Tag Archives: Chelsea

Charlie Cooke: Chelsea wing wizard

I recently dug up an old PC, and found this interview I conducted with former Chelsea and Scotland footballer Charlie Cooke in 2007 for Time Out.

It has become common currency for fans and players of other clubs to decry Chelsea’s lack of history, a revealing attitude that mistakes ‘history’ for ‘success’ and ‘wit’ for ‘arrogance’. Chelsea, of course, have a rich history, albeit one of spectacular underachievement and remarkable foot-shooting, of which the legendary – and much-romanticised – 1960s side is the best example. One of the geniuses of that team was Charlie Cooke, the brilliant Scottish midfielder who replaced Terry Venables in the heart of the Chelsea side and rivalled Peter Osgood for the affections of The Shed. Cooke was a combination of Pat Nevin and Joe Cole – phenomenally gifted, an extraordinary dribbler and visionary passer, but one with a prodigious work ethic. He was Chelsea’s player of the year three times – a record shared with a certain diminutive Sardinian – but only won two major trophies in his two spells at Stamford Bridge.

‘We were underachievers, and that was our own fault,’ says Cooke, on the phone from the United States where he coaches children’s soccer (‘I have to call it that’). ‘We underachieved on the big occasions – we were dreadful in the FA Cup final against Spurs in 1967, and we lost to Stoke in the League Cup final in 1972. We were out of control, wild and crazy, we egged each other on with the drinking culture. I have regrets. From this perspective, it was a lot of nonsense. At the time, you’re having fun, or you think you are, but I’m not one to say that if I had it all to live over I’d do it exactly the same. I’d be a bit smarter, more self-controlled, not so willing.’

It’s telling that Cooke’s autobiography The Bonnie Prince, lacks the drinking stories common to memoirs written by footballers from this period – that’s because Cooke, who doesn’t quite admit he was an alcoholic, can’t remember many of them (although he gets some off-page prompting from his drinking partner, Tommy Baldwin, nicknamed ‘The Sponge’ for his ability to soak up booze). Instead, Cooke gives a thoughtful account of a playing career that took him from Greenock High School to California Surf, via Aberdeen, Dundee, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.

‘I took it as an opportunity to retrace a lot of my life and find out things I’d forgotten,’ he says. ‘One of the strange things was that my sister had been doing some genealogy and the interesting thing to me – although it may be of no interest to anybody else – is that we, the Cookes, came from a long line of circus people. My umpteen great grandfather was the first person to take a big top to America. Another Cooke would ride round the ring on a horse taking off costumes of different Shakespearean characters. I come from a long line of hairy-chested women, Romanian jugglers and fat men. Entertainers, sure, but I’m not sure it’s a rich lineage – maybe a tacky one.’

Cooke also writes about his own failings as a player, showing self-reflection that’s unusual in books of this type. You rarely see footage of Cooke in action – ‘sometimes you’ll see a tiny clip of yourself and think, “that wasn’t me was it? Ach, I thought I was a better player than that!” – and rarer still a Cooke goal: he scored barely 20 in nearly 300 league games for Chelsea. Cooke’s explanation of this is interesting – ‘I allowed the headlines about my being the team schemer and midfield general to get into my head, with the result that I ignored finishing’ – showing that even positive press can have results journalists might not expect, causing players to subconsciously neglect those parts of their game that do not receive the most publicity or overdoing their strengths in the belief that this is what the public demands.

Cooke lives in America (‘I always wanted to be in the States, I married an American girl and I loved Westerns and American detective series and the blue skies of America always seems to be a place I wanted to try’), but returns to Abramovich’s Stamford Bridge more regularly now than he did under the previous regime. ‘One of the wonderful things about the takeover at Chelsea is that they invite all the old farts back, he says. ‘It had been thrown out the door before. I have no gripe about Ken Bates, that’s what he wanted, but it’s wonderful that they invite us back now, it’s lovely for me and all the guys really appreciate it. You feel the love fans still have for you and it’s fantastic.’

The Bonnie Prince (Mainstream; £7.99).

Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

Turkish London and football

I have a post on Four Four Two about how Turkish Londoners square their support for Turkish club sides with their loyalties to London clubs. It was an interesting assignment, and made me wonder whether other incoming communities face similar quandaries.

