Saturday’s FA Cup Final has been billed as something of a connoisseur’s delight. The question being asked is not so much ‘Who will win?’ as ‘Who will blow it?’ Which of the two contestants will jettison a handsome half-time lead or snatch an ingenious own goal in the last minute? Which of them will come out of it more poignantly? Chelsea and Middlesbrough have this season been the soccer aesthete’s dream teams: bristling with Italo-Brazilian flair but inconsistent, full of attacking wizardry but suspect in defence. In other words, too good for their own good. No wonder we like them, as Kingsley Amis used to say, though not of course re soccer.
On paper, certainly, with their expensive foreign stars, both teams ought to have done better in the Premiership contest, what we used to call the League. Chelsea, as I write, are in sixth place and Middlesbrough are still candidates for relegation. It has been a feature of their charm, though, that they have always seemed a cut above the dreary labour of accumulating Premiership points. To win the Cup you need to win six games. You need to get it right six times in a season of, say, fifty matches. Cup teams, the story goes, are those which thrive on the high tension of kill-or-be-killed. League teams, on the other hand, are those which know how to deliver, points-wise, on a weekly basis. Cup teams win ‘famous victories’; League teams ‘grind out results’. Chelsea and Middlesbrough are, assuredly, cup teams. Even in the Cup, though, they have each enjoyed leaving too much to chance. For instance, neither would be in the final but for two spectacular refereeing blunders.
At the same time, neither would be there without flashes of wondrously un-English brilliance from Zola and Juninho. These players – Zola for Chelsea, Juninho for Middlesbrough – have injected a new interest into our post-Gascoigne soccer scene, a new possibility of unexpectedness. Would we have loved them, though, if they had played for teams that did the business every week? Much of their appeal has been to do with the uncertainty, the recklessness they seem to generate: in their opponents but also in their team-mates. In the presence of a Zola, average players tend to get above themselves. Now and then this can pay off: above themselves, they play accordingly. More often, though, they end up forgetting what it was that made them average – no left foot, slow on the turn, weak in the air – and forgetting, too, the safety ploys they had developed in order to disguise their averageness. And this can make for some weird and wonderful defensive cock-ups. Still, who would rather be watching Leeds United?
For Middlesbrough, their current glamour-team status must have taken some getting used to. For more than a century, they have been one of football’s least intriguing also-rans, shuttling contentedly between the First and Second Divisions, with one or two spells in the Third. A hundred years is a long time to go without even a whiff of the game’s major prizes – no League titles, no FA Cups, not even a cup-run to speak of – but Boro fans have never seemed to mind. Mid-table mediocrity (preferably in Division One) has always been the most that they’d allow themselves to hope for. Reaching, say, the fifth round of the FA Cup would, in the old days, have been reckoned to be somewhat pushy.
I used to watch Middlesbrough from time to time in the early Fifties, when they were heading for one of their sojourns in Division Two. They finally went down in 1954, along with Liverpool, who – ten years later – were back at the top as League champions, then Cup-winners, and then kings of everything. Middlesbrough ten years later were tenth in Division Two and were relegated a couple of years afterwards. Nobody on Teesside, so far as I recall, appeared to think that Boro might have emulated Liverpool’s revival. The two teams were – and so they were – ‘in different leagues’.
Before Bryan Robson’s arrival as manager and his signing, not long afterwards, of Juninho, Emerson and Ravanelli, Middlesbrough star-names had been names from the distant past: Wilf Mannion, George Hard-wick, Brian Clough. For a brief period in the mid-Seventies, under Jackie Charlton, the team looked as if it might be going places, but not for very long. Players like Graeme Souness, Bobby Murdoch and David Armstrong got them to the sixth round of the Cup, the semi-finals of the old League Cup, and to seventh in Division One, and this was thought to be a peak achievement. But the upsurge swiftly fizzled out. Indeed Souness, who the Boro fans believed was ‘too big for his boots’, was steadily barracked throughout his final game at Ayresome Park and at the end ‘tore off his shirt and hurled it at the crowd’. Souness, according to his biographer, ‘hankered for the bright lights, the glamour, the bigger stage. Middlesbrough was a minor repertory company, what Souness wanted was the National Theatre.’ So, too, says this same chronicler, did Jackie Charlton – who, in fact, quit before Souness was sold to Liverpool. ‘Even Charlton would have acknowledged that Middlesbrough was a club that was never going to go very far.’
If Middlesbrough, over the years, could have loved themselves a little more, Chelsea could surely have loved themselves a little less. No doubt because of their upmarket location, Chelsea have always been thought of as a showbiz team: i.e. according to their enemies, all show and not much business. Early on, we’re often told, they were the constant butt of music-hall comedians (something to do, this, with George Robey who was apparently on Chelsea’s books once, as an amateur). There was even a popular ditty – ‘The day Chelsea went and won the Cup’ – which was taken to encapsulate the club’s special brand of dreamy ineffectiveness. ‘No club,’ says one Chelsea historian, ‘had, for so long, possessed the ability to be brilliant or pathetic without reason, to excel or disappoint without warning.’
Chelsea’s record, since they started out, is actually not unimpressive, but there has always been this feeling about them that they were too wetly narcissistic for the serious big time. And that image seemed to be confirmed, in the mid-Sixties, when Chelsea players took to hanging out in the King’s Road boutiques and hostelries of Swinging London. Chelsea’s team of that decade – the team of Venables, Tambling, Bridges and so on – was often wonderful to watch, but you could see what was meant when people sneered at Chelsea’s preening. The lads were just a bit too likely – too suntanned, too winsomely well-coiffed, too playboy.
