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Over land and sea: The complicated life of the Irish Chelsea supporter

For any young person in Ireland, deciding to follow Chelsea is an odd choice.

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I CAN’T GET N’Golo Kanté off my mind. The condition of the Frenchman’s hamstring has never been too far from my thoughts this week.

Without Kanté, I don’t see Chelsea beating Manchester City in the Champions League final. And no matter how much I try to view modern-day elite football as the bloated money-hungry monster that it is, I still desperately want one set of millionaires to beat the other set of millionaires in Porto tonight.

It started in the mid-90s with a wall chart. The idea was you scribbled your name in the column alongside your favourite Premier League team, and at the end of the season there would be little prizes for those who had aligned themselves with the team that finished highest in the league. A sort of primary school version of fantasy football.

I didn’t know much about football but I knew I didn’t like all the red on the chart – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal.

I told my teacher I’d come back to her with an answer. At some stage over the weekend I sat in front of the TV and watched a bundle of energy with quick feet dance around some lads wearing red, stick the ball in the net and reel away in his big baggy blue jersey. As anyone who has ever been a child will know, sometimes that’s all it takes. 

“We’ll need another line on the wall chart, Miss, I support Gianfranco Zola and Chelsea.”

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Deciding that this crowd from London would be my team opened me up to other exciting leagues. Reading about Gianluca Vialli brought me to Serie A and clubs with exotic names like Sampdoria and Juventus. Zola’s story put Napoli and Maradona on my radar. 

It worked the other way round for former Kerry footballer Kieran Donaghy, possibly the most well-known Chelsea fan in the country following his now-infamous trip to the 2012 Champions League final, which saw him dropped for a Munster Championship game against Tipperary.

“Myself and my Dad used to watch Football Italia on a Monday night, and their league was unbelievable at the time,” Donaghy explains. 

You had Vialli at Juventus, Zola at Napoli and Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard at AC Milan, all these fellas. Gullit would have been up there with my favourite players at the time, and next thing he landed up at Chelsea (1995). He was just so different, he had the dreads, he was tall and gangly, getting all these big powerful headers. When he went to Chelsea, that was just it for me really.”

For any young person in Ireland, Chelsea were an odd choice, but I quickly became obsessed. I came from a GAA family and when spring rolled around each year we’d begin our tour of county grounds, but that would screech to a halt when summer ended. My uncles brought me to the odd Leinster rugby game but other events like Ireland football internationals and the Six Nations were too intermittent. Chelsea were there fighting for my attention every single week. 

Even better, they started to win trophies. Di Matteo scored the fastest ever FA Cup final goal in 1997. Zola fired home the winner in the 1998 Cup Winners Cup final. They won the FA Cup again thanks to another Di Matteo strike in 2000, and even beat a Barcelona team which included Figo and Rivaldo 3-1 in 1999, before an unmerciful 5-1 thrashing at the Nou Camp.

fa-cup-gullitdi-matteo Gullit joined Chelsea in 1995 and two years later, became the first black manager to win a major trophy in England. Source: PA

Yet supporting Chelsea wasn’t straightforward. Their games weren’t on TV every week, and they hardly ever seemed to be on the cover of MATCH! or SHOOT! magazine. I’d save up pocket money and drag my Dad around sport shops looking for Chelsea anything, to little success. We’d make an adventure of day trips to Belfast to get the latest jersey, before the Chelsea megastore brochure started falling through the letterbox twice a year. 

My first trip to Stamford Bridge came off the back of a visit to a family member who relocated to London. We couldn’t get tickets to a European Cup game, so had to settle for a stadium tour the next day. In the old home changing room, Vialli’s notes were still up from the night before – Be clever, be strong, be a fucking winning team.

I had my photo taken with Zola’s shirt, which still had mud stains and specs of blood on it, and even touched it for a split second when the tour guide turned his back.

I was fascinated by the different background stories throughout the squad. In 1999, Chelsea became the first English team to field a starting 11 which included no British players. My friends had posters on their bedroom walls of players with names like Fowler, Cole and Wright – but Chelsea had Di Matteo, Zola, Poyet and Leboeuf. Why didn’t more people support this team?

