Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough : 23 January 2024
My seat for the second leg of the League Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough was in row Q – the rear row all but one – of the Matthew Harding Upper and I was inside with about fifteen minutes to go. There had been a greater queue than normal outside. It was a very mild night in SW6. I was beginning to regret to regret wearing a bulky puffer jacket. Up the other end, in The Shed, were the brightly-coloured visitors from Teesside, around 5,000 of the buggers, their biggest turnout at Stamford Bridge since “that” game in 1988.
While we attempted to overturn a narrow 0-1 deficit from the first leg on this Tuesday night in the Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, just twenty-four hours later, Fulham would be attempting to overcome a similar result in their semi-final against Liverpool. All of a sudden, our home borough was the centre of attention.
While latecomers took their seats, I remained quietly confident of us advancing to yet another Wembley Cup Final. And – of course – we hoped that Fulham would join us.
On the pitch, the ground staff in matching dark grey puffer jackets of their own prodded away at the wet grass using forks. Then the lights dimmed, and the 1-2 punch occurred.
Firstly, the pulsing electronic beat boomed out of the stadium’s speakers, the strobe lighting began and then the flames flashed into the sky.
Secondly, the “what the fookin’ hell was that?” from the away support.
It was a very colourful away support, with many of the ‘Boro bedecked in red and white scarves and with replica shirts on show under unbuttoned jackets. I remember a similar number of Tottenham fans at our semi-final in 2019, occupying those same two tiers, and with everyone dressed in dark jackets, a large unsavoury mob, almost looking like a European team. This lot were far more brightly attired. There were a few flags dotted around too.
“We Built the World.”
“You Make Me Happy When Skies Are Grey.”
“We Are Boro.”
My Middlesbrough mate Chris texted me :
“You’ll probably win the match, but I’ll be happy if we out-sing you.”
With the players of both teams on the pitch, they then moved to the centre circle and the PA asked us to remember one of our own.
I only ever saw Tommy Baldwin play once for Chelsea. On Saturday 10 October 1974, my second-ever visit to Stamford Bridge, Tommy played against Tottenham in a game that we won 1-0, the goal coming from an early John Hollins penalty.
The Chelsea team that day was :
- John Phillips.
- Gary Locke.
- Ron Harris.
- John Hollins
- Micky Droy.
- John Dempsey.
- Steve Kember
- Tommy Baldwin.
- Charlie Cooke
- Ian Hutchinson
- Peter Houseman.
It was also the only time that I saw John Dempsey play. Later that season, Tommy joined Manchester United on loan before drifting away from Stamford Bridge and finishing his career with a few games at Brentford. He had been a stalwart at Chelsea for eight years, playing almost two-hundred games as a bustling midfielder or inside-forward.
I often used to see Tommy Baldwin meeting up with other former players as they congregated together before darting off to engage in hospitality activities on match days. Unfortunately, Tommy had been unwell for quite a while and on Monday we heard that he had sadly passed away. He was seventy-eight. Tommy Baldwin was nicknamed “The Sponge” for reasons that were sometimes debated. There are those that said that it was because of his ability to soak up pressure, attack after attack, in his midfield role. But I suspect that those that knew him better, knew that this was a name derived from his ability to drink. I had read through the detailed obituary that appeared on the Chelsea website on Monday evening; it was a fine summation of his time as a footballer in Chelsea colours and illustrated his often-under-appreciated role in that most revered of Chelsea teams.
Although his name was not widely known outside SW6 circles – unlike Bonetti, Osgood, Cooke, Harris, Hollins, Hudson et al – his role in the functioning of the team was acknowledged by us all. He was as no footballing Corporal Sponge.
While his image appeared in black and white on the two TV screens, both sets of supporters applauded in his memory.
Rest In Peace Tommy Baldwin, The Leader Of The Team.
I scanned our team.
Disasi – Silva – Colwill – Chilwell
Palmer – Caicedo – Fernandez
Sterling – Broja – Mudryk
We attacked the Middlesbrough fans in the first-half. They were, unsurprisingly, noisy.
“That’s why we sing this song for the ‘Boro all night long.”
For the first ten minutes or so, it seemed like a seamless continuation from the game on Teesside a fortnight ago. They were sat back and we took forever to move the ball from one side of the pitch to the other, while the movement upfront was almost non-existent. A few pumps up field from deep did not hit targets.
There were a couple of worrying signs early on. Raheem Sterling was ball-watching during a ‘Boro attack, leaving his wide man ridiculously free but thankfully the ball stayed on the opposite side. Then, after getting sucked inside, Ben Chilwell had to race back – and across – like an express train as we were embarrassingly cut open down our left.
But we enjoyed a couple of efforts in this period; one from Mykhailo Mudrk, one from Chilwell.
Djordje Petrovic got down well to save to his right.
