Culture shockas Chelsea face the dandy Dons

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 1997, 12:00am

THE districts of Chelsea and Wimbledon are separated by just a couple of miles of suburban southwest London but their respective football clubs are light years apart.

Chelsea are the capital's jet-set side these days, a mouth-watering blend of Italian, French, Romanian and homegrown talent under the guidance of their multi-lingual coach Ruud Gullit.

Wimbledon survive on a more traditional English league diet of locally-born players and a handful of Irish, Scottish and Welsh internationals.

Chelsea are the proud owners of their own ground, Stamford Bridge, in the heart of their up-market catchment area. Its capacity of 32,000 is expected to rise to around 41,000 when the latest phase of an ambitious redevelopment programme is completed.

The money fuelling the renovation is that of the late Matthew Harding, Chelsea's inspirational benefactor and multi-millionaire who was killed in a helicopter crash earlier this season.

Wimbledon, in stark contrast, no longer have a home in the leafy suburbs which host the world's most fashion-conscious tennis tournament.

Selhurt Park, the modest ground they currently share with First Division Crystal Palace, is several postcodes and a whole world away from the pristine lawns and ivy-clad walls of the All England club.

They were forced to uproot from their tiny Plough Lane site in 1991 and have been exiles ever since, despite protracted negotiations with the local council which they still hope will enable them to return to the district which gave them their name.

When it comes to fans, Chelsea have more than their fair share of Britain's rich and famous.

Prime Minister John Major and top film director Richard Attenborough both support Chelsea.

Labour Party leader Tony Blair and any number of media celebrities have been seen at the Bridge this season - especially when the TV cameras are there.

Wimbledon do not care who fills their seats so long as they pay at the turnstiles.

With the lowest attendances in the Premier League they cannot afford to be too picky about their clientele.

When the two sides meet in an FA Cup semi-final in neutral North London on Sunday, two contrasting south London worlds will collide.

On paper, Chelsea should breeze through to their second FA Cup final in four years.

On the pitch, Wimbledon are quite capable of spoiling the high-society party.

The feelgood factor has returned to Chelsea in the 1990s even if the silverware has not.

Gullit's side are playing with a swagger not seen since the early 1970s when Chelsea fans spent as much time in the trendy boutiques of the Kings Road as they did at the Bridge.

The heroes then were Peter Osgood, Bobby Tambling and Charlie Cooke, members of the team which lifted the FA Cup in 1970 and the European Cup Winners' Cup the following year.

Nowadays the idols at the Bridge are Italians Gianfranco Zola, Roberto di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli, French defender Frank Leboeuf, Romanian wing-back Dan Petrescu, and, on the rare occasions he plays, Gullit himself.

In 1971, when Chelsea were beating Real Madrid in the Cup Winners' Cup final, Wimbledon had been a professional club for just seven seasons and were slugging it out in a regional league.

It was to be another seven seasons before they fought their way into the 92-team football league.

The years following witnessed a fairy-tale rise to the heights of success which remains unparalleled in British football.

After a couple of seasons finding their feet in the lower reaches Wimbledon took off in 1982, ascending to the top tier of the English game in just four astonishing seasons.

On May 14 1988 they crowned their achievements by beating four-times European champions Liverpool at Wembley to win the FA Cup. Owner and managing director Sam Hammam famously described the event as 'the day the club lost its virginity'.

Surprisingly, of the two clubs, it is Wimbledon who have the longer, albeit less-accomplished history.

They were formed in 1889 as the Wimbledon Old Centrals, dropping the 'Old Centrals' from their name in 1905 - the year Chelsea came into being.