14/08/21 Chelsea 3 Crystal Palace 0
‘London, you’re a dirty old sod. But tonight you’re MY dirty old sod.’
Thus spake the late, impossibly great Kirsty MacColl, having latterly conquered the stage fright that had bedevilled her career & wowed an appreciative audience at The Forum in Kentish Town back in May 1995. Not a line to compete with the rich humour & lyrical skill associated with many of her wonderful songs but a heartfelt aside that betrayed an emotional stirring driven by a successful return to the London stage. And so it came to pass, as I made my way back to Victoria after my first Chelsea game in 525 days ( or 1 year, 5 months,7 days if you prefer) that the words of one of the great British songwriters of my lifetime came back to me. Taking a detour off the Kings Road I was admiring the blue plaque at 42 Oakley Street that commemorates former resident Bob Marley. A minute or so later I pass No. 56, once home to Scott Of The Antarctic. By then I am almost within touching distance of the Albert Bridge, my favourite landmark in our fair capital city. There is never a time my heart does not sing at the sight of the Albert Bridge. My God how I have missed London. My God how I have missed Chelsea. The Embankment remains eternally a place of rich history & magical mystery. Its water remains as murkily rancid as ever. Dirty old sod. But my dirty old sod. Your dirty old sod. Our dirty old sod. The heart & soul of London remains magnificently intact, seemingly impervious to threat via incompetent & corrupt political leaders, terrorist idiocy & hideous pandemic alike. The essence of this heart & soul resides within its river & bridges, one of them the inspiration for the greatest opening line, from the greatest song, in the history of British popular music, Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. ‘Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night.’ From that to the hot air braggadocio of Noel Gallagher, the B&M Beatle, in little more than a quarter of a century. How far we fell. Praise the Lord for the gift of Ray Davies, & similarly our fair capital city. Long may they both continue to flourish. As for Noel, well he is strangely subdued of late, after undermining his typically arrogant & unintelligent anti vaxx stance to get jabbed in order to see his beloved Man City in the Champions League Final in Porto on May 29, only to see them outwitted by Chelsea. The silence from this vacuous plagiarist in the immediate aftermath of the match was both deafening & hugely welcome, although it is a moot point as to who was more devastated by the result, little loudmouth Noel, estranged neanderthal brother Liam, or the British media, be they operating within TV, radio, newsprint or online, all so taken with the expected City victory that it was sometimes impossible to glean from the pre-match coverage that there was another English team involved, let alone that they might have a prayer of pulling off a win. On the morning of the game, the back page of one nameless broadsheet merely featured large images of the hallowed trophy with the big ears & City coach Pep Guardiola. Chelsea? Thomas Tuchel? Meh. There was no retrospective hanging of heads in shame from the smug, lazy, biased, shit for brains egotists of our second rate media though. It was yet another case of bring out your braindead following Kai Havertz’s first half winner but all that ensued was a muted shuffling of collective feet & a swift change of subject at the earliest opportunity. Shame & the British media do not generally go together, especially where acknowledgement of distorted coverage of Chelsea Football Club is concerned. Given the past 17 months I shall refrain from wishing a plague on all their houses, merely that they end up in their own version of media hell, gagging on their own self satisfaction in a confined space where late period Oasis albums are piped in 24 hours a day. May God have mercy on their souls. Thank the lord the vanquished opposition was Manchester City rather than Liverpool, or the occupants of both the Sky & BT studios would all still be clad in black from head to toe, mournful hymns permanently playing in the background.
Arsenal 1 Chelsea 1. The great Ray Davies & Damon Albarn run through Waterloo Sunset washed down with a small slice of Parklife from some point in the mid 1990’s. Damon is clearly a bit starstruck, & rightly so!
