Tales From The Top In The Middle Of England

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2021.

After the away game on Tyneside, I was going to miss the trip to Malmo, and so my next planned game was going to be Burnley at home. Then, sadly, I tested positive for COVID and was forced into self-isolation for ten days. I was lucky though. My symptoms were similar to a mild head cold, and I was easily able to work from home for a week. I was back into work, and the office, last Monday. The International break could not have happened at a more convenient time.

Instead of Chelsea, two games at Frome Town – the first before I tested positive, the second after I tested negative – gave me my football kick. The home games against Barnstaple Town and Plymouth Parkway were won 9-2 and 1-0, thus cementing my local team’s undefeated position at the top of the Southern League Division One South. When I am either unable or unwilling to attend Chelsea games in the future – I think I know deep down that it is coming – at least I have an exit strategy. But let’s not dwell too much on that right now.

Leicester City – away – was now primed for my first Chelsea game in three weeks.

I set the alarm for 5.45am. Many others throughout the Chelsea Nation had equally early starts. All over Facebook, two words dominated.

“And Leicester.”

The idea was to collect PD at 7.30m, then Parks, and arrive at our usual spot just off Saffron Lane to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 11am.

Obviously I had not seen the two lads for a while. Like me, PD had succumbed to a mild variant of COVID since Newcastle. Parky had experienced a more painful COVID not long after Belfast and was still suffering, a little, from long COVID.

Sadly, Parky had lost his ninety-three-year-old mother last Monday. As I picked him up at 8am, we both shook his hand and offered him words of comfort.

Outside, there was drizzle in the air.

At Melksham, a breakfast, and then the drive straight up the Fosse Way to the middle of England. Although the roads were fringed with autumn colours, there was a grey murkiness outside. The Fosse Way remains my favourite road for an away game, though not on this occasion.

Although this would be my first Chelsea game for three weeks, I was suffering a little with a general malaise. Whether this was born out of my recent COVID attack – a re-focussing on priorities, maybe – I am not sure. In a nutshell, I was not as fired-up as I ought to have been. I just hoped that this feeling would turn out to be a little blip in my love of the game, of Chelsea, of this lifestyle.

I am fifty-six. I have seen over 1,300 Chelsea games. “We’ve won it all” (no, we haven’t). We won the European Cup last May in what turned out to be an emotionally-distanced cake-walk. That experience alone caused my brain to fry.

Clearly I am still struggling to get my pre-lockdown levels of passion, involvement, fanaticism – call it what you will – back.

Sigh.

I guess I am allowed the occasional off-day.

As I ate up the miles I was reminded of a drive up the Fosse Way, with my parents in early 1983, which was surely my most pointless journey ever. I was taking my “A Levels” in the June of that year and had applied to a few colleges, including Sheffield Polytechnic. As part of the process, I had to attend an interview up in South Yorkshire. The problem was that I was miss-firing in all three subjects and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get the necessary grades for a degree course in geography, nor did I particularly want to spend three years in Yorkshire should a miracle happen. The journey took forever. It was a bitterly cold day. The countryside was covered in the remnants of a snowfall. My poor Dad had taken a day off work to ferry me north. I hated every minute of the entire day.

What a waste of a day.

For the record; yeah, I did bomb my “A levels” but took them again in the November with a much better set of results.

1982/83 and 1983/84 were vastly different years for both myself and Chelsea Football Club.

I was parked up in Leicester at 11.05am and there would normally follow a trite remark from me about working in logistics.

I’m not one to disappoint.

It had been a mild start to the day in deepest Somerset, despite the drizzle, but things were a little colder in The Midlands. Not to worry, the fifteen-minute walk north warmed us a little and brought some colour to our cheeks. An elderly Leicester fan spoke to us for a few minutes.

“Chilwell is doing well, ain’t he? I didn’t rate him here.”

We were all soon inside the larger-than-usual concourse underneath the away stand. I spoke to a few friends and was happy to pass on the good news about my recent ill-health. I was getting back into the groove, step by step, fist bump by fist bump, handshake by handshake, smile by smile.

