‘Twas the night before Christmas: Chelsea v Manchester United, 24 December 1960

I think I must have had a very deprived childhood. Unlike more privileged folk I never witnessed anyone pissing on the terraces at a football match. My grandfather did, when he saw men up from the Northumberland pit villages relieving themselves at Newcastle United’s St James’s Park before the First World War. Over the years I’ve heard many others almost boast of it as the ultimate football fan experience, the badge of authenticity. But if the following tale is true, as told to me in the late Fifties,I’m not sorry to have given the whole thing a swerve.

Apparently,mid-way through the second half of a rip-roaring Chelsea match at Stamford Bridge, the jam-packed terraces were heaving and swaying when this bloke turns to his mate and says, ‘Oi, I’m dying for a piss, but I don’t want to miss the action’. His pal said, ‘Nah, don’t worry, just do it in that bloke’s pocket in front of you’. ‘I can’t do that,’ he said, ‘he’ll see me!’ ‘No he won’t’, his friend assured him, ‘I did it in your pocket in the first half, and you never noticed…’

I guess much water has passed under the Bridge since those happy, innocent times.

On the eve of Manchester United’s pre-Christmas top-of-the table clash with Chelsea I thought I’d share some memories of half a century ago, when I saw the Reds play the Blues for the first time, when I was aged 14. It may give some glimpses at the changing nature of football support, bearing in mind that for a time not so long ago the very term, ‘Chelsea fan’ was enough to fill some people with alarm and revulsion.

Happily, it wasn’t always like that.

Drake’s Ducklings

When I was first going to football there was never much particular rivalry between Manchester United and Chelsea or their supporters, although matches between them were usually top attractions, often with plenty of goals. There was none of the rancorous mutual antagonism of more recent times, no chants of, ‘Allo, Allo, Chelsea rent boy, Chelsea rent boy!’

I had been to Stamford Bridge as a neutral several times before I saw United there for the first time fifty years ago and I always liked the stadium and, strange to say in the light of their later appalling reputation, I also liked the fans. Their manager, Ted Drake, led the Blues to their first league title in 1955, an occasion marked by the United players under Matt Busby forming a guard of honour for the champions at the last match of the season at Old Trafford, just as they did 50 years later when the Blues won the Premiership under Jose Mourinho.

Chelsea had a terrific set of youngsters coming through, dubbed ‘Drake’s Ducklings, such as Jimmy Greaves, Barry Bridges, Peter Brabrook, and Bobby Tambling. They won the 1960 FA Youth Cup, prompting some people to make comparisons with the Busby Babes, so cruelly struck down in the Munich Air Crash a couple of years before. I was lucky enough to see the debut of Chelsea’s brilliant young goalkeeper Peter Bonetti against Manchester City in 1960, when ‘The Cat’ kept Denis Law at bay, beating out or tipping over shot after shot, while City’s Bert Trautmann conceded three at the other end. Ironically, I was desperate for Law to fail, in the hope that City had bought a dud. Strange how one’s perspective can change.

The Bridge

I always enjoyed going to Stamford Bridge, which was construced in 1905, and looked totally different from its modern incarnation, with a long stand designed, inevitably, by Archibald Leitch, who was responsible for an incredible range of football grounds such as Fulham, Tottenham and of course Old Trafford. Where the Bridge was different was in it’s overall lay-out, a large, irregular oval arena, with that one main stand along the east side, facing vast expanses of open terraces round the other three sides, plus a small ,shaky-looking two-tiered stand tucked at an odd angle on the north end. The legendary Shed was to the South, not much more than rudimentary covering at the back of the steep terracing where the most fanatical supporters congregated. It was all a bit ramshackle in those days, open-to-the-elements and wind swept, very different in atmosphere from the other, more enclosed football grounds in London. It was also in a very different location, not at the edge of town or in some working class district, but close to the West End with its clubs, restaurants, hotels, theaters, up-market shops and fashionable society in one direction, close to much poorer council estates in the other. Later in the decade of course the nearby King’s Road became the epicentre of the Swinging Sixties, and a girlfriend of mine worked in a boutique there. (In the words of the old Fats Domino song, ‘Hello, Josephine, how do you do? Do you remember me baby, like I remember you?’).

