Ron Green – The Shrew Ron Ron

26/11/1988 Chelsea 2 Shrewsbury Town 0

Hats off to Ron Green – lord of all he surveyed on this grey autumnal day at Stamford Bridge 30 years ago. A small sample of his brilliance recorded above.

 

Ron Green. Even the name conjures up images to engulf the ageing fan in the warmest of retro glows. His superb performance at Chelsea in 1988 remains one of the greatest goalkeeping performances I have ever witnessed & in retrospect a last hurrah for the era so readily evoked by the name itself. Ron Green. A solid yeoman with a solid yeoman’s name, a worthy holder of the flame for those great keepers (& characters) who were everywhere in the 1960’s & ’70’s, cornerstones of the English game. Harry Dowd. Charlie Wright. Roy Burton. Ken Mulhearn. Bill Glazier. Colin Boulton. You can imagine any one of those names belonging to a peripheral character in Coronation Street back then, one of those types hanging around the bar at the Rovers Return just long enough to garner a one night only bunk up with Elsie Tanner before beating a hasty small hours retreat, the old warhorse of crushed romantic dreams left once again with little more than additional heartache & badly smudged mascara. These are names evoking fast fading memories of Players No 6, pink evening sports papers, roasted chestnuts & Double Diamond, & also, lest we go full jumpers for goalposts here, fans amending Build A Bonfire to sing ‘You Ain’t Got One ‘Cos You’re A Bastard, You’re A Bastard Referee.’ Football & society may be much changed but the contempt for match officials at  football remains firmly intact & is all too often well deserved. Blame the likes of Clive Thomas, Graham Poll & Mike Dean equally. I  always do.

Admittedly It was easy to be generous to Ron Green on this occasion. Chelsea were 2-0 up  against Shrewsbury before Green really got into his stride, Bobby Campbell’s team riding the crest of an unbeaten wave that would last another five months. Shrewsbury were never going to stage a comeback based around their loanee goalkeeper’s impressive exploits, & there was a fund of goodwill towards the opposition that day, their former Chelsea ranks swelled by terrace legend Micky Thomas & Phil Priest as well as the simultaneously hilarious & terrifying Doug Rougvie. Ian McNeill, John Neal’s popular assistant at Chelsea in the first half of the decade, was also the Shrews boss at the time.

Within barely a year of Ron’s successful efforts of depriving Chelsea a near double figure victory we entered the 1990’s. Things then changed. Quickly. There would still be the occasional Fred Barber to keep Ron company in his goalkeeping dotage but soon we were ensconced in a world of foreign goalies as the long held, seemingly unassailable British belief that our keepers were the best in the world foundered. Move over Perry Digweed, it’s time for Ludek Miklosko, Espen Baardsen, Dmitri Kharine, Hans Segers & Pavel Srnicek. Mysterious, exotic sounding names redolent of cold war Bond villains & high end international drug barons. Goalkeeping duties at Man Utd back in 1990 were shared between Les Sealey & Jim Leighton. Names that would have fitted your local brickie or plumber. After the departure of Peter Schmeichel the new century at Old Trafford began with the arrival of Fabien Barthez via a short disastrous flirtation with the ill fated MassimoTaibi, both sounding like they could be casino based international playboys. Now the English game has Claudio Bravo, Hugo Lloris & Rui Patricio, sounding glamorous & intriguing regardless of the reality of their respective backgrounds. Fabien Barthez even had a supermodel girlfriend, Linda Evangelista, notorious for saying she would not even get out of bed for less than £10,000 a day. Ron Green probably struggled to clear £10,000 a year at the start of his career. Never mind Ron. Balding of pate with a minor hint of paunch you nonetheless put on a goalkeeping masterclass at Chelsea that day. Here we come to praise the stalwart, traditional British goalkeeper that time & Murdoch billions has done its best to bury. Despite denying me an avalanche of Chelsea goals against Shrewsbury Town the memories are curiously fond. The selection of clips from that season’s highlights video are a sample of Ron’s excellence. A splendid tip over the bar from a near post Kevin Wilson flick & a superb point range block from a close range Kerry Dixon diving header are the best on show here, not to mention thwarting the valiant attempt of defender Doug Rougvie to repeat his famous own goal at Wembley wearing the blue of Chelsea in the 1986 Full Members Cup final. Ron spared Doug’s blushes this time but not future nightmares for the rest of us at Stamford Bridge. Big Doug leant his head back & laughed in the aftermath of this incident,  revealing a ghoulish smile, punctuated by missing teeth, that rendered Freddie Krueger’s cinematic grin  less terrifying than that of Bungle from Rainbow in comparison.

It is always pleasing to doff your cap at such an outstanding performance for goalkeeping is a precarious existence. No other performer in football walks the hero to zero tightrope with the same frequency. When things are going well a keeper is frequently a figure of wonder & sometimes mystery. In my formative years we heard tales of the enigmatic, black clad Russian Lev Yashin, lithe, agile & exotic. Sadly there was not much footage available to view with Yashin spending most of his career playing behind the Iron Curtain. Here we had the all encompassing brilliance of the late, great Gordon Banks. I had the very real pleasure of seeing him play a couple of times, so imposing he appeared to fill the goal yet in one of the last pictures I saw of him he was dwarfed standing next to the current Stoke stopperJack Butland. Stature on a football pitch can clearly not be measured merely by height & weight. Nonetheless some of the man mountains in the modern goal have scaled similar heights of brilliance, namely Denmark & Man Utd’s belligerent  Schmeichel in the 1990’s, & presently the splendid  Bayern Munich keeper Manuel Neuer, both earning less affection but almost as much admiration as the men from yesteryear. The supernatural reflexes of  Atletico Madrid & Slovakia’s Jan Oblak also see him currently vying for the joint accolades of  current best keeper in the world & all time great. It must be said there were fewer plaudits for Mr Schmeichel’s mercifully shortlived ’90’s rap career.

