Stepping off the train from Sheffield and into the bustling masses at Fulham Broadway, I surprisingly did not feel guilty when premonitions of the chaos that ensued this time last week came slinking into my mind. A 400-mile round trip to watch Curtis Jones exploit the spaces in between the lines? It seemed like a grimly predictable state of affairs. The reality as you will soon learn however, was anything but. So sit back, relax and enjoy as I recount the events of one of the defining moments of Frank Lampard’s fledgeling managerial career in West London.
The return of Kepa Arrizabalaga in between the sticks was the cause of much debate in pubs up and down the Kings Road. Murmurs of intoxicated apprehension turned to cries of retribution in some corners. It is clear to anyone who follows Chelsea over land and sea that the Spaniard’s erratic form has made him the figurehead of discontent for the second successive season since his arrival last summer. There is, and still will be, a valid case for the level of scrutiny he has faced. But when the answer is Willy Caballero there really should be no question who takes up the mantle of Chelsea’s number one for the foreseeable future.
As I climbed the steps up to the gods of the Matthew Harding Upper (my now distant second home) the groans of disdain had subsided and were instead replaced by roars of optimism- Billy Gilmour had been handed his senior debut against the reigning European Champions. Chelsea’s overly generous away allocation (a custom that has always seemed odd given Stamford Bridge’s comparatively low capacity) allowed hoards of Liverpool fans to pack themselves into the Shed End in expectation rather than hope. A lively rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was drowned out by a rapturous chorus of ‘Carefree’. Kick-off was upon us, and as is then also customary, the famed Kop End following fell silent. Premier League Champions Elect? you wouldn’t have known it.
This placid display of passion translated onto the pitch and after a few miscued passes from the Chelsea backline, Lampard’s team began to settle into a rhythm. The high pressing and quick transitions on show were optimised by the steely determination of 18-year-old Gilmour. A true bull in the china shop, the wiry young midfielder could be seen crunching into tackles with a coursing desire to make his presence known. This persistence eminently rang true with all wearing blue within Stamford Bridge, and once Willian’s venomous effort was parried into the back of the net, Gilmour was serenaded with the perhaps unintentionally ironic cries of ‘There’s only one Billy Gilmour’.
Chelsea had taken the lead and it was the least they deserved for their efforts, but despite the full repertoire of chants being echoed from the stands with unwavering confidence, it was ultimately tinged by the knowledge that Liverpool could strike at any time. Up steps Kepa Arrizabalaga, from the maligned to the magnificent in the blink of an eye, his audacious triple-save helped preserve Chelsea’s advantage and drew cries of adulation and relief from behind the goal. Half time couldn’t come quick enough but a newfound hope had been restored.
Half time, a strange lull in proceedings exacerbated by the extortionate price of a pint. My student loan dictates that I see out the rest of this game unassisted by the perfect antidote for my crippling nerves. But with Kurt Zouma holding strong at the back and Olivier Giroud stretching the Liverpool backline like an elastic band, such anxiety was not necessary.
Ross Barkley is one of the greatest enigmas to ever grace the field of play in a Chelsea shirt, and his wasteful distribution soon turned to incisive surges as his unconventional strike partnership with Giroud began to pay dividends. A blue-born Scouser, Barkley more than anyone was relishing the opportunity to get one over his rivals from across Stanley Park. In one sudden burst of pace, power and skill he got his wish. Collecting the ball from inside his own half, he proceeded to drive at the heart of the Liverpool backline as they inexplicably retreated in hope rather than expectation of a hurried finish from the Englishman. The result? A crisply struck shot from outside the area that took out not only the camera behind the goal, but the whole Matthew Harding stand as everyone both old and new collapsed in a sea of ecstasy. Game, set and match.
As I sit here on the train back to Sheffield fuelled on caffeine and still buoyed by the events that unfurled last night, I ask myself two things – Will Chelsea be able to maintain this level of energy and passion beyond this game? And does Gilmour provide the defensive grounding in midfield that Lampard’s tactics have been calling out for? Either way, I never want to see the youngster stop strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage. For it was a performance truly befitting of such literary intervention.