If you can watch the heartwarming clip above without it instilling a goodly measure of much needed joy in your heart (& a tear in the eye at around 1:22) then you are either not human or a member of our malevolent & shambolic Dominic Cummings led Tory government. I guess it is possible to be both. Well done Ashington AFC, truly a grass roots football club embracing its community responsibilities & lifting spirits in the process, not least for dear David.
There has also been some heartening activity within the upper echelons of the game in England during the current pandemic. Some of the widely held, lazier assumptions deemed to be true of all within the cash rich world of the Premier League have been challenged, not least by the recent activity of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. I did think the stunning free kick I saw him score against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup last October would be my abiding memory of Rashford this season but it is fair to say his current wrong footing & shaming of the government eclipses it somewhat! During lockdown he has worked with poverty & food waste charity FareShare to raise over £20 million to provide food for children who would usually have been receiving free school meals, assisting 3 million schoolkids in the process. Following the government’s decision not to extend free school meal vouchers through the summer period Rashford sent an open letter yesterday imploring them to rethink. Boris Johnson has backed down today, although not before his arrogant & miserly indifference to the plight of the less fortunate has been publicly exposed once again. Marcus Rashford grew up in a family that relied on free school meals & food banks. He knows. The blonde bullshitter & his wretched band of venal, corrupt & inept weasels have no such real life experiences to draw on. It sure shows. Johnson has today praised Rashford’s efforts in trying to eradicate poverty, doubtless through clenched teeth & seemingly oblivious to the fact that achieving this aim is actually his job. None of us are holding our breath.
The humbling of these top hatted chancers by a 22 year old footballer is all the more ironic given the early efforts of the government to reveal their usual class prejudices in specifically singling out football as an industry that should pull out all the philanthropic stops during the current health crisis. Charisma free Health Secretary Matt Hancock played to the gallery in a speech on April 2nd. “Given the sacrifices that many people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS who have made the ultimate sacrifice I think the first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part.” Nice one Matt. Seem to remember your chaps all cheering in Parliament when denying nurses a pay rise in the Commons the last time MP’s voted on it. No matter, turn the heat on footballers while doctors & nurses die, nothing to do with years of government NHS cuts, absurdly inadequate PPE & a sickening indifference to the potential of the virus that saw the Prime Minister vitally duck all 5 COBRA coronavirus meetings in February. He was on holiday some of the time, having not had a break since his Christmas vacation ended in early January the poor lamb. Billionaire Richard Branson furloughed 8,000 Virgin staff & is now reported to have seen his net worth rise from £2.7 to £3.34 billion in the last 3 months. How anyone knows this is unclear but if true it is nauseating in the extreme. Branson originally requested the government bail out Virgin Airlines to the tune of £500 million to counteract the fallout from the pandemic & ensuing lockdown. It is a similarly puke inducing story with Sir Jim Ratcliffe, once linked with a buy out of Chelsea, reportedly adding to his £12 billion plus while brazenly using the government furlough scheme for 800 staff. Have Formula 1 drivers, tennis players or golfers, also paid ludicrous sums at the top of their respective sports, been cajoled similarly to footballers in public? Of course not. There is plenty of cash wafting around racecourses too. The headquarters of flat racing are at Newmarket. The sitting MP has been the beneficiary of many thousands of pounds in donations from the more affluent quarters of the sport. His name? Come on down Matt Hancock…
Football has always been both a convenient whipping boy & smokescreen for governments in this country. The repulsive antics of far right extremists last weekend, defending statues, monuments & memorials by pissing on them, attacking the police & abusing people enjoying picnics saw much reportage linking individual miscreants to the football team they supposedly support. There hasn’t been any football anywhere in England for 3 months, let alone in London last Saturday. Is the sport or society as a whole responsible for the hatred that clearly burns within these simultaneously scary & pathetic wretches? There is nothing new here. Hooligans were never stored in freezers for 6 days a week & just thawed out ready for action on match days. After rampaging Liverpool fans contributed to the appalling Heysel disaster in 1985 Margaret Thatcher seemed open to a blanket ban on football & told FA Chief executive Ted Croker that something had to be done about his hooligans. Croker replied that they were society’s hooligans, therefore her hooligans, & football wanted rid of them too. Unlike his predecessors Croker never got a knighthood when he retired in 1989. A year later Thatcher bestowed one on Jimmy Savile having been advised against doing so on 4 separate previous occasions owing to his dubious private life. Haven’t we been governed by some charmers?
What makes Hancock’s speech so despicable was the way it ignored significant efforts made weeks before & prior to lockdown. On March 18th Chelsea announced that their Millenium Hotel would be exclusively available free of charge to NHS workers with owner Roman Abramovich picking up the tab. On the same day Gary Neville did the same with his two hotels in Manchester. Neville deservedly received many plaudits, Abramovich significantly less. I believe The Guardian failed to even mention it when giving Neville the thumbs up the following day. The Premier League liaised with the PFA to ask the players to take 30% pay cuts, with a welcome £125 million to be handed down from the Premiership to clubs in the Football & National leagues. Better late than never on that one. £20 million was also pledged to the NHS, communities & vulnerable groups. Some clubs furloughed their non- playing staff, most inexcusably a couple of bigger boys usually quite happy to puff out their chests & boast of their impressive financial returns. Some backtracking did fortunately ensue in their cases. Chelsea did not agree a pay cut for their players. Instead Roman Abramovich retained all staff at the club on full wages & implored the players to make charitable donations at their own discretion. The government has thus benefitted from there being no significant reduction in player tax returns during the pandemic. Along with Liverpool, Everton & West Ham Chelsea also pay all staff the living wage. The other 16 Premier League clubs, appallingly, are still dragging their heels. Sainthood may never be bestowed on Roman but we’ll take him over the likes of Jim Ratcliffe & Daniel Levy thanks very much.
At this rate I see a statue for Marcus Rashford being erected one day too. With a few vacant plots emerging in the landscape as icons of the slave trade are removed we need some suitable heroic figures of the modern age.
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” – Robert Frost
‘Remember when we played against Bobby Charlton in the Army?’ My dad’s best friend Bert’s eyes would light up as he repeated this question every so often to him, & the response was usually a tight lipped, barely perceptible nod of the head. My father was too polite to deny Bert his pleasure at recounting the tale, but too honest to wholeheartedly encourage it. Why? Because there was one fatal flaw in this otherwise pleasing anecdote. It wasn’t true.
I was reminded of this in December 2016 while listening live to the Chelsea Fancast podcast in the Mixlr chatroom. The former Chelsea & England winger Peter Brabrook had just died & Fancast supremo David Chidgey, aka Stamford Chidge, was intrigued by my mentioning in the chatroom that my father had once shared a pitch with a man who later played in West Ham’s victorious 1964 FA Cup final team. For dad may not ever have played against the great Sir Bobby but he did once line up against a Chelsea team including Brabrook & John ‘Snoz’ Sillett, whose brother Peter scored a famous penalty winner against Wolves 18 months later which helped seal the club’s first ever League title. John later went on to co-manage Coventry City to their only major silverware, an FA Cup win in 1987, pleasing all virtuous souls as it was against Spurs. Later on he shared punditry duties at ITV with his ex Chelsea team mate Jimmy Greaves. Brabrook only played 3 games in Chelsea’s 1955 League Championship season but eventually made over 250 appearances for the club before moving on to West Ham, where he was managed by Ron Greenwood, another member of Chelsea’s only pre Premier League title winning team.
My dad, a small but speedy winger, eventually saw his football career ended at 26, around the time I was born, following a dreadful challenge by ‘that bastard of a full back at Wycombe Wanderers’ which caused a knee ligament injury severe enough for him to be advised that he should retire or risk ending up in a wheelchair. Afterwards, he played squash, & his beloved cricket into his early ’50’s, when his hips began to give out, but serious football was given the swerve after that fateful day at Loakes Park, Wycombe’s home in their non-league days. Until I discovered he had played against Chelsea I always assumed his finest hour was in the early 1970’s when he played for a Thame United veterans team against a TV All Stars X1 & a small boy eschewed the chance to chance to claim the autographs of luminaries from the entertainment world like Dennis Waterman (pre-The Sweeney) Richard O’Sullivan (pre-Man About TheHouse) Robin Asquith (pre-Confessions films) or Radio 1 DJ ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton (pre toupee) & preferred instead to get the immaculate signature of the legend that was Brian Munday in his book. I accept that few of these names will resonate with anyone under the age of 50 but take it from me they were famous enough at the time. Certainly more famous than my dad. Sadly for me Ray Davies of The Kinks, who regularly turned out for the TV All Stars, was a no-show, but I do recall goalkeeper Jess Conrad, clad all in black in the style of the legendary Russian stopper Lev Yashin. Suffice to say the resemblance ended there, Jess’s performance in the Yashin kit being akin to me buying a cheap King Of Vegas outfit on ebay & kidding myself I’m Elvis Presley. Well, it’s a hobby. Conrad later gained fame by having three of his own execrable songs from the early rock’n’ roll era justly included in an album of the worst records of all time, compiled by the late Kenny Everett. Suffice to say that one of them was entitled Why Am I Living? & most of us who have had the misfortune to hear it have immediately found ourselves asking the very same question. The only celebrity to linger at the bar after the game was Tony Booth, then famous for playing Alf Garnett’s son-in-law rather brilliantly in Till Death Us Do Part, later perhaps most renowned for being father-in-law to our former Prime Minister & walking, talking, lying disgrace Tony Blair. Dad’s friend Alan also played for Thame that day, & as his daughter left the clubhouse I distinctly recall Mr Booth, known to like a drink & presumably well lubricated by this point, turning to the man next to him as he propped up the bar & saying ‘come back in a couple of years love’ out of the corner of his mouth. I was 9 or 10 at the time so Kim would have been around 12. Men said weird things like that quite routinely in the 1970’s but even to my young ears the remark seemed beyond the pale. Booth later came close to burning to death when a drunken escapade led to him falling into a drum of paraffin. He may have played Sid Noggett in the appalling Confessions Of A Window Cleaner & got his tackle out on stage in Oh Calcutta but unlike the other Tony in the family at least he never got us involved in a war justified by a whopping untruth, namely insisting on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Dodgy buggers both in truth.
My dad never took me to a Boxing Day fixture at Chelsea, & my grandfather never went to Stamford Bridge with me, but they will both be in my thoughts when I take my seat for the Southampton game this year. With just the one quoted exception, Boxing Day was the one day I can remember as a child when my dad would dig out his boots & play football in the morning, with his cricket mates at one of Oxford’s many college grounds, usually Brasenose. If Oxford United were at home in the afternoon this would then be the one time in the season my grandfather would foresake Isthmian League Oxford City & join us at The Manor Ground. The Osler Road terrace was always jollier on Boxing Day, as yuletide cigar smoke mingled merrily with my Uncle Tony’s Embassy cigarettes & my grandfather adding to the then omnipresent football ground aroma of piped tobacco. This combined attempt to recreate Didcot Power Station would usually be accompanied by the passing around of a hip flask, us kids having to settle for the normal match day diet of Trebor mints & Wrigley Spearmint gum. In 1974 the opponents were my grandad’s boyhood team Millwall, Oxford winning 3-1 & leaving him, never much of a drinker anyway, slightly less jolly than the rest of the adults. My 12 year old self didn’t need nicotine or hip flasks that day as Chris Garland scored twice to give Chelsea a rare away win at Highbury. On Boxing Day two years earlier Oxford had beaten a pitifully poor Brighton team 3-0 with two goals from a young man called Keith Gough, recently signed on a free transfer from Walsall. Gough never set the Thames on fire after that, although he did once make a decent stab at winning a bravery award by responding to a brutal challenge from Nottingham Forest’s long-legged full back John Winfield, booting his redoubtable opponent back hard enough in the upper thigh to poleaxe one of the many physically imposing Division 2 defenders of the age. Wingate was a man with what would politely be described as a robust approach to playing the game. The Brighton Boxing Day team included two of Chelsea’s fine crop of 1960’s talent, utility player Bert Murray & former England striker Barry Bridges. Bridges had also appeared in recent years at the Manor for QPR & Millwall but it was fair to say he was past his considerable best by the time he moved to the Goldstone Ground. Lest we seem to romanticize the past a tad too much, on one occasion in his QPR years Barry got caught on the ground with the ball trapped between his legs, & as Oxford defenders prevented him from regaining his feet by hacking away at the ball the home fans responded to this amusing spectacle with the chant ‘Bridges is a spastic.’ Charming. Brian Clough took over at Brighton after their inevitable relegation in the season of the 3-0 loss at Oxford, but things would still get worse before they got better. Shortly after Cloughie’s arrival they played high flying Bristol Rovers, featuring their famous ‘Smash ‘N’ Grab’ strike duo of Alan Warboys & Bruce Bannister, both of whom were to impress against Chelsea with different clubs in future years. Brighton lost that game 8-2. At home! Even Cloughie had his off days. As did my gran on that Boxing Day of the Brighton match, who stayed in the pub with the rest of the womenfolk after the men had gone to the football. Being nothing if not a polite person, she was famous for waiting to find out what the person sitting next to her was having before deciding she would have the same. Presumably she must have had quite a few people sitting next to her that lunchtime, as a combination of sherry & whisky macs saw her disappearing regularly to the toilet on arriving back at our house, a rueful ‘I shouldn’t have had that last drink’ lament accompanying each journey up the stairs. By the time Keith Gough had enjoyed his finest hour in professional football she had taken to her bed. Never mind Nan, happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length to quote the estimable Robert Frost a second time.
Although my dad had told me about his game against Chelsea I could not even answer Chidge’s question about who he had been playing for. I was guessing at it being a friendly game & possibly Oxford City or the Army. Wrong on both counts. My mother reminded me that he had in fact been playing as a guest player for Headington United & thechels.info surprisingly filled in the gaps, listing the day, date, result, attendance, & indeed the Chelsea line up, Sillett & Brabrook’s involvement confirming the match as the one dad played in despite the Headington teamsheet being disappointingly blank. I certainly never knew it was an FA Youth Cup game, or even that the tournament even existed back then, apparently having started in 1952. Only the venue remains in doubt, Oxford for sure & likely either The Manor or Oxford City’s White House Ground, my money being on the latter. Chelsea won 1-0 & Greavsie’s future short-term television sidekick Sillett evidently scored the winning goal. Dad never played for Headington United again but later became a loyal fan after his own career ended & Headington had changed their name to Oxford United in 1960. Two years later they entered the Football League, & twenty four years after that, in April 1986, their victorious open top bus passed me as I walked home from work following their splendid 3-0 Milk Cup Wembley triumph over QPR. Chelsea were 15 years into a trophy drought at that point, a barren spell that still had 11 years to run. QPR had recently beaten them 6-0, & had knocked them out of the Milk Cup earlier in the tournament as well. Oxford also won 4-1 at Stamford Bridge a couple of months before the final. For a so-called gloryseeker I was doing spectacularly badly. I had also attended far more Oxford United matches than had most U’s fan who carped at me about my love of Chelsea. My father went to the final though. I still have his ticket. I didn’t begrudge Oxford United or their followers the Wembley triumph but had no desire to go to the game at the time, nor regrets about missing it ever since, my colours long since having been nailed to a blue rather than yellow mast. I would much rather be able to time travel back to 1953 & see my dad play against Chelsea, but in the absence of a suitable tardis remain inordinately chuffed that he did so in any case.
So why bring all this up now? Two reasons really. It is Christmas, & Christmas is a time for family, celebrating with those that are still here & remembering those who are no longer around, but were such significant figures in the yuletides of our youth. As a child I thought my grandparents would live forever, let alone Uncle Tony or my father, all no longer with us, though in fairness my grandparents would be 112 now! My grandfather was the first close relative under 90 to die. I was 23 & the last time I saw him was on Christmas Eve. I visited him in hospital, taking a bunch of flowers ( you could still take flowers into hospitals in 1985) & spent a short time sat by his bed as he lay unconscious, slowly dying from the undiagnosed peritonitis that would kill him. At one point his eyes opened briefly, he recognised me & said ‘Hello Phil’ very quietly before they closed again. I instinctively knew then that the hello doubled up as a goodbye, the final farewell, & I never visited him again over Christmas, aware that others needed to share a similar moment & that it wasn’t going to get better from there.
Most of my earliest ‘Match Of The Day’ memories involved being allowed to stay up way beyond my normal bedtime to watch David Coleman present the then paltry two game edited highlights on my grandparents sizeable black & white telly. I watched my first ever football match in that room, with my father & grandfather, the 1968 Fairs Cup Final 1st Leg between Leeds United & Ferencvaros. Dirty Leeds. When I stayed there at weekends, the illicit ‘ Match Of The Day’ viewings would be followed up the following morning with a kick around in nearby Florence Park, comfortably the most beautiful park in Oxford, with its perfectly kept flower beds & Weeping Willows. My grandfather, over 60 then, would don football boots & tracksuit bottoms, though unfortunately the only football he owned had the valve rattling around inside it & would not stay fully inflated for very long. He loved football, & talking about football, frequently recounting the same anecdotes of matches & characters from the past, a trait I fear has been passed down. The difference was that he always had at least one happy recipient of the umpteenth retelling of the same tale. Me. On Saturday 28th December, 1985, there would normally have been plenty for us to chew over with that day’s results. Chelsea beat Spurs 2-0 & his beloved Millwall put 5 past Hull, where I had only just severed my ties a few months earlier. He died that evening with the most minute of small consolations for me that his last ‘Grandstand’ teleprinter results service, or whatever it had morphed into by then, brought good news for us both, albeit without him being conscious of the fact. I miss him very much.
My father died of cancer in 2011, reduced to mere skin & bone in the three months from diagnosis to death, but still able to raise a quizzical eyebrow the last weekend I saw him at the news that Chelsea had just paid £50 million for Fernando Torres, & a broad smile at finding out that Babestation was on the options menu on the small television next to his hospital bed. Next month marks 50 years since he took me to my first Chelsea game, a 2-2 4th Round FA Cup draw with Burnley. The nearest fixture to this anniversary in January? A Premier League fixture against…….. Burnley. This poignant twist of fate is slightly contrived, as there is a fixture nearest to that date, the Arsenal game, but that is kicking off at 8.15 & destined to lead me still wending my way home deep into the early hours of the next morning. My £70+ is staying in my pocket, my ageing limbs at home. So Burnley will be the game nearest to the anniversary that I am actually present for at Stamford Bridge, unless there is a home draw in this year’s FA Cup 4th Round. Perhaps that will be Burnley too. As on Boxing Day I will be attending the Burnley game by myself, but there will be a feast of memories, overwhelmingly happy ones, swirling around my head & keeping me company as I take my seat in the West Stand, just as I did with my dad all those years ago in 1970.