Absence has not made my heart grow fonder where London is concerned, merely refined & enhanced the genuine existing love I already knew I had for the place. Stamford Bridge itself is a slightly complex exception to the rule. My love for the old, increasingly derelict stadium I grew up with knew no bounds, especially when the first fixture of the season was a home game. This happened a lot in the 1990’s, days usually bathed in sunshine reflecting the good cheer & optimism all fans generally feel at the start of a new campaign. The visit of Derby County in 1990, or Oldham Athletic in 1992 would inevitably start with what became an annual ritual, me looking over the old place, breathing a sigh of contentment at returning after the summer break & murmuring ‘home again’ to myself. Corny but true. I vividly recall repeating this annual mantra for the Norwich City match in 1994 but by then things were changing. The cold, haemorrhoid facilitating steps of the West Stand benches, on which I normally parked my bony buttocks back then, were replaced by a seat in the temporary stand where The Shed terraces had previously stood. The North End terraces had also been demolished & an unfinished new stand, later named after Matthew Harding, was waiting to greet me as its home for the next decade, finally opening three months later. The old West Stand, where I has seen my first ever game 24 years earlier, had another 3 seasons left before it too was pulled down & another new construction joined the other completed Legoland stands springing up around the shadow of the once imposing 1974 East Stand. Times were changing & a stadium hitherto instantly recognisable from pictures taken 90 years earlier was transformed into the relatively sterile modern ground it is today. I still loved the rituals, the walk to the ground, the pre & post match drinks, the latter washed down with my traditional Lemon Sole & Chips in our favourite haunt, The Duke Of Wellington in Belgravia. The football got better & better as the ’90’s progressed. The opening game of the season in 1999 was against Sunderland, a rampant Chelsea winning 4-0, capped off by the final goal, one of my favourite ever, a 20 yard Gus Poyet volley scooped up for him by the impudent right boot of the wonderful Gianfranco Zola. The dream of a title challenge fuelled by such brilliance failed to materialise that season. Nevertheless, the younger me could only have dreamed of watching football of that quality week after week a decade earlier. By the late ’90’s the revamped stadium had been joined by a revamped team, bringing forth a a handful of knockout trophies at home & abroad. This swiftly ushered in an often nauseating sense of entitlement & smug complacency within much of the crowd. Both these unattractive traits have persisted ever since, as Premiership & Champions League wins have racked up throughout the 21st Century. In the early 1990’s one video company sought so vainly for recent available footage of Chelsea for the club’s edition in their ‘6 Great FA Cup Games’ series that they were reduced to including a 1990 replay win over Crewe Alexandra. We fans were ravenous for success then, how quickly it came to be taken for granted, sat in our glossy new plastic seats with our newly acquired season tickets (nobody had needed one until the success came) nestled in our pockets proving our devotion to the cause. When the football was consistently bad it was understandable that the atmosphere at games often suffered. You will often read old timers like myself proclaiming that we continually sang our hearts out back in the day & got behind the team. Win or lose up the blues. This is romantic nonsense, rose spectacled in the extreme, though the away support frequently passed muster, & has continued to do so ever since. The quality of football is more often than not excellent these days, but that aforementioned smug complacency too often leads to a vacuous, damp squib, half hearted, ‘go on impress me’ spirit that has too often draped an invisible, suffocating cloak of near silence negatively impacting the Stamford Bridge ambience for many years now.
But not for this match against Crystal Palace. I had anticipated the first competitive game with full attendance to be either a euphoric occasion, a triumphant release of 17 months of combined held breath, or an impossibly emotional event, everyone overwhelmed by the worldwide catastrophe that the pandemic continues to be. It feels far less intense in the end, but there is a sense of relief at the long awaited resumption of what once we took for granted as normal service. Optimism for the new season is married to the hugely satisfying knowledge that Thomas Tuchel’s charges are the current European Champions, a magnificent, initially unforeseen but wholly deserved achievement capitalizing brilliantly on Frank Lampard guiding the team unbeaten through the group stage of the competition. Success on this occasion has brought excitement, expectancy & the best atmosphere outside of a blue riband match that I can recall for years. The traditional opening game sunshine threatens not to materialise earlier in the day, but has emerged triumphantly to capture the mood perfectly. People are happy. It feels good. I hope it lasts.
Ending the 525 day vigil since last stepping off the coach at Victoria felt good enough in itself. Belgravia. Pimlico. The Embankment & the King’s Road. How wonderful to be pounding the Chelsea beat again, striding through those streets with all their history & mystery. They haven’t missed me but I sure as hell have missed them. Some things haven’t changed. The enigmatic H.Stain Ltd Jewellers (Established 1914) in Victoria is, as ever, closed for business. As I turn left out of Grovesnor Gardens & quickly right into Lower Belgrave Street The Plumbers Arms quickly reveals itself to be shut too. It’s as we were there too. Presumably the often large congregation of bodies stood outside in the early evenings during fairweather weekdays helps bring in enough bunce to permit weekends off. The Plumbers Arms is famous for being the emergency refuge for Lady Lucan after her idiot husband badly bungled an attempt to bludgeon her to death, shortly after the children’s nanny had been murdered at the family home a couple of hundred yards away, way back in November 1974. Having always been somewhat obsessed with this case it appears something of a mystery that I have never actually stepped foot in the Plumber’s Arms. Then again it is always closed at weekends & for midweek games populated with braying work suits quaffing shit lager & stubbing their Marlboros out on the pavement. Lady Lucan would probably just have kept on running nowadays, & I do likewise, though it’s more a brisk walk in my case. It may be no business as usual here, as it is for the elusive H.Stain Ltd Jewellers (Established 1914) but elsewhere there are scores of other businesses throughout the city whose doors remain closed, many for good. A sobering & rather depressing reminder of the havoc wreaked by the Covid peril which I intend to counteract by making a long awaited visit to the famous Chelsea Physic Gardens as I make my way towards Cheyne Walk with plenty of spare time before my boys dismantle the mighty Crystal Palace. Ground control to Monty Don to steal a line from the ever brilliant Half Man Half Biscuit. One fly in the ointment . That’s right. It’s closed.
