Roy Of The Rovers Comic Launches

Oh Melchester – So Much To Answer For

September 25, 1976

Portsmouth 0 Reading 2, Blackpool 0 Chelsea 1


Heartwarming news! Rebellion, an Oxford based company, are reviving the Roy Of The Rovers franchise with a series of Graphic Novels, the first of which arrives in September, 42 years after the late,lamented Roy Of The Rovers COMIC was launched.


During my student years, spent at what Edmund Blackadder once described as one of the three great universities (Oxford, Cambridge & Hull) we had a Students Union President who seemed to have stepped fully formed out of The Kinks song David Watts so flawless did his existence appear. Academically bright, & pleasant looking, he was also a star striker for the university football team. One day he walked into the Union refectory, something of a second home for me as it allowed me to indulge my main diet of coffee, toasted cheese sandwiches, Mars bars & cigarettes for hours on end. Evidently unimpressed by his seemingly bland mixture of perfections, a female friend who had joined me at my table, prior to finding someone more interesting to talk to, looked up him up & down with true Northern disdain & sneered  ‘Here he is. Roy Of The Fookin Rovers.’

If you are expecting a sting in this tale, that this exceptional young man ended up freebasing cocaine & found dead in a sparse hovel, dressed only in exotic lingerie, you will be severely disappointed. He is now  the CEO of a major publishing company, working for John Prescott at one point possibly dimming any political ambitions he may once have had. The nearest he ever came to blotting his copybook at Hull was reputedly discussing the allegedly poor personal hygiene of the lead singer of 2 hit wonders JoBoxers too loudly prior to their appearance at the University. Just got mucky?

The irony of the Roy of The Rovers putdown, a staple insult for any Goldenballs types combining sporting & academic achievements with a worthy public image, is that dear old Roy Race himself has endured many a torrid experience since his original incarnation in 1954. He may never have been booked, & won dozens of trophies, but it has been rather a long way from plain sailing off the pitch. He was kidnapped on numerous occasions, doubtless based on the misconception that all small boys would grow up & pass the reading baton on to the next generation who would be oblivious to repeated plot lines. He was once shot by an embittered actor called Elton Blake. In 1986 eight of his team were killed by a terrorist bomb. His wife was the delightfully named Penny Laine. It would be nice to think that he met her behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout. He didn’t. She was the secretary of then Melchester manager Ben Galloway. After a sometimes turbulent marriage she died in a car crash, which left Roy struggling with amnesia, & a son convinced our hero was the one to blame. Roy’s own, near 40 year playing career, ended when he lost a foot in a helicopter accident in 1993. Not an entirely enviable existence all things considered.

Rebellion are going all the way back to the beginning, with football’s very own Dr Who regenerating in the modern age as a 16 year old starting out with his beloved Melchester Rovers now struggling in the second tier of English football. I doubt we will be seeing Roy’s best friend, the unfortunately named Blackie Gray this time around, & the size police may also do away with goalkeeper Tubby Morton & Defender Lofty Peak too. It would be nice to see some of the stout yeomans of the past, perhaps Jimmy Slade or Geoff Giles, resurrected with the many maverick team mates Roy played beside in previous incarnations. Roy Of The Rovers usually kept pace with change. Melchester had a black player long before it was the norm, in the shape of winger Vernon Eliot, likewise a foreign player in Paco Diaz. One of my favourites among the more flamboyant characters was Mervyn Wallace, with flowing locks & fulsome moustache pleasingly redolent of Jason King era Peter Wyngarde combined with that bloke off  The Flashing Blade. Once again, would the last teenager out please switch off the lights. There were many others, though strangely I can remember little of ’70’s ex circus juggler turned striker Sammy Spangler. He must have moved into films alongside Dirk Diggler with a name like that, presumably borrowing Mervyn’s ‘tache along the way. I don’t want all the old players back anyway, Tubby’s successor between the sticks Charlie The Cat Carter for one. Any Chelsea fan of a certain vintage knows there is only one goalkeeper worthy of that particular feline epithet, the impossibly great Peter Bonetti. Charlie never cut the mustard for me, & also appeared at one point to be rivalling the eternally youthful Roy in a late ’70’s Leif I Was Made For Dancing Garrett lookalike contest. I saw a photo of former skateboarder Leif recently. Eternal youth, alas, sadly appears to have bypassed him. The drugs really don’t work.

Having finally escaped from the pages of Tiger, leaving long-term colleagues like Native American wrestler Johnny Cougar & F1 driver Skid Solo (another unfortunately named individual) Roy Race  led fellow footie strips Hot Shot Hamish  & Billy’s Boots into his own, eponymous comic at the end of a week I spent on holiday in Southsea with my mate Bill & his parents. It was a good week for Chelsea, with league wins over Bolton & Blackpool either side of a League Cup victory over Huddersfield Town. The home win over Bolton featured a rare goal by my favorite player of the time, the injury plagued David Hay.  At home we got Star Soccer on Sunday afternoons, for years wedged between  The Champions or Randall & Hopkirk Deceased The Golden Shot. The upside of all this was the chance to enjoy the golden larynx of former World War 2 pilot Hugh ‘That’s A Naughty One’ Johns, prone to mispronouncing the odd name (Ray Lewington becoming Kenny Lewiston on one occasion at Molineux) & giving players nicknames nobody else knew they had, including them, but always a welcome vocal presence in the prevalent Midlands gloom, his voice enriched by a smoking habit that had survived the loss of a lung to TB. Southsea would mean Brian Moore & The Big Match, & David Hay’s toothless grin after his splendid header from Steve Finnieston’s cross. Except it didn’t, because Bill’s dad had the revolutionary idea that a holiday meant more than sitting around watching football & took us on a boat trip round the Solent. Licensing laws were more stringent back then, & on a chilly afternoon there was a flurry of latecomers on to the boat who disappeared straight into the bar & stayed in there the whole time, things being a little more relaxed on the ‘time gentleman please’ front for those electing for a life, or at least an afternoon, on the ocean wave. Missing David Hay’s header against Bolton on The Big Match was clearly not an issue for these old juicers.