Presumably they do: the historically large Italian following at Chelsea will have to occasionally decide between Lazio, Roma or Juve and their London club; Arsenal’s new French fans will have to choose between their love Arsene and their support for PSG – but there is something about the very visibly Turkish nature of the Turkish community and, particularly, the drama of Turkish football fans that made this particularly intriguing. I also got to eat some damn fine bread from the excellent Akdeniz Bakery in Stoke Newington, which I heartily recommend to readers.

Syd, psychedelia, If…. and the Olympics: an interview with Kevin Whitney

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Psychedelia,  a film made in 1969 and featuring Syd Barrett. The film has been sitting underneath Kevin Whitney’s bed for 40 years, but will be shown in June 2014 at the ICA ahead of its sale. Whitney was on the fringes of the psychedelic movement in the late-1960s and later became the first official artist of the Olympic movement. ‘In my work there are still hints of psychedelic imagery,’ he tells me. ‘But using beautiful athletes instead of mad freaks.’ 

Psychedelia can be seen at Room&Book: ICA Art Book Fair, ICA, 6-8 June. 

——-

‘I was at art school until 1970 and during I was making the film. I was inspired by psychedelic light shows, which I’d screen on the front of Chelsea Art School  at underground pop shows at the Roundhouse. Chelsea Art School was a modern building off the Kings Road. It was the only building built in the 20th century to be used as an art school. It’s now a hotel. It was very anarchic. Art is now geared towards corporate success and Saatchi but then that sort of thing was frowned upon, you weren’t supposed to make any money out of it. You did conceptual things, it was against the system. Now it’s the opposite and has no balls. We were very privileged to be around then. We took art into the streets.

Chelsea Art School on Manresa Road, built in 1963

Previously, I’d been at art school in Ipswich with Brian Eno. We smoked our first joint together at Christchurch Park in Ipswich. We did a thing where about 12 of us would get on a bus and we’d have these sheets of Perspex the size of a newspaper. We cut out the title of the paper and glued it to the Perspex and then sit next to people on the bus pretending to read the stories from this empty sheet of Perspex. Everybody thought we were bonkers.

UFO Club flyer

I never did light shows at the UFO Club. I went there but they had some Americans, Joe’s Lights, who got the contract and nobody else could do it. I knew them and admit I was influenced by their ideas but I also showed them some of my tricks. One was fabulous. You’d get two pieces of Perspex and put in some olive or vegetable oil, then drop some vegetable dye – bright blue, red or yellow – and then close the Perspex together. You’d put that in the projector, which had a very powerful light and would heat up the dye and send it shooting to the edges of the Perspex. It was like going through a timewarp. Joe’s Lights liked this and used it at the Roundhouse for the big Jefferson Airplane/Door show in 1968. [Editor note: I think that while Joe’s Lights did the Roundhouse gig, the Boyle Family did projections at UFO.]

In 1968, I began making my film, Psychedelia. Syd was part of the scenario. Well, he was the scenario. Anybody that would agree I got to appear in the film, which was done at this basement on Old Church Street in Chelsea in a house owned by Antonia Chetwynd [regular visitors included Donald Cammell, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Anita Pallenberg]. One day I went to Wetherby Mansions to pick up Syd. I was going to take him to the art school to this red and green painted studio I had in the annexe where I was making the film.

Syd Barrett in Wetherby Mansions

On the way, Syd offered me half a Mandrax. It’s like a sleeping pill that makes you very randy. We took half each. Then we got to the art school and I realised my camera didn’t have a cassette in it and all the shops were closed. So I said we’d do it tomorrow in Old Church Street. In the evening I called Duggie Fields [Syd’s flatmate, still resident at Wetherby Mansions] to check Syd had got back okay and Duggie told me he’d gone to Ibiza. He had a passport with him and he’d just gone to the airport and taken a flight to Ibiza.

When he got back we went to the basement and did the filming. I just had the camera with this psychedelic lighting. It was very amateur and everyone was very stoned. I’d sit people down and tell them to do whatever they wanted. Some took their tops off, some stared at the camera, talked, had a cup of tea… and I just filmed it because they were fabulous people. I filmed so many. In the scene I shot with Syd was Geoffrey Cleghorn, who was a friend of the Who and the Stones. I’d met him at art school in Ipswich and he’d followed when I moved to London and got involved in the whole scene. He’s an amazing guy. There was another chap called David Crowland. There’s a chap called Rupert [Webster], who was the very pretty boy in “If….”.

