Gianluca Rocchi’s whistle blew for the final time on Bonfire night and the only fireworks worth witnessing this year were those inside Stamford Bridge.
Tammy Abraham collapsed to the turf, arms covering his face in disappointment; his peers felt similarly. The whistle conjured a similar feeling from the watching faithful, more born out of plain exhaustion than immutable frustration.
Abraham and his side were 4-1 down only half an hour previous to the conclusion of an encounter that will most likely go down in the history books as the most barmy Stamford Bridge has ever witnessed.
I stood in my Harding Lower seat not far from the pitch – my head pounding out of the unrelenting noise and incompatible madness my eyes had just bared witness to. As we made the slow stride out of the stand and into the wave of people exiting the Bridge, my calves were aching from all the jumping up and down and there were a lot of scratches of heads and wide-eyed expressions shared.
“Did we really just see that?”.
Ajax looked like a side out for revenge after their defeat a fortnight previous. Quincy Promes was dancing by the corner flag within three minutes when his penetrative cross from a free kick was diverted in by Tammy Abraham to deceive Kepa Arrizabalaga.
With no away fans present, there was an uneasy sense of silence after the ball brushed the net. Without a boisterous opposition filling the air, it was almost as if English fans – used to large away sections – couldn’t compute the goal normally.
It didn’t take long for Chelsea fans to find their voice when Christian Pulisic drove into the box and was taken out by Joel Veltman. Like he always does, Jorginho stepped up and cooly slotted the ball past André Onana, flailing hopelessly in the other direction.
You almost get the feeling Jorginho could score a penalty with his eyes closed, sipping a Cappuccino – it’s that assured.
But the rest of the half was anything but calm for Chelsea, as first Promes would dart behind Azpilicueta to reclaim the lead for Eredivisie leaders. A fortnight previous, Promes was ruled offside latching onto a Hakim Ziyech cross, this time he was on.
And it would be the aforementioned Ziyech to cause Chelsea’s downfall once again, floating a ball exquisitely to the back stick beating all in Blue, bouncing off the post and into the concerned face of Kepa to smash back in. Que the memes and mockery, but this was a moment of brilliance – but for Chelsea a sense of de ja vu within a short period. A half that started like a heavyweight contest with both fighters exchanging hefty blows had soon divulged into a one-way beatdown, with the white towel appearing to grow in stature as the minutes past.
The half-time whistle blew and so me and my Dad exchanged words on our way down to the concourse. “It couldn’t of gone much worse” I remarked, he begrudgingly nodded in response.
“Its just feels a shame after what we did in Amsterdam, this is now happening”.
The two-goals in the first five minutes gave an essence this game could be the end-to-end enthralling, heart stopping contest many neutrals had hoped for when the draw was made in August.
“This could be a 5-3, or a 3-3, or something else crazy” my Dad also uttered during our conversation. I went along with the concept, almost in hope than any basis in fact and logic.
Chelsea emerged from the tunnel, with a fresh face in Reece James – in place of Marcus Alonso, who had another night to forget.
The Blues intentions were set clear from the off when Kurt Zouma took the ball from the back and charged forward. It always is an amazing sight watching a centre-back gallop towards goal, opposing players almost looking befuddled, malfunctioning – what do we do? This can’t be happening?
Zouma’s mazy run took him all the way to the edge of the box where he performed a few stepovers before blasting the ball into the night sky. The finish was much more routine to a defender, but livened up the crowd and set the tone for a urgent and frantic half that was about to explode into life.
Though it looked as if that short burst, was just that short – as Donny van de Beek found himself in acres of space to take the ball down in Chelsea’s box and slot it into the far corner.
“Game Over” were the words of many journalists reporting from the game. And so it looked to be as that uneasy silence loomed over the ground once more, the only faint sounds coming from the Directors Box as Ajax’s small group of representatives cheered in delight.
But like Zouma, Lampard’s men weren’t going to let this Bonfire night end on a whimper.
