Tales From The Return Of The Blades

Chelsea vs. Sheffield United : 31 August 2019.

Sheffield. My first memories of Sheffield football involved United and not Wednesday. Back in the early ‘seventies when I first became enchanted by football, and all that went with it, it was Sheffield United who were involved in the top flight while their bitter rivals and near neighbours Sheffield Wednesday were playing football in the old Second and Third Divisions.

Names such as Tony Currie, Trevor Hockey and Alan Woodward starred for the Blades in that period. They were a mid-table team and, at times, an entertaining team. In those days, Wednesday – even though they were the bigger of the city’s two clubs, with a few more trophies and a larger stadium – were off the radar for me. Wednesday’s plight mirrored that of Aston Villa who were also loitering in the middle two divisions in that era too.

Although Chelsea played Sheffield United at regular intervals in the ‘seventies, we did not meet throughout the ‘eighties. Instead, Wednesday became one of our biggest rivals in that decade. We met United a few times in the ‘nineties, but our last meeting was in the 2006/7 season.

In all of this time, I have only ever seen them play at Stamford Bridge on three occasions, and there has only ever been one trip for me to Bramall Lane.

The first time that I saw Chelsea play Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge came in season 1991/92 in the fifth round of the FA Cup. I remember that Daryl and I spotted David Lee and Robert Fleck enjoying pre-match pints in “The Stargazey” – alas no more – on the Fulham Road before the game. But don’t worry, they weren’t playing. We won a nondescript game 1-0 with a goal from Bobby Stuart. However, the most memorable part of the entire day took place in a pub in Camden several hours after the game had ended when myself and a couple of college mates, enjoying a quiet pint, noticed an influx of United’s lads – the Blades Business Crew – who were evidently playing cat and mouse with Chelsea and also Sheffield Wednesday who, remarkably, had been playing a league fixture at Highbury that very same day. Thankfully, we managed to sidestep any problems that arose that evening, albeit narrowly. The escapades that took place that night have been well documented elsewhere. It was, evidently, quite an evening.

The most famous Chelsea vs. Sheffield United game of the past three decades, however, was the final match of the 1993/94 season. Chelsea, under Glenn Hoddle, had struggled in the first part of the campaign, adapting to a more expansive and possession based style of football – ring any bells? – but had enjoyed a resurgence after Christmas. We had, monumentally, reached our first FA Cup Final since 1970 too. The home game against Sheffield United was to be our final preparation for the Cup Final. All of our focus was on that game. It was, however, to be the final day of The Shed. We had heard that the club was to demolish the famous old terracing during the summer in preparation for new developments.

I remember travelling up with Glenn, meeting up with Daryl and maybe a couple of others in “The Stargazey” but then deciding at the last minute to get tickets in the East Stand Upper rather than stand on The Shed for the last ever time. I remember that it was raining heavily and there would have been no guarantee of cover in The Shed. So, in one of my most shocking Chelsea decisions ever, I chose not to experience The Shed on its final day. I still shudder at this ludicrous choice twenty-five years on.

“What was I thinking?”

As the North Stand terrace had been demolished around Christmas 1993, the only place left to house the away fans was the East Upper. Lo and behold, Glenn and I found ourselves just a few rows in front of the large and boisterous Sheffield United contingent. The Blades were threatened with relegation, though from memory were unlikely to go down as they were several places above the drop zone. Other teams were in the mix too and it never really dawned on me that relegation would be an option for them. Famously, Everton were right in the mire. Jostein Flo – Tore Andre’s older brother – put the away team 1-0 up and the away fans bellowed “The Blades are staying up.” Jakob Kjeldberg equalised, but Glyn Hodges quickly restored the lead. This was looking good for Sheffield United.

“Now you’re gonna believe us…the Blades are staying up.”

