Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2019.
It seemed quite apt that Chelsea Football Club should end its domestic travels in 2018/19 in a city in the East Midlands which is situated on the River Soar, with a population of 330,000, which hosts cricket, rugby and football teams and is home to the world’s largest crisp factory. Where else could we end up? Our visits to away cities throughout the league campaign, chronologically listed, mirrored the words of a certain song.
“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea: Huddersfield, Newcastle, London, Southampton, Burnley, London, Wolverhampton, Brighton, Watford, London, London, Bournemouth, Manchester, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Leicester.”
This season, although certainly not the most-loved, has zipped past at a ridiculous rate of knots. Our first game in the sun of West Yorkshire seemed only recent and it seemed implausible that this one was the final game of the season. But game thirty-eight it was. With qualification to next season’s Champions League assured, the game at Leicester City took on a much more relaxed air than we had expected. I collected PD at just after eight o’clock and LP at just after eight-thirty. It was a stunning Sunday morning; not a hint of a cloud, the sun out, and a fine chilled-out air of relaxed anticipation. After travels north, east, south and west, the league fixture list had saved me – possibly – the best to last.
A three-hour drive along the Fosse Way, the old Roman road – straight as a die, from Exeter to Lincoln – is always a treat for me. It didn’t let me down. I thoroughly enjoyed the undulating road as we swept past quintessentially English place names on our way through the Cotswolds.
Stanton St. Quentin, Malmesbury, Cirencester, Ampney Crucis, Bourton-on-the-Water, Upper Slaughter, Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh, Stretton-on-Fosse.
We had breakfasted at Melksham. We stopped for a drink in “The Star” at Moreton-in-Marsh. After heading off the Fosse, and after skirting the lost football city of Coventry, through Warwickshire and into Leicestershire, we stopped at another pub “The Hinckley Night” on the outskirts of the town with the same name.
It was quite apt that I had chosen the Fosse Way as our route. Way back in the mists of time, Leicester City were first known as Leicester Fosse.
At about 2pm, after our breaks for sustenance – we watched a little of the Old Firm game at the second pub – I was parked-up. There were clouds in the sky, and we all decided to take jackets “just in case.” Leicester City’s stadium is a mile to the north of the Leicestershire cricket ground and half a mile to the south of Leicester Tigers rugby stadium. While PD and LP popped inside for a top-up, I circumnavigated the stadium, which lies just a couple of hundred yards to the south of their old Filbert Street ground. This old stadium was ridiculously lop-sided with two large stands on adjacent sides and two minuscule ones opposite.
I took in the pre-match atmosphere. This was only my fifth visit to the new place. I was on holiday in the US at the time of our first visit in the FA Cup campaign of 2003/4 and I have missed the two recent cup fixtures too. It’s a relatively neat, yet overwhelmingly bland stadium, with no real distinguishing features. “King Power” is everywhere. On the rear of the north stand is a large image of their former chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who so sadly perished in the helicopter crash at the stadium last October.
I took the usual smattering of photographs. Their new shirt – laced with gold Adidas stripes rather than white – looked neat and tidy.
Inside the stadium, and into the concourse, I soon spotted a few mates.
A standard greeting was “going to Baku?”
I gulped down a soft-drink – no alcohol at all for me on this day – and met up with Alan and Gary in the seats. Bringing a jacket, I soon realised, was being over-cautious. The sun was relentless. I wasn’t the only person who had over-dressed. My jacket was placed on my seat.
The teams soon appeared.
A hand-written banner was held up in the away end:
EDEN HAZARD BLEEDS BLUE.
CHELSEA IS YOUR HOME.
We were in all yellow, and it brought back memories of our huge 3-1 win in 2014/15 when the Fabregas song stole the show. I remembered, too, how the Morata song was a strong memory of last season’s league game. With what has happened since – another song, another place – it is actually hard to believe that fans were singing the “y” word so forcefully and loudly only twenty months ago. Leicester City had reverted to an old-style blue / white / blue. It did look like a neat kit.
Zappacosta – Azpilicueta – Luiz – Alonso
Loftus-Cheek – Barkley
Pedro – Higuain – Willian
I had a look around at those in the away end. For some reason, there seemed to be a disproportionately high number of old replica shirts on show; many more than usual. I even spotted a Chelsea Collection number from 1986/87. I only saw two of the 2019/20 shirts.
Our game began.
And so did all the others.
Three games stole the show; Brighton vs. Manchester City, Liverpool vs. Wolves and Tottenham vs. Everton.
Ross Barkley went close within the first few minutes, after a good ball from Jorginho, but his shot hit Schmeichel. It was a chance that promised good things, but was a false dawn. The home fans to my left – I was only a matter of a few feet from them, were noisy as hell in that first part of the game. They sang of their former owner.
“Vichai had a dream.
To build our football team.
He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.
We play from the back.
We counter attack.
“Champions of England.”
You made us sing that.”
Indeed, they do counter-attack. And we smother the ball and pass to ourselves to oblivion. It was a massive difference in style between the two teams. Leicester broke at pace with Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans looking useful. We passed the ball here there and everywhere, but did not create too much.
Liverpool went, unsurprisingly, a goal up at Anfield.
Then, a score flash which made us groan.
Brighton had taken the lead at home to City. Then, just as I was passing on the news to a few close friends, a noticeable cheer in the Chelsea end. My spirits were raised.
City had equalised.
On the pitch, there was lots of square passes, with little quality penetration. The banter in the stands was proving to be more entertaining. The Leicester fans alongside us had sung about Eden Hazard leaving for Madrid.
We retorted “He’s won more than you.”
