IT has been 50 years since I tied my colours to the mast. Half a century of support of a team that has taken itself to the depths, struggled to stay afloat, become the plaything of a billionaire and to top it all, crowned champions of Europe.
It started with the 1967 FA Cup final on May 20, 1967 and gathered momentum during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I delighted at Chelsea’s 1970 FA Cup victory, running around my garden in a lap of honour just minutes after David Webb had nudged home the winning goal. Years later, I asked him if he had actually headed the ball and his response was inconclusive.
I replayed Chris Garland’s near-post header in the Football League Cup semi-final against Tottenham dozens of times in 1972, using my Waddington’s Table Soccer men to flick home the cross past a static Pat Jennings. I was distraught when Peter Osgood was allowed to leave for, of all places, Southampton. After the flurry of success, I found it hard to take that Chelsea had become a struggling team, yet on the eve of the relegation clash with Tottenham in 1975, I rang the club and wished them “all the best”. At the last minute, I dashed to White Hart Lane, arriving at 3.15pm to squeeze into the ground, only to get clumped round the head by a Spurs fan.
With relegation confirmed a couple of weeks later – I saw the last three games of the campaign – I vowed I would lend my support to Eddie McCreadie and his team as they gained promotion in 1975-76. Just before the game with Sheffield United in that final week before the drop, I had been to London for a job interview and went from Barclays Bank in Fenchurch Street to Stamford Bridge, bumping into Ray “Butch” Wilkins, who had been appointed skipper at the age of 18. I walked from Fulham Broadway with him and parted with a good luck message for the game that evening. “Thanks, son,” he replied. He was just two years older than me.
I never missed a game between 1975-76 and 1978-79 at the Bridge. The 1980s were grim and to be frank, I never expected the club to climb off the floor. The 1983-84 season was marvellous, Kerry Dixon had brought back something to the club with his golden boy appearance and goals, and Pat Nevin was a throwback to the days of Charlie Cooke. In 1997, we won a trophy for the first time in 26 years and I was overjoyed to be at Wembley to witness it. The dark days were truly over and to be realistic, I was happy for the odd trophy every five years or so. I had, after all, sat in the white elephant East Stand and watched games like Chelsea 0 Hull 0 in front of barely 10,000 people – just five years after the club had won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. And I had almost died of exposure standing on the terrace with 6,000 fellow sufferers in 1982-83.
The current era has been unbelievable, but I am no longer a regular at the Bridge. Firstly, it is bloody expensive and secondly, tickets are hard to come by. I have joined membership schemes, but all that seems to do is take your money and allow you to queue for hours online to then find out there are no tickets remaining anyway. I welcome the new Stamford Bridge which will make it a little easier to buy a ticket.
But having endured a barren period in the club’s history and consigned to also-ran status, I make no apology for lapping up the age of Abramovich. We are in a different football paradigm and those clubs that cannot leverage the free market will never be successful. I don’t necessarily like the way the game has developed, but it is what it is, and I am glad Chelsea are among the top clubs. I will be at Wembley on May 27 to see what I believe will be a cracking FA Cup final, win or lose.
Selecting my favourite Chelsea XI was a tough task, but here’s the players that have left the biggest mark on me during my 50 years:
Goalkeeper: Peter Bonetti. It is a tragedy that Bonetti is remembered for the 1970 World Cup by football fans. But at Chelsea, he’s a legend and without him, the club would not have won the FA Cup in 1970 and European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1971.
Full backs: Dan Petrescu and Eddie McCreadie. I liked Petrescu’s versatility, while I still don’t think Chelsea have had a better left back than McCreadie. Central defenders: Marcel Desailly and David Webb. A World Cup winner in Desailly, who at his best was pure quality. Webby for his never-say-die attitude and of course, for scoring THAT goal.
Winger: Clive Walker. On his day, brilliant. It is one of the great disappointments that this talented, and mercurial, player never played in a successful Chelsea team. A great left foot and powerful shot – the only player worth watching between 1979 and 1983.
Midfield: John Hollins, Frank Lampard and Ray Wilkins. So many to choose from, but the energy and consistency of Hollins, the goals and determination of “Lamps” and the creativity of the young Wilkins (before United made him into “the crab”), will do for me.
Forwards: Peter Osgood and Didier Drogba. The king of Stamford Bridge and his new age successor. I am so glad that I met “Ossie”, not once but three times.
Subs (six): Petr Cech (probably the best keeper ever), John Terry (despite his faults), Alan Hudson (ditto), Pat Nevin, Gianfranco Zola and Kerry Dixon. Manager: Dave Sexton I met Dave Sexton in 2006 and took great delight in shaking his hand. I used to write to him when I was a schoolboy, recommending players like Colin Bell and Francis Lee to him. I got one reply thanking me for my interest and that the club was well aware of the qualities of Mr Bell and Mr Lee!
There have been better players than the 11 I have chosen, but not a bad side, I think.
Fifty years is a long time and you are undoubtedly influenced by your informative years. It’s like music, you always remember the tunes and artists of your youth. Oh yes, there’s a soundtrack for this team of mine: Liquidator by Harry J Allstars.
Cue that music….