Hard as it might be to believe, although the internet was with us, within the last dozen years, it was still possible to spend upwards of 10 hours at Stamford Bridge, queuing for football tickets. As a phenomenon at Chelsea, this was still a rare event for many of us, with the art of standing in a queue outside a normally wet, cold and dank football ground for hours on end, a bit of a novelty. Until the team reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1994, many of us had not been able to participate in such a process for over 20 years (mind you – I have an excuse – I was only born in the late 1970s). Those of more vintage years will I’m sure, remind younger readers of the thrill of standing in a line that stretched all the way down the Fulham Road and along the North End Road (according to my dad) as they queued up for tickets to the 1970 final. Like most stories, with time this might become slightly embellished with the length of the queue finally ending somewhere near the Hammersmith flyover, the time it took to get to the front, around a week.
So, on my part, it was with a sense of genuine excitement that five of us left Kent at around six in the morning one wet spring day, to get our FA Cup semi-final tickets for the Luton match. Even now, I can still remember the fact it was drizzling and cold and half way round, two of us ended up playing pocket chess (well – it was that or discuss the defensive merits of Andy Dow at left-back – not a hard decision…). Still – we did get the tickets!
As the club started to become more successful, the phenomenon of queuing for tickets gathered pace. The 1997 FA Cup final saw tickets go on sale to members on (I think) Good Friday – I left work early to meet dad and chums to then spend upwards of nine hours outside Stamford Bridge (to be fair, just one of us could have got the tickets with the cards – it was again, the excitement of it all!). We’ll gloss over the fact that two of our number left for an hour at nine for a quick pint in what was then called The Britannia, or that by the time the ticket office hove into sight, I didn’t care about the result of the final, I wanted to go home to bed. I do remember someone’s wife actually turning up with his dinner around 10 and then singing ‘Happy Birthday’ at midnight to someone towards the back of the East Stand.
If those finals of the 1990s were introductions to this most odd of ways to show loyalty, the art form reached new heights towards the end of the decade as league games became more popular, the club reached the Champions League and tickets became harder to come by. The off season wasn’t the off season without the first batch of tickets inducing around 2,000 or so people to in many cases, sleep outside the ground to ensure they got tickets for games like Sunderland and Newcastle at home. I remember leaving a friend’s house in London, dashing back to Kent to collect membership cards and then getting a train straight back to London for a Saturday morning queue – still in my work clothes from the day before. Coming back that night it felt like I’d left the family for around six months. The odd thing was, we met people in queues who you were linked to in the most oddest of ways. I got chatting to a bloke who was a school inspector and had visited my old school on numerous occasions. I met a lad who had been friends with a kid down our road and used to chase little kids away from the front of their house (I was one of the kids being chased!). My dad met someone he’d played football with years before.
With a website that worked and a ticket office that actually knew what it was doing, we lost all that. The thing about those queues was, you might have lost hours where you could have been doing useful, constructive things for society (like not being ripped off by Ken Bates for a lukewarm bacon buttie and coffee from a trolley being pushed around the Stamford Bridge car park at two in the morning), you could’ve been in some cases, salvaging relationships or seeing loved ones, however you bonded with some bloke from Epping or Guildford over 10 plus hours. In the months and years afterwards, you might see the same bloke around the ground, your eyes might meet and while no words are said, your knowing look says it all, your shared experiences enough to say – ‘We were there….’
(Image credit: Londonist.)