Perhaps because of its location, the social composition of crowds at the Bridge always seemed somewhat different from elsewhere, even then. Actors, musicians and music hall stars had always frequented matches, right from the start, just as media folk, comedians and celebs do now, along with people from the estates, and, who knows, maybe some rent boys.

Terry & Bobby and a packet of fags

On that December Saturday afternoon in 1960 I made the long trek up from home in Amersham, Bucks, in my usual state of excitement, all my Christmas shopping done, decorations up, glad to escape the pre-Xmas tensions at home, aware as I was that my parents’ marriage was on the slide, not to mention my much-loved grandmothers who’d be competing for attention on the day. My brother, who at 16 was increasingly ‘semi-detached’ would have gone to Spurs at the Lane. When I came out of Fulham Broadway Underground station I popped into a newsagent to get the usual souvenir evening papers, when who should I see but two youthful Chelsea first-team regulars buying cigarettes, possibly Woodbine’s or Player’s Navy Cut. Bobby Tambling strode past me out of the shop with the mean and scary look of a gunfighter, followed by Terry Venables, already with that affable Cockney barrow-bow grin. People always say you’d see players on the bus or mingling with fans in those days, and it was true. Tambling went on to become Chelsea’s all-time top scorer, with 202 goals in 370 appearances, and he looked a pretty cocky, feisty character, ready in an instant to bang the ball in, no messing. Happily on this day he fired only blanks, while the future ‘El Tel’ was dropped for the match, perhaps accounting for the somewhat fixed quality of his facial expression.

Rattles in the darkness

I bought the match programme for sixpence, which was good value as it was always a well-produced, 16-page, illustrated publication (slightly better than United’s 12 pages for fourpence). I got inside the stadium with ease and worked my way round to the Shed end, not that I knew the name then, or its later reputation. I was high up in the open, no covering, and it was cold and wintry, leaving breath hanging in the damp, misty air. The attendance was a disappointing 37,600, well down on the previous season when it tipped the scales at over 66,000 ( for a 3-6 home defeat).One always felt high up at the Bridge on those endless steep terraces which afforded wide views of the London skyline as the skies darkened, Christmas lights twinkling here and there. The pitch was worn and heavily sanded, the surface very typical of the period, a bit rough and ready. I could see quite a few United fans with red & white scarves, who clearly felt no sense of threat from the home supporters. There were a few old-fashioned football rattles, although by 1960 such things were losing favour. I’d been given one, probably an old air-raid warden’s warning-device from the Blitz, a big wooden ratchet affair that you whirled round your head to make a loud staccato clacking sound. I never had the nerve to take one to a game, plus they were quite heavy. But here I did hear some clacketing away in the distance before kick-off, building up a bit of atmosphere in the gathering gloom as the sun went down with a faintly apocalyptic glow on the horizon.

Neither United or Chelsea were having a great season, and both were languishing in the lower half of the old First Division . The Red Devils had only chalked up one away victory so far and lost eight on the road with two draws. Chelsea were little better, but at least they had the league’s top scorer, Jimmy Greaves, with an amazing 25 goals in 20 appearences.

