Chelsea vs. Everton : 18 March 2023.
One of the markers that I use to gauge the progress of the year lies in the hedgerow opposite my house. A month or so ago, snowdrops appeared, blossomed and then slowly vanished. Recently, they shared the space with some newly-arrived daffodils which are now in full bloom. A few days ago, there were no more snowdrops left – only the stunning yellow blossoms remained – and in my eyes, winter had ended and spring was here.
Spring has been a winning season for us in fifteen of the past twenty-five years. It’s the business end of the football campaign. It’s when we, with amazing regularity, have gone to work.
But this one might be a little different. With domestic honours an impossibility in 2022/23, our only hope for silverware lies in Europe, but we were given a hideously difficult path to the final in Istanbul. First up, a tie with Real Madrid for the third season in a row. Unfortunately, I will only be able to attend the home leg as others in the office have already booked that Easter week as holiday. The same thing happened last year. It is grimly ironic that we chased a trip to the Bernabeu for years and have now drawn Real Madrid three times in a row, yet on all three occasions, I won’t be in attendance.
Bernabeu has become my new San Siro. One day I’ll get there.
Should we defeat Real Madrid, we then have to play Manchester City or Bayern Munich.
Yeah, I know.
With the kick-off for our home game with Everton at 5.30pm there was a relatively late start to the day. However, by 9.30am all of my fellow passengers had been collected and I then set off on our latest pilgrimage to London. At midday PD and Parky were settling down for an afternoon of lager and large laughs in “The Eight Bells” and I joined them at around 1.45pm. I had met up with my friend Bill from just outside Toronto at Stamford Bridge and by the time we arrived, our friends Diana and Ian, from Chicago, were already sat alongside PD, Parky and Salisbury Steve. Rene from Chicago, who I had not previously met, joined us too.
A table for eight at the Eight Bells.
We chatted about all sorts.
Bill told me that he felt that he already knew PD and Parky, through reading these rambles over the years, and was actually quite excited to be eventually meeting them for the first time. You can imagine my response.
I was amazed how easy it was for Diana – an Everton fan – to get a ticket for the away section. Her husband Ian and Bill would be sat together in the West Lower after I managed to secure tickets for them both via a reliable source.
Rene would be sat in the West Lower too.
The chat continued. I hadn’t been feeling great, though, for a few days. I had been suffering with a cold. As I chatted away to the friends from near and far I could feel my sore throat beginning again. I felt a bit groggy too. I hoped the players were in better nick than me.
I was able to personally thank Bill, at last, for helping me to obtain a ticket for the incredible Racing vs. Independiente derby that I witnessed over in Buenos Aires in February 2020. This feat of kindness came about when a friend of his, Victor – as featured a few weeks back – who he played football with in West Virginia a decade or so ago, was contacted and within an hour, I was sorted. I sent a photo of us to Victor, who lives just a few blocks from Enzo’s former home El Monumental, and eagerly await the opportunity to be able to return the flavour when Victor comes over to London in hopefully the near future.
Ironically, the bloke who I secured the two tickets from for Bill and Ian is currently in Buenos Aires himself on a football jolly.
It had been raining on the drive to London. Now, leaving the pub, the sun was out. However, walking up the steps to the platform at Putney Bridge, I suddenly felt knackered. At least the weather was mild. I was rough, but if it had been a freezing day, I would have felt even worse.
I reached my seat and still felt below par. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be strongly participating in this one.
Fofana – Kouilbaly – Badiashile
James – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell
Felix – Havertz – Pulisic
The presence of Christian Pulisic surprised me. Surely Mykhailo Mudryk needed games more.
So, the McNally Derby.
Chelsea in blue / blue / white.
Ian in the West Lower.
Everton in pink / grey / pink.
Diana in the Shed Upper.
The game began with us fizzing the ball around nicely. I must admit it did feel odd for us to be attacking the Matthew Harding in the first-half. A half volley from Enzo was blocked. Not long after, a Ben Chilwell free-kick was worked to Mateo Kovacic who unleashed a volley that everyone in our section of the stand thought was goal bound. It whizzed just past the far post.
