Tuesday 23rd August 2016, EFL Cup Second Round
We love a big game every now and again here at Partizan Bristle. Bristol Rovers have been starved of a glamour away day since January 2008 when they held premier league Fulham to a 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage. Rovers had already surprised a few by beating championship Cardiff City in the first round at the Memorial Stadium two weeks prior. A fairly drab, nervy game was brought to an exciting conclusion in the 115th minute through a Chris Lines wonderstrike. This was made even sweeter by the confusing way the EFL Cup draw was set up this season. Due to seeding, our victory meant that Bristol City would be missing out on the match against Chelsea and instead be going to Scunthorpe United.
High on the unexpected win, I immediately got to planning my trip. I headed off to the Mem bright and early on ticket release day to pick up tickets for myself, Loulou and another friend, the recent Gas convert Sam Evanson. The queue at Pirate Leisure was biblical, in all it took me 2 hours and 10 minutes to get the tickets. I was one of the lucky ones however. The unfortunate few that went to the supporters club shop in Kingswood were turned away due to a monumental underestimation of demand from the club, who had sent just 750 of our 4000 tickets to one of the staunchest Gas neighbourhoods in Bristol. You can tell we're not used to this kind of thing. Unfortunately Loulou was unable to get time off work in the end but luckily Holly, who eagle-eyed readers will remember from my trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers, stepped in to claim the spare ticket.
I decided to get the earliest coach I could find so as to make a proper day of it in the capital and luckily for me I was able to flog Loulou's coach ticket to Jack off of Twitter. Arriving at Victoria for 12:25, we decided to walk to Stamford Bridge in the blazing heat and I immediately regretted getting the earliest coach I could find so as to make a proper day of it. Chelsea is, for lack of a better word, very tory and finding somewhere for lunch and a pint that didn't look too financially ruinous or weird was a challenge. Notable options were Just Falafal, Whole Foods Market, a restaurant called 'Meme' and a Thai noodle place adorned with Chelsea flags. Eventually we found a pub called Elk Bar where I got a decent unpretentious burger and chips (£5) and a pint of pale ale that cost almost as much as the meal. We sat there for a fair while cooling off and chatting about UFOs. Sky Sports was on in the background and I got the very surreal experience of reading the sentence 'Michy Batshuayi to make first start against Bristol Rovers'.
We went over to Stamford Bridge to have a nose round before the crowd gathered. We bumped into two other Gasheads, a man and his young son, coming out of the club museum and had a little chat. Buoyed by this new sense of comradeship, Jack attempted to greet another early bird in a quartered shirt who was walking in the opposite direction but was completely blanked. One eyebrow-raising feature of the Stamford Bridge exterior is the fact that the walls to the entrance are totally covered in AstroTurf, so the reception and security rooms look a bit like extensions on the TellyTubby dome. After a while of examining the swanky hotel and restaurants affixed to the stadium whilst being eyed up by the security, Jack and I agreed that on balance we were happy put up with the tents and portacabins if it means we can approach the Mem without being frisked.
Five o'clock rolled around and it was time to gather the rest of my motley crew. We met Holly at Fulham Broadway and grabbed another mortgage pint in a home supporters pub. Because he was the only one of us that travelled in a Rovers shirt we had to meet Sam by the Bovril gate, which was a mean feat at this late hour as the streets were thronging. Things became more congested when several hundred Rovers fans were herded in by police on horseback singing and generally having a lovely time. Apart from the guy that got arrested. I left Holly petting a horse and managed to pick out young Sam from the crowd. We went to enter and once again I felt like I was being processed as three separate lines of security checked my ticket, patted me down and checked my bag before I got to the turnstile. It was one of those experiences that made me consider whether the security we see at football was a necessity due to disorder or if the disorder arose from supporters knowing that it was expected of them and acting accordingly. I once again thought to myself that I couldn't possibly do this every week.
