The Green Green Grass Of Home

14/08/21 Chelsea 3  Crystal Palace 0

‘London, you’re a dirty old sod. But tonight you’re MY dirty old sod.’

Thus spake the late, impossibly great Kirsty MacColl, having latterly conquered the stage fright that had bedevilled her career & wowed an appreciative audience at The Forum in Kentish Town back in May 1995. Not a line to compete with the rich humour & lyrical skill associated with many of her wonderful songs but a heartfelt aside that betrayed an emotional stirring driven by a successful return to the London stage. And so it came to pass, as I made my way back to Victoria after my first Chelsea game in 525 days ( or 1 year, 5 months,7 days if you prefer) that the words of one of the great British  songwriters of my lifetime came back to me. Taking a detour off the Kings Road I was admiring the blue plaque at 42 Oakley Street that commemorates former resident Bob Marley. A minute or so later I pass No. 56, once home to Scott Of The Antarctic. By then I am almost within touching distance of the Albert Bridge, my favourite landmark in our fair capital city. There is never a time my heart does not sing at the sight of the Albert Bridge. My God how I have missed London. My God how I have missed Chelsea. The Embankment remains eternally a place of rich history & magical mystery. Its water remains as murkily rancid  as ever. Dirty old sod. But my dirty old sod. Your dirty old sod. Our dirty old sod. The heart & soul of London remains magnificently intact, seemingly impervious to threat via incompetent & corrupt political leaders, terrorist idiocy & hideous pandemic alike. The essence of this heart & soul resides within its river & bridges, one of them the inspiration for the greatest opening line, from the greatest song, in the history of British popular music, Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. ‘Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night.’ From that to the  hot air braggadocio of Noel Gallagher, the B&M Beatle, in little more than a quarter of a century. How far we fell. Praise the Lord for the gift of Ray Davies, & similarly our fair capital city. Long may they both continue to flourish. As for Noel, well he is strangely subdued of late, after undermining his typically arrogant & unintelligent anti vaxx stance to get jabbed in order to see his beloved Man City in the Champions League Final in Porto on May 29, only to see them outwitted by Chelsea. The silence from this vacuous plagiarist in the immediate aftermath of the match was both deafening & hugely welcome, although it is a moot point as to who was more devastated by the result, little loudmouth Noel, estranged neanderthal brother Liam, or the British media, be they operating within TV, radio, newsprint or online, all so taken with the expected City victory that it was sometimes impossible to glean from the pre-match coverage that there was another English team involved, let alone that they might have a prayer of pulling off a win. On the morning of the game, the back page of one nameless broadsheet merely featured large images of the hallowed trophy with the big ears & City coach Pep Guardiola. Chelsea? Thomas Tuchel? Meh. There was no retrospective hanging of heads in shame from the smug, lazy, biased, shit for brains egotists of our second rate media though. It was yet another case of bring out your braindead following Kai Havertz’s first half winner but all that ensued was a muted shuffling of collective feet & a swift change of subject at the earliest opportunity. Shame & the British media do not generally go together, especially where acknowledgement of distorted coverage of Chelsea Football Club is concerned. Given the past 17 months I shall refrain from wishing a plague on all their houses, merely that they end up in their own version of media hell, gagging on their own self satisfaction in a confined space where late period Oasis albums are piped in 24 hours a day. May God have mercy on their souls. Thank the lord the vanquished opposition was Manchester City rather than Liverpool, or the occupants of both the Sky & BT studios would all still be clad in black from head to toe, mournful hymns permanently playing in the background.

Arsenal 1 Chelsea 1. The great Ray Davies & Damon Albarn run through Waterloo Sunset washed down with a small slice of Parklife from some point in the mid 1990’s. Damon is clearly a bit starstruck, & rightly so!

Absence has not made my heart grow fonder where London is concerned, merely refined & enhanced the genuine existing love I already knew I had for the place. Stamford Bridge itself is a slightly complex exception to the rule. My love for the old, increasingly derelict stadium I grew up with knew no bounds, especially when the first fixture of the season was a home game. This happened a lot in the 1990’s, days usually bathed in sunshine reflecting the good cheer & optimism all fans generally feel at the start of a new campaign. The visit of Derby County in 1990, or Oldham Athletic in 1992 would inevitably start with what became an annual ritual, me looking over the old place, breathing a sigh of contentment at returning after the summer break & murmuring ‘home again’ to myself. Corny but true. I vividly recall repeating this annual mantra for the Norwich City match in 1994 but by then things were changing. The cold, haemorrhoid facilitating steps of the West Stand benches, on which I normally parked my bony buttocks back then, were replaced by a seat in the temporary stand where The Shed terraces had previously stood. The North End terraces had also been demolished & an unfinished new stand, later named after Matthew Harding, was waiting to greet me as its home for the next decade, finally opening three months later. The old West Stand, where I has seen my first ever game 24 years earlier, had another 3 seasons left before it too was pulled down & another new construction joined the other completed Legoland stands springing up around the shadow of the once imposing 1974 East Stand. Times were changing & a stadium hitherto instantly recognisable from pictures taken 90 years earlier was transformed into the relatively sterile modern ground it is today. I still loved the rituals, the walk to the ground, the pre & post match drinks, the latter washed down with my traditional Lemon Sole & Chips in our favourite haunt, The Duke Of Wellington in Belgravia. The football got better & better as the ’90’s progressed. The opening game of the season in 1999 was against Sunderland, a rampant Chelsea winning 4-0, capped off by the final goal, one of my favourite ever, a 20 yard Gus Poyet volley scooped up for him by the impudent right boot of the wonderful Gianfranco Zola. The dream of a title challenge fuelled by such brilliance failed to materialise that season. Nevertheless, the younger me could only have dreamed of watching football of that quality week after week a decade earlier. By the late ’90’s the revamped stadium had been joined by a revamped team, bringing forth a a handful of knockout trophies at home & abroad. This swiftly ushered in an often nauseating sense of entitlement & smug complacency within much of the crowd. Both these unattractive traits have persisted ever since, as Premiership & Champions League wins have racked up throughout the 21st Century. In the early 1990’s one video company sought so vainly for recent available footage of Chelsea for the club’s edition in their 6 Great FA Cup Games’ series that they were reduced to including a 1990 replay win over Crewe Alexandra. We fans were ravenous for success then, how quickly it came to be taken for granted, sat in our glossy new plastic seats with our newly acquired season tickets (nobody had needed one until the success came) nestled in our pockets proving our devotion to the cause. When the football was consistently bad it was understandable that the atmosphere at games often suffered. You will often read old timers like myself proclaiming that we continually sang our hearts out back in the day & got behind the team. Win or lose up the blues. This is romantic nonsense, rose spectacled in the extreme, though the away support frequently passed muster, & has continued to do so ever since.  The quality of football is more often than not excellent these days, but that aforementioned smug complacency too often leads to a vacuous, damp squib, half hearted, ‘go on impress me’ spirit that has too often draped an invisible, suffocating cloak of near silence negatively impacting the Stamford Bridge ambience for many years now.

But not for this match against Crystal Palace. I had anticipated the first competitive game with full attendance to be either a euphoric occasion, a triumphant release of 17 months of combined held breath, or an impossibly emotional event, everyone overwhelmed by the worldwide catastrophe that the pandemic continues to be. It feels far less intense in the end, but there is a sense of relief at the long awaited resumption of what once we took for granted as normal service. Optimism for the new season is married to the hugely satisfying knowledge that Thomas Tuchel’s charges are the current European Champions, a magnificent, initially unforeseen but wholly deserved achievement capitalizing brilliantly on Frank Lampard guiding the team unbeaten through the group stage of the competition. Success on this occasion has brought excitement, expectancy & the best atmosphere outside of a blue riband match that I can recall for years. The traditional opening game sunshine threatens not to materialise earlier in the day, but has emerged triumphantly to capture the mood perfectly. People are happy. It feels good. I hope it lasts.

Ending the 525 day vigil since last stepping off the coach at Victoria felt good enough in itself. Belgravia. Pimlico. The Embankment & the King’s Road. How wonderful to be pounding the Chelsea beat again, striding through those streets with all their history & mystery. They haven’t missed me but I sure as hell have missed them. Some things haven’t changed. The enigmatic H.Stain Ltd Jewellers (Established 1914) in Victoria is, as ever, closed for business. As I turn left out of Grovesnor Gardens & quickly right into Lower Belgrave Street The Plumbers Arms quickly reveals itself to be shut too. It’s as we were there too. Presumably the often large congregation of bodies stood outside in the early evenings during fairweather weekdays helps bring in enough bunce to permit weekends off. The Plumbers Arms is famous for being the emergency refuge for Lady Lucan after her idiot husband badly bungled an attempt to bludgeon her to death, shortly after the children’s nanny had been murdered at the family home a couple of hundred yards away, way back in November 1974. Having always been somewhat obsessed with this case it appears something of a mystery that  I have never actually stepped foot in the Plumber’s Arms. Then again it is always closed at weekends & for midweek games populated with braying work suits quaffing shit lager & stubbing their Marlboros out on the pavement. Lady Lucan would probably just have kept on running nowadays, & I do likewise, though it’s more a brisk walk in my case. It may be  no business as usual here, as it is for the elusive H.Stain Ltd Jewellers (Established 1914) but elsewhere there are scores of other businesses throughout the city whose doors remain closed, many for good. A sobering & rather depressing reminder of the havoc wreaked by the Covid peril which I intend to counteract by making a long awaited visit to the famous Chelsea Physic Gardens as I make my way towards Cheyne Walk with plenty of spare time before my boys dismantle the mighty Crystal Palace. Ground control to Monty Don to steal a line from the ever brilliant Half Man Half Biscuit. One fly in the ointment . That’s right. It’s closed.

Determined to maintain the sense of joie de vivre instilled in me by my return to London I opt for a bit more blue plaque spotting in nearby Tite Street. In truth joie de vivre was thin on the ground here in November 1974 when two IRA bombs injured twenty people  here as part of a sustained campaign of attacks in London & the South. The protagonists were the Balcombe Street Gang, so named because 4 of its 6 members were eventually captured after a 7 day siege in Maylebone’s Balcombe Street, where they held a married couple hostage before surrendering on December 12, 1975. I remember the siege, especially one banal fact that emerged when John & Sheila Matthews sold their story to the press, revealing that a day after they were taken hostage in their own home they were made to watch The Big Match & suffer the previous afternoon’s ‘highlights’ of Chelsea’s 0-1 home defeat to Bolton Wanderers, incorporating a Roy Greaves goal for the visitors & a third successive Chelsea penalty miss from the late, much loved Ray Wilkins. I suspect Mr Matthews being tied up with his wife’s tights while she was threatened at gunpoint was rather more traumatic, & dealt with in greater length in their newpaper account than Ray’s dodgy spot kick, but the mind of a football obsessed 13 year old boys sets its own agenda sadly. The same could also be said of incompetent & plain bent members of the police, judiciary & body politic at the time. On arrest the Balcombe Street Gang made it clear they were responsible for the 1974 attacks in Woolwich & Guildford for which 4 people were already serving time. It took 15 years for that miscarriage of justice to be acknowledged. Power, corruption & lies, a never ending British saga as we are currently being reminded all over again. The threat of IRA bombs hung heavy over many a boyhood trip to London. The closest I can remember coming to a direct encounter with their terror was going to the West Ham match on December 21st 1974, 2 days after a bomb exploded in the doorway of Selfridge’s in Oxford Street, also courtesy of the Balcombe Street Gang .48 hours away is not really that narrow a squeak, but the frequency of attacks around that time increased apprehension that further strikes would ensue, especially on the Saturday before Christmas, the busiest shopping day of the year. A football ground would have been a potent target, as indeed it must remain to terrorist groups now. Good game though that one. A 1-1 draw, & fans of both clubs ensuring there was quite enough standard football violence on display without any need for Balcombe Street Gang intervention.

Oscar Wilde’s old house is in Tite Street & easily found, a builder’s advertising board out front betraying the fact that we are no longer in 1884. Morrissey was a disciple of the legendary poet & playwright, by all accounts one of the wittiest people ever to draw breath. One famous Morrissey photo session took place at Wilde’s former residence here, years before the full extent of his true twattishness had revealed itself.  Keats & Yeats are in your side while Wilde is on mine, wrote Mozzer on Cemetry Gates, one of countless stellar songs he created in the glory years of The Smiths, assisted by the brilliant musicianship  of the great Johnny Marr. Musical & moral compass seemingly long departed following his split with Marr in 1987, he sometimes seems more influenced by Oswald Mosley than Oscar Wilde these days, aligning himself with a variety of loathsome political figures & organisations. There were hints of dubious beliefs in earlier years, but even the less ardent fans of the music, of which I was one, chose to look the other way. Ignorance is a delicate exotic fruit, touch it & the bloom is gone as Wilde  wrote in the majestic The Importance Of Being Earnest. Eventually thrown in jail for his sexual preferences he would doubtless be delighted that some progress has been made in modern societal attitudes towards homosexuality but possibly slightly depressed at the high levels of bigotry & intolerance that continue to thrive generally, as exemplified by the likes of Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson, Juliet Hartley-Brewer & the horrendous For Britain Party, all name checked favourably in recent years by Morrissey the maudlin Mancunian. Never mind Oscar, your old gaffe looks to be in fine fettle, & at the top of the street, on Royal Hospital Road, to top things off nicely there’s now a Tesco Express, with a Bar & Grill owned by tousled hair oaf Gordon Ramsey next door to it. What that potty mouthed bully would have made of being confronted with a man of your superior intellect, humour & verbal dexterity in one of his establishments is anyone’s guess. Doubtless the creases in that famously furrowed brow would have intensified & the word fuck may have been heard a few more times before the evening was out. At least the profusion of meat on the menu ensures Morrissey’s absence.

I am aware that taking detours into the late nineteenth century while most are reuniting with mates in the pub for a pre-match pint,the first in a considerable while, mark me down as something of a no-mates loser to some. So be it. I spent years watching Chelsea on my own in the 1980’s & the wheel has now turned full circle. In between I have spent many a happy hour in pubs before & after matches & loved every minute of it. Drink being off the menu for me at present seals the deal in any case, so solitary jaunts to Pret A Manger & blue plaque box ticking it is. Be youself, everyone else is already taken. Take another bow Mr Wilde. Neil Shipperley, who played for both Chelsea & Crystal Palace in a nomadic playing career, appeared on the relentlessly laddish football podcast Undr The Cosh a couple of years ago. Two of the three presenters, Chris Brown & Jon Parkin, were workaday pros & the guests are frequently the same, often of the same ’90’s & Noughties vintage as Shipperley, who I saw score on his professional debut for Chelsea against Wimbledon in 1993. The programme usually involves two hours of anecdotes, many of the stories relaid presenting life at most football clubs during their careers as a seemingly endless stag night/morning after with all the attendant schoolyard practical jokes, bullying & dick waving, usually merged with lengthy whinges about wage inequities & incompetent managers & coaches who have failed to acknowledge the guest’s footballing prowess sufficiently. By the time we arrive at the inevitable late career battles with drink, drugs, gambling &/or metal health issues any sympathy I might usually have for their plight has often been eroded. I once spent an evening in a small, crowded, noisy bar after a staff Christmas meal being force fed Jagerbombs (yes, as an adult I know I did have a choice about that) as everyone else in the room nodded along mechanically to Reel2Reel’s frankly hideous I Like To Move It. Most of the people, like me, had seen better days. I thought then that I was being offered a glimpse into what Hell has to offer. I now know I was wrong. In fact Hell is being a footballing colleague at a club with most of the guests on Undr The Cosh. Big Neil Shipperley was far from the worst but bemoaned his treatment at the  Chelsea ticket office after his playing days had ended. On one occasion they could only offer him one ticket. ‘Who goes to football on their own?’ said Ships plaintively to the show hosts, his grimace suggesting only those flirting with social death was the answer, lepers by any other name. Me Neil. I go to football on my own & I bloody love it. Ironically, a couple of months after this aired Neil Shipperley made a rather less welcome 2019 yuletide appearance in court, during which one of his own preferred activities while alone in public was laid painfully bare. I’ll leave it there but suffice to say any social stigma attached to watching football on your tod soon withers in comparison!

