Monday, 6 April 2020

Late 80s to early noughties

Listening to the excellent Chelsea Fancast with Stamford Chidge triggered thoughts of my first game at Chelsea back in 1987. Watching an attacking lineup of Dixon, Durie and Nevin felt like yesterday when it was in fact 33 years ago. At the time, those old war stories my father described of watching Osgood, Baldin, Harris and Cooke among many other Chelsea legends took place roughly 20 years before my first Chelsea match. He had a more romantic time of it and was even lucky enough to see a couple of matches where Jimmy Greaves played.

I look back at the lineup of both the home and away sides and the first thought that comes to mind is that they were very 1980s. The team in blue had the likes of Godden in goal; Dublin and Pates in defence; McLaughlin and Spackman in midfield. Meanwhile, the visitors had the big Norman Whiteside up front with two Gibsons in the side along with the excellent Strachan and Bryan Robson. It was also noticeable that the attendance was only 26,500 during a period when many decided to reduce the number of matches they attended due to hooliganism - with Chelsea one of the main culprits.

The difference in the acceleration of quality of both sides is astounding. We jump to the season of the ‘94 FA Cup Final. We lost 4-0 but that does not tell the whole story. The first half saw Gavin Peacock hit the bar and had that gone in we may well have had a shock on our hands. The much reviled David Elleray who also taught at Harrow allowed a Manchester United goal that seemed to not cross the line. It was one of those games where an unoriginal commentator would have argued that Manchester United deserved the victory - it was near impossible for Chelsea to get back into the game after that second goal. But what really catches the eye is which players shared that hallowed turf.

Chelsea began the match with Dmitri Kharine in goal (his name was never consistently spelt the same) and the solid pairing of Erland Johnson and Jakob Kjeldberg at the back. The brilliantly consistent Steve Clarke joined them in the back 4. With them was Frank Sinclair - one of those players who we loved for his pace and hard work - but who unfortunately lacked coordination at key moments. Burley, Newton, Wisey and God-botherer Peacock shared the midfield. The shortest front line in the 1990s in Johnny Spencer and Mark Stein meant that long balls were out of the questions. With Hoddle as manager, that style of football was assigned to the dustbin.

What shocked me was looking back at the team we faced at the time. Every single player in the Manchester United side was a household name: Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Giggs, Ince, Kanchelskis, Keane; Cantona and Hughes. Nearly 80,000 attended at Wembley while for the league fixtures in which we boasted double 1-0 victories our home attendance had nearly caught up to that at Old Trafford: 37k vs 44k.

Fast forward another 10 years and roles were arguably reversed. Man Utd names will still have been well known among the football fan community due to the saturation of coverage for that club in red, but the Chelsea side was simply magnificent. A year into his reign as club owner, Roman Abramovich could attend Stamford Bridge with nearly every player boasting world class status. Cech in goal; Ferreira, Gallas, Terry, Bridge; Lampard, Makelele; Gudjohnsen and Drogba among excellent names that would walk into virtually any side. The visitors on the other hand had players one could easily leave on the bench with the starting lineup including O’Shea, Silvestre, Djemba-Djemba, Fortune, Miller and Alan Smith.

The high quality of the side we had a decade ago makes the squad of the early- to mid-90s appear mediocre at best. But the difference has been in my attitude when attending games. Under Hoddle there was strong hope rather than realistic belief of winning a title. The noughties saw us catch up with the big boys. In an interesting turn the next wave of Chelsea is bringing fans closer together. Half of the side is boasting youthful players who have a chance to be great.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

It's Just Bantz, Isn't It?

Not too long ago my work colleague asked to attend a Chelsea match with me. Chelsea ticket exchange enabled me to sort out a couple of plum first row seats in the Upper Tier of the West Stand. I remembered he was Jewish but assumed as the match was not a crowd puller there would be no silly chants. There weren't of course. It was the usual Ten Men Went to Mow, Carefree and The Sh*t from Tottenham Hotspur. It was at the end of the last song that he turned to me and asked if he had correctly heard the fans singing that Tottenham "are a load of y*ds" with his mouth aghast. Time almost stood still as I realised that what I had seen as simply short-handed banter against our North London rivals was seen as nothing of the sort to him. He was also the global head of the company I worked for.

It is a catchy tune in no doubt, but the recent highlighting of Chelsea fans' behaviour warrants attention. There is a reticence for me to bring my young daughter to Chelsea matches due to fearing her hear what on the whole are some of the worst chants in the league. Even when she was lucky enough to be a mascot at a recent game, there were people in the family section not averse to joining in chants that they had no shame in singing in front of their kids.

