Living in Putney and supporting Chelsea Football Club felt like joining the Free Masons. Through virtue of pledging your social, emotional and sporting energy towards Chelsea you were instantly loved by a host of adults. Through virtue of following Chelsea one always had something to talk about with men and boys. Through loving Chelsea me and my friends created a series of living heroes that were willing to fight on our behalf just a mile away from where we lived. Through Chelsea I learnt loyalty and competition. Through Chelsea I learnt strategy and style.
My Brother is 6 years older than me which is a large difference in the first stages of life where he was inevitably learning and experiencing completely different things to myself. Watching football and playing football related video games became the platform through which I had the ability to spend time with him. I benefitted from the videos that he had spent hours watching. As a child, I had two favourite VHS casettes that I would watch as much as possible, both of which were concerned with strength, power and victory. They were the Lion King and the Chelsea 1996/1997 season where Chelsea beat Middlesborough at the old Wembley after an incredible first minute strike from Di Matteo and a Gianfranco Zola assisted Eddie Newton goal at the 83rd minute.
During primary school football had the ability to make up the entirety of our non-education lives. At playtime you would play football. After school, I would spend evenings playing football and FIFA. On Friday I would play 5 A Side football. And then on Saturday and Sunday I would watch football and play FIFA. Every day day would be accompanied with a constant commentary about experiences of watching and playing football.
From a very early age me and my Godbrother got massively into Football shirts. A football shirt was the greatest symbol that one might acquire. A Chelsea shirt with Lampard or Zola on the back put me one step closer towards feeling that I was Lampard or Zola. On holidays in European capitals we would collect shirts from sports shops and flea markets. In Andalucía I bought a bootleg Raul shirt, which was then sported playing football with Spanish children in the town square amongst the wine and Al Fresco dining. In Rome when I was just 7 I acquired the gorgeous blue and black striped Pirelli Inter Milan shirt. Walking through the streets of Rome, a city dominated by the football clubs of Roma and Lazio, men would celebrate me shouting ‘INTA’ and russle the buzz cut I sported because it made me better at heading the football. In Paris I bought a Red and White Lyon shirt from the Les Halles Metro. In a Barcelona market I bought an impeccably beautiful teal Barcelona shirt sponsored by Unicief. In South Africa I bought a blue and white striped Mamelodi Sundowns shirt. These shirts were practical, well designed and the most authentic representation of the spaces that you visited because very often football shirts weren’t available beyond the given country.
My romantic imagination of Chelsea Football Club was stimulated from a very early age thanks to a Michael Morpurgo book about a Chelsea Pensioner called Billy who also plays for Chelsea Football Club before fighting in World War One. He gets good at football through practising with a tennis ball, a technique I tried for a brief period of time. Beyond this fantastic book, a must for all children who like football, excitement and imagination of Chelsea football club is stimulated through the songs. The 1996/1997 video was particularly significant because it featured the music video of Blue Day, a song written by no other than Madness’ Suggsy in support of the 1997 FA Cup Final. At the age of 4, 5 or 6 I recognised Suggsy, one of Mod subculture greatest heroes, as an elder and ally, who, through virtue of supporting Chelsea might well support me. His West London folk tale sung in chorus with Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Ruud Gullit confirmed that supporting Chelsea, ‘the only place to be every other Saturday is walking down the Fulham Road’, would forever be an enjoyable partner.
Spectating Football Matches is one of the best ways to be mindful of the seasons. No other activity demands that someone sits or stands outside for 2 hours. One cannot help but breath and sense and smell the difference between Autumn Sunshine, Winter Darkness and Spring Heat and there is no better place to observe this then when singing, preferably on the Fulham Road in the Matthew Harding Stand.
