A Riot of my Own
For many who overindulge during the festive period, the hangover that follows presents an opportunity to reflect upon the past, make resolutions for the future, and contemplate the meaning of life in general. The older we get, the more we experience the mutability of time. Depending on our state of sobriety we feel it speed up or slow down, but mainly with advancing years it just simply vanishes. ‘Where did all the time go?’ we ask ourselves, as we bathe in the warm, reflective, comforting glow of nostalgia.
Technological developments and money allow past times to be re-captured as never before, and with the media constantly bombarding us with memories of yesteryear, embracing the nostalgia Zeitgeist has never been simpler.
Fans of music and football find it easier to mark the passage of time than most. A tune played at random on your MP3 player, reading an old match-day programme – it can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end. Combine the two and the effects can be considerably more lump-in-the-throat lachrymose than watching Chelsea Old Boys FC playing a West Ham 1980s select side down at Tooting and Mitcham, and then going to see the reformed Sex Pistols treading the Hammersmith Apollo boards in the name of filthy lucre.
I served my Chelsea apprenticeship on the Shed terrace in the punk era. Back then, the Blues were a destitute Second Division side, more feared for the marauding hordes of boot-boys that followed them in large numbers when they travelled away from home than anything remotely resembling the beautiful game they aspired to play on the pitch.
The Clash were my band, and whilst the Pistols may have had Paul Cook and Steve Jones as Chelsea fans in their ranks, they had the infinitely cooler Joe Strummer keeping the Blue Flag flying high.
Editor’s Note: During a drunken scene from Alex Cox’s movie Straight to Hell, you can see Joe Strummer kicking a tin can and calling out the names of footie players such as David Speedle, Pat Nevin, and Kerry Dixon.
Strummer’s untimely death in 2002 ended any remote possibilities of the group re-forming to cash in on the nostalgia craze, but their legacy lives on. And for many people they remain, as the publicity manifesto once read, ‘the only band that matters’.
So anyway, I’m nursing a New Years Eve party hangover in my home office. It’s January 1st 2009. I’m minding my own business, thinking about this and that … you know the way you do … when two things happen at once … the unmistakable, amphetamine fuelled, three chord chug of ‘White Riot’ by the Clash leaps from the speakers my iPod is connected to, at the same time as my girlfriend pokes her pretty head round the door handing me a football programme she’s found amongst a pile of old magazines and newspapers in the garage.
‘London Calling’ and ‘Rock the Casbah’ may well feature in the top twenty of many peoples all-time-favourite rock track lists, but at the end of the day all the Clash singles come down to ‘White Riot’. It was their first single and it had the viscerally brilliant ‘1977’ on the B-side.
The programme, dated Saturday February 26th 1977, is for a Second Division match played between Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea at Burnden Park. A top-of-the-table clash, it was my first Blues away game outside the Capital.
I’d celebrated the dawn of 1977 at a new club called the Roxy on Neal Street in Covent Garden. The Clash played, and I was there – a spotty fifteen years old kid having a riot on his own in a self-stenciled T-Shirt proclaiming my allegiance to the Shed Tea Bar. I remember Joe Strummer wearing a Persil white shirt with 1977 writ large across the front. I remember his battered old Fender Telecaster, and as I do so the seething paranoia that is ‘White Riot’ screeches to its arresting end. Start to finish in a fraction over two minutes. Brilliant!
‘White Riot’ was released as a single in March 1977 just a couple of weeks after I’d joined Eddie McCreadie’s Blue and White Army on their crusade north to Bolton. The Reebok Stadium, home to Bolton Wanderers for the past decade or so, is a soulless place. A feckless testament of what can happen when a famous old football club, which once had a true sense of spirit and working-class identity is uprooted from its traditional home and transplanted to an anonymous retail park in a nearby town. Burden Park, the Trotters pre-Reebok residence, was a proper old-school football ground, with a huge uncovered ‘away’ terrace redolent of the North Stand at Stamford Bridge, and one look at the cover of that tatty old programme was enough to bring the memories flooding back in glorious technicolour.