Weirdly for such a snazzy stadium, the walkways around the ground are pretty grotto-like with their rugged dark stone walls lined with strings of white light bulbs. I've since learned that these walls which encase the new stadium are actually remnants of the old Shed End, which I think is a lovely design touch and adds a lot of character to this particular entrance. Once we got inside the ground it was already rammed with people and our allocated seats were taken, so we just sat in the nearest empty ones. We were on the upper level of the Shed End slightly to the left of the goal. Rovers fans took up about two thirds of the upper and lower portions of the Shed End and the atmosphere was great. Eventually we were forced to give up these seats when their real owners arrived. It didn't seem worth the trouble of trying to squeeze our way to our own allocated seats and kick whoever was there out, so we allowed ourselves to be herded to some empty ones at the edge of the upper tier. It was very annoying to have moved from those choice seats only to spot the three teenage girls who had taken up residence in them sat uniformly gazing into their phones during the first half.
On the pitch Rovers were getting pretty savaged during the first 15 minutes with the likes of Fàbregas, Pedro and Azpilicueta pushing our boys right back into their own half. Rovers held the former champions of Europe off for 30 minutes through a combination of rugged defending and Chelsea mishits, including one off the post but the deadlock was finally broken by new boy Batshuayi who fired it into the top of the net from close range after having the ball crossed to him by Matic. A very similar assist was provided for Moses by Azpilicueta (who did very well to keep Pedro's early cross in play) just 2 minutes later.
At this point I limbered myself up for a hearty fisting but when Matic brought down Leadbitter 30-yards out on the right Chris Lines was able to chuck in a lovely free kick which floated across goal for Peter Hartley to calmly nod in. The Rovers end exploded. I'm not proud of this and I put it down to a combination of being the underdog and being on the end of an afternoon of high-handed stewarding but this was the first time I've ever been moved to run over and shout obscenities at the opposition after a goal. It's quite fun to be honest. My jubilance was short-lived however as Batshuayi netted his brace in the 42nd minute with the same bloody routine.
Whilst regular readers will know I'm not fond of modern all-seater stadiums, I did find Stamford Bridge to have a quite intimate feeling to it, despite it's large size. Even though I was on the top layer I didn't feel too far away from the action. I know some people come to this blog for detailed descriptions of the stadium in question but what do you want from me? It's a massive bowl with some blue plastic chairs in it. Moving on.
The aforementioned toryness of the area didn't show any signs of abating inside the stadium as Holly noted that you could purchase a lamb, garlic, mint and rosemary pie from the food kiosk, which absolutely torpedoes Ashton Gate's coffee shop out of the water in the pretentiousness stakes. Another curiosity is Chelsea's use of pre-match flamethrowers on the side of the pitch, which I've only ever seen before in MLS as a goal celebration.
Onto the second half and Rovers were actually taking control for large parts of the game and attacking well. I'm sorry for the lack of detail but the whole thing is a blur of shouting and jumping around at this point. What I do recall is Stuart Sinclair making a run and looking like he might just wriggle past Pedro to go one on one with Begovic but instead got shoved over in the penalty box and awarded a penalty. Ellis Harrison was given the honours, which I personally thought was a shame because the unlikely event of our resident hobbit Sinclair netting one at Stamford Bridge was something that I'd joked about with Jack on the way up. Nevertheless Ellis proved to be the right choice as he coolly shot the ball into the centre of goal for Rovers' second.
We smelled the alluring scent of the history books beckoning and everyone was on their feet or drumming on an empty chair. One steward was having a very unsuccessful time trying to make people sit back down so instead satisfied himself by ordering one of his fellow stewards to sit down. The pressure seemed firmly on the home side and Rovers continued to press. We came so close to equalising when Jermaine Easter's shot from distance was palmed over for a corner by a flying Begovic. In the final minutes of added time Batshuayi thought he'd completed his hat-trick but was flagged offside and the final whistle went shortly after.
A very, very pleasing performance from Rovers and a memorable away trip that even five pound pints and bossy stewards couldn't spoil. Considering the team Chelsea put out for this match and the fact that they subbed on Oscar, Terry and Hazard in the last 15 minutes should give us a lot of confidence going forward because we were done proud today. The thing I will take away from today personally though is that supporting a small club and occasionally getting to piss off a big club beyond all reason is the best thing in football.