Tales From A Muggy Night

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 August 2022.

An away trip to Southampton early this season meant that we were repeating three of the last four away games of the last campaign in the first three matches of the current one.

Last season we lost to Everton 1-0; this season we beat them 1-0.

Last season we beat Leeds United 3-0; this season they beat us 3-0.

Last season we beat Southampton 6-0; surely not?

The Famous Five left Melksham at around 3.15pm. I was driving again, and my fellow passengers were PD, Parky, Sir Les and Glenn the birthday boy, celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday a day before he was to begin a new job.

Southampton away is a breeze. At around 5pm, I was parked up in the small car park outside the city’s Central train station.

The evening heat surprised me.

“It’s nice out” I said.

“It is yes, but put it away, someone will see it” replied Parky.

The others dashed off to “Yates” for a pre-match tipple while I decided to grab a bite to eat in a nearby Italian restaurant. There were a couple of familiar Chelsea faces in there – “alright, boys?” – and I soon sat down for a pizza. This is standard for me. I reckon we could play in Kazakhstan, Bolivia or Zimbabwe and I’d still order a pre-match pizza.

I joined up with the lads in the pub, but none of us were keen to stay for any longer. There was a quick “hello goodbye” to a few troops before we set off to walk the twenty minutes or so to the stadium. The three Norwegians – four actually, I neglected to mention Jon in the Leicester City report – had been spotted in the pub. A couple of local lads were there too.

“Good trip down, Chris?”

“Oh yeah, easy.”

“Did Les come with you?”

“Yeah mate. But with PD in the passenger seat and Les sat behind him, the car kept veering to the left. It took me three attempts to get out of Melksham.”

We were down at the stadium as early as 6.15pm. It felt odd being there so early. I had to sort out a ticket for Young Jake, who none of us had seen for ages. We thought that his last game with us was the Norwich City FA Cup game at Carrow Road in 2018. There was time to chill out a little and relax. I shot off to take a few shots of the stadium.

“It’s no San Siro but surely there’s the chance to take a few decent photographs?” I thought to myself.

There wasn’t.

St. Mary’s is as bland as bland can be.

Talking of the San Siro, we – PD, Parky and I – are booked to head over in October, but we will be staying in Turin for three nights and will be joined by Dave who now lives near Nice and was last seen before the Tottenham away game late in 2018. I will be driving in to Milan on the day of the game. A version of “The Italian Job” perhaps? In a Fiat Chucklecento maybe? No, too much of a tight fit for four of us. Why Turin? When I returned home from Chelsea on Saturday night, it seemed that all the cheap flights to Milan had gone. The accommodation looked expensive too. I have no qualms about returning to Turin once again; it’s my favourite Italian city and far more interesting that Milan. As for the other Champions League aways, we are not going to Zagreb but I suspect that a trip to Salzburg is likely.

This was my second game in two days. On the Bank Holiday Monday, I drove to Bath to see Frome Town wallop local neighbours Larkhall Athletic 4-0. With the upcoming game against West Ham now taking place on Saturday, I am forced to miss Frome’s home FA Cup tie against Tiverton Town.

Now is a good time to slip into the conversation my second memory of the 1982/83 season. On Saturday 28 August, Chelsea opened up our fourth consecutive season in the old Second Division with an away game at Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium. Did I go? No. I was still at school and would only go to four games that season, the same as in the previous campaign. On that particular afternoon, Frome Town got my attention as I watched a 0-0 home draw with Wellington in the old Western League – “a terrible game” says my diary – but I would have been no doubt elated with a 1-0 win.

Chelsea finished mid-table in 1981/82 and only the most optimistic of Chelsea fans would have hoped that we would make a sustained promotion push in 1982/83. Our only real outlay throughout the summer had been the almost laughable acquisition of much-travelled Bryan “Pop” Robson, who was thirty-six when we bought him. I for one, was not impressed.

The team that day?

Steve Francis in goal. Gary Locke and Chris Hutchings the full backs. Micky Nutton and Micky Droy as centre-backs. Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery in midfield. Colin Lee, Clive Walker and Pop Robson upfront, with Paul Canoville as a substitute.

Interestingly, Pates, Chivers, Bumstead and Canoville are currently employed by Chelsea to this day as match-day hosts in the corporate areas.

Even more interestingly, my friend Daryl spotted Pop Robson near Red Square before the Champions League Final in 2008, presumably on some junket with a UEFA sponsor.

Our match winner forty years ago?

Bryan “Pop” Robson.

I was to eat my words, for one game at least.

The gate was 8,124, and I am sure that around half would have been Chelsea.

Back to 2022.

Jake soon arrived and there was the chance to chat to a few friends from near and far. The “Ticket Man” arrived on schedule at 7pm and we were in the stadium just after. Down in the darkened but spacious concourse, more chit-chat with some and a few “nods” to others. With plenty of time to kick-off, I swapped tickets with PD and sat next to Glenn towards the back of the away section, right behind the goal. I usually watch from down low so this made a nice change.

