Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.
So, the last game of the 2017/2018 season.
The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.
Chelsea vs. Manchester United.
It simply did not seem one whole year ago that the four of us were catching a train to Paddington to attend the 2017 Final. Where has the time gone? Where has it indeed? Life seems to be accelerating away, almost out of control at times, and shows no signs of slowing down. This would be my fifty-sixth game of the season – bettered only twice, 58 in 2011/2012 and 57 in 2012/2013 – and even the first one in Beijing in late July only seems like last month. It has been a demanding and confusing campaign, with many memories, and fluctuating fortunes. There was a crazy period in January and February when it seemed that I was heading up to London for football every midweek for weeks on end. It was a particularly tiring period. Looking back, it has not been a favourite season but I have enjoyed large chunks of it. We have rarely hit anything approaching the heights of last year when we took the football world unawares and stormed to a Championship. This season has been riddled with poor performances, the usual soap-opera of conflict between players, manager and board. And, of course, there has been a couple of moments of deep sadness. We lost two thoroughbred captains in Ray Wilkins and Roy Bentley. But in the depths of darkness, there have been glimpses of glory.
Chelsea Football Club. It seemed that all of human life was here.
Would the last game of the season, seemingly stacked against us, provide us with a day of silverware and joy?
We bloody well hoped so.
However, as we left St. James’ Park last Sunday, there was a genuine fear of us not only losing but losing heavily. Our performance on Tyneside was truly mind-boggling in its ineptitude, and I honestly feared for the worst. A repeat of 1994? God forbid.
The day did not begin well. Glenn, PD and little old me were stood, impatient, excited, on the platform of Frome train station, intending to catch the 8.07am to Westbury and then on to Melksham, where Lord Parky would join us, and to Swindon and eventually London. Glenn then noted that the train was running late. We needed to get to Westbury. So, we hopped into a taxi which took us over the state line and in to Wiltshire, despite the dopey cab driver declining our protests to “stop talking and drive faster” and idling his way through Chapmanslade and Dilton Marsh.
He was as annoying a person as I have met for some time.
“Going to the Cup Final, eh? Oh nice one. Don’t worry, I will get you there for twenty-to.”
“Oh, thought you said, twenty-to. Ha.Ha. I’d best hurry up. Ha ha.
“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”
“Go on Chelsea. I hope they win. Ha ha. Do you think you will win? Ha?”
“Stop talking and drive faster.”
“I hate United you see. I’m a Liverpool fan.”
“Stop talking and drive faster.”
“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”
…this inane nonsense continued for what seemed like ages. Thankfully, we reached Westbury station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 8.22am train to Swindon.
Parky joined us at Melksham, we changed at Swindon, and arrived on time at Paddington at 10.14am. I love those arches at this famous old London station. It has played a major part in my Chelsea story. All of those trips to London – sometimes solo – from 1981 onwards. I remember sitting on a barrier, desolate, after the 1988 play-off loss to Middlesbrough, wondering if Chelsea would ever return to the top flight, let alone – ha – win anything.
That moment is a defining moment in my Chelsea life. That seems like five minutes ago, too.
Our 2018 Cup Final pre-match jolly-up was planned a week or so ago. At 10.45am, the four of us assembled at the “Barrowboy and Banker” outside London Bridge. There was talk of surprise guests. Glenn ordered the first round.
I popped outside to take a shot of the pub and the modern towers on the north side of the river. I was just finishing the framing of a second photograph when I heard a voice in my ear.
“Those hanging baskets are lovely, aren’t they?”
My first, initial, thought?
“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”
A nano-second later, I realised who it was; my great friend Alex from the New York Blues, who I had arranged to meet at 11am. He quickly joined us inside. I had last seen him over in New York on a baseball trip in 2015. He kindly let me stay in his Brooklyn apartment for the 2013 Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium while he was visiting Denmark with his girlfriend.
“Still waiting for the special guest.”
Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”
The Chuckle Brothers roared.
Next through the door were Kim, Andy and Wayne – aka “The Kent Lot” – who have been stalking us on numerous pub-crawls now. We reminisced about the laugh we had in Newcastle last weekend.
“Get the beers in boys, don’t talk about the game.”
Next to arrive was former Chelsea player Robert Isaac, who had been chatting to Glenn about pre-match plans during the week. We occasionally bump into Robert at The Malthouse before home games, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with him again. Robert is a Shed End season ticket holder and we have a few mutual friends. When he broke in to the first team in 1985, no player was more enthusiastically cheered; he had been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the Millwall League Cup game in September 1984.
