Tales From The Villa And The Vine

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2022.

It was a relatively late start for me. The 8am alarm sounded and I then collected the Gruesome Twosome by 9.30am. All three of us had chosen black tops – Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, Robe di Kappa – and as we stopped in Melksham for the first McBreakfast for absolutely ages we looked like the senior members of some “ultra” battalion.

Kinda.

Milan was still dominating my thoughts when I woke and over the first hour or so of the journey up to Birmingham. This is often the case, eh? The thrill of a European trip is difficult to forget easily. I soon told PD “I will be honest; I am trying my best but I am finding it hard to get up for this game. It’s a bloody good job I am not playing.”

I stopped for a coffee at Frankley Services on the M5 and I was soon turning off at West Bromwich.

To my right, the angled floodlights at The Hawthorns were easily spotted – “one of only three grounds where Chelsea have won the league, lads” – and the sighting of the stadium from half-a-mile away brought back immediate memories of Milan. On the elevated A4, approaching the end of our journey last Tuesday morning, I was keeping my eye out for the San Siro roof which I knew was a few miles to my right, to the south. Lo and behold, despite the grey and hazy view, I found it relatively easy to catch the ridiculously huge roof beams appearing in a void between some rooftops.

My heart jumped in Milan. But my heart jumped in West Bromwich too as I quickly remembered one of the finest nights of recent memory.

I dropped the lads off about a five-minute walk from the away turnstiles at Villa Park but then turned around and drove three-quarters of a mile north to my usual parking spot for Villa at Perry Barr. On the mile-long walk south, I noted that the horrible walkway – an underpass and a footbridge over the busy A34 – was no more, thus cutting a few valuable minutes off my approach to Villa Park. “The Crown & Cushion”, where we enjoyed a very boozy pre-match before the 2002 FA Cup semi-final, had been razed to the ground a few years back.

There were no real pre-game plans on this occasion. There aren’t too many pubs to the north of Villa Park and beers aren’t served in the away end.

This always was going to be a quick smash and grab raid against Aston Villa.

There is red brick everywhere on the way to the stadium. The terraced houses on Willmore Road where I parked for maybe the tenth time in a row, Perry Barr Methodist Church, the houses on Aston Lane, the Aston pub, the old tramway building and then of course the surrounds of Villa Park itself. Alas, the old Trinity Road stand with ornate gables was demolished in around 2000, but its design features are mirrored in the huge Holte End at the southern side of Villa Park. These days the only terrace in town is the steps which lead up from Witton Lane to the base of the Holte End. These steps are speckled with deep claret railings. Squint and it almost feels like an old-style football terrace.

I needed to wait a while to pass over a spare ticket.

I made it in at 2.02pm.

Phew.

The sun was beating down. My God it was hot. My choice of a black wool pullover seemed rather ridiculous. I sidled in alongside Gal, John and Parksorius.

The team? I tried to work it all out. With Reece James out, we wondered who Graham Potter would play at right wing-back if he decided to choose that system. We wondered about Ruben Loftus-Cheek. As I peered out into the bright sun, I attempted to piece it all together.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Sterling – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

I think.

Before I had time to ponder it all, Tyrone Mings headed a cross from Ben Chilwell up rather than away, and Mason Mount, lurking centrally, was able to pounce. He adroitly touched the ball past Emilio Martinez. Luckily enough, my camera captured it all.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 1.

A dream start, eh?

I looked around at Villa Park. It is a really fine stadium. It has been modernised but it still feels like an old ground because the four stands are reasonably different. The oldest current stand at the north end of the ground may not last too long though. There are plans to bulldoze it and build afresh with an even larger two-tiered structure in its place. An acquaintance, who lives nearby, had evidentially been invited in for a hospitality gig in the North Stand. He sent over a ‘photo of former Villa players Tony Morley and Kenny Swain who were in one of the lounges and were now hosting some guests. These two players had taken part in Villa’s European Cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982.