But this was anything but good for us. We had lost 2-1 at home to Coventry City the previous Wednesday evening at Stamford Bridge – in front of a miserable 8,923, maybe everyone was saving their hard-earned for Wembley – and now we were losing to a poor team on the Saturday. It was hardly good preparation for Wembley. Then, miraculously Mark Stein – the season’s unlikely hero – scored in the seventy-fourth minute and again on ninety to give us a dramatic 3-2 victory. Elsewhere none other than Bobby Stuart – or Graham Stuart, now that he had left us – had scored for Everton to give them a late win at home to Wimbledon, and – much to my sadness – we soon realised that Mark Stein’s late winner, a poacher’s goal in front of The Shed, had relegated Sheffield United.

The away fans went deathly quiet.

It was a game that we wanted to win for sure, with Wembley coming up, but it was horrible to witness at close hand the absolute sadness being experienced by the Blades fans. Some younger fans were in tears.

It was the first time that they had been in the bottom three all season.

It was a bizarre experience. And, I’ll be honest, I really felt for them.

Glenn and I sloped away, quiet too.

My pre-match activity for the game in 2019/20 involved more history. I joined up with twelve other Chelsea supporters who had signed up for Rick Glanvill’s historical walk along the Fulham Road. Rick is the official club historian and is heavily involved at Chelsea, having written the official book celebrating our centenary in 2005 – what timing, what a year – and writes for the match programme to this day.

From 11pm to 12.30pm, Rick effortlessly guided us from the Fulham Town Hall to Stamford Bridge – the bridge, not the stadium – and from 1905 (and before) to 2019. It was a thoroughly entertaining ride through our history, with fascinating insights into key moments in our formation and subsequent decades. It’s probably best that I don’t report too much detail of the content and undermine Rick’s further tours, suffice to say that I heartily recommend them to anyone with a passion, like me, for social history, geography, football and a good yarn.

Rick painted a wonderful picture of the area before Chelsea Football Club was formed. And there were whimsical stories about the founding fathers, music hall performers, the club’s first official photographer, music studios, a local lad who became one of the first ball boys and the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945.

It was right up my street, or rather Fulham Road.

One of the same I guess.

I met up with the lads at “Simmons” and it was a real pleasure to see Dave once again. Dave now lives in the South of France with his good lady and their young lad – who, with perfect timing – was born a couple of hours before we won the league at West Brom in 2017. And no, Dave’s son’s name isn’t called Michy.

We last saw Dave on a good old pub crawl around the West End before the debacle against Tottenham at Wembley last season.

It was a joy to see him again.

One of our party was missing however, and it felt odd. Parky was recuperating in a Bath hospital after his hip operation on Thursday. After work on Friday, PD and I had visited him and he was doing well, and in fine form.

This is code for “we couldn’t shut him up.”

With or without Parky, everyone was having a blast. I met up with a few of the usual suspects for the first time of the season in “Simmons” and it felt great. It is a very popular little bar among people I know.

To tie things up nicely with Rick’s pre-game tour, the son of our former chairman Brian Mears was in attendance.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Dave, and the fifteen-minute journey was riddled with ridiculous laughter.

Good times.

On the forecourt, I tussled with my conscience and for the first time ever, I chose not to buy a home programme. I have tended to only flick through them of late, even though they are a good read, but I have crossed the Rubicon. I gave up buying away ones a good few years ago. I haven’t bought the 2018 FA Cup Final programme, nor the 2019 Europa League programme.

There is only so much space in my house for Chelsea paraphernalia.

Ugh.

Once inside Stamford Bridge, I had a few moments to settle and prepare myself for the game, which until then, had hardly entered my thoughts.

I looked over at the away section and wondered where two supporters were located.

On the Friday, I had received a lovely message from my friend Simon, who is a Sheffield United supporter, and who I have known for over three decades. On my only visit to Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006, I met up with him at his house and we drove in together. It summed up his take on the current regime, and really brought home how lucky we have been as Chelsea supporters over the last twenty-five years.

