West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 11 February 2023.
You know what it’s like when the alarm sounds and there is a day of football that lies ahead, but you just don’t feel the love?
That’s what it was like on the morning of our game at West Ham United.
I had set the alarm for 5.30am and it took me a few minutes to summon the energy to get up and at’em. West Ham is probably my least favourite away venue. It’s a terrible stadium to watch football, eh? Additionally, in four previous visits for me there was still no win against my name.
But Chelsea were calling and so I picked up PD at 7am and Parky at 7.30am. As I approached PD’s house, a song by Yazoo from 1983, how appropriate, was airing, the suitably titled “Mr. Blue.”
“I’m Mr. Blue.
I’m here to stay with you.
And no matter what you do.
When you’re lonely, I’ll be lonely too.”
There was talk of Dortmund on the drive to London. The three of us leave early on Monday morning and are travelling over to the Ruhr by train.
A year ago to the day, PD and I were in Abu Dhabi, nervously awaiting our game against Palmeiras on the Saturday.
A year on, Saturday 11 February 2023 would be our last day of being rightfully termed World Champions.
It’s been the maddest of years since.
By 9.45am, we were settled into “The Half-Moon Café” on the Fulham Palace Road, enjoying a fine full English and a strong mug of tea. Before the end of our fully enjoyable breakfast, a squadron of the Met’s finest had arrived and were getting into various plates of unequally unhealthy food. We wondered if they were soon to be deployed at Craven Cottage for the visit of Forest or at Loftus Road for the visit of Millwall.
On the drive up to London, I had asked PD about the FA Cup game at Derby County that I had featured in last week’s edition.
“You were there, right?”
“Is that right that some seats ended up on Chelsea fans in the terrace?”
“Yeah. The ones that didn’t reach the pitch.”
Forty years ago, as fate would have it, the very next game in Chelsea’s increasingly troubled season was at home to Derby County. Going into the game on Saturday 5 February, Chelsea were in fourteenth place with a 8-7-10 record. The visitors, however, were experiencing an even more disastrous season than Chelsea and were rock bottom of the twenty-two team division with a 3-11-11 record.
Here was a tussle that we could win surely? The previous game was a surprising 6-0 win against Cambridge United. I was hopeful that we could win this one and put our season back on track. Promotion was looking out of the question but there were still points to be won, and I prayed that subsequent Mondays in the sixth form common room would not follow the recent pattern of me having to take all sorts of flak that had been flying my way.
In the programme for the game, the tone was set by the editorial which had moved on from being called “The Talk Of Stamford Bridge” to “Forward Line.”
The subject was of the hooliganism the previous week.
“Thirty seconds can be a long time in football. With the score 1-1 at Derby last Saturday, with the Osmaston Stand clock reading 4.40pm and the ball safely in the hands of our goalkeeper, we looked certain to force a replay with County. The mood was optimistic as the team had fought back from being a goal behind and the fans had behaved well, out singing the home supporters to the extent that a plea was made at half-time over the public address in an effort to coax more noise from the locals.
Then, barely a minute later, we were out of the Cup, the hooligans we despise were out of their seats and throwing them onto the pitch and onto innocent Chelsea supporters standing below. January 29th will enter the history books as a Black Day for Chelsea Football Club; we aim to make it one too for those criminals by studying all the evidence available including photographs and video tapes. We are determined to bring to justice the perpetrators of Saturday’s violence.
The thousands of regular, law-abiding Chelsea fans at the Baseball Ground last week no doubt felt disgusted and ashamed at the scenes played out before them by followers of this club as the match drew to a close. For those excellent supporters, many of whom will be present today to watch the football peacefully and enthusiastically, we shall leave the subject of last week’s vandalism and concentrate on today’s match.
Anyone guilty of being involved in the Derby violence can stop reading this page as we are now going to talk about the football.”
Four contributors to the programme continued with the same subject.
“Last week’s result and the events at Derby have left a cloud over the club all week that we must try and remove with a good performance this afternoon.”
“Now that the dust has settled, I think we are agreed that last weekend was a disaster, in more ways than one. To be knocked out of the Cup in the last minute, after having more scoring chances than the England cricket team, was a particularly bitter blow but certainly no justification for the behaviour that followed.
We have asked for copies of all press photographs taken last Saturday and we are also seeking to obtain a copy of the video recording of the match, and intend to compare these with our own video recordings which we now take of Stamford Bridge to try and trace the culprits. I am not too hopeful that we will be successful as I have my doubts that the hooligans that caused the trouble are true Chelsea supporters – evidence of this is that I too had obscenities, rude signs and coins directed at me when I went on the pitch to try and calm things down.”