Roy Of The Rovers was launched the following Saturday. Bill & I both bought it. I don’t remember much about any of the newer comic strips, except for one called Millionaire Villa about a wealthy young man who spent a couple of million on a football club with the proviso that he be given a game. He would need billions now of course, though I can’t see it being revived. The concept may be the ultimate fantasy fulfillment for the super rich club owner, but people like that seem unlikely to spend too much time reading comics. In truth, we were a little old for Roy Of The Rovers in theory, but I still dutifully filled in the promotional wall chart in my scruffy handwriting, & notice that I elected that day’s away win at Blackpool, courtesy of one of Steve Finnieston’s many goals that year, as the best performance away from Stamford Bridge all season. My pubescent peripheral vision must have been exquisite because I was at Fratton Park watching an impoverished home team lose 0-2 against Reading in the old Division 3.

Portsmouth were managed by former Liverpool hero (& future TV sidekick to Chelsea great Jimmy Greaves) Ian St John. He had a fellow Scouse refugee in veteran full back Chris Lawler in his squad, along with a clutch of youngsters of varying quality, including future England centre half Steve Foster, current Sky Sports favourite Chris Kamara (a decent if one paced player & a considerably less cuddly proposition for opposing team’s players than he is to Goals On Sunday viewers nowadays) & a spectacularly unpopular forward by the name of Maitland Pollock. The Viz character that got away. Times being hard at Fratton Park, one player who featured in this match, the late Billy Wilson, eventually subsidized his salary by taking over The Pompey pub with his wife. The pub was a stone’s throw from the pitch. The aforementioned licensing laws meant it shut half an hour before kick off, reopening an hour or so after the final whistle. Billy had a stinker against Grimsby one afternoon, but was still back behind the bar serving the fans at 6, & queried why one punter had given him way over the odds for a large round of lagers. The rest is for you, we want you to buy a length of rope and hang yourself!’ he was told. They still sang One Billy Wilson to him. Different times The pub has gone now, spewing bile on social media the modern poison for many contemporary fans.

It is ex Portsmouth players I largely recall from this week. Bill & I had tracked down the sports shop of Oxford United (& former Pompey)  goalie John ‘Dracula’ Milkins & stood aghast peering through the window as he held court with customers wearing a pair of those horrendous Rupert Bear trousers only ever donned by golfers (& Rupert himself in fairness) outside of this inglorious era for the British wardrobe. The other  Fratton favourite briefly appeared for Reading in this match, limping off with an injury to sympathetic applause shortly after the game began. Ray Hiron had previously played over 300 games for Portsmouth  & scored over 100 goals. He wasn’t remotely sexy or rock ‘n’ roll , but he was one of those stalwarts that supplied the backbone to many football clubs in this era. As someone who went to lots of games back then, I always remember  players like this fondly. There were more colourful & controversial characters playing for Reading at the time but Hiron’s poignant departure remains my main memory of the game, other than Bill & I being collared by a dipshit Reading fan who found out we were from Oxford & proclaimed ‘Oxford? Shit team. Good fighters though.’ Thanks for coming Confucius. Roy Keane’s future biographer & spiritual father, the wilfully gittish, cantankerous & perverse Eamon Dunphy, was his usually skin & bones self in midfield. Dunphy & Keane fell out after the book was published. Quelle surprise. Combative, beardie Welsh international midfielder Trevor Hockey once clashed with Dunphy & spat out the old ‘how many caps have you got?’ line to which the old curmudgeon, rarely short of an answer, gleefully replied ’25.’ 17 more than poor Trevor as it happens, who clearly did not realize he was baiting a Republic Of Ireland regular.