“Big match for us tomorrow. Unfortunately, I won’t be there. My brother Chris and nephew Archie will. Either me or Chris need to be around for Mum so it’s difficult for us to go on away trips together. As for the Blades, most fans are in agreement that these last few seasons have been the best ever, certainly in terms of the quality of football and also that Chris Wilder is our greatest ever manager. The season before Wilder was appointed 2015/16 was awful, I remember watching us lose consecutive home games to Bury and Colchester and we finished mid-table League 1. A couple of players from that season are still involved (Billy Sharp and Chris Basham). Before that we had all the Ched Evans stuff, supporters were falling out with each other and it really felt like we’d hit rock bottom. I remember seeing us go down to the old Div 4 in 1981 but this somehow felt much worse. So we’ve come a long way in a short period of time and the pride is back in the club. We’ve made a good start this season and so will be interesting to see how we go tomorrow. Hope you are well Chris and maybe we can meet up at Bramall Lane later on this season.

Best wishes, Simon.”

Since that match in 1994, the two clubs really have enjoyed mixed fortunes, eh?

The place slowly filled up, everyone took their seats. The away team were to be backed by a full three thousand. There weren’t too many away shirts dotted around the away section. I had walked past three Sheffield United fans a couple of hours earlier, each wearing the striped home shirt, looking like they had been refused entry from one pub and were on the search for another. They looked so forlorn. Neutral colours would have at least helped. Some people never learn.

The team was announced and – sadly – N’Golo Kante was missing. No place for Toni Rudiger either, still not match fit. It was a surprise that Tomori started, only his second game for us. Mason Mount was out wide again. Another start for Pulisic. Tammy leading the line.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pulisic – Barkley – Mount

Abraham

I was a little disappointed that Sheffield United didn’t show up in their famous red and white stripes. Instead, they chose all white with red socks. Their most famous kit of all was the admiral one from 1976, with black edging on the red stripes. I mention this as it is a kit that my home village side Mells & Vobster United  – or at least the first team, the team I never quite managed to play for – used to wear in that same period too.

I can still see Alan Ford turning away, arm raised, after scoring a belting free-kick in around 1977 wearing the Sheffield United shirt.

There were a few banners adorning the away section.

One, half out of view – said “Hated, Adored” and I presumed that the part of the banner out of view said “Never Ignored.”

Stolen from Manchester United.

Must do better.

The game began, and the atmosphere was so-so. But we began well, with almost total domination of possession. It wasn’t as good a start as against Leicester City, but it wasn’t bad. A few chances came and went. There was an early repetition of the move which lead to our first goal against Norwich City with Christian Pulisic knocking the ball out to an overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta, but the firm cross evaded both the on-rushing Ross Barkley and Tammy Abraham. On twenty minutes, a very similar move earned dividends. Barkley won the ball, moved it to Pulisic and then it was played to Dave, who was deeper than before. His cross was headed down and towards goal by Tammy, and the Sheffield United ‘keeper Dean Henderson had great difficulty in gathering the ball. Under pressure from Pulisic, he could only knock it straight into the path of our young striker.

Playing for Bristol City a few seasons back, Abraham was known as “Tammy Tap In” and he lived up to his reputation.

Chelsea 1 Sheffield United 0.

GET IN.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Tammy’s celebratory run and slide in front of the away fans was just joyous. It was, of course, his first goal at Stamford Bridge.

Beautiful.

We continued to excel.

Ross Barkley was heavily involved in many of our attacks, ably supported by the passing of Jorginho and the runs into space of Kovacic, but very often Barkley simply moved the ball on rather than played an incisive ball into danger. I thought Mason Mount was quiet, and Pulisic struggled to get involved. Kovacic flashed a firm shot past the far post. Sheffield United themselves had a couple of quarter-chances. A quick turn and cross from Chris Basham almost resulted in a stooping headed goal from Callum Robinson

A meek shot into the wall from Ross Barkley free-kick summed up his half.

One moment frustrated us all. The fall fell to Jorginho, centrally positioned and within sight of the goal. Rather than look to fire an effort in on goal, he lofted a pass over the heads of everyone, including the intended Tammy, and the attack died. I commented to the lads that there just must have been something in Jorginho’s footballing DNA – after years of behaviour-inducing drills – to stop him from shooting.

The away fans were relatively quiet all first-half.

