Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 February 2019.
Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. It has a fair ring to it doesn’t it? And yet I wasn’t looking forward to this game when I woke up, I wasn’t looking forward to it when I was at work, I wasn’t looking forward to it when I left work and I wasn’t looking forward to it when I was travelling up to London. The 6-0 shellacking at Manchester City was evidently casting a long and malodorous shadow. And City’s bitter rivals were much-improved under a new manager. And I just knew that the 6,000 away fans in The Shed would out sing us throughout the evening.
The four of us – Glenn, PD and Parky too– travelled up in daylight, the winter days now becoming slightly longer. In The Goose, there was a surprising quietness. In Simmons Bar, things were a lot busier and a lot rowdier. On the TV screen in the corner, a re-run of the 1970 replay at Old Trafford was being shown and I occasionally glimpsed some of the famous tough-tackling over the heads of others in the bar. I loved the clips of the jubilant Chelsea team going to the Stretford End – some of our players wearing Leeds shirts, that would never happen these days – and the bouncing and swaying mass of fans that greeted them. It was a life-affirming sight.
But it made me think. Chelsea in the Stretford End in 1970. Manchester United in The Shed in 2019. It is an odd world that we inhabit.
We didn’t speak too much about the imminent game. There was a little chat with some of the troops who had travelled over to Copenhagen and Malmo during the week. Very soon there was that beautiful walk down to Stamford Bridge, as atmospheric and beguiling as ever. It is without doubt a walk through history. The North End Road, Jerdan Place, Vanston Place, the Walham Green of old, Fulham Broadway, Fulham Road. It was dark now, at just after seven ‘clock, and the air was lit up by street lights, the glow from Chubby’s Grill, and the illuminations of a few souvenir stalls, and there was a buzz of not quite knowing who was who.
Six thousand of them.
I had mentioned to the lads that of the three big games coming up – Malmo should be a formality, right? – I was still most fearful of a loss to Tottenham, an FA Cup tie and a League Cup Final notwithstanding.
“Tottenham’s on a different level, innit?”
Strangely, I did not hear a single tout. That pleased me. It was evidence that most tickets would be used by the person who had bought them; there would be no watering down of our support for profit, most of the 34,000 in the home areas would be bona fide Chelsea fans, members or season ticket holders. There would be no passengers. Or so I hoped.
I made my way up the flights of stairs to the top tier of the Matthew Harding.
Almost one hundred years ago, on Cup Final day 1920, my father Ted Draper and his long-time friend Ted Knapton made the slow ascent up the damp terraced steps – being jostled by other fans, some drunk already – at the rear of the great slug of terracing on the West side of Stamford Bridge. The air was expectant ahead of the Aston Villa vs. Huddersfield Town tie. It would be the only professional football match that my grandfather would ever attend. He had remembered, as a ten-year-old boy living in Somerset, how he had been astounded when told by others that a mighty crowd of 67,000 had attended a game at Stamford Bridge in Chelsea’s first-ever season in 1905/06. It confused him. How did a new club such as Chelsea suddenly have 67,000 supporters? And for a Second Division game too. It was an unheard of figure at the time and was the talk of the schoolyard for many a day. It had captured the imagination, wildly, of my dear grandfather. The visitors on that day in April 1906 were Manchester United and it was a promotion-decider of sorts. My grandfather was convinced that the vast number of spectators had been Chelsea fans, since Manchester was such a long way north, but how was it possible for so many to be lured to the new stadium? Chelsea had mainly played to crowds in the mid-teens throughout that inaugural campaign after that first-ever game at Stockport County. It was one of the biggest league crowds that England had ever seen, although FA Cup Final attendances at Crystal Palace sometimes reached six-figures. Apart from being a fan of the sport, my grandfather soon realised how magnificent it would be to part of such a spectacle and for many years he had daydreamed about being in a similar sized crowd.
In April 1920, he had his wish.
I am unsure of what was in store for the two Teds in terms of pre-match entertainment in 1920 – I suspect a marching band was all – but in 2019 we were treated to the usual fireworks and flames. Just before it, the lights had dimmed and the United fans had chimed “what the fookinell was that?”
Above, a full moon soared above the East Stand.
There was a minute’s applause for Gordon Banks, one of the heroes of 1966. Images of the greatest ever save were played on to the TV screen.
Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso
Kante – Kovacic
Pedro – Higuain – Hazard
Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku – all former blues – started for United.
There was not a spare seat in the house. 40,000 is not 67,000 but it is always still a buzz to be part of it all. I was warming to the spectacle, but deep down was still fearing the worst. The United lot were already making a din, and I checked out their flags.
“The Only Way Is United.”
“If The Reds Should Play In Rome Or Mandalay We’ll Be There.”
“Manchester In The Area.”
“Everything My Heart Desired.”
All of these flags were in the Barmy Flags tradition of red, white and black sections. Yet the classic United kit of red, white and black has been oddly jettisoned this season in favour of red, black and red. Heaven knows why.
Tonight it looked a little more normal; red, white, red.
Chelsea in blue, blue, white.
The game began.
There were two battles taking place at Stamford Bridge. One on the pitch, one off it.
United won both of the initial skirmishes, starting brightly with the runs of Lukaku and Rashford causing us anxiety, and also creating a visceral wall of noise at The Shed End. I had not heard one chant in praise of their new manager for years.
“You are my Solskjaer, my Ole Solskjaer.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
Alan Shearer was fucking dearer.
So please don’t take my Solskjaer away.”
This immediately brought back a distant memory of a visit to Old Trafford in the early autumn of 1997 when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored a ridiculously late equaliser at the Stretford End. I’ve rarely felt more gutted at an away game. It’s worth watching for the Mark Hughes goal alone.
Lukaku walloped an effort over and a header from Smalling was ably saved by Kepa.
Then, after a foul on Eden Hazard, David Luiz side-footed a swerving free-kick towards the United legions at the Shed End. Their ‘keeper Sergio Romero – who? – could not smother it and it fell invitingly for Pedro inside the box. He did well to keep the shot down – great body shape – but the United ‘keeper stopped it, and scooped up the loose ball.
A shot from Hazard drifted wide. We were back in this and the United support had been quietened, thank the Lord. Gonzalo Higuain was then sent through from a rare forward pass from Jorginho – he ain’t George Best – and although he was forced wide he still managed to get a hooked shot towards the goal from a ridiculously tight angle. The ball dropped inches over the intersection of post and bar.
Higuain then headed wide from a cross from Dave and I leaned forward to say to the lads in front :
“Morata would have scored that.”
And although it was all tongue-in-cheek, he might well have done.
United are a physically strong team and Matic and Young were booked. But this was turning into a fine game, though chances were rare. We were playing with a little more urgency of late, and the crowd were involved. I liked the movement and drive of Pedro. I wish we had seen him in his prime. Kepa flew through the air to deny a header from Herrera. In their midfield, even Juan Mata – applauded by us when he drifted over to be involved in an early free-kick – was tackling and harrying players.
There was a moment of near calamity down below us when Kepa seemed far too lackadaisical in dealing with a back-pass. Lukaku almost picked his pocket. I was now enjoying this game. I know I was probably biased but I thought perhaps we were on top.
And then as the half-an-hour mark passed, it all fell apart. Paul Pogba was afforded way too much time below us and he had time to send over a perfect cross into the danger area. The run of Herrrera was not tracked and he rose virtually unhindered to head in behind the half-hearted non-challenge of Marcos Alonso.
United celebrated over in the far corner.
Our play went to pot. We played within ourselves. The away fans roared and created a merry din.
Just before half-time, Rashford was not closed down by Luiz out on their right. In fact, Luiz took an eternity to close angles. My eyes were on Mata at the far post, but Rashford had spotted the onward run of Pogba who had initiated the move earlier. The England player whipped in a delicious cross onto Pogba’s napper. His header flew past Kepa, and Pogba – delirious – landed on his stomach, and his subsequent goal celebration made me want to fucking vomit.
So, undone by two horrific defensive lapses.
Does Sarri ever go through defensive drills and coaching sessions at Cobham? I doubted it. We were warned at the start of the season, before this headlong dash into the weird world of Maurizio Sarri, that the defence was not his priority, it was his weak point, maybe his black spot, but this was just fucking ridiculous.
I had a simple request at half-time. Remembering us losing 2-0 at half-time to Liverpool in 1997, I chirped : “Bring on Mark Hughes.”
Sadly, Mark Hughes was unavailable.
