Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 1 April 2023.
April Fools Day In Fulham
There are three games to detail in this edition; two from 1983 and one from forty years later. Let’s do things chronologically.
On Saturday 19 March 1983, Chelsea played a London Derby against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. With Chelsea eager to pick up as many points as possible from the remaining games of the Second Division season to stave off relegation to the Third Division we could only eke out a 0-0 draw.
The Palace team included on-loan full-back Gary Locke who had played over three-hundred games for Chelsea after his debut in 1972. Locke played more games for Chelsea than Gianfranco Zola, Graeme Le Saux, David Webb, Micky Droy and Gary Cahill, but I fully expect there are folk reading this who have never heard of him. I guess this is normal, if not a little sad. I spoke with Bill from Toronto before the Everton game about this. He confirmed that many of the newer Chelsea supporters that he encounters simply have no care in the world to learn about parts of our history.
Gary Locke played in the very first Chelsea game that I ever saw in March 1974 and his performance is the only one that I can honestly remember much about; in the second-half he was playing right in front of me in the West Stand Benches and I recollect a succession of well-timed sliding tackles to thwart Newcastle United’s attacks down their flank.
Also playing for Palace was Jerry Murphy, who would make a move in the opposite direction in 1985. I was getting good at the “guess the gate” sideshow. I predicted 14,000. It was actually 13,427.
A week later, on Saturday 26 March 1983, Chelsea played Barnsley who were managed by the former Leeds United defender Norman Hunter. In the “Forward Line” section – it took the place of “The Talk Of Stamford Bridge” for programme aficionados – there was a desire for the club to finish in a better final placing than the twelfth spot of 1982. The club was currently in thirteenth place, but just six points above a relegation spot. There was news that our star player Mike Fillery was seeking a move to a team in the top flight and was therefore recently placed on the transfer list.
In the 1981/82 and 1982/83 seasons I subscribed to the home programmes and I eagerly awaited their arrival right after games. These days we are bombarded with official club information via the internet and endless social media offerings. In those days, the programme was everything. It was our only link to the club. I devoured those small match day magazines with an absolute passion.
In the Barnsley edition, there is a two-page spread featuring Paul Canoville who had recently scored two against Carlisle United. Needless to say, these were the first goals scored by a black player for Chelsea. Until then, Canners was our only black player. Sadly, the letters page contained two pieces from supporters complaining about racist abuse aimed towards Canoville at recent games.
On this day, Barnsley went in 1-0 up at the break and went on to win 3-0. My diary doesn’t detail any great shock nor surprise at this reverse. The gate was just 7,223. It was getting easy, so easy, to guess our home attendances. The most recent five home fixtures produced depressing figures.
Cambridge United : 7,808
Derby County : 8,661
Blackburn Rovers : 6.982
Carlisle United : 6,677
Barnsley : 7,223
Our substitute was debutant Keith Jones who replaced Clive Walker. Not only was Jones our second -ever black player, but he was the first player to reach the Chelsea first team who was actually younger than me. He was born on 14 October 1965, three months after me.
I was seventeen, coming up to eighteen in July. I remember that this game provided a particularly sobering moment for me; that someone younger than me was now playing for my beloved Chelsea. I found it hard to cope with the thought that I would be supporting and cheering on a lad who was younger than me.
At that moment, I may well have uttered my first-ever Chelsea “fackinell.”
As an aside, I had played football for my school teams from 1976 to 1982, but had drifted away from playing in 1982/83. There may have been occasional games within the school, but I think my competitive football came to an end in 1981/82. Regardless, the presence of Keith Jones in the Chelsea team had undoubtedly meant that I had missed the boat to become a professional footballer or a footballer of any standing whatsoever. That a lad younger than me was infinitely better than me at the tender age of seventeen had left me somewhat deflated. I still find it hard to forgive him.
Forty years later, our underwhelming season was starting up again after a fortnight break with another 5.30pm kick off at Stamford Bridge.
Aston Villa, who have won only twice in twenty years at Stamford Bridge, were to be the visitors.
There was no great sense of enthusiastic anticipation as I made my way up to London in the morning. The driving was tough going – “hello rain, hello spray” – but I made good time and dropped PD and Parky outside “The Eight Bells” at around 11.45am. All of us were not expecting much of a spectacle. In fact, the mood was pretty sombre. Sigh.
“Just can’t see us scoring” was a familiar lament as the day developed.
I was parked up on Bramber Road at around midday and the first three hours of my day at Chelsea would be spent meeting up with friends from Edinburgh, New Orleans and Dallas. But first, I wanted to involve my third passenger in a photo that I had been planning in my head for a month or so.
I have written about the Clem Attlee Estate before and how it has undoubtedly housed thousands of local Chelsea fans since its inception in the late ‘fifties. The tower block that overlooks the Lillee Road, consisting of three wings, dominates the first few minutes of my walk down to Stamford Bridge. I’ve taken a few photos of it in the past. On this occasion I wanted to pay homage to our gritty past and so I arranged for Ron Harris to stand in front of two of the building’s wings.
