Looking back on Boro v Chelsea in a house divided

A great FA Cup quarter final in prospect: a potential Giant Killing with added moral fibre

The excitement has been building ever since young Josh Coburn lashed in the winner against Spurs in the fifth round, but now it’s reaching fever pitch, given the long overdue sanctions against Abramovitch. That, and the London club’s spectacularly cack-handed attempts to get the game played behind closed doors, has given this game, already a spicy prospect, extra helpings of chilli.

It’s telling that the responses to Chelsea’s entitled maneuverings on the Boro bulletin board, Fly Me To The Moon ( www.fmttm.co.uk, an excellent confection of passion, intelligence and humour, well worth checking out, btw) have routinely described Chelsea as a horrible club with horrible supporters. Even the saintly Steve Gibson stuck the knife in and twisted it with his carefully considered judgement that “Chelsea and Sporting integrity do not belong in the same sentence”. What a brilliant put down, so refreshing to see, rather than the usual bland, diplomatic answers that controversial topics generate. The sort of diplomacy that will not see Gibson sent to intervene with Putin and Lavrov any time soon, even though it would do them good to hear the unvarnished truth for once.

The posters that use this inflammatory language, point to key moments in the history of the two clubs, episodes where Chelsea fans did not cover themselves in glory. I was there at all of them (more of that in a minute), and share the general sense of loathing for the club, but as the big grudge match approaches, I find myself in an awkward situation. It’s a situation that compels me to swim against the tide for a moment and speak out for Chelsea supporters who have followed the club through thick and thin, and who will be there long after the oligarch, and the next “fit and proper person” who takes over, have gone on their way to exploit another potential trophy club.

Before I explain why, let me just take a little digression through the highways and byways of footballing history. It’s undoubtedly true that there is “previous” between Boro and Chelsea, and for Boro at any rate, a sense of unfinished business. The first game I can remember, a few years before the bad blood started, was back in the bad old days of the mid-eighties. I went to see an end of season game at Stamford Bridge.

In those days, the Bridge was a crumbling Victorian shell of a stadium, needing more than the annual lick of paint to keep it standing. There really wasn’t a lot to choose between either the teams or the clubs at this point in their histories. The only thing that set the Bridge apart from Ayresome Park was the fact that it stood just a little way along from the uber fashionable Kings Road.

Even the most blinkered die hard Boro fan might concede, albeit grudgingly, that was a little more stylish than the area surrounding Ayresome, notwithstanding the delights of Middlesbrough General Hospital, The Blind School and The Yellow Rose. It may have played a part, later on, when Roman was deciding which club to use to launder his corrupt Russian Roubles.

The only thing that has lodged in my memory of this end of season relegation scrap goalless draw was the grassless, baked mud surface at the Bridge that echoed to the sound of Mickey Droy’s lumbering runs. Droy was a big lad, an old school centre half, and someone who clearly had the diet and fitness regime of Razor Ruddock after he left Liverpool and resigned himself to the Harry Redknapp school of post football careers: Brown envelopes, Betting apps and Reality TV appearances. He moved like that massive, engineered Orc in the Lord of the Rings films, a dinosaur powered by a tiny brain, like a supermarket own brand AA battery powering a double decker bus. We escaped the dreaded R word, but these were clearly two clubs going absolutely nowhere, if they were lucky.

The real first chapter of the bitter rivalry, however, was the historic Play off Final in 1988, the first time such a marvel had taken place. It was, even stranger, between the team just above the automatic relegation places in the old First Division against the team finishing just behind the automatic promotion teams. So, you can see, it was a very high stakes game. It was the culmination of a brilliant first season back in Division two by Bruce Rioch’s team, the legendary liquidation avoiders, and was propelled on the back of an awesome defence and the outstanding goal scorer, Bernie Slaven, the poor man’s Gerd Muller. 

It was over two legs, with the first leg being played at Ayresome Park. So long ago was this, children, that it wasn’t televised, but it was beamed direct into a few select cinemas in the heart of London’s glittering West End. Living in London, it was a chance too good to miss and I duly got myself a ticket for one of the cinemas in Leicester Square. I went on my own, as none of my footballing friends thought it was anything more than a gold-plated opportunity to get a good kicking at the hands (and boots) of the SW5 chapter of the NF. In those days, Chelsea’s reputation was a mere cigarette paper above that of Millwall.

Sure enough it was a hairy occasion. The commentary was full of the chuntering of chairman Ken Bates complaining that Boro had watered Ayresome Park before the game kicked off. The cinema was packed  with the great unwashed of Chelsea. I saw one lad bravely wearing Boro colours, and I spent most of the after game journey home fearing for his safety.