There are many modern two word combinations that instill a potent sense of life sapping nausea & dread & in this ageing Englishman’s battered psyche. Fake news. Top Gear. Brexit update. Bowel screening. Michael Gove (a man with a body rendered uniquely ineligible for a bowel screening on account of the revolting head being wedged so deeply up its own arse). Bike bell. Dance off. Gym membership. Bono interview. Sun journalist. Tottenham Hotspur. My trip to the County Ground was inspired by the final entry on this far from exhaustive list.
International break. May God have mercy on all our souls. Regularly giving us the chance to squander our meagre salaries betting on the outcome of Andorra v Lithuania, & avoiding the glitter flecked clutches of Strictly ComeDancing, rather than getting out & watching our own teams. My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense as Keats had it. Zip-a-Dee-Fucking-Doo-Dah in more modern parlance. Fortunately, Swindon are at home & I take the chance to eschew my staff bus pass & lord it up on a train to dance off to Wiltshire & the County Ground, my first visit to Swindon since watching them draw 2-2 with Leyton Orient back in 2010.
It turns out to be a good decision, two good teams deservedly sharing the spoils, on loan Eoin Doyle finishing off a neat 4 man move for Swindon in the first half, & midfielder Joel Grant capping off an equally slick passage of play for Plymouth in the second. There are a lot of loanees on display, & Argyle have also become a refuge for a handful of former employees of Bury, four players & manager Ryan Lowe now gainfully employed at Home Park after The Shakers were disgracefully allowed to be driven out of existence by a despicable & unscrupulous owner, & a pitiful indifference from many others in the football world, some of whom may find themselves similarly shafted at some stage. ‘Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’ Rave on John Donne. Once again, I find myself marvelling at the pace of the modern game & the excellent fitness levels of the muscular, supremely athletic modern player compared to all those lower league cult hero centre forwards of the 60s, ’70’s & ’80’s, frequently brilliant finishers but with barrel chests that betrayed a liking for the beer sold in the pubs a lot of them ended up owning when a newsagents wasn’t available. The ‘player who could have been a contender’ slot, a reliable staple at lower division games through the ages, is filled by Argyle sub Jose Baxter. A first teamer at Everton at 16, later seeing a promising career at Sheffield United stubbed out when he tested positive for Ecstasy, Baxter is now 27. He comes on & shows from a deep lying role that the touch is still there, if not yet the match fitness. One of the many impressive gym toned specimens on show, imposing & composed on the ball for Swindon, turns out to be former Chelsea midfielder Anthony Grant, on loan from Shrewsbury. He appeared in my exile years & I have never seen him before in the flesh. He’s massive! Not a spare ounce on him though. I can’t help but wonder how Chelsea’s mid ’90’s team of minnows including Jody Morris, Mark Stein, John Spencer & Dennis Wise would cope now. Then I recall 18 year old Billy Gilmour, a slip of a boy physically, owning a 7-1 Blues Caraboa Cup win over a big Grimsby Town side a fortnight ago. If you’re good enough…. Dennis Wise probably isn’t a name to drop in Swindon after he accepted the manger’s job back in 2007, only to walk out after a couple of promising months when his old mucker Birdseye Bates lured him to the then sinking ship that was Leeds. Dirty Leeds. A foolish move destined for disaster & he hasn’t managed since, notwithstanding hindsight always being a wonderful thing.
There is something palate cleansing about going to matches that don’t involve your own team. It is far more relaxing & helps sustain a healthier overall interest in the game. One of the sad ironies of modern football is the fact that its ubiquity on television often has a counter-productive effect in this regard. Most of us are busy people, if we can watch live feeds or extended highlights of every match our own teams play why bother watching anybody else? In my long lost youth, only highlights were shown, & Match Of The Day or The Big Match would have a maximum of 2/3 games. If you wanted to see some football, you had to watch these programmes, & consequently expose yourself to the experience of watching a match just as that, minus the passion & prejudice that automatically kicks in watching your own club. Small boys now will be au fait with the respective FIFA 20 stats for all the top players of the world. I would play table football creating knockout cups having familiarised myself with the current line ups of all 92 clubs in the old Football League. This may have made me an insufferable, anally retentive little know all, but also bred an inherent interest in all these clubs & their players. It was a thrill to see them in the flesh at actual matches, & to follow their careers. Unlike the FIFA kids I did not get disappointed when in real life they failed to dribble past 6 opponents & tee themselves up for a thumping 40 yard bicycle kick into the roof of the opposition net. There are no morality tales here, if I had been given access to computer games as a kid I would have stayed in my room all day too. Empty recreation grounds & a steepling average age of people actually attending matches are rather sad though, & a real threat to the much vaunted English footballing pyramid.
The trip to the County Ground offers me an opportunity to doff an outsider’s cap at one of the footballing figures who helped define my attitude to football. The death of Peter Downsbrough, Swindon goalkeeper in their finest hour, the 3-1 humbling of Arsenal in the 1969 League Cup Final, is remembered with a minute’s applause prior to kick off, generously supported by the sizeable gathering of Plymouth fans. Swindon’s first away match after the sad news was announced was at Bradford City, the club Downsbrough left them for, a pleasing irony that assured his memory was observed with due respect & affection on that occasion too. The 1969 League Cup was the first domestic cup final I ever watched on television, & Peter Downsbrough greeting a collection of Arsenal corner kicks & crosses with safe hands or a firm punch is an abiding memory. Is it just a rose tinted childhood memory or are we fans all a more spiteful clan these days? I recall people being more pleased for Swindon than revelling in Gooner dismay. This even seemed true when Colchester beat dirty but mighty Leeds in the FA Cup in 1971, or Hereford beat Newcastle the following year, although there was some relish in the latter largely aimed at that eternal gobshite Malcolm Macdonald, who had confidently predicted he would score a hatful for the Geordies in the fateful replay. He tripped up again in 1974 when making all kind of bold claims prior to the FA Cup Final against Liverpool, who won 3-0. Supermac never got a kick. As Fulham manager he dismissed Chelsea’s promotion credentials just before the two teams met in 1984. Chelsea won 4-0. I delight in all this as he also is in my little black book of players who were rude to me in my autograph hunting years, calling me son in the process which I always hated. Nonetheless, deserved though his humiliation at the hands of non league Hereford was, the pleasure once again seemed more sharing the joy of the victors rather than sneering at the losers. How times change.
To emphasise the earlier point I followed the careers of many of the Swindon tankard winning heroes of 1969 (no medals for players in the League Cup back then!) for the rest of their careers. Full back Rod Thomas went to Derby & won the old Division 1 title there under the management of a former Town player-manager, the legendary Dave MacKay, a truly great player still capable of controlling games effortlessly from midfield in his Swindon years despite by this time sporting bigger tits than a Russ Meyer starlet, allied to an enormous belly straining against his red shirt & seeming likely at any moment to drag it against the turf like a pregnant dog. Downsbrough won Division 4 with Bradford. Left back John Trollope MBE stayed at the County Ground for his entire career, playing over 700 games. Someone I knew refereed him in a reserve game towards the end of his career & maintained he was the most courteous & professional footballer he ever had the pleasure of dealing with. The wonderful Don Rogers, scorer of two of the goals on the mudheap Wembley pitch, moved on to Crystal Palace & scored more virtuoso goals for that most frustratic & erratic of teams before ending up back at Swindon, running a sports shop & happily thriving to this day. At school I claimed to have had tea with him once after my dad had played against a showbiz football team at Thame United in the early ’70’s. Technically this is true, Don was indeed there with me for the egg sandwiches & battenburg cake stage of proceedings, but so were dozens of others. Gave me his autograph though. Good old Don. I also saw the late Stan Harland playing for a Division 1 bound Birmingham City alongside Roger Hynd (Bill Shankly’s nephew) in defence, with the goals & flair supplied by Bob Latchford & a brilliant 17 year old, Trevor Francis, whose obvious talent belied his youth, betrayed on the pitch only by the perennial adolescent curse that is acne. That disappeared, but the talent persisted through to European Cup glory, scores of England caps & a spell in Italy with Sampdoria. Dull pundit. Great player. The most poignant memory I have of watching one of these Swindon immortals was at Hull in 1982, when Peter Noble, then at nearly 38 approaching the fag end of his career, rolled up with Blackpool in a tame end of season match at an unusually sun blessed Boothferry Park. In fact, apart from Hull winning 1-0 I remember very little else about the game other than one of the fellow students I went with, a Blackpool fan, spending most of the game mindlessly abusing one of his own players, David Hockaday, another future Swindon player. Noble had enjoyed a very successful spell at Burnley in the top division after leaving Swindon, converting from striker to full back in the process. The Falklands War was happening at the time, & the cretinous jingoism of TheSun under its reliably repulsive editor Kelvin Mackenzie was transmitting itself to many of the excitable overgrown schoolboys in my hall of residence. We returned from the match to a packed, but curiously silent television room. The HMS Sheffield had been sunk by an Argentinian exocet missile, the Boy’s Own gung ho atmosphere now replaced by the reality of war. People die on both sides. Who knew? Seemingly not Kelvin Mackenzie, who ended the decade printing vile lies about Liverpool fans in the aftermath of the horror of the Hillsborough disaster, still as disgusting a maggot infested sack of shit as this country’s newspaper industry has ever produced, & that’s up against some pretty stiff opposition. The relevance of this? Maybe not much at all, but if I had been given a Playstation as a boy I might never have known who people like Peter Noble were, never gone to Boothferry Park that night, perhaps never have been torn away from it long enough to even know that the HMS Sheffield had gone down until the following day. No man is an island. Rave on John Donne pt 2. Peter Noble, who famously took 28 penalties in his career & never missed one (eat that Messi & Hazard!) died in 2017. Dementia has also now established its hideous grip on some of his colleagues from their finest footballing hour 50 years ago. PFA chaiman & gutbucket Gordon Taylor really needs to step up to the plate given the growing number of ex players, often rugged defenders & strikers back in the day, who headed the ball constantly & have now been struck down with dementia. Football’s response (or rather lack of it) thus far has been a monumental disgrace.
Swindon are Angie’s team & Angie is the benchmark for what a proper football fan should be, loyal, devoted & clubbable. She has a sizeable core of friends she travels, watches games & socialises with. The vagaries of team fortunes & club finances do not impact these tendencies one iota. I owe my seat next to her at the game to Malc, a big lad, but not as big as he looked on the pitch as his alter ego, on pitch matchday mascot Rockin’ Robin. Angie & I first talked football over a quarter of a century ago after our staff Christmas party had spilled over into the pub next door, as I became aware that there was a rare interested ear cocked to one of my regular, loud & tedious denunciations of the truly appalling former Chelsea player Dave Mitchell. The goal shy Australian had by then moved to Swindon, where he thrived, so Angie did not share my views. Swindon had a string of players who did well for them but failed to pull up any trees at Stamford Bridge, including the much maligned Alan Mayes (a County Ground legend) & fellow strikers Duncan Shearer & Sam Parkin. Roy Wegerle had a short loan spell there too before being sold to Luton for £75,000. Not long after he was a million pound player. True, Gareth Hall also played at the County Ground for a while but to every good rule there is an exception as my French teacher Mademoiselle Defay always used to say. Then again she always called me Vincent the mad old trout. Or should I say vieille truite folle? CSE Grade 1 French (1978) my friends. CSE Grade 1. A sort of O level for tramps. Angie soon revealed herself to be several leagues above the other football fans at work, myself included. On one dark January night in 1994 she sidled me up to at the bar (or home as it was known to me back then) & shamefacedly admitted that she had not made it to Swindon’s FA Cup 3rd Round replay defeat at Ipswich 2 days earlier. She was entirely blameless, her promised lift had merely failed to materialise, but it was the first game she had missed in years. Gutted doesn’t cover it. On October 17, 1995, in the midst of another day of working tedium Angie waved a quick goodbye as she sped past our counter to watch Swindon in an Auto Windscreen Shield Southern Area 1st Round tie at Plainmoor, home of Torquay United. A 364 mile round journey. For an Auto Windscreen Shield Southern Area 1st Round tie. In midweek. The rest of us alleged club supporters should really have stolen a prevalent phrase in ’90’s popular culture, formed a circle around Angie & loudly & repeatedly chanted ‘We are not worthy’ though I doubt other Waynes’s World catchphrases applied to the match itself, some grainy footage of which is supplied below. Party time? Excellent? Not the appalling Torquay shot over the bar recorded below! I remember suggesting to her that developing an addiction to crack cocaine would probably prove less expensive & injurious to her mental (if not physical) welfare than following Swindon Town. Made no difference to Angie. Why would it? These days Angie does allow herself to duck the odd game & the EFL Trophy, the Auto Windscreen equivalent now, is understandably boycotted due to it being a plaything for bigger clubs to test their Academy staff against older, more physically developed opposition.
18 months earlier Swindon had been relegated after one season in the Premier League, manager Glenn Hoddle having been lured away by Chelsea chairman Ken Bates immediately after a thrilling 4-3 Wembley play off victory over Leicester had secured promotion in May 1993. The courting of Hoddle by Bates had been typically less than subtle & less than helpful for Swindon’s preparation for this game. Having to start their one season in the Premier League without their influential player manager didn’t help much either. A few years earlier, in 1988, the ending of the reign of a previous Chelsea manager had moved ever closer after John Hollins saw his increasingly beleagured charges thumped out of sight 4-0 in a third round Simod Cup match at a muddy County Ground. The first time he had heard both sets of fans singing ‘Hollins Out’ the soon to be ex Chelsea boss ruefully admitted. Angie went to that game. I didn’t. In 1994, Angie was in the crowd of 11,180 watching an end of season game between Chelsea & Swindon at Stamford Bridge. I had spent the early part of that day at the ground queuing for FA Cup final tickets, & had to return back to Oxford for what was left of the working day, giving me no chance of travelling back for the match. It’s an excuse of sorts but in the same situation Angie would have found a way to do both. Swindon were rock bottom of the table with a minus goal difference of 51 at the time, 53 by the end of the game despite £2.1 million flop Robert Fleck making a rare Chelsea appearance up front. Many would have found a reason not to go, but Angie is made of sterner stuff. One game we were both at was a ZDS cup tie at Chelsea in 1991 a cold evening with 5,712 fellow brave souls, though I still believe that when Vinnie Jones headed in a last minute winner at the Shed end that Angie & I may have been the only people left in the stadium, albeit at different ends. Stamford Bridge was an awfully big ground for such a sparse crowd back then. In 2015 I spent Easter on the coast at my mother’s & watched on television as Chelsea beat Stoke on the way to a fourth Premier League title in 10 years. I was 11 years into my self imposed Stambord Bridge exile by then. At the same time Angie joining the 92 club made the Swindon Town programme. Given the plethora of new grounds & different clubs coming in & out of the league she has probably got nearer to 120 grounds visited now. She has followed the Swindon, over land & sea. And Leicester (both Filbert Street & the Walkers Stadium no doubt) – her late father, who first took her to Swindon & accompanied her to matches for many years would be mightily proud, and rightly so. What memories are in there too. The Lou Macari years of the mid to late 1980’s, Wembley play offs, relegation rather than promotion for financial irregularities, seeing Dave Mitchell score a goal, entire weekends in Blackpool to tie in with fixtures at Bloomfield Road & once being chatted up by the Seasider’s own legend, Wembley play off hero Brett Ormerod. I can’t begin to compete with the sheer volume of varying football based experiences Angie has enjoyed watching Swindon, many of which I envy, though not, in fairness, the Brett Ormerod incident. Sorry Brett you’re just not my type. Nor Angie’s as it turned out!
Opposites attract. Another two word beacon of semantic banality & rarely is this cliche true. A flipside of like minds repel works better for most football fans. The majority of most followers of the beautiful game spend large chunks of their time vehemantly disliking supporters of opposing teams & expressing that dislike in the strongest of terms. Ironically this is triggered by universal & identical tuning forks regardless of which team you back. The illogical refusal to allow opposing fans to make the same criticisms of your club that you frequently express yourself. The week to week victory to defeat wavering from believing you support the best club in the world to having been cursed in pursuing a lifelong relationship with a gutless, spineless, pampered, overpaid ragbag of disinterested mercenaries, overseen by greedy, egotistical, uncaring owners. The universal conviction that referees discriminate against your boys more than any others, rather than the simpler, more accurate conclusion that their ranks are apparently terminally riddled with gross incompetence. One minute we’ll support you evermore, the next preparing to hurl your season ticket at the nearest steward. If you are an Oxford United fan then Swindon fans are vile, inbred scumbags with little or no right to walk this earth. Swindon fans feel similarly towards Oxford. This is hilarious when you stand outside the bubble of rivalry. I can happily recount that if blindfolded when listening in to a group of supporters from either side venting their spleens that the anecdotes & conclusions each have & draw about the other are almost indivisible, & bleeping out the names of players, teams & grounds involved in the conversation would make which of the two clubs are their own almost impossible to decipher. This pattern could be repeated around the football world from Burnley to Buenos Aires, with similar results. Indulging in a wholesale painting of opposing teams & their fans with the scum brush is, of course, illogical, mad & plain wrong. Unless it’s Chelsea fans ripping anything or anyone Spurs a new one of course, which will for eternity be both perfectly acceptable & enormous fun. Why? Because I say so.
There is often a certain schizophrenia which dilutes all this apparently pure hatred though. Friendships are formed between supporters of rival clubs in a milder form of Alf Garnett style racists befriending the black person at work or next door. You know the sort. ‘He’s alright it’s the rest of them I can’t stand’.
Angie depises Oxford United more than anyone, but being a thoroughly nice, balanced human being she can’t carry it through beyond a certain point. Annette, her close friend & colleague from the days when we all worked for Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, has a season ticket at the Kassam Stadium, seated near a collection of fellow former colleagues from those days, none of them ever dealt with in a vitriolic way by quite possibly the truest football fan I have ever met. When I first met Angie she was actually married to an Oxford fan. It didn’t last, but the fact that they married in the first place betrayed an ability to compartmentalize her loathing for the boys from up the hill, as Oxford were sometimes called back in the day when they played in Headington. Somebody once told me that the wedding cake had been iced one half in red, the other in yellow, as a nod to their different teams, but I don’t believe Angie has ever confirmed this to me. Never mind, it’s a nice image, & harmless if untrue. Print the legend!