“The atmosphere prior to the final goal was tremendous and I realise and understand more than most the supreme frustration felt by all when Derby’s final goal was scored, but the actions of some supporters only hurt fellow Chelsea fans and this should not happen. So shape up Blues Fans, cheer on and support forever more, but avoid unsavoury incidents like that wherever possible.”
“A friend of mine from Sheffield once wryly commented to me after watching Chelsea in his area, how great it must be to watch your team at home every week. Long may that level of support last. The only sadness is that amongst the thousands of travelling loyalists, there are still a handful of trouble makers that embarrass the club and sicken the well behaved following.”
Forty years ago, looking back with gritted teeth, the events at the Baseball Ground was a perfect storm.
A huge away following. A crushing last-minute defeat. FA Cup dreams extinguished yet again. For many within the six thousand, there was only one response. If hand-to-hand hooliganism was impossible due to the lack of home fans in close proximity, thoughts turned to vandalism.
It was all sadly predictable.
And even though many to this day take pride in our performances off the pitch in games like this, at the time I was becoming just sick of it all despite the warped kudos of supporting a team with a violent hard core that I mentioned in the last edition. I just wanted to support a team in the top flight. And for our support to be loud and boisterous.
In the end, Chelsea succumbed to a woeful 1-3 home defeat against Derby County in front of a miserly 8,661. Colin Pates scored the only goal for us, and we even had the misfortune to score two own goals for our visitors, via ‘keeper Steve Francis and midfielder John Bumstead, in addition to the one Derby goal claimed by old warhorse Archie Gemmill.
These were becoming desperate times at Chelsea.
I’m getting depressed just remembering it all.
I include a piece that was aired on the “Nationwide” programme on the following Monday as the headline story. It mentions just fifty Derby fans on the wide North terrace at the game; a pitifully low number, and no doubt the result of their poor season but also the fear of retribution. Leaving the away end at Stamford Bridge in the early ‘eighties must have been a pretty terrifying experience.
Our breakfast consumed, I zipped over to park up at Barons Court and we then embarked on an hour-long train journey east. Via a couple of train changes, we pulled into Pudding Mill Lane – how Dickensian – bang on 11.30am, bang on plan. I looked over at the steel structure of the London Stadium, under a Tupperware sky, and my heart sunk.
I was back at this grim venue once again.
Just outside the station, we spotted a police van parked nearby, with the officers that had been sat next to us in the Hammersmith café stretching their legs outside.
There were two security checks and we were in, sharing views with many that we would probably struggle on this day in a grey London.
We soon heard that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was starting alongside Enzo Fernandez and it caught us all by surprise.
I could not believe how slowly the stadium filled.
The match day announcer spoke with Bobby Moore’s daughter on the pitch before the game, and there was another presentation involving West Ham “legends” Sir Trevor Brooking and, ahem – wait for it – Carlton Cole.
James – Silva – Badiashile – Cucarella
Fernandez – Felix – Loftus-Cheek
Madueke – Havertz – Mudryk
At 12.20pm, with just ten minutes to go, I estimated that just 25% of the crowd were inside. At kick-off, bar a few thousand late arrivals, the place was full.
I had heard about a new screen that had been set up to block the view – and any subsequent “pointing and shouting” – between home and away fans between the away fans in the lower reaches of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand and the home support in the lower tier of the West Stand.
And there it was; a ridiculous addition, really.
West Ham were wearing their light blue shorts and it still didn’t look right; it was if there was an away game colour clash and they were forced to change. Their kit is a real dog’s dinner this season. We were wearing the thousand island dressing change kit.
“We’ve worn that before this season, right, John?”
But we began ever so brightly.
Despite the home team defending deep – please note how I try to avoid the wanky buzzwords like “low block” – we were able to find spaces with runners being hit via some cute passing from Enzo Fernandez and Joao Felix in particular.
On ten minutes, with Chelsea in the ascendency, a pass from deep from Reece James was played into space for Felix. It seemed to catch the West Ham defence off guard – to be honest there was a hint of offside – but our new loan-signing advanced and saw his shot come back off the far post but he tapped in the rebound.
A quick celebration was quelled by the linesman’s yellow flag on the far side, out near Essex.
“Fair enough. It did look offside, John.”
There was nice movement and intensity in these early stages. On seventeen minutes, the ball was well won with a tough tackle from Mykhailo Mudryk and there was a one-two- between Marc Cucarella and Enzo. I caught the Argentinian’s cross into the box and also, miraculously, the exact moment that Felix tapped the ball in.