The first half

Given United’s inconsistency I was hardly optimistic about how this game would go, but in fact they were in top form right from the start, unleashing wave after wave of attack, hitting the woodwork on Bonetti’s goal five times in the first quarter of an hour, one shot from the imperious Bobby Charlton shuddering the cross-bar. He was notionally on the left wing but was marauding inspirationally across the line, linking up with Albert Quixall on the right wing with the side-burned kid Mark Pearson and the hulking Alex Dawson through the middle. Little Nobby Stiles was at ‘inside right’, having made his debut as a wing-half a few weeks before.When Chelsea could break out, the crewcut Maurice Setters and 17-year-old Jimmy Nicholson kept Jimmy Greaves cannily subdued, although, in a constantly moving, end-to-end game, chances were continually created at both ends, and United’s goalkeeper Harry Gregg had to make some agile saves, much to my delight as I gazed down at my hero. In front of Harry was the towering Bill Foulkes, twice a title-winner with the Babes before Munich, only recently switched from his old position of right-back to centre half. He was now complete master of his new role, utterly dominant in the air, heading away crosses or lofted upfield punts with ruthless conviction, giving height and distance to his headers in a away I’d never previously seen from United centre halves such as Ronnie Cope or poor old Frank Haydock. In direct opposition to Bobby Tambling was Seamus Brennan who was finally in his best position, right back, just as he was in the European Cup Final eight years later, having tried at least three other roles with limited success. Shay was also facing Frank Bluntstone on his flank, a popular figure who later joined the youth coaching staff at Old Trafford. At left back, confonting Chelsea’s pacy winger Brabrook, there was the studiously classy and cerebral left back, Noel Cantwell,recently signed from West Ham, a future team captain and FA Cup winner in 1963. It was Christmas, but I can’t honestly say if United fans were yet singing ‘The First Noel’ in his honour, as they certainly did in years to come.

The first half was thrilling entertainment, enough to warm the hearts of both sets of supporters on this insidiously cold and damp afternoon. It was getting so dark the floodlights had to be switched on after about twenty minutes, which somehow added to the magic, as the whole pitch took on a luminous quality.

Visibility beyond the stadium faded to inky blackness, adding a feeling of enclosure and intensity to the proceedings, which never let up. Sometimes football can be totally exhilerating for its own sake, even when there’s nothing immediately at stake, no trophy to be won or lost, and this was one of those games. Perfect Christmas fare.

Whenever there was any drama on the pitch, the crowds on the terraces would surge forward in a great lunging motion, which could be quite un-nerving, pushing you down fifteen or twenty steps. The mass spasm would recede and calm would be restored , until the next time. Where I was standing I noticed much of this originated from The Shed behind me , and I edged warily away away, not through fear of violence, but to avoid the massive convulsions. I found a crush bar which I stood in front of, giving me a bit of protection behind.

Surprisingly, after all the chances created , it ended goal-less at half time.

Second Half: ‘Our Kid’ hits the back of the net

In a blur of action at the start of the second half Bonetti had to save four times in quick succession from Pearson twice, Quixall and Charlton before our Bobby finally broke the deadlock in the 49th minute. World Cup Winner Sir Bobby Charlton, now in his seventies, has become such a revered figure in the national consciousness, it’s good to remind people that he was young once, and still making his way in the game. At the time of this Christmas Eve match he was still only 22, although already a fairly experienced , goal-scoring England International, frequently tagged with names like ‘Bobby-Soxer’ or ‘Thunderboots’ for his ‘cannonball’ shooting. In many ways he was still just a youth (known as ‘Our Kid’ to brother Jack and the family) and he attracted a tremendous, almost pop-idol following among youngsters like me, not just United fans, but across the board.

This adulation was not just for Bobby’s boyish good looks or his breathtaking football skills and supreme sportsmanship, but above all for the quiet, almost humble dignity he displayed after his survival from the Munich Disaster, when eight of his friends and team-mates were wiped out and many others severely injured. Bobby’s injuries were comparitively minor and he returned to action soon after the crash and helped propel United to the 1958 FA Cup Final. But as the most talented player at Old Trafford he took upon himself a tremendous sense of obligation to those who had passed, which in the initial years of struggle must have given him an enormous, frowning burden of responsibility. Part of that was a determination to play football in the expressive, creative, entertaining, attacking spirit by which the the Busby Babes had lived, winning two league titles before the Crash. On days like this at Stamford Bridge, Bobby must have felt he was discharging at least some of his his duty in the best way possible, with a thrilling display of passing and shooting with power and precision.

United’s first goal came from a move involving Quixall and Dawson who placed a surprisingly delicate throughball to Bobby who’d suddenly found space in the middle of the penalty area. He controlled the ball, surged past defender Bobby Evans, drew The Cat and then buried it with a flicked shot of clinical accuracy with the outside of his left foot. As usual in London, United’s goal was greeted with a mighty roar, almost as though they were the home team. ‘Cockney Reds’? ‘Glory Hunters’? Who knows, there were lots of them, and United were only 15th in the league before kick off.