Chelsea have made it clear that proof of Covid free status is required before entry at present, so I fumbled around ineptly on my phone on arrival at Stamford Bridge to bring up the NHS App confirming I am considered lurgy free at present. 41,000 checks have to be putting a significant degree of extra strain on the stewards & I wondered how this would work. Not terribly effectively in my case, as the barcode on my phone was so oversized on presentation that neither my name or NHS details & status were visible on the screen. It could have been a barcode for me to pick up a click & collect parcel from my nearest corner shop but the steward waved me through happily anyway. Masks are to be worn in the concourses but not in the playing arena apparently. I saw no masks at all in the concourse. Enforcement is clearly impractical anyway. It still feels great to be back though. Even the Peter Osgood statue in front of the West Stand entrance looks marginally less unconvincing than normal, though in fairness it generally holds up  better than many of its competitors elsewhere, one spectacularly awful Christiano Ronaldo bust at a Portugese airport leading the way in true, inauthentic hideousness. I’m surprised he hasn’t sued. It is famously difficult for sculptures to depict the precise facial features of its subject & the Osgood statue doesn’t buck the trend. Ossie is undoubtedly a bona fide Chelsea legend, the first representative of the club I ever saw in the flesh, in the late 1960’s, knocking up on a tennis court with his mate, a few yards away from the cricket pitch in Windsor my dad was playing on. He also scored on my first visit to Stamford Bridge in 1970. There is all too little footage of his early career, cruelly interrupted by a broken leg at Blackpool in 1967, but one dazzling glimpse shows him dribbling at high speed through a number of hapless Liverpool players in an FA Cup tie. He came back from that setback having lost a touch of pace & gained some weight, along with an extra layer of cynicism, as post-Blackpool Ossie either acquired or refined a nasty streak as a suitable device to assure his future self preservation. I can recall one particularly evil foul, in his Southampton days, on Oxford United’s slight winger Brian Heron, that was brutal, spiteful & wholly unnecessary. They didn’t take prisoners on the football pitches of Britain in the 1970’s! I cherish the memories of his brilliance, not least the diving header against Leeds in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay, but personally find the statue a slightly stuffy, lifeless, over reverential tribute to this most mercurial, flamboyant, colourful & flawed figure from my youth. No matter, lots of people love it & he is a deity to many fellow supporters. To each their own. I just find gazing at the photo tributes to other players of yesteryear on the remaining wall of the old Shed more genuinely affecting.

Navigating my way through the maskless concourse, eschewing the poor quality food & drink (at top quality prices) the 17 month hiatus lends an added pleasure to my my first view of the lush playing surface  for the new season. Time was when players & spectators alike had a limited time window available to appreciate this. Come Chrismas the pitch was traditionally  a lumpy, bumpy, largely grass free atrocity back in the day, a situation that persisted into this century, certainly up until the dawn of the Abramovich era. When the players emerge for their warm up I join the throng down by the pitch with no small amount of discomfort. A man of my age taking pictures is not a dignified look but hopefully enables me to brighten up these pages without breaching copyright. Sadly the pictures are usually terrible, partly because of my discomfort, partly due to the fact I usually make way for a plaintive child behind me whose view i am blocking, a disapproving parent alongside them usually fixing me with a get a life stare. Today I move aside for a fan in a wheelchair. Rightly so, but it once again means I am behind the front row trying to use my limited photographic skills to avoid the limbs, torsos & airbound phones of those ahead of me. The man stood next to me until I move accomodates the man in the wheelchair by moving all of 3 inches to the left. He isn’t even taking any photos. What a charmer. Other grown men are excitedly calling out player’s names, particularly Kai Havertz, scorer of the winning goal in the Champions League a few short months ago. Havertz fails to respond to these living, breathing dignity vacuums. Whether this is down to shyness, a Germanic aloofness or a pointed rebuttal of the spectacle of grown men acting like 11 year old girls at a 1974 Bay City Rollers concert is unclear. I hope it was the latter but applaud the snub either way. As a small boy I had several encounters with the cricketer Geoffrey Boycott, & my time in the book trade brought forward further colourful tales from publishers & fellow booksellers alike of his propensity to do a stunningly accurate impersonation of an objectionable git.  However, on one occasion in my youth I will forever defend to the death his behaviour wholeheartedly, when after a game in the University Parks in Oxford he was loading his kit into the boot of his car as a man knelt at his feet, like a leper awaiting a cure from Jesus Christ. In his hand was an empty wine bottle & he was begging Boycott to sign the label. The harder he implored the more obvious it was that the future Sir Geoffrey had no intention of acknowledging this fool, & dignifying the spectacle he was making of himself in the process. Nowadays it is adults at football with those  bits of cardboard begging for a certain player’s shirts that are embarrassing themselves & the rest of humanity, Can I Have Your Shirt ? scaled in felt tip like similar Please Help – Hungry & Homeless signs seen widely on British streets. One borne out of  desperate need & frequently addiction, the other from puerility or simple greed. How many end up on ebay? Signs asking players for shirts are the domain of the small child, the little girl at The England match whose day was made by Mason Mount during the Euros, or the small boy who caught Eden Hazard’a attention away at Brighton a few years ago. Anyone past the point of puberty who debases themselves by attempting the same should be banned from football grounds , clipped firmly round the ear & thrown into the army. Nobheads all. My discomfort grows around people like this. The Kai! Kai! Kai! shouts continue for a while but pleasingly never elicit a response of any kind. I blush at being among this throng. My pictures grow ever worse in quality & I slink away to my seat earlier than planned.

Ross Barkley – perennial nearly man derailed by the pandemic?

It is a sobering thought that the new season is the third to be affected by the pandemic, but with the (hopefully permanent) return to full capacity I am able to ponder on he changes in personnel at Stamford Bridge since my last visit. Pedro had been prominent in the midweek  2-0 FA Cup win over Liverpool, Olivier Giroud even more so in the 4-0 drubbing of Everton the following weekend. Both are now plying their trade in Italy, seeing out long & successful careers that continued to bear fruit during their Chelsea years. Willian has spent a pleasingly unfruitful year at Arsenal that will not undermine the significant contribution he made to Chelsea successes over the previous seven seasons. Ross Barkley  played starring roles in both matches but is currently without a squad number or, as yet, a move away from Stamford Bridge. He scored a wonderful goal against Liverpool & helped boss the midfield against former club Everton. All appeared to bode well for Barkley having added a welcome maturity to his game, both in his own play, especially pass selection, allied to his visibly taking young substitute Tino Anjorin under his wing during the Everton game with words of advice & instruction. Sadly, in keeping with the stop/start nature of the career of this undoubtedly talented player, he has once again failed to build on this. Despite a neat FA Cup winner at Leicester during the summer restart of 2020 he continued to flit in & out of the starting line up & Frank Lampard loaned him out to Aston Villa at the start of last season. He started well , scoring in a stunning 7-2 win over Liverpool, & netting  another winner at Leicester, also playing a starring role in a 3-1 victory at Arsenal. He was linking brilliantly with Jack Grealish & Villa fans were clamouring for their club to break the bank & make the move permanent. By the end of the season they were queuing up to offer him a lift back to SW6. Ross had once again flattered to deceive, not helped by injuries to both himself & Grealish, nor another in a series of negative tabloid tales concerning off the pitch indiscretions, another pub brawl this time to add to previous rows in hotels & a dropped bag of chips in the back of a Liverpool taxi. Pretty tame by the sorts of scrapes modern footballers have got themselves into since the money flowed into the Premiership, if anything quite pleasingly old school behaviour, & at least Barkley always appears in immaculate physical condition, unlike in the days of Ossie when the odd team mate had to have another, slimmer body suprimposed on to his head for the pre-season photo roll call after too many cold drinks & pies during the summer. Barkley has clearly failed to impress Thomas Tuchel & his career appears to be in freefall,  33 England caps having also failed to undermine the overriding impression that he continues to lack a requisite level of both matchplay & life choice intelligence. I have no light to shed on accusations he is lacking in grey matter. This was levelled at him during his Everton days in a disgusting, racist piece in The Sun by the repugnant Kelvin Mackenzie (he also said Barkley, a man of mixed race heritage, reminded him of a gorilla) whose entire career has been a celebration of crass English cretiny at its worst. When your detractors are scum like that it is easy to retain sympathy for Ross Barkley, wish him well & hope he can still find the right club, & importantly coach, to make the most of what should now be his peak years. Either way he will remain more talented & considerably richer than 99.9% of his many critics, disproportionately irked by his twin crimes of inconsistent playing performance & not being blessed with the IQ of Professor Stephen Hawking.  Take him down to the cells? Maybe not.

Graduates from the Chelsea Academy are increasingly resisting the hitherto well worn path to innumerable loans offering little prospect of future first team berths at their parent club. Chelsea have done very well financially from farming out players in this way, & it is ironic an era when home grown talent has finally started to establish itself at first team level coincides with a significant penchant among current young players to look to make permanent moves away from the club rather than take their chances on getting a chance further along their career path. I can’t say I blame them entirely. Lewis Baker is 26. He was once considered one of Chelsea’s top up  coming talents & has had eight loan moves in the last six years taking in spells in Holland, Germany, Turkey & a  number of Championship & League 1 teams in England. LIke Ross Barkley he now finds himself back at Chelsea, where he has never once troubled the first team with an appearance, minus either a squad number or willing temporary or permanent suitors. Three years ago I saw Chelsea beat Arsenal 3-1 in the first Leg of TheFA Youth Cup Final at a rainy, windswept Stamford Bridge. Reece James & Calum Hudson-Odoi both played that night. The buck trending Hudson-Odoi had already made an appearance with the first team at the tender age of seventeen. Billy Gilmour played too. All three were in Porto when Chelsea clinched the Champions League in May & James & Gilmour both represented their countries in the Europena Championship a month later, along with Mason Mount, another considerable talent made in Chelsea. Gilmour has just made his first loan move to Premier League newbies Norwich in order to play regular first team football, but others not quite as highly advanced up the Stamford Bridge food ladder are jumping ship. Two very highly rated young players, full back Tino Livramento & midfielder Lewis Bate, have transferred to Southampton & Leeds United respectively. The diminutive but brilliant Tariq Lamptey, another member of the triumphant Youth cup squad in 2018, moved to Brighton two seasons ago. All three transfer fees were relatively paltry. The excellence of Reece James may well have been a telling factor in making up the minds of Lamptey & Liveramento that their best option was to bale out now rather than risk ending up in a Baker style quandry. Dominic Solanke & Rhian Brewster started this trend a few seasons ago when moving to Liverpool. Neither of them cut it at Anfield but both were sold on again at a handsome profit, netting the Scousers over £30 million for very little investment. A case of the biter bit for Chelsea, always happy to raid the youth set ups of smaller clubs. The presence of Marc Guehi in the Crystal Palace line up today is a continuation of this trend. He also played against Arsenal for the youth team backin 2018, now he has opted for a clean break after an impressive  loan at Swansea in the Championship last season. Palace have paid £20 million for him, hardly small change for a youth graduate, but it seems sad that he does not feel he has any chance of breaking through at Chelsea, especially after the sale of Fiyoko Tomori to AC Milan, a player who had emerged brilliantly until a baffling fall from grace under Frank Lampard, who had championed the player originally by taking him & Mount on loan to Derby three years ago. The promising Conor Gallagher is also at Crystal Palace having accepted the loan route for the third successive season. It will be intersting to see if he continues to wear this for much longer, especially if he impresses at Selhurst Park. He also played in that Youth Cup Final but being a loanee is excluded from this match.

It is also symptomatic of the ever changing nature of top level football to consider where Chelsea & coach Frank Lampard were as we teetered on the Covid cliff edge at those Liverpool & Everton games in March 2020. Those victories underlined the team’s ability to compete for domestic trophies &  Top 4 placings despite the transfer ban in place that season. A few weeks earlier a sobering  0-3 home defeat to a superb  Bayern Munich team seemed to illustrate just how far away from being a serious Champions League prospect the club now were. Lampard ended the first Covid hit season with a Top 4 place & a disappointing FA Cup Final defeat. Thomas Tuchel ended last season with a scrambled Top 4 place courtesy of a superb run of away wins & (of all teams!) Spurs winning at Leicester on the last day of the season. There was also another diasappointing FA Cup Final defeat. The victory in the Champions League, deserved & astonishing in equal measure, was a stunning feather in Tuchel’s cap & also a vindication of both the squad investment under Lampard the previous Summer, & a comprehensive Group stage qualification under his watch too. Tuchel’s team overcoming Atletico & Real Madrid en route to beating Man City in Porto was a dazzling achievement though, all the more so when recalling the glaring gulf in class so evident against Bayern the season before.

I was rude about Crystal Palace & their fans the last time I shared an afternoon at Stamford Bridge with them. Their much vaunted Croydon Ultras, aka The Holmesdale Fanatics, had been rather subdued that day save for loudly sharing the same four letter expletive outside the ground prior to the game. In fairness they were probably worn down by years of attritional, frequently tedious football under Roy Hodgson’s watch, guaranteeing Premiership safety year in year out at the expense of retaining the will to live. Watching that very week must have been tough. They have been known to put Chelsea fans to shame on previous occasions, fortified on one famous occasion by then Blues coach Jose Mourinho visibly intoning  ‘fuck off’ repeatedly to himself on hearing his team’s followers singing songs of love to the recently departed Frank Lampard as his current charges tood on the brink of clinching the Premier League title in 2015. It is this kind of behaviour that explains why Mourinho himself is no longer similarly serenaded, & also how sour snippiness like that towards the people who had always backed him ferociously has empowered all sets of rival fans to denigrate Chelsea followers ever since. There is undoubtedly some snobbery & sneery superiority towards the Holmesdale Fanatics from opposition supporters too, though it is offset by a love-in between them & the media that is more than a tad nauseating. On this occasion I was staggered to hear the volume at the Palace end as represented by the television coverage, which appeared to comprehensively drown out the Chelsea support. I am all too aware that home matches have frequently found the Blues crowd ceding bragging rights to the travelling support & lapsing into long,  passionless bouts of silence. What BBC & Sky did with their mikes today was some feat of audio manipulation because this match was not in keeping with so many games of recent vintage. The Chelsea support was loud . The main chant may have been Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are to the tiresome tune of Sloop John B, but it was sung triumphantly & noisily, & why not? It is the first competitive game after a hideous absence of full capacity stadia, & Chelsea are European champions. This chant’s arrival will be hated & dreaded by all opposition fans throughout the season. So what? If you can’t enjoy triumphs like this we might as well all go home. It was great to hear the decibel level rise above the Stamford Bridge norm & conspiracy theorists may wonder how the  footage failed to reflect this. Palace fans started like their players. Slowly. Unlike their team they did rally as the afternoon progressed but I can recall them making little noise until Marcos Alonso’s superb free kick had given Chelsea an overdue first half lead.  All they mustered then was Is This A Library? & the inevitable Mourinho’s Right, Your Fans Are Shite. Pretty ironic given we have barely had a peep out of them until then, & also mind numbingly dull & predictable. If Oscar Wilse’s old crown of the funniest man in London is up for grabs today it is unlikely to be seized by anyone here at Stamford Bridge today, & definitely nobody in the Palace end. The Holmesdale Fanatics are kitted out in black but, as a fellow scruff trying not to be sneery or superior, they still fail to cut the  Ultra mustard. It’s all more Littlewoods than Lazio. There are plenty of post-match suggestions they won the day as far as making noise goes but this is utter guff. They do keep up the singing at 3-0  down but this does them less credit than it would if they had made more effort while the game was in the balance. Proving you are battle hardened stoics by resolute chanting in the last 10 minutes is all very well, afrequently admirable, but on this occasion is akin to a two year old triumphantly sitting on the potty having already shat themself an hour earlier. Too little too late chaps. Don’t believe the hype, not today anyway. I have failed to be nice again. Them singing that awful Dave Clark 5 song Glad All Over doesn’t help. Dave Clark is a Tottenham boy to his core, even tried to buy Spurs once. They could probably do with your help now Dave. They seem to be in pieces. Bits & pieces.

The Chelsea Fancast preview show the evening before the game featured the traditional opposition fan, Palace being represented by an eminently likeable & intelligent man clearly excited about a new era dawning under new boss Patrick Vieira, a fiercely formidable & grudgingly respected opponent to Chelsea as a player in his Arsenal days, still finding his feet as a coach. He was clearly on message about the departed Roy Hodgson, equal parts grateful for his contribution in solidifying the club as a Premiership mainstay, relieved that the negativity that has swamped so much of Palace’s play in recent seasons might now be replaced by a more progressive style of play . The widespread  changes in personnel will require patience & with some notable absences in midfield he was expecting a difficult afternoon at Chelsea. So it proved. This was a poor performance, lacking both quality & passion, & enterprise was as thin on the ground as it has been at Stamford Bridge under Hodgson in recent years. Early days though. Very early days. Even Wilfred Zaha was becalmed, waiting until late in the afternoon before reminding us that he remains, as ever, a  strong contender for this season’s Premier League whiniest bitch award. Only Everton’s Richarlison & Jack Grealish come close usually, & at least the latter spends some of his pitch time with a smile on his face. Man Utd’s manbaby coach Ole Golum Sulker may yet put in a strong non-playing challenge, with his recent, tedious sub Ferguson  laments about United not getting a fair crack of the whip from officials, as laughable a suggestion as it is irritating & breathtakingly crass. For all his brilliance Ferguson was also an obnoxious prick when he played these pathetic games lest we forget. Two seasons ago Zaha was thoroughly schooled by a teenage Reece James & reacted with predictable petulance & immaturity, gloating at us Chelsea fans when conning a free kick out of Mike Dean, but otherwise endlessly bleating at the Bald Ego for not showing him similar favour throughout the rest of the match. For a player of immense skill he comes across as remarkably joyless but doubtless he enjoys better days  as most Palace fans clearly adore him. He seems destined to see his career fail to reap the rewards his ability hinted at when he moved to Man Utd ata young age, & there frequently seems to be precious little end product for all the dribbling & ball playing trickery. He reminds me a little of all those female X Factor candidates who almost used to make me feel sympathy for Simon Cowell, trying his limited patience as they destroyed  hackneyed standards ( I Will Always Love You a frequent favoured choice) by painfully attempting to prove they could hold & extend the high notes a la Whitney Houston & Maria Carey. Singing as gymnastic exercise rather than a tool for lending warmth & humanity to the interpretation of the song. If you want to hear someone interpret a song with subtlety & class while holding a high note I refer you to Dionne Warwick’s version of Unchained Melody (3:36-3:50) on Spotify. You can thank me later. Dionne is more like Eden Hazard, awash with natural ability allied to a measure of restraint that more frequently leads to getting the job done than her contemporaries. Zaha is more Maria, flash but  vulgar & more inclined to miss the  target. He is well out of sorts this afternoon & fluffs Palace’s best chance, put clean through & failing to even get a shot away. Good. Sod off & cheer up Wilf.

