Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2022.
My alarm sounded at 6.45am.
Good morning universe.
Here I was, here we were, back in action after an enforced lay-off. Our last game was the home match with Salzburg some seventeen days ago. Yet in this new month of October we faced nine games in just twenty-nine days. The plan will be to try and attend all of them. We were to begin this manic month with a trip to Selhurst Park for a game with Crystal Palace.
My weekend had begun with yet another concert – my sixth in a summer and autumn of music – that involved an act that was around in 1982. On Friday, I saw Toyah perform at the local venue in Frome.
She had opened the set with “Good Morning Universe” and it was stuck in my mind as I drove home after the concert. And it evidently remained in my ahead until the next morning too.
Toyah was a huge name in the UK music scene from 1980 to 1982, but her stardom soon drifted. I had seen her perform to a pretty small crowd in Frome back in 2015, but her popular “Sunday Lunch” videos with husband Robert Fripp, since lockdown in 2020, have put her back into the public eye once again. For someone who is sixty-four, her show was full of energy. I enjoyed it. The venue was packed.
There was always a slight resemblance between Toyah and my first-ever girlfriend from the summer of 1982. Although I did not dwell too much on it at the time, it later dawned on me that Toyah had a lisp, and that my girlfriend had the slightest of lisps too. I was always so delighted that Toyah’s determination to overcome a speech impediment allowed her to fulfil her career path. Forty years on, my own speech impediment still rears its very ugly head at unsuspecting moments and I hate it now as I fucking hated it then.
As I watched the singer on stage in Frome, my mind kept catapulting me back to summer and early autumn some four decades ago.
Here comes another seamless slide into 1982/83.
My reflective look at “the worst season of them all” continues with two Second Division games from forty years ago.
On Saturday 18 September, Chelsea played Oldham Athletic at Stamford Bridge. This game was notable as marking the debut of firebrand striker David Speedie who we had acquired from Barnsley for £80,000 in the previous May. I honestly cannot remember why his first start was delayed. The new boy got off to a flier, scoring two with a goal in each half. The attendance was 10,263. I remember being disappointed with this gate but philosophical too. In those days, such a gate was often reached by a few of the smaller clubs in the then First Division. My diary noted that I was “pleased that we thrashed Oldham 2-0” and I doubt that I was being ironic. A win, any win, in those forlorn days was definitely a thrashing. Trust me.
A week later, Chelsea travelled up to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday, who were always one of the bigger and more-fancied sides in the division at that time. The team remained unchanged from the Oldham game. The youngster Steve Francis in goal. A back four of Micky Nutton, Gary Chivers, Micky Droy and Chris Hutchings. A midfield of Mike Fillery, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew and Paul Canoville. The striking partnership of Colin Lee and David Speedie upfront. The new season’s starting striker Pop Robson was already – ominously – relegated to a substitute role. A pretty decent attendance of 18,833 assembled for this game. Sadly, the home team went ahead after just twelve minutes and scored two more goals in the second period before two late Chelsea strikes from Fillery and Lee probably gave the result a much closer ending than it deserved.
I can confirm that I was at home that afternoon, listening to the score updates on Radio Two, because I can remember what was happening elsewhere at other games in England on that particular afternoon. It turned out to be a Saturday for the record books. As always, the striking music that heralded “Sports Report” at five o’clock, followed by the measured tones of James Alexander Gordon as he read out the day’s results, was the highlight of the afternoon. The Scot’s raising or falling intonation would allow the listener to know the result even before the scores were completed. He was a master of his craft.
“Sheffield Wednesday – rising – three, Chelsea – falling – OH SHIT WE’VE LOST – two.”
On this particular day, throughout the Football League, it was raining goals. We have not witnessed the like of it in English football ever since. The First Division led the way. In its eleven games, a mammoth fifty goals were scored.
