Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 19 December 2023
The League Cup Quarter-Final at home to Newcastle United was positioned just before the rush of football games over Christmas and the New Year. In this heady period – from Friday 22 December to Monday 1 January – there would be three Chelsea games and three Frome Town games for me to attend. It’s what Christmas is for, right?
The visiting Geordies would be backed by a strong following of around 5,500 in The Shed but their team were beset with injuries. Chelsea, too, were missing several first-teamers. It was a match that intrigued me. It was a game that we could win. It was a game that could propel us into an unlikely Semi-Final. But Newcastle United would be a tough opponent despite their missing players.
An early shift behind me, I deposited my three passengers off at two different locations at Chelsea World; the first-two were dropped-off on Bramber Road, just a short hop to the evening’s base of “The Rylston” on Lillee Road and the third one was deposited right outside the main gates at Stamford Bridge. As I slowly drove back along the Fulham Road, I snapped the view of the West Stand, its forecourt and the milieu of Christmas lights falling like snow from the stand’s facade, the neon lights and the club crest, the milling crowds, a bright Christmas tree, and the Peter Osgood statue.
It felt like I was driving home for Christmas.
SW6 may not be my home, but sometimes it feels like it must be.
Not wanting to collect an unwanted parking ticket I drove around for twenty minutes and then parked up on Mulgrave Road bang on five o’clock. I met up with PD, Parky and Salisbury Steve in “The Rylston” just after 5pm.
The kick-off was at 8pm. We had three hours to relax. By an odd quirk, this pub – nestled under the flats of the Clem Atlee Estate – is run by the same pub management company as our usual haunt “The Eight Bells” further south. The Yellow Panda Pub Company has just these two in their portfolio. The lads worked their way through a few lagers, while I had the usual non-alcoholic offerings that accompany my match days. Food was a third off between 3pm and 6pm so a decent picante pizza was less than a tenner. It went down well.
I looked around at the clientele and it was very different from “The Eight Bells.” Our usual domicile, right down the bottom end of Fulham, is full of what could quite rightly be termed “old school” Chelsea support; virtually all blokes, decidedly working class, hardly any Chelsea colours on show, ribald laughter booming. In contrast, “The Rylston” attracted a more varied demographic; more couples, a few Chelsea shirts on show, a more middle-class vibe, hushed tones.
I could not help feel that these two pubs had swapped their clientele. Once an estate pub – I remember it as looking pretty rough, at least from the outside, “The Rylston” still has one of the poorest estates in London on its doorstep. It has, however, undergone a tidy re-vamp over the last decade. I like it a lot. By contrast, “The Eight Bells” is located, to my eyes, in a more affluent adjacent area.
I can almost hear the “compare and contrast” instruction from a social geography course at poly in the ‘eighties.
As we left the pub at about 6.45pm – a mild night – I took a few photos of the lads. I could not help but notice the black and white pub sign. I remembered the Panda from the pub company. Was I tempting fate ahead of the tie against the black and white hordes. At least a single magpie didn’t ominously appear. We made our way along Lillee Road, a red London bus drove past, the Clem Atlee to our right, the towering Empress State Building ahead. Another London bus flew by. We were deep in Chelsea World. I smiled.
Driving home for Christmas.
We were all in at about 7.15pm.
As the away fans were encamped in The Shed, Parky had been transplanted to the Matthew Harding. As against Brighton and Blackburn Rovers, I took his ticket and he took mine so that he could sit alongside PD and Alan in “The Sleepy”; my seat was centrally towards the goal. I spotted Luke, another Shed End regular – who used to sit very close to Lord Parsnips until last season – and so I took a snap of them being reunited at the other end of the stadium.
There were the Newcastle fans, set up in two tiers, at The Shed, and a decent showing on a Tuesday night in London. They brought a few flags, including a very odd one that featured the letters “NUFC” and an image of a woman with a tooth missing.
At 7.50pm, “London Calling”, “Parklife” and “Liquidator.”
The usual – kinda cringe worthy by now – light show and accompanying flames welcomed the teams onto the pitch.
Our Chelsea eleven?