None of this denies a genuine aversion to Oxford United on her part though, not diminished one iota by the dismal Joey Beauchamp saga of the mid 1990’s. Beauchamp was a very talented footballer indeed, a winger who was quick & skilful, blessed with good dribbling & crossing abilities allied to a happy knack of scoring goals, often long range & spectacular. I first saw him play as a 17 year old in a reserve game against Chelsea, a game I attended beacause my then favourite player Micky Hazard (also a Swindon player a few seasons later) was playing. A frustrated & disgruntled Hazard was sent off for an awful & uncharacteristic foul, soon to be followed to the dressing room by team mate Colin West, but Beauchamp played well & was clearly already a darling of the reserve set within the Manor Ground faithful, admittedly as weird a bunch as you are ever likely to share football ground space with. His conduct during his brief stay at West Ham may have seen him derided as a wimp by former Hammers boss Billy Bonds & pathetic by almost teammate Tony Cottee (who rejoined West Ham shortly after Beauchamp’s miserable 58 day stay had ended) but on the pitch he had shown the cojones to continually make a monkey out of another Irons legend, the fearsome Julian Dicks, in a game a year or so before his £1.2 million pound transfer to Upton Park in the summer of 1994. The desire to sign him was probably inspired that evening so comprehensively was Dicks embarrassed, a feat equalled a few years later at Stamford Bridge when Gianfranco Zola twisted the old bruiser’s blood in the most humiliating fashion when scoring the opening goal. Beauchamp got Man Of The Match by the sponsors, a well known publisher, which I remember only because I was one of their guests & got a vote, plumping unsuccessfully for midfielder Les Phillips.
Beauchamp has recently given an interview to Sky, offering a wheedling & somewhat unconvincing version of his 1994 transfer to West Ham, claiming that he was guaranteed he could travel from Oxford for training each day, did not know how much travel that involved as the negotiations took place at Heathrow, only 45 minutes drive away from Oxford, & that he simultaneously did not want to leave Oxford but did want to play for West Ham. He also cited having suffered from depression twice in his life, but did not clarify that this era was the scene of either of these (we do know that drink & a gambling addiction contributed to one breakdown years after he retired). The progression in support networks for modern players compared to 1994 was also mentioned, & the fact that he had been made very aware that Oxford United were in dire need of the money. In short the failure of the move & the ensuing debacle of a flag of convenience transfer to Swindon was everyone’s fault rather than his. I do not downplay the effects depression can have on a person’s life, having had to walk away from a job because of it myself, but the interview offered a few pointers towards an arrogance & sense of entitlement possibly not untypical within the football world. Firstly, by 1994 the Premier League was in full swing. If not the bloated cash cow it is now, a player with the potential to become an international footballer moving into the big league from the Championship in a seven figure transfer would not have been short of offers from agents who could have clarified the terms of his contract, including daily travel arrangements. Secondly, it is safe to assume that Beauchamp received handsome salaries at West Ham & Swindon, & having not requested a transfer from Oxford would have also taken a nice slice of that fee too. Rumour had it that before signing for Swindon he asked West Ham to pay the loyalty bonus included in his contract, after 58 days & no competitive appearances. A decade & a half earlier another gifted local born Oxford player, Kevin Brock, rejected a move to Brighton just as he was due to put pen to paper. Still a teenager, unlike Beauchamp, 23 but already a seasoned professional by the time the West Ham move surfaced, Brock had enough presence of mind & strength of character to stand his ground in a room surrounded by angry & desperate men. These included Brighton boss Alan Mullery, a fiery character at the best of times, & Jim Hunt, secretary of a financially imperilled Oxford, who despairingly told me & a collection of other people this story a few days after it happened. Brock stayed at Oxford until his mid 20’s before moving on to QPR having both won Division 2 & the Milk Cup, growing up a bit in the process. Fair play. Are we really to believe that Beauchamp had not considered the journey from Oxford to London? If not, then stupidity is his only bargaining plea, it is a common trek for many in Oxford. Scores of people travel to London & back there for work every day, some of them struggling with stress, anxiety & depression, most working 8 hours a day or more rather than a couple of hours training to do the thing they love. Beauchamp could have commuted & still have been home long before any of them most days, but was still in tears on one of his early appearances at the West Ham training according to Harry Redknapp, who took over as manager from Billy Bonds at this time, Beauchamp’s attitude was cited by some as a contributory factor in the latter’s disillusionment. Joey never kicked a ball in anger in a meaningful match for West Ham, but he did play in a pre-season friendly at Oxford City, conveniently close to home (he arrived separately from his colleagues) & distinguished by Harry Redknapp inviting a courier from Milton Keynes called Steve Davies out of the crowd after hearing him loudly barrack Hammers’ striker Lee Chapman. A 30 a day smoker with a few beers already on board, Davies took Redknapp up on the offer & proceeded to score a second half goal, which remains one more goal in the claret & blue than Mr Beauchamp ever mustered. He was deemed to have shown little or no commitment during the game, & the Hammers cut their losses a month later, selling him to Swindon in a deal valued at £800,00 with centre half Adrian Whitbread moving to Upton Park as the makeweight in the deal. Now everyone was pissed off. West Ham had lost both money & face given their feeble rejection from a player seemingly with the world at his feet. Oxford fans were livid that he had ended up at their most hated rivals, though subsequent alleged death threats & harrassment of family members were clearly disgusting. Swindon ended up with a player who continued to appear lethargic & unhappy, having also seen a valued defender sacrificed in the process of acquirng him. Joey was correctly perceived by Town fans as an Oxford man to the core & the clearly underwhelmed Robins manager Steve McMahon, an old school hard man as a player in his ’80’s Liverpool pomp, was happy to see him sold back to Oxford a year or so later, after 39 appearances & 3 goals, for barely more than two bob & a pickled egg . The next time Swindon visited the Manor Ground the misery of a 3-0 defeat was compounded by Beauchamp scoring the final goal at the Cuckoo Lane end directly in front of the away supporters. He played another seven years for Oxford before injury curtailed his career prematurely, showing frequent flashes of his old brilliance in the process.
In truth, I wouldn’t like Joey much if I were a West Ham or Swindon fan. In truth, despite admiring his football ability, I don’t like him anyway. After he retired I would frequently see him in my local Ladbrokes or William Hills when placing my weekly £10 accumulator. Beauchamp would be sliding a bundle of neatly banded notes on to the counter from his back pocket to place on the next race at the dogs, usually revealing an identical bundle of banded notes sat behind it ready for the following race. He was then a professional gambler, an enviable existence on the surface, approaching his ’40’s having never had a proper day of working drudgery in his life. Good luck to him I thought, though it did occur to me that maybe helping coach the kids at Oxford might have been a constructive idea if time hung so heavy on your hands that you could seemingly live in the bookies. Ultimately, the wheels came off, depression & heavy drinking apparently fuelling a breakdown. Oxford belatedly gave him a jont testimonial with Dave Langan, & in his early ’40’s he did join the ranks of the workers for the first time. I know because instead of standing in front of me in the queue at the bookies it was him who served me. This seemed a bit like a crackhead getting a job as a drug dealer & when I say he served me, it is more accurate to say he took my bet. Having worked in customer service roles for years I can confirm that it is difficult to conclude any transaction with even the most objectionable customer (I like to think I’m not one of these) without saying as much as a please or thank you very much in the process. Traditionally, Ladbrokes staff usually say ‘good luck mate’ when handing you your betting slip. Not our Joey, mute throughout, as dim, dismissive & arrogant as anyone who has ever served me anywhere. I have never betted in Ladbrokes since & my response all these years later when recalling the incident is identical to any West Ham or Swindon fan of my vintage recalling his career. Fuck off Beauchamp. As stated previously, on Sky last month, tongue now miraculously restored, he claimed both to have not wanted to leave Oxford but be nonetheless keen to play in the Premier League with West Ham & further his international ambitions. On joining Swindon he said that a move there had always interested him (they originally bid for him at the same time as West Ham) & wished he had gone there from the start. Long after retiring, In 2010, he was quoted in another newspaper as saying he had not wanted to go to either West Ham or Swindon! He does get awfully confused doesn’t he? I believe he managed to accept all the cash that came his way & bought him the house in Oxford that doubtless enabled his booze & gambling fuelled lifestyle for many years. To repeat, depression is a terrible, frequently indiscrimanate illness & Beauchamp was but a callow youth back then, but sympathy outside of the ranks of the Oxford United faithful, where he presumably (& justly) remains a hero, wears rather thin for this seemingly still rather deluded & self pitying individual.
Lots of retired footballers get stuck in a web of depression, often with drink & gambling as contributory factors. It is a short career & filling the void when the roar of the crowd subsides must be tough. Like an ageing, once beautiful woman, walking into a room & not immediately turning heads for the first time, they have to adapt to navigating their way through the rest of their life coming to terms with no longer being an effortlessly acquired focus of public attention. For all the money & adulation many footballers get I sometimes think that supporters like Angie & her mates get the best deal in the end. Over the years they may get fleeced by their club, have their opinions ignored, be treated with contempt by some of its playing staff, get sold out to the television companies by the football authorities & mishandled by stewards & police. However, they form bulletproof friendships in the process, taking time off work to travel the length & breadth of the country backing their team, forging bonds that have nothing to do with earning money or furthering professional ambitions, in the process achieving a genuine togetherness that endures.
After the Plymouth game we return to the pub. As Angie had tried to warn me the Arkells I am drinking is indeed suspect. It might be a long trek home. I can’t drink for shit these days as it is. Rockin’ Robin (Malc) announces that a Plymouth fan has just snarled ‘fucking four eyes’ at him coming out of the ground. Clearly we may have to extend our search for the country’s next comic God beyond the south coast of Devon. The Plymouth fans have generally been decent though, they always travelled well in my experience, right back to the 1970’s when they had Paul Mariner & Billy Rafferty up front, before Mariner went on to play for England & bequeathed Chris Waddell his mullet. There had been an old school atmosphere on arriving at the first pub before kick off, with Plymouth fans stood rather ominously on the other side of the road & a healthy smattering of Old Bill present to oversee any potential action. As far as I can tell nothing had really happened though, & the atmosphere at the game had certainly been an improvement on the deadly combination of entitled elders & box ticking tourists that frequently make Stamford Bridge feel like a pre-match minute’s silence has been extended to 45. As the Plymouth team coach starts the long journey home another of Angie’s mates runs out into the middle of the street, bends over, drops his trousers & moons its occupants . I would never dare do that. With my dodgy back & increasingly massive arse I might never get back up & end up being mistaken for another of Swindon’s many roundabouts. Malc insists I must be rich as a Chelsea fan, not understanding that supporting Chelsea has been one of many factors ensuring that I will never be rich. It would be tempting to point out that I walk the 6 mile return journey from Victoria to Stamford Bridge every home match, unlike Angie & pals catching a taxi between boozers as they had done earlier. Flash gits! Malc also tells me that I came to watch some proper football for a change, as if a season of Eden Hazard slipping the Sarri straitjacket last year had been some kind of hardship. I am happy to take a back seat & understand my place. I am a Chelsea supporting ponce from Oxford. I go to Stamford Bridge on my own these days so it is nice to stand in a pub & witness the natural camaraderie. There is a lot to be said for suporting your local team, but my blue plaque tourist walk to the ground & escape from my home town is a massive part of my matchday ritual, & Chelsea grabbed me in its greedy Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang like paws when I was 7. I had no real say in the matter, & no apologies will be forthcoming at this late stage. Angie is actually travelling to Oxford later for a night out. Malc is considering going too, but is clad in clothing extensively advertising his allegiance to Swindon Town. I suggest he goes the whole hog & travels to Oxford in his Rockin’ Robin outfit. This is understandably ignored. He is convinced that gloating Oxford United fans will be flocking into town that night still wearing their scarves & team shirts, celebrating their own team’s 3-0 win over Doncaster Rovers. Those days are gone in Oxford. Malc also has memories of being on a Swindon supporter’s coach that broke down in Blackbird Leys, a notorious housing estate close both to The Kassam Stadium & my own home. It has to be said, there are better places for a Swindon supporter’s coach to break down. Eventually alternative clothing is found & I decide to travel back to Oxford with them on a bus. They are good company. Malc does other things bar dressing up as a 7 foot tall robin, which includes being a proud father. The trip home includes some nostalgic YouTube viewing of Swindon’s finest Premier League performance, a 2-2 draw with Man Utd, that season’s Double winners. Malc & Angie add some lively accompanying commentary that annoys a man in a shabby looking Man Utd shirt, who pointedly gets up & moves to the other end of the bus, fixing us with a series of angry looking stares over his shoulder as he does so. They are passionate these bus dwelling, badly dressed 60+ Man Utd fans from Swindon. At least the reliving of Cantona’s despicable stamp on John Moncur, Mark Hughes exchanging blows with the Swindon crowd & Luc Nijholt’s wickedly deflected shot flying into the Man Utd goal distracts me from the absence of a toilet to relieve my bladder, reeling from the combined effects of old age & dodgy Arkells & from Faringdon onwards screaming ‘why didn’t you get the fucking train back too you stupid old twat?!’ at its hapless owner. Angie & Malc kindly offer me the chance to join them on their evening out, unaware of the war I am waging against a first brush with public incontinence. I politely decline. When splashdown at Oxford occurs (not literally I am relieved to report) they go their way & I go mine. Their matchday ritual is very different to mine but in our differing ways we love our teams, & football itself. The day has been spent in the company of good people, Strictly Come Dancing has been avoided & William Hill have failed to profit from my ignorance of the footballing merits of Andorra or Lithuania. I have also managed not to piss my pants on a bus.
The onset of another World Cup always makes me a little queasy. This is partly because I feel the need for a rest from football once the domestic season has ended. For me, football is a welcome & essential distraction from the misery of winter, a vastly less vital presence in summer. The World Cup arrives like a box of Hotel Chocolat’s finest being waved under your nose at 9 O’clock in the evening on Christmas Day. Magnificent but I’m full up. Oh alright. Just the one. That was nice. I’ll have another. On both occasions righteousness may lose out to gluttony but the queasiness never quite departs. This is partly due to the prospect of endless plays of Three Lions, which gets on my tits as successfully as it keeps Frank Skinner’s bank balance nicely topped up. At least it ensures the cheeky smile remains on his face, along with that remarkably unfurrowed sixty year old brow. During Euro 96 a friend was harangued, then kicked, then accused of being ‘a fucking jock’ for not joining in with a chorus of Three Lions. England weren’t even playing that day. Its appeal has palled ever since, blameless though the wretched song itself was in the incident. It may also be partly down to the prospect of 4 weeks of wondering how many minutes into a game Glenn Hoddle can last before using the word cute or mispronouncing Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder as Willun when everyone else in the world, most of whom are not paid handsomely to get these things right, know him as Willian. Then there is the predictable debate about the confused state of our national identity, fast approaching critical proportions in the post 2016 referendum hell we now find ourselves in. Flying a St George’s flag outside your window during the World Cup does not make someone a boneheaded Tommy Robinson follower, but the bullying mentality towards people who don’t like football can also be quite unbearable. As England beat Sweden this year, Martin Keown, always a reliable standard-bearer for an intoxicating sporting brand of arrogance & stupidity, sneered that there were probably people out there reading a book instead of watching the game & they should get a life. Those that were reading at the time weren’t listening to a monstrous bellend like you Mr Keown, & that sounds like a plan for enriching anyone’s life. Apart from being a cretinous, witless attempt at preaching to the converted, Keown, as ever, missed the point entirely. One of the more tedious elements of the World Cup madness is having to listen constantly to the opinions of just about anybody on just about every aspect of the tournament. People who are not interested & don’t pretend to be should not be scorned, but cherished. The background noise is deafening enough as it is.
Many people who generally remain impervious to the charms of football are still drawn in by the magic of the World Cup however. These lovely people in the picture above may look as if they have just been shown the Dele Alli sex tape, but this is not so. I’ll venture that most of them had not strolled often, if ever, into a football ground before this picture, & that this state of affairs has persevered ever since. This is an educated guess as I know most of them. To them the World Cup was an entertaining back drop to a summer night in the pub, & there is nothing wrong with that. The picture dates from 2010 & there is a pretty good chance that nobody captured here remembers the match, let alone the incident, that inspired such animation. They are reacting to the moment Ghana missed a last-minute extra time penalty against Uruguay, after the second-rate vampire & future honorary Scouser Luis Suarez introduced himself to our wider consciousness by punching a goal-bound shot over the bar. Suarez got sent off but Uruguay went through. On penalties. Yet again sport at the top-level had given the lie to the adage that cheats never prosper, but the fact that this scene will have been mirrored all around the world is testimony to the grip the tournament can have on people, irrespective of whether they have a direct, vested interest in the protagonists on show.
I was 4 years old when England won the World Cup, so my memories of the day itself are not of Geoff Hurst’s hat trick, Bobby Moore wiping his hand before shaking that of Her Majesty, or the Russian linesman instructing the referee to give the third goal. Not even Nobby dancing. Some people may well have been on the pitch, but I was probably up in my tiny bedroom playing with my teddy bear. My memories are confined to the morning of the game, & are as mundane as it gets. It rained. And, stood in the rain, outside the shop at the end of our road, was a boy called Neil Keylock. A small boy. With a big, big voice. ‘WORLD CUP FINAL TODAY’ he proclaimed to anyone within earshot, probably three old women, Mr Sainsbury, who used to puncture our balls if they went into his garden & threatened his beloved plants (‘Cost me sevenpence each they did. Now bugger off!’) & at least one of Mrs Simpson’s twenty plus identical mongrels that perennially roamed the street growling at me & depositing plentiful supplies of dog shit everywhere. And yes, sometimes it was white. Neil, a year older than me, would later put his booming vocals to good use in junior school, when selecting his dinner in the assembly hall. The etiquette was to ask for small, medium or large portions of the culinary joy on offer, be it mutton, liver, soggy cabbage, gravy, lumpy mashed potato, swede, prunes, rice pudding with a dollop of jam, or, if we were lucky, a splendid rock hard chocolate tart with chocolate flavoured custard. No wonder my generation never bought a World Cup home. Neil always eschewed the first two of the standard sizing options & created one of his own. I never heard him ask for anything but ‘LARGE PLEASE!’ or ‘EXTRA LARGE PLEASE!’ & believe me, I always heard him. If Motorhead had been rehearsing next door they would have popped their head round the door & asked if he could keep the noise down. So when others hark back to their memories of the Jules Rimet Trophy gleaming away in Bobby Moore’s recently cleaned hands, I always think of Neil Keylock, his splendid voice, school dinners, & being nothing if not truly English, the inclement morning weather. What joy for those who can remember watching the match on the day itself mind. An EXTRA LARGE slice of joy if you please.
