Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 25 May 2023.
The 2022/23 season was nearing completion. Our final away game was to take place at Old Trafford against Manchester United; our second trip to the city in just five days. I worked an early shift in order to get away in good time. It would be another long day. I set the alarm for 4.30am, and worked 6am to 2pm. There are four United fans in our small office of eleven; a ridiculously over-stacked ratio.
Manchester United 4
Such is life. Growing up, Manchester United fans were everywhere around Frome and the surrounding towns. I’ve always said they were “ten a penny” and that view has not changed much over the years. In my schooldays and the forty years since, it has always been quite uncommon to meet a supporter of United who can be bothered to shift their arses off sofas to travel to Old Trafford on even a semi-regular basis.
Their loss, not mine.
Ironically, Old Trafford heads the list of my most visited grounds with Chelsea. After the day’s trip to Manchester, the tally would be as follows :
Manchester United 27
Tottenham Hotspur 24
With PD convalescing and Parky at a hospital visit all day, my sole travelling companion to the north-west was Sir Les. I picked him up at his house, just five minutes from work, at 2.20pm. It wasn’t the best of trips along the M4, up the M5 and M6, then onto the M60. We hit some heavy traffic, as always, around West Bromwich and then at several locations further north. But Sir Les is a good travelling companion and we had a good chat about all things Chelsea.
Les detailed a vast back catalogue of various mishaps and misadventures from his footballing past; mainly involving misfiring cars and spluttering mini-buses that either blew up, broke down, or were witnesses to bust ups with opposing supporters over the years.
We looked ahead to next season; for Les, a first-ever trip to Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane is greatly anticipated. I have only been once, in 2006, and a return visit is long overdue. We both want Coventry City to get past Luton Town, a lost footballing city that was once a top flight staple from 1967 to 2001. With no European adventures ahead, in 2023/24 the plan for my little band of Chelsea obsessives is to night-out in various northern hotspots every month or so.
Hello Sheffield, hello Liverpool, hello Burnley, hello Manchester, hello Newcastle again.
Les : “How many European aways have you done?”
Me : “Dunno. Maybe twenty-five. Probably more.”
We rattled of our complete list of European away games over the years, or at least gave it our best shot. I liked it that we both went to Jablonec in 1994, Chelsea’s first UEFA away game since 1971. I only got to know Les since around 2008/9 but we famously stood next to each other in Turin against Juventus that season.
We reckoned that we had both done about thirty-five games.
My figure was forty-five and I suspect Les‘ total would be around the same too number if our listing of shared experiences was anything to go by. I still can’t believe that I haven’t visited Valencia despite our four visits to the Mestella. Les was gutted to have missed Dortmund this season.
Les has been reading my blog during this ball-ache of a campaign and we spoke about 1982/83. We listed all the teams in that Second Division, our peers, that had won silverware – and how many trophies – in the intervening years. It makes for stunning reading.
Chelsea : 21
Leicester City : 4
Blackburn Rovers : 2
Leeds United : 1
Sheffield Wednesday : 1
Middlesbrough : 1
“Fucking hell, Les. We can’t grumble, can we?”
The traffic slowed as we approached Manchester. We were never under a threat of missing the kick-off, but the slow-moving flow was both annoying and tiring. Eventually I parked up – £10, twice as expensive as City – at 7.15pm, just five minutes shy of five bastard hours on the road.
It was a fine, mild night. There was no need for a jacket; I wore just a long-sleeved polo.
On the walk to the ground Les asked me for my score prediction.
“We’ll lose 2-0, mate.”
I had, however, worryingly recalled Frank Lampard’s first-ever game in charge back in August 2019, which was at Old Trafford and resulted in a 0-4 shellacking. And here we were at the same venue for his last away game as manager.
We reached the forecourt at about 7.30pm and it is such a familiar sight. I always think that the away fans have the best approach to this stadium; the away turnstiles are right under the famous Munich clock, next to the plaque honouring those victims of 1958, and the gentle slope down to our gates which is full of atmosphere and character – a great sense of place – has been unchanged in decades. Indeed, that little wedge of brickwork in the south-east corner has more history than the rest of the revamped and rather bland Old Trafford put together.
This would be an important game for me. For only the fourth time in my life, I would tally up a full set of league aways.
2008/09 : 19/19
2015/16 : 19/19
2021/22 : 19/19
2022/23 : 19/19
Darren from Crewe was stood behind me. He had lots of spares to get rid of so just invited loads of his mates, fans of other teams, along for the ride. I was expecting big gaps in our wedge of three-thousand but I was proud to see very few spaces. Darren had bettered me this season; for the first-time ever he had not missed a single first team game. By my reckoning, come Sunday, that would top out at fifty games. A fantastic achievement. Well done mate.
Looking back, I will have missed three; City away in the League Cup and Champions League aways in Zagreb and Madrid.
