Chelsea vs. Borussia Dortmund : 7 March 2023.
On a night of high drama at a wonderfully noisy Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea undoubtedly produced the finest performance of a deeply frustrating season, we defeated Borussia Dortmund 2-0 with goals in each half from the boots of Raheem Sterling and Kai Havertz, this from a twice-taken penalty, to secure our passage into the Champions League quarter finals once again.
It was always going to be a long day for me, this one. I had set the alarm for 4.30am so I could do an irregular 6am to 2pm shift. Thankfully, traffic was light on the way into London and at 4.30pm, I was parked up at Bramber Road between the North End Road and Queens Club. Heaven knows what time I’d be reaching my Somerset village after the game.
Throughout the day I had been quietly confident of us progressing against Dortmund. I felt sure that their 1-0 lead from the first leg could be overturned. I just felt it in my water. I had to smile when my fellow Frome Town supporter Steve, who would be watching the home game against Bashley – another team that plays in yellow shirts and black shorts – commented that he hoped both Yellow Walls would come tumbling down. Quite.
Pre-match was spent flitting between Stamford Bridge to chat to a couple of friends, a chip shop on Fulham Broadway for sustenance and “Simmons” to meet up with the usual suspects.
Just outside the Shed End, I chatted briefly to Mark M.
“I think we’ll do it. I think those buggers will raise their game and we’ll go through.”
And this was one of the main reasons why I was predicting a win and a safe passage into the next round. Myself and many others could not help but think that the Chelsea players, with just this one remaining trophy left to win in this dullest of seasons, were very likely indeed to go all out for a win against Dortmund. And yes, that would raise questions about desire and commitment to the cause in more mundane fixtures, but Mark smiled when he replied.
“Rather have us go through with that the case, rather than the alternative though.”
On the approach to the West Stand, supporters were being confronted by our very own yellow wall of hi-vis wearing stewards, a long line of them, who were asking for punters to show match tickets. It was calling out for a photograph and I duly snapped away. I was more than optimistic that the night would be supremely photogenic.
As I began to wolf down a saveloy and chips inside the busy chippy, I made room alongside me for a Dortmund fan. I had walked past “McGettigans” just as he had been in a discussion with a bouncer about being admitted into the pub. It didn’t surprise me that he had been turned away. We began chatting and I explained that I had attended the first leg. I also bravely retold the story of my “phantom trip” to see Borussia in 1987, hoping that he – Klaus, with his daughter alongside him – would understand my English. He was originally from Dortmund but now lives in Bonn. It was his first ever visit to London for a Champions League game. I again remained confident about a passage into the quarters and I told them so. As I sidled past them on leaving, I shook Klaus’ hand and said “when we beat you later tonight, you’ll remember this conversation.”
I then bumped into Mark W.
“Just walked up from Putney. There’s loads of them down there. In loads of pubs.”
It was no surprise that the Germans had travelled over in numbers. We had heard ridiculous stories of how many Eintracht Frankfurt supporters had descended on the capital in previous years and it was now the turn of the yellow and black hordes from Westphalia.
In the bar, my confidence was still surprisingly high. Jason and Gina from Dallas, remaining in London from the Leeds game, met up for a quick chat before disappearing off for a pre-match meal in one of the banqueting suites. I could sense that the mood in the small bar was buoyant. You could taste it in the air.
“Just need to avoid conceding an early goal.”
I walked up the Fulham Road with Parky. I was aware that the younger element in our support had planned a Liverpool-style welcome for the Dortmund coach outside the main gates between 5.30pm and 6pm – flares, noise – but I had not heard how well that had gone.
I was soon inside.
The three-thousand away fans were already occupying their allotted zone, though the section was configured slightly differently than the away area for a domestic league game; more in the lower, less in the upper, I know not why.
At 7.30pm, news filtered through that the kick-off had been delayed until 8.10pm. I wondered if the fans’ “welcome” had caused this.
We heard the team, a trusted 3-4-3.
Koulibaly – Fofana – Cucarella
James – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell
Sterling – Havertz – Felix
For some reason, Chelsea had decided to position two blowers at either end of the West Stand, pitch-side, and for a few minutes before the pre-game ceremony really got going, these blew dry-ice into the air. I must admit that it added to the atmosphere and the sense of drama despite me preferring fan-led initiatives.
Clive : “Gary Numan is on the pitch next.”
Indeed, how very 1980.
Next up, a laser light show. Again dramatic, but it was as if we were being spoon-fed our atmosphere rather than being able to create our own.