In truth this was an ideal opener for Chelsea, & once the deadlock was broken the resut was never in doubt, Alonso’s splendid free kick one of those dead ball moments that come along every so often when you just know the taker is going to score. Gascoigne for Spurs here in 1990. Zola on several occasions. Perhaps most remarkably Marcus Rashford here in the Carabao Cup in 2019, He was a long, long way out & yet you instinctively knew he was going to hit the target. Alonso is always a good bet 25 yards out when the kick is adjacent to the far right hand corner of the penalty box, & the anticipated left foot curler simply flew in. Christian Pulisic adding the second was a welcome moment, though he continues to struggle for the awesome form he displayed before being injured in the 2020 FA Cup Final last summer. Timo Werner was greeted with cult hero like fervour & I just hope he isn’t going to be the 21st century Robert Fleck, backed to the hilt by a sympathetic crowd but destined never to see the initially anticipated flood of goals materialise. Like Fleck it won’t be for lack of effort but currently cow’s arses & banjos spring to mind far too readily when the German is faced with a decent sight of the opposition goal. Nonetheless it is a solid, enjoyable team performance capped off with a splendid, long range, low drive from debutant Trevoh Chabolah. Trevoh is one who has had to wait a long time for his chance After several season long loans, abroad & in the lower divisions, he is now transcending the established norm for generations of Academy players to drift away without troubling the first team. The response to his goal was uproarious, although doubtless BBC & Sky considered having a  stab at dubbing in some Palace chanting from elsewhere in the game over the footage of the young man’s glorious moment in the sun.

A happy day for Trevoh & a happy day for me. Back on the Fulham Road, as we pour out of the ground after the final whistle, one hoarse Palace fan on the way out is loudly, bitterly & swearily informing us Chelsea fans that our support is not terribly good. Or something like that. Call yourself a proper Palace fan fella, you’re not even wearing black. He is 6 foot 4 & 15 stone of solid muscle though so needless to say I keep such smartarsed thoughts to myself. No sweat mate, we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. Champions League winning stars at that. The chequered history of Chelsea Fooball Club suggests any current feelings of invincibility will likely crash & burn sooner rather than later. For now though we’re feeling, well, glad all over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forza Tammy, Iyi Sanslar Michy

 

Fare Thee Well Tammy Abraham  – Stand By Your Man Sr Mourinho, He’s Worth It
More Than Just The Joker? Once More To The Batmobile For Michy

So it’s arrivederci  & hoşçakal to Tammy Abraham & Michy Batshuayi respectively. Tammy has completed a move to Roma for a reported £34 million, Michy is on the verge of what must surely be the last of a seemingly interminable series of loan moves, this time to Besiktas in Turkey.

The Batman is considered a joke player by large swathes of the Chelsea fanbase but scored for fun during one of those loan moves, for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga no less. He also has 22 goals in 35 international appearances for Belgium. Some joke player.  Someone, somewhere, is surely to reap the benefits of having a born goal getter like Michy in their ranks eventually, but it clearly will not be at Chelsea, where an apparent absence of tactical nous & ability to hold the ball up for his colleagues has frustrated all the Chelsea coaches during his 5 year stay & ensured he never rise beyond bit part player. Scoring the winner at WBA to clinch the title in the 2016-17 season nonetheless guarantees his place in club folklore, & away wins in the Champions League were also clinched by Michy goals, at Ajax, and, most memorably, a last gasp 2017 effort in the Wanda Metropolitano against Atletico Madrid. However, more commonly first team appearances have been limited to the early rounds of domestic cup competitions. These were the only games I could usually get a ticket for when  returning to Stamford Bridge as a spectator so I saw plenty of Michy early on, before his marathon run of loan stints  began & my loyalty point level rose enough to grant me the dubious honour of more regular company with Alvaro Morata. Along with the likes of the recently departed Willy Caballaro & the currently disenfranchised Davide Zappacosta (yet to be granted either another loan, a permanent move or a Chelsea squad number) I associate The Batman with my first, faltering steps back into the matchday fold so will always retain a fondness for all three of them. All  have been widely derided but are genuine football eccentrics, & even in these relentless, ruthless, ultra professional trophy hunting times, I rue the day that Stamford Bridge does not have a place for a few wildcard footballers in the squad. Tough titty for me then. That day may well have arrived. My last two memories of Michy at Stamford Bridge are both from the pre-pandemic stages of the 2019-20 season. One was a superlative long range Carabao Cup goal at the Matthew Harding end against Manchester United ,the other a spiteful & cowardly assault on his genitals via a stamp courtesy of the studs on the right boot of that odious yob Harry Maguire during a league game against the same opposition. The Bat proceed to badly fluff his lines a couple of times during the game & has not made a first team appearance since. Maguire escaped unpunished & proceeded to score a crucial opening goal when he should have been sat on his rancid arse in the stand. Cheats never prosper my dad used to tell me. Got that one wrong sadly. Better luck in Turkey Michy.

Former Chelsea players have to work hard for me not to retain some level of fondness for them. It’s a small band usually distinguished by retrospective carping about the club, sometimes out of bitterness, occasionally for financial gain, in one specific instance a uniquely enduring combination of the two. The highest degree of fondness is usually reserved for players who to us fans will always remain, at heart, a Blue. Tammy Abraham is surely destined to be one of these. New coaches will always take to certain players more than others, & clearly Thomas Tuchel has never fancied Tammy, who scored a hat trick in Frank Lampard’s last match  but has rarely featured since. What Tuchel has clearly succeeded in doing is to engender an inclusive team spirit that keeps out of favour players onside. This is no mean feat & does both parties credit. We have heard no whinging or bitterness from Tammy Abraham, quite the opposite in fact. He has been at the fore during the immediate celebrations following both European triumphs of the past few months. With not even a place on the bench found for him in Porto for the Champions League final Tammy was nonetheless found celebrating wildly with his colleagues on the pitch at the final whistle, dressed in full kit a la John Terry, happily without a similarly absurd, overblown outpouring of widespread scorn & ridicule!

The timing & circumstances of Tammy’s departure are heavily laced with irony courtesy of his new coach at Roma. Step forward the one & only Jose Mourinho, the eternal would be ghost at the modern Chelsea feast if only he hadn’t trashed the club & its supporters so often that many have ceased to care what he says, thinks or does these days. Tammy Abraham was an Academy player during Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea between 2013-15. Reputedly his office was right next to the Academy’s playing area at Cobham but Jose showed little or no interest in the activities occurring there. Not renowned for promoting youth from within during his Chelsea years, Mourinho appears to have been cut from the same cloth as current West Ham CEO Karren Brady during her time as Managing Director at Birmingham City. At one point she oversaw the dismantling of The Blues youth set up as St Andrews. Birmingham, under manager Barry Fry, instead concentrated on sustaining a constant conveyor belt of frenzied, wheeler dealer first team ins & outs via the transfer market. The neglect of the youth team was countered angrily by Brady, who at one point observed that when people buy a can of beans they don’t  care about the process that leads to the beans getting into the can. This  ill judged metaphor for fan attitude to youth development was not only arrogant but plainly incorrect. Supporters love to see their clubs engaging in high powered tansfer activity, but they also love to see their own breaking into the first team fold. A philistine like Brady could be expected to know no better but Jose is a proper football man for all his many failings. Unfortunately he is never around at any club for more than 2/3 seasons, so the short term fix of big money, ready made solutions is hardly surprising. It must also be noted that Chelsea’s ruthless hiring & firing of its coaches have ensured that Jose Mourinho is far from the only man in the Stamford Bridge hot seat this century to deflect his gaze away from the development of young players.

The irony arises not just from Jose Mourinho splashing out £34 million on a player who he likely paid little attention to in his Chelsea years (Guus Hiddink subsequently handed Tammy his Chelsea debut at Anfield in 2016, a few months after Jose’s second sacking) but also from the identity of the man whose own second Stamford Bridge coming sealed Abraham’s fate. For even when Jose was handed top, imported young talent from outside the Chelsea Academy he declined the opportunity to successfully integrate them into his first team squad. Romelu Lukaku, Mo Salah & Kevin De Bruyne were all deemed to have fluffed their lines sufficiently from fleeting first team opportunities afforded to them & sold out of the club under Mourinho’s watch. All three have emerged as elite talents since, the return of the supremely accomplished De Bruyne especially likely to figure as one of most Chelsea fan’s genie wish options. He stunk out the place during a Carling Cup tie at  Swindon. Gone. Salah did likewise in the same tournament away to Shrewsbury. Gone. Lukaku missed the deciding penalty in the European Super Cup shootout against Bayern Munich in 2013, was loaned out to Everon immediately after & never kicked a ball for Chelsea again. Until now. A man of greater humilty & self awareness might admit to making three colossal errors. Humility & self awareness seemingly being in short supply in the Mourinho household the great man naturally washes his hands of all culpability, claiming the decision to sell all three players was taken at board level. The humble coach had no say in who he kept in his squad apparently. Yeah, right. Michael Emanelo, then in charge of recruiting young talent from around Europe, & oft maligned by supporters at the time, was reportedly (& correctly) horrified by the departure of these future major players for relatively scant profit. He had headhunted all of them. Lukaku was especially seen as his baby. Still, Jose proved who was boss, albeit at massive cost to Chelsea Football Club. Bravo Jose.

Lukaku returns for a reported £97.5 million, just under 80 million more than was paid for him from Anderlecht in 2011 & just under 70 million more than the club got from Everton when the loan move became permanent in 2014. Antonio Conte wanted him back at Stamford Bridge in 2017 but was pipped at the post by Man Utd, who paid a reported £68 million to take him to Old Trafford, then being coached by………yes, you’ve guessed it, that perverse little tinker Jose Mourinho. Conte eventually got his man in Milan, where he is credited with overseeing vast improvements in Lukaku’s game which his former employers will hopefully now benefit from. As for  Abraham linking up with Mourinho at Roma, hopefully there will be some similar ironing out of deficiencies in his game under the tutelage of the erstwhile Special One. Already a great finisher, in possession of a decent turn of pace, & clever & fleet of foot with the ball in his possession, Tammy nonetheless seemed unable to bully opposition defenders & powerfully lead the line in the way Lukaku does. For a tall man he is also disappointingly weak in the air, & his goal tally from headers reflect this. He has done himself & Chelsea proud since Frank Lampard introduced him following the 2019 transfer ban though. My favourite memory among many is the winning goal at The Emirates against his boyhood idols Arsenal at Christmas  that year. Like Lukaku, Tammy had a false start with a deciding missed penalty in the European Super Cup, this time against Liverpool at the start of that 2019-20 season. Unlike Lukaku, he had a coach who continued to support & play him, though in fairness to Mourinho this time it was a coach without the luxury of a primetime Diego Costa to fall back on. In the aftermath of this game Tammy was then subjected to some disgusting abuse on social media, some of it racial, some merely the red cross through the head statement of contempt that other emerging talents like Mason Mount were also subjected to, with just as little justification. There was little evidence of similar antipathy within match going circles & the goals soon came. Tammy has plenty of time to fulfill his immense potential & with any luck we may also see him back at Stamford Bridge before his race is run.

Go well Tammy. Ditto Michy. Welcome back Romelu.

Just Woke Up

 

The undignified spectacle of right wing fruitloops scrambling to realign themselves with Gareth Southgate & his admirable England team has been simultaneously hilarious & stomach churning this week. Those who daily pollute the well of intelligent debate in our beleagured nation with their cheap, banal, hatefilled soundbites have lost their once seemingly unassailable populist touch. Badly. Boris Johnson & Priti Patel have hitherto steadfastly refused to denounce the  racists who boo the team when they take the knee, attempting to undermine rather than support the calm integrity of Southgate’s position on this vexed issue. What days to be alive when we are governed by people like this. Guess what you bigoted cretins, it is about decency standing up to hate rather than Gareth & his millionaire boys being secret reds under the football bed.  Is it possible to question the continued value of taking the knee? Of course it is. We all know Wilfred Zaha of Crystal Palace now refuses to do it. He doesn’t boo while it happens though. Only racists do that. Johnson wouldn’t condemn it though. Patel, quite possibly the most stupid individual ever to hold high office, effectively gave the jeering bottom feeders a resounding thumbs up & red light. Why have they adopted this morally bankrupt position? Because it is a chunk of their core vote doing the booing is why. Says it all. A few Harry Kane goals later & both these hideous chancers are frantically squeezing England shirts over their bloated, empty heads. Johnson had his name on the back of his shirt. Of course he did. It’s all about him now things are going well. Pritti’s shirt looked suspiciously creased in a ‘just out the bag from the JD Sports down the road’ kind of way. A reminder here that under the new immigration policy many of the current England team would not be allowed to settle in this country now. Neither would last week’s new Wimbledon sensation Emma Raducanu whose family settled here in 2005 when she was two. If she ever takes the women’s title doubtless Johnson & Patel will have prime seats on Centre Court for the final. The Home Secretary shares at least one thing in common with Emma. Patel’s family would no longer be able to gain entry into this country courtesy of her own department’s new immigration policy either. Shameless. Sickening. Typical.

Further (even further!) to the right the hypocrisy knows no bounds……

The reliably odious Farage & the Matalan Mosley – the morally bald vainly searching for a comb. As for the worst elements within our rabidly arrogant, spiteful, glib, money grubbing modern media representatives….

Rima says it all in the tweet at the top of the page really. Tony Parsons of The Sun, a man who regularly displays more faces than a sixteenth century spike at Traitors’ Gate, is doubtless preparing a mawkish, flag shagging, Last Night At The Proms paen to Southgate’s boys to try & cover his sneering, duplicitous tracks. It is worth pointing out that the virtue signalling Marxists of the national team all these bastards are now scurrying around to support are preparing to give any winnings to NHS staff. Marcus Rashford’s shaming of the government over school meals for the poor is already rightly famous, Reece James feeding the poor on the streets of London less so. Harry Kane’s rainbow armband & Jordan Henderson’s supportive tweet to a gay fan have both been received with widespread approval. On a smaller scale Mason Mount has made the year of a 10 year old girl by singling her out to receive his prized match shirt from Wednesday’s Semi Final against Denmark. Kalvin Phillips wears boots with a memorial to his recently deceased grandmother inscribed on them. There is a lot of decency within this team, & can we politely suggest that decency rather than bloated chauvinism is a preferable patriotic look going forward. These lads are a credit to both Gareth Southgate & the nation. Maybe, just maybe, they have earned the right to continue making a silent protest at them &/or their colleagues & friends being racially abused by halfwits via taking the knee without being harangued by these malignant fools either running & ruining the country, or stirring up hatred within whatever media platform thay can take refuge in, or worse, profit from.

Whoever wins the European Championship tonight there have been some significant gains for old style English courtesy over mindless, gloating xenophobia in the last few weeks. Southgate is more Attlee or Macmillan rather than Thatcher or Johnson. It’s a start, though it may  represent a welcome blip rather than any significant, sustained sea change after the hugely poisonous Brexit years. We live in hope. As an Englishman I will enjoy seeing a home victory, but should it happen will spare a thought for the great Gianluca Vialli in the Italian camp, a Chelsea legend beset by serious illness in recent times. If Italy triumph his joy will still be a pleasure to behold amidst the disappointment.

Johnson, Patel, Farage, Fox, Hartley-Brewer, Parsons & their rancid ilk can wrap themselves in flags & shirts as much as they like. Like gatecrashers at a party, bringing not even one can of cider between them, their presence is neither needed or welcome. Sadly it won’t stop them of course. This has already appeared today.

Nigel Farage preparing to cheer on the Marxist propagandists at Wembley. After he has finished furiously booing them for taking the knee presumably? Bit early Nige, kick off at the soccerball game is 10 hours away yet. Know you’re a big fan. And an even bigger prick. Please go away. Forever.

As for real human beings everywhere else – enjoy the game!