I can easily remember a game in which he started against Arsenal in September 1985 when the entire Shed were singing :
“One Bobby Isaac. There’s only one Bobby Isaac.”
What a thrill that must have been for a young player who grew up supporting us from those very terraces.
Next to arrive was Lawson – another New York Blue – who I had last seen on these shores at the Cardiff City away game on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. He had been working some music events in Brighton on the two previous nights and was officially “hanging.” A pint of Peroni soon sorted him out. I have a lot of time for the New York Blues, and we go back a while. It is always a pleasure to welcome them to games over here.
We spoke a little about the difficulties of some overseas supporters getting access to tickets; Chelsea has tightened things across the board of late. I knew of a few – but no more than seven or eight – Chelsea mates from the US who were over for the game, and who had all managed to secure tickets from one source or another. There would be supporters’ groups meeting up all over the world to watch. Yet I know from a few close friends in the US that, often this season, the FA Cup has failed to draw much of a crowd at some of their so-called “watch parties.” I can feel their frustrations. I know only too well from the viewing figures provided for this website that the FA Cup reports, for a while now, have attracted significantly fewer hits than for regular league games. And it is especially low in the US, for some reason, usually a stronghold of support for these blogs. I can’t fathom it. It seems that the FA Cup, for those who have not grown up with it, nor have witnessed it at length, seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe.
And yet I would be sure that many of the FA Cup Final “watch parties” would be packed to the rafters.
Big game hunters? Maybe.
At last, the special guest, who I had kept secret from the three other Chuckle Brothers, just for the thrill of surprise on their faces as he walked through the door. As of last Sunday in Newcastle, Rich from Edinburgh was without a ticket. Luckily, our mate Daryl jumped in to get him one of the extra thousand tickets that had surfaced during the week.
There were hugs all around for Rich, who had quickly negotiated a couple of last minute flights to London. It was great to see him again.
We took our party, a dozen strong, over the road to “The Bunch of Grapes” under the shadow of The Shard. Here, we were joined by the final piece in the jigsaw, Dave, who had just missed us at the first pub. Dave is one of the “Benches 1984” reunion lads from the Leicester City home game not long in to the New Year. It was just fantastic to have so many good folks around me. It had been a very testing time for me at work during the week. My stress levels had gone through the roof. I certainly needed a little of my own space to “chill.”
And a lunchtime drinking session on FA Cup Final day with the dirty dozen was as perfect as it gets.
We then walked through the bustling Borough Market and rolled in to “The Old Thameside Inn” which is one of my favourite pubs in the whole of the city. The terrace overlooking the river was bathed in sunshine, and the drinking – and laughs – continued. It was great to see everyone getting on so well, although many had only met for the first time a few hours before.
“Don’t talk about the game though, for fuck sake.”
A few of us then split up, and some went on to meet others. The four Chuckle Brothers stopped momentarily in the market for some sustenance.
“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”
On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.
We then spilled in to “The Southwark Tavern” for one last tipple. The time was moving on, and we needed to head up to Wembley.
We caught the Jubilee line to Wembley Park, thus avoiding the Mancs at Wembley Stadium. This would afford a fantastic view looking down Wembley Way, which I remember visiting with Alex and a few other NYBs before the 2010 Portsmouth FA Cup Final.
The team news came through.
Antonio had decided to pack the midfield, but the scene was set for Eden Hazard to set Wembley alight. Gary Cahill, sensibly, had got the nod over young Andreas.
Dave – Gaz – Rudi
Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos
Eden – Olivier
It was the same team – our strongest eleven, maybe – that had played so well against Liverpool a few weeks back. My spirits were raised a little, but time was moving on and we were still a while away.
Sadly, there were unforeseen delays up to Wembley Park, and we were struggling to make kick-off, let alone see any of the orchestrated nonsense that goes before any event at Wembley these days. Luckily, we had managed to avoid Manchester United fans throughout the day. On walking up Wembley Way, there was a little banter between a United fan and me, and I offered a handshake but his response shocked me :
“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”
I just laughed.
Close by, I bumped into another United fan, who was a little better behaved.
“Good luck pal.”
“And you mate.”
We slowly edged up and to the left, the clear blue sky above the arch bereft of any cloud cover. I scrambled towards our entrance.
We were some of the last ones in.
Camera bag check.
Security tie threaded.
Five minutes to go.
Up the escalators.
The stadium was hazy from all of the smoke of the pre-match bluster.
We were inside just before United kicked-off.
Just like in Munich six years’ previously, we had arrived in the nick of time.