Alan and I spent a few moments chatting about the wonderful Ronnie Barker in “Porridge” and we quoted some pearls.

“What, from here?”

“With these feet?”

“It was a green one.”

“He’s doing rather well.”

On the pitch, we were in command, but drifting a little, hence the brief comedic diversion.

Thankfully, with two minutes to go before the break, Jorginho lofted another high ball towards the box and Tammy pounced after a blunder from two of United’s three centre-backs, and picked up a loose ball. He found space well, picked his spot and although the ‘keeper touched the ball, the pace beat him. It crept in, lovely stuff.

Chelsea 2 Sheffield United 0.

“That’s all Tammy has to do, just keep hitting the corners.”

I captured his run and jump on film too.

“Four goals in three starts – love it.”

And all was well with the world at half-time. Dave came over to join us, we took some photos, happy days indeed.

Sadly, the second-half began awfully, and it brought back shocking memories of last season. With less than a minute played, they moved the ball far too easily down our right flank. Enda Stephens wriggled past a non-existent challenge from Dave, and his pacey low cross was flicked home by Robinson. The away end erupted. They were back in it.

We sighed.

The away fans were now ignited and there was a slight whiff of “A gallon of Magnet”, one of the best football songs ever.

“You fill up my senses
Like a gallon of Magnet.
Like a packet of Woodbines.
Like a good pinch of snuff.
Like a night out in Sheffield.
Like a greasy Chip Butty.
Like Sheffield United,
Come fill me again.”

The sky turned darker, to match the mood, and there was a surreal quality of light as rain fell.

We countered relatively quickly. Some gorgeous control from Dave and an intelligent ball in to the box – the epitome of the word “dink” – resulted in a side-footed stab at goal from Tammy that was clawed away by Henderson, down low, and close to him. It was a brilliant save.

Sadly, this was a very rare attack for us in the second-half. The away team sensed that confidence was seeping out of every pore of our being and grabbed hold of the game. They moved the ball well, and we lacked leadership. We looked a poor team suddenly. A couple of chances were exchanged. On the hour, Barkley was replaced by Willian, and we hoped for a far better performance from the Brazilian than against Leicester City. Mount switched inside, surely a better position for him.

Our attacking play was immediately bolstered by a couple of energetic runs from Willian, but that didn’t last. Sheffield United looked the more likely to score and the atmosphere within the stadium became rather tetchy. A lone chance fell to Kurt Zouma but he headed over from a corner. I can rarely remember a half of football which included so many mis-placed passes from so many different players. It was a shock to the system; a visual clue that confidence was low.

Michy Batshuayi replaced the impressive Kovacic, and Billy Gilmour – surprisingly – replaced Tammy Abraham.

I caught Gilmour’s first touch on his debut; a header.

Our attacks stumbled along though. It wasn’t cohesive. I didn’t like the way sections of the crowd grew noisily restless with every miss-placed pass. Rather than a cheer of encouragement there tended to be noisy swearing.

Not good.

Not good at all.

We know our role this season, don’t we?

Shouldn’t we be supporting the lads a little better?

I think so.

Mount went close with a volley. At The Shed End, a timely block from Tomori and we reacted with our heads in our hands.

Fackinell.

Sadly, sadly, sadly the game ended as we had perhaps feared.

Another raid down our right, another “after you Claude” moment, and another whipped-in cross. I could not discern who managed to get the final touch – it was evidently Kurt Zouma – but the ball flashed high into our goal.

This time, the away fans really exploded.

Bollocks.

Another second-half meltdown had left us all rather shell-shocked. As I made my way out, alongside fellow fans who were pursing lips, shaking heads and muttering, I looked up and saw the away supporters enjoying their moment.

Remembering 1994, I clapped too and whispered “well played Sheffield United.”

There was the usual “Bramber Road to Barons Court Post Mortem” in the car, and we honestly wondered if the two late substitutions were wise, but I then reminded ourselves that Frank Lampard OBE has forgotten more about football than the three of us combined will ever ever know, so we quickly shut the fuck up.

