Tales From The Wrong Seat

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 21 January 2023.

I think that I am going to enjoy writing this one.

Going into our match at Anfield, there was much gallows humour about this being a mid-table clash, a battle for ninth position, and that some fancied our chances because “they are bloody worse than we are”. It must surely be a while since Liverpool and Chelsea have occupied such lowly positions ahead of a league encounter.

There was a nice little bit of symmetry ahead of the game; our first match this season was at Goodison against Everton and the match at Anfield would be our twentieth. Therefore, both halves of the current campaign would commence on Merseyside.

I was up early. The alarm sounded at 4.30am and after de-frosting the car and picking up a couple of tinned coffees for the journey at a local garage, I collected PD and then Glenn at 6am, and Lord Parky bang on 6.30am as planned.

We were full of talk about the club for the first half-an-hour, with Glenn bemoaning many in the media, both social and unsocial, for calling our new buying policy “scattergun” and with me being foolish enough to admit the fact that I fancied a win later in the day.

We stopped at Strensham on the M5 for a quick breakfast between 7.40am and 8am, and I then made a bee-line for Merseyside. As I slowed down to a halt to wait for a green light to turn onto Queens Drive, we spotted “The Rocket” pub to our left; the very pub where hundreds of Scousers had been stranded ahead of the Champions League Final in Paris last May, the victims of a prank by playful Evertonians.

At this moment, amidst a little side-chat about the merits of managers Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter, and how fans have moaned about both, I summed things up as succinctly as I have ever done.

“Well, we’ve been going through a rebuild since Conte left. And since then, we have won the Europa League, the Champions League and are current World Champions. That’s not a bad rebuilding stage, is it?”

I was half-tempted to drive past the new Everton stadium at Bramley Moore Dock to check on its considerable progress since I visited the site in August, but we just wanted to get parked up and into Anfield. The five months that have elapsed since game one in August seemed like five minutes. I was parked up outside the away turnstiles at Goodison Park just after 10.30am; the price had increased from £10 in 2021 to £15 in 2023. Outside, the winter weather was biting hard. We headed off up the gentle slope to the top of Stanley Park with parts still touched by frost. The extension to the Anfield Road end, where we would be stationed, dominated my focus.

It was eleven o’clock. Just right. While I waited outside for a while to hand over a spare ticket, the others marched inside. Two Liverpool team buses appeared from my right and were then swallowed up by the huge shutter doors beneath the gigantic new stand. Mobile phones were held aloft by the hundreds of Liverpool fans. This must be a regular occurrence, part of the Anfield routine. But there was no real buzz about the place. Times must be hard at both ends of Stanley Park these days. Since my last visit, a mural of Ian Rush had been painted on the end wall of some terraced houses. There were voices and accents from everywhere.

The weather was tough. I have never seen so many North Face jackets and bobble-less hats.

I chatted to many fellow Chelsea fans.

“They are shite. They’re worse than us.”

“Yeah, I fancy us today, God knows why.”

Kim arrived and I handed her a ticket. At the security checks, I had the usual little panic that my camera would be shown the red card but the seemingly short-sighted security guard just frisked me without spotting the camera bag draped over my shoulder.

In.

I checked my ticket but soon spotted that I had mistakenly ended up with the ticket intended for Kim in row 20. Not to worry, Kim would be with Parky, John, Al and Gal down in row 7. Not a problem. There were only fifteen minutes to go so there was no time to waste. As I edged through the tight concourse, I was aware of a new song being enthusiastically chanted by the younger element.

…”said to me.”

I entered the familiar away end and my spot was in line with the touchline in front of the main stand, not as far jammed into the corner as I had feared. This was my twenty-sixth visit to Anfield, level-pegging with visits to Old Trafford; only five Chelsea wins at each venue, though. That pre-match hope for a win suddenly seemed unlikely.

There was rail-standing in the away quadrant now. Of all places, standing at Anfield. I never thought I would see it.

I once stood on the old Kop, though, and this was way different.

Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand took part in pitch-side interviews. Joey was serenaded. And so was Gerrard. As he walked past us – he must have dreaded that – he momentarily cupped his hands over his ears.

The usual pre-match ritual at Anfield.

Flags on poles, banners, huge crowd-surfing mosaics, the teams, mascots, the PA announcer with ridiculously low voice, The Kop waiting for “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and scarves held aloft.

I remembered my first visit in April 1985 when a big pot of Crown Paint used to take pride of place on the centre spot.