The second goal came when Dawson and Pearson worked their way through the wreckage of Chelsea’s defence with a close-passing movement culminating in a walloping right footer from the muscular Scottish centre forward. Dawson’s well-merited goal came with a little over twenty minutes to go, and looked to have clinched it. But there was a late flurry of action as Gregg was forced to make some courageous saves. Then Bluntstone pushed past Brennan and put across a neat pass to Brabrook, who scored with simplicity at the far corner. A sloppy and annoying lapse, but no matter, the final whistle blew and United had the points in the bag, and I had my early Christmas present.

Final Score: Chelsea 1 Man United 2: Poetry in Motion

I have fond memories of that victory at Stamford Bridge fifty years ago, blended in my mind with two songs which kept reverberating in my mind as I headed home , both riding high in the singles charts at the time, Johnny Tillotson’s ‘Poetry In Motion’ hitting No1 in January 1961. Of course it’s a simple pop love song, and it’s about a girl, but it always makes me think of how Bobby Charlton played that afternoon, with ‘lovely locomotion’ that ‘kept my eyes wide open’. Yes, to me Bobby Charlton was always ‘Poetry in Motion’.

The other record, ‘You Talk Too Much’ had been in the charts since November 1960, a New Orleans R&B novelty song by Joe Jones, ideal for singing under one’s breath against anyone annoying, such as a teacher, or a know-all Chelsea supporter on the Underground slagging off United .So this is what I found myself mouthing away as I joined the packed throng of cheesed-off Chelsea fans heading for Fulham Broadway.

You talk too much

You worry me to death

You talk too much

You even worry my pet..

You just talk, talk too much!’

To make things worse for disconsolate Blues that Christmas, United beat them 6-0 at Old Trafford on Boxing Day.

Despite the wealth of talent coming through at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea stumbled in the next couple of years, foolishly selling Jimmy Greaves in 1961, one of the greatest goal-machine geniuses I’ve ever seen, and they plunged into relegation in 1962. Ted Drake was replaced by ex-player Tommy Docherty who brought them straight back up, boasting that the youths coming through the Chelsea scouting system were better than those at Old Trafford. ‘They came off that conveyor belt’, he said, ‘like shit off a shovel’.

Under the Doc, things did look up, but United’s recovery was more emphatic, winning the FA Cup in ’63, five years after Munich, and the league in 1964-65, when Chelsea came third.

Docherty of course later took over as Manager at United in the 1970s and promptly took them down to the old Second Division in ’73-74, before bouncing up again the following season. He remains a controversial figure in both Chelsea and United history, promising much only to somehow blow it with both clubs. At least United suppoerters can thank him for preventing Liverpool winning an unprecedented Teble in 1977, when United’s victory over them in the FA Cup Final was United’s first trophy for nine years.

‘Chelsea fans’

When I look back to 1960, it really was a haven of peace at Stamford Bridge. I was 14, on my own, far from home, and I never felt a moment’s anxiety, there was no threat from rival fans, kids were safe, all which prompts the question once famously put to George Best: Where did it all go wrong?

In this season of good will here is not the time to dwell on the case against the stereotypical Chelsea fan except to say that at times they really did live up to their own worst reputation. No one would seriously claim United fans were angels through the Seventies and Eighties, but for all the brawling mayhem they frequently caused, some of which is fondly remembered as the time of their lives by some protagonists, there was always something darker and nastier about a significant section of Chelsea’s support, which was violent, racist, anti-semitic, and linked to extremist political parties such as the National Front and BNP. When shaven-headed thugs are orchestrating disruption and intimidation aged in their 40s and 50s it’s hard to shrug off their behaviour as ‘youthful excess’. In those bad old days they were far from alone but they came to epitomise all that was rotten at the heart of football.

