Apologies for the cliche but fans simply create, fuel and advance the game we know and love. Over the past twenty years, fans have witnessed the rapid globalisation of both Chelsea and the game in general. I hope this article sheds light on the experiences of a fan both, past and present. I would like to say a massive thank you to Paul for taking the time to answer my questions, his insight and passion for the club is both insightful and heartwarming, Thanks again, Paul.
Tell us a little about yourself? What led you to become a Chelsea fan? What are your earliest memories of being a Chelsea fan?
So, I’m 55 born in Salford, raised in Burnley and up to 2 years ago lived in South London for 30 plus years. Now live with a partner and two children in Newport, South Wales.
As a 5 years old in April 1970 my Dad took me to my Uncles to watch the 1970 FA Cup Final when we played Leeds. My Dad had lived in Putney as a kid and even though he wasn’t a big football fan he had watched Chelsea one week and Fulham the next so I distinctly remember him talking about Chelsea, London and some of the players on show. It obviously resonated with me as when we got home, I told him that if Chelsea won the replay, I would be a Chelsea fan. I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch the game but immediately after the final whistle my Dad came to my room and told me I was going to be a Chelsea fan. He told me in later years that he just knew I would be awake!
My earliest memory after this was hiding behind the settee 12 months later too scared to watch Chelsea hold out to win the European Cup Winners Cup against Real Madrid and then the long hard slog began as we were anything but glorious for many years. Growing up I was a curiosity and was quietly admired as I was the only Chelsea fan in my area at a time when Burnley were better than Chelsea and overall, we weren’t very good.
My support was mostly via radio, Match of the Day and sending off to the club for programmes with my pocket money. My first game was at Burnley in August 1973, we lost but I will never ever forget the crowd, the floodlights and seeing the likes of Osgood and Bonetti in the flesh. To be fair to my Dad he spent a lot of time and money taking me to watch Chelsea across the North West in the early years which sustained me!
I moved to London in the early 80s just in time for the John Neal era and travelled home and away for years. Chelsea always travelled in numbers and that team was very good, they were exciting times.
How has the match-going experience changed over the years? Do you think it has changed for the better or for worse?
Good and bad. Back in the day I just loved going to matches and seeing Chelsea wherever and whenever I could. However, the racism I experienced and witnessed was vile and hurtful and the hooliganism at times frightening although I would be a liar if I said there wasn’t a frisson of excitement that went with it. I felt I had no choice but to endure the racism as it was everywhere in society in the 70 and 80s and I didn’t want to be stopped from watching my Club. There were moments when that nearly happened but as I grew older supporting Chelsea became more than simply a pastime and became part of my identity. Looking back, I certainly would not want my kids to have experienced that and am glad that the match going experience has improved in that respect.
Having said that there was a wildness and passion back then that isn’t there today and the game has priced out its core support in my view and in a way sanitised the experience. Some of this might just be me harking back to the days of my youth and I still love to go when I can and follow many of the time honoured traditions with friends but it has changed I guess like society, not always for the better. I think that football is at its best with a passionate crowd the challenge is how do we sustain that whilst addressing the extreme elements.
Facilities and safety have obviously improved immeasurably, and the quality of football has too. I find this difficult to answer as the 70/80s feel a different time completely with different expectations and priorities, I was younger, things were better than the previous generation, it all feels relative. Taking everything into account I think if you can afford to go it is better now than then.
Funnily enough, I go to a lot of Newport County games now and enjoy the experience of the Club feeling like it is closer to the fans and the city, something that is lost at the highest reaches of the game. The matchday experience is more basic and obviously the quality of football, not the best, but the pleasure of Cup runs, a good one-off result and the localism feels good. I’m not sure it can ever be re-created at the very top, but it still exists and is enjoyable.
How has the relationship between club and supporters changed over the years? If so, how significant was the Abramovich takeover for the fans’ altered perception of the club and its ownership?
Like all clubs, Chelsea had an ambivalent relationship with us fans in as much as they needed us but the offer in terms of facilities, value for money and engagement was appalling. Looking back at the conditions we travelled to and watched matches in and it’s just unbelievable. Abramovich’s money has given us what we always wanted, an opportunity to build a team and club that competes at the very top and I would not swap the sheer joy and drama of the past 17 years for anything.
To be fair the club seems to have paid some mind to the fans in terms of connecting with past players, holding fan forums etc. Of course, with the growth of the Premier League, many feel priced out and feel the match going experience is not as it was, but this is not just a Chelsea thing in my view. I guess most I talk to recognise that there was a price to pay for the success we have had but it was worth it, and we haven’t completely lost the soul of this topsy turvy unpredictable yet unique club.
With the rise of social media, you can essentially be a fan from the comfort of your own home and many young fans will have never been to a game. Do the opinions of the match going fans differ from those online and are their opinions any valid?
Coming from Burnley I couldn’t go home and away as I wished when I was younger, but my passion matched most. I think that as the game becomes ever more global and the matchday experience is more distant from the growing fan base, loyalties and ties start to look different. Personally, I hate the term ‘plastic’ and the old school mob questioning whether people are real Chels or not. I am delighted that we have an international fan base and that my club, our club is loved by so many. It is what it is and through online sites, I see passion for this club that is real and sustained.
