Tales From The Mother Road

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 11 September 2021.

It is a familiar motif from these match reports – I am tempted to say “stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before” – of games from the early part of our campaigns that I usually need a few matches to get back into the swing of things. I was doing fine this season. I was acclimatising reasonably well, I was getting back into live football, the games were seemingly important once again and even my vocal chords were coping. It all felt a little different this season, though. Our forced absence from the game for so long was playing heavily on my mind and I suppose the crux of it concerned my fears that I wouldn’t get the pre-COVID19 buzz back.

But here was a real test. After seeing Chelsea Football Club play just seven times in five-hundred and thirty-eight days (an average of one every seventy-six days), I was now about to embark on a burst of five games in just fifteen days (an average of once every three days for those who failed CSE Maths). This represented, in my mind at least, a test, a litmus test, for my enthusiasm. I certainly hoped that this spell of five games in London would rid me of the considerable disconnect that has hounded me since March 2020.

We all live in a place called hope, right?

I woke again way before the alarm, and gathered my tickets, trinkets, passes and thoughts ahead of the 10.30am departure. A new car, a new Chuckle Bus, was parked on my drive-way and this would be its first journey of note, its maiden voyage with me at the helm and it’s first trip up my version of Route 66 – in fact, Route A303 would be very apt as it arrived with just 303 miles on the clock – to London SW6.

It would be its first trip along the Mother Road.

I collected PD and Parky in good time.

There was talk of these upcoming games (the printing-off of some of the tickets at home was proving to be a far from a straightforward task) and some matches even further out. Just like holidays, I get a great deal of pleasure in planning these games, especially the away games, and these sometimes awkward tasks feed into my Obsessive Chelsea Disorder. Tottenham was almost complete, Brentford was a work in progress, but Newcastle was sorted. More of those three trips later. Turin, Malmo and Saint Petersburg away games were taking a back seat. Not that I would plan on all three anyway, but travel within Europe was so much “up in the air” right now – or not, as the case might be – that I wasn’t wasting energy on plans for those three destinations just yet.

One potential destination that had ruled itself out of my plans was Tokyo. It had recently pulled out of hosting the World Club Championships in December, and I was now hearing that maybe Las Vegas or maybe Qatar would step in like some gallant knight in shining armour. This was met with growls of disapproval from me. I am not a fan of Vegas. And even less of a fan of Qatar. From one extreme from the other. From “anything goes” to “strictly forbidden.”

Such was my feeling of abhorrence when Qatar was handed the 2022 World Cup a few years back, that I made the conscious decision not to watch a single second of the finals on TV. And I just recently decided not to watch any more of the qualifiers too. So, the recent International break absolutely passed me by. I may have lost England forever.

In the circumstances, the lingering presence of Qatar in talk of the World Club Championships focussed my mind further. I would be a hypocrite to avoid Qatar in 2022 as some sort of moral crusade – stop sniggering at the back – and yet blithely sign up to watch Chelsea in Qatar in December. So, let’s see how that all pans out.

No pressure, Vegas.

We only stopped at Fleet Services for a quick pit-stop en route from Somerset to London, but from then on in, we became embroiled in some nasty traffic. It usually takes me three hours from door to door (my door to the door of The Eight Bells in Fulham) but it took me just over four hours on this occasion.

I dropped PD and Parky at West Brompton, then about-turned to park my car just off Lillie Road. Then a quick flit by tube to Putney Bridge. Job done.

I had booked a table for 1.30pm, and the hosts had very kindly kept it for us when we arrived an hour later.

I met up with Mark, from Norwich, and his son Matt. We had been talking during the build up to this game how our first Chelsea match in 1974 was the very same one; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974. We are the same age. We both live out of town. A few nice similarities in fact. He is the first Chelsea fan I have ever met whose first match was the same as mine. I was quite thrilled when Mark shared a couple of previously unseen on-line photographs from that day forty-seven years ago. We chatted and reminisced about tons of Chelsea games, especially from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, and we found ourselves finishing off each other’s sentences on a few occasions as the memories and reference points interweaved and overlapped. That’s always a good sign.

I have to admit to being taken aback on a few occasions during our lovely conversation when I spotted a rather stern looking fellow, with a mop of white hair looking up at me from the other side of the bar.

Oh, it was me in a pub mirror.

The passing of time, and all of its crimes, is making me sad again.

Note to self : must smile more.

Kim, Andy, Dan and the Kent lads arrived and it was the first time that we had seen them since last year. It was superb to spend time together once again; around a dozen of us in our cosy corner of The Eight Bells, all meeting up again, trying our best to prove that football is real life, and not a TV programme. I totally understand that many can’t attend live football due to finance and geography, but it seems that so many these days do not make the effort. Is modern football now a diet of watching games on TV in pubs, streaming at home, fantasy football and betting accumulators?

At Putney Bridge tube station, there were a group of boozy and cheerful Villa fans. One chap, of a certain age, approached me and told me that he liked my yellow Adidas SL76 trainers. Thirty-five years ago, the conversation might well have been different.

“You got too much for us today. Think you’ll beat us 3-0.”