 

I screened it while playing Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. I also use them on the other film I made Red And Green, when they are actually on the soundtrack, the Syd film was silent though I would have been playing Velvet Underground in the basement when making it. I was obsessed with them. It was all very Warholesque.

 

I gave my camera to Derek Jarman, I was living with the artist Luciana Martinez and she said, ‘You’ve finished with films and Derek’s a lousy painter, so why not give him your camera.’ He’d just finished making The Devils with Ken Russell, doing the sets. I did that and the rest is history. I then got totally into paining, film was an art student fling. In 1982 I got involved with the Olympis and been there ever since.

“Female gymnast”, 1984

I knew Syd as well as anybody could know Syd. He definitely wasn’t on this planet but he was lovely, very charming, and he seemed to like my paintings. He liked to paint himself and because I was pretty good he warmed to me. Also, I don’t hold him in awe, I was the same with Bowie, they were friends and I’d talk to them like that. I’d ask to draw them but treat them as I would anybody. People can treat pop stars in a different way and they can get very isolated. Most people were too much in awe of Syd to ask to film him and I think that comes across in the film. He was a very troubled mind and this wasn’t a great time. He’d been eased out of the Floyd and Dave Gilmour had taken over. But people who knew him said he looks so happy.’

 

Football and anti-Semitism

The debate about the use of the word ‘Yid’ in football is all over the papers at the moment, including, with breathtaking insensitivity, this front page. I’m not easily offended, but found this headline is horrendous.

The topic of Jews and English football is the subject of an exhibition, Four Four Jew, opening next month at the Jewish Museum London. I interviewed the curator and we touched on the controversy around the ‘Y word’ , as she phrased it. She said that while the exhibition would look at the use of ‘Yid’ it ‘wouldn’t come down on either side of the argument’.

Ultimately, whether you are comfortable calling somebody a ‘Yid’, either in support or in hate, is a personal decision. I made up my mind where I stand a long time ago and here is an updated version of an article I wrote on the subject in Time Out a few years ago.

———

I’d been calling Spurs ‘the Yids’ for a couple of years before my dad told me it was racist. ‘Don’t you know it’s anti-Semitic?’ he said. I didn’t, nor had I worked it out from one of my favourite Chelsea chants: ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo/He stands at the back of the Shelf/He goes to the bar/To buy a lager/And only buys one for himself’. Racial stereotypes were clearly not one of my strong points as a 13-year-old.

I’d like to say that I immediately stopped using the word, but I didn’t. Chelsea fans – like those at Arsenal and West Ham – had been calling Tottenham ‘Yids’ for decades. Given that Spurs devotees called themselves the ‘Yid army’ I didn’t see how it caused any harm. I didn’t consider it racist or anti-Semitic, just a near-the-knuckle nickname for a rival football club.

I’ve stopped now. The eureka moment for me came when I was at a game in the mid-90s. Chelsea fan David Baddiel, who is Jewish, was spotted by the crowd after half-time as he returned to his seat with a cup of tea, and several hundred people began chanting ‘Yiddo, Yiddo’ at him, in what I imagine they considered to be an affectionate manner. Baddiel smiled it off – but the penny dropped that this was straightforward racist abuse. Baddiel later wrote:  ‘I told myself that it didn’t matter, that for most of these fans, “Yiddo” simply meant a Tottenham player or fan and that the negativity was about that and not about race.’ However, when Chelsea fans aimed the chant at non-Tottenham Israeli players, Baddiel ‘realised “Yiddo” may mean Tottenham fan but it also means Jew.’ He has since become an outspoken opponent of the use of the word by all supporters, earning him much scorn from Spurs fans. 

It used to be worse. In the 1980s hissing to imitate the release of gas was said to be commonplace, but I have never heard this – or chants about Auschwitz, bar from two drunks on The Shed in a League Cup tie in 1990 –  in more than 25 years of attending Chelsea-Spurs fixtures home and away. By the early 1990s, many fans had realised that was a step too far. I’m sure it still occurs but, in my experience, it’s pretty rare. Although by all accounts, West Ham are still at it. 