We dominated the first ten minutes almost completely.
But the atmosphere wasn’t particularly loud, nor even above average.
There was a “if you know your history” from the Evertonians every few minutes but that was about it.
Kalidou Koulibaly over hit a diagonal out to Pulisic to such an extent that I wondered if he had put his boots on the wrong feet. At least Pulisic looked full of running. Enzo looks a proper footballer doesn’t he?
There was a swift break that flew through the Everton defence but we were unable to finish. Kai Havertz was starting to come to life. On twenty minutes, undoubtedly the best move of the match took place down below me with great passing involving Reece James, Enzo, Havertz and Joao Felix but a lunging Pulisic was just unable to toe-poke a finish past Jordan Pickford.
Within quick succession, we purred at two pieces of sublime skill from Felix. Firstly, he showed complete calm and unerring presence of mind to contort his body to keep the ball from going out for an Everton throw-in down to my right. Next, a phenomenal spin into space after a remarkable first touch that left his marker consulting a “London A to Z” for his current whereabouts.
It was Zola-esque.
On the half-hour, I heard The Shed for the first real time.
Next up, a nice move but a weak effort from Felix right at the ‘keeper. On forty minutes, a terrible waste of a cross from Pulisic. His star had faded already.
Things were a bit edgier now, and although Everton had hardly mustered more than a couple of attacks on our goal in the entire length of the first-half, the support around me definitely became more nervous. There was desperate defending at times – much of the defending involving Koulibaly by definition looks desperate – and we were grateful, I think, that the first-half was nearing completion. In the last few minutes of the half, the only sound to be heard in the Matthew Harding Upper was that of plastic seats being flipped back.
One last free-kick, well-worked, a dummy, something from the training ground, but the eventual shot from Enzo did not bother Pickford one iota.
At the break, I grimly predicted a 0-0 draw at full-time. It’s not that we had played badly – far from it – but our lack of firepower in and around the box was haunting us yet again. I was still feeling rough and had not really joined in too many songs and chants in support of the boys.
I sat myself down alongside PD – Alan was unable to make it, Clive had shifted over to sit with Gary – and prepared myself for another half of attrition against a bleak but regimented Sean Dyche team.
Straight away we were on the attack. A couple of crosses were zipped over from our left with Chilwell having a fine game, and Havertz should have buried the second one with a virtually free header.
Eight minutes into the second-period, Enzo floated the ball perfectly out to our left wing-back. A first-time cross from Chilwell was not cleared and the ball reached Felix slightly to the left of the penalty spot. I looked on and hoped for the best as he dug a shot out. Miraculously, the ball was struck with such accuracy that it slowly crept just inside the far post.
The Toffees were becoming unstuck, as was my recent score prediction.
Chelsea 1 Everton 0.
The players cuddled underneath the TV screen and in front of the away fans in the far corner of The Shed.
At last some noise.
“He came from Portugal.”
And then a rousing “Carefree” – seemingly – from all four stands.
I joined in, coughed and spluttered, and soon stopped.
Arguably the best move of the game soon followed when a cute back-heeled pass from Felix set up Pulisic in a nice little pocket of space. He lifted a fine shot into the goal – similar to the Havertz disallowed goal against Dortmund – but the flag was raised for an offside. Ian and Bill must have got a good view of that decision.
“We need a second, Paul.”
“A goal there would have killed them off.”
The prize for this win, with Fulham playing in the FA Cup this weekend, would be a step up to ninth position.
In the pub, Bill and I had laughed about the varying expectations of us Chelsea fans over the years.
“Back in 1983, we would have craved a safe ninth spot in the top division.”
Forty years ago, my mind was full of school discos and terrible “Mock A Level” results but it was also full of Chelsea’s nosedive down the Second Division table. The next game to be featured in my look back on the dreadful 1983/83 season, which took place on Saturday 12 March 1983, paired us against Carlisle United at Stamford Bridge. In the pre-amble in the match programme the game was described as a “six pointer as we skirt with the relegation zone.” I had predicted a bare 6,000 to show up at The Bridge. Both teams were mired in the bottom nine positions of the table with Chelsea just two points above the visitors. These were grave times.