Through attending games, one became acquainted with songs that seemed to have a historical resonance, as if they had been sung in chorus with thousands of stranger’s decades before me. Carefree, One Man Went To Moe, Chelsay, Chelsay, Chelsaaaaaaay, Chelsay, Chelsay Chelsay CHELSAY!, STAMFORD BRIDGE TOO WEMBERLAY, cellaray, cellaray, Super Frank, Oh Dennis Wiiiiiiiiiiiiise Scored A Fucking Great Goooooooooal At the San Sirooooooooo, VEEALEE, VEEALEE VEALLEE, Darbul Darbul Darbul, Bluuuu Is the Culaaaa, Stan Up If You Ate Totnem, Sit Dan If You Ate Totnem, We Hate Totnem, Hooooosay Moureeeenioooo Hoooooosay Moureeeeeenio (sang to Guiseppie Verdi’s Rigoletto), We’re Ownly Ere for tha Pidgeon, Who Are Ya, We Forgot That You Were Ere, We Sirport Are Local Team, We’ll just call you Dave, We needasong for Ramirez.
Being present when these songs get created or learnt is an incredible thing. In 2011 I attended Torres’ second match away against Fulham, at which we all learnt the words, ‘he used to go out on the rob and now he’s got a proper job, Fernando Torres Chelsea’s Number 9’, sung to the tune of The Clash’s English Civil War. In 2013, I was ball boying for Frank Lampard’s 200th goal, which then led to the song, sang to the tune of James’ Laid, ‘Oh Frankie Lampard Scored His 200th Against the P****s’.
My first Chelsea games were against Newcastle and then Sunderland in 2002. We won both games 3-0 with Gallas, Desaillay, Hasslebaink, Gudsjohnsen and Zola amongst the scorers. Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea complete the season in 4th achieving qualification to the Champions League. In the Summer, we were bought by a little known Russian billionaire named Roman Abramovich. Every time we bought the Mirror Chelsea had bought another player. Every time Chelsea bought another player it was like I was being given a gift. We spent £111.8 million pounds bringing in Johnson, Geremi, Bridge, Duff, Cole, Veron, Mutu, Crespo and Makelele. It was like some kind of glorious hack on FIFA that allowed a Chelsea fan to buy whoever he wanted. And then, in 2004, Britain’s equivalent of the Beatles’ 1963 invasion of America happened, Jose Mourinho arrived in London telling the press ‘I have to say this, we have top players. I am sorry if I am a bit arrogant, we have a top manager. I am European champion, I am not one of the bottle. I think I am the special one’. Mourinho added Cech, Drogba, Alex, Carvalho and Robben and Chelsea won the league almost a century after their first victory.
With the addition of Ashley Cole in 2006, Jose Mourinho laid the foundation for the Chelsea team that would accompany me through secondary school and very much felt like my generation’s Chelsea team. Between 2006 and 2012 Chelsea won the Premier League twice, The FA Cup four times, the League cup once, the Europa League once and the Champions league once. We had 7 managers in 8 years. This turbulence may have proved fatal for many football teams, yet, the key towards Chelsea success was that we had five first team players that could all be Captain. The infrastructure of Chelsea’s success was built around John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Petr Cech. These were men that understood the game better than most and had the experience and discipline needed to lead and to win. If one of them was fit, Chelsea had a captain with the ability to lead 11 men on and off the pitch. If all of them were fit we had one of the strongest footballing teams in the world. In the face of hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, a club can lose an identity. The fact that three of Chelsea’s best players were Londoners was of central importance towards leading the club because not only did they understand the significance of playing in the English league but most crucially they understood the significance of London. When I was a boy, I had dreamed of becoming a Chelsea Footballer. When I had my head shaved or played with a tennis ball or had Zola on the back it wasn’t just a posture, I actually believed that my actions may make me more likely to become a Chelsea footballer. I am certain that thousands of other Chelsea fans had the exact same dreams, so, with John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole we were viewing the realisation of our dream and the extension of our selves, demonstrating that London could create three lads that had the ability and talent to lead 11 football players, Putney, South London and West London, through the Premier League and to Europe.
