The Lives of Others. The Ford Focus. And now Stamford Bridge. All things I desperately wanted to hate but couldn’t because they were just too damn impressive. The English Premiership symbolises everything I dislike about modern football – showmanship, extravagance and living well beyond one’s means – and arguably no club represents these excesses better than Chelsea. Trouble is, for a neutral football fan the show they put on is just so good as to be irresistible.
Let’s get one thing clear before going any further. I support Raith Rovers in the Scottish First Division. I always have, and I always will. I go to Stark’s Park a good 5-6 times a year, buy the 50-50 draw tickets and purchase a new replica home jersey every second season. I am certainly not a glory-hunter. But when I found out that one of Chelsea’s home fixtures from earlier in the season had been rearranged for the day my in-laws arrived in the UK from Japan, an opportunity too good to pass up was presented. Millions and millions of people all across Asia watch Premiership and Champions League games week in week out, and this was a chance to put my fitba’ mad brother-in-law into probably the 0.01% of global soccer fans that have actually been to a live English Premiership match. And it was a better than average way for me to spend a Wednesday afternoon too, now I come to think of it.
I’d never been to Stamford Bridge before, and didn’t even really know where it was. So around lunchtime on the day of the match, I hopped on the Tube to figure out where the ground was and how long it would take to get there from the hotel. Not long, as it transpired. One confusing change at Earl’s Court and three stops later, and I was exiting Fulham Broadway station only a couple of hundred metres from the entrance to the stadium complex. There may have been six and a half hours until kick-off, but the place was heaving with folk buying tickets, joining tours and blowing vast sums of cash in the club shop (more about that later).
Behind a bronze statue of Chelsea legend Peter Osgood, the oblong stadium rose out of the ground, columns of sandstone and steel supporting a massive royal blue roof. Oh, and there was glass. Lots of glass. This was clearly more than just a football pitch that gets used for a couple of hours every other Saturday afternoon. Conference facilities, office blocks, restaurants, bars, museums and goodness knows what else, Stamford Bridge – and, in all fairness, most other modern football venues – is a place that makes money seven days a week.
With time to kill after I’d figured out where our entrance was I headed into the aforementioned shop, sorry, superstore, for a gander. At Stark’s Park, the club shop is a wee room next to the pie counter, where you have to go to the office and get a man to open it up if you go there on a non-match day. You could fit the entire Raith Rovers club shop inside the pin-badge section at Stamford Bridge. The ground floor has sections for scarves, footballs, beach towels, t-shirts, mugs, programmes and memorabilia, but oddly enough no replica shirts. That’s because they have the whole second floor all to themselves.
“Every penny you spend helps to build the strongest Chelsea team possible” (or words to that effect) read the text below the price tag on the lurid third kit I was holding up. I did a quick sum in my head and calculated that the £60 price of the shirt would probably pay Ashley Cole – the man whose name and number were emblazoned across the rear of the jersey – to exist for about six seconds. Figuring that was about 5.9 seconds too many, I quickly put the jersey back on the rail, and instead bought a pin badge that would probably pay for three spaghetti shapes for Didier Drogba’s lunch.
Six hours later, and it was getting close to kick-off time. Even from five or six Tube stops away, the blue shirts started pouring onto the trains, one common destination in mind. I shared a handrail in the packed carriage with an arm that had チェルシー(‘Chelsea’ in Japanese characters for Western words) indelibly inscribed on it. Some shirts were older than others – those with the letters ‘TORRES’ on their backs had obviously splashed out for a new shirt within the last few months, whereas others displaying the text ‘ZOLA’ or ‘CASIRAGHI’ had clearly perfected the art of making a fitba’ strip last over a decade.
‘Chelse-ea, Chelse-ea’ came the deep blasts from fans’ voices as they made their way out the station gates and along the road to the stadium. Rickety stands pedalled knock-off merchandise, the aroma of grease from burger vans mixed with the stale beery air from rapidly-emptying pubs, and emaciated touts on the scrounge for tickets made their way against the flow of fans. The concourse that had been occupied to a pleasant degree earlier in the day was now full of fast-moving people, all surging towards the stands. Off to the sides, people like us there for a once-in-a-lifetime experience enjoyed posing for photos in front of massive billboards printed with pictures of star players, and bought programmes from the numerous vendors lining the entranceways to Stamford Bridge.
We fed our tickets through the electronic barcode readers– it felt wrong to enter a stadium without someone saying ‘on ye go son, mind an’ shout fir the richt team’ – and made our way into the underbelly of the ‘Bridge. Immediately ahead of us, a wall of bronze, blue and white plaques, unequal in size and shape and mounted on various polished wood bases, stood as a memorial to the most loyal of fans who had passed away. With this being an evening game and my entourage coming to a British football match for the first time, it seemed appropriate to procure our evening meal from one of the food kiosks scattered underneath the Shed End. Now, I’m not about to do Kevin Bridges’ Scot in London thing and complain about the price. Nor am I going to complain about the size of the portions. In fact, I’m not going to complain about anything, because as far as Stadium Food goes, this was pretty awesome. Standard fast food fayre, but well cooked and of a more than adequate size. In Scotland, I’m lucky if my pie lasts until the captains have shaken hands before kick-off, but at Chelsea the burger lasted almost until the subs had been sent out to warm up halfway through the first half.