Glenn is often with us at Southampton. There were a few games at The Dell and he was also with us in August 2001 when we opened up the new stadium with a 1-0 win. I have seen all of our fourteen games against the Saints at St. Mary’s – minus the COVID ones – and I kept saying to the lads “we’ve only lost once down here, the Benitez spell in 2013.”

As we waited for the game to start, there were a few half-hearted flames in front of the stand to our left. A brass band appeared, walking towards us, left to right, and they played “Oh When The Saints” as a large banner surfed along from right to left.

I turned to Glenn and said “I always remember a game here in 1994 when you were excited about starting a chant in the away end.”

We were in the seats along the side and Glenn began bellowing “Dennis plays for England” which the rest of the Chelsea support joined in with. Glenn’s recollection was that Wisey scored a late winner. Looking back, it was actually Paul Furlong on eighty-nine minutes. Perhaps Glenn had mentally confused the two moments.

To my surprise, Billy Gilmour and Ethan Ampadu were among the named substitutes.

The team drew a few shocked reactions.

Mendy

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Mount

Ziyech – Sterling – Havertz

No Reece James, no Trevoh Chalibah, we presumed injured.

The teams entered. As at Leeds United, we played in dark blue socks and I wondered why. Surely we have some royal blue socks knocking about somewhere. The home team’s kit was a shocker. Hummel brought out some absolute killers back in the ‘eighties and Saints even had their copy of the half-and-half Denmark kit. This current shirt – predominantly white – misses by a mile. The shirt of the Keegan era would surely have looked better; predominantly red with a broad white central stripe rather than the current version. I wasn’t even sure I liked the white socks either. Very odd.

The home areas took ages to fill up and there were quite a few empty seats dotted around. I saw no unused seats in our allocation of around three thousand. We took a while to get going but the songs soon boomed around the away end.

It was a muggy night in the Northam Stand.

As is so often the case with away matches in Southampton, the home team enjoyed the best of the early exchanges. We then began to get a foothold on the game. The pitch, usually excellent, was worn in many places, as if it was a mid-season game.

Our chances, or half-chances, started to stack up. Raheem Sterling scuffed a shot right at the Saints ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu. A chance for Hakim Ziyech came and went. Sterling looked as lively as any player on the pitch and on twenty-three minutes, a lovely move down our left involving first Kai Havertz and then Mason Mount set up the central striker. Sterling appeared to lose control of the ball on the six-yard box but was the first to react as it spun loose. He stabbed the ball in and wheeled away in delight.

Phew.

I suspect that this is just the sort of goal that is practised ad infinitum on the practice pitches at Cobham; all movement, all together.

The away crowd soon responded.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

Not long after, Ziyech played in Havertz in the inside-left position. He got his shot in from an angle but the shot was hit right at the Saints keeper.

From that moment, our play drifted.

Just five minutes after we had scored, Dave decided to whack the ball out for a corner rather than play it back to Edouard Mendy to deal with. At the time, I understood that call.

What were we always told at school?

“Safety first.”

Sadly, the resulting corner fell to an unmarked Southampton player – Romeo Lavia – who was loitering with intent outside the box. He took one touch and lashed it home. Glenn was raging. Only a few minutes earlier he had spotted two Saints players unmarked at the back stick at a previous corner.

Of course the home fans roared.

Our play deteriorated as the home team became stronger. I lost count of the number of passes that Ruben Loftus-Cheek misdirected. One run out of defence by him seemed to be in slow motion.

“Ross Barkley is a big unit but even he had a burst of pace” I moaned to Glenn. “Ruben makes Micky Fillery look quick.”

Our midfield in general – without a midfield general – looked so poor. Dave was caught out of position on a couple of occasions. We had no bite. The only plus point was watching Thiago Silva scoop a few balls up and over the heads of the advancing opposition out to the right wing. I could watch that man play football for hours.

Glenn was getting frustrated further : “no tackles!”

There was an awful moment when I thought that I had been transported back to the early nineties under Ian Porterfield when there seemed to be a never-ending sequence of head tennis on the halfway line. This was rotten football.

With the home support energised, it turned into a temporary Pompey Hate Fest. Mason Mount was deemed public enemy number one.

With the half-time whistle approaching – “blow up ref, let’s regroup at the break” – a laughably poor attempt at a tackle by Jorginho failed dismally and Southampton advanced with speed and purpose. As the move progressed I repeatedly shouted two words :

“Too easy! Too easy! Too easy!”

The ball was smashed home after a fine move by Adam Armstrong.

Too easy.

Two-one to Southampton.

“Oh When The Saints” boomed around the home areas.

Fackinell.

