Tales From The Changing Of The Guard

Chelsea vs. FC Red Bull Salzburg : 14 September 2022.

We were in a period of change.

Not only in the little – or not so little – world of Chelsea Football Club, but in the wider world too.

The last game that I witnessed was the home win over West Ham United on Saturday 3 September. We then witnessed an historic week. On the Tuesday, I reached home with seconds to spare to watch our Champions League game at Dinamo Zagreb on my laptop. We began well, pretty positive thoughts, but then conceded via the home team’s first attempt on goal. We simply did not react. What followed for the rest of the match was pretty turgid stuff. We laboured without inspiration and fight. It was horrible to watch. I felt for the loyalists – a fair few who I knew – who had followed the team to Croatia. We allegedly sold just six-hundred or so tickets; it looked far fewer on TV. It was as poor a performance as I had seen for a while; in particular the second-half horror show from substitute Hakim Ziyech must rank as one of the worst personal performances for a few years.

Oh Chelsea, what a mess.

As the following day began, there were a couple of messages waiting for me in a WhatsApp group. Both were asking for the club not to react by giving Tuchel the boot. To this observer, while acknowledging that our form has been patchy for ages, our troubled manager was presumably involved in gathering the new purchases over the summer and therefore should be allowed to sort out his team over the next few months. Not for the first time, I was advocating long term-ism over “slash and burn” at Stamford Bridge.

Less than three hours later, while I was sitting in a planning meeting at work, my manager Matt passed on the news “Tuchel sacked” and I barely reacted. Deep down it was no real surprise. I quickly focused on office furniture deliveries to Munich, Cork and other cities throughout Europe rather than thinking about Chelsea winning in cities throughout Europe.

It’s not that I hadn’t seen this before.

The only shock was that the new regime had seamlessly continued the firing policy that had been so ingrained under Roman Abramovich since 2003.

At least Roman gave Ranieri a whole season to prove himself.

Hot shot Boehly, faster on the trigger, had given Tuchel just seven games into the new season.

I love the phrase that someone conjured up recently to describe Chelsea Football Club of late; “Chaos & Cups” – and am annoyed I never thought of it – as it perfectly sums up modern Chelsea.

Before we had time to dwell too much on who our next manager might be, the following day provided another shock.

During Thursday 8 September, there were reports that HRH Queen Elizabeth II was in grave health. Only on the Tuesday, the new prime minister Liz Truss had met with the Queen at Balmoral. Yet, as I watched on the evening news, with the BBC broadcaster Huw Edwards already wearing a black tie, the nation and the Commonwealth prepared for some sad news. I was watching as Edwards calmly announced that the monarch had passed.

I am no huge royalist – or at least not of the flag waving type – but I am no republican either. However, my real sadness as I watched the TV for the next hour or so genuinely surprised me. This was something that I could not easily brush off nor let pass without gentle reflection. I had my own thoughts, my own period of remembrance.

I was numb for a while, but then life slowly creaked on.

It was soon announced that the football would be off at the weekend, though. No trip to Fulham beside the Thames, nor no second prize of a Frome Town game either. So be it.

In my life I saw the Queen twice. The first time, way back, was at Windsor Great Park, when I watched from afar with my parents and an aunt and an uncle; there was some sort of parade, I was only around three, it is all very blurred. My father took some equally blurry film of the occasion. But I can remember being absolutely thrilled that a queen, The Queen, was in the same field as me.

In 1977, I went with my mother to see Her Majesty on a walkabout in Bath during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I was only a few yards from her as she walked past, and if I remember correctly, my red, white and blue hooped shirt was spotted on the local BBC news that evening. A couple of again blurry photos remain from that day.

I was undoubtedly a royalist in 1977, and then in 1981 for the Royal Wedding. Since then, my feelings have changed. But now is not the time to bore everyone.

I know this; the Queen was well loved, well respected, and I absolutely admired her.

Meanwhile, on the Friday, back on Planet Football, Chelsea appointed the Brighton manager Graham Potter as the new man at Stamford Bridge.

Everything was changing.

Wags were commenting “two prime ministers, two monarchs and two Chelsea managers within three days.”

Quite.

Change in Downing Street, change at Buckingham Palace, change at Stamford Bridge.

I honestly haven’t bothered to read too much about the reasons behind the Tuchel sacking. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.