I concurred. It was my prediction too.

At Fulham Broadway tube, the lad at the Krsipy Crème stand spotted my Boca Juniors T-shirt and asked if I was from Argentina.

My colours on this day of football were yellow and blue, in-keeping with the current Chelsea offering, but without me looking too much like a Billy Smart’s Circus reject.

There was further talk of South American football with Clive in The Sleepy Hollow. A few months before my visit to Argentina last year, he had visited Brazil, and had caught an itoxicating Flamengo game at the Maracana. He highly recommended Brazil. The World Club Championships in Brazil has a nice ring to it. Chelsea at the Maracana? Where do I sign up for that beauty?

From 1993 to 2016, my desire to witness new sporting stadia outside of Europe was clearly focussed on North American baseball stadia; twenty-one major league and four minor-league. I have a feeling in the future my focus will now be on South American football.

We had heard that ten-men Tottenham had succumbed to three late goals at Crystal Palace – how we laughed – but a Cristiano Ronaldo brace had helped Manchester United beat Newcastle. All of this fizzled away into insignificance as our collective thoughts focused on the game against Villa.

The sun was out despite some clouds, and the extra hours of drinking meant there was a bubbly atmosphere as kick-off approached.

The teams entered onto the beautiful green lawn. A new Mason Mount flag surfed below me.

I checked the team.

The inclusion of Saul Niguez surprised everyone, possibly none more so than him himself.

It seemed an oddly thrown together team, but one which was representative of the pressures put on members of our squad during the international break. No Mount. No Dave. But an injured Kante too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Hudson-Odoi – Kovacic – Niguez – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Havertz

Romelu Lukaku was to play in his first game as a Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge since a substitute appearance against the same team in August 2013. All the rail-seating was in now. The banners around the pitch lay heavy with the early evening humidity. “The “knee” drew boos but then louder applause. The game began.

A few early Chelsea raids acted as mere foreplay for the full-on end to end session that followed. The game was a cracker. A zipped-in corner on our left from Callum avoided everyone but hit a knee, I think, of a defender and bounced up onto the bar at The Shed End. The first thing of beauty that I noted was a deep and high ball from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva which dropped perfectly and pleasantly at the feet of the advancing Marcos Alonso. People talk of a deep-lying midfielder pinging balls like a quarterback, but here was Silva doing the exact same. It reminded me of Ruud Gullit and then Frank Leboeuf doing similar.

It turned out to be a precursor to an even better ball from Mateo Kovacic. Breaking away in that busy style of his, he spotted the advanced Romelu Lukaku. A magnificently-placed ball, cutting right between two scuttling Villa defenders, and curving and dropping into the exact place that both Kovacic intended and that Lukaku had expected, landed perfectly. Lukaku sized up the options, turned Tuanzebe’s limbs into a pretzel and dispatched a low shot past Steer into the Villa goal.

It is fair to say that The Bridge boomed.

Lukaku raced past Parkyville, and led on the floor, facing the sky.

At last we had a finisher in our midst, not a finisher in the mist, out of sight, lost.

A magnificently noisy and rude “Carefree” enveloped the entire stadium.

Bliss. Absolute bliss.

But Villa, who had already enjoyed a few moves into our half, were not put out and only a sublime save, low and late, from Mendy at his right post from a Watkins drive saved us. Halfway through the first-half, and with Villa vibrant, Saul Niguez surrendered possession and that man Watkins rounded Mendy. A goal looked on the cards, but Silva is an experienced fellow and he nimbly recovered to block the shot admirably.

Our Saul was struggling with the pace and tenacity of the early exchanges.

“Our Saul, you say? More like a fackin’ arsehole. Wake up you caaaaaaaaant.”

I turned to Clive :

“Well, they’ve had their chances.”

This was a good game, possibly a great game. I was involved, and I appreciated the moment. It was an intriguing game of football, but one which was causing Chelsea increasing problems.

On thirty-three minutes, our man Mendy threw himself to save a rocket from Mings, but was able to scramble to his feet to push away the follow-up from Konsa. These saves were simply sublime. They sent me spinning back to Wembley 1973 and the Jim Montgomery double-save.

This was becoming a disconnected and disjointed performance from us with only occasional flourishes. Ziyech was quiet. Saul was getting over run in midfield. There were only flashes from Havertz. Lukaku was hardly fed anything save the pass for the goal.

Callum Hudson-Odoi was again a disappointment. It was as if the well-worn football phrase “flattering to deceive” was invented for him and for him only. On several occasions he was presented with a few one on ones, but inevitably chose a soft option.

I moaned to Clive : “I wasn’t a great winger, but when I received the ball, my one thought was to get past my marker, not look behind me.”

It was Villa who grew in confidence as the first-half progressed and by the time we all reached the interval, there was a mixture of relief and worried expressions in The Sleepy Hollow.

“We should be 3-1 down. Villa must feel robbed.”

Lo and behold, Thomas Tuchel – still without a song, I still feel I don’t know him too well – spotted the obvious and replaced Saul with Jorginho at the break. It would be a move that we all wanted and that would help to solidify our position in the second-half.