Everyone thinks that the first World Cup they can remember watching was the best one ever. They certainly don’t come any better than the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. What better time to be an 8-year-old discovering football. England was a far more insular country & large portions of the world a far more exotic & unknown prospect than is now the case. There were no foreign stars in the domestic game back then, & no wall to wall television watching options of games from round the globe, so the brilliance of some of the players from other nations were far more of a revelation than they would be now. To discover Rivelino, Gerson, Tostao, Jairzinho, & Carlos Alberto beside the wonderful Pele in the brilliant, triumphant Brazilian team of 1970 was beyond normal levels of excitement. Morning highlights would be shown as we prepared for school, presented by Frank Bough, then an apparent bastion of middle class middle England, now harshly remembered largely for alleged cross dressing & coke snorting with hookers in Mayfair S&M torture chambers during his breakfast television days in the following decade. Poor old Frank. He gave me his autograph at Edgbaston during a John Player League cricket match once so I still like him. Apparently drug free & dressed as a man I must add. Early on in the tournament Ladislav Petras of Czechoslavakia scored against Brazil & crossed himself in celebration, the first time any of us had seen a player do that, & aped by every school boy who scored on the school field at lunchtime for the rest of the summer. Pele came close to scoring from the halfway line in that match. None of us came close to repeating that. Germany had the ultimate goal poacher in the great Gerd Muller & the footballing Rolls Royce that was Franz Beckanbauer, who famously played on with his arm in a sling as they lost 4-3 to Italy in the semi finals. The Italians had Facchetti, Rivera & Luigi Riva. Peru brought the fabulous Teofilo Cubillas & Hector Chumpitaz, that decade’s winner of the Roger Miller ‘how old is he really?’ award. England had terrific players too. Moore, Charlton, Ball, & the great Gordon Banks, supplier of the highlight of that, indeed any, World Cup, via his extraordinary save from Pele’s lethal downward header as Brazil beat us 1-0 in the group stages. ‘What a save’ said my dad from his armchair, doubtless alongside countless millions of others, a split second before David Coleman’s commentary, delayed slightly by satellite transmission, repeated the very same words.
Sadly, there is rarely that much pleasure without pain, as Frank Bough could doubtless tell us. The World Cup that thrilled us so much also set the template for disappointment, pain & fear, as just before England’s Quarter Final against West Germany the great Banks succumbed to Montezuma’s Revenge (basically a more exotic sounding Mexican version of what you & I would call the shits) & was replaced by Chelsea legend Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti. His last meaningful action had seen him play a blinder at Wembley in the FA Cup Final, before battling bravely through the pain barrier after being crocked by dirty Leeds representative Mick Jones in the replay at Old Trafford. Hours before the Germany game kicked off our television broke down & we all decamped next door to watch the game. England sauntered into a 2 goal lead but then Bonetti misjudged a relatively innocuous looking effort from Beckanbauer, a speculative Seeler back-header looped into the corner of the net, & a nation’s hopes evaporated as fast as the entire English defence to leave Bonetti face to face with the deadly Muller for the by now inevitable extra time German winner. The Cat’s England team mates have largely continued to desert him ever since, shamefully happy to let him shoulder the entire blame for the defeat, the late Alan Ball being a noble & notable exception. On a side issue, the latter also handed us all a quandary that has haunted me for years, by publishing an autobiography titled It’s All About A Ball. The best title of a sports biography or the worst? Dear, fabulous Peter Bonetti had to carry the burden of the nation’s despair following that afternoon in Leon for the rest of his career. Before the match had ended, unable to bear the torture that was unfolding before us, I ran out the back door of my neighbours, jumped over the garden wall in an impressively catlike way, albeit a cat in pyjamas, & ran up to my tiny bedroom. As far as the England football team was concerned I would have been better staying there for the next 20 years. In the last 20 years many small boys have apparently carried this out, spawning the unwelcome emergence of the keyboard warrior. Three years later our television broke down again, shortly before England played a crucial World Cup qualifier away in Poland. Radio Rentals came to the rescue with a replacement set this time, but England lost disastrously again, Bobby Moore’s dreadful error letting in the lethal Lubanski for a killer goal before Alan Ball was sent off. In fact, England were not to qualify for 12 years after Mexico. The 1978 qualifying stages foundered after a tame 2-0 submission to Italy, although at least one person got something out of the day. QPR’s wayward striker Stan Bowles, discovering he got a fee for wearing the boots by the company sponsoring the national side, decided to wear one of their boots & one belonging to his usual sponsors, pocketing two fees in the process. He had a stinker by the way. We actually exited the tournament in 1982 without losing a match, due to there being 2 group stages in that tournament, Ron Greenwood’s boys drawing both games 0-0 in the second phase. At least we had a run for our money that time, long enough for the only local pub in Cottingham to allow us students through its doors to add This Time We’ll Get It Right by the England squad to its worthy jukebox alongside more durable staples such as Frankie Valli’s Northern soul classic The Night & Led Zep’s Trampled Underfoot. ‘We’re on our way, we are Ron’s 22, hear the roar of the red,white & blue.’ Happy memories. Maradona’s Hand Of God infamously did for us 4 years later, & even the memories of the splendid efforts of the team in 1990 seem somehow to have slightly faded against the backdrop of fan violence, Gazza’s open top coach comedy breasts, & Gary Lineker literally shitting his pants during the dreadful 1-1 draw with the Republic Of Ireland. By the time we failed to qualify in 1994 I had largely given up on the England team, & when qualification once again became the norm, the large influx of foreign players into Stamford Bridge allowed me to indulge my unhealthily burgeoning parochial side, cheering a Tor Andre Flo goal for Norway against Brazil in 1998 as loudly as most did Michael Owen’s memorable effort against Argentina. Despite our absence the 1994 tournament in America did have its moments, especially THAT penalty. No, not Roberto Baggio’s howler in the final shootout, which handed Brazil the trophy & me £24 (via a workplace sweepstake – I didn’t spend it all at once) but the one taken by soul diva Diana Ross in the extraordinary opening ceremony, scuffed so badly that onlooker Micky Mouse allegedly tried to renounce his US citizenship. Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no goalposts wide enough.
So what, as the hangover subsides, are we to make of the 2018 World Cup? There was plenty of Eeyore like pessimism at the outset, certainly from yours truly, based on its backdrop being that of a corrupt nation hosting it following a typically crooked selection process from FIFA, as decrepit & bent an organization that has ever existed in the history of professional sport. I was dreading it but inevitably ended up happily bingeing on a month of football that offered more than its fair share of thrills, spills, triumph, disaster, laughter, tears, &, for England, anyway, the traditional anti climax. Despite the unusually low-key & understated approach that greeted England at the start, sponsored & approved by the intelligent & admirable Gareth Southgate, our sun drenched nation still managed to get lured into a state of delusional mid summer hysteria after a few wins over modest opposition. Fellow Chelsea fans who regularly bemoan the dreaded international breaks that regularly disrupt the domestic club season were suddenly appearing on social media in England shirts & clearly getting caught up in the general hysteria. Some Chelsea fans even berated others for pursuing an anti-Spurs agenda throughout. I shuffle uneasily on both feet at this juncture. I can acknowledge the brilliant displays of Kieran Trippier, & only the worst kind of churl would deny the pedigree of Harry Kane. But 5 Spurs players sniffing around the starting line up, alongside Kyle Walker, a relatively recent refugee from Satan’s North London living room, was just too much. Dele Alli tests my patriotic resolve most. I loathe Dele Alli, with his spineless leg breaking challenges, diving, 8-year-old boy’s face & 5-year-old girl’s celebratory dance routines. It doesn’t help that like the despicable Sergio Aguero, who has twice tried to end the career of David Luiz, Alli has it over Chelsea at present, seemingly able to score against us at will. Aguero is a truly great striker, but Alli can score double hat tricks home & away for eternity against Chelsea & I would still rather eat my own teeth than ever see him in a blue shirt. When he scores against Sweden I am simply unable to celebrate the goal. This says more about me I guess, but I cannot help but pray that the closest this jerk ever gets to World Cup greatness is allegedly (I don’t read the tabloids, an acquaintance told me about the sex tape, honest) having a passable replica of the great Jairzhino’s splendid 1974 afro stuffed down the front of his pants. Someone should tell him that Jairzhino had performed far better with a shorter cut 4 years earlier. Feel free to insert your own Brazilian joke here.
By the time England lost to Belgium Reserves in a match rendered memorable only by the transparent wish of both teams not to win the match & thus the group, Brazil & France prowling round the corner for the victors, I was beginning to feel like the only person at a 1967 Pink Floyd gig not to have taken acid. Immediately after this game ITV treated us to an evening version of the breakfast show hosted by Susanna Reid & the repulsive Piers Morgan. Stephen Fry was once asked to define the word countryside on one of those smug, Radio 4 panel games. ‘Killing Piers Morgan’ he replied. All hail the usually insufferable Mr Fry, who redeemed himself & indeed Radio 4 smug panel games forever with this one moment of comic genius, even if he did steal it from Willie Rushton. The guests included Danny Dyer, Pamela Anderson & hapless Gooner Jeremy Corbyn. Against all expectations Dyer & Pammy won the day handsomely, the former with a glorious tirade about the farce of Brexit (a process handsomely aided by the pathetic leadership of the overshadowed Corbyn) the latter by rising above Morgan’s insidious innuendos about her sex life. By the time the programme ends I suspect I am now on acid too. Summer madness has descended on all of us. There is nothing to do but give in to it.
Any critical observations of the team are deemed treason by the time I meekly ventured the opinion that it would be a damning indictment of world football were this game but limited England team to emerge triumphant at the close of the competition. This followed the abysmal last hour of the Colombia game, a tired team failing to test keeper David Ospina once from open play, or even to string two passes together for long stretches. I enjoyed seeing England winning World Cup matches for a change, but it was tedious being dismissed as a snowflake for gently querying the growing assumption that it was coming home. This was not always stated in a self deprecatory way, no matter what Gary Lineker claimed from his vantage point in Russia. Funny how the rest of us plebs back home couldn’t possibly gauge the national mood as well as him despite actually being in the country at the time.
Ultimately, of course, it turned out it wasn’t coming home, & for a while it seemed that the tournament’s best player, Chelsea’s magisterial Eden Hazard, might not return to these shores either. Back to life, back to reality. My thoughts have been with myself during this difficult time. The best team won this time, for sure, with the next best teams finishing second & third. Sounds trite but it doesn’t always work out this way. The main victor aside of France was the endlessly sinister Putin, who allayed widespread doubts about the tournament hosts by presenting the world with a very successful, entertaining & seemingly peaceable month of football. The Russian psychos who marred the 2016 Euros were conspicuous by their absence, & most of our Herberts stayed at home, presumably less sure of displaying their hackneyed, Stella Artois soaked machismo when the potential of a lengthy stint in one of Vladimir’s jails beckoned. I still don’t think Russia should have been given the World Cup & handed Putin the opportunity to display some undoubted PR genius but this is irrelevant now. They did get it & the football shone like the sun. Best ever? It was consistently entertaining, with lots of great games & goals but I wouldn’t have thought so, if only for want of a truly great team, the unreal Ronaldo & Messi both exiting limply due to the inadequacies of those alongside them, only emphasising the extraordinary achievement of Maradona almost single-handedly (ahem) carrying Argentina to two successive World Cup Finals in 1986 & 1990.
Diego also outstripped all competitors for the maddest person at this year’s tournament, his surely chemically induced displays of stadium eccentricity leaving behind pretenders like Roy Keane, whose displays of wilful perversity in the ITV studio became increasingly tired as the competition progressed. Keane is like a sober, unfunny Father Jack Hackett, the loner in the pub whose eye everyone avoids. This time, however, his colleagues seemed to suss him as the only person in the room determined not to enjoy himself, & he became almost as much a figure of fun as Maradona, who may be a hate filled, coked up mess but at least does it all with gusto as he hurtles ungently towards that good night. It is sad that mad Roy, one of the best footballers I have ever seen, has lapsed into self parody so badly at such a relatively young age. Keane can lecture Ian Wright about his immaturity & berate unprofessional play at every turn, but he is also the man who walked out on his own country on the brink of the 2002 World Cup telling his manager to shove it up his bollocks, an anatomically impossible demand lacking not only in professionalism & maturity, but also grammatical accuracy. He didn’t care enough to play in the tournament then so why should anyone care what he thinks about those that do? It would have been more honest had he stayed at home & walked his labrador like he did after his little tantrum in 2002. Keane was at least less spiteful than the petty, SNP twots who dragged out a debate in the House Of Commons so that their English counterparts missed the opening stages of the match against Tunisia. Doubtless they sniggered wildly when England eventually departed the tournament, having won more World Cup final matches in 3 weeks than Scotland have managed in their entire history. Might we politely remind them that in 1978 the Scotland team held a triumphant victory parade around Hampden Park before the World Cup had even begun, following a match against England, which they lost incidentally. Less it’s coming home than we haven’t even got on the plane yet. When they got to Argentina, they discovered, to their evident dismay, that actually playing some matches before picking up the trophy was required. Come hither our old Peruvian friends from 1970, some older than others. Written off as has-beens & mediocrities being led to the inevitable Scottish slaughter, the sublime Cubillas, ably assisted by a now 52-year-old Hector Chumpitaz, tore their vainglorious Caledonian opponents to shreds in the opening match. There should be a statue of Teofilo erected in Westminster for that. Scottish Nationalist MP’s might find this objectionable. So was denying rank and file Parliamentary workers, earning a fraction of an MP’s salary, the chance to watch their country in the World Cup over a summer pint. Never fear smug, small-minded ones, we could always have a debate about it. Perhaps on Hogmanay. Or Burns night.
The next World Cup is in Qatar. I’m dreading it already. It isn’t even happening in Summer, thanks to Sepp Blatter & his band of FIFA embezzlers, leaving the domestic season savagely disrupted in the middle of winter, all my nightmares coming true to satisfy the greed & ego of rich old men. I’ll be proved wrong, & it will probably overwhelm us all once again, eclipsing The Olympics, Ryder Cup, Ashes, Wimbledon, Formula 1 or any other sporting event you care to mention, ultimately for one reason & one reason alone. It’s football, and football is best. Who knows, maybe the miracle will happen & we will bring it home this time. Just one small request from this old cynic. Dele Alli not to get the winner please.
‘Woke up it was a Chelsea morning, & the first thing that I saw, was a song outside my window, & the traffic wrote the words’
Football & music. Not always the happiest of bedfellows. Think Gazza with Lindisfarne. Think Anfield Rap or Good Old Arsenal with its oxymoronic, Jimmy Hill penned lyrics. There have been some aural horrors at Chelsea too, such as Ruud Gullit blowing his previously cool persona forever by getting the team to run out to Europe’s abysmal The Final Countdown , or Simply The Best blaring out in the early ’90’s to herald a team in 19th place preparing to delight that week’s expectant crowd of 12,117. The anthems are great though. Blue Is The Colour, Liquidator, Parklife, One Step Beyond & Blue Day all honourable contributors to the canon, essential components of the Stamford Bridge tapestry.
However, there are also songs that we associate with our teams, or at least certain days following them, that inveigle themselves into our match day memories in a more random way. Some are swiftly forgotten. Other probably should be. Many more remain embedded in our inner footballing consciousness forever, & can never be heard again without memories of Rotterdam in 2000 or Burnley at home in 1978 being invoked, & bathing us in a warm & ever so slightly soppy nostalgic glow. Cool has to take its turn on my list next to cosy pullover wearing crooners & ultra dodgy cover versions. Rightly so says the man fast approaching the pipe & slippers stage of life himself…
Perry Como Magic Moments
Jilted John Jilted John
Madonna American Pie
The Pogues Misty Morning Albert Bridge
Television Personalities Part Time Punks
The Slits Typical Girls
Elvis Costello Hoover Factory
Room 5 (Ft. Oliver Cheatham) Make Luv
Bill Withers Lovely Day
The Police Every Breath You Take
Perry Como Magic Moments (Stockholm May 13th, 1998)
It is no longer merely Stockholm to me. It is Aah Stockholm. Mad coach drivers. Aah Stockholm. Ice cream & boat trips. Aah Stockholm. Zola & THAT goal. Aah Stockholm. European glory. Aah….well I think you get the picture. A beautiful city full of beautiful people. On the second day, the afternoon of the Cup Winners Cup final itself, I passed a Stuttgart fan who was at least as ugly as me, possibly even more so. I could have kissed him. Actually, scrub that. Shaken him firmly by the hand. Randomly kissing German men is not really my bag. Either way, I thank him for being mildly repulsive. After the game, relieved at finding our coach amidst dozens of others, the post-match euphoria quickly subsided into a subdued lull, not unusual or surprising as physical & mental tiredness overcame the adrenaline fuelled euphoria of the previous two days. This was an inadequate state of affairs for one fan, who approached the aforementioned mad driver & pressed a cassette tape (for yes readers, it is still the 1990’s & cassettes are still most regularly used in cars) into his hand. He plays it. We do not get grunge, or Brit pop, or rap. Neither, thank God, do we get the Nuremberg rally pop of Queen’s horrendous We Are The Champions, always an unwelcome staple at such moments, a revolting skid mark in the pants of many a sporting triumph. Instead we get Perry Como’s GreatestHits. And it fits, the old smoothie’s velvety tones reverberating around the coach and complimenting the general air of weary contentment. ‘Magic moments, memories we’ve been sharin’ indeed. Fortunately, nobody attempts a reprisal of the playground version of the song starting ‘I’ll never forget the smell of the sweat from under her armpits.’ My dad was a fan of the crooners & a formative memory is of hearing him sing Perry Como songs in the bath prior to going out on the bevy with his mates on a Friday night. He loved to whistle too so Magic Moments ticked all the boxes. As it did in Stockholm. Aah Stockholm. ‘Time can’t erase the memory of these magic moments filled with love’…..you tell ’em Perry
Jilted John Jilted John (Barcelona April 18th, 2000)
We are at the airport in Barcelona after a Luis Figo inspired 5-1 drubbing. A more than creditable first Champions League season has ended & we are a forlorn & bedraggled bunch, overseen by unimpressed policemen & airport staff, both keen to see the back of us, exuding an air of boredom laced with mild hostility. The mood is transformed by a Chelsea geezer (there really is no other word ) standing up & performing an impromptu, word perfect, version of one hit wonder’s Jilted John’s eponymous 1978 new wave curio. The humiliation of the evening is momentarily put to one side, memories of Rivaldo, Kluivert & Luis bloody Figo humiliating Ferrer, Babayaro, Lebouef et al shelved as everyone joins in at the chorus & the good people of Barcelona are forcefully informed several times that ‘Gordon is a moron.’ The geezer has put more heart & energy into his 150 seconds of glory than the stagestruck Chelsea players had managed between them in two hours at the Camp Nou but is enraged when his magnificent efforts are met with premature cheers & applause from the rest of the Chelsea supporters. He has not completed the spoken word ‘I ought to smash his face in yeah yeah not fair’ refrain immortalized by the artist how known as John Shuttleworth, & waves his arms furiously to shut everyone up until it is completed. It is a performance of true bravura & the cheers are even louder when he eventually finishes. They are not universal however. The police & airline staff are bemused & have their own, apparently collective response to the spectacle written all over their faces. ‘Get these idiots out of our country.’