This rather melancholy novel was a staple on many a young boy’s bookshelf in the early 1970’s. It is a rather cynical but doubtless honest riposte  to the lovable 1950’s style cliches that infused comic book football legends like Roy Of The Rovers (Tiger) & Billy’s Boots (Scorcher)

Brian Glanville did not eschew cliche with the book’s title though, albeit one superglued to the truth. Goalkeepers are indeed different. Always have been & hopefully always will be. Maverick eccentricity abounds in the world of the goalkeeper & has done since the early days of the professional game. Chelsea bought Sheffield United’s legendary shot stopper William Fatty Foulke for £50 in 1905. He reputedly weighed in regularly around the twenty stone mark & plenty of tales are attached to his legend, often as tall as he was wide. At the tail end of the twentieth century we enjoyed World Cup sightings of Colombian Rene Higuita & Jose Luis Chilavert of Paraguay. Higuita’s extravagant mane of hair left him looking like Charles II in a tracksuit when he played at Wembley against England in 1995, during whch he famously unveiled his outrageous scorpion kick, contemptuously flipping his legs over his head & clearing  a strange cross cum shot from Jamie Redknapp with his heels. Higuita clearly had as much regard for Mr Redknapp’s footballing prowess as most of us have for his tedious modern day punditry. Rene scored nearly 50 professional goals from free kicks & penalties, & frequently indulged his fondness for joining in the play a long way from the goal he was primarily supposed to be defending. Sadly he missed the 1994 World Cup in America due to a spell in prison, courtesy of having received money for acting as a go-between in a child kidnapping case involving the infamous drug baron Pablo Escobar. Makes Peter Shilton’s pre-senile pro Brexit sloganeering  & one time alleged extra marital auto-erotic activities seem pretty tame. Rene’s contemporary Chilavert aced him on the goalscoring front, scoring 67 career goals including eight in international football for Paraguay. With both Jose Luis’s prison sentences having been suspended Higuita retains the edge on the porridge serving front though. Recent photographs of the long retired Chilavert suggest that William Foulke might sue anyone using the perennial soubriquet attached to his name were he alive today. Suffice to say that the Paraguayan is now one big chunk of hunk. All power to both him & Higuita anyway. Shine on you crazy diamonds.

There can undoubtedly be a dark side to the life of a goalkeeper. The most dramatic example of this is undoubtedly the sobering story of Robert Enke, deputy keeper in the German national team when he shocked an unsuspecting football world & threw himself in front of a train in 2009. He had struggled with deep periods of depression for many years & endured personal off pitch tragedy but his father later confirmed that football had also been a major contributory factor towards his awful & horribly premature death. Specific incidents & episodes in his career conspired to encourage the black dog to fester & linger throughout Enke’s career. After  making a vital mistake in 2003 playing for Fenerbahce he was traumatised at being bombarded with bottles, firelighters & mobile phones by angry fans. At Barcelona the sense of isolation felt by many a goalkeeper, frequently outsider loners in a team sport, had been compounded by a sense that coaches & playing colleagues generally did not believe in his abilities or facilitate his settling in at the club. While there he was reduced to the occasional appearance in domestic cup tournaments, never a high priority in Spain. Generally though it was continuing to conceal the fact of his serious depressive tendencies from the football world at large that proved the most debilitating, constant & ultimately fatal hurdle to overcome. In the case of goalkeeper John Budgie Burridge what seemed to be a peculiar but harmless, childlike obsession with his craft masked a problem that would only manifest itself fully on retirement. At a quite advanced stage of his career Burridge once claimed in an interview that he liked to take both his goalkeeping gloves & a football to bed with him, sometimes wearing his boots as well. He eventually retired at 47 after playing for more than two dozen clubs between 1969 & 1997. The career longevity was telling, a preoccupation with physical health supporting the continuation of the football life he loved seemingly overriding similar considerations for his mental well being. He ended up in The Priory simply unable to come to terms with the prospect of an existence without playing football. Thankfully he is now back in the game coaching  goalkeepers overseas.

The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus was a goalkeeper himself in his teenage years. ‘There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide’ he once wrote. If its shits & giggles you were after then an evening round at Albert’s was probably not the place to start but did he first formulate his ideas on acknowledging the true futility of human existence while standing between the sticks as a callow youth? Either way both his philosophical beliefs & goalkeeping exploits would doubtless have led him to appreciate the cruel irony of the stray dog incident at Griffin Park in 1969 when Brentford’s goalkeeper Chic Brodie was felled by a canine pitch invader running full pelt into him. Cue widespread mirth on the terraces. Not so funny for Chic. He sustained serious ligament damage in this freak incident & never played again, the laughter that rang around the ground as he lay in agony probably still ringing in his ears decades later.

The problem for all goalkeepers is that there is nowhere to hide when things go wrong. Miss three sitters as a striker but score a late winner & your aberrations are swiftly forgotten. A miskick or underhit pass to a colleague by any outfield player & there is a good chance a colleague will rescue the situation & spare your blushes. Often that colleague will be your goalkeeper. Unfortunately a string of brilliant saves made in a match will soon be overlooked by media & fans alike if you let one through your legs in the 89th minute & your team loses the game. Take lovely Peter Bonetti. A Chelsea hero with 600 appearances who famously helped the club to its 1970 first FA Cup win on one leg having been battered by Mick Jones of Leeds in the replay at Old Trafford. A year later a breathtaking late save secured a Cup Winners Cup final win over Real Marid. He was our Yashin, a slight but wonderfully agile & supremely fit man who still turned out for the veterans team into his ’60’s. Outside SW6 however, his name is eternally greeted with laughter & disdain in many quarters. He won seven international caps, keeping clean sheets in five with England winning six of these matches. Unfortunately the odd game out was the small matter of a World Cup quarter final, the first game he had played since his Old Trafford heroics. Bonetti had an off day. Somebody had to carry the can for the nation’s misery & it was the man known as The Cat, forever reminded about it by smartarses everywhere outside The Shed for the rest of his playing days. Several of his defensive colleagues went missing that day & appear to have been absent ever since whenever the postmortem recommences & the buck inevitably stops with Bonetti yet again. Another Chelsea goalkeeper, Dave Beasant, famously threw in three horrendous second half goals to cost his team the match against Norwich City in 1992. Within an hour of the final whistle his manager swiftly threw him to the lions, or more accurately the assortment of weasels regularly infesting the Chelsea press box back then. Many Blues fans were howling with rage long before he commenced his bowed head walk of shame off the pitch. As a fan I found his ineptitude that day infuriating but it was a hard heart that could not at least spare a thought for a broken looking Beasant at that moment. Inciting the rage of your own fans allied to the inevitable aftermath of frenzied media ridicule is a potent cocktail. Big Dave looked like the loneliest man in the world at quarter to five that day. God alone knows how poor Loris Karius coped after his notorious cock ups playing for Liverpool on the massive stage that was the 2018 Champions League Final against Real Madrid.

