Premier League International Cup (PLIC) fever briefly gripped Aldershot last Friday night. Mark Murphy caught it. Again. But quickly found an antidote.
Two British champion clubs. Two under-21 representative sides. Two entirely separate footballing worlds. After 23 minutes of the teams’ PLIC Group A game, vital in terms of both sides’ competition future, Chelsea led Celtic 4-0. And at some stage during this goal frenzy (forgive the tear-stained memory failure here), a middle-aged Chelsea fan behind me spoke approvingly of the future prospects of a number of the junior-ish Blues. Mukhtar Ali, Kasey Palmer and Charly Musonola had been running rings around the green-and-white hooped traffic cones which stood in for Celtic’s real defence for much of the evening. Skill, pace, vision, power. They lacked only a little, perhaps, in the latter. Occasionally. So it was no surprise that praises were being sung. However, the words were a savage indictment of the current EPL set-up in terms of English youth development. “He’ll definitely find himself a good club. In League One.
Not even this ardent Blue (a status confirmed by his very presence, despite the game being “live” on Chelsea TV) could contemplate such transparent, considerable talent getting anywhere near Chelsea’s first-team squad, or any of the top 44 first-team squads in England and Wales. And when most of the players were not even born, Graham Taylor considered England manager the “impossible job.” That said, Chelsea had been on the end of a two-nil dismantling earlier in the group at the hands of Portuguese giants Benfica, which led another Chelsea diehard to wonder aloud what “Benfica will do to this side” after Celtic conceded another goal. The mini-report I gave him of Benfica’s two-one win over Celtic at Wycombe only weeks earlier was as much of a surprise to him as it was increasingly becoming to me. Much the same Celts who made such a good fist of the Benfica challenge were making a hames of the Chelsea one. As if the surreality of the occasion needed further emphasis.
Indeed, Celtic’s result against the already-confirmed group winners was not only better than Chelsea’s but also better than Liverpool’s three-nil loss. So while I was never expecting a Celtic win, I was equally not expecting… this. Celtic had been adept at “getting in the way” at most of the vital moments against Benfica and all of them in their one-nil win over Villareal at the same stage of last season’s competition. That win followed a two-one away success at Sunderland (albeit with Celtic’s goals coming from one Leigh Griffiths, who was yet to fully find his Celtic Park feet), a not-dissimilar line-up to that which beat Chelsea 3-1 just last Monday week. AND only eight months ago, Celtic held eventual competition winners Manchester City to 120 goalless minutes before succumbing 5-3 on penalties in last season’s quarter-finals at City’s Academy complex.
At Aldershot, it took Celtic five minutes to concede as many goals as they had in all those 300 minutes, plus stoppage time. Maybe Villareal would have been just as overwhelmingly slick, quick and damaging but for the January mud at Dartford FC. And it wasn’t as if Celtic keeper Leonardo Fasan, the undoubted star of that Villareal victory, didn’t make a string of saves against Chelsea too. Celtic’s voluminous shorts probably didn’t help mobility in the fag-end of the Storm Desmond winds in which the Chelsea game was played. The sort of kit more in tune with Jock Stein’s Celtic era, when he played in the 1950s rather than his glory managerial days of the 60s and 70s and probably the one in which Stein’s predecessor Celtic manager Jimmy McGrory set the club’s all-time scoring records in the 20s and 30s.
There were no potential Jimmy McGrorys at Aldershot. Wideman Calvin Miller put in some decent first-half crosses only to find one Theodore Archibald on the end of them, employing a heading technique much like mine in the Leatherhead and District Sunday League division seven – shut your eyes and flinch. I swear Archibald wilfully ducked under one cross. Meanwhile, Celtic’s actual number nine was a cumbersome non-event, yards off the pace and yards from the limited first-half action in Celtic’s final third. Due to Chelsea’s “paranoia” about distributing team-sheets to anyone but the most accredited of journalists (“I write for 200% just wasn’t going to cut it), the player was only identified by a rushed pre-match team announcement which made him sound like Dedryck Boyata, Celtic’s current first-team centre-back/right-back. It wasn’t Boyata, for the most obvious of reasons.
