West Ham and Chelsea is the quintessential east versus west London derby, and is fuelled by the fact that the Chelsea captain John Terry, from Barking, and in particular vice-captain Frank Lampard, who came up through the West Ham youth system, are east end boys themselves. Lampard, Terry, and often Cole as well are magnets for vitriol from the West Ham fans, to whom, no area is off-limits, and would chant about topics from dead mothers to the paternity of their children.
Such things would phase most people – they’d certainly phase me – but instead, the three would simply bring their A game and play even better in the face of unsavoury songs, meaning that the three points Chelsea take from Upton Park are amongst our most gratifying. However, in an interview given last Friday, new Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez admitted that this season is likely to be a last for fan favourites Lampard and Cole (they are certainly this fan’s favourites), meaning that the days of these sort of sweet victories at West Ham are numbered. In fact, under Benitez, the days of any kind of victories, or any goals, for that matter, seem limited as well.
Last Sunday’s draw at home with Manchester City felt like an anti-climax, in that both sides were both so uninventive, and at the end a point almost seemed like a fair reward – or penance – simply for the drab quality of football that we’d been subjected to. Torres was ineffective as usual but graciously for Chelsea so were Aguero and Dzeko, and the few chances they did create were snuffed out by our keeper. Cech was superb; the stand-in skipper in Terry and Lampard’s absence has really saved Chelsea’s hides on too many occasions to count now.
The back four were also extremely encouraging; due to Gary Cahill contracting fever, Benitez handed Azpilicueta a rare league start at right-back and paired Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz in central defence for the first time. The two worked surprisingly well together given their unfamiliarity; Ivanovic got to play on his favoured right side of defence and Luiz, the left, where he appeared much more assured than in his dreadful games against West Brom and Shakhtar Donetsk. Ashley Cole, his long-suffering mentor, babysitter, fellow Twitter-troll and teammate, is a huge cause for this.
Anyone who has read any of my articles will know what a huge fan I am of the tremendously precocious and somewhat precious England left-back. I am not ordinarily one for astrology and all that pseudo-science bull but around the time Benitez was announcing Cole’s future at Chelsea wouldn’t extend beyond this season, I was drunk, on a night out, and accidentally broke a pair of my beloved heart-shaped glasses. The metaphor is clunky and obvious, but it was almost as if that was a symbol of the way my heart will break a little bit when Cole departs Chelsea. And I am not alone in this; throughout the game, Chelsea fans sang “Ashley Cole, we want you to stay”. Their message was clear: even if Gourlay wants him out, we, most definitely, want him in.
Even if the Ashley Cole thing is out of Benitez’s control, and even if I temporarily go all amnesiac for a second and forget all the trash he talked about my club, fans and players and his ties with Liverpool, I simply cannot warm to the man. His tactics are far, far, too negative. A “tactical” goalless draw against the champions of England we can just about allow, but he has no excuse for the draw in mid-week against Fulham, and certainly not for the drab manner in which we ascertained it.
For that game, Benitez rested Mata, our brightest attacker, and played Bertrand on the left wing, an unnecessarily defensive mood considering we were the home team. As such, we really did not bring the game to Fulham, or display any kind of invention. Torres was not substituted all game despite having yet another clunker and the other substitutions Benitez did make were completely ineffectual. His philosophy – that if you can’t win, then at least don’t lose – is not one that sits well with the Stamford Bridge faithful when we were treated at the start of the season, with goals flying in at both ends of the pitch.
As you read this I will be on my way to the Boleyn Ground. I have never been this underwhelmed about an away day, a huge shame given West Ham vs Chelsea is one of my favourite derbies, and one I can show my true football hooligan colours in. Under Benitez, I feel nothing but a constant wave of disenchantment and ennui towards Chelsea. Such is projected disappointment over the result that I have scheduled a shopping trip straight after the game to buy a replacement pair of Lolita sunglasses to make up for the ones I broke. If the goal drought continues under Benitez, I should imagine the glasses will last a good deal longer than the gaffer.