One of the few people who did was the man on the radio. On the morning run into school, I’d hear Ian Dempsey getting slagged by the sports reporters on Today FM about Chelsea slipping up again.

“I was about nine years of age for the notorious 1970 FA Cup Final between Leeds United and Chelsea, and I just got caught up in the whole thing,” Dempsey says. 

“It went to a replay and I was just instantly against any friends of mine who were Leeds, and it was all very aggressive. I wasn’t necessarily into sport but I just got caught up in the sense of occasion about the whole thing.

“I only realised afterwards that Chelsea had a John Dempsey on the team, but the guy I was into was Ian Hutchinson, mainly because we had the same first name, and I remember getting his shirt then for my birthday. That’s how I got into it.”

soccer-fa-cup-final-chelsea-v-leeds-united Ian Hutchinson takes on Leeds United's Norman Hunter during the drawn 1970 FA Cup final. Source: EMPICS Sport

After a slight pause, Dempsey admits his dedication to Chelsea was quickly tested.

“1970 was (Chelsea) for me, then 1971, 1972, along comes David Bowie and suddenly I was hooked on that,” he continues.

“Then when my son was growing up, he got into Chelsea as well and knew everything and was watching all the games, collecting the sticker books and all that, and then we went over to Stamford Bridge when Damien Duff was there. José Mourinho did renew my interest because he was such an iconic figure, and a bit rock and roll.

“It was a bit of a Dad-son thing for us until he discovered music too, but we’d still both follow them and I’ve been over to a few games.”

My own musical awakening as a teenager served to have the exact opposite effect. The first books I read about the Rolling Stones kept referencing the King’s Road. Damon Albarn, Suggs and Paul Weller were Chelsea fans. The team walked out to an old reggae tune and played Madness’ One Step Beyond after their big wins.

I didn’t have the cash to get over to a game, but I’d sit in front of the television and read the banners above the Stamford Bridge tunnel – ‘Kerry Blues’, ‘Ennis Blues’, ‘Dundalk Blues’.

Despite having no obvious Irish connection, the great Chelsea teams have always managed to sporadically attract supporters in Ireland.

Dave Corby is treasurer of the Chelsea Dublin Supporters Club.

“One day when I was about seven years old I just saw the lovely deep blue jerseys and decided ‘I like that team’,” he says. 

“I remember around 1975/76, watching Ray Wilkins and that Chelsea side, and being delighted that they were my team, even if they were a little bit useless in those days.

But I can’t think of anyone I knew who was a Chelsea supporter before I joined the supporters club. It was formed in 1984, but I didn’t know there was a supporters club in Ireland until I got the Evening Press one day in 1990 and under all these ads for Liverpool and Manchester United fans meeting up in pubs, I saw this little ad about Chelsea fans meeting up in Tom Mayes Pub on North Frederick Street.

“I thought, ‘Jesus, this is great, I’ll actually be able to meet some other Chelsea fans.”

They’re currently over 200 members strong having merged with the Dundalk supporters club, and membership also took a swell when the Russian money rolled in during the 2000s. They usually present their Player of the Year award pitchside, although Mourinho got rid of that ‘unnecessary distraction’ during the miserable part of his second stint.

But in a country where Chelsea fans are few and far between, supporters clubs have played an important role over the years.

“I had seen them play at Craven Cottage as a youngster, but the first game I went to in Stamford Bridge was actually with the Kerry Supporters Club,” Donaghy says. 

“We went over to Chelsea and Liverpool (2003), the game for the last Champions League spot where Chelsea won 2-1, Desailly and Gronkjaer. What a first game to sample the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, it was unreal.

“Almost the most famous point of the game was Zola dancing around a couple of Liverpool guys in the corner and Carragher trying to kick the legs off him, they couldn’t get near him. He got a massive ovation then because it was his last game… It was a big thing for me to see him that day.

“I was at the 1-0 semi-final win over Barcelona the year they went on to win the Champions League. Obviously got the Champions League final that year, I’ll never forget Drogba going up to take the winning penalty. I’ve been quite lucky.” 

Around 2003, I feared I’d never get to a match as reports the club was going bust started to really catch fire. I spent the early weeks of my first summer job picking strawberries while fretting that some Russian billionaire might turn Stamford Bridge into a luxury hotel or a carpark.

