This piece originally appeared in the cfcuk Fanzine issue 210 in November 2019.
I take you back reader, to the night of the 26th August 2003. Not an infamous date forged in the memory for the majority of Blues – but for a young, wide-eyed five-year-old grasping onto his dad’s hand tightly, this would be one of the most important nights of his life.
Chelsea were taking on the might of Slovakian heavyweights MŠK Žilina in the second leg of Champions League qualifiers boasting a 2-0 lead on aggregate. This night would also be known as the introduction of the recently acquired Hernan Crespo for a first of many Hello! Hello’s! from the Stamford Bridge faithful.
The young five-year-old in question – was me. Along with my dad, grandad and older brother, we filled one of the front rows of the West Stand Lower. As any child’s first memory of a football stadium, the moment your eyes first catch the grandeur and the size of the stands, the greenness of the pitch – the glaring floodlights gleaming down and hovering above like a spaceship lighting up the sky, you know you’ll be hooked for life.
My dad recalls how my Mum had tried to kill the concept of her son being taken to football and be indoctrinated into the Child’s Family religion of supporting London’s Finest because “He won’t like the noise”. Alas, her requests were denied and the attempt to carry down a tradition to a fourth generation would commence.
The most telling memory about this night happened not long after entering the stand. The players were warming up in front of us. To my young eyes, a huddled mass of characters only distinguishable by numbers on their shorts. Despite being shown earlier photos of me in oversized Autoglass tops, or a tale of me crying as an infant when the family went mad for Gianfranco’s winner in the Cup Winners Cup Final in 98’ – this was the first time I’d ever paid attention to football.
My dad looked down at me and pondered “Who’s your favourite player?”. To this day I don’t know how or why I pointed where I did, but I wildly swung my arm towards one player. My Dad looked up, scanned for a couple of moments before uttering words etched into my psyche “The number eight..that’s Frank Lampard”.
And so started a love affair which saw me witness the greatest midfielder in footballing history (you’ll never change my mind) star in a Chelsea side that won titles, scored fantastic goals and rose to the top of both English and European football, all looking down from East Stand Upper seat.
Either down the park, or in my garden I would dream of being Chelsea’s No.8 – tucking in my shirt and turning over the waistband on my shorts to make that late run into the box, finishing with ease before running off in celebration, arms pointed out like Frank.
At age seven I witnessed him round Jussi Jääskeläinen to claim the title at the Reebok; at eight I watched on from my living room as he stunned the Camp Nou with one of the greatest chips you’re ever likely to see. At age 11 I was stood watching on from the lower tier of Wembley as he fired the ball past Tim Howard to win the FA Cup.
The next season he netted 27 goals as we stormed to the title under Carlo Ancelotti. Two years later, at fourteen I experienced the greatest night of my life as Lampard captained a Chelsea side that performed a miracle in Munich to win the European Cup. Who can forget the two goals at Villa Park to make him the greatest goalscorer in the club’s history?
I have been blessed to witness the best years in the club’s history, and feel privileged any time we do attain silverware. Even though my years supporting the club have mostly been etched in glorious triumph, thanks to stories passed down from family members and old videos (remember them) I would watch of season reviews from the 80s and 90s, I never expect or believe Chelsea have a God-given right to win anything.
As I’ve grown up walking down the Fulham Road either with my dad, brother or grandad by my side, Chelsea have grown in importance to me, in different ways. I’m very proud to say I support my local club, though I am always amazed and respectful to those who travel far and wide to support the Blues, noting the passing coaches parked near the Brompton Cemetery on my way home from the likes of Belgium and the wider European continent.
To me, a life without Chelsea – isn’t one worth living.
And now as a 22-year-old, the walk towards my Cathedral of football has a new buzz to it. There is a spring in the step of every Chelsea fan – because to many, it feels the team and club are unified and closer to home with Frank Lampard as our manager. I echo the sentiments of positivity that there is a healthy sense of optimism around the club and the direction it is now headed.
I feel Lampard can oversee a culture change – which is one of longer-term thinking, a clearer embedded philosophy of playing that runs throughout the club and vitally a clear route from the academy to the first team.
Also, how Lampard has smashed that glass ceiling for the youngsters! Fikayo, Mason and Tammy have all become first team regulars and are thriving under the 41-year-old’s tenure – benefitting a progressive, fast moving, pressing style Chelsea are aiming to play. Every goal and every win feels like it means more under Lampard. Already we’ve had some special moments, most notably a mature performance in Amsterdam which saw a seemingly naïve side come of age.
It feels like a dream seeing my idol prowling the touchline, leading his Blue and White Army to victory across land and sea – this feels like the start of something special that isn’t solely based on the result at the end of the ninety minutes.
I only can ponder back to that summer evening 16 years ago, if my five-year-old self would’ve pointed elsewhere and my Dad would’ve responded – “That’s Jesper Gronkjaer”…
Edited by @KristenPulisic