The other big personality at Reading was Robin Friday. An habitual drinker, drug user & woman chaser throughout his adult life, Friday died in 1990, reportedly of cardiac failure brought on by a heroin overdose. His all too brief career had ended before the ’70’s were over, but his name was belatedly & posthumously put in lights in the late ’90’s via a book called The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw by ex music hack Paolo Hewitt & a member of Oasis who wasn’t one of the tedious Gallagher brothers. Friday died around the time English football started to emerge from the doldrums. It was nice to move away from the era of stadium disasters like Bradford, Heysel & Hillsborough, nice to see people who had turned their back on the game engage with it once again, nice to see a new generation of fan attracted  to football matches, especially nice to see more women going to games. Cliche though it has become, the pivotal moment in this transformation was the England-Germany match in the 1990 World Cup, capped off by the tears of Paul Gascoigne. By Euro 1996 the national team could get away with drawing against Switzerland, winning an undeserved penalty shootout against Spain (after their opponents had a perfectly good goal disallowed for offside)  & losing (on penalties again) to Germany on home soil. The cracks were papered over not just by a moment of Gazza brilliance against Scotland, allied to an emphatic win over a deeply divided Dutch team, but more generally by what seemed like a collective national hysteria. Three Lions topped the charts, politicians were embracing a sport they had treated as an infectious disease for decades, & the tournament was a vibrant showcase for the new & improved stadia that had sprung up in the wake of the money pouring into the game via the Murdoch/Sky sponsored creation of the Premier League. There was a downside though, & one of them was an influx of people poncing off the sport & its newly regained popularity. The aforementioned politicians, especially the liar & future  Prime Minister Tony Blair, were among this obnoxious & unwanted breed. Give me a football hater who stays true to their code any day. To go to football in the late 1980’s was to be seen as a weird mix of sporting geek & social pariah. Suddenly, God help us, it was fashionable again. It was laughable to see ageing music writers, belatedly sussing  they could not sustain a living any longer by wearing baseball caps the wrong way round & pretending to like Public Enemy, now adopting football as a meal ticket into middle age. I shared football grounds with some desperate people in the 1980’s but at least knew that all of them, for whatever reasons they had, wanted to be there, not merely to be seen there.

The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw seemed to typify this trend. Plenty of people did see Robin Friday play. I saw him at least twice, a clearly talented & charismatic performer. Sadly, I can’t remember anything about him at Fratton Park on this occasion. If the title of the book was aimed at younger readers fine, but clearly there are scores of greater players than Robin Friday they never saw. As for old farts like Hewitt & me, if you didn’t see him perhaps you didn’t go to enough matches until it was deemed cool to do so again. In fairness, however, the book is a decent read, largely because of the frenetic lifestyle of its sadly doomed subject. Robin was never going to make old bones & must have been a nightmare to be around. His 38 years witnessed three marriages. One wedding ended in a free for all with the wedding gifts being purloined, including an apparently generous stash of cannabis. Robin apparently also took LSD in his playing days & was an enthusiastic drinker, once taking to the dance floor in a Reading nightclub to strut his funky stuff totally naked save for the hobnail boots on his feet. He once left a bar citing boredom only to reappear shortly afterwards carrying a swan he had acquired in the intervening period. He was a wild presence on the football pitch too on occasions, managing to get sent off seven times in his Isthmian League career prior to joining Reading. Even legendary hard men like Tommy Smith & Chelsea’s own Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris found it quite difficult to get sent off in those days. Not Robin. A few months after the Portsmouth game, he left Reading for Cardiff City, his last appearance for The Royals being one I witnessed at a snowy, ice-cold Manor Ground in the last few days of 1976. His arrival at his new club was delayed by him only having a platform ticket for the entire journey & being detained by Transport Police until his new manager arrived & settled the debt. This set the tone for a short & unhappy stay at Cardiff despite a glorious 2 goal debut performance & his wrongfully being credited with dealing with  Bobby Moore as an opponent by spitefully grasping the great man’s testicles. This is one story that is not entirely true if only because Bobby Moore only had one testicle, having had the other removed due to cancer in the mid 1960’s, prior to his World Cup heroics. Another story in dispute about Friday is that having been sent off for kicking Mark Lawrenson in the face (yes, that Mark Lawrenson) he returned to the dressing rooms & compounded the felony by defecating into the latter’s kit bag. Hewitt’s book does not mention this, & Lawrenson has, to my knowledge, never confirmed or denied it. If it is true it’s  no wonder he always sounds so world-weary. Mr Friday did have form in the fecal department, once reacting to a poor Reading performance at Mansfield, to which he had been excluded, by depositing a sneaky  Richard The 3rd into the team bath. It may be fun recounting these tales, but I can’t help thinking of Jack Dee’s response to a zealous hi-fi salesman trying to sell him a system that would make it sound, he was assured, like the band were actually in the room. ‘I like The Pogues but I don’t want them in my living room.’ Friday slipped out of football & into obscurity, then prison, for impersonating a police officer in an attempt to steal everyone else’s drugs. He was just 38 when he died. RIP Robin & a Happy 75th Birthday for his former team-mate Ray Hiron next month.

In many ways Bobby Moore was a real life, defensive Roy Of The Rovers. Robin Friday was the anti Roy Race. Roy’s life may have been blighted by tragedy & disaster, but they were rarely self-inflicted. It’s great to have him back in the trusty hands of Rebellion &  I look forward to sneaking into Oxford’s best bookshop to buy a copy of the first graphic novel in the series later in the year. Good old Waterstones.  Doubtless there will be less kidnappings at the hands of swarthy bandits on ill-advised summer tours. He’ll have enough on his hands warding off internet trolls. Hopefully he doesn’t lose either a foot or a wife this time, & though there will be a need to adapt to changing times, I think we can be confident we will never see him carry a swan into a pub, impersonate a police officer to snaffle other people’s drugs, or poo in anyone’s kit bag. Not even one belonging to Mark Lawrenson.

Welcome back Roy.

Small Boy Unwillingly To Spurs

RIP Rodney Bewes. Looking suitably uncomfortable in a Newcastle shirt.

