Game For A Laugh?

Watch Out Mitchell’s About

I’m  confident that during his dismal three-year spell at Chelsea the chant  ‘There’s Only One David Mitchell’ never rang round Stamford Bridge. It would have been a lie if it had. There is a best-selling novelist with the same name before you even get to the bloke off ‘Peep Show.’ There  probably IS only one Khalid Boulahrouz.  Not that you will ever have heard that sung either. All three of these members of the clan David Mitchell do share one thing in common though. None of them ever scored a goal for Chelsea.

Mitchell may have retired to lick his wounds over his inferior Google footprint compared to namesake novelists & comedians, but for those of us given the dubious pleasure of seeing him in a Chelsea kit it is the Mitchell & Mayes situation that detains us. Namely, who was the worst striker to wear a Chelsea shirt in the 1980’s? Was it Dave, the lanky Australian with the Beadle beard or Alan, the diminutive one time QPR reject? The debate still rages, at least among men over 50 who support Chelsea & are happy to bore the tits off statues talking about that bygone, sometimes forlorn, era. I always vote Mitchell.

In 2004 Jeff Stelling produced a stocking filler called ‘England’s Worst Footballers’ naming & shaming the worst player to have played for all of the 92 Premiership & Football League clubs. I gave a copy to my brother-in-law that Christmas. He was none too impressed. He had played for Southern League Witney Town in the ’80’s & a recent club programme had featured a club supporter choosing their all time worst ever Witney eleven. My brother-in-law was in the team! Cue plenty of yuletide grumbling about people who had never played the game & the cruelty of outing allegedly crap players by the uninformed fan.

That is one, perfectly valid, viewpoint, countered by the Danny Baker argument that fans are the only people who pay to get into a game & can therefore boo whoever & whatever they like as often as they like. Then again, Baker is a malicious moron who delights in wishing cancer on fellow human beings. You are, of course, free to boo players at matches, but does anyone believe that jeering our young, black midfielder Keith Jones in the 1980’s did anything but destroy the promising start he made to his Chelsea career? Or that his colour was a mere coincidence? Most of us indulge in stream of consciousness moaning & groaning during games, it’s a symptom of caring & desperately wanting the team to win, but the systematic booing & barracking of players like Jones, Peter Houseman, Jesper Gronkjaer, & yes, Alan Mayes, always seemed spiteful & cowardly, the fan equivalent of pulling the legs off a spider.

I retain a fondness, albeit of varying degrees of strength, for most players I have seen in a Chelsea shirt over the years. Chris Sutton strikes me as an obnoxious individual, but he has never shirked from acknowledging his own failings during his wretched stint at Stamford Bridge, despite being clearly the wrong type of striker to fit into Gianluca Vialli’s team at the time. You have to respect him for that. I never warmed to Marcel Desailly either, because he seemed to pick & choose the games he turned up for, & I never sensed a great development of feeling for the club & its supporters during his six-year stay at the club. He was a fabulous player though, & I certainly never booed him. I despised Winston Bogarde (the Chelsea player selected as the worst in Stelling’s book incidentally) for his laziness, greed & ineptitude but such was the advanced level of his flabby arsed indolence we never really got the chance to boo him!  In any case, the signings of the dreaded Winston & Desailly heralded in the era in which we now reside, whereby cold, hard cash generally dictates who clubs sign & who players sign for, so the prospect of many of these players harbouring  any prior affection for the club is pretty much zero. You can have whatever view of Diego Costa you like, but he was never likely to hang around for the long haul. He’s a renegade hired gun, akin to a Charles Bronson style character in one of those Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns he would fit into so well.

