The Fan Who Wasn’t There

 

7th January 1978

FA Cup Round 3

 Chelsea 4 Liverpool 2

Football Combination

Oxford United Reserves 0 Chelsea Reserves 2

We all know someone like it don’t we? The friend who claims to have had  walk on parts in iconic moments in  history, like a sporting version of Woody Allen in ‘Zelig’. Prone to delusion & fantasy when it comes to recounting their presence at those special moments for their team. The further away from the moment, the greater the exaggeration becomes, allied to the inevitable tangle between fact & our declining memories of what was actually seen or done. I once worked with a serial fantasist who was also my boss. When somebody commented favourably on his playing of ‘Abbey Road’ by The Beatles in his car he smiled proudly & stated boldly ‘yes, they played all of it when I saw them live.’ Impressive stuff given that the Fab Four played their last concert in 1966 & ‘Abbey Road’ was released in 1969. He once claimed to have seen his team (not Chelsea) lose a midweek League Cup tie at Old Trafford despite having been spotted leaving work at 6.30 that evening. In Oxford. Perhaps Concorde was on standby. Doubtless he saw Botham flaying The Aussies at Headingley in 1981, sat next to Blair & Brown as they thrashed out their unholy alliance at The Granita Restaurant in 1994, & can solve the puzzle of what happened to Lord Lucan, apart from the four months we know he spent partnering Alan Mayes in the Chelsea frontline in the early part of 1981.

Chelsea fans of a certain vintage are perverse creatures though, so it is often the more tortured & dismal experience that gets woven into the personal history. Those over 50 are as likely to boast about being in the dispirited few at Rotherham, during the 6-0 drubbing handed out to their team in 1981, as they are about being in the happy throng in Munich on May 19 2012. Some of them will even be telling the truth.

Those that do fib are, I think, missing a trick because some of my favourite, quirkier Chelsea memories relate to things I was doing while not at a match. Mock duelling with plastic swords in Selfridge’s with a mate (who would later become my regular Stamford Bridge companion) as Eddie McCreadie’s brave experiment with youth came unstuck at The Battle Of White Hart Lane in 1975. Dancing deliriously round the empty Fray Bentos tins, filthy coffee mugs & discarded Marlboro fag butts in my student hovel as Ron Gubba on ‘Sport on 2’ announced that Clive Walker had scored THAT goal at Burnden Park in 1983. Getting a letter with match reports from my Millwall supporting grandfather when staying with relatives in Omaha, Nebraska in 1976, to find that Steve Finnieston had scored a late winner at Orient on the opening day of the season. For what it’s worth I never made it to either Rotherham or Munich, watching Blyth Spartans play Scarborough for the former & viewing the latter at home on my own, bathed in a warm glow, assisted by a blessed combination of Drogba’s header, missed German penalties, red wine &, ultimately, champagne, stored from a significant birthday the month before.

Coming from Oxford marks me as the original tourist I guess, my nose perennially pressed against the West London glass, Chelsea & Stamford Bridge the focal point. My first ever trip to Stamford Bridge was for a 4th Round FA Cup tie against Burnley in January 1970. Three months later Chelsea beat Leeds to win their first ever FA Cup. I had just had my 8th birthday & my newly adopted football team & I were invincible. Or so it seemed. The Peters Osgood & Bonetti were off to Mexico to defend the World Cup with England. What could possibly go wrong? The rude awakenings began that summer, & the illusion was further destroyed  by a 3-0 home defeat to Man City in the following season’s FA Cup. I reacted to this setback by bursting into tears & throwing the mother of all tantrums, disappearing up to my bedroom & ripping up any football cards in my collection featuring the Maine Road club’s players. The tattered remnants of Booth, Lee, Bell, Doyle, Oakes & co & all over the floor did not reverse the result sadly, the first signpost to the long, slow, painful road to realization of what being a Chelsea fan through the rest of the ‘70’s would be like.

