Boxing Day 1967 was a Tuesday. Yes, I know, an utterance perhaps worthy of Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man. But the reason I remember this somewhat random detail is because at 11.30am that morning a lifelong love affair with Chelsea Football Club began on the uncomfortable benches of the west stand at Stamford Bridge.
I didn’t have far to walk that day with my father. From his childhood home
(now my own London bolthole) it is, at a good clip, only a 12-minute walk away. We set off pre-match to meet his close friend, Jock, a Russian-Scottish painter, who lived in a third-floor flat opposite the ground, which was really a large studio littered with aggressively squeezed oils, turp-soaked brushes, random easels and paint-encrusted palette knives, and a bed. To this day, I still remember the evocative smell. It had been among that bohemian dereliction that I watched that historic 1966 World Cup Final the year before.
Jock was torn that day. He sublimated his Pavlovian Scottish detestation for
all things English, only because his Russian distaste for all things German, won through. To his dying day, he was convinced that Geoff Hurst’s questionable third goal in the final was signalled good by a Russian linesman with the same sentiment.
Fifty-three years after my debut game (for the record the Blues beat Arsenal 2-1), and with some frustrating interludes, the ritual walk to the ground is what I have most missed in lockdown. Pre-match lunch or supper
in the Italian tratt, L’Antico, over which its owner, the Nero-like Franco, presides, is a joyous suffusion of excitement, expectation and, for fans of my gnarled vintage, the niggling thought that it could all go so horribly wrong.
My first exchange with the iconic football commentator John Motson, always suspected of being a closet Blue, was bang on the money when I revealed my blind obsession. ‘Chelsea – they’ll break your heart,’ he mused wistfully. And on occasion they have. But they have also given me some soaring moments, bordering on delirium. A Champion’s League crown won against the legendary German heroes Bayern Munich, deliciously in their own stadium in 2012, sits top of the heap and by some distance.
It wasn’t always like that, of course. I was there for Chelsea’s first cup win
in 1970, in my early teens. I had to wait another 27 years to witness it again, by which time I had three children. And in the early 1980s, I travelled up the M6 in a cold sweat with my mates from the Shed End, needing a point from the last match of the season to stave off relegation to the depths and ignominy of the old third division. We snatched the equalising goal and the great escape in the dying embers of the game. We nursed the ancient, barely roadworthy Merc back to London with more excitement and relief than when we won our first premiership title over 30 years later.
The turnstiles are still there only now we scan our season tickets to let
us through. They sit within touching distance on my desk as I write. I hope their sedentary existence changes soon.
Originally published in “Country & Town House” magazine. www.countryandtownhouse.co.uk