Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 10 February 2019.
Sunday Four O’Clock.
This was another away game that would test me. How I miss matches on Saturday at three o’clock. Our game at Manchester City would begin at 4pm, which meant that my footballing exploits over the weekend would not really finish until 11pm, or 11.30pm or maybe even later. This annoyed me more than ever on the Friday and Saturday as I tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the long journey north. City away was a tough trip at the best of times, but four o’clock on a Sunday was the worst of times and it just didn’t seem fair on any of us. Those travelling on the Chelsea coaches would not even be back at Stamford Bridge until almost midnight. The day began with me setting off from home at 9.15am and I collected PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les and we were on the road after a quick breakfast in Melksham at 10.30am. The drive north took me a few minutes’ shy of four hours. I was met with speed restrictions on the M5 and M6, and an odd assortment of weather – blinding sun, rain, sleet, hailstones – against an ever-changing backdrop of various cloud formations, a dull grey bathwater glaze one minute, vibrant and brooding and billowing the next.
It had been a week in which the city of Manchester had flitted into my mind on a few occasions. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had paid their respects to the Flowers of Manchester, remembering those that had perished on the ice of a Munich runway or in a Munich hospital all those years ago. On the Thursday, the actor Albert Finney had passed away. He was a native of Salford and the star of those cutting-edge “kitchen sink” dramas of the ‘early-sixties, in which the Northern cities in which they were filmed were as much a star as the actors themselves. Manchester was often used as the backdrop in some sort of homage to the scenes depicted by LS Lowry, another son of Salford. I remembered seeing Albert Finney on the pitch at Old Trafford before a United vs. Chelsea game a few seasons ago. And I certainly remembered him in the 1967 film “Charlie Bubbles” in which a small segment is filmed at Old Trafford – outside on what is now Sir Matt Busby Way and on the famous forecourt, inside from the interior of a box above the United Road seats – at a Manchester United vs. Chelsea game from November 1966 (a 1-3 defeat).
And then, sadly, we all heard the horrible news that former Chelsea and Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas was battling stomach cancer. Mickey was a mid-season addition to our iconic promotion winning team of 1983/84 and he energised the side from the off with his tenacious spirit and drive, to say nothing of his fine skill which caught us all by surprise. He instantly became one of my most beloved Chelsea heroes, and even now might feature in a “favourite players XI.”
A Drive Down Memory Lane.
The route took me right into the heart of Manchester. It took me through Didsbury, past Fallowfield, past some rented rooms in Whalley Range, and right through Moss Side to Hulme. It took me within a few hundred yards of where Manchester City played football from 1923 to 2003. I only ever visited Maine Road on three occasions. In my mind, it seems more. But three it is; a First Division game on a Saturday morning in 1985, a Saturday afternoon game in Division Two in 1989 and a Sunday afternoon game in the Premier league in 2001. My memories of Maine Road are strong, though. I watched the action from three different sides on those three visits (Anfield remains the only away stadium where I have watched from all four sides) and it was a large and atmospheric old place. I bet the City fans of 2019 miss it terribly. My last visit on the last weekend of the 2000/2001 season – marking the last appearances of Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise in our colours – seems like only yesterday. A few of us stayed the Saturday night in Blackpool and a mini-bus took us down to Manchester, depositing us among the red-brick terraced houses outside the ground and collecting us after. But the main memory from that day – we won 2-1 if it matters – was of the City lads who encroached onto the pitch at the final whistle (or just before it, if memory serves the referee “blew up” early) and stared us down. We were glad to hop into the waiting mini-bus and make our retreat after that game. By then, Maine Road had lost its large, deep Kippax side terrace and its equally cavernous Platt Lane seats. It was on odd and lop-sided stadium by 2001.
One Final Visit.
On a Saturday in 2004, I paid one final visit to Maine Road. City had played their last game there in the April, and I was on my way to our first-ever visit to the City of Manchester Stadium – remember when it was called that? – at Eastlands – remember when it was called that? – but I wanted to call by and photograph it for my own personal satisfaction. The stands were intact at that stage, though cordoned off for safety’s sake, and I took a few snaps. Memorably, “MUFC” was daubed on an adjacent end of terrace house. Also, very poignantly, there was some graffiti in memory of the former Manchester City player Marc Vivien Foe, who had scored Manchester City’s last-ever goal at Maine Road on 21 April, but who had died on a football pitch just over three months later. The City fans, leaving many fond memories at Maine Road, must surely have wondered if this was an ominous warning of the fates that might befall them further east.