Aston Villa 2 Swansea City 0
Brighton 1 Birmingham City 0
Coventry 4 Everton 2
Liverpool 5 Southampton 0
Manchester United 0 Arsenal 0
Norwich City 1 West Brom 3
Notts County 0 Ipswich Town 6
Stoke City 4 Luton Town 4
Tottenham 4 Nottingham Forest 1
Watford 8 Sunderland 0
West Ham 4 Manchester City 1
Meanwhile, in Division Three, Doncaster Rovers walloped Reading 7-5 at home. However, one Reading player scored four and still ended up on the losing team. His name? Kerry Dixon.
Chelsea’s start to the new campaign had been fair-to-middling. Nothing more. After seven league games, we had won two, drawn three and lost two. It was hardly inspiring stuff from a team that had finished in twelfth position the previous season. But they were my team, my club, and I loved them dearly. On the near horizon was a trip to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Leeds United and, even forty years later, the thrill of the anticipation of that match still resonates.
As I have often documented, a trip to Crystal Palace’s stadium, deep in the hinterlands of South London, is always a troublesome one. I had been monitoring the best way in for a few days and all of the technical aids at my disposal were adamant that after collecting PD and Glenn, and finally, Lordy, the quickest route would be along the M4. So, this was what I did. Lordy was picked-up at 8.30am, but on nearing Swindon, our world caved in. There was a diversion ahead and so I was forced first south and then north of the motorway along smaller roads. It probably cost us an hour.
At Reading Services, I reset my sat-nav and it was sending me right into the heart of London rather than around the M25.
I drove on.
The route in was familiar. It took me along the A4, up to the junction with the North End Road, past those familiar Chelsea match day pubs. It even took me along Lillee Road, only a few yards from where I normally park for home games. But then, with the realisation that the national train strike had forced thousands onto the road network, our plans were hit hard again. Our slow drive through Fulham took the best part of an hour. We were not aided by some very slow changing temporary traffic lights just before Wandsworth Bridge. Eventually, around five-and-a-half bastard hours after leaving sleepy Somerset, we were parked up at my JustPark spot on Woodville Road with the massive TV pylon that dominates that hilly part of South London clearly visible yet still over two miles away. This huge structure was the tallest in London until as recently as 1990. We had given up on getting a drink before the game, but as we headed towards the already overflowing “Prince George”, we spotted a few friends drinking on the pavement outside a small jerk chicken café. We crossed the road to join them.
Rachel from Devon and Donna from Somerset were there. Rob from South West London was there, but without his mate Bob who was in Somerset watching his local team Waltham & Hersham in the FA Cup against Taunton Town. He has evidently reached that key stage – “local non-league team over Chelsea” – before me but I know that time will come for me too.
Drinks were guzzled. A blue flare was let off on the pavement outside the pub opposite. PD and Parky shot off to collect a ticket. Glenn and I set off just before 2.30pm to sort out tickets too.
By 2.40pm, I was in the queue for the Arthur Wait.
“Makes a bloody change to get to a game at Selhurst Park and it’s not pissing with rain.”
There was the usual bag check. While I waited in line, I spotted a listing of “prohibited items” on a poster next to the turnstile. Featured was an image of a camera with a “detachable lens” and the cold sweats came on. I had memories of the last encounter with Crystal Palace, at Wembley, and we all know how that ended. Thankfully, my camera was allowed in.
I shuffled through the packed concourse.
Selhurst Park. If it didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it.
However, for all of its cramped inefficiencies, people would soon lament its passing should it ever be replaced by a single-tiered stadium – “soul-less bowl” is the go-to phrase, eh? – either on the same site or elsewhere.
Each stand is different. Opposite our viewing area is the main stand, an Archibald Leitch original, eerily similar to the Johnny Haynes Stand at Fulham, and thus, the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge. To the right, the slight tier of seats of the Whitehorse Lane Stand, with ugly executive boxes above. In the corner between the two stands is the platform where Bex and his cohorts appeared in the original “The Firm” film from 1989. To the left, the steep two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its curved roof, a throwback to the Edwardian era but the newest of all the current stands. The Arthur Wait Stand was once all standing, and it remains a dark and brooding beast of a stand. The three thousand Chelsea fans, as always, were to be based here, though this hasn’t always been the case. The sightlines aren’t great. In fact, with my position in row eight, down low, I soon decided early on to try not to snap too many photos since my view of the game would be so poor.