Being abused by your own fans may well be the worst experience for any footballer, but dealing with opposition supporters can also be a huge ordeal. Being closest to the terraces on the old days frequently involved goalkeepers running the gauntlet of a variety of missiles, from the ubiquitous toilet roll to darts, knives, coins, fireworks, ball bearings & whisky bottles. The fact that these were more commonly aimed at goalkeepers above other players was usually more logistical than personal but this was probably scant consolation at the time. Sometimes things did get personal too, especially for higher profile players, & often emphasising the complex & contradictory nature of the relationship between goalkeeper & fan. When Chelsea played Derby in the first match of the 1990-1 season Rams veteran goalkeeper Peter Shilton was given a resoundingly warm & effusive ovation by The Shed as he took his place between the sticks. Recently retired from international football & already over 40, Shilton had been part of the Italia ’90 England team that had helped restore faith in the national game after years of doom, gloom terrace violence & Terry Fenwick. For the previous decade he had not always been so fortunate though. After lurid reports of a late night marital misadventure in his car Shilton was goaded by supporters of rival clubs throughout spells at Nottingham Forest & Southampton. He was a brilliant keeper in his prime but in the first game after the story broke the taunts of the Arsenal crowd were loud even on television highlights & the game was lost for Forest after an uncharacteristic Shilton blunder. When injury required on loan Eric Nixon to brieflyreplace him in the Southampton goal at the Manor Ground a few years later the Oxford fans regaled him constantly with chants of Shilton’s With Your Missus. Nixon found it amusing apparently. Shilts may have found it harder to raise a smile. In 1995 David Seaman ran out at Stamford Bridge to a sea of theatrically flailing arms singing Let’s All Do The Seaman. Four days earlier Arsenal had lost the Cup Winners Cup final to Real Zaragoza, the winning goal an outrageous 45 yard shot from former Spurs midfielder Nayim which induced the  panicked & futile physical response from the Arsenal goalie now being reproduced by Blues fans in all four corners of the Chelsea ground. Seaman threw his head back & laughed & continued to smile thoughout most of the game depite the endless goading. His good humour departed only once, quite understandably, towards the end of the game, when a small section of supporters decided to bring his private life into the equation with Seaman Seaman Where’s Your Kids. Once again the proximity to the crowd rendered a goalkeeper vulnerable & exposed to pointless & wholly undeserved personal abuse.

Happily all is not torture & torment  in the world of the goalkeeper. I know little or nothing about Ron Green’s life away from the football pitch but like to believe that he was one of those many stalwarts of the goalkeeping game who seem to have played through their careers bereft of existential angst. I fondly imagine him as a Banks’s Bitter & Dominoes in the snug at his local kind of chap. I have no evidence for this of course. He may have spent his spare time paragliding & dropping acid for all I know, but he cut a calm, steady, frill & fuss free figure on the pitch. He was not a big name in football but this performance was remembered by the Chelsea faithful. Two years later he returned to Stamford Bridge for a 1990 League Cup tie against Walsall, unchanged save for the balding pate looking to have slightly advanced. Walsall were the exception to the knockout rule in this era which usually decreed that Chelsea would  lie down happily & spread their arse cheeks for any lower division opponent. Not Walsall though. We always battered Walsall. The first leg away had been won 5-0 & the second leg saw another comfortable win. Ron failed to repeat his 1988 heroics & conceded another four goals but The Shed showed they had not forgotten him, chanting Ronnie Ronnie Give Us A Wave, warmly delivered & reciprocated with the requested response by the man himself despite having just shipped eight or nine goals over the course of the two legged tie by this point. His name would not generally have been tripping off the tongues of too many in the SW6 area. The Shrewsbury game was the only explanation. In fact, while generosity & opposition players were usually alien concepts in The Shed during the 1980’s, it was goalkeepers who were usually the exception. For four years prior to the club’s absurd relegation in 1988 there had been frequent visits from Liverpool & Everton, then the two best teams in the country. Opposition to be respected but not usually engendering any love. Nevertheless I can recall both their goalkeepers, Bruce Grobbelaar & Neville Southall respectively, being warmly clapped when taking their place in the goal at Chelsea, & both readily acknowledging that applause. Liverpool & Everton had some truly hateful players at the time. Steve McMahon, John Aldridge, John Bailey & Pat Van Den Hauwe to name but a few. A veritable Who’s Who of 1980’s footballing shithousery. There was more chance of Chelsea fans turning up in white shirts with a cockerel logo on them & singing Nice One Cyril for 90 minutes than giving any of those charmless characters a clap or a cheer. Even in this feral era goalkeepers were not only different but frequently treated differently by opposition supporters. Grobbelaar & Southall were both brilliant & fascinating characters. Grobbelaar was the larger than life soldier from Rhodesia, a flamboyant attention seeking showman, egotistical & acrobatic, happy both to play to the gallery & engage with it. Southall was a natural scruff who sometimes looked like he both lived in & dressed from the dustbins he had emptied for a living before he turned pro. He largely let his considerable talent do the talking for him & may well have been the best goalkeeper in the world for a time. In retirement he has also shown himself to be a unique & admirable man, entirely untypical of someone from his footballing background & all the more impressive as a consequence. He is now a champion of all sorts of good causes, committed to defending & supporting oppressed & underprivileged members of society, & doing so with the same intensity & obsessiveness that drove him to such great heights during his time at Goodison Park.

Grobbelaar became famously embroiled in one of the more squalid episodes in recent footballing history before he retired, but a quarter of a century later still comes across as a boorish, unpleasant, spivvy chancer. The reckless arrogance which made him such a charismatic presence on a football pitch clearly translates rather less palatably into civvy street.  Sadly he would fit perfectly into the modern game. I suspect it would be anathema to Big Nev. These are two goalkeepers who were definitely different though. Not least from each other.