In a recent conversation with another senior manager, he said that he had stopped going to Chelsea football matches as he simply found the behaviour of too large a minority intolerable. There are many Chelsea fans who are more patient and see their strongest act of defiance being to simply not join in - it is difficult to have a go at fans inside a stadium where you may have a season ticket and have your cards marked. I remember when I once said what I felt to another fan and hey presto at the next away match he had a small gathering of his neanderthal mates to make sure I knew I was being watched.

The problem with the misbehaviour of a minority (and let's face it, it is not a tiny fraction of support) is that it spoils it for the rest of us. Since away fans have brought the club into disrepute during our travels to Europe, we now have to collect tickets on the day of games. There has not been one away European match where I have not heard some form of chanting that fans believe they can get away with on the assumption that they won't get caught as they are never forced to sit in their own seats. Perhaps they think that the home fans understand their lyrics? At some stage we shall have draconian measures in place for our domestic aways where an id will have to be produced to match the name on a ticket (on the plus side this will weed out those on away season ticket schemes who just buy tickets for the loyalty points).

I remember when I attended my first Chelsea match over 30 years ago. On the Monday morning at school I was effing and blinding words that I had learnt from the terraces. Normalising chants that involve the "Y" word gives a poor example to kids and brings a bad name for a club that is already on the radar of the media's most hated for not playing in red.

I had to apologise to the Jewish fan and made a mental note not to join in such chants when they can easily offend. He did return to see another Chelsea match - Leicester away two seasons ago. I dread to think what he thought of the chanting he witnessed in the away end but he has not spoken to me about the game since.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Chelsea 1 Man Utd 0

Just like those armchair experts who never saw Brexit or Trump coming, we who slated our beloved club for decisions made over the past year have had to admit that we were wrong. Jose Mourinho was not the God we thought he was. He is just as culpable of making mistakes as we all are: although admitting them is a different matter. The questionable signing of Pogba for a world-record sum must be one of them. This Manchester United squad looks barren without Ibrahimovic who will very soon be way past his prime. One less competition for them to play in though so surely a positive result for their leader.

From the outset, the tactic from the visitors was clear. To lob the ball to the right wing where Rashford was meant to torment our defence. This was a mistake – against five men at the back he stood no chance and instead cut a lonely figure. He only looked dangerous once throughout the whole game when through one-on-one during the second half but his inexperience showed at what was a key moment.

Chelsea were strong throughout with crisp, neat passing from front to back. As always, Hazard could only be stopped by continuous fouling throughout the match which deservedly led to a needless second yellow and a red card for Herrera. Costa then embarrassed us with his diving antics like a schoolchild who wishes he was bullied as much as our Belgian talisman in order earn more punishment for the opposition. In truth, we never stepped out of second gear and did not need to.

Kante resembles a hybrid of Essien and Makelele. He tidies up in defence and easily but fairly shoulder barges any midfielder who tries to dribble past him. Even his goal was perfectly placed. What a signing and what a strange decision by the Leicester board of directors to allow him to leave. They should take a note of how Chelsea has progressed and built on our success by never letting our most influential players go during prosperous times.

Manchester United’s continuous mockery of John Terry was easily drowned out by reminders of which team was top of league and salutes to Antonio. After ninety minutes, Mourinho was quite deliberate in his support for their club’s fans and in doing so validated their chants. It was not long ago that he so disapproved Chelsea’s fans of singing a similar song about Gerrard. Now that he is no longer with us, it is clear how he seeks and successfully receives adulation like the leader of a cult. When Porto fans visited Stamford Bridge last campaign, they sang his name still over a decade after he had left their club.

The large minority of us who supported Mourinho to the last; those of us who mocked Emenalo and the signings of Luiz, Alonso and Moses have had to eat our words. There is no downside for us – if we are wrong, then the worst-case scenario is to see the club we love succeed. Jose must feel that he has no such luxury. To admit that he has lost the edge would be an admittance of failure and could have a big impact for his career in the short-term. In the long-term, such a mea culpa would earn him respect among many Chelsea fans who no longer hold him in such high esteem as they once did.

I am glad to have moved on and see my club succeed in competitions that count. A win against the in-form Tottenham would be a strong validation of how far we have come this season.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

That's the way to do it: Chelsea 2 Spurs 2

Never during my Chelsea-supporting and sports-loving lifetime had I seen a club so happily confirm the handing over of a title to a rival. Although preferring billionaire-owned Leicester to win the league by a long way, I respected Tottenham's steady progress over the years to reach the top two. Yes, their fans are scum – try wearing your colours on the walk from Seven Sisters to White Hart Lane - but why hold a grudge against their players and manager? But that opinion could not have changed more swiftly when the away side showed their true colours.

Chelsea has been a side that has been much maligned for many decades. Ken Bates was loathed by the media (and many Chelsea fans – but not me) for having the guts to fight for the club. From newspapers not reporting on Chelsea matches to television companies secretly trying to agree deals so that clubs like ours would be locked out of TV revenues, he made sure that we were not left behind.