My dislike of any Chelsea players since 1970 is usually retrospective, invoked when they leave & the lie that they love the club, never an affectation that Costa has bought into, unravels. Or they join the ranks of the media baying for Chelsea  blood for their miserable thirty pieces of silver. For the former stand up Andy Townsend & Romelu Lukaku, both Chelsea ‘supporters’ who showed their true colours when the prospect of greater glory & cash presented itself elsewhere & their professional instincts kicked in. Understandable, but don’t lie in the first place chaps. Or hold up an imaginary trophy on your return as Townsend did after scoring a stunning goal at The Shed for Aston Villa.  In the latter camp you have Alan Hudson, a beautiful combination of elegance, grace & power as a player, but unable to pass up any opportunity to churlishly slag the club off in the media since 1974. If I spent 43 years whining to the press about my treatment from a former employer for the price of a pint I wouldn’t expect much charity from them. Hudson does. Great player. Odd chap. Craig Burley is another, an expert on ESPN who forgets how many saw his awful back pass that put David Beckham through at Villa Park in 1996  & cost us an FA Cup final appearance. He got left out when we made it to Wembley the following year & has ground an axe about Chelsea ever since. Then you have those who just passed through briefly to stink the place out before retiring to slag the club off from a distance, like ex England defender Paul Parker & former postman & Shamrock Rovers ‘legend’ John Coady. There will always be a special place on the podium of contempt for Gordon Durie of course, kissing the badge while pining for a return to Scotland until a cockerel embossed cheque book appeared in the summer of 1991. I DID boo him when he played against Chelsea & make absolutely no apologies for it.

So why Mitchell and not Mayes in my personal league table of antipathy? I respect the feelings of fans worn down by several seasons of Mayes missing sitters & bow down to their far greater exposure to his apparent general incompetence than me. I lived in The North for most of his Chelsea career between 1981-3, but I did see Alan Mayes score. Twice, & both beauties, a low struck shot away at Orient on a Monday night in 1981 & a stunning long-range left foot howitzer in the FA Cup at Hull in January 1982. Without that goal Chelsea might not have had the chance to beat Liverpool later in the tournament. (or lose to Spurs, though Mayes scored in that match too) In short, Mayes contributed, he missed chances but got into positions to miss chances. He was appalling the first time I saw him, in a home game  against Blackburn in 1981, but so was everyone else. It was one of those days at the old, open plan Stamford Bridge, when the wind was blowing the corner flags at right angles on arrival, always a portent for a drab 0-0 with no one able to control the ball. The pre-match  military band’s hats & sheet music flew everywhere around the pitch & opposition player manager Howard Kendall had no chance of covering up his ever-growing bald patch with his large handful of wrap around hair. It was also clear that Mayes had been elected by a significant section of the crowd as chief whipping boy for the team’s overall failings & I hated that. It was bullying by another name. So I willed him to succeed, & continued to do so from a distance over the next few seasons.

I have only one abiding memory of Mitchell as a Chelsea player, which happened in his last game against Wimbledon in 1991. It was his overwhelming, all-encompassing mediocrity that irritated me so much. He never scored for Chelsea, but worse than that I cannot even recall him having a shot. Or a penetrating run with or without the ball. Or managing a cross into the opposition box. He entered a team on the crest of a wave in the 1988-9 season, a team that ended up walking away with the Division 2 title, amassing just under 100 points & goals along the way. He played in a 3-2 win over future employers Swindon. No shots or goals. He played in a 2-2 draw against Oldham. No shots or goals. He played alongside Durie at Walsall. Chelsea won 7-0. Durie scored five. Mitchell didn’t. I still didn’t boo him but he was about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike. Some of my reasons for not liking Mitchell were irrational. His Beadle beard, the way he wore his socks, the way he ran for God’s sake, all trivialities but exacerbating my yearning to see him return from whence he came.

