Tales From Under A Blue And Yellow Arch

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 27 February 2022.

My alarm sounded at 5.45am on the day of the League Cup Final. With all of the recent news from Ukraine that had sadly dominated everyone’s thoughts, I think it is safe to say that I was not wholly ready for the game at Wembley against Liverpool. I wasn’t particularly focussed. Far from it. The horrific scenes from Ukraine – and the national capital of Kiev specifically, a city that I had visited only three years ago with Chelsea – had dominated my thoughts for the previous few days. Football seemed a frivolous pursuit. In fact, my thoughts about the game were quite similar to those that I had felt for the 2015 League Cup Final against Tottenham. Just three days previously, I had lost my dear mother.

On both occasions, my mind was elsewhere, way elsewhere.

On that Sunday seven years ago, we travelled up to London by train. In 2022, we travelled up by car. I collected PD at 7am and Parky not long after. It would be our third drive to London in nine days, but only the second to involve a game.

Last Tuesday, the three of us had arrived in London at our usual parking space on Normand Road at around 5.45pm for the Champions League game against Lille, but PD – who had been feeling ropey during the last thirty-minutes of his drive to London – suddenly felt very ill indeed. He felt sick, experienced hot sweats but was also shaking with the cold too. Without too much thought, I knew we had to get him home. I jumped into the driving seat of his car and drove us back west. Our stay in London had lasted five minutes. Thankfully, PD improved a little on the drive home. By the time I eventually reached my house, the game at Stamford Bridge was approaching half-time. Our eventual two-nil win was met with a little indifference from me. I was more concerned about PD.

Bizarrely, this followed on from my “ghost” trip to London for the Plymouth Argyle game in which I didn’t go in. Two trips to SW6 but no football. My next game at Chelsea is against Newcastle United in a couple of weeks. I hope I make it to my seat.

We had decided to stay over in London. The Premier Inn near Putney Bridge would be our home for the Sunday night. From 10am until about 3pm, we knocked back some ciders and lagers in three local boozers; “The Eight Bells”, “The King’s Arms” and “The Golden Lion”. In the last pub, we bumped into the former Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson, himself a participant in a League Cup final for Chelsea against Stoke City, almost fifty years ago to the day.

We were adamant that we would arrive on time for this match at Wembley. However, the tube line between Putney Bridge and Earl’s Court wasn’t operating. Instead, we bit the bullet and cabbed it – past Stamford Bridge – to Marylebone Station. It was no surprise to see a few stragglers, a few familiar faces, outside the sports bar as we exited the taxi. We soon squeezed onto the 3.45pm train to Wembley Park. What should have been a twelve-minute journey, took nearer thirty. Our carriage was full of Chelsea, including a couple of lads from home. All eyes were on the clock. Suffice to say, we again struggled to get into Wembley on time.

The game was due to start at 4.30pm.

We made our way around to the eastern end. At least there was no queue and a minimal security check. On the way in, a Scouser in his twenties squeezed-in behind Parky as he scanned his ticket. Old habits die hard, I guess. I uttered two choice words to him as we all ascended the escalator.

Time was against me.

Race, race, race.

I managed to reach my seat while the players of both teams were taking the knee.

Despite my alarm waking me at 5.45am, I was in with just five seconds to spare.

Bloody hell.

We had heard that Romelu Lukaku wasn’t chosen in the starting eleven while we were on the train. No surprise really. It would have been my choice too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

I had consistently said to Chelsea mates, old school friends, work colleagues and the like that I expected us to lose this. Although our two league meetings were even games and hotly contested, it felt like we have gone off the boil of late. In fact, in Abu Dhabi I had prioritised the FIFA World Club Cup over this one. The Chelsea fans that I shared this with agreed with me.

The match began. Chelsea attacked the Scousers who were located in our usual end, an end that tends to be a “lucky” one for us.

The game was a cracker, eh?

On so many occasions, our recent Cup Final appearances at Wembley have tended to be dull affairs. But here was a contest that was at last an open and entertaining match for one and all.

It was a wild start to the game. Christian Pulisic was fed in by Dave. His snap shot was too close to the Liverpool ‘keeper with the unpronounceable first name. The chance went begging.

Liverpool then attacked at will. On one occasion, Mo Salah was closely marked by four Chelsea defenders. All eyes were on him, but elsewhere Liverpool were a threat.

It can be a sobering experience to watch Chelsea at Wembley. At home games, I have managed to get acclimatised to periods of quiet in The Sleepy Hollow. It’s not an ideal scenario but I’m used to it by now. Not many of the fifty or so spectators who sit near me get too involved. They have their moments, but these seem more fleeting as the years go by. At away games, it’s a different story. A far more uplifting experience. There’s nothing like cheering the team on in a packed and exuberant away section. At Wembley – and this has happened on far too many occasions for my liking – I soon get exasperated by those nearby who don’t support the team. Two lads in their early thirties alongside Parky were a case in point. No singing, no encouragement, no clapping. It was the same story with a couple in front. Nothing.

I couldn’t resist a loud “song sheets are available.”

Thankfully, a good group of singers to my left restored my faith in humanity.