Noticeably, I spotted the highest concentration of scarves in the lower corners of the main stand and the Centenary Stand – née Kemlyn Road – where those Rangers fans congregated in November 1985.

Our team?

I tried, again, to work it all out.

Kepa in goal.

A back four of Cucarella, Badiashile, Silva and Chalobah.

Lewis Hall was tucked into midfield, somewhere, maybe just alongside Jorginho.

A three of Mount on the left, Gallagher in the middle, Ziyech wide right.

Kai Havertz up top.

Liverpool’s team involved players such as Gakpo and Bajcetic, and these two were completely unfamiliar to me. They reminded me of the final hopeless selection of letters in a game of “Scrabble”

Here we were. At the football again. Waiting to see Chelsea again. Everyone together, the lucky ones, the lucky three-thousand. This meant that I was thankfully able to avoid the unappetising avalanche of buzzwords that the TV folk habitually, and without any self-awareness, foist on our poor ears.

“The press”, “transition”, “between the lines”, “little pockets”, “overload”, “high press”, “low block”, it goes on and on, like a relentless deluge of shite. On a recent “MOTD2” I am sure I heard Danny Murphy mention “overload” three times in ten seconds without the merest hint of irony.

Fuck adventures in TV Land.

We were at the football.

“Into them Chelsea.”

As the game kicked-off, no surprises us attacking The Kop, four spaces to my left were unfilled. Not long into the match, four young lads sidled in. Up in front of The Kop, my eyes straining in the mist, a corner came over from Conor Gallagher and in the resulting melee we gasped as the ball was thwacked against the left-hand post. A leg prodded the rebound home, the net gently rippling.

“GET IN.”

Now then dear reader, there have certainly been tough moments in my recent history when I have questioned my devotion to the cause, especially in the post-COVID era, and I have publicly shared my concerns about me losing the passion for football and maybe even Chelsea. So I am so pleased to report that at 12.33pm on Saturday 21 January in the Anfield Road Stand, there was no ambivalence nor doubt. I, like the thousands around me, was going fucking doolally.

My celebration of choice on this occasion was a Stuart Pearson fist pump, but a double one for good measure.

I turned to the lads to my left…”great timing.”

Alas, we then suffered that horrible delay that these days suggests that VAR was about to rear its ugly ahead once again.

When the goal was disallowed, Mr. Deep Voice on the PA mumbled something incomprehensible. There was no follow-up explanation on the screens. Unlike those in TV Land, I was left to ponder the mystery of why the goal was disallowed.

Modern football.

Unlike in our last visit in August 2021, there would be no Anfield goal for Kai Havertz this time.

Both teams started brightly enough, and Liverpool started to attack. I could hardly believe that James Fucking Milner was starting for them. Gakpo fired over. On a quarter of an hour, things were even.

We then hit a decent spell. There were a couple of lovely long bombs from Thiago Silva towards Kai Havertz, one slightly over hit, another better, but a slip from Mount when free. Havertz then played in Hall, but his shot from an angle was wild. There was a lovely cushioned lay-off from Havertz, a lot more physical in this game, for Gallagher. This was good stuff, or at least, better than we had been used to.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Let’s sing that all season.

The home crowd was so quiet, easily the quietest that I had ever witnessed at Anfield. We were yet to hear the infamous “History” chant.

Two crosses from a reassuringly decent Ziyech caused a few concerns in the Liverpool box.

The new song was aired again and I spent a ridiculous amount of my time trying to work out the lyrics.

I liked the look of Benoit Badashile again, and even Marc Cucarella was impressing. The youngster Lewis Hall was having a tough game though. Silva was as imperious as ever. Gallagher was fantastic, charging balls down, running to close space, maybe not winning the ball, but forcing a mistake for others to gather the ball.

Liverpool did cut through us on a couple of occasions but their final passes, and shots, were poor.

Just before the half-time whistle, at last an audible chant from The Kop.

…”where we watched King Kenny play.”

Mo Salah took a touch when in previous years he might well have volleyed without much thought, and the ball curled high and wide.

Advantage Chelsea at the break? I think so.

At half-time, I noted empty seats in the afore-mentioned lower corners of the side stands, proof that these were hospitality areas in addition to the top tier of the Centenary and the middle tier of the main stand. Does this matter? It just shows how clubs are going after the extra-revenue these days. They’re going after day trippers, the tourists, the moneyed classes, the same old story.

Less and less seats for the average Joe. More and more for the average Johann, Jan, Jonty and Julian.