28/09/1974 – Spurs 1 Middlesbrough 2

Rodney Bewes died last week. This is a huge source of sadness for me as he appeared in the wonderful film Billy Liar (starring his friend & fellow Stamford Bridge regular Tom Courtenay) & also the most beautifully written & performed British sitcom of all time, the peerless Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?  My sister once saw him making his way to the ground during the show’s heyday, prior to the yuletide match/punch up versus West Ham in 1974. ‘He’s going very grey’ she said. Watching Chelsea regularly had that effect on many back then. Knowing that he & co-star James Bolam didn’t really get on & hadn’t spoken for 41 years ( a fact that has made Bolam’s recent, belated rebuttal of any suggestions of a rift rather unconvincing) can make you feel art is imitating life when watching certain episodes. One of my favourites is Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?  in which Rodney’s alter ego Bob & his social-climbing wife Thelma drag a reluctant Bolam’s doggedly working class & proudly Northern character Terry to a dinner party hosted by an old school friend & her affluent husband, who is quickly revealed to be both a Southerner & a Chelsea fan. The latter revelation leads to a swift, spiteful burst of invective from Terry. Was there a certain relish in relaying those lines from Mr Bolam given that Rodney Bewes was himself a Chelsea supporter? I guess we’ll never know. The day after this sad news broke I worked late & got home having succeeded in avoiding the score of that afternoon’s Qarabag game rather more fruitfully than Bob & Terry’s more strenuous (& much, much funnier) efforts at avoiding the England result in Bulgaria during the now legendary No Hiding Place.

Bob & Terry were always partial to wistful conversations about the loss of their youth & the people & paraphernalia that had helped decorate it, so I shall honour them by remembering a rather melancholy day from my dim & distant past. The aforementioned West Ham game in 1974 was my first trip to Stamford Bridge that season, but as far as I am concerned it should most certainly not have been. It should have been the Wolves game three months earlier. But in what Bob & Terry would doubtless have described as one of life’s bitter ironies I was both several miles & a world away, reluctantly & sulkily popping my White Hart Lane cherry.

There were a few false starts for my 12-year-old self in 1974. I had purchased my first packet of cigarettes, parting with 13 & a half pence for ten Players No.6, then the fag of choice for most aspiring delinquents. The thrill of  the purchase threatened to turn sour immediately, as I ran into my ardently anti-smoking mum on leaving the shop. A narrow escape, but she doesn’t know to this day. Like most people she won’t read this. I smoked a couple but gave the rest away, leaving the real nicotine party to start as a dopey, doom laden student sometime in the early part of the next decade.

I also took to the dance floor for the first time. A slow dance at that no less. Hesitant & inept, & also not repeated for some years after, or indeed very often since. She was 13. Perfect. A much older woman, guiding my faltering feet around the floor as the heady combination of her perfume & nicotine tinged hair gloriously attacked my senses. I was rather smitten. The song? Given it was a disco for the recently pubic it was not going to be achingly cool. The DJ didn’t have any Can bootlegs to hand. Instead it was that lovely, yearning & evocative slice of Philadelphia cheese When Will I See You Again?  by The Three Degrees. The title begs a question. In the case of Mrs Robinson & myself the answer was simple. Never. I do hope she’s well. Probably a granny now. Tomorrow’s almost over. Today went by so fast.

Being taken to Spurs was the lamest false start of all though. It happened during a weekend visit to my dad’s cousin Ann & her family in Kent. This usually signified a trip to Chelsea in my eyes, though my luck had run out in February 1969 when the snow came hurtling down on the way to Stamford Bridge for a FA Cup 5th round tie against Stoke. Ann’s husband Alan bravely battled the elements in trying to get us there but common sense prevailed & Alan, my dad & a brattish & extremely disappointed 6-year-old  returned  to Kent for a snowy, late afternoon kick about as darkness descended. The match was postponed anyway & in Scott Cheshire’s Illustrated History Of Chelsea there is a picture of a snowbound, empty Stamford Bridge from that afternoon. I still wince when I see it. It would have been my first ever Chelsea game. I managed to catch up with both teams in the same tournament the following year, seeing Stoke, with the magnificent Gordon Banks in goal, at Oxford in Round 3 & Chelsea at home to Burnley three weeks later. Alan went to that game with us & on our next trip to Kent in 1972 we saw two Tommy Baldwin goals rescue a point in a knock about end of season 3-3  draw with Newcastle. Tommy’s second goal was the first I ever saw Chelsea score standing on The Shed. I also recall my dad smiling indulgently as I enthusiastically waved my blue & white woollen scarf (knitted by my Nan of course, everyone had a football scarf knitted by their Nan back then) as Peter Bonetti led the lads towards us for the pre-match warm up. ‘He’s been waiting all day to do that’ he said to Alan. All day? More like three years.

So Dad & Alan announcing we were going to Spurs in 1974 instead was a shock, causing my head to fill with a one word mantra. Bollocks. Bollocks bollocks bollocks bollocks bollocks bollocks. Double & indeed triple bollocks. With hindsight  it is not difficult to see that Chelsea do not entice the neutral fan by 1974. Finishing the enormous East Stand has at least seen the end of the joint sight of cranes & West Brompton Cemetry sucking the atmosphere out of the entire ground. Sadly this construction has also crippled the club’s finances & the team is crap. However, I am 12 years old  & not remotely neutral. The bollocks do not cease. There will be plenty more bollocks before this day is done. I don’t actually say bollocks of course. Everyone in Kent is far too nice. I merely resort to whingeing all the way to White Hart Lane. Nearly all the way. Eventually, Alan enters a newsagent & returns with a football magazine. ‘Have a read of that & cheer up’ he says. I feel mildly ashamed & manage a mumbled thank you. At least I have something to distract me when the game starts.

