Until a few years ago the Chelsea Football Club was more of an institution in the English music hall than in English soccer. The team had endured half a century of belly laughs, not all of them undeserved. As the self-appointed representatives of the Thames-side borough that was London's closest equivalent to Greenwich Village, Chelsea achieved an appropriate eccentricity, embracing failure almost as a way of life. Even to the English, who have a perverse affection for losers, Chelsea was a joke. The masochists who followed the team accepted more ribbing than New York Met fans.
Between the wars, Cartoonist Tom Webster adopted Chelsea as one of his regular victims along with a racehorse called Tishy, which had a habit of crossing its legs at moments when it should have been extending them. Chelsea, too, was inclined to stumble with comic frequency, especially when reaching for the most exciting prize in Britain's national sport: the Football Association Cup. The Cup is a knockout competition in which more than 400 teams are whittled down round by round over five months, leaving the two finalists to fight it out before a crowd of 100,000 on a Saturday afternoon in May.
Chelsea's form in the Cup was so bizarre that in 1933 a vaudeville performer called Norman Long recorded a song about dreaming of The Day That Chelsea Went and Won the Cup:
"Of course as a result of an astounding thing like this,
A host of other strange events occurred.
All folks and things were opposite to what they really are
And the happenings were really quite absurd.
On the day that Chelsea went and won the final,
The universe went simply off the reel.
Great Sir Harry Lauder used a five-bob postal order
To stop his shoe from rubbing on his heel.
The sun came out in Manchester and funny things like that,
Jack Jones, M.P. played golf and wore a kilt and Winston's hat,
And a pigeon hatched a guinea pig and blamed it on the cat,
On the day that Chelsea went and won the Cup."
But Chelsea's chance had to come, and two weeks ago it did. The team was in the final of the Cup at last, after a gap of 52 years, and the comedians were in danger of having to eat their words. Chelsea's only previous appearance had been as losers to Sheffield United during World War I, and it was being widely suggested that World War III would be fought before the club earned a place in the play again. But now Chelsea had made it, eliminating four Yorkshire clubs—Hudderfield, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Leeds—on the way. The ultimate challenge was to come from nearer home, however, for this final was the first to involve two professional clubs from London.
As the team prepared to make history, Chelsea might have wished for less formidable opposition. Tottenham Hotspur, from North London, has been one of the great powers of English football in recent years. The Spurs completed the Cup and first-division championship double in 1961, took the Cup again in 1962 and in the following year won the European Cup for cup winners, one of Europe's supreme honors. Only two of the players responsible for those triumphs remained: Dave MacKay, their Scottish captain, who has twice broken his left leg but is still one of the most combative halfbacks in the game, and Jimmy Greaves, the deadliest goal-scorer in Britain. But Bill Nicholson, the tense, inhibited Yorkshireman who manages the Spurs, had spent nearly half a million pounds on transfer fees to reinforce the team. The Spurs entered the final after a run of 23 matches without defeat, and in the pubs of Tottenham no one would hear of failure.
Tottenham is basically a rather raw, working-class area on the edge of the industrial wasteland that stretches out northeast of London. There is a canal with wharves for depositing timber, factories making furniture and electrical components. The local dance halls have their share of fights on weekends and there is the occasional serious assault, but it is not one of the toughest parts of London. There is a substantial colored population now, but the district once known as Little Russia (where people were said to be so poor that they had to paint curtains on the windows) has been engulfed by a redevelopment scheme. It is an area of large, close-knit families, and when Spurs supporters have a victory to celebrate they do it by boozing prodigiously in the corner pub, then lugging crates of bottled beer home for the kind of raucous, come-one-come-all party that Londoners call a "knees-up." Windows and doors are thrown open so that one massive shindig can flow unchecked through an entire street.
Tottenham Hotspur's support is huge and obviously not all of it is drawn from the rough-and-ready quarters around their ground or the large pockets of allegiance in the East End, nearer the center of the city. They have thousands of followers among the prosperous Jewish community in Stamford Hill, and in recent years the refined artistry of their play has induced addiction in some notable intellectuals. Professor A.J. Ayer, the philosopher, and the musicologist Hans Keller have both written at length of the esthetic pleasures to be found in watching the Spurs.
Keeping company with such people does not prevent the average Tottenham supporter from commenting scathingly on the arty element in Chelsea's following. "You'll see some weirdies there tomorrow," one of them said darkly at a bar counter in Hoxton the night before the final. "Beards and the lot. Not correct beards. Weird beards." As it happens, this is largely a case of making the facts fit the legend. Chelsea's bohemian community diminished and dispersed long ago. As a borough it has been merged with Kensington, a further blurring of identity. But it still has its distinctions. The King's Road, its main thoroughfare, boasts the most spectacular parade of miniskirts in the world. There are still some interesting pubs frequented by actors, writers and a few painters, and one or two show-biz characters are regularly to be seen in the reserved seats at Chelsea's ground. But the predominant features of the area are its elegant and expensive town houses, and it is no shock to learn that at election times, this is a Tory stronghold.
The point is, of course, that the bulk of the football club's support does not come from Chelsea at all. In fact, the stadium, Stamford Bridge, is in the adjoining district of Fulham. Many of the fans who were scrambling to buy tickets as May 20 approached came from there and from the mean streets around that part of Chelsea itself known evocatively as "The World's End." Others belonged to the quixotic army of Londoners who, without any geographical excuse, back the Chelsea FC because they believe every underdog should have its day.