Messing About By the River (Trent)
Saturday 20th November 1976. Nottingham Forest v Chelsea. 36 years ago to the day before my day trip to Turin. A different world for Chelsea. Top of the Second Division with a young, exciting team but with the club completely skint, reduced to collecting ‘Cash For Chelsea’ on special trains and in the ground.
A different world for me too. 19 and newly arrived at college. I had watched Chelsea intermittently since 1967, and stood on The Shed a number of times, but meeting two Chelsea fans (aka The Driver and The Curator) meant I had the opportunity to get regular lifts to home games.
I had never been to a Chelsea away game before and only had a hazy idea of what it entailed, but after persuasion from The Curator, I decided to make the trip to Nottingham Forest on the club special, although we didn’t have tickets.
No internet in those days of course, so you had to call the club to find out whether the specials were sold out (01 385 5545 is seared on my memory). I finally got through to find there were still some special tickets left so we duly turned up at St Pancras on the Saturday morning. I thought there would be a few hundred travelling and was amazed to see hundreds and hundreds of Chelsea fans all over St Pancras, many in colours (some sporting the classic red/green away scarf, still my favourite after all these years). Most seemed to be about my age. There were also a lot of policemen, some of whom travelled on the train with us. I think there were three specials running that day, but can’t be sure. I do know, from looking recently at the previous home programme v Charlton, that we paid £4 to the Chelsea stewards (who I’d get to know well over the next ten years) at the station and got on the final special. In those days there was no membership scheme, so anyone could buy a ticket.
There were other fans who got the normal service train to Nottingham which went out before us, and I remember thinking ‘why would they not want to be on the special which is cheaper and presumably easier’? This became clear later on.
In those days (see previous POA Bolton article) alcohol was allowed on the train so it was a lively mob that arrived in Nottingham a couple of hours later. I specifically remember two guys coming round to collect money to play their court fine after getting nicked at a previous away game. Whether this was indeed the case, or whether they were trying it on, I had no idea, and I certainly wasn’t going to challenge them.
I naively assumed we’d just be allowed to walk to the ground, maybe stopping for a pint en route, so was a bit taken aback on leaving the train when we were herded together by police into a huge group on the platform, marched outside the station and stopped, with the other special loads, behind a line of police horses. I’d never been in an escort in my life, so getting slowly frogmarched was a new experience to me.
The police seemed very tense and the chanting mob (well over 1000 strong) didn’t help matters. I remember a chant of “If you’re standing on the corner” (one of a number of new songs I heard that day) as we passed a small group of Forest fans and also being surprised as other small groups, presumably Chelsea fans, came out of the station, unescorted, and walked away from us.
We were led slowly to the river, over the bridge and along to the ground. The whole escort went into the Trent End, which it later turned out was normally the home end. I have no idea whether this was intentional on the police’s behalf, or just a mass charge, probably the former. Several hundred climbed over the turnstiles without paying. This all clearly seemed entirely normal to most of the Chelsea fans who had been on the train, but to me it was a real eye opener.
As the game was about to kick-off a swarm of people (at least 50) emerged from the Forest end onto the pitch at the far end of the stand to our left and were led, clapping and waving, into our already over-crowded end. I then realised that some of these Chelsea fans would have been the guys who took the service train to avoid the heavy police escort, and who had promptly gone into the Forest end. The game was held up for a few minutes while this was sorted out.
The clip below shows the Chelsea end jam packed, as well as action from the game itself:
The game was a hard fought 1-1 draw, Ian Britton scoring for Chelsea, and Forest manager Brian Clough was quoted in the Chelsea v Burnley programme the following week as saying “Chelsea will walk into the 1st Division and be a real force when they get there”. Er, right up to a point, Brian. A good point for Chelsea, still 3 points clear of Bolton in 2nd place.
The crowd had sung and swayed throughout the game and I had a great time – even then the atmosphere away was probably better than for most home games. Now just the little matter of an escorted walk back to the station and the train home. Unfortunately the moment we left the ground it was clear that police escort was all over the place and total chaos ensued. It was getting foggy and as we walked along the banks of the Trent you could hear splashing as, we later found out, fans of both teams were thrown in the river. In a bar in Brussels last year before the Genk game I was chatting to a fan who took an unscheduled dip that day. This experience was, to me, pretty terrifying, as people were being indiscriminately attacked. I have no idea where the police went, though I guess there may have been trouble elsewhere around the ground.
We managed to get to Trent Bridge, and crossed it, but the dark and fog, plus the fact we didn’t have a clue where we were going and very few police were around, made finding the station more than a bit tricky. We eventually got there, and got on the 1st special we saw, massively relieved to be away from the chaos behind. The train was at least half empty, and we were pretty surprised when it left the station with a load of empty seats (all three specials had sold out). We could only assume loads had either got caught up in the shambles outside the ground, or been unable to make their way to the station.
I guessed I’d expected a raucous day out, when what I actually experienced was, at times, a mad house. The Burnley programme the following week talked about trouble before, during and after the game. I guess I can’t have been too put off, as we got specials to most of the away games for the remainder of the season and I’ve done well over 200 away games since, but whenever I have been to Nottingham since then (not often) my mind always goes back to the splashing sounds by the foggy banks of the Trent.
Postscript. Forest were 5th in the league after that game. They got promoted, just, but the following season won Division One and for the two seasons after that, the European Cup. The same month they won the EC for the 1st time (May 1979) Chelsea were relegated.
Tim is a frequent contributor to CFCUK & can be followed on Twitter @tim_rolls.