I had a decent spot, above the corner flag and in row nine. There were familiar, battle-weary, faces everywhere. I hoped that the blazing sun, high above the Stretford End, would soon disappear behind the towering Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. The atmosphere was quiet. It must be testing times for United at the moment, with the rampaging City on form. I suspect a nervousness in their ranks regarding the upcoming FA Cup Final.
Eight o’clock neared.
I like the entrance of the teams from the corner position at Old Trafford, though it wasn’t always so. It adds a sense of drama.
We reverted to a back four once again.
Azpilicueta – Fofana – Chalobah – Hall
Chukwuemeka – Enzo – Gallagher
Madueke – Havertz – Mudryk
Apart from Dave, a young side but “Docherty’s Diamonds” revisited? I doubted it.
The home team needed a point to secure a Champions League place at the expense of Liverpool; a nice prize for them on a perfect evening at Old Trafford.
The game began with Chelsea in good voice.
And it was a bright and open start to the match. We looked good. A shot from Carney, a wayward effort from Mykhailo after a clean and fast break. What on Earth was going on? The home fans were quiet and the Chelsea choir got our sticks out and started to poke away.
“Is this the Etihad?”
My normal Canon SLR is unable to gain admittance to either stadia in Manchester, so I was making do with my small Sony pub version; my ‘phone has a relatively crap camera. With United awarded a free-kick on the far side, in front of what used to be the United Road paddock, I hoisted my camera up and photographed the ensuing cross from Eriksen, a United header amid some Chelsea bodies…oh bollocks…and a goal.
The natives roared.
Casemiro – 1-0.
Twelve minutes City, six minutes United.
It was difficult not to sense a horrible score line rapidly approaching. I loved it that a few youngsters were close by with their fathers, enjoying every tackle, every pass, every song. The bloke next to me spotted a friend. This chap enquired where a mutual acquaintance was.
“Nah, not here mate. He had an appointment at an acupuncturist’s in London.”
I nudged him.
“He should be here. There’s enough pricks at Old Trafford.”
With the away section fitted with rail seating – was it present last season? I forget – I was able to lean on the bar in front and it felt bloody fantastic, recreating a football position of old. A polo shirt – a navy long sleeved Robe di Kapa – jeans, and Adidas Gazelles, leaning against a barrier on a football terrace.
This is the fucking life.
As the game developed, we shockingly played some half-decent stuff, with occasional glimpses of great things. We moved the ball eagerly out wide and the players moved to support the man in possession. Had someone at Chelsea stumbled across a “Football For Beginners” book at Cobham during the week? This was alright, this.
United were always a threat on the break, though. I had a deep-down feeling that they were just waiting for a chance to rip us open. But this was an open game, with spaces everywhere.
Conor almost got on the end of a square pass from Kai, but it was over hit. This followed another quick break, this time instigated by a Carney tackle and a Noni dribble.
Dave stretched out a leg to deny a United shot from close in after they broke at speed too.
Antony went down in our box after what seemed an innocuous challenge by Trevoh. He looked in considerable pain and was eventually stretchered off after a few minutes of lying on the turf. The Chelsea crowd made the most of the quiet Old Trafford atmosphere.
“Ten men, nine men, eight men, seven men, six men, five men, four men, three men, two men, one man and his dog Spot went to mow a meadow.”
It’s still our greatest song when sung properly.
Antony was replaced by Rashford.
On the half-hour, a fine move but a wasteful header from Kai after a great break and ball in from Lewis.
Mykhailo had been quiet, but then had a nice give-and-go with Conor and ran strongly into the heart of the United defence before losing the ball.
Just before half-time, a lovely turn and shimmy from Noni set up Conor, who took a touch. His low shot looked good. We waited for the net to ripple. It went wide.
“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
Alas, in the dying-embers of an entertaining half, a dinked chip over the top from Casemiro played in Sancho – no offside despite the appeals – and the ball was crossed for Martial to tap in.
There was my 0-2.
Despite the team being behind, which was hardly a surprise, there were encouraging green shoots of recovery in that first period. A bit more aggression, a bit more energy, some cohesiveness at last. I overheard a conversation that made me chuckle. Some friends were chatting behind me.
“There’s a few empty seats here, if you want to sit here second-half.”
“Nah, it’s OK. I’m in my lucky seat over there.”
I went down to chat to Deano who was sitting with Alan and Gary in the second row. Their trip up from The Smoke took even longer than mine; a full six hours. A bloke saw me chatting and told me that a seat was free alongside him if I wanted to stay.
“Ah, no thanks mate. I have a lucky seat back there.”
It was too good a line to waste.
Soon into the second-half, United cut us open after Conor was pick-pocketed and I sensed danger.
“Too much space. Fackinell.”
Fernandez struck the bar from the right side of our box.
United remembered their voices.
“Viva John Terry.”
A few minutes later, Mykhailo ran from deep after being released magnificently by Lewis. He ran and ran. In the end, his shot was scuffed and bobbled apologetically towards De Gea but the ‘keeper still had to work hard to scramble to his right and push out for a corner.