The warning signs were there as early as the Sixties. When I went to see United as reigning League Champions at Stamford Bridge in November 1967 ( it was a 1-1 draw), there was a centrepage spread in the programme about crowd trouble the previous week at White Hart Lane involving mass fighting between Spurs and Chelsea fans. The police had been obliged to dive in behind the goal in mid-match to put a break on the violence. As the programme asked, WHAT IS FOOTBALL COMING TO?

In line with Chelsea’s consistent policy for the next twenty-plus years, it was argued that this was not football’s problem as such, but ‘the nation’s’. To give some inkling of how nasty things were getting the programme listed some of the weapons confiscated from supporters at the Lane: ‘a meat-hook, a metal cosh, a weighted sand-bag, leather straps, paint sprays, a dog-chain, jagged coins…a mallet’.

1973: Chelsea fans at their best…

It’s strange that even in the worst days of hooliganism, the Bridge crowd could rise to a certain nobility at times. I was there on the last day of the 1972-73 season when Bobby Charlton played his final game for United before retirment. Chelsea won 1-0 quite comfortably as Bobby, United’s top scorer in the league with a mere 6 goals, fought manfully to rouse the mediocre team around him, with scant success. He left the pitch at the end with a drawn, tense and emotional expression on his face, after a record 759 apprearences for United, being consoled and applauded by the Chelsea players, led by the great Peter Bonetti. I felt sad and bereft as he hastened towards the changing rooms, wiping his eyes, but the Shed rose to the ocassion magnificently, bringing a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye as their chant spread into a roar round the stadium (apart from the old East Stand, in the process of demolition): ‘We want Bobby, We want Bobby!’

…and worst (1994)

However, remembering that Christmas Eve match fifty years ago also reminds me quite forcefully of a tiny little event some 34 years later, also in the festive season, the traditional time for Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Men, but perhaps not for little children at Chelsea. Suffer them, and so on.

I witnessed this small but revealing little incident on Boxing Day, 1994, which I hope had no lasting significance, although it would surely have shocked Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle if he’d seen it. It involved a small boy eagerly looking forward to watching United, the reigning Double Winning Champions, with his father, for a morning kick-off. I’m guessing, but I suspect it was an Xmas treat, perhaps the first time he’d see his heroes in the flesh.

I was going to meet up with my brother and his family and others in the new East Stand, the precipitously steep edifice that eventually replaced Leitch’s old 1905 structure. My wife dropped me off near Fulham Broadway, commenting as I got out that the Chelsea fans looked pretty intimidating (she’s never been to a match in over 30 years of marriage). I airily told her not to worry, it’s all a bit of a show. Then when I began walking to the stadium I happened to notice a small boy in a red and white bobble-hat and scarf, holding his father’s hand, looking all bright-eyed and excited. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a group of burly, pot-bellied, shaven-headed (I’m tempted to say Nazi-chic bullet-headed) middle-aged supporters. They suddenly lurched forward to block the kid and his Dad on the pavement. ‘Take off that fucking silly hat, you cunt!’ one of the men bellowed belligerantly right up close in the little boy’s face, which crumpled in fear and distress, a picture of punctured Christmas cheer. Then the men all began chanting in unison, ‘Wanker! Wanker! Wanker!’

The pair hastened away, with God knows what thoughts in the child’s mind. I felt sick and a little ashamed I didn’t have the guts to have a go at these sleaze-bags, guiltily relieved the boy was well gone before I could do anything to help.

It was with special relish that I celebrated United’s 3-2 win that day, courtesy of goals from Mark Hughes (soon to join the Blues in the following season), an Eric Cantona penalty and a delicious clincher from Brian ‘Choccy’ McClair. My brother was very put out, as he’d hoped to see United beaten. He announced to the world that ‘Your’e fucking Weetabix, Chelsea’, much to the embarrassment of his oldest daughter, a schoolteacher. Crumbly cereal or not, Chelsea were certainly second best in almost every department, while United were orchestrated by the majestic Cantona. Who was to know that his life-changing kung-fu moment was less than a month away?

