Chelsea vs. BATE Borisov : 25 October 2018.
I will be perfectly honest. Throughout the day at work, I continued to be underwhelmed about the thought of the evening game against BATE Borisov from Belarus in the Europa League. I had never ever thought about not going. But as the day dragged on, I almost found myself questioning why I had decided to go. Over the last twenty years or so, I have missed some home games; many through work, a few because I was on holiday, one or two because of inclement weather and a few because I needed to take extra care of my mother. There have hardly been any when I simply could not be bothered. One work colleague – Terry, a Liverpool fan, he has seen them play a few times – wondered if I sensed a feeling of guilt if I was to miss a game, a home game especially.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Maybe one day I will book a session on a psychiatrist’s couch – maybe for ninety minutes, how appropriate – to see what has caused this feeling.
I’ll report back on the findings.
I left work at 3pm, which meant there was time for a bite to eat with fellow-Chucklers PD and Lord Parkins in the pub opposite. We were joined by local Chelsea season-ticket holder Sir Les, who we last saw at Southampton away. PD drove us up to London. There was the usual snarl of traffic approaching London and we swung in to our parking place at about 6.45pm.
Talk of the match ahead was the briefest-ever.
“Should win easily.”
“Play Morata. He will surely get his confidence back if he bangs in a few goals.”
“Virtually guarantee qualification if we win tonight.”
And that was that.
This has been a near perfect group really; an easily-winnable selection of games, and an intriguing trio of cities to visit. As far as Europa League groups go – by far the second-best UEFA competition – it was good enough for me. A group of four letter words and our good old CFC.
We hoped that Chelsea would not be making us utter more four letter words during the imminent game.
In “The Goose” – two more pints of Peroni – there was a pleasant surprise. We had been chatting at the bar, occasionally looking over at the televised Sporting vs. Arsenal game (ah, memories of a near perfect trip to Lisbon, how can it be over four years ago?), and I was aware that a couple of Chelsea fans were sat close by. After a while, I looked down and realised that one of them was Glenn aka Leggo (or Lego, it was never fully explained) who I used to sit with in The Benches from 1984 to 1987. I had not seen him for ages; I have a vague recollection of seeing him walking down Vanston Place on the day we were given the league trophy against Charlton Athletic in 2005. But not since. He explained that reluctantly he gave up his East Upper season ticket seat back in 1999 and when he said “I’ve missed it all” I really felt for him. He goes to Bedford Town these days, though he is still obviously part of the Chelsea Nation. It was a real joy to see him again, though. I showed him the photograph from our “Benches 1984” reunion before the Leicester City game at the start of this year. Leggo used to go home and away back in the ‘eighties. I used to see him at every home game and at most of the away games that I attended. I remember seeing him at Ashton Gate at a friendly in 1984. Infamously, at a pre-season game at Plymouth Argyle in around 1988, he was set upon by some home fans and ended up with a broken leg.
It was just great to see him again.
The team news came through.
Zappacosta – Cahill – Christensen – Emerson.
Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Kovacic.
Willian – Giroud – Pedro.
The pub was busy enough and it felt like there would be a decent enough crowd once more. The game had been advertised as a sell-out but I was aware that there were a few spares floating around. The ticket price of £20 across the board had obviously enticed many. During half-term, there would surely be a few youngsters dotted around Stamford Bridge.
I had foolishly guessed that around a thousand visitors from Belarus would be present. Once inside the stadium, I was way off. There were Chelsea in the entirety of the Shed Upper with only around one hundred and fifty away fans in the lower corner.
“Possibly the smallest away support I have ever seen at Chelsea.”
And then I remembered back to December 1984 and a similar number with Stoke City.
The place filled up. There were very few empty seats around me. And, as promised, Brad from New York was close by with his father, the both of them relishing the chance to see Chelsea play for the second time in six days on his father’s first-ever visit to England. But for all of the Europa League logos and associated nonsense, to me the game felt very much like “Europe Lite” and the atmosphere, as good a barometer as any, never really got going in either the pre-match or the game that followed.