Which he did, sort of, cooking his goose in the process. Having been signed from Feyenoord, Mitchell was loaned out to NEC Nijmegen in 1990 & foolishly chose to share negative sentiments about his parent club to the Dutch press. Even in those pre-internet days, such a move was pretty dumb. You had to forgive curly mulleted goalkeeper Dmitri Kharine’s similar indiscretion to the media in his Russian homeland a few years later, largely because so much of what he allegedly said to them was lost in translation, the best being ‘Even Tony Cascarino, the great Irish striker, is dead!’ There are three lies in that short quote alone so we can treat anything else allegedly said by Kharine with a large dose of Siberian salt. Mitchell returned to a less than warm welcome & played just one more game, the aforementioned Wimbledon match. The game was beamed live on Scandinavian television. No wonder they had such high suicide rates. The end of season club highlights video shows just one snippet from this game, Hans Segers needlessly deflecting a Dennis Wise shot that was always going wide into the side netting. There was some light relief though. The announcement of ‘Number 9 – Dave Mitchell’ over the tannoy at 2.45 heralded a spontaneous & unanimous gale of laughter from The Shed. Several minutes into the match, the match ball spiralled up high into the air. The opponents were Wimbledon, where else was it going to spend the majority of the match? Mitchell might have expected this to happen but lost it & his own bearings, & as he looked around helplessly for its whereabouts, the ball hurtled back down from whichever galaxy it had been propelled to & hit the poor sod  hard on the back of the head, leaving him in a spreadeagled heap on the floor. Cue a second gale of laughter, one which has lasted much longer than the first. Twenty five years later, former Chelsea colleagues from the era were still to be found sniggering among themselves about it on Twitter, namely the egregious Burley, Graham Stuart & the wonderful David Lee. Harsh, but Mitchell hadn’t earned much loyalty from his teammates. Nor his manager. The usually genial Bobby Campbell was quizzed about Mitchell’s performance after the game. ‘Well he didn’t pull any trees up did he?’ was the gruff response. The message from Campbell was clear. Taxi for Mitchell. Presumably of the big yellow variety. Neil Barnett chose his match commentary of Mitchell’s pratfall as the season’s highlight on ‘Chelsea Clubcall’  a few months later, which speaks volumes about both the hapless Australian & the general state of the club. Glenn Hoddle did us his first big favour by taking Mitchell to Swindon with him shortly after, ironically the home of Mayes’ finest footballing hours as well. He did well there, & returned in triumph to Chelsea in 1995, as part of a Millwall team that undeservedly won an FA Cup replay on penalties, after Chelsea had been denied two blatant spot kicks in normal time. Fortunately, he did not successfully invoke the immutable law of the ex & score himself. However, after the game he did lead the charge towards their shootout hero, goalkeeper Kasey Keller, leading him off the pitch in triumph, the  Beadle beard still very much in situ on the face of our happy former ‘striker’ as Millwall’s delirious band of psychotic thugs celebrated in the temporary seating at the Shed end. Funny old game my arse.

 

 

 

 

 

Na na na na na na na na na na SPACKMAN!

 

 

KERPOW! No time to get the Keown Repellent Spray from his utility belt so Spackers settles for clouting the bugger instead.

Martin Keown lives in the same city as I do but in truth we live in very different worlds. It is fair to say he has done rather better in life than I have & our paths have never really crossed. His son worked behind the bar in one of my old locals. His brother assessed my tiny flat before giving me a quote for the installation of a burglar alarm. Very polite & pleasant he was too, despite looking & sounding alarmingly like his more famous sibling. I have occasionally seen the man himself prowling the streets of Oxford looking faintly bored. I can understand that. He is thoroughly rich & what else do former footballers in early middle age do when they aren’t spouting tedious & hysterically biased shite about the game on television? I did also stumble upon him living the dream & buying suitcases in Debenhams before the 2016 European Championships. Debenhams eh? ( and John Terry got stick for buying Xmas decorations in Poundland! )  Strangely, News International aren’t interested in my Keown revelations. Can’t think why.

Mr Keown also went to school with my mate Joe, who bumped into him just after Arsenal had won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in 1993. He told Joe that George Graham had apparently instructed him to man-mark Dennis Wise for the entire match. I didn’t need to be told that in truth, having been at the game. He had done just that, & supremely well too. A 2-0 defeat flattered Chelsea that day as Merson & Wright ran riot up front for the ghastly Gooners. I never usually regretted going to a Chelsea match but we had Muhammad Ali doing a book signing at work that day, & missing that to watch another ritual humiliation was galling in the extreme.