The team’s two managers were both from the North-East; John Neal from Seaham in County Durham and Bob Stokoe from Hartlepool. Their two teams were now embroiled in a fight to avoid the drop. I mention these two fine fellows because, at the time, I was only seventeen and yet Stokoe and Neal, gentleman managers in every sense of the word, seemed decidedly ancient at fifty-two and fifty years of age.
And yet here I am, pushing fifty-eight.
There is no punchline here. And if there was, it wouldn’t be very funny.
At the time, Chelsea’s home record wasn’t too bad – 7 – 5 – 2, promotion form – but it was our away record – 2 – 3 – 11, relegation form – that was the root cause of our troubles.
A notable change saw our regular ‘keeper, the eighteen-year-old Steve Francis, being replaced by Bob Iles, a signing from non-league Weymouth a few years earlier. Despite going a goal down, Chelsea lead 2-1 at the break and we went on to win 4-2 The goal scorers were Paul Canoville with two, John Bumstead and Clive Walker. The gate was 6,667.
On the same day, Everton played at Old Trafford against Manchester United in front of a huge 58,198 gate in the FA Cup quarter finals with a Frank Stapleton goal giving the home team a narrow 1-0 win.
Back to 2023, and – I could hardly believe my ears – there was a strange sound emanating from the very upper echelons of the West Stand.
“Oh when the Blues…oh when the Blues…go steaming in…go steaming in.”
Just after the hour, Conor Gallagher replaced Pulisic.
There was another scooped ball from Enzo. He is quickly becoming my favourite in this new assortment of players that we now find ourselves supporting.
Everton attacked. There was a free-kick from their right that caused nervousness. Then from a corner on the far side, a ball was floated in and James Tarlowski rose above Wesley Fofana, otherwise enjoying a fine game, and headed the ball down towards Kepa. Abdoulaye Doucore nipped in to flick the ball in. Havertz hooked the ball away but it was a clear goal. The buggers were level and they celebrated wildly down below me.
We got going again. There was a clean break down our right and Fofana found James. His ball inside enabled Felix to continue the move. The ball was played back to James, entering the danger zone for Everton, and as he galloped on, he came crashing down after a coming together of bodies.
I felt so rough that I just sat in my seat.
PD was up celebrating and he looked down on me with a look of disbelief.
More hesitancy on the run up from Havertz.
…oh bloody hell man.
Thankfully the soft shoe shuffle sent Pickford to the left and the ball was struck high to the right.
Chelsea 2 Everton 1.
You would hope so, eh?
There was a loud and passionate chant for Gianluca Vialli and despite my sore throat, I had to show some respect and join in.
“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”
With around ten minutes to go, our manager could not resist some typical pottering.
Kovacic, forging a decent partnership with Enzo of late, was hoiked off in favour of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and I felt a little murmur of concern.
Everton came at us again. A mistake from Koulibaly thankfully went unpunished.
With five minutes to go, two more substitutions and my head struggled to fathom it all out.
Trevoh Chalobah for Forfana.
Carney Chukwuemeka for Felix.
PD, his hip hurting, and needing a long time to walk back to the car, set off.
“See you soon mate. Here are the car keys.”
The game was very almost over.
Then, an Everton break down our right and Doucoure played in Ellis Simms, who still had a lot to do. Sadly, he breezed past a sadly immobile Koulibaly and slotted home with far too much ease.
It was a terrible sucker punch.
The buggers celebrated in our faces again.
When Havertz had scored what we thought was our deserved winner, flags of many colours were waved enthusiastically in front of the West Lower and “equality” was observed on a few of them. Maybe our players had taken the word far too literally.
Five minutes of extra time were announced.
I shouted out : “Come on Chels, keep going.”
Almost immediately after, a bloke behind me repeated the exact same words.
“Come on Chels, keep going.”
It wasn’t to be. This was an evening when we flattered to deceive yet again. We will have to make it our new slogan.
Next up, a kick-off at the same time and in the same place, but not for a while.
In a fortnight we play Aston Villa at home.
See you there.