When I was in high school, a friend of mine said something that got me thinking:
Referring to my love for Chelsea Football Club, he said: “I understand why you like watching football. I like it too. I just don’t get how you can be so obsessed with one team.” At the time, I couldn’t think of a response.
However, that must have been a little over two years ago now. A lot has changed since. The fat kid who nobody wanted to pass the ball to is now the one getting media passes to all the big sporting events. Leicester City are the Premier League champions.
We’ve all been reminded of the value of miracles.
So, without further ado, here’s my best shot at a long overdue response:
As those of you who read my last post will know, I was born in London and lived there for the first six years of my life, before moving to South Africa. Leaving London was a difficult experience, as I completely lost contact with many people I loved.
When I was eight years old, I suddenly developed a new-found interest in sport. Not only did I play cricket at school – I also used to sit on the couch with my father watching rugby; cricket; and F1.
My dad is a very successful academic and he’s always spent a lot of time travelling. It was nice to have something I could bond with him over.
However, football was the one sport he would have been caught dead watching.
My best friend at the time always used to go on about Manchester United and I wanted to be able to have discussions with him. I realised that he was talking about a team from England – the country I had been born in – so one day, I asked my dad the all-important question.
“Dadda, which football team was the closest to where I was born?”
“That would be Chelsea.”
My poor old man. Bless his soul. He had absolutely no idea what he had just done.
To my delight, I soon discovered that Chelsea were the Premier League’s emerging superpower. In my first season as a supporter – 2004/05 – we strolled to the title.
I was more of a cricket fan back then, and didn’t follow the games religiously, but I soon discovered that many of my family members supported United – and it was great to have something to goad them and my best friend over.
My favourite player was Damien Duff. Seeing him score to knock United out of the League Cup warmed my young heart.
However, it was in December of 2005 that my budding relationship with Chelsea turned into a full-blown long-distance marriage.
I was on school holiday, so I was with my dad and I had plenty of time to kill. I can’t remember how, but I managed to get him to start watching football.
At that time, Chelsea were absolutely unstoppable. It didn’t even matter if we played badly. We somehow always seemed to win.
I remember watching Frank Lampard closing in on David James’ record for consecutive Premier League appearances; cheering on with my dad as Hernán Crespo saved us against Fulham; and becoming truly mesmerised by the genius of manager José Mourinho.
I had been bullied at school that year. Funnily enough, one of the more harmless tactics my tormentors had resorted to was saying they all supported United and ganging up on me. I know most of them didn’t give a hoot and just wanted to wind me up, but it made me all the more delighted to see Chelsea flying while they suffered.
And, of course, there was something deeper fuelling my new-found passion: I missed living in London. I wanted my old life back. Through following Chelsea from a distance, I felt as if I was preserving a part of it – and nobody could ever take my club away from me.
We won our second consecutive league title in 2005/06, thrashing United 3-0 to seal the crown. I felt like a king at school that week – and that was something I hardly ever felt. My first two seasons as a Chelsea fan had been utter bliss.
But, as is the case with all marriages, the honeymoon phase had to end eventually.
The 2006/07 season saw the rise of Manchester United’s young Portuguese winger, Cristiano Ronaldo.
My heart was simply not ready to deal with seeing this unfathomable talent in red. I called him a “diver”. I repeatedly assured myself that Chelsea striker Didier Drogba was a better player. It was a lost cause. Ronaldo fired United to the title.
I’ve always been a fiercely competitive person, and I refused to accept this defeat.
One day, my United-supporting friend was making fun of me and I made up some bullshit story about how Ronaldo had been caught doping, and if the B-sample tested positive, United would be stripped of their title.
I sounded so convincing that I even got him to say that if the B-sample did test positive, he would have no choice but to switch allegiance to AC Milan.
Way to go, Leonard. Some journalist you are.
The next season was one of mixed fortunes. Chelsea got off to a horrible start and Mourinho payed for it. He and the club parted ways by mutual consent. I was heartbroken.
However, his replacement, Avram Grant, actually got us playing some decent football. We were clearly in the title race when my dad made me the happiest boy in the world and bought us two tickets to Chelsea’s home fixture against Arsenal on 23 March, 2008.