Then, probing play from United looked dangerous, and the ball was played in for Malacia, but Kepa covered magnificently to save on his line; the rebound was struck tantalisingly wide. Another close shave.
On the hour, a short corner allowed Lewis to unleash a thunderous effort right at De Gea and the ball rebounded out. Mykhailo’s tamer effort, deflected, was saved by the spring and leap of the ‘keeper again.
On sixty-four minutes, some changes.
Christian Pulisic for Mykhailo.
Joao Felix for Kai.
Just after, Dave raced back to thwart a United break as if his life depended on it and slide in to make a bloody superb tackle. It was stunning and it amazed me.
Bizarrely, it felt as if we were still in this. You would have thought that I really should have known better, eh?
On seventy-four minutes, Fernandes skipped inside Wesley who clipped the United player as he passed.
A fair few Chelsea left before the resultant penalty kick, which Fernandes coolly punched in.
United had not exactly produced a wall of noise, but now they seized the opportunity to take the piss.
“You’ve seen United. Now fuck off home.”
Our response was typical.
“Just like London. Your city is blue.”
Our support had been excellent all night long. As the numbers dwindled, the support still made some noise. Top efforts.
Five minutes later, a suicidal pass across his own penalty box – we were told not to do this at the age of ten – by Fofana gifted the ball to Fernandes who passed to Rashford who untidily scored past Kepa.
Fofana – for fuck sake.
I remembered my pre-game worry.
2019 : 0-4
2023 : 0-4
With eight minutes to go, more subs.
Hakim Ziyech for Noni.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Carney.
David Datro Fofana for Conor.
The peroxide plonker Garnacho caused us some late problems and hit the bar with a shot that took a slight deflection off Trevoh.
Hakim had already played in one fine high pass with plenty of fade, and he spotted Felix spare in the centre circle and played another one. The substitute trotted towards goal with players backing off. He took aim and his low, daisy-cutter was hit with perfection, just evading the leap from De Gea. It was a fine goal.
Manchester United 4 Chelsea 1.
I suppose gallows humour is fine, but I just wasn’t in the mood to either appreciate these two late efforts, and certainly not join in.
“You’re nothing special, we lose every week.”
“We’ve scored a goal.”
There was still time for a great save from Kepa, very late on.
The manager and the payers apologetically walked over to our corner to applaud us. Dave stayed for a while. He looked gutted. As I said to Les in the car “we are supporters, no more, anything else is bollocks…all we can do is support the team.”
At the moment, this is a controversial opinion according to many in our fan base.
By the time I had stepped outside onto the forecourt, Les had virtually reached the car already.
“See you in fifteen minutes’ mate.”
At the top of the slope, United were having a field day, reprising an old favourite.
“Hollow, hollow, hollow.”
Then a homophobic song that they seem to love was aired and I sighed at the playground antics.
Some police waded into them.
I was starving and indulged in a bacon cheeseburger with onions. It did not touch the sides.
I walked on, listening to the various post-match opinions from the United fans. A Yorkshire accent, not for the first time, made me smart. I get that fans of United – Yahnited or even the looser Yahni’ed – come from everywhere; I am a Chelsea fan from Somerset, after all. But a United fan from Yorkshire seemed wrong on many counts. Maybe it was the same bloke that I heard in a similar location on the Chester Road a few years back.
I spotted Les waiting for me. He approached and put an arm around me. I suspected a problem. Had my car been broken into?
“Listen mate, I have walked up and down four times and I can’t see your car.”
That’s all I needed. My brain began to whirl. Who can I phone? Luckily I had kept my emergency numbers in my wallet.
We walked on.
“That’s it there, innit?”
I dabbed the key fob.
The lights blinked.
“Oh bloody hell, I thought you parked here, not there.”
“No worries mate. Let’s get home.”
Two visits to Manchestoh in five days, two defeats, no surprises. Let’s get home, indeed. I moved slowly along the Chester Road and thankfully the flow rapidly improved up on the M60. But it was still a long night.
We were pragmatic about the evening’s fare. We can’t truly complain about being Chelsea. And I know that sounds trite, but we can’t. Since 1983, remember those twenty-one major trophies.
Win or lose, Penelope Cruz.
I drove on, aided by Les’ blackcurrant and liquorice sweets and a couple of iced coffees.
“My biggest fear, Les, is that we will have a barren spell for what…four or five years…possibly more…and other supporters will start to mention that, surprise, surprise, with Roman gone, so have the trophies. All that buying success stuff.”
The way it’s going, even a League Cup win in 2030 might well be celebrated like the second coming of Christ.
But that’s football.
I had commented to Les on the way up to Manchester :
“…all those supporters of teams in our division in 1983 that supported teams like Wolves, Newcastle, Barnsley, Carlisle, Derby, Charlton…forty years with nothing…and they still go…they are the real heroes.”
I dropped Les off in Melksham at around 2am. I reached home at 2.30am.
Next up, the last game of this pitiful season sees us meet up with Newcastle United once again at Stamford Bridge.
It’s another milestone for me; but more of that shite later.
See you there.