Determined to maintain the sense of joie de vivre instilled in me by my return to London I opt for a bit more blue plaque spotting in nearby Tite Street. In truth joie de vivre was thin on the ground here in November 1974 when two IRA bombs injured twenty people here as part of a sustained campaign of attacks in London & the South. The protagonists were the Balcombe Street Gang, so named because 4 of its 6 members were eventually captured after a 7 day siege in Maylebone’s Balcombe Street, where they held a married couple hostage before surrendering on December 12, 1975. I remember the siege, especially one banal fact that emerged when John & Sheila Matthews sold their story to the press, revealing that a day after they were taken hostage in their own home they were made to watch The Big Match & suffer the previous afternoon’s ‘highlights’ of Chelsea’s 0-1 home defeat to Bolton Wanderers, incorporating a Roy Greaves goal for the visitors & a third successive Chelsea penalty miss from the late, much loved Ray Wilkins. I suspect Mr Matthews being tied up with his wife’s tights while she was threatened at gunpoint was rather more traumatic, & dealt with in greater length in their newpaper account than Ray’s dodgy spot kick, but the mind of a football obsessed 13 year old boys sets its own agenda sadly. The same could also be said of incompetent & plain bent members of the police, judiciary & body politic at the time. On arrest the Balcombe Street Gang made it clear they were responsible for the 1974 attacks in Woolwich & Guildford for which 4 people were already serving time. It took 15 years for that miscarriage of justice to be acknowledged. Power, corruption & lies, a never ending British saga as we are currently being reminded all over again. The threat of IRA bombs hung heavy over many a boyhood trip to London. The closest I can remember coming to a direct encounter with their terror was going to the West Ham match on December 21st 1974, 2 days after a bomb exploded in the doorway of Selfridge’s in Oxford Street, also courtesy of the Balcombe Street Gang .48 hours away is not really that narrow a squeak, but the frequency of attacks around that time increased apprehension that further strikes would ensue, especially on the Saturday before Christmas, the busiest shopping day of the year. A football ground would have been a potent target, as indeed it must remain to terrorist groups now. Good game though that one. A 1-1 draw, & fans of both clubs ensuring there was quite enough standard football violence on display without any need for Balcombe Street Gang intervention.
Oscar Wilde’s old house is in Tite Street & easily found, a builder’s advertising board out front betraying the fact that we are no longer in 1884. Morrissey was a disciple of the legendary poet & playwright, by all accounts one of the wittiest people ever to draw breath. One famous Morrissey photo session took place at Wilde’s former residence here, years before the full extent of his true twattishness had revealed itself. Keats & Yeats are in your side while Wilde is on mine, wrote Mozzer on Cemetry Gates, one of countless stellar songs he created in the glory years of The Smiths, assisted by the brilliant musicianship of the great Johnny Marr. Musical & moral compass seemingly long departed following his split with Marr in 1987, he sometimes seems more influenced by Oswald Mosley than Oscar Wilde these days, aligning himself with a variety of loathsome political figures & organisations. There were hints of dubious beliefs in earlier years, but even the less ardent fans of the music, of which I was one, chose to look the other way. Ignorance is a delicate exotic fruit, touch it & the bloom is gone as Wilde wrote in the majestic The Importance Of Being Earnest. Eventually thrown in jail for his sexual preferences he would doubtless be delighted that some progress has been made in modern societal attitudes towards homosexuality but possibly slightly depressed at the high levels of bigotry & intolerance that continue to thrive generally, as exemplified by the likes of Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson, Juliet Hartley-Brewer & the horrendous For Britain Party, all name checked favourably in recent years by Morrissey the maudlin Mancunian. Never mind Oscar, your old gaffe looks to be in fine fettle, & at the top of the street, on Royal Hospital Road, to top things off nicely there’s now a Tesco Express, with a Bar & Grill owned by tousled hair oaf Gordon Ramsey next door to it. What that potty mouthed bully would have made of being confronted with a man of your superior intellect, humour & verbal dexterity in one of his establishments is anyone’s guess. Doubtless the creases in that famously furrowed brow would have intensified & the word fuck may have been heard a few more times before the evening was out. At least the profusion of meat on the menu ensures Morrissey’s absence.
