Tales From The North Bank Of The River

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 26 April 2015.

Sometimes it often feels to me that the inhabitants of Planet Football have mindfully chosen to perpetually live as if they were children stuck in a particularly spiteful schoolyard where jagged and mean-spirited barbs are continually aimed at each of the other children’s football teams. I’m sure that football is not the only sport where this happens. On “Facebook” I often become privy to some occasionally nasty and rude conversations that take place between some US acquaintances as they discuss the merits of various college football teams, NFL teams or baseball teams. You can be sure it happens in Australian cricket, French rugby, Brazilian football and virtually all major sports currently being played too. Very often the debate is not about the abilities on show in the sport in question, but the personality disorders of players of hated rivals, sexual proclivities of other coaches and managers, to say nothing of the real or perceived differences between rival fan bases.

The reasons for this are many, but I suppose that the driving force for all this constant noise of abuse and antagonism is the desire to prove that your team, or club, is superior and aims to meet its goals in the correct way.

In football, it can get out of hand pretty easily.

There is a song which occasionally gets aired in and around football stadia, and elsewhere, about a certain Arsenal manager and a certain packet of sweets and a certain cheeky smile. To be honest, when we first heard this around twenty years ago it raised a smile, but as an example of how nasty a football song can be, there are few equals. I stopped singing it years ago. I can well remember being squashed inside a tube train en route to an Arsenal versus Chelsea game around ten years ago when the whole carriage seemed to be joining in. In the carriage were a few, only a few but a few nonetheless, young children. A good friend and I both rolled our eyes and admitted to ourselves that this was not a particularly edifying moment in our lives.

Sometimes Planet Football can be a cruel and painful place.

As the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game loomed on the horizon, the relative merits of both clubs came in to focus and the “banter” and dialogue on social media intensified. Out came the barbs once more. At times, I was back in the school yard. And I wondered to myself where I personally stood in this whole “us and them” thing. Of course, I’ve never liked Arsenal, why would I? In truth, I dislike Tottenham more. And yet there is something about Arsenal which annoys me intensely. It is their essential “Arsenalness.”

It is down to two things.

For the vast majority of their existence they have produced a rather humdrum and tedious brand of football, which even the doyen of all things Arsenal Nick Hornby has acknowledged. Yet since the arrival of Arsene Wenger, this “1-0 to the Arsenal” modus operandi has been airbrushed from the record books, with everyone inside and outside the media seemingly brainwashed into thinking that entertaining football has always been the Arsenal way. What nonsense. The memory of George Graham’s defensively strong Arsenal team of twenty-five years ago still lingers.

And then we need to talk about Arsenal supporters. For a sport which has traditionally drawn its support from the working classes, I never fail to be amazed with how painfully middle class the Arsenal support appears to be; they spend their entire life chattering, complaining, bickering, but never realising how lucky they are. This sense of entitlement, which I sadly see creeping in to certain sections of our support, really annoys me. What right have do Arsenal fans think they have to silverware? When Chelsea went without a single piece of silver for twenty-six years, did we wail and moan? No. We simply fucking got on with supporting our club, through hell and high water. Just imagine if Arsenal were to be relegated. The screams of torture emanating from North London would keep inhabitants of Australia awake at night.

And, of course – of course! – the Arsenal fans of 2015 are never shy in singing the two favourites, much beloved in school yards everywhere :

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Shit club, no history.”

Again, there is this insistence within Arsenal’s support – and other teams too – that our success of late is unwarranted due to our perceived lack of historical clout. I need to readdress this view.

Back in around 2002 or so, before anyone knew who Roman Abramovich was, I stumbled across a discussion on a Chelsea fans forum, which totally changed the way that I felt about my club. Back in 2002, even I was beginning to believe the media’s view that we were a mid-sized club. True, I knew that Stamford Bridge had hosted huge crowds, but I also knew that our support had dwindled from the late ‘seventies to the mid ‘nineties. Crucially, it was this era – the most recent – that fans of other teams had referenced in discussing our small support base. Of course, most other teams’ support had dropped in this period too, yet it seemed that it was only Chelsea that was ever mentioned.

In this forum, average attendances were being discussed, and – salvation – somebody posted a link to a Newcastle United forum which, for a lover of statistics like myself, I found to be utterly fascinating.

Here, was a complete list, ranked in order, of every Football League club’s average home attendance, taken from their first season to the most recent. My heart skipped a beat when I realised that “little old Chelsea”, far from being a mid-ranked team, was the fifth-best supported club in England and Wales.

So, as of 2002 (though I think this list might well date from a year or two later when it was updated slightly), the numbers do not lie :

  1. Manchester United – 36,165
  2. Liverpool – 33,591
  3. Tottenham Hotspur – 33,386
  4. Arsenal – 31,692
  5. Chelsea – 31,113
  6. Everton – 30,917
  7. Newcastle United – 30,675
  8. Manchester City – 28,403
  9. Aston Villa – 27, 806
  10. Leeds United – 25,689

Of course, all sorts of things jump in to my mind here, but one key point needs to be addressed. Whereas in 2002 all of the clubs above us in this table had accumulated many more trophies than us, our support throughout almost one hundred years had stayed remarkably buoyant. Yes, Arsenal – for example – had won twelve or thirteen league championships in their storied history, but their average home gate was a mere 578 more than that of Chelsea, who had accumulated just one league championship to that point.

So, rather than the old notion of Chelsea’s support being poor, I would strongly suggest that our support has been historically the most unappreciated and arguably the most loyal of all.

