Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 9 January 2024
In the build up to our League Cup semi-final first leg at the Riverside Stadium, I had read somewhere that Chelsea had won every single one of the previous nine games against Middlesbrough, encompassing both venues and across all competitions. From February 2007 to March 2022, Chelsea had won them all.
In this most fragile of seasons, this is surely an an expected reaction.
Surely if there was a record waiting to be broken, here it was. This would be a misfiring Chelsea team playing at a hostile venue on a midweek night in the North-East against a team looking for revenge after fifteen years of hurt.
I did a little more research, but of a more personal nature. From May 1988 to March 2022, I had seen Chelsea play twenty-three times against Middlesbrough and – yes, you have surely guessed it – I was yet to see us lose against them across all venues and competitions.
Played : 23
Won : 20
Drew : 3
Lost : 0
Should I even bother going to Teesside?
The ironic thing here is that the very first of these twenty-three matches on Saturday 28 May 1988, even though we won the game 1-0, still feels like a loss to this day; we had lost the Football League Division One Play-Off first leg 2-0 and so were relegated after the second leg. It was, undoubtedly, one of the worst days in our history and probably my worst Chelsea day of them all.
In the immediate aftermath of that day, however, Chelsea wreaked havoc on the fortunes of Middlesbrough Football Club with revenge in many forms; a Zenith Data Systems Cup win at Wembley in 1990, an FA Cup victory at Wembley in 1997 and a League Cup win at Wembley in 1998.
The game in 1998, when the League Cup was called the Coca-Cola Cup, was our last game against ‘Boro in the competition that now carries the title the Carabao Cup. Middlesbrough had been relegated to the second tier at the end of the previous season, but still had some decent enough players such as Paul Merson, Mark Schwarzer, Paul Gascoigne, Gianluca Festa, Nigel Pearson and Andy Townsend.
Pre-match was spent in The Globe on Baker Street. I remember being nervous before the game. I feared that Middlesbrough would be driven by revenge for the 1997 FA Cup Final loss against us. I need not have worried. We watched the game in the same corner of Wembley as the previous year’s FA Cup Final against the same opponents, though in a higher position in the enclosure. The Chelsea team, managed by Gianluca Vialli in a cool light grey suit with a big-knotted tie, lined up as below.
Sinclair – Duberry – Leboeuf – Le Saux
Petrescu – Newton – Wise – Di Matteo
Hughes – Zola
Chelsea dominated the game, but Middlesbrough held on to a 0-0 score line in the regular ninety minutes. Thankfully, in the first period of extra time, Frank Sinclair became an unlikely Wembley hero, heading home a cross that Gianfranco Zola hooked back from the bye-line. In the second period of extra-time, I caught Zola’s low corner on film just before it was tucked home by Roberto di Matteo.
It always felt odd that after waiting twenty-seven years for a domestic trophy, we won at Wembley twice within ten months but against the same opponent and with the same score line.
That day at Wembley, almost twenty-six years ago now, is sometimes lost amongst our plethora of trophy wins but it was another important stepping stone as we continued to chip away at other clubs in that era.
And well-loved players too.
I loved the team from that era.
Didn’t we look young. Not a grey hair in sight. And get this; six-year old Ed is now a father.
With a place in this season’s League Cup Final up for grabs, we soon made the conscious decision to stay the night once we had been drawn against Middlesbrough. I haven’t always attended the away legs of League Cup semi-finals due to various reasons, but there was no way I was going to miss this one. This competition probably represented our only realistic chance of silverware in 2023/24. I booked two days off work and then sorted out some accommodation in nearby Stockton-on-Tees.
I collected PD at 8am and Lord Parky at 8.30am. This was going to be a long old day. We stopped off a few times en route. Thankfully the clouds overhead did not result in much rain. I was happy to see clear blue skies after we drove past Sheffield. I arrived on Teesside at 2.15pm.
Our check-in time on Sheraton Park was at 3pm. There was just time for the first beer of the day at “The Horse & Jockey” on the Durham Road. We dropped our bags off and took a cab into Stockton-on-Tees. As luck would have it, our friend Simon – and my work colleague – was up in Stockton-on-Tees with work, overseeing the installation of some office furniture for a few days. He was able to nab a ticket in the away end. He joined us in “The Thomas Sheraton” pub in the centre of the town, which was once a courthouse but has now been “Wetherspooned”.
Sheraton Park. Thomas Sheraton. What is it with Thomas Sheraton in Stockton-on-Tees? It turns out that he was a famous eighteenth century furniture designer. How apt. We spent a couple of hours in this second pub and then popped around the corner into “The Hoptimist” – another apt setting, we were nothing but optimists on this cold night in Smoggy Land – before getting a cab into Middlesbrough. We joined up with Salisbury Steve, Salisbury Simon and Salisbury Sam in “Barracuda” for our fourth port of call of the evening. We didn’t stay too long here. There were a few Chelsea supporters dotted around. A few songs of defiance.
At 7.15pm, jackets were fastened and we set off. The walk, we hoped, would not take too long. The stadium was about a mile away. We marched under a railway bridge, then took a turn past some swish new buildings – Middlesbrough College – with the wind biting as it skimmed off the nearby River Tees. The blue of the Transporter Bridge was just a few hundred yards away. Signs to inspire the students were dotted around.
“Great ideas begin in Middlesbrough.”
I hoped that this was one of them. I needed convincing.