The canard that hissing is regularly heard at Chelsea games is often used by Spurs fans, as they attempt to defend their own use of ‘Yid’ but Jeremy Vine, a former Times journalist and another Jewish Chelsea fan, agrees it doesn’t happen often. ‘I’m sure I would notice hissing as it would most likely come from the Matthew Harding Stand, where I sit.’ Vine stopped attending games in the 1980s due to racism and says: ‘Without doubt some of those who chant “Yid” are anti-Semites at heart… but I don’t believe all are.’ The problem is that ‘personal jibes are part of the language of the terraces. Anything goes. And so the boundaries of decency and offensiveness become blurred.’

What muddies the water further is that since the 1970s, Spurs fans have reclaimed what was originally coined as a term of abuse (nobody knows why, Tottenham being no more ‘Jewish’ than Arsenal or Chelsea). Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, always torn between defending Chelsea supporters while confronting their excesses, argued that, ‘It is hard to criticise Chelsea fans for calling Tottenham supporters something that they call themselves.’ Chelsea have since rejected this line and now take a zero tolerance approach. It’s worked, to some extent. My old favourite, ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo’ is rarely heard at Stamford Bridge these days. Spurs still get plenty of abuse, but – within the ground, certainly – the tone of it is much changed. 

A few years ago, Spurs conducted a ‘full consultation exercise’ over the use of ‘Yid Army’ because of fears it led to ‘casual anti-Semitism’, but this was criticised by many of their own supporters who felt the chant united Jewish and non-Jewish Tottenham fans. ‘If you are Tottenham, you are a Yid,’ is the line many take. That is what annoyed them so much about the recent FA instruction that all uses of Yid must cease, an argument that David Cameron has now blundered into. Many argue there’s a distinction between chanting ‘Yiddo’ and singing about concentration camps, which is broadly true – unless you’re racist. I’d even go so far to contend that Spurs have won the argument – they’ve reclaimed a term of abuse. But when it leads to casually racist headlines like that published above – and let’s remember that most Jewish people who see that headline will not support Tottenham –  one wonders quite where this will end.

It is, as Joanne Rosenthal, the Jewish Museum curator, told me ‘very complicated. Even if it appears black and white the two poles are very strongly opposed. Fan culture has this nastier side and we can’t ignore it. It’s now become part of Tottenham’s heritage. It’s difficult to tell people what they can or can’t do.’

Perhaps not, and I’m a huge fan of tribalism at football, but sometimes everybody just needs to grow up and move on. Maybe that Metro headline, as trivial and offensive as it is, will give people pause for thought.

 

Inside London’s super-prime houses

I wrote this article in 2011 for Gulf Life about London’s super-prime property market.

They call it super-prime. That’s the end of the London property market that starts at £15 million and goes as high as £150 million. It’s a market that operates in isolation from the rest of London and it’s one that is dominated by an international clientele, with buyers jetting in from the booming economies of the Far East, Russia and the Middle East. So what do they get for their bucks?

‘Buyers at this end of the market all have five demands,’ says Giles Hannah, who oversees the European operation of Christie’s Great Estates, the property branch of the venerable auction house, ‘security, space, parking, location and luxury features.’ Christie’s is currently selling a mansion on Cornwall Terrace, a dramatic John Nash-designed sweeping terrace overlooking Regent’s Park. It boasts six bedrooms, a home cinema, gym, steam room, study, state-of-the-art kitchen, mews house for staff, garage with blast-proof doors and majestic views of a royal park. Floors are covered by Italian marble, dark oak or silk carpet, there’s a chill room for furs and the walls are covered with paintings by Picasso and Damien Hirst on loan from the auction house. It’s yours for around £30 million.

‘This property was bought and developed in 2008,’ explains Hannah. ‘There are eight on the terrace and they are being released house by house into the market. London remains a key place to buy and although it’s been a difficult market since 2008, there are enough international buyers around. There are 1,100 billionaires in the world, all capable of purchasing a £30m house in any climate.’

The address they all want is Knightsbridge, which partly explains the prices fetched at One Hyde Park, a development by Christian and Nick Candy. One Hyde Park is a gleaming Richard Rogers-designed tower of luxury that sits almost above Knightsbridge tube, with Hyde Park on one side and Harvey Nichols on the other. A penthouse is said to have sold for more than £100 million and, according to Savills, the selling agent, 60 per cent of the 86 apartments have been snapped up.