Over the years have you noticed any changes in the attitudes and expectations of Chelsea fans? Do you think social media has fuelled these changes? How does the modern Chelsea fan differ from the traditional Chelsea fan?
There is no doubt that our expectations have changed, and I like many old school folk smile wryly when we think back to just how bad we were. After watching us get hammered 4 1 by Rotherham at home, coming 3rd in the league isn’t a bad thing. Having said that if you haven’t experienced that you can’t be expected to have that perspective and it is what it is. I think wall to wall football on the TV, social media and radio fuels the tension and constant commentary to the detriment and we are losing that ability to see the bigger picture and not be overwrought by defeat.
Having said that my son – 15 – is far calmer than me as all he has known is success so is more able to take the knocks whereas I am fearful that we might return to mediocrity as even though I have enjoyed the journey I am just unable to totally believe that its real!
I guess the modern fan has been brought up with football being a different experience as a whole and our Club being a major force which it wasn’t 20 years ago. This is bound to mean that the modern fan sees the world differently. It just how it evolves I guess, my kids have no real hatred for Leeds, I do, they have known nothing other than our being better than Liverpool most of their lives, for me getting a point of them at Anfield was a major highlight. Different times, different perspectives it’s just natural. Real fans are real fans and I think we have all come together as one when it really matters.
Racism and football are constantly debated by the British media. As a match-going fan, what has your experience with racism been like? Have you ever experienced or witnessed racism at a match? How has its prevalence changed over the years since you first started going?
It is the biggest thing for me. As a Black person the 70s and 80s were a nightmare at games. One of my Chelsea mates was Asian and the shit we took from our own supporters was often off the scale. The far-right raised its head and Chelsea seemed to have more than its share of bigots. Too many tales to tell although the treatment of Manchester City keeper Alex Williams at the Bridge in 1984 was just horrendous.
Why did I go? It was my Club and I had been brought up as the only Black kid in my town and I was loath to let go of things I felt were mine. I remember seeing a photo of a match of ours against Cambridge away in the early 80s of hundreds of skinheads Seig Heiling. It was the closest I came to quitting the Club but my Dad said its yours don’t let them chase you out as the majority don’t think that and you want to support them. May 1997 FA Cup final as Gullit lifted the trophy made up for so much!!
Racism didn’t just come from the violence and abuse at matches though and it’s hard to take the fact that our Cub did not support Back players or tackle the racism of coaches. I have got to know Paul Canoville and listening to his experiences are an eye-opener as to institutional racism worked at our club. It has not gone away, and we must stay vigilant both on and off the match amongst staff and supporters.
The experience of going to and supporting Chelsea now is better for my kids and that is progress but there is a long way to go still. Racist chants and overt actions are not tolerated and that is great but there is always the feeling that it’s sometimes not far below the surface.
What do you think it means to be a Chelsea fan? What are the values that make us unique and that we should pride ourselves on?
Great question. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I take pride in the fact that we are a Club that everyone knows for its eccentricity. Prior to Abramovich, we were so close on so many occasions to hitting the big time but kept shooting ourselves in the foot. The 1960s with Docherty’s Diamonds on the verge of winning a domestic treble and yet we sent 8 players home from Blackpool and promptly lost the chance. In the 1970s they decided to build a new stadium in a recession and lost that brilliant Sexton team. Late 70s come back up with a team of youngsters and then promptly lose our manager, likewise in the 80s with the team of Dixon and Nevin It just goes on. Even in our early years, we had the attendance and no success but always threatened to hit the big time but often overreached. Despite our mediocrity on the field, we were never out of the picture. The FA tried to ban us from away games – didn’t happen, we have one of the highest ever home league attendances in the country, we were the first to play a team with no English players – always standing out.
I love this and although we are now serious players, we still aren’t predictable or stable and that marks us out. Despite what Liverpool sing we have a rich and entertaining history and extremely loyal fans. ‘Where were you when you were shit’ some ask but everyone who knows we turned up in our thousands all over the country in our bad times and weren’t as shabby at home as some like to think. Over recent years thanks to Mourinho we have developed a winning attitude – helped by money of course – to go along with the maverick side and it has been great.
Finally, if you could select one standout moment from your time as a Chelsea fan what
Just impossible, sorry. Munich 12, Bolton 05, Wembley 97, Highbury 84, Burnley 73 so many. So, I’ll take one that didn’t involve trophies and glory or first times and give a shout out to Bolton 83. Pouring with rain, Third Division a distinct possibility after the direst of seasons. Over 3500 Chelsea turn up and at the end of a dire match a wonderful Clive Walker goal pretty much assured us of safety. The sheer unadulterated joy that accompanied the goal and final whistle still makes me smile. My Dad took me and commented that if we ever won anything the place would go crazy, he dined out on my loyalty to this lost cause! I was able to phone him in May 97 after 25 years of waiting in floods of tears and wish I could have done so in 2012 from Munich. Love this club, KTBFFH!
By Charlie Castillo
Edited by Jai Mcintosh