Ah that year again.

On Saturday 16 October 1982 – forty-years ago to the very day – Chelsea lost 0-3 at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers. The gate was a paltry 6,062. It was that bad that Alan Mayes made his first appearance of the season.

There is no punchline.

I was really happy with our start. In addition to the early goal, we were moving the ball well and the whole approach to attacking seemed to hark back to a more free-spirited time. We were looking to attack in a variety of ways.

Long and short. Over the top. Sideways into space.

And despite my ambivalence on the way up, I was absolutely enjoying this game. I was on it and hopefully not likely to fall off.

But then, imperceptibly, the home team grew into the game and for the rest of the first-half we were second best. There were defensive errors – Cucarella was the main culprit but even Silva on occasion – as Villa ran at our retreating backline.

A cross from the Villa left resulted in a melee at the back post. A header crashed against the top of the bar.

Kepa had already been involved before we were treated to three magnificent saves during the same move as Villa peppered our goal. The second one, especially – down low – was magnificent. The third save, in the end, did not matter as an offside flag was raised.

Regardless, our ‘keeper was cheered loudly by the Chelsea contingent.

“He’s magic, you know.”

An errant pass from the poor Aubameyang let in Danny Ings. Kepa was equal to a strong shot, pushing it away for a corner.

The best was yet to come. On the half-hour, Ings headed at goal from close in and I absolutely expected a goal, the equaliser. From right underneath the cross-bar, the Spanish ‘keeper managed to claw it out. I always cite a Carlo Cudicini save at Tottenham as the best save that I have ever seen by a Chelsea ‘keeper but this might well have beaten it.

I was in absolute awe.

“He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

We had spotted that Loftus-Cheek was now asked to deploy the right wing-back berth with Sterling further forward. Mount withdrew deeper. Both players then initiated a fine move, our first for a while. Loftus-Cheek strode out of defence and passed to Mount. The ball was moved on. A strong run from the previously quiet Kai Havertz was followed by a pass to Raheem Sterling.

“Curl the fucker.”

Curl it he did, but the ball smacked the bar.

Ugh.

At the break, we all knew that we had rodden our luck.

“Getting roasted here Gal. On and off the pitch.”

Potter reacted with some substitutions.

Kalidou Koulibaly for the battle-weary Cucarella.

Dave for the weak Havertz.

The team was re-jigged.

We were soon treated to a John Terry-style chest pass from the current “shirt 26 wearer” Koulibaly. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one who noticed JT’s trademark resurfacing.

The Chelsea crowd were giving the Villa manager some Ba-llistic pain with a certain song from 2014 being repeated again and again. This was followed up with a chant that was also aired in Milan last week.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

Now, I can concede that Internazionale might well have a claim to “own” the Italian city. But I wasn’t having Birmingham City being the top dogs in our Second City.

I turned to Gal : “Maybe they are including West Brom too, a joint bid.”

Chances were shared at each end.

Further changes ensued.

Conor Gallagher for a quiet Aubameyang.

Jorginho for Kovacic,

“Kovacic has run about today but he hasn’t done too much, Gal.”

On sixty-six minutes, a run into space by Mount resulted in a foul by Mings the merciless.

“I fancy this, Gal.”

Mount sized it all up. His dipping free-kick was perfection personified.

Goal.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Steven Gerrard was again getting it in the neck.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning…”

On the right wing, down below us, Gallagher mirrored the current government with a quick U-turn to free himself of his marker. A fine searching cross found the head of Sterling but his downward header bounced past the near post.

In the last minute, one last sub.

Armando Broja for Sterling.

I fancied us to score another to rub salt in the wound, but it stayed at two.

Phew.

I’ll say it again.

Phew.

“That’s five wins in a row now, John.”

“Four clean sheets too.”

“Unbeaten in six.”

“Off to a great start, Potter, eh?”

