Tales From The Last Game

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 22 October 2022.

The busy month of October was continuing for Chelsea Football Club. The tea-time kick-off with Manchester United at Stamford Bridge would be match number seven with the two away games at Salzburg and Brighton to follow. On a personal level, this would be my seventy-ninth Chelsea game against Manchester United in total. I have seen Chelsea play against no other team more. It would also be the forty-third time that I would see us play Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. It seems relevant, acknowledging United’s rivalry with Liverpool, that this is the most games that I have seen against one team at home apart from Liverpool who weigh in with forty-seven games. In the grand total league table, Liverpool are right behind United in second place.

  1. Manchester United 79
  2. Liverpool 78
  3. Arsenal 69
  4. Tottenham 67
  5. Newcastle United 53

By the end of this season, there might well be a tie at the top.

This would be Chelsea match 1,367 for me.

Of these, 11.5% will have been against either Manchester United or Liverpool.

One in ten games.

No wonder they say familiarity breeds contempt.

I saw that on the morning of the game, Mark Worrall said on “Facebook” that he rates the visit of Manchester United as his favourite home game. For me, it’s Tottenham, but I can understand why Mark named United. The aura surrounding the club has existed for decades and there is always a special buzz when United are in town. Due to the sheer number of their away support, especially when travelling en masse to away games became more popular in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, there was no club that brought more away fans than Manchester United on their travels around the Football League. Stamford Bridge, surely, must have been a favourite destination for them. In those days, there was no rigid segregation at games and the Bridge was no different. But in those times, with the capacity at around the 60,000 figure, that large north terrace alone could hold fifteen thousand or more with ease. And on the occasions of United’s visit to SW6, let’s not kid ourselves, at times more than 15,000 United fans would flow through the turnstiles on the Fulham Road.

The first time that I remember seeing a Chelsea vs. Manchester United match on TV – on highlights, for those foreign readers, let’s not forget that the first live league football on TV in England only began in 1983 – was the last game of the 1972/73 season. I have written about this game before here – Bobby Charlton’s last-ever game for United, the comical knock-in from Peter Osgood at the Shed End, his shrug of the shoulders on his knees in the goalmouth – but it is worth telling again that at a three-sided Stamford Bridge, the gate was 44,000 (I didn’t have to look that up) and there must have been the best part of 20,000 United supporters inside.

The “Red Army” as they were known in the ‘seventies would flock to all of their away games in a way that no other club has done before or since. In those days of pay-on-the-gate admission and no segregation – certain ends were only suggested for fans to segregate, hence the rather loose adherence to this policy by the hooligan element of many teams – clubs could, and would, flood games depending on the circumstances.

I remember Liverpool flooding Molyneux in 1976 with 20.000 supporters. And it has come to light that in 1977, Chelsea were given the home end at Nottingham Forest by the police simply because enough had congregated there early in the afternoon. That must still hurt the Forest fans; we will find out, perhaps, on New Year’s Eve.

But no team did all this as consistently as United.

Much later, in the ‘nineties, when Wimbledon played at Selhurst Park, they attracted very low crowds, but this ground in south London became the favourite of Manchester United, and no-doubt its much-lampooned Home Counties support, as it was easy for them to access tickets in all areas of the stadium, year on year. It became the ‘nineties equivalent of Stamford Bridge in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies.

For example, in 1993/94 Wimbledon averaged 10,474, but the Manchester United game drew a massive 28,553. The following season, the figures were 13,246 and 25,380. It was a feature of London football at the time. No other London stadium had such a laissez-fare attitude to away support, nor the room anyway. By then, segregation was rife and away “takes” greatly diminished.

Stamford Bridge was still an exception though. And in the first few games of 1993/94, although the gate was 37,000 – ditto – for the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game, I would suggest that around 12,000 away fans were present. I can well remember getting into The Shed early and the north terrace was soon packed. I remember many United fans – no colours – being led out of The Shed for their own safety and escorted up to the north stand by the police. I never did find out how this procedure manifested itself. Was it simply a case of handfuls of United fans presenting themselves to stewards and pleading to be let into the north stand? I don’t know.

It was rather ignominious, being a Chelsea fan, seeing our ground swamped with United. In those days, football was about “how many did we take?” just as much as “how did we get on?” or “how did we play?”

I miss those days. You might have guessed.