‘Chelsea are shit.’  It is the late ‘70’s & my chief tormentor at school regularly taunts me with this mantra during Art lessons. He is clearly delighted to impart me with this knowledge, & delivers it regularly. He is an armchair Liverpool fan, a harrowing gig given that his team are the current English & European champions.  By 1978 I can recall Chelsea fans at our school on the fingers of one hand. There are a couple of harder lads who don’t show that much interest but clearly enjoy the fan’s reputation as a fighting firm of repute. The most notable supporter is another classmate, Nick Bradley. He has a Season Ticket with his father near the tunnel in the new East Stand. They take me to loads of games during the brilliant 1976-7 promotion season, including a Boxing Day win over Fulham with 55,00 others & a crucial, if fortuitous, late season win over Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Being near the tunnel we get a bird’s eye view of George Best flicking the V’s at the ref after the Fulham game, which later leads to the future Chelsea resident denying a disrepute charge in one of his many appearances before an FA disciplinary tribunal. You did it George, you impossibly handsome old rascal. The Easter period that season takes us to 3 Chelsea matches in 4 days, & after a Best inspired Good Friday morning defeat  at Craven Cottage I also manage to get back to Oxford in time to watch a goalless draw with hated rivals Swindon Town. Mr Bradley was a mix of Trilby doffing chivalry & volatile excitability, the latter especially to the fore when steaming along the A40 towards London at the wheel of his Morris Minor. He may have been a stranger to political correctness, like most of us in the ‘70’s, but he got me to some of the most treasured games in my football watching life & I can never thank him or Nick enough for that.  At school we also have one notable alumni from the school with a Chelsea link. I had watched him for the Oxford Schools Under 15 team in the early ‘70’s, a quite brilliant centre forward with a substantial blond mane. The English Schools trophy was a big deal in the early 1970’s & in 1972 the brilliance of this player took Oxford all the way to the final. One goal, which memory serves me as being, appropriately enough, against Liverpool Boys, was a sublime, long-range, dipping left foot shot which flew into the goal at Oxford’s Cuckoo Lane End. Clive Walker was comfortably the most talented schoolboy footballer I have ever seen.

None of this is of any interest to my tormentor. I am a soft target. An open goal. A football geek, neither cool, hard or witty enough to respond to his abuse. But I continue to nail my colours to a failing, footballing mast because I do have qualities which my tormentor & his ilk can neither erode, or truly understand, & which all true fans must display at various times. I am both extremely loyal & extremely stubborn. Living in Oxford & supporting Chelsea as a 15-year-old schoolboy is a challenge. The fair weather 1970 cup winning glory seekers have long since departed, some ill-mannered enough to defect to Bertie Mee’s drearily efficient Arsenal in the wake of their double winning season barely a year later. There follows a steady trickle towards the likes of West Ham, Derby, Man Utd or Liverpool. Those who had taken up with Leeds at the beginning of the decade tended to stick with them as they clogged (& allegedly bribed) their way through the Revie years, moving to  calmer waters later in the decade via the considerably more avuncular managerial style of pipe smoking Jimmy Armfield. I haven’t budged since 1970. Despite relegation, a 7-1 drubbing at Wolves in 1975 & various cup embarrassments, the die has long been cast. In 1972 a 2 goal lead at Orient is frittered away & the FA Cup is exited, followed a week later by defeat to Stoke City in the League Cup Final. Only the release of ‘Blue Is The Colour’ alleviates the gloom. Tired of my pleading, one Friday afternoon my mother hands me an envelope full of pennies & 50 pence worth are swiftly deposited on the record counter of the nearest WH Smith, to my delight & the bemusement & irritation of their staff. I run around the corner to my Uncle Tony’s house to find he has recently installed a  jukebox in his kitchen. He indulges me & ‘Blue Is The Colour’ blares out. Love is evidently deaf as well as blind as I unreservedly adore it to this day. Following George Eastham’s late winner for Stoke I go up for a bath & come down wearing my Chelsea kit. My mum laughs at this crude but heartfelt statement of intent. There will never be a defection to Arsenal or Liverpool. Or Leeds. Dirty Leeds.

Having already been beaten by Liverpool in The League Cup Chelsea, almost inevitably, draw them again in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup during the 1977-8 season. The FA Cup Draw always invokes memories of this era, when the greatest & oldest club knockout tournament of all was still regarded with a genuine & appropriate degree of reverence & excitement by participants & supporters alike. In the early ‘70’s, the draw would take place on a Monday lunchtime on Radio 2. News of this would work its way round the playground via the kids who went home for their lunch. Failing that the stop press of the local evening paper would usually fill in the gaps. By the mid ‘70’s though the draw was taking place on BBC1 on Saturday tea time, usually overseen by then FA secretary Ted Croker (Eric Dier’s grandad no less) with various luminaries within the footballing hierarchy drawing out the balls from the velvet bag. These old duffers are generally composed of a selection of the self-made businessmen & Old Etonian establishment types who alternatively administered the game or ran football clubs. Newcastle United’s Lord Westwood, with his eye patch, was one regular. Sam Bolton, chairman of Leeds United, was another. My possibly jaundiced memory (he was chairman of Leeds United, is further comment required?) is of him being codger most inclined to clumsily drop the balls loudly onto the studio floor, not an uncommon occurrence given the average age rarely dropped below 90, or so it seemed to my teenage self. On one occasion the draw was halted due to one team being given two separate opponents in the same round. The amateurish nature of the proceedings contrasted hilariously with the po-faced, Politburo like solemnity in which the participants conducted themselves through this endearing shambles. They should probably have got contestants from ‘Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game’ to do it instead, our Brucie being a somewhat slicker compere of light entertainment than dear old Ted Croker. It wouldn’t have been as funny had it been deliberately played for laughs though.