And although – I know from experience – many of English football’s overseas fans are wildly passionate about their teams, I shudder at the thought of a bigger and bigger percentage of ticket sales being aimed at the corporate sector. It used to be a game for the working classes. I can’t imagine what Bill Shankly would think of it all.

No wonder Anfield was quiet.

By the way, it made me chuckle that among the electronic messages that advertised hospitality packages on the perimeter of the pitch there was the stunning revelation that match day tickets were included. Thanks for clarifying that, Liverpool Football Club.

There were prolonged chants in honour of John Terry and it soon became known that our former captain was in the away section with us. I am guessing but I think he was maybe ten or fifteen yards away from me though I never saw him. I remember him at Burnley too.

I remembered a famous photo of Shanks in The Kop after he had left the club, unable to let go.

We began the second-half poorly, so poorly. The first two minutes seemed to take an eternity. There was an outrageous effort from Ibrahima Konate that was walloped from the half-way line towards Kepa at The Kop. Thankfully, it dropped just wide. There were a few more Liverpool attempts. This was desperate.

It was also still bloody freezing. It was bloody freezing in January 1983 too. There, that’s the 1982/83 reference taken care of.

On fifty-five minutes, Graham Potter replaced the struggling Lewis Hall with the Ukranian Mykhailo Mudryk, the undoubted subject of the new song, and from my vantage point I was able to capture him entering the field, his first touch, his first few dribbles and spins in the wide expanses of our left. In the end, my “wrong seat” had turned out to be a God send.

On the hour, Ziyech came in from his right wing position and drifted past player after player…each time the away end pleaded with him to shoot…and in the end his effort was typically high and wide.

Soon, Mudryk had us all purring, playing a “give-and-go” with Gallagher and spinning into the box, but we groaned as his effort only troubled the side netting. Soon after, Milner cruelly chopped him down. But Mudryk looked the business, he excited us all.

A rare Liverpool chance, but Kepa was able to thwart Gakpo’s goal-bound prod with a fine save.

We went on the attack again, and at times our play was a joy to behold. On seventy-one minutes, the best move of the match – full of quick passing – resulted in a Ziyech cross hitting the far post area but with nobody able to connect. A shot from Ziyech was blocked.

With ten minutes to go, more changes.

Dave for Trevoh.

Sadly, our defender had picked up a knock, such is life in the Chelsea trenches these days.

Carney for Mase.

Mount had been quiet for much of the game.

Pierre-Emerick for Kai.

I liked the effort from Havertz in this game. He was more involved than before. More up for the fight.

The away crowd were in fine form now. We had spotted a new desire in the team and we roared the team on with every sinew. Just the way it should be.

“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much we love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Fantastic stuff.

Dave, off the pace at times these days, was excellent in his cameo at the end of the game.

I was convinced that we would strike at the death but our chances sadly petered out. But this was a fine day out from us. It felt, whisper it, that a corner had been turned.

I wished that I had sussed out the new song though.

We walked back to the car amid a lovely exuberance. This was a special feeling.

I pulled out of the car park at 3pm and circumnavigated Goodison Park’s four stands and it honestly felt as though I might never be returning. Those blue stands have given me plenty of memories over the years. Out onto the Bullens Road, past the Dixie Dean statue, past the Winslow Hotel, thoughts of my father in the Second World War, past the player’s entrance – I remembered a recent ‘photo of Pele walking across the street in 1966 – past the Holy Trinity statue, past the Gwladys Street turnstiles and away.

It took me a whole hour to get past The Rocket and onto the M62.

Everton were to lose 2-0 at West Ham of all places.

”Frank’s gone, isn’t he?”

The four of us stopped off at “The Vine” – yet again – at West Bromwich at around 5.30pm where we each enjoyed glorious curries.

Lamb Rogan Josh, Chicken Balti, Lamb Madras, Chicken Jalfrezi.

There was a quick review from myself of our starting; “Conor Gallagher an eight, everyone else sevens apart from Mount a six and Hall a five.”

There was more chat about the match. We all admitted that we might have been getting a little carried away about our performance – ”after all, it was only Liverpool” – and we were sure that “MOTD” would dismiss it as a poor game, but for those of us of a Chelsea disposition, we definitely spotted a new belief, a more rounded performance, and better quality. We mused that the last five games against Liverpool had all consisted of draws. Well, more or less.

There was patchy fog all of the way back, but horrific clawing fog around Frome.

I eventually reached home at 9.30pm.

It had been a good day.