Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 November 2022.
After we traipsed back to the car on Wednesday after the win against Dinamo Zagreb, soaked with the rain, we were well aware of the tough task ahead of Graham Potter’s side before the break in proceedings. We were to play three tough, tough, tough games.
Arsenal at home in the League, Manchester City away in the League Cup and Newcastle United away in the League.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
To be blunt, the Manchester City game didn’t bother me too much. I had, in reality, already conceded defeat. I just didn’t want us to be embarrassed. As for the two league games, I soon decided that I would be happy with two 0-0 draws. It was all about getting our feet over the line before the season closed down for a break of forty-five long days. If the 2022-23 campaign looked like an assault on Mount Everest, getting to the second weekend of November would be akin to arriving at a pretty significant base camp.
The home game with Arsenal was to kick-off at midday. This was a ridiculous time for a match. It harked back to times in the early to mid-‘eighties when worries about potential hooliganism forced the football authorities to foist such kick-off times on us all. On opening day 1984, for example, our most famous game against Arsenal in that era kicked-off at 11.30am.
But midday in 2022? Oh boy.
My alarm sounded at 4.45am. On a Sunday. A day of rest? Forget it.
My passengers were soon collected; PD and Glenn at 5.45am, Ron at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. As a matter of principle, I never like being late for any pick-ups. And nor does Ron in particular.
“I was only ever late for tackles.”
We were met with yet more horrific weather as we headed towards London. There was so much standing water on the roads that I wondered that if the torrents continued until kick-off, the game might be postponed. Such was our combined fear of getting turned over by Arsenal, a postponement wasn’t looked on as unfavourably as it might have been at another time.
I dropped the others off and then parked the car. The rain had subsided a little, but as I made my way down a deserted North End Road, stopping en route for a rare McBreakfast, my rain jacket was clinging to me, the rain reluctant to stop.
I joined the lads in “The Eight Bells” at just after 10am. We were in there for an hour. There was no talk of the game being called off. Alex – from last Saturday and Wednesday – joined us and was pleased to meet my fellow Chelsea mates at last. He called them “the Three Musketeers” and me “D’Artagnan.” I will not share what I called him. The usual laughs in the pub, the usual characters. It did feel bloody odd, though, to wish a few friends and regulars “Happy Christmas” as we squeezed out of the boozer.
Bollocks to Qatar 2022. It has ruined our season and it has ruined many lives.
We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. It just seemed all along like a bloody ridiculous time for a game of football, London derby or not.
Forty years ago – to the exact day, Saturday 6 November 1982 – Chelsea had another home derby. We played Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge in front of a relatively decent 15,169, but the game ended up as a dull 0-0 draw. I won’t detail the Chelsea team on this occasion but, for reference and as a comparison, let me list the Crystal Palace players; Paul Barron, Gavin Nebbeling, Jerry Murphy, Steve Lovell, Jim Cannon, Paul Hinshelwood, David Giles, Henry Hughton, Ian Edwards, Kevin Mabbutt and Vince Hilaire. I recognise all of these names forty years on, with the exception of David Giles, and if pressed I could probably write short pen pictures of them all. Of especial note is Kevin Mabbutt, a former Bristol City striker, whose brother Gary had gone from Bristol Rovers to Tottenham in 1982 and would soon be playing for England. Their father Ray used to play for Frome Town. I mention all of this because I know damn well that I would be hard-pressed to name many of the current Arsenal team that would be playing us on the same date in 2022. I don’t feel any pleasure in saying this. I guess it is a sign of my changing relationship with football and modern football in particular. Outside of Chelsea, I just don’t see much football these days. Oh well.
Glenn was using my ticket for this game as I had picked up a spare. For a change, I would be sat in Gate 17 at the Matthew Harding. It’s an odd section. It’s actually along the side of the pitch, an adjunct to the East Stand, and was built a few years after the Matthew Harding, and joined the two stands together. To be honest, it’s a great area to see the game. My seat was in the second row, just splendid. I soon spotted Mark Worrell a few rows behind me alongside Young Dave and Pav from Bath, heroes of Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013. I saw that club historian Rick Glanvill was a few seats away. I also spotted Johnny Twelve and his son in an even better viewing position in one of the middle tiers of the West Stand.
By the side of the pitch, former players Emmanuel Petit and Eidur Gudjohnsen. Oh dear, memories of that 2002 FA Cup Final against you-know-who.
As this would be our nearest home game to Remembrance Day, the Stamford Bridge stadium was set up to honour the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The large letters “Chelsea Remembers” usually occupy the corner of the pitch where I was now located but I was lucky in that this display was now in the opposite corner of the northern end of the stadium. It meant that I was still able to capture it all on camera. Above the Shed End, a banner stated “We Will Remember Them” and the crowd waited for the understated pageantry at kick-off. Two Chelsea pensioners placed wreaths, the players lined up on the centre-circle and “The Last Post” was played by a lone bugler. In The Shed, a sea of white mosaics appeared with a large red poppy in the middle. It didn’t feel right to photograph this, I let the moment pass, and kept my head bowed in silence.
The minute of silence was that. It was unerringly quiet. Well done to all.
Azpilicueta – Silva – Chalobah – Cucarella
Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek
Sterling – Havertz – Mount
Their team? Who cares.
So, this was it then. A duel at high noon. A shoot-out between London’s two most decorated clubs.
