Up For The Cup?

A nostalgic sigh here at the sight of dear Peter Houseman on the cover of the last in Esso’s tiny Squelchers series from the early Seventies. Small boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts etc. etc.

‘Dave Sexton. Always Looks So Serious’

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. 35,00 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.

Let’s hope so.


 

 

 

Santa Batesy

 

Either Xmas 1996 or 1997 here. I’m guessing ’96 as there is no sign of later Gullit signings Graeme Le Saux, Gus Poyet or Tor Andre Flo. Cuddly Ken here depicted more along the lines of the avuncular & much cuddlier Dickie Attenborough, stellar Chelsea fan & one time director. KB joined here by chief executive Colin Hutchinson, Ruud Gullit, an unusually fat faced Dennis Wise, Luca Vialli, Frank Leboeuf, Steve Clarke, Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo, Michael Duberry (I think!) & Dan Petrescu. There have been better Chelsea teams but few more entertaining to watch. For the first time in many years boredom was off the menu. I feel a chorus of Parklife coming on. With a tear in my eye. All the people. So many people….
Made It Ma! Top Of the World!

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?

Happy Christmas

 

 

Very Superstitious – Saliva’s On The Wall

FA Cup Winner 1997
Premier League Winner 2017

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 is 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.

New Balls Please

 

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…