Over in the away corner, there seemed to be just as many stewards and people working in the refreshment area as fans.
“Bloody hell, I think we’ve made too much borscht.”
Before the game, a Matthew Harding flag was passed over the heads of those below me in the lower tier. The anniversary of his passing was during the week.
The game began with Chelsea attacking The Shed.
Only a minute or so had passed when Davide Zappacosta created some space with a burst which enabled him to deliver a low cross into the box. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was on hand and perfectly placed to slam the ball home with a natural and clean strike. Over he went to Parkyville to celebrate.
We had, bizarrely, been unable to win our first two Europa League games by a solitary goal. With an early goal, I had thoughts of a thumping for our current opponents.
There was a shot from Willian was deflected over after he cut in from the left.
Soon after, on eight minutes, a Willian corner was aimed towards the near post and both Loftus-Cheek and Olivier Giroud both went for the ball. It was our Ruben who was able to poke it home. Off he went to Parkyville once more. We were coasting.
Alvaro Morata, watching Ruben score two in under ten minutes, must have been wondering about the futility of life itself.
A few more chances came our way; Pedro, Cahill, Christensen.
Mateo Kovacic continued to impress both Alan and myself.
“You know what player he reminds me of?” said Alan.
“Go on, mate.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“With the long sleeves, and the way he keeps the ball.”
I thought back to our first Hazard, who I personally loved seeing at Chelsea, despite his Tottenham past. I thought back to seeing him play. I remembered how he used to run with his arms straight and low, keeping his balance as he ran. I saw similarities with Kovacic.
A few more chances; Kovacic, Loftus-Cheek.
There were a few chants, as well as chances, for our Ruben throughout the night.
The basic “Ruben, Ruben, Ruben” was hardly original but the other one was even worse.
“He’s one of our own, he’s one of our own, Loftus-Cheek, he’s one of our own.”
Nah, not for me. A blatant copy of the Kane song.
Hearing the syllables stretched – “Loftus- Chee-eeek” – was torture.
Not good enough.
Just before the break, a spectacular scissor kick from Willian was so high of the target that it almost hit the police surveillance studio hanging from The Shed roof, and a couple of us signaled a cricketing “six.”
If felt like we were trying to gild the lily at times, but we were well on top. Despite us winning, the atmosphere had been deathly quiet.
“Europe Lite” indeed.
At the half-time break, we dreamed of further goals.
Not long into the second-half, Loftus-Cheek pushed the ball out to Pedro, whose run was blocked, but Loftus-Cheek was able to steer the ball which nicely broke to him in at the far post. It was a fine goal, the best of the three, but all three were pretty decent.
With that Alvaro Morata booked ninety-minutes with a sports psychologist.
Down below, Cesc Fabregas lifted the hat-trickster up and the Stamford Bridge crown cheered.
Victor Moses replaced Willian, and then proceeded to frustrate many with his heavy touches.
Soon after, it dawned on us all that former Arsenal player Aleksander Hleb had been playing for BATE; we only realised this when he was substituted.
Shots from Willian and Zappacosta.
Then, Callum Hudso-Odoi took over from Pedro.
The last time we had two players with double-barreled names was when we were graced with the services of Peter Rhoades-Brown and Alan Mayes-Ohbollocks.
Giroud’s shot was saved after being set up by an unconvincing dribble from Moses.
With ten minutes or so remaining, we conceded a poor goal when a long. Low cross from a free-kick out wide on our right avoided everyone; Rios dabbed it in, and the Stamford Bridge groaned. His blindside run was not spotted by anyone. The tiny band of away supporters were heard for the very first time.
“…mmm, I know our support has again been pretty shite again this evening, but at least we didn’t get out sung by the away fans.”
Things got a little nervy, and Alan was convinced that we would let in a second goal. As the clock ticked, a strong run from Loftus-Cheek into the BATE box did not result in his fourth of the night.
At the final whistle, I was already packed up and on my way out of the seats. I looked over to the players on the pitch and then headed out of the exit.
“Let’s get home.”