Having said that, there proved to be another, hitherto unforeseen, top quality pugilist in the Chelsea ranks when Arsenal returned two seasons later, at the start of the 1995-6 season. There had been much excitement in both camps with the arrivals of Ruud Gullit to Chelsea & Dennis Bergkamp to Arsenal but pre-match hopes of an imminent masterclass of Dutch Total Football were soon dashed as a typically ill-tempered & scrappy  London derby emerged. Keown was to the fore in much of the ugliness as usual. Dennis Wise may have played his part….

Stopping other people from playing was Keown’s speciality & he was superb at it. You like players that nullify the top talents from opposing teams when they play for your team. You hate them when they play for the other lot. Those T-shirts they used to sell on the stalls on the Fulham Road, depicting Keown  as Galen from ‘Planet Of The Apes,’  said it all about the low regard for him among Chelsea fans during his playing career. He was an unlovely presence on the pitch, but part of a famously formidable defence which went a long way to explaining our consistent inability to get results against them. However, in 1995 we did get a result, a Mark Hughes goal being enough to send the smuggest supporters in footballing history home with their charming & not remotely grating ‘Fuck Off Till You’ve Won The League’ chants silenced for once. How times change. Karma anyone?

On top of this rare win, we had the added bonus of Nigel Spackman repaying my loyalty to the cause in missing the Ali event in 1993 by invoking the spirit of The Louisville Lip himself & recreating the  ‘Rope a Dope’ tactic employed by the latter against George Foreman when regaining his World Heavyweight Title in Zaire in 1974. Spackers was no shrinking violet. You didn’t get to play for Liverpool in the ’80’s or the Souness era Glasgow Rangers without being able to look after yourself. He was an energetic, competitive, resourceful & highly competent player. But nobody would say he was dirty. However, after an afternoon of typical Keown grappling, pushing, jostling, tugging & tearing he finally responded to an attempt to dismantle his shirt collar by administering a truly nasty, spiteful & wholly unexpected right hand jab to the back of the big lummox’s head. Keown was well & truly pole-axed, hitting the deck like the proverbial sack of shit. Spackers should have done his Ali shuffle at that point but you can’t have everything.

Violence is terrible & all that but surely at its best football plays out  the fulfilment of a fan’s own on pitch fantasies. That can mean Zola volleying in a back heel against Norwich in 2002, Di Matteo thumping in a 43 second opener at the beginning of an FA Cup Final, or Drogba  powering in an extraordinary header against Bayern Munich, just as another Champions League season seemed set to end in failure. It can also mean Nigel Spackman twatting Martin Keown. Nigel got a red card & a huge round of applause for his sins. Keown got a bruised ego & developed an apparent chip on his shoulder, which if anything has grown larger over the years. Like all those latte drinkers who follow his former team he can’t quite accept that Chelsea crashed the party, took it over & have at times controlled it since his heyday. Perhaps that’s why his media profile where Chelsea are concerned remains as sour & joyless as his conduct on the pitch was the day he got a clump off Spackers. Get over it mate. You can afford to buy suitcases in Debenhams & wander the streets of Oxford looking bored. Verily your cup runneth over.

And I was dead chuffed with my alarm.

 

 

Bury My Heart At Steve Wicks Knee

 

May 7th 1988 – Chelsea 1 Charlton 1

 

Baldness and relegation. The two main fears of Terry Collier, one of the two great comic characters spearheading the brilliant 1970’s sitcom ‘Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?’ Terry may have been an avowed Chelsea hater but many a Blues fan will have identified with  his twin phobias at the time. No Advanced Hair Studio or Roman Abramovich to save the day back then sadly. Happily, modern Chelsea fans are spared the once frequent flirtation with demotion, all those horrible moments of collective, morale sapped numbness as another opposition goal heralded the unmistakable, combined sound of dozens of wooden & plastic seats being angrily & noisily vacated as the less hardy made yet another early exit towards the long, silent trek home via car or Fulham Broadway Station. Contemporary disappointments still abound of course.  Fernando Morientes’ second half deal breaker against Monaco in the Champions’ League Semi Final in 2004. The ‘Ghost Goal’ at Anfield the following season. Moscow. Iniesta’s heart breaking equalizer for Barcelona amidst a refereeing disgrace in 2009. The no-show at the FA Cup Final in 2017. The difference is that all these denied Chelsea moments of glory. Tough, but you have still climbed a significant chunk of mountain to get there. Relegation is different. Confirmation that you are crap. I have known that feeling three times. The last, in 1988, was by far the worst. Why? Because it should never have happened.