Arsenal were in superb form and many of my friends were jumping on their bandwagon. I had begun to absolutely despise them – perhaps even more so than United, now that those bullies had left me alone.
My dad and I travelled all the way to London and passed time exploring my old home city. I grew more and more anxious until gameday finally arrived. If we wanted to keep pace with United at the top of the table, we needed a win.
Bacary Sagna opened the scoring for Arsenal after 58 minutes, heading home a Cesc Fàbregas corner at Carlo Cudicini’s near post. My heart was in my chest. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. But for some reason, I turned to my dad and said: “There’s plenty of time.”
Sure enough, 13 minutes later, Drogba took advantage of a scrappy piece of defending to level the scores. A tidal wave of relief came over me. But a draw was never going to be enough. We needed more.
In the 80th minute, Nicolas Anelka headed a free-kick down to Drogba, who lashed home the winner. Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal.
I leaped into the air and screamed in celebration. My dad joined in. It had taken a while, but finally, he had truly fallen in love with the club. He was part of the big blue family now.
We turned to the Arsenal fans huddled up behind Cudicini’s goal and gleefully chanted: “You’re not singing You’re not singing You’re not singing anymore!”
I had never felt more at home in my entire life.
Unfortunately, the season was to come to a bitter end. First, on the final day of the Premier League season, we lost our title to United. Then, the same bitter enemies beat us in our first ever Champions League final after John Terry missed what would have been the winning penalty.
Grant payed for our loss to United with his job and was replaced by World Cup-winning Brazilian manager Luiz Felipe Scolari ahead of the 2008/09 season.
Chelsea declined significantly under Scolari and he was sacked in February.
Guus Hiddink temporarily replaced Scolari and instantly restored our form. We finished a respectable 3rd in the league and won the FA Cup. However, the Champions League once again proved elusive, as we lost our semi-final against Barcelona on away goals after some abysmal refereeing from Tom Henning Øvrebø.
Ronaldo left United after that season, which paving the way for us to regain our Premier League title under Carlo Ancelotti. However, Mourinho came back to bite us in the Champions League and we were knocked out by his treble-winning Inter Milan side in the Last 16.
2010/11 saw another double heartbreak at the hands of United – as they regained their league title and knocked us out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals. Ancelotti was sacked as a result.
At least I got to visit Stamford Bridge again – this time with my entire family – for the 2-0 win over Manchester City on 20 March, 2011.
Ramires scored an absolute worldie, but let’s just say my mother and sister didn’t exactly fall in love with football the same way my dad had at the Arsenal game. In fact, the former was quite taken aback at some of the language I used. In my defence, I did warn her before the game.
As the 2011 year passed, I began to fall into a deep emotional slump.
Internal conflict I had been running away from for years started catching up with me. My marks at school were poor. I was drinking more than a 15-year-old should and doing other things that 15-year-olds really shouldn’t do. (I will explain all that another day.)
Chelsea Football Club were all that kept me going.
Results were poor under our new manager, André Villas-Boas, but that didn’t matter. I just needed an outlet to escape.
By the time Villas-Boas was replaced by Roberto Di Matteo, I had just started coming out of my slump. I can’t say I exactly had high hopes for myself – or for Chelsea under their new manager – but hey, we had both gone through tough times and survived. That was all that mattered.
Miraculously, Chelsea beat Napoli 4-1 in Di Matteo’s first Champions League game to keep us in the competition (after we had lost the first leg of our last 16 clash 3-1 under Villas-Boas).
I could tell something special was brewing, but I felt as if we had left things too late for that season. Di Matteo was clearly a great fit for Chelsea, but we were too far behind Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in the race for fourth place and our squad looked nowhere near good enough to challenge for the Champions League.
Nevertheless, I was delighted when my father got the two of us and a family friend tickets for the away game at Fulham’s Craven Cottage on 9 April, 2012.
The game itself was not a particularly interesting one. Duff was there in Fulham colours and got a nice cheer from the Chelsea fans, Lampard netted his 150th Premier League goal, Fulham equalised, and it finished 1-1.
