Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.
As soon as I reached the familiar surroundings of the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Upper, I was met by the odd sight of many green tin foil flags being brandished by my fellow supporters. It was a bit of a shock to the system.
“Green?” I asked Alan, who left the pub a little before the rest of us.
“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.
Ah yes. The Italian flag. It all made sense now. I looked over, past the green section and spotted silvery-white and red flags too. Once combined, the mosaic of an Italian flag was taking shape in the upper tier, while it seemed that fans – or at least some of them – in the lower tier had been given standard royal blue flags.
An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.
Conte would be the latest in a revered and respected group of Italians who have managed our club.
Gianluca Vialli. Claudio Ranieri. Carlo Ancelotti. Roberto di Matteo. Antonio Conte.
In addition, we have had our fair share of Italian players too, from the idolised Gianfranco Zola and Carlo Cudicini to bit-part players such as Pierluigi Casiraghi, Sam Dalla Bona, Christian Penucci, Gabrielle Ambrosetti and Marco Ambrosio.
It has always felt right, this Italian thing. The passionate azzurri playing with pride and passion in the royal blue of Chelsea. That there has been a strong Juventus link – Vialli, Casiraghi and now Conte – has made it all the more sweeter for me personally. It has evolved into a lovely subplot of my love affair with Chelsea over the past twenty years.
Back in the August of 1996, I welcomed Di Matteo and Vialli to Stamford Bridge with my very own “VINCI PER NOI” banner draped over the MHU balcony wall against Middlesbrough, and I ended that particularly wonderful season at Wembley against the same opponents with an Italian flag adorned with “FORZA AZZURRI” as we won our first trophy since 1971.
1996/1997 was a season with a distinctive Italian flavour.
And I wondered if the current campaign would be similarly seasoned.
As the first weekend of the Premier League got underway without us, all of my focus seemed to be on our new manager, our new don, our new capo, our new “Mister.” After the ersatz atmosphere of the US tour, suddenly I was thrust right into the venom of a bitter London derby against West Ham United and I wondered how the new man would get us playing.
This was the real deal, the real thing, the league opener, us against the world.
After a torrid day at work, it took a while for me to fully focus on the evening’s game as I drove up to London, but once inside Stamford Bridge, the anticipation was rising. I was getting back in the groove.
“What else you gonna do on a Monday evening?”
And the focus was certainly on Conte.
I have mentioned already that I have a particular phrase for the new manager Conte which sums him up.
“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”
It seems apt. Tons of passion too. Passion by the bucket load. That is fine by me. Passion is good. Passion is a good thing. Bring it on Antonio.
Let’s get my Antonio Conte story out of the way early, although I have touched on it once before in these despatches.
Back in 1999, I attended my friend Tullio’s marriage to Emanuela in their home city of Turin. It was a fantastic day, and evening, and night, and one of the nicest weddings that I have ever attended. Many beers were quaffed by myself (I honestly think they had got the beer in especially for me) and when I woke the next morning, I always remember my bloodshot eyes looking back at me from my hotel bathroom mirror. The wedding had been on the Saturday, and on the Sunday afternoon, I was to attend the Juventus vs. Fiorentina game at the Delle Alpi. It was perfect timing really. It could not have been better.
Juve, with Thierry Henri playing for them – and Zinedine Zidane too, as a substitute – were a team of superstars and I watched high up in the stands, towards the home Curva Scirea, as Juve went a goal up. During the previous week, the same stadium had witnessed the visit of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final, and the atmosphere during the game had not been great. But a win against bitter rivals Fiorentina would cheer the bianconeri after their defeat at the hands of Roy Keane et al. Sadly, the viola equalised late on. I had arranged with a local taxi driver to collect me outside the stadium at the final whistle in order to scoot me back to the city’s airport at the end of the game. I pondered if I should leave with a few minutes left in order to beat the crowds and possible traffic congestion. A little voice inside my head told me to hang on.
Right at the death, who else but Antonio Conte – an industrious box to box midfielder – popped up inside the Fiorentina area to fire home. I watched, delirious, as he raced over to the segment of travelling away fans and picked up the corner flag and brandished it towards them.
It was a perfect end to my weekend in Turin. Immediately after, Conte gained a great deal of notoriety within the Italian media for his actions, since many thought it confrontational, while in Juve circles he gained a great deal of respect. Incidentally, Conte was the Juve captain in those days and his manager on that day over seventeen years ago? Carlo Ancelotti.
This is the Antonio Conte that I observed during the otherwise lacklustre Euros over the summer. This is the Antonio Conte that I want to see at Chelsea. Passion, fire, vigour, energy.