And Ron Green? It must be said that Ron’s Google footprint is almost invisible apart from a Wikipedia entry & a few statistical career breakdowns dotted about the place. He retired in 1992 after a career taking in two stints at both Shrewsbury & Walsall as well as spells with Bristol Rovers, Scunthorpe, Wimbledon, Kidderminster Harriers, Colchester Utd & Bromsgrove Rovers. The glamour &  glitz may have eluded him but we can be confident that he deserves to rest easier in his dotage than the likes of Bruce Grobbelaar. Photos of Ron also proved difficult to come by online. At least I did eventually come across a doubtless dated heads up at https://www.where-are-they-now.co.uk . In a similarly presumptuous & patronising manner to my prior imaginings of his social existence I envisaged him to be indulging the traditionally linear retired footballer’s route from playing days to pension. Running a newsagents or a pub. Was this correct or was there to be a delightful twist, the erstwhile guardian of the Gay Meadow goal morphing into a spy or an international jewel thief in his latter years? Neither according to https://www.where-are-they-now.co.uk  – they  last have him working as a postman in Sutton Coldfield. Maybe my pint of Banks’s & Dominoes in the snug theory is not so far off after all. You would imagine the Post Office would have to up their pay structure a smidgen before Linda Evangelista joins their ranks though doubtless she would rock a pair of those shorts better than Ron. I think we can also be confident that neither Fabien Barthez or Claudio Bravo are ever likely to see out their working lives delivering the Royal Mail in Sutton Coldfield, or indeed anywhere else. Then again neither has ever remotely put up as good a show at Stamford Bridge as Ron Green did on that chilly, drab November afternoon 30 years ago, earning not millions but a deserved & prolonged respect from those of us who witnessed it. Sadly this pays no bills in 2019 but for what little it is worth, in a sport now sickeningly consumed by greed, remains a proper football fan response to a proper footballer.

Cheers Ron.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Remember, I Remember

March 5, 1988 Coventry City 3 Chelsea 3

I watch him as he runs past on the other side of the road, a river of fresh blood coating large areas of his face, his clearly traumatized body, especially the hands, shaking like a leaf. He is making a distressed wailing noise & this, combined with the way he is moving, reminds me of a child that has just fallen over in a playground & hurt themselves, looking for a parent’s consoling presence. In seconds he has passed me. I glance back at him momentarily, then do what many thousands of fellow football fans, the clubs they support,the authorities governing football & our esteemed politicians have largely been doing for the previous twenty years.

I look away & keep moving in the opposite direction.

1988 marked twenty years since I had attended my first football match. Back then crowd trouble was quickly identifiable as endemic, & my six-year-old self would stand by the corner flag adjoining the London & Osler Road ends at Oxford United’s Manor Ground, watching with my dad as fights broke out week in week out behind the London Road goal before kick off. Every time the same police officer would walk past us having arrested a culprit, right arm twisted behind their back with a malicious, sadistic, twisted sneer all over his face. Truly a man who loved his work. God knows what happened once he got them in the Black Maria. Another formative memory is entering the ground as a row of skinheads, decked out in regulation Brutus shirts, sta press trousers & Crombies, stood bare footed next to their 8 eye Doctor Martens, forced to remove the laces & minimize the damage they could inflict once through the turnstiles. Goalkeepers at league grounds would be greeted with a lavish  bombardment of toilet rolls at the beginning of most games, their first task being to clear it all away from the goalmouth prior to kick off, sometimes resembling prototypes for the puppy in the future Andrex adverts in the process. That bog roll got everywhere. While the tabloids raged & sociologists pontificated endlessly, there was always an awareness that many tutting onlookers gained a vicarious, voyeuristic thrill  from the widespread spectacle of young men kicking the crap out of each other. When Chelsea lost to 3rd Division Crystal Palace in the FA Cup in 1976, the taunting at school was muted due to the decision of Match Of The Day producers to show action replays of the Kung Fu kick meted out by one fan as rucks broke out. Jimmy Hill shook his head mournfully but they still showed it, my admittedly shaky memory tells me  in slow motion, for the nation’s delectation. Boys being boys all his backdrop to the main business of the game itself crept into our hitherto innocent football inner psyches. You could be pushed down any staircase at school with the cry ‘Anfield Kop! accompanying the shove in the back. Break time matches on the school field might be interrupted by pitch invasions from lads excluded from the action. Subbuteo table football  games were regularly disrupted by (usually) playful fights when a goal went in, which in my case was often. I was hopeless at Subbuteo. One lad at school even prepared for the iconic flick to kick game by carefully rolling up small pieces of toilet roll to throw on the hallowed green cloth prior to kick off!

By 1988 the joke, to quote one Steven Patrick Morrissey, the arch miserabilist of the decade, wasn’t funny anymore. People were dying at football matches. Crowd behaviour, combined with the more normal greed & incompetence of football clubs & the authorities governing them, had been a major contributory factor to the grotesque events at Heysel in 1985. Hillsborough was little more than a year away, an awful culmination of decades of neglect & contempt for proper crowd safety at football grounds across the country.  The popular opinion for decades was that if fans wanted to behave like animals they could be treated like animals, empowering the arrogant disregard most clubs had for their own supporters, most of whom did not behave like animals. In truth I can’t think of any animals that deserved to be treated like football fans were in the 70’s & ’80’s. Ken Bates had tried to install electric fences at Chelsea akin to those he used to rein in cattle on his farm. Many more owners & directors, tut-tutting at the worst fan excesses of their fans contented themselves with shutting the boardroom door & opening another bottle of 1953 Chateau Margaux. Leaving the crumbling terraces, wooden stands & inadequate entrance & exit points to another day. The all-encompassing obsession with keeping fans off the pitch was a major contributory factor to Hillsborough.

