FA Cup 5th Round Proper – Chelsea FC v Birmingham City FC
Saturday, 18th February 2012, 12.30pm
Distance 25 miles, Attendance 36870
It’s just a game of football right? Nothing special; just 90 minutes of great sport in the hope of scoring one more than the other team. Why then the side show? Why the marketing and the spin? Why must I have my senses distracted by some right drivel which has no bearing on the outcome of the match?
Back in the day (as the hip young things seem to say, innit), when Messrs Bonetti, Osgood & Webb were strutting their stuff across the Stamford Bridge turf, mud didn’t matter, tackling was an art, and the tannoy was used for announcements only*.
Having walked up more stairs than it takes to reach the bell tower, of Cathédrale Notre Dame, and taken our seats in the Upper West Stand it became apparent we were really bloody high; Subbuteo-high. So high that the view of the, once club-crippling, East Stand was obstructed by floodlights and speakers. Those speakers told me not to worry and then blasted out the “emergency alarm being tested” before moving on to a mix of music and advertising. From our perch we couldn’t see the screens showing the accompanying images, so the promotional words became thankfully meaningless. Instead I leant back on my padded seat chatting to a Chelsea friend, whilst struggling to find a comfortable position for my not that extensive legs. When more customary music did emit it was a fine mix of club tunes and sixties classics.
As the stadium announcer took to the field most supporters were still hiding down in the bars (one can only assume the absence of marching bands and dog display teams had lead to this phenomenon of missing kick offs). Welcoming us to today’s game ,he reminded those listening that Chelsea were going for FA Cup glory “again” (queue jeers from the away Blues), and that Birmingham would be going for FA Cup glory “for the first time” (queue more away Blues boos, mixed with mirth from the home Blues). To avoid confusion, perhaps teams should have away nicknames as well as away kits – we’ll leave that with the marketing chaps. And then with the superb Harry J Allstars blasting out, the teams emerged; the Blues from Birmingham in yellow, the SW London Blues in blue and white tracksuit tops donned only for the pre-match handshake (no, me neither).
As the home side struggled without Cole, Drogba, Lampard, Kalou and Terry, the opening exchanges all seemed to favour Birmingham without any clear cut openings appearing. When Stephen Carr went off injured on 15 minutes I wondered whether Chelsea might be about to get a lucky break, but little seemed to change. Birmingham were clearly focussed on the task in hand. Were Chelsea’s minds elsewhere? Their bench seemed stronger than the starters, and their hoardings never stopped telling me I could get “all the build up” for Tuesday’s champions league** game in Napoli exclusively on Chelsea TV, which is free to Sky subscribers.
More and more possession was falling Birmingham’s way, and then when a break did come it fell to David Murphy. From the corner I’m still not sure how the ball found its way through to an unmarked Murphy but given the opportunity he expertly blasted the ball home. The away fans erupted and the hoardings urged us to join a “band of global followers”. Really on the showing thus far, my mind was on anything but. Throughout my life Chelsea have always had a special aura. Even in the down-on-their-luck days in Division 2 they sat on a pedestal. But this latest incarnation just holds little for me. Petr Cech is certainly a great goalkeeper, and Daniel Sturridge looks a fine prospect, but the other nine on the pitch… really, give me Lloyd Doyley any day.
Birmingham were playing as a unit and every player did their job when asked. Mutch was having such a good half Motty was raving about his development on 5 Live, “I tell you, if you want to go anywhere on loan, go to Watford. They’ve had many successes.” Even when, minutes after the opening goal, Chelsea were awarded a penalty for a trip on Sturridge, they didn’t match the confidence of the away team. Juan Mata placed it well but Colin Doyle guessed right, and just tipped it onto the post.
Few of the Chelsea seemed to be having good days but the target man, leading their attack, was the main offender. I’ve never seen him play live before but to misquote Frank McLintock, “Imagine Torres trying to play for Chelsea. He’d just be in the way.” And he was. When chances did fall to Chelsea, Sturridge, Luiz, and Mata were the biggest threats. Up the other end Nathan Redmond was making a nuisance of himself, and Murphy was already staking a claim for Man of the Match. It was a good game but not going the way the media folk predicted (or planned).
Before the opening bars of Brian Adams’ “Summer Of 69” had even reached our ears home fans were making their way to the packed bar area. I’d have expected the mood to be more disappointed but they still seemed optimistic due to the quality on the bench. In the drinks queue my faith too was restored as a young boy with his mum explained his pride at attending his first home game. It’s nice to know future generation still want to attend matches (it’s not so nice to find “Summer Of 69” is still going on when you get back to your seat… just how long is that song?).
The second half kicked off and clearly the arrival of Didier Drogba for Torres was just the tonic the home side needed. Suddenly there was positivity, and urgency, and movement off the ball, and passes reaching their targets, and Doyle being tested. One substitution, that’s all it needed. I’m not saying Birmingham were out of it, but they no longer had the upper hand. To add to the mix the referee was being more generous, to both sides, with some very soft free kicks being dished out. Birmingham appeared to be tiring but still Chelsea failed to draw level. Andre Villas-Boas’ next throw of the dice came on the hour in the form of Solomon Kalou giving the home attack even more bite. Soon Mata had pulled the ball down from thin air and shot narrowly over. Then Branislav Ivanovic crossed and Sturridge headed neatly home. Kalou was next to go close, then Redmond up the other end, and then Meireles went just wide. There was more goal action, but the longer it went on the less likely it seemed that either team would score again. Chelsea became more desperate to avoid another fixture to fulfil whilst Birmingham seemed satisfied with a draw. In the closing stages Redmond again missed a golden opportunity, final sub Frank Lampard shot wide from a free kick, and Curtis Davis headed over.
A replay might be an inconvenience for Chelsea but overall they can have few complaints. AVB will now have another selection headache, but Birmingham will enjoy a second bite of the cherry with more gate receipts and TV money.
If you focussed solely on the pitch it had been a good cup match, with a very fair result to a very even contest. The problem is it’s become just hard to focus solely on the pitch action. It’s no longer just about football. My Chelsea friend told me that modern times have brought modern methods to bring revenue, but really do I need to have a beer company telling me to drink responsibly when the attack is bearing down on goal? Do I need to see “spring fashion for all the family” when a penalty is being taken? Do I need to be told that I want to “Experience the future of TV” when defensive tackles fly in? NO! I pay to watch football, because I love live sport, and not because I want a lifestyle makeover.
No, I can't vote... I'M, WATCHING, FOOTBALL!
I don’t hark for the days when Stamford Bridge had an Athletics track, or to a time without prawn sandwiches, and I never want the return of Ken Bates’ fences, but, I’d quite like football action to be the most important thing once again.
If you want to change anything maybe looking at stopping the late-comers returning to their seats unless the ball is out of play would be nice. It works for ice hockey, baseball and the theatre, so why not football. At least it puts watching sport first.
Sorry for the rant… when I next return to Stamford Bridge I promise to not watch the advertising hoardings.
(*”Mr Smith your wife has just given birth”, **not necessarily for champions)