Tales From A Tough One

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 20 April 2022.

After the away game at Southampton, there was football everywhere. Sadly, however, I was not involved in all of it.

On the Tuesday came our away match at Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. I watched this one at home, alone. I hate watching us in pubs. What a performance. I can rarely remember a more spirited show from us in recent years. It was a game for the ages, a high-energy tactical joy. And we almost pulled it off.

A couple of things to say.

I could not but help notice that there seemed to be a definite difference in the reactions – OK on Facebook, my main reference point – between those commenting on our performance between those in the UK and those elsewhere. In the UK, there was an immense sense of pride in the team and management, stated by virtually everyone. Outside the UK there seemed to be a different story. I often spotted fingers being strongly pointed at certain players and it made me gasp. This seemed particularly mean-spirited.

Massive kudos to two friends – from outside the UK, but I am sure they were full of pride too – who travelled vast distances to attend the game in Madrid. Well done to Shari from Australia’s Gold Coast and well done to Bob from Northern California. They both travelled over to Spain for just that one game. Respect.

On the Saturday, I travelled to South Gloucestershire to see Frome Town play – and win 2-0 – against Slimbridge. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in the sun. This was a fine performance after a few patchy results and one that really pleased me. The team solidified its place in the play-off positions now that Plymouth Parkway have edged into pole position for automatic promotion.

On the Sunday, I travelled with Glenn, PD and Parky to London for the FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace. Alas, I was not allowed into Wembley because I was carrying my usual SLR camera and lenses. I pleaded with security that the self-same camera had been allowed in on well over twenty previous occasions but this fell on deaf ears. I trudged back to the train station and made my way back to where Glenn’s van was parked at Barons Court. I was pretty demoralised. Sigh.

On the Bank Holiday Monday, there came salvation in the guise of Frome Town. For the game against local rivals Paulton Rovers, a few friends and I were sponsoring the match. Glenn was a guest of mine too. Ironically, the club’s official photographer had hurt his back and was unable to attend and so I was asked to slip into his shoes, and gleefully accepted. It was another fine day at Badgers’ Hill. Frome won 2-1 in front of a massive 731 gate and I was happy with my photographs. I snapped all three goals and, after “camera gate” at Wembley, this proved to be a really cathartic experience.

Good old Frome.

Next up was Arsenal at home.

At work, I mentioned to a colleague “I fancy us to win 4-0.”

Again, PD drove up with Parky and little old me. Just as we approached “The Goose” I spotted Raymondo and it was a joy to see him. He is well-loved at Chelsea and this was his first game since before lock-down in the Spring of 2020. Superb. Down at “Simmons” I met up with Johnny Twelve Teams from LA and also Ben and Christina from Louisiana in addition to all the usual suspects.

We all agreed that it would be so weird to see The Bridge well below capacity against the Gooners. We expected a gate of around 28,000. Team news filtered through. We weren’t too enamoured with the defensive set up.

In Tuchel we trust.

Before the game, Stamford Bridge was bathed in the glow of a pink and orange sunset beyond the West Stand. The yellow brickwork of The Shed End was warm with colour. The steel of the East Stand roof was a delicate pink. What with the empty seats – though not as many as I had expected – there seemed to be a surreal feel to the evening. Stamford Bridge – those familiar stands, the spectators, the flags and banners – often feels the same at most games, especially during the dull winter days. On this evening, I sensed a different vibe, one that is difficult to describe. Sometimes the old place can feel different and I often sense this during the first evening game in the light of Spring. This was one of those occasions.

Alongside Alan, PD and myself was Simon, a work colleague. There were three thousand away fans. One of them, Noah, was a guy I met up with on the long haul to Baku in 2019. We don’t often chat, but he told me that he’d be in attendance.

Arsenal, eh? It seemed that they have enjoyed the upper hand a little recently, but this isn’t really true. Sure, there had been the FA Cup losses in 2017 and 2020, but we had beaten them heavily in Azerbaijan and our last loss that I had witnessed at Stamford Bridge was the 3-5 reverse in 2012. The 0-1 defeat last May is only vaguely remembered. There were a few good wins at their place too.

Over on the balcony wall in their section of The Shed, there were a few Arsenal flags on show.

The “E.I.E.” one raised a smile. There is a possibly apocryphal story about that and how it all started involving an enthusiastic member of The Herd and a meat pie.

So, our team?

Mendy

Sarr – Christensen – James

Alonso – Kante – Loftus-Cheek – Azpilicueta

Mount

Lukaku – Werner

Very soon into the evening, the away fans seized the moment.

“Just like the old days, there’s nobody here.”

One-nil to The Arsenal. Sigh.

Chelsea responded with the same tune :

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

…thinking to myself :

“…mmm, how can a chant be constructed that describes Arsenal’s published attendances always showing 60,000 yet with often a third of the seats being empty?”

That’s a tough one.

I looked around. Despite the limited ticket sales – season tickets, corporate sales and away fans, right? – the stadium looked pretty decently filled. The Matthew Harding looked full. The Shed too. Yes, there were empty seats in the upper wings of the East and West Stands, and large gaps in the family sections of the East Lower, but it looked more than the expected 28,000. I couldn’t work it out.

Chelsea in our awful kit, Arsenal in their homage to Ajax or something.