The 2006 Chelsea squad matured and improved at the same time as I was doing the exact same through secondary school. Together we all got stronger, taller and smarter. Yet, amidst the hegemony and footballing dominance the Champions League had always pervaded us. It wasn’t just that we weren’t winning finals and semi-finals, it was that we were losing games because of a series of controversies and winning games with dramatic fashion. In 2003/4 we had lost a semi-final to Monaco after beating Barcelona 4-2, a match so emotional that it provoked a 9 year old to shout ‘FUCK’ following the Ronaldinho dummy and toe poke into the right side of the Chelsea’s goal, in 2004/5 we lost to a contentious Luis Garcia ‘ghost goal’, in 2006/2007 we lost once again to Liverpool on penalties in the Semi Final, then in 2007/08 we lost against Manchester United in the Final after Terry slipped when taking the deciding penalty and United won on sudden death, then in 2008/09 year Chelsea were knocked out in the semi-finals by a last minute goal from Barcelona’s Iniesta following the denial of three credible penalty appeals. In 2012, after 6 years of exploring the cities of Europe in stadiums like the Nou Camp, the Allianz Arena, Estadio do Dragao and the Donbass Arena, Chelsea fans had felt as if we had played the football that deserved the Champions League trophy. In fact, Chelsea fans had felt pretty much every emotion that one can evoke through the cannon of English literature, let alone Football. The sense of injustice could be felt through every molecule of Stamford Bridge. In 2012, Chelsea’s infrastructure of success was terminating. At the end of the year, Frank Lampard would be 34, John Terry 32, Ashley Cole 32, Didier Drogba 34 and Petr Cech 30. We had the sense that the class of Jose Mourinho wouldn’t achieve the greatness they deserved and we would never have the opportunity to avenge the shouting and lost celebrations and meet the fate prophesised in the playground, the pubs, the telly studios, the North, East, South and West stand.
It is my greatest pride as a football fan that I attended every Chelsea home game of the 2011/2012 Champions League season. After away draws at Genk and Valenica and a loss to Bayern Leverkusen, Chelsea needed victory in their final match against Valencia to ensure they got through to the knockout stages. Anyone that was at Stamford Bridge for the final group stage match against Valencia felt that the stadium had a strange electric energy about it. Very often one hears about how the inexperience of footballers subdues the performance. Seldom, do we hear about how the inexperience of football fans influences the energy on the pitch. It isn’t suprising that Anfield, a stadium in a city of just 900,000 people, is a fortress for European football. They have generations of fans with experience of hosting European football clubs and getting good results. After 9 years of excitement and controversy, Chelsea fans knew that they needed self-control and energy to enhance the club’s prospect of victory. We had to demonstrate the same discipline and ambition that we had seen from our players. Two Drogba goals bought Chelsea to a three-nil victory over Valencia and allowed us to progress to the knockout stages.
Even as Chelsea fans got used to new managers this didn’t mean we liked the instability. The loss of Mourinho after assembling the infrastructure of Chelsea’s victory and winning the title twice after a century without was idiotic. The loss of Grant and Scolari did not effect the fans. The inavailability of Guus Hiddink certainly did. The worst decision the club made was removing Carlo Ancelotti after he won the Premier League and FA Cup in his first season and then narrowly lost the Premier League title to Manchester United the following season. Chelsea had looked strong and fast and Ancelotti had the experience to make the most of an incredible group of players and establish Chelsea as a Footballing institution that might, over the years, consistently build squads and bring players through the academy. Ancelotti was removed just two hours after taking Chelsea to second in the Premier League. Chelsea had lost one of the greatest managers in Football, failing the fans and the players. The sense of waste wasn’t helped by rumours that he had been sacked because of Torres’ bad form.
Ancelotti’s replacement Andres Villas Boas failed Chelsea’s players. The worst game I’ve ever seen Chelsea play was the 5-3 loss to Arsenal where AVB’s infamous highline left extraordinary amounts of space for the pace of Theo Walcott and the incredible form of Robin Van Persie. In Naples, for the first leg of the round of 16, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edison Cavani tore apart Chelsea just as Walcott and Van Persie had. Chelsea lost 3-1 and Andres Villas Boas was sacked. Roberto DiMatteo, the star of that 1996/1997 FA Cup Final VHS, would be Chelsea’s replacement manager for the 2012 season, giving him the task of overturning the 3-1 loss to Naples.