Following the draw my tormentor’s smirk becomes an even more common sight. He doesn’t for one second imagine that Chelsea will beat Liverpool in the FA Cup. Only the romantic streak that lurks within every fan permits me to dream it will happen. I don’t get a ticket for the game, so will have to settle for walking a mile down the road to watch the reserves in action at Oxford. My visits to Chelsea are sporadic until Nick & his dad come to my rescue, so Oxford’s Manor Ground is a second home for me & I go with my dad, uncle & cousins to most home games. After a meteoric rise from Non-League they survive 8 seasons (1968-76) in what is now known as The Championship, then known by its correct name of Division 2. This survival is largely based on a solid defence with two good centre halves, Colin Clarke & Welsh international Dave Roberts, both notable performers, along with full back & occasional makeshift striker John Shuker. Things looked up with the arrival of Hugh Curran from Wolves in 1972, already struggling to pass medicals but a terrific centre forward. He adds much-needed flair & star quality to an otherwise humdrum attack, previously led by the sturdy figure of Nigel Cassidy, whose moderate abilities & unspectacular scoring record do scant justice to his charismatic on pitch persona & magnificent Zapata moustache. Cassidy came from Scunthorpe & local legend has it that Oxford had to choose between him & the other leading light in the Scunthorpe attack. They passed over him for Nigel. Chap by the name of Kevin Keegan. They had also had stalwart service from the Atkinson brothers. Ron AKA ‘The Tank’ with his heavily Wintergreened thighs & impossibly tight shorts, is a commanding midfield presence. His brother Graham is a more gifted, if less robust, figure with a decent eye for goal. Oxford may often have lacked flair in this era but they don’t want for characters. Two goalkeepers spring to mind, the ungainly but deceptively agile Roy Burton who was a magnificent shot stopper but less adept at keeping his shorts in place, leading to an unwelcome propensity to regularly display his arse to the crowd, like some ‘70’s footballing equivalent of Kim Kardashian. His understudy for several seasons is a former Portsmouth regular called John Milkins, otherwise called Dracula, not, in line with the oft-repeated goalkeeping joke, because of a fear of crosses, but because of his unfashionable, heavily Brylcreemed, jet black hair. The nickname was rather undermined by the absence of front teeth however. The Dracula theme spilled over to the Osler Road terrace where another Transylvanian lookalike, who strangely I only ever noticed at night games, would stand immaculately dressed in raincoat, collar & tie, with a wooden handled black umbrella & only ever be heard to utter one word, loudly & regularly. ‘Wankers!’ The golden days of terrace wit? Possibly not.

Ron Atkinson

The schoolboy exploits of Clive Walker aside, there was not much cross pollination between the two clubs in my formative football going years, although I vividly remember running on to the Manor Ground pitch in my Parka & Winfield (Woolworth’s own brand) trainers to get Peter Bonetti’s autograph at an end of season reserve game, incurring the displeasure of stooped, curmudgeonly Oxford groundsman Les Bateman, rightly proud as he was of the playing surface he had created, a veritable bowls green compared to the threadbare, glorified sand pits that personified most club’s pitches from October onward in that era. Peter had lost his first team place to the late John ‘Sticks’ Phillips at the time, a player who spent most of that decade at Stamford Bridge. John had contributed admirably to the 1971 European triumph, most notably in the away leg at Bruges, but I largely remember him for two things unrelated to his talent, namely having his face kicked in by Tommy Taylor at Upton Park (Tommy Langley went in goal & a 1-0 lead turned into a 3-1 defeat) & his contribution to the programme player profiles in the 1973-4 season. That season’s player questionnaire included each player being given the chance to tell us one thing they would do if they ruled the world. John spurned the chance to end world poverty or ban the bomb, plumping instead for topless bathing to be allowed in Britain. You’ve got to have a dream. It could have been worse. Midfielder Steve Kember wanted to bring back hanging. Sensible policies for a happier Britain eh Steve?  Peter Bonetti, gentleman that he was, signed this pre-pubescent scruffbag’s autograph book readily. A player of his stature must have hated playing reserve team football, & given that he had to listen to every gobshite in England reminding him of the 1970 World Cup & his overstated role in England’s demise, these sparsely attended affairs must have been especially painful, with every jibe audible. He rose above it like the classy & dignified man he is, being a better person than all his detractors, & better at his job than any of them as well.