A five-bedroom apartment costs upwards of £50m and takes up an entire floor – around 10,000 square feet. The hallway stretches the length of the flat from master bedroom to reception room, one end overlooking the park, the other Knightsbridge. To give an idea of the scale, a baby grand piano in the corner of the living room looks like a coffee table. Off the corridor are a further four bedrooms, two reception rooms, a TV room, study, dining room and two kitchens (one for staff). The building contains a squash court, 22-metre pool, games room, party room and meeting room.

‘You don’t need to leave the development,’ says Ned Baring, Associate Director of Savills. ‘You can live, work and play here. What makes this different to other complexes is that we have 50 dedicated staff at the Mandarin Hotel next door who can provide any service you need, from setting up a dinner party to doing your dry-cleaning. It’s like living in the best hotel in the world, but with your own private residences.’

The Candy brothers have invested a fortune in One Hyde Park – how much, nobody will say– banking on continued high demand for super-prime London property. ‘In the morning you can speak to Asia and in the afternoon you can speak to New York,’ says Baring. ‘There aren’t many cities where you can do that. You might not be here 365 days, but you need to be here.’

Hannah says much the same, ‘Your average Christie’s client will be ultra-high worth and may use this property just a couple of times a year. They’ll also have a place in the south of France, one in New York and a chalet in Courchevel.’

If the ostentation of One Hyde Park doesn’t appeal, a short stroll away – but crucially, still in Knightsbridge – you’ll find the discreet charm of Ovington Square, a classic London garden square located between South Kensington, and Chelsea. ‘This part of Knightsbridge is very popular with Middle Eastern buyers, especially from Qatar, Lebanon, Syria and the UAE,’ says Noel De Keyzer of Savills. ‘They like traditional houses, and will come in the summer to avoid the heat at home.’

The house, refurbished in 2008, was recently rented by a Lebanese family (another renter was Bill Gates), but is now on the market for just under £20 million. The selling point is the vast two-floor pre-war extension taking up the entire back garden, itself the size of a normal house. This holds the reception room and master bedroom. The five-bedroom house also has a sub-basement beneath the lower-ground-floor kitchen, containing a gym and steam room.

‘This end of the market stayed very strong in 2008,’ says De Keyzer. ‘But in 2009, it was dead. People weren’t buying. It picked up again in March 2010, helped by weak sterling.’ The problem now is one of supply. ‘There will be an acute shortage of properties in 2011,’ says De Keyzer. ‘A lot of vendors don’t think they’ll realise their expectation because the super-prime market is still 10 per cent below its peak in 2008. You are dealing with very affluent people who have no need to sell in an uncertain market, and if they’re selling to buy somewhere else, they have nowhere to go.’

There are, according to Hannah, only three developments ready for the super-prime market: Cornwall Terrace, One Hyde Park and The Lancasters. The latter is a fascinating project on the north side of Hyde Park in Bayswater. A regal Victorian terrace has been transformed. The old building behind the gorgeous Grade II-listed facade has been knocked down and replaced by an impressive new complex of 77 apartments, retaining the original front with its huge windows and exceptional views of Hyde Park.

‘These buildings were built in the same style and grandeur as Belgravia,’ says Mark Cherry of Minerva, joint developers with Northacre. ‘It was a high-profile wealthy area and is now going through a revival. Some people will only buy Mayfair and Knightsbridge, but others will want better lifestyle and better buildings, so they will come here. We’re offering a high-level of service for people that expect high service, with three concierges on site at all time. I spoke to somebody who was moving from a mansion block and they said they want to be in a building where the pipes don’t rattle and they don’t have to rely on a single elderly grumpy porter. People want classic British houses with American-style service.’

The surprising thing about all four properties is how similar they are. All are decorated in dark masculine colours. All have Gaggenau kitchens and Crestron systems to control sound, security and lighting. None have gardens. All have flat-screen TVs in the walls of every room. The houses have lifts – ‘Middle Eastern clients don’t like using the stairs,’ says Hannah – while the apartments encourage ‘lateral’ living. There are separate bedrooms and entrances for staff–at The Lancasters and One Hyde Park, some clients also purchase a separate apartment for staff. All have serious security, and all have space. Lots of space. The most breathtaking is One Hyde Park, the best views are from The Lancasters and Cornwall Terrace and the most charming is Ovington Square.

