On New Year’s Day Chelsea visit the City Ground, scene of my first Chelsea away game on Saturday 20th November 1976. Nottingham Forest v Chelsea. 46 years ago, and a hugely different world for Chelsea. Top of the Second Division with a young, exciting team but with the club completely skint, humiliatingly reduced to collecting ‘Cash For Chelsea’ in buckets on special trains and in the ground.
A different world for me too. I had watched Chelsea intermittently since 1967, and stood on The Shed a number of times, but meeting two Chelsea fans (Hugh and Martin) meant I had the opportunity to get regular lifts from college in Canterbury 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 Martin, I decided to make the trip to Nottingham Forest with him on the club special, although we did not have train tickets. Forest were right in the promotion mix as well, with the mercurial and hugely popular Brian Clough as manager, a man who had won the League with Derby four years earlier.
There was 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 in good time on the Saturday morning. I thought there would be a few hundred travelling and was amazed to see thousands 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). Many were in their late teens, like me. There were also a lot of police, plenty of whom travelled on the train with us. There were two specials running that day, according to the Nottingham Evening Post, and we paid £4 to the Chelsea stewards (who I would get to know well over the next decade) at the station and got on the second one. That season there was no membership scheme, so anyone could buy a special ticket.
There were plenty of 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 alcohol was allowed on specials, 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 pay their court fine after getting arrested 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 was not going to challenge them.
Our escort to the City Ground
I naively assumed we would 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, chanting mass of humanity on the platform, slowly marched outside the station and stopped, with the other special load, behind a line of police horses. I had never been in an escort in my life, so getting frogmarched was a new experience to me.
Over 200 police were on duty that day, so they were anticipating problems. They seemed very tense, and the bellowing hordes (over 1000 strong) probably did not 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, quickly exited the station, unescorted, and walked sharply away from us.
We were corralled very slowly to the river, over the bridge and along to the ground. The whole escort went into the Trent End, which was apparently normally the home end, but according to the Nottingham Evening Post had been allocated to Chelsea. Others tell the story that loads of Chelsea got in there as soon as the turnstiles opened, and the police took a pragmatic decision. Whatever the reason, hundreds in our escort climbed over the Trent End turnstiles without paying. This all clearly seemed entirely normal to most of the Chelsea supporters who had been on the train, but to me it was a real revelation.
As the game kicked-off a swarm (at least 50 in number) emerged from the relocated Forest end onto the pitch at the far end of the stand to our left and were led, clapping and waving, into our already heavily over-crowded end whilst engaging with infuriated home supporters en route. 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. The game was held up for six minutes while the players were taken off the pitch, to allow the chaos to be sorted out. All this played out in front of Forest’s biggest home crowd for nearly three years, 27,089 (plus the hundreds who bunked in, of course…).
The game itself, a ‘magnificent’ one that was ‘a tremendous advert for British football’ according to the Sunday People, was a hard fought 1-1 draw. Captain Ray Wilkins missed a good chance before Martin O’Neill put Forest ahead after 32 minutes, but Ian Britton capitalised on a Viv Anderson error to head Chelsea’s equaliser seven minutes later.
Ian Britton's equaliser loops into the net
The visitors thoroughly deserved the draw and could have won, though only a superb late Gary Locke goal-line clearance preserved the point. Brief Match Of The Day highlights, with the two goals, can be seen here :- https://youtu.be/iK1F48ThAz0 .
Clough was quoted in the Chelsea v Burnley programme the following week as saying “Chelsea will walk into the First Division and be a real force when they get there.” Er, right up to a point, Brian. The Daily Telegraph prised Chelsea’s ‘dazzling innovation and astonishing energy’ A good point for Chelsea, still three points clear of Bolton in second place.
The crowd had chanted, sung, surged 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 minor matter of an escorted walk back to the station and the train home. Unfortunately, the moment we left the ground it was clear that the 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 before the 2011 Genk game I was chatting to a fan who took an unscheduled dip that day, and last year I met someone else who had the same experience. I have no idea where most of the police went, though I guess there was trouble elsewhere around the ground.
We managed to get to Trent Bridge, and crossed it with, as the Evening Post put it, ‘running battles’ still taking place. The dark and fog, plus the facts that we did not have a clue where we were going, very few police were around and asking locals did not seen very sensible, made finding the station more than a bit tricky. We eventually got there, and got on the first special we saw, 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, given both 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 in time.
I guess I had expected a lively 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. The local and national press went to town as well, highlighting the number of arrests (34) and disturbances in and around the ground and in the town.
I clearly was not put off, as we got specials to most of the away games for the remainder of that iconic season. I have done almost 400 Chelsea away games at 100+ different grounds since, but that was certainly one of the most memorable and whenever I have been to Nottingham since then, my mind always goes back to the splashing sounds by the foggy banks of the Trent. I still go to matches with Martin and Hugh, but that first away trip still stays with me and, I suspect, it always will.
Forest were fifth 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 European Cup for the first time, May 1979, Chelsea were relegated, the financial mess at the club meaning many of the best youngsters were sold.