In 1975 the drop beckoned because the team was (& had been for several years)  jaded & severely in need of the footballing equivalent of an enema that Eddie McCreadie subsequently administered. Tommy Docherty had performed a similar trick at Old Trafford after Man Utd’s relegation the year before & Spurs went down the following season. Being relegated was almost fashionable in the mid ’70’s but then so were tartan flares, Platform shoes & Jimmy Savile. In 1979 the team were truly terrible  & overseen by the bizarre Danny Blanchflower. After a 6-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest he declared that maybe his team had to learn how to lose before it could learn how to win. Not a theory that would have held much water in the opposition dressing room where  Clough & Taylor were in their pomp. You can’t imagine Bill Shankley, Jock Stein, Don Revie, Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho echoing the sentiment at any point in their careers either. Probably because it was utter bollocks. One of the few high points in that dismal season was the signing of Eamonn Bannon, a terrific young midfield player. Before the year was out the club had sold him to Dundee United for less than they had paid Hearts for him in the first place! He shone throughout the ’80’s, & played in the 1986 World Cup for Scotland, while Dundee United reached the European Cup Semi Final in 1984. Still, we had Kevin Hales. Well done Chelsea.

1988 was different. The team had defenders like Steve Clarke, Colin Pates & Tony Dorigo. Pates ended up at Arsenal. Dorigo won the league a few years later at Leeds. Dirty Leeds. Clarkey, legend that he is, hung around long enough to see the sun finally emerge from the clouds at the Bridge. It was a long wait. 1988 Chelsea also had one of the most creative midfielders of his generation in Micky Hazard, a winger with flair & skill in Pat Nevin & strikers with the power & finishing ability of Kerry Dixon & Gordon Durie. Relegation should not ever have been more than a dot on the horizon.

So how & why did play off regulars Charlton come to Stamford Bridge knowing that avoiding  defeat to a team that had won only one match in six months  would see them lounging on sunbeds listening to S-Express while that year’s relegation trapdoor beckoned for a team that had challenged for the title only two seasons earlier? Well, we  all know of the detrimental, long-term effect of smoking on our health & in 1988 fags finally did for Chelsea. Stress & ciggies had led to John Neal being succeeded by John Hollins in 1985. Sad but seemingly not disastrous. Hollins had been a great servant to the club as a player & had served as coach under Neal, who remained at the club as general manager. With his wise counsel only a knock on the door away surely the transition would be seamless?

Sadly not. It would seem that the two men had never really got on. Hollins chose not to knock on the door & an increasingly marginalized Neal was sacked by cuddly Ken Bates after publicly expressing his frustration at being excluded from all important decisions affecting the club he had rehabilitated to such great effect just a few seasons earlier. In the two years leading up to this game Hollins presided over an increasingly unhappy dressing room, stories of malcontent regularly leaking into the press via disgruntled members of the playing staff. If Micky Hazard could not understand why Hollins could substitute his sublime, midfield creativity by playing a centre back like Colin Pates in his place instead (& he was not alone!) then Nigel Clarke of the ‘Daily Mirror’ was always on hand to publish a story on the following day’s back page, usually quoting ‘a source close to the player.’ Who was clearly the player himself. The relentless, poisonous dripping of negative stories to the press seemed frequently inspired by the unwelcome dressing room presence of coach Ernie Whalley, a Hollins appointment quickly laden with a training ground image, fairly or otherwise, akin to that of Windsor Davies’ cartoon like Sergeant Major character in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.’ Whalley was eventually replaced, against the wishes of John Hollins, by former Fulham manager Bobby Campbell in the early part of 1988, following a long, winless run stretching back to the previous October. Hollins’ own unhappy tenure came to an end after a bizarre 4-4 draw at Oxford in March. A three goal lead had been sacrificed in that match. An early two goal lead was squandered in the previous away game at Coventry. Additionally, while Bates was cruising around the Med on his boat, Hollins had attempted to solve the team’s problems by selling Hazard & Kerry Dixon. The return of Bates saw a swift cancellation of these baffling transfers & Hollins found that his ship had also sailed, his penchant for sweat over skill finally trying his chairman’s for once surprisingly deep reservoirs of patience once too often. Campbell predictably stepped into the breach with more than the mildest hint of indecent haste. Unfortunately, the introduction to the dressing room of Bobby’s undoubted enthusiasm &  JimmyTarbuck jokebook did little to stem the tide. Hazard’s sublime left foot strike past Peter Shilton secured a win over Derby in April but that remained the only win since a scrappy home victory against Oxford on Halloween. A dismal Bank Holiday 4-1 defeat at West Ham was compounded by a nasty injury to Hazard & so we approached the Charlton game with a proper sense of trepidation. The cigarettes that had damaged John Neal’s heart were finally about to break ours.