Mason Mount, with his first two goals of the season, took the eye, but Kepa – surely – was our star man. Without him, we could have been 3-1 down at the break. Conor Gallagher injected some energy and movement when he came on. Thiago Silva was excellent. Kalidou Koulibaly looked like the footballer that we thought we had purchased rather than a mistake waiting to happen. I liked Ruben Loftus-Cheek too; steady, though I am not sure that when he runs with the ball he is deceptively fast or deceptively slow. The negatives were Cucarella, Havertz and Aubameyang.

On the walk back to the car, PD mentioned the now missing underpass by the A34 as being the location of an almighty ambush by some Villa lads after the mad 2-2 draw on the last day of the season in 1990/91.

As is so often the case, we called in at “The Vine” at West Bromwich for an early-evening curry. PD enjoyed his Lamb Madras. Parky and I had the same dish, Manchurian Chicken. All very tasty, all immediately served within five minutes of ordering. I was just surprised that Michelle, Dane and Frances didn’t show up.

Please come back into the top flight West Brom so we have another excuse to stop off.

It was a decent drive home.

I was back inside at about 8pm.

Next up, our sixth game of nine in October is on Wednesday at Brentford.

I will see some of the lucky ones there.

Outside

Inside

Tales From Two Shades Of Blue

Chelsea vs. Malmo : 21 February 2019.

We were back in town again for the second time of the working week. After the disappointment of the United game on the Monday, Malmo offered a different test on a Thursday evening Europa League tie. The games were starting to ramp up now. And we were in the middle of an odd sequence of matches which were following this pattern :

Sunday / Thursday / Monday / Thursday / Sunday / Wednesday / Sunday.

Maybe in the near future a child will ask of their parents : “they used to play on Saturday, didn’t they?”

We were also continuing our ridiculously Jekyll & Hyde sequence of a win, a loss, a win, a loss. I wonder what Chelsea would show up on this occasion. What shade of blue?

All was quiet when we walked into “Simmons” at about 6pm. Unlike Monday there was room to breathe, and room to chat in a more relaxed way with a few good friends. Gillian and Kev were down from Edinburgh again. Special mention for Chris from Guernsey who was in the middle of three trips to London in a week, all for Chelsea; the second of a Holy Trinity of cup games in three different competitions. There was an inevitable revisiting of the game on Monday. It had been a totally depressing evening. We briefly rummaged through the debris of a pretty shambolic performance. There were more questions than answers. To sum up our state of bewilderment at the manager’s modus operandi, I made a comment which I think holds water.

“There can’t be a single Chelsea supporter anywhere – anywhere in the world – who thought that the Zappacosta for Azplicueta substitution was laudable and fine.”

The boys agreed.

“Not one.”

We heard on the grapevine that the visiting Swedes were enjoying themselves up at The Courtfield at Earl’s Court. We were not surprised. This was a cheap trip for them after all. The lads that visited Malmo last week reported high drink prices; the boot was on the opposite foot now.

And their boots were being filled.

Fair play.

There was a predictable – and hilarious, cough, cough – punfest in the bar as we quoted football-relevant Abba songs.

I shan’t bore you.

Malmo first came into our common consciousness in the UK back in 1979 when they reached – I know not how – the European Cup Final. They were the underdogs against Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest and they fell to a John Robertson shimmy and cross and a Trevor Francis lunge at the far post in the final in Munich. I remembered their Manchester City-style light blue kit. They have been on my radar ever since. AIK Stockholm, Gothenberg and Malmo are the three names in Swedish football that resonate for me. I saw Malmo play once before, in odd circumstances. I was over in Dublin on a mate’s Stag Weekend in March 1991 and after a heavy night on the ale, we woke on the Sunday to discover that the local team St. Patrick’s Athletic were playing a friendly against Malmo at the nearby Dalymount Park. Some of the party decided not to go and I think they were probably wise. But four of us watched, sitting on a crumbling terrace which was overgrown with weeds, but were far from enamoured by the experience. The crowd was of about five-hundred and the game ended 1-1.