I am aware that taking detours into the late nineteenth century while most are reuniting with mates in the pub for a pre-match pint,the first in a considerable while, mark me down as something of a no-mates loser to some. So be it. I spent years watching Chelsea on my own in the 1980’s & the wheel has now turned full circle. In between I have spent many a happy hour in pubs before & after matches & loved every minute of it. Drink being off the menu for me at present seals the deal in any case, so solitary jaunts to Pret A Manger & blue plaque box ticking it is. Be youself, everyone else is already taken. Take another bow Mr Wilde. Neil Shipperley, who played for both Chelsea & Crystal Palace in a nomadic playing career, appeared on the relentlessly laddish football podcast Undr The Cosh a couple of years ago. Two of the three presenters, Chris Brown & Jon Parkin, were workaday pros & the guests are frequently the same, often of the same ’90’s & Noughties vintage as Shipperley, who I saw score on his professional debut for Chelsea against Wimbledon in 1993. The programme usually involves two hours of anecdotes, many of the stories relaid presenting life at most football clubs during their careers as a seemingly endless stag night/morning after with all the attendant schoolyard practical jokes, bullying & dick waving, usually merged with lengthy whinges about wage inequities & incompetent managers & coaches who have failed to acknowledge the guest’s footballing prowess sufficiently. By the time we arrive at the inevitable late career battles with drink, drugs, gambling &/or metal health issues any sympathy I might usually have for their plight has often been eroded. I once spent an evening in a small, crowded, noisy bar after a staff Christmas meal being force fed Jagerbombs (yes, as an adult I know I did have a choice about that) as everyone else in the room nodded along mechanically to Reel2Reel’s frankly hideous I Like To Move It. Most of the people, like me, had seen better days. I thought then that I was being offered a glimpse into what Hell has to offer. I now know I was wrong. In fact Hell is being a footballing colleague at a club with most of the guests on Undr The Cosh. Big Neil Shipperley was far from the worst but bemoaned his treatment at the Chelsea ticket office after his playing days had ended. On one occasion they could only offer him one ticket. ‘Who goes to football on their own?’ said Ships plaintively to the show hosts, his grimace suggesting only those flirting with social death was the answer, lepers by any other name. Me Neil. I go to football on my own & I bloody love it. Ironically, a couple of months after this aired Neil Shipperley made a rather less welcome 2019 yuletide appearance in court, during which one of his own preferred activities while alone in public was laid painfully bare. I’ll leave it there but suffice to say any social stigma attached to watching football on your tod soon withers in comparison!
Chelsea have made it clear that proof of Covid free status is required before entry at present, so I fumbled around ineptly on my phone on arrival at Stamford Bridge to bring up the NHS App confirming I am considered lurgy free at present. 41,000 checks have to be putting a significant degree of extra strain on the stewards & I wondered how this would work. Not terribly effectively in my case, as the barcode on my phone was so oversized on presentation that neither my name or NHS details & status were visible on the screen. It could have been a barcode for me to pick up a click & collect parcel from my nearest corner shop but the steward waved me through happily anyway. Masks are to be worn in the concourses but not in the playing arena apparently. I saw no masks at all in the concourse. Enforcement is clearly impractical anyway. It still feels great to be back though. Even the Peter Osgood statue in front of the West Stand entrance looks marginally less unconvincing than normal, though in fairness it generally holds up better than many of its competitors elsewhere, one spectacularly awful Christiano Ronaldo bust at a Portugese airport leading the way in true, inauthentic hideousness. I’m surprised he hasn’t sued. It is famously difficult for sculptures to depict the precise facial features of its subject & the Osgood statue doesn’t buck the trend. Ossie is undoubtedly a bona fide Chelsea legend, the first representative of the club I ever saw in the flesh, in the late 1960’s, knocking up on a tennis court with his mate, a few yards away from the cricket pitch in Windsor my dad was playing on. He also scored on my first visit to Stamford Bridge in 1970. There is all too little footage of his early career, cruelly interrupted by a broken leg at Blackpool in 1967, but one dazzling glimpse shows him dribbling at high speed through a number of hapless Liverpool players in an FA Cup tie. He came back from that setback having lost a touch of pace & gained some weight, along with an extra layer of cynicism, as post-Blackpool Ossie either acquired or refined a nasty streak as a suitable device to assure his future self preservation. I can recall one particularly evil foul, in his Southampton days, on Oxford United’s slight winger Brian Heron, that was brutal, spiteful & wholly unnecessary. They didn’t take prisoners on the football pitches of Britain in the 1970’s! I cherish the memories of his brilliance, not least the diving header against Leeds in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay, but personally find the statue a slightly stuffy, lifeless, over reverential tribute to this most mercurial, flamboyant, colourful & flawed figure from my youth. No matter, lots of people love it & he is a deity to many fellow supporters. To each their own. I just find gazing at the photo tributes to other players of yesteryear on the remaining wall of the old Shed more genuinely affecting.