Chelsea changed managers so often that one could never be sure of how good their memory of the Football club was. Even if they had mastered the Football club academically, they almost certainly didn’t have the phenomenological experience of the being with Chelsea for the last decade. Thankfully, on match day, we had the memories of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba who were completely aware of the significance of Chelsea’s position in the Premier and Champions League. Then, of greatest importance, we had the collective memory of 40,000 Chelsea fans who attended the matches. No fan would ever forget the raw phenomenological experience of what it had felt like to lose against Barcelona, Liverpool or Manchester United. Every fan knew what the Champions League meant to that squad of Chelsea players and we would use noise to ensure we won.
Sat left of the lower Matthew Harding stand, Chelsea’s 4-1 victory over Napoli is the greatest game of football I ever seen. Imagine 120 minutes of 40,000 hunter gatherers totally wired towards finding the goals that would overturn 6 years of injustice. Excellent headed goals from Drogba, Terry, a penalty from Lampard and an extra time goal from Ivanovic took Chelsea through to the Quarter Finals. Now imagine 40,000 ravenous minds synthesised in sweet harmony on Madness’ One Step Beyond. We were all happy to enjoy the moment with Di Matteo, however, it had been our infrastructure of leadership and the memory of 40,000 fans that had caused one of Chelsea’s greatest comebacks.
We would then play the Portuguese side Benfica in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. We played two games after Napoli, losing 2-1 to Manchester City and drawing 0-0 to Tottenham. We won the Quarter Final 3 – 1 on aggregate with an excellent last-minute goal from Raul Merrieles, leading to a rematch with our Champions League rivals Barcelona.
Barcelona hated playing Chelsea. Messi had never scored against us. They hated the size of Stamford Bridge, the fans much closer, the pitch much smaller. They had been beaten 4-2 in 2004 and knew that they were lucky to have won the tie in 2009. Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League final was a battle of attrition. Everything about Barcelona’s team suggest Chelsea shouldn’t have won that match. This was the Guardiola’s team of Messi, Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol and Fabregas. This was arguably the greatest side in modern Football who had won the La Liga, the Champions League and many of them the 2010 South African World Cup. Fabregas was cleared off the line. Sanchez failed to shoot after being chipped through on goal by Messi. Pedro hit the post. Chelsea had one chance. Drogba scored.
Going into the away tie, we were well aware that Barcelona were going to outplay us. We had seen Chelsea’s rubbish performances in the League and we were properly outplayed in the first leg. Nonetheless, this was the Champions League and we had Cech, Cole, Terry, Lampard and Drogba. What we didn’t expect was that, 1 nil down and missing our first choice defender through an injury in the 11th minute, John Terry, Chelsea’s most experienced defender and the one footballer that made it good through the academy, would get himself sent off for unnecessarily kneeing Sanchez. The weirdness of Terry’s foul was the kind of behaviour one might associate with the psychological defect of Luis Suarez. Chelsea had three defenders, Boswinga, Ivanovic and Ashley Cole, against the greatest attacking side of the 21st century. We went two nil down and then out of nowhere, just before half time, Ramires scored Chelsea’s goal of the Season, looping the ball over Valdez after a Lampard’s through ball. 2-2 on aggregate, the additional away goal would be all we needed to go through to the Champions League Final.