We made plans for Sunday and walked to Stamford Bridge.

I was only slightly interested in the reaction of the crowd to the manager and players after Monday. I hoped for not too much negativity. I had, if I am honest, not the stomach for any of that. I just wanted us to get behind the team.

Ah, the team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic

Kante – Barkley

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Willian

No complaints with that.

Inside the stadium, there were gaps but these soon filled. I was very pleased indeed with the resultant attendance. Yes, the tickets were only £25, but people still had to make the effort to get off collective arses and travel. Of course, the away half of The Shed was full of light-blue. They had made a right old din in Sweden and London was a dream trip for them. They would undoubtedly be “up for it.”

This would be another game, the second in a week, when we would be undoubtedly out-sung by the away contingent.

It was good to see Mark – a foot soldier from the days of when we used to meet up at the old “Black Bull” in the promotion campaign of 1988/89 – who was with his son and sitting close by. It was half-term in London and elsewhere and a lot more children were in attendance than normal.

Flags were waved, the teams came on, the crowd was almost at capacity, no negativity thus far. Over on The Shed balcony wall, the invading Swedes had draped many flags and banners between the two tiers.

For the first time that I can remember since our kit-change back in 1991, we wore an all blue kit at home. It just did not look right. We presumed that the Malmo kit man had neglected to do his research. They were in a Manchester City copy of light blue, white and light blue. One of their players resembled Kevin de Bruyne. The football Gods were not letting us forget the 6-0 loss at the Etihad easily.

The game began.

It was a bright start from the visitors. The Chelsea support had raised a few songs at the start in a genuine attempt to provide a positive vibe, but as our play stumbled and fumbled, the noise fell away. The visiting supporters kept their noise levels high. Pre-match there had been en masse bouncing. It had been impressive. And they must have been warmed by their players who looked a yard quicker than our players. There was a cross and a header early on which hinted at a worrying evening. Malmo definitely had the best of the first quarter. We looked lacking in confidence, a team of disjointed players. A university thesis could be written on why Mateo Kovacic was playing the deep-lying role and not N’Golo Kante. It was a puzzle to most of us. The manager’s golden child Jorginho was on the bench, and his personal toils throughout this season could spawn a bookshelf of theories about modern day football.

The football nerds call him a regista.

Regista?

Fucking hell, Arkwright’s cash register had more bite.

On the pitch there was little urgency, little shape, no clue.

There was, shamefully, not a great deal of running off the ball, which is surely an integral part of Sarriball (…oh dear, I feel dirty – ugh – this is the first time that I have used it in these reports I think, it won’t happen again, sorry). And I found it odd that, bearing in mind we were so nervy, we were continuing to pass the ball out from defence, almost inviting an error as Malmo were putting us under a high press (ditto, it’s the buzz word of the season, eh?).

On twenty-five minutes, the Malmo support got going with a loud chant. The second part of it seemed like “Fuck off Chelsea” but I am not sure that it was. Regardless, this got the Matthew Harding riled and there was a “Fuck off Malmo” response. This was followed by a loud and resonant “Carefree”, the loudest of the night. Good stuff. Well, I am not totally sure if the relationship between a noisy support and an upturn in a team’s play has ever been proven, but there definitely seemed like a ten minute or so of improved Chelsea play. At last Callum Hudson-Odoi was given the ball, and there was room ahead of him in which to run. He was the catalyst for our improvement I think. He looked the business, a rare spark of light in what had been a grey game thus far.

But then it seemed to die again. And the play worsened.

In that dire first-half, I can only remember occasional efforts on goal. A Barkley drive. A chance for Giroud close in. Not worth talking about.

At the break, I chatted to a few friends.

“That was awful.”

And it was. Bloody awful.

“It’s a bloody concern when our least adept central defender on the night has touched the ball more than any other Chelsea player.”

Every Chelsea move seemed to go through Toni Rudiger.

“Atvidaberg were Swedish, weren’t they?”