The properties can even be sold fully furnished. ‘The keyword is “turnkey”,’ says De Keyzer. ‘International clients are busy and want to move in straightaway with their suitcases.’ That’s not to say they’ll rush to make the purchase. ‘They’ll look at everything available,’ says Hannah. ‘They like to have choice. This isn’t a financial purchase, it’s a personal one.’

The super-prime market is very lucrative for estate agents. ‘It’s competitive, but in the £10 million-plus range Savills and Knight Frank have more than 50 % of the market between us,’ says De Keyzer. ‘That’s because we are international companies with very good contacts. Our fees are 2.5% for sole agency and 3% joint agency but it’s negotiable. We can afford low fees because our values are higher and we have a large turnover of properties. In London the average house is sold every five years, but on the continent people hold on to property for generations.’

That could be about to change. ‘Over the last few years, the lack of property has become apparent,’ says Hannah. ‘The best properties have been bought by international clients and they won’t be traded for many years. People who purchase a premier address will keep it as an asset for a while.’

Because of this, Hannah anticipates good times lie ahead. ‘London is London, arguably the centre of the world and a major financial hub,’ he says. ‘Clients need to be here, they want to be here, they understand the tax implications and they have good accountants. We’re expecting 30% growth over the next three years.’

Cherry agrees. ‘The market at this level is strengthening. Because people want certain key locations, the market can never be saturated, there are listings, conservation areas, it takes ages to get planning permissions and there are strict limits on tall buildings – it’s a very good market to be in.’ If you can afford it, obviously.

Why I hate the Champions League

Who came third the year Arsenal won the league at Anfield in 1989? Does anybody remember? Does anybody care? Indeed, who came fourth in 2007? Third when Manchester United won the treble in 1999?

Unless you’re a fan of Nottingham Forest (1989), Liverpool (2007) or Chelsea (1999), it’s doubtful you’ll be able to answer any of those questions. And rightly so. Because finishing third or fourth is, in the greater scheme of the history of football, nothing to get excited about, it’s not interesting, important or impressive. But thanks to European football’s ridiculous obsession with the Champions League, Arsenal fans are celebrating limping home a distant third as if it is their club’s greatest achievement since the Invincibles, just one that doesn’t come with a trophy or will be remembered by anybody in a year’s time. It’s been a successful season insist fans of the biggest club in London, now seven years now without a cup, because it means they have earned the right to play in the Champions League again (until March, usually).  And they seem to believe it.

Ah, the Champions League, the bloated, vile, venal parasite of European football, with its hideous anthem and putrid stench of self-importance. How I hate this wretched competition. Yet qualifying for it is now deemed to be the greatest achievement of any club, more desired than mere trophies and finals. Clubs with trophy cabinets that used to gleam with silverware are now more interested in securing next year’s income stream, terrified about what might happen to the bank balance if they fail. Henry Norris and Arsene Wenger have more in common than we could have ever imagined when Wenger brought swashbuckling trophy-winning teary-eyed romantic football to the Emirates in 1998. Fuck success, fuck beauty, fuck romance, fuck football: give me the cash.

I don’t get it. I never have. I understand why money is important in football, but that doesn’t mean I want to have my nose rubbed in it. In 2003, Chelsea played Liverpool; the winner would finish third and qualify for the Champions League. This was, in financial terms, the biggest game in the club’s history, I was told by friends. It was more important than a cup final, they said. Well, I’ve been to a few cup finals, and that sir was no cup final. It was a squalid mudfight for cold hard cash, a stripping down of modern football to its ugliest essentials. And yet it was presented as if it was a thing to admire, and people bought into it. Why?

I hated it then and I hated it now, especially as the Champions League’s weight and wealth has expanded, rewarding failure in the rich leagues to the point where it has pretty much destroyed all European domestic football outside of England, Spain, Italy and Germany, and turning the FA Cup and League Cup into heavily sponsored footnotes. 

It’s even turned the Europa League into a joke, in England at least.  Patrice Evra said it was ’embarrassing’ that Manchester United were playing in the Europa this season, something you’d hope would make Uefa take a long, hard look at what they have done, although of course they didn’t. The Europa has its fans, but in reality it’s a sad and unlovable replacement for the splendid streamlined charms of the old Uefa and Cup Winners’ cups.

