To Wembley the long way: Giles Smith, Chelsea fan, has been holding his breath for 24 years
In the last days of the crucial build-up period, I've been doing the responsible things - eating sensibly, getting plenty of sleep, avoiding injury. (To get this close and then take a knock and miss it . . . It doesn't bear thinking about.) I gave myself one last pre-Final run-out at home to Sheffield United last Saturday and felt pretty good, though, to be frank, I was going easy, hanging back from the physical challenges - the tea queue at half-time, the crush in the exits at 4.45.
So it's an early night tonight, up early tomorrow, probably a pasta or steak lunch, then just get to the ground and concentrate on the 90 minutes ahead.
Chelsea fans have waited a long time for this. Since the glory days of the 1970s (the Cup victory over Leeds in 1970, the European Cup Winners' Cup triumph over Real Madrid a year later) we've had nothing to get fit for, aside from the odd second division championship and the occasional victory in pro-am tournaments sponsored by car-hire firms. Otherwise, it's been rain-lashed mediocrity broken by bouts of woeful inconsistency, all tending to confirm the faintly jokey image which has hung around the club since way back. Asked why he left Chelsea in the 1960s, Jimmy Greaves said it was because he wanted to take up professional football.
Then, at the start of this season, Glenn Hoddle arrived as player-manager and turned our world around. Suddenly players were looking up before kicking the ball, passing to people on their own team, trying to think of something more interesting to do than punt the ball into the adjacent building site - basic things really, yet so many of our pounds 2,000-per-week superstars had been struggling with them. A new optimism gathered in the stands, and issued in a whole new repertoire of songs.
Hoddle, who is a spiritual man and talks a lot about visions and fate, had a dream that Chelsea would draw Barnet in the third round and go on to win the competition. And lo, we drew Barnet, so the rest is a foregone conclusion.
I wish I could say I'd always had faith, but I haven't. Hope and charity, yes. But faith, no. On the day Chelsea were travelling to Sheffield Wednesday for the fourth round replay, a friend asked me if he should place a bet on Chelsea to win the FA Cup. The bookies were quoting 40-1 at the time. I said he might as well toss his money directly out of the window. Was this cynical? No: it was informed reasoning based on long experience and hard evidence. And luckily, he ignored me.
With Chelsea at Wembley, fans are thinking directly back to 1970, bending the two occasions together as if determined to eclipse the time in between. Outside the ground recently, a man has been selling glossy coloured team photographs - not of the current team, but the charismatic 1970s cast, Osgood, Bonetti, Hudson, Cooke. Their ghosts have never really left Stamford Bridge. Until half way through this season, the team would run out to 'Blue is the Colour', the song recorded by the 1970 squad. (It was replaced, under Hoddle's orders, with 'Jump' by Van Halen; that's footballers and music for you.)
The 1970s were where a lot of the present fans came in. In those days, in the school playground, it was widely assumed that supporting a football club involved choosing between Chelsea and Leeds. Chelsea seemed almost limitlessly glamorous, right from their unusually charismatic players down to the club's location at what was then the heart of trendy London. Even now, it's an unusual place to find football. There can't be many English grounds situated next door to a shop selling designer wedding dresses.
As Damien Blake writes in the football magazine When Saturday Comes: 'Chelsea were the Beatles (attractive, clean-cut, fashionable) to Leeds' Stones (surly, violent, sexy, going out with Marianne Faithful)'. But, unlike the Stones, the Beatles split. In 1974, Osgood and Hudson fell out with the manager (there were artistic differences) and Chelsea have spent nearly every year since on the cabaret circuit.
There have been times when it has been embarrassing to be associated with Chelsea. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the club was followed by some of the most notorious hooligans in the land. No sooner had that problem died down than we got the Prime Minister and David Mellor.
But persistence pays. In the last month, I have done things I was beginning to think I would never do as a Chelsea supporter. I have been to Wembley (the semi-final against Luton was staged there); I have thought very hard about buying a nylon replica shirt with Dennis Wise's name on the back of it; and I have queued to buy an FA Cup final ticket.
They put them on sale on a sunny Sunday morning and we stood in line for nearly three hours. waiting three hours is a breeze when you've already been standing around for 24 years. People were kissing their tickets as they wheeled away from the box office. I was rather startled at this behaviour at the time but given that, since then, I have nervously checked my wallet probably twice daily to make sure my ticket hasn't mysteriously blown away or spontaneously combusted, I no longer feel able to comment.
And tomorrow, the road to Wembley. Or rather, not the road. An Arsenal-supporting friend, who inevitably knows more about this Wembley business than I do, has issued a sound warning against driving.
Meanwhile, another friend who supports Chelsea has written inviting me to join him on a chartered pleasure boat, setting off from Uxbridge at 8.00am, drifting mazily through the Colne Valley Country Park and arriving in Alperton, as he casually puts it, 'some four and a half hours later'. What is he thinking of? I could no more risk being afloat on the morning of Chelsea's first FA Cup Final in nearly a quarter of a century than I could risk trekking up to Wembley on a pony.
We'll be taking the Underground. We've checked the timetables. We've pored over the maps. And we'll be setting out shortly after dawn.
CHOPPER - THE BOY DONE WELL
The last Chelsea captain to lift the FA Cup was Ron Harris, known to his friends, and more particularly his enemies, as 'Chopper'. In a side containing the fluid dribbling skills of Charlie Cooke, the imaginative midfield play of Alan Hudson and the arrogant attacking skills of Peter Osgood, Harris functioned in defence as a steel bolt. His tackling brought a new dimension to the phrase 'over the top'. He was, in short, well hard. In 17 years at Chelsea, he made 794 appearances, which is still the club record. It helped that he made it a matter of principle to play even when injured. Geoff Hurst and George Best were just two of the era's silky-skilled prodigies to get short shrift from Chopper, but he is most
famous for an extraordinary 50-50 challenge with Liverpool's Tommy Smith
(if anything less cuddly even than Chopper) which, by rights, should have terminated both of their careers (and the careers of several other players in the vicinity). Harris stayed healthy enough to be still playing professionally at 35 - unlike many of the people he had met along the way. After leaving football, he dealt successfully in golf courses. He is now a millionaire and greyhound-owner.
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