Chelsea vs. Leeds United : 4 March 2023.
Chelsea versus Leeds United. It sets off something in the brain doesn’t it? It triggers, for me anyway, a deep link to my childhood and beyond. It’s a classic football rivalry, forged almost sixty years ago.
The memories of the 1967 FA Cup semi-final, the epic FA Cup final and replay in 1970, the battles on the grass and mud of that era, the idolised hard men in both teams, but then the hostilities off the pitch in 1982/83 and 1983/84 when both firms rejuvenated the rivalry along different lines, and then the new era of rivalry in the mid to late ‘nineties when games still engendered deep feelings of dislike between the clubs’ hoolifans and supporters alike.
It seems ridiculous that in light of the stature of Leeds United and with a nod to this ancient rivalry that still exists between us and our foes from West Yorkshire that this would only be our third league game against them at Stamford Bridge since 2004.
“Where have you been?”
Yet this fixture caught all of us at Chelsea Football Club at a low ebb. We were undoubtedly struggling on the pitch – shape, desire, creativity, leadership, confidence – and many of us in the stands, the pubs, the bars, the cars and many social media and internet chat sites were struggling too.
In the parlance of modern day living, I declared myself “Potter Neutral” and I explained this to a few friends around Fulham on the day of the game.
“I want what’s best for Chelsea. No doubt. Deep down I want him to succeed, of course, but as for the bloke himself, I am neither for nor against.”
If the truth be known, I cared a lot less about him than I ought to. The manager simply doesn’t inspire me. I don’t feel engaged by him. I am not stirred when I hear him speak. To be truthful, the sad fact is that I have rarely heard him speak. Our form has been so poor that I rarely watch our highlights on “MOTD” these days, and if I do, I usually avoid his post-game utterings.
The new owners – I am still finding it hard to figure them out too – seem to want to keep Graham Potter in charge for the foreseeable future, however, so I do feel duty bound to support him – or at least his team in the wider context – at matches as best as I can.
We are supporters after all, right?
I have never really understood the booing, or the planned absences from games, but that’s just me. Hundreds of other teams throughout this nation have endured greater disasters than us and many clubs’ supporters still show up week in week out.
Besides. It’s the weekend. What else are you going to fucking do?
Shopping? Get excited about a new kitchen? Wash the car? TV gaze?
The new owners? There are undoubted reservations. My main worry is – to my eyes – this desire to colour a European football club with shades of red, white and blue, to somehow take the methodology of running a US sporting franchise – no promotion, no relegation, time to build over many years, farm teams, a different sports model completely – and jam it into the modus operandi and ultimately the psyche of our club.
Baseball, Clearlake’s forte, is a sport that I used to love with a passion, but as I have devoted more and more hours to football, my interest and working knowledge has dwindled. But baseball is a sport much loved by statisticians, nerds and geeks – God knows, I have met enough of them – and it makes me chuckle to think that a stat-based process of defining talent can work for football.
“This right-handed knuckleball pitcher has an awesome record in night games in the month of August against right-handed batters when the count is in his favour in late innings when there is a runner in scoring positions when he has had eggs over easy, bacon and hash browns – with grits on the side – for breakfast and when the batter has a Sagittarius birth sign and who is chewing Juicy Fruit flavoured gum.”
Additionally, after the euphoria in many parts of our Chelsea-supporting community about the new owner’s brash spend-up in January, I can’t be the only one, surely, who now looks back on it with a little embarrassment?
All that money, so little cutting edge.
Again, we’ll see.
Ultimately, we all want a winning team on and off the pitch.
It had been a fine pre-match spent with friends from my home area, plus some from further afield. I have known Ollie for a few years and he had travelled over on Friday from his home in Normandy. I last saw him at an away game at Watford a few years ago. Ollie works on a toll-bridge and I love the story of him spotting Frank Leboeuf approaching his little booth. He quickly showed Frank his Chelsea tattoo. He comes over once or twice a season. I would imagine that COVID hit him so hard.
I also spent time with Jason and Gina from Dallas. I last saw Jason in 2016/17, the Manchester City home game, but this was to be Gina’s first game at Chelsea. There were photos with the captains Ron Harris and Colin Pates. We flitted between Stamford Bridge and “The Eight Bells” in deepest Fulham. Tickets were sorted, plans for upcoming games were made, the others got some drinking in.