It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Chelsea World

 

So another season ends. Fear not though round ball haters, the European Championships start in a couple of weeks. You’re not out of the woods yet. Hopefully, when the club game resumes in August, we will start with full stadiums, & proper football will replace the limp, blow up doll impersonation of the sport inflicted on us all  by the hideous pandemic for the remarkable last 15 months.

As far as my own team goes, I remain as lost for meaningful words as most of the players were on Saturday night. Chelsea is a batshit crazy football club. I hate writing about the current set up because I never make a right call. In December I applauded the progress the team were making under club legend Frank Lampard’s tutelage. There was a 17 game unbeaten run & at the end of the group stage of The Champions League the team completed a comfortable qualification for the last 16 with a  resounding 4-0 away win against Sevilla. Before January was done Lampard had been sacked. He had taken over after EUFA had imposed a transfer ban on the club. Eden Hazard, the club’s best player, saviour of the team’s fortunes in the previous season under Maurizio Sarri, had departed for Real Madrid. None of the supposedly elite managers the club has more usually appointed  would have touched the job with a shitty stick at this juncture. Despite this the 2019-20 season saw a top 4 finish & an FA Cup Final appearance. Academy players were integrated successfully into the squad. One of them, Mason Mount, is already an England regular &  silencing his many peabrained critics as he threatens to blossom into one of the club’s all time greatest players.

In April this year the club then angered its own supporters further by signing up for the disgraceful ESL venture, designed to prop up the wobbly finances of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus & AC Milan at the expense of the heart & soul of English football, its wonderful pyramid & every club & its fanbase within it. Fortunately, common sense has prevailed (this time) but not before Chelsea Football Club had once more cemented its reputation as a pariah, this time minus the often valid excuse that a media agenda is fuelling much of the antipathy with lies, smears, gross distortion & misrepresentation.

Nothing will change here. I have already given up on the Be Kind sloganeering bandied hopefully around this country earlier in the pandemic period. People clapped for the NHS but will still vote for self interest & greed, seemingly happy to allow the country to be run by corrupt criminals. Hating a football club seems like small beer in comparison, & it isn’t as if I have never spat bile at rival clubs. Haters gonna hate. Fill your boots boys & girls. Whatever gives you a hard on.

So how are Chelsea Football Club generally labelled at the end of this bizarre season? Pretty much as they were at its start I would guess.

Vile. Classless. Plastic. Ruining football since 2003. A small club propped up by ill gotten Russian gains. Supported by rentboys &/or Gammon, Boris loving racists.

Oh. And Just one more thing……….

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS !!

AGAIN!!

 

 

Let’s Talk About 6 Baby

After this afternoon’s feeble 0-1 defeat to Fulham, Jurgen Klopp’s team have now lost an extraordinary SIX home games on the trot. Chelsea got relegated in 1988 & only lost two home games all season. No fan attendance & the long term injury to the pivotal Virgil Van Dijk are undoubtedly key factors in this. Liverpool will be back of course, doubtless bigger, better & noisier than ever, & sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, the fall in grace from the triumphs of the last two seasons is, to quote the late David Coleman, quite remarkable.

And, let’s face it, for the rest of us it’s pretty hilarious too!

Admiring Our Balls

May 19, 1973   England 1 Scotland 0

 

In truth the YouTube footage here describes the action better than I can after 48 years. The winning goal aside, it is only Shilton’s excellent late save from  Dalglish’s well struck left foot crosshot that lingers in the memory. I hadn’t remembered Bobby Moore’s awful challenge on Lorimer. It was the only time I saw the great man play for England & the fact manager Sir Alf Ramsey had relegated him to the bench before his own dismissal in 1974 spoke volumes of the decline in Bobby’s form, exemplified by a shocking mistake away to Poland in a crucial World Cup qualifier during the summer following this match. Ramsey was usually hopelessly loyal to his tried & tested performers. I do  remember the goal exactly as it appears here however, Martin Peters ghosting through an unwitting Scottish defence like Keyser Soze eluding the police to head Alan Ball’s invitingly curled free kick past Ally Hunter in the Scottish goal.

The British Championship was an end of season tournament with all 4 home nations playing each other once over a 7 day period, starting a week after the English & Scottish domestic FA Cup Finals. A welcome addition to the season for us fans, starved of live football throughout the season, less welcome for the players at the end of a gruelling 42 game Division 1 season. The Scotland-England fixture was always live & sometimes one or both of the England matches versus Wales or Northern Ireland would be too. Home advantage would be alternated from one year to the next.

This was my first international match, ticket courtesy of my lifelong friend Richie Hewer’s eldest sister Annie. How she got them I don’t know but I am suitably grateful to this day anyway. The occasion may have outshone the quality of the game but it was a great day out & Richie & I spent a lot of time collecting autographs, freeing up his dad Eric to escape us & doubtless snatch the odd half or two before & after the game. Later in life, in the 80’s & ’90’s, there was a spell when I saw Eric more often than Richie, selling him a Bobby Moore biography at work once but more usually finding him sat at the bar, affable as ever, nursing a half pint in The White Horse Or Kings Arms or any one of a number of the Morse friendly pubs in the academic heart of Oxford. He became known by some within those quarters as Half Pint Eric, the lightwight image a canny facade as Eric regularly & happily supped a number of halves an evening in a number of these pubs.

The old Wembley lived off its own name in the most complacent manner imaginable in terms of facilities & comfort but there was magic in seeing those twin towers, especially at a showpiece event like this. As for the first sight of that lovely, lush turf on entering the arena……..well, anyone who has seen the scene in Fever Pitch when the misguided Arsenal fan views Highbury for the first time will understand. Many will have experienced the thrill themselves at one sporting stadium or another.

Memories of this day out at Wembley? Whisky fumes. Jordan sulks. All around, sound of breaking glass, to quote a Nick Lowe  hit five years ahead of its release, as endless  beer cans & scotch bottles were casually discarded, strewn liberally around the walkways & unlovely car parks around Wembley Stadium. An environmental horror maybe, but also a triumph for the respective shareholders of McEwans Export & Bell’s Whisky. Nick Lowe is one of a select bunch of musicians I have seen perform at  a football ground, knocking out a few pre-match tunes at Oxford United as part of Brinsley Schwarz a year or so after this game. Frankly the mists of time ensure I haven’t a clue if they performed the Lowe penned (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding, later adopted by Elvis Costello & The Attractions & now rightly regarded as a minor classic. It would likely have fallen on deaf ears in a mid 1970’s football stadium, neither peace, love or understanding being concepts looming large on the aggro heavy terraces of the day. For the England-Scotland match we had eighty minutes of The Massed Bands Of H.M. Royal Marines, Portsmouth, the last twenty minutes seeing them support Radio 1’s Ed Stewpot Stewart. Given Ed’s normal gig as presenter of Radio 1’s children’s staple Junior Choice we might have expected renditions of Puff The Magic DragonA Windmill In Amsterdam & Terry Scott’s My Brother. One suspects  the H.M. Marines might have struggled to get a handle on Sparky’s Magic Piano. No dice anyway as he cajoled the crowd into a mass singalong of a mess of hoary old standards such as The Happy Wanderer, with a decent smattering of Scottish fare also thrown in for good measure, including I Love A Lassie. Stalwart pre-war standards were supplemented by newer atrocities like Jimmy Osmond’s Long Haired Lover From Liverpool &, apropos of nothing, the latest Spurs terrace hit Nice One Cyril. Is it any wonder riots at football grounds became commonplace?

 

Fraternal love towards the English from large sections of the other populations within the British Isles was never better hidden than in this fractious era. IRA bombs, & a liking for feigned deafness at the sound of an English accent, from some of the population of Wales, during childhood family holidays, had already prepared me for a lifetime of antipathy from other corners of the United Kingdom. British military intervention into the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1969 was by now intensifying rather than quelling sectarian strife, & the Northern Ireland – England Home International fixture the week before had been transfered from Belfast to Everton’s Goodison Park on security grounds.  Devolution referendums in Scotland & Wales at the end of the 1970’s eventually rejected any moves away from political control remaining in Westminster but that didn’t prevent a continuing fad for burning down English owned holiday cottages in Wales, nor the eternal Scottish resentment towards England from many of the bell bottomed, hirsute, tartan clad  hordes at this match.

Narrow defeat on the pitch aside, it must be said the 1973 Tartan Army owned this day. Raucous & passionate, they seemed to dwarf us English numerically, filling up large pockets of the ground throughout the arena. They certainly scored higher on the decibel count. Much higher. For an 11 year old boy it was all a bit daunting to arrive at Wembley to be greeted with the opposition’s fans singing, shouting , gesticulating wildly & none too amicably, & genuinely giving off an air of menace fuelled by a sense of historic injustice. And alcohol. Lots of it, & early in the day too. There were Scotland fans everywhere in & around Wembley, with their silk scarves & yellow flags, crowd segregation a non-starter. There was  plenty of anti-Englishness abounding within Caledonian ranks but it was not all naked hostility, &  I can only remember witnessing one act of intended fan violence, a small Scotsman, emboldened by being what used to be quaintly known as ‘in drink,’ running on the pitch during the second half & attempting to batter England’s 1966 World Cup winning midfield hero  Alan Ball. Like his father out on the Wembley concourse earlier (of which more later) Alan Jr, a similarly hot tempered character to his dad, conducted himself with commendable aplomb under severe provocation. It was a day for admiring our Balls. Our Alan Balls. He later said he respected his assailant’s fighting spirit, but was possibly still glad to have his Arsenal colleague Peter Storey swiftly arrive on the scene. No stranger to m’learned friends after retirement, future jailbird Storey was also a steely presence on the pitch. Or a right dirty bastard in layman’s terms.

Being confronted by a drunken Scotsman in the day was not entirely new to me. The pockets of Oxford city centre now populated with homeless, often drug addicted people, were then populated with alcoholics, more often than not male, over 35 & with a sizeable Scottish representation, frequently kitted out in Oxfam suits that, like their latest owners, had known better days in the 1960’s. Later on, in the ’70’s, as fashions shifted again, I waited in vain for their successors to start appearing at Bonn Square in the town centre kitted out in  afghan coats, kaftans, flares & platform shoes discarded by previous owners. It never happened. Even the most chronic alcoholic had more pride than that. Incidentally, the high level of Scottish representation within the street drinking ranks is a statement of fact rather than a lazy regurgitation of hackneyed prejudice. I used to be fearful of the street pissheads when they lurched towards you, all cider breath & piss stained trousers, cut foreheads & stubble. A nimble pre-pubescent could swerve their inebriated staggering easily so the verbals were effectively just background noise. Many of the fans at Wembley, off the leash for a big weekend in the smoke rather than 24/7 juicers, proved either disinterested or inapable of indulging in violence When one Scot made for our group just next to the turnstiles, slurring in a thick Scottish brogue, he merely took off his Scotland silk scarf & sweetly stuck it around Richie’s neck instead.

Scottish fans who were up for a rumble may have struggled to find any true opposition anyway. Prevalent though terrace biffo was by 1973, the standard England crowds at international games remained, along with the aforementioned military band pre-match entertainment, a Pathe Newsreel, collar & tie throwback to more placid times. Scotland’s win at Wembley four years later in 1977 may well have been the final nail in the coffin for that era. Seeing their oldest rivals tearing down the goalposts & ripping up chunks of the hallowed Wembley turf seems to have combined with poor performance in ushering in the dawn of a new age where our national team suddenly attracted the rowdier elements that had been causing much mournful head shaking in club football for the past decade. By the early 1980’s it was routine for Bobby Charlton, watching internationals as a pundit, to intone his mantra of being ashamed to be English as the fists, boots, bottles & smoke bombs flew.

Richie & I met as 5 year olds when I was placed next to him on my first day at infant school. The desk was decorated with pieces of cheap wood carved into the shape of animals, intended to be drawn around. Richie & I fought a grimly determined battle against each other to gain possession of them. When he wanted the elephant or giraffe so did I & vice versa. I don’t think we exchanged one word all day, though 1967 is a way off to be too certain about that. I  remember the highlight of the day was another boy in the toilets revealing the inner lining of the retractable, upper end of his foreskin to be populated with fluff, which he proudly announced to have collected there via his pyjama bottoms. This impressed me no end, & I fervently hoped that one day I too might get to successfully store pyjama bottom fluff in a similar fashion. Good to have a dream so early on in school life. It had been an inauspicious start but Richie & I soon became friends, although long before our trip to Wembley he could have been excused had he turned his back on me. In our first year we had a class known as Musical Movement, in the main assembly hall. Sadly, during one afternoon the only part of me the music moved was my bowels, as I shat my pants & was subsequently rendered immobile for obvious reasons. Moving into our second year we had a teacher, Miss Ellis, who frowned on any of us interrupting a lesson to request a trip to the toilet. Mindful of this I unwisely chose to piss myself instead. The humiliation was compounded by a total absence of spare pants within the school, meaning I spent the rest of the day wearing a duffle coat to cover my malfunctioning willy. My blushes remained unspared. Richie forgave me despite the widespread sniggering, but later foolishly joined me in a different but still inadvisable anatomical misadventure, namely the placement of unsuitable objects up one’s nose. I had form with this at home, when a chipple got wedged in my nasal passage, to my panic & everyone else’s amusement. Chipples are mercifully long gone now, a cheap alternative to crisps, shaped rather like oven chips are now & spectacularly lacking in taste. I was a greedy little boy so my sticking them in an orifice other than the mouth speaks volumes. Miss Ellis’s classroom offered other alternatives, & one quiet afternoon I dared Richie to join me in sampling nasal insertion options for a collection of crayons of varying shapes & sizes. This time I emerged unscathed but Richie had to seek medical assistance. I had at last learned something at infant school. Never work with amateurs.

Despite the crayons, piss & shit, Richie remained my friend. By the time we moved from infant to junior school football had got a hold on us. He might deny it now but Richie had a love for Man Utd back then. I liked them too, especially Bobby Charlton. Small boys of the late 1960’s tended to love all three of the holy trinity of Best, Law & Charlton unreservedly. Baldie headed Bobby was my favourite because the relatively paltry TV football coverage back then was stuffed to the gills with his trademark, piledriving 25 yard shots, hit with either foot with equal ferocity. Content rather than fashion was all that interested me & Bobby was a thrilling, dynamic player. Denis Law was impish & aggressive, & also the scorer of spectacular goals. He was the first player I ever saw score from a bicycle kick. George Best was beautiful, brilliant & in today’s parlance, a generational talent. No wonder Richie’s head was initially turned but he got over it.

As we moved into the 1970’s I spent quite a few evenings around at Richie’s house, laughter & cigarette smoke filling the room as his mum, dad & sister Sheila shared their liking for lively chat & frequent piss taking that neither Richie or I were exempt from. I loved it. We saw less of Richie’s older brother Michael, who had an older brother’s record collection, which fascinated me, & needless to say varied wildly to my older sister’s musical preferences. Crosby, Stills & Nash featured strongly. Michael not only had a hippy friendly record collection but also a hippy girlfriend called Flea, at least she seemed like a hippy to me, & had, Richie proudly informed me, once had tea at JRR Tolkien’s house. Impressive stuff, though I was happy enough having my tea at Richie’s, courtesy of his lovely, larger than life German born mum, which would frequently be supplemented before I went home with an ice cream from the van that always turned up outside their house in the early evening. I always plumped for a Screwball, with its ball of bubble gum at its base to keep the sugar rush going once the ice cream had been swiftly devoured. 2 for 1, I always liked to get my money’s worth. Sometimes we would  get involved in kickarounds with the older lads on the Town Furze housing estate where he lived. Being smaller than me Richie inherited my unusual but prized red Kingswell Gordon Banks football boots when I grew out of them. I had christened them by scoring a hat trick in my first ever school team match, the third scored as I searched in vain for a screw in stud that had dropped out. The ball came towards me by chance & I swung a left foot at it lazily & weakly. To everyone’s amazement the keeper fumbled it & it ended up, not in the net, as nets were a luxury our school could not afford, but over the line into the far corner of the goal. I never scored a hat trick again, & was soon rumbled for the one paced coward I was. By the time we made this Wembley trip the game was already up on that front, although I trundled away in boy’s football to no great end for another 3 or 4 years. Observing rather than participating in the beautiful game was to be my fate. Seeing England play Scotland was to be an early highlight.