In 1973, two Chelsea stars play for Oxford in Graham Atkinson’s testimonial against Coventry City, Peter Osgood & Alan Hudson being enrolled as guest players for the night. Whether they or an agent on their behalf had requested it I know not, but they were given separate changing facilities from the other players. They entered Oxford’s compact ground along the narrow alley way that led to the changing rooms, Hudson wearing a huge lapelled floral shirt seemingly unbuttoned  down to his naval, with a sizeable medallion around his neck. He looked like a West Coast rock star, not that I knew what one looked like in 1973.They were ushered to what can only be described as a large shed, probably because it was a large shed, presumably host to the curmudgeonly groundsman’s mower. Nobody had managed to get an autograph but my friend Richard lived a few doors away from an Oxford apprentice called Keith Baker. He had been in the same Oxford Boys team as Clive Walker & both had played for England schoolboys, alongside Walker’s future teammates Ray Wilkins & John Sparrow. As luck would have it Keith had been given the job of attending to the needs of our two heroes, so Richard collared him by the doorway to the luxury changing room/shed & we became the only people to acquire the  coveted signatures. Aside from that all I can recall is that after they had changed, two luridly coloured pairs of those revolting nylon underpants worn by all of us in that era could be viewed hanging up on two hooks through the window of the shed. The male pant world had only recently exploded into colour after a strict, white Y front only formality during my early years. Indeed, the first time my mother had produced a new pair for me that went against type, a conservative pale blue pair, I had burst into tears thinking it was an attempt to transform me into a girl. My sister was at this match & I asked her later if she had met Osgood & Hudson. ‘No’, she replied, ‘but I did see their pants.’  Must have been a hell of a game. Keith Baker sadly died a few years ago, & played just one league game, in a loan spell at Grimsby Town, during his career, the transition from schoolboy star to established professional not always being as seamless as the likes of Wilkins & Walker made it look.

A couple of years after this the clubs were in the same division, albeit for one season only. Chelsea’s first match at Oxford was not rendered memorable for Bill Garner’s goal in a 1-1 draw, or even Ron Harris’s late thunderous drive against the hosts crossbar, but for some traditional mid ‘70’s aggro in the London Road end after Mick Tait’s equalizer for Oxford, followed by Chelsea fans throwing a bike through the windows of ‘Shergolds’, the local ironmongers at the end of the game, reputedly  the most controversial thing to happen in Headington since one time local resident C.S. Lewis went mad one night on completing ‘The Chronicles Of Narnia’ &  had that dangerous third half in one of the local hostelries. Peter Houseman played a starring role for Oxford in that game. He had left Chelsea at the end of the previous season, part of Eddie McCreadie’s clearing out of the old guard, much-loved cup winning colleagues John Hollins & Tommy Baldwin also having exited stage left. His ill-fated spell at Oxford ended in tragedy a year later after a home game against Crystal Palace, when he, his wife Sally & their two friends were killed in a car crash, caused by a ‘reckless’ driver whose insane exploits at the wheel, travelling between 90-100 mph in his Maserati in an accident black spot, left 6 children without parents. Consequently, there were two benefit matches, one at Stamford Bridge between the current Chelsea team & the 1970 FA Cup winning team, & one between Oxford & Chelsea at the Manor Ground. I attended both, going with Nick & his dad to the first game, & still feel bad at how annoyed we were that the late Alan Ball played for Chelsea in Peter Houseman’s place that night. It was a patently decent gesture on his part & he also valiantly defended Peter Bonetti in a documentary about the 1970 World Cup many years later, when other members of that squad were happily sticking the boot in. Top man. On a personal note there was a sad postscript to this saddest of events when I went to a cricket awards dinner the following winter as a callow youth to discover that the drunken, posh prat heckling the speeches, a man called Barty, was in fact the driver of the car that had killed the Housemans & their friends. He had been banned for driving for 10 years & fined £4,00 but escaped prison & a conviction for drink driving despite smelling heavily of alcohol, & the court being told by the doctor that had examined him that he was convinced he was intoxicated. Doubtless he had a heavy burden to carry, regardless of the sentence meted out, but being the son of a Tory MP probably came in handy, & his presence & behaviour at that dinner remains one of the more dismal experiences of my life.

There is a growing sense of trepidation as the Liverpool tie beckons, & not without reason. Our opponents are the best team in Europe. Chelsea are broke, nearly four years on from their last forays into the transfer market in the summer of 1974 (David Hay & John Sissons) & six months away from the next, the less than earth shattering signing of goalkeeper Bob Isles from Weymouth for £10,000. Roman Abramovich is 12 years old. The club is in huge debt to creditors after overstretching their finances to build the East Stand. In echoes of the role played by Trevor Birch during the early part of this century, the most newsworthy activity at  Chelsea is  often centred around a man called Martin Spencer, the club accountant. After the 1976-7 promotion winning campaign with a youthful squad managed by Eddie McCreadie, the following season had started slowly. There was a very simple explanation for this beyond the club’s arse hanging out of its threadbare trousers. On July 1st a national outpouring of joy erupted during Jubilee year when perennial nearly woman tennis player Virginia Wade finally won a Wimbledon title. I had avoided this open invitation to communal nausea by disappearing off to play cricket with my cousins, only to return home to less joyous news, imparted as soon as I got through the door. ‘Eddie McCreadie’s resigned’ said my dad, looking up from his decorating. It was true. Devastating. In a row over a car reputedly. To say the summer ended there would be a trifle melodramatic but the winter promised to be a long one.

