Whatever the result, past glories mean that matches against Manchester United are amongst the most eagerly anticipated of any season. And so, a week later, to the one I most dread, Chelsea away.
My abiding abhorrence of Chelsea dates back to my childhood in west London. In 1967 Chelsea’s’ resurgence took them to the Cup Final and as the bandwagon passed through my primary school playground, it was standing room only. In those days the staple method of showing allegiance or just gathering numbers for a quick kick-about was to place your arms across a mate’s shoulders and march around, chanting the name of the chosen activity. As others joined each end, the line grew longer. Movement was sideways, rather than a prepubescent conga line, so usually some altercations ensued as innocents got in the way. Many kids joined these lines purely for the purpose of inflicting pain on their fellow school mates. Football, country dancing or maypole frolics, who cares when the opportunity to whack a classmate presented itself.
On the Thursday lunchtime before the Cup Final, two lines started, one Chelsea and one Spurs. The Chelsea line gradually became more visible as the chanting increased in volume and attracted more attention. Then the herd effect came into play as the sheep and the psychos linked up with the vocal minority. I guess Goebbels considered similar tactics in the 30s. Within a few short moments, the playground was empty save for one extended line of over a hundred interlocked kids. And five Spurs fans, including me. The phalanx turned by the shelters, with surprising dexterity manoeuvred round the drinking fountains and came towards us, as solid as a Roman legion, a hundred pairs of eyes intent on their prey and the scent of blood in their nostrils.
What happened next was not pleasant, and suffice to say Mr Watson and the school caretaker will forever have my gratitude for stubbing out their sly fags and rushing from the back of the kitchens to rescue us. However, come Monday morning, I would have my revenge. I planned the moment carefully, from about 5pm on the Saturday in fact , I thought about little else, apart that is from when I was endlessly recreating Frank Saul’s winner in the back yard. In the end, I decided against glorious triumphalism, accompanied by loud chanting, flags and finger pointing, not really me. No, I went for smug, profound satisfaction. Eye contact yes, the knowing smile, merely a questioning raised eyebrow. ‘Was there a game on Saturday?’ Secure in the knowledge that as just about the only Spurs fan to openly come out of closet, all eyes would be me, I strolled into the playground on Monday morning, my scarf discreetly visible over the collar of my green blazer, a bright and breezy air with all the joys of spring.
Nothing. Not a thing. Every scenario that the mind of an impressionable 11 year old could conceive had been meticulously rehearsed. Each jibe would be parried by a devastatingly witty riposte followed swiftly by a telling stabbing thrust of my own, right into the heart. ‘All right Fish?’ was the closest I got to any football related conversation. Never mind; for the rest of the week, in the playground games I was Jimmy Robertson, little did they know.
Of course they had all melted away, to next year become QPR fans, as our other local team reached Wembley. Amidst the scuffed leather and dust of playground concrete, I learned a lasting lesson about football. Mine was a true, everlasting passion.
I suspect that the modern crop (or should that be plague?) of Chelsea will be as loyal as my schoolmates, their bonds to the club as temporary as the lunchbreak line. When the Russian gets bored or ends up on a gulag, or this aging team breaks up, as the Park Lane taunted a couple of years ago: ‘Next year, you’ll support Man U”.
Not entirely fair. There are two distinct types of Chelsea fan, pre and post Abramovich, whose attitudes are so disparate, it often sounds as if they support different teams. Most BA fans (Before Abramovich) enjoy their success, justifiably so, sometimes with a little guilt and always grateful for the good times. Because they have been through the rough as well as the smooth, they have a sense of perspective. They are easy to identify because you can have a conversation about football with them.
Some have become disillusioned and alienated as the character of their club has changed beyond recognition. One long-standing Chelsea mate of mine is always up for a bit of banter but at the same time he feels more cut off from his club than ever before. Once a regular visitor to the bridge, he now takes his kids a few times a year, preferring to have a season ticket at his local non-league team, Welling United, where he is welcomed and is part of things.
On the other hand, Chelsea AD fans (Abramovich the Deity) are the most loathsome, arrogant bunch I have ever come across in the 40 years that I have watched football on a regular basis. The divine right of 18th century French kings to rule as the instrument of God on earth has nothing in comparison with the hubris of these people. Utter superiority is their birthright. Success is a given. History starts in the early 21st century. Before then, the football world was a primordial soup.
Callers to 606 are perhaps not the most accurate cross-section of the fans of any club, and goodness knows some Spurs idiots have rung up over the years, but the righteous indignation of 2 Chelsea AD fans who rang last season stays with me. One from the Chelsea AD heartlands (Bournemouth) was troubled by his team’s performance. They had only won 5-0. The ‘only’ was his word, not mine. The other lambasted his manager and his squad, rubbish. They were only third. Their manager, 10 games into his job, was not worthy of the post. He had only won the World Cup. The ‘only’ was his word, not mine. Both meant it wholeheartedly, because they really do not know any different.
This supercilious superiority, reflected also in the behaviour of several of their players, creates the most unpleasant atmosphere of the season. I have no intention of going anywhere near the Bridge, and significantly neither does my son who travels all over the country, yet after a couple of years of insults and goading is going to give this one a miss. Chelsea have banned us from bringing flags with the word ‘yid’ but they will not take action when their ghastly fans make with the anti-semitism and the gas noises. Maybe they wish to gas their owner, who knows. Whatever we think about them, you don’t get that with the Arse.
And so to the match itself. We cannot afford the luxury of an attacking formation, like the one against United, and Keane cannot play in midfield. On the other hand, we must not sit back and let them come to us. In other circumstances, Crouch would be a useful target man to hold the ball up as we move from predominantly defensive posture into attack, but with Defoe, who must start, this would mean two up front with potential weakness in the centre of the pitch.
Therefore, I reckon Keane will start with Defoe and drop back into midfield when we lose possession. Jenas must be given a run in midfield alongside Wilson, and Wilson must stay on his feet more. Chelsea’s diamond means we must carefully cover the space in front of our back four. Equally, they are vulnerable to width – please welcome Aaron Lennon! He must stay wide and attack on the flanks but track back on Cole. He’s in for a tough afternoon and that’s where the game could be won or lost.
On the left, Niko looks the most likely but he is seriously unfit. I wonder if Harry is considering a tactical masterstroke by playing someone out of position to cover over there. Will Bentley appear to seek salvation?