Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 24 December 2023
There was much negative press surrounding the Premier League’s decision to allow Sky TV to move our match at Molineux to Christmas Eve. I felt sorry for those normal match-goers from both sides who had made solid arrangements for other activities on that day and were now forced to either change plans or miss the game completely. The problem stemmed from the fact there had been very little precedent for such a game. The last Premier League game to take place on Christmas Eve took place in 1995 at Elland Road with a game between the two Uniteds of Leeds and Manchester. Chelsea’s last game on 24 December was way back in 1966, a 1-2 defeat by Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. So, as plans for Christmas were discussed in Chelsea households in the autumn, there was minimal thought that Chelsea would be playing away to Wolverhampton Wanderers on any other date other than Saturday 23 December.
Then Sky TV gate-crashed the party and a change to the date of the game was made. Match-going fans went through a range of reactions; from being dumbfounded, to being irate, to being sad. Existing travel plans would need to be re-hashed and there is no doubt that many a relationship endured a few tense moments. I suspect that train and coach timetables were studiously scanned anew.
As it happens, the change did not really affect me too much. In fact, I came out of it for the better. With us playing on the Sunday, our Boxing Day game at home to the Stripey Nigels was to be shunted back twenty-four hours, taking place on the evening of Wednesday 27 December. This, ironically, would allow me to attend the Frome Town vs. Melksham Town Derby on Boxing day.
On the Friday evening, away in some distant part of Bristol, I attended the Frome Town away game at Cribbs. A draw would take us top. Unfortunately, despite dominating possession Frome had no cutting edge – sound familiar? – and the home team won the encounter 1-0. It was the home team that would go top of the division.
I almost forgot that games were being played on the Saturday as I wrote up my match report from the eventful Newcastle United cup tie.
Sunday – Christmas Eve – soon arrived. I set the alarm for 6am and at just after 7am I stepped outside into the dark to wait for Glenn to arrive to drive up to the Black Country. I soon clambered into the back of his black VW van. PD was riding shotgun alongside Glenn. Unfortunately, Parky was unable to join us on this trip.
We stopped off for a brief McBreakfast en route at Strensham – the place was deathly quiet – and Glenn rolled up outside “The Bluebrick” pub just to the east of the Wolverhampton city centre at 10am.
On the drive up, Glenn had earmarked our next three games as all being “winnable” but I wasn’t so confident and neither was PD.
The pub, an adjunct to a new hotel, soon became swarmed with away fans. This was a dedicated “Chelsea fans only” boozer. We visited it back in April ahead of the return of Frank Lampard as manager for his second stint as manager. I remembered, all too easily, the sense of optimism in that early April sun. How soon that feeling dissipated. Our last two visits to Molineux have been dreadfully unattractive games of football.
We spotted a few usual faces at the pub. There was a little talk about the League Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough. I have already booked up cheap digs in Stockton-on-Tees for the away leg. There is still a healthy appetite to see us – especially away – despite this poor season. Over the two games, we would have to fancy our chances against ‘Boro. Our away take should be over the usual league allowance of 3,000. Hopefully we will have 3,500 or more up there. It will certainly be different from the 650 who were “allowed” in for that odd FA Cup tie back in 2022.
This was only the fourth game out of twenty-two this season where I was able to have a drink. The three pints of lager were a nice change. We stood inside as the weather deteriorated a little.
We set off for Molineux at about 11.50am. I had a spare ticket that I was able to hand over to Gemma who lives in nearby Birmingham outside the away turnstiles. There was a little chat with a few mates. There was scant optimism. I was inside at about 12.30pm. I immediately spotted Bank from Bangkok – he was at the corresponding match last season – and it was good to see him again. Blue and white Santa hats, printed with the date of the game, were being handed out to the away contingent.
I picked up one but promised myself that I would only wear it if it began raining.
“Please don’t rain.”
Glenn and PD took their position to be alongside Alan, Gary and John away to the right, while I stood next to Gemma equidistant between the half-way line and the South Stand which used to be the site of a huge bank of terracing in Wolves’ heyday. There is always a lot of conjecture on various football forums about which end had the highest capacity when terraces existed. The three front-runners always seem to be Liverpool’s Kop, Aston Villa’s Holte End and Molineux’ South Bank. I think it is widely agreed that The Kop was the widest, the South Bank went back the furthest, but the Holte End was the largest. There are currently plans to continue the large double-tiered Stan Cullis stand around the other three sides. Until then, the once neat Molineux looks a little lopsided. The Stan Cullis Stand doesn’t sit well on the eye.