The following season had indeed been a struggle to begin with, but in the aftermath of the cup draw Chelsea had at last roused themselves into a decent run of form. A 3-1 away win at Wolves had been followed up over Christmas with wins over West Ham and Birmingham, the latter a 5-4 away victory that their manager, a certain Sir Alf Ramsey, described as being ‘like Fred Karno’s Army.’  Any New Year’s disappointment I felt at a dropped point (still only 2 for a win in 1978) at home to a very decent WBA side was partly atoned for by the brilliantly pissed match updates on ‘Sport on 2 ‘  by the late, great Geoffrey Green, who had clearly had more than one or two more for the road the night before. The level of inebriated incoherence emanating from this notable man of sporting words reached such a level that I fear my radio would have failed the breathalyzer simply for transmitting his post-match summary. Drunk in charge of a journalist’s voice.

My cousins go with me to the reserve game. I am 3 months away from my 16th birthday so don’t share their wish to collect autographs after the game. Evidently I am too cool for autographs. It is the only thing I am too cool for. In my brown, hand me down anorak & flares it is fair to say that they aren’t queuing up at the door. The anorak has a Chelsea patch on the sleeve, which helps to deflect from the damage elsewhere on its arms, caused by kindly classmates daubing it with sulphuric acid during one of Mr Bailey’s interminably dull Chemistry classes. I carry a radio which is too big to fit in my pockets, but if things are going badly at Stamford Bridge I want to be the first to know and not hear the news bellowing out via a third-party, as had happened during the 7-1 fiasco at Wolves in 1975. Punk is something that has happened to others, but it will not hit me for another six months when ‘Hong Kong Garden’ by Siouxsie & The Banshees is released, my life is transformed, & John Peel becomes a more significant figure in my life than John Motson. In truth, it is not a stellar Chelsea line up at Oxford on this day for the autograph hunter. The season before had seen a forward line of Bill Garner, Tommy Langley, our not so old friend Clive Walker & (returning from injury) that season’s top scorer Steve Finnieston rip a hapless Oxford defence apart en route to winning that year’s Football Combination. Digging out an old home programme containing the match details at Oxford in 1978 causes some head scratching. John Dempsey’s name appears & I have no memory whatsoever of him playing. This is strange, because he was a significant figure at Chelsea in the 1970’s. He had played in both epic FA Cup Final matches against Leeds in 1970, & scored a magnificent volley in the Cup Winners Cup Final win over Real Madrid the following season. This belter rarely gets a mention strangely, presumably because it wasn’t scored by Peter Osgood. By 1978 his first team days have been behind him for a couple of years, along with his remarkable recent attempts at staving off the effects of male pattern baldness. From about 1975 the results of this have seen the development of an absurd & unruly thatch of comb over madness, resulting in a bizarre combination akin to music hall comedian Max Wall colliding with an angry 70’s militant feminist. John disappears off to the USA shortly after this match to see out the rest of his career & I can only believe that the barnet had been attended to if he was marshalling the defence at Oxford that day. Otherwise It would have been far more memorable than the match. Only two other players had been near the first team at that point, midfielder Brian Bason & a personal favourite of mine, right back Gary Locke, a cultured full back unlucky enough to break into the first team when it was in decline & leave it before the renaissance under John Neal had really taken off. Lee Frost was up front & was to have a few moments in the sun a couple of seasons later, most notably a hat trick in a 7-3 win at Orient, before being shipped off to Brentford along with the unfortunate Gary Johnson, who did not feature on this day. The late David Stride was at left back & I was to see him endure a torrid first team début at St Andrews later that year at the hands of a winger called Steve Fox. With hindsight the most significant name on the team sheet, also to make his first team debut later that year, was that of John Bumstead, now rightly seen as one of the great Chelsea servants, with a decade or more of blood, sweat, tears & great diving headers to come, on this day just another name among the rest in the line-up, some of whom who never quite make it. These include a Wilkins brother who is neither Ray the artist or Graham the artisan (in Gary Locke’s berth at Stamford Bridge for the Liverpool match) but Steven, an aspirant midfielder in his brother’s mould. There is also a chirpy, auburn haired goalkeeper by the name of Bradley. Brother Ray is injured for the Liverpool game & this is of concern. Those of us who had the pleasure of seeing Wilkins play for Chelsea remember a player of style, flair & vision, scoring sublime goals & spraying long distance passes with aplomb. This is at odds with the received wisdom from certain quarters who should know better, among them the sad, bitter churl that is Alan Hudson, self-appointed head denigrator of all things Chelsea since 1974. Our old friend Ron Atkinson didn’t help. Having swapped the Wintergreen of his playing days for Ambre Solaire & dodgy shades he called Wilkins ‘The Crab’ referring to Ray’s habit of passing sideways, having inherited him when taking over from Dave Sexton as Man Utd manager in 1981. It was extraordinary cheek on Atkinson’s part. In 1982 I stood on The Kop (?!) & watched Wilkins play for Atkinson at Anfield, holding the fort selflessly while Bryan Robson rampaged up & down the pitch to no discernible effect. Another midfielder, Arnold Muhren, spent the entire 90 minutes hugging the left touch-line 10 yards either side of the halfway line. You would imagine a manager would appreciate a huge talent working his arse off to liberate teammates, but Big Ron would fail to hold his tongue to far more spectacularly disastrous effect many years later, ironically a Chelsea player once again being disparaged, albeit in a far more odious way.  Man Utd got to the FA Cup Final in the same season as my Kop experience, & I watched as a room full of Northern voices relentlessly bad mouthed Ray. When he curled a sublime shot into the Brighton net I broke my silence & let them all know what I thought of the crass nonsense my ears had been forced to endure for over an hour. There may have been expletives involved. Standing on The Kop? Cheering a Man U goal? I was a long way from home but my heart was still in the same place. As was Ray’s I suspect. Chelsea to the core that boy.

