As Keegan notes, ‘the effect of a cavalry charge had always depended more on the moral frailty of those receiving it than on the objective power of horse and rider,’ and in withstanding a charge the Switzers were unparalleled.
(from Shakespeare’s Military Language: A Dictionary by Charles Edleman)
Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door.
(Claudius in Hamlet Act IV Scene 5)
There is, close to the railway tracks, unknown and unseen by those who wander the quiet sepulchral pathways of Brompton Cemetery, a hidden, high-walled enclosure behind which are interred the reputations of those who have managed Chelsea with varying degrees of success and appreciation. Row upon row of grassy mounds are all that mark more than one hundred years of toil and sweat, of personal standing wagered against chance. Indeed such has been the rate of attrition in recent seasons, that the grass has yet to grow on several of the clay-heaped barrows.
No moss-greened, monumental masonry or verdigris-coated, copper plaque informs the casual observer just whose tarnished career lies gently mouldering below one’s feet. You can stand there in any season, tip back your head to sniff the passing air, and be it warm summer breeze, freshening March gust, or icy steppe-born blast, you always sense not sorrow, but a wistful, autumnal mix of confusion and disappointment.
Reflecting on my own post-game sense of confusion and disappointment, I sought solace in a quiet pint. As I gazed at the half empty glass on the bar before me, a familiar, stooped, weathered figure with his old trench coat rough twine-tied at the waist and worn moleskin trousers tucked into mud encrusted puttees above his boots, eased through the crush and put his empty glass on the bar beside mine.
I looked at the deep-creased forehead and overgrown eyebrows that curtained surprisingly bright, cobalt eyes.
“Evening Gaston, are you well?”
“Oh passing fair, Doctor, passing fair.”
Over some years now, we had developed the easy familiarity of men with a shared experience in working the soil, though truth to tell my brief spell of service in North London as a local council amenities horticulturist Grade G1, left me very much the junior partner in the relationship.
But right from the start he had seemed to value our conversations that ranged from the benefits of leaf mould as a soil improver to what can be expected from employing the double pivot above a conventional screening midfielder. As time passed and our mutual trust grew, he went as far as reaching into the unplumbed depths of his trench coat to fetch out a precious seed catalogue, which he insisted I borrow. And then in the August just gone, he finally revealed the secret of his work.
We walked through the cemetery and down towards the tracks. He led me through a warped, scarred door in a wall screened by bushes. And as I stood stunned, taking in the long rows of low mounds, yellowing in the dry summer heat, he explained in painstaking detail how word would come down and he’d carefully measure out the ground, the dimensions always the same, no deviation. The turf pegged out, he would then lovingly hand dig the rectangle, heaping up the clods of heavy wet London clay, higher and higher as he went down further into the earth. Once finished, the hole would be boarded out and draped and word would go back that all was ready. The next day an ivy-hidden door in a corner of the memorial ground, which Gaston suggested could only be reached by a tunnel from the Bridge that passed below the railway lines, would be unlocked and the polished oak casket enclosing the latest career, the most recently dented reputation, would be quietly borne to its resting place. No ceremony, no words spoken. Then only the quiet thud of Percy backfilling the clay, of history and myth gently settling down to be be shaped by passing time and the vagaries of the London weather.
It was as we had turned away to start heading back that Gaston paused and turned, airily waving a digging fork in the direction of a row of mounds.
“See there, see that gap?”
On looking more closely, I realised that the uniformity, the spacing, had indeed been interrupted.
“Ranieri’s is there on one side, Grant’s on the other. But they never brought him down here. I never dug for him. That’s as how I knew he’d be coming back. I knew it weren’t over.”
The chatter in the pub was subdued and desultory as the result, the wretched performance was slowly sinking in. I nodded to a loitering bar woman and placed a ten pound note under the empty glass, held up two fingers and turning to look down at the close cropped grey head, kept my voice low.
“So Gaston, you expect to be getting any instructions soon?”
I was only half-joking.
“No Doctor, I don’t. But mind you, I tidied the tool shed today. Left the spade near the door.”
An involuntary shiver gave me pause.
“Well it certainly wasn’t pretty tonight.”
“An’ you couldn’t expect it to be, on account o’ them Switzers. They was always bastards.”
“That’s a little harsh, G. They played well enough tonight I’d say. No rough stuff, just organised and took their chances.”
“They’s as did for my greater-grandfather at the Battle of Dreux. Last he saw of his guts, they was bein’ carried off on a Switzer’s pike, them mercenaries has had no place being mixed up in Frenchmen’s business.”