For the first time all day I feel proud to be British.
A month earlier we had been put into the ground hours before kick off lest we engage in combat with the more lairy element of Feyenoord’s fan base. They have history with Spurs going back to the 1970’s (who doesn’t?!). It is a cold night, not improved by some pointless wretch throwing beer over a hapless steward & various unwelcome renditions of ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ when the match eventually begins. This song has not been heard at Stamford Bridge in recent times so whether this is due to some some Combat 18 infiltration or merely less focused pin headed jingoism I am unable to say. Generally speaking, however, the Chelsea fans are well behaved & in good voice. Frank Lebouef misses an early penalty but a Zola cracker flies in off a post & we go in 1-0 up. The break only reinforces how cold we are. Cue American Pie. I make no defence against the argument that Madonna’s version of the classic Don Mclean original is a cowpat of a record but it comes on at just the right time. We all know the words, it blares out around the ground & it bounces along perkily, crap though it undoubtedly is. In the words of Don, via Madonna, we started singing. The need to blot out the cold, combined with the raised spirits arising from Gianfranco’s recent moment of magic leads to a rare old singalong. Smiles abound & the driving wind coming off the North Sea is briefly forgotten. At this moment we know we are not going to lose this game. Feyenoord equalize early in the second half, but Dennis Wise scores a diving header, Tor Andre Flo gets another & the final victory is comfortable & emphatic. We are kept in the ground for what seems like an eternity after the final whistle, so long in fact that we get to enjoy another, singular & surreal sing song when the players come back out for a post-match training session & Wisey responds to our cajoling by leading us in a rendition of Carefree. Having briefly heard the little scamp sing I am loath to further condemn Madonna’s cover of American Pie & am always strangely moved on the rare occasions I hear it.
The Pogues Misty Morning Albert Bridge (League Cup v Newcastle 28th October,1992)
I dreamt we were standing By the banks of the Thames Where the cold grey waters ripple In the misty morning light
A happy accident on this particular night created the cockeyed walk to the ground which was to become my pre match template for many years. Arriving at Victoria early for this League Cup clash with Kevin Keegan’s resurgent Newcastle, & tiring of the hustle & bustle of the King’s Road, I randomly take a left at the Chelsea Town Hall. There is barely a soul in sight along the side streets, & I don’t have a clue where I am heading, but end up in Oakley Street, a stone’s throw away from the Albert Bridge. I am not a well travelled man but from childhood have been enchanted by the Embankment at night, & confident there are few sights that could bring me more pleasure. In the middle of one of the world’s most congested cities I relish a few moments of peace & tranquility staring at the beautifully illuminated Albert Bridge, with its indefinable magic.
Held a match to your cigarette Watched the smoke curl in the mist Your eyes, blue as the ocean between us Smiling at me
Misty Morning Albert Bridge was released in 1989. It was always a great tune but hampered, along with the rest of the album from whence it came, by an uncharacteristically muddy Steve Lillywhite production, apparently due to the latter lacking confidence in Shane MacGowan’s vocal performance. A 2013 remix has redressed this unhappy state of affairs & lended greater clarity to the marvellous Jem Finer lyric, not referring to the Albert Bridge’s nocturnal delights, true, but capturing its allure with a poetry beyond most of us.
I do not know it but Oakley Street has a pedigree of A list residents. David Bowie lived there. George Best lived next door. In Oscar & Lady Wilde’s old house. Nearby Cheyne Walk has been home to numerous movers & shakers of their respective ages. Lloyd George. Bram Stoker. Bertrand Russell. Mick Jagger & Marianne Faithfull. More Stellar Street than Stella Street. I decide not to bother the local estate agents. After Marianne had flown the nest to sit on Soho walls taking heroin Mick was known to pop round to Mr Bowie’s house, possibly for more than just a cup of sugar. Brown sugar. Just around midnight. From this night on my walk to the ground always involved this detour & it is particularly cherished for night games when a short, leftwards glance towards an illuminated Albert Bridge helps set up the evening perfectly. Stamford Bridge was lit up magnificently on this particular evening too, as Frank Sinclair & Mick Harford goals saw off a lively, well supported Newcastle team, for whom a Rob Lee goal was scant consolation for the long, empty handed trek home. Never mind eh?
Television Personalities Part Time Punks
Walking down the Kings Road I see so many faces They come from many places They come down for the day They walk around together And try and look trendy I think it’s a shame That they all look the same
Recently there was a YouTube video accompanying this 1978 gem, with its perennially hummable tune from my long departed youth, featuring some lovely archive footage of punks arsing around on the Kings Road. It would be slightly fraudulent to post it here because by the time I started regularly walking to Stamford Bridge from Victoria Station even the cartoon ’80’s punks with their mohicans & Exploited t-shirts had mugged up for the last camera wielding tourist, wriggled out of their bondage trousers & finally buggered off to be quantity surveyors or UKIP leaders. Nevertheless, It always remained a permanent fixture on the match day jukebox in my head as I sauntered past Sloane Square. I first heard it on a terrific Rough Trade compilation called Wanna Buy A Bridge, cleverly nestled next to a track referenced in its lyric, Swell Maps splendid Read About Seymour. By the late ’80’s the Kings Road is not the cool & vibrant place it once was, although I still expect an imminent & wholly warranted arrest from the fashion police when making my way to the football. The only trend it is embracing is the one nudging us towards the homogenized tedium that is the modern retail world. The fate of 49 Kings Road says it all. Once The Chelsea Drugstore, a late addition to swinging London in the 1960’s, a three floor building housing among other things a pharmacy, record store, boutiques, newsstands & various eateries. It was famously name-checked by The Rolling Stones in You Can’t Always Get What You Want, & frequented by Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange. It is now in its third decade as a branch of McDonald’s. Globalization come on down.
Of course, geeky voyeurs like me are, in truth, more at home in McDonalds than we would ever have been trying to rub shoulders with the groovy cats who doubtless frequented the Chelsea Drugstore. This misses the point though. I might not ever have fitted in but as a cultural tourist I want to experience the feeling of not fitting in while having a gawk at the people who do. Which returns us neatly to Part Time Punks. Is it a swipe at the small, resentful London punk elite upset that their fun has been invaded by the outside world or a 158 second sneer at dullard proles arriving far too late for the original party & somewhat missing the original point of the whole thing? Whatever, it remains a thing of joy & I would need to be entirely be lacking in self awareness to think that teenage hicks from the sticks like me avoided its perceptive lyrical glare.
They play their records very loud And pogo in the bedroom In front of the mirror But only when their mums gone out
Okay. Guilty your honour. Spin on.
The Slits Typical Girls (Chelsea 1 Birmingham City 2 – Sep 8, 1979)
This match took place a mere day after the release of The Slits debut album Cut, a suitably unruly & brilliant record by a band that looked, sounded & behaved like no other female group in pop history up to that point. A documentary featuring John Peel at that time showed band members spitting & simulating masturbation in the direction of the camera. John Lydon married the mother of one of the band, the late Ari Up, so doubtless polite society blamed the parents. You didn’t get that from Dana or The Nolans, though Lemmy once alleged that one of the latter once calmly said to him ‘while you’re down there’ when he bent down to pick something up in front of them. Clearly in the mood for dancing that day. On this day, there is a large billboard advertising the album on the opposite side of the road as you walk towards Fulham Broadway Station. Three women, topless & daubed head to toe in mud, stare forbiddingly out. It is not difficult to see images of naked women in Britain in 1979, but this picture is entirely at odds with the plentiful array of bouncing bristols found everyday in the best selling tabloid newspapers of the day. The Slits are not passive, or simpering, or attempting to appease slobbering male fantasy. Catch their eye in the wrong way & you suspect they would rip your nuts off.
Stamford Bridge is not a happy place at this time. Ray Wilkins had departed for Man Utd that summer, & this game sadly turns out to be the end of the line for two legendary post-war footballing icons, Danny Blanchflower & Peter Osgood. Osgood, stood pretty close to where his ashes are now buried, lays on the Chelsea goal for Clive Walker with a noncahlent flick of his right foot, but a Birmingham City team, led by Archie Gemmell (surprisingly & apparently prematurely sold by Brian Clough a short time earlier) win more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline suggests. Future Charlton & West Ham manager Alan Curbishley scores the winner after Walker’s goal had cancelled out an opener from Steve Lynex, himself bearing the sort of name that would have fitted nicely into that era’s contemporary music scene. Blanchflower resigns after this defeat, to be replaced by Geoff Hurst. Prior to his dismal 9 month stint as Chelsea boss, the Spurs Double winning skipper had been writing odd, Lewis Carroll inspired articles on modern football in the Sunday Express using Tweedledee & Tweedledum as stooges to make whatever points it was he was trying to make. Such whimsy may have sat well with Sunday Express readers but it seems not to have translated well to the modern football dressing room. I had given up on him after he attempted to play mercurial striker Duncan McKenzie in midfield & reacted to a 6-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest by suggesting his young players maybe needed to learn to lose before they could learn to win. They really didn’t Danny. Osgood follows him out of the door as Geoff Hurst is promoted to the hot seat. Hurst is one of the least popular managers in Chelsea history, but one of Osgood’s complaints is that Alan Hudson offered his services at the time & was asked to prove his fitness first. This outraged both Hudson & Ossie, but given their previous track record for skipping training for the pub, & Hudson’s subsequent admission that he once played drunk during a match at Highbury (for Stoke, where Hurst was a colleague, & initially put a roof over Hudson’s head) the former World Cup hero’s request does not seem entirely unreasonable. A penchant for going on the piss is one thing. Taking the piss is something else. Chelsea lose 3-0 at Shrewsbury the following week but things look up after that, & they end up narrowly missing out on promotion as Birmingham pip them on goal difference, aided by a 5-1 drubbing in the return match at St Andrews the following March. In April I go to see The Undertones at the Birmingham Odeon & get openly sniggered at. I am wearing a Chelsea shirt, as is guitarist Damien O’Neill in the My Perfect Cousin video. Snigger away boys, at least I don’t come from a place that gave Crossroads to the world. May God have mercy on your souls.
There is an undercurrent of depressing ugliness & malignancy around Stamford Bridge in this era, & I specifically recall an unwelcome National Front presence outside both the main gates & the Bovril entrance on this afternoon as they try to impose their abhorrent views on us all by waving about copies of their doubtless delightful newspaper Bulldog. This was known to feature a Top 10 of the most racist fans in the country, Chelsea frequently faring rather well apparently. The Slits failed to trouble the musical Top 10 but remain an inspirational force of nature whose influence extends way beyond their record sales. Twenty years later I work with a quiet, bespectacled, studious looking chap called Ben. We don’t share a lot in common but one day I mention The Slits & his face lights up. Proudly he extracts a small, glossy piece of paper from his wallet which turns out to be a photo of the cover of Cut. Bassist Tessa Pollitt, one of the three Amazonian figures in the photo (& on that Fulham Road billboard all those years earlier) is his sister. I would never have guessed. Ben is a nice lad & at no time when we worked together did he betray any preference for publicly spitting or simulating the act of masturbation. Which, I’ve got to be honest, was something of a relief.
Elvis Costello Hoover Factory
Singing this song to myself while appreciating the art deco wonder of its subject, the one time Hoover Factory, in Perivale, was always one of the staples of my match day coach trip on both legs of the journey in & out of London. The song itself, written by fellow admirer Costello, is a mere 104 seconds long, but the advantage of its existence is that it was penned when its author was on both lyrical & musical fire, working as a computer operator for Elizabeth Arden in nearby Acton in 1977.
Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue Must have been a wonder when it was brand new Talking ’bout the splendour of the Hoover factory I know that you’d agree if you had seen it too
This building is a welcome diversion to this day from long stretches of motorway, nearby disused golf courses, self storage units & idiots talking horseshit loudly on their phones. Great building, lovely song. Elvis saying it all sadly allows me to indulge myself in another of my continuing series of inconsequential tales of minor brushes with fame of wafer thin interest to anyone but myself. In December 1984 I have a Christmas job at Dixon’s, electing to stay in the stockroom rather than try to sell Commodore 64’s or Alan Sugar’s appalling Amstrad tower systems (3 sold one Saturday afternoon, 3 returned within 2 days, God knows how you’ve got away without being fired you Spurs loving midget.) I worked over 70 hours in my first week & took home £49. After 4 weeks the prospect of rejoining the dole queue was losing its sting, but a friend from college days contacts me to say he has a spare ticket for an Elvis Costello solo concert at the Royal Festival Hall. I ask to leave work early that day & explain why. The store manager, a man called Malcolm Dennis, agrees without comment, probably relieved to avoid me grinding more Marlboro stubs into his otherwise immaculate new stockroom floor. All I know about Malcolm was that he has a background selling cameras & an alleged liking for Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The concert is great, but Dixon’s are out of my life as soon as Christmas is out of the way, the dreaded Amstrad tower systems at least giving me somewhere to hide while listening to Chelsea updates during a great 4-3 win at eventual champions Everton, 3 days before that year’s celebration of the birth of our lord. A couple of years later I buy a biography of Elvis Costello. Leafing through the photos reveals a mid ’70’s picture of his first band Flip City. Peering through rather more hair than he was wearing the following decade is a strangely familiar face. It is Flip City’s drummer & his name is Malcolm Dennis. It is clearly one & the same & the rotten sod never said a word about his connection to the biggest musical hero I had in those years!
Green for go, green for action From Park Royal to North Acton Past scrolls and inscriptions like those of the Egyptian age One of these days the Hoover factory Is gonna be all the rage in those fashionable pages
Great songwriter but no Nostradamus our Elvis. Tesco brought it in the early 1990’s as they began spreading their vile, corporate wings ever further. Still a fabulous building though.
Room 5 (Ft Oliver Cheatham)Make Luv (Arsenal 2 Chelsea 2, FA Cup 6th Round, Mar 8, 2003)
2002-3 can now be seen as a pivotal season in the history of Chelsea but things were a whole lot less clear cut at the time. Chelsea teeter on the brink of financial ruin, as the failure to go beyond the one season of Champion’s League football 3 years earlier has seen the club overstretch disastrously. Only one signing was made in the summer, & that proves a temporary one due to Deportivo Alaves having a longer term claim to the services of the underwhelming Enrique De Lucas. As 2003 unravels, the paramount need to qualify for the Champions’ League becomes increasingly apparent, the target eventually reached via a last day shootout with Liverpool.
Lack of new signings were not the only symptom of the club spiralling towards insolvency. John Terry, now establishing himself as a brilliant defensive presence, was rumoured to be on a relatively paltry salary & Arsenal were among those sniffing around as a new contract beckoned but remained unsigned. Against this rather gloomy backdrop the team performed magnificently to finish in the top 4, a 36 year old Gianfranco Zola performing out of his skin, outscoring the splendid Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink & Eidur Gudjohnsen & complementing the emerging talents of Terry & Frank Lampard, the former still learning his trade alongside top quality defensive partners in Marcel Desailly & William Gallas.
There had been fun & games aplenty in the build up to this match, January seeing some media preoccupation with the wretched state of the Stamford Bridge pitch, which by the time Charlton arrived in the middle of the month had been completely covered in sand. Chelsea won the game 4-1 & were totally brilliant, but Charlton boss Alan Curbishley squealed like a pig to the press & another spurious anti-Chelsea media campaign limped along for a few weeks. Had Chelsea played at The Valley to find similar conditions & whined after a battering the words overpaid primadonnas would have been bandied about with gay abandon of course. On this occasion many in the press backed the ludicrous argument that the result should have been declared null and void. Clearly nobody in the press had ever seen the state of Derby County’s Baseball Ground pitch during their ’70’s heyday.
I had more serious things on my mind than uneven playing surfaces & standards of journalism at the time. Alyson, a friend & colleague for nearly 20 years, had been taken ill over the Christmas period. Taken into hospital before New Year the rest of us returned from the holiday season to the news that half her stomach had been removed. I have a couple of phone conversations with her, one of which is quite upsetting & which has to be curtailed while I go to sort out a customer complaint at work. A programming error on the tills means a man has been overcharged £1 & this apparently entitles them to swear at me in front of their very young daughter. Still, being well spoken means it doesn’t count right? He gets his quid but will never know how lucky he was not to be spitting teeth out of his ringpiece. I plan a visit on the afternoon of the mid-week game against Leeds but get a phone call from Jon, her husband, advising me that she is to have another medical procedure. The match is brilliant, a five goal thriller, one of which is a truly majestic Eidur Gudjohnsen bicycle kick, comfortably ensconced in the canon of all time great Chelsea goals. It is rivalled a few days later by an extraordinary, ridiculously sublime Zola free kick at home to Spurs, on the way home from which I bump into Alyson’s brother, Richard. Her family is in bits. Richard & I had once travelled up to Stamford Bridge together, & Jon had stood in the Shed with me on New Year’s Day 1992 to watch a twice deflected Mike Sheron shot rescue his team, Man City, an undeserved last minute point.
Doubtless my recollecting goals from football matches while a friend was in the process of dying will confirm the prejudice of football phobics, proof of the infantilization of lovers of the game, burying themselves deep in something essentially meaningless in an attempt to divert themselves from confronting the harsh realities of the real world. The Oz founder Richard Neville used to lament to John Peel that football had replaced religion as the opiate of the masses, to which the latter responded that they needed one. I am not sure that a passion for football is any more puerile than spending spare time line dancing, trainspotting, going to Take That reunion concerts or cladding oneself in lycra to speed along footpaths abusing pedestrians strolling along the riverside. I might also counter that the fact that I can date these footballing events so precisely is because something else so momentous was occurring. There has to be some light among the general darkness on such occasions. You celebrate a goal with as much gusto, if not more, at times like this, but the euphoric feeling wears off quicker. Having grown up in the era of football tragedies such as Ibrox, Bradford, Heysel & Hillsborough I don’t accept that football cushions you from the harsher elements of life anyway. On a lighter note, I had to go into school after a 7-1 defeat at Wolves in 1975 & face the music. There was no hiding place for the supporter of a misfiring football team. Nobody harangues you if you didn’t win at Bingo the night before, or had the camera on the wrong setting when you took that picture of a Kingfisher. Nothing prepares you better for disappointment & public ridicule than football.