It started well, a bright, sunny Spring day & a lively atmosphere with a crowd of 33,000, a more than decent turnout for any club in those post Heysel days. Chelsea took the lead with a penalty from Gordon Durie after he was brought down by a Charlton defender several light years outside the penalty box. Charlton had the lanky, goal shy Carl Leaburn up front. They also had former Spurs lump Paul Miller at centre back & fellow White Hart lane refugee (& future BBC lump) Garth Crooks alongside Leaburn. In midfield they had Steve Mackenzie, scorer of a wonderful FA Cup final goal in 1981 & goalkeeper Bob Bolder had been at Liverpool. They did not want for experience. Nonetheless, the game moved into the second half with a lot of huffing & puffing but not much else going on. And then it happened….

Goals are scored in a split second. All goals.  With one exception. This one. It has now spent nigh on 30 years making its tortuous route from Steve Wicks knee into the Chelsea net, because it remains the goal I have most endlessly replayed over in my head. It seemed to take an eternity on the day, as Leaburn’s long throw into the box sparked a scramble that led to  aforementioned lump Miller’s unconvincing stab at the ball ricocheting off Wicks, ballooning up in the air, & slowly, agonizingly, making its descent, under the crossbar but over keeper Kevin Hitchcock’s flailing, flapping, giant gloved hand. Not waving but drowning. However long it took, or seemed to take, its final destination was never in doubt. 30,000 of us descended into one of those eerie communal silences. The Charlton fans & players went berserk. I believe Garth Crooks has been dining out on the moment ever since. It certainly looks like it.

The game ends 1-1. There were a lot of 1-1 draws that season. As the match ends a man two seats down from me bursts into tears. I had never seen anyone cry at a football match before. It’s like he knows that the play offs will be futile, that relegation is an inevitability. If so, he is entirely correct. Modern sporting cliché has it that it’s the hope that kills you. That was partially true in 1988. From Durie’s penalty to  a resounding win over Blackburn in the play off semi finals, there were always glimmers of hope surfacing before we were nutted by reality. Ultimately though, it was also death by 1-1 draws, John Neal’s fags, the perverse team selections of John Hollins and the knee of Steve Wicks. Poor Wicks, a really good player but not a lucky one, only spared the further ignominy of a transfer to Spurs that summer by a back problem that prematurely ended his career. He remains the only Chelsea player to have appeared in three different relegation seasons while Jose Bosingwa has a Champion’s League winner’s medal. It might take 30 years for those two disparate & desperately unfair facts to sink in too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not A Pheasant Plucker

 

‘My Husband He’s The Keeper’

12th  September 1992 – Chelsea 2 Norwich City 3

In the Autumn of 1990, along with a Pompey supporting work colleague & his mate, I watched a hopelessly mundane League Cup tie against Portsmouth from the atmosphere free confines of The East Stand Upper tier. Goalless at the end, my only memory of the game is of my colleague’s mate, a nice chap but not a massive football fan, referring throughout the entire, dreary,  90 minutes to our goalkeeper Dave Beasant as Pheasant & imploring him to ‘BUST IT!!’ every time the ball came to him, a nod to his considerable contribution to former club Wimbledon’s long ball successes during the mid to late 1980’s. This hardly adds to the pantheon of comic genius footballing observations but in my head big Dave has been Pheasant ever since, a testimony to my puerility along with a later habit of singing ‘Flo’ to myself in the style of Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley singing ‘Gold’ every time our big, highly likeable Norwegian striker got the ball at Stamford Bridge. I merely confess, I don’t ask for clemency.