John Dempsey in happier hair days

The reserve game kicks off at 2. Revisionists try to argue that Britain was not as doom laden & depressed during this era as it is usually portrayed, but times were hard at Oxford United as well as Chelsea, & the opportunity to avoid switching on the floodlights is grabbed eagerly. By 1978 most of Oxford’s iconic players from the early ’70’s are gone, though Curran has returned on a free from Bolton, sporting a spectacularly unbecoming perm, bad hairdressing evidently among the few trades to thrive in these winters of discontent. Given the early kick off there would have been no sign of ‘Wankers’ either. John Milkins is still around & may well have been in goal. Things are about to look up for The U’s however, starting on this unlikely occasion in the fearsome form of Gary Briggs, making his first appearance for the club, on loan from Middlesboro. Briggs goes on to have a fantastic career at The Manor, surviving the madness of the Fatty Maxwell inspired Thames Valley Royal Years to help the club enter the top division & win a major trophy before the mid 1980’s are through. Kerry Dixon often mentions him as a worthy opponent, along with his equally rugged defensive sidekick Malcolm Shotton. With his curly black hair & ‘Magnum’ tache Briggs occasionally has a quiet pint in my mid ‘80’s local ‘The Chequers.’ He is no trouble at all but has the kind of eyes that suggest it would be unwise to spill his pint. Not that anyone is in a hurry to do so. We have all seen him play.

To be truthful I remember little of the reserve match. Chelsea won 2-0 despite a good performance by Gary Briggs. I remember Lee Frost darting around up front & the Wilkins brother who wasn’t Graham or Ray drifting around midfield in a slightly unconvincing, ’Stars In Their Eyes’ style impersonation of his illustrious older brother. It’s half time at Stamford Bridge as the match ends & remarkably Chelsea are 1-0 up on the European Cup holders, Clive Walker reliving his youthful exploits & hammering a glorious left foot shot past Ray Clemence. I join my cousins outside the dressing rooms so they can collect the autographs. This being 1978 the radio is all we have to update us on the progress at Stamford Bridge. On normal match days the half time scores are communicated by a man hooking up numbers like those used at village cricket grounds, the games only identified by an alphabetical sequence available only to those who have bought a match programme. But this is not a normal match day, this particular game has finished & there is no match programme, just the usual hurriedly typed up sheet containing the two line ups for the day. As it is 1978 there are, of course, no mobile phones, no internet. Neither is there Ceefax or Teletext , soon the staple diet for all non-attending football fans. We are years away from Neil Barnett’s match reports on premium rate phone line  Chelsea Clubcall, which shows up in the mid ‘80’s offering live commentary at the princely rate of 46 pence a minute. Knowing Oxford United’s impecunious state there is not much chance of there being even a portable black & white TV for the visiting team to watch badger haired Dickie Davies in the ‘World Of Sport’ studio, or sheepskin clad ‘Grandstand’ regulars like Motson, Barry Davies, Peter Lorenzo or Alan Weekes communicate the twists & turns of that day’s cup action. To cut a long story short, which clearly I am failing to do, the Chelsea Reserve team squad do not know the score when they emerge all lank haired from the showers, having doubtlessly doused themselves liberally with Blue Stratos, the great smell of Brut, or Denim, with its advertising pay off line ‘For the man who doesn’t have to try too hard.’ 20 years later Chelsea play at Oxford in the FA Cup & Marcel Desailly presages a monumentally half hearted & arrogant performance by yawning as he performs a desultory set of sit ups in the pre-match warm up. Presumably he had discovered a late century variant on ‘Denim’ instructing him he didn’t have to try at all.

