Match of the Day: Fulham v Chelsea

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

In August, excited by the start of the new football season I started to think about London football clubs: their histories and cultures, the areas they’re located in, and what it’s like driving football fans to and from stadiums. I’ve already looked at Arsenal and Tottenham: this time I’m looking at another neighbourhood rivalry with Fulham and Chelsea.

Due to last season’s relegation of Fulham these two clubs probably won’t meet this season, and their successes and aspirations differ considerably. Please don’t expect any punditry or predictions of success or failure: I like football, but I can’t honestly say I know a lot about it. I’m more interested in the culture and history.

Fulham Football Club were formed in 1879 as Fulham St Andrew’s Church Sunday School FC; a church team made up of worshippers who were more adept at cricket. Consequently, much of Fulham’s history has involved them trying to stave off relegation from various leagues, and thus it continues into the modern age. Johnny “The Maestro” Haynes is widely regarded as Fulham’s best ever players, signing as a schoolboy in 1950 and retiring in 1970. The great Bobby Moore played for Fulham in his later years, as did George Best towards the end of his career: he played 47 times for Fulham in the 1976/1977 season.

Fulham have one of the nicest stadiums in London. Their compact Craven Cottage stadium sits right by the River Thames by Putney Bridge. It’s a nice ground to visit. The problem is, away teams regard a trip to Fulham as a nice day out by the river and invariably come away with all three points.

A visit to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium is a different prospect, though it hasn’t always been so. I remember them being relegated twice, and at one time they had one of the worst stadiums in London. Away fans were housed in the uncovered North Stand and there were big gaps between the stands and the playing area – this is quite normal now of course.

Stamford Bridge Stadium was such an uninspiring place before development in the 1980s because it was built as an athletics stadium. Gus Mears acquired the Stamford Bridge athletics stadium and tried to lease it to Fulham FC. They turned it down, so Mears founded his own club to play in the stadium. Chelsea FC were founded in 1905 at the Rising Sun pub on Fulham Road. In looking for a name for the new club, names like Kensington FC, Stamford Bridge FC and London FC were considered. There was already a club in Fulham borough so the name Chelsea was adopted from the neighbouring borough of Chelsea. Chelsea were promoted to the first division in their second season. They won the league championship in 1955, and apart for some bad patches in the late-1970s and early -1980s they rarely looked back, becoming one of the world’s most successful football clubs.

Unusual in the world of football, both clubs are situated in pleasant, affluent areas. Football supporters therefore have a range of pubs, cafes, Michelin star restaurants and wine bars to choose from. Fulham has the celebrated River Café close to it’s stadium, where well-heeled fans can buy a main course costing more than their match ticket. The White Horse pub on Parson’s Green – also known as the “Sloaney Pony” – is equidistant between both clubs. This was my pub of choice on my last visit to The Cottage. I was in the away end when West Ham fans were good-naturedly chanting “You only drink white wine.” I’d be quite proud of that if I were a Fulham fan. Chants like that show that few folk have anything bad to say about the club or its supporters, having to resort to mocking people’s drinking habits.

In my time I’ve picked up two passengers associated with these clubs. Roberto di Matteo was still playing for Chelsea when I was asked to take him to Chutney Mary, an upmarket Indian restaurant that was at the time situated on New King’s Road. George Best spent his best days with Manchester United. He was still a star when I picked him up in my cab in about 1990 though by then he was best known for his drinking and clubbing exploits. Many cab drivers working around Mayfair and St James’s at that time can claim to have picked him up. I found him a quiet and pleasant man, and twice took him from Curzon Street to his flat in Oakley Street.  

Cab drivers are regularly asked to take passengers to both grounds. Getting to Stamford Bridge is easy enough, though if you leave it late you’ll find Fulham Road closed off well before the stadium. Taking passengers to Craven Cottage the object is to avoid those narrow residential streets. A good run from the West End and you can stop for a starter at the River Café for lunch.

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