I got the good end of the bargain with this Scotland game. Richie had  been invited to stay over at our house two weeks earlier to watch the FA Cup Final & see The New Seekers at the Oxford New Theatre in the evening. We had not had a colour television very long & I was keen to show it off, also to see a major sporting event without the television breaking down, as our old black & white set had for the 1969 Man City – Leicester final, the fatal defeat to West Germany in the following year’s World Cup & a 1968 rainswept Ashes Test when  Derek Underwood span the home team to victory at The Oval with the Aussie batters surrounded by both a mass of ludicrously close in fielders & the odd puddle. All viewed at our kindly & long suffering next door neighbours. Sadly, the new telly also played up on the day, not packing up completely but effectively reverting mainly to poor quality black & white save for applying an insipid pinky hue to Sunderland’s famous red stripes. Richie’s family had their own colour set a while before we did so I feel responsible to this day for hampering his enjoyment of seeing the Rokerites delightful, shock triumph over Leeds, courtesy of a first half goal from a future Chelsea manager, the late Ian Porterfield. As for inveigling Richie into my shadowy New Seekers world, I can only hang my head in shame. I doubt he ever saw them again but I did. More than once. I was even in The New Seekers Fan Club & went to a convention at the Alexander Palace, compered by the seemingly ubiquitous Ed Stewart, minus any vampire lesbians sadly. More of that later. Conveniently I expunged this from my gig going CV for many years &  maintained my first live band were The Undertones at Oxford Poly in 1979. A lie. It is strange how often when  people of my vintage are asked  about their first musical loves they claim to be have been out there grooving to the first Velvet Underground album. Their first purchased single is invariably cited as one by the eternally groovy T.Rex or David Bowie, never Benny Hills’s Ernie. I think they are usually fibbing. As a prepubescent my first purchased album was not Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats, neither was I listening to Led Zeppelin  around the clock. I liked The Jackson 5, Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, All The Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople & anything by The New Seekers. I had several albums & a first crush on one of the band members, Lyn Paul. George Best had beaten me to Lyn’s band mate Eve Graham. Ed Stewpot Stewart was also linked to Eve, but she later said he was more like a brother & she had enough of them back home already. Ouch. Nevermind, Ed had his vampire lesbians. More of that later. Liking The New Seekers sometimes entailed a playground walk of shame  that resonates to this day so advanced was the gleeful scorn & disdain of classmates. They had a point. The New Seekers were a bland, antiseptic, sickeningly sweet confection, the sort of group people’s parents approved of. The taunts in the playground came from people who had mostly adopted a new musical hero by 1973. Marc Bolan was on the wane & David Bowie seemed largely the preserve of older kids. The new man on the block had a forest of revolting chest hair that was presumably real, unlike the fulsome wig & fake sideburns on his head. Seemingly wrapped in Bacofoil, overweight & wearing absurdly high stacked heels he was enjoying a last, late stab at pop stardom. He is now better known  as the most famous predatory paedophile in the country. Step forward Gary Glitter. If only I had known then what we all know now. I was mocked by people for being sweet on a woman who later sang the theme tune for a film score composed by the impossibly great John Barry, for many years a Chelsea resident. They liked a fat, bald sex offender. Hindsight was no help in a 1970’s playground though & I should have been a better mate & kept Richie away from this unpleasantness. His family got me a ticket for England-Scotland, he got a ticket for the uncoolest music combo imaginable, having watched the FA Cup Final on a knackered telly. I think the highlight of that weekend for Richie was discovering we had an offcut from our living room carpet laid in the bog, rather than the lino more commonly used back then. On such slim pickings were relative levels of poshness ascribed back in 1973!

Come the big day & the trains funneling us to & from Wembley Stadium pleasingly featured the sort of compartments you still see in old black & white films & television programmes like Dad’s Army & The Fall & Rise Of Reginald Perrin On the last leg of the journey to Wembley there was a reminder that some Scotland fans were as busy hating each other as well as us English. With the compartment now packed to the rafters, one grizzled old campaigner emabarked on a lengthy diatribe about the brilliant Kenny Dalglish, still four years away from crossing over the border to Anfield from Parkhead. The longer he rambled the clearer it was that this is driven not by any actual impediments in the wonderful Celtic man’s immaculate playing credentials but merely in his representing the Catholic, green hooped half of Glasgow. The attributes of former Rangers striker Colin Stein, by now at Coventry City but also featuring in the day’s Scotland squad, were held up as far superior to those of Dalglish. It’s all nonsense. Stein was a fine player but no Kenny Dalglish. They were not even that similar as players. Has a failure to disentangle sectarian differences held Scotland back from fulfilling their potential, particularly later in the 1970’s when they had such an excellent squad? The reaction to the appointment of former Chelsea favourite Steve Clarke, the current Scotland coach, suggests it is still an issue today given the intense hate spewed out towards him by Rangers fans on social media, even after subsequent qualification for the forthcoming European Championships. Clarke never played for Celtic but is known to have a soft spot for them. Spain took years to fully assert themselves on the international stage for similar reasons so the Scots should not give up just yet. Then again, when Spain eventually won the World Cup in 2010 they waited until after the final whistle to celebrate rather than beginning the party before they had even left their own country, as Scotland did prior to setting out for Argentina in 1978.

The autograph hunting starts quickly on arrival at the stadium. Richie starts getting signatures added to his match programme. I am slightly smug about this, thinking, with a huge absence of logic, that he is somehow tainting it & needs to collect the autographs separately  to preserve the programme in its barest, pristine form. I am using my copy of Goal magazine, comprised of cheap print on thin paper, & unlike the glossy programme not built to last. Decades later Richie has the ultimate match souvenir. I have indecipherable scrawls cut out of the decaying magazine, signed against alternative backgrounds of smudgy black text, the borders of full page player pin ups. One autograph is on a Puma football boot from an advert featuring Alan Sniffer Clarke, another on the paisley shirt collar of a disembodied man touting the dubious virtues of  Barclays Bank. I had an autograph book, but bafflingly never seemed to have it at the correct moments, including a 1972 trip to the University Parks to see that year’s touring Australian cricket team. My mum took Richie & Bill along as well, and we got an early introduction to the differing responses of top sportsmen when dealing with eager & sometimes overbearing schoolboys. Aussie skipper Ian Chappell, a man generally regarded as prickly, who has subsequently conducted an ugly, puerile & seemingly ceaseless feud with Ian Botham, sat on a bench in the early evening sunshine & calmly & patiently worked his way through the queue while whistling Waltzing Matilda. Brother Greg was equally placid & amenable, which was apparently not always the case. Seems we got both of them on a good day but speak as you find. Wicketkeeper Rodney Marsh produced a packet of fags from his flannels & lit up before he had even left the playing area. An unassuming man who had yet to play a test match called Bob Massie signed readily but David Colley, who had played in the recent 1st Test, had clearly let his arrival on the international scene go to his head. Arrogant & offhand, the 24 carat tit contemptuously told us to buzz off. Could have been worse I suppose. Massie came into the team for the next Test at Lords & famously took 16 wickets (8 in each innings) with truly prodigious swing bowling. He never repeated this feat again but carved his name in Ashes history forever. If you can find anyone who  remembers Colley (6 test wickets at an average of 52) it is likely to be a rebuffed autograph hunter from the early 1970’s, & I can assure you they will remember him as an arsehole.

We get lucky early on at Wembley as two England reserves walk go by, strikers John Richards & Malcolm Macdonald. Richards had first announced himself as an emerging talent with two goals against Derby County for Wolves in 1971, a game I attended, to this day my only visit to Molineux. A terrific servant to Wolves & a superb player. Like Macdonald he is carrying a suit in a Sketchley dry cleaning cover, but unlike Macdonald he manages to quietly sign his name without snapping at me. Regularly betrayed himself as a proper bellend did Supermac, continuing into his managerial career. A proper legend of the game, Sir Matt Busby, emerges from a car & I am genuinely awed, so much so he is gone before I can approach him, though I think Richie may have been quick enough to react in time & beat me to the punch. Nevertheless, seeing the man who rebuilt his beloved, brillant young Man Utd team after the Munich disaster so effectively is still exciting enough to help me quickly forget Macdonald’s rudeness. Billy Wright approaches, sees us, & immediately breaks into a jog as he promises to return in five minutes. He never does return. Shortly to relinquish his status as the most capped England player of all time (105 caps) to Bobby Moore, Billy was Head Of Sport at ATV at the time. ATV had a sizeable stake in Wembley Stadium which as a young boy served me well. One ATV big cheese called Bill Ward had a son, Dave, who worked with my dad at British Leyland in Cowley. Dave got tickets for all the big games at Wembley, so my programme collection flourished in these years. Billy Wright had also given Dave one of his England caps which my dad brought home to show me one day. Nowadays mobiles & decent quality digital cameras would ensure a decent snapshot or 20 of me wearing the cap would now exist. Sadly my Kodak Instamatic was all we had & my dear mum proved to be as adept with a camera as she was with the hairdressing scissors, as the grainy image of me reproduced here illustrates all too well. At least Billy’s cap obscures some of the disastrous pageboy haircut recently imposed on me. Suffice to say that the word curtains followed me around at school for quite a while. Thanks mum.

Little Lord Fauntleroy capped by England. No Chopper or racing bike for this hipster, but his much derided Hercules Jeep, which according to one schoolmate he rode ‘ like a doddering old policeman ‘ Best days of your life my arse.

I collar a few managers too, albeit less exalted than Sir Matt. Benny Fenton of Millwall, the younger brother of ex West Ham manager Ted, was one, Wolves boss Bill McGarry another. He would return triumphantly to Wembley with his team the following season & win the League Cup, courtesy of a Richards winner against Manchester City. Ayr United’s Ally McLeod is one of a number of Scottish faces to emerge from a collection of coaches arriving within a short space of time. Five years later Ally would become one of the most instantly recognisable (& with that extraordinary nose, unforgettable!) faces in Britain when leading an extremely talented Scotland squad to a doomed stab at World Cup glory in Argentina. A great character who promised the earth was Ally. Couldn’t deliver pizza on the big stage sadly. A Hibs coach parks up & we snaffle the autographs of former Scotland & Liverpool goalkeeper Tommy Younger, plus Celtic legend Bertie Auld, a Lisbon Lion who was easing into retirement off the back of a leisurely, uneventful two seasons at Easter Road. Full back John Brownlie also obliged us. He had played in the corresponding fixture the year before, 119,000 people leaving Hampden Park disappointed as England won 1-0 courtesy of a goal by Alan Ball.

Alan Ball eludes us but his father, Alan Ball Sr. hoves into view & I feel an appropriate sense of trepidation as I approach him. Earlier on in the 1972-3 season I had seen his Preston team win 2-0 at Oxford United. The manager’s dugouts at Oxford were at the opposite side of the pitch from the dressing rooms. Ball & his assistant, a military looking man with a severe crew cut, in an era of overflowing locks & fulsome sideburns, were making their way to their dugout at the start if the second half. Around the pitch at the Manor Ground, immediately in front of the walls that separated the fans at the Osler Road from the action, were layers of a bright orange clay/gravel like substance. Having said something to attract Ball Sr’s attention one fan elected to lean over the wall, scoop up some of this stuff & throw it at close distance into the face of the Preston boss. Ball Sr promptly lunged across the wall into the crowd & engaged in some wholly justified fisticuffs with his new found adversary. Fortunately, his deputy extricated him from the melee before things got too involved, but the furious response from Ball underlined that despite his dimunitive stature he is a man it was unwise to cross. His formidable assistant’s name was Arthur Cox, later a well known manager himself, & reputedly every bit as hard as he looked. The orange clay incident is fresh in my memory, & my trepidation was compounded by the knowledge that Mr Ball had been freshly sacked by Preston. Bobby Charlton has been appointed in his place, recently retired after his glittering playing career with a parting gift of a cigarette holder from last opponents Chelsea. I meekly request Alan Ball Sr’s signature & randomly throw open the magazine. On the plus side it doesn’t land on the page with an application form for entering the Goal Girl Of 1973 competition. Unfortunately, it’s worse. Much much worse, as the eyes of the feisty one home in on the banner headline Why I Chose Preston underneath which regular Goal columnist Bobby Charlton is sat at a table smiling as he signs the contract confirming his assumption of the role hitherto occupied by Mr Ball. There is nothing I can do at this point. Alan Sr stares at the page & there is a dramatic pause, as the Earth stands still long enough for the entirety of my admittedly short 11 years & 1 month existence to flash before me. I haven’t come this close to shitting myself in public since the days of Musical Movement. Luckily age may well have come to my rescue as Alan turns his now slightly mad eyed gaze from the page & briefly to my feeble, quivering presence. ‘I’m not signing THAT. I’m not signing anything with Preston on it,’ he says with deadpan firmness but, in all fairness, without significantly raising his voice quite as much as I anticipate. I would like to think that deep down he has seen the funny side but evidence for this is slight. He deftly turns the page himself & signs somewhere else, managing both to avoid adding his monicker alongside the grinning Bobby Charlton & mistakenly applying to enter Goal Girl Of  1973. I smile weakly, pathetically grateful less for the autograph than the continued presence of my front teeth. Alan Sr has shown himself to be a pretty good egg under the circumstances. Sadly he died in a car crash in 1982 at the age of 57, leaving us at an even earlier age than his son, a mere 61 when he succumbed to a heart attack in 2007.

On entering the inner sanctum of the stadium the sheer volume of away support is again apparent. There are Scots everywhere. In years to follow I will see Chelsea away games  where my team’s followers make a more than decent stab at appearing to swallow up the home support. This is the first time I experience the phenomenon however, & from the reverse standpoint. 95,950 is the official attendance & to this day I would love to know what percentage of the crowd were supporting Scotland. A lot!

One man sat in front of us is certainly Scottish & introduced to us as Oxford United striker Hugh Curran’s dad. He greets us with a friendly smile, as indeed did his son when we got autographs from him at the Manor Ground. He would always have a little chat, ask your name & query if your parents knew where you were if you were at a night game. He had scored in the last England-Scotland game at Wembley in 1971 so he trumped some of his countrymen appearing in the line up today in in both achievement & social graces. Not that Hugh was a shrinking violet on the pitch. My brother-in-law played under him at Banbury United & it is fair to say Pep Guardiola has little to learn from some of Mr Curran’s pre match instructions, one being ‘John, go straight up to the centre half at the start & kick him hard. If he asks why just say it’s  in case you were thinking of  doing the same to me.’ Old school for sure was Hugh, & only at Oxford because of a dodgy knee, but a fantastic player & character, still working as a security guard at the local Park & Ride in Oxford as he approached his seventies. Joe Jordan has never had to do that. Then again, this afternoon’s late substitute Jordan proved to be a miserable git to autograph hunting kids. Unlike Hugh he also never scored at Wembley for Scotland.  11  goals in 52 games suggest image rather than achievement allows the word legend to be mistakenly applied to Jordan, who proved a typical Leeds cheat in winning a penalty during a crucial World Cup qualifier at Anfield against Wales in 1977, handball given against the defender marking him when the handball was actually committed by the man with even less charm than teeth. Maradona does it & is called out everywhere, while Joe’s despicability, appealing for, & celebrating, the wrongly awarded penalty, is largely ignored everywhere but Wales. Puke inducing double standards within British football are not confined to the modern game & messrs Kane, Harry & Maguire, Harry.

We are at the opposite end of the stadium from the player’s tunnel but the moment when the teams emerged, to a crescendo of noise, remains a highlight of the day. Both team’s kits were wonderful back then, not a sponsor’s name in sight, just the national badge. Simplicity being genius, England’s kit is plain white socks & plain round, white collarless shirt, with blue shorts. The familiar three lion badge on the shirt ensures they can never be mistaken for anyone else. Sadly Scotland had swapped to the v neck shirt with floppy collars recently returned to favour by most club teams at this juncture. I think Man Utd had started the trend. I’m blaming them anyway. The traditional shirt of old had been equally as beautiful as that of England, with its familiar dark blue alongside white shorts & red socks.  18 months later new boss Don Revie had assumed the reins of England boss & the transformation of our footballers into walking billboards began.

As stated, the YouTube footage says more about the game than I can hope to after 48 years. I am glad I got to see two top Scotland full backs, Sandy Jardine & Danny McGrain, who never plied their trade at clubs south of the border. Two of this Scottish team went on to play for Chelsea, the versatile but injury plagued David Hay & Derek Johnstone, who could play up front but lined up in defence on this day alongside  Man Utd cult figure Jim Six Feet 2 Eyes Of Blue Holton. Johnstone joined Chelsea a decade later, by then sadly overweight & over the hill. He made just one first team appearance in two years. In the England defence alongside Moore was Derby County’s Roy McFarland, a wonderful player who nearly 10 years later I saw playing in the old Division 4, at York, as Player Manager for Bradford City, not needing to break sweat or move around at much more than walking pace so superior was his reading of the game compared to rival players. In fairness he often gave that impression in his pomp at a much higher level. Truly one of the great signings of the Clough/Taylor managerial partnership before it all went sour. I never saw Leeds & England striker Alan Clarke or Man Utd & Scotland’s Lou Macari playing at club level either, so it was good to atch up with them here. Excellent footballers both.