I hope you like it.
For the next few hours, I chatted with some pals.
First up, Rich from Edinburgh, visiting Chelsea again, this time with his uncle’s son Matt, on an extended holiday from his home in Perth in Western Australia.
A few former players were milling around.
There were plenty of laughs as Bobby Tambling told a lovely story about Terry Venables scaring Eddie McCreadie to death at a hotel in the Black Forest while on tour in West Germany. McCreadie was apparently scared of ghosts, so Venables borrowed a pair of Bobby’s black pyjamas and hung them outside McCreadie’s window as a storm was raging outside. A window was rattled, and McCreadie pulled the curtains back and screamed in horror much to the amusement of those in adjacent rooms.
Next up, Jonathan from Dallas, a chap that I was meeting for the first time, but who has been reading these ramblings for a while, and whose daughter was to be one of the team of mascots for the day’s game. The wait was long; eleven years. Initially his son was on the list, but COVID got in the way of his turn and was now, sadly, too old for mascot duties. The baton was therefore passed to his sister. I enjoyed chatting with Jonathan about a few topics. We briefly touched on the recent rumours, unproven, about Chelsea re-igniting the option of moving to Earls Court. Although a stadium upgrade is likely, and needed if I am honest, I’d prefer the current regime to sort the bloody team out first.
Lastly, my good friend Stephen – visiting from New Orleans with his wife Elicia and her friend Makeda – arrived at about 1pm and I handed over tickets that I had been keeping warm. I last saw Stephen in his home town of Belfast ahead of the Super Cup game. It would be Madeka’s first-ever Chelsea game.
As ever, Ron gave the same welcome that he gives to all Chelsea virgins : “if we lose, you’re not coming back.”
It was a pleasure for me to have the briefest chats with Ken Monkou. I first saw him play in August 1989. He would go on to become our player of the year that season.
At about 2.30pm, I sped off down to Putney Bridge tube to meet up with the lads – and lasses – again. There was subdued talk of the game. Bill from Toronto was back for another match, this time with his wife Beth Ann, her first one too.
I chatted mainly to Andy and Sophie. We centred on the current state of affairs at Chelsea, but also yakked about Vincent Van Gogh, my relatives’ migration to Philadelphia in the nineteenth century, visiting Canada and our combined love of Bournemouth. It’s not all about football.
Despite the desperate state of our play at the moment, I loved Sophie’s reaction to the news that she had been sorted with an Arsenal ticket. It is surely a mess of a club right now, but nothing beats going to a game. She punched the air and smiled wide.
I had earlier said to Andy that “I can’t understand people who say they want the season to end. I bloody don’t. It’s what I live for, this.”
Andy was surprisingly upbeat. Sophie and I questioned his sanity.
There were a few Villa fans on the tube back to Fulham Broadway. They were full of song and were singing praises of Unai Emery and John McGinn on the train and as they alighted at our destination. I inwardly sniggered. Well, you would wouldn’t you?
I was in at 5pm. The troops slowly appeared. My chat with Oxford Frank was predictably down beat.
“Just can’t see us scoring.”
James – Koulibaly – Cucarella
Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Enzo – Chilwell
Felix – Havertz – Mudryk
The appearance of not only Reece James but Marc Cucarella in a back three while both Benoit Badiashile and Trevoh Chalobah were on the bench was unfathomable. This forced Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a far from convincing right wing-back on us yet again. Oh my life. I was hoping for a better performance from Mykhailo Mudryk in this game than in recent others. I wanted to see more of the Anfield Mudryk than the post-Anfield Mudryk. At least Enzo and Felix, two bright points surely, were playing. I prepared myself to be frustrated by Kai bloody Havertz yet again.
Before the teams appeared, a brief chat pitchside with John Terry and Roberto di Matteo, chatting about a “Legends” match versus Bayern Munich to raise money for the Royal Marsden Hospital, where Gianluca Vialli received treatment in his battle against cancer. John Terry joked he would play in his full kit.
There was a decent crowd; less empty seats than against Everton a fortnight earlier. Of course Villa had the standard three thousand. I was eerily aware that this was all happening on April Fools’ Day. I wondered what sort of headlines were waiting to be written. Our last game on this day of the year was the achingly depressing defeat to Tottenham in 2018.
The game began.
We were back to normal, attacking The Shed in the first-half. Without knowing it at the time, a wild effort from Mateo Kovacic after just two minutes set the tone for the rest of the evening. I can barely remember a shot from relatively close to goal that ended up so high in the upper tier. Soon after a shot from Mudruk inside the box was blocked by Emiliano Martinez. We were dominating the early exchanges but with some irritating early evidence that things might not go our way. Kai Havertz took an extra touch inside the box, as he often does, and invited an easy block. There was a scissor kick from Kovacic, similar to his fine goal against Liverpool last season, but on this occasion the effort almost went out for a throw-in.