Andy and his daughter Sophie arrived and I joined them in “Chit Chat Corner” for a lovely walk down memory lane.
I shared something that I had recently seen on “Facebook.”
It would appear that Chelsea, and none other than Manchester United, are in talks about setting up friendlies against Wrexham in the US in the summer, though these are just rumours at this stage. When I read this a few days ago, I was gobsmacked.
Wrexham? It would appear that Chelsea are no longer just a football club, but are now contemplating being a bit-part player in a reality TV series. Fackinell. What next? Chelsea versus the Kardashians?
Modern football, eh?
I had shared all this in a WhatsApp group and my pal Steve in South Philly commented: “Hollywood, baby.”
I remember tipping off Andy and Sophie about venues for a potential US tour back in 2020 – they were both very enthused about Nashville being heavily touted as a venue – but obviously COVID put a kibosh on those plans. With a season without a UEFA campaign looking quite likely in 2023/24, there is a part of me that has been quietly contemplating a trip to the US should our summer tour plans send us west once more.
“When the three of us are sat in a roadside diner in North Carolina this summer surrounded by families wearing Wrexham shirts and scarves, yelling “way to go” every ten seconds, we’ll look back and laugh about this moment.”
The mood in “The Eight Bells” was mixed. Everyone seemed to be full of laughs, but I have rarely witnessed a pre-match where there was such little optimism. Everyone was joking about where the next goal, let alone a win, would come from.
“If you gave me £1,000 and asked me to pick the score today, I’d definitely go for 0-0.”
At 2pm, we set off for the quick journey from Putney Bridge to Fulham Broadway. There was a little band of Leeds lads exiting onto the Fulham Road – all the gear, Aquascutum scarves, CP and SI, dark jackets – and chants were exchanged, but on this occasion there was no hint of physical “afters”. This was clearly post-modern football hooliganism.
During the past week, a holiday for me, I had spent time on a magical mystery tour of the North of England and Scotland – Newcastle, Edinburgh, Liverpool – and my last port of call was at The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, just off Lime Street. “The Art Of The Terraces” was an excellent graphic review of the times of our collective lives when the wedge haircut, rare clothing imports, rain jackets, trainers and all associated finery took over our working class lives and football terraces to such a huge extent that the mainstream media chose to completely overlook it. I laughed when I saw the exact same edition of “The Face” from the summer of 1983 that I still possess to this day on display in a cabinet.
Talking of 1983…
After the surprisingly fine 3-3 draw against Leeds United – who? – the next opponents were Blackburn Rovers on Saturday 26 February. We found ourselves in fifteenth place on thirty-two points, just four points above a relegation place. The visitors were in eighth place on thirty-nine points, but a full twelve points off a promotion berth. To my surprise, we won 2-0 with goals from Clive Walker and Peter Rhoades-Brown. In my diary on the Friday – my week had been crammed full of the agony of mock A-Levels – I guessed that the gate would be around 7,000. I wasn’t far off. It was 6,982. I wished that “guessing football attendances” was an A-Level subject. I might have done OK at that.
Incidentally, Colin Pates was featured in the Blackburn programme – “the first priority is to steer clear of relegation” – and I love it that his team mates John Bumstead and Paul Canoville, from 1982/83, all work for the club on match days to this day.
I was inside Stamford Bridge early. I spoke to Oxford Frank behind me. Neither of us were enthralled nor optimistic. There was a dull, grey vibe pre-match, certainly not befitting a tussle between such two fine rivals. I was tasked with taking a few photographs of the match mascots as my dear friend Gill’s grandson Elliott was one of the eleven taking part. There had been a nine-year wait. I found that staggering. We had a mascot in 1983 and I am sure there wasn’t a nine year wait in those troubled times.
I spotted that, at last, attendance figures had found their way into the current season’s programme, though not against each match as detailed in the fixture list but in a separate panel. Very odd.
The team? Still no out-and-out striker.
Koulibaly – Badiashile – Fofana
Loftus-Cheek – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell
Sterling – Havertz – Felix
“Blimey. Ruben at wing back. He’s got the turning circle of the QE2. Any winger just needs to dink it past him and beat him for speed.”
“Potter must really hate Aubameyang.”
“Despite our January madness, Enzo and Felix definitely look good additions, decent players.”
Chelsea in blue, blue, white and Leeds in white, white, navy.
The game began.
