While wandering West London on Saturday afternoon I came upon a place I have frequented many a time and oft, Stamford Bridge. It’s a tourist trap as much as a football stadium now where legions of Premier League and Chelsea devotees can truly experience the full force of brand CFC.
In the club’s megastore happy Scandinavian, Japanese, Irish, American and Italian could buy the latest home kit or if they were perverse enough, Fernando Torres socks. The stadium is adorned with pictures celebrating the triumphs enjoyed by the club since the Roman Revolution; you frankly couldn’t escape the vacant gazes of John Terry and Frank Lampard.
Yet is this Chelsea? Do these legions of “fans” and “supporters” have a truly tangible connection with the true history of Chelsea? It is still within my power of recall to remember Chelsea under Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri, perpetually being one of three bridesmaids to Manchester United’s bride. Success was an occasionally fleeting visitor to SW6 not the omnipresent resident it is now. Getting tickets for Stamford Bridge was not akin to getting a visa to North Korea and the price for the briefs was probably the most value for money item this side of the Kings Road.
Chelsea have always been popular. In the club’s excellent museum, which I must say is a valiant attempt from the powers at be to publicise Chelsea’s history from 1905 as opposed to 2005, an exhibition details the club’s celebrity following in the 1970s when the side christened as the Kings of the Kings Road played some swashbuckling football, not to mention the record crowds who amassed on the roof and floodlights at Stamford Bridge to watch their match against Dynamo Moscow in the 1940s. Yet Chelsea’s true fan base is not the television era Premier League zombie which has been thrust on us. The club’s suave and PR-savvy image goes at odds with the Headhunters who lurked in The Shed End, the choral section at Stamford Bridge. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s as Chelsea’s quality of football plunged new and dubious lows, their violence and general disorder reached uncharted and disturbing highs. The National Front found football grounds to be a fertile source of recruits and Stamford Bridge, along with The Den and Upton Park acted as a magnet for racist elements across the South East of England. Such was the hooligan issue that the then owner, the not so cuddly Ken Bates, felt an electrocuted fence would be the best way to keep the Shed Enders at bay. One sad incident which summed up the whole era of self-immolation was the abuse which Chelsea’s travelling support meted out to their own player, Paul Canonville, who had the then somewhat dubious honour of being the first black player to pull on the blue shirt.
It would be obtuse to suggest that the fan culture at Chelsea in the 70s and 80s was based purely on racist violence; Chelsea were so bad for large spells that a sense of morbid humour emerged amongst the more sensible sections of the support. Having experienced a pre-match prandial in a now defunct watering hole near the Bridge, Chelsea fans were as witty, imaginative and occasionally as vulgar as all football supporters were in the days of yore. Songs like “I Wanna Be a Chelsea Ranger” or “Chelsea Alouette” act as a reminder that for all their foibles, the Blues support were known as “The Voice of London” for a very good reason. However one would not hear these songs being given an airing at Stamford Bridge, you would more likely hear out of tune clapping along to the “The Liquidator” or “Chelsea Dagger” as they stream forth from the public address system. The oft trotted out line that the original working class punter has been slowly edged out of football is achingly true in the case of Chelsea. I wonder how many of those who followed the Blues to the blasted outposts in the 2nd Division in the mid-80s recognise what they see at Stamford Bridge now. Of course they celebrate the triumphs under the Abramovich regime; one can imagine that the Champions League victory acted as fair recompense for being drubbed by Grimsby on a cold Wednesday night in November. However, as they dance with jolly come latelys or tourists, surely the whole experience feels sanitised or divorced from what they know Chelsea to be?
Blue is still the colour and football remains the game but Chelsea have changed and as conjectured in their somewhat traditionalist fanzines, they have changed so much that many Blues supporters feel pushed away. Success has its price it would seem.