Sporting Passions: Roddy Doyle on his enduring love for Chelsea

‘It’s never boring following them. Even this season has had ridiculous twists and turns’

Roberto Di Matteo  scores for Chelsea in the first minute of the 1997 FA Cup Final against Middlesbrough at Wembley. Chelsea won 2-0 and it heralded an extraordinary rise in fortunes for the London club. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Allsport

Roberto Di Matteo scores for Chelsea in the first minute of the 1997 FA Cup Final against Middlesbrough at Wembley. Chelsea won 2-0 and it heralded an extraordinary rise in fortunes for the London club. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Allsport

 

Chelsea have been in my life for as long as I can remember.

I have a recollection of watching the 1967 final on telly. Black and white. Chelsea were playing Spurs and I decided I was up for Chelsea. They lost but it didn’t matter. That was it, for life. There was never going to be a divorce referendum between us.

If I try to think of anything else in my life that has been important to me for 54 years, music is just about the only thing that compares. Music and reading, of course. I always put the three things in the same bucket. The guys I hung around with as a teenager, we all loved football, we all loved music, we all loved reading.

There was never that dichotomy that seems to be more of the case nowadays, whereby you either love sport or you love reading or you love music but you’re expected to make your choice. When I was 16, there was no contradiction between kicking a ball and reading Flann O’Brien.

Football has always been there. It’s a string that goes all the way back from the age I am now to when I was a small kid. And it’s like a guitar string – when I sit down to watch a Chelsea match now, you can pluck that string and there’s no difference in the sound it makes for me as a 62-year-old man and what it did for me as an eight-year-old boy. I will still be shouting at the TV in the same way.

I watch all football, really. I have a season ticket at Bohs, which I obviously haven’t got a lot of mileage out of in the last year. But I’ll go when I can when the Friday nights come back. I love it. And I’m the honorary president of Kilbarrack United, which sounds very impressive, doesn’t it? So when it can happen, I’ll go back and stand on the sidelines and watch them.

Dave Mackay lifts the FA Cup on his head as he celebrates Spurs’ 2-1 win over Chelsea. “I have a recollection of watching the 1967 final on telly. Black and white. Chelsea were playing Spurs and I decided I was up for Chelsea. They lost but it didn’t matter. That was it, for life.” Photograph: George Freston/Fox Photos/Getty Images
Dave Mackay lifts the FA Cup on his head as he celebrates Spurs’ 2-1 win over Chelsea. “I have a recollection of watching the 1967 final on telly. Black and white. Chelsea were playing Spurs and I decided I was up for Chelsea. They lost but it didn’t matter. That was it, for life.” Photograph: George Freston/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Of all the things I’ve missed through the last 13 months or so, going to a match is right at the top of the list. Outside of family, obviously, if someone asked me what I would like to do if I could do anything, I wouldn’t have to give it a minute’s thought. I’d just love to go and see a game of football.

I was never any good as a player. That’s even overstating it. To say I was never any good might imply that I was mediocre. I wasn’t. I was shite. I was a coward, I had no positional sense, I wore specs. Everything was against me. But I just loved the game.

In a way, I think I enjoy it now more than ever. The fact that it went away for a while last year really brought it home to me how much I enjoy it.

I remember that Saturday in May when the Bundesliga came back and I found it quite touching in a way that the Germans had found a way to play football again, at a time when virtually the whole world had stopped doing it.

So I will watch all football. But Chelsea are my team. I’m quite content with having been stuck with them all these years. It’s never boring being a Chelsea fan. I lived in London for a couple of summers in the 1970s so that was when I went to see them in the flesh for the first time. But really, those were dreadful experiences.

The first game I went to was against Leeds, we were beaten 3-1. The first thing you saw when you got out of the Tube was police horses. And from the very beginning, all the way through the game, there was just this constant threat of violence hanging in the air. And it wasn’t just tension, it was actual violence in the crowd. It was always there and it totally put me off going.

They had an exciting team for a couple of seasons in the ’80s. Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, David Speedie, Paul Canoville. But that was sometimes awful too – the booing when Canoville got the ball was appalling. He got such terrible racist abuse, and from his own fans too. So I only went very intermittently after for a long time but I got back into the habit much more in the ’90s.