We were right at the back of the upper tier bar one row. The players seemed minute. In the rush to get in, my sunglasses had gone walkabout. This would be a difficult game for me to watch, through the haze, and squinting.
I hope that I would like what I would see.
The game kicked-off.
I looked around. Virtually everyone in our section, high up, were stood. There must have been some empty seats somewhere, but I could not see any.
But the haze was killing me. And the strong shadows which cut across the pitch. It made for some rather dramatic photographs, but it made viewing difficult.
Chelsea attacked the United hordes at the west end, which is our usual end. As ever, there were United flags – the red, white, black “Barmy Flags” standard issue – everywhere, and from everywhere.
On a side note, there is nothing as ironic as Chelsea fans in Chicago and Los Angeles – or Sydney or Brisbane – taking the piss out of United fans coming from Surrey.
As the kids say : “amirite?”
Down on the pitch, Eden Hazard was soon to be seen skipping away down the left wing, after being released by Bakayoko, and forced a low save from David de Gea at the near post. In the early part of the game, we matched United toe to toe. Although my mind was not obsessed with Jose Mourinho – my mind was just obsessed with beating United, fucking United – I could not resist the occasional glance over to the technical areas.
Antonio Conte – suited and booted. Involved, pointing, cajoling.
Jose Mourinho – tie less, a pullover, coach-driver-chic. Less animated.
There were some Chelsea pensioners seated behind the Chelsea bench; they must have been sweltering in their scarlet tunics.
The heat was probably playing its part, as most of the play was studied and slow. Both teams kept their shape. There was no wildness, nor a great deal of anything in the first twenty minutes. Olivier Giroud was moving his defenders well, and we were keeping possession, but it was an uneventful beginning to the game.
Everything was soon to change. Moses won a loose ball just inside our half, and he spotted Fabregas in space. Hazard was in the inside-right channel now, and Cesc spotted his run magnificently. Hazard’s first touch and his speed was sensational and he raced alongside Phil Jones. Just as he prodded the ball onto his right foot, just as he saw the white of de Gea’s eyes, the cumbersome Jones reappeared and took a hideously clumsy swipe at him.
Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.
There were wails from all around us that Jones should have been sent-off.
Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.
We waited and waited.
“COME ON EDEN.”
At last, the United players drifted away and the referee Michael Oliver moved to allow the penalty to be taken.
De Gea looked left and right.
Hazard with a very short run up.
Eyes left, a prod right.
At 5.37pm on Saturday 19 May 2018, Manchester United were royally fucked.
Meghan’s moment would come later.
These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.
Between the sixth and seventh photographs, I screamed and screamed.
Get in you bastard.
The game, really, floundered for a while, and the fact that United had no real response surprised me. What also surprised me was the lack of noise emanating from the 26,000 fans in the opposite end. I heard nothing, nothing at all. And although I am sure that United were singing, there was simply no audio proof. But I also saw no arms raised, nor clapping, to signal songs being sung, which I found just as strange. The Chelsea end was – or at least bloody well looked like being – a cauldron of noise, with both tiers singing in unison.
Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.
That 4-0 loss in 1994, do I have to talk about it?
The 1-0 win in 2007, revenge for 1994 of sorts.
I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.
The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.
But this was quieter still.
Modern football, eh?
United rarely threatened. The match drifted past Paul Pogba. Alexis Sanchez, the star for Arsenal against us last year, was quiet too, save for occasional corner kicks.
A Pogba shot from outside the box was well wide, but Courtois surely would have covered it.
After a little Chelsea pressure, Fabregas could only hit a free-kick against the wall. We were happy to sit back and let United pass into cul-de-sacs and into dead-end turns.
A Jones header dropped wide. Thibaut had hardly had a shot to save. It was not an afternoon for him to get his “Word Search” out, but not far off it.
Our midfield was strong – Kante on form, thank heavens – but the three defenders were even better. A couple of Rudiger challenges – strong, incisive – were magnificent and drew rapturous applause.
“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”
At the break, we were halfway to paradise, but there was still a long way to go.
United, perhaps unsurprisingly, began on the front foot as the second-half began. The sun was starting to drop, causing more shadows to appear on the pitch, and it all became a lot clearer. Marcus Rashford – I can’t honestly believe how Mourinho chose to roast the young lad in his pro-Lukaku rant a few weeks back – was the first to trouble Thibaut, but his shot was easily saved. United pushed with more urgency now, but we generally defended with great shape and resilience.
Just after the hour, that man Phil Jones managed to get his constantly gurning head on to a free-kick and this drew a brilliant late, swooping save from Thibaut. The rebound was pushed home by Sanchez.