God knows we missed these qualities last season.
On the walk from the pub, I had checked my phone for the manager’s first starting eleven of the new season. Chelsea Football Club had described the formation as 4-1-4-1, with this team :
Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.
Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.
It was no surprise to me that his much vaunted 3-5-2 was not chosen. The players – his players – were not in place for that yet. If this is his preferred option, it will be a while before the team is morphed to a new shape. It is always a balancing act of players and formations, form and function. I trust that the new man will manage the changes with his apparent studiousness and professionalism. I certainly liked what I had heard about him; his Mourinho-esque attention to detail, his obsessive devotion to the game, his management style.
It was a perfect evening for football. There was not a single cloud in the sky.
Eight o’clock was approaching fast.
By a strange quirk of fate, our first league game of 2016/2017 was another landmark game for me.
Just over two years ago, I had driven Glenn, Parky and PD in the Chuckle Bus up to Burnley for our away game at Turf Moor – the league opener – for my one thousandth Chelsea game. Here, in 2016, two years later, I had driven the same three friends up to London for our league opener against another team in claret and blue for game number 1,100.
A little coincidence there, for those that like them.
Let’s hope that this season ends in the same way as 2014/2015, eh?
(…incidentally, I don’t usually do predictions on here, but I had the top four for this new season as follows : 1 – Manchester City, 2 – Manchester United, 3 – Chelsea, 4 – Tottenham Hotspur).
Over in the far corner, three thousand away fans were sat and stood, with more than the usual number of flags. Maybe they made a special effort. Elsewhere, Stamford Bridge appeared full, save for a few late arrivals in the top rows of The Shed. Familiar flags were spotted.
As the teams entered the pitch, the mosaics in our end were furiously waved.
Three colours green.
Three colours white.
Three colours red.
Maybe I need to buy myself a retro away scarf of 1973 red, white and green this season.
It was a grand old sight and I feverishly clicked away. I hoped that they would not be the most exciting snaps of the entire night. Flames were thrown up in front of the East Stand – just a little bit too much razzmatazz for my liking to be honest – and we watched as the teams went about their usual routines.
It was then time for Alan and myself to make some comments about the tin foil flags in our midst.
“Knowing Gary, he’ll be collecting these at the end of the game and will use them to wrap his Christmas presents.”
“Nah, he can wrap himself in these after his latest marathon. Or Snickers, or whatever they call it these days.”
Chelsea in the traditional blue, blue, white, and West Ham in their traditional claret and blue.
An opening game between two bitter rivals, just as in 2000 when Mario Stanic – remember him? – scored on his debut with a sublime volley, with a young Frank Lampard looking on.
The game began – our season began – and we attacked the MH. West Ham began on the front foot, but there was a noticeable increase in the intensity shown by our players. It was hardly a new set of players – far from it – as all were on our books last season apart from the new lad N’Golo Kante, but it was remarkable how we easily noted an extra desire, passion and zip.
Oh dear. I apologise now for the number of times I will write the words “passion” and “desire” this season.
Sadly, Kante was booked early on for a tackle on Andy Carroll.
I noticed how animated the new manager was. He had given up his grey training gear of pre-season for a dark grey suit, and black tie, and he certainly looked the part. His trademark stance seems to be him standing with one arm across his stomach, one hand up to his mouth, surveying all and sundry.
West Ham were soon into their tiresome tirade of Chelsea-obsessed songs.
“Fucking hell, sing some of your own songs, will you, it’s getting boring now.”
Although the formation was officially 4/1/4/1, I couldn’t really spot much of a difference from last season’s shape. Matic seemed to be alongside Kante. Maybe there was extra width. Hazard was soon twisting away from markers, turning on a sixpence, and creating chances. Diego looked keen, yet still showed his propensity to dribble, head-down, rather than bring another players in. Matic began well. Kante really took my eye though. Tons of energy, and there is not that Matic-like tendency to dawdle once in possession.
Touch, move, pass.
One, two, three.
Keeping the momentum going.
Of all people, Branislav Ivanovic, ghosting past his man, provided the first real chance for us this season, but his firmly-struck shot went narrowly wide of the near post, forcing a low save from Adrian.
We got in to the game.
Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.
We knew that Carroll would be a problem, but were also thankful that their star Dmitri Payet was only on the subs’ bench. Oh, while I am on the subject : “Achy Breaky Heart” at football.
West Ham were stood in the Shed lower, but many chose to sit in the upper. There was not a great deal of noise from them.
Oscar went down after a clumsy challenge in the box, but neither Alan nor myself were too convinced that it was a penalty. Chances were at a premium to be honest. Diego was booked amid protests after. It was beginning to heat up.