“Where alchemists were born below Cleveland’s hills. A giant blue dragonfly across the Tees reminds us every night. We built the world. Every metropolis came from Ironopolis.”
The local steelworks was once huge. The ICI plant towards the North Sea was huge too. Those days are gone now. The local Smoggies can only imagine the times when heavy industry in Ironopolis was the norm.
The stadium appeared across one final void of water. Time was ticking.
We all got in with about five minutes to go. It would appear that we had just missed the pre-game mosaics, no doubt resplendent with matching “Pigbag” soundtrack.
I took my place in the stand alongside Ian, a lad that I have got to know over the past few years and who is my “go-to” source for any extra tickets that I might need. I am sure many of you know him. He is soon off to the Ivory Coast for the Africa Cup of Nations. It would be the first time that we would be watching a game side-by-side.
The first thing that caught my eye was our colours.
“Fucking Tottenham kit.”
Chelsea in navy blue.
Our 2024 team to play Middlesbrough?
Gusto – Silva – Disasi – Colwill
Enzo – Caicedo
Madueke – Gallagher – Sterling
This was only my sixth visit to the Riverside Stadium. It is a big regret that I never saw us play at Ayresome Park. This was an unwelcoming a place as any according to most reports, snuggled alongside terraced houses and with ambushes aplenty from streets and alleys alike. But I wish I had gone. Ian told me that his first visit was the 2-7 loss in early 1979, a game that marked the return of Peter Osgood from Philadelphia Fury.
The game began. We attacked the end to our right. The home fans were immediately loud and hostile. We were all stood, of course, but after a flurry of Chelsea songs and chants, we soon quietened down.
I thought that our shape was often a 4/3/3 with Gallagher alongside Enzo and Caicedo.
An early mistake by Levi Colwill on the far side let in a ‘Boro attacker but thankfully Djordje Petrovic easily gathered.
Ian and I had a side-conversation about the way football is going these days and we briefly touched on the almost inevitable moment when we might be forced to give it all up. We admitted that I was lucky in that I have Frome Town.
“You seem to enjoy it more” said Ian.
The game struggled to find any pattern and despite dominating possession, we struggled to link our play. There was little invention, nor penetration. Everything was so damned sluggish. At last a chance for Cole Palmer, playing as a false-nine, but his low effort from just outside the box did not really bother the home ‘keeper.
The home fans to our left roared at us.
“Your support is fucking shit.”
The noise in our section was indeed embarrassingly quiet.
More of the same followed. Lots of ineffectual Chelsea keep-ball, resolute Middlesbrough defending, an occasional break from them. Our noise still didn’t materialise. I sang more than some, but less than others. I think the poor show on the pitch sucked the life out of us. And yet that is no real excuse. We should have been much more involved.
A chance! An errant back-pass was intercepted by Palmer but he slid the ball inches wide when we were all expecting a goal.
On thirty-seven minutes, a long ball from Middlesbrough caught us sleeping. Isaiah Jones, who I remember from the FA Cup game in 2022 at the same stadium, won the race to slide a ball back from the goal-line and Hayden Hackney prodded the ball in from close range.
The home support boomed.
Both Ian and I noticed that the PA guy described Hackney’s goal as “Middlesbrough’s first goal” – the cheeky blighter.
A long shot from Moises Caicedo went just wide. A shot from outside the box from Enzo was spilled by the ‘Boro ‘keeper, but to our absolute horror, Palmer knocked the ball over from right under the bar. There was still time for another Palmer miss; a fine ball in from Caicedo, but after turning inside, Palmer finished tamely at the ‘keeper.
There were virtually no pluses points from that awful first half. Middlesbrough were compact and aggressively ate up any space that we might have hit. Our play was ponderous and poor.
Many many grumbles at half-time.
PD did not like that we played with no physical focus in attack; I wonder why Mauricio Pochettino chose to leave Armando Broja on our bench?
That said, I was still hopeful – if not too confident – that we would get a goal in the second-half.
It was virtually all one-way traffic in the second period. The Chelsea choir were still waiting for inspiration. A cross from Enzo, a tame header from Noni Madueke but an easy save for Glover.
On the hour, I noted our first really loud and coherent chant of the entire game.
“Hello, hello – we are the Chelsea boys.”
I snapped to capture a low effort from an off-balance Conor Gallagher.
A double substitution soon after.
Mykhailo Mudryk for Enzo.
Armando Broja for Madueke.
I grew frustrated with Mudryk, too easily sucked in to the middle when his true value is to surely stay out wide to either stretch the defence out or to exploit the space. We had almost constant possession in the final half-an-hour. But our play kept going around in ever-decreasing circles. We lacked a cutting edge as we have done for what seems like years.
A shot from the disappointing Sterling curled high and wide.
In the last minute, Alfie Gilchrist replaced Disasi.
At the final whistle, boos from many in our section, but I was just numb.
I posted on Facebook that “I walked in merry. I am sober now.”
It was a terrible performance, on and off the pitch. It was, if I am truthful, the quietest Chelsea away support that I can ever remember being part of. That’s rotten. That it was for a cup semi-final makes it even more horrible.
We mumbled and grumbled to a few mates as we made our way outside.
“Blame me lads. I knew that my unbeaten run against this lot would end tonight.”
The night was cold, but a bacon cheeseburger – with onions – soon warmed me up. I liked it so much that I bought a second one.
We met up with Simon and caught a cab back to our respective digs and called it a night.
At least Frome won.