Eddie McCreadie’s Blue & White Army (Part 1…)
As with my previous piece, this is how I (and others I was there with) remember the day. I also did a little research using programmes and national/local papers. Others who went may recollect events differently. Such differences would be hardly surprising given it was over 34 years ago.
Saturday 26th February 1977. Another Saturday, another away trip. This time a long haul by train to Bolton, fellow promotion chasers. Chelsea were top, Bolton 3rd but with two games in hand, so a critical game.
There were five of us travelling up from Canterbury that day. The usual three die-hards plus Steve (an occasional Chelsea fan, of whom more later) and Brett. Brett was a Bolton fan at college with us, but his dad was well connected at the club and he was intending to travel up with us on the special, break away from the inevitable escort at the ground and sit in the Directors Box. I was a 19 year-old student and it was my first season watching Chelsea regularly.
We were driven from Canterbury to Euston in our driver’s old 2CV. His role in the late 70’s seemed to be to drive us to Chelsea home games, sit in the Nell Gwynne drinking orange juice while the rest of us beered it up, watch the game listening to us talking drunken rubbish, then drive a car load of sleeping beauties back to Canterbury after the game. He did this for two years. Looking back, I have no idea how, or why, he put up with it. He still drives us to London away games now, though it’s all a bit calmer these days.
Euston station in 1977 was even shabbier than it is now. On that particular morning, it was also full of Chelsea fans, those on the specials plus I guess a fair number catching the normal service train and changing at Manchester or Preston.
That season was the last one where special train tickets, usually on sale after the previous home game but often also on sale at the station on the morning of the game, required no membership to allow purchase. The specials were relatively cheap, though not massively so (the Bolton trip was £4.50 return), were stewarded and as things stood, allowed fans to take alcohol on the outward journey.
The specials also offered very basic food. In fact the previous weeks’ programme (v Plymouth) announced the introduction of ”a ‘snack-pack’ on the trains, consisting of roll, sandwich, sausage roll, fruit & biscuit…75p…all profits to Chelsea FC”. Those who travelled on specials in the 80’s can rest assured that the 70’s sausage rolls were no better than their appalling 80’s equivalents. There seems no mention of the legendary Wagon Wheels, disgusting marshmallow-based chocolate sweets that seemed compulsory offerings at all matches and on all football trains.
Aside: After a number of ‘incidents’ on trains, and as part of a wider drive to try and regulate/control away fans, the following season a Chelsea membership system was introduced – a photo ID membership card was needed to buy special train tickets. Of course, one by-product of this was to ensure that potential troublemakers were more likely to travel on unregulated trains and hence encounter rival fans, but nobody in authority seemed to realise that.
Demand was such that Chelsea ran three specials to Bolton, a total of c1600 fans according to the Blackpool programme the following week. One abiding memory of that day is the queue at the Euston station off-license as hundreds of fans stocked up for the near four-hour journey ahead. One particular highlight was the off-license offer on Long Life, which we bought in copious amounts. Long Life was a beer ‘specially brewed for the can’. It was disgusting, but to be fair the mid-late 70’s were very dark days for canned beer drinkers. Critically, that day it was cheap.
Replete with beer stocks, we got on our train. An extraordinary amount of beer was taken onto that train by the c550 fans, and also onto the other two trains. I am unsure why it seemed to be worse (or better, depending on your viewpoint) than on other specials I’d been on up to that point. Maybe they were all like that, though I certainly wasn’t as drunk going to Carlisle, a six hour train journey, three weeks earlier.
Some fans also took food on board, presumably the ‘snack-pack’ hadn’t sufficiently whetted their taste buds. Somehow we managed to get our own six-seat carriage and settled down for the journey. Our driver wasn’t drinking as he’d be driving 12 hours hence, Brett was worried about arriving in the Bolton Director’s box the worse for wear but the other three of us went for it big time. Up and down the train, groups of fans were doing the same thing so, unsurprisingly, the journey got increasingly livelier and bellowed chants could be heard. Queues for the loos got worse and people started to use the windows. Not nice.
Aside: In 1976/77 Chelsea were basically skint. A host of reasons contributed to this, including massive overruns on East Stand construction costs, incompetent senior club management and relegation. Chelsea needed gates of 40,000 to break even, but were averaging about 10,000 less. There was real concern they could go under and this led to the ‘Cash for Chelsea’ initiative, one aspect of which was the collection buckets rattled as you left home games and on special trains. It may beggar belief in this day and age, but it is only 34 years since c1600 Chelsea fans travelling to Bolton put £350 into buckets to help save the club. There is a hell of a piece to be written about Chelsea finances from c1971 until (and maybe after) Ken Bates came in, but it needs someone far more astute than I in financial matters to write it.
By the time we got close to Bolton the three of us were absolutely rocking, and Brett was looking increasingly worried. As well he might. According to the Plymouth programme, the trains were scheduled to leave Euston at 10.20 and were due into Bolton at 14.10. With three trains, the 2nd and 3rd ones would have to wait while the 1st emptied its cargo of fans and they were herded out of the station. All this meant that those on the final special, which I think we were, had to wait a while to get off the train and onto the streets.