To cheer me a little, I heard that my local team Frome Town had gone top of their division with a fourth win out of four, and to cheer us all up, we had heard that Parky was home from hospital.

It was turning into a good day after all.

Chelsea under Frank Lampard is clearly a work in progress. I am not going to waste any time, effort and words on those in our midst who are unnecessarily negative.

Let’s all move on positively.

I will see some of you at Molineux.

 

Tales From New Year’s Eve

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 31 December 2016.

On the last day of 2016, Chelsea Football Club were going for our thirteenth consecutive league win. A run that began way back on the first day of October at Hull City has surprised, entertained and thrilled us along the way, and now the red-and-white striped shirts of Stoke City were our next opponents. A game on New Year’s Eve is a relatively rare event. In over forty years of going to games at Chelsea, this would only be my fourth such game. All of these have been at Stamford Bridge. The last one was a dreadful 1-3 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa in 2011.

It was a miserable end to that particular year. Who could have possibly guessed how that 2011/2012 season would end?

None of us.

The pre-match routine for the Stoke City game mirrored that of the Boxing Day match with Bournemouth. Parky, Glenn, PD and myself. Me driving. Pints in “The Chelsea Pensioner” and then outside “The Fox & Pheasant.” Banter. Drinks. Songs. Laughs along the way with pals from both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas there had been clear, crisp skies on Boxing Day, here was a more typical winter’s day in London; dampness, greyness and cloying fog. It was as if it was made to order for the visiting Americans.

As for the team, we knew that Pedro would be out, and that Kante and Costa would undoubtedly return. We pondered about Fabregas. Antonio Conte decided to retain him.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso.

Willian – Costa – Hazard.

The tried and tested 3-4-3. It’s hard to believe that we toyed with playing a 4-4-2 variant at the start of the season. This 3-4-3 seems to have been with us forever such is how natural it all seems.

Unsurprisingly, Stoke City brought only 1,500 down from The Potteries. Neil Barnett made a point of welcoming back both Mark Hughes and Eddie Niedzwiecki, players from two of the most-loved Chelsea seasons of them all (Sparky in 1996/1997 and Eddie in 1983/1984). There was also a mention for former blue Glen Johnson and former Matthew Harding season-ticket holder Peter Crouch. There was a rare start for Crouch. With him alongside the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri, it brought back memories of a game decades ago when Micky Droy stood alongside Ian Britton for photographic effect.

Shaqiri – so small that his arse rubs out his footprints – looks out of place on the pitch. But he is a lovely footballer. Elsewhere in the Stoke team were familiar foes Charlie Adam, Joe Allen and Ryan Shawcross.

And Stoke certainly had more of the game in the first-half, at least to my eyes. Their biggest threat came via corners and free-kicks, and we had to be at our best to keep them at bay. With Eden Hazard relatively quiet, our play lacked a little sparkle. We had a few pot-shots at goal, but nothing of note. The stadium needed wakening. It was pretty quiet.

I loved the way that David Luiz, charging out of defence to cut out a lofted ball, was able to replicate a John Terry trademark chest pass. The ball landed right at the feet of a team mate. Lovely stuff.

Stoke still caused us problems, with Shaqiri and Adam going close. Our play was a little slower than usual. Where there had been players taking a couple of touches, now the same players were taking extra touches. It slowed our play down. Victor Moses was often alone out on the right wing in acres of space. Our play tended to develop down our left. It often felt that Moses’ role was just to stretch the Stoke defence out, regardless of whether or not he received the ball. He must’ve felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

Just after half-an-hour, Cesc Fabregas thumped a corner into the box and Gary Cahill was able to jump high and head in. It was, ironically, a goal more synonymous with that of our visitors.

1-0, phew.

Mark Stein was introduced to the crowd at the break, and he was warmly applauded by both sets of fans, having played for both teams in his career. In the match programme, there was a feature on “Steino” and he recollected the red-hot atmosphere at Stamford Bridge for our famous victory against Bruges in 1995. Never had 28,000 – our then capacity – made so much noise at The Bridge.

