Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 15 January 2023.
Leaving West London after the away game at Fulham on Thursday, I turned to PD and sighed as I said “at least we haven’t got to schlep all of the way up north for our next game, with it being an easy-to-reach home game against Palace.”
He agreed but then spoiled the mood a little as he mentioned a trip to Liverpool the week after.
We were undoubtedly going through a very tough spell. Not only had we been defeated in three consecutive games, there had also been the sad and traumatic passing of Gianluca Vialli the day after the first defeat. This was a short and difficult period in the history of Chelsea Football Club; eight days full of losses and loss. It was a horrible time.
As we headed towards Stamford Bridge we tried to be as positive as possible about the future, but I think we all knew that the day would be difficult. There would be undoubted sadness as the club paid its respects to our much-loved former Italian player and manager. This would be, I was sure, as emotional as previous similar days at Stamford Bridge when we remembered Matthew Harding in 1996, Peter Osgood in 2006 and Ray Wilkins in 2018.
The day began with a delay. Parky’s village was almost cut off from civilisation due to flooding on two roads but I was thankfully able to head off on a lengthy diversion to reach him. The rain was incessant in that first hour but thankfully the day brightened up and dried out.
We often talk about “must win games” but this one really was. Under-pressure Graham Potter’s charges really needed to triumph against Patrick Vieira’s team.
Was I confident? Only maybe.
Despite the delay at the start of the day, I was still able to drop PD and Parky on Fulham High Street just before 10am. I headed off to take a few photographs of the floral tributes and the mementoes left at the base of the large picture of Gianluca Vialli that had been moved from its usual position on the Shed Wall. This position is at the far left, position number one, and I have always like that. Many players have played more games and scored more goals for us, but very few have ever been as loved as Luca Vialli.
As I stopped by, my camera clicked a few times, but I then needed to stop all that and just be alone with my thoughts in silence. I adsmired the wreaths, the bouquets, the flowers. There were many Chelsea scarves and a few Italian flags. A woman approached and solemnly positioned a scarf on the floor. I noted a touching reference to the white vest that Dennis Wise aired after the 1997 FA Cup Semi-Final win against Wimbledon at Highbury imploring Luca to “cheer up” and this made me smile.
My eyes were moist in the biting winter air.
I met up with the usual suspects down at “The Eight Bells” at around 11am. There were the usual “Only Home Fans” signs back on the windows for this game.
Business as usual.
Unable and unwilling to share an alcoholic drink with PD, Parky, Rich and Matt, I took a leaf out of Andy and Kim’s book and got my kicks via a full English breakfast.
We left bang on 1pm, keen to witness all of the pre-match commemorations.
There were black and white photos of Luca on the way in. The match programme featured a lovely image of the man. Inside, many words were written about Luca.
I was in with half an hour to go before the 2pm kick-off and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” was played again. I spotted all of the Chelsea players – split into the starting eleven and the substitutes – wearing black tops with “Vialli 9” printed on the back, with the font used being the same as on the 1996/97 shirts, a nice touch indeed.
My mind wandered.
During the last few years of my mother’s life, as she battled dementia with a cheery smile, I got into the very enjoyable habit of attempting to stimulate her mind by using a Chelsea-based word association game :
I would say a first name, my mother would add a surname.
“Gianfranco”…”Zolo” (always Zolo, God that made me chuckle.)
I had a wistful smile to myself. Mum never got Luca’s name wrong.
We had been advised to be in for 1.40pm when some former team mates would honour Gianluca Vialli. Well, that time passed with no on-field ceremony and I wondered if it had all happened earlier.
Some chap appeared on the pitch with a microphone and he spoke briefly about Gianluca Vialli, and then asked us to – ugh – “make some noise!!!” (with exclamation marks no doubt!!!) and the Matthew Harding quickly responded.
“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”
But then, what a mood killer, the PA blasted this into oblivion with “Park Life” by Blur. This was then followed by “Liquidator” and I grumbled away to myself. On a day of remembrance, it would have been lovely to have some silence ahead of the appearance of the teams with the supporters themselves being left to their own way of getting an atmosphere going.
Modern football, eh?
The teams appeared. We were shown a short video of Gianluca Vialli, with a nice voiceover.
“From the day you stepped through the door you set the standard at this club and captured our hearts.”
Goals and games were recounted, two goals against Liverpool in the Cup, one at Old Trafford, four goals at Barnsley, two goals at Tromso. The trophies came.
“Dreams came true under your management and you achieved your dream of becoming a Chelsea legend.”
Those incredible European nights were remembered.
“But above all Luca, you were a wonderful man. Charming, respectful, determined. You had a heart of gold that touched so many. Now our hearts are broken, but how lucky we were to have known you. Luca, we love you and we miss you.”
My eyes were moist again.
I wondered if Luca ever spotted my “Vinci Per Noi” banner that I took to many games from the summer of 1996 as our club became besotted with Italian footballers.
The Chelsea and Crystal Palace players made their way to the centre circle, solemnly followed by some former Chelsea players, of whom only Mark Hughes and David Lee did I immediately recognise.
Two large banners appeared at both ends of the stadium. The Chelsea players were each wearing “Vialli 9” training tops. A minute of applause was heartfelt, loud and respectful.
“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”
It was suddenly time to think about football. I had missed the team announcements so as the game started I pieced it all together.
“Kepa in goal, looks like a three of the new boy Badiashile, Silva and Cholobah, Hall way out left, Ziyech way out right, a midfield pairing of the immobile Jorginho and the very mobile Gallagher, Mount and Carney supporting Havertz…no wait, Ziyech is too far forward, must be a back four then. No, they are too wide. Let’s see how it plays out.”