Down below me, Mane headed well-wide from Alexander-Arnold. It felt like Liverpool were dominating much of the first twenty minutes, thirty minutes, but we managed the occasional counter-thrust. At no stage did I feel we would buckle to their attacks.

On the half-hour, we witnessed an amazing double-save from Edouard Mendy. First, a low shot from Keita was parried by a dive, and our ‘keeper then managed to reconfigure the neutrons, protons and electrons in his body to readjust his limbs and deflect Mane’s close-range effort over the bar. There were immediate memories of Jim Montgomery in the 1973 FA Cup Final.

It was a breath-taking piece of football.

The atmosphere, despite some good quality fare being played out on the Wembley pitch, was a little underwhelming. The Liverpool anthems “You’ll never walk alone” and “The fields of Anfield Road” occasionally boomed from the western end. “Carefree” was our main reply. In the big spaces of Wembley, it’s difficult to generate anything more intricate. The Mendy song, as an example, didn’t stand a chance.

Kai Havertz played in Pulisic, but his finish was again too close to Kelleher. A rising shot from Dave didn’t threaten the Irish ‘keeper either.

Chelsea were breaking nicely, with good mobility and a sense of freedom, and Havertz played in Mount just as the first-half was closing. His prod at goal was rather poor and the ball was sent wide. From a central position near the penalty spot, he really should have done better.

No goals at the break.

“Happy with that. Playing much better than I had predicted.”

The second-half began with Chelsea playing towards us in the eastern end of Wembley. A fantastic ball from Pulisic found the equally excellent run from Mount. The whole world seemed to stop. From inside the box, one on one with the ‘keeper, Mount struck.

The ball rebounded off the near post.

Fackinell.

Dave was injured, but on came Reece James to huge applause.

Another injury occurred when Keita and Trevoh Chalobah clashed in the middle of the pitch. From my vantage point high in the top tier, I had no real view of the incident. But Chalobah stayed down the longest.

The atmosphere was better now. Our end was showing some kind of unity.

“And it’s super Chelsea.”

A terrible clearance from Mendy allowed Liverpool to break in acres of space. The ball was worked to Salah who clipped the ball past the onrushing ‘keeper, trying to atone for his mistake. Thankfully, the reassuring figure of Thiago Silva appeared and hacked the ball away.

Not long after, a quickly-taken free-kick was pumped towards the area past our far post. A Liverpool header back across goal was headed in.

Ugh.

The Liverpool end roared.

There were red flares. They had scored the all-important first goal.

Our end was silent.

But then, after what seemed like an age, we saw that VAR was being called upon.

No goal.

Why? Was the first header from an offside position? Who knows.

A double substitution on seventy-three minutes.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Romelu Lukaku for Mount.

At around this time, the announcer at Wembley did something that I have never witnessed at a game in the UK before; he effectively did an in-game commercial for Carabao. Well, you can imagine my reaction.

Fackinell.

A cracking save by Mendy from Diaz drew more applause from our end. This was a really open game. Kante and Kovacic covered so much ground in our midfield. Alonso was always looking to stretch Liverpool’s right flank. Our defensive three rarely looked troubled. A ball was lobbed into the inside-left channel for Werner to attack. His fine cross was headed in by Havertz but – after a nano-second – we realised that an offside flag was raised.

Another magnificent save from Mendy kept us in it; a towering leap from Van Dijk was followed by a downward header but a stretching save kept it out.

Inside my head : “Mendy man of the match so far.”

Right at the death, Alonso did so well to shake off attention and rifle in a cross towards the near post but a shake of the leg from Lukaku and a flick was parried by Kelleher.

We had been standing for an hour and three quarters. We would be standing for thirty minutes more.

Extra time.

A magnificent ball in the channel from the excellent Chalobah found Lukaku, who advanced, stopped, settled himself and tucked the ball home.

We screamed. But then, the grim realisation that a flag had been waved.

Bollocks.

For Lukaku to score right in front of the Scousers would have been utterly perfect.

The night had fallen now, and the underside of the Wembley roof was picked out in yellow and blue in a show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The arch was yellow and blue too.

The game entered its final fifteen minutes.

My legs were aching and my throat was parched.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

A precise move involving Lukaku and Alonso in a tight area on our left allowed our much-maligned Spaniard to drill a pass to Havertz. His neat finish was soon flagged for offside too.

“God. Three times.”

Late on, Kepa replaced Mendy, a repeat of Belfast in August.

The game continued to its conclusion.

0-0.

The dreaded penalties. I didn’t like it that they were to be taken at their end.

“Munich was the other end though. And Belfast.”

“I fancy our chances here, Paul.”

There then ensued the best part of fifteen minutes of more drama. Pure drama? Maybe. They were all fantastic penalties to be honest. The agony continued after no misses in ten attempts. We went to sudden death. Kick after kick.

It went to 10-10.

Time for the two ‘keepers.

Alas, it was not to be.

Kelleher : hit.

Kepa : miss.

We fell silent once again.

The arch turned red.

We returned to Marylebone, then back to Fulham. Our last four domestic Cup Finals have ended in defeat now. I can hardly believe it.

Next up, Luton away in the cup that matters. I’ll see some of you there.