Navigating my way through the maskless concourse, eschewing the poor quality food & drink (at top quality prices) the 17 month hiatus lends an added pleasure to my my first view of the lush playing surface for the new season. Time was when players & spectators alike had a limited time window available to appreciate this. Come Chrismas the pitch was traditionally a lumpy, bumpy, largely grass free atrocity back in the day, a situation that persisted into this century, certainly up until the dawn of the Abramovich era. When the players emerge for their warm up I join the throng down by the pitch with no small amount of discomfort. A man of my age taking pictures is not a dignified look but hopefully enables me to brighten up these pages without breaching copyright. Sadly the pictures are usually terrible, partly because of my discomfort, partly due to the fact I usually make way for a plaintive child behind me whose view i am blocking, a disapproving parent alongside them usually fixing me with a get a life stare. Today I move aside for a fan in a wheelchair. Rightly so, but it once again means I am behind the front row trying to use my limited photographic skills to avoid the limbs, torsos & airbound phones of those ahead of me. The man stood next to me until I move accomodates the man in the wheelchair by moving all of 3 inches to the left. He isn’t even taking any photos. What a charmer. Other grown men are excitedly calling out player’s names, particularly Kai Havertz, scorer of the winning goal in the Champions League a few short months ago. Havertz fails to respond to these living, breathing dignity vacuums. Whether this is down to shyness, a Germanic aloofness or a pointed rebuttal of the spectacle of grown men acting like 11 year old girls at a 1974 Bay City Rollers concert is unclear. I hope it was the latter but applaud the snub either way. As a small boy I had several encounters with the cricketer Geoffrey Boycott, & my time in the book trade brought forward further colourful tales from publishers & fellow booksellers alike of his propensity to do a stunningly accurate impersonation of an objectionable git. However, on one occasion in my youth I will forever defend to the death his behaviour wholeheartedly, when after a game in the University Parks in Oxford he was loading his kit into the boot of his car as a man knelt at his feet, like a leper awaiting a cure from Jesus Christ. In his hand was an empty wine bottle & he was begging Boycott to sign the label. The harder he implored the more obvious it was that the future Sir Geoffrey had no intention of acknowledging this fool, & dignifying the spectacle he was making of himself in the process. Nowadays it is adults at football with those bits of cardboard begging for a certain player’s shirts that are embarrassing themselves & the rest of humanity, Can I Have Your Shirt ? scaled in felt tip like similar Please Help – Hungry & Homeless signs seen widely on British streets. One borne out of desperate need & frequently addiction, the other from puerility or simple greed. How many end up on ebay? Signs asking players for shirts are the domain of the small child, the little girl at The England match whose day was made by Mason Mount during the Euros, or the small boy who caught Eden Hazard’a attention away at Brighton a few years ago. Anyone past the point of puberty who debases themselves by attempting the same should be banned from football grounds , clipped firmly round the ear & thrown into the army. Nobheads all. My discomfort grows around people like this. The Kai! Kai! Kai! shouts continue for a while but pleasingly never elicit a response of any kind. I blush at being among this throng. My pictures grow ever worse in quality & I slink away to my seat earlier than planned.
It is a sobering thought that the new season is the third to be affected by the pandemic, but with the (hopefully permanent) return to full capacity I am able to ponder on he changes in personnel at Stamford Bridge since my last visit. Pedro had been prominent in the midweek 2-0 FA Cup win over Liverpool, Olivier Giroud even more so in the 4-0 drubbing of Everton the following weekend. Both are now plying their trade in Italy, seeing out long & successful careers that continued to bear fruit during their Chelsea years. Willian has spent a pleasingly unfruitful year at Arsenal that will not undermine the significant contribution he made to Chelsea successes over the previous seven seasons. Ross Barkley played starring roles in both matches but is currently without a squad number or, as yet, a move away from Stamford Bridge. He scored a wonderful goal against Liverpool & helped boss the midfield against former club Everton. All appeared to bode well for Barkley having added a welcome maturity to his game, both in his own play, especially pass selection, allied to his visibly taking young substitute Tino Anjorin under his wing during the Everton game with words of advice & instruction. Sadly, in keeping with the stop/start nature of the career of this undoubtedly talented player, he has once again failed to build on this. Despite a neat FA Cup winner at Leicester during the summer restart of 2020 he continued to flit in & out of the starting line up & Frank Lampard loaned him out to Aston Villa at the start of last season. He started well , scoring in a stunning 7-2 win over Liverpool, & netting another winner at Leicester, also playing a starring role in a 3-1 victory at Arsenal. He was linking brilliantly with Jack Grealish & Villa fans were clamouring for their club to break the bank & make the move permanent. By the end of the season they were queuing up to offer him a lift back to SW6. Ross had once again flattered to deceive, not helped by injuries to both himself & Grealish, nor another in a series of negative tabloid tales concerning off the pitch indiscretions, another pub brawl this time to add to previous rows in hotels & a dropped bag of chips in the back of a Liverpool taxi. Pretty tame by the sorts of scrapes modern footballers have got themselves into since the money flowed into the Premiership, if anything quite pleasingly old school behaviour, & at least Barkley always appears in immaculate physical condition, unlike in the days of Ossie when the odd team mate had to have another, slimmer body suprimposed on to his head for the pre-season photo roll call after too many cold drinks & pies during the summer. Barkley has clearly failed to impress Thomas Tuchel & his career appears to be in freefall, 33 England caps having also failed to undermine the overriding impression that he continues to lack a requisite level of both matchplay & life choice intelligence. I have no light to shed on accusations he is lacking in grey matter. This was levelled at him during his Everton days in a disgusting, racist piece in The Sun by the repugnant Kelvin Mackenzie (he also said Barkley, a man of mixed race heritage, reminded him of a gorilla) whose entire career has been a celebration of crass English cretiny at its worst. When your detractors are scum like that it is easy to retain sympathy for Ross Barkley, wish him well & hope he can still find the right club, & importantly coach, to make the most of what should now be his peak years. Either way he will remain more talented & considerably richer than 99.9% of his many critics, disproportionately irked by his twin crimes of inconsistent playing performance & not being blessed with the IQ of Professor Stephen Hawking. Take him down to the cells? Maybe not.