They need not have worried.
On that same day, less than half a mile away, I visited one of only two streets in the whole of the UK that feature my surname. There is an Axon Square in Moss Side in Manchester and there is an Axon Crescent in Weston Coyney in Stoke-on-Trent. My surname is geographically strong in both areas (a Percy Axon was the chairman of Stoke City in the ‘seventies) but my surname is centered on Manchester. It is a bloody good job that my forefathers moved to Kent and then Dorset; I wouldn’t care too much to be a City fan.
[I thought about inserting a comment here suggesting that if my father’s grandfather had stayed in Kent or Dorset, I wouldn’t care too much to be a United fan. But then realised that I am a Chelsea fan in Somerset, so had best not be too damning].
On that very first visit to Eastlands, we won a dour game 1-0 and I was warmed to see the Kippax remembered with a banner draped over a balcony wall to my right. However, I have never seen it since.
The Mancunian Way.
With a Style Council CD playing us in, I crept onto the Mancunian Way which wraps itself around the southern edge of the city centre, and found myself driving along an instantly recognisable section of road. Despite only three visits to Maine Road, this would be my fourteenth visit to City’s new stadium. Manchester is a cracking city on a number of counts and my blood pumps and heart bumps on every visit. I deposited the lads right outside the stadium – LP and PD scuttled inside for some beers while Les chanced his arm in a nearby City pub – while I shot off to park up. Rain threatened but did not amount to much. I peered in to see the closing segments of the City Ladies vs. Chelsea Ladies game at the nearby academy stadium. The chill wind bit me. I sorted some spare tickets for a mate and decided to take a slow walk around the stadium. I had to laugh when I saw a lad with a United bag being searched outside the main stand. The steward had not spotted it. I warned her.
“He’s having a laugh, isn’t he, the boy? Ha.”
“Oh, thanks – I didn’t spot that.”
She hid it inside another bag.
Overhead the skies suggested a certain downpour. They were dark, and ominous. But the sun shone through too. It made for some dramatic shapes in and around the towering stadium. A band were playing in the post-modern “fan zone” to the north by the City shop. There were police on horseback. There were half and half scarves. There were a couple of buskers. Hot food stands. On the Ashton New Road stood an old school Fish and Chip shop blinking in the winter sun.
The Lower Tier.
I had run out of things to photograph – with my phone, proper cameras were banned, along with food and drink, file once more under “I hate modern football” – and so reluctantly made my way in with just under an hour to go. There was a security pat down and I was in. I had swapped tickets with PD and made my way into the lower tier for only the second time. The last time was on a very wet day in 2004 when a Nicolas Anelka penalty inflicted on us our only defeat of that season. I was worried about that precedent, but I was worried about a lot more tangible things too; City’s attacking strength, our defensive frailties, their impressive passing patterns, our buggering about with no incision, their Sergio Aguero, their Kevin de Bruyne, their David Silva, their Raheem Sterling.
As I entered the stadium I felt myself thinking “do I have to?”
I made my way to my place, about ten rows back, but close – ugh – to the home fans. The bottom of that tier has very shallow terracing. There was a fleeting memory of the sight lines from 2004. I tried not to dwell on it. We were treated to “Transmission “and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. At least the music was bang on.
Out in the small concourse and the terraces, I chatted to a few friends.
“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”
One fellow fan said “as long as we give it a go” and I grimaced. I knew that we didn’t “give it a go” last season and Antonio Conte took some heat for it. But City were still a very fine team and we – without stating the bloody obvious – aren’t, not yet, not for a while.
I was wary so wary of trying to play them at their game. I picked a number out of thin air.
“I’d rather lose 1-0 than 6-0” (meaning that – and remembering last season – if we gave them spaces to exploit, exploit they bloody well would).