I wouldn’t have minded but Spurs were rubbish in 1974 too. Actually, that’s a lie. I would have minded. Very much indeed. Nevertheless, they WERE rubbish. Their legendary manager Bill Nicholson had just departed, a man who had served with distinction as a player & then led them to The Double, leaving with ten grand in his back pocket & minus the obligatory Testimonial. He lived in a house near the ground & had lived, eaten & breathed Spurs since 1938. Forgive me if I spared my tears when Mourinho left Chelsea with millions on two separate occasions. Happily, Nicholson did return to White Hart Lane later but football clubs really have been run by some charmless slimeballs over the years haven’t they? There is a core of the team that has brought them various domestic & European trophies in recent years, but it is a team composed of players largely past their best. Mike England, Martin Chivers, Cyril Knowles & Phil Beal have all peaked. Goalkeeper Pat Jennings & Martin Peters will both have better days when they move on, down the road at Arsenal in the case of Jennings to the eternal chagrin of Spurs fans. The Gunners themselves are also a pretty miserable outfit in 1974 though. The only London team to shine is West Ham, who pluck a couple of strikers from the lower divisions in Billy Jennings & Alan Taylor & after a poor start enjoy a buoyant season, with the former thriving in the league & the latter scoring twice in all the last three rounds of the FA Cup to bring the Hammers home a trophy at the end of the season.

There is every chance Spurs will lose on this day as I fervently want them to. The opposition is Middlesbrough, a new, brutally efficient addition to Division 1, as it was called then & should be now. They had visited White Hart Lane  less than three weeks earlier in the League Cup & won 4-0. They have one of Celtic’s legendary Lisbon Lions in Bobby Murdoch, a fine player even if he appears to have a spare match ball stuck up his shirt. Alongside him in midfield is the best Leeds player never to play for Leeds, the young Graham Souness, gifted & nasty in apparently equal measure. They have two of the country’s most promising attacking midfielders in David Armstrong & David Mills. In keeping with the times they have the obligatory portly striker, Alan Foggon, who would seem to be no stranger to a pork pie & a pint. He later joins Man Utd & sinks without trace. The real brutal efficiency lies at the back though where they have a frankly terrifying defence. Craggs. Boam. Maddren. Spraggon. These names to mutton chopped strikers of the ’70’s are akin to those of Ronnie Kray & Eddie Richardson to miscreant smaller time villains in London’s gangland areas in the 1960’s. They may not have carved tram lines into your face with knives or tortured you by attaching electrodes to your genitals but God alone knows what they dip the studs of their boots in. In another Likely Lads episode Terry ends up in court for a pub brawl which begins when he refers to Middlesbrough as ‘a bunch of cloggers’ to one of their fans, played by James  Bolam’s future New Tricks co-star Alun Armstrong. Later on, Armstrong appears in Porridge, another vehicle for the brilliant comedy writing duo Dick Clement & Ian Le Frenais, as a con called Spraggon. Given some of the on pitch tackles performed by the ‘Boro left back of the same name  it is not likely to be a coincidence. Prison was the least some of them deserved.

Middlesbrough are managed by Jack Charlton. I am hugely conflicted about Big Jack. Resolutely working class, fond of a ciggie (as was his more extravagantly gifted brother Bobby, who played his last game for Man Utd at Chelsea & was presented on the pitch with a silver cigarette holder by the hosts!) he was a World Cup hero & always an endearing commentary box presence, forgetting names & foregoing the usual media niceties with his blunt appraisals of matches & the participants within them. He once gave my dad an autograph in the toilets at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Hopefully he had washed his hands. Metaphorically, they remain eternally filthy to many, due to his being a devout lifetime member of, & apologist for, the detested Revie era Leeds. Dirty Leeds. He gave the Irish nation the footballing ride of their lives but it was ghastly to watch at times, & the 1-1 draw with England in Italy in 1990 remains comfortably the worst international football match I have ever seen.

Spraggon takes out football’s original Baldy Man, Ralph Coates, within seconds of the match starting at The Lane. Coates spends the entire match switching wings having been walloped by either Spraggon or right full back Craggs. Referee Jack Taylor gives him zero protection & poor Coates appears to give up in the end. Being bald in this  most hirsute of decades means Ralph spends a lot of time sweeping up the hugely long strands of hair he has cultivated in  a vain attempt to cover up the glaringly obvious gleaming dome at the top of his head. He looked great at Burnley & had been in the provisional 28 man England  squad for the 1970 World Cup. He scored a League Cup Final winner for Spurs against Norwich in 1973 but never seemed to fulfill his potential there. The late, great DJ John Peel was a huge fan & used to bemoan the fact that he had joined Spurs rather than Liverpool. His bustling endeavour would surely have worked a treat in a Shankley or Paisley era Liverpool midfield. His future Leyton Orient colleague Stan Bowles was less complimentary however. Years after retirement he talked to style magazine Blitz from his local while leafing through a scrapbook of photos & clippings from the ex QPR’s scallywag’s career. ”There’s me wi’ that cunt Ralph Coates! He was fucking useless!” Bit harsh Stanley.