By the time the players emerge Chelsea have gone 3-0 up at Stamford Bridge. The Reserves of ’77 are on fire. Walker has been joined on the score sheet by Finnieston & Langley, & Bill Garner is to distinguish himself by giving the man who broke Peter Osgood’s leg, Emlyn Hughes, a well-deserved shove in the face, leading to an absurd show of histrionic floor writhing from the squeaky voiced Thatcherite. This earns the derision & contempt of commentator Brian Moore, & proponents of the theory that foreigners introduced us to the dark arts of cheating are referred to its presence on YouTube, along with Man City & Derby striker’s Franny Lee’s propensity to trip himself up in the penalty box (he scored 13 penalties in one season alone!) or punch the ball into the opposition goal.

As the players make their way towards the team coach,& Brian Bason’s signature is obtained, some of the players look over towards us. Gary Locke has the wary, weary look of a man who would rather be elsewhere. Stamford Bridge presumably. Bradley appears as chirpy & effervescent off pitch as on. I instantly like Bradley, but you suspect he won’t make it as a footballer, being seemingly far too wide-eyed & void of cynicism to make it in a world then largely populated by persons entirely opposite to this, as depicted in the bitter book ‘Only A Game’ by scrawny ex-Millwall grouch Eamon Dunphy. ‘What’s the Chelsea score lads?’ he asks us. ‘They’re winning 3-0’ we chorus, delighted to have such glorious knowledge to impart. Heads turn among the players but there is a short period of silence. Clearly, this is not Dunphy styled resentment at their first team colleagues astounding success & its implications for their first team futures, but because, like all of us, they simply don’t believe it is happening! Poor Gary Locke glances at me with an even warier & wearier ‘don’t take the piss son’ look on his face. ‘No really lads, what’s the score?’ says Bradley. By now a bigger lad has appeared. He has a bigger & better radio. There’s always a bigger lad. With a bigger & better radio. He confirms the score. Doubts are allayed, autographs signed, & Bradley has an even jauntier spring in his step as he makes his way on to the coach & it departs into the January gloom. Garner sets up Walker for a fourth Chelsea goal as we make our way home. Kenny Dalglish gets a late consolation for Liverpool but it is too little, too late. The Champions have been conquered, & Sam Bolton can prepare to drop a Chelsea rather than Liverpool, ball on to the cold, hard BBC floor when the 4th Round draw takes place. Bob Paisley makes ominous press conference references to the fact that Liverpool will be returning for a league fixture before too long. Amazingly, Chelsea win that one too, 3-1 this time. When Chelsea win the FA Cup in 1997, beating Liverpool 4-2 again along the way, Emlyn Hughes pops up in the media sneering that in his era Liverpool had beaten Chelsea for fun. 1978 didn’t happen apparently. Paisley, along with chairman John Smith, does his best to point the finger of blame at Chelsea fans at the Heysel Inquiry a decade later. Paisley & Hughes are considerable footballing figures in post war English football but as a Chelsea fan I find them both diminished by such actions & words.

 After the Liverpool win it is a long, agonizing wait until Sunday afternoon for any TV highlights. Oxford is in the ATV region, so it’s ‘Star Soccer’ presented by the great Hugh ‘and Birtles says mmm yes, I’ll have a piece of that’ Johns, usually still pretending to be sat in the gantry at Molineux or St Andrews talking into his massive microphone 21 hours after the game has finished. Being in this region means we are feeding on scraps where Chelsea are concerned. The Liverpool game is relegated to a goal round-up at the end of the programme. We are still in an era when the only live domestic club game shown live is the FA Cup Final & not even highlights of midweek league matches are allowed, so clips of Chelsea games are like a banana to a wartime evacuee. ‘I always said that boy would go far’ says my mum as Clive Walker’s wicked shot thunders past the despairing hand of Ray Clemence from the unlikeliest of angles. I am relishing the prospect of speaking to my chief tormentor at school the following day. I approach him in the corridor between lessons & mention the match with a smile. ‘I don’t support Liverpool any more’ he says. ‘I’m an Arsenal fan now.’ In denying me my moment he also denies himself any genuinely fulfilling future moments of pleasure as a football supporter. With one brief sentence he enters the fan’s equivalent of Purgatory.