Arsenal : 31 major trophies.
Chelsea : 28 major trophies.
This was my thirty-seventh game against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Additionally, I have seen us play Arsenal at six further venues, the most of any club; Highbury, The Emirates, Wembley, Cardiff, Beijing and Baku.
The game began.
From this new vantage point, Stamford Bridge looked different, though obviously familiar. I didn’t like feeling cramped in with spectators to my front, back, left and right. In my usual seat, I have just bodies to my right and in front; to my left steps, a walkway behind. And I took an immediate dislike to the angry man to my left. He quickly annoyed me, telling a chap who was obviously having difficulty to find his correct seat to “fuck off” and soon labelling one of our players with a term that I thought had died a death in the ‘eighties.
On the pitch, Arsenal had begun much the brighter of the two teams and very soon the anger of one man spread to the anger of others. Attacking at will down below me, the chances started to pile up but the Arsenal finishing was errant and did not really trouble Edouard Mendy. An effort from Gabriel Martinelli – I recognised him – flew just over the bar.
We invited Arsenal on, but there was a horrific piece of goalkeeping from Mendy when he almost made a complete hash of passing the ball out of defence. I was reminded of a moment that took place the previous afternoon during the Frome Town vs. Tavistock game that I had watched with a few friends. We were already 2-0 down but we gifted the visiting team from Devon with a third when our ‘keeper made a mess of clearing and an attacker scored his third of his eventual four goals in a shocking 4-0 rout. It was, undoubtedly, the worst Frome Town performance that I had seen for years.
I kept looking at the clock, willing the time to pass quickly. There is no doubt that we had shown a reluctance to piece too many moves together but we were playing a little better than I had feared.
In the midst of strong Arsenal pressure, we enjoyed a rare break. Raheem Sterling ran at pace down our right before switching it to Kai Havertz on our left.
“Go on Havertz, be strong.”
The pace of the move slowed and Havertz methodically advanced. He spotted the run of Mason Mount but a shot was blocked.
Gabriel Jesus – I sadly recognised him too – headed a cross from Martinelli just wide of Mendy’s goal.
Chances were at a premium.
I wanted our support to roar the players on, but it saddens me to say that I could just hear the three thousand Arsenal fans and not us.
That very distinctive “Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal.”
The left-footed Odegaard reminded me of Mike Fillery, just the way he caressed the ball forward.
A poor finish from Havertz from a nice move down our right.
“That was a bloody back pass” I moaned.
At the break, there was relief that we were still in the game, despite Arsenal having more of the ball. But, I had to admit it to myself, neither ‘keeper was pressed into a save.
Arsenal still enjoyed more of the possession as the second-half began. Gabriel Jesus forced a near post save from Mendy. From the corner that followed, a slow cross towards to the near post. It seemed to be headed on from the view that I had, and the ball continued on unaided through a forest of players in the six-yard box.
Then when the ball was pushed over the line :
Sixty-three minutes had passed.
Then that horrible song.
“One nil to The Arsenal.”
A double substitution from Potter.
Conor Gallagher for the woeful Havertz.
Armando Broja for the equally poor Aubameyang.
I heard the jeering, booing, laughter of three-thousand Arsenal fans.
There seemed to be an immediate increase in our intensity, but for all of the energy of the two newcomers, it was all so disjointed. The Arsenal players were suffocating our midfield and the two in front of the back four – Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek – offered little.
The rain came again, damn it; not another soaking on a wet walk back to the car?
More Arsenal chances, our fight disappeared.
Two more changes.
Christian Pulisic for the almost invisible Mount.
Mateo Kovacic for the disappointing Loftus-Cheek.
Chances in the second-half? I can only think of one, a quick break from Sterling but his cross disappeared into the ether.
The angry man to my left early, and a fair few others left early too. It was a deeply disappointing game for us, and one that left us all wondering about our immediate future. Of our players, only Mendy – several decent saves – and Dave – a steady game in difficult circumstances – were exempt of any negative comments. The rest? Poor. Very poor.
Yes, we got drenched on the way back to the car, but maybe not quite so bad as on Wednesday. Everything was doom and gloom in the first few miles of our return journey.
And I don’t really know how to finish this one. In modern football, everyone reacts to the latest result as if that alone will define our season, our future. That can’t be right can it? I don’t know about Graham Potter. I can’t help feeling that he may not be an upgrade on Thomas Tuchel. But this ain’t his team, maybe not for a while.
The old banalities about time can be trotted out.
We’ll see. We’ll see.
In a moment of whimsy, after I had been back at home for an hour or so, I realised that the quintessentially English phrase “pottering” might well have summed up, cynically, our performance against Arsenal.
“to potter” : verb.
From the Oxford Dictionary : “to do things or move without hurrying, especially when you are doing something that you enjoy and that is not important.”
“Occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant way.”
“I’m quite happy to potter about by myself here.”
Do nothing much.
Do odd jobs.
Move or go in a casual, unhurried way.
So much for a shoot-out at high noon on this wet and weary day at Stamford Bridge. If it was a shoot-out, somebody must have given us a supply of blanks.
Let’s give the new man a bit of time to sort things out. Rome wasn’t built in a day and other clichés. We were bloody excellent at the San Siro a few weeks ago. We are missing two key players. Maybe three.
On we bloody go.
No midweek trip to Manchester City for me so the next one will be another tough game up on Tyneside.
See you there.