The three train loads of fans were therefore decanted and escorted to the ground separately. To locals, it must have looked like an invading heathen army. 1,600 fans, largely beery bedenimed males, mostly aged 16-25, bellowing “Eddie McCreadie’s blue and White Army”, being escorted by a solid police presence in heavy rain to Burnden Park. Again, it is a long time ago, but that escort stands out as one of the most drunken gatherings I have ever been a part of, and I’ve been in quite a few in the last 40 years. Most were the worse for wear, some were very much the worse for wear.
As we got close to the ground we enjoyed watching Brett showing a policeman his Bolton director’s box pass and desperately trying to get out of the escort. His worst nightmare was having to watch the game from the Chelsea end. In the end the police let him out and he scuttled off to safety, but as things turned out, watching from the Chelsea end wasn’t an issue.
Our escort got to the away turnstiles. The game was not all-ticket and, unlike at Forest that season, I don’t think there was the opportunity for a mass climb in over the turnstiles. On entering the terracing, probably only about ten minutes before kick-off, an amazing sight awaited us. A mass of Chelsea fans were on the pitch, running up to the Bolton end. A Bolton end which was full of Chelsea fans. Presumably a number of independently travelling Chelsea had deliberately gone in to that end and chased the Bolton fans into a side enclosure. As the three trainloads arrived in the ground, hundreds more Chelsea had gone across the pitch in waves to join them.
Three of us promptly went on the pitch, though our driver stayed firmly where he was, on the relatively sparsely populated away terrace. The pitch was wet and fans were slipping everywhere, but I don’t remember police or stewards making more than token efforts to stop us. There were 3-4,000 Chelsea fans at that game and I reckon more than half ended up in the wrong end.
Two of us got over the barrier and into their end with no problem, joining the seething mass of Chelsea fans. Steve managed it in the end, but only after a firm boot up the backside from a burly local constable. The pitch invasion was described in the following Monday’s Bolton Evening News as ‘ten minutes of madness’ by a senior police officer. He wasn’t wrong. It is the only pitch invasion I was ever involved in (apart from end-of-season celebrations) and was certainly exhilarating at the time. If the police has been more organised it would have got pretty hairy, though I guess most of them were still outside the ground at that point. As it was, according to the local paper 51 Chelsea fans were ejected (including a fair number for invading the pitch) and there were 10 arrests inside the ground.
The game itself was a cracker. Chelsea went 2-0 down but fought back to equalise with two goals in the last 20 minutes, and played their best football for some weeks.
After the game the police had a problem. Their escort was set up to lead us from the away end to the station, but most of those on the trains were at the far side of the ground, further away from the station. This, coupled with our sheer numbers and the fact that a number of Bolton fans were very unhappy at being usurped from their end and had congregated outside, meant it took a long time before our escort started off on the three quarter mile walk up Manchester Road back to the station.
There was a lot more fun and games at the station. There were three special-loads to get out of town, together with independent travellers and locals. Some bright spark decided that, rather than let fans onto any of the special trains as they arrived at the station thereby minimising queuing, they would only let people onto the specific train they had travelled up on. This message was not communicated well, if at all, except to those at the front. The forecourt of Bolton station was total chaos as none of the fans knew what was happening and started to push, shove and chant “what the f**k is going on?” with some force. Steve cleverly took it on himself to inform a harassed police inspector loudly and at length that being held in the rain in the forecourt was a breach of our civil liberties and he was going to report him (the inspector) to the National Campaign for Civil Liberties. Well, he was a law student. Looking back, he was very lucky not to be arrested. Quite a number were.
The train was supposed to leave Bolton station at 17.10. I doubt if we were even on the platform before 18.00. We found the driver outside the station, bizarrely his diary for that day refers to ‘lots of singing from the 3-4000 Chelsea fans’ but not the train journey, pitch invasion or wait at the station. The journey home was a lot quieter, as most fans were sleeping off the upward journey, and I think the police made sure no alcohol was on sale to us at Bolton station.
We didn’t encounter a Bolton fan all day, though a few idiots were obviously out for ‘revenge’, as we saw in the paper on Monday that an eight inch bolt was thrown at the Chelsea team coach outside Bolton after the game. Full back Gary Locke was showered with glass and secretary Christine Matthews got a black eye. A sobering incident that was bad enough but I guess could have been a lot worse.
All in all, a memorable away trip. Not as integral to Chelsea’s history as the Championship clinching win at the Reebok in 2005 (which the driver and I went to) but a key hard-fought point gained on the way to promotion.
Post script: After that game alcohol was banned on Chelsea specials, precursor to a wider alcohol ban on football trains introduced not long after. After yet more incidents at Charlton away six weeks late, Chelsea were banned from travelling to Wolves for the crunch promotion game. Not that it stopped 7,000 travelling, but that story is for another day.
Where are they now? Three of us still go to all Chelsea home games together, sitting in the highly fashionable MHU Gate 8 and the others occasionally accompany me to away games. I understand Brett (who I haven’t seen since that summer when he left college) is now a senior executive at a major food company. And Steve? We knew he had joined the police force on leaving college a year later, and the last I saw of him was on ‘News At Ten’ a few years back when he was discussing a particularly unpleasant murder he was investigating. Given the way he was helped over the fence into the Bolton end, and his not-entirely-rational discussion with the Inspector at Bolton station, this career move brought a slight smile to my face.