Quite how only three or so generations had passed since a battle fought in 1562 was something I’d have to come back to, but certainly Gaston had always claimed his Spitalfields childhood was on account of Huguenot ancestry.
“You see they was always ruthless: their formation would be tough, tight, difficult to break into. You’ve got to get in there, disrupt ’em. Speed, agility, get ’em off balance, that’s the way.”
“Mmm, well we certainly didn’t do anything at pace tonight.”
“The Spaniard knew what to do. He had their measure last year. But then the Spanish knew how to make short work o’ pikemen. Did it at Ravenna. Got in amongst ’em. Cut ’em to pieces.”
“Remind me when that was exactly?”
“You’re the history bod, Doctor. I only know ‘cause my greater grand-uncle was there with Gaston De Foix. Lost three fingers.”
“But, we’re talking the early 1500s, Gaston. How was that your great grand-uncle?”
“My greater grand-uncle, I said. Once you go back beyond the great grand, they’re all greater grand. Keeps it simple.”
“Ah, I see.”
“We’ve always done soldiering, down through the years. But I’m the last. Went to Flanders. Never been outside London since.”
I hesitated. Flanders? How old was he? But I was distracted by in what way familiarity with the tactics of 16th century pike formations and sword & buckler men was the key to beating Basel last year. I let it ride.
“It’s just not working as far as I can see. I had my head in my hands long before Basel scored. It looked so stilted. So predictable. The man with the ball was left isolated. No triangles, no support and running off the ball. No tempo.”
“You have to look at who’s playing where. The mix. Young Van Ginkel looked lost to me. I’d heard good things about ‘im but he was never in the game. That left Lampard behind the attacking four. No wonder they just couldn’t get going.”
“Mmm. Apart from Oscar no-one seemed to really get on top of the game. Although saying that it was just when Willian got going that he was hauled off.”
“Strugglin’ to see a pattern, I am. Not what I expected when his nibs returned.”
“All the talk seems to focus on the lack of a striker, the lack of this, the lack of that.”
“Hah. It ‘aint even Christmas and they’re looking at the January sales.”
“You don’t expect them to win all round the place but given the players and the coach, there’s surely enough there to put on a more convincing display. That was very poor tonight. Maybe an off night, but coming on top of Everton, it seemed that confidence had taken a dent. The very basics seemed beyond them at times.”
“He don’t seem to fancy the Spanish boys. No Torres, no Azpi and Mata only sub. You wonder why.”
“I don’t think you can be looking at Iberian tensions this early.”
“The young full-back looked fine last year. Hasn’t had a sniff.”
“I think they’ve got to go with Mikel. Maybe put Oscar with him or go back to 4-3-3.”
“Listen, Doc. He knew what he had coming in. He must have a plan for using ’em. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“You’re right, Gaston, second guessing your man is the road to the asylum. He’ll do what he wants to do. But I’ll tell you this. I always try and enjoy the game for its own sake. Sometimes it’s a chess match, sometimes it’s a roller coaster. But that tonight was just dire. Not because we lost to the “Switzers”, but because it just looked clueless. And that was the last thing I expected. Eight of those players were in the Europa Cup final, six of them played two legs against Basel. But hey. That’s football.”
“Thanks for the drink, Doctor. Drop by the shed when you can, I’ve got those bulbs for you.”
The Guardian, Dominic Fifield: “Any fanciful hopes that José Mourinho would wave his magic wand and right all that was wrong in these parts have now been dispelled. A little over a month since he returned triumphantly the scale of the task he has taken on is clear: the final whistle prompted boos from the home support as the players from Basel celebrated a first win on English soil. Mourinho, head bowed, departed down the tunnel with defeat hard to digest.”
The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “After Mourinho’s pre-match talk, the headlines inevitably noted that Chelsea were left with egg on their faces. Mourinho could not point to inexperience or an over-reliance on “beautiful young eggs” as the average age was 27. Chelsea had enough possession, a fraction under 60 per cent, and enough chances, with 11 attempts on goal and nine corners, but badly lacked a cutting edge.”
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “Chelsea’s defeat to Basel was the first time that the club have lost in the group stage at home since a defeat to Besiktas in October 2003, in the days when Mourinho was still Porto manager and Roman Abramovich’s millions had just turned European football upside down. The Chelsea owner was pictured on a cycling holiday in Croatia earlier today but he was back at Stamford Bridge to watch and down the tunnel to the home dressing room within minutes of the end.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Chelsea fell to a first home defeat in the Champions League group stages for a decade, having surrendered the lead against a dogged Basel side.”