Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 2 May 2023.
My season-long companions were missing for the trip to North London and the away game at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. Over the weekend, PD collapsed twice while away at his static caravan and had been admitted on the Sunday to a hospital in Taunton. On the morning of the game he was fitted with a pacemaker. Best wishes for his speedy recovery flooded in from his many friends. On the Monday, I had heard from Parky who had been paying a visit to a hospital in Bath, undergoing tests for a very problematic knee. He too would be unable to go to the game at Arsenal.
At 2.15pm, I set off for London but I was not alone. Sir Les, from Melksham, was alongside me and although I missed the laughter from PD and Parky, the time soon passed on the trip up the M4. We parked up at Barons Court in readiness for a flit into the city on the Piccadilly Line. First, though, Sir Les got the coffees in at a little café near the train station. It was here, after a game at Arsenal in the April of 2012 – a 0-0 draw – that Parky and I chatted to Chelsea fan Lord Coe who had also been to the game, and who had uttered the immortal line :
“Arsenal are a bloody miserable bunch aren’t they?”
We split our trip to North London in two with a stop-off at Holborn where we spent half-an hour or so at “Shakespeare’s Head”, a pub that I had not frequented since the day of the calamitous 0-3 reverse at Arsenal in early 2016/17.
The place was full of the younger element and I only recognised a handful of people that I knew, adding further fuel to the belief that there is a way to circumnavigate the “virtual waiting room” for away tickets.
“These young’uns surely know of a way to beat the system.”
They were full of song though, a good sign. There was a nice reprise for the Fabregas song that I ironically heard for the very first time in the same pub before our game at Arsenal in April 2015 – another 0-0 draw – and the pub was rocking.
I would have given anything for a 0-0 this time.
This would undoubtedly be a tough match in an increasingly tough run-in of games. Clutching at straws, I tried to explain a positive spin from the build up to the game.
“We have had six months of being shite. They are experiencing it for the first time this season. Maybe they’ll find it more difficult to cope with this dip in form tonight than us.”
I wasn’t just clutching at straws; it felt like I was wrapping my arms around a large bale of straw and then hugging it to death.
The pub was awash with away day clobber; I spotted just one replica shirt among the hundreds of Chelsea fans, a Jesper Gronkjaer shirt from 2003/4.
A new song filled the air.
“We’re gonna have a party, we’re gonna have a party, we’re gonna have a party – when Arsenal fuck it up.”
Then another new-ish one.
“Todd Boehly went to France in a Lamborghini. Brought us back a centre-back, Benoit Badiashile.”
A ten-minute trip deposited us at Arsenal tube station and we began a slow walk to the away turnstiles. I stopped-off for a hot dog and onions that I liberally doused with ketchup and chilli sauce. A foreign Arsenal fan asked the server what he thought the score would be and he replied “3-1 to Arsenal” while I whispered “1-0 Chelsea” to him, but I knew damn well that it would never happen.
We were inside at about 7.30pm. Despite it feeling that Arsenal have had the upper hand over us of late, my last two visits to the Emirates both resulted in Chelsea wins; 2-1 under Frank Lampard in December 2019, 2-0 under Thomas Tuchel in August 2021.
Everyone I spoke to wasn’t confident.
With my good friend Alan also unable to make it alongside Gary, John and me for this game, I joked that we’d have more space than in the Chelsea defence. In the end, Clive left his seat towards the rear and sat alongside us. It was Clive’s first visit to the Emirates.
The stadium is a grand size and although its undulating top deck is steep, its big failing is the lower tier, relatively far from the pitch and so shallow. I was way down in row five and I knew my view would not be great apart from when the action was within twenty yards of me.
The team was flashed up and it looked like a 4/3/3.
Azpilicueta – Fofana – Silva – Chilwell
Kante – Enzo – Kovacic
Madueke – Aubameyang – Sterling
Seeing Dave in the starting eleven was a surprise. An even bigger surprise was the appearance of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Oh, and I don’t think many were too pleased with Raheem Sterling upfront either. But, this was Frank’s team and he would live or die with it. Ask a hundred different Chelsea fans about a starting eleven and the result would probably be a hundred different variations. But you have to wonder why Badiashile, looking so calm and equipped in his appearances thus far, has been dramatically overlooked for weeks, while the impish Mykhailo Mudryk was not chosen on a night when Arsenal would undoubtedly come at us, leaving space to exploit on the counter. Maybe that is where Noni Madueke came in, rewarded with his first start for ages.
Banners were draped from the balconies at both ends. A small section of youngsters, clad in black, have clearly aped the Holmesdale Road Ultras. They were stood at the front of the Clock End and started to wave a few flags, bless’em. They have called themselves, roll on drums, The Ashburton Army, though they resembled an errant boy scout group on this particular evening.