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Instead, he signed Damien Duff for €25 million, and the club entered a new era of success which previously seemed unimaginable. I was still young enough to feel a sense of magic about the early Mourinho years as Chelsea won the league for the first time in 50 years with world-class players like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Claude Makélélé and Arjen Robben.

At 15, I got a weekend job in a sports shop and the following year they started stocking Chelsea shirts. A year later they even had a six-foot poster of Frank Lampard in the window, which now resides somewhere in my parent’s attic back home.

For me, the fun went out of it a little bit around that time. Coming out of your part-time job to check if Chelsea had won 3-0 or 4-0 didn’t carry the same buzz as hoping we didn’t fuck up against Wimbledon or Bolton again.

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-chelsea-v-charlton-athletic-stamford-bridge Damien Duff celebrates Chelsea's Premiership title win in 2005 with Arjen Robben. Source: John Walton

Trophies kept arriving, but so did managers and players, and my connection to the team waned as the number nine shirt passed between Mateja Kežman, Khalid Boulahrouz, Steve Sidwell and Franco di Santo.

I was also growing increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t get over to a game. My Dad had helped me try get tickets to Zola’s testimonial, but with no luck. That one still hurts.

Around the age of 17 I began working on my mates, telling them about the craic we’d have, but London, and Chelsea, was an expensive weekend away and getting tickets wasn’t easy. I eventually took the plunge after a friend moved to London for work, managing to get one ticket for Stoke at home, memorable only for being Di Matteo’s first game at the Bridge as manager.

That trip opened my eyes to other sides of the club. About two hours before kick-off I tipped into the nearest pub to flick though my first Chelsea matchday programme. I naively asked why everyone was wearing black scarves, and soon became acquainted with the Chelsea Headhunters.

I’ve since perfected the art of a weekend trip to watch Chelsea. The best record shops in Notting Hill, the walk through Brompton Cemetery on the way to the ground, the fact that I can’t justify the price of a decent lunch on King’s Road, the best view in the stadium, the bars that play Madness and Ska records before and after games, the pubs where the Chelsea crowd can mix with away fans on Champions League nights, the dash from Earls Court station to Heathrow. More often than not, it’s a great few days full of interesting people from a multitude of backgrounds. 

But every now and then the club punches you in the gut. The Raheem Sterling racism incident, the supporters pushing a black man off the Paris Metro. It’s easy to brush it off as a small cohort of fans, but it’s there and it’s part of the fanbase.

“Thankfully I’ve never seen violence or any type of hassle at a game,” Corby says.

“I know that years ago, a couple of fellas (from the supporters club) went down an alleyway and ran into a whole load of West Ham fans, but that was more wrong place, wrong time. But I’ve never witnessed any racism at a game, and I’ve been at about 75 Chelsea matches since 1990. 

“But I’ve no doubt it happens. You could be sitting 30 yards away from an incident and not realise it.”

I wish I could say the same. I’ve only ever witnessed something that made me uncomfortable at Stamford Bridge once, and it involved a man and his young son roaring vile anti-semitic abuse in between cheering on this multi-national team assembled by the deep pockets of a Russian-Jewish billionaire owner.

The Super League fiasco earlier this year was a different kind of body blow. For about 48 hours, I wondered if I was finally ready to cut my ties with a club I have no geographic link with and by all logic, should feel no emotional connection to.

chelsea-v-real-madrid-uefa-champions-league-semi-final-second-leg-stamford-bridge Supporters gathered outside Stamford Bridge to protest the European Super League in April. Source: PA

Yet here I am on the day of the Champions League final, worrying about Kanté’s hamstring and the pros and cons of selecting Jorginho ahead of Mateo Kovacic.

It’s hard not to get sucked back in.

Ian Dempsey is more Bowie than Billy Gilmour now, but his new Chelsea jersey still arrived a few days ago. The Dublin Supporters Club can’t meet up, but the WhatsApp group has been buzzing with predicted starting XI’s all week. Kieran Donaghy will miss most of the game as it coincides with Armagh’s National League clash with Donegal, but he’ll be straight onto the phone come full time.

I’ll have my own phone on silent an hour out from the game, knowing I shouldn’t really be feeling so invested. 

It’s all Zola’s fault.  

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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