The other major footballing figure of the era that I only ever saw live during this game was Billy Bremner. The contrarian impulse within me allows me to offer a more generous assessment of Billy Bremner than Joe Jordan or Peter Lorimer, both Leeds colleagues & fellow Scotland teammates. For those not around in the late ’60’s & early ’70’s, when Bremner was in his prime, it is difficult to adequately convey how much he united opinion within two camps in entirely different directions. Leeds United fans loved & revered him. The rest of us hated the fucker. He appeared to epitomise the club he played for. Aggressive, belligerent, ultra competitive, frequently brilliant, & horrible. A flame haired, pocket sized midfield dynamo, Billy, despite his captaincy status & closeness to crooked manager Don Revie, the Richard Nixon of English football, may ultimately have been given a bum deal from those of us who despised  Leeds United & all who sailed in her. In many ways Johnny Giles, also brilliant but a more quietly calculating midfield assassin, was closer to Revie in his cooler form of cynical brutality. When Bremner was famously sent off in the 1974 Charity Shield, for a dust up with Liverpool’s Kevin Keegan, the catalyst had been a quite outrageous Giles right hook to the Liverpool man’s jaw a few moments earlier. There is a recent YouTube podcast clip  where the smug thug happily admits to the crime under the title Why I punched Kevin Keegan By Johnny Giles. Don’t bother watching it, the answer is simple. Giles was a psychotic little shit who nonetheless would not have dared try something similar on Keegan’s team mate, pock marked, man of granite Tommy Smith. Billy liked to wear his heart on his sleeve as well as opposition blood on the soles of his boots, & consequently seemed more likeable than the odious Giles as a consequence. It was rumoured that colleagues of the famously tight Elland Road unit often avoided Bremner off the pitch so keen on a drink & a ciggie was he. There is also a touching naivety reviewing his observations on the famous Chelsea – Leeds emnity when interviewed on the terrific 1995 documentary series Kicking & Screaming. Billy described it as a nice rivalry in which Leeds tended to win out in league games, Chelsea the cup matches. Cut to Chelsea’s Ian Hutchinson for his impressions. ‘Hate. No other word to describe it.’ Bremner sadly died at 55 but I am glad I got to see him play his heart out, especially in the blue of Scotland rather then the white of Leeds. Dirty Leeds. The first Leeds fixture after Billy’s death, in December 1997, was at Chelsea. Despite my trepidation (silences for both Bobby Moore & Sir Matt Busby in the same decade were rudely interrupted at Stamford Bridge) the minute’s silence was immaculately observed,the death of a small man clearly casting a giant shadow over the football watching lives of anyone there over 30. By half time Leeds were down to 9 men having had Alf Inge Haaland & Gary Kelly sent off, but still held on for a bloodyminded, defiant, ugly goalless draw.

It’s what he would have wanted.

Mick Channon – in the England line up on this day wearing a much nicer kit than this eyesore! Some people remember this post Ramsey Admiral England  kit with fondness. Not me, it evokes unhappy memories of an era when the crooked Don Revie turned all matters surrounding our national team into a circus, its players into clowns. Mick Channon was an excellent player & one of England’s better performers throughout the mid ’70’s. He signed this for me at the opening of a sportshop in 1975, & was thorougly obliging & pleasant to everyone, despite my Uncle Tony haranguing him to ‘tell your mate Osgood to cut out the rough stuff’ at the same time as my Auntie Freda was inviting him round for his Sunday dinner any time he chose. Channon had scored a hat trick for Southampton at Oxford the year before, in  a 4-0 win capped off by Peter Osgood nonchalently hitting a shot into the roof of the net. Osgood had earlier committed a shocking foul on U’s winger Brian Heron, having stalked him from one end of the pitch to the other following Heron’s shocking decision to legally nick the ball off the former Chelsea legend. I suspect Mick Channon failed to pass on Uncle Tony’s message sadly. He never did turn up for his roast beef & Yorkshires either, but did diplomatically imply he preferred the Ramsey England era to that of Don Revie when asked about their contrasting managerial styles. ‘Alf was Alf. Revie’s ‘The Boss.’

After the game, Richie & I continued our quest for autographs. The Scottish hordes evaporated surprisingly quickly, en-route for continued drinking throughout the hostelries of Central London, prior to a hazy, hungover, Irn-Bru laden Sunday morning. An air of stately quiet Englishness is quickly restored & Richie & I are free to pursue more autographs as Eric leaves us to our own devices & slips off for another quiet half or two. Perhaps Billy Wright will reappear. Perhaps not. There is nothing doing for a short while but eventually we see two well dressed young men, in conversation & pacing the concrete aimlessly. The sky has been moody all day, mirroring the Wembley concourse. Grey. There is nobody near the two men as we check them out. It is two of Scotland’s Leeds United contingent, Peter Hotshot Lorimer & striker Joe Jordan, a 74th minute substitute for the splendid Lou Macari during the match, still not that well known then, now regarded as the totem for toothless ’70’s line leading muscular aggression. In 1973 Mick Jones is still the Leeds number 9 that most of us recognise, but injuries are taking their toll & will force him into premature retirement by 1975. Lorimer is already a legend, owner of the most ferocious right foot shot in Britain . I approach him first & he silently adds his signature to my copy of Goal. Fortunately I do not proffer the cover page showing Sunderland captain Bobby Kerr gleefully holding aloft the FA Cup won a fortnight earlier at this very venue. Lorimer was denied an equalizing goal in that game courtesy of a now legendary & utterly breathtaking close range save by  Sunderland’s stalwart keeper, the wonderful Jim Montgomery. Today, Lorimer had squandered Scotland’s best chance with a tame effort which Peter Shilton had dealt with rather more comfortably. He couldn’t look more miserable if he had simultaneously discovered his wife had left him, his dog had been run over & his todger was caught in the zip fly of his flared suit trousers. Nonetheless, he had given me his autograph. I am less lucky with Jordan. He ignores my polite request, & indeed my very existence. Richie has less luck with Lorimer than I do. Perhaps in solidarity with his mate he decides he cannot spare another 5 seconds of his life to sign Richie’s programme too. This pettiness almost seems worse, at least Jordan consistently remains a surly prick throughout our short & joyless encounter. With the battle hardened optimism of the seasoned autograph hunter I plaintively request Jordan’s signature again, lest he has merely not seen me as he continues mumbling to Lorimer. Richie has also persisted  with Lorimer, not unreasonably given that Hotshot has already come across for me. No joy. Richie also asks Jordan. Eventually there is a sotto voce two word response from the man soon to become one of the most fearsome target man in Europe. The second word’s off. Softly spoken as it is I think the first word is buzz. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Big Joe has gone full David Colley on us. At some point Richie offering up his programme leads to it tumbling to the floor but this fails to move our two star footballers either, as he stoops & scrambles to recover his prized possession around their feet. Off the pitch Jordan & Lorimer are conducting themselves in a manner befitting their match status that day. As losers. You never forget the rude ones. Looking back objectively it is possible to have some sympathy. Two proud Scots who have just lost to the auld enemy, a fortnight after defeat to Division 2 opposition in the showpiece event of the season, looking for a few moments peace without being hassled by these pesky kids. But was 10 seconds apiece to scrawl their names & help make the day of two prepubescent boys really too much to ask? Nobody was asking them to mine coal or recite a soliloquy from Hamlet. The irony these days is there are  legions of players from the 1970’s only too happy to sign photos for  memorabilia sites to help supplement their pension funds. It is a popular contemporary device for many players of this era, often a way to make a few extra bob when plodding the after dinner & golf club evening beats. I note that ebay  isn’t short of material like this  featuring Lorimer & Jordan, & doubtless the market for such stuff largely hails from dewey eyed nostalgics around during their playing days. Many of them were probably 11 year old boys in 1973 too. Evidently, Peter & Joe can spare the time now. It’s a no from me. 48 years too late. I am confident Richie feels the same. Players in the modern era are often dismissed as pampered, overpaid primadonnas too distanced from today’s fans. Ex-players from my youth are often quick to condemn this & cite the greater closeness to the fans they enjoyed in days of yore. A lot of them are being, at best, slightly disingenuous here. Furthermore, a couple of seasons ago I mooched around the Fulham Road after a game waiting for the obnoxious Cardiff City away support to make themselves scarce. On returning back towards the ground, pending my walk back to Victoria, I found the traffic there had come to a standstill, impatient motorists beeping away less than merrily on their horns at the three vehicles nearest to the Stamford Bridge forecourt, apparently the root of the problem. The drivers of the three cars were Eden Hazard, Willian & Victor Moses. No autograph or (more commonly these days) selfie was refused, & if making people’s day meant holding  up traffic & incurring the wrath of idiots dumb enough to  drive past a Premier League ground on matchday so be it. I can think of plenty of players from the 1960’s & ’70’s who would have driven out of the ground without winding down their windows, or indeed giving these fans as much as a second look. Two names spring to mind immediately….

 

We only catch up with one other Scotland player who had featured on the day, Man Utd’s Willie Morgan, who toys with us by dragging us a decent distance all the way to a hideous car park before signing for us. Why? Because he can presumably. I am fond of Willie because he was the star on one of my first ever football cards, a handsome young man in a Burnley kit. I suspect Willie didn’t want for female attention although our brief (but not as brief as it should have been) encounter here suggested his biggest admirer confronted him via reflection first thing every morning in the shaving mirror. Still pops up here & there does Willie, & the old bugger still has an impressively full head of hair. A couple of years later the legendary England wicketkeeper Alan Knott showed a canny & mutually agreeable propensity for exploiting schoolboy attention by agreeing to sign his name only if we carried his kitbag to the boot of his car. We were then summonsed into the Kent dressing room where West Indian John Shepherd was in conversation with Deadly Derek Underwood. Deadly, one of the finest slow left handed bowlers in the history of the game, was clagging off a cigarette. We got to see behind scenes, which was cool. In return Knotty, a funny little man wearing a funny little hat, looking like an extra from The Sound Of Music, got the requested errand fulfilled before signing. Fair exchange is no robbery. Willie was just pulling our plonkers for the sake of it.

We do snare one England player, & a significant one at that. He is wearing a light coloured raincoat, a tall, slim figure hunched under a shelter in the car park. By his feet was an Adidas bag, a bit posher than the ones we usually had at school but not hugely different. Nobody but us took a blind bit of notice of this unassuming figure as he stood there, seemingly waiting for his lift or a taxi. It was Martin Peters. An hour earlier he had scored the winning goal. Martin didn’t engage in cheery banter with us either, & though we would have loved it if he had, just giving us the prized autograph is enough. It is not untypical of his career that during match commentary Brian Moore disparages Martin’s overall performance on the day. A clever, elusive, frequently misunderstood player, who would definitely thrive in the modern game, there seemed to be many occasions when his contribution to a match was ridiculed only for him to have scored or made crucial goals at the crunch. Suffice to say Sir Alf Ramsey didn’t leave him out too often, & he scored in a World Cup Final. He sadly died in December 2019 having suffered from dementia for several years beforehand, all the more shocking as when I last saw him walking into Stamford Bridge, prior to a Spurs match in the early noughties, he looked, then approaching 60, little or no different from his goalscoring pomp on this day in 1973.

The need to locate Eric coincides with a murmer that Ed Stewpot Stewart is around, fresh from his  attempt to lead us all in a communal, singalong rendition of Long Haired Lover from Liverpool. Mercifully this has been erased from my memory, the match programme my only guide to the grisly setlist. I’m not sure we ever catch up with Ed on this occasion, although the ownership of many of the illegible scrawls on my cheap, yellowing, Goal magazine originating scraps of paper are a head scratching mystery to me now. He also popped up at Blenheim Palace the following year, when Richie’s mum & dad accompanied us to a charity cricket match featuring Goodie Tim Brooke-Taylor, a Womble, & one each from the cast of Please Sir & The Benny Hill Show, the wonderful Bob Todd, who lived near a friend of mine & used to wear his slippers down the local. It turns out Ed was something of an amorous swordsman in these days, linked with both Ingrid Pitt & Madeleine Smith, who co-starred in a film called Vampire Lovers long beloved by many from my generation, largely due to a scene in which the former seduces the famously buxom latter. A saucier Hammer horror film than usual, it featured on ITV’s regular 10.30 Friday night horror film series one summer night towards the end of the seventies & I get the impression that every teenage boy in the country saw it.  I  once watched one of those list type documentaries where one of the celebrity interviewees that wasn’t  Stuart Maconie summed up the effect of Vampire Lovers on both himself & countless other hormone frenzied youths in the 1970’s. ‘I started watching it a boy & finished it a man.’ We’ll leave it there. Stewpot wooed them both? Respect. Losing out on Eve Graham to George Best must have lost its sting pretty rapidly. If only Ed had appeared at Wembley with a vampire lesbian.

We eventually find ourself weaving our way round a bar/eaterie which has a uniformed doorman, posh hat & all. He looks fed up, & a colleague sniggers at him that he is narked because Cloughie wouldn’t  give him his autograph. In the latter stages of his glorious Derby County managerial career, & also revered for his idiosyncratic punditry, we prick our ears up at the prospect of nabbing Brian Clough’s autograph but we don’t track him down either. We do find Eric & as we do another man comes up  from a stairway towards us. With the eternal optimism of the schoolboy signature hunters on the prowl we sense he is famous. I am not sure why, because neither Richie or I have ever set eyes on him in our lives, although for a split second I wrongly think it might be Colin Stein. Our prey has seen us &, via body language, betrayed  his eligibility. He signs my magazine & on Richie’s programme he also kindly reveals his identity. He is a well built chap with chiselled features that are offset by the kindly smile he wears while dealing with us. Screw you Joe Jordan. We initially think he has written Poland’s number 5 on Richie’s programme but  it was possibly number 2. His name is Jacek Gmoch, a former Polish international, by then the assistant to their national boss Kazimierz Gorski. A few months later they both return to Wembley with Poland & break our collective hearts by claiming a 1-1 draw & qualifying for the World Cup ahead of England, effectively finishing the reign of Sir Alf Ramsey. Poland go on to claim third place, proving they were no mugs in the first place. In 1978 Jacek has the top job & Poland go out in the group stage behind Argentina & Brazil. England again fail to qualify. Scotland reach both both the 1974 & 1978 tournaments but never make it out of the group stages despite possessng a fine array of talent within both squads, & making, as ever, a huge amount of noise. Now 82, Jacek Gmoch later had a long coaching career extending deep into the first decade of this century at club level, including two stints in charge of Panathinaikos, a quarter of a century apart. He was nice. I hope he’s well.

The journey back home is more subdued & free of Glaswegian bitterness. An elderly lady sat opposite from Eric bemoans the fact that the West End tickets her son has given her are to see Anthony Newley in The Good Old Bad Old Days rather than for the Max You’re A Pink Toothbrush Bygraves schmalz fest she had originally anticipated. Being both a polite man, & possessed of some musical taste, Eric does his best to discreetly persuade her that she has in fact got a better deal than she imagines. Newley, recently divorced from Joan Collins at the time, was a fascinating character with a long & distinguished showbiz career, still widely recognised, accurately, as the man who had David Bowie’s voice before David Bowie did. A cursory listen to either of their recorded outputs, epecially Bowie’s early albums, will quell any opposition to this theory. He was the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 cinema adaptation of Oliver Twist, & also the man who broke the fourth wall on British TV for the first time in the visionary, ground breaking 1960 comedy series The Strange World Of Gurney Slade. Like Nina Sinone’s Feelin’ Good? Newley wrote that, along with several musicals in tandem with Leslie Bricusse, including Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory in 1971. Bygraves was a hideous, Apartheid friendly old ham famous for his hugely popular Singalonga Max series of records, undoubtedly beloved by the blue rinse brigade back then, & undoubtedly, irredeemably, awful. The actor Keith Allan, working as a West End stagehand in the mid 1970’s, once joined the high kicking chorus calls at the curtain call for a Bygraves show at the Victoria Palace, totally undermining Max’s wringing the last drops of audience adulation by also being completely naked. A furious Bygraves advised him incorrectly that he would never work again, whereupon Allen decamped to a pub over the road where he was besieged with autograph requests from simultaneously shocked & delighted elderly, female audience members. For the ending alone that may have been one Bygraves performance more worthy of a visit than Anthony Newley in The Good Old Bad Old Days, by all accounts not his best work, but with a jaunty theme tune very apt for 1973, befitting so much about the era, football & all, at least as far as these eyes & ears are concerned.

