If you’ve been anywhere near a radio over the past few weeks, you can’t fail to have heard that The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Whether that particular album fully warrants the acclaim it tends to receive is a matter for debate (I personally think it’s overrated), but there can be no doubt that it includes some of the Fab Four’s most ludicrous, LSD-fuelled lyrics. One such track is A Day in the Life, in which the band’s much-vaunted songwriters enthuse about ‘4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’. Well, I hope Messrs Lennon and McCartney will forgive me if I purse my lips and raise an imaginary handbag, but I’m not impressed. You see, I’ve seen 20,000 Chelsea in Highbury, London – and believe me, that really was impressive.
If the modern-day, family-friendly matchday experience has turned many of the old football stadia battlegrounds into altogether more welcoming venues, there can also be no doubt that the advent of all-seater stadia, and the clamour to attract the corporate dollar at the expense of the working man’s hard-earned wonga, has led to a more sanitised atmosphere for even the biggest of matches nowadays: I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to be disappointed by the atmosphere at last month’s FA Cup Final?
Sitting at Wembley, surrounded by Chelsea fans who, despite the energetic cajoling of a handful of more vociferous characters in the vicinity, patently had no desire to exert themselves in support of the team, it struck me just how much our fan base has changed in recent years. As I sat there, singing my heart out proudly while Chelsea secured an historic double – last winners of the FA Cup at the old Wembley; first winners at the new Wembley – it all seemed a far cry from the Chelsea I had grown up with, when Stamford Bridge on matchdays would often be a seething cauldron of passion and adrenaline. I recalled a day in 1984 when Boy George and Culture Club filmed a clip for the video of The Medal Song on the Stamford Bridge pitch, prior to a match with Watford. The chorus sang Through my anger and my joy, my tears and pain/Life will never be the same as it was again. I never thought I would say it, but as that memory returned to me, just for a brief moment it seemed that Mr O’Dowd was more than just a cross-dressing old queen; it felt like he was a prophet!
Sadly, old curmudgeons like me have had to come to terms with the fact that ‘life will never be the same as it was again’. Only time will tell if the Stamford Bridge atmosphere will ever return to its passionate heydays of yesteryear, but one facet of the Chelsea support that I am convinced is gone forever is the magnificent, travelling support to away matches.
I first witnessed the incredible Chelsea away support for myself in March 1975, when I was a mere nine years old. Not surprisingly for a kid living in Shepherds Bush, my first away match was just down the road at QPR, accompanied by my dad and my brother. By this stage, I was into my fifth year of attending home matches, and I had by now got my bearings as to where the home and away fans stood within Stamford Bridge, so I was absolutely bewildered to see that both terraces within Loftus Road were packed with Chelsea supporters. Better still, both the Ellerslie and South Africa Road stands were highly populated with away supporters too, and of the 25,000 spectators present that night, well over 15,000 were cheering on the visitors.
Three years on from my away match initiation, I returned to QPR with just my brother for company. The match was all-ticket, and Chelsea’s allocation was sold out almost immediately. My brother and I met up after school and bought a pair of tickets for the home end from the Loftus Road box office, and prayed that we wouldn’t be the only Chelsea supporters to do so. However, on the day of the game, my brother had a brainwave: why don’t we go to the away end, show our tickets and explain that we are Chelsea supporters? Now, why didn’t I think of that? This we duly did, and the man at the turnstile smiled and let us in. Mind you, we needn’t have worried – yet again, the Loft was heaving with Chelsea supporters, and there was barely a home fan in sight.
My first away trip outside of London came at the age of 15, when Chelsea faced Southampton in the third round of the FA Cup in January 1981. As expected, thousands of Blues supporters made the trip to the South Coast to see if Geoff Hurst’s young side – riding high in Division Two but having failed to find the net in any of their previous five matches – would prove a match for a home side featuring the likes of Kevin Keegan, Mick Channon and Charlie George. The answer was no: Chelsea played better than of late but the experienced Saints ran out 3-1 winners. However, there were two battles taking place that day, and the other one was fought out between some of the Chelsea boys and the local police force. There had already been some large-scale violence prior to kick-off, and this was exacerbated just before half-time when, with the Saints leading by a goal to nil, Keegan doubled the lead and chose to celebrate with a gesture to the visiting fans. As the half-time whistle blew, a number of Chelsea supporters were attempting to scale the fences and get on to the pitch to have a quiet word with the England captain, and when a local bobby foolishly tried to make an arrest in the away end, he was attacked and forced to flee from the terrace, his coat covered in phlegm.