The away following is positioned along the length of the pitch in the lower tier of the Steve Bull Stand, the oldest part of the modernised stadium, constructed way back in 1979. Getting a song together at Molineux is always a tough ask. This particular day would be no different.
A friend – Daryl – had quoted the words to a Slade song earlier in the day on Facebook and I had this song – “Far Far Away” – reverberating in my brain all morning. Slade were from the Black Country, though, so at least I suppose that it was apt. Before the game, the Molineux DJ played a Midlands-themed section of songs.
There was Slade again and the festive classic “Merry Xmas Everbody” which was released in December 1973. It brought back some sweet memories of that particular Christmas. It is undoubtedly my favourite festive time. I had managed to avoid making an arse of myself in my only appearance at a school nativity play, held in the village hall, and this magnificent song from Slade at “Number One” quickly evokes my warm feelings from that particular year. I can vividly remember being at school and announcing that Slade’s classic had gone to the top of the pile, taking over from “I Love You Love Me Love” by another glam-rock singer who will remain nameless. But the main reason why Christmas 1973 is so fondly remembered is that my parents announced that they would take me to Stamford Bridge for the first-ever time in the New Year.
Yes, Christmas 1973 was lovely.
Fifty years ago.
Oh to be eight again.
The Slade hit from all those decades ago was quickly followed by “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizard, another Midlands band, and this reached number two behind Slade in 1973.
Next up, “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, a nod towards Robert Plant – born locally – and an honorary vice-president of Wolves to this day. I spotted Plant chatting to a villager outside the local pub in my village that he was staying in for the Glastonbury Festival in 2022.
Next up, a crooner from Tupelo Mississippi, not the Black Country, and “The Wonder Of You.”
I was wondering if it should be-remixed as “The Wonder Of Yow.”
I whispered to the bloke next to me –
“Just play ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ and be bloody done with it.”
After the golden flames appeared in front of the Steve Bull Stand, “Hi Ho” appeared on the playlist and how the locals loved it.
“Hi Ho Wolverhampton!”
I reminded Gemma that “this lot were fined last year for the homophobic stuff, weren’t they?”
Over in the stand to the right, there were banners honouring Derek Dougan and Billy Wright, along with Steve Bull, Wolves’ most favourite sons.
It was a mild and overcast day. The grey skies closed in on Molineux.
Chelsea appeared in the deep blue away kit for the first time.
“Looks too Tottenham to me” I thought.
Up close there are the geometric lines that would not have looked out of place on a sci-fi poster from the mid-‘eighties.
“One for the nerds” I thought to myself.
Gusto – Silva – Disasi – Colwill
Ugochukwu – Gallagher
Sterling – Palmer – Jackson
Or something like that. At times Broja ran the wide channels. At times Jackson did. Who knows?
We attacked the old South Bank that used to hold almost 30,000 in the first-half. Renamed the Sir Jack Hayward Stand it now holds a lot less. In a far corner there is an open-air segment that holds around a thousand hardy souls.
In the first ten minutes, there were a couple of half-chances for Nicolas Jackson – “pull the trigger!” – and Armando Broja that left the Chelsea faithful mumbling words of distress.
Some of those wearing the Santa hats – of which there were many, I fear for humanity – began swirling them above their heads, which brought back an image of scarf-twirling from my first game in 1974 – and this was met by ridicule from the South Bank.
“What the fookin’ hell was that?”
And then, I was just able to decipher this –
“We can’t say it, you know what you are.”
After a quarter of an hour I turned to Gemma and said “I hate to say it but we have so much of the ball but carry no threat at all.”
However, Wolves breaks were cut out pretty easily by the Chelsea defence. Levi Colwill doesn’t convince me as a left-back though. He hasn’t impressed me greatly this season. Raheem Sterling enjoyed a few pacey bursts down in front of us, but his end product was shocking.
On twenty minutes, Jackson completely miss controlled a ball into him, with nobody close. The frustration rose. The home fans began booing Sterling after he fell too easily in the box. The abuse was loud. I looked at Sterling for a reaction. There was nothing.
The Chelsea fans backed him :
“Raheem Sterling, he’s won more than you.”
I liked it that we were sticking up for him – not the easiest player to warm to – but then realised that all of the trophies that were being referenced had been won with Manchester City.