This was because as the game went on, and Chelsea were being both outplayed and outscored, the “fans” in blue began to pay more attention to him than the game itself. I simply turned my collar up, hunched down in my seat, and kept my trap shut. I slipped out of the cinema a few minutes before the end , hyperventilating as I went. I often wonder whether the lad got home unscathed or not.

I also made it to the infamous Battle of Stamford Bridge for the second leg. Undeterred by my brush with physical violence in the first leg, I went with a friend. We could only get tickets in with the Chels. It was the main stand (The Matthew Harding stand, was it called?) and I made the very naive calculation that the posh folk would be there, and the hooligans would be herded into the Shed End, so we’d be safe. Every apocryphal tale you’ve ever heard about this game is true. It was terrifying. Right from the beginning of the game, it was clear we were surrounded by psychopaths in blue. For a football supporter, I was unnaturally quiet, and that in itself drew me to their attention. My mate, who had a soft Scottish accent, did a heroic impersonation of a Chelsea supporter to anyone in blue who would listen to him, and that kept us alive until halftime. As soon as the whistle went for the interval, we scuttled to a copper on duty at the gates and explained our very likely bloody demise in the second half unless we were let out. He could obviously spot naked fear when he saw it and allowed us through the gate and into the uncovered end behind the goal, in with the Boro faithful. What a relief! I can still remember the joy of feeling the sense of safety that came with the warm embrace of Teesside accents, and raucous chanting.

Until the end of the game. Where with some horror, it became clear that some of the Chelsea stewards had opened the gates of the Shed and an army of lager soaked hooligans charged across the pitch towards us. It was the only time that being fenced in seemed like a good idea, because it definitely prevented carnage that day. Getting back to the car afterwards seemed fairly easy as I remember. Perhaps the police had got their act together after the pitch invasion, I don’t know , but we made it back without further incident.

There were , however, untold stories of Chelsea violence, including one tale of a child being dangled over the top tier of a stand. Did that really happen? Or has the passage of time addled my memory? Whatever the truth of it , the  two legs were the beginning of the toxic relationship that developed.

I could go on to detail the Zenith Data Trophy final at Wembley a couple of years later, when I along with thousands of other Boro supporters ran the gauntlet of Chelsea “fans” spitting at us (including young kids) as we walked along the concourse. And I could spend even longer on the 1997 Cup Final, where we were not even given one minute of hope (typical Boro) in our first major final, when Ben Roberts flapped at a speculative long range effort by Di Matteo which crept under the bar. To add insult to injury, a perfectly good goal by Festa was disallowed. Oh for retrospective VAR!

There have been other needle matches since then. All of them collectively add up to this being a game of more significance to Boro fans than merely getting to a semi-final. This matters, because of everything that has gone before. So why, after all of that, am I left in a dilemma?

Well, gentle reader, after living in London since 1982, my son, bless his cotton socks is a Chelsea supporter. It could be worse and he could be  Palace supporter. (That’s a tale of personal rivalries, which I won’t bore you with now) No, Chelsea is his chosen team. I have to confess, I’ve played a part in fostering that allegiance. When you get, I took him along to Stamford Bridge for a couple of third round ties near his birthday in January. It’s the only time you can buy tickets for Chelsea home games without having to take out a mortgage and when you have a realistic chance of getting in. He is loyal enough to refer to Boro as “we” but really, that’s just him being nice to his old man. He would definitely fail the Norman Tebbit cricket test. And let’s be clear, there will be no divided loyalties come Saturday at 5.15.

So, this is just a gentle reminder that, notwithstanding the history I’ve alluded to earlier in this piece, and bearing in mind the appalling Abramovich money that taints all of Chelsea’s achievements in the last 19 years, there are still some nice people who support the club for all of the right reasons. 

Of course, I won’t be giving them a second thought come kick off. Up the mighty Boro! And for my son, well the one thing he has not experienced as a Chelsea fan is adversity. Real adversity I mean, not just the adversity of not qualifying for the Champions League. I hope this is the start of an exercise in prolonged character building for him. And if he gets fed up with Chelsea, I’m pretty sure Boro would take him back.

Appendix – for those still awake

What about the game? Well I’m full of anxiety. Chelsea are a much, much better side than either Spurs or Man U. I don’t mind losing as long as we acquit ourselves well. If Chelsea press us high and aggressively, I think we’ll be in big trouble. If they sit off, on the other hand and we get a chance to build some possession, then we have a chance. We’ll need Chelsea to have an off day and every unit of our team have to play well, especially Lumley and the defence. I think Isaiah Jones will relish playing against Alonso, and I just hope that the recent form of our on loan strikers carries on. 

Game on!