Ralph Coates in  more palatable Burnley kit


Ralph does at least have a hand in the Spurs goal, floating in a nice ball to the back post which Jimmy Neighbour knocks in. ‘Boro had taken the lead prior to this & retake the lead before the first half is out. The bollocks mantra in my head gets replaced  by another after we get in the ground, namely  ‘I don’t like Spurs, I’ve never liked Spurs & I never will like Spurs.’ It remains there to this day. Their fans prove to be the moaniest old bunch of bleating  ingrates I had ever encountered up to that point. They are particularly keen on berating one of Big Jack’s ’66 colleagues, the enigmatic but brilliant Martin Peters, eternally linked with Alf Ramsey’s description of him as ‘ten years ahead of his time.’ Frankly, I would have killed to have a World Cup hero playing for Chelsea. The nearest Chelsea player to him in my memory is Gus Poyet, also great in the air, blessed with the ability to time a ghost like run into the opposition box unannounced to score vital goals, & liable to go missing for lengthy periods of the game on occasions. Peters once scored all four Spurs goals away at Old Trafford. As a midfielder! You might think the Spurs ‘faithful’ would cut him some slack after that. Apparently not. A year earlier I had seen England beat Scotland 1-0 at Wembley. After the game, autograph hunting with my friend Richard, we spied a 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, heading in an Alan Ball cross in front of 100,000 people. Seven years earlier he had scored here in a World Cup final. Spin on a couple of decades & people are queuing at Stamford Bridge for autographs from suits like Ken Bates & Peter Kenyon, the egotists truly having taken over the asylums by then.

There are no second half goals & Middlesbrough win, though even I am forced to admit that the overriding memory of the day is being privy to that most odious of footballing spectacles, the celebrity ref pushing himself to the forefront at the expense of the match. Jack Taylor is fresh from refereeing that year’s World  Cup Final, famously awarding Holland a penalty against hosts West Germany in the first minute of the game, but his failure to protect Coates is at best a symptom of sloppy complacency, at worst an indication of huge arrogance. This era heralded the dawn of referees  becoming personalities in their own right, from moustachioed Gordon Hill, crowing in his book how he allowed ‘honest clogger’ Norman Hunter to boot Bowles up in the air because the latter moaned too much, to the Dickensian Roger Kirkpatrick, who even took to the tannoy at half time at one game I went to lest we be allowed to forget his glorious existence for ten minutes. Worst of all is Clive ‘The Book’ Thomas from Treorchy. Thomas was such a refereeing genius that he decided he could time a game to the nearest split second, infamously blowing the final whistle while a Brazil corner was in the process of being headed into the Sweden goal by the fabulous Zico in the 1978 World Cup Finals. Anyone with the mildest hint of brain might think that if there wasn’t time for meaningful action to arise from the corner then time might sensibly have been called before it was taken. Not Thomas. Still, his name got plastered all over the sports pages from Rhyl to Rio which is presumably exactly what he craved. These self adoring berks ruined many a game. Face it chaps, referees are glorified traffic wardens, the best you can do is concentrate on quietly letting a match flow & interpreting the rules sensibly & fairly. You should be like the ideal small child I failed to be for Dad & Alan on this day. Seen & not heard. Actually, scrub that.  Ideally you should be practically INVISIBLE.

Chelsea lose limply too, the excellent John Richards scoring the only goal of the game there for Wolves. This is apparently supposed to appease me in some way. It doesn’t. Having a passion for a football team is not a passive pastime, you want to feel you have participated in the event, & there are always consolations to be  found in having witnessed even the most dismal of defeats, through the knowledge that you cheered, shouted, groaned, laughed & finally despaired along with all the other fellow sufferers. There is a lot of suffering that season & in another of those bitter ironies Chelsea’s relegation is all but sealed with a 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane in April. The ghastly North Londoners avoid the drop by a single point but go down themselves two seasons later. Arsenal finish 16th. Chelsea win at Highbury on Boxing Day thanks to a Chris Garland brace. At that point it looks bleak for them, but Chelsea generously sell Garland to a main relegation rival in Leicester City. He immediately goes on a terrific scoring run of 8 goals in 10 games, easing Leicester out of trouble & his former club deep into the brown stuff. Their plight enables The Gunners to clamber to safety too. The top London team that season are QPR. They finish 11th. The following season they come within an inch of pipping Liverpool to the title under the leadership of Dave Sexton, sacked by Chelsea not long after the Wolves match. By this time the Blues are in the bottom half of Division 2.

I only ever returned to Spurs with Chelsea after this particular afternoon, & am delighted to say that I have never, ever, seen them win a football match, 46 years after I first saw them taken apart at WBA due to a barnstorming hat trick by the splendid Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown, witnessed with relish by my Uncle Bert, a Baggies season ticket holder for many years. Two years after the White Hart Lane debacle we visit Kent again. This time there are no  arguments. Spurs are away at Derby as we stand on the North Terrace & watch a Ray Wilkins inspired Chelsea 4-3 win over Oldham Athletic. Spurs lose 8-2.  Dish best served cold & all that. I don’t laugh. Not much anyway. Perhaps the odd titter. On our last family visit to Kent in 1978 both teams are away & we go to Craven Cottage where I have the pleasure of being spat on by Stoke fans leaning over the terraces before I have even got past the programme sellers. Why why why Delilah? Because I’m there presumably. Cheers fellas. You & Ryan Shawcross deserve each other.