Yes, we had – somehow, I know not how, I wasn’t there – managed to raise our game and beat City 2-0 at home before Christmas, but boy have we struggled during most games since. The recent 5-0 walloping of Huddersfield Town did not get my pulses racing. I was glad Gonzalo Higuain was in our ranks, but he was new, adapting, possibly not at his fighting weight nor his fighting strength.
I was still worried as the minutes ticked by. Up in the middle tier, I just saw the heads of Alan, Gary, PD and Parky if I stood on tip toe.
We exchanged waves.
Or was it more “not waving but drowning?”
We would soon find out.
The stadium filled up. A few empty seats dotted around, include some in our section. Flags were waved by the City fans to my left. There was a moment of applause for the memory of Emiliano Sala.
I had almost forgotten to check our team.
Here it was.
Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso
Kante – Jorginho – Barkley
Pedro – Higuain – Hazard
The game began. Chelsea, in three tiers, tried to get songs together but it proved so difficult. We threatened at the very start but I knew we couldn’t keep that up for ninety minutes. I was half-pleased at our bright opening but also half-scared to death.
After just three minutes, with Marcos Alonso away with the fairies, Bernardo Silva crossed from our left and the ball found its way to Raheem Sterling. He knew what to expect. I prepared myself for a goal.
Wallop. One-nil. Oh bollocks.
Ross Barkley turned and chastised Alonso, the missing man.
The City fans to my left – 99% male, and local – erupted and gave us loads of verbal. They pushed and shoved towards us. I bloody hated them but admired their passion in equal measure. I bloody hate you football. Soon after, Sergio Aguero fluffed an easy chance from just a couple of yards. It was our turn to smile, but we were not smiling for long. A shot from Hazard was easily saved by Ederson. It fired City up even more. They broke and moved the ball to that man Aguero who curled a magnificent shot past Kepa from outside the box. The PA announced that Aguero had tied two others as City’s all-time highest goal scorer in league football.
We were 2-0 down after just thirteen minutes.
I felt like shouting “blow up now, ref.”
After nineteen minutes, Barkley – for reasons known only to him – headed a high ball back to Kepa. Aguero waited in line and popped it home. He became City’s number one striker.
City 3 Chelsea 0.
We were at sixes and sevens, eights and nines. How worse could this get? On twenty-five minutes, we found out. Gundogan shot low from outside the box with Kepa just unable to reach it.
City 4 Chelsea 0.
We still tried to attack and, ironically, had looked reasonably good at times. There had been a shot from Barkley, one from Pedro, and a well-struck volley from Higuain was dramatically punched over by Ederson.
But, of course, every time that City broke they looked like scoring
There was shock and anger in the away section. Two young lads, northerners, were very vocal but their dexterity did not extend further than “this is shit” and they did not reappear in the second-half. At the half-time whistle, I quickly realised that in the last ninety minutes of football away from the Bridge we had conceded eight goals.
Altogether now; “fackinell.”
At half-time, I met up – briefly – with my friend who had shared her thoughts with me before the game.
She smiled : “it’s all your fault.”
I met up with a few more friends. Blank expressions. Shock.
Gallows humour tried to get us through the half-time break but this was so hard. We had been ripped to bloody shreds. Our midfield was not closing people down; their runners were afforded so much space. It was so sad to see a good man like Dave being given the run around by Sterling. I had lost count of the times that Aguero was able to cause havoc in yards of space. That was inexcusable. I had not honestly realised how formidable Aguero is. Up close he is made for football, he has legs like tree-trunks. Take away his dodgy barnet and he is a perfect striker.
As for us, there were no leaders anywhere.
Into the second-half, and I noticed more empty seats around me, but most had stayed. I was pleased about that. I prayed for some sort of damage limitation. We had learned that Tottenham, bloody Tottenham, had won 3-1 at home to Leicester City in the early game, and I just wanted the game over. Aguero headed against the bar, but then on fifty-six minutes Dave fouled his nemesis Sterling and Aguero made it 5-0 from the spot.
City 5 Chelsea 0.
My spirits fell as my mind did some calculations.