There was also a simply fantastic photograph of Stoke City’s visit to Stamford Bridge in 1963, featuring 48 year old Stanley Matthews and 18 year old Ron Harris. The gate? Only 66,199. Another Second Division attendance too.

File under “Debunking The Chelsea Were Never A Big Club Theory.”

The second-half began, and in the most dramatic of ways. A ball was pumped into our box, that man Crouch headed down, and Martins Indi somehow managed to react the quickest of all, stabbing home despite being surrounded by three or four Chelsea players. Now that was a typical Stoke City goal.

1-1.

Game on.

At last the Chelsea crowd got involved, realising that the team needed a helping hand. Shots started to pepper the Stoke City goal.

As the ball was worked out to Victor Moses, I found myself commentating.

“Go on Victor, get past him, get behind him my son, whip it in.”

Whip it in he did. Hazard cushioned the ball for Willian to hit home.

2-1, phew.

Win thirteen?

Steady on.

Five minutes later, the stubborn visitors caused us problems in our box, and when the ball was played out to Diouf, I immediately sensed fear. Lo and behold, the ball was whipped into the box and Peter Crouch stabbed it home.

2-2, bollocks.

This was breathless stuff now, and within a minute, Cesc Fabregas played in Willian with a beautiful ball, and our Brazilian livewire ruthlessly blasted high past Grant in the Stoke goal. He again ran over to the far corner to celebrate with fans and team mates. Celebrations were equally manic in my little section of the stadium.

Smiling faces, pulses racing, eyes wide in ecstasy, fists pumping, shouts of joy.

I had to grab on a nearby barrier.

“Bloody hell, felt myself going there.”

Ha.

3-2, back on top once more.

Antonio Conte replaced Fabregas with Nemanja Matic, with a nod to tightening things, but the game still continued to entertain. A super break involving the twin threats of Willian and Hazard allowed Diego Costa a clear shot on goal, but he surprisingly blasted over. It had been another wonderful performance from Diego; chasing lost causes, hounding defenders, holding off challenges, touching the ball to team mates, leading the line.

Branislav Ivanovic replaced Victor Moses, who had been much more involved in the second-half. Nathaniel Chalobah took over from Willian.

There was still time for one last hurrah. A seemingly innocuous throw-in was chased down by Diego Costa, who caused mayhem for Shawcross and Martins Indi. Showing fantastic strength, he held off a challenge, and slammed the ball into the net with a left-footed swipe. It was a goal of his own making. It was all his.

It was a pure unadulterated Diegoal.

Now it was his turn to fist pump, and for his eyes to explode with joy. He ran towards the corner flag and replicated Pedro’s Kung Fu kick from Boxing Day before being mobbed by all of his nine other outfield players. It was a lovely picture of solidarity and togetherness.

4-2, just beautiful.

So, this amazing run continues.

Thirteen.

Just magnificent.

At the half-way stage of the season, everything is looking rosy.

1. Chelsea – 49 points.

2. Liverpool – 43 points.

3. Arsenal – 40 points.

4. Tottenham Hotspur – 39 points.

5. Manchester City – 39 points.

6. Manchester United – 36 points.

There is then a ridiculous nine point gap to Everton, but then the other thirteen clubs are differentiated by just fifteen points. The numbers do not lie. It’s looking good, but we are only halfway to paradise.

The Chuckle Bus returned back to the shires of Wiltshire and Somerset. The four of us all had New Year’s Eve drinking to be done. My evening was spent at Frome Town Football Club, where I saw my first-ever football match way back in the autumn of 1970, a full four years before my first Chelsea game. It seemed appropriate. It was a great night and it ended a roller-coaster year for me, for us all.

As 2017 begins, there are two eagerly-awaited away games to attend. On Monday, Frome Town play at local rivals Chippenham Town, and then on Wednesday – on a different scale this one – Chelsea visit the N17 badlands to play Tottenham. They will be up for revenge after our last two games – remember them, ha? – but I’d like to think that we have a little revenge in store too.

Remember that 5-3 defeat on the very first day of 2015?

Yes, so do I.

Let’s go to work.

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