As I started writing this, more than 30 years after one of the grimmest days in my football watching life, random memories came to mind that revealed how strangely the human brain computes the unpalatable. There is one defining image locked in my head, that of the whimpering, blood soaked victim of a callous, cowardly & apparently unprovoked attack, but denial seems to push forward much more trivial snapshots of a game that defines an era of football that was reeling from recent disaster & disgrace, & unwittingly on the brink of its biggest, the seismic scandal of Hillsborough 13 months later. These recollections include a young Chelsea couple taking a pre-match photo of midfielder Micky Hazard cradling their baby in his arms. Imagine being that baby, in its fourth decade now, &, presuming the Chelsea gene transmitted successfully, one of the lucky ones, nine years old when the club’s major trophy drought ended in 1997, & indulged with on pitch glory ever since with an intensity unimaginable to those proud parents at Highfield Road that day. For no reason at all the memory of American teen sensation Debbie Gibson’s Only In My Dreams  crackling through the inadequate speaker system at our end of the ground stays with me. I also recall shouting shut up at someone behind me making monkey noises at Coventry winger Dave Bennett, a rare overt expression of my growing despair at spending my football watching existence alongside too many (a minority, but any is too many, & there were more than a few) who saw matchdays as an opportunity for neanderthal expressions of racial hatred. A slightly more humorous form of xenophobia was reserved for Scotland & former Chelsea striker David Speedie. The players entered the pitch via the corner of the ground we were inhabiting, & Speedie’s arrival for the warm up  was greeted with an outpouring of love & affection from the Chelsea faithful. He was cheered with equal enthusiasm when returning to the dressing room prior to kick off. It was different when the game began. On his first venture towards the Chelsea enclosure he was greeted by a chorus of impressively loud pantomine booing & someone bellowed out Fuck off Speedie you sweaty sock!! as loud as their lungs would allow. All bantz though, as I believe the young people have it today. He scored a first half goal for Coventry, invoking the inevitable, immutable law of the ex that plagues Chelsea to this day, but still returned to a further round of applause from the followers of his former club as he made his way off at half time.

It would nice to dwell longer on the football, Chelsea untypically taking a two goal lead then entirely typically lousing it up & clinging to a draw by the end of the game. The first goal of the game was a sublime Pat Nevin volley, the last a searing drive off the crossbar by young Coventry substitute David Smith, who tore the Chelsea defence new ones throughout the second half & rarely seemed to show similar signs of sustained brilliance throughout the rest of his career. In goal for Chelsea was Perry Digweed, making the first of three appearances on loan from Brighton. Chelsea were unbeaten during these three games. Sadly they also failed to win any of them. Two weeks later a three goal first half lead would be squandered at Oxford. A United fan in front of me stalked out in disgust after half an hour. I could have warned him this was folly. Chelsea were hanging on for a point at 4-4 little more than an hour later. In between these two games Perry kept a clean sheet at home to Everton courtesy of him saving a fierce point blank volley from the excellent Graham Sharp. With his face. It would get worse for him when he returned to Brighton & incurred a severe genital injury courtesy of the studs of West Brom forward John Paskin. YouTube footage exists for those of a grisly persuasion. Happily he recovered & later had a bit part in  ‘The Mean Machine,’ though as this cinematic treasure boasted Vinnie Jones as its star Perry appears to have remained a glutton for punishment.

I have no beef with Coventry either as a city or a  football club, but never seemed to be lucky when going there. Michelin stars may not adorn the walls of Pizza Hut but I managed to dine there safely on all occasions bar one when I was violently sick shortly afterwards. Step forward Pizza Hut in Coventry. A late ’70’s school trip to see a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One set the tone for future off beat visits. There appeared  to be an air of depression around the place, soon to be alleviated somewhat by the emergence of The Specials, paradoxically raising spirits via  brilliant songs highlighting the gloom. The Shakespeare play was performed by a troupe kitted out in contemporary clothing, though it was not clear whether this was due to a trendy alternative approach to presenting the works of the bard or finanacial constraints. Henry IV was played by a man in a brown leather coat, with Falstaff decked out in ill fitting, saggy tracksuit bottoms. These barely concealed the actor’s ample & doubtless hirsute behind, his arse almost literally hanging out of his trousers. After the play ended, the actors filed back for a Q&A session. I recognised one of the actors, already some years into a lengthy film & television career,  including appearances in The Great Escape &The Avengers, with  Dr Who & Emmerdale among dozens of future credits waiting in the wings. Unfairly but inevitably his performances on a long running advertising campaign for the furniture warehouse company DFS’s ceaseless sale promotions linger longest in my memory with his ‘but remember, all offers end at midnight on Sunday’ sign off, prompting the inevitable & accurate rejoinder by my father, sat in his non DFS armchair, ‘before starting again on Monday morning at one minute past midnight.’ On being asked how he responded to critical appraisals of theatrical productions, the somewhat haughty reply was that it depended on who the critic was. If it was Levin ‘one’ took notice, but a hack from the local rag could be comfortably disregarded. Get you Sir Larry. A few years earlier I had been to a celebrity cricket match at Blenheim Palace, where our esteemed thespian had starred alongside Tim Brooke-Taylor of The Goodies, one of the cast of Please Sir, Bob Todd from The Benny Hill Show & a Womble. God alone knows what Bernard Levin would have made of that. Levin was  one of those suffocatingly self absorbed bores who clogged up the media in my youth, forever impressing his superior intellect on the hoi polloi. One dismissive theatre review did him no favours when he was punched mid-monologue on That Was The Week That Was by the husband of an  actress whose performance he had belittled. Our esteemed Coventry thespian eventually passed the  DFS gig on to Michael Aspel, & later moved on to assisting the flogging of  Stannah stairlifts. Sadly he was  denied a suitably lofty critical appraisal of these stellar performances, Mr Levin having sadly lapsed into early onset dementia before shuffling up the non Stannah stairway to Heaven in 2004, the fate of both men a cautionary warning to all of us against taking ourselves too seriously. Levin is actually buried next door to Stamford Bridge in Brompton Cemetry but I rather doubt he ever helped repel a West Ham takeover of The Shed while alive. Shame really as he was evidently no stranger to a bit of biffo.