Graduates from the Chelsea Academy are increasingly resisting the hitherto well worn path to innumerable loans offering little prospect of future first team berths at their parent club. Chelsea have done very well financially from farming out players in this way, & it is ironic an era when home grown talent has finally started to establish itself at first team level coincides with a significant penchant among current young players to look to make permanent moves away from the club rather than take their chances on getting a chance further along their career path. I can’t say I blame them entirely. Lewis Baker is 26. He was once considered one of Chelsea’s top up coming talents & has had eight loan moves in the last six years taking in spells in Holland, Germany, Turkey & a number of Championship & League 1 teams in England. LIke Ross Barkley he now finds himself back at Chelsea, where he has never once troubled the first team with an appearance, minus either a squad number or willing temporary or permanent suitors. Three years ago I saw Chelsea beat Arsenal 3-1 in the first Leg of TheFA Youth Cup Final at a rainy, windswept Stamford Bridge. Reece James & Calum Hudson-Odoi both played that night. The buck trending Hudson-Odoi had already made an appearance with the first team at the tender age of seventeen. Billy Gilmour played too. All three were in Porto when Chelsea clinched the Champions League in May & James & Gilmour both represented their countries in the Europena Championship a month later, along with Mason Mount, another considerable talent made in Chelsea. Gilmour has just made his first loan move to Premier League newbies Norwich in order to play regular first team football, but others not quite as highly advanced up the Stamford Bridge food ladder are jumping ship. Two very highly rated young players, full back Tino Livramento & midfielder Lewis Bate, have transferred to Southampton & Leeds United respectively. The diminutive but brilliant Tariq Lamptey, another member of the triumphant Youth cup squad in 2018, moved to Brighton two seasons ago. All three transfer fees were relatively paltry. The excellence of Reece James may well have been a telling factor in making up the minds of Lamptey & Liveramento that their best option was to bale out now rather than risk ending up in a Baker style quandry. Dominic Solanke & Rhian Brewster started this trend a few seasons ago when moving to Liverpool. Neither of them cut it at Anfield but both were sold on again at a handsome profit, netting the Scousers over £30 million for very little investment. A case of the biter bit for Chelsea, always happy to raid the youth set ups of smaller clubs. The presence of Marc Guehi in the Crystal Palace line up today is a continuation of this trend. He also played against Arsenal for the youth team backin 2018, now he has opted for a clean break after an impressive loan at Swansea in the Championship last season. Palace have paid £20 million for him, hardly small change for a youth graduate, but it seems sad that he does not feel he has any chance of breaking through at Chelsea, especially after the sale of Fiyoko Tomori to AC Milan, a player who had emerged brilliantly until a baffling fall from grace under Frank Lampard, who had championed the player originally by taking him & Mount on loan to Derby three years ago. The promising Conor Gallagher is also at Crystal Palace having accepted the loan route for the third successive season. It will be intersting to see if he continues to wear this for much longer, especially if he impresses at Selhurst Park. He also played in that Youth Cup Final but being a loanee is excluded from this match.
