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100th-minute winner for Blues

100th-minute winner for Blues

I woke on Friday morning in a fuzzy cloud, wondering if I’d dreamt that Cole Palmer had netted a winner for Chelsea against Manchester United the night before in the 100th minute of a bizarre ding-dong game. In six decades of going to Stamford Bridge I thought I’d experienced it all; highs of European victories, lows

I woke on Friday morning in a fuzzy cloud, wondering if I’d dreamt that Cole Palmer had netted a winner for Chelsea against Manchester United the night before in the 100th minute of a bizarre ding-dong game.

In six decades of going to Stamford Bridge I thought I’d experienced it all; highs of European victories, lows of Second Division defeats, and 3,000 good-and-bad games in between.

But the night of April 4 2024 will stay with me forever. A rare Thursday nighter at the Bridge which see-sawed from bliss to despair and back again. And then back yet again.

Jeers greeted Mason Mount’s arrival on the pitch in a red shirt

Until Super Thursday, my favourite match in SW6 had been a 1997 FA Cup clash in the depths of winter against Liverpool. The Reds were comfortably in control of the semi-final after two first-half goals from Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore, and the mood was deflated at the break.

Then gaffer Ruud Gullit put on Mark Hughes for the second half. Hughes scored, helped Luca Vialli score two more, and then Gianfranco Zola netted a fourth for an exquisite turnaround win.

But Thursday night at the Bridge was something else. A crazy feast of defensive errors, breakaway runs, loose marking, mistimed passes and urgent energy.

It all started so well for Chelsea, with Conor Gallagher converting inside five minutes after Enzo Fernandez had sent Malo Gusto scurrying down the right wing to dispatch a neatly weighted cross.

With 20 minutes on the clock it was 2-0 to the Blues; another goal at the Shed end in front of the 3,000 visiting Manchester United fans. Mykhailo Mudryk – a firm fans’ favourite – exchanged passes with Marc Cucurella, who was brought down in the area by Antony.

Palmer, Chelsea’s undisputed penalty king, took the spot kick and sent Onana the wrong way. 2-0. After that, what could possibly go wrong?

The face of hat-trick hero Cole Palmer looked down from the giant stadium screen at the final whistle

The Blues should have shut the game down, even in the middle of the first half, and banked the points. But United bounced back, largely through the rapid sprints of Antony and Alejandro Garnacho.

Garnacho intercepted an undercooked pass from Moises Caicedo and ran through to beat Djorje Petrovic in the Chelsea goal. Before the five added minutes which delayed the interval, it was level at 2-2, with Bruno Fernandes heading home a looping diagonal cross.

The rain was falling steadily as the teams went in for their oranges and cups of tea… I mean energy sachets and booster drinks.

United took the lead in the 67th minute with a Garnacho header at the Shed end, celebrating with his trademark sitting-on-the-fence pose. And so it stayed – 3-2 to United – until the end of normal time.

Referee Jarred Gillett (who had an excellent game, refusing to be intimidated into flashing unnecessary yellow cards, despite unseemly urging by both managers and most of the players) told his fourth official to indicate eight minutes of stoppage time.

Garnacho, United’s most influential player on the night, is replaced

The stadium announcer relayed the news to the 39,694 fans, with the ones in blue replica kit still adjusting to seeing former hero Mason Mount come on for United as an 86th-minute replacement for the cream-crackered Garnacho.

There were boos for Mount which, as he’d been hoiked out of his childhood club and sold to United for reasons of balancing the Chelsea books, seemed a tad unfair.

His every touch was jeered by home fans and cheered by United fans, who informed Chelsea in terrace chanting: ‘Mason Mount, he left cos you’re not particularly good’, or something like that.

The tension grew with every second of added time. Mount and Enzo squared up to each other, United’s fans were boisterously cheering their impressive score turnaround… but Chelsea’s players kept pressing.

Seven minutes into the eight, sub Noni Madueke was running shoulder-to-shoulder into the United 18-yard box alongside Diago Dalot when Dalot sprawled, head first, and Madueke lost his balance and fell too.