The north stand probably held around 10,000 in those times. And the United presence that day was huge. There is no doubt that in addition to those United fans in the sweeping north terrace, there must have been a couple of thousand in the home seats and a residual amount in The Shed. I was stood next to one; my mate’s young brother who used to accompany me to a few Chelsea versus United games at the time. However, we will never know since United never scored.

In those days, it always pained me to see hundreds of United fans react to their team scoring in both stands; more so the East Stand to be fair, the nutters at Chelsea tended to go in the West Stand and only a brave away fan would sit there with the risk of getting slapped.

All of this is a very long way from 2022/23 where the police reduced the United away following from 3,000 to 2,400, though I am not sure why. I know that United have received many complaints over recent seasons for “consistent standing” at away games, but their spot in The Shed for this game was a “safe standing” zone anyway. Was it because the London Old Bill were admitting that they were unable to control three thousand? Who knows? It’s all very odd indeed. This move was very poorly received by the United away support, and quite rightly too.

I was in the stadium very early for this game. It had been a typical pre-match; a rush-around at the stadium and then to the pub with friends from near – Parky and Paul, Steve from Salisbury – and far – Ben and Mike from Boston, Bank from Bangkok, Mark from Spain, Luca and Robbie from The Netherlands, Andy and Josh from Orange County.

I was inside as early as 4.40pm. I soon decided to take a smattering of photographs of a virtually empty Stamford Bridge. Only a couple of thousand spectators, at most, were inside. As such, there was no atmosphere building anywhere. At the same comparative time at the 1993 game – effectively 2.10pm – the place would have been packed with the buzz building nicely.

Pre-match tunes, pre-match chants, pre-match songs, the gentle swell in numbers, the jostling for position, the anticipation rising.

I miss those days.

In 2022, there was music playing but elsewhere there was complete silence.

I took some photos from different angles of the same old features. I hope that you like them.

I soon spotted on my approach earlier in the day, out on the forecourt, there were rainbow-themed Chelsea kits welcoming supporters to a game when there was to be a nod towards equality in the game via the “Rainbow Laces” campaign. Out on the pitch, a banner with the Chelsea lion multi-coloured.

I wondered if the United support, vociferous with their “Chelsea Rent Boys” chants the past decade or more, would tone it down. I doubted it.

The minutes ticked-by. I was aware that I wasn’t as “up” for this as I should have been. I was a little wary of United’s recent run of form and of our two recent away, middling at best, performances. I think these thoughts dampened my spirits.

In the pub and elsewhere not only had I predicted a “0-0” but I would have been happy with a “0-0” too.

This was hardly a well-established United team. I wasn’t in awe of it. It was a mere shadow of former sides. And I thought the same of us really; my “tribute act” comment in the last episode, a throw-away line maybe, seemed to hit the spot.

The pre-match had no gravitas. There was no real thrill of what the evening would bring. It had the feel of a “run of the mill” game involving teams on the cusp of something better.

Graham Potter chose this starting eleven.

Kepa

Calobah – Silva – Cucarella

Dave – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – Chilwell

Mount – Aubameyang – Sterling

The United team? Who cared. I didn’t. But it looked like the retirement home for former Real Madrid players and that’s without “you-know-who” in the picture.

There was light drizzle just before the pre-match routines kicked in. It seemed to dampen the atmosphere further.

Before the entrance of the teams, a Matthew Harding flag travelled from east to west in the lower tier of the stand named after him. I have scanned the match programme four times now and I am yet to spot a mention of the death of our former director who was killed twenty-six years ago to the very day.

The fans in our stand, and those elsewhere, demand better.

Flames in front of the East Stand started flying up into the air – we had this American-style shite before Todd Boehly arrived and I guess we will have it after too – but at least my camera appreciated the reflections of the amber flames in the now sodden “Rainbow” banner on the centre-circle.

The game began.

I don’t always make notes on my ‘phone at every game, but on this occasion, I decided to. I suspect that the paucity of excitement on the pitch in the first-half and then throughout the game allowed me time to do so.

8 minutes.

Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang –  I conjured up a short-hand of “pea” a few games back then completely forgot what it meant when I studied my notes later – was away but his effort was neither a shot nor a cross.

I wondered if his “peashooter” days were over.

9 minutes.

After Jorginho was beaten to a ball, and he tried to block, his body shape reminded me of the wonderful phrase from an ‘eighties fanzine that was used to illustrate a similarly derided midfielder, Darren Wood. His efforts to block the path of the ball likened him to a “stranded starfish.” It’s one of the great footballing phrases.