A few friends spoke of similarly difficult journeys to the stadium. As kick-off approached, I spotted many clusters of empty seats in the home stands. Palace surely have a more local fan base than us, but I suppose the train strike must have had an adverse effect on numbers. It is a pet peeve that not all attendances are published either online or in the Sunday ‘papers these days. It has all changed after all of those games without fans in the nightmarish seasons of 2019/20 and 2020/21. Not even Chelsea’s home programme includes attendance figures anymore. So, maybe we’ll not know the official attendance for a while, anyway.
This annoys the fuck out of me.
My spreadsheet has half-empty columns.
And what is a world with half-empty columns, eh?
Kick-off approached. The teams entered from that far corner. It suddenly dawned on me that we would be wearing that God-awful away strip. Overhead, there were clouds but there was no hint of rain. I was glad that a rain jacket was left back in the car. I was wearing a subtle-coloured Marc O’Polo sweatshirt; an homage to one I that bought in 1986 or so when that particular brand was much-loved by football fanciers at the time. If the 1986 version was apple green, this one was more mint.
There was a minute of silence in remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II and this was followed by a hearty rendition of “God Save The King.”
This, of course, was Graham Potter’s first league game in charge.
In a “Costa Coffee” on the walk to the stadium, I had briefly spoken to fellow-fan Andy about the switch.
“Is Potter an upgrade on Tuchel?”
I just shrugged my shoulders, unsure.
The game kicked-off and it was clear that we were playing four at the back.
James – Fofana – Silva – Chilwell
Jorginho – Kovacic
Then God knows what…
Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang – Mount
From my position down low, it wasn’t clear.
The game began and we dominated the first – er – seven, count’em, minutes. Thiago Silva was our main pass master, touching the ball often, and looking to play balls in to others. However, the home team had hardly touched the bloody ball when Wesley Fofana gave up possession too easily and the ball quickly found Jordan Ayew. I watched in horror as his perfectly whipped-in cross dropped perfectly at the foot of Odsonne Edouard and Kepa was beaten. Sadly, I caught this goal on camera, but thankfully the image is too blurred for my stringent quality assurance department to allow it to be shared.
It was a killer cross. But where was our defence? Answers on a postcard.
Michael Olise impressed me with his direct play in front of me, but it was Eberechi Ebe who then forced Kepa into action.
With a quarter of an hour gone, we had no attempts on target. Then, an easy header looped up easily into Vicente Guaita’s reach.
Gal was getting annoyed with Aubameyang, though to be fair, the striker had not received much service. It’s difficult when players from rivals find themselves at Stamford Bridge. I know full well that I am going to find it hard to warm to Aubameyang. Is it irrational? Who knows? Gal, from his words – that were certainly annoying the bloke behind me – it will be longer for him to approve of the former Arsenal striker.
Put it this way, at this moment in time, Gal rates Mark Falco more than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
There was a header from Mason Mount that flashed wide of the near post.
Halfway through the first period, I leant forward to chat to Calvin : “this is all a bit boring mate.”
Sterling hit the base of a post but I think the move was offside anyway, as was another that quickly followed.
This was hardly inspiring stuff.
The sun was out by now and it was surprisingly hot on this October afternoon.
The central section of around four hundred of their “ultras” – yeah, I know – were now jumping up and down to a chant that was so loud that I couldn’t hear it.
They looked like they were doing some sort of silent flash mob thing.
(I know they are doing their best to get the atmosphere going, God knows we need it in this bloody country, and they are easy targets…but why just can’t people get behind their teams without this fucking contrived nonsense?)
In their defence, they did produce a few banners in the first-half about the lack of fan involvement in our national game but I am not sure who this was aimed at.
I hope there are similar banners throughout Europe as we rush headlong into the monster of the Qatar World Cup.
There next followed some confusion and more than a little worry. One on one, Silva appeared to hold back Ayew. The defender was booked. VAR then signalled a possible red card. Having not seen the apparent swipe of the ball by Silva’s hand, this was all a bit difficult to work out. Anyway, panic over, no red card.
“Think we got away with that” I said to John, two seats along.