But nothing can be allowed to compete with the CL’s budget, which throws millions of pounds at so-so teams, encouraging billionaires to buy into the game in a bid to join the bunfight – something Uefa are now trying to ban without acknowledging the root cause, the disproportionate rewards offered by their beloved keynote trophy. Meanwhile, leagues, cups and the dignity and priorities of supporters all disappear beneath the whirling blades of Uefa’s deranged zombie lawnmower.

And now we have come to the extreme logic of the position, where we’re told that the main reason Chelsea should want to win the Champions League final on Saturday is so they can qualify for next year’s Champions League, as if the trophy itself is just something that comes free in a packet of corn flakes, and nobody bats an eyelid. How can this be right? What have Uefa been allowed to do to 57 years of history? And why does nobody appear to care?

London’s football gangs: 1972

 I’ve mentioned Chris Lightbown’s article on London football gangs a couple of times before, but the piece itself hasn’t been available since it was first published in Time Out in 1972. The section on West Ham was reprinted in the excellent 2008 anthology London Calling, but the full article has been confined to libraries and private collections. Until now.

It is a fascinating read. This is the first time football fan culture had ever been seriously discussed by the press, and it offers a remarkable view of life on the terraces from the terraces, free of any moralism or finger-wagging. It is a thorough and very funny piece of writing, and is probably the first time terrace legends such as Mick Greenaway and Johnny Hoy (although he is called ‘High’ here) ever saw their names in print. It’s analysis of where the different clubs draw on their support is particularly great. 

The writing is very much of its time and place – complete with mention of ‘heads’ and ‘coons’ – and also paints the picture of a time when London terrace culture was very different: the Shed was as loud as the Kop, Arsenal had the most aggressive fans in London and Spurs were just a joke, on and off the pitch. Only West Ham’s identity appears to have remained more or less the same, although older Hammers would doubtless question that.

It is a cracking piece of work. Enjoy.

Lying about London

This appeared as part of an article that was published in the January 2012 edition of The Sunday Times Travel Magazine about London walks. Chris Roberts also runs the  wonderful One Eye Grey magazine and he will shortly issue a volume of stories from the magazine on Kindle.  In March 2012, Chris will be hosting some special related one-off walking tours

Deep in Chelsea’s prim back streets on a drizzly winter evening, half-a-dozen people wearing blindfolds are groping their way down a quiet Georgian square past James Bond’s house, leaning on each other for guidance, and giggling like schoolchildren. This is what happens when you go on Chris Roberts’s Liars London tour, a walk that offers fact, fiction and forfeits in the fancy surroundings of Sloane Square.

Roberts, a librarian, London historian and author, came up with the Liars London idea four years ago when he was asked to curate a tour for the local council. It’s a simple idea. Roberts and Silvana Maimone lead the walk and at each stop they both tell a story about the area: one story will be true and the other false. The audience are asked to guess who is lying and the person who is right most often receives a small prize at the end. Get it wrong, and you may have to pay a location-related forfeit, such as walk around in a blindfold, write a poem, or have a duel with waterpistols. Roberts and Maimone are a great double act, garrulous and witty, happily interrupting each other’s story-telling with exaggerated scoffing. Under their spell the 20-or-so walkers soon start to relax.

We are strangers when we meet among the evening commuters and blinking fairy lights at Sloane Square, but have already bonded by the time we reach the Saatchi Gallery at the affluent end of the King’s Road, where London’s wealthy still promenade in ostentatious fashion. Roberts is spinning an improbable yarn about British fascist Oswald Mosley, when an eavesdropping passer-by indignantly mutters in plumy tones, quite correctly as it happens, ‘What a load of rubbish!’ much to our amusement.

Because the walks require two hosts and require around 20 people attendees – people are happier to participate as part of a larger group, Roberts believes – they must be booked in advance. The Chelsea tour goes from busy Sloane Square down through quiet residential back streets, where every house is impeccably maintained and fragrantly festooned with hanging baskets, before finishing at Cheyne Walk, an 18th-century parade of grand houses nestling on the banks of the Thames, whose surface gleams inkily in the moonlight.