With my customary, immaculate timing I eventually visit Alyson the day after she has been told that nothing more can be done for her. The look on her face when she tells us will never leave me. We already know & I think she knows we know too. Within a fortnight she is dead. Bill tells me he has tickets for the Arsenal & WBA away games ‘because you’ve had a rough time recently.’ Not compared to others I haven’t, but your friends truly show themselves at times like that. Having to shuffle work commitments around home games I do no get to as many away games as I would like so any trip away from Stamford Bridge is an adventure for me.
There is a relatively new phenomenon in 2003. The 5:35 kick off. Like most people, Bill & I fail to adapt by treating the day as if the match was starting at 3. Like most people, we’ve had a few by the time we enter Highbury. JT’s thumping header is quickly cancelled out by a rare Gunners goal for Scouse pinhead Franny Jeffers who celebrates in front of us. We are near the front at The Clock End. ‘I saw you in the crowd’ a work colleague tells me a couple of days later. I hope she didn’t see my reaction to Franny Jeffers. Thierry Henry has put Arsenal in front by half time. I am adamant it is offside. The big screen tells us otherwise. The spouting of sporting bollocks. Sponsored by Guinness. It looks like we are going home to nurse our hangovers with yet another cup exit to Arsenal. We only ever seemed to lose to Man Utd or Arsenal in the FA Cup during this era. Chelsea poke, prod, grunt & sigh their way around the Arsenal penalty box but an equalizer seems unlikely, until a goalmouth scramble leads to an attempt to clear the ball ricocheting off Frank Lampard’s shin & into the Arsenal net. Pandemonium. I lose Bill. He has joined the merry throng attempting to jump on the back of the elated goalscorer. He is 40 & full of ale. That’s Bill not Super Frank of course. An honourable 2-2 draw ends with us still in the cup & still able to cram some more beer in at The Shakespeare Tavern at Victoria, a less than salubrious choice of venue that betrays the fact that enough has already been taken on board by now.
By the time I waddle across the road to catch my coach home I am, for the first time in a while, suitably merry. We are still in the FA Cup. We lose the replay of course, & Arsenal beat us again the following year, but that is all ahead & the failure to get the tune that has been circling around my brain all day leads to desperate measures. I release it by singing. This is inadvisable. I have a terrible voice & fellow passengers at Grovesnor Gardens are unwilling listeners, but I’m pissed & I don’t care.
I like to party mmhmm Everybody does Make luv and listen to the music You’ve gotta let yourself go go go go go oh
This is my equivalent of jumping on Frank Lampard’s back & probably more undignified, albeit prompted by the same source. I am 40 & full of ale. Eventually I realise that passengers queuing for the Oxford Tube are either exceptions to the rule or Room 5 are a bunch of fucking liars. Nobody shows an inclination to party, so not everybody does like it apparently. They also fail to make luv. They briefly have no choice but to listen to the music, although me singing is music in the loosest possible sense, & they definitely don’t let themselves go go go go go oh. I could try haranguing the queue (or suing Room 5) but by now all I have learnt from 40 years on the planet is that life is far, far too short. So I shut up.
Bill Withers Lovely Day (Chelsea – Burnley ,FA Cup 4th Round, Jan 31, 1978)
‘If you’re on your way to Stamford Bridge for this afternoon’s 4th Round tie against Burnley – don’t bother!’
So said the Sport on 2 anchorman (quite probably a pre-Werthers Original era Des Lynam) as Mr Bradley, father of my school friend Nick drove us towards White City 3 days before this tie was eventually played. The rain had been incessant & remained so as we turned back towards Oxford. We are hopeful for the first time in years about our chances in the FA Cup. The previous round had seen a stunning 4-2 win over Liverpool, then both reigning League & European champions. The omens are good too. In the 1970 we had played Burnley in the 4th Round too, my first ever game to boot. Ron Harris revealed that his wife was expecting a baby, as she had been in 1970. The team were conceding plenty of goals but usually scoring more. We wouldn’t allow a waterlogged pitch to be any more than a diversion.
The weather was barely any better as we entered a sodden Stamford Bridge for the rescheduled tie 3 days later. Manager Ken Shellito had announced in the press that muddy conditions would suit striker Steve Finnieston as his recently injured ankle would appreciate the extra give in the pitch. He gets his wish. Despite conceding a goal in the first minute (having kicked off themselves!) Chelsea win the game 6-2, & excitement at the prospect of a serious cup run gathers pace. They lose in the next round, to the mighty Orient, who get to the semi finals before being trounced by Arsenal. At Stamford Bridge to rub it in.
This did not trouble us on the night, a resounding win rendering the bleak, wet winter’s night an irrelevance & Bill Withers current hit Lovely Day serenading us as we revelled in a 3-1 half time lead is a strangely enduring memory. Current at the time, LovelyDay remains a thing of beauty despite its charting again a decade later with a truly horrible remix. The match day DJ at Chelsea in the 1970’s was a man called Pete Owen. He may have played Lovely Day as an ironic reference to the truly awful weather of the previous few days, although ’70’s DJ’s were not generally over imbued with ironic sensibilities. Poor Pete once fell for one of the oldest PA banana skins, namely acceding to a request from ‘friends’ to ask if Mike Hunt was in the ground. Nick & I found this hugely amusing. We were 15. Never mind Pete. Through the wind, rain, mud & general wintry gloom Lovely Day spread its lush, warm glow around Stamford Bridge that night. Props for playing it. I’m guessing Mike Hunt never did show.
I am unable to supply the relevant year, let alone the match, when Sting’s 4 minute stalker’s charter first invaded my journey to Stamford Bridge. I’m guessing late ’80’s or early ’90’s. The Sony Walkman now invades the peace of the coach journey. At one stop on the way out of Oxford a rather disconsolate young man trudges on to the coach, sits behind me & commences the predictable ritual as he searches for his preferred choice of song. Rewind tape. Click to stop. Wind tape forward as you have now rewound it too far. Click to stop. Click to play. Hallefuckinglujah. The songs starts. It is Every Breath You Take. Its riff is unmistakable, especially to blues great Freddie King who Sting once admitted he stole it from. Freddie is not on the coach, having died in 1976, so it is left to me to recognise it & feel anger on his behalf. Given that the entire history of popular music is littered with similar steals this is somewhat sanctimonious of me. Never mind. Sting deserves it. Every Breath You Take is a good tune for sure, whether its true author is Freddie King or everyone’s least favourite narcissistic Geordie. Its sinister, creepy lyric , all about obsessive love, is entirely the property of the artist once known as Gordon Sumner, composed in the aftermath of Sting leaving his wife for their next door neighbour, who he subsequently married. On this day, the song finishes & the familiar click, rewind, click, wind forward ritual begins again, until the next tune is ready to play. Eventually it starts.
It is Every Breath You Take by The Police.
By the time we reach White City I have heard a muffled rendition of EveryBreath You Take, filtered through the tinny headphones of another person’s Walkman, at least a dozen times. I begin to fear for my mental health. I am terrified for his. When reaching The Westway at this stage of the journey I had always enjoyed conjuring up sounds of The Clash, but since that day have always struggled to expunge the memory of The Police’s biggest ever hit from my brain as the flyover towards Marylebone Road & Shepherds Bush beckons. I do hope he got over her eventually. Or him. Could have been gay. Whoever the object of his tortured affections was I sincerely hope they emerged unscathed too. Don’t have nightmares.
It’s a unique, life affirming noise, a familiar friend to all football fans. At its best, ideally in the very early stages of a game, when hope still springs eternal throughout the stadium, the moment will be enjoyed & participated in by all, regardless of who they support or where they are in the ground. The sound a football crowd makes when responding to a wildly miscued shot is almost impossible to recreate & certainly impossible to resist. The higher & wider the shot the better. I have my own name for this joyous phenomenon. For the past 40 years, it’s been a Miss Brown’s Knickers moment.
At some point in the late 1970’s I am in the backyard of the council flats where my mate & future Chelsea accomplice Bill lives. We are playing football, as kids who got off their arses during school holidays in the 1970’s were wont to do. I go for goal but my shot goes horribly wrong & spirals wildly off the outside of my foot. Fortunately, there is no broken window or smashed plant pots to incur the wrath of Bill’s neighbours. Unfortunately, this is because this appalling attempt at a shot is only halted by the ball cannoning into a nearby washing line, populated by a sparse array of clothing belonging to Bill’s neighbour Miss Brown. The main victim of my footballing ineptitude, other than the hapless Miss Brown herself, is a pair of what only be described as old ladies’ bloomers. They now differ from countless similar bloomers hung on washing lines by ladies over a certain age around the surrounding estate. For now adorning the gusset is a fresh, glistening, muddy imprint of the football of choice for all young boys in this era. Miss Brown’s knickers. Sponsored by Wembley Trophy. On reflection, I’m not actually sure if gusset is the right word for that part of an old lady’s bloomers. I was not an aficionado of ladies lingerie then nor am I now. We all have our regrets. Then again it would be disturbing if I had too much knowledge on the subject. I’ll leave that to Arnold Layne, although given the style of garment & the age of their owner on this occasion maybe it should be one for Wayne Rooney.
The match clip above, from 1990, is in truth, not a bona fide example of the genre. The backdrop is far too angsty & grim. Chelsea were already losing to their West London opponents at Loftus Road, high on my personal list of least favourite football grounds. Worse, they were losing to another penalty, & one converted by a man who used to play for Chelsea, South African Roy Wegerle, joined by further fellow ex Blues in the QPR ranks, namely Clive Wilson & Ray Wilkins. Former loanee & S**** ‘legend’ Mark Falco is in the mix too. A schoolboy packing blunder by the Chelsea kitman explains the ghastly combo of jade green Chelsea Collection away shirts with blue shorts & socks. Pipsqueak Etonian David Ellerary was the ref, already a reliable bromide in the tea of life, years before helping to wreck our first FA Cup final in 24 years. I post it merely because the great Kerry Dixon’s penalty here is technically terrible enough to qualify as a textbook example of the sort of shank I am referring to. Rumour has it that the ball eventually fell to Earth only by virtue of colliding in Space with one struck in Italy several months earlier, in a penalty shootout against Germany, by mulleted pillock Chris Waddle during the World Cup semi final. The same Chris Waddle who later disparaged a 19 year old Theo Walcott’s performance in a World Cup qualifier against Croatia in 2008. Walcott scored a hat trick in that game, half as many goals in one game as Waddle scored in 62 for England. He always enjoys a sneer at Chelsea too, does the man who famously worked in the sausage manufacturing business before becoming a massively overrated footballer. Appropriate really, given that sausages, like Waddle, are frequently found to be full of shit.
A missed penalty will rarely fit the criteria for a Miss Brown’s Knickers moment, as they inevitably lead to heartbreak for one half of the ground. The fun stops there for all but the ecstatic QPR fans behind the goal, blissfully unaware how little cheer the next quarter of a century holds for them. Enjoy it while you can lads. A hard rain’s gonna fall. For 30 seconds West London was yours. Did you enjoy it? Good. It’s over now.
One rare exception to the penalty rule occurred at Oxford United’s Manor Ground, not so long after my soiling of the old lady’s pants. With the final whistle beckoning, 5-0 up & with barely an opposition fan left in the ground, U’s striker Hugh Curran stepped up to take a penalty. In goal for Hereford was Peter Mellor, Fulham keeper in the 1975 FA Cup Final & between the sticks for Burnley on my first ever trip to Stamford Bridge. Both men are at the veteran stage of their career. Both are sporting hideous perms, bizarrely popular at the time. Mellor is very blonde & also balding. It would have been understandable if the ball had taken flight of its own accord when confronted with such follicular horror. Curran had a lethal left foot & hit a dead ball harder & better than most. He was later player manager at Banbury United when my brother-in -law played there (alongside future Chelsea striker Kevin Wilson) & I am reliably informed that there was widespread dread at the prospect of forming part of the defensive wall whenever the boss decided to practice his free kicks. On this occasion he leans back & blasts the penalty clean over the London Road stand & out of the ground. No one cares. Oxford are 5 up. If they had been drawing, or narrowly losing, there would have been much wailing, & gnashing of teeth aplenty (though not from Hugh Curran who has very few teeth to gnash) It’s a spectacularly awful penalty & a prime Miss Brown’s Knickers moment. The same end, a decade or so earlier, a ball was punctured on the top part of the stand following an inept scissor kick by Ken Skeen, a loyal U’s club man but one of many Oxford strikers who didn’t score goals prior to Curran. I also recall talented midfielder Graham Atkinson regularly scaring the birds out of the trees behind the goal at the Cuckoo Lane, as another match ball sailed into the grounds that now house the massive John Radcliffe Hospital. Good times.
Nonetheless, it is to Stamford Bridge, & the phenomenal Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, for my favourite Miss Brown’s Knickers moment. You couldn’t get more Dutch than Jimmy if you sat next to a little mouse with clogs on in a field of tulips, smoking a spliff while leafing through ‘Ann Frank’s Diary.’ During the 2002 World Cup JFH sat in the ITV studio writing off Germany’s chances of winning the tournament. Gabby Logan asked him why. ‘ Because I don’t like them’ was the emphatic if not especially professional reply. Chelsea didn’t win one trophy during his 4 years at the club,but nobody entertained me more during that time. Jimmy was arrogant, selfish, argumentative & frequently lazy. A classic striker in other words. Things didn’t start well. The team started his first season badly & Luca Vialli was quickly sacked. He rowed openly on the pitch with colleagues, once memorably grappling with Christian Panucci. He seemed more trouble than he was worth. Things looked up with the arrival of Claudio Ranieri though. Jimmy scored a screamer at Old Trafford, & very soon I couldn’t help loving a man who loved himself quite that much. An extraordinary 30 yard daisy cutter shot against Spurs didn’t do any harm either, the mystery being how the man could kick a ball like an Exocet missile with barely any backlift from that sturdy right leg. Jimmy loved scoring goals & succeeded in doing just that, something of a relief after previous big money striker signings like Chris Sutton & Robert Fleck. He also had a massive arse & when it comes to footballers I have a small, or possibly, in this context, large confession to make. I like big butts & I cannot lie. Very few great footballers have a skinny rear end. George Best I guess, but that level of genius makes its own rules. Peter Bonetti looked like he lived on nuts & berries too, but goalkeepers are famously different, though Gordon Banks added to my theory with his ample rear. Pele. Big arse. Eden Hazard. Big arse. The real Ronaldo. Big arse. Totti. Big arse. Sir Frank Lampard. Big arse. The list, like Jimmy Floyd’s ego, is endless.
Jimmy once scored the perfect hat trick against Spurs, one with the right foot, one with the left & one with his head. His greatest strike from a free kick was probably for Middlesbrough, against Man City, in his twilight footballing years. One of the worst was in a Chelsea shirt several years earlier, when he did his best to decapitate someone in the Matthew Harding Upper, where I sat alongside Bill, always happy to remind me of my muddied knicker day of shame all those years before. Jimmy settled at Chelsea but he never mellowed. Nothing was ever his fault. Apart from on this occasion. His dreadful ballooning of this free kick into the upper tier left him with nowhere to hide. Unlike small boys in backyards, professional footballers don’t have a bolthole when they make a bollocks of things. He looked around. His team mates could not be blamed. Nor the opposition players. The ref? Had merely blown a whistle to allow our hero to humiliate himself. In these pre-Abramovich days The Stamford Bridge pitch was frequently a disgrace, but Jimmy was reluctantly forced to rule that one out too. And then it happened. Possibly for the first time in his life. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink publicly apologised. Not to his colleagues but to us fans, with a sheepishly raised right hand & the sort of guilty face small boys pull when desecrating the contents of a pensioner’s washing line. The comparison ends there though, for had it been Jimmy’s badly off target howitzer that had collided with Miss Brown’s bloomers they would have been instantly transformed into split crotch panties.
I never did know what Miss Brown’s reaction was to my own footballing faux pas because I did the sensible thing & fucked off a bit sharpish. She wasn’t my neighbour. Bill would have done the same, & the supposed strong bond of friendship among small boys can always unravel in the face of one’s innate cowardice & an angry elder, although Miss Brown was supposedly a decent old stick most of the time. He who fights & runs away lives to fight another day as another football lover, the great Bob Marley, once informed us. Bill got his own back anyway. His mum won a football at the Bingo when I was on holiday with his family in Southsea, & I christened it by playing an unsuccessful 1-2 off the wall near the amusement arcade. It landed in the sea. Despite it being dark I was ordered to go & rescue it by my deeply unimpressed mate, & rather foolishly did so. Try getting Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to do that.
Not an especially iconic piece of commentary, but Kenneth Wolstenholme’s words about Chelsea’s splendidly inscrutable manager during the 1970 FA Cup Final are as evocative to me as his rather more memorable words in the World Cup Final 4 years before remain to the rest of the nation. Not that the rest of the nation was excluded on this occasion either. The match remains in the Top 10 most watched UK TV events of all time to this day, sandwiched neatly at no. 5 just behind the Apollo 13 splashdown of the same year & ahead of Charles & Diana’s wedding in 1981.
Shortly afterwards, a John Dempsey goal kick (taking them for Peter Bonetti after he had been crocked by one of Leeds happy band of talented thugs) hung in the air as the remarkably tolerant referee Eric Jennings blew the final whistle & Chelsea had won their first ever FA Cup. I was 8 years old. Chelsea & I were both invincible. Or so I thought.
Misty water-coloured memories. Can it be that it was all so simple then? Actually, Gladys Knight & Barbra Streisand, I rather think it can. As we walked home from school in Oxford during the 1970’s dozens of men would hurtle past on their bikes, having finished their shift at the British Leyland car plant. One of them was a tiny man called Frankie Kowalski, who on Saturday afternoons would be reborn as a dapper figure in a straw boater & black suit, its gold trimmings betraying his role as the mascot for Oxford United. He would offer his wares all around the stadium (primarily match programmes, badges & scratch cards) never once baulking at the journey past fans in the away end, eyes twinkling & a smile never far away from the lips immediately below his pencil moustache. My god he got some grief. He used to travel away too, & even got stabbed one night at Preston. In 1970 Oxford were drawn at home to Stoke & a large cut out replica of the FA Cup was prepared for Frankie to carry around the ground before the match. Sadly, he broke his arm & was denied his big moment, cutting a forlorn figure, arm in a sling, as someone else grabbed the glory. We all felt his pain.
