I must admit to being more tentative than I have ever been walking up towards the Etihad on Sunday. In fact I had been prepping my son for the entire week. I found myself saying, ‘You know, we might not win this one, so remember to stick by the team whatever happens’ and ‘Manchester City right now are one of the best teams ever to play in English football, so it might not go to plan this time’.
Without killing off the excitement of the build-up for him, I thought for once it might be worth resetting the expectations. Maybe I didn’t go far enough; I, he and the massed ranks of Chelsea fans around us were still shell-shocked by the end.
It is odd but I had never given him that ‘pep talk’ (maybe I should change that phrase to ‘reality check’) before a Chelsea match but this time something concerned me. Our away form had been suspect against the top sides and Manchester City were coming on to some fabulous form. City do not often get a team that plays them at their own passing game, in their own back yard, and for De Bruyne, Sterling, Aguero and company it was a rare opportunity for space and they took full advantage of it.
The down side of being brave enough to play an open, attack-minded, passing game is that when it comes up against the very best quality it can leave gaps. Chelsea unfortunately made mistakes and City were merciless.
For all that it was a horrendous score line it is worth looking back to the reverse fixture down at Stamford Bridge in December when it actually worked for Chelsea, albeit after weathering a first-half storm and against a City side with a few top players missing. You could see the thinking that we might as well try to slug it out with them once again. It was however harder this time away from home and with them in such sparkling form.
When you have lost 6-0, many would be tempted to change some things. This might be in the manager’s mind but he strongly believes if the team plays to his style and they all play well, just as they did in December, it can work even at the likes of City.
The usual reaction now is to wallow in some old clichés to get us through a few very dark days. How about, ‘it is only three points in the end’ or ‘it is how you react to this type of defeat that defines your season’. Another favourite is ‘every time you lose you learn’.
Whatever is said, it comes down to what is actually done now and cliché number four comes flying in right here. ‘There is nothing better than another game right away to get your head right, so thank goodness for the Malmo match on Thursday.’
We will go with that line for the moment and expect Malmo to face an extreme reaction. The Swedes are just back from their mid-season break so even though they will be rested, they will also lack match sharpness. The team will have to make sure that the opposition are run off their feet.
The expectations from Chelsea fans will be huge, especially those who make the journey over there.
Maybe at this time one Chelsea group should be applauded and that is the travelling fans at the Etihad. They turned up in huge numbers and even at 4-0 they were out-singing the home support.
What surprised me looking around as the sixth goal went in was how many were still there. Yes there was anger and frustration, but there was also a lot of support and sheer bloody mindedness to show the locals that Chelsea fans stay with their side through good and bad times.
There were a couple of young Chelsea fans standing beside me, no one sat down at any point during the game, and they left four times only to come back again each time. It was incredibly hard to bear but they obviously knew the importance of sticking by the team however painful it was. It took me back to the worst defeat I ever had as a Chelsea player. It was against QPR, we had been in pretty good form and we fully expected to win at Loftus Road. We lost, you guessed it, 6-0. It was a mad time, we had beaten Man City 5-4 of all people in a final at Wembley a week or two before!
I am not sure we played that differently from usual against QPR but there were a few mad defensive errors and every time they attacked they looked like they were going to score. Sound familiar? My abiding memory of the day was not the embarrassment, though there was plenty of that, or even the six goals going in. No, it was the reaction of the Chelsea fans. They seemed to understand the importance of staying with the team in those horrendous moments. The fans sang their hearts out manically and constantly all the way to the end and yes, they all stayed to the end.
I remember thinking; those fans will never know how important and how helpful that was to us, but of course I was wrong. They knew exactly how important it was that the team didn’t lose confidence totally, which would have been more likely had they turned on us. We still managed to finish sixth that season but the fans stayed with us and that helped us immensely.
Looking at the rest of February, there have been few more important times for the players to get all the help they can. With a 5-0 win being followed by a 6-0 defeat this rollercoaster is at full speed not just for the players but the fans too.
It is all however put into perspective when we consider the battle that our own Mickey Thomas has ahead of him. My old team-mate is suffering from cancer as some of you will already know and has a period of chemotherapy and an operation to go through. I have been in touch with Mickey over the past few days and know that there is no more positive-minded person or indeed harder fighter than him.
He is one of my favourite people I have ever met and like me, I am sure you all have him in your thoughts right now. We are with you Mickey, not just here at Chelsea but everywhere you produced that fantastic skill and gave that superhuman effort.