So it was at matches last night where one wondered whether the bias was there again. Perhaps those generous plaudits in public by senior 'neutral' officials were masking shaking of heads behind closed doors. Would a small club like Leicester who spent as much on their first team as we did solely on Baba Rahman pull in the same interest as Chelsea when playing the likes of Dynamo Kiev, Porto or Hapoel Tel-Aviv? The leniency of refereeing from Clattenburg towards their only title challengers certainly raised eyebrows and caused much ire in the home end.

Tottenham should have been down to ten men well before scoring. A childish kick by England’s (yes… England’s…) Kyle Walker on Pedro was not even flagged by the assistant referee standing right in front of the incident. Even being generous, the booking he received on 27 minutes would have been his second yellow. Chelsea should nevertheless have taken the lead before Tottenham took control. But our offside trap failed yet again this season for Kane to open the scoring and another woeful error by Ivanovic allowed the visitors to extend their lead. Cue a “2-0 in your cup final” and “You’re f*cking sh*t” chorus from the visitors.

It was the introduction of Eden Hazard that changed the match. Oh, how we miss him when he is in this form. He lit up the side and even made Fabregas take the form of an attacking midfielder for the first time in the game. Suddenly, Willian actually looked dangerous and Costa had room to manoeuvre. It was the nutty Spaniard whose intelligent play led to the winning of the corner from which we pulled a goal back.

The match then descended into chaos as the visitors’ indiscipline reflected their lack of experience when under pressure. Disgraceful tackles throughout the match led to nine bookings and twenty fouls just for Pochettino’s side. Alli’s suspension now seems not to have been a one-off. Let’s see if there is more focus on their behaviour as it would be if a bigger and more successful club like Chelsea was involved. Ironically, Costa did not receive a yellow card despite his reaction to having his eye gouged by Dembele during the game.

The denouement. A stunning equaliser from Hazard producing a reaction from the home support not seen for a very, very long time. The awful behaviour of Spurs’ players and the faux superiority of the away support singing songs lacking any awareness of hypocrisy culminated in successfully firing up Chelsea fans to create a joyous celebration during a match that seemed over by half time.

2-2 in Spurs’ Cup Final. Will Leicester City now forgive the Erland Johnsen incident? We shall see… We welcome back Claudio Ranieri with open arms… and let us hope he puts Robert Huth up front.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1

It is supposed to be Arsenal fans who are magnanimous in defeat. Chelsea fans who apparently behave disgracefully in the stands by voicing displeasure at their own team’s performances. Arsenal coaches who show how football should be played. Chelsea managers who try to deflect attention away from deserved losses. Magnificent, new stadia that show the future of football which have the atmosphere to match. Yesterday showed quite the opposite.

It was the Chelsea fans who applauded Petr Cech while the home side’s supporters who booed Fabregas incessantly. The team in red who could only stop us from scoring when in full flight by illegitimate means. Their manager who blamed his side’s loss on Diego Costa for having the temerity to be the one who was fouled when clear through on goal. Another quiet day from the home fans who seem to treat attendances of home matches as an inconvenience when not leading to victory.

This was despite the performance of Clattenburg who after the sending off did his best to favour Arsenal. Whether it was playing advantage for such a long period for the home side that it would have been more appropriate to belong to the rugby field. Or amazingly not award one of the most blatant penalties in the second half that would have ended what was already virtually a dead rubber once Chelsea went ahead.

Man of the match has to have been Fabregas. This was the kind of performance that has been missing for quite a while and resembled Mata at his peak for us. Costa ran his absolute socks off and had he been able to hold the line better would have cause far more damage. His value for the side yesterday was best contrasted with the ineffective contribution from Remy when he replaced him. It was also welcome to see Hazard back on the pitch who seemed assured in possession and helped us wind down the clock during injury time.

Before we assume a march to a Champions’ League place, we need to face the stark reality that despite looking quite potent in attack, our defence was caught on numerous occasions by the speed of the home side. We were lucky on several occasions that their woeful finishing did not lead to an equaliser. Courtois’ distribution was simply appalling. We lack pace at the back and that has to be addressed.

This victory was not quite as sweet as it has been in the past – this time we have little to fight for and realistically it is still more likely that Arsenal or Man City will win the league than Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City side (however sweet that might be should they be eventual victors). Guus is still undefeated. Luck is on our side. Let’s just get some points on the board – I don’t really care how now. Then the performances will come.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Chelsea 3 Everton 3

This was a very important match. The one where decisions went our way. Where players who had underperformed all season for Chelsea played well (and vice-versa). An opposition player who we had been reminded on numerous occasions was one we could not buy had a shocker. A major refereeing decision that actually went in our favour. Is this the symbolically pivotal moment in our season that we have been waiting for?