The referee blew for half-time almost immediately.

I turned to Glenn at the break : “this has been a timid performance.”

We both wanted Tuchel to bring on Armando Broja for the miss-firing Havertz. Towards the end of the half-time break, with the grass getting an extra dose of water from the sprinklers, we spotted Tuchel chatting with Mateo Kovacic on the pitch. The manager then sat alone on the bench for a number of minutes.

I just found all of this a bit odd.

One presumes that he had said enough to the players in five minutes and didn’t need ten. Personally, I would have taken fifteen.

“Oh, before you go back out on that pitch, just be aware that there are supporters out there who have travelled down from the north of England, from the Midlands, from East Anglia for tonight’s game and they won’t get home until about 2am in the morning but will need to be up again for work within a few hours, knackered, and they will do it all again and again and again…”

I saw him studying some sheets in a folder.

It almost raised a wry smile.

“Never mind the first-half stats, pal, just fire some fucks into them.”

No real surprises, Tuchel replaced Loftus-Cheek with Kovacic.

“Kovacic, Our Croatian Man…”

Soon into the second-half, Southampton broke down our right and a shot from close in was blocked on the line by Cucarella. Mendy made a fine reaction save to tip over the follow-up effort.

The home fans really turned up the heat on Mason.

“You skate bastard. You skate bastard.”

“Mason Mount, we fucking hate you.”

We struggled to get things moving. Oh for a playmaker, oh for a Cesc Fabregas.

On the hour, there was a loud, proud and defiant “Carefree” from us followed by derisory applause from the home fans.

Sadly, our play stagnated further. I saw little movement off the ball and the mood in the away end was falling fast.

With twenty minutes or so left it was all change, three substitutions :

Ben Chilwell for Jorginho.

Armando Broja for Dave.

Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

I expected a ripple of applause for Broja from the home fans; there was nothing, the ungrateful sods.

We all revelled in the great rush into space from Broja and his strength in twisting and turning past two players. He left them for dead before sending in a cross. This augured well for the rest of the game or so we hoped. In reality, despite his more aggressive movement and enthusiasm, his only other noticeable action involved a header near a post that never looked like troubling the ‘keeper. Kovacic added a little burst of energy too, but this soon petered out as moves slowed down and died. Pulisic looked remote and uninterested wide on the right. My recollection is of him hardly bothering to go past players, but my photographs would prove otherwise. How Ziyech stayed on all game is a mystery.

The minutes ticked by.

From a corner, Silva was in the right place at the right time. The ball hit him on the line.

I fully expected us to lose another goal.

3-1 would not have flattered them.

In a scene that was reminiscent of the Leicester game, Mendy appeared in the opposing box for a late corner or two.

When the ball was hoofed up field, one of my photographs completely captured our night, with Cucarella nervously falling to head the ball away, being pressured by a Saints attacker, the goal open and vulnerable.

I spent some of the last minutes of the game watching that fucking dachshund on the “Vitality” advertising boards trot around the stadium at roughly the same pace that our team had been doing all match.

The final whistle blew.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

We got what we deserved, no doubt.

A posse of young Southampton fans to our right spent many a minute goading us as we waited to drift away into the night. I was pragmatic about it.

“Bollocks. Let them enjoy themselves, the little twerps.”

Some other Chelsea supporters were a little more hostile.

It was all a pantomime show to me.

In days gone by, there is no doubt that Chelsea would not have taken such a defeat well. Recriminations would have been enacted outside the stadium as fans would have sought revenge.

“We’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose.”

We all met up outside and slowly trudged back to the car. That walk always seems twice as long when we lose.

There was a small scale altercation.

A mouthy young Southampton fan wearing the hugely odd combination of a bar scarf and a Stone Island sweatshirt was heard to shout “Chelsea Rent Boys.” This was like a red rag to a bull to one or two in our support. The youngster escaped into the night with a warning.

All five of us were at a low ebb. There really were no positives from the night. Only two or three players had average performances.

On a muggy night in Southampton, we were the mugs.

We stopped off at the always-busy “McDonalds” at the bottom end of the A36 at about 10.30pm. A couple of lads enjoyed a burger. I downed the inevitable coffee. Outside, the air still warm, I got a little philosophical.

“We are so unused to defeats. Over the last twenty years, we have had a magnificent ride. It’s all been massively good fun. But remember that ninety per cent of people who go to football in this country have no hope of seeing their team win anything. That’s quite something really. That so many go just for the love of their team. Quite admirable really. Not saying we should not get concerned about defeats, but maybe we just need to re-focus our targets.”

That reset button might have to be adjusted again over the next few weeks.

The immediate reaction out there in Chelsea Land was split. Some want Tuchel gone. Some want to persevere.

Me?

I’m fucking looking forward to the San Siro in October I know that.

See you against West Ham.

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