Then the entrance of the teams. I’ll say it once again; I much preferred the dramatic walk across the pitch and the line-ups in front of the West Stand.
The game was almost upon us.
But first, it was time for the away fans, seemingly all bedecked in yellow and black scarves, to give us all a show. It was, I have to say, stunning. Just as the teams stood for the anthem, scarves were held aloft. Then, a first for me, the Borussia players sprinted over to the away corner to show their appreciation. By now, the mosaic depicting many of our players was draped over both tiers of The Shed.
And then the yellow flares took over the away section, then the whole Shed End, then that part of the pitch. Alan likened it to a scene from the trenches of Picardy when mustard gas floated terrifyingly across battle lines. The scene reminded me of a Turner painting of the River Thames that I had recently seen at the art gallery in Liverpool; a yellow wash with broad brush strokes.
I wondered what masterpiece was going to unfold on the canvas before me.
This was it then. A massive game. Up until now, our season had been decidedly patchy, like one of those hideous denim jackets – “Kutte” – that many German football fans love to wear to games, but here was one easy path to redemption. Win this one boys and most – not all – will be forgotten.
Into them Chelsea.
We began so well, with some deep penetration – especially down the Chilwell and Felix flank – bringing us immediate joy, despite us watching the action through a cadmium yellow haze.
I was so pleased to see Julian Brandt, one of their best players in Germany three weeks ago, being substituted after just five minutes. The man mountain of Niklas Sule still stood in our way, though.
Our fine start – a header from Kalidou Koulibaly, a shot from Kai Havertz – helped to stir up a noisy reaction from us.
But the sight of all that yellow smoke drifting into the cold evening air, plus those sulphurous notes hitting our senses too, had set the tone. We were up for the vocal battle.
The atmosphere was bloody fantastic.
Even though I had seen many obvious tourist-types during my wanderings pre-match, wearing far too many friendship scarves for my liking, the old-school support had reacted so well in those early minutes. Again there had been a collective decision to ignore doubts about Graham Potter and to simply support.
The noise boomed around Stamford Bridge.
After having the best of the first fifteen minutes, the away team then had a little spell. Fearing danger, Alan had begun to share his packet of “Maynard Wine Gums”, our European good-luck charm for many a season – I have a ‘photo of Alan with a packet before the Vicenza game twenty-five years ago – and we managed to ride the storm.
There was, however, one moment of high drama. There was a foul in “Ward-Prowse” territory and Marco Reus – who did not play in the first-game – struck a fine free kick towards goal. Kepa flung himself across the goal to save well.
A goal then would have been catastrophic.
Despite our keen start, the away team were now bossing the possession but we looked confident when we broke. As the minutes passed, it became an even game. At times we struggled a little to win the ball.
But the noise still gratifyingly rose out of the stands.
On twenty-seven minutes, a wicked cross from Reece James was whipped into the six-yard box but without anyone arriving to meet it. The ball rebounded out to Havertz who unleashed a thunderous strike goal wards goal. The effort slammed against one post and then seemed to spin slowly across the face of the goal, again with nobody close, and off it went for a goal kick.
Next up, more drama. Chelsea on top again. The noise booming. A Raheem Sterling shot – after a run from deep – was saved but the ball reached Havertz. Cool as you like, the German curled an exquisite effort up and into the far top corner. I celebrated wildly but soon saw an off-side flag.
“Yeah, to be fair, Sterling did look offside.”
This was good stuff.
“Bellingham is quiet, in’ee?”
The whole stadium was now one huge unit.
“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
Next, a chance for Koulibaly was fluffed but the ball ran on to Felix but his shot was straight at Alexander Meyer in the Borussia goal. Then a shot from Chilwell, attacking space so well, but his effort went wide.
“Be brilliant to get a goal just before the break.”
Throughout the first-half, it was reassuring to see Marc Cucarella playing so well. His game was full of incisive tackles and intelligent passing. A huge plus.
With forty-three minutes on the clock, a move developed on our strong left flank. Often in this half Havertz was to be found in a slightly deeper role with Sterling in the middle up top. On this occasion, the ball was moved out of defence by Cucarella. The ball found Havertz who wriggled away down the left – liquid gold – and he then back-heeled to Mateo Kovacic who kept the ball moving. A cross from Chilwell was zipped in to the waiting Sterling. He stabbed at the ball but completely missed it. He did well to get to the ball again, take a touch and blast the ball goal wards. In the blink of an eye, the ball rose to hit the net high.
The Bridge shook.
GET IN YOU BASTARD.
