Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 17 February 2020.
There had been a break of sixteen long days between our last league fixture away to Leicester City and our home game with Manchester United. It was such a long break that it enabled me to travel to South America and back, but more of that later. And we were now faced with three top notch home games within the space of just ten days.
Chelsea vs. Manchester United.
Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur.
Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich.
It felt like the start of the second-half of the season.
These were three huge matches.
Welcome back everyone.
I worked from 7am to 3pm, and then joined PD – the driver – Lord Parky and Sir Les for the drive to London.
“Bloody hell, lads, how long ago was the last home game? Arsenal, wasn’t it? A month ago? Feels like it, too.”
There were a few questions from the lads concerning my trip to Buenos Aires, but the conversation soon dried up and I took the chance to catch up on some sleep on the familiar drive to London. These Monday evening flits to London are typically tiresome, an imperfect start to the week, a tough ask. I enjoyed an hour’s shut-eye. PD made very good time and we were parked-up at the usual place by 5.30pm.
In “The Goose” – it was so good to briefly see Wycombe Stan who is not in the best of health – and in “Simmons” a few people enquired of my trip to Argentina. I could only utter positives about the whole experience. In fact, as I had initially feared when my trip came to fruition, the only negative about my week in Buenos Aires could well be that the modern day English football experience – watered down, moneyed, sedentary, muted, played-out – would pale, completely and utterly, by comparison.
Little did I know that on this night, against Manchester United, my first game back, there was to be such a brutal and harrowing comparison between the Primera Division in Argentina and the Premier League in England.
Argentina 2020 had slowly evolved over the past few years. Ever since I read the Simon Inglis book “Sightlines” in 2000, Buenos Aires was on my radar. As I explained in a recent tale, this wonderful book – concerning various sporting stadia throughout the world – was underpinned with regular chapters in which the author attempted to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five plus professional football stadia in a crazy few days in 1999.
The four chapters were referred to as “Ciudad de los Estadios”.
I took “Sightlines” with me on my trip.
A few passages made me smile, a few passages made me think, a few passages made me question my own sanity, my own credibility.
“Maybe I am a train spotter at heart, ticking off the stadiums for no other reason than to say that I’ve seen them. The words of the American novelist Sinclair Lewis came to mind : ‘He who has seen one cathedral fifty times, knows something. He who has seen fifty cathedrals once knows nothing.’ “
“There are more football grounds in Buenos Aires than in any other city in the world. Not just dozens of ordinary grounds, however, but a whole string of major stadiums, each holding thirty, forty, fifty thousand or more spectators, all within a few square miles of each other. A comment in a Buenos Aires newspaper seemed to confirm as much. It read “we have more stadiums than public libraries. Never has so much knowledge of football been possessed by so illiterate a people.”
“Before I left for the airport, my wife kissed my furrowed brow. ‘Just go with the flow,’ she counselled. ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to them all.’ What did she mean, not get to them all?”
“In 1869, Buenos Aires had 187,000 inhabitants. By 1914, there were over 1.5 million, a figure which would double over the next fifteen years. Most of the immigrants were European, so forming a neighbourhood football club was as natural as unpacking grandma’s pots and pans.”
“There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. I wish I had written that line. But the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano got there first.”
“If there is one thing I love more than a good map it is a great stadium at the end of a long bout of map reading.”
With the kick-off at 8pm, there was more than ample time for a few drinks in both pubs, and some chat with some pals. I’d suggest that the inaugural winter break was originally met with the derision when it was announced for this season – “we need our football!” – but a lovely by-product of it was the chance for me to head off to exotic climes (my jaunt to Argentina was my first-ever holiday in search of winter sun in my entire life) and a few pals took the chance to explore other exotic locations. My break, I know, did me the world of good.
However, I did find it typically English that the subsequent FA Cup fifth round games then had to be squeezed into a midweek slot. Less games here, more games here. What a Jackie Brambles
The team news came through.
Still no Kepa.
Michy up front.
With no other options, Pedro and Willian – the old couple – were the wingers.
James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta
Kovacic – Kante
Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro
We made our way to Stamford Bridge on a cold night. I bumped into Rick Glanvill, the club historian, outside the West Stand. We briefly mused about Buenos Aires. Quick as a flash, Rick mentioned Chelsea’s South American tour in 1929 when we played eight games in the Argentinian capital.
I was in with around ten minutes to spare. There was the usual dimming of the lights, some electronic wizardry and flames, followed by the derisory chant from the away section of “what the fookin’ hell was that”?