Not being one of life’s visionaries, when the Premier League started in 1992-3 I don’t believe I fully grasped the implications of what was about to occur to the English game. The first match that season was against Oldham, & the main changes seemed to be referees swapping their kit colour & an adaptation to the back pass law, goalkeepers now being prohibited from picking the ball up when a teammate returned it to them. The former drew immediate benefits as a new chant arose early in the first match. Admittedly, singing ‘Who’s The Wanker In The Green?’ to the tune of ‘Bread Of Heaven’ wasn’t hugely different to its predecessor ‘Who’s The Wanker In The Black?’ sung to the tune of, er, ‘Bread In Heaven’ but hey ho, Rome wasn’t built in a day & a change is as good as a rest. The latter caught Dave Beasant out straightaway, when he thwarted expectations that his Wimbledon exploits would see him thrive with the ball at his feet by rushing out of his goal & miskicking horribly to Latics midfielder Nicky Adams in  the dying minutes of the match. Adams promptly struck it into an open goal from 45 yards. Three points were reduced to one at one fell swoop & Beasant’s personal nightmare commenced. Chelsea were playing some decent football in the early stages of the season, but traditional defensive frailties were costing them dear. Two goals in a minute were conceded at Norwich, while an entertaining 3-3 draw at Hillsborough saw some gifts to opponents Sheffield Wednesday that were as horribly inept as Graham Stuart’s dazzling dribble & finish at the other end was brilliant. In the week prior to the return match against Norwich,  a well-earned point at Anfield was squandered in the last minute as Beasant unfathomably fumbled a weak cross in front of The Kop & allowed future Sky Sports clothes horse & bore Jamie Redknapp to scramble home an undeserved winner. A horrendous, ultimately career ending injury to Paul Elliott courtesy of the hateful Dean Saunders added immeasurably to the gloom.

At home to Norwich all seemed well at first. Chelsea surged into a two goal lead, courtesy of Mick Harford & former Canary Andy Townsend. Robert Fleck looked lively. That remains the nicest thing one can ever say about the performance of this particular Carrow Road exile during his unhappy Chelsea career. I was not the only Chelsea fan jumping for joy when he was signed the month before this match. Tread lightly in your dreams. They might come true for you tomorrow. Fleck had scored twice at Stamford Bridge the previous season, the second a stunning volley at the Shed end which led to a fan next to me in the West Stand Benches  bellowing ‘Sign him up!!’ at the top of his lungs. He only ever scored one more goal at The Bridge in the rest of his career, a penalty at home to Walsall in the League Cup, which he celebrated like a Lottery winner returning home to find Angelina Jolie sat on his sofa in naughty night attire. The nearest he came to repeating this Herculean feat (if indeed, with all due respect,scoring a penalty against Walsall can ever be thus described) was in a King’s Road pub when he scored during a game of Bar Football with Nigel Spackman & reputedly celebrated with almost as much gusto. It didn’t work for Fleck at Chelsea but he always seemed a difficult man to dislike. The glee with which fans greeted his arrival remains a cautionary tale however, one which all fans might like to consider before getting het up about apparently underwhelming signings made by their club. I got terribly excited when Mini leaping, golf ball throwing smoker Duncan McKenzie arrived in 1978. Ditto Chris Sutton in 1999. Stellar signings Fleck, McKenzie & Sutton scored a combined total of seven league goals for Chelsea between them. Someone, somewhere, owes Alan Mayes a written apology! But not Dave Mitchell. Never Dave Mitchell.