Just four minutes into the second period, Lukaku lost possession but then harassed and harried Tuanzebe and the ball was rushed to Mings whose attempted back pass to Steer was ably intercepted by Kovacic. He doesn’t often find himself in such forward positions, but his finish was impeccable. It had something of the Pedro about it; an instinctive and incisive flick past Steer, and in off the far post it went.

GET IN.

Initial thoughts : “bloody hell, Villa must be spitting feathers.”

But the relief was palpable. We were now 2-0 up and able to consolidate things. A Havertz drive slid past the far post. Thankfully, the Villa offensive was not as potent in the second-half.

On fifty-eight minutes, I was poised to clap in memory of the wonderful comedian Sean Lock, a regular at Stamford Bridge for years, who sadly passed away recently. At the start of the dedicated minute, not many joined in, but thankfully at the end the applause was taken up by many. It extended past the minute mark. The Matthew Harding then started our own song of remembrance :

“One Sean Lock, there’s only one Sean Lock.”

Bless him. He was one of my modern day favourite comedians.

The game continued, and thankfully most of the visitors’ shots on goal were tame, and often at Mendy. Our crowd was surprisingly buoyant for a decidedly average performance. But we were leading, and I suppose that helped.

Stating The Bloody Obvious #716.

To be fair to them, the Villa fans were pretty noisy throughout the game, and even though they are not known for being particularly vociferous, I had to admit that I was impressed with their performance. The three thousand strong block virtually stayed en masse, despite the game going against them.

The devilish McGinn was running things for Villa, his spirit and energy mirroring that of our Kovacic.  I was really enjoying this battle. As, I think were most. There didn’t seem to be a dull moment. The supporters were enjoying it too, and there was even one rare moment of appreciation of a strong tackle by a Villa player on one of our lot. Is this the new normal? To be fair, this isn’t too uncommon. Great saves by opposition ‘keepers, tackles by opposing players, even the occasional goal against – only as long as we are winning – have been clapped in the past.

On the hour, another change.

Dave for Kai.

Dave to right wing back, Callum to outside left, down in the Hazardous Area below me. Again, he was all flicks but with no real finished product.

“Thing is Clive, he doesn’t have to beat his man over five yards. He has twenty yards to run into. Knock it past him, and kill him for pace.”

The Matthew Harding had twice goaded into getting The Shed to sing in the first half with no response. An attempt to get The Shed involved – this is invariably met with a defiant “Carefree” – again fell on deaf ears. Midway through the second-half, when The Shed did finally get involved, an audible noise able to be heard, the Matthew Harding Lower jumped in.

“We forgot that you were here.”

Not sure what The Shed thought of that, nor ironically if they even heard it.

Former Chelsea player Bertrand Traore was given a nice reception as he came on as a substitute for Ings. A shot of his from distance was deflected narrowly wide.

Alonso had a trademark dig at an angle down below us, but his daisy-cutter fizzed wide.

Villa’s attacks grew weaker and without much intent.

Their fans still sang, but the Liverpool “Allez!Allez! Allez!” needs to be dumped. Sharpish.

Werner, the forgotten man right now, got a late run out, with Tuchel no longer willing to witness the advanced Hudson-Odoi anymore. By now, the game was being played out in a strange murky twilight, the sun long gone, the floodlights on, a hint of autumn in the air.

In the last moments of the game, a typically positive run from Dave down the right was followed by an inch perfect pass into the feet of Lukaku. A slight adjustment, and then –

BAM.

The ball flew past Steer.

Chelsea 3 Aston Villa 0.

Lukaku, attitude and / or arrogance on show, jogged over to our corner, and gave me – and others – a fine photo opportunity. Like the man himself, I don’t miss that easy an open goal.

CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.

At last, after the stern face, Lukaku smiled.

The ref soon blew up.

This had been a hugely enjoyable game. Villa had certainly surprised me though. Absolutely no way they deserved to lose 3-0. As we left the stadium, I shared these thoughts with PD.

“There must be few occasions over the years where an away team has come here and lost 3-0, yet the Chelsea supporters know deep down that they deserved more.”

The top three performers were undoubtedly Mendy for his excellent saves, Kovacic for his growing command of the midfield, his sublime assist and his beauty of a goal and Lukaku, two shots two goals, Goodnight Vienna.

We met up with Parky back at The Anchor fish bar on Lillee Road.

“Saveloy and chips mate, please, open.”

The drive home was a lot less stressful than the trip to London. It was a blissful trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset. I loved this day out. And I am so pleased to be able to report that I am rapidly getting my appetite for the game back.  

Game one of five down, superb, very enjoyable. Zenit on Tuesday, my first European Night at Chelsea since that tough loss to Bayern in 2020. Then Tottenham away – “love it” – and one of the games of any season. Then Villa again in the League Cup (that might be the one that tests me) and lastly a possible season-deciding game against City. I suspect we will give them a few reminders of Porto, don’t you?

Good times. Let them roll. Let the Mother Road lead us back to London time and time again.

See you Tuesday.

Goal One.

Goal Two.

Goal Three.