Euphoria? You bet. Perfect timing. Perfect.
The players celebrated in front of the away fans. Snigger. Snigger.
At half-time, everything was good in my world, your world, our world.
In 1983, things were…different.
After the win at home to Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea travelled over to The Valley to play Charlton Athletic. The date was Saturday 5 March 1983. The result was horrific. We were 2-0 down at half-time and we went on to lose 5-2. Our scorers were Colin Lee and Pop Robson. The attendance was 11,211. I remember seeing highlights from this game on YouTube a couple of years ago. I saw half-baked football with the stadium at quarter capacity. I would advise against anyone doing the same. The former European footballer of the year in 1977 Allan Simonsen scored one of the five Charlton goals. Things were at a low ebb again.
Never mind, help was on hand. My diary noted that Bob Latchford, then at Swansea City, was going to join us on Saturday.
Let’s get back to 2023 sharpish.
The second-half began and we were attacking the Matthew Harding as is our wont. We began the half in the same way that we had finished the first.
Again, this was good stuff.
After five minutes, there was an attack, developed well from right to left, that ended up with a cross from Chilwell that eventually resulted in a shot, saved, from Kovacic. But there had been a shout for handball, strangely not by myself, as the cross was whipped in.
Some of the crowd shouted “VAR”.
We went to VAR.
The usual delay.
Then the referee was asked to check the TV monitor.
I chatted to Alan : “The longer these take, the better likelihood of a penalty. If they look at the TV, even more so.”
I didn’t cheer, I just can’t.
Havertz had the ball, carrying it, waiting for the protestations to pass.
A slow run up, a halt, a wait, a strike.
It hit the post.
The ball was cleared.
Unbeknown to me, there had been encroachment.
The TV screen told the story.
“Straftsossausfuhrung Unerfrufung” gave way to “Betreten Des Strafraums. Wiederholung Des Strafstosses.”
Anyway, the whatever, the kick was to be retaken.
“Havertz again. Not convinced. Think he’ll miss again.”
A few fellow sufferers in the Sleepy Hollow were looking away. They could not dare to see it. I watched.
The same, lame, run up. The same side. In.
Pandemonium in the Sleepy Hollow, pandemonium at Stamford Bridge, pandemonium everywhere.
On aggregate, Chelsea 2 Borussia Dortmund 1.
Deep breaths, deep breaths.
On the hour, Stamford Bridge was again as one.
“We all follow the Chelsea.”
There was a clear chance for Jude Bellingham, but remarkably he volleyed wide.
Conor Gallagher replaced Joao Felix. The substitute provided fresh legs and kept our momentum going. But as the night grew older, and as the remaining wine gums were eked out between Alan, Clive and little old me, the nerves began to be tested.
A save by Kepa from Marius Wolf as the ball flew in.
On seventy-five minutes, Sterling raced through but I thought he was offside. He advanced, passed to Gallagher, goal. The flag was raised for the initial offside.
On eighty-three minutes, Potter changed personnel.
Christian Pulisic – who? – for Sterling.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic.
On eight-seven minutes, one final change.
Denis Zakaria for Enzo.
An extra six minutes of extra-time were signalled so Alan turned his stopwatch on.
I lived every tackle, every pass. The stopwatch passed six minutes, it entered the seventh. I watched the moment that the referee blew up.
We were there.
“One Step Beyond” boomed and I hurriedly put away my camera before turning to leave. All around me were smiling faces.
“See you at Leicester, Al.”
I needed to put something up on “Facebook” and it soon came to me.
“We Are Chelsea. We Do Europe.”
This has clearly been a difficult season and the football has, by our high standards, been very poor for more than this current campaign. But this game was so gorgeous to be part of. It was a complete joy to, at last, witness a proper game of football – “just like we used to” – with the added bonus of an active and energised crowd adding support and noise.
A masterpiece? It felt like it. Absolutely. It was one of those great Chelsea nights.
Walking along the Fulham Road, everyone seemed to be smiling. There were chants and songs. Along the North End Road, a car played “Blue Is The Colour” while one of the song’s original singers walked alongside me. It was a lovely moment.
“Cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”
The car continued on, now “toot-tooting” its horn as it disappeared into the night.
Everyone was super-happy on the drive home.
I eventually reached my house at 1.30am, just as snow started to fall, but I knew that I would not be able to crash straight away. My mind was still flying around – “Benfica next round please” – and I was able to upload a photo or two onto the internet. At just after 2.30am, I must have fallen asleep.
4.30am to 2.30am, mission accomplished.
See you at Leicester.