Lager louts shut out, and it's for the best

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2007, 12:00am


On my last visit to Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC, the area postal code SW3 hadn't been quite so disparagingly rebranded as 'SW Twee'. A lot has changed since 1984.

While King's Road in Chelsea was a mecca for youth cults and trendy tourists, its environs a mix of wealthy homes and rundown local authority estates, it had yet to be completely gentrified by the wealthy and swamped by visitors to Prada. Last week, Kensington & Chelsea made headlines with a poll showing the royal borough had an average household income of GBP100,000 (HK$1.56 million) - not enough to buy the average borough house, priced at GBP765,000.

The figures are skewed by the arrival of the super-rich and City financiers, notably Chelsea's billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich. In 1984, while little Roman was throwing snowballs in a Siberian playground, once-glamorous Chelsea was in the old second division, playing clubs better known for hooliganism than playing prowess: Leeds, Cardiff, and my team, Portsmouth. It was in the darker days of English football, the Heysel tragedy still a year away, when fighting between 'casual firms' was fashionable.

Back then, Chelsea's now-comfortable, all-seated, all-covered home was a half-built, half-empty mix of terraces and a three-tier stand. At one end, fittingly called the Shed, fans stood behind wire fences, controlled by police in riot gear and on horseback. The fear of being kicked by a horse was as much imprinted on my mind as a horseshoe was comically imprinted on my friend's right buttock.

He just got too near. Back then, 'David' was a casual, a troublemaker. Now, he stops trouble. He's a police inspector.

Everyone - fans, policemen and horses - now behave better. And it's all down to money.

In 1984, it cost GBP2 to see Pompey (as Portsmouth is known to its fans) at Chelsea. Last Saturday, the cheapest adult match ticket cost GBP48, the most expensive in the premiership. Making the game hooligan-free has largely been achieved by pricing zealous youths out of the stadium - the average age at matches is now 43; mostly males corralled in seats, which - though more comfortable - subdue the atmosphere.

Chelsea has realised this. Although its supporters have always been a mix of lawyer, banker and thug - shown so redolently in the pub, where tattooed old boys with scarred cheeks sip beer alongside men in green linen Armani - the fans have always been noisy. No longer, it seems, which has prompted Chelsea FC to engineer a 'singing end', where those who want to sing can sit together.

But trying to recreate the old atmosphere is difficult: now, if you stand up and sing too much, you get chucked out.

But perhaps more indicative of how football, and London, have changed is match-day catering. In 1984, a drink for an away fan in a local pub - if open; many pubs closed on Chelsea match days - was like playing Russian roulette. Still, it was cheap: a pint was under GBP1. On Saturday, a pint in the Harwood Arms cost GBP4, a chorizo and ciabatta sandwich GBP9. At the White Hart, organic burgers are served, cooked on a wood-chip barbecue. Fans were drinking Pimms.

Many clubs, among them Spurs in North London, won't sell half-time beer to Portsmouth fans, for fear of rehydrating old reputations. They do sell pies, however. Well, 'hot, posh pizza pies' with 'real mozzarella', and at GBP4.80 a throw! No beer is allowed in the seating area and bottle tops are taken off mineral water bottles - it makes them harder to throw at home fans (mind you, at GBP2.50 a bottle, you are hardly likely to waste it).

My particular posh pizza had been rendered rock solid. It had been kept in the oven too long, explained the fawning catering manager wheeled out ceremoniously by a helpful steward to deal with my complaint.

'Would sir like to fill out a form. To make an official complaint?'

I was gobsmacked. 'Sir'? Such a kind, concerned manner is now imprinted on my mind like a police horse's hoof. Things have changed. And much for the better.