I always wake up on matchdays full of excitement, buzzing to see my team play at the Bridge once more. Yet this was different. I was nervous for our huge game against Manchester United in the first of four huge clashes at the Bridge, but nevertheless looking forward to another night under the lights.
It feels good to get back into routine. Returning to Fulham Broadway, wrapping my scarf around my neck and buying my matchday programme is a tradition that will never grow old. It’s one I am glad to resume after four weeks away, and one that I savour every time.
I get to the Bridge two-and-a-half hours before kickoff, starting by welcoming the players upon their arrival. I greet every single player as they all acknowledge me back; Reece gives me a wink, Olivier beams a smile and Willy responds to me in Spanish, having greeted him with a cheery, “¡Hola Willy!”.
I meet All Things Chelsea’s finest, James (@FtblJames_) and Shayan (@FinallyChels), at our usual spot outside the Britannia Gate. Shayan is annoyingly pessimistic, predicting a 1-0 win for United while saying he would take a draw. I go for a 2-1 Chelsea win, despite knowing how nervous I am deep down.
Making my way round the Shed Wall and towards the East Stand, the anticipation continues to build. The stadium fills up, the lights go out and the fireworks are blazing once more. I look up to the sky, literally praying for the three points. I can’t bear the tension, but it’s time to face the music as the Harry J Allstars hit their first note.
Football is back.
We start the game as lively as ever, with Reece James’ effort flashing past the post despite me thinking it has gone in. Michy Batshuayi misses a golden chance, something which would be a recurring theme. Chelsea are throwing everything they have at United but to no avail, simply not taking their chances.
Where have we heard that before?
I am chanting non-stop as always, trying to get the East Lower riled up, and having occasional success. I am singing all game long, but it’s hard to get it going. Trying to start a chant in the East Lower is like trying to teach a newborn baby The Hedonic Calculus. It’s not going to work.
As the half-time whistle approaches, I speak Chelsea’s fate into existence. “We haven’t taken our chances again,” I say to James. “If we don’t score before the break then United will go up the other end and score themselves.”
Right as I say this, Aaron Wan-Bissaka sends a searching cross into the box and Anthony Martial heads home brilliantly. I sink in my seat; I simply knew it was going to happen. United are ecstatic, Stamford Bridge is silent. 1-0 down at the break.
In the second half, we win a corner. Willian sends a good ball in for once, and of all people Kurt Zouma diverts it into the bottom corner. Absolute joy as we equalise, embracing whoever is within a metre of me. Chelsea are level, and this Monday night clash has sparked into life once more.
Or so we think. The dreaded message comes up on the big screen- VAR check in progress. You can hear the groans around SW6. As soon as Anthony Taylor makes that gesture, I know it’s not going to count. From jubilant scenes to absolute agony, VAR strikes again.
That blow becomes even more painful when Harry Maguire scores with a bullet header. Should he even be on the pitch? Probably not, but this is not the time for excuses. I can’t bare seeing the United fans and players celebrate together, joined in pandemonium on our ground. 2-0 United, and I’m fuming.
The final nail in the coffin is inflicted by VAR- again. Olivier Giroud finally comes on in place of misfiring Batshuayi, and finds the back of the net not long after with a superb header. Chelsea are back in the game! There’s new life in the players and the celebrating fans, 13 minutes plus stoppage time to find an equaliser!
But something isn’t right. As I celebrate, I notice the fans behind me are quiet. “It’s going to be disallowed,” one of them says to me. “It’s going to be ruled out for offside.” As he says that, the screen turns purple, the referee stops in his tracks and starts walking towards the United box. We know what’s about to happen.
He picks the ball up. He makes the VAR signal. He points to the linesman and draws a line. Offside. No Goal. VAR complete.
Losing 2-0 to Manchester United on home turf is one way to lose, but having two of your goals disallowed? Both by VAR? One of which should’ve stood? That’s a painful way to lose a game of football. Slowly but steadily, Stamford Bridge empties out.
It’s a painful sight for me, looking around the Bridge at a sea of empty blue seats. The Matthew Harding’s silence is reflected by the visual gaps. You can see the ‘Chelsea’ in the West Lower. Both of them. And, as I look around my seat, there are rows and rows of empty seats.
I am reminded of last season’s match against United, when they beat us 2-0 in the FA Cup fifth round. A year to the day at the time of writing, and the similarities are frightening. The same scoreline to the same side, a wrath of early leavers and anger around the ground. The full-time whistle can’t come any sooner.
I stay until the end, applauding the players off as I do every game. It’s particularly hard to do so today, but it’s what I do game in game out.
The only thing that softens the blow is seeing all of my friends after the game. I go to find Shayan to rant about the game together with James, and I go get a massive hug from Jordan (@MyGuyRudi).
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but we go again. I’ll be back on Saturday, with every bit of optimism left in me. Win or lose, up the Blues.
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