Chelsea vs. Fulham : 2 December 2018.
I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. In those minutes before kick-off, with “Park Life” by Blur initiating the pre-game activities, the Fulham fans in the far corner were already voicing their dislike of us.
“We are Fulham. We are Fulham. We are Fulham. FFC. We are Fulham. Super Fulham. We are Fulham. Fuck Chelsea.”
So much for brotherly-love, eh?
This was Fulham’s first appearance at Stamford Bridge since the 2013/14 season. I personally like the idea of them being back in the top flight. An away game at Craven Cottage is always a treat. It’s good to have them back. But when I was growing up, I only ever really envisaged a Chelsea vs. Fulham league encounter taking place in the second tier. They were a club that wobbled between the old Second and Third Divisions. As recently as 1997, they were in the basement of the Football League. They have enjoyed a resurgence, then, in recent seasons, but when they disappeared from the Premier League in 2014, I did wonder if we would ever see them again in the league.
So they have done well to bounce back after just four seasons beneath us.
Ironically, ex-Chelsea midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic was recently sacked as their manager, and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri a week or so ago. In his first season as Chelsea manager, Jokanovic was the bete noire of Ranieri’s team, a one-paced misfit, who drew nothing but ire from the Chelsea fans at games all over England. He was seen as Ranieri’s man. His totem. His man. Jokanovic was known as “the Joker” and Ranieri was similarly mocked by many. In that first season, it took ages for the Chelsea support to warm to the Italian.
With large flags being waved on the pitch, each one indicating the numbers of the starting eleven, the Chelsea PA welcomed back Claudio Ranieri – dear, dear Claudio – to Stamford Bridge, and an image of him appeared on the large TV screen hovering over the away support.
It then got a little nasty.
“He comes from Italy. He fucking hates Chelsea.”
That was out of order.
It is, of course – nothing new here – a fact of life within SW6 that Chelsea fans have historically nurtured a distinct soft spot for Fulham. What is there to hate about Fulham after all? In years gone by, in the days when the terraced streets between Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage housed a solidly working class population, people would alternate between the two grounds each week. It was a distinct “Fulham thing”, this sharing of the borough’s two clubs. But not QPR, further north. Never QPR.
Fulham had brought three thousand, of course, as would be expected. As the teams entered the pitch, we were treated again to flames and fireworks. But this was a midday kick-off, and it seemed even more preposterous.
Fireworks for Fulham? Give me a break.
We had spoken about the potential line-up on the drive to London and we naturally presumed that Alvaro Morata would be playing up front. But what did we know? Instead, manager Maurizio chose Olivier Giroud. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian and Mateo Kovacic still kept Ross Barkley out of the starting eleven.
Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso
Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic
Pedro – Giroud – Hazard
Former blue Andre Schurrle did not feature in the Fulham team, out with an injury. We all remembered the second-half hat-trick the German scored at the Cottage in 2014, our last game against them.
Around the stadium on signage, on the captain’s armband, on the match programme and on bootlaces were the seven colours of the rainbow, mirroring the pastel shades of the various Nike, Puma and Adidas footwear.
The game began with a few songs emanating from the Matthew Harding.
It was a very mild Winter’s day.
We started magnificently. Jean Michael Seri was pick-pocketed by N’Golo Kante, and the French midfielder advanced before setting up Pedro in the inside-right channel. Our little Spaniard – “the hummingbird” as my mate Rick in Iowa suitably calls him – cut back on to his left foot and poked the ball past Sergio Rico.
Pedro raced away past the supporters in the Shed Lower and celebrated with a hop and a skip and a jump. His smile lit up the stadium. It was a typically lovely nimble finish from Pedro.
SW6 East 1 SW6 West 0
The sun was breaking through some cloud as the first-half developed and there were some strong shadows forming on the pitch. I kept looking over at the two managers, both former Napoli men, managers separated by more than twenty years; Ranieri, impeccably dressed, Sarri looking like a bloke on his way to a Wetherspoons.
Alan and I briefly discussed the famous game between the two teams at Christmas in 1976. We were on our way to promotion that season – a beguiling mix of mainly home-grown youngsters with a few steadying influences too – and Fulham boasted George Best and Rodney Marsh. A ridiculous crowd of 55,003 attended that game. I was not at the game but I asked Alan of his recollections of the day. He replied that it was ridiculously packed in the forecourt, and he was genuinely concerned about getting crushed. He was sure that many were locked out. I can remember seeing the gate in the following day’s newspaper and it made me gulp.
In the Second Division nonetheless.
What a club we were. Or rather, what a potentially huge club we could become.
I was warm and fuzzy at the age of eleven and I don’t think that feeling has ever really left me.
On the pitch, we dominated play, but without many clear scoring chances. Olivier Giroud threatened and forced a save from the Fulham ‘keeper. A poor David Luiz free-kick was struck against the wall. Pedro looked full of drive and energy, and Kante was covering lots of ground. But there were a few patchy performances. Eden Hazard struggled to get involved. And Marcos Alonso was having his own personal hell. There were misplaced passes, and poor control. He was often released on the left, but his final ball was usually substandard.
It was a generally scrappy affair. The sun was getting brighter still, but the play was grey.
It was, of course, ridiculously quiet.
There were occasional chants from the away fans.
“Haven’t you got a boat race to go to?” bellowed Alan.
There were two chances for Giroud, close in on goal, but the tight angles and conflux of opposing players worked against him.
There seemed to be an unwillingness to put a tackle in from our players. In these days, the buzz word in football is the word “press”. You can’t walk two yards or read more than five words about football without hearing or seeing the word “press.”
