Tales From Tier One And Tier Eight

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 29 December 2021.

Over Christmas 2021 and into New Year 2022, I was planning to attend six games. The over-riding question mark over these games was of course COVID19. Let’s have a re-cap.

22 December : Brentford vs. Chelsea – check.

26 December : Aston Villa vs. Chelsea – check.

27 December : Frome Town vs. Melksham Town – still on.

29 December : Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion – still on.

1 January : Paulton Rovers vs. Frome Town – still on.

2 January : Chelsea vs. Liverpool – still on.

So, after the fine win at Villa Park on Boxing Day, I was a third of the way through this feast of festive football.

Thus far the Football Gods were defeating the Covid ones; long may it continue.

Next up was a widely anticipated local derby involving a home game for my local non-league team Frome Town and local rivals Melksham Town. Back in August – the Bank Holiday Monday – I attended the away game and was happy with a 3-0 win for Frome in front of a fine gate of 491. Frome Town’s home attendances have been exceptional this season, averaging over four-hundred, and this is in comparison to an average of around two-hundred a few seasons ago, before COVID19, before abandoned seasons, before lockdown. In a nutshell, the people of Frome have massively backed the local team, quite possibly to the detriment of some of the local professional teams. All along, I was telling friends that the local derby with Melksham could well break the one thousand mark. The team’s first league game of the season against Highworth Town drew a massive 867 although there is a sizeable asterisk against this game as a local company paid for all attendees to watch the game for free. However, against Oxford City in the FA Cup in September, the gate was a hefty 586. It was agreed that the Melksham Town game would easily draw 600, probably 700 and possibly even more. In the back of my mind, I was holding out for one thousand.

On the morning of the game, in a wet but mild Frome town centre, I met up with two of the “Villa Park Five” and we embarked on a mini-pub crawl involving five of the town’s pubs.

PD, Glenn and I would help to bolster the attendance. I have known Glenn to attend the occasional Frome Town game with me over the past ten years but PD is a very rare visitor to Badger’s Hill. In some familiar watering holes we spoke about Villa the previous day and a little about the upcoming game later.

As we walked towards the main turnstiles, there was a queue of around forty people at around 2.30pm with still half-an-hour to kick-off. This, believe me, is unheard of.

Once inside, I stood with my usual Dodge pals Louise, Steve and Fran. I was told, proudly by Fran, that he had entered by the very rarely used second turnstile, wherever that is.

I looked around. There were people everywhere. There were even people sitting in the small cluster of open air seats next to the fully packed main stand. That never happens. What a lovely sight.

“Easily a thousand.”

This match, though on a much smaller scale of course, reminded me of my “guess the gate” game at Stamford Bridge in my childhood and youth. These days, this would be a pretty dull game; every game is a 40,000 sell-out. But from the late-‘seventies to the early-‘nineties, our crowd capacity was around the 45,000 mark. More importantly, our gates varied wildly, often within the same month, often the same week. However, the wildcard in our gates involved the club – a bearded chairman is usually quoted – shaving off thousands in order to keep money from the taxman. This made the guesstimating a little difficult. But, let’s take an example; Chelsea vs. Leeds United for the promotion decider in April 1984. Previously, our highest gate was 35,147 against Sheffield Wednesday. I think I can remember talking to the lads on the car ride to the Leeds game – PD and Glenn again – that the attendance would easily breach the 40,000 mark. In fact, the publicised gate of 33,447 fooled nobody at all. The place was rammed. I am sure it reached 40,000. But at virtually all home games in that period, I tended to not “guess the score” but “guess the gate” and I am sure I wasn’t alone.

Back to 2021 and back to Frome Town.

In a wet and blustery first-half, Frome looked sluggish and succumbed to a goal in the thirty-fourth minute. It hadn’t been much of a first-half. A real shame for the bumper crowd. While I was queuing for half-time beers in the busy clubhouse – seventy-five in the line at the bar, bloody hell – the game had evidently re-started and I was told that Melksham had doubled their lead.

A Frome fackinell was muttered as I waited for beers.

On fifty-five minutes, crowd favourite Jon Davies pulled a goal back with a shot lashed in from twenty yards. Frome were reacting well and the crowd were getting behind the team. On seventy-three minutes, an equaliser from Rex Mannings was met with wild cheers. We were back in this. To our horror, just three minutes later the visitors scored again on a rare break. In the first-half, we were sheltered under the roof along the side of the pitch. In this second-half we were amassed with hundreds of others in the packed Club End.

Towards the end, the PA announced the attendance.

1,103.

Bloody superb.

The noise levels increased. Frome hit the post. Unbelievingly, in the ninety-third minute, Alex Hallett slotted home, though from my vantage point – low down, behind many – I didn’t see the ball go in, I just saw the reactions of the players and spectators nearer the pitch.

Get in.

The place erupted.