The celebrations in front of the West Ham fans were a lot easier to capture.
Alan : “Thay’ll ‘ave ta cam at us na.”
Chris : “Cam on me li’le dimonds.”
Just after, another offside denied Kai Havertz a goal.
There was a lovely wriggle away from defenders from Noni Madueke, breaking in from the right. There were flashes of some decent football. The noise wasn’t great though. The two sections in the away end work against any united front.
It was all Chelsea in the opening twenty-five minutes.
The Chelsea choir summed it all up eloquently.
“How shit must you be? We’re winning away.”
There was a rare West Ham attack featuring the always dangerous Michail Antonio but Kepa blocked well. Sadly, poor defensive marking allowed a cross down below us from Vladimir Coufal and this was flicked on by Jarrod Bowen and we immediately sensed danger.
I whispered “here we go” under my breath.
At the far post, former Chelsea defenders Emerson, Lake & Palmieri scuffed the ball in.
He did not celebrate.
We didn’t hit earlier peaks during the rest of the half, with Enzo showing less inclination to pass forward. Was he wearing Jorginho’s number five shirt a little too tightly? Was he being unnecessarily passive? We went into our shell a little.
At the other end, the under-fire Cucarella lost Bowen a few times.
However, there were chances. Fabianski saved well from Madueke. A free-kick from Enzo went close.
In the half that we were defending, seven or eight pigeons strutted around with little hindrance. As the first period came to an end, many Chelsea supporters drifted out for half-time drinks and visits to the boys’ and girls’ rooms. We – Parky, John, Gal, Al, Eck and I – were positioned in the very front row of the top section. It allowed me the chance to nod “hellos” to many friends as they walked out to the spacious concourses below. I took some photographs. It’s what I do.
It was especially pleasant to see Shari once again, over from Brisbane, and Ray, back from a year-long placement in Miami.
“Yeah, see you in Dortmund.”
I had to laugh when the highlights of the first-half were shown on the screens at the break but our goal was not shown.
I turned to John and muttered “well, I don’t think many of us will be saying ‘we miss Mount’ will they?”
Sadly, the second-half was a very poor show and I won’t dwell too much on those second, woeful, forty-five minutes.
Twice in quick succession, we were all seething that Madueke stood next to Felix at corners, but the ball was not played to him, he just stood vacantly alongside. On both occasions, the ball was played way back by Cucarella to Kepa.
“Fuck sake. What is the bloody point of that? Get Madueke in the box, an extra body, an extra head, or get him to wait outside the box for a second ball.”
We were raging.
Nothing happened until half-way through the half when Graham Potter made three substitutions.
Ben Chilwell for Cucarella.
Hakim Ziyech for Mudryk.
Mason Mount for Madueke.
Ziyech then stood next to Felx as another corner was swung in, and we all wondered about the collective IQ of our first team squad.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe we just possess thick footballers at this moment in time. They can seem to negotiate their way into a “TikTok” video but sadly come up short on the football pitch.
Conor Gallagher for Loftus-Cheek.
I thought Ruben was perhaps our only half-decent player during the game thus far, but only by the thinnest of margins.
The atmosphere was horrific. So quiet. Absolutely abysmal. It went well with the football on show.
I turned to John.
“God, we could get walloped in Dortmund on Wednesday. They’ll have the Yellow Wall. We’ll have the Wailing Wall.”
A header for Havertz, wide.
Late on, I was pondering why the top balcony on their West Stand mentions “1964 FA Cup Winners”, “1975 FA Cup Winners” and “1980 FA Cup Winners”, but just “1965 European Cup Winners Cup” and if they ran out of letters for “winners.”
“Just no demand for it down these parts these days, governor.”
With that, my eyes returned to the pitch to see a West Ham leg prod the ball in.
Another late goal at this bloody place? Oh God.
Thankfully, after a delay – as always – it went to VAR.
John : “as long as it goes on, the more likely it is to go in our favour.”
Me, willing it to take forever : “keep going, keep going, keep going.”
The game continued half-heartedly, but a flashpoint was just around the corner.
In the last few minutes, I snapped as Gallagher hit a low drive at goal. My photo shows Tomas Soucek going to ground. I did not see the handball, for that is what it was, but the five or six Chelsea players nearest the ball certainly did and raced towards the referee.
No penalty. No VAR.
I must not let myself believe that dark forces are at hand amid the Premier League’s power brokers but at times it seems that a narrative is at work.
Was it just an appalling – APPALLING! – decision?
If not, football is dead.
I will see some of you in Dortmund.
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