Getting off the grimy football special, one of three organized by the club that day, I recall being prodded and provoked all the way down the Manchester Road by mallet-faced members of the local Constabulary keen to boost their arrest figures and their reputations. Then there was that unmistakable football smell of horse-sh*t and hamburgers pervading the olfactory senses. A leaden sky threatening to unload rain by the bucket-load justified the mass exodus of Blues fans from the uncovered Railway End across the pitch to the Great Lever End, much to the chagrin of the local Old Bill. Resplendent in my Wandsworth Borough Council donkey jacket, red and white bar scarf (the one with the thin green stripes), blue denim bollock stranglers and cherry red Dr Martens boots, I’d stood out like a sore thumb. But there were a lot of sore thumbs in Bolton that day. The atmosphere? You could cut that with a knife. It was more incendiary than any punk concert I’d ever been to. Under heavy manners, that was the Chelsea ‘away’ experience back in 1977.
Chelsea were 2-0 down at half-time. The Blues team comprising John Philips in goal, Gary Locke, Graham Wilkins, Garry Stanley, Steve Wicks, David Hay, Ian Britton, Ray Wilkins, Steve Finnieston, Ray Lewington and Kenny Swain had looked like they would be being displaced at the top of the table by a determined Wanderers side, until Eddie McCreadie’s fire and brimstone sermon during the lemon break changed the course of the match. The Blues stormed back with two goals in three minutes midway through the second half. Jock Finnieston, back in the side after missing the last three games with a depressed cheek fracture, intercepted a shabby Sam Allardyce back pass to score his 18th goal of the season, and Swain levelled proceedings with his 12th goal of the campaign. The attendance of 31,600 was Bolton’s biggest league gate of the season, and I for one went home happy.
For Burden Park read Asda now. They don’t make football grounds like that anymore. The synthesized sterile Reebok with its futuristic tubular steel arches, anomalous baize-like pitch and US-style playing of James Brown after the new-fangled Trotters find the net, must have Wanderers icon, Nat Lofthouse (the Lion of Vienna, now a sprightly Octogenarian) choking on his meat and potato pie and chips as he surveys the scene in front of him on his regular visits to watch the club whose colours he famously graced back in the day.
Some new stadiums work. The Emirates par bitter, twisted, green prickly-suited envious example, but the Reebok doesn’t. The one saving grace of this abominable space-age place is the part it plays in the history of Chelsea Football Club. On Saturday April 30th 2005, I was privileged to be in the company of several thousand Blues fans in a crowd of 27,653 who witnessed Frank Lampard rattle in a couple of goals – which granted Chelsea a 2-0 victory, and saw Jose Mourinho’s men crowned Premiership Champions – the league title headed to SW6 for the first time in fifty years. What a glorious day that was. ‘Have you ever seen Chelsea win the league? Yes we have!’ Had he been alive, Joe Strummer would have been delirious.
I repatriated the old programme from 1977 back to the cupboard from whence it had been misplaced, and resisted the temptation to fish out another – opting instead to cue up a few more Clash tunes on my iPod. If Joe hadn’t died, maybe they would have re-formed and given many fans another opportunity to relive their youth, but then it wouldn’t have been the same as it was ‘back in the day’. As for those old-school Chelsea away games, no two were ever the same. Never have been and never will be. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, there is one constant that is always guaranteed for followers of the Blues … no matter how much money is flowing through the Stamford Bridge coffers at any given time, Chelsea never seems to lose her propensity to surprise, excite, madden and disappoint. Glorious unpredictability? I’ve loved every minute of it, and looking back over all those years, I wouldn’t want to change a thing. Well not much anyway. Oh go on then, perhaps that John Terry penalty miss in Moscow.
Up the Chels!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’, ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’ and ‘One Man Went to Mow’ and the co-author of ‘Chelsea Here Chelsea There’. Copies are available to buy with a discount of up to 60% and free postage within the UK at http://www.gate17.co.uk/