On fifteen minutes, a swish move down our right involving Cole Palmer and Raheem Sterling set up Armando Broja. From my seat, I could not see the fine detail, but only the ball ending up in the net. We would soon find out that Johnny Howson had stuck out a leg and had scored the goal for us. But, I did not celebrate. Such is the spectre of VAR these days – even when it is not being used – that my celebrations were dulled. Of course, there was no flag, no nothing. The goal stood. It came at just the right time because the supporters in the Matthew Harding were starting to get a little agitated and nervous.
The tie was tied.
The rest of the first-half, unlike in Middlesbrough, certainly went to plan.
On twenty-eight minutes, some solid play between Sterling and Axel Disasi down the right set up a chance for Broja. His shot was blocked by a defender but Enzo Fernandez was on hand to slam the ball in. A slide into the corner from Enzo. I could celebrate that one.
Eight minutes later, Disasi broke up an attack with a superb tackle and passed to Sterling. As Sterling, who had enjoyed a mixed opening period, raced on, so did Disasi. Sterling played the ball back to our rampaging defender and his low finish put us 3-0 up. There was another slide into the corner.
“That makes up for the chances we missed in the first-half two weeks ago.”
It was all Chelsea now.
Some were singing “We’re Going To Wembley” but I resisted. It was a little too soon for me.
Middlesbrough tried to keep their shape but they suddenly looked tired.
Despite the away fans dominating the night for most of the first-half – the twin staples of “your support is fooking shit” and “shall we sing a song for you?” were often heard – they were silent now.
On forty-two minutes, Palmer pick-pocketed a Middlesbrough defender and casually, and coolly, swept the ball in to the net.
Chelsea 4 Middlesbrough.
Now I could join in…
“Que Sera Sera.”
It had been an excellent half. After that slow start, we had grown as the game progressed. Petrovic had made the one save when he was needed. It was a joy to see Chilwell patrolling the left flank, and just inside him Levi Colwill looked a steady centre-back. We had been treated to two trademark sliding tackles from Silva. Disasi had enjoyed his best half for ages. In midfield, Enzo and Palmer created a few chances with their intelligent play and Moises Caicedo – not the easiest player to appreciate – was very solid. Broja was steady if not spectacular. Sterling was back on his game. The only negative was Mudryk, as perplexing as ever, a mixture of breath-taking speed mixed with jaw-dropping slowness of thought.
But we were happy at the break.
At half-time, Nonu Madueke replaced Mudryk.
“It’s probably for the best.”
The second-half began and I wasn’t quite sure how to behave. Did I want us to rampage away and score four more or conserve ourselves for the FA Cup game on Friday? In truth, we controlled the game without causing too much further damage to the scoresheet nor the away team’s morale.
On the hour, for the first real time, the whole crowd sang as one.
That’s more like it.
Carney Chukwuemeka for Chilwell.
Conor Gallagher for Broja.
On seventy-seven minutes, Gallagher played in Palmer down below me, who did not bother with the burden of an additional touch and – as cool as you like – side-footed the ball in. Soon after, a blue flare was thrown onto the pitch from the MHL. It made for a great photo opportunity if nothing else.
On eighty-one minutes, Gallagher passed to Madueke, who shimmied and danced past a marker before slamming the ball at goal. The shot took a large deflection.
Chelsea 6 Middlesbrough 0.
I was impressed that the away fans had been singing in the build up to the sixth goal and continued doing so when the goal came and for a while after too. Fair play to them. The biggest compliment that I can give them is that they reminded me of us when we were in our hey-day.
There was even time for a late debut.
Leo Casteldine – “player number 54 where are you?” – replaced Sterling.
I am unsure if we were being intentionally ironic, but we sang :
“Shall we sing a song for you?”
Middlesbrough had two late goals; one annulled for offside but one stood, a fine low effort by Morgan Rogers.
At the whistle, Chelsea 6 Middlesbrough 1.
I quickly gathered my stuff and headed out.
“Blue Day” from 1997 blasted out on the PA. As I headed down the multiple flights of stairs at the rear of the stand, I heard the sweet voice of Doris Day. It did not compute. The opening bars just made me think of “that” Leeds song.
I then got it.
“Que sera sera.
Whatever will be, will be.
We’re going to Wem-ber-lee.
Que sera, sera.”
On the Fulham Road, there was some boisterous behaviour, some name-calling, some gesturing, some punches, some arrests.
Outside the town hall, I spotted a female ‘Boro fan, arm in arm with her man – to possibly stop herself from falling over – who pointed at two Chelsea women and shouted “Chelsea Rent Girls!”
Well, I had never heard that one before.
We got back to the car and set off for home at 10.30pm. I would be home by 1am. We hoped that the little brothers from Craven Cottage would do the business in the other semi-final, but our business in our borough was over for a few days.
Next up, Aston Villa in the other cup on Friday.
See you there.