It certainly seemed that there had been a collective decision among our support to put any personal grievances against the under-fire manager to one side and to wholeheartedly get behind the team. Within the first five minutes, a few of the old standards were aired, primarily by the MHL.
“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”
“Carefree, wherever you may be.”
“And its super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”
There was a brightness to our start, with plenty of diagonals out to Ben Chilwell from various players. We were undoubtedly fired up and we soon tested Ilian Meslier down at the Shed End. There was a high-flying leap from Wesley Fofana but his header was high and wide. Our best chance came on fourteen minutes with a break from Kai Havertz, played in by Raheem Sterling, and we watched expectantly. Sadly, his attempted dink over the ‘keeper was clawed away.
Cue the usual moans.
Just after, a reassuringly loud “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace” boomed around Stamford Bridge. Lovely stuff.
It was virtually all Chelsea with very few Leeds forays into our half.
On twenty-one minutes, the best move of the match thus far. We won the ball inside our half and Joao Felix pushed ahead before playing in Sterling on our right. The ball was then played back and into the path of Felix, who had supported the move well. His first-time effort from twenty-five yards crashed against the bar. The crowd were purring with appreciation, but in the back of all of our minds we began to wonder if we were in for another of “those” days.
On twenty-four minutes, a clean shot from Enzo, but straight at Meslier.
“He can strike a good ball can Enzo.”
On the half-hour mark, we had enjoyed virtually total domination. The away support seemed subdued, probably with reason, and were only able to be heard a few times.
“We are Leeds, we are Leeds, we are Leeds.”
Next up, a great chipped ball from Havertz found Chilwell out on the left-hand side of the box but his effort on goal was hit first time and went well wide of the far post.
On thirty-four minutes, a terrible tackle by Fofana, with limbs everywhere, was punished with a yellow card.
In the final portion of the first-half, a couple of dicey moments took place down below us as the visitors finally found confidence to attack in greater numbers. The ball was loose inside the box but Ruben Loftus-Cheek was on hand to thump the ball away in the six-yard box. Just after, a low cross into our box was also hacked away.
At half-time, there seemed to be a familiar story being played out on the pitch; tons of possession, but the lack of a finish.
The second period began. There was an immediate attack but after some neat passing, Sterling was unable to keep the ball down after a pull-back from Loftus-Cheek.
On fifty-three minutes, a corner was swung in – but out, away from the ‘keeper – by Chilwell down below us. Fofana met the ball with a perfect leap and the net rippled.
Get in you bastard.
I roared my approval but was still able to capture the scorer’s wild celebrations as he raced away; shame his leap is too fuzzy to share though.
The stadium was alive now.
Soon after, a song of self-deprecation.
“We scored a goal. We scored a goal. We scored a goal, we scored a goal, we scored a goal.”
A loud and proud “Carefree.”
I liked the way that all three defenders were playing, Kalidou Koulibaly especially, not always everyone’s favourite. There was a fine show, too from Mateo Kovacic, who chased and ran all afternoon.
However, the visitors showed some life. A shot from Tyler Adams flew over the bar. Then, a stab at the ball was luckily picked up by Kepa. For us, Sterling went close.
On sixty-eight minutes, Potter replaced Felix with Denis Zakaria and Sterling with Conor Gallagher.
On seventy-five minutes, Kovacic was replaced by Carney Chukwuemeka.
Not long after, just after a Leeds United move broke down, Chelsea had spare players in midfield but chose to move the ball slowly, almost at walking pace, rather than counter with pace and the Stamford Bridge faithful vented their displeasure. There were boos.
With the clock ticking away, the game became rather tense, and it really was no surprise.
On eighty-four minutes, Nino Madueke replaced Enzo.
With two minutes to go, Gallagher showed magnificent energy and desire to keep an attack live on the goal line in the far corner and send over a cross.
Late on, very nervy now, a cross flashed right across the face of the goal but thankfully there was nobody on hand to finish. Just after, Kepa dropped to save an effort from Mateo Joseph. In the very last minute, Meslier deserted his posts and came up for a corner. His header, thank the high heavens, was easily caught by Kepa.
At the final whistle, relief, huge relief.
At last a goal, at last a win.
On the last few steps of my descent of the stairs in the Matthew Harding, I overheard a fellow fan say “I can watch ‘Match Of the Day’ again” and I turned around to reply.
“And I can hear what Graham Potter sounds like.”
Next up, a potentially epic encounter with Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday evening.
I’ll see you in the bar.