There were clear blue skies overhead.
Alas no Alan nor Clive with us today so PD and I stretched out.
The game began.
8 minutes – a subdued atmosphere. I wasn’t sure if this was because of the inherent sadness before the game, the nervousness about our recent play or the fact it was an early kick-off.
9 minutes – there was a rather half-hearted “Vialli” chant that really only got going in earnest thirty seconds into the all-important ninth minute. It dawned on me that Luca last played for us almost twenty-five years ago and I wondered if this was the reason. Are those that loved him in his prime now priced out of attending Stamford Bridge? Or was it indifference? I didn’t want to contemplate all of this.
12 minutes – some decent stuff from Lewis Hall in an advanced role on the left, with a keen readiness to power past his defender.
14 minutes – we enjoyed a decent little spell with Hakim Ziyech showing a willingness to get involved and shimmy down the right wing.
17 minutes – complete silence. The moment lasted for quite a few seconds. It shocked me. No shouts from the crowd. Nothing.
18 minutes – no goal threats at all thus far with Chelsea enjoying more of the ball, but then Palace went close at the far post.
19 minutes – a fine shot from Michael Olise was superbly saved by Kepa and then a “star jump” from Kepa foiled Tyrick Mitchell.
22 minutes – at last an audible “Carefree” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.
24 minutes – a bout of head tennis in the Palace penalty area was followed by a strong swipe at goal by Thiago Silva but not only did his shot go wide, an offside flag was raised too.
27 minutes – a well-worked foray down our right brought purrs from the crowd but Mason Mount shot weakly at Vicente Guaita.
30 minutes – we had dominated the game but the visitors had easily had the best few chances.
31 minutes – so quiet.
32 minutes – a great deep cross from Ziyech, but Kai Havertz’ slow looper dropped just over the bar.
39 minutes – another good advance from Conor Gallagher, the ball ending up with a shot from Hall that flew just wide.
45 minutes – Kepa was called into action to tip a strong header from Jeffrey Schlupp over the bar, and we then broke and had a couple of late chances on the Palace goal that sadly misfired.
Thankfully there were no boos at half-time and there was even a little applause. I turned to PD and mused on the game thus far…
“We’re playing well, the mood among the fans around us seems to be reasonable, but is that because our expectations are really at not a very high level? You have to say, all our players today, they’re doing alright but are any of them more than a…”
I paused briefly, wanting to say 6, I thought briefly of saying 7, but I went with my gut reaction and said…
“6” just as PD said “6” too.
At the break, new signing Mykhailo Mudryk appeared on the pitch, draped in a Ukraine flag.
“All these runners, we just need a playmaker to hit them” I moaned for the ninety-fifth time since Christmas.
The second-half began.
53 minutes – there was a fine shimmy under pressure and cushioned lay-off from Badiashile that reminded me so much of Frank Leboeuf in his prime. The debutant was impressing me.
55 minutes – a fine punch away by that man Kepa from Wilfred Zaha. That was four great saves at least.
56 minutes – a shot down below us from Havertz but it did not worry the Palace ‘keeper.
58 minutes – the loudest “Vialli! Vialli!” chant of the entire day. Phew.
63 minutes – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Carney Chukwuemeka.
65 minutes – a corner down below me, some passes twixt Gallagher and Ziyech, a strong cross towards the penalty spot and my camera clicked as several Chelsea players jumped. The ball flew goal wards and the net rippled. There followed a run of relief to the corner flag and by the time Havertz had been swamped by team mates, the MHL was bellowing “Vialli! Vialli!” The header was a downward dab that Luca would have been proud.
66 minutes – Alan and I exchanged “THTCAUN” and “COMLD” via Whatsapp.
69 minutes – Dennis Wise, San Siro, you know the song.
70 minutes – a fine forward pass – honest, I saw it – from Jorginho set up Aubameyang but he was foiled by Guaita’s advance.
74 minutes – Hall set up Aubameyang but a shot was blocked.
75 minutes – the left-back went down with yet another injury to hit us. He was replaced by Kalidou Koulibaly.
80 minutes – a good free-kick was worked with the resulting cross being just too heavy for Havertz to connect.
81 minutes – a fucking superb block by Silva, what a man.
85 minutes – a superb diving save from Kepa thwarted Chieck Doucoure’s effort from way out.
89 minutes – Dave for Kai Havertz and Mateo Kovacic for Jorginho.
90 minutes – Palace continued to pile on the pressure with seemingly endless crosses coming in from their right. This was a nervous time, no doubt.
95 minutes – “Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”
96 minutes – a fine block from Trevoh Chaobah.
At the final whistle, I pointed with fore-fingers to the sky.
A win for us.
A win for Luca.
A win for Chelsea.
We were OK; in fact, more than that, this was a better performance than in the recent run of games, but there is such a long way to go during this campaign. The match against Palace was our nineteenth league game of the season; only the half-way stage.
But a win is a win is a win.
And talking of wins…
Forty years ago to the day – Saturday 15 January 1983 – in addition to lamenting the recent news about the break-up of Stiff Little Fingers on the previous Thursday and after withdrawing my applications to several universities on the Friday, I was elated that Chelsea had defeated Cambridge United 6-0 at Stamford Bridge. The goal scorers were Mike Fillery with two, Joey Jones, John Bumstead, Alan Mayes and an own goal. The gate however was a disappointing 7,808.
In 1983, all was doom and gloom at Chelsea and SLF were no more.
I need not have worried. Last year, Chelsea were crowned World Champions and I saw SLF play a gig in my home town of Frome.
I’ll see you up there.