The Mancs roared, I stood silent.
Then, a split second after, we saw the raised flag for an offside.
But the pattern had been set now, with United controlling possession but not really forcing us into compromising positions.
The Chelsea end were on it.
“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”
But then, with twenty minutes to go, a tantalising run by N’Golo Kante deep into the United box released Marcos Alonso outside him. He seemed to take a touch that wasted time and allowed de Gea to close down the angles. A save was almost inevitable, with Victor Moses unable to dab in the rebound.
Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.
A save from Matic, who had been one of their better players.
From a corner in the last few moments, the hidden man Pogba suddenly rose unhindered and headed down and wide. We all breathed a heavy heavy sigh.
There were too very late substitutions;
Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.
Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.
I watched with sorrow as Juan Mata came on to play a bit part; I am sad that we let him go, he should still be a Chelsea player.
The minutes ticked by.
The Chelsea end still kept going.
We thankfully enjoyed a fair proportion of the added minutes playing “keep ball” in the United half. Eventually, the referee blew up.
At just past 7pm on Saturday 19 May, a huge roar echoed around the east end of Wembley Stadium.
The FA Cup was ours once more. Our eight victories now put us in third place – equal with Tottenham – and behind only Arsenal and Manchester United.
1970 – Leeds United.
1997 – Middlesbrough.
2000 – Aston Villa.
2007 – Manchester United.
2009 – Everton.
2010 – Portsmouth.
2012 – Liverpool.
2018 – Manchester United.
Chelsea Football Club rarely get any praise for treating this historic competition with nothing but respect. We rarely play weakened teams, we treat it with earnest attention from round three onwards, and we play to win every game. It has seemed like a long old campaign this one; from the dull draw at Norwich – but what a great weekend away – to the elongated extra time and penalties in the replay, to the home games against Newcastle United and Hull City, to the away game at Leicester – which I missed due to being snowbound – and the semi-final against Southampton, to the final itself.
It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.
A lot of troublesome opponents, a few dodgy results, a couple of fine performances, and ultimately, glory.
We watched the trophy being lifted, of course, but drifted away before the after-match celebrations took hold. We had, I guess, seen it all before. We walked – slowly, blissfully – up Wembley Way with another piece of Silverware in our back pocket. We caught the underground to Paddington, the train to Bath, the train to Westbury, the bus – a Chuckle Bus, of sorts – to Frome.
On the bus – the last logistical link of the season – were a few local girls who had been in Bath on a hen night. One of them saw my Chelsea flag, which is going to Alphie, the young lad I spoke about a while back – and she piped up.
“Did you go to the wedding?”
“Blimey, no. We’ve been to the Cup Final.”
She giggled and seemed excited.
“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”
Yes. I suppose we were. And proud of it.
Ha. The naughty section. Is that how some people think of football and football fans? How odd. How quaint. Fackinell.
It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.
So, what now?
There always seems to be trouble afoot at Stamford Bridge. There are constant rumours, counter-rumours, whispers, accusations, conspiracy theories, unrest, but – ridiculous, really – tons of silverware too. I hate the unrest to be honest. I would much rather a Chelsea of 2016/2017 with a quiet Conte charming us along the way, than a Chelsea of 2017/2018 and a disturbed manager at the helm. But who can blame him? This has turned into the very first year that he has not won a league championship. For the hard-working and intense Conte, that must have hurt.
But there seems to be a slight groundswell in support for Antonio Conte. I have always been in his camp. Winning the 2017 League Championship and the 2018 FA Cup Final is fucking good enough for me.
But oh Chelsea Football Club. It would be so nice, just for once, to win trophies in a harmonious way. As I was thinking about what to write for this last match report of the season, and the last one of my tenth season, I thought back to the last time that Chelsea Football Club seemed to be run in a harmonious way, with everyone pulling together, with the chairman and chief executive signing fine players with no fuss, with a well-liked manager, and loved players. I had to venture back to the wonderful season of 1996/1997 with Ruud Gullit as manager, with Gianfranco Zola as our emblem of all that is good in the game, and when – this is true – Chelsea were often cited as everyone’s second favourite team.
A perfect time? Our first silverware in twenty-six years?
Those days were mesmerizing and wonderful. And yet, within nine months, Ruud Gullit was sacked as Chelsea manager. As they say somewhere, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And never is that more true than at Stamford Bridge.
Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.
I sincerely hope that everyone has a fine summer and that we can all do this all over again next season.
I will see a few lucky souls in Perth, but first I need a bloody rest.
…and yes, it was revenge – again – for 1994.