Another difference between English and Scottish stadia is the presence of beer inside the stadium. Scottish football fans tend to get a bit brave once they’ve got the bevvy in them. As it happens, people get so brave on matchdays in Scotland that alcohol isn’t just banned in the ground, but also on the trains going to the towns where there are matches and even on buses that might be taking fans to the games. No such issues on this evening in south-west London, though. “Who d’ya finks ganna win?” a merry tattooed man asked my in-laws, two pints under his arm and a blue-and-white scarf slung over his jacked. “Two-nil? Free-nil? Fowa-nil?” My Teuchter-accented response of five-nil, with a hat-trick for Drogba and a first Chelsea goal for Torres to put the London club firmly back in the title hunt with a handful of games still to go and Manchester United going through a wobbly patch and with Europe still to concentrate on, went without comment.
Our entrance to the Lower Shed, up a very narrow set of stairs, was met with a startling bang as a speeding football shot over the spectators’ heads and crashed against an advertising hoarding. That would be Frank Lampard practicing his shooting, then. Another three balls followed in quick succession, prompting cheers, yelps and squeals from the crowd as pre-match practice shots variously interrupted folks’ burger consumption, tea drinking or score speculating. A big yellow sign erected at the edge of the pitch warned us to be wary of flying footballs, and given the force with which these guys were belting the balls, it seemed to be a warning well worth heeding.
As the players warmed up, the shooting became more accurate and the danger from balls decreased. With about five minutes to go until the 7.45pm kick-off, the previously largely empty stands filled up with considerable gusto until there wasn’t a spare seat to be seen in the house. It seems I’d been ultra-jammy in being online and checking the Chelsea ticketing website just minutes after the tickets for the game were released – I had my credit card handy and was able to bag some seats. Not that it made the tickets any cheaper, if you’ll excuse a moment of Scottish-ness from me. £52 a pop is fine for a very rare treat – you’d probably pay similar for Wimbledon or the British Open or a Grand Prix – but if you were going a lot it would get really expensive. That, combined with the relatively low capacity of Stamford Bridge compared to places like Old Trafford and Celtic Park, made me wonder how often many Chelsea fans actually got to see their team in action. Heck, it’s expensive enough dragging my backside to Kirkcaldy every so often, and than costs about a quarter of the price.
The magnitude of money floating around in the Premiership really hit home when the team lineups were announced, in particular the subs’ benches. Chelsea had Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres on the bench, whereas opponents Birmingham boasted former Scotland star Barry Ferguson and England goalie Ben Foster in their ranks, with the likes of David Bentley and Alexander Hleb on the list of substitutes. You could probably pay an entire Scottish team’s wages for a season with one of these guys’ pay packets for a month, no exaggeration.
The clock turned 19:44, the pitch sprinklers turned off, and the crowd all around rose to their feet as the teams strolled out and lined up in front of the main stand. The players then parted, Chelsea heading to the far end and Birmingham lining up in front of us. Cue verbal abuse for Foster in goals. The ref’s whistle blew, the singing began, Chelsea commenced their attack. And promptly scored.
From my position, the goal went something like this. Guy in blue runs quickly. Passes to other blue guy who runs even faster. Second blue guy crosses to back post. Third blue guy controls cross and sends it back to the centre in one swift move. Fourth blue guy comes sprinting in and blasts the ball into the back of the net with unprecedented force. Blue Guy Four was in fact Florent Malouda, giving Chelsea a very early lead in a match they needed to win to keep their title dreams alive. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Premiership game in the flesh, and what everyone had told me was true – the speed of the whole thing was utterly mindblowing. Even the biggest of guys like Didier Drogba and John Terry moved with remarkable speed and poise that made it hard for someone used to watching Laurie Ellis hoof the ball down the line to keep up with the progress of the ball over the super-smooth London pitch.
A good few minutes had passed since the goal, and the guys in front were still standing. This was too long for an extended celebration, and confirmed my suspicions that they had no intention of using the seats beneath them. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but after spending a whole day walking, running, talking and interpreting, I was knackered. Ninety minutes of standing was the last thing I needed, but thankfully there were plenty of distractions on offer to take my mind off the lactic acid bubbling up through my lower regions. Chief among these was the other fans. Adding to the authenticity of the experience for my guests, I had a perfect specimen of a British football supporter sitting just one row ahead of me. A large, red bald chap in a luminous yellow away shirt, on the back of which was printed ‘TERRY 26’ in large letters. A pair of Adidas tracksuit bottoms and a Chelsea tattoo on the upper arm completed the look, with occasional bellows of ‘you’re a f**kin’ w**ka’ ref’ and ‘c’mon Drogbar’ adding a multisensual authenticity to the experience.