It is appropriate that the FA Cup kicks off in earnest immediately after Christmas. A love for both relies on a large slice of suspended disbelief & constant referral to childhood memory, but so what? We need the break from winter gloom that Yuletide offers us all, regardless of how few practicing Christians remain or the fact that the enduring modern image of Santa was lifted from a major advertising campaign by Coca Cola in the 1930’s. The difference is that we all buy into the conspiracy of lies that holds Christmas together. With the FA Cup it is more complex. Many of us still do believe in this fantastic tournament, it’s the administrators, TV companies &, sadly, many of its participants who increasingly strive to undermine it, & starve many younger fans of the true FA Cup experience that would ensure its continued survival as a competition of joy & wonder.
One match in last year’s tournament highlighted this. Fulham were drawn away at Cardiff in the 3rd round. On a Sunday morning. The game kicked off at 11.30 with a paltry 5,000 in attendance. How on earth were Fulham fans expected to make that trip? The answer is that they weren’t, the TV money doing the talking as usual. Furthermore, Cardiff manager Neil Warnock’s Linda Evangelista style post match comments underlined his clear disinterest in the process. He ‘struggled to get out of bed’ for the game apparently, the poor overfed, overpaid, pampered love. Fascinating that it is often the jowelly, boiled beef & carrots English managers, the self-styled keepers of the flame for the true spirit of British football, who are the first to sacrifice their club’s fans rights to dream of cup advancement at the altar of Premiership survival, rather than the foreign coaches who supposedly don’t understand the culture of our game. Not to mention that Cardiff aren’t even in The Premier League & the season still had 4 months to run. Does the usually ebullient Warnock secretly have so little belief in his own ability that he felt it such a burden to put out a competitive team in a tournament that Cardiff reached the final of not so long ago? This prannet is not alone though. There are dozens of notable managers who have treated the tournament & their own fans with similar contempt over the past 20 years. Sam Allardyce in his Bolton years was always prone to playing weakened teams, not to mention any number of Newcastle managers apparently indifferent to the hunger for glory that burns in their fans. When the miserable pragmatist wins out over the romance & fantasy traditionally surrounding the FA Cup then you know that modern football, for all the money sloshing around within it, is still getting a lot of things wrong.
Winning the FA Cup would have been the pinnacle for managers like Allardyce & Warnock once upon a time. The final was once the only live domestic club fixture on the footballing calendar, screened simultaneously by both BBC & ITV, their schedules cleared by both from early morning for hours of pre-match build up. This year it will play second fiddle to a royal wedding, kicking off to wide disinterest save for the fans of the two teams, & (the one thing that has remained constant since the tournament’s glory years) Wembley bound freeloaders, as ever indulged by the FA at the expense of true fans on the big day.
The decline in romance surrounding the tournament is borne out by the frequent suggestion that giving it the life support of a Champions’ league place for the winner is its only long-term hope. It is easy enough to understand. Saturation coverage of the sport has not generally broadened the mind of the modern fan, merely enabled them to insulate themselves against the backdrop of incessant social media driven venom spewed at them by rival teams’ supporters. They can watch their own teams’ games & switch off. I do it myself. More choice & easy access to matches appears to be slowly suffocating us all. The days are gone when we would let the story of the entire tournament breathe & unravel before us, happy to listen to radio commentaries & watch highlights of any ties because they were FA Cup games, the glory of the competition shining through regardless. I once got totally wrapped up in a series of matches between Arsenal & Sheffield Wednesday. I hate Arsenal & have no affiliation to Sheffield Wednesday but can vividly recall sitting in the bath with my radio on listening to them playing out a second replay at Leicester City’s Filbert Street. Now I would barely glance at the score online the following day, but the far less commercial world of football in the 1970’s succeeded in drawing me in & building a healthier interest in the game as a whole. I don’t want to go back there, & love knowing no Chelsea goal will ever be scored that I cannot get to see, but how strangely parochial this brash, gleaming new digital world has made us.
Ever since Rupert Murdoch slipped his first crisp tenner into the garter belt of the footballing authorities who used to run the game before people like him did, there has been a massive erosion of commitment to the wishes & desires of fans. For many of them, following & upholding the rituals & traditions of the game are vital components to a continued enjoyment & love of the sport. No football competition is as rich in ritual & tradition than the FA Cup, & until FIFA’s latest antics with the World Cup, no competition in the modern era has been abused & devalued by its supposed guardians so disgracefully. The turn of the century saw the processes leading to this devaluation of this fabulous tournament, that had, for over a century, provided innumerable moments of drama & brilliance on the road to supplying the end of season showpiece in the English footballing calendar. Attendance wise the FA Cup was the biggest show in town. In the season before the inception of the Premier League I left work early one Wednesday night to make the usual 100 mile round trip (plastic tourist!) to a rain-soaked Stamford Bridge to see a 1-1 draw with Southampton. There were 7,000 people there. 3 days later Chelsea entertained Sheffield United in the FA Cup 5th round. 35,000 turned up. At the turn of the century 8 years later the treble holding Man Utd were implored, in fairness ahead of their own better judgement, not even to enter the tournament. Convinced by a government lobby led by Chelsea supporting Tony Banks Man Utd did indeed pull out in 2000. The tournament has never truly recovered, with its spiritual home, the old Wembley Stadium, also staging its last final that season. Chelsea won that year but the unconfined joy which had followed victory over Middlesbrough 3 years earlier seemed absent. The match against Aston Villa was abysmal & the greatest pleasure seemed the rescuing of a EUFA Cup place after a disappointing league campaign, with the players thus avoiding an early return to pre-season training & a qualifying campaign via the dreaded Inter Toto Cup. In fairness the die was already cast prior to this, as the brave new world of the Premier League & Sky not only ushered us away from the horrors of the Heysel & Hillsborough era, but also caused a massive upheaval to a century of football watching habits. Previously tailored by the need to maximize attendances by playing matches at a time appropriate to the recreational requirements of the paying spectator, kick off times started, instead, to be guided by the advertising requirements of the companies targeting the armchair couch potato. It is difficult for this footballing Luddite not to feel pangs of nostalgia, or to wonder whether the baby has gone out with the bath water. Especially when faced with another season of the regimented sterility of the Champions’ League Group stages & the seemingly interminable Europa League, not to mention the once much vaunted international breaks. A little piece of me dies every time we lose another weekend of fixtures in order that England can concentrate on the arduous task of beating Malta 2-0.
Replays were once an essential part of the enduring appeal of the FA Cup, disrupting the fixture lists with a carefree anarchy which would cause wide-scale horror within football now. As a young man I played cricket with a non league legend called John Woodley. He had a few memorable FA Cup moments during his distinguished footballing career (903 games!) but perhaps most notably played in the longest FA Cup tie ever. His team, Oxford City eventually lost it, 1-0 to Alverchurch, in the 5th replay at Villa Park. In the 5th replay! What a fabulous thing to have been part of. Such games captured everybody’s imagination. In 1982 I was living in Hull & braved an unimaginably cold night to watch The Tigers draw 2-2 after extra time with Rochdale prior to an eventual second replay victory at Elland Road. This led to a 3rd round tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Having been postponed on the Saturday the two teams played out a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge on a Monday night. I beat the ban on Chelsea fans comfortably for the replay 3 days later (living in Hull may have helped!) to see brilliant goals from Alan Mayes & John Bumstead take The Blues through to play Wrexham in the next round. This took place a mere 2 days later. Another draw led to a replay 3 days after that. Which was also a draw! 11 days later Chelsea eventually went through in a second replay. Was it all worth it? Undoubtedly. Chelsea, then a mid-table second division team beat the European champions Liverpool in the 5th round. These are the things that dreams are made of as the then chart topping Human League would doubtless have informed us. All these replays would be considered commercial madness now. The Hull-Rochdale match at Elland Road attracted about 1600 people. All I would say is that sport extends beyond satisfied sponsors & bankers. These games sustained the cup dreams of the clubs involved. Lots of people call for 4 day Test matches now. They point to paltry fifth day crowds but millions are following around the country. I assume we don’t want to be denied future heroics like those of Ian Botham & Bob Willis at Headingley in 1981 by the grinding demands of commerce. Maybe my head is stuck firmly in the sand, but when fans talk as enthusiastically about Peter Kenyon building the Chelsea brand in 2003 as they do Peter Osgood breaking the Arsenal net in the FA Cup in 1973, I want to submerge it further.
Chelsea can actually hold their head up more than many of the bigger clubs when their recent FA Cup history is examined. There were a couple of limp exits at Newcastle & Man City under Mourinho, & an uncharacteristically appalling & arrogant performance at Oxford in the Vialli era, which could & should have seen them knocked out. When they have lost to lower division teams in recent times, they have been beaten fair & square, once at Barnsley & most famously at home to a vibrant Bradford City in 2015. Despite not having an English manager since 1996 Chelsea coaches & players have usually shown a proper level of respect & commitment in all domestic competitions. Chelsea fans have always loved the FA Cup too. However, nothing summed up confused, contrary modern attitudes towards the FA Cup more than the afternoon of January 31st, 2016. Chelsea played at MK Dons, taking over 7,000 reliably magnificent & very vocal away supporters with them. Just embarking on facilitating the slow recovery from the madness of the last days of the increasingly unstable Mourinho, coach Guus Hiddink chose a nicely balanced team of established stars mixed in with younger players like Bertrand Traore & Ruben Loftus-Cheek. They won the game 5-1. No arrogant disregard for the oldest & greatest knockout competition there. I used to keep an eye on online comment in those days. Twitter was very quiet. For once the Rupert’s & Toby’s of BBC Online couldn’t find a pithy quote from king of tweeting cretiny Danny Baker. They love him because you suspect many of them have never actually met a truly working class person before, & pandering to a grotesque apology for one like Baker is as close as they will ever get. In the last, not at all special days of King Jose, a mere two months earlier, Chelsea had lost at home to Bournemouth. Baker was in his element,spewing out bilious anti Chelsea tweets with relish. I lost count at 14. The happy, fez wearing, wine glass waving, fun-loving family man who writes ‘to make people happy’ apparently had nothing else to do on a Saturday night but dispense his pointless opinions & indulge his already grotesquely over inflated sense of self-worth. Time to climb into the Baker loft & dust down that Yahtzee box I reckon. The uncharacteristic silence during the MK Dons game did not last long of course, due to another bozo, who spoke for nobody but himself, calling in to talk to Ian Wright & claiming that Chelsea had grown too big for the FA Cup & should no longer enter it. According to Mr Baker this showed how far Chelsea still had to fall. The 5-1 win & the superb support of 7,000 proper Chelsea fans were promptly forgotten in favour of highlighting the gormless comments of one rent-a-quote gobshite (beamed in from the radio phone-in hell that our Danny helped popularize) as the moronic inferno of Twitter flared up once again. In the next round Chelsea also won 5-1, against a hopelessly limp & under strength Man City line up. Baker was off again. Chelsea were ‘clinging to the FA Cup like Keith Richard searching for the last shot of heroin in town’ apparently. Nice one Danny. Glad that 1978 joke book is still coming in handy. Had Chelsea made as pathetic & half-hearted attempt as Man City in this match, an insult to their supporters, opponents & the competition itself, the outcry would have carried on for weeks. Instead Chelsea made every effort to win the match & advance their chances of winning a trophy. How very dare they. Trying to win an FA Cup 5th Round tie these days apparently makes you the object of ridicule. Sad. The phone-in bozo was probably a kid. Others are old enough to know better. I have avoided Twitter & Danny Baker since that season. At least he hasn’t, as far as I know, publicly wished cancer on Chelsea supporters. Not yet anyway. He likes publicly wishing cancer on people. Just ‘trying to make people happy’ eh? Dick.
Even the low point of Bradford in 2015 highlighted how the FA Cup can still, even now, bring out the best in the unlikeliest of people, as Jose Mourinho, seemingly now a permanently spiteful, sour presence, went into the opposition dressing room & congratulated all their players & staff, before swiftly giving a gracious & endearing television interview. It seems a bit far-fetched to ever hope for a repeat of that now, but I like to think that the peppery old pillock was, however temporarily, imbued with the spirit of the true guardians of the competition. This includes dear, long departed Frankie Kowalski, who I like to think was looking on approvingly & finally getting to hold his replica trophy aloft in triumph. Because if even Jose still gets it, then maybe the FA Cup still has half a chance.
I always think of Ken Bates at least once at Christmas, & always at the same time, when watching It’s A Wonderful Life. At the heart of that yuletide classic is the struggle between the great James Stewart’s character, the noble George Bailey, & the black-hearted, mean spirited & vindictive Henry F. Potter, a masterly turn from Lionel Barrymore. Ken Bates is the anti hero of the Chelsea story for the final twenty years of the last century, but as with Mr Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, it wouldn’t have been much of a story without him, & it is more than possible, nay likely, that there would not be a football club to talk about at all, certainly not one playing at Stamford Bridge. This is the most ghastly & soul sapping Christmas card from Chelsea that I can ever recall. I have a nice one somewhere of Zola bending a free kick past a defensive wall composed of snowmen. Cliched sure, but we’re talking Christmas cards here, not Hieronymus Bosch triptychs. This horror, dating from the early Noughties, relegates the players, at least three of them among the greatest ever to play for the club (the sainted Gianfranco, Marcel Desailly & John Terry) to the status of stick men in the corner whilst the least genial Santa ever ( bar Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa until he goes soft & gets shot delivering that pink elephant) oversees his empire of tat from the roof of its centrepiece, the Chelsea Village Hotel. Four stars & no windows looking out over the pitch. Never was one for freebies our then chairman, one Kenneth William Bates. Owner of Chelsea from 1981 until Roman’s Russian revolution & umpteen millions swept him away from the club he originally bought for a pound. The man who belies the myth that people only started hating Chelsea in 2003. Fewer people divide opinion more, although outside SW6 most were happy to get on with the business of loathing the contrary old bugger. As we face the prospect of his beloved hotel & its accompanying tacky bars & eateries being bulldozed, assuming the planned redevelopment of Stamford Bridge eventually transpires, the legacy of old Birdseye Bates remains as confused & contradictory as ever.
There is plenty to support the Bates as Potter lobby today. There always was. Past questionable business interests aside, he was a tabloid hack’s wet dream come true from the start at Stamford Bridge, dismissing crowd trouble at one away match in the early ’80’s by saying ‘I didn’t see any gang bangs.’ Well that’s alright then Ken. All fears allayed. Of course he took a slightly different approach to similar problems at home games, famously erecting a 12 foot high barbed electric fence prior to the Spurs game in 1985, attempting to reduce the status of his own team’s supporters, quite literally, to that of his own cattle. The fence was never switched on, but only because the ‘loony left’ GLC vetoed it. I don’t know. Refusing to sanction the electrocution of human beings at football matches. It’s political correctness gone mad.
Then there were the endless feuds with the media. His contempt for many of the plethora of tosspots within this industry was hugely understandable, but his craving of the spotlight via cheap shots fed that industry as much as his own, gargantuan ego. I have only ever been in the same room as him once, at a Boxtree book launch at Stamford Bridge in 1998. He made a short speech, but still found time within it to have an irrelevant & low rent dig at the (admittedly odd) ex Chelsea boss & then England manager Glenn Hoddle, & that faith healer accomplice of his, the woman who Ray Parlour upset by asking for a short, back & sides when it was his turn to experience her laying on of hands. There being press people there, presumably Ken just couldn’t help himself. At least Hoddle got away from Chelsea without being sacked, although in contemporary terms the old bruiser now looks like a master of restraint on that front, allowing John Hollins 3 years of bizarre managerial decisions before losing patience (would Abramovich have given him 3 days?) & later sticking correctly with a trophy free Claudio Ranieri, who rewarded him with a Champions League place when the club was teetering in the edge of bankruptcy, a magnificent feat that only the most churlish of Chelsea fans fail to acknowledge. He is rabidly litigious but did himself no favours at all when diehard fan David Johnstone famously sued him successfully for referring to the Chelsea Independent Supporters Association as ‘parasites’ in the late 90’s. His antipathy towards any organized supporters’ groups presumably stemmed from his inherently autocratic approach to the running of the club, which also led him into conflict with former players. The great Bobby Tambling, on meeting Bates for the first time, thanked him for ‘saving my club.’ ‘It’s my club now’ was the charming reply. The late Ian Hutchinson paid a visit to the ground one day only to be confronted by cuddly Ken. ‘I’m Ian Hutchinson. I used to play here & I was the Commercial manager for a while’ was the greeting from quite possibly the bravest man ever to pull on a Chelsea shirt. Bates responded by calling security & having them escort Hutchinson from the premises for trespassing. In fairness, when he did call an uneasy truce with certain older players by giving them matchday PR roles their case wasn’t assisted by my first Chelsea hero Alan Hudson making a tiresome tit of himself & reopening old wounds with rivals from his playing days, having a spat in the tunnel with Middlesbrough coach & former QPR keeper Mike Kelly & a juvenile exchange of verbals with ex Liverpool stars Kevin Keegan & Terry McDermott when they visited with Newcastle. Strangely, Hudson doesn’t mention this when slagging off his former employers in the media as being cruelly oblivious to his plight. Bates once walked through a large collection of us queuing for FA cup tickets. That could mean a 6-8 hour wait in those pre-internet days. Perhaps a brief chat & thumbs up for us hardy & often long-suffering supporters, having in my case taken time off work to make the 100 mile round journey to London to embark on this vigil? No. He merely strode through us all before scuttling off in his Bentley, possibly the one purchased after he successfully sued reporter Harry Harris. Off home to something rather better than a Pot Noodle & a wank you would suspect, while the only entertainment for a sap like me was listening to a man stood behind me called Melvyn agonizing over whether he wanted haddock or cod from the chip shop run his mate was about to embark on. Cheers Ken. Once again you spoil us Ambassador.
