As I sat outside the Neasden branch of Tesco sipping my second can of Carlingsberg Extra Stripe and feasting on a sandwich stuffed with sausage, egg and what was almost certainly bacon, I was supremely confident that nothing could ruin my day.
We had just beaten Blackpool in the play-off final, and while my plan to find a welcoming pub away from Wembley itself and sink a few celebratory pints had gone awry, I was looking forward to getting home, ordering a curry, opening a bottle of red, and watching the game all over again. Two hours later the wine is poured, the Ruby is on its way and I am sitting expectantly in front of the TV, aching to relive the ecstasy of our glorious afternoon in the sunshine. What could possibly go wrong?
I will tell what went wrong. Chelsea – the team I detest like no other – won the Champions League. And I was forced to watch them do it to appease my son who, although claret and blue through and through, was adamant we had to watch the biggest club game of the season before replaying our own triumph. Anyway, he insisted, the hated Chelsea would lose to Bayern Munich, making our own victory that much sweeter when we watched it on Sky Plus. Only Chelski didn’t lose, did they? And, to make matters worse, they dragged it out into extra time and a penalty shoot out before they picked up the trophy that says they are, officially at least, the best side in Europe.
For me, that is harder to swallow than the dead rodent which the unfortunate Katie Crabtree found in her Tesco sandwich some weeks before I bought mine. But that’s Chelsea for you. Just when you think they can’t depress you any more than they already have, they go and do just that.
Those of you with grey hair and long memories will remember that back in 1970 Chelsea played Leeds in the FA Cup final. It was one of those games when you really want both sides to lose. As a naive 14-year-old I tried to convince myself after the first encounter at Wembley was drawn that they would slug it out for a couple of months in replay after replay, then the authorities would call the whole thing off with neither team being awarded the Cup because England had more pressing matters in Mexico that summer. But those hopes were dashed when the west London outfit won the second game at Old Trafford. As I say, that’s Chelsea for you.
The taunt from the glory hunters in blue is that we have become nothing more than a feeder club, and it has had a terrible ring of truth about it for too long. We can only hope the Gold/ Sullivan regime stabilises our position in the Premiership, enabling them to pay down some of the debt.
That way, there is a sporting chance we will no longer be forced to sell our best players every time Chelsea, or any other Champions League club, picks up the phone and makes that dreaded “inquiry”. The gulf between the two clubs really became apparent 10 years ago. It was heartbreaking to see so much young talent ripped from Upton Park after the disastrous 2002-03 season. And the pain was made even harder to bear by the fact that two of our brightest stars went to Chelsea.
The season had begun with such promise, if you recall. We’d had three players in the England squad at the World Cup. The side was a nice balance of experience (James, Sinclair, Kanoute) and youthful brilliance (Cole, Carrick, Defoe). We had captured the mighty Gary Breen after he’d starred for the Republic of Ireland in Japan and South Korea. And, if that wasn’t enough for you, we had the tactical genius of Glenn Roeder to guide us to the promised land. Too good to go down? We were destined for a place in Europe!
The reality, of course, turned out to be rather different. It would be wrong to pin the blame on Roeder for everything that went wrong that year, and we are all delighted he recovered from the terrible brain tumour that struck him down minutes after the Middlesbrough game had finished. But he does have to shoulder his share of the responsibility for the shambles that was played out in front of us week in, week out. I remember arguing with a bloke I knew that, given time, good old Glenn would get it right
What’s more, I pointed out with some pride, he was a really decent bloke who conducted each post-match interview with dignity and gravitas. “Get shot of him or he’ll get you relegated,” grunted my acquaintance, who clearly had more football acumen than I gave him credit for. You can probably guess which club he supported. The fact he had to store his blue flag where the sun don’t shine for a couple of games as we did the double over his team proved to be of little consolation as he was proved right and we slipped out of the Premiership – albeit with dignity, gravitas and a record points total for a relegated side.
Now, while you all take a moment or two to ponder the mystery of how a collection of so many top-quality players could contrive to finish in the bottom three, I will use the time to slip on my bulletproof vest and a hard hat before writing the next sentence. I think Terry Brown saved West Ham from total disaster after we were relegated in 2003.
Yes, that’s the same Terry Brown who presided over the ill-fated bond scheme, under which incredulous supporters were asked to part with the thick end of £1,000 for the privilege of being allowed to buy a ticket. Yep, honestly – I’m talking about the much-maligned £1.2m-a-year Terry Brown, who later left the club with a ticking timebomb by agreeing the Tevez and Mascherano deal with Kia Joorabchian, and then walked away with £33.4m after selling us to an Icelandic businessman whose financial affairs smelled worse than a beached trawler full of rotting cod. So, we’re clear about this: I am defending Terry Brown, whose worst offence in the eyes of many fans was to fence West Ham’s crown jewels after we were relegated. Guilty as charged, Your Honour. But at least he sold them for decent money, rather than letting them go at criminally low prices.
Brown held his nerve when a fire sale looked inevitable. The signs were ominous when Lee Bowyer and Les Ferdinand were allowed to leave on free transfers almost immediately the season was over. The pressure to offload highly paid players who would actually fetch some cash was enormous – and it grew day by as managers who knew we needed to sell bombarded Brown with requests for the likes of Cole, Carrick and Defoe. The crucial deal was the sale of Glen Johnson to Chelsea for £6m halfway through July. Yes, we all knew the boy had bags of potential, but he was still an unknown quantity in terms of top flight football. In short, Chelsea were prepared to take a punt – and Brown made sure they paid top dollar. By setting the bar at that level he was able to extract £2.5m from Manchester City for a fastfading Trevor Sinclair six days later. Then, at the beginning of August, he persuaded Tottenham to part with £3.5m for Kanoute, who had spent all season looking like he would rather be anywhere than Upton Park.
Sadly, one more still had to go. Sadder still for most of us, that other one was Joe Cole, who joined Johnson at Stamford Bridge for £6.6m. The following season they finished runners up to Arsenal in the Premiership, while we failed to secure automatic promotion. It was hard to take – made harder still by our inability to beat Palace in the play-off final – but, on the plus side, we were still solvent. And when you see what has happened to the likes of Leeds, Portsmouth and Coventry after relegation, that is a very big plus.
All we’ve got to do now to end those 10 years of pain is go out there on Saturday and give Chelsea the sort of hammering that was commonplace before Roman built his unholy empire. Come on lads, you can win this one. Do it for the fans. Do it for the manager. Do it for yourselves. And, most of all, do it for Terence “Terry” Brown. Without him, who knows where we’d be today?