But it wasn’t hugely less shocking to discover the nine’s true identity when his inevitable half-time substitution was more carefully announced as Derk Boerrigter, the injury-prone but formerly dangerous ex-Ajax “speedster,” who had scored in the Champions League and won Eredivisie titles for the Amsterdam giants. How the (occasionally) mighty (ish) have fallen. Chelsea’s front… well, eight, really… were all Boerrigter-esque at his best. Mukhtar Ali was the favourite of the fans behind us but was only the third best on this night, outdone by the tricks and flicks (all of them meaningful) of captain Musonola and the all kinds of everything from Palmer, who would have had a hat-trick but for Fasan’s acrobatics in a hopeless cause.
This trio, plus centre-back Kevin Wright on a foray upfield in search of something to do, found the first-quarter scoresheet and half-joking forecasts of “could be ten-nil” were looking ominously plausible. One lone voice suggested that “it will finish five-nil because Chelsea won’t do much second half.” And this was mercifully correct, an accuracy perhaps borne of experience of watching football at this level, it was his second under-21s game of the week after the afore-mentioned Sunderland defeat. Chelsea added a fifth and final goal with substitute Reece Mitchell’s 94th-minute penalty, a goal I had to read about as I was already bound for the 9.04 train from Aldershot to Surbiton, having pre-determined an early departure if the result was clear. I could have caught the 7.34…
The second half had an unpredictably feisty final few minutes of normal time, though. Celtic’s wilder tackling had threatened to produce a red card since their frustrations at being outclassed began to manifest themselves after the fourth goal. A couple of those might have even made Celtic’s notoriously hot-headed first-team captain Scott Brown think “ooh, steady.” Surprisingly, though, the weapons-grade stupidity came from Chelsea’s Charlie Colkett, who lived down to his first name by un-necessarily blocking a quick Celtic free-kick (particularly dim given Celtic’s zero success rate from such situations) and then upending the recipient of said free-kick, who was going nowhere until Colkett sent him four feet up in the air. But, of course, the ten men/boys did more than hang on in the remaining six minutes plus stoppage time.
Benfica and Chelsea were thereby confirmed as quarter-finalists, with Celtic left to play Liverpool on Saturday for pride and match practice only, Liverpool having lost “only” 4-2 to Chelsea in the group’s opening game. Like Celtic, Chelsea exited last year’s competition in the quarter-finals. “Lost to bloody Fulham” noted one briefly un-ladylike Chelsea fan. This wasn’t the sole reason for her disgruntlement. “Odd competition, this,” she noted, correctly, even before she was regaled of Celtic’s recent Dartford and Wycombe “experiences.” And Chelsea’s prospects are perhaps less bright than last Friday suggested, as they are almost matching their first-team’s lower mid-table inconsistencies and struggles to average a point-per-game.
Aldershot (the “EBB Stadium”, known more comfortingly as the “Recreation Ground” when I watched Kingstonian win there twice in the 1990s) is a Chelsea Academy home venue. Hence “Blue is the Colour” blaring out of the PA system as we took our seats and the Chelsea TV cameras necessitating the 7.05 kick-off which made the 9.04 train such a race. It was still “odd” though that a major competition selling point, the three-pound admission fee, was waived, although neither Chelsea not the EPL exactly need the money (receipts from the 350-ish crowd won’t make much of a dent in Jose Mourinho’s surely-forthcoming pay-off). The Hampshire/cockney turnstile operator had some difficulty refusing the entry fee I insistently offered him. “Free,” he said. “Yeah, three,” I replied. “No, FREE”… Oh, how we laughed (er…).
Celtic’s dismal display means that I bid farewell to the competition on a slightly sourer note than I’d expected. If, however, you are a fan of the remaining teams (Sunderland and Spurs or Everton are the other potential English quarter-finalists, with Villareal in the last eight spot which perhaps should have been theirs last season), some exotic-sounding fixtures may soon be coming to a training or non-league ground near you. And whether its free or three to get in, the event will have curiosity or good football value, and probably both.
And an early glimpse, it would seem, of the League One stars of the future. Remember the names, Mukhtar Ali… Charly Musonola… Kasey Palmer… etc…
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