In the second-half, United were more than happy to sit back and defend their lead. We had tons of possession, but rarely threatened. There were only half-chances here and there. A shot from an angle inside the box Higuain was blocked by Smalling. A good chance for Lukaku was snuffed out by a fine defensive tackle from Luiz. The fouls piled up, with Matic lucky not to be yellow-carded again.
Luke Shaw injured their ‘keeper in toe-poking away a ball that Pedro almost reached inside the box.
On the hour, a like-for-like (but in reality a dislike-for-dislike) substitution, with Pedro replaced by Willian. I felt sorry for Peds, one of our better players on the night.
“Wow, never saw that coming” said 2,584,661 Chelsea fans in Adelaide, Bangkok, Chicago, Dar Es Salaam, Edmonton and effing Fulham.
There was a shot from Hazard which flew over.
A banner appeared at The Shed and I had to agree with the sentiments.
“MAGIC OF THE CUP? SOLD BY THE FA FOR MONDAY NIGHT TV CA$H.”
Barkley replaced the poor Kovacic.
“Wow, never saw that coming” said 2,584,661 Chelsea fans in Glasgow, Hereford, Islamabad, Jakarta, Leicester and Kuala Lumpur.
The lower tier of the Matthew Harding had had enough.
“Fuck Sarriball” was a loud and angry chant. But I did not join in, nor did many around me. I am not a fan of negativity during games. Both tiers then combined with an even louder “Come On Chelsea” right after, almost as a reaction to the hatred within the previous chant. It was thunderous and defiant and was so loud that the United fans mockingly cheered it. It was the loudest, I think, that we had been all season. United then continued their piss-take with a “Take Back Mourinho” jibe.
In the closing quarter of an hour, The Shed was a wall of noise.
I’ll be honest, I had to stand back and admire it. Six thousand away fans on fire. Fair play.
One song, a new song, no doubt penned by Pete Boyle, was kept going for ages. I could not decipher the words, and I have already forgotten the melody but when I ever hear it again it will remind me of 18 February 2019.
And then, the final twist of the knife.
There were still ten minutes to go, maybe fifteen with stoppages. The game could, in theory, still be salvaged. The game was crying out for Olivier Giroud to go up front with our man Higuain and cause some panic among the United defenders, or for Callum Hudson-Odoi to come on and inject some fresh legs, an air of derring-do and pace. But instead the blithering idiot of our manager had another idea.
We looked over at the far touchline.
In “The Office” Christmas Special from 2003, there is a famous scene where David Brent, nervously tugging at his tie, is filmed at a bar ahead of meeting a blind date. He is nervous and excited. He turns around, spots his date – she is not as easy on the eye as he had envisioned – and returns to stare at the camera.
“Oh for fuck sake.”
I had that same face when I saw Davide Zappacosta about to take the place of Dave.
The crowd were in shock. Some could not hide their feelings and booed.
It was an unreal substitution.
The strange case of David, Davide and Dave.
Oh for fuck sake.
The game played out. We had all of the ball, but were as hopeless and as hapless as David Brent. People started to leave. It was no good, we were out.
We were out of the FA Cup.
I was deeply proud of Glenn, PD and Parky on the drive home. We were philosophical, though of course rather saddened by our sudden demise, and talked our way through the night’s developments as PD drove east and I stared at the white lines and the white lights of oncoming traffic. We had seen worse, of course – who can ever forget the pain, as 1997 FA Cup holders, of trailing 0-5 at home to Manchester United in the first game in the defence of the trophy in 1998? – and in the record books it will go down as a standard 2-0 defeat. But there is so much more to this than the score line alone.
I did wonder if the manager would last until the morning.
Our last six games have been a roller-coaster of quite ridiculous results.
Who is to say that the next two matches won’t follow this pattern? Of course this sort of form was “typical Chelsea” in the halcyon days of Gullit and Vialli, but back in those days we were on an upward curve, happy with even the slightest of improvements. To be honest, what fun we had after years of darkness. We were, whisper it, a little bit like Tottenham from 2014 to 2019 (but with silverware).
But now the football club, and its support, is surely a different beast in 2019. With no football presence at the club at any level higher than the beleaguered and unlikeable manager, we are rudderless.
We are chaos theory incarnate.
See you on Thursday.