However, the real excitement came in the days that followed.
One morning in our hotel in London, I read that Chelsea striker Fernando Torres would be doing a signing session inside the club’s megastore. I told my dad about it and I think he read my mind: if it were necessary, I’d have given my left nut to be there.
We got to the megastore and waited in line. Two hours passed and still we weren’t at the front.
I mulled over what I would say when I finally got the chance to speak to Torres. I still remember more-or-less what I had prepared. It was something like “Thank you for fighting for my club. We will always support you as long as you keep showing that hunger.”
My turn drew nearer. I could see him clearly now. One girl, who looked a year or two older than me, started crying when she got to the front. Torres gave her a kiss on the cheek.
Next thing I knew, I was up. My heart was pounding. I handed Torres the shirt I wanted him to sign and opened my mouth to speak. My speech was supposed to come out, but instead, I asked “Are you getting tired?”
Torres gave a little laugh, then replied: “No. It’s fine.” in a thick Spanish accent.
Cool. All was well. At least I hadn’t cried. At least I hadn’t embarrassed myself. At least he wouldn’t see I was nervous.
I began to walk off.
“Wait! You forgot your shirt!” said Torres.
Goddarn it! My cover was blown.
Miraculously, Chelsea made it to the Champions League final again in 2012. With 10 men on the pitch and a sub-standard team, we had come back from 2-0 down at Barcelona’s Camp Nou to draw 2-2 and take the semi-final 3-2 on aggregate.
In the final, we faced a very strong Bayern Munich side at their home stadium. The permutations were simple: if we won, we were champions of Europe for the first time ever. If we lost, we wouldn’t even be in the 2012/13 competition – as we had finished sixth in the Premier League.
As expected, Bayern dominated possession and chances, but somehow couldn’t break through. The game looked as if it was heading for extra time until the 83rd minute, when Thomas Müller scored for the Germans. I resigned myself to defeat.
After all, Bayern were Bayern, and we had started Ryan Bertrand on the left wing. I should have known what would happen.
But then, in the 88th minute, Chelsea had a corner. Juan Mata swung the delivery in and Drogba rose uncontested for the header. The ball crashed into the back of the net. 1-1. Game on.
That was when I knew that it was written in the stars: no matter what happened, Chelsea were going to become champions of Europe that night.
In extra-time, Bayern won a penalty through a foul from Drogba. Former Chelsea player Arjen Robben stepped up to take it, but keeper Petr Čech saved it.
The game stayed 1-1 and went into a penalty shootout. Mata missed Chelsea’s first.
No worries. I just knew that somehow, we were going to win.
Čech saved a penalty from Ivica Olić. Bastian Schweinsteiger hit the post. All of a sudden, we were right back where we had been in the 2008 final in Moscow against Manchester United: one kick away from winning the competition.
Drogba stepped up, and this time, there was no mistake.
Even though I had known it was coming since the Ivorian’s goal, I was close to dumbstruck. All I could do that night was repeat the same line over and over again:
“I don’t believe it.”
Chelsea kept me sane during that 2011/12 season, but in recent years, my personal life has been better. I haven’t needed a football club to bail me out of my misery since then.
Of course, my love for the club hasn’t diminished one bit. I watched with great pride as Mourinho came back home in 2013. I rejoiced when we reclaimed the Premier League title two years later. Our dreadful 2015/16 season left me heartbroken, and Mourinho being shown the door and joining Manchester United even more so.
Chelsea’s results have a bigger impact on my life during the bad times than they do when everything else is going well. However, whatever the weather, they are more than just a football club to me.
They are my link back to my roots in London, the glue that has helped me hold together a close relationship with my father, and a rare constant in my life through both the best and worst of times.
I believe that every human needs to feel a connection to a higher power – something that was there before them and will be there afterwards. It could be a deity, or a punk band, or a movie series.
My higher power is Chelsea Football Club and my place of worship is Stamford Bridge. Whatever else happens in my career as a sports journalist, I’m not stopping until it takes me to the holy land.
So if you’re wondering why so much of my life revolves around a football club and why they mean so much to me, all I can say to you is that I cannot fathom how anybody else could live any other way.