Build up to Chelsea

Wednesday 6 March 2002

From Ian McCulloch...

I came across an old book about London the other day. It wasn't dated, but I'm guessing that it was probably published in the twenties or possibly early thirties. As these things usually do, it makes a fascinating read.

What really caught my eye was the section entitled "London's Sports and Pastimes". With our game against neighbours Chelsea fast approaching, it seemed particularly pertinent, so I thought I'd reproduce some of it here.

"Association football," it said, "Has developed into a business, a tremendous and keenly competitive business, and in no other part of the country is it pursued with greater orderliness, honesty and enthusiasm. In some instances, no doubt, its directors earn substantial repayments for the money they have sunk in the club, and there is one London club secretary who earns a thousand a year.

"The turnover of these clubs is inevitably large, and a fair estimate of it might easily be gauged from the statistics supplied officially of the record "gates" and receipts at the different grounds. The Chelsea ground at Stamford Bridge has held 77,959 people, and on one special occasion, when the prices of admission were increased, a sum of no less than £13,414 was taken, although on an average Saturday, provided the ground is full, the amount would be round about three thousand pounds.

"Until a few years ago, when the Wembley Stadium was built, the Stamford Bridge enclosure was the largest in the London district. During the summer season, when football is not played, it is now used for athletic meetings and baseball contests.

"In July the Amateur Athletic Championships are usually decided there; competitors from nearly every country in Europe are attracted, and often athletes from across the Atlantic. But Stamford Bridge in July! What does it suggest to those who know this famous sports arena only at football time, a picnic party or an oven? Well, considering that there is not a green branch in sight, and that bricks and mortar rule the horizon east, south, north and west, the oven is certainly near one's thoughts; and to the faithful crowd which assembles to cheer on the runners and leapers nothing would be more welcome than one of the little winds that whistle there fit for icicles while Chelsea are trying to beat their football rivals on wintry Saturdays.

"Yet although a more fitting environment for summery pastimes might possibly be chosen, the sight of those perfectly trained athletes, reminding us of the Greek Hermes, the fleet footed, "running quickly, having wings attached to the sandals upon his feet," is a splendid one, even at Stamford Bridge.

"So are its football spectacles. The beauty of football is to be felt at Highbury and Tottenham also, where two other first-class sides have their homes, the Arsenal (so-called because originally their headquarters were at Woolwich) and Tottenham Hotspur, familiarly referred to as the "Spurs". The Highbury ground (near Gillespie Road Underground railway station) has held sixty thousand and £3,947 has been taken at the turnstiles in a single afternoon. The Tottenham ground, just off the high road to Edmonton and Enfield, has held fifty-five thousand people, who have paid £6,956 - although this figure represents increased charges on a special occasion."

Be patient, there will be a mention of Fulham, I promise.

"A few miles east of Limehouse and the widely-known West India Docks on Thames-side is another football field of first-class importance in London - that belonging to West Ham United. Here the holding capacity is forty thousand, a considerable reduction on that of Chelsea, Tottenham or the Arsenal."

It's coming, get ready.

"But even so, the ground is much larger than any of those played on by the professional teams of lesser importance, such as Fulham (who play near the Bishop of London's palace in the west), Clapton Orient (at the bleak edge of Hackney Marsh), Millwall (sandwiched between several railway viaducts at New Cross), Queens Park Rangers (in view of the famous White City at Shepherds Bush), Charlton Athletic, Brentford or Crystal Palace. The average attendance at these grounds varies between six thousand and twenty five thousand."

That was it for Fulham - lumped in with the "teams of lesser importance" while the author waxes lyrical about the winged gods at what he evidently believed to be the biggest club in London - Chelsea.

I still have enormous trouble comprehending this. In my formative years as a Fulham supporter, when the Whites were in the First Division and fielded a team filled with internationals, as far as I was concerned we were one of the top clubs, always had been and always were going to be. Chelsea were rivals, although inferior in most ways, but on a par with us. The notion that they might be perceived as "bigger" than us, or having a better history or having achieved more, did just not enter my psyche.

The thirty years of hurt that I have had to endure since our First Division Days, with Chelsea largely ensconced in the top flight, have allowed the concept that perhaps they are doing better than us gradually worm itself into my brain. But now I'm confronted by the evidence that things have always been this way, that the period that I thought represented forever, was in fact just a little successful blip in a whole history of mediocrity.

But things are changing. The balance of power is shifting. It would be nice to get the result on Wednesday that would be a tangible indication of this movement, but it might be just a little bit too early for us. The important thing to remember is that this season is the first season of the rest of our lives.

Nothing is achieved overnight in football. When you look at the awesome Arsenal side that destroyed us the other week, it's hard to imagine how badly some of their players had struggled previously. The wonderful Thierry Henry was widely written off as not being a goalscorer, Robert Pires struggled for ages to find his feet or any sort of form, and even players like Stepanovs and Luzhny who were branded clowns after the 6-1 humiliation at Manchester United are now looking world class.

To build a team, let alone a club, takes years. This is the White's first tilt at the Premiership and all of our rivals have a considerable head start over us. But the signs are there, the foundations and the building blocks are in place, and the disappointment that everyone is feeling about a mid-table place and consolidation proves that there is no lack of ambition.

Payback time for Chelsea is coming, sooner or later. They've reigned as the big club in West London for too long - just be patient. And be assured, any London history books looking back at the first decade of the twenty-first century will start its football section by concentrating on Fulham, who resplendent in their new state-of-the-art stadium, went on to dominate in England and Europe, eclipsing all their rivals along the way.