I just wish that this little gem of statistical fact could easily be relayed into a witty terrace chant.

That would shut the bastards up.

My football weekend had encompassed a nervous ninety minutes watching my local team, Frome Town, eke out a 1-1 draw with St. Neots Town on the Saturday. The draw ensured survival for the fourth straight year at our highest ever level in the football pyramid, though this was due in part to the disappearance of former Football League club Hereford United around Christmas; thankfully, only three teams were relegated, not four.

On the Sunday, Parky and I decided to do something a little different. Everyone else seemed to be meeting in a Chelsea stronghold – The Shakespeare’s Head – at Holborn, which is where I have tended to assemble for Arsenal away games for ages, but I parked by the Fullers Brewery at Chiswick and we went on a really excellent pub crawl along the River Thames. We spent a few hours in four different pubs – The Old Ship, The Dove, The Rutland Arms, The Blue Anchor – before catching the Piccadilly Line east and then north at Hammersmith. This part of London is not specifically Chelsea territory – it is closer to Fulham’s ground – and I am sure that hardly any Chelsea match-going fans drink this far out on match days, but it is a pub crawl that we definitely want to repeat. Each pub was different, each had its own charms and each had lovely views of the river. There were blue plaques everywhere. The pubs are on the course of the University Boat Race. There was history and charm aplenty. Quirky and magnificent, it was a part of London that I had not yet witnessed until then. We’ll do it again.

Our meandering walk on the north bank of the river reminded me of the peculiar nature, in some respects, of our support. Yes, Chelsea is on the north side of the Thames, yet we have an SW6 postcode, and our traditional working class support was based not only in Fulham and Hammersmith but south of the river in Chelsea strongholds such as Battersea, Wandsworth and further south into Mitcham, Tooting and beyond. Arsenal, by contrast, eked out an existence south. That meandering Thames in its last twenty miles heading through the nation’s capital city has helped define and confuse the sense of geography of two of its teams.

Chelsea – north in location only, southern in spirit.

Arsenal – roots in the south, now in the north.

As soon as we entered “The Shakespeare’s Head” – packed with familiar faces and hardly any Arsenal – a new Chelsea song entered my consciousness. For a good ten minutes or more, it was non-stop. I quickly tried to work out the words. Within a few minutes, I was joining in.

“Fabrgegas is magic, he wears a magic hat.

He could have signed for Arsenal, but he said “no, fuck that.”

He passes with is left foot, he passes with his right.

And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

For the current climate, in current circumstances, this was a rather light ditty, without any associated malice. The cruel school yard seemed distant. I texted the words to a couple of friends, but word had got out. The Chelsea section of the World Wide Web was heating up with references to – gasp – a new song.

Lovely stuff.

The team news came through; “no striker.” Ah, the game…I hadn’t thought too much about it. A draw would be fine from my perspective. It seemed that Jose Mourinho agreed. A draw would knock Arsenal and their 578 extra fans out of the title hunt. I geared myself up for a dour defensive battle. Mourinho doing a George Graham, but with tons more charisma.

The stations at Holloway Road and Arsenal were closed (at the latter, there was the sulphurous odour of a smoke flare, Chelsea at work no doubt) so we had to alight at Finsbury Park. This resulted in a delay; I missed the kick-off by ten minutes. There is no doubt, for all the negativity about the lack of atmosphere inside, Arsenal’s stadium is striking.

Chelsea, in all blue, were attacking the other end.

Courtois, Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Matic, Ramires, Oscar, Fabregas, Willian, Hazard.

My pre-match expectation of a dour defensive battle was not too wide of the mark. As the game progressed, I commented to Gary that Arsenal never really looked like threatening us.

“We can soak all this up all day long, Gal.”

The first-half provided me with more good opportunities to observe how well our defence plays as a unit. Only on a few occasions did the Arsenal players find space. In a first-half of few chances, a shot from Ramires was saved by Ospina after good work by Willian. Penalty shouts came and went; Ospina clattered Oscar and Fabregas was booked for simulation.

Our support was in good voice, with the Willian song and the new “Magic Hat” song providing the highlights. One thought kept filtering in to my mind though –

“How can 57,000 people make such little noise?”

It was not difficult to judge the mood of the home fans though. They seemed to be resigned to the fact that even a win against us would not be enough. I can hardly remember a rousing Arsenal song the entire game. There was only a rise in the volume from the home areas when Arsenal attacked. There was no solid backing throughout the game.

Jose replaced Oscar with Didier Drogba at the break. I hoped for a little more attacking verve, but there was little. Courtois dominated the box time and time again, forever seeming to thwart high ball after hall ball. I thought that Dave had yet another fine game of football, but the star of our team was John Terry, who was simply magnificent. Walcott and Welbeck entered the fray late on for Arsenal, but we kept them at bay. I noted that a considerable amount of home fans applauded Cesc as he was replaced by Zouma.

The point was well won, and the away fans roared. After the final whistle, the screams of pure delight from John Terry were captured by me on camera.

Inside, if I am honest, I felt a little flat. Yes, I would have taken a draw before the game, but this particular game of football will not live too long in my memory. I felt a little empty. I wondered if it was only me experiencing these feelings. Sigh.

Outside, a little army of away fans had congregated outside the turnstiles and were baiting the home fans in the lounge and bar areas above. One song dominated.

It was magic.

We made our way south, back to Hammersmith, then repeated our footsteps back to the waiting car. As the evening sky was reflected in a resting River Thames, thoughts turned to Leicester City on Wednesday evening. Another win there and we will almost be home.

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