“Leicester away. What else yer gonna do on a Saturday?” or something like that.

We had far from great seats, sadly. Right in the corner, third row, even behind the goal line. One hundred and eighty degrees around the bowl of the stadium my friend Sally – former logistics colleague, I am sure her timings were bang on – was sat in the front row of The Kop, but in the corner too.

I expected a tight game. But hoped for a win.

“Absolute top pre-match analysis, that pal…fucksake.”

Romelu Lukaku was still unable to re-join the fold, but our starting eleven wasn’t half bad.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Chilweel – Kante – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi  – Havertz – Mount

The teams entered the pitch on the far side. Our away kit of yellow-black-yellow was to make an appearance for the first time this season. I found it amazing that the club had decided not to parade it previously; it is not unknown for an away kit to be worn even when there isn’t a clash in colours. As the players lined-up, I spotted the geometric shapes from the blue kit monstrosity mirrored in a chest panel on some black tracksuit tops.

“Now that’s not bad. That I can warm to. Everything in moderation. Less is more.”

Only the previous evening, I had watched a BBC programme about Bridget Rily, a leading light in the Op Art movement in the ‘sixties, and I was – naturally – reminded of the abomination that has currently happened to our home kit, shudder.

Generally speaking, I appreciated the paintings of Op Art – I think all of us at Frome College dabbled in geometric shapes during our art class in 1978/79, “another crap season” – but what place does it have on a fucking football shirt?

Eh? Tell me.

As I watched on Friday, I had stumbled upon with a far more agreeable design. If – and I mean if – an homage to Op Art was of absolute necessity, then why not a simple panel of Zigger Zagger mayhem, but everything else plain? Certainly the shorts needed to remain plain.

Whoever ordained the geometric pattern on the home shorts needs shooting.

So, lo and behold, the panel of slip-sliding squares (the kitchen floor after a night of excessive alcoholic intoxication?) on the plain black top not only met with my approval but had me wondering if I was absolutely in the wrong job.

The game began, and Borussia Dortmund attacked Sally and The Kop.

Despite an early start, the away choir had clearly been on it. Alcohol-inspired community singing rang out from the 3,300 in the expansive away corner; the seats go a long way back at Leicester. There was a little jabbing from both sets of supporters, with our left-back a natural target for the home fans, but then an uppercut onto the chin of the home fans :

“Ben Chilwell’s won a European Cup.”

We began ever so brightly.

And, yeah, the away kit looks fine. Not particularly “Chelsea” but that doesn’t seem to matter one iota these days.

The first chance arose when Jorginho took a quick free-kick from the middle of the pitch. The perfectly-flighted ball out to the left hand side of the penalty box was met by that man Chilwell. A touch to control, but the shot smashed against the top of the cross bar.

“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

It was end-to-end stuff in the first ten minutes, with a couple of lightning quick Leicester raids causing us concern, but we were equally strong in our attacking third.

Just on the quarter of an hour, we won a corner in front of Sally on our right.

Alan : “Get your camera out. Rudiger likes corners up here.”

I smiled. Indeed he does. Only on the drive up, we remembered his two headers here in 2020, just before lockdown struck. No surprises that none of us could remember the result up here in 2020/21.

“If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody sees it fall, does it make a sound?”

My camera was poised.

A Chilwell corner. On the money. A leap from Rudi. Click. I watched the ball drop into the net.

“YES.”

We were back, I was back, Rudi was back, Alan was beaming and so was I.

“That’s going in your blog.”

Ha, what joy.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us naaaa.”

Chris : “ Come on my little diamonds.”

I was genuinely worried about this one. The Cup Final had been on my mind. But here we were a goal up already.

I found it odd that during the Chelsea choir’s early chants, the home fans did not respond with one song about the game in May.

“Did it mean nothing to you?”

The hero of that game, Kasper Schmeichel, made a super save from the unlikely boot of N’Golo Kante.