What a lovely afternoon. Not only an entertaining game and a frankly unreal attendance, but also a few hours among people who I hadn’t seen for a while. I lost count of the number of people that said “hello Paul” to PD. Frome maintained pole position in the Southern League Division One South, down at level eight in the football pyramid.

Back in one of the two pubs that we would continue our drinking, there was a little reference to Chelsea.

“1,103 today.”

“Maybe PD, Glenn and I were the three.”

“Back in 1976 – forty-five years ago to the day in fact – Chelsea played at home to Fulham in the Second Division and the gate was 55,003.”

I remembered how my mate Alan always says “I was the three.”

55,003 in 1976.

1,103 in 2021.

It’s a toss-up which has made me prouder.

The rather inclement weather that had spoiled the game at Frome to a degree was in evidence as I set off from my house at around 11.15am on the morning of the Brighton game. I soon called in to collect PD in Frome. Thankfully, the blustery wind and rain had abated by the time I reached the next passenger. A soggy Chopper is a horrible thought. I had been hoping to take him to the Leeds United game a few weeks ago – 1970 and all that – but he had made his own way up to London on the Friday.

Ron soon told us of a nice incident that had happened during that game though. Midway through the game, he was summoned to the boardroom and was introduced to former Leeds United player and manager Eddie Gray. The former winger apparently travels to all of Leeds’ away games, looking after some executive club members, and I suppose this mirrors the job that he carries out at Elland Road. The two former combatants must have enjoyed a few fine words.

Ron told of us of a gig that both attended “up north” a few years back. Gray stepped forward and presented Ron with a small gift.

“This is a stud that they have just been finally able to remove from my knee from the 1970 FA Cup Final.”

Ah, that tackle. After giving David Webb the run-around at Wembley, Dave Sexton chose to let the Chelsea captain man mark Gray at Old Trafford. Chopper did not disappoint.

Incidentally, I always find it hard to believe that Eddie Gray – at thirty-six years of age – took part in the afore-mentioned game at Stamford Bridge in April 1984. He was their player-manager at the time.

We collected Parky at about 12.15pm and we were on our way. Thankfully, the traffic wasn’t too busy and I made good time on my way in to London. At around 2.30pm I deposited PD and Parky outside “The Temperance” at the bottom of Fulham High Street. They would soon be knocking back a few pints at “The Eight Bells.” I dropped Ron off at the bottom of the North End Road and he made his way to the stadium.

I parked-up in my usual spot, then made a leisurely walk down to Stamford Bridge where my friend Ben from the Boston Blues enjoyed a little chat with a few former players. I then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge and joined PD and Parky – and also my friend Andrew, once of the New York Blues but now living in Brighton of all places – in the cosy confines of “T8B” which was full of its usual regulars. Andrew would be sitting alongside me in The Sleepy Hollow. PD, Parky and I were starving so we each indulged in a burger and chips. My good pal Mac – a Brighton season ticket holder – arrived with two, then three, of his friends and sat alongside us.

At the same time it was a busy yet relaxed pre-match and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Brighton lads spoke to me about their manager Graham Potter. They had started to get a little irritated with the way that Brighton would always seem to play conservatively and without risk, and that many fans were wishing that there was a change of plan. Only a few times in recent years have Brighton “gone for it.” Mac recollected that when they travelled to Manchester City in the early weeks of 2019/20, Potter had thrown caution to the wind, and although Albion had lost 4-0, Mac had loved it. It was an interesting comment. It brought make an eerie reminder of Frank Lampard at Old Trafford the same season. I didn’t enjoy that one quite so much. But we chatted about how so many teams “shut up shop” these days; I told them that I longed for the days when football didn’t resemble a game of bloody chess.

One of Mac’s friends – Chris from Somerset, confusing isn’t it? – asked me what my preconceptions were of Graham Potter.

I felt like saying that I knew more about Harry Potter. The Brighton manager surely has to be one of the most unassuming men in the modern game.

With the kick-off at 7.30pm, it was time for us to set off. It was a stupidly mild evening in old London town as PD, Andrew and I turned into the West forecourt and waved an “adios” to Parky as he wended his way to The Shed.

Here was the team :

Mendy – Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger – James, Jorginho, Kovacic, Pulisic – Hudson-Odoi, Lukaku, Mount.

This was again a case of Thomas Tuchel having to shuffle an increasingly depleted pack of cards. But, on paper at least, it did look a half-decent team. Of course, we would miss the energy of Kante and the crafted calmness of Thiago Silva. Sadly, Ben Chilwell is gone for the season, while others are clearly not at full fitness levels. But a “plus” had to be the presence of Romelu Lukaku in the starting line-up. We just had to engineer a way of getting the ball up to him, or for him to attack. That was our huge task as the clock ticked towards kick-off.

The two teams appeared in what looked like a training game from c. 1987 with Chelsea in royal blue and the visitors in an all jade Chelsea Collection number. Brighton had a solid three-thousand in their half of The Shed, but not one flag nor banner. Must do better.