10 minutes.

Luke Shaw flashed wide.

11 minutes.

A half-decent “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

17 minutes.

United were in the ascendency now. They were finding extra players with ease. Yet their tendency to over-pass reminded me of us.

19 minutes.

“No foothold yet, Al.”

21 minutes.

I tapped out a phrase that I hate and may I forever reside in hell; “unable to beat the press.”

23 minutes.

Another fine “Amazing Grace.”

25 minutes.

A strong United spell had evolved. We looked second best here.

26 minutes.

The Stamford Bridge crowd clapped in memory of Matthew Harding and our stand sung his name.

31 minutes.

A fine Kepa block from Marcus Rashford.

33 minutes.

Frustration all around.

37 minutes.

A substitution and Mateo Kovacic for Marc Cucarella. There was a change in shape to a 4-3-3. This met with our approval.

38 minutes.

A very messy chance, after United failed to clear, but Peashooter scuffed it wide.

39 minutes.

An Eriksen shot from distance was well wide.

40 minutes.

A cross from the left and a leap from Aubameyang but contact was light and off-target.

42 minutes.

The same player was played in with a ball rolled across the box but he could not quite reach.

44 minutes.

Anthony – a player that I am proud to say I know nothing about – shot from distance and, as it struck a supporting stanchion, my mind played tricks with me and I thought it was in. It certainly was a close one.

I was just pleased to get to the break at 0-0. We had been poor. United had bossed the middle section of the first forty-five minutes. I wasn’t so sure where a goal would originate. Maybe my 0-0 guess wasn’t so far off. A pal who sits behind me commented :

“Get any good photos that half? I suspect not.”

“No. Shite.”

Only two are shared here.

Things were better in the second-half, but I soon commented “we have dragged them down to our level.”

50 minutes.

A scare when Kepa raced out to reach a ball near our left touchline and we then nervously gasped as the ball was eventually passed out of defence. We took forever. The chance of a quick break, exposing space, was lost.

56 minutes.

United, I noted, were not as loud as in the past. I wondered if the missing six-hundred were the singers.

58 minutes.

Sterling elected to pass inside when a shot was probably the best option.

60 minutes.

The noisiest moment of the game, perhaps, helped escort Varane off the pitch.

62 minutes.

“Chalobah playing well, lads.”

64 minutes.

“We have looked tired from the start, really.”

70 minutes.

A header from Clever Trevoh skimmed the top of the bar.

71 minutes.

We were hitting a little spell now, easily the best of the game, and the noise grew with our intensity.

74 minutes.

Christian Pulisic for Aubameyang, not surprisingly.

75 minutes.

The ever-frustrating Ruben Loftus-Cheek lost the ball in a dangerous position but a Bruno Fernandes shot was saved so well by Kepa.

79 minutes.

Armando Broja for Raheem Sterling, not surprisingly.

84 minutes.

I captured the very start of the pushing and shoving by substitute McTominay on our boy Broja. But I was watching the flight of the ball when the man-handling reached silly proportions. I saw the referee point. Oh boy. What drama.

86 minutes.

Just like in Milan, Jorginho walked away with the ball as tempers raged in the United team.

87 minutes.

Goal. Get in you bastard. What a clean penalty.

88 minutes.

CAREFREE WHEREVER YOU MAY BE WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.

89 minutes.

The stadium was a riot of noise now alright. For too long, the noise had been shite.

90 minutes.

AND IT’S SUPER CHELSEA. SUPER CHELSEA FC. WE’RE BY FAR THE GREATEST TEAM THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

94 minutes.

Chelsea unable to clear. A floater from the left. Two United players leap. That gut-wrenching feeling. The ball dropped into the goal. But no, wait, it came back off the post. And Kepa miraculously claimed it.

No.

Goal.

Bloody Casemiro.

Noise now from the two thousand odd in the away end.

95 minutes.

The Bridge was absolutely silent apart from 2,400 voices.

“WHO THE FUCK ARE MAN UNITED?”

At least there was nobody jumping up and being a twat in the home areas.

It was, sadly, a very fair result.

I reached home to see the game’s highlights on “Match of the Day” and it was the last match featured.

Chelsea and United, the last game on “MOTD”? The absolute shame of it.

See you in Salzburg on Tuesday.