I remember the closing of space being called “pressing” by Arrigo Sacchi in his Milan years around thirty years ago. It was one of those words of English origin that the Italians often shoehorn into their language. I think at the time the English version was known, loosely, as “getting stuck in” but it has become the word of the season, or possibly the decade.
And the gentlemen of the press and fans alike love it.
The printing press. The trouser press. The cider press. And now the football press. There is no fucking escaping it.
What it means for much of the time is a lot of closing of space but tackling – that black art – being condemned to the pages of history.
I just wanted to see a well won tackle.
It would at least stir the fans.
Modern football, eh?
However, we were by far the better of the two SW6 combatants. There had only been very rare attacks on our goal. Kepa had enjoyed a very quiet game. I am sure there was one moment when I saw him hunting down by his right-hand post for one of Thibaut Courtois’ old word search books.
The half-time whistle blew.
It had been a generally quiet and tepid affair.
I wondered what a few friends from afar had reckoned to the game thus far. We had welcomed the visitors from Toronto and Atlanta again to our pre-match. We met up in The Goose. In addition to Prahlad and his wife Nisha, and Brenda and Ryan, there was another Atlantan too; Emily, who I last saw in Vienna for our friendly in 2016, was visiting from Austria for one game only. Memorably, as we walked past the entrance to Fulham Broadway, Emily bumped into another Chelsea fan from Vienna, over for one game only himself.
As I have so often said, the Chelsea World is indeed a very small world.
We began pretty poorly in the second-half. Fulham forced an attack but Antonio Rudiger was able to block a shot. Then, from the ensuing corner Arrizabalaga reacted so well to thwart a Calum Chambers. To my liking, the whole ground replied with a roaring with a defiant “Carefree”. It had taken almost an hour for Stamford Bridge to raise a song, but at last we were back to our best, supporting the team as we should. And I loved this. We knew the team were struggling collectively and we rallied behind the team. Eric, from Toronto, and Emily were watching from the front row of the Matthew Lower, but from different sides of the goal. The Atlantans were up in the Shed Upper. I hope they appreciated the sudden burst of noise.
Another effort from Chambers. Another Kepa save.
In the stadium, the fans grew restless. Our play was slow, ponderous, tedious. Nobody shone in my mind apart from Pedro and Kante. And Kepa was certainly keeping us in the game. But we were passing to oblivion and the Chelsea fans were getting more and more frustrated. It was a very odd half of football. We were begging for a second goal. But there were more misplaced passes, and mistimed tackles.
Who expected Fulham to get an equaliser?
We all did.
There were moans aimed at Jorginho and Kovacic, neither of whom were playing well.
Some substitutes were soon warming up under the East Stand.
Within a few seconds of each other, Big John and I independently bawled the same thing.
“Get yer boots on Zola.”
How we missed a little of his creativity.
The manager, thankfully, looked to bring in fresh ideas and fresh legs into our midfield by replacing Kovacic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was given a hero’s welcome.
He was very soon running at the heart of the Fulham defence. He was warmly applauded. Just after, Giroud – no service in the second-half – was replaced by Alvaro Morata. A shot from Hazard was parried by the Fulham ‘keeper but from only six yards out, Morata shinned the ball way over the bar. There were groans and Chelsea eyes looked heavenwards. Emily would have got a good view of that. I wondered what her thoughts were.
A Hazard free-kick was hit straight at Sergio Rico.
The mood inside Stamford Bridge was becoming stiflingly nervous. We just needed a win to get our season back on track, to stay tucked in, on a day when three of our main rivals were playing too.
Davide Zappacosta replaced Marcos Alonso and Dave switched flanks.
I wondered if Jorginho – Sarri’s kingpin – would ever be substituted. I wondered if he would be known in some quarters as the modern multi-million-pound equivalent of Ranieri’s Jokanovic.
With the nerves still jangling, the ball was worked adeptly between Hazard, Pedro and Loftus-Cheek. The ball stood up nicely for Ruben to strike purposefully past the Fulham ‘keeper. It had easily been our most effective move of the half.
Emily would have loved her view of that.
I watched as Ruben ran over to the far corner and as was mobbed by his team mates.
SW6 North 2 SW6 South 0.
So this was certainly a strange game. We absolutely struggled in that poor second-half. And all of us admitted that we had rarely felt more underwhelmed – possibly even deflated – after a win. Feelings seemed confused, messy. I think that in the back of our minds the horror of Wembley the previous week would not subside, and we knew that Manchester City, to say nothing of a potential banana skin at Molineux, were looming in the distance.
It was such an odd game. And we had a quiet and reflective drive home. I battled the rain and the traffic of the M4. We were quiet. I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first league game as Chelsea manager, way back in the August of 2004 when a 1-0 win against the might of Manchester United could not disguise our sense of bewilderment that a team so rich in attacking verve could kill the game at 1-0.
“Fucking hell. We’re not going to win the league playing like this, are we?”
It is one of those sentences I always remember saying.
But, in 2018, are we unnecessarily tough on Sarri and his new system? Quite possibly. This is a learning curve for all of us. As fans, we have been given the task of adapting to a new modus operandi too. It might not be easy. As I said to Glenn, regardless of the merits of a new style, we have won the league two out of the past four seasons. I’m not sure if that makes us spoiled or ultra-critical. But I know the sense of frustration from the stands for our underperforming players was no illusion. In the end the history books will say that we won 2-0 but it was almost in spite of ourselves.
I’m still working Sarri out. It might take a while yet.
We have a testing week ahead. Let’s hope we can regroup for the two games. Maybe we, as fans, need to show a little more patience, but that is easier said than done. At least the next game is away, when the fans are usually a little more supportive, and certainly a whole lot noisier.
Right then. Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday.
See you there.