With around ten minutes of the first half remaining, a fine move brought us some cheer. A diagonal found the leap from Silva – strangely well-advanced – and his header found Aubameyang. His quick turn, a swivel, and a shot was exquisite.
The bloke behind might well have ruffled Gal’s hair.
I am sure it wasn’t, but it felt like Aubameyang’s first touch.
It certainly seemed to me that it was an unlikely goal. Unsuspected. Out of the, er, blue.
Chelsea roared : “How shit must you be? Our number nine scored.”
In the closing moments of the half, a back-pass to Gaita was punished with a direct free-kick inside the box. More anguish from the under-performing Mount as his shot cleared the near post. There had been a lovely loose run from Havertz, drifting with ease, past several defenders and I was prepared to celebrate one of the great goals but the shot drifted wide of the far post.
There was time for a quick photo-call with Lordy at half-time.
Soon into the second-half, Potter replaced Jorginho with Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
His slow trudge across the pitch suggested to me – maybe it was just me, I am sure it was – that he realised that he had eventually been found out.
We had a couple of half-chances as the game continued; Chilwell over, a shot blocked from Havertz. Sterling was as lively as anyone, but our link-up play was a little too laboured for my liking, and the away crowd was getting a little frustrated.
As for the defenders, James was the star. I hardly noticed Wilfred Zaha at all.
An upturn in our form was mirrored in the Arthur Wait.
“On when the blues go steaming in, oh when the blues go steaming in, I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”
“Oh when the blues.”
“Oh when the blues.”
“Go steaming in.”
“Go steaming in.”
“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”
“Oh when the blues.”
“Oh when the blues.”
“Go steaming in.”
“Go steaming in.”
“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”
It was deafening. Top work everyone.
This was followed by an equally loud “Ten men went to mow.”
With twenty minutes, two superb saves from Kepa, foiling Zaha on both occasions.
On seventy-six minutes, a double switch.
Conor Gallagher for Havertz.
Armando Broja for Aubameyang.
The play creaked along.
A look towards Alan.
I spent some moments preparing an epitaph to post on “Facebook” at the final whistle.
On eight-five minutes, a final substitution.
Christian Pulisic for the poor Mount.
The epitaph was nearing completion.
“That was a hard watch. Milan must be quaking in their boots. At least Frome Town won.”
Just at that moment, maybe two seconds later, a sideways push of the ball from Pulisic to Gallagher.
A touch, a shot.
I watched the ball fly into the goal despite what looked like a valiant attempt by Guaita to claw it over. His fingertips could not deny us a goal.
The away end roared.
Alan : “they’ll have to come at us now.”
Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”
For the second time in eight months, a last minute goal at Selhurst Park had sent us into a frenzy.
At the final whistle, Gal and his nemesis – at it like hammer and tongs in that feisty encounter in the first-half – embraced with smiles.
I thought to myself : “get a room, lads.”
This was a fortuitous win, no doubt. I am not going to enthuse too much about it. I have to say that I am particularly worried about our two games against Milan over the next week or so, but I am filled with a huge sense of anticipation too.
Maybe not as much as the Leeds game in 1982 but you catch my drift I am sure.
In reality, more than a few friends have admitted that if we do drop into the Europa League, at least we might get some good trips out of it.
“The final is in Budapest” Calvin had reminded me.
But it’s just the fear of getting humiliated against Milan that I fear most. Nobody wants that. They should be two huge games. I honestly can’t wait.
With traffic locked, we popped into a cheap and cheerful “Chicken Cottage” – they evidently love their chicken in around Selhurst Park – to let the flow ease up a little and eventually left Thornton Heath at 6.15pm. Via another diversion on the A303, I eventually reached home four hours later.
I had picked PD up at 8am. I had dropped him off at 10pm.
Just in time for “Match of the Day.”
Next up, one of the Italian greats.
Chelsea versus Milan at Stamford Bridge.
I’m off to practice some Italian swear words.
See you on Wednesday evening.
The BBC recently took the shocking decision to drop the reading out of all of the classified football scores on Radio Five Live at five ‘clock every Saturday.
Words fail me.