We were rampant.

Callum was clipped just as he was about to ping a shot on goal after cutting in from the left, and Mason Mount dipped the resulting free-kick over the wall but over the bar too.

A rare Leicester attack, and a tap in from Ademola Lookman, but the linesman’s yellow flag soon went up.

I looked over to the Chelsea section next to the home fans. In front, tied to the rails was a flag from Zurich and two from Bulgaria. My good friend Orlin, one of the strong Bulgaria contingent, had called by to say “hi” before the game. I last saw him in Porto, ah Porto. But I also spotted Jonesy, from nearby Nuneaton, in that section too. Over the course of the game, I spotted not only Jonesy, but Andy and Sophie – Porto, ditto – and also The Youth, Neil, Jokka and Chopper, all Nuneaton Chelsea. Good work everyone.

Leicester were nibbling away at us in the first part of the game, but the referee resolutely avoided bookings.

I liked the look of Jorginho, pushing the ball on as quickly as he could. Right from the off, Thiago Silva looked so cool, so calm, and his class immediately shone. Our passing was quicker and more incisive than is often the case. Our cross-field switches were inch-perfect. Havertz looked lively, Callum too. We were simply on top, in control, playing some gorgeous stuff.

Just before the half-hour mark, the ball was won on our right and pushed inside to Kante. He was allowed so much space and so simply did what anyone would; he advanced, and advanced, and advanced.

I watched as he took a swipe at the ball with his left foot. I’ll be honest, I did not immediately react. I – for some reason – thought the ball had drifted past the post and hit a supporting stanchion.  But no, the roars of the away fans told me that he had hit the target.

Fackinell.

I spoke to Gal : “Best we have played all season.”

We eased off a little as the break approached, but the singing certainly didn’t. Nobody can accuse us lot of only singing one song.

So many positive comments at the break. Lovely.

Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at the break, and on came Maddison and Iheanacho. Edouard Mendy, not needed for most of the first-half, made a low save from Maddison, but the Chelsea attack were soon causing problems again. Hudson-Odoi did well and squirmed into the box before setting up Chilwell. Schmeichel made a magnificent save.

On the hour, Callum shaped well but curled one over the bar.

A double substitution from our manager.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount, Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

Mason had been one of our quietest performers I thought. Havertz had impressed. I was a little cautious.

…”mmm, two key players…the game ain’t won yet.”

The home team became a little stronger, and we had to rely on another stunning leap and save from our ‘keeper to foil a rising drive from Daniel Amartey. The home team dominated for a short period, but we were always a threat. The substitute Pulisic looked lively and went close from fellow substitute Ziyech’s cross. Both subs looked keen, looked energised, what do I know about football?

On seventy-one minutes, a wonderful quick break, with Leicester scampering around us, found Ziyech down in front of us on the right. A deft movement past a defender and the ball was played into space. Pulisic arrived with perfect timing and prodded the ball in.

3-0, game over.

Sadly, Jorginho was injured – replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, what a bench – and as he walked past us in the north-west corner, he was serenaded by all.

“That’s the World Footballer Of The Year, there, Gal.”

Those sorry days of Sarri are well behind him, and us, right?

Incredibly, we hit the back of the net on three further occasions late in the game, but the goals scored by Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and James were all – rightly – chalked off for offside.

There was still time for another cracking save from our man Mendy.

I have commented of late that, despite our fine run of results, we seem to be several steps away from our potential. Well, this game hinted at that level. It reminded me of a game at Fulham in November 2004 when everything clicked and we began to seriously think about a league title.

It was a decent drive home, and we were cheered – to the point of laughter – at Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.

Good old Claudio, eh? Loved at Chelsea, loved at Leicester and maybe Watford too.

We have a busy week ahead.

Juventus and Manchester United.

Do they get any bigger?

I will see some of you there.

Valerie Jayne Crespin : 24 April 1929 to 15 November 2021.

Goal One : Rudi’s Leap.

Goal Two : N’Goalo.

Goal Three : Teamwork.