Trapped in the middle of the changeover to the comprehensive system, Richie & I subsequently spent two years at Margaret Road Middle School, until then a secondary modern, & effectively a glorified holiday camp where little happened save for blowing out Mr Jackson’s bunsen burner whenever his back was turned in Science lessons, & the occasional sound of teenage boys’ balls dropping. At 13 we went to different schools. Being coerced to stick crayons up your nose or go to see The New Seekers had possibly lost its allure by then. As the years passed Richie & I saw each other less & less, the odd night in the pub aside, but it was always good to catch up with him. I visited him in hospital when he had a motorbike accident in our teens. In 1999 we bumped into each other on the coach back to Oxford after supporting opposing teams at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea winning a 4th round FA Cup Replay against Oxford United having pushed their luck as far as was humanly possible in the first game at the Manor Ground. A few years later, not having seen Richie in a couple of years, I had a random dream that I was back in my schooldays & visiting  him & his family once again. About to go through the front door at work the following day I heard a voice call out to me & there parking his car in Broad Street was Richie. In my last job he came to do some work on the telephone system & we had a chat about our 1973 Wembley trip. Confused by my stupidity in using Goal for autograph collecting purposes he kindly obtained a match programme for me 45 years after the game, assuming I had failed to buy one. A lovely gesture. I had crudely scrawled the substitution details on the centre pages of mine back in the day so another copy was still welcome. Eric sadly died in 2019, having taken to his bed for the last 10 years of his life. Given the current mess we’re in he may have had the right idea. Prior to that he had continued his half pint pub crawls deep into his 70’s, latterly staying out for longer than had been usual. Richie went looking for him one night, the puzzle of this change in pattern explained when he found Eric in The Old Tom. This is a pub I can never take entirely seriously since a friend recounted seeing mutton chopped actor Ronald Magill in there many years ago, ardently pursuing a couple of young male friends  around its confined spaces. Ronald played Amos Brearly, the irascible co-owner of The Woolpack  in Emmerdale Farm, for what seemed like forever tha knows. Ask your grannie. Eric was well away on the evening Richie found him in there, having quietly taken to adding Jagerbombs to the hitherto strictly half pint menu. No wonder it was taking him longer to find his way home. He is much missed. Richie assures me his mum is as physically robust as ever, but sadly she is now stricken by Alzheimer’s Disease, that most hideous form of dementia. Richie is currently back at home acting as her full time carer. This makes meeting up difficult, especially during the pandemic, but we have stayed in touch, & plan to have a drink together very soon.

I got home from Wembley that night & proudly offered up to my dad the pitiful presentation offered up by the signatures on my copy of Goal. He had his customary swipe at the poor handwriting of many of the players before his brow became furrowed & he looked at me quizzically prior to asking the inevitable question. ‘Why on earth didn’t you just get them to sign your programme?’ Game, set & match Richie & with my own father confirming his belief in my own idiocy another appropriate tune is evoked. It was released in 1973, & I first heard it in Richie’s bedroom on his tiny cassette player all those years ago. Memories, like idiocy, can be sweet too.

Unless they involve asking Joe Jordan for an autograph of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Play Master & Servant

Sunday January 26, 1997

Chelsea 4  Hughes (50) Zola (58) Vialli (63,76)

Liverpool 2  Fowler (10) Collymore (21)

Attendance 27,950

Two days ago Chelsea beat Luton Town 3-1 in this year’s FA Cup 4th Round, at a bleak, snowy Stamford Bridge. Fan & atmosphere free, it was a joyless, bloodless, undernourished pastiche of a real cup tie. Yesterday saw the sacking of Frank Lampard. Mr Abramovich & his boardroom lackeys may or may not recruit (& shortly after sack) better coaches in the next few years. They certainly won’t appoint anyone who understands the club & its genuine supporters better. Social media has been packed to the rafters with oddball anti-Lampard trolls during the recent barren run that all top sides have had to endure at some point in this oddest of seasons. The nadir was reached when Frank’s wife recently announced her pregnancy on Instagram. One Chelsea ‘fan’ responded by imploring her to miscarry. You can’t help but wonder if the Lampards aren’t better out of it. Vile, disembodied voices like this seem to resound & find audiences more readily than normal at present, or is it simply that the true fans cannot drown out perennial backgound malevolence by showing the appropriate trademark love for a legend like Frank Lampard at matches?

Recalling my favourite ever Chelsea game, which took place 24 years ago today, is a welcome release from the all pervading sourness around Chelsea Football Club at present, & I pity the haters, most of whom have likely never even visited Stamford Bridge, let alone enjoyed the vibrant, manic, action packed match I am about to try & describe. Reliving both the events on the pitch & the crowd reaction to those events is all the more poignant given present pandemic circumstances.

“It is only by way of pain one arrives at pleasure” – Marquis de Sade

Operation Spanner. The title of a book recalling the managerial hiring & firing policies of Roman Abramovich since 2003? No. It is actually the name of a cause celebre that reverberated around the British (& eventually European) law courts for nigh on a decade following the Greater Manchester Police being handed the first of a series of videotapes in the autumn of 1987. These contained a variety of wince inducing acts of violence committed & received by men. A nail was passed through a hole in a foreskin prior to said nail being hammered into a block of wood. Ouch. The man’s penis was then subjected to a series of cuts with a scalpel. Double ouch. Leather straps, canes & nettles were used as objects of torture, with some branding thrown in for good measure too. Hair dryers & ice cubes came into play as instruments for alternate supplies of painful hot & cold  applications to the genitals. Hot wax & ball weights were involved. Ball weights?  One man had his testicles sandpapered. Try that on me & you would definitely need to put a dust sheet down. Expecting to discover a trail of grotesquely injured & possibly dead bodies the police instead tracked down a group all steadfast in claiming all  activity was consensual. As gay men in an era when more conventional sexual practices could be a death sentence many civil liberties campaigners supported their right to evade criminal procedures for indulging their preferences, odd & unfathomable as they appeared to many others. In 1989 16 men were eventually charged with a range of offences. This at least deflected The Sun from lying about Hillsborough for a while. 8 men were eventually jailed & 3 unsuccessfully appealed to the European Court Of Human Rights around the time this match was played, a decade on from the beginning of the original investigation. Caning a man’s cock & inflicting injury, willing victim or not, was thus officially unlawful as well as an affront to the sensibilities of the guardians of social morality. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but lose the scalpel & the ball weights matey. Ball weights?

One thing still baffles me now. Other avenues of suffering existed in the mid to late 1980’s. It was  possible for grown men to inflict  pain & torment on each other, to torture themselves & watch others endure unimaginable agonies at the same time. Legally & played out in public, all for a fiver apiece. Just get yourself & your pals along to Stamford Bridge once a fortnight, where John Hollins & Ernie Walley were respectively manager & coach of Chelsea Football Club. The Operation Spanner crew may still have ended up feeling like they were serving some kind of a  sentence, albeit in an open prison, but think of the saving in hot wax & nails.

Happily, by 1997 watching Chelsea had become fun again. We all loved player-manager Ruud Gullit almost as much as he loved himself, & a cosmopolitan & flamboyant team was being constructed. Like the 1970 team it emulated when winning the FA Cup, this Chelsea team could be as infuriating & inconsistent as it was often brilliant, & unlike the sides imprisoned in the Hollins/Whalley era it was rarely dull. I am advised by people with drug knowledge that a shot of pure China White heroin is likely to be the pathway to a blissful death should you be bedridden when the moment comes. I would settle for shutting my eyes & enjoying a 25 minute rerun of the second half of this extraordinary FA Cup tie, starting with Mark Hughes opening the Chelsea scoring & concluding with Gianluca Vialli (or ‘Gianluca Of Vialli’ as John Motson excitedly mispronounces his name at one point in match commentary) heading his second & Chelsea’s fourth goal 25 minutes later. This insane, pulsating, thrilling match had everything & is undoubtedly my favourite Chelsea game of all time. It would be crass to say that this game enabled its spectatators to completely cover the waterfront of human emotional responses, but it is difficult to think of many life experiences that enables us to be aquainted with such a variety of them over such a short period of time. In the final at Wembley four months later a stunning Roberto Di Matteo strike after 43 seconds gave me one of my happiest single memories ever, but as a consequence we spent the next 89 minutes wishing for nothing but the sound of the final whistle. Imagine going to see Prince in the same era, hearing him start with a stellar version of Little Red Corvette & immediately wanting to pack up & go home after that on the grounds it can’t get better. No music fan reacts like that. Football supporters do. For an hour this Liverpool game was a tortuous, painful, bleak & embarrassing nightmare for Chelsea fans. Less than an hour later it was Liverpool fans left with the feeling that someone had just nailed their todgers to a collective block of wood. Both sets of supporters enjoyed the extreme discomfiture of the other as events unravelled. Sadomasochism was alive & well at Stamford Bridge on this chilly January day. However it was blue joy that was unconfined  as we spilled out of the Stamford Bridge forecourt to the exits, gliding across fresh layers of black ice now forming on the pavement, courtesy of countless recently deposited Liverpudlian tears.

My physical & emotional responses to this match, from several hours before kick off until the end of the day, can broadly be broken down as follows:-

  • Twitchy apprehension
  • Increasing tension & nervousness
  •  A growing sense of impending doom
  • Despondency as this pessimism increasingly seems to be justified
  • Dejection
  • Disillusionment
  • Fear of abject humiliation.
  • Anger
  • Resignation
  • Laughter in the face of adversity & opposition scorn
  • Forlorn clinging to any remaining shreds of hope
  • Cautiously embracing a heartening & unexpected lifeline
  • Simultaneous relief & delight
  • Ecstasy
  • Hyterical ecstasy
  • Euphoria

Euphoria after a football match ends usually subsides to be replaced by the need for sleep within hours. This time it survived through the rest of the day & for several days after. Roll the rollercoaster video.

 

After 27 years of much suffering I was attuned to my careworn brand of masochism, but the sadistic glee I took from seeing Liverpool fans squirm was a little surprising. Usually I responded to glorious victory by saying little or nothing to followers of the vanquished opposition, remembering how irksome their crowing had been to me on the more usual occasions that the boot had been on the other foot. Not reacting in kind threw them, giving me a moral high ground (possibly illusory) on top of the other spoils of victory, a sort of kind to be cruel tactic. Outwardly I maintained this even on this occasion but inwardly there was an additional glow. Liverpool were different, a fanbase never slow to gloat, not attuned to much on the pitch adversity themselves. I had been scoffed at enough by Liverpool fans over the years. I had earned that additional inner, glow, tinged with sadism as it was.

‘It’s so so easy being a Liverpool fan isn’t it?’ said Dave to his pal Euan, observing their victorious opponents swaggering into the Birmingham night all around them as they make their way to the car for the weary trudge home. It is April 1992 & after two matches & four hours of FA Cup Semi-Final football, during which Liverpool have never once been ahead, their team Portsmouth have finally tanked miserably in the penalty shootout at the end of this goalless Villa Park replay. Euan has flown back from Australia especially for the match. Quite possibly he may have mentioned this a few times in the intervening years. For Liverpool it’s another day at the office. Another Cup Final beckons. Doubtless they are delighted to win but their ecstasy appears to be on a vastly diminished scale to Euan & Dave’s deflation. Dave was right in the purest footballing sense, but off the pitch Liverpool as a city as well as a fanbase had plenty to contend with back then, not least the club’s presence at two of three hideous ’80’s stadium disasters. What Dave cannot be expected to know is that Liverpool’s predominant position within English football, which has lasted since the early 1970’s, is about to be put on hold for at least a quarter of a century. They will still be major players but not the biggest boys in the playground. Manchester United will win the league for the first time in 26 years the season after this game, & enjoy a spectacular twenty years of similar triumphs until Sir Alex Ferguson retires in 2013. Arsenal will be their main rivals for many of the coming years, winning the Premier League without losing a game in 2004.  I experience a similar sensation to Dave & Euan at a rain soaked Wembley Stadium Rail Station after Man Utd clinch the Double in 1994. Their fans regularly prove to be vainglorious, glib & smug in victory. Think scores of Terry Christian clones. Yeah, that unbearable. Arsenal fans are generally glib & smug anyway, it’s in the Gooner genes. When Chelsea’s turn arrives in the noughties the sense of entitlement escalates horribly & very, very quickly. Having had far more barren years than the aforementioned clubs you might expect Blues fans to have a bit more humility, but in truth it is pretty well concealed, especially in the first era of Jose Mourinho, always a man whose default standpoint of more talent than grace rarely strays far from the surface. I have gone into fan exile by then, happy that the club are thriving, but uncomfortable at the financial doping that both accompanies & fuels this success. Somebody refers to me as a foul weather fan at the time. Others see the timing of my exit from the Matthew Harding Upper as mere perversity.

Hindsight thus permits us to view the bumptiousness of Liverpool fans in the last quarter of the twentieth century with a little more tolerance. A little more. Numerous league titles & 4 European Cups in seven years would warp anyone’s perspective as well as  blowing their mind. Contending with the recent horrors of Heysel & Hillsbrough was anything but easy, unimaginably awful in fact. On the pitch failure was usually a stranger, but beneath it all their fans were not hugely different to anyone else’s. I stood on The Kop once, in 1982, a disappointing 0-0 draw against bitter enemies Man Utd. After half an hour without a goal supporters around me started getting on the back of one of their forwards,  struggling for form & goals at the time. His Name? Kenny Dalglish, quite possibly their greatest ever player. Dalglish soon returned to his brilliant best, but the speed with which terrace impatience manifested itself on the day was telling. The club’s recent renaissance under Jurgen Klopp has reminded many of us of what became unbearable all those years ago. The endless, nauseating media love & the Scouse not English, People’s Republic Of Liverpool bollocks, as if nobody else in England rejected Brexit in 2016 & a Johnson administration in 2019. This member of the electorate would doubtless be inaccurately regarded as a Chelsea Tory boy by many Merseysiders, keen to invoke negative cliches on the likes of me that they understandably resent when similarly broad & sloppy sweeps of the stereotype brush are applied to themselves. As it can be with Chelsea fans I did encounter Liverpool followers in the 1980’s through until the early ’90’s only too happy to conform to the stereotype. Dave, the emigre Scouser, who spent many a Friday afternoon & early evening in my local bemoaning that Oxford ‘wasn’t a place for a real drinking man, not like Liverpool’ while spending years living in Oxford & seemingly doing little else beyond proving that the city actually provided ample recourse for the drunken bore. Then there was the unbearable young woman I spent two days with on a course, who championed all things Liverpool & trashed all things southern constantly. It later transpired this was her first visit to the south & throughout it she never once left the site of the course, an Alan Partridge like travel tavern on the outskirts of Oxford. One late ’80’s summer night in the pub a lairy young Koppite had me pointed out as a Chelsea fan by an unhelpful & idiotic work colleague. ‘Yeah, he looks like a fuckin’ southerner’ he exclaimed, leering at me scornfully from the bar. A southern born man, living in the south, in a southern pub, looking like a southerner. Spotter’s badge Mr Einstein. Some of us wear our place of origin more lightly than others, accepting it as an accident of birth rather than something that has to define us. I must try walking into a Liverpool pub one day & trying the same routine in reverse, &  doubtless could look forward to sampling some of that much vaunted superior northern friendliness in the  process.

Football was an escape from an unhappy period at work throughout this 1996-7 season. Inconsistency, including too many home draws, & a 2-4 mugging by Wimbledon, failed to dampen my enthusiasm at being able to watch the likes of Lebouef, Petrescu, Vialli, Di Matteo & the recently arrived Gianfranco Zola weave their magic. I broke my leg in July during a kick about on an all weather pitch & spent the rest of the summer in a large plaster cast seemingly striving to ape the one sported by Oliver Hardy in the sublime County Hospital. Stan Laurel doesn’t bring me any hard boiled eggs & nuts but my first journey of any distance gets me to Stamford Bridge to see Roberto Di Matteo score the first home goal of the season in a mid-week game against Middlesbrough, Juninho, Ravanelli & all. Too embarrassed to use the lifts I struggle up & down the steps to & from my seat in the Matthew Harding Upper & arrive home exhausted as a result of this brainless act of bravado. When Frank Lebouef cancels out Andy ‘Judas’ Townsend’s opener for Aston Villa a few weeks later the false teeth of the man next to me fall out in the celebrations. As he scrambles haplessly around my oversized cast in  search of them I fear I am about to be the unwilling recipient of an accidental act of fellatio. At least he already had his teeth out.

My 6 year old nephew Nick’s remarkably accurate depiction of my broken leg incident in July 1996. He had hitched his star to Liverpool Football Club by the time the FA Cup tie in 1997 came around, & I am reliably informed that he burst into tears as Chelsea’s remarkable second half renaissance unfurled in front of his sorrowful young eyes back home on BBC1.

This one is from my friend Andy’s son Matt (scarily now older today than I was then). Following his unwise decision to support Man Utd I had given him a few old programmes from Cup Finals & games at Old Trafford over the years. I fear  ‘Sporting Hero’ may be pushing it somewhat!