Over 90 fascinating minutes, we take in unusual landmarks such as James Bond’s fictional house on Royal Avenue and the riverside home of wombat-obsessed Romantic poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When it comes to the stories, the truth is often just as entertaining and unlikely-sounding as the fiction. Outside the rich brick walls of Chelsea Physic Garden, a seventeenth-century botanical garden, we are asked to choose between Maimone’s story about how a strange plant here became the inspiration for the fiendish foliage in John Wyndham’s sci-fi classic Day Of The Triffids, and Roberts’s (correct) claim that cotton seeds taken from Chelsea ended up being picked by slaves in the southern state of the United States, ultimately leading to the American Civil War.

Tall tales or otherwise, this sort of London knowledge is a personal obsession for Roberts, who has written a book, ‘Cross River Traffic’, about London’s bridges, and edits One Eye Grey, a magazine devoted to capital folklore. As such, he can’t help himself but pepper each conversation with a few extra facts and arcane titbits, making the walk a treasure trove for those who like trivia, albeit trivia that’s sometimes indistinguishable from entertaining falsehood.

London riots and football hooliganism

‘People were determined to smash and destroy. Windows were being smashed and the looters saw their chance. A road sign went straight through the middle of the window. Two people moved in with cardboard boxes and filled them with jumpers. These would be highly resaleable. [Others] were concentrating on the jewellers’ shops and a good few were looted. People who were probably  law-abiding citizens at any other time just went berserk. The faces of people as they went into a smashed shop and grabbed goods were amazing; all signs of reason had disappeared from their eyes. One guy came out of a shop with his eyes rolled up, his tongue hanging from an open mouth and breathing heavily. His trip into the shop had been a physical experience, and he was beginning to smile. He had dared and won. In a very short space of time, the streets had been transformed into a madhouse. Sirens blared out and police vans screeched around the streets.’

Was this Tottenham last Saturday? Brixton on Sunday? Battersea or Croydon on Monday? Manchester on Tuesday? Surely it must be from one of those occasions this week when England was forced to confront the reality of a ‘sub-educated, feral underclass’ in a post-Thatcher ‘something-for-nothing society’ (as Andrew Roberts so colourfully described it).

Well, actually no. This was way back in 1983, in tiny Luxembourg, where England fans went on a smashing and looting spree after failing to qualify for the European Championships. Football hooliganism was approaching its nadir after a 20 year spiral that had almost destroyed the national sport and left the authorities baffled at how to control it.

Mob looting by football supporters dates back to at least 1976, when Liverpool supporters descended in large groups to rob shops in St Etienne, where they were watching a European Cup tie. It soon became assimilated into the away trip –  usually while being escorted back to the station, away supporters would smash up city centres, fight the police and, if the opportunity arose, loot goods from shops: a jeweller here, a clothes shop there. Whatever could be easily lifted and carried back home.

In Colin Ward’s classic account of terrace culture ‘Steaming In’ (from which the above passage also came), he describes Chelsea fans after a game in Luton: ‘The trip back to the town station saw the mass destruction of the town centre. Shops were looted and a train was set on fire… It was said that one guy who didn’t like football but had a fetish about smashing shop windows went along to have a good night out. Nutters often tag along with football crowds just for the buzz.’

The past week’s violence certainly seemed unprecedented – and in some ways it was – but there are significant parallels with the way overwhelmingly young football fans routinely behaved in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s the casual disregard for other people’s property, the mania of the crowd, the opportunist thieving and violence, the loose organisation into gangs, the sheer thrill of anarchy, the speed of movement and the power of being able to catch the police wrong-footed.

The fear is that mass lootings will become a commonplace event, another part of our lives, as criminal gangs realise what they can get away with if there are enough of them around and as long as the law and lawmakers remain clueless at how to respond. It certainly took the authorities a long time to get a handle on how to police football, but the experience has now been completely transformed, partly because of tough sentences for hooligans, partly because of the disasters at Heysel and Hillsborough but also because the football establishment itself realised it had to change the way it regarded football supporters if the behaviour of fans was to improve.

When I watched a small group of 20 or 30 kids terrorise Hackney in broad daylight on Monday afternoon while the police stood and watched, my first instinct was that they would never have let a bunch of football supporters behave like that these days. There are always lessons to be learnt from the past, if you look in the right places.