So much of Chelsea’s play was aided by the introduction of James down the right, offering a constant overlap and option to cross into the box. Willian and Pulisic would combine, with the American twisting quickly and threading a ball into the danger area. Abraham would latch onto it ahead of his defender and towards goal. The edge of Dave’s toe nudging it over the line.
That goal was a ray of light, a moment of encouragement – but nothing would prepare Stamford Bridge for the loss of all of sanity and reason that would soon befall all watching on.
After a lovely knockdown and cusihoned lay-off by Abraham, Daley Blind and Pulisic would engage in a tussle, causing both to fall to the ground, the ball fell loose. Abraham would be first to it as Blind lunged in, taking the forward out. The Harding Lower groaned in frustration, as the ball fell loose once more.
Hudson-Odoi would pick it up, taking a touch and cutting in before going for goal, the ball into the box finding the arm of Veltman. Another cry from the Chelsea fans. The whistle would blow, Rocchi quickly turned back in the direction of Blind, brandishing a second yellow. Then he would turn 180, stomping towards the goal.
From the stands there was confusion. Lots of flustered faces turning to each other for answers. My Dad looking at me with a face of amused befuddlement before concluding loudly “I don’t know what’s going on”, neither did I.
After a huddle of Ajax players crowded round the Italian official, another red would be flung into the sky – Veltman was off and Ajax were down to nine. Jorginho waited patiently to take his second spot kick off the night. Against Valencia, the responsibility was on the shoulders of Ross Barkley who blasted over. This time, there would no doubt. Another hop and a skip, another Onana dive in the wrong direction.
Reece James who had been entrusted by Lampard to offer something different would win his side a corner. The Bridge held its breath as Willian stood over the ball. A flood of blue shirts pilled in the six yard area, on their toes waiting to pounce.
The ball was perfection finding the head of a leaping Zouma whose effort rattled the ball, a frenzy ensued as the ball landed at the feet of a nineteen year-old who was destined to make his mark. James connected sweetly, the ball flying into the net, cue pandemonium.
I’ve been in the ground for Lampard’s last minute winner against Stoke in 2009, Terry’s last gasp flick against Everton in a 3-3 draw and Eden Hazard’s worldie to deny Spurs the title in 2016 – this moment was right up there with the best of them.
The reason we pay so much, go through the low moments and the pain at points are for those brief seconds of lunacy where we lose all sense of reason, let our emotions burst out for all to see, joined by our fellow supporters. I was grabbing people I’d never met before, hugging and pumping my fist into the air.
And it could’ve been even better..
Limbs were flailing once more when the ball bounced in every direction as another scramble descended in the Ajax box. Eventually ending at Azpilicueta’s feet whose effort flew into the far corner. The even wilder celebrations were cut short by VAR’s discovery of a handball by Tammy Abraham hidden in the kerfuffle.
Rocchi’s stern, unappealing expression of a man whose never smiled before overturned the goal.
Ajax with nine defended bravely, as Chelsea were urged forward to find the winner, which sadly never came. It said a lot that at the end there was a feeling of disappointment from those of a blue persuasion, feeling like an opportunity missed.
But the overarching feeling was that this was a night that only strengthened Chelsea fans belief in Frank Lampard, and the connection to his team. The never say die spirit, unrelenting wave of blue attacks and overturning of a three-goal deficit is a characteristic of a side going in the right direction.
The two performances against Ajax feel symbolic of Lampard’s early months. Frantic, unpredictable, bumpy at times, but eventually uplifting – with real signs of progression.
To outsiders you could easily point towards being 4-1 down on home turf, or failing to beat nine men, but to those who adore this club it feels much more positive – a sign that this Chelsea side can be capable of special moments that will live long in the memory.
As the stands began to fill out and the Chelsea players applauded us before heading down the tunnel, me and my Dad stood there, looked at each other – “Probably the most mental thing I’ve ever witnessed” – he said before we made the walk home.
Its a game that has needed rewatching and a moment of recovery to come to the realisation that we did just witness a game for the ages.
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