Axel Disasi – Thiago Silva – Benoit Badiashile – Levi Colwill
Moises Caicedo – Conor Gallagher
Cole Palmer – Enzo Fernandez – Raheem Sterling
In the Newcastle United team was Tino Livramento but not Lewis Hall. Despite some players missing, they still boasted Miguel Amiron, Callum Wilson and Anthony Gordon, all undoubted threats.
It was a lively start. An unmarked Gordon managed to get a shot in on the goal that we were defending down below us but it was deflected for a corner. On six minutes, Gallagher saw his curling effort bounce against the Shed End crossbar. We began well. There was a Newcastle cross from their right that didn’t drop for an attacker to pounce but it had me worried.
Not long after, calamity. From a cross from the bye-line from Disasi, we gave up possession and Newcastle broke with pace. Callum Wilson, however, had Caceido chasing him and the twin pillars of Silva and Badiashile closing in on him. This pincer movement failed. He ghosted past Silva. Badiashile then seemed to get his legs tangled. I watched in horror as the ball was adeptly curled with the outside of his foot past the forlorn dive of Petrovic.
It seemed the unluckiest of goals to concede, but now we were up against it.
We were immediately treated to an absolutely magnificent sliding tackle from Silva, and if I was to say that it was worth the admission money alone I would stand by my comment. Pure class.
A twist and a shot at the near post from Palmer. There was a nice “one-two” between Sterling and Caicedo on twenty-seven minutes but his roller just evaded the goal frame. Just after, another shot from Sterling was blocked after a decent break down the right.
These chances were few and far between though. I was again frustrated to see Sterling in acres of space but criminally under-utilised. Our build-up play lacked guile. The two centre-backs seemed to be touching the ball every five seconds.
“Slow, slow, quick, quick, slower.”
At least the Newcastle threat had dwindled; they were quite content to defend deep.
“LOW BLOCK” shout the FIFA nerds.
Yeah, low bock, whatever.
Fernandez was surprisingly substituted on thirty-two minutes and was replaced by Armando Broja. There was a shifting of personnel and Sterling popped up on the right, taking over from Palmer. Jackson was shunted out towards the East Stand. I speculated if he would be better positioned behind the East Stand.
The noise from us wasn’t great. There were a few attempts at getting something started. I couldn’t decipher much of it, but the away fans were making a fair old racket.
“Noo-cassel You-nited. We’ll nevah be defeated.”
As the first-half continued, I moaned to the chap next to me “one-hundred and ten passes and its going nowhere.”
Jackson was having a minimal impact, aside from getting caught offside. There had been one, just one, excellent run from him – that both the bloke next to me and I had spotted – but which was not spotted by the man on the ball. We longed for the movement of Crespo or Vialli.
“Proper strikers” he murmured.
It was so noticeable that, even with Broja on the pitch, we were loath to send crosses into the Geordie box. I wondered that we would need Zaphod Beeblebrox loitering at the far post before we started crossing high balls into the mixer.
At the end of the first-half, Broja’s goal was called back for offside, Newcastle had two efforts on our goal, and Palmer supplied, probably, one of the highest ever crosses seen at Stamford Bridge, only for Jackson to head it over at the far stick. Perhaps if he had two heads he would have fared better.
At half-time, there were moans.
“We aren’t hitting our front players quick enough. By the time we play the bloody ball, they are fully marked.”
At the break, Malo Gusto replaced Colwill at left-back.
The chap next to me said that if Reece James was to be out for an extended stay, as is likely, Gusto would be an able replacement. I could not disagree. He has been a good addition this season.
Soon into the first-half, there was nothing but praise and applause for the much-maligned Jackson who chased a Newcastle break from Gordon and put in a timely tackle way inside our own half. Fair play to him. I was not upset when Gordon would soon be substituted.
Bursting down the right, that man Gusto played in Broja who set up Jackson. He swivelled nicely but his GPS let him down, the shot missing the near post by a yard or so. A minute after, Jackson prodded the ball through to the rampaging Sterling, but his low shot was pushed – low down – past the far post by Dubravka.
There was noise now.
“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea. Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”
You know the tune.
Stamford Bridge was alive and it felt like a proper game, a proper cup tie.
