing a rude awakening.
Reece James replaced Marcos Alonso and the defence was shuffled.
But only a few minutes later, a quick and concise move down the inside-left channel by Brentford caused us more pain. They cut through us so easily – “after you Claude” – and Janelt nabbed his second of the game with a strike high past Mendy. Brentford had scored three times in just over ten minutes.
The away fans could finally be heard.
“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”
Two more substitutions followed.
Romelu Lukaku for Werner.
Mateo Kovacic for Kante.
Werner had been so poor. I am pretty fair with most players and heaven knows I have wanted the German to finally hit some form but – oh my – the bloke seems to be getting worse. I’m getting pretty fed up with people saying, and quoting Porto as an example, that his moves off the ball allow space for others. If I was a footballer, an attacking player, I would be pretty ashamed to have to write that in bold at the top of my curriculum vitae.
All of a sudden, Kai Havertz became the centre of attention. Firstly, he tucked the ball in from a cross, but the goal was disallowed for handball, although it also looked offside to us. Then, he closed down on a clearance from Raya and the ball spun just wide. Then, and again in quick succession, an effort from the same player drifted just wide of the far post after good work from Loftus-Cheek and Kovacic.
A goal or two then might have turned it our way a little.
After scoring one goal, Rudiger tried his best to get his shooting boots into action again with a succession of increasingly extravagant efforts on goal. None came close unfortunately.
As the game continued, many of the home support set off for home, or maybe some nearby bars. I have rarely seen Stamford Bridge so empty in the last ten minutes. In the dying embers of the game, there was more Keystone Cops defending in The Shed penalty area as we failed to clear the ball and Youane Wissa smacked home a loose ball.
Chelsea 1 Brentford 4.
Good God, bloody hell.
At least there were no boos at the final whistle.
Those more likely to boo had already fucked-off home by then.
As I walked down to the Peter Osgood statue to pick up some tickets for next Saturday’s game at Southampton, I was just bewildered and not mad. I had mentioned to Walts at half-time that we hadn’t really pushed on since last season, and this game was evidence enough. But we’re decent enough to finish third this season and, cup glories aside, that has to be our goal. We’re a team slowly growing, nothing more. Give us time.
I soon bumped into four of my overseas guests, and Kathryn – from Vienna, Virginia – was almost in tears as she told how there just wasn’t any noise at all in her part of The Shed Lower.
“We tried to get everyone singing but nobody knew the words.”
Welcome to Chelsea 2022.
Walking towards the car, I passed the wine bar on Vanston Place, and at last, as I peered in, I spotted Dutch Mick on his first trip to Chelsea in over two years. I had seen him to talk to Abu Dhabi but I told him then that I missed seeing him and his mates in that bar every time I walked by. I pointed to him and he came out for a hug. It was a nice end to a far from nice afternoon at the home of the World Champions.
Next up, Real Madrid at home and they surely don’t come any bigger.
I’ll be up for that alright.
See you there.