One man who didn’t seem to take himself too seriously, off the pitch anyway, was the home team’s captain & centre half Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline, on the scoresheet against Chelsea for the second season running, having fired home a penalty in the corresponding fixture the season before, which I had also attended.  Another in an impressive roll call of ’80’s football characters featuring at Highfield Road (Speedie, long serving keeper Steve Ogrizovic, full back  & future copper Greg Downs & the late, great Cyrille Regis) Kilcline was a decent centre half, &  had captained Coventry to their splendid win over Spurs in the previous year’s FA Cup Final. He was also a fully blown, bona fide eccentric, his muscular presence & blonde frizzy mane a familiar sight throughout this era. If reality tv hero Dog The Bounty Hunter had been an 80’s footballer he would have been Brian Kilcline. I think it was during his time at Newcastle that Kilcline took to wearing bootlace ties & pointy cowboy boots to express an undoubted taste for the flamboyant. Was there some stetson wearing too? I fear there may have been. As ever, one man’s cult hero (he was adored on Tyneside) is another’s bit of a twat. Not that many would have said that to Kilcline’s face. He was hard. Witness Eric Cantona pipe down pretty sharpish after Killer moves to confront him during  the Swindon – Man Utd game at the County Ground in the 1993-4 season, the Gallic hero having hitherto thought himself terribly brave & clever to have stamped on Swindon midfielder John Moncur as he lay prone on the ground. Funny how that contrary old hypocrite Sir Alex Ferguson saw fit to lay into Dennis Wise so much in his autobiography, having labelled him as a man who could start an argument in an empty room years earlier, conveniently ignoring the unsavory antics of both Cantona & the borderline psychotic Roy Keane as he said it. Perhaps all that rain they get up there addled the old boy’s formidable brain in his latter years. Maybe it was red wine. Kilcline was living on a canal boat during his Swindon days, entertaining team mate Andy Mutch there for games of chess. Not your average Premier League player’s standard existence even in those formative years. I reacquainted myself with Kilcline’s otherworldliness in an abortive attempt to find the 6 goals from this 1988 game. What I found instead was 2009 footage of Kilcline, top knot & wizard’s beard to the fore, in a darkened room, with what appears to be a startled looking golliwog next to him on the sofa. Having his back waxed by his better half. I was relieved that views in the preceding decade were still  below four figures, slightly abashed that they had now increased by one. Another 4 minutes 18 seconds of my life needlessly squandered. Mercifully, if a sack & crack section of this cinematic masterpiece exists it presumably resides within the murky confines of the  Dark Net. Long may it remain there.

 

The year before I had spent most of the afternoon dodging low flying celery, housed at the side of the pitch in a seated stand. Former Coventry chairman, the aforementioned Jimmy Hill, had fought hard but ultimately in vain to establish  Highfield Road to an all seater stadium years before the Taylor Inquiry & the inception of the Premier League. Chelsea fans had recently begun to deflect from the on pitch agony of a woeful Blues display by inflicting real physical pain on each other, plentiful suplies of the recently adopted fibrous stalks emerging out of paper brown grocers’ bags & being hurled around forcefully. I’m here to tell you now that the stuff kills, but throwing celery around & singing nursery rhyme Ten Men Went To Mow were two of the less malevolent diversions from continued on pitch mediocrity. On my way throught the turnstiles I had been searched by a policeman, who, on finding a Clubcall card in my wallet accused me of being a Chelsea Headhunter, famed for reputedly leaving their calling cards on the torsos of injured victims. I enclose a scan of the aforementioned card in my possesion for general perusal, with the gentlest suggestion that my uniformed interrogator was possibly not the sharpest tool in the Coventry plod box. He was definitely a tool though.

004 (2)

The Headhunters were mythical beings to me, & my jobless status in the mid ’80’s meant I had also missed the inception of the ultimately dubious Chelsea-Glasgow Rangers fan alliance. It had kicked off outside Highfield Road in 1987 as well, scruffy skirmishes rather than mass brawling, but enough to ensure a large police presence on arriving back at Coventry station. I decided to while away an hour or two, scouring the nearby streets for entertaining diversions while  the menace subsided. They proved elusive as night descended & the good people of Coventry drew their curtains in preparation for Casualty & Blind Date. Rare is the surrounding area of any English railway station that gets mistaken for one of the fun capitals of Europe. A dreary hour having subsided, there were still a few Chelsea fans on the platform when I returned to Coventry Station, & a welcome reminder that it wasn’t all feral malice between rival fans, via an amiable exchange with a group of Swansea fans, reliving the days of the early ’80’s when their boys had trounced a hapless, Bobby Gould led Chelsea team 3-0 at Vetch Field. Swansea had gone from top division highs to impoverished 92nd in the league lows in just a few short years since then. The conversation was a welcome diversion as icy, lonesome evening vigils at Coventry Station were something of a regular ritual for me, usually following weekend visits to fellow ex Hull university graduates in nearby Rugby. There is a plaque there now commemorating a famous son of Coventry, the late poet Philip Larkin, the librarian at Hull University during my time there. Odd really, because Larkin was sniffy about Coventry, famously describing his childhood there as ‘unspent.’ It sounds less unspent than unpleasant, as his father, the city treasurer in the 1930’s, was a Nazi sympathiser & attended at least two Nurenberg rallies in the 1930’s. They really did fuck him up his mum & dad. Larkin lived in Hull for many years prior to his death in 1985, though never betrayed any great love for that place either, & certainly not its students, communication with the latter largely restricted to shushing people in the Brynmmor Jones Library or getting them removed from the Staff bar on campus. Neither fate befell me, I liked his poetry but the sizeable, stuffy looking man in outdated  1950’s suits & shiny black shoes who occasionally passed me on campus wasn’t the approachable type. Matters weren’t assisted when he was forced away from his booze & porn  to vist the library late in the evening after the students had occupied it in  a protest against a supplementary facilities fee imposed by the university the previous year. I subsequently failed to pay mine, treating myself to a pair of Doc Martens boots with the money instead. I still have them, & along with the box of my beloved Four Tops Super Hits cassette (the tape itself perished in my  player around the time of my Finals) & a coffee cup given to me by Vicky, my best friend  at university, they form one of a paltry collection of physical reminders I have of my time in Hull. Larkin was interviewed about the student library occupation, & unsurprisingly was less than impressed when asked if he empathised with the students. ‘Empathise? Of course I don’t empathise’ barked the grouchy old racist. I did once see him entering a nearby off license carrying a shopping bag  impressively laden with a vast array of his & alcoholic partner Monica Jones’ empties. From a distance he came across as a pompous, reactionary old bore but with the passing of time I have come to view him more tolerantly. Let’s see, a socially inept man called Philip in his late ’50’s, wearing outdated clothes, uncomfortable in both his own skin &  circumstances of the world around him, a history of drinking too much & an intrisic hatred of students. Empathise? Of course I empathise. Now if not then.