Eventually returning to work I am overlooked for promotion, correctly as my rising bitterness has affected my performance & added to a growing lack of respect between myself & immediate colleagues, mutual & justified from both sides, but nothing compared to the contempt I feel for the mendacious, cowardly, & arrogant standards of management on display higher up the ladder. This is a family firm where brothers refuse to be seen in the same room as brothers. The chairman would have suited the football world to a tee. Every two or three years he makes an inappropriate high level appointment, presents them as a new messiah, swiftly tires of his new toy, or perhaps I should say tool, & then pays them a handsome lump sum to disappear prematurely into the sunset. Sound familiar? The current retail MD  has had his honeymoon period & is on the verge of being deposited into an affluent wilderness. When he  disapproves of something in my department he puts an angry note in the customer suggestion box rather than deign to speak to shopfloor guttersnipes like me. Staggeringly puerile. Other members of the management team kowtow to this weapon, displaying little respect for anyone else in the process, not least themselves. He is supposedly a ladies’ man, despite being an arrogant, socially inept dick looking like post-Roxy Music era Brian Eno on a spectacularly bad day. Minus the talent.  ‘It’s in the eyes’ says the shop manager. I suspect it’s more in the job title & wallet but can’t comment on the eyes as the  brave soldier has avoided eye contact with anyone in our department since the pathetic suggestion box fiasco. Eno does go beyond eye contact with at least one deluded female member of staff, caught in flagrante in his (doubtless deliberately) unlocked office by another member of the managerial team, a classic, cringey, paper shuffling,’I’ll Come Back Later’  No Sex Please We’re British moment. What was her name? Virginia Plain reputedly. I may have been mediocre but strangely had usually used our office to conduct book related tasks rather than turning it into a filing cabinet, paper clip & sellotape filled alternative brothel. While he is being paid an inflated salary to boost his inflated ego by inserting his inflated phallus into the lower orifices of the terminally dim, half hearted secondments are offered to me in the wake of my failed job interview. It is considered desirable to put some distance between me & the new boss in my existing department. They don’t trust me to conduct myself with enough professional decorum to assist the new incumbent on his arrival the day after the Liverpool match. They had trusted me to run the department during the massively busy Christmas period of course. Politely declining any exciting new side alleys I instead take two weeks holiday leading into the Liverpool match. I promptly go down with the flu. Happy New Year.

It is more than my traditional Eeyore fearing the worst pre-match tension that makes me fear the worst as I make my way to London on the day of the match. Liverpool are top of the league, but I am less concerned by the early season 5-1 gubbing they handed out at Anfield than our recent avenging of this defeat on New Year’s Day, courtesy of a neat, first half Roberto Di Matteo finish. A cup game shortly after a league encounter between two clubs frequently comes up with two different results. The match tickets arrive alarmingly & unusually late & are for the Matthew Harding Lower. Bill & I have largely plumped for  Upper since sitting in Lower for the first game ever in the  stand, a 1-0 home defeat to Everton in November 1994.  Being sat there fuels my superstitious side in a bad way. On taking our seats we find we are scrunched together at the back of the stand, & a decent view of most of the pitch can only be achieved by straining the head at a slightly odd angle. Claustrophobic & uncomfortable, the discomfort is soon accentuated by the first half action. Liverpool score twice at the deserted Shed End, then under reconstruction, through Robbie Fowler & Stan Collymore. They should have scored more. A well placed Fowler heads wide, Steve McManaman shoots weakly instead of squaring the ball to Fowler for an easy tap in. McManaman also dribbles a shot mere inches past Kevin Hitchcock’s right hand post. Chelsea don’t get started. The recently out of favour Gianluca Vialli neatly evades a Liverpool defender only to balloon over the bar horribly with only David James to beat. Otherwise the best effort is a long range, right foot drive by Scott Minto, & when your best effort is a long range right foot drive by your left back you know you’re in trouble. Half time comes &  0-2  is, if anything, a relief. As the teams leave the field Dennis Wise overhears John Barnes say ‘ this is easy, no problem’ to Robbie Fowler. Few could have disagreed with this appraisal of events  at that moment.

Bewitched

Scouse joy unconfined as their team leads & dominates

Half time is usually respite, sometimes a temporary life raft before an impending monsoon but at least renewed hope, however foolhardy, can be allowed to breathe & expand. Here it appears to be stifled at birth. Half times at Chelsea are dominated by the pitchside antics of Neil ‘Spy’ Barnett, a man inordinately fond of the sound of his own voice at the best of times. This is not the best of times but Neil either misreads the mood horribly or bravely invites the noisy scorn from the Liverpool fans that his fuckwitted intervention invites on this occasion. They are massed in the East Stand Lower tier, next to where Spy dispenses his traditionally smartarsed pitchside addresses. Among the usual announcements, Chelsea Pitch Owers Share purchases & the score & scorers of the youth team’s morning 6-3 win over Gillingham, he will frequently make provocative, humorous asides at the opposition fans with varying degrees of success. A former player will usually be introduced & that man today is Eric ‘Rabbit’ Parsons. It would have been ungallant to cancel this but Neil gives it the big ‘un when introducing Eric, including the fact that he was in our Championship winning team, then our ONLY Championship winning team, back in 1955 no less. Liverpool have won 18 Division 1 titles at this point. Had we known there would be no advance on this until 2020, during which Chelsea would win the league 5 times, Neil’s unveiling of dear old Eric might not have tickled Scouse funny bones as much as it did. Clearly nobody did know this, so Neil bigging up our sole title win in front of a fanbase with 17 more of the same was staggeringly ill judged. Barnett could have done the introduction in a more understated way & kept all the same information in the process, but Neil doesn’t do understated, so there is a dramatic sweep leading to Eric’s pitch entrance. ‘He’s 73 now’ he bellows & on hobbles the former winger, now on a walking stick. Cheers Spy. Scouse glee knows no bounds. In all honesty you can’t blame them but at this moment I don’t want to live this life anymore (a reminder at this point that this is my favourite Chelsea match ever!).

Barnett’s love of the spotlight has seamlessly played into opposition hands & our misery appears all but complete. Despair turns to rage for Bill as Barnett continues to crap on rather than slink away like any normal person with a semblance of humility would do after opening a 73 year old man up to quite unwarranted ridicule. I want everything to stop, the game to be cancelled, to call it quits & slink back home. The thing Bill most wants to stop is Neil Barnett. ‘What are we getting next, a fucking meat draw’ he shouts in frustrated fury as Spy’s self absorbed waffle continues unabated.  I need this. Nobody else but me responds in any way or laughs. Bill is apolplectic. The combination of his rage & the absurdity of this entire interlude transfers me from a state of despair to one of helpless laughter. For the first time all afternoon I am, perversely, beginning to enjoy myself. Years later we go to a 3rd round FA Cup tie at Watford & they actually DO have a half time meat draw on the pitch. Fortunately Neil Barnett is unavailable for comment. We’ve heard quite enough from Neil by then.

Minto is replaced at half time as Ruud rolls the dice & puts Mark Hughes up alongside Vialli. Sparky is a famously rugged & spiteful physical presence &  Norwegian defender Bjorn Kvarme, Liverpool’s newest signing, is about to experience a 45 minute footballing hurricane his Anfield career never really recovers from. Hughes has form against Liverpool from his glory years at Old Trafford. I can even remember a loud radio commentary reporting him scoring as I waited to board a packed post-match tube train back to Victoria at Fulham Broadway late one Wednesday evening. We cheered the goal. Cheering a Man Utd goal was rare, cheering a goal scored against Liverpool less so. Alongside Kvarme in the Liverpool defence is England’s Mark Wright, who went to school in Oxford a few hundred yards away from where I am typing this. Dominic Matteo is also in the centre of the Liverpool rearguard, with Stig Inge Bjornebye at left back & Republic of Ireland international Jason McAteer at right back. McAteer is the star of a shampoo advert for Wash & Go around this time. He is a perfectly pleasant looking man, but I am led to believe this is a prime time for  handsome footballers, Davids Beckham & Ginola to the fore. In this match alone there is the aforementioned Scott Minto & Jason’s pretty boy colleagues Patrik Berger & Jamie Redknapp. You suspect the big cheese at Wash & Go settled on Jason after a flurry of rejections, but fair play to him anyway, a decent player who seems like a good lad & shares my healthy dislike of Roy Keane to this day, not least his confirmation that the eccenticities & perversity of the latter’s wildly overrated punditry are a carefully contrived & bogus construction.

Hughes arrival sparks a turnaround in fortunes so dramatic that McAteer’s shiny haired head will be spinning by the final whistle, Kvarme will already be pining for the fjords & John Barnes will be choking on his half time complacency. Five minutes after the restart Hughes chests down a Steve Clarke cross on the edge of the box, holds off the advances of Wright & Kvarme with ease, & hits a low right foot shot past James. The start of something good, a partial saving of face, or the tail tweak incurring the wrath of the beast that had all but devoured our cup hopes in the first half? It takes eight minutes for the moment in the game that swings momentum inexorably towards the first & most pleasing of these alternatives. A Chelsea move finds them on  the edge of the Liverpool penalty area once again, the ball breaks untidily & Hughes emphatically overcomes John Barnes in working the ball back to Zola using what looks like a full, menacing set of studs in the process. The stunning, powerful left foot drive that follows dips & swerves as it passes the helpless James & roars into the top left hand corner of the net. 2-2! Bedlam!! I don’t buy into the big happy football family fan myth. Frequently I feel alone in the crowd at Chelsea, adrift from the general mood & linked only by an entirely illogical affinity for the same 11 men out on the pitch, who equally I share little else in common with. The beauty of moments like the Zola equalizer is that all that melancholy introspection evaporates, at that moment you really are one. Everyone, regardless of race, gender, political persuasion or relative wealth, is consumed by it. The Hughes goal brought hope & kept the tie alive. Zola’s gem is on another level. Gianfranco has only been in the country for 2 months but had already cemented himself in every Chelsea fan’s affections. The man was a delight & already had his own song, the first (& best) of several over his 7 year stint at Stamford Bridge, an amendment of an old Ray Davies classic. Zola. La la la la Zola.

Bothered

Tight lips & folded arms abound as half time Liverpudlian smugness evaporates in the London mist

Liverpool are stunned. I don’t know it at the time but they have not surrendered a two goal lead in nigh on 33 years, when Blackburrn Rovers beat them 3-2 at Ewood Park in August 1964. The atmosphere is now electric in all areas bar the lower tier of the East Stand. From the depths of despair less than 10 minutes before hope now springs eternal. Perversely the joy is more intense for the suffering endured in the previous hour. Like losing your wallet & after a sweat drenched, panicky search finding it in the last place you look, in my case traditionally entangled in the laundry basket among the grubby t-shirts & Calvin Kleins. The difference here is that you are with more than 20,000 people reacting with similar joy & relief.

The cramped seating  & crooked neck are irrelevant now. All 6 goals are scored at the other end of the ground, populated only by advertising hoarding obscuring the rubble where The Shed had once stood. I don’t have the greatest view but it’s good enough to witness all the vital action. The West Stand to my right, itself to be replaced & demolished at the end of this season, is rocking. Even the staider areas of the East Stand, the middle & upper tiers, the posh seats, seem to have been taken over by the growing hysteria. Five minutes after Zola’s goal  Chelsea take the lead, a clever slide rule pass from Dan Petrescu wrongfooting the Liverpool defence & putting in Vialli for a one on one with David James. Luca wins, flicking the ball past James with the outside of his right foot, & all around is now gleeful chaos, save for the now static, stunned, punch drunk away following. Their numbness is clear, so swift & unfathomable has been the change in fortunes for their team, so masterful a mere half an hour earlier. Like we care. The wallet has not only been retrieved intact but closer inspection now reveals that the 1967 incarnation of Brigitte Bardot has slipped her phone number into one of its inner pockets on the back of a Gauloises fag packet. These days Luca’s goal would be put on hold pending a monstrous, life sapping VAR offside check, starving the moment of it breathless, urgent, electric flow. During the home game against Derby the previous week  Dennis Wise had celebrated his goal by running up to Vialli on the subs bench & ripping off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt bearing the amatuerish but heartfelt marker pen message Cheer up Luca we love you. The love was all around him now. The deft movement to elude the opposition defence was peak Vialli, a perfect foil to Hughes. His blunderbuss strike partner has instilled the traditional fear & loathing in his opponents which has paved the way for this devastating turnaround.

Bewildered

Man up & face the camera ponytail

Face the camera ponytail! The rest of us regularly get to feel like this.

Logic should ensure a sense of sobriety at this point, foreboding at what this Liverpool team can conjure up. They pile on the pressure at times during the rest of the match, & Kevin Hitchcock’s goal survives a few scares. However, football at both its best & worst frequently shows contempt for logic & I would guess very few people at this match deflected from this doomy old twat’s instincts that this was now Chelsea’s day. A team that had looked like piling up a cricket score in the first half could probably have stayed  on the pitch until the following day & not scored again now. It has been decreed, God only knows by who. James makes a fine save from a long range Di Matteo shot but the next goal, 12 minutes after the last, also goes to Chelsea. From wide on the right Zola floats a lovely inswinging free kick across the Liverpool goalmouth. Vialli meets it & powers a header into the net, virtually unchallenged by a defence that would probably have cleared the ball without blinking in the first half. Vialli’s second goal heralds the sudden arrival of 25,000 people into football heaven, 25,000 people who less than half an hour ago had foreseen a forthcoming week wearing ear plugs & averting the eye of every rival fan on the planet. For the first time in 33 years Liverpool have blown a 2 goal lead & they know it. Hands clasped despairingly to the sides of the head is their template in the aftermath of this goal, on & off the pitch. One exception is Mark Wright, one hand on each hip as he stands forlornly, staring into space, looking for all the world like a man who has just had his balls sandpapered red raw. The game is up. And over. I doubt that Rabbit Parsons was ever familiar with the ode to S&M that is the Velvet Underground’s masterly Venus In Furs. It’s a shame, because in an ideal world Eric would now have applied fresh dubbin to his 1955 shiny shiny boots of leather, thrown his walking stick into the Liverpool end & made a late, glorious comeback, rolling back the years & leaving the dandruff free head of Jason McAteer for dead with a pinpoint cross onto Viall’s gleaming head for the Italian’s hat trick. I suppose you can’t have everything.

Beaten

Nice to see Lily Savage putting in an appearance

Dry your eyes la

Chelsea went on to win the FA Cup & break their 26 year trophy drought, a mere fortnight after 18 years Of Tory rule had been ended with a landslide Labour election victory on May 3rd. Less than 3 weeks after the big day at Wembley I watched England bowl out Australia for 118 on the first day of the Ashes series at Edbaston. England won the Test handsomely. Things were going swimmingly but Australia soon hit back & won the series comfortably in the end. My penchant  for repeatedly backing the winning team had only lasted a month or so but it was great while it lasted. Liverpool finished 4th in the Premier League. The League Cup in 1995 would be their last silverware of the millenium. I am not sure this was ultimately such a terrible thing, not for their followers & certainly not for the rest of us. Taking success for granted may have been an inevitable consequence of their most golden of years but this was a fanbase so unused to failure that recalibration through an enhanced sense of perspective was long overdue. Unlike those poor birds, the Grey Landes goose & the Barbary and  Mulard ducks, hideously force fed corn and fat through a tube to unnaturally enlarge their liver so that gluttenous fools can eat foie gras, the liver of the liver bird had been engorged via a similarly ceaseless diet of glory & silverware. In 1997 I craved a taste of success, not an endless stream. Had I been offered a Faustian pact at the final whistle of this magnificent match, whereby Chelsea would win the 1997 FA Cup & nothing else again in my lifetime, I would probably have taken it. Had it been offered at half time, at 2-0 down, with only Neil Barnett’s ego, Eric Parson’s walking stick & Liverpool laughter for company, I would have bitten the devil’s hand off. As it was I enjoyed more triumphs at home & abroad before I stopped going in 2004 & walking away then ensured I never got the advanced sense of entitlement, & eventually ennui, that afflicted some Chelsea fans when the ruthless, relentless pursuit of glory began in earnest during the Mourinho years. As for Liverpool, they had to wait 30 years for a league title, but still managed to accumulate trophies in a manner that remained the envy of many. There was a domestic & European treble in 2001 & the small matter of two more Champions League victories, one achieved from a half time position of three goals down against AC Milan in 2005. Liverpool are a great team again now. Humility still appears to have often eluded them in the meantime, but pulling their trousers down in 1997 is still a thrill that lingers, & offered a sharp reminder to their supporters of the realities of fandom that came with the territory for most of us during those 25 years that they imperiously strutted through the football grounds of Britain & Europe. For Chelsea this was one of a handful of games that were giant steps across the bridge between the old days & the Chelsea of today, a half great team, in a half finished stadium, offering a glimpse of the potential this club had. Standing on that bridge was an enormous thrill even if I failed to make it all the way across to the other side. Would I swap the memories of this match for a seat at Bolton in 2005 or Munich in 2012? Scoff if you like but I think the answer is no. We all have our time & this was mine. I’m back watching Chelsea now anyway, happy that merely spending money doesn’t even guarantee a place in the top 4 these days, let alone a league title, though only too aware that the finances of football remain horribly skewered in favour of the big teams.

Returning to a job after two weeks off is usually difficult, not least when your work colleagues & managers have thumbed their collective noses at your abilities & made it clear your presence is no longer welcome. No matter. I floated into work the following day. The first thing my new boss did after shaking my hand was congratulate me on the epic events of the previous day. Adam was a Geordie & consequently a fan of the Toon. No distance between us was required after all. He only stayed a year or so, but we worked well together & I can’t remember a single cross word being exchanged between us during this time, though his partner objected to my polishing off a full bag of chocolate footballs she had left in our office for him prior to luring him away for an extremely long coffee break. Like Sparky, Gianfranco & Luca I saw the chance & took it. No big deal anyway, there was never a chance that the sandpaper & ball weights would come out.

Ball weights?