An unwillingness to join in fully in the recruitment of new players? A worsening relationship with the existing players? Personal problems? The break-up of his marriage? A reluctance to play young players? Who knows?

I will say this. It took me a really long time to warm to the bloke; too long probably. Despite the win in Porto, I didn’t really have a bond with him, unlike with Lampard and Conte to name but two. But the way he kept the club going during that crazy period of sanctions last season was undeniably magnificent. While nobody else at the club was willing to utter a single word – the board were as weak as I had suspected all along – Tuchel bonded us all together and it was truly the stuff of legend.

Please allow me a moment of hyperbole; it was almost Churchillian.

I loved his comment about him driving a seven-seater to Europe if needed.

Thanks for your efforts Thomas Tuchel. I felt I never really got to know you. But thank you for the Champions League in Porto, the Super Cup in Belfast and the World Club Cup in Abu Dhabi.

The ironic thing is that even if we had won both domestic cups last season, and the FA Cup in 2021, he would still be gone.

Chelsea. Fackinell.

It was announced that our up-coming game against Red Bull Salzburg would be taking place, as planned, at 8pm on Wednesday 14 September. Time to re-focus, maybe, and start thinking about the future.

Graham Potter, eh?

Will he turn out to be the English version of Andre Vilas-Boas, himself a rated young manager, touted for great things, yet to fail? Or will he oversee a bright spell in the fortunes of our beloved club? Only time will tell, eh?

However, by the morning of the trip up to The Smoke for the Salzburg game, I was already pissed-off with the amount of Harry Potter references.

Do fuck off.

I worked a very early shift to get away at two o’clock for this one. Alongside PD in the front, Simon joined us, a colleague from work, and heavily involved in those deliveries in Cork and Munich. I think this was his first game with us since that away game at Brighton last season. I was wedged into the back seat, a defensive three, with Chopper and Parky to my flanks.

Despite some misty rain when I woke at 4.45am, the weather now was bloody superb. We chatted about upcoming games. October will be so, so busy. Chelsea are due to play nine games and PD, Parky and I hope to be at all nine. We are now booked-up for the away games in Milan and Salzburg. Following hot on October’s tail, we are flying up to Newcastle for the last match before the break. That game has been confirmed for 5.30pm; just perfect.

Chris : “We’ll just stay down by the quayside for that one. Big old sesh ahead.”

PD : “And get a cab up to the hill to the ground.”

Parky : “Cab? Ambulance!”

We all howled.

Simon and I chatted a little about work, but that soon slowed.

Two nights earlier, Parky and I had popped into Bristol to see yet another band that were around forty years ago. Altered Images were excellent. Parky and I are not alone among my Chelsea mates to have seen them this year. Ah, 1982.

Continuing my reflections on our 1982/83 season, our next two games in that historic season were both away from home.

On the evening of Wednesday 8 September 1982, we played at the Baseball Ground against Derby County. The game was lost 0-1. The gate was just 8,075, a very poor attendance to be honest. Only seven years earlier, Derby County had been English champions and had beaten Real Madrid 4-1 in the then European Cup the following autumn. They had fallen just like Chelsea.

On Saturday 11 September, there followed another away game against a big club now languishing in the second tier. We played at St. James’ Park against Newcastle United, boosted by the signing of former European footballer of the year Kevin Keegan. His transfer from First Division Southampton to Newcastle really was the talk of the summer. It was huge news. As a result, a massive gate of 29,084 gathered to see a 1-1 draw with Colin Lee grabbing our goal but they then equalised. The Newcastle team included Mike Channon, Imre Varadi and Chris Waddle too. My diary notes that “The Big Match” – now on Saturday nights – surprisingly showed the goals what with the game being in the Second Division. Seeing Chelsea on the TV in that era was such a rare event

The traffic was light and PD was parked up at our usual spot at 4.30pm.

We had three-and-a-half hours to enjoy before kick-off.

PD and Parky popped into “The Goose” while the others popped down to Stamford Bridge. Atop the West Stand, the Union flag was at half-mast. There were a couple of images of the Queen on LED displays.

I took a photograph or two.

With Peter Osgood in the background, I wondered if I could get away with commenting “The King and The Queen” without offending anyone. Simon and I spent a very pleasant time in the Copthorne Hotel with a few friends. Outside, the sun beat down. It was a ridiculously lovely early-evening in London.