On form, though, they could play. Being Chelsea, they were not consistently on form but even on bad days they were pretty good. For four years Venables and Co kept coming close. They were Cup semi-finalists in ’65 and ’66 and losing finalists in’ 67, by which time Venables had left for Spurs, the victors in that final. Venables, we understood, had had a ‘clash of personalities’ with manager Tommy Docherty – he who, when asked to describe one Chelsea star’s non-soccer interests, said: ‘That’s simple. He has two: wanking and comics.’ Docherty, it seems, had envied Tel’s smooth metropolitan charisma, as well he might have done.
For all their flash, or maybe because of it, the Venables side never seemed likely to upset the general dominance of Leeds and Liverpool. And much the same was true of their successors, the also fun-to-watch Chelsea of the Seventies, the Chelsea of Osgood, Cooke and Hudson. But this side did manage to deliver, especially in cup competitions. Chelsea won the FA Cup in 1970, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1971, beating Real Madrid in the final. They could never quite hack it in the League, though. Some weeks they seemed unbeatable; others they seemed, well, bleary-eyed, somewhat unsteady on their boots. As with the Venables team, and perhaps with more justice, there was talk of too much King’s Road booze, too much of the old showbiz. You could not read about Chelsea in those days without getting a list of their ‘growing array of support from the entertainment world, including Terence Stamp, Michael Crawford, David Hemmings, Lance Percival, Tommy Steele and Marty Feldman’ – and that was just the defence. (Nowadays, of course, it’s Banks up-front, Major on the bench and Mellor for the early bath.) For a time, Richard Attenborough was club chairman. Viewed from the bleak kingdom of Don Revie up in Leeds, these ‘southern softies’ never stood a chance.
It was Leeds, though, who lost – narrowly and unluckily – to Chelsea in that 1970 final. According to Alan Hudson, Don Revie was so incensed by the defeat that when he became England manager he took his revenge by not picking Chelsea players. Hudson relates this story in his newly-published autobiography, The Working Man’s Ballet,[*] and it is one of several in which Hudson features as the injured party. His grievances are many and run deep. Like several of his admirers at the time, he wants to know what happened to his early promise. What spoiled it? Who’s to blame? In the Chelsea first team at 19, Hudson was widely tipped for greatness. In his book, he provides numerous impressive testimonials to his precocious gifts – and accompanies each of them with his own heart-felt personal endorsement. What went wrong? By his mid-twenties, Hudson was burnt out, an England discard, ex-Chelsea, ex-Arsenal, ex-Stoke, seemingly doomed to play out what was left of his career with the Seattle Sounders. After Seattle, there were one or two come-back attempts, but none of them worked out. Even a brief return to Chelsea was, he says, ‘a nightmare’. Hudson had trouble holding down a place in the reserves. In the end, Stamford Bridge, home of his early triumphs, had turned into ‘a rancid meat pie, crawling with maggots’.
There are many explanations for what happened to Alan Hudson – an early leg injury, a weakness for the bottle, a tendency to put on weight – but in his book the real blame lies with Revie-like managerial conspiracies, the eagerness with which mediocrity seeks to destroy genius. At every stage of his career, says Hudson, his giant talent was envied and undermined by ‘lesser morals’ – coaches, managers, club chairmen, sometimes even team-mates. Sir Alf Ramsey, he tells us, ‘once said of me: “There is no limit to what this boy can achieve.” He was wrong. There were limits put on the parameters of my career by the confederacy.’ (Yes, you’ve guessed it. Hudson now works as a sportswriter.) Not only was Hudson’s soccer genius a marvel to be envied by the second-rate: there was also the problem of hit general classiness – his looks, his fashion sense, his up-West restaurant sophistication, his glittering contacts in the worlds of sage and screen. Hudson’s book is full of contempt for less than top-notch footballers, but when it comes to even the most minor showbusiness celebrity, his prose suddenly begins to drip with adoration. Indeed a whole chapter is given over to ‘all the great and famous people I have come across’. One of Hudson’s biggest all-time thrills was being spoken to by Elton John.
How can a man who has been thus honoured take orders from a joyless frump like Dave Sexton? As Hudson remembers it, the brightest soccer talents of his day – Alan Hudson, Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Charlie George – were systematically sidelined by soulless FA apparatchiks in the Sex-ton mould, men who treated Rolls-Royces as if they were minicabs. Undervalued as players, such figures now find themselves barred from top jobs in management and coaching. (Hudson has, it seems, been turned down for several coaching jobs.) ‘I call them the Reservoir Dogs – a huge lake of talent waiting to be passed on, yet treated like rabid dogs by the establishment that strangles the game.’
If Alan Hudson really does want a job in soccer management, this book will scarcely serve his cause. On the one hand, he tries to promote himself as a sobered-up, deep-thinking soccer sage. On the other, he can’t help inflating his own superior-soul tragic plight: the wounded late-night loner, the ‘scarred soul’, the My Way pilgrim of dead dreams, and all the rest of it. Worst of all, though, he can’t resist settling old scores. His book is full of petty digs and sneers: all of them retaliatory, as it turns out, but masquerading as considered judgments. It’s a sorry, sour performance: not to be read by nostalgic Chelsea fans until after 17 May.
[*] Robson, 260 pp., £16.95, 12 May, 186105 104 2.