If you don’t know, “Google” it. 1971 and all that. Shudder.

Just as the Chelsea players came back on to the Stamford Bridge pitch, the away fans lit up The Shed with some white, and one red – he didn’t get the memo – flare. I’ll be honest, it looked bloody magnificent. The most flares ever seen at Chelsea? European football is meant to be like this.

Take a bow, Malmo.

As the first-half began, the clouds of smoke billowed around the southern end of the stadium and up under the lights of the East Stand. It was quite a sight. It brought back memories of a London before the clean air act when Stamford Bridge often became enveloped in a low fog on match days.

I could not resist an easy line :

“Put your fags out, Sarri.”

There was an odd, one-man, pitch invasion soon into the second period.

“Well, that’s one way to avoid seeing us play. A five-year ban, bosh. Idiot.”

Thankfully, after fifty-five minutes of tedium, the game came to life. Malmo were stretched after a move broke down. Our little prince N’Golo carried the ball at speed right through the heart of the Malmo defence, then easily spotted the run of Willian to his left, and the resulting cross was pushed home by Giroud from close in.

GET IN.

Bjorn : “De måste komma till oss nu.”

Benny : ” Kom på mina små diamanter.”

I had a gleeful smirk to myself. ”Damn that counter-attacking football.”

We were now 3-1 up on aggregate, and I hoped for no more scares. Our play, now a lot more confident, certainly improved. Barkley had an effort ruled offside. We were well on top. The away fans would not be dulled though, and their noise continued, and we were given a rare sight in The Shed – it was more common in the ’seventies – of hundreds of scarves being held aloft, but thankfully no accompanying Rodgers and Hammerstein dirge. It reminded me of Napoli at Juventus in 1988, and certainly Napoli away in 2012 (a game that took place seven years ago to the exact day and time, any bloody excuse to mention the Champions League run of 2012).

Malmo were visibly tiring and our wing play was causing them the jitters. This was more like it Chelsea. Emerson was fouled and the miscreant Bengtsson was given a second yellow. From the free-kick, Ross Barkley struck a so-sweet curler past the Malmo goalkeeper, who obviously failed to react to the advice given to him by a Chelsea supporters in the MHL.

”Move over, Dahlin.”

Ross enjoyed that goal and his run towards us in The Sleepy Hollow was one of joy. Phew. Five minutes later, the manager made two subsitutions.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for N’Golo Kante.

Jorginho for Ross Barkley.

There were audible boos for Joginho.

How utterly utterly pathetic.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Cesar Azpilicueta.

It would have been funnier if Dave had been replaced by Gonzalo Higuain. That would have raised an ironic giggle, right?

We were assured of another fixture in this season’s competition. I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Baku last season, and I certainly thought that it would be a one-off ”once in a lifetime” experience. We might – just might – be returning. But as I said to Big John at half-time, Baku is not Munich or Amsterdam, or even Moscow. It is bloody miles away. Would we sell fifteen or twenty thousand tickets for the final? Answers on a postcard.

As the game continued I dreamed of where Chelsea Football Club would take me next. We were hopeful of rejoining the Europa League trail in the next round, just over a fortnight away.

In the last five minutes, Hudson-Odoi did well to drift past his man on the right and drill a low shot past the ’keeper to make it 3-0.

Phew.

I had hated the first-half, but the second-half was a lot better.

It had been a good night.

Our sequence was now –

Won 3-0

Lost 0-4

Won 5-0

Lost 0-6

Won 2-1

Lost 0-2

Won 3-0

What of Sunday and the League Cup Final? In the car on the drive home – happier than on Monday – I simply told LP and PD that we tended not to lose finals. I did some arithmetic. Since 1994, but including that game, we had reached nineteen finals – I have discounted the 2012 World Club Championships and the three Super Cups – and our record in that time span is quite excellent. We have won fourteen and lost just five. That’s a fine batting average.

See you at Wembley.