A short and sad post to start 2023, following the death of former Chelsea player Gianluca Vialli. Some of my happiest memories were spent at Stamford Bridge watching Vialli play for and then manage a Chelsea side that surpassed all my childhood dreams. As a kid, the best I ever expected from Chelsea was to reach an FA Cup semi-final – with Vialli they won two FA Cups (one as player, one as manager) as well as the League Cup, Super Cup and, unforgettably in Stockholm, the European Cup Winners Cup. That Chelsea team of Poyet, Petrescu, Leboeuf and Wise was stylish, cavalier, tough and cosmopolitan – qualities utterly epitomised by Vialli himself, who grew up in a castle, dressed like a Bash Street kid, spoke in a hybrid Italian-Cockney accent and looked like he knew his way round a street fight. Vialli was very London, in an Italian sort of way, and for a few years around this time every Italian cafe in London – of which there were many – seemed to have a signed photo of Vialli behind the counter.
Of many great games from this late 1990s period, my favourite was probably this, Vialli’s first as manager. It was the second leg of the League Cup semi-final when that tournament still counted for something. Chelsea had been beaten 2-1 at Highbury. Back then, Arsenal always seemed to beat us and they were a truly formidable side – the George Graham back four, Petit and Viera in midfield, Bergkamp, Anelka and Overmars in attack. We played them off the pitch, winning 3-1, Vialli having calmed the players’ nerves with a glass of champagne before the game. Just watch the footage for a reminder of why late 90s was so thrilling and, frankly, so much better than the samey, sanitised, tactics-heavy, contact-free version we have today. These were exceptional footballers, but they knew how to tackle – well, almost: Veira was sent off. And the atmosphere! Nothing today comes close.
My girlfriend of the time had a notable soft spot for Vialli, a good-looking man who embraced his baldness like Jean-Luc Picard and paired it with a grey v-neck and thick tie.
For a while, I sported a grey v-neck myself in imitation of the great man. I couldn’t play like him, and I still had my hair, but at least I could dress the same way.
I may dig it out the back of the cupboard today, one last time, in memory of the lovely Luca.
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.’
It was the draw every older Chelsea fan wanted. The plastic flash of the Champions League may excite shallow newcomers, but a League Cup quarter–final at Leeds is what gets the blood pumping. This is proper football, one of the juiciest rivalries in British football, a celebration of regional differences with mutual bad memories stretching back to the mid-1960s.
That’s about how long Leeds have been singing this little ditty about shooting Chelsea scum.
In the late 1970s, Chelsea fans would reciprocate by asking their Yorkshire foes, ‘Did the Ripper get your mum?’ And they’ll always have this.
The fixture will probably have the sort of ‘toxic’ atmosphere that hysterical commentators love to condemn, but it’s also the very reason people pay to watch football in numbers that dwarf that of any other sport. It’s a game that feels more important than it really is, one steeped in tribalism, history and cultural dislike, offering momentary respite from the sterility that defines the modern football-watching experience. For many fans, this is personal, this is pride.
And Chelsea-Leeds has always been huge. The TV audience for the 1970 FA Cup final replay remains the second largest for any sporting event (after the 1966 World Cup final) and it has the sixth largest TV audience of all time – more than any Champions League or European Cup final involving the self-important Establishment clubs of English football. That’s because Chelsea and Leeds had captured a hold on the national imagination since the mid-60s, when two young, stylish, streetwise sides stormed out of the Second Division within a season of each other.
So much in common but so little alike, Chelsea and Leeds set about each other with a passion in a series of increasingly ill-tempered league and cup encounters. By the time a ferocious 1967 FA Cup semi-final was settled by an awful refereeing decision – a last-minute Leeds equaliser from a rocket-like Lorimer free kick was disallowed because the Chelsea wall had moved too early – the foundations were firmly in place. Chelsea and Leeds, they didn’t get on.
‘Hate. We hated them and they hated us,’ is how Chelsea’s Ian Hutchinson once described it, and footballers are rarely so forthcoming about such things. It was a hatred mired in misconception as much as anything else, an embodiment of all of the north and south’s prejudices about each other. This was Yorkshire v London epitomised.
Chelsea considered themselves the club a la mode, King’s Road stylists, swinging London dandies who knew as much about fashion as they did football. On the pitch, they strutted and posed, playing with flair and panache – but only when they could be bothered. Off the pitch, they dressed up, grew their sideburns, hung out with filmstars and were photographed by celebrity photographers with famous fans. No wonder George Best said Chelsea was the only other club he’d ever consider playing for.
Raquel Welch, not in a Leeds shirt
Leeds were more hardworking, more focussed, with a Yorkshire work ethic and attention to detail. They were also masters of professionalism in all its forms. Uncompromising, indomitable, they’d only turn to showboating when the opposition were already on the canvas. To make it worse, neither respected the other’s approach: Leeds thought Chelsea were flash failures; Chelsea thought Leeds were boring and nasty.