At kick-off, there were a few, but only a few, gaps in the away section. I saw “Gronkjaer” arrive. I only saw one other replica shirt on show in our end the entire night.
As always, we attacked the North Bank in the first-half. Or at least, that is what we tried to do. This wasn’t pretty stuff and although we enjoyed a fair proportion of the ball early on, it was the home team that looked more likely to score.
A mistake from the otherwise immediately impressive N’Golo Kante was not pounced upon by an Arsenal player and the ball was hacked away. Then, a head in the hands moment as Dave headed the ball back to Kepa with an Arsenal striker loitering dangerously. Our ‘keeper saved us.
The Chelsea choir were in good voice.
“Crying in Baku. We saw you crying in Baku.”
On the pitch, Kante was on fire, full of his usual vim and vigour, with his neat control and his ability to knit things together. With Madueke keen to run into spaces on the right, a partnership was forged with surprising ease.
On fourteen minutes, a cross from Granit Xhaka a few yards away on the Arsenal left resulted in a threatening header from Bukayo Saka, but Kepa rose well to save.
Three minutes later, another cross from the left, again from the boot of Xhaka.
Clive : “That’s too easy.”
Martin Odegaard, completely unmarked on the edge of our box, swept it in with a sweet first-time strike and the ball crashed in off the bar. Kepa’s gloves got a touch but the pace beat him. Thiago Silva looked horrified and gesticulated his disdain at what he had witnessed.
We struggled to get into the game but a fine raking pass from Kante on twenty-four minutes released Ben Chilwell in the inside-left channel. His shot across Aaron Ramsdale gave the ‘keeper an easy ball to swat away past the far post. It was our first shot on goal.
Elsewhere, Aubameyang had hardly touched the ball. Sterling was just as bad. At least Madueke was showing genuine pace and promise, testing his marker and looking dangerous.
Clive lambasted the home fans for nicking Liverpool’s “Allez Allez” chant.
I spotted that in order to combat the regular attacks down our right, Silva had swapped with Dave. Alas, on thirty-one minutes, a carbon-copy move involving Xhaka and Odegaard – inside the box this time – resulted in a second Arsenal goal.
Just four minutes later, a deep cross from the right from Ben White caused problems at the base of our far post and the ball was eventually stabbed home by Gabriel Jesus.
Here was a repeat of 0-3 first-half shellacking that we experienced in September 2016, but Frank Lampard – bless him – is no Antonio Conte and there was never likely to be a seismic shift in shape in the near future. By now, Silva had returned to the centre.
The home fans turned the screw.
“Super Frankie Lampard.”
We stood and took it. This was just horrible. I grimaced. I thought back to the drubbing at Elland Road in September, a very similar feeling. Sigh.
With two minutes to go to the break, Wesley Fofana pushed a finely-weighted ball through an open channel towards the waiting Aubameyang but his control was dismal and the chance was lost.
At half-time, a sizeable number of Chelsea supporters left.
This match report is not dedicated to them.
At the break, Lampard changed things a little.
Kai Havertz for the abysmal Aubameyang.
Yes, he had little service but he rarely moved into space, rarely tackled, rarely put players under pressure, rarely jumped for a high ball. Shocking.
Kepa was beaten to a cross soon into the second-half but Silva majestically cleared from the line. Our ‘keeper then redeemed himself with a series of fine saves, mainly down low, and as the second-half progressed we marginally improved.
For some undefinable reason, one song galvanised us all throughout the middle of the second-half…
“He comes from the Ivory Coast, Kalou, Kalou.
He don’t do coke like Adrian Mutu, Mutu.
He crossed the ball from the left.
It landed right on Riise’s head.
That’s why we love Salomon Kalou.”
It came out of nowhere, but kept us going…
On sixty-five minutes, the otherwise quiet – and that’s being polite – Mateo Kovacic spotted a central run from Madueke and picked him out with an exceptional ball. The young English striker prodded the ball, a bouncing bomb, past Ramsdale.
I had a moment of insanity.
“Half an hour to go. Maybe. Just maybe.”
Conor Gallagher for Sterling.
Another shocking showing from Sterling, often seen on this night in North London walking around the park as if he had been told by the club doctor to avoid undue stress and toil.
Mykhailo Mudryk for Enzo.
I like Enzo, but this was a really poor performance from him and his form has been off for a few weeks. It is, of course, his first few months in a new league and I am definitely prepared to give him time. That’s good of me, innit?
Mudryk especially looked “up for it” as soon as he came on and gave White and a few other defenders a merry dance down our left. Luckily, I was close enough to capture some of his captivating play. This was another fine cameo, on a par with his debut at Anfield. One dribble was pure theatre.
Two final substitutions.
Hakim Ziyech for Madueke.
Trevoh Chalobah for Fofana.