An examination of his relationship with the late Matthew Harding is possibly the best way to really taste the Marmite in the Bates sandwich. Happy to take significant investment from Harding to fund the redevelopment of the ground in the early to mid ’90’s, the two then fell out badly when it became clear that the other man’s ambitions extended beyond merely bankrolling the bearded one’s vision for the club. Surrounding the pitch with stewards at half time during the Spurs match in 1995 was clearly the old boy’s statement of intent to quell any potential protest at his handling of the fallout from his row with Harding. It was an undignified & public row that embarrassed everyone & achieved little. That Harding was a folk hero with large sections of Chelsea’s fan base was understandably galling for Bates, who had toiled to turn around the club’s fortunes for more than a decade before the insurance broker’s first investment in the club in 1993. Harding cultivated his man of the people image magnificently, wearing his team shirt & supping his pre-match pints of Guinness in The Imperial, but whether or not there was any contrivance involved in such behaviour, the man’s contribution to the resurrection of Chelsea as a genuine force in English football was enormous. Naming a stand after him in the immediate aftermath of his tragic death appeared to have drawn a line under the hostilities of earlier years, but mortality was not to stand in the way of Bates continuing a grudge, within a year referring to his old adversary as an ‘evil man’ on a Channel 5 documentary.
It is easy, & sometimes tempting, to reduce Ken Bates to the role of pantomime villain, but also unfair. Life is not a Frank Capra movie, & there were major positives for the club & its supporters arising from his lengthy tenure.(Leeds United fans doubtless have less reason to be charitable following his unhappy stint in charge there) Many people who sneered at the old man walking off with his pot of Russian gold after leading the club to the brink of financial ruin ignore many salient points in the 21 year back story. Bates did not draw a salary at all in his first decade at Chelsea. He did, however, spend enormous amounts of time fighting off property developers Marler Estates, Chelsea’s hated landlords in the 1980’s. This delightful company also got their claws into West London neighbours Fulham & QPR, imperiling the futures of all three clubs. I think it fair to say Marler were not motivated by a desire to serve football. Stamford Bridge & Craven Cottage were, & still are, clearly situated in highly desirable areas. Marler were landlords of both, & added Loftus Road to their portfolio in 1987, installing arch-villain of the piece David Bulstrode as QPR chairman in the process, the sole intention being to evict Fulham & amalgamate the 2 clubs under the name of Fulham Park Rangers (FPR! FPR! FPR! FP-AHAHAHAHAHA?!) to play at Shepherd’s Bush. Bates fought tirelessly for years to ward off Marler’s attempts to evict Chelsea from Stamford Bridge, setting up the Save The Bridge campaign & waging war with Marler through the courts. It was last-minute court injunctions and not last-minute goals that counted in the Chelsea story at this time. Bates’ rearguard action won out in the end, & his sheer bloody minded refusal to accept defeat was the reason. Marler were eventually taken over by Cabra Estates who promptly foundered as the property market took a downturn. All three clubs survived with their grounds & names intact but it was a close run thing. Bulstrode had died unexpectedly, apparently in the arms of an ample bosomed extra marital blonde, which sadly elicited little sympathy from The Shed. There are worse ways to go, although one fan reacting to a tedious period of play during a match shortly after his demise by shouting ‘I’ve seen more life in David fucking Bulstrode’ probably overstepped the mark slightly. Having won the war, Bates set out his vision for the future, & the Chelsea Village project was born. There was plenty to dislike about it, but having rescued the club from the brink of oblivion it could be argued he had earned the right to follow his own vision for the future, tacky though it may have been. My gran once knitted me a horrible green tank top. I knew I would never wear it but still said thank you. Bates may have been driven by ego and not love for the fans but he had still done us a favour, & there was little choice but to indulge him anyway.
The creation of Chelsea Pitch Owners plc in 1992 is the one touch of true genius that the 86-year-old doubtless pats himself on the back about as he enjoys his twilight years in Monaco. By creating a scheme that allowed supporters to buy into a non-profit organization owning both the Stamford Bridge pitch & the club name, he instantly devised a way to ward off future property developers intent on removing the club from its home since 1905. It has also frustrated the current owner’s plans to move the club to a new stadium, although it may never have been necessary for him to think along those lines if Chelsea Village’s hotels, bars & restaurants hadn’t eaten so heavily into the acreage. I feel sad when ANY football club leaves its home for one of these identikit new stadiums. To see Chelsea leave Stamford Bridge would be unbearable. It is both ironic & hugely rewarding that a club often derided as having no history has fought harder than any to preserve its considerable heritage, ‘plastic’ fans and all. Props to Chairman Ken for his part in that.
He was a man out of time at Leeds, & definitely in the wrong place. He had fallen out quickly with the new regime at Chelsea, & gleefully played out the feud in public, fuelled by his old club luring two promising youngsters away from Elland Road. When Chelsea reported him to the FA following further provocative comments he gleefully retorted that he hadn’t ‘laughed so much since ma got her tits caught in the mangle.’ The old ones are the best eh Ken? Sleights of hand about details of ownership & hiking up ticket prices were never going to win over the Leeds faithful, & attempting to recreate the Chelsea model on the pitch via the appointment of Dennis Wise as manager seemed insane. Nowhere are Chelsea more despised than Leeds. Dirty Leeds. Club owners were once local boys made good, butchers & scrap metal dealers. Bates came along later as one of a clutch of more maverick businessmen. Now it is oligarchs, multi-nationals or indeed entire countries who control the biggest clubs. The old boy’s race was run.
Bates had simply had his day, but what a peculiar day it was. Unpleasant side effects of his MO remain in football. When the ground redevelopment was taking place in the early to mid 1990’s he took to relocating away fans in the top-tier of the East stand, reducing their ability to affect the atmosphere while charging them the then astronomical sum of £25 into the bargain. Rival clubs & their fans squealed in indignation but Chelsea fans have been regularly treated similarly ever since, the recent capping of prices for away fans at Premier League grounds being a welcome & long overdue innovation. His contempt for any kind of input from fan groups, while not unique to him among club owners, always stuck in the craw, as did his disdain for many who had contributed to club glories prior to his era as owner. He was known to be generous to those he liked, settling a sizeable debt from Sam Hamman’s Wimbledon to Dennis Wise when he signed for Chelsea in 1990 & helping Kerry Dixon sort out financial problems caused by his gambling addiction. He could be fun too, & sometimes indulged his taste for it at the expense of those who fully deserved it. The repulsive David Evans was one. Having banned all away fans from games at Kenilworth Road, the right-wing Tory MP & Luton Town chairman was outraged when Bates gave Director’s Box tickets away to regular Chelsea fans, forcing the Luton elite to share their afternoon with people in Harrington jackets, jeans & trainers responding to the action with gusto. The singing & shouting was somewhat muted by a 1-0 defeat but Evans still stated his intention to boycott the Chelsea VIP area for the return match & stand on the terraces with the Luton massive. It didn’t happen, but Bates’ programme notes on one Luton visit were a joy, assuring their fans that they shouldn’t be alarmed by ranks of blue & white clad fans at the other end of the ground to them, they were simply opposition supporters & considered quite normal at most stadiums. Your move Mr Evans.
I haven’t got the energy for a Ken Bates running my club in 2017, although he probably still has. Whatever anyone thinks of him, they certainly won’t forget him. For those who wish he had never got involved in football the ‘no Bates, no Chelsea’ line can still be rolled out. For Blues fans that has to be the cause for celebration, but so too should it be for massed ranks of Chelsea hating online trolls & Scouse, Manc & Gooner infused mainstream media bores alike. Let’s face it, without Chelsea who would you all have left to hate dear boys?
There were hoots of derision when John Terry wore a Chelsea kit as a non-playing member of the 2012 Champion’s League squad. Daniel Sturridge did likewise As did Raul Meireles. And Branislav Ivanovich. Terry copped for all of it though. Plus ca change. His decision to wear shin pads did, however, seem very odd & somewhat laughable, until you consider his well-earned reputation as one of the most superstitious players in the modern game. Wearing the same shin pads was just one of dozens of match day rituals performed throughout his career by our apparently Satanic, baby eating former skipper.
I like superstitious footballers because it indicates they care about the outcome of the event they are about to take part in. I don’t imagine Winston Bogarde had many pre-match routines, probably plumping for doing the same as he did the rest of the week, namely sitting on his big fat arse counting my season ticket money as he rescued it from down the back of his much used sofa. Players that do are mirroring the similarly absurd little rituals being played out by fans all around the world on match days, all imagining that they are somehow advancing the cause of their team by donning the same, fading Calvin Klein’s, whistling ‘Come On Eileen’ as they leave the house, avoiding all the cracks in the paving slabs as they make their way to the corner shop to buy their chewing gum. Their lucky chewing gum. Nothing wrong with that. It was good enough for the late, great Johan Cruyff, who used to spit his gum into the opposition’s half before all games. He forgot to do it before Ajax’s 1969 European Cup Final match against AC Milan. They got battered. He never forgot again.
All of this should be encouraged, because there is too much science in sport now. Many of the greatest players in history have been extremely superstitious. Many have not. The wonderful Bobby Moore used to insist on being the last player to put on his shorts, leading Martin Peters to develop a habit of taking his off again just when the great man thought he was in the clear. When JT decided that walking along hotel corridors with the lights switched off was beneficial to the next match result, it was Diego Costa who delighted in walking behind him switching them all back on.
There is a nice, democratic quality about all this hogwash that forms a rare bridge between the increasingly disenfranchised fan & the handsomely paid modern player. Mundane, daily tasks become significant. David James would apparently spit on the walls in the urinals. Terry & various colleagues merely liked to use the same urinal in the changing rooms each match, though hopefully not at the same time. He also liked to park in the same parking space & also to sit in the same seat on the team bus, a pleasingly common option for many. I always sat 3/4 of the way down the coach on the left hand side on my coach trip to Stamford Bridge, or in the same place on a bus if leaving work prior to a midweek game I was unable to attend. JT also proved as brave a figure off the pitch as he was on it by spending several seasons selflessly subjecting himself to the same Usher CD before a game. Makes that boot in the head against Arsenal at Cardiff in the 2007 League Cup Final seem like child’s play. Chelsea still won that match of course, so good old Usher came through again. They should have given him a medal.
He is not the first musical figure to win a trophy for Chelsea. I only missed out on seeing Chelsea in one round of the FA Cup in 1997, the quarter-final tie at Portsmouth. I did not have a ticket for the match. I did not have Sky. I could not go to the pub because me watching Chelsea matches in pubs is bad luck. The last time I had tried was back in 1992, also an FA Cup quarter Final, at Roker Park against Sunderland. When Dennis Wise’s late equalizer was confirmed on Teletext I had run down to my local ‘The Fairview’ to watch our glorious extra time victory. As I passed the window on my way in I saw a red & white striped shirt wheeling away in triumph on the big screen. Gordon Armstrong had scored an even later winner for The Mackems in the dying embers of normal time. Nursing a pint & watching Spurs exit the Cup Winners’ Cup instead was the smallest of consolations that night & I have never watched a Chelsea game in a pub since. Being too nervous to listen throughout to radio commentary I had taken to switching on every 15 minutes for score updates on Chelsea games. Not 12 minutes. Or 17. 15. Exactly. Otherwise I am hexing the team. In younger days I would startle my family by washing dishes during these 15 minutes. That Gary Stanley equalizer against Millwall in 1977. All down to my over zealous use of mild green Fairy Liquid. Later it became vacuuming, inspiring a late, late Jimmy Floyd goal one gloomy winter afternoon at Leicester in the Ranieri era. I even tried praying in my teenage years when things got really grim, but that never worked. If there is a God he/she clearly knows when someone’s taking the piss.
I am too nervous to go the virtuous route for the Portsmouth game. Instead, I stick a cassette tape in my Walkman ( last teenager out turn off the lights please!) of all the worst songs owned by barman Big Steve in my local. It is largely the mix tape from Hell. However, having been reunited with The Rubettes & Lieutenant Pigeon my ears prick up on hearing the jaunty intro to the undervalued Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day.’ In truth it isn’t his finest hour, especially lyrically, but it lures me back for a second, then a third time. I keep returning to it, & every 15 minute check on events at Fratton Park brings good news. Chelsea win 4-1 & listening to ‘Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day’ becomes a new matchday ritual, eventually crashing & burning (as all such rituals do sooner or later) on the back of my leaving its refrain just as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saves a point for Man Utd against us in a mid-week evening fixture the following season. Gilbert immediately goes from hero to zero & a new absurdity is sought. But he won us the FA Cup that season. Trust me.
I do hope John Terry has passed the torch to a new champion of ritualistic nonsense in the Chelsea dressing room. Feeling a bit peckish before the Leicester home game last season I ambled down to the shop to buy chocolate. Plumping for a large Aero with the white filling I amble a little too much on the way back & miss the start of the game. Chelsea are already a goal up when I get home. Ah. I’m on to something here. By the time the corresponding fixture is played at The King Power Stadium in the New Year the die is cast. Prior to this, Chelsea score early, televised goals against Everton & Man Utd en route to handsome victories. it happens again at Leicester, & at home to Arsenal. Then again away at Bournemouth. There is one common theme. On each occasion Chelsea score an early goal as I waddle back home with my Aero. With white filling. When Diego Costa has a Winter spat with Conte & a big money transfer move to China is mooted for our leading scorer I genuinely believe that losing him will be less injurious to Chelsea’s title hopes than my local shop running out of white filled Aeros. Ultimately, neither of these disasters occur & all ends well.
As a new season beckons, I have popped in to the shop today to check out the current Aero situation. Looking good Chelsea. They still have loads. Leaving Gilbert O’Sullivan stuck, not for the first time, in the ‘Where Are They Now?’ file. Alone again naturally. Or perhaps not. Maybe he’s spitting on urinal walls somewhere with Usher as they both wait for the other to put their shorts on first. Be lucky chaps.
Never meet your heroes. It’s a hoary old sporting cliche but one that I should always abide by. In the late ’90’s my mate Bill nudged me & pointed out a proudly displayed photo on a mobile phone screen belonging to someone sat in front of us in the Matthew Harding Upper. On the screen was a picture of said person with Gianluca Vialli. Both Bill & I adored Vialli unreservedly. When Ruud Gullit exiled him to the bench during his first season we watched him pointlessly limbering up prior to one game. ‘Worth 27 Grand a week just to watch him do that’ said Bill with as near an expression of man love on his face as I have ever seen. Now that the selfie has replaced the autograph book pictures like that are commonplace,but at the time it seemed like a major coup. How did you get to be in that position & how did you pluck up the courage to ask for it to be taken?
I suspect former ‘Chelsea Fancast’ podcast stalwart Chel Tel would have pulled it off. He once told a story on the show of a drunken New Year’s Eve night spent in 1986 with the wayward (& sadly departed) John McNaught. The great aspect of that story was that John’s finest hour in a Chelsea shirt came when he scored twice at home to QPR. On New Year’s Day 1987! I wonder if he even went to bed….
On one occasion I was merely a little unlucky in my lily-livered approach to interacting with players. In the late ‘60’s, before I had even been to Stamford Bridge, I am watching my dad play cricket in Windsor on a lovely Summer’s day. Adjacent to the cricket pitch are some grass tennis courts. Wielding the racket on the far side of the occupied court is a lean, tanned man, stripped to the waist wearing a pair of long trousers. I recognise him immediately, largely because I am obsessed with my A&B football card collection. I love the long, flat strips of pink bubble gum that comes with them & that the smell of the gum lingers on them for some while afterwards. I also love memorizing all the player profile facts on the backs of the cards. The topless tennis player is none other than Peter Osgood. Centre Forward. Debut 1964 v Workington. I look around for someone to share my joy at this discovery. I quickly find someone & return but the tennis court is deserted. The great man has departed, seemingly in some ‘Field of Dreams’ sort of way because I haven’t been gone long. For several years after I tuck my autograph book next to the mangey nodding dog in the back of our Wolseley 1500 car when the Windsor fixture comes around. Peter Osgood remains conspicuous by his absence. Eventually, I mention him to one of the Windsor cricketers. ‘Oh, yeah, he used to live here. He’s moved now. Epsom or somewhere.’ I am crushed & never get to meet Peter Osgood. Though I did, briefly, get to see him play tennis, seeing him score in Athens in 1971 would have been rather more impressive.
On other occasions I am simply rubbish. In the ‘80’s & ‘90’s I work in a bookshop that gets occasional visits from Dave Sexton. He is working for the FA at Lilleshall at the time, & is apparently a devotee of our Philosophy section. I am a West Stand Benches regular in these years. Philosophy isn’t big there. Kant is just something you shout at Teddy Sheringham. I once serve our extremely handsome first FA Cup winning manager, selling him some Gardening books, but do I tell him of the impact he has had on my life? No. I say ‘Hello’ ‘Thank You’ & ‘that will be £42.97 please.’ Hopeless.
And so it has always been. I walk down a narrow alley way one day in Oxford & realise that the person walking towards me is Peter Houseman. He looks at me but I don’t speak. His face is as familiar to me as The Queen’s head on a stamp but in truth I don’t know him so can’t think of anything to say. A decade later, prior to the ill fated 1988 Play Off against Middlesbrough, a similar thing happens around Stamford Bridge, when an injured Micky Hazard walks past me. Now a 24/7 Spurs bore, Micky was a great favourite of mine, one rare ray of sunshine in the general gloom of the Hollins/Whalley era. I still don’t speak & his company is quickly snapped up by somebody with a spine. After my parents retire to Dorset the local newsagent is former Blues,Coventry & Ipswich striker John O’Rourke but I don’t find out until he has retired. One wintry afternoon there I am walking along the largely deserted beach along the Jurassic coast at Mudeford when a familiar, short, stocky figure is ambling towards me. Lock up your wingers. It is none other than Ron Harris. He strolls by. I don’t speak. Pathetic. A couple of years later I am walking along the same stretch of beach in the opposite direction, remembering my non-encounter with Ron. I look up & a familiar, short, stocky figure is ambling towards me. It is Ron again. I still don’t speak . Again. Pathetic. Again. The truly daft thing about this is I know several people who have had dealings with Ron Harris & confirm that he is a top man, including one friend who hitched a lift off him one night & said he was great value. Although I had met him, briefly, once before, in 1976 after a game at Oxford, when he belched loudly as he signed his name in my autograph book. Or attempted to. The pen failed. Perhaps it’s just me.
I emailed the ‘Chelsea Fancast’ show asking if anyone had better tales to tell than my feeble shaggy dog stories. Had anyone ever crashed into Winston Bogarde on the dodgems at Southsea or had Celestine Babayaro ask to borrow their lawnmower? There was one lovely reply from a listener who had been woken up in the early hours of the morning by the sound of his hitherto impeccably behaved Au Pair (Au Pair eh, get you!) being noisily dropped off outside his house in the wee small hours of the morning, in an expensive sports car, by none other than the aforementioned Babayaro. The trail then ran cold but I live in hope…