The level of change over the decades has been amazing. That’s the word I always use for it. Whether you view Abramovich’s involvement positively or negatively, it is genuinely amazing to me that a club that for so long just survived in the top division but would get relegated very few years and have a cup run every few years has become this giant. I never imagined anything like this would happen to them.

I went to the FA Cup final in 1997 and to Stockholm for the Cup Winner’s Cup final the following year. And these were incredible occasions, really massive achievements to be around for, having gone through a quarter of a century of nothing.

Chelsea players and manager José Mourinho celebrate the club’s first league title success in 50 years in May 2005. Photograph: Francis Glibbery/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
Chelsea players and manager José Mourinho celebrate the club’s first league title success in 50 years in May 2005. Photograph: Francis Glibbery/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

But then when Mourinho arrived and world-class players started coming – and it wasn’t just fading stars at the end of their careers like Gullit and Vialli and so on. These were players in their prime. Unimaginable.

And then to win the league – that hadn’t happened in all the time I had watched them. It hadn’t ever really been a possibility. And then to win it the following year as well, with great players like Makélélé and Drogba and all these guys. Amazing. Really genuinely extraordinary. Obviously I would prefer the German model of fan ownership but that’s not the way it is.

So it’s never boring following them. Even this season has had so many ridiculous twists and turns. It feels like about three seasons rolled into one. It started well and then it was bad and then it was good and then it crashed and then they got rid of Frank Lampard and now this guy Tommy looks to be the real deal. So God knows where it will go next.

I thought they should have given Lampard more time. I thought it was too early, I thought they knew what they were getting when they hired him and that he needed to be given time to gain more experience.

Roddy Doyle: Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Roddy Doyle: "I think as a football fan, you feel the rhythm of the week. You always know how far you are from a Saturday." Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

But they sacked him and, to be fair, Tuchel has been great. That’s the way of it, I guess. It’s a bit like when your dog dies. You’re absolutely heartbroken. You’re devastated. And two days later you go and get another one. Life goes on.

I keep an eye out for Chelsea news but I’m not a dead loss with it. I’m able to ignore it during the working day and catch up with it later on. I’m on the Chelsea website and I get notifications when something happens but I’m able to ignore it, largely. But in the evenings, because there’s always some class of football on somewhere, I keep an eye on scores all the time.

I have teams in most leagues that I keep an eye out for. You know the way people describe a game as “a great game for the neutral” – I don’t really buy that. I think that when there’s a game on, everybody picks a side whether they know it or not. You get a grá for teams on the slimmest of pretexts.

I was on a train one time heading to Cheltenham for the festival and I sat down beside a gang of Swindon fans just for a few stations. And the craic I had with them was fantastic. We got to my stop and I have never wanted to stay on a train more than I did that day – I would very happily have stayed on and gone to the Swindon match with them.

So ever since then, I keep an eye out for Swindon’s results. I do the same with Sunderland, ever since the Irish involvement there in the 2000s. I have a grá for Dortmund so I catch their games when I can and check their results. I wouldn’t be obsessive but I do find myself checking the phone to see how this team or that team got on.

I think as a football fan, you feel the rhythm of the week. You always know how far you are from a Saturday. Even though there’s football on all the time now, there’s something within every football fan that is almost reflexive. I often think that I could go into a coma for 45 days and somehow know when I woke up that it was a Saturday. And before I’d ask how the family was, I’d ask are Chelsea winning.

There’s obviously far too much football on TV these days. I hate the way it has been spread out during the pandemic. There’s massive diminishing returns there. The week should have a peak and a trough, there should be non-football days to make you at least feel some class of hunger for the days it is on.

But of course, I also know that the blame lies with middle-aged men. You see them everywhere. Middle-aged men who aspire to be managers, who talk in the lingo of punditry, who parrot Jamie Carragher and one-v-one and the system and all that nonsense. It’s almost a reason not to open the pubs up again when the lockdown is over, just to spare us all from these gobshites.

The game is a brilliant thing, whatever happens to it. I just love watching it. All the rest of the stuff, nobody needs it. There’s only so much Robbie Savage one can take.

In conversation with Malachy Clerkin

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