In fairness, although some miscreants fucked off at half-time, many more stayed on and the mood in the away end was not as sombre as it really should have been. I felt that the Arsenal crowd were quieter than they ought to have been too.
“…when Arsenal fuck it up.”
Sir Les walked over to watch the last few minutes of the game with me and, at the final whistle, we began the slow walk back to Highbury and Islington tube. The mood among the Arsenal fans was definitely subdued.
“…when Arsenal fuck it up.”
Our walk down the Holloway Road reminded me of my visit to the same street in the late winter of 1983 when I attended an open day – not an interview, oddly – at North London Poly. I remember the faculty buildings being dull and depressing and I thought “how Arsenal”. In that era, Arsenal was the dullest of clubs.
With a demoralising 0-3 defeat at bottom club Burnley on St. George’s Day 1983, Chelsea Football Club dropped into the relegation zone of the Second Division of the Football League for the first time that season. After a few days of contemplation came the gut-wrenching realisation that my beloved team would – very likely – be unable to avoid the drop and would be playing in the Third Division in 1983/84.
I was so certain of our fate that I even penned this – admittedly terrible – poem about our imminent demise.
The time has come I’m sad to say.
We ain’t no good and we’re on our way.
We’ve had some great times and we’ve had some bad.
Now we’re hopeless and I think you’re glad.
Speedie and Walker can’t score goals, Droy’s defence is slack.
And the famous royal blue has turned to fucking black.
The fans are loyal, there ain’t no doubt.
They’ll cheer the blues, they’ll swear, they’ll shout.
But they know they can’t reverse the slide.
When a prick like Alan Mayes is playing in the side.
So, we have to accept the news.
Look what’s happening to the Chelsea Blues.
We’re off to a land Down Under.
When will we be back I wonder?
Can you hear, can you hear that thunder?
You’d better run.
You’d better take cover.
At the arse-end of this horrible season, we had just four league games remaining.
30 April : Rotherham United (H)
2 May : Sheffield Wednesday (H)
7 May : Bolton Wanderers (A)
14 May : Middlesbrough (H)
Luckily, three games were at Stamford Bridge where our overall record was fair-to-middling, winning eight, drawing five and losing five. Sheffield Wednesday were a decent team, but not so the others, with all three right in the relegation mix. So, we had at least some chances to gain points and try to secure safety.
On the Friday before the home game with Rotherham, there was another local party and another dalliance with the elusive Rachel, but that evening did not end well either, despite early promising signs.
Maybe I should have read her my poem.
I had been hoping for a better conclusion because on the Sunday there was a sponsored walk from Frome to Wells and, by some odd twist, Rachel and I had been thrown together as two responsible sixth-formers to head up a group of younger kids on this twenty-two mile walk to raise funds for a charity.
On the Saturday, nursing feelings of regret and sadness at my inability to impress Rachel, I focussed on the radio and score updates coming out of Stamford Bridge. We went behind against Rotherham, Kevin Arnott the scorer, but Clive Walker equalised before half-time. There were no more goals in the second-half and so nothing much had really changed. We still remained third from bottom. The gate of 8,674 was par for the course.
On the walk to Wells the next day, Rachel and I took care of our brood for the first three miles but then went on our separate ways, both of us walking with different sets of mates. I have a very strong recollection of her looking gobsmacked when I told her that I had gone up to London to see Chelsea play Newcastle a fortnight earlier. I am sure she thought that I was deranged. It probably didn’t help my cause.
On the Bank Holiday Monday, I recuperated at home from the sponsored walk and again listened in to score updates from Stamford Bridge on the radio. It was a game that we had to win. I predicted a gate of 10,000. We went ahead via David Speedie in the first-half but perennial poacher Gary Bannister equalised for the visitors in the second-half. The gate was 10,462. The corresponding fixture the previous season drew a healthy 17,033. The shortfall was proof enough of our demise. My diary noted that we had crawled out of the relegation zone, leap-frogging Crystal Palace but they had two games in hand.
With just two games remaining for Chelsea, things still looked bleak. We had, remember, never played in the Third Division in the seventy-eight years of our existence. The season had turned into a real nightmare.
…to be honest, not unlike this one.
Sir Les and I took the Victoria Line to Green Park and then changed onto the Piccadilly to take us back to my waiting car at Barons Court. We reached there at 11pm and I eventually returned home at 1.30am.
Next up, an easier away day.
Somerset to Wiltshire to Dorset.
PD, bless him, will be sitting this one out, but Lord Parky and Sir Les will be going. Such is the lure of football, that even in our worst season for decades, there is still a clamour among my friends to get tickets for games, any games, and as I kept saying at the Arsenal match –
“It’s what we do.”
See you there.
Gallery 1 : Pre-Match
Gallery 2 : Match Action