These stereotypes weren’t entirely fair – Leeds had beautiful footballers like Gray and Lorimer, Chelsea had roughnecks like Harris and Dempsey, and both teams could be said to have underachieved – but they contained more than a grain of truth. When the teams met at the 1970 FA Cup final, fireworks ensued. It must be the most enthrallingly violent games ever seen in this country. Played today, both teams would count on at least three red cards. This tackle (unpunished) is typical. I’d love to see a You Tube compilation just showing the fouls. Paul Hayward would wet himself.
As they rose together, they sank together. From the mid-70s and through much of the 1980s, both clubs endured financial turmoil, relegation, racism and hooliganism. The rivalry remained intense. At a Second Division fixture in 1984, which Chelsea won 5-0 to secure the title, Leeds fans responded by destroying Chelsea’s new scoreboard with a scaffolding pole. This was the scene at another 1980s game at Stamford Bridge, when the fixture still attracted one of the largest crowds of the day.
For a while, things calmed down. When Chelsea won the Second Division title in 1989, the fact they were playing Leeds was almost irrelevant as both sets of supporters maintained an impeccable minute’s silence the week after Hillsborough. When Leeds won the league in 1992, Chelsea fans barely flinched.
The rivalry only really picked up in 1996, when Brian Deane’s vicious ankle-stamp on Mark Hughes signalled the rebirth of Chelsea-Leeds hostilities. For the next few years, Frank Leboeuf, Lee Bowyer, Dennis Wise, Graeme Le Saux, Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate produced moments of quite stunning spontaneous cruelty. This was epitomised by George Graham’s side, who arrived at the Bridge in the winter of 1997 with no intention other than to kick Chelsea to pieces. It worked. Leeds had two players sent off before half time, but secured a valuable 0-0 draw. Ruud Gullit’s beautiful but fragile side were never the same.
As Chelsea rebuilt upon experienced foreign lines and David O’Leary went with native youth, the ideology again differed. This time Chelsea came out on top, picking up cups while Leeds imploded (Chelsea even scored, above, one of their greatest ever goals against Leeds). The two sides haven’t faced each other since Leeds were relegated in 2004, in which time Chelsea escaped their own financial reckoning, instead becoming one of the biggest clubs in the world. Leeds, meanwhile, have been scraping along in the lower divisions, the pain exacerbated by the fact they are now owned by much-despised former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates.
So to Elland Road, and while the two clubs have probably never experienced such a vast divergence in fortunes, the fans have been looking forward to this one for weeks. It might be epic, it might be a damp squib, but it will matter, and if we’re really lucky, it’ll be just that little bit toxic.
For people like me, there are few things more emotive than an empty football ground, filmed in 1979 in flickery Super-8 and overlayed by a haunting soundtrack. It’s like Simon Inglis’s first volume of ‘Football Grounds Of Great Britain’ come to life.
The current hoo-hah over the legacy of the Olympic Stadium and the squabbling between West Ham and Spurs offers an interesting reminder of how different the map of London football could have been.
In 1904, when the new owners of the vast Stamford Bridge athletics stadium in Walham Green decided they wanted to find a football club to play there, the first thing they did was ask Fulham.
Fulham were London’s first professional club and one with some potential, but surely not as long as they stayed in their tiny Craven Cottage stadium, cramped between residential streets and the River Thames. Stamford Bridge, a huge and modern ground, should have been a far more attractive proposition, but the Fulham chairman, Henry Norris, said no.
He would never again demonstrate such caution or traditionalist principles.
The stadium owners, the Mears family, eventually – after some prompting from Frederick Parker’s dog – decided to form their own club. Chelsea appeared in 1905, and thanks to expansive investment, almost immediately became the biggest club in London, drawing huge crowds that totally overshadowed poor Fulham and the rest of London football.
Norris took stock of this and decided the best thing to do was get the hell out of West London. He hopped over to Arsenal, then a struggling club with small crowds in Woolwich, took one look at the unpromising area and after briefly attempting to merge Arsenal and Fulham agitated instead for a move to North London, much to the fury of the existing and suddenly squeezed Tottenham Hotspur, who began to draw more of their support from East London, where West Ham resided. Tottenham’s overlap between East and North London is what makes the Olympic Stadium semi-logical but also vaguely heretical.
Over in South London, the absence of Arsenal allowed Charlton to step into their shoes, turning professional at almost the same time as Arsenal crossed the river. (Hat-tip Darryl, in the comments)
Suddenly, the map of London football had completely changed. Chelsea were the undisputed giants in the west, while Spurs and Arsenal shared domination of the north, with everybody else filling in the blanks.
Here’s a picture of Norris. Doesn’t he look like a nutter?
But has one man had a greater impact on London football?
Without his intervention, Chelsea wouldn’t exist, Arsenal would still be in Plumstead and Charlton would still be amateurs. Spurs and Fulham would almost certainly be the twin giants of London football. Indeed, Fulham, playing at Stamford Bridge and managed by Herbert Chapman (who Norris was later to recruit at Arsenal) could easily have become one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Fulham, champions of Europe – it could have happened.