In the second half Chelsea parked the bus. We had 9 footballers in two lines guarding the penalty box blocking and barging Football’s most skilful players.Once again, a mistake from one of our leaders. Drogba’s lunge took down Fabregas. Messi, the greatest footballer of all time, had a penalty. He can’t score against Chelsea. He hits the bar. Chelsea go back to two lines and chase, and block and tackle and boot. We have 28% of the possession. Chelsea have stopped trying to play football and wait and see if Barcelona can break 6 years of Champions League injustice. They give everything and get nothing. Then Frank Lampard, in the final minute, boots the ball up the Nou Camp’s ridiculously long football pitch. Gary Neville: ‘heee’s in, heeee’s in, ahhhhhhhhhhhhh’ (Torres bobbles the ball past Valdez and puts it in the net) ‘UNBURLEEEVERBALL’. Chelsea are through to a Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in Bavaria, at their home stadium.
Following the suspension of Ivanovic, Terry and Merielles, Chelsea’s starting XI against Bayern Munich may have been one of the weakest sides we have ever fielded in any Champions League match, with Boswinga at Right Back, Kalou in Midfield and Ryan Betrand, normally a left back, making his Champions League debut on the left of midfield. Bayern Munich fielded players like Lahm, Kroos, Schweinsteger, Ribery, Muller, Robben and Gomez. If Chelsea were to win, we would need to defeat not one, but two of the greatest footballing sides assembled in the modern game. We may not have had confidence in our midfield we had the memory of 2004 where Lampard and Drogba both scored twice beating Bayern in the Quarter Final.
I had been denied the opportunity to watch my team play because of my GCSE’s and watched on from a friend’s shed in Richmond surrounded by a QPR fan, two rugby fans and two Chelsea. We were completely outplayed. Muller scored a header in the last ten minutes and made a very annoying celebration. Even the most confident of Chelsea fans would not be criticised for losing confidence. Then, in the final minute, without one chance in 90 minutes, Didier Drogba scored a super goal from a corner. I am not a superstitious man. I don’t believe it was written in the stars, and yet, there was something strange about the 2012 Chelsea squad. At the very moment you would write them off they would do something extraordinary. And then something stupid. And then something extraordinary. In the second half of extra time, Drogba gave away another penalty, then saved by Cech.
English football fans learn important lessons. Wear Adidas. Listen to The Clash. Beware of penalties – especially against the Germans who had defeated England at Italia 1990 and Euro 1996. Chelsea now faced Bayern Munich, a team that made up the majority of the German starting XI, in Munich. Lahm scored. Mata’s first penalty was saved. Gomez scored. Luiz went top right. Nuer scored. Lampard went high and straight down the middle. Cech saved Olic. Ashley Cole curls the ball into the right corner hitting the side netting. Chelsea are level. Final two penalties. Schweinsteiger’s saved from Cech. Drogba goes left, Neuer goes right. Chelsea are the Champions of Europe.
This was the perfect finale for a relationship that had been the foundation of so much joy since the age of four. We had won the greatest prize in club football in the most extraordinary style. I was 16 and following my GCSE’s would enter a new stage of life in which one specialises to offer something to our society in the same way the Footballers do. I had learnt so much from the Chelsea side of Cech, Cole, Terry, Lampard and Drogba and in hindsight the Champions League final seemed like the end of an important stage in my life. I had imagined the world through football. Brazil, Argentina, The Ivory Coast, Ghana, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. I knew the footballing people of the world. Roberto Carlos, Ruud Gullit, Cesc Fabregas, Ray Wilkins. I had collected beautiful things. The Napoli Shirt, the teal Barcelona shirt, the Mamelodi Sundowns shirt. I had seen goals that you would never have imagined. The Zola back flick from a corner against Norwich, Frank Lampard’s free kick against Spurs in the Semi-Final of the FA Cup, John Terry’s header against Barcelona in the Champions League Quarter Final. This was it. The amalgamation of all these fragments of memory synthesised into the greatest adventure in Chelsea history.
The Rugby Heineken Cup Final had taken place on the exact same day as the Champions League final. Rather fittingly, on the way home from the Chelsea victory, I got on a train with a company of Lenister Rugby fans who were celebrating European victory against Ulster. Amidst the Guinness and the singing, one Lenister man played the violin all the way back to Putney.