On the hour, another magnificently-timed sliding tackle from Silva. More glorious applause.
“Come on, keep up the intensity Chels.”
By now, Newcastle’s attack had virtually ceased.
The noise continued. At last Christopher Nkunku made his Chelsea debut, replacing Jackson.
A big roar.
It seemed like the second coming of Christ.
I turned to the chap to my right.
Ten minutes later, Mykhailo Mudryk replaced Sterling and Ian Maatsen replaced Disasi. Gusto moved to the right. Mudryk was soon attempting to dance down the left. Was I confident of us getting an equaliser? Maybe. Only maybe.
Into the last ten minutes, the atmosphere had noticeably quietened. Perhaps the Chelsea faithful were not confident of that equaliser. Mudryk found himself our main threat. A teasing cross was headed, almost disastrously, into his own goal by Livramento.
On eighty-nine minutes, a wriggle from Gallagher – our best player, he was everywhere – and a coming together of bodies but no penalty.
There were four minutes of injury time but I had hoped for more.
Four minutes? Fackinell.
The bloke next to me couldn’t hold it in any longer, and excused himself. He got up, we shook hands, and off he went. I like these temporary friendships that we make at football. I’ll probably never see him again, but it is always nice not to be sat next to a dickhead, of which there are many, at Chelsea. At away games, those temporary friendships always tend to solidify over the years.
Into injury time, a deep cross from the nimble and mobile Gusto was aimed at the far post. For some reason that only he knows, Keiran Trippier reacted oddly to the ball as it bounced up in front of him. He seemed to be shocked that the ball would take its trajectory. Mudryk, just behind him, reacted quickly.
My heart-beat increased. I gulped some air. I stood.
The ball sat up nicely.
The Ukrainian walloped it in.
The Bridge boomed.
The scorer ran past the lucky ones in the front row at pitch side and continued his run over to the West Stand, not usually the place to aim for. Shades of Micky Thomas against Sheffield Wednesday in 1984.
Stay still my beating heart.
Ninety-three minutes had elapsed. This was indeed a late-late show. I immediately thought back to a Les Ferdinand equaliser for the Toon Army, equally late, in an FA Cup tie in January 1996. Revenge for that, maybe?
Before we could breath, the final whistle sounded. I hoped for the penalties to be taken down our end. There seemed to be a longer-than-usual delay.
The players walked to the half-way line and faced the Newcastle followers in The Shed.
I remembered an FA Cup loss on penalties at The Shed against Everton in 2011.
I prepared my camera for its big moments.
Cole Palmer – a confident strike low to the right, tucked just inside the post.
Callum Wilson – down the middle, git.
Conor Gallagher – a short run up but a smash high, phew.
Keiran Trippier – “you little prick” might have out him off, a drive wide of the left-hand post.
Christopher Nkunku – a confident smack high left, welcome to Chelsea my son.
Bruno Guimaraes – a stop/start run up, but struck just inside the right-hand post.
Mykhailo Mudryk – a brief approach, stroked to the left, surely evoking Didier in Munich for us all.
Matt Ritchie – confidently struck, but flamboyantly saved by Petrovic, magnificent stuff.
Within the space of sixteen minutes, we had come back from the dead. Into the League Cup semis we went. Thousands of puns simultaneously erupted all over Chelsea World about Djordje and the Geordies.
This was a stunning turnaround. But it was a reward for our dominance in an increasingly noisy and enthralling second-half.
“Freed From Desire” boomed around Stamford Bridge and there was a lot of untidy body movements in the Matthew Harding Upper. Then “One Step Beyond” and even more shocking behaviour.
But I didn’t mind.
Outside, there were so many Chelsea smiles and a massive sense of release.
“Freed” indeed. Maybe the DJ was right.
Our team and our club continue to confuse us all, but this win seemed so important. I am not going to naively suggest it might save our season but stranger things have happened. It might just get the positivity flowing again.
As I drove home, we learned that Middlesbrough had beaten Port Vale and Fulham had edged out Everton.
We often underplay the importance of the League Cup these days, but surely no Chelsea fan currently does. I can’t wait for the semi-final.
See you there.