In the very last away game, we had suffered our worst defeat in the league since 1996. Twenty-three long years. We had taken, now, just eleven days to better it.
Oh bloody hell.
I had never seen us lose 5-0 before. I had been lucky. I was not at our most infamous defeat of all, the 6-0 at Rotherham United in 1981. Nor the 7-0 at Nottingham Forest in 1991. Nor the 7-2 at Middlesbrough in 1979. Nor the 7-1 at Wolves in 1975. I missed the 6-0 at QPR in 1986 and the 6-2 at home to Forest in 1986. But here I was staring at a 5-0 defeat. My mind had gone to be honest. I just wanted the final whistle to blow. I wanted to go out.
A lone shot from Hazard hit the side-netting. By now, Kovacic had replaced Barkley, Loftus-Cheek had replaced Pedro, Emerson had replaced Alonso.
Emerson shot meekly from a futile free-kick at Ederson.
With ten minutes to go, a sublime ball from substitute David Silva split open our defence and the resulting cross was slotted home by Sterling.
City 6 Chelsea 0.
The City fans, at least showing a little self-deprecation, roared :
“Six nil to the Empty Seats.”
And then – this really is their Joy Division, right? – reprised a song from last season’s game :
“City – tearing Cockneys apart, again.”
Silence from us. Ugh.
The City fans then sang at those remaining in our area : “you’re fucking shit.”
Horribly, some of our fans joined in. I wasn’t having that. I turned around, wondering who I was going to be talking to, and saw three youngsters, smiling and laughing like simpletons.
For the best part of the next five minutes, I heard them mocking me, but I did not bite, nor look around. Let’em have their fun. Fans of other clubs would be doing the same over the next few days. I needed to toughen myself up.
And then at 6-0 we were at our loudest of the entire day.
“Oh Chelsea we love you.”
Good stuff. Proper Chelsea.
At the final whistle, I made a quick retreat to the top of the lower tier but looked around to see Eden head over and give his shirt to a young fan. A few players walked over. Those still in the lower tier clapped them.
I waited outside for Les, PD and Parky. I shook hands with a few others.
Gallows humour got me through :
“They’re having a minute’s silence in Liverpool right now.”
I spoke to a few friends who drifted out into the cold Manchester evening :
“To think Conte was lambasted for losing 1-0 up here last season. They are an elite team, one of the best, that was just suicidal.”
We walked back to the car. My phone had ran out of charge in the last few minutes of the game and it was just as well. I drove along the Ashton New Road to the M60. It was a quick and clean getaway, the highlight of the day. While others in the Chelsea Nation vented on social media, I just drove south. As we saw signs for Wythenshaw, Les told us that his mother was from there, a much tighter link to Manchester than mine. We stopped at Sandbach for food, at Strensham for fuel. It was a long old drive home.
Last season, after the City game I found myself attempting to get inside Antonio Conte’s head – not to be an apologist for him, but to try to work out his game plan – and I wrote this :
“There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.
Be careful what we wish for.
I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.
I drove on.
Glenn read out quotes from the manager :
”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”
It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.”
Our last four games this season?
Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0
Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0
Chelsea 5 Huddersfield Town 0
Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0
A penny for Antonio Conte’s thoughts?
As for Maurizio Sarri.
To put it bluntly, I’m not convinced. Are you?
I dropped off Les at 11pm, Parky just after and PD at 11.30pm. I was home just before midnight. Parky’s main task on waking on the Monday morning was to sort out PD’s away ticket for Fulham. We will still go to as many games as we can. It seemed like the end of the world, but I have seen Chelsea relegated in 1975, 1979 and 1988. Everything is relative.
The Manchester City game was match number 1,235 for me.
Of those, I have seen us concede five or more goals on just seven occasions.
I have seen us score five or more goals on fifty-eight occasions.
That does not make the 6-0 loss at Manchester City any less shocking but it certainly helps me cope.
Much respect to those travelling out to Malmo in Sweden this week. My next game is the FA Cup tie at home to the second-best team in Manchester on Monday.
See you there.
For those wishing to donate to a fighting fund for Mickey Thomas, please note : https://www.gofundme.com/help-mickey-t-fight-cancer