The second half against Norwich, for all the wrong reasons, remains one of the most memorable & idiosyncratic 45 minutes of football I can ever remember. Chelsea, or more specifically Beasant, simply crumbled. Big Dave, presumably unnerved by the mistakes of previous weeks, or perhaps suffering from some Samson like repercussions from having recently shorn his once considerable mop of hair, seemed to undergo some sort of on pitch nervous breakdown, like a footballing version of that episode of ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’ when Yosser Hughes totally loses the plot. Only more harrowing. From the moment he fluffs a feeble Mark Robins effort & allows the visitors back into the game, his unease creates a communal tension  & sense of apprehension, the team starts to flounder & the crowd’s irritation & anger towards their hapless goalkeeper grows. Some generally pathetic defending leads to a Norwich equalizer. Shortly afterwards a poorly struck shot from distance by Dave Phillips is moving slowly enough for someone to begin saying ‘he’ll probably let that in’ before, remarkably, Beasant does just that, remaining on the floor in a crumpled heap for some time, his despair clear, in the immediate aftermath. The crowd noise that greets the goal is a unique combination of anger & anguish, a howling, wailing, distressed, furious, outpouring of incredulity, interspersed with the buoyant celebrations of the Norwich fans behind Dave’s goal, who clearly can’t believe their luck, & are clearly laughing their heads off at the same time.They bait their former hero Fleck but this is a mere bagatelle compared to the ugliness brewing among home fans, furious about the squandering of a comfortable lead & quick to point the finger of blame squarely at the forlorn, temporarily broken figure that is our giant goalkeeper.Norwich players moving towards Beasant to shake hands at the final whistle engenders more outrage, but this is not gloating but transparent sympathy for a fellow professional suffering a horrendous crisis of confidence.

Following the game, manager Ian Porterfield makes it clear that Beasant must be replaced. He reacts like a fan and not a professional. Not many Chelsea supporters would have said much differently to Porterfield but effectively sacking his beleaguered goalkeeper publicly within minutes of the final whistle seems cruel & inappropriate. Alec Chamberlain quickly arrives on loan & Kevin Hitchcock comes in to the team  the following week as the team win (& keep a clean sheet) at Man City.  Beasant keeps his own counsel & maintains a dignified silence for 6 months, during which time the team has undergone a boom & bust run of form which sees them close to the top of the table at Christmas, inevitably followed by an all too familiar slump which costs Porterfield his job by mid February. Any goalkeeping blunder during this period leads to an inevitable chorus of ‘Are You Beasant In Disguise?’ to the tune, you will not be surprised to learn, of ‘Bread Of Heaven.’ Five days before Porterfield’s dismissal, a 0-0 draw against Liverpool was significant for one reason only, as the pre-match warm up featured a familiar, if recently forgotten figure, coming out from the cold as the substitute goalkeeper. The Shed quickly stirs itself as news of this hitherto discreet rebirth spreads & ‘Are You Beasant In Disguise?’ gets an enjoyably affectionate airing. Dave returns to the fold & contributes handsomely to fighting off growing relegation fears, keeping a clean sheet against Arsenal & performing heroics in a crucial home victory against fellow strugglers Everton. He wins Evening Standard Footballer Of The Month for March & his wholly deserved rehabilitation seems complete. He continues playing professionally until deep into his 40’s & remains a friend of the club to this day. My last Stamford Bridge memory of him in a Chelsea shirt saw him returning to play (& scoring twice) against Spurs in Kerry Dixon’s testimonial in 1995.

He wasn’t to remain at Chelsea for long after the end of the 1992-3 season though. Caretaker boss Dave Webb was replaced by Glenn Hoddle at the end of the season & Dave’s Stamford Bridge career effectively ended when he dropped a bottle of salad cream on his foot & sustained a nasty tendon injury. You really couldn’t make that one up. Stories that his wife had remarked that ‘he will probably drop that’ as he removed the bottle from the kitchen cupboard & followed it up with a chorus of ‘Are You Beasant In Disguise?’ when he did remain entirely apocryphal.