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 Of 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.