Holly & Jessica: Blues & Reds United (2002)

However unpleasant some Blues can be, there really is another side of Chelsea , as I know from the many fans where I live in South West London, several of whom I played football with until last year (and will again when health and fitness return).

So let us finish with a very different, rather touching memory in the new Stamford Bridge, an occasion in August 2002 when Chelsea and United fans could briefly come together for a commemoration which was peaceful, moving, and a timely reminder that we all have more that binds us than divides us. It probably helped that the Blues manager at the time was the palpably decent Claudio Ranieri.

Many of you will remember the horrific Soham Murders in that year, when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, two 10-year-old girls were killed in a sickening manner in their small Cambridgeshire village. In what became an iconic image, somehow representing the eternal values of childhood innocence that had been so horrifyingly violated, the two friends were photgraphed wearing their treasured Manchester United shirts, with their favourite player’s name emblazoned across the back: David Beckham. It was decided to hold a minute’s silence at football grounds round the country in their memory and United happened to be first as they were playing on a Friday night (because the police couldn’t cope with both the Noting Hill Carnival and a big match at the same time on the Saturday).

There were of course anxieties that elements in the Chelsea crowd would take against what some thought a mawkish event, especially as Beckham was so central to its meaning.

Fortunately, the minute’s silence was impeccably observed by everyone, and it became a surprisingly deep and thought-provoking moment about children and the transience of life. When the ref’s whistle blew to signal the start of the silence, Becks gazed heavenwards with his eyes closed, hands clasped as if in prayer before lowering his head and putting his hands behind his back like his team-mates alongside him.It could have seen a tackily self-dramatising gesture, but it somehow conveyed a convincingly sincere message about his love of children, the kinder side of a much-maligned celebrity. Nearby the Chelsea team were lined up in a row, arms round each others’ shoulders, heads bowed. It was a dignified and respectful ceremony, showing football’s abiding capacity to nourish the roots of community.

However, just in case this all seems totally naive sweetness and light, perhaps we should remember that the day before the match, Chelsea players John Terry and Jody Morris had appeared in the Middlesex Guildhall Court in a case involving serious anti-social behaviour. They were were cleared of all charges, but neither came away with enhanced reputations,regardless of the verdict. United fans have long despised Terry, except of course when he helpfully sliced his penalty wide in the Champions Legue Final of 2008. He’s never been so popular.

For the record, that game in 2002 was an absolute cracker and ended in a 2-2 draw. Chelsea took the lead after a goalkeeping error gave William Gallas an easy opener in the third minute. David Beckham appropriately enough equalised with a stunning left-foot shot, having controlled a glorious raking cross-field pass from left back Mikael Silvestre. Then early in the second half Boudewijn Zenden gave Chelsea the lead again with a flashing shot from the edge of the area, when Red defenders failed to close him down. It took a magnificent volley from Ryan Giggs, again from a long Silvestre cross, to salvage the draw. It was Giggsy’s 100th goal for United, and it gave United a vital point on what became a successful attempt to win the Premier League title, dramatically overtaking Arsenal at the death.

Before closing, in remembering that classic encounter in 2002, we shouldn’t avoid a touch of controversy. That 2-2 result should have been 3-2 to United. Paul Scholes was brought down by Carlo Cudicini in the box, and it should have been a penalty kick. I had a perfect view of it, and like most people in the ground I knew it was ‘nailed on’. It will be no surprise to United supporters to hear that the referee that day was – inevitably- the wretched Graham Poll, with Andy D’Urso running the line.

Much has been made of the surprising fact that United have not won at Stamford Bridge for eight years, since a 3-0 win in April 2002. Most United fans believe we were robbed last year by several monstrously bad refereeing decisions against Chelsea, ultimately costing us the title by one point.

There have been other grievances in previous years, such as the penalty denied in 2002. I’m not bitter or anything, but I really would like to see some decent refereeing this weekend, and a match conducted in the generous spirit of 1960. The same result wouldn’t come amiss either. If Sir Bobby’s there to witness the moment when Sir Alex Ferguson overtakes the late Sir Matt Busby as the longest-serving manager at Old Trafford, even better.