It was almost a year to the day since United beat us 2-0 in last season’s FA Cup. Since then, we drew at Old Trafford in the league last season, lost to them on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford this season and lost to them in the League Cup in October at Stamford Bridge. And they are a poor team. It felt right that we should get some sort of revenge on them. The last time we beat United was at the 2018 FA Cup Final.
Ciudad de los Estadios : Argentinos Juniors vs. Lanus, Friday 7 February 2020
I spotted two new banners.
In the East Stand, one for Frank Lampard : “Player. Manager. Legend.”
In The Shed : “Peter Bonetti, The Cat.”
Proud to say I put a few bob behind the latter one.
I was genuinely surprised that there was no minute’s silence, or appreciation, for Harry Gregg – a survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958 – before the game began.
As always, we attacked the Shed in the first-half and I was generally rather pleased with our play for most of the first half. Our passing and movement – or movement and passing – was fine, and nobody impressed me more than Mateo Kovacic, whose drive from deep was very heartening. We had a little array of chances early on.
Two things to note.
Nemamja Matic and his shorts. Huge.
Harry Maguire and his boots. Yellow. Fucking yellow. Like fucking Bananaman. Ridiculous.
Sadly, N’Golo Kante pulled up in the first quarter of an hour and was replaced by Mason Mount.
The United fans, usually the noisiest season on season, were discernibly quiet. Maybe they were just as embarrassed about Maguire’s boots as I was.
But then the “Rent Boys” chant began and we all tut-tutted in faux outrage.
There was a bit of noise from us in the first part of the game, but nothing to write home about.
The incident between Maguire and Batshuayi on the far touchline passed me by to be honest. I saw a crunch of bodies, but the fine detail was lost. Up came a VAR moment on the scoreboard, but nothing was given. At the time, I had no clue as to who was the aggressor and who was the aggressed.
A lovely move right from our own box, involving yet more lovely passing and movement had us all purring, but a weak finish from Batshuayi – who had started promisingly – caused the first of a few groans throughout the night.
The Willian yellow card seemed appropriate. It looked like a dive from even one hundred yards away.
United, though not dominating at all, came into the game a little. Anthony Martial wasted their best chance of the game when he tamely shot wide of the far post after easily getting behind a defender.
In the dying embers of the first-half, Aaron Wan-Bissaka twisted Willian into oblivion and his snappy cross was glanced in by Martial, who had edged past his marker.
Here we go again.
We were crestfallen.
Sadly, Batshuayi did not force a save from De Gea as he scuffed a shot from an angle.
Weak finishing and defensive lapses? Sounds like a broken record, doesn’t it?
Ciudad de los Estadios : Boca Juniors vs. Atlético Tucumán , Saturday 8 February 2020
So, a cruel blow had left us 1-0 down at the break. It seemed that we had been unlucky. We hoped for our luck to improve in the second-half. On came Kurt Zouma for Andreas Christensen, evidently injured in the closing moments of the first period.
Very soon into the second-half, a Willian corner – which cleared the first man! – was headed home by Kurt Zouma, down and low, De Gea no chance. He sped away to the far corner.
Back in it and deservedly so.
But wait. After a few moments, the dreaded VAR was signalled.
We did not know.
After a little wait…”I don’t like this”…no goal.
So, celebrations nullified, the emotions deleted, I stood in a daze.
The annoying thing for me, here, is that the spectators / fans / customers in the stadium were shown a brief repeat of the goal in which I saw a United player sprawl to the floor. But at no time was there a clear and valid reason for the goal being disallowed being shared with those of us in the stadium.
We could only guess.
That cannot be right, can it?
This seemed to harm us, and our play did not flow. The mood among the home fans worsened. I am obviously too naïve to expect the Chelsea supporters to rally behind the team with a barrage of noise, to lift the players and to scare the living daylights out of United. Because it didn’t happen.
And here’s a startling comparison between England and Argentina. Those who read these reports will know that I often make a note of how long it takes for a stadium-wide chant or song to envelope the entire stadium. Often at Chelsea, it can take fifteen minutes – like in this game – or as long as half an hour or even more. In Argentina, in two of the three games, this moment came half an hour before kick-off.
Incidentally, in Argentina, there are songs, often long songs. In Europe we tend to go for short venomous chanting. I prefer the European model.
Ciudad de los Estadios : Racing vs. Independiente , Sunday 9 February 2020
United hit the post from a free-kick and from the ensuing corner, Maguire thumped a header down and past Caballero.
“Definition of a fucking free header, that.”
These defensive lapses are the trademark of our season. Damn it.
Olivier Giroud, the forgotten man, replaced the miss-firing Michy. Just like with the introduction of Zouma, the substitution seemed to produce an instant hit. Mason shaped to cross from the right and I had spotted the movement of the substitute.
“Go on Giroud, feed him in, feed him in.”