Chelsea’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory soon resurfaces. In a pleasing rerun of 1970 we draw Burnley at home in the 4th round but the game is postponed as Nick’s dad speeds towards White City & we don’t join an apparently sizeable invasion of Chelsea fans at Highbury for the Arsenal – Wolves tie, where the visitors’ centre half Bob Hazell causes a post-match storm by accusing Arsenal players of racially abusing him. Walker has managed to undermine his growing on pitch reputation by appearing in court after an embarrassing off pitch indiscretion which follows him around for the rest of his career. The Burnley game is finally played 3 days later & The Shed teases him rather more fondly than any away crowd ever do from now on as he warms up with Ray Lewington. I swear it’s the only time I’ve seen a footballer blush under floodlights. Chelsea manage to concede a goal in the first minute from a free kick (despite kicking off!) but bully Burnley for the rest of the game & run out 6-2 winners. Walker scores a beauty & Peter Bonetti shakes hands with Burnley striker Steve Kindon immediately after the latter’s late consolation goal, the only time I’ve ever seen a goalkeeper do this on a football pitch. The second win over Liverpool aside, the season fell apart from there, a 5th round defeat to a Peter Kitchen inspired Orient followed by a long, desperate run of defeats that were a feature of this era. Relegation was avoided but the trapdoor beckoned with a vengeance once again the following season, with inevitable consequences.

At some point in the mid 1990’s, a decade & a half after the events of January 1978, I see my chief tormentor in a drab local shopping centre. He is wearing an Aston Villa shirt, doubtless via a Blackburn Rovers phase & prior to a flirtation with Keegan era Newcastle. I suppose it is possible that Chelsea have entered his radar since, which would be hilarious. He reminds me of two other school friends, who had paper rounds with the same newsagent. They stole a couple of boxes of Panini football stickers from their employer, disappearing off to the nearby woods to hide their ill-gotten gains. God alone knows how many duplicates of Austria’s Helmut Koglberger they ended up with because I had at least a dozen from buying them one pack at a time over the counter. I do know one thing though. They never got the set & were left feeling slightly unfulfilled. You often are when you cheat.

There was a lot of rain between January 1978 & the Di Matteo induced rainbow of the FA Cup triumph of 1997, but that only made the enjoyment all the sweeter when it arrived. Modern Chelsea fans who rush onto social media & radio phone ins with their knee jerk responses to any dip in form might like to reflect on that too, especially those who had Antonio Conte sacked after the dismal defeat at Arsenal last season. I never did learn to hide my support of Chelsea, to widespread hilarity on occasions. What do I wear to an Undertones gig at The Birmingham Odeon in 1980, shortly after a resounding   5-1 defeat to promotion rivals Birmingham City? My Chelsea shirt of course. Not a sensible choice, but I believed, like some deluded sporting Moonie, that I supported the best club in the world, even when all the available evidence suggested that was rather a long way from the truth. It’s a lot closer now, but I don’t regret the dog days spent on bleak terraces. They also serve who watched the reserves at Oxford in ’78 or the ZDS tie against Swindon in ’91. Oxford United no longer play at The Manor Ground, moving to a soulless, three-sided, flat pack hell hole named after their then owner a decade or so ago, a resolutely charmless figure who presumably bought it in a B&Q sale, & continues to own it 10 years after he sold the club. The Manor itself is now a hospital, which is at least better than chintzy apartments or a car park, the fate of other sports stadiums of my youth. There was a period of resentment, when I would look at various Johnny-come-lately types at Stamford Bridge & have my own footballing equivalent of ‘I fought the war for the likes of you sonny’ moments. Ultimately, it led me to relinquish my season ticket but that’s another story & I feel differently now. Let people enjoy football, Chelsea & Stamford Bridge as it is now, it shouldn’t be preserved as a shrine to earlier generations of supporters. Which is not to suggest that the past does not matter, or should be forgotten. The important thing is that unlike less fortunate supporters, Chelsea fans now look likely to see the club stay in its spiritual home forever. This upsets egotistical media bores like Danny Baker & local resident Henry Blofeld, united in their mutual antipathy to Chelsea on the self adoring former’s radio programme a few years back. Blofeld was especially resentful about his Saturday afternoons being disturbed by blue clad oiks. A word to the wise Blowers. Chelsea have been around since 1905. It only feels like you have.  Those who once paid to get into cold, unwelcoming football grounds with no agenda other than to follow their team deserve better than the scorn of these smug, overfed, pampered twerps. People like  that fellow in the raincoat with the umbrella at The Manor. He may have had a limited match day vocabulary but he had the perfect word to sum up the likes of Baker & Blofeld.

 

 

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