It is also symptomatic of the ever changing nature of top level football to consider where Chelsea & coach Frank Lampard were as we teetered on the Covid cliff edge at those Liverpool & Everton games in March 2020. Those victories underlined the team’s ability to compete for domestic trophies & Top 4 placings despite the transfer ban in place that season. A few weeks earlier a sobering 0-3 home defeat to a superb Bayern Munich team seemed to illustrate just how far away from being a serious Champions League prospect the club now were. Lampard ended the first Covid hit season with a Top 4 place & a disappointing FA Cup Final defeat. Thomas Tuchel ended last season with a scrambled Top 4 place courtesy of a superb run of away wins & (of all teams!) Spurs winning at Leicester on the last day of the season. There was also another diasappointing FA Cup Final defeat. The victory in the Champions League, deserved & astonishing in equal measure, was a stunning feather in Tuchel’s cap & also a vindication of both the squad investment under Lampard the previous Summer, & a comprehensive Group stage qualification under his watch too. Tuchel’s team overcoming Atletico & Real Madrid en route to beating Man City in Porto was a dazzling achievement though, all the more so when recalling the glaring gulf in class so evident against Bayern the season before.
I was rude about Crystal Palace & their fans the last time I shared an afternoon at Stamford Bridge with them. Their much vaunted Croydon Ultras, aka The Holmesdale Fanatics, had been rather subdued that day save for loudly sharing the same four letter expletive outside the ground prior to the game. In fairness they were probably worn down by years of attritional, frequently tedious football under Roy Hodgson’s watch, guaranteeing Premiership safety year in year out at the expense of retaining the will to live. Watching that very week must have been tough. They have been known to put Chelsea fans to shame on previous occasions, fortified on one famous occasion by then Blues coach Jose Mourinho visibly intoning ‘fuck off’ repeatedly to himself on hearing his team’s followers singing songs of love to the recently departed Frank Lampard as his current charges stood on the brink of clinching the Premier League title in 2015. It is this kind of behaviour that explains why Mourinho himself is no longer similarly serenaded, & also how sour snippiness like that towards the people who had always backed him ferociously has empowered all sets of rival fans when denigrating Chelsea supporters ever since. There is undoubtedly some snobbery & sneery superiority towards the Holmesdale Fanatics from opposition supporters too, though it is offset by a love-in between them & the media that is more than a tad nauseating. On this occasion I was staggered to hear the volume at the Palace end as represented by the television coverage, which appeared to comprehensively drown out the Chelsea support. I am all too aware that home matches have frequently found the Blues crowd ceding bragging rights to the travelling support & lapsing into long, passionless bouts of silence. What BBC & Sky did with their mikes today was some feat of audio manipulation because this match was not in keeping with so many games of recent vintage. The Chelsea support was loud . The main chant may have been Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are to the tiresome tune of Sloop John B, but it was sung triumphantly & noisily, & why not? It is the first competitive game after a hideous absence of full capacity stadia, & Chelsea ARE European champions. This chant’s arrival will be hated & dreaded by all opposition fans throughout the season. So what? If you can’t enjoy triumphs like this we might as well all go home. It was great to hear the decibel level rise above the Stamford Bridge norm & conspiracy theorists may wonder how the footage failed to reflect this. Palace fans started like their players. Slowly. Unlike their team they did rally as the afternoon progressed but I can recall them making little noise until Marcos Alonso’s superb free kick had given Chelsea an overdue first half lead. All they mustered then was Is This A Library? & the inevitable Mourinho’s Right, Your Fans Are Shite. Pretty ironic given we have barely had a peep out of them until then, & also mind numbingly dull & predictable. If Oscar Wilse’s old crown of the funniest man in London is up for grabs today it is unlikely to be seized by anyone here at Stamford Bridge today, & definitely nobody in the Palace end. The Holmesdale Fanatics are kitted out in black but, as a fellow scruff trying not to be sneery or superior, they still fail to cut the Ultra mustard. It’s all more Littlewoods than Lazio. There are plenty of post-match suggestions they won the day as far as making noise goes but this is utter guff. They do keep up the singing at 3-0 down but this does them less credit than it would had they made more effort while the game was in the balance. Proving you are battle hardened stoics by resolute chanting in the last 10 minutes is all very well, & frequently admirable, but on this occasion is akin to a two year old triumphantly sitting on the potty having already shat themselves an hour earlier. Too little too late chaps. Don’t believe the hype, not today anyway. I have failed to be nice again. Them singing that awful Dave Clark 5 song Glad All Over doesn’t help. Dave Clark is a Tottenham boy to his core, even tried to buy Spurs once. They could probably do with your help now Dave. They seem to be in pieces. Bits & pieces.