Throughout that early-80s period of Division Two mediocrity, the only thing Chelsea really had to be proud of was the spectacular number of travelling fans that would make their way to places such as Wrexham, Barnsley and Oldham. Famously, there were 3,000 Blues fans present on the day we were humbled 6-0 at Rotherham in October 1981, and later that season, after Chelsea supporters were banned by the FA from attending all away matches after a spate of incidents, so many turned up at Watford that not only did the police insist that they were allowed into Vicarage Road in order to stop them roaming around outside the stadium, but the FA were forced into a humiliating climbdown, and the ban was lifted after just two matches. When the Blues travelled to Bolton for the most important game in their history – the 1982/83 relegation decider which, had they lost, might have seen the club go out of business – most observers estimated that of the 8,600 present, 5,000 had travelled up from London. It was, therefore, inevitable that if the good times returned, the numbers travelling to away matches would spiral out of control.
When the fixtures computer threw up a Brighton v Chelsea clash on the Saturday of the 1983 August bank holiday, it was like a gift from the gods to the Blues fans. Buoyed by an opening day thrashing of Derby County which gave an indication that the club’s fortunes were about to turn favourably, so many supporters made the short journey to the coast that by Friday evening, the pubs and clubs of Brighton were heaving with Chelsea. Inevitably, there were outbursts of trouble throughout the night, with some supporters forced by the police to remain in a subway until the following morning.
Brighton, just down from a spell in Division One, and having not played the Blues for a number of seasons, were woefully unprepared for the invasion that took place, and they naively left just one turnstile open to cater for the visiting supporters. Eventually, after another outbreak of trouble amongst supporters who had remained unmoved after queuing for over an hour, the home club rushed open more turnstiles to allow the 15,000 Chelsea supporters present to cram into the stadium.
The 1983/84 season saw Chelsea’s travelling support reach new heights. Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield, Leeds, Derby, Cardiff and Newcastle all saw their stadiums invaded by upwards of 5,000 Blues fans, while Cambridge United wisely allocated half of the Abbey Stadium to Chelsea supporters when the buoyant Blues – top of the table and heading for promotion – travelled there in February. Not surprisingly, the London clubs fared no better. 15,000 Chelsea saw Fulham beaten 5-3 in the pouring rain at Craven Cottage; and the same number of travelling supporters watched a 1-0 victory at Crystal Palace on Easter Saturday. As the season reached an exciting conclusion, 8,000 Blues fans descended on Portsmouth in the hope of seeing promotion confirmed at Fratton Park, and the same number turned up at Maine Road for a Friday night in Moss Side! If any match bears testimony to the fanatical nature of Chelsea’s support at the time, it is this one, because not only had promotion by now been secured, but the game was also transmitted live on BBC1. The final act of magnificence on the part of the Blues’ supporters in season 1983/84 came on the last day of the season at Grimsby, when an estimated 10,000 travelled to Cleethorpes to witness Chelsea clinch the Division Two championship.
If an August bank holiday trip to Brighton was manna from heaven in 1983, a visit to Highbury exactly a year later for the Blues’ first game back in the top flight after an absence of five years was beyond belief… and brings me back to my first paragraph. The police ordered an 11.30am kick-off, understandably fearful of an afternoon of drink-fuelled carnage in the sun if the game kicked off at 3pm. In the event, it passed off peacefully. Well, not exactly peacefully, because never has a Chelsea goal been so wildly celebrated as Kerry Dixon’s equaliser in front of the Clock End that earned the Blues a well-deserved point at the home of one of their main rivals. Twenty thousand Chelsea were in the Highbury library that day – a remarkable turnout, surely never bettered by any other club. Nobody present will ever forget it.
As Chelsea made a solid return to Division One, the mighty travelling support continued unabated. Enormous numbers turned out for early season journeys to Manchester United and Aston Villa, which saw the Stretford End and the Holte End respectively receive a visit from their London counterparts, but perhaps the most eye-catching support came in a Milk Cup replay at Sheffield Wednesday when, at less than 48 hours’ notice, approximately 6,000 supporters filled the Leppings Lane End to witness the greatest game ever: a 4-4 draw with Sheffield Wednesday, the Blues having trailed 3-0 at half-time.
Chelsea’s impressive travelling support endured throughout the remainder of the 1980s, although it perhaps never quite hit the heights of 1983/84 and 1984/85 again. Sadly, the advent of the Premier League at the beginning of the following decade brought an end to the fun, but it really was good while it lasted. I know for a fact that many of the supporters who would squeeze onto the old Chelsea Specials on a Saturday morning in anticipation of another long railway journey to some Godforsaken northern outpost are still around – they were probably singing at Wembley too – and they will all hold fond memories of what was a very special time to be a Chelsea fan. To the late Brian Gear and Breda Lee, to John’s mum Mary Bumstead, to Paul Ramsay, Nick Brown, Danny Bradley and numerous others who were there week in, week out – I salute you. Life will never be the same as it was again… what a pity.