The game began and it was off to a hectic start. Chances came and went in that opening ten minutes or so, with Chelsea dominating. A rare Arsenal attack saw a half-chance from Granit Xhaka saved by Edouard Mendy. There was an effort from Romelu Lukaku at The Shed End that flew past a post.

Sadly, on an unlucky thirteen minutes, there was a case of déjà vu down below. A boot up field from Nuno Tavares – “he looked like more than a woman to me” – was looking to be gobbled up by Andreas Christensen, drifting right. In a scene sadly reminiscent of the defensive howler against Real Madrid, his intended back pass to Mendy fell short and Eddie Nketiah intercepted and tidily finished.

Fackinell.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the away fans.

Only four minutes later, Ruben Loftus-Cheek won a ball and played it out to Timo Werner. His little run at the Arsenal defence resulted in a shot that appeared to be quite scuffed from over one hundred yards away, but his shot bobbled in.

The goal surprised me so much that I hardly celebrated and that worried me. But I then saw that Timo’s reaction was equally muted and my worries subsided. Football is a funny old beast, right?

Anyway, we were back in it. The replay on the TV screen showed a slight scuff, but a deflection and a bobble as it passed Aaron Ramsdale.

We had a little spell with a few lively attacks, but seemed obsessed with hitting them down our left. On more than one occasion, Dave was full of space on the right but unused. Maybe we had been told not to use him too much as his engine isn’t what it was and we were trying not to get him caught out high up the pitch. With Reece James inside, it seemed the two of them were in the wrong positions.

But who knows, I am no expert.

A riser from Mason Mount was off the target.

“Come on Chels.”

On twenty-seven minutes, the ball was worked in by Arsenal from their right and our defenders seemed shy in making a challenge; were they waiting for a fucking written invitation to tackle? A cool finish from the accountant Emile Smith-Rowe nestled in a corner. I resisted to waste any photographs of the fuckers celebrating down below me.

This goal was against the run of play.

Yet just five minutes later, a lovely cross from Mount on the left was played into a danger zone and Dave – “fuck this standing around, I’m going in” – magnificently swept the ball in past the Gooner goalie.

His celebrations in front of the away fans made my heart sing.

Good old Dave.

This was a messy first-half, but breathless too. Arsenal grew stronger as the first period neared its conclusion, and Marcos Alonso – outwitted far too often in defence – was unable to keep a trademark volley down after excellent work by Werner and Mount.

It was quite a half.

Phew.

So much for my 4-0 prediction.

So far it was a Bishop Desmond, with more goals very likely.

We saw Thiago Silva arrive pitch-side and we presumed that Chistensen was off. We were correct. Reece and Dave switched positions.

The second-half began.

We enjoyed a sudden burst of energy and spirit at the start of the second period. But then, all of a sudden, instead of being invigorated by the pep-talk at the interval, we suddenly looked tired and leggy.

On fifty-seven minutes, another Chelsea calamity.

Arsenal broke and attacked. A Silva tackle was to no avail. Inside our packed box, we had the chance to clear, but a hapless series of miss-timed challenges and horrible deflections allowed Nketiah to poke it past Mendy.

Fackinell.

On came Kai Havertz for the quite hopeless Lukaku. His body language was terrible all night long. I remember one header that he bothered to win. On several occasions, he just couldn’t be arsed.

We were still looking leggy, with Ruben never once going on a trademark dribble. Even the once indomitable Kante looked to be running on ether.

Miraculously, we did conjure up a couple of half-chances, but that elusive equaliser never really looked like materialising as the evening grew a little colder.

I heard Cath do a spirited “Zigger Zagger” down below me but it drew a lukewarm response from those around her.

With ten to go, Hakim Ziyech replaced Alonso and I couldn’t even be bothered to see how he fitted into the team. He hardly got a touch anyway.

The home support was drifting out into the London night.

I looked over to PD.

“Arsenal have done a job on us here. They’ve been the better team.”

They had chased us down, had put us under pressure, had stopped us.

Of all people, the once lampooned Timo Werner was the only player that could honestly escape criticism.

In extra-time, a final twist of the knife. Dave and Bukayo Saka tussled and tumbled inside the box. From my vantage point, it looked a penalty. With that, thousands left.

“Thanks, then.”

Sako converted and the Arsenal lot celebrated like they had won the World Club Championship.

As fucking if.

The whistle blew.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 4.

The Chelsea conundrum was continuing still.

And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, and after three decent performances and three wins, the knives were out for our manager in many parts of cyberspace, and from undoubtedly within the UK this time too. Additionally, some players were being called the most horrific names.

This admittedly shambolic show was indeed all very difficult to comprehend.

And yet, and yet.

Just five league defeats all season. Third place almost guaranteed in my eyes. Two domestic Cup Finals. A manager that was being vaunted as one of the very best in the world after the game at the Bernabeu. An obviously tired squad. Out of a maximum of sixty-six games that we could possibly play this season, we will be playing sixty-three.

As I have said all season long…we have a team just starting out, a team that needs to develop, a team that needs to grow, a team that needs to find the right blend. Let’s get Gallagher and Broja back next season and see what that does.

I am hopeful that a few of the perpetrators of the bile that was aimed at some of our squad on Wednesday evening woke up on Thursday morning with the dull pain of regret.

Next up, Lymington away on Saturday and West Ham at home on Sunday.

I will see the lucky ones there.

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