The Chelsea Fancast preview show the evening before the game featured the traditional opposition fan, Palace being represented on this occasion by an eminently likeable & intelligent man clearly excited about a new era dawning under new boss Patrick Vieira, a fiercely formidable & grudgingly respected opponent to Chelsea as a player in his Arsenal days, still finding his feet as a coach. He was clearly on message about the departed Roy Hodgson, equal parts grateful for his contribution in solidifying the club as a Premiership mainstay, relieved that the negativity that has swamped so much of Palace’s play in recent seasons might now be replaced by a more progressive style of play . The widespread changes in personnel will require patience & with some notable absences in midfield he was expecting a difficult afternoon at Chelsea. So it proved. This was a poor performance, lacking both quality & passion, & enterprise was as thin on the ground as it has been at Stamford Bridge under Hodgson in recent years. Early days though. Very early days. Even Wilfred Zaha was becalmed, waiting until late in the afternoon before reminding us that he remains, as ever, a strong contender for this season’s Premier League whiniest bitch award. Only Everton’s Richarlison & Jack Grealish come close usually, & at least the latter spends at least some pitch time with a smile on his face. Man Utd’s manbaby coach Ole Golum Sulker may yet put in a strong non-playing challenge, with his recent, tedious sub Ferguson laments about United not getting a fair crack of the whip from officials, as laughable a suggestion as it is irritating & breathtakingly crass. For all his brilliance Ferguson was also an obnoxious prick when he played these pathetic games lest we forget. Two seasons ago Zaha was thoroughly schooled by a teenage Reece James & reacted with predictable petulance & immaturity, gloating at us Chelsea fans when conning a free kick out of Mike Dean, but otherwise endlessly bleating at the Bald Ego for not showing him similar favour throughout the rest of the match. For a player of immense skill he comes across as remarkably joyless but doubtless he enjoys better days elsewhere. Palace fans clearly adore him. He seems destined to see his career fail to reap the rewards his ability hinted at when he moved to Man Utd at a young age, & there frequently seems to be precious little end product for all the dribbling & ball playing trickery. He reminds me a little of all those female X Factor candidates who almost used to make me feel sympathy for Simon Cowell, trying his limited patience as they destroyed hackneyed standards ( I Will Always Love You a frequent favoured choice) by painfully attempting to prove they could hold & extend the high notes a la Whitney Houston & Maria Carey. Singing as gymnastic exercise rather than a tool for lending warmth & humanity to the interpretation of the song. If you want to hear someone interpret a song with subtlety & class while holding a high note I refer you to Dionne Warwick’s version of Unchained Melody (3:36-3:50) on Spotify. You can thank me later. Dionne is more like Eden Hazard, blessed with a natural ability allied to a measure of restraint that more frequently leads to getting the job done than her contemporaries. Zaha is more Maria, flash but vulgar & more inclined to miss the target. He is well out of sorts this afternoon & fluffs Palace’s best chance, put clean through & failing to even get a shot away. Good. Sod off & cheer up Wilf.
In truth this was an ideal opener for Chelsea, & once the deadlock was broken the result was never in doubt, Alonso’s splendid free kick one of those dead ball moments that come along every so often when you just know the taker is going to score. Gascoigne for Spurs here in 1990. Zola on several occasions. Perhaps most remarkably Marcus Rashford here in the Carabao Cup in 2019, He was a long, long way out & yet you instinctively knew he was going to hit the target. Alonso is always a good bet 25 yards out when the kick is adjacent to the far right hand corner of the penalty box, & the anticipated left foot curler simply flew in. Christian Pulisic adding the second was a welcome moment, though he continues to struggle for the awesome form he displayed before being injured in the 2020 FA Cup Final last summer. Timo Werner was greeted with cult hero like fervour & I just hope he isn’t going to be the 21st century Robert Fleck, backed to the hilt by a sympathetic crowd but destined never to see the initially anticipated flood of goals materialise. Like Fleck it won’t be for lack of effort but currently cow’s arses & banjos spring to mind far too readily when the German is faced with a decent sight of the opposition goal. Nonetheless it is a solid, enjoyable team performance capped off with a splendid, long range, low drive from debutant Trevoh Chabolah. Trevoh is one who has had to wait a long time for his chance After several season long loans, abroad & in the lower divisions, he is now transcending the established norm for generations of Academy players to drift away without troubling the first team. The response to his goal was uproarious, although doubtless BBC & Sky considered having a stab at dubbing in some Palace chanting from elsewhere in the game over the footage of the young man’s glorious moment in the sun.
A happy day for Trevoh & a happy day for me. Back on the Fulham Road, as we pour out of the ground after the final whistle, one hoarse Palace fan on the way out is loudly, bitterly & swearily informing us Chelsea fans that our support is not terribly good. Or something like that. Call yourself a proper Palace fan fella, you’re not even wearing black. He is 6 foot 4 & 15 stone of solid muscle though so needless to say I keep such smartarsed thoughts to myself. No sweat mate, as Oscar Wilde would doubtless have told you, we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. Champions League winning stars at that. The chequered history of Chelsea Football Club suggests any current feelings of invincibility will likely crash & burn sooner rather than later. For now though we’re feeling, well, glad all over.