There were schoolyard taunts from them. Then came the killer blow, loud and with venom :
“Eden Hazard. He won it for you.”
Fair play, the Leicester lot clapped that. I winked at a few of them, a “thumbs up” here and there.
In the other game of interest, Tottenham had scored a very early goal against Everton. We needed to match that to finish above them. But we had to rely on the out-of-sorts Gonzalo Higuain. He slammed one shot wide of the post on the half-hour mark.
“COME ON CHELSEA.”
A Vardy header from a free-kick forced a save from Willy Caballero.
The bloke behind me then cheered me : “City have got a second.”
In the closing moments of the first-period, a slip from David Luiz allowed Vardy to race on but his ball through to Tielemans was overhit and the chance went begging.
Then, right before the whistle, Higuain missed from only a few yards out, his brain doing the waltz, his feet doing the samba.
Leicester City 0 Chelsea 0
Brighton 1 Manchester City 2
Liverpool 1 Wolves 0
Tottenham 1 Everton 0
Things were going our way in the title hunt, but not our way in our more local battle with Tottenham.
At the break, I bumped into Alex and Reece.
“Would you keep Sarri, Chris?”
Oh God. Me on the spot. Yes, I would.
“I have never warmed to the bloke. He is so one-dimensional. But has he got his own players to play his system? Not yet. I am full of doubt, but give him a full pre-season, give him time. We have the chance to finish top three. We have reached two cup finals. We would have taken that in August. In February we would have for sure.”
The lads were in agreement, with reservations.
“What do we know, we’re not experts.”
But – oh – the football has been so poor at times this season. It has proven one thing; Chelsea supporters want to be entertained. It is in our DNA.
The best I have known…
The second-half began and my forehead was starting to burn up. Parky arrived back from the bar.
“You haven’t missed anything, mate.”
If the first-half was tepid, the second-half was turgid. Chances – real gilt-edged chances – were so rare. A Leicester volley did not hit the target. Barkley shot wide.
Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – but without the movement from the players to allow the passes to hurt the tight Leicester defence. Elsewhere, goals were being scored. Manchester City went 3-1 up and eventually 4-1 up, and Liverpool scored a second. The title was City’s.
I hummed “Blue Moon” to myself.
The away end was loving it. We were loving it even more when Everton equalised. And then – to a chorus of “it’s happened again” – we heard that Everton had gone 2-1 up. This was turning into a fantastic afternoon despite the poor game taking place before my very eyes. The noise from the home fans had long since subsided.
There had been, on sixty minutes – and while a player was getting treatment – a minute of appreciation, with white scarves being held aloft by the Leicester supporters in memory of their former chairman. Many Chelsea fans joined in. Good stuff.
Eden Hazard replaced Willian.
His last game in England? Almost certainly.
Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.
Olivier Giroud replaced the lackluster and lazy Higuain.
Tottenham scored a second.
Our game petered out.
A Chelsea draw and a Tottenham draw.
“As you were.”
I did not wait around too long to make a move. I saw a few players walking over. There were several – eight? ten? – fans with cardboard signs asking for shirts. There were a few adults among them. One sign was eight-foot long.
I hate modern football.
Outside, I shook hands with many.
“Have a good summer.”
“See you in Baku.”
I don’t think we will sell remotely close to our allotted 5,800 in Azerbaijan. But at least I was cheered to speak to a few that were going. I just have this dread of Arsenal heavily outnumbering us. Of my closest one-hundred Chelsea mates, maybe only fifteen are going. It is a sign of the absurdity of UEFA choosing such a host city. But that is a story for another day.
Outside, I chatted briefly to Long Tall Pete and Liz. We all loved the fact that both Chelsea and Tottenham drew. It was pure comedy gold. All that Tottenham had to do, with hindsight, was to win a home game against Everton and the twats would have finished above us. To think that they were being touted as possible title contenders at Christmas…
Third in a two-horse race in 2015/16.
Fourth in a three-horse race in 2018/19.
“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”
Back in the car, it was time to drive south, and complete this story of our 2018/19 league campaign. Huge respect to PD for attending all thirty-eight games, I think for the second time in three seasons. I ended up missing two, the back-to-back games at Wolves and at home to City.
It has been, as the saying goes, emotional. But it has also been excruciating at times. There have only been rare games where I have been genuinely entertained. It has been a grueling slog. I have watched as supporters splinter into pro-Sarri and anti-Sarri factions. I have struggled with it all. I have struggled with this new type of football. I have become bored reading the never-ending appraisals of how – I hate this word, I rarely use it – “Sarribal” is meant to work.
I have lost count of the many deeply earnest and wordy explanations of “Sarribal” on social media that I have studied over the past year. All of a sudden “regista” is a buzz word. After virtually all of these appraisals, I have been so tempted to write “I bet you are fun at parties.” I see a worrying new sub-section of Chelsea followers who are not died-in-the-wool supporters in the most basic sense of the word, but critics and self-appointed “experts.”
Football, to me, is about passion, involvement, support, belligerence, suffering, humour, laughs, beers, a shared kin-ship, a devotion to the cause. And maybe some trophies thrown in for good measure.
OK, rant over, as the kids say.
We stopped at the pub in Hinckley for some nosebag. I continued enjoying the drive home, the spring colours fading as the sun dipped.
Cirencester, Malmesbury, Chippenham, Melksham, Bradford-on-Avon, Frome…home. Just in time to tune in to the highlights on “MOTD2.” Old habits die hard.
I will see some of you next season.
I will see some of you in Baku.
The Star, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire & The Hinckley Knight, Hinckley, Leicestershire.