I never managed to write a poem about Coventry, only make a belated attempt to appease my troubled conscience in the aftermath of the brutal assault I had caught the tail end of after the 1988 match. It would be convenient for me to claim a guilt ridden, sleepless night after making my way home that day, but all I remember is phoning Chelsea Clubcall & listening to Micky Hazard, in what sounded like a farewell speech, reassuring us that Chelsea had no chance of being relegated. In fact, Micky & Kerry Dixon’s proposed transfers to QPR & one of Arsenal or West Ham were cancelled by Ken Bates & manager John Hollins walked the plank instead before the month was out. Sadly not before time, & sadly not enough to prevent the relegation through the play offs that Mr Hazard had confidently dismissed in his interview with Neil Barnett. I adored Micky Hazard, so was glad we got to keep him a while longer & hopefully it provided proud new Chelsea loving parents a few more baby cradling photo opportunities before he eventually decamped to Portsmouth in 1990.

It was only on returning home from work two days after the match that my strong instinct for denial was nutted by reality, as I walked into the house to a news item featuring a still photo of a man with a face riddled with dozens of stitches, life changing wounds by anyone’s reckoning. I am not even sure to this day that this victim of the most mindless of casual football violence had even been to the game. I believe he had been dragged out of his car prior to being attacked by three men, simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was the same distressed man who had run past me outside Highfield Road. The fists laying into him as he was penned in against a disused shop front had contained Stanley knives, cutting his face to ribbons in the process. I could no longer delude myself the blood pouring down his face had been caused by a lone, powerful right hander to the nose. This explained the horrified scream of the elderly lady, out shopping with her husband, as they witnessed this  barbaric, hateful, cretinous attack from an extremely close distance. Police are appealing for witnesses says the news report. I knew what I had to do.

The following day I reported to my local police station & was interviewed by a pleasant but probably rather bored plain clothed policeman. Knowing what to do was one thing, evaluating the usefulness of my evidence quite another. My view of the attack was limited & long distance, all I could really recall was the standard football punch up flurry of fists & flailing legs, the screams of the elderly shopper (who up to that point had not been mentioned by anyone else) & one of the protagonists, a swaggering, pumped up slimeball dancing around blocking much of my view of the incident, his neat hair, smug, sneering, impossibly young face, dark tracksuit & white trainers. Even here I stumbled. Was the piping on his top purple? Was the rest black? Dark blue? The trainers were white weren’t they? No point in asking me brands, the whole Casual thing had largely passed me by. Three days after the incident, & my indecision was final, even to a sympathetic audience. What a lawyer would do in court was another matter. Which suited me fine of course, for several reasons. I had salved my conscience by going to the police, but did not want my evidence to be strong enough for me to called into a witness box. There may have been no colours betraying the loyalties of the participants in this miserable business, but it was a classic hit & run attack beloved of away fans, soon lost in the crowds heading back home in cars, coaches or trains. Instinctively I knew from the outset that the assailants had been Chelsea fans, & that my appearance in court would signal the end of any comfortable future existence for me at Chelsea matches. My card would be marked, & my card, as has already been established, was defiantly not of the Headhunter calling variety.  I wanted to help assist the police, but not enough to put me at the forefront of a prosecution case. I loved Chelsea & the thought of jeopardising my match going future horrified me. It was a self centred & cynical young man who walked  out of the interview room that day & made his way back out into the street (although not before taking a wrong turn & heading in the direction of the cells) shamefully relieved that I had offered such slim pickings to the investigation. My trips to football could continue, & my features would hopefully avoid rearrangement, unlovely enough as they were to start with.

Or so I thought. As the season progressed, culminating in the misery of relegation, fan misbehaviour reared its head several times again. Chelsea started the next season playing their first six Division 2 games in front of empty terraces at Stamford Bridge, following a pitch invasion on a boiling hot day in early June, when relegation was confirmed via a two leg defeat to Middlesbrough. A friend of mine informed me his wife had left him a few days  later. ‘I know how you feel mate. Chelsea have just been relegated’ was my only response. Scarily, I was probably only half joking. My complacency about the Coventry incident was then  rudely terminated by a letter informing me that I was required to attend court as a prosecution witness. Three people were to go on trial. Their names were listed, but the letter has long since disappeared,  as has the second one, confirming the details of the first, & politely reminding me that failure to show up in court was itself an offence. Following the second letter there was a period of silence, one of thirty years & rising as I never heard from the CPS again, & have no idea whether or not the case collapsed, or whether the slim pickings of my evidence were ultimately deemed insufficient to assist a successful prosecution. I do hope the victim rebuilt his life & that karma caught up with the nobscraper in the tracksuit.

That day in Coventry sums up the dilemma many Chelsea fans faced in this era. Singing nursery rhymes & throwing celery to deflect from the awfulness of much of the football was harmless fun. Chelsea’s away following was rowdy & raucous, & it was thrilling to be part of it. However, for supporters like me, who genuinely would have struggled to fight his way out of a paper bag, there was, in truth, also a vicarious thrill from knowing that the notoreity of the violent fans within our motley throng often provoked a mixture of awe, reverence & naked fear from residents of the towns & cities graced once a season with its presence for a few hours. I’m not proud of that, but it would be dishonest not to acknowledge it. It is often said that football compounds a tendency in people to remain in a perpetual state of retarded adolescence. There is something in this, but on the flip side it also frequently  helps to shine a light on our own inherent puerility, which the sport neither creates or is responsible for.