I may have been worried before kick-off about stray balls nobbling me or another member of my group, but I needn’t have been concerned. This was certainly not the Scottish First Division, by which I mean no shot was wasted. A second goal was added in fairly short order, and it quickly became apparent that every effort on goal was either going to hit the target or be damn close. Watching Drogba lash in shots from 30-35 yards out that prompted acrobatic saves from Foster in the Birmingham goal, it was hard to believe this was the same game where guys like Raith anchorman Iain Davidson could hit Row T in the stand from four yards.
Birmingham weren’t by any stretch of the imagination a bad side, but they were getting played off the park. With Chelsea in cruise mode, some light-hearted singing broke out between the different wings of the Shed, chants of “we’re on the left side of the ship, of the ship,” being followed in turn by “we’re in the middle of the ship, of the ship” and finally a third voice that, much to my disappointment, did not contain any Heissinger-esque challenges to conventional discourses of positioning. The last group of singers were certain beyond all reasonable doubt that they were indeed occupying the starboard side of the vessel.
Half time came and, in complete opposition to standard Scottish League protocol, the fans all sat down to reflect on the previous 45 minutes’ action. News filtered through that Arsenal were winning the North London derby against Tottenham (although Spurs would pull it back and win at the death), dispiriting news given that Chelsea needed to overhaul both Arsenal and Manchester United to win the league. Out of the ‘big’ London teams, I’d decided beforehand that if we were going to see any of them I wanted it to be Arsenal as I approved of their philosophy and playing style, but with the London derby obviously being sold out from the outset the Chelsea match was a fine alternative. I just had to keep telling myself that the money I’d spent on the tickets was going to youth development and not into John Terry’s wallet.
The second half passed at speed, including a surreal few minutes when Chelsea coach Ancelotti threw nigh-on £70 million of human being onto the pitch in the form of substitute strikers Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres. Torres in particular had a simian creature to evict from his spine, so to speak, having failed to score since a £50 million move – I had to explain that three times to the Japanese contingent before they finally accepted my Japanese counting wasn’t wonky – some months previous. And giving me the chance to butcher another idiom, tonight wasn’t going to be the night Torres damaged that water-going bird beyond all repair. The Anelka name, as I shall explain the concluding section, is not one we care for much in Kirkcaldy either – Nicolas’ older brother Claude was practically chased out of Stark’s following what can most generously be described as a failed footballing experiment.
Two goals – one for each team – came to pass and the match ended 3-1 in Chelsea’s favour. The fans left happy, particularly once news of Spurs’ late winner came through, and as much as I dislike the Premiership’s financial element and Chelsea’s mentality, I’d had a thoroughly enjoyable experience – one that I’d be talking to friends and family about for weeks to come, because it was quite simply the best display of football I’d ever seen first-hand.
Of course, it’s impossible to explain Chelsea FC and their place in the modern British football landscape to overseas football fans without touching on some of the off-pitch stuff that allegedly surrounds a few of their key players. On fear of getting lamped, this was not information I wanted to divulge to my guests in the English language, so before going to the game I did a wee bit of homework and prepared a handy little crib sheet that would allow me to explain in Japanese any odd situations that may have arisen over the course of the match. Allow me to conclude, then, by offering you the following phrase list, which you are welcome to draw on should you too ever find yourself taking Japanese people to see Chelsea play:
- The reason they’re booing number 3 is because he was mucking about with an air rifle at the training ground and accidentally shot a kid who was there on work experience – はんたいチームのファンはチェルシーの３番号選手へ悪口言っている。理由は、彼は最近練習場でエアライフルと遊んで、実務経験をしている学生しっぱいで撃ってしまった;
- Chelsea can buy all these brilliant players because they’re owned by this Russian guy who has a seemingly infinite amount of money and wants to make Chelsea the best team in the world – チェルシーのオーナはロシア人の大金持ちだから、こんなすごい上手な選手が買える。オーナはチェルシー世界で一番強いチームにならせたいだから、毎年選手を買うのためにマナジャーへたくさんお金をあげる。
- I don’t have anything against number 39 per se, but his brother nearly destroyed Raith Rovers by trying a stupid experiment involving lots of amateur players from France, so in Kirkcaldy we don’t really like the Anelka name – ３９番号の選手があまりきらいじゃないが、アネルカー選手の兄さんがきらい。クロード・アネルカーと言う人のせいで、レイフ・ローバズはほとんどなくなってしまった。この人は６年間前チームを買って、レイフ・ローバズをこの下手なフランス人の選手を買われさせた。それで、アネルカー名前がカコーデイできらい。