On a day when it was announced that John Terry was returning to the club in a coaching role at the academy – a move that really surprised me – a large “Captain. Leader. Legend.” Surfed over the heads in the home section of the Shed Upper.

Right, the last game of 2021, another bloody crazy year in the history of Chelsea Football Club, but one which turned out to be so typical of modern day Chelsea. For much of 2021 it was the same old song; supporter unrest, managerial problems, silverware, big name signings, glimpses of success, supporter unrest, repeat to fade.

Would I have it any other way? Yes, probably.

However : [clears throat]

“Let’s Go To Work.”

As usual, we attacked The Shed in the first-half. A few early forays hinted at good things. However, the first piece of action got the pulses racing was a full throttle race down our left involving former Chelsea youngster Tariq Lamptey and our man Reece James. Thankfully, that particular tussle ended in our favour.

The boisterous away fans went for an early dig.

“Tariq Lamptey, he left ‘cus you’re shit” and how we laughed.

After an early effort from Callum Hudson-Odoi, Lamptey attacked and struck a shot that did not bother Edouard Mendy. But their right back was looking effervescent. A corner from our right was not cleanly gathered by Robert Sanchez in the Brighton goal, and Cesar Azpilicueta swung a leg and the resulting shot cannoned off the near post. The ball bounced away and James swung it in again. However, a header from Antonio Rudiger was easily saved by the Brighton ‘keeper.

A clean move involving a run and pass from Mateo Kovacic to Romelu Lukaku set up Mason Mount but his shot was saved by Sanchez.

Sadly, we spotted that James was rooted to the turf on the half-way line. He was completely still. We all feared the worst. His walk off, supported to of Chelsea’s medical team, was the slowest I have ever seen. He was replaced by Marcos Alonso.

A Mason Mount corner was swung in and the ball perfectly met the free leap from Lukaku. The ball went crashing down and past Sanchez.

Get in.

After his excellent performance at Villa, it felt that he was the man of the moment.

There was a tough tackle in the midfield and the away fans did not like it.

“You dirty Northern bastards” caused a smirk from Andrew and myself in The Sleepy Hollow.

Brighton had caused us a few moments during the first-half and they had grown stronger as the game developed. Apart from our opening half-an-hour, we had drifted. The atmosphere wasn’t too special. The night was mild, on the pitch and off it.

“We’re hanging on a bit here” I said to PD.

However, I thought that Andreas Christensen had enjoyed a fine half, often intercepting and tackling with aplomb. It was just typical that he had taken a knock and was replaced at the break by Trevoh Chalobah. Our injury woes were getting worse.

Brighton kept up their pressure from the first-half. A cross from Solly March was met by Jakub Moder and his effort dropped – just – over the bar. Shots followed from Alexis Mac Alister and the very impressive Yves Bissouma.

Ten minutes into the second-half, at last, the home crowd got it together and a loud “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” enveloped the stadium. Just after, there followed a rare Chelsea attack. Hudson-Odoi broke from deep and advanced. Mount was in a good position, racing away too and square, and Callum decided to pass rather than shoot. The pass was poor and a defender intercepted. The howls of derision boomed around the Matthew Harding. Brighton immediately attacked and the atmosphere was suddenly red hot. Mendy blocked Mac Allister and Rudiger blocked Maupay. Other chances came and went for Brighton. We had nothing in response.

I messaged Mac : “Your boys are doing you proud.”

Lamptey was nicely applauded by us when he was substituted with half-an-hour to go.

Just after, N’Golo Kante replaced Hudson-Odoi.

We hoped that this would steady the ship. And this seemed to be the case. We even enjoyed a few half-chances with headers from Rudiger and Chalobah giving us a little hope for a second goal that would give us some security. There were further half-chances, nothing more, from Lukaku and Kante.

But I was surely not the only one who was half-expecting a late Brighton equaliser.

Four minutes of added injury time were to be played at the end of the ninety.

After just one of these, Marc Cucarella dropped a cross onto the head of a rising Danny Welbeck and the ball nestled in at the far post.

The players – far from jaded – raced away, the away hordes jumped and jumped, a blue flare was thrown onto the pitch. This was their moment.

Sigh.

We sloped away amidst comments of “this feels like a loss” and “they deserved that.”

Just as I was nearing my car, with PD and Parky already waiting, Nice Guy Kenny spotted Chopper walking alongside me and asked for a photo with his young niece. At least one Chelsea supporter left SW6 with a nice feeling.

Nobody likes dropping points of course. And this is a testing time for us all. But there is no doubt that our once vaunted squad is currently stretched. The immediate over-reaction by sections of our support was to be expected these days. All was rosy after Villa Park. One game later, not so.

I made good time on my return and I was home just after midnight.

Next up, Paulton Rovers away and Liverpool at home.

On we go.