In the early years of the 21st century, many veterans of the fan mayhem  of yesteryear began to resurface as their antics received a reappraisal courtesy of film & documentary makers. Fat & forty (ish) with mortgages paid & supposedly ready to return to action. Danny Dyer, star of the most successful of the former, Football Factory, revelled in a sycophantic series of interviews with significant figures from crews past & present. Most toed the party line that proper hooligans, like the Kray twins, only hurt their own.  I am inclined to reply to this in the same way a contemporary of Ron & Reg did when this lazy, half baked cliche was applied to them all those years ago. Yeah, just their own. Human beings. Were all the people attacked wearing team shirts victims of despicable, low rent renegades inferior to the the real deal yobbos with their laughable code of honour? I once saw a young Brentford fan’s scarf ripped off his neck by one of the best known hooligans of their opponents of that day, something we are constantly told was never on the agenda for any self respecting face. The idea that it was all like minds seeking each other out in an adrenaline fuelled game that involved nobody else but each other & the police is utter nonsense. No innocent victims ever? No traumatised bystanders who just happened to be in the wrong time & place? Bull. Shit. Despite Chelsea charmer Jason ‘Know What I Mean’ Marriner rampaging along the streets to invoke his imagined golden years, when Cardiff City came to town in 2010, the hooligan version of Michael Palin’s sublime Golden Gordon from his beloved Ripping Yarns series never bore true fruition. Why bother when there are books & DVD’s to sell, & evenings with diamonds like Jase, whereby like (simple) minded punters are privileged to purchase these cherished items after an evening of wit & repartee reliving punch ups past. The human equivalent of dogs eating each other’s shit. The Chelsea-Rangers fan alliance (founded off the back of a friendly game to raise charity funds following the Bradford City fire) may have started as fans bonding in an entirely positive way, but Marriner, with his poisonous, pig-ignorant Loyalist views & allies, apparently bolstered by regular visits to Glasgow, represents the  sinister & horrible mutation from such a seemingly innocent starting point. Still, last time I checked Marriner had over 14,000 Twitter followers, former Chelsea players I am fond of  included in that tidy amount. One of them wrote a foreward for one of his literary masterpieces. He played in a recent Chelsea-Rangers ex- players charity game. For Rangers. Does a lot of good work for charity apparently. The Krays would be proud of him, doubtless delighted that philanthropy remains a reliable refuge for the wrong ‘un. Never mind the Nazi salutes & references to black people swinging throught the trees eh? Good old Jase. The only thing I would fill a bucket next to him with is vomit. Apparently, I would not be brave enough to say any of this to his face. Maybe, maybe not, who knows? I’m old now, not that much to lose. Fear of bully boys fuelled the rise of terrace violence, but despising these twats while other suck up to them still seems a perfectly acceptable pastime to me. Know what I mean?

I wonder how many parents walking their blue clad children to Stamford Bridge witnessed Marriner’s 43 year old body marauding along the King’s Road, dispensing whatever menace it could muster among the layers of flab on the day of that Cardiff game in 2010, & thought twice about attending matches in future. Not to mention the pregnant woman who fled the scene by speeding away in her car, fearful for her life & that of her unborn child. Like many small boys in the late ’60’s I was in awe of George Best & Bobby Charlton. The reputation of their team’s fans at the time meant I never got to see them play together for Man Utd when they eventually played at Oxford in 1972. My dad took me to see Chelsea & Millwall but drew the line at Man Utd. Dads eh?  Charlton scored one of his trademark 30 yard screamers in the last minute. Violent football fans deprived me of that moment, as they did countless young fans similar exeriences before & after. I hate them for that. On leaving a Division 3 match in my teens one Friday night, a Chesterfield fan walking quietly behind me with his three friends was kicked to the ground. His leg was broken. His cowardly attacker disappeared immediately into the night. The victim was due to drive the others back to Chesterfield, wearing a Chesterfield scarf his only crime. By the time of the Coventry attack in 1988 I was thoroughly sick of this kind of shit. Hillsborough was an appalling collision of corruption & incompetence by the police & football authorities, but without violent terrace bellends there would have been no fences to keep people off the pitch, & most if not all of the 96 lost lives could have been spared. In 1990 after Chelsea had played Everton a man behind me left his seat, accompanied by his 2 young lads, both in full Chelsea kits, & shouted ‘Chelsea celebrate Hillsborough 89’ at the opposition fans. Clearly a shining beacon of morality to his sons. As two policeman approached him I waited for the inevitable, deserved arrest. However, after a short conversation both parties dispersed in opposite directions, beaming smiles covering their collective faces. I genuinely despaired at times like that. Many contemporary self proclaimed experts throughout both professional & social media have been known to berate people like me for not doing more to combat such behaviour in these now far off days. Who was I supposed to report that incident to, the laughing policemen?

The dilemmas presented by modern football were starting to surface when I made my next visit to Highfield Road in 1991, my first & last experience of luxury box matchday viewing. On arrival, we were handed complimentary match programmes & referred to as sir. Nobody accused me of being a Chelsea Headhunter or threw celery at me. In the box itself, Coventry & Chelsea fans mingling together politely, we were fed & watered amply, & advised that if we poured our beer into available Coke beakers we could continue drinking alcohol during the game. Job done. I even cleaned up on the sweepstake for the time of the first goal, the only one of a tame end of season affair, scored by the Sky Blues pint sized midfielder Micky Gynn, offering Dennis Wise a rare opportunity to look like a giant amongst men on a football pitch. It was a thoroughly pleasant afternoon, & the recently completed motorway extension between Coventry & Oxford saw us back on our doorsteps in little more than an hour after the final whistle. What it was not was anything resembling a genuine live footballing experience, my nose pressed against the glass of a luxury box keeping out the atmosphere as well as the cold. Everything was too polite & sanitized, a foretaste of the muted, soulless feel that hits you throughout so many modern stadiums nowadays. You need some grit in the oyster, though sat somewhere else in Coventry that day may well have been a man with extensive tramline slashes on his face, doubtless shedding very few tears for my predicament.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Game For A Laugh?

Watch Out Mitchell’s About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Bury My Heart At Steve Wicks Knee

 

May 7th 1988 – Chelsea 1 Charlton 1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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