5p Wherever You May Be

Happy Birthday Charlie

Charlie Cooke is 75 on Saturday. The two English clubs he represented will be doing battle at Selhurst Park on the same day. 22 gym toned specimens of 21st century physical magnificence, all bulging biceps & tattoos, most of them supremely talented members of their profession.

Few if any of them will have even a smidgen of the style & charisma of Charlie however. He was the man with the dancing feet, a footballing Fred Astaire, a player who could in younger days speed past a full back with that slightly hunched gait but whose supreme ball skills were always more noticeable & ultimately memorable. He seemed to glide rather than run anyway, usually with the ball seemingly tied to his boots. When you have as much time as Charlie Cooke appeared to with the ball at his feet there is really no need to rush.

Charlie honed his skills in Scotland during the era of the Tanner ‘Ba, the ubiquitous small footballs credited by many distinguished players of the post war era for developing their considerable footballing abilities. A nation that produced Jimmy Johnstone, Jim Baxter, Denis Law & many more extravagantly skilled footballers clearly have much to praise the manufacturers of the Tanner Ba’ for. Additionally, Charlie states in his autobiography that there were jugglers in the Cooke family history, & his mazy dribbles were a distinguished nod towards that tradition, & at least partly inspired by it. Modern Scottish youth is doubtless amply populated with teenage boys who can get Scott Brown to dribble like Charlie Cooke on FIFA 18. Sadly, that fact also accounts for there being a shortage of young footballers who can do more than merely dream of emulating Charlie for real, leaving that nation stuck with Scott Brown. It’s a familiar tale everywhere in fairness.

Always a slightly vulnerable looking figure on the pitch, Charlie would look mighty puny against the average modern-day footballer. Charlie was always deceptive though. There wasn’t much of him & most of his play betrayed a cerebral, rather than physical, approach to his craft. Watching a rerun of the 1970 FA Cup replay against Leeds does erode a few myths about the man though. His work rate is immense, he frequently drops deep to help out a frequently harassed defence, & also, & perhaps most surprisingly, manages to take out both flame haired nutter Billy Bremner & the terrifying Norman Hunter during this famously brutal encounter. It wasn’t usually in his nature but Charlie showed he could mix it at Old Trafford that night, as well as supplying the sublime chip leading to Peter Osgood’s headed second half equalizer. You can’t beat a chipped assist & Charlie’s is one of the top 3 I can remember in Chelsea history, up there with Di Matteo’s through ball for Dennis Wise in the San Siro in 1999 & the latter’s own perfect sand wedge to Gianfranco Zola during the Cup Winners Cup Final in Stockholm the year before.

I have thought a lot about the man ‘The Guardian’ once snidely referred to as the ‘rich man’s Pat Nevin’  just recently. Matt Lorenzo’s documentary on Bobby Moore includes a snippet of footage of the great man’s unlikely & ill-fated first foray into football management at Oxford City. The clip showed Moore & Oxford City owner Tony Rosser cracking open a bottle of champagne at their shabby White House ground. Sandwiched between them holding the bubbly  is a very nice man called Les who was the father of a school friend of mine. My dad & brother-in-law both played for Oxford City & my grandad was a devoted fan who once spent a summer single-handedly repainting areas of the ground. Les, like my father & grandfather, is sadly no longer with us (along with poor Bobby Moore of course) & the White House ground itself is long gone, so this blink & you miss it footage induced some heartfelt pangs of nostalgia. It also reminded me of one of the few childhood bets I both won & managed to collect on. It was a bet with Nick, Les’s son, & it concerned the one & only Charlie Cooke. Had I been growing up in Scotland in the 1950’s it would have bought me two Tanner ‘Ba’s, though I could have practiced with them for years and still been completely fucking useless.

Charlie had left Chelsea in 1972, joining Crystal Palace along with full back Paddy Mulligan. I saw him  play for them the day before his 31st birthday, in an away game at Oxford, neat & tidy as ever on the ball, but looking a little lost trying to impose his subtle midfield promptings within the hurly burly of a Division 2 game. It was like asking Andre Previn to conduct The Rubettes. By then he was close to losing favour with maverick Palace manager Malcolm Allison anyway. The Allison era is cooed over by many & he is regularly described as a genius. He had one decent cup run but spent a fortune & got Palace relegated two seasons running. Never mind, he donned a famously stupid hat during the cup run & also once got the players to share the team bath with jazz mag regular Fiona Richmond. Never mind the quality feel the swagger. He was the original talented coach who didn’t cut it on his own in management. Sometimes you just feel the word genius is a tad overused. Preoccupied with newer toys Don Rogers & Peter Taylor, Allison was only too glad to let Charlie return home to the Bridge in early 1974 for the princely sum of £17,000. Reputedly Winston Bogarde’s weekly Burger King budget a quarter of a century later.