Everton arrived with a very simple tactic. Play three at the back when in possession and revert to a four when defending. Ours was a strange one - when they had the ball we would chase them down and hope they would succumb to unforced errors. This left us exposed in midfield and also meant the first half was a tedious affair.

The goading from the visiting supporters about money not being able to buy us Stones was one I hoped would come back to haunt them. Would it not be ironic if he scored an own goal? That way of thinking came back to haunt in the worst way imaginable when we conceded the first. By the time the second goal went in it was almost a welcome relief that it would put us out of our misery with the drabness of the performance up to that point. Even the usual dependable Willian was having an absolute shocker.

Oscar coming on raised a chuckle but it was more than a relief to see the awful Matic leave the pitch. A brilliant ball to Costa from the excellent Fabregas saw this defender that is so rated (63 senior appearances, remember) have an embarrassing mixup with his 'keeper that led to us pulling one back. John Terry was then spurred into action, grabbed the bull by the horns and began to attack. The equaliser came right on time and derived from Costa's extreme hard work that was demonstrated all match. If Everton had not had a player injured for so long after the second goal we would have had the momentum to obtain a third. Instead, Everton took advantage in the 90th minuste after more awful defending on the far post.

It is very difficult to admit this. But having been the critic of so many Chelsea players it is only fair to confess leaving early. Approximately thirty seconds before the equaliser even though it did not feel right to do so. To hear it was John Terry made me purr with pride - especially when Stones had been the focus of attention. To hear Martinez squeal about the extra injury time was a delight. But the final goal is one piece of justice that claws back the umpteen match-changing decisions that have gone against us over the past few seasons. So what? Bring on Arsenal.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Chelsea 2 WBA 2

We should start off by thanking West Brom for the bellended nature of their time-wasting tactics adopted to secure a point. This, twinned with the frankly pointless attendance of the referee roused our home support which was otherwise anonymous. If we had won the game it would have felt like a moral victory; one that would have glossed over an otherwise mediocre performance where we were once again exposed at the back and would have been destroyed by a more capable side in attack.

It is difficult to criticise without still sounding bitter about Mourinho’s sacking. But when he blamed his employees out loud for failing to carry out their work diligently he was not wrong. The theory was that once he left we would see the real Chelsea re-emerge. Those players who might have deliberately or subconsciously played below-par would be reinvigorated. Some did… at first Oscar and Mikel shone for the first time in years. That honeymoon period is now over.

The player who earned my partisan support when he joined, Diego Costa was Mourinho’s equivalent on the pitch. He would distract the opposition. Wind them up. But still manage to score goals. This worked brilliantly when we were winning. It was even entertaining. When you struggle this creates an unneeded distraction. At one stage he was even pushed away by his own players when he bickered with the referee while we wished to take a quick free-kick. To cap it all, with only a few minutes to go he brainlessly asked for a quick ball to be released to him from Courtois so he could go on the attack on his own. Him against five WBA players. He lost and didn’t even try to hold it in the corner when he had no support. From the resulting counter, the visitors were awarded a free-kick (one of many set pieces we failed to defend) from which they equalised.

He was not alone:
Pedro. There is a reason why you were not wanted by Barca. The abysmal position on the pitch where you gave away the ball that lead to the visitors’ first equaliser was unforgivable;
Fabs. Through balls need to go to a player. Not straight out for goal kicks;
Kurt Zouma. Simply hoofing the ball as hard as possible hoping it goes to a Chelsea player is Sunday League football. Look up the word, “finesse”… it is not just used in a game of Bridge;
Thibaut. Those gloves you wear are supposed to hold the ball. You are making me miss Petr Cech more and more by the day.

One wonders what many of these players take in on the training pitch when it comes to defending – or what, if any intelligence they hold when it comes to trying to squeeze results out during trying times. One of the most annoying characteristics of our team has been the poor marking in the box. There was always at least one visiting player unmarked on the far post from crosses.

There are some positives. We are unbeaten since Guus took over. Kenedy looks an exciting prospect even if his speed means that he has to one-two against the opposition’s legs rather than his own team-mates. Ivanovic actually did a brilliant cross. Twice. Yes, twice. And Willian… I must apologise for this team that you have to play with in which you are our only consistently good player.

If we had the misfortune to play any of the big sides we would be shredded apart because of the vulnerability in our defence. In the old days, teams would pray that they would be awarded the odd free-kick to try to score against us. Currently, we are allowing sides to have umpteen chances in and around the box which used to be unheard of. This squad needed a major injection of investment but now it is too late. Nevertheless, many individuals cannot lose: financially, they are sorted; poor performances can be blamed on the preceding manager; legitimate excuses can be used for jumping ship should we not qualify for the Champions' League. It is us fans who are left powerless.