Simon and I retraced our steps and joined up with Alan and Daryl in “Simmons” which was surprisingly quiet. We were joined by Andy, Simon, Chris, Nick, Deano, Gal, then PD and Parky. I allowed myself two pints of “Estrella”, my first alcohol in over two months.

Talk touched on the Tuchel sacking rather than the appointment of Potter.

“Apart from the four or five Tottenham games and all the Liverpool games” – oh, and the semi in Madrid – “our play over the past twelve months has been poor.”

Chat about football and all the more important things in our individual lives continued. Laughter, as always, wasn’t far away.

At work in the morning, a work colleague had asked me if was looking forward to the evening’s game.

I was brutally honest.

“Not really.”

It was going to be a long, long day and it was unlikely that I would get any sleep in the back seat of PD’s car, but now I had absolutely warmed to it all. Being among friends had cheered me. The football would take care of itself, eh? Outside, we bumped into Ludo, for the first time since attending his wedding reception three weeks earlier.

“Parky had said you weren’t coming tonight, now you are married.”

Ludo smiled. We gave him a hug and we departed for the ground.

The place soon filled up. I was expecting more away fans; there were no more than five-hundred. Apparently they had walked in silence from Earls Court as a mark of remembrance for The Queen. That was lovely. Well done them.

I wasn’t really sure what form the pre-match would take.

But as kick-off approached, there were no songs, no “Parklife”, no “Liquidator.” Just silence. The players went through their paces down below us. Over on The Shed balcony, a parade of Union Jack flags flanked a banner simply stating “RIP YOUR MAJESTY.”

Just before the teams appeared, two Chelsea pensioners laid wreaths on the pitch in readiness for the minute of silence.

The Austrian flags held up a large black banner in the Shed Lower : “ IN MEMORY OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II.”

As the teams lined-up, out from nowhere, the crowd sang “God Save The King” and I joined in.

Very soon, the teams gathered on the centre-circle; Kepa, in the team, had to race from his goalmouth to join in.

A peep from the referee’s whistle.

Everyone stood in silence for one minute.

Unlike at Anfield the previous night when the referee could only allow just over twenty seconds of Liverpool Football Club’s self-proclaimed “period of remembrance”, this was pristine.

At the end of it, I wanted to catch Alan’s eye and tell him “that’s what you call an impeccable silence” but as he turned towards me, he said :

“That’s what you call an impeccable silence.”

We smiled.

Our team?

I had seen the names on the screen but as the players lined-up I was a mite confused.

Anyway, Kepa again between the sticks.

What looked like a back four of Cucarella, Silva, Dave, Reece.

Then further forward we had Jorginho and Kovacic in the middle.

Mount too.

Upfront were Sterling, Havertz with Aubameyang in the middle, at last a focal point.

But soon into the game, I was further confused. At times it looked like a three at the back with Sterling as the pushed-on left wing-back. At least I was toying with the right number of players on the pitch. I hope that there is no truth in those pernicious rumours about Todd Boehly wanting to try a 4/4/3 formation.

If so, God help us.

The new manager Graham Potter was introduced to the crowd. The applause was hardly deafening.

The game began with Chelsea attacking The Shed.

The Salzburg grey reminded me of the Barcelona colours from that classic in 2005.

It was a full house. It seemed we are still managing to get the pricing right. It was £35 for us in The Sleepy Hollow, though the £70 tickets were snapped up in West View. It staggers me that people will pay such sums. Oh boy.

Football, the working man’s ballet?

Not anymore.

We penned Salzburg into their own half for every minute of the first twenty minutes. Unlike in Zagreb, Aubameyang – with Zorro mask – was in on goal early on and elected to shoot. It flew over. There were a few half chances as we began well, showing more willingness to pass early and pass forward. On twenty-one minutes, the crowd applauded Thomas Tuchel on account of the win in Porto in 2021.

It had been all us, but their ‘keeper Philipp Kohn had not made a single save. Just after the minute’s applause, though, the first effort on goal but this was an easy catch for him.

There was a block on a shot from Aubameyang.

Reece James beat his man and drilled a low cross the penalty area but sadly no Chelsea player had gambled.

On twenty-six minutes, the away team enjoyed their very first attack but it amounted to nothing.

The atmosphere was unsurprisingly muted.

There were a couple of Chelsea half-chances, but nothing of note. A shot from Sterling was blocked, an effort from Mount was blazed over.