On twenty-eight minutes, a free-kick from the man Sterling. It flew over the wall. It was the sort of free-kick that needed to be clipped, not struck through.
A silly foul on a Wolves player just outside our box resulted in a free-kick that thankfully came to zilch.
On thirty-one minutes, the defining moment of the half, if not the whole game. From a goal-kick, Joao Gomes was pick-pocketed by Sterling and we watched as he raced away in a central position. To his right, supporting him, were Palmer and Jackson. Surely a goal would follow here. Unbelievably, Sterling chose not to pass but to shoot. Agonisingly, the Wolves’ ‘keeper Jose Sa got down to block. I don’t really want to include the photo in my match gallery but feel I have to.
To make matters worse, a weak shot from Gallagher from the follow up was easily saved by Sa.
The Chelsea support bellowed their anger towards Sterling.
I muttered my two penn’orth : “I can’t even begin to work out how many years I need to work to earn what he earns in a week.”
I hate modern football.
There were a few half-chances at the end of the first-half. Petrovic hesitated but was then let off. Palmer shot over. At least he is not afraid to shoot.
It had been a pretty dire half.
My pre-match prediction of a 0-0 draw seemed to be spot on.
Just as the second-half began, the two Bobs resumed watching from two rows in front of me. I took a photo. They smiled. I suggested to them that I will never see them happy ever again.
There were a few Wolves chances. After Thiago Silva gave up possession cheaply, a shot from Gomes touched a post as it was deflected off Ugochukwu. Then a strong header directed with pace at our ‘keeper at the near post from Toti but Petrovic blocked well. They had enjoyed the brighter start to the half.
On fifty-one minutes, a corner – one of a few – from the Wolves right. The ball fell centrally, but there was no Chelsea presence, no Chelsea leap, no Chelsea anything. Mario Lemina rose unchallenged to glance the ball in.
Approaching the hour, Mauricio Pochettino shuffled the pack.
Christopher Nkunku came on for Ugochukwu and Mykhailo Mudryk replaced the poor Broja. I wondered, as did many, how Jackson was still on the pitch. Mudryk took up residency on the left and we tried our hardest to will him past players. On sixty-five minutes, Nkunku stabbed a half-chance at goal but it was deflected and then cleared off the line. Just after, receiving the ball centrally, Nkunku chose not to shoot but to pass to Palmer who chose not to shoot but to pass to Sterling who chose not to shoot but…you get the message…he took a touch, an extra touch that flattened the angle, and the Wolves defender Craig Dawson blocked the low shot. The ball spun high and over the bar.
Expletive. Expletive. Expletive.
It seemed to be all Chelsea by now, but we were not creating much. For Frome Town on Friday read Chelsea on Sunday. A Malo Gusto error let in a Wolves strike, but it was saved.
Ian Maatsen for Colwill.
Benoit Badiashile for Gusto.
Noni Madueke for Jackson.
I didn’t join in the applause that greeted Jackson’s substitution, but many did. Each to their own, eh?
With the influx of new players, it seemed like a new team out there, certainly in the attacking third. I wondered if it was asking too much to expect them to gel, to fit together, to create chances. The Chelsea support, hardly making much of a contribution all game, were roused a little and tried to inspire the players.
“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
A crazy extra eleven minutes were signalled.
“Fackinell, we’ve got homes to go to.”
Madueke was full or running and looked a threat. He launched a curler that sadly swept past the Wolves goal.
On ninety-three minutes, Wolves carved us open way too easily down to my left. As the move developed, I had this sudden fear of them scoring and the Chelsea crowd leaving en masse. I must have a sixth-sense. A cross was played in. It hit the heel of Badiashile – what a calamity – and sat up nicely for Matt Doherty to slide the ball home.
The South Bank seized the moment.
“Take your hats and fuck off home.”
I inwardly smiled.
As is so often the case, the team chasing an equaliser soon scored after conceding another goal. The substitute Nkunku adeptly headed home a fine cross from Sterling, who had also managed to stay on the pitch despite almost half-a-team-full of substitutions.
Virtually the last action of the whole horrid game was a thumped free-kick by Gallagher that was easily claimed by Sa, all dressed in pink like a stick of Blackpool rock.
It would seem that we are only seeing glimpses, occasional glimpses, of this team playing half-decent football at the moment. It is a huge worry. As we approach the half-way mark in this totally underwhelming season, I see us finishing no higher than our current position of tenth. The half-way mark will be reached at home to Crystal Palace on Wednesday.
See you there.