They say that people can always remember where they were when they heard about the death of JFK, John Lennon’s assassination, 9/11 and other seismic global events. Although the element of seriousness goes down the scale significantly, everyone knows where they were when they adopted their football team. Love at first sight and all that.
People have written books about it. Nick Hornby spawned a generation of wannabees who wanted to tell the world about their hitherto “undiscovered” football team. Everyone believes that their initiation into football supportership was akin to Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Actually, if you follow football, you do often come across the odd “missing link”.
For me, it was a journey on a double-decker bus. Cub jamboree day, May 20 1967. It was also the day of the FA Cup final – the first “Cockney Final”, Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur. Given my father had absolutely no interest in football, I had no role model from which to receive that “rite of passage”. Having only recently been able to experience the joy of hearing your son say he was following the team of his Dad (my son was a late developer, only turning to the game when he realised what a ‘universal currency’ it had become), I can say that my own father, who was more interested in All Our Yesterdays (a chronicle of WW2) and gentle novels by Sven Hassel, missed out!
But back in 1967, I didn’t really know much about football. I recalled the 1966 World Cup, mainly because of World Cup Willie nougat and the plethora of Union Jacks everywhere. We hadn’t really discovered the cross of St.George, I guess that was also on the Beagle adventure. I had kicked the odd Frido ball around, but the bug hadn’t bitten. Until May 20, 1967.
So we boarded the bus, 2nd South Ockendon (green and black colours) on the lower deck, 1st Ockendon on the top (blue and black). The obligatory gang-show songs started and were followed by an enforced football chanting competition. The lower deck was to sing for Chelsea, the upper Tottenham. Given I hadn’t really heard of either, I was happy to sing for Chelsea, especially as I found out they played in blue.
We were bound for Condovers, a rural campsite in, of all places, West Tilbury. Today, it sits five miles from the M25. The place was awash with grey flannel shorts, green sweaters, rakish scarves and the legendary “toggles”. Cubs from all over Thurrock and beyond were reading maps, putting their First Aid skills to good use and awaiting the big event of the day – screening of the FA Cup final.
There were no big screens in those days. The TV in the huge marquee was no more than 20 inches and you couldn’t get near it. I was so detached from the action that when Chelsea scored late on, I thought it was the first of the game, not the consolation. It was only at the rumoured final whistle, that I realized Tottenham had won 2-1. I was strangely disappointed.
The following Saturday, I asked my Dad who Chelsea were playing and he told me to look in the newspaper. We “took” the Daily Mirror in those days (I still have the centre spread from the FA Cup final edition, with its cartoons of the players) and I had to search long and hard to find it under a “Pools” section. I was no wiser, but then I saw that Chelsea were playing a team called Croatia. Or so I thought. It turned out that this was a team from Australia’s Victoria state and that these were the summer pools. Nevertheless, I followed their results, assuming they had some form of connection to Chelsea. I recall asking my Dad if he could take me to see Chelsea play. He fobbed me off with “you can watch them on the TV.” I was eight years old, the season had ended and my Dad didn’t like football. It was a miserable summer.
But in 1967-68, I started my education of the great game. I drew a lot of football pictures, with Chelsea featured in their notable numbered shorts. I discovered that Bobby Tambling was their star striker, then learned that their real gem was Peter Osgood. It’s odd, but while I don’t remember much about those early games, I do recall Tommy Docherty being sacked and Dave Sexton appointed. But apart from the end of the season, when Chelsea qualified for the oddly-named Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, most of 1967-68 was a blur.
In 1968, a couple of Christmas books added some momentum to my studies. “Football Champions” and the “International Football Book”, which was edited by the man who went on to own the leftfield record company Charisma. By 1968-69, I was in full flow, despite the Russian invasion of Prague and the threat of what my Dad said was going to be “another bloody war”. I was more concerned about the possibility that Russia’s march into Wencesles Square would hamper Chelsea’s European campaign.
I settled into a pre-pubescent life of hero-worshipping Osgood, sitting proudly in my first replica kits and referring to Chelsea as “us”. I even compiled a virtual team – before the term virtual was invented – of the Chelsea squad I would want in an ideal world, slotting Manchester City’s Colin Bell and Francis Lee alongside Ossie and John Hollins. My homemade wall chart included a place for the manager, and my Woolworth’s passport photo fitted nicely. Dave Sexton watch out!
Although the relationship between Chelsea and myself has wavered at times, there has never been another club. But there is a daunting thought behind this explanation – if I had been on the top deck, I would have probably been a White Hart Lane regular. Roman Abramovich is not the only person to land at Chelsea at the expense of Spurs!
Top bloke, that Akela, for selecting the bottom deck!