On forty minutes, another rare Salzburg attack when a curler from Benjamin Sesko forced Kepa into a fine save down low.

At The Shed, an odd deflection from an Aubameyang cross and a Kovacic header. The chance passed.

It had been a pretty forgettable first forty-five minutes.

In fact, the absolute high spot was, on reflection, the timing of my visit to the little boys’ room during that odd intermission when the officials sorted out their FIFA Playstation headsets.

The half-time stats stated 72% possession and eleven efforts. I remembered less.

Soon into the second-half, a fine rapid move down our right involving a burst from James and a ball to a raiding Mount caught the Austrian defence on the back foot. A low cross from Mount wasn’t cleared. In fact, a defender deflected the ball on, just passing the waiting Aubameyang. It whipped past another defender and ended at the feet of Sterling. He controlled the ball, rolled his studs on it, then curled it powerfully home.

GET IN.

Did we power on? No, not really.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the night : “Carefree” rolled around the four stands.

A fine lofted pass from Jorginho set up Havertz but he fluffed his lines.

On sixty-seconds, Potter made some changes.

Armano Broja for Aubameyang.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for a very quiet Havertz.

Soon after coming on, Broja was released and broke in from a wide position but I that felt a challenge put him off. He shot wide.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Salzburg broke down their right. We appeared stretched. At first I thought that Emperor Silva’s slide was timed to perfection, but alas not. Junior Adama rode the challenge, collected the ball and advanced. His slide rule cross was easily turned in past Kepa by Noah Okafor.

Bollocks.

Cucarella set up James from a free-kick but he walloped it high and wide.

By now, I was literally sitting forward, not exactly on the edge of my seat because space would not allow it, but alert and involved, I could not help but think that if I had been watching at home, I would probably have been stretched out on the sofa, my attention possibly elsewhere. I am simply not a TV fan these days. Football has to be live for me now.

There was a flurry of late substitutions.

Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.

Hakim Ziyech for Dave.

Sterling played in Ziyech who crossed for Broja to bite at the near post but Kohn blocked well.

Lastly, Christian Pulisic for Sterling.

By now, I had completely lost track of the shape and who was playing where. God only knows what Boehly made of it.

Then, with time running out, a deep cross from Ziyech found Broja who headed the ball back across the box. The ball was kept alive only for our Albanian international to smash a loose ball over.

Finally, a hopelessly weak header from that man Ziyech close in had us all grumbling.

Fackinell.

In a period of change, both our lack of potency in front of goal and our charitable tendencies in defence seem difficult to budge.

On the walk out, I was annoyed with two smiling and laughing young female supporters, bedecked in Chelsea scarves, presumably not caring one iota that we were now bottom of our group with just one point from two games. I then glowered at a lad in his early ‘twenties who – laughing with a mate – proclaimed “Tottenham are better” and he soon got the message.

All three were visitors to these Isles. There are always many overseas visitors to HQ for these European games, more so than standard league matches. I welcome them. But maybe some should be asked to complete a due diligence test on arrival at the turnstiles.

I am only half-joking.

We met up back at the car and PD set off for home. I managed to drop off to sleep, no doubt dreaming of those last minute misses. I eventually got home at just after 1am. It had, indeed, been a long day.

In the match programme, there was a nice piece by Rick Glanvill concerning the Queen, the royal family and its links with Chelsea Football Club.  It was rumoured that the Queen’s grandfather, George V and her father, King George VI, were both Chelsea followers. The nearest football club to Buckingham palace is, after all, Chelsea. The first football match that the Queen watched was Chelsea’s war time Cup final with Millwall in 1945.

I have a spare programme. Who wants one?

A Chelsea player met the Queen at the British Embassy in Rome, but was really taken aback when the Queen commented : “Ah the famous Italian international footballer.”

Who was he?

Answers to : c.axon@talk21.com.

Let’s hope this garners more entrants to my last competition when just one person bothered to respond. I am going to limit it to overseas followers please. Chelsea programmes are a bit easier to get hold of in the UK. No due diligence test required. Good luck.

2 thoughts on “Tales From The Changing Of The Guard

  1. I’ll go with Vialli as his family were I believe quite influential in Italy.

    Great read Chris as ever. Remarkable how you find the time and aquire the detail.
    Well done.
    Dean.

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