Eden Hazard proved to be our talisman again and he burst through on goal but a fine shot was narrowly wide of the mark. How I love to see Eden tease his opponents. Often he slows and almost walks towards them, a hark back to the tricky tanner ball players much beloved in Scotland, the intricately skilled wingers such as Davie Cooper, Jimmy Johnstone, John Robertson, our own Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin. Often Eden will almost lower himself, a crouch, in order to concentrate his thoughts on how to get past his marker. It is one of modern football’s most wonderful moments.
Eden versus his man. What will he do next?
I heard myself saying to Alan “how does he do that?” as he effortlessly swept past a defender. What a player he is when he is in the mood.
Diego fired over, but chances were still rare. It really was all Chelsea. West Ham were poor. They surprised me.
Late on in the first-half, Willian forced a save from Adrian from one of his trademark dead balls. Dave headed the resultant corner over.
All level at the break.
We were treated to Ricardo Carvalho at half-time..
We teased the away fans :
“Riccy Carvalho – he’s won more than you.”
No complaints at the interval.
PD, Glenn, Alan and myself – who sit all together – were happy with things.
I never like it when we attack The Shed in the second-half. It seems odd. Out of kilter. However, we were all howling with pleasure after Dave was bundled over just inside the box after a shot from Diego came back into play.
All eyes were on Eden as he placed the ball on the spot. For once, he blasted it high, and I am sure I was not the only one whose first thought was “oh no, he’s missed.”
We were 1-0 up and the stadium was alive.
Ronny : “They’ll have to come at us now.”
Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”
We continued to press and Willian went close. West Ham, again, as if to ratify further, were nowhere.
For a while, we turned the tables on West Ham, and there was a prolonged Frank Lampard songfest.
“Super Frankie Lampard.”
“He scored two hundred.”
It was lovely stuff.
Gary Cahill chased down a West Ham attacker and made a lovely defensive tackle. Alan and myself spoke how Conte’s intense training sessions over the summer may be bearing fruit already.
“Twelve months ago, he may not have been able to reach that.”
It was a good simple, clear sign that we were a far more focussed, fit and forceful team in this season’s opener. They were handing out free tins of “Carabao” before the game but I am sure that the team’s vim was not due to this new energy drink alone. Conte had got the team playing and how.
The game continued, again with only a few chances. Eden began to tire a little. Willian was having a quiet game. Matic slowed – if that is possible.
Payet, the danger man, came on.
With a quarter of an hour left, I remember thinking “bloody hell, Courtois has hardly had a single shot to save.”
Dave was adjudged to have raised a foot to Carroll, whereas it looked to us that the West Ham totem pole had stooped. From the free-kick, Payet forced a save from Thibaut. From the corner, we blocked the initial effort on goal, but the ball rebounded to ugly bald ginger goon Collins who slammed home.
Alan : “from a free-kick that should not have been given.”
Their first effort on goal.
Billericay Dickie, Dagenham Dave and Plaistow Patricia were making all the noise now.
“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”
Conte is not the typically cautious Italian and he soon replaced the quiet Willian with Pedro, always a willing worker.
Soon after, further attacking intent with two further substitutions; Batshuayi on for Oscar, who had shown a lot more bite than of late, and Moses on for the tiring Hazard.
This was the fabled 4/2/4, and we pushed and pushed. A forceful run from Moses, followed by a fine volley from Pedro, but his low shot flashed agonisingly past the far post.
In the very last minute, a ball was pumped up to the new lad Batshuayi who managed to head on towards the waiting Diego Costa. Costa was a good thirty yards out, and had a lot to do, but West Ham seemed reluctant to close him down. With space ahead of him, Diego had time to stroke a shot towards goal. The ball hit the target and we erupted.
Diego ran on down to Parkyville, but my photographs of his intense celebrations were too blurred, too fuzzy.
2-1 to us, oh you lovely man Diego.
It was not Tottenham last season but it was bloody close. The stadium echoed to an old favourite.
“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC” and The Bridge was on fire.
A last chance – their second of the match? – fell to Carroll, but Thibaut fell on the ball and we could breath.
The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.
The manager’s emotional response to the winner was shown on the TV screens. Oh my goodness.
This was a fine feeling alright. The boys were back in town and the new man Conte had pulled the strings to engineer a lovely win. “One Step Beyond” boomed and we bounced out of the stadium in very good spirits. The feel good factor was back. It felt oh-so good to be a Chelsea fan again.
Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.
A new love affair has been ignited. Let’s go.
See you all at Watford on Saturday.