It was a heck of a decision for ref Gillett, but he paused, considered and pointed to the spot in front of a cheering Matthew Harding stand.

There then followed one of those excruciatingly long VAR moments when, miles away, David Coote and his assistant Timothy Wood held the fate of the game in their hands. Finally the decision was made, and ref Gillett’s verdict of penalty was upheld.

Palmer stepped up again, and once more sent Onana in completely the wrong direction. So a satisfying 3-3 draw, and a late point that Chelsea didn’t think was coming their way?

Not a bit of it. United’s fans were deflated. Many left. To be fair, many Blues fans were leaving their seats too, having witnessed a gloriously entertaining mess of a match.

But with 100 minutes on the clock, Chelsea won a corner. Enzo took it short, passed to Palmer and his firmly struck shot bounced off sub Scott McTominay and wrong-footed Onana for a late, late winner.

Reds boss Erik ten Hag could only stare into the distance at the end of an incredible match

Deserved? Well, after a chaotic match of switching scorelines, battered egos, conflicting emotions and bizarre moments, the draw might have been a fairer outcome for a neutral spectator.

But who was neutral on a night like this? The final whistle signalled scenes rarely seen at Stamford Bridge. Wide-eyed, disbelieving fans hugged and danced, Mauricio Pochettino did a curious Scottish reel with his staff on the touchline, United gaffer Erik ten Hag simply stood and stared into the distance. Penny for those thoughts.

Palmer cradled the signed match ball in the dressing room afterwards, and talked through the final moments. “It was a crazy game,” he said. “To go from 2-0 up to 3-2 down was a bit of a blow, but when we scored in the 98th minute we knew there were two more minutes – we saw the gaffer say it. I looked over when I scored. We thought, let’s go for it. I didn’t know what to do when I scored, but I was buzzing. My first hat-trick. It’s my first one and I’m really happy about it. It was madness at the end.”

It was. In every sense. Chelsea’s supporters jigged away to the Madness hit One Step Beyond. It’s a song traditionally belted out after wins, with everyone joining in Blues fan Sugs’ simple but powerful lyrics.

When it came to an end, the DJ couldn’t think of anything else to play. He should have just put it on repeat. Complete strangers compared notes on the tube heading home. Everyone agreed it was ‘one of those matches’.

A father with a five-year-old in a Mudryk replica shirt was walking his son down the exit ramp of the east stand towards Fulham Road. “It doesn’t end like this after every game,” he warned his excited lad.

So true. The poor fellow may have to wait decades for another moment like this one… with a Palmer hat-trick, and the latest Premier League goal in its history, crowning the night.

Palmer had endured endless jeers any time he approached the bank of United fans to take corners, because of his Manchester City heritage. But he answered them in perfect fashion, with two coolly taken pens and a thunderous hit-and-hope winner.

“Of course I enjoyed it,” said Pochettino at the end, although in his mind he was probably composing his excuses for Chelsea throwing away a two-goal lead and finishing empty-handed. “It was amazing because I think we deserved it; we were the better team today. It was fair when we scored in the last minute.” Mr ten Hag may not have seen it that way.

The only place the result was greeted in near silence was the press box. Spare a brief passing thought for the journalists on deadline after a game which had kicked off at 8.15pm, and had included a total of a quarter of an hour of stoppage minutes.

A flurry of rewrites, muttered curses and gasps followed the end of the match, with intros retyped, results amended and wild-eyed hacks shaking their heads as their sports editors rang their mobiles asking where the final-whistle copy had gone.

Chelsea barely have time to regroup before heading up to Sheffield United for Sunday evening’s next league game. Sheffield were beaten 3-1 at Anfield as the Blues were defeating Man U. Then – hallelujah – there’s time to rest weary limbs before the visit of Everton to the Bridge on Monday April 15.

Fans are going to need time to calm overactive tickers. I’m thinking of retreating to a health spa for a couple of days.




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