He remained for most of that often unhappy decade, along with Peter Bonetti & Ron Harris, while fellow early ’70’s icons Osgood & Hudson departed, followed shortly after by John Hollins & David Webb. The latter two ended up playing alongside the brilliant Stan Bowles during QPR’s impressive tilt at winning the league in 1976, a team not wanting for maverick flair ably managed by a man derided at Chelsea as unable to handle such talent, one Dave Sexton. Charlie may not have saved Sexton’s job second time around but he did prove an inspired & popular signing. Such was his form in the early part of 1975 that he started to be touted as a candidate for recall to the next Scotland squad. Shortly before departing on a school skiing trip to France I boldly tipped this to happen. It had been mentioned in my old man’s ‘Daily Express’ so it had to be true didn’t it? Nick scoffed & the 5p bet was struck.

Spirits began to flag halfway through the skiing trip. Cauterets proved to be of limited appeal to a gang of oikish 12-13 year old comprehensive school kids once we had been banned from frequenting the Lunar Park, an amusement arcade near the hotel that was also near a bar run by a very jolly fat man who was happy to serve us beer with predictably Doulton damaging results. We were also questioning the Gallic reputation for culinary excellence. The food was simply horrible & meals eaten to the backgound noise of the bread for the following day’s packed lunches being cut with what sounded like an electric saw. Every day the rock hard bread & hard-boiled egg were quickly discarded on the way to the mountain & only the requisite Penguin bars retained. That’s right. Penguin bars. Tres sophistique. By mid-week we were starving & a visit to a nearby cinema did little to dispel the gloom. The village had a large poster proudly promoting the famous charms of Sylvia Kristel in ‘Emmanuelle’ but we were treated to a Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin film. In 1975! Our hunger was slightly assuaged by a crêpe pancake night in the hotel, following which I slipped into the television room at the sound of a football match taking place. A murky black & white screen made identifying the teams difficult, as did the foreign commentary, but we eventually worked out it was Scotland playing away in Spain. Poor quality black & white footage was the norm for games in Spain during this period. It was not until the end of the year that Franco died & the country began to slowly emerge from totalitarian bleakness. I know the game ended 1-1 but am not sure that was clear to us at the time. I didn’t care because one English word emerged from the excitable commentary amid the flickering gloom that lifted my spirits immeasurably. ‘Cooke.’ Charlie had made the Scotland team, & me 5p in the process. Good old Charlie. I blew it all in the corner shop at the end of the road from our school when we returned from the ill-fated skiing trip, namely my favourite Rhubarb & Custard sweets from the jars on the top shelf, distracting the shop assistant long enough to enable Steven Kershaw to fill his pockets with apples. The shop is long gone now. Can’t think why. To be a teenage Chelsea fan in 1975 was to be oddly akin to a cranky, incapacitated parent where our older players were concerned, deifying the absent who had flown the nest for pastures new while simultaneously taking for granted their more loyal siblings who remained true to the cause in less glamorous times. I was pretty happy with Charlie that night though. If only we hadn’t been barred from that bar near the Lunar Park.

I also thought of Charlie while flicking through an excellent book of photos from Blondie’s Chris Stein. There is one wonderful 1976 photo of band members Clem Burke & Debbie Harry walking along a busy New York street & clearly stopping everyone on it in their tracks in the process. They look like they have been beamed in from another planet & another decade. Both would look great wearing the same outfits in any street today. Everyone else looks, perfectly understandably, like they are in a picture from 1976. The fact that Burke & Debbie Harry, no stranger to stopping traffic in future years, were not even famous at that point only makes the picture more striking. it reminded me of the one time I was in close proximity to Charlie Cooke, as he emerged from an away game dressing room, ironically enough also in 1976. Accompanied by an elegant & sophisticated woman who I now know to be his American wife, he was wearing an immaculate, beautifully cut dark suit, with a stylish & uncommonly short haircut for the era, that familiar moustache also finely trimmed & groomed in the style of an old style Hollywood film star. He stuck out like a sore thumb against the high-waisted flares & stack heels of his largely younger ream mates, & even more among the Parka clad autograph hunters with their beetle crushing Freeman, Hardy & Willis shoes. Looking back it was like seeing Ronald Colman or Clark Gable on the set of ‘Confessions Of a Window Cleaner.’ If he had been a musician he would have been Bryan Ferry with his younger colleagues forming the audience on ‘Top Of the Pops.’ I suspect I thought Graham Wilkins & Teddy Maybank, with their mops of blonde hair & medallions, looked cooler at the time. How wrong I was. The image of Charlie strolling out of that dressing room is remarkably evocative to this day. If only the wonderful Hugh Hastings had been there to capture the moment like Chris Stein. I would pay a lot to have that photo.

Would Charlie have been a star in the modern game? He might have had to bulk up a bit, & been asked to show the same pragmatism he displayed against Leeds more regularly. A few more goals might be required too. I only ever saw one, scored in a 3-2 win against Newcastle shortly after returning from the Cauterets trip. The idea that a man with that much vision, balance & deftness of touch could not be accommodated today is unthinkable though. This is also a man who spent his formative years having lumps kicked out of him in Scotland & who worked on building sites bricklaying & hod carrying in the summer during his early days as a professional at Aberdeen. Charlie was no soft touch & he would have massively more protection from referees now than he got back in the day. He was a class act. I reckon he would have been just fine.

A shilling on it?

Many Happy Returns Charlie – & Many More Of Them!






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. Liverpool pull a goal back, but 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 several 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 on to 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.