Off the pitch, this game began quietly and continued the same way.
On the quarter of an hour, Ollie Watkins slid a shot wide in the visitors’ first attack. Just after, John McGinn slammed a shot from outside the box that hit the bar. A minute later, a ball was lofted towards Watkins, but two Chelsea defenders were drawn to the ball. It was my opinion that Kalidou Koulibaly, seeing the whole of the play, should have shouted down Marc Cucarella’s hurried chase to head the ball. Instead, the Spaniard’s touch just set the ball up nicely for Watkins, who had run from deep, to lob Kepa.
A voice nearby blamed Kepa, but it was hardly his fault.
So here we were again, dominating possession, finding it hard to finish, and a goal down.
The rest of the half continued in much the same way. If I am honest, our approach play was quite decent at times. Two players took my eyes as always; Enzo showed an eagerness on the ball and an ability to spray passes into space. And Felix exhibited fine skill at times, his happy feet taking him away from markers in tight areas. On the flanks, there were two different stories. Although he was away in the distance, Ben Chilwell looked to be doing all the right things at the right times, yet Ruben Loftus-Cheek forever looked a square peg in a round hole. His inability to cross the ball was annoying everyone.
The chances mounted up. The fleet-footed Felix forced a save. Then there was a lofted ball to Havertz that he chested down and volleyed, but the shot was straight at the ‘keeper. After a fine pass from Kovacic, a weak shot from the disappointing Mudryk. Loftus-Cheek continued to frustrate on his unconvincing forays down our right. He kept doing the simple things badly.
With half-an-hour played, Stamford Bridge was yet to warm up. I hadn’t joined in with a single song, nor had the majority of others.
We were ghosts again.
Kovacic as playmaker once more, this time a fine lofted ball towards Chilwell who advanced inside the box but slammed an effort against the woodwork. Half-chances came and went as the first-half continued. Chelsea’s approach play continued to hit some nice notes but we had no hint of a cutting edge.
Another Havertz effort was saved by Martinez. Late on, a dink into space from Enzo – becoming his trademark – set up Chilwell to head the ball in.
Sadly, our joy was short-lived when a tug on Ashley Young – who used to be a footballer – had been spotted.
There were muted boos at the end of the first period.
That a dirge from the hum drum Coldplay was aired at half-time just about summed it all up.
Our finishing had certainly been lukewarm.
I was waiting for a freshen-up – the footballing equivalent of a wet wipe to tidy up our grubby finishing – in the form of substitutions at half-time but there was nothing.
Attacking our end, the Matthew Harding, I was to appreciate the fine play of Chilwell at closer quarters. Soon into the half, he turned beautifully but shot weakly.
Just after, the Matthew Harding woke up, and me too.
“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
I am ashamed to admit that this must be the latest in a game that I have ever got involved.
On fifty-six minutes, we failed to clear a corner and the ball was worked back to the onrushing McGinn, galloping in at pace. I caught his shot, sadly, on film. It flew into the net, with Kepa well beaten. This was only their fourth or fifth effort on goal yet they were 2-0 up.
And I was mocking their “we’ve got McGinn, super John McGinn” chant at the tube station.
More fool me.
With that, at last some substitutions.
N’Golo Kante for Loftus-Cheek.
Noni Madueke for Mudryk.
“Off you go, Ruben.”
But, but, but…what of the shape now?
Madueke at wing-back, Reece still inside, but Kante appeared to be playing off Havertz and alongside Felix in a front three.
Oh my fucking N’God.
Our play actually deteriorated.
Madueke cut inside but curled one over. Kante shimmied nicely but pushed a low drive wide. This was desperate stuff. The mood inside Stamford Bridge was horrible. It wasn’t top level toxicity, but the natives were not happy.
Our play and chances continued to frustrate us.
“You don’t know what you’re doing” rung out.
It got worse.
“You’re getting sacked in the morning.”
I thought to myself…”why wait until then?”
And I was only half-joking.
Two more substitutions.
Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.
Christian Pulisic for Cucarella.
In the last few minutes, the setting sun behind the West Stand produced a ridiculously warm glow to the metalwork on top of the towering East Stand and the bricks of the hotel and flats behind the Shed End. It gave the whole place a strange feel, almost ethereal.
Fool’s Gold anyone?
At the end of the match, the boos descended down from those who were still in their seats. Many had left.
I met up with Elicia and Madeka underneath Peter Osgood’s boots and put the borrowed season tickets safely away.
“Sorry that we lost. Sorry it was so quiet.”
“Oh my. There were some angry people near us.”
“I can imagine. I bet you heard some bad words, right.”
It was a grim walk back to the car.
Surely there are not many Chelsea supporters left who would be saddened if Chelsea pulled the plug on Graham Potter?
Next up, a terrifying game with Liverpool at home.
See you there.
Heroes And Villains