The cross was on the money. An adept stooping header by the substitute, and we were back in it.
GET IN YOU BASTARDS.
Twenty minutes left. We can do this.
We waited for the restart.
No fucking goal.
We stood silent and still, our emotions having ran their course.
At least, I knew that it was for offside via the TV screen announcement. At least the folk in the stadium had been treated correctly. How nice of them.
In the scheme of things, fair enough.
But for all of these VAR decisions, how much have we lost?
I’d say nearly everything.
We go to football, not only to support our team, not only to meet up with mates, but for that prospect of losing it when a goal is scored.
That moment. Ecstasy. Limbs. The rush. The buzz. There is nothing like it.
That has been taken away from us in every single game we see.
Many of the spectators around me left. The Bridge seemed dead, lifeless, spent.
Back in Buenos Aires, my new pal Victor had smiled as he said “at least there is no VAR here.”
Even in Argentina, it is hated.
My good friend Rob apologised as he passed me, and would later comment on “Facebook.”
“I’ve never left a game early. Tonight, I realised what I’d worried about all season. Football is dead. I’ve left roughly fifteen minutes early. I didn’t even stand to celebrate Giroud’s goal. I don’t actually want to come to football anymore. VAR has done what my ex-wife tried to do for years. Put me off coming to football.”
My good mate Kev would comment on “Facebook.”
“I honestly believe that if we have a fiasco Saturday, even in our favour, that will be my last game. Munich all paid up, but it won’t matter. It’s not in the spirit of the game. If you’re in the house or the pub, I guess it’s great. If like us you’re match going, it’s diabolical.”
In the last seconds of the game, Mason Mount hit the post but by that time nobody fucking cared.
At the final whistle, or soon after, my comment on Facebook was this.
“Football. But with life drained out of it.”
And that is how I felt, and how many felt. It seems that football is trying its best to kill the golden goose. Football resurrected itself after the troubles of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – although I miss the passion of those days, I don’t miss the violence – and football has been at the absolute epicentre of our national identity for ever and ever. England’s sport is not cricket, nor rugby, nor tennis, nor horse racing, nor boxing, nor hockey.
With all its flaws.
But VAR is killing it, and not even slowly.
The mood was sombre.
But it was more than that.
I was just numbed by the whole sorry mess.
There was disappointment, obviously, that we had succumbed to a poor United team. There is work to do, as we knew from day one. I’m right behind Frank, nothing has changed, there is no fresh news. I love him to bits. His post-match interview was as intelligent and brutally honest, frank, as ever. I want him to succeed so fucking much. The next two games are as huge as they get.
But the over-riding emotion centered on VAR. And that can’t be right. I hate it with a bloody passion.
Outside the West Stand, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with a chap – Ross – to receive a ticket for an upcoming game. Alongside him – blatant name drop coming up – was the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, he of “The Commitments”, “The Van” and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” It was a pleasure to meet him.
We grumbled about VAR.
Roddy quipped about how scoring a goal is always likened to an orgasm, and now with VAR, even that pleasure is being taken away.
Imagine that, eh?
When is an orgasm not an orgasm?
“Well, with VAR and no orgasms, at least there are plenty of clean sheets.”
I walked back to the car.
A cheeseburger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill” and three – fucking three! – bars of chocolate could not dull the pain of VAR.
I slept like a baby on the way home.
It feels like I am at a crossroads. It seems almost implausible that I can even consider giving up football – Chelsea – but I simply cannot stomach another twenty years of VAR. It is as hideous a prospect as I can ever imagine, but I might – might – walk away.
God only knows I loathe much of modern football as it is. I always thought that it would be the dreaded thirty-ninth game in Adelaide, Beijing, Calcutta or Durban that might be the last straw, but the dynamic has changed since August.
Could I live without Chelsea? Of course I will always be a fan, a supporter, but how could I live without the sanctity of going to games? I shudder to think. Already, many mates go for a drink-up at Chelsea but don’t go in. Is that on the cards for me? I don’t know.
What would I do on weekends?
I’d go to see Frome Town.
I’d collect football stadia.
After all, I have stadiumitis and I have it bad.
The Maracana? Yes please.
The Azteca? Yes please.
Atletico Bilbao’s new stadium?
That stadium in Braga with a rock face behind one goal?
I still have a few stadia to see in Budapest.
A return to Buenos Aires? Yes. After all, that art deco tower – pure Flash Gordon – at Huracan warrants a trip all by itself.
Yes. I like this.
But life without Chelsea?
If – and it is obviously a massive “if”- I decide to walk away, it will be the right decision and the correct decision…
Don’t cry for me.
If anybody feels as desperate as me, please sign this.