This article originally appeared on VICE UK
"For me, supporting Chelsea was never really a choice," laughs Fred, standing a few hundred yards from the looming windowed castle that is Stamford Bridge. "On May 4th, 1991, my mother's water broke in the stadium, and I was born the following day, so I was always going to be a Blue."
That is surely the closest thing football has to the Nativity. It's one thing to support a club, another to anoint the very ground by sending your mum into labour on the terraces. It's also a reminder of how many people's lives are deeply imprinted on the bricks and mortar of their club, and vice versa.
Football clubs have witnessed births and deaths; they bear testament to new life and call to mind lost loved ones. For millions of us, they are the backdrop to childhood, adolescence, parenthood and old age; they are communities in the genuine sense, hubs of shared rituals and identity which, for some bizarre reason, are centred on the spectacle of 22 people chasing after a ball in the pissing rain.
For many, going to the football is as much about those rituals as it is about the 90 minutes, plus added time, that the ball is on the turf. As an experience, a football match is grounded in pubs, parks, greasy spoons, kebab shops, offies and the mad rush of the streets and neighbourhoods around the ground, as much as it is screaming at strangers or celebrating a goal by accidentally tumbling over four tiers of plastic seats.
Fred and Sophia.
Take Fred and his sister Sophia, who are from a family of Chelsea fans going back several generations. On match day, religiously, they catch up over lunch in nearby West Brompton, within the maze of cast-iron railings and grand west London townhouses which line the streets fans walk along on their way to and from the stadium. For them, going to Chelsea is a bonding ritual. "It's almost all about that, really," says Fred. "The Chels is the connection we've always had."
When Chelsea won the Champions League final in 2012, the family recreated their routine in Germany before watching Didier Drogba destroy Bayern Munich. "I would say, hands down, [it was] the best day of my life," says Sophia.
As a family, they have been meeting in the same few spots for well over a decade. "It's been the same routine ever since I can remember," says Sophia. "It's hugely important… there's a bit of superstition to it." Given that one of them was almost born in Stamford Bridge, it's little wonder they believe in omens. "I've had a season ticket for 25 years… my entire life is spent in this place," laughs Sophia.
For some fans, match day comes with responsibilities. Mark Worrall, who has written several books about Chelsea and contributes to the longstanding cfcuk fanzine, wakes up early, loads boxes of fanzines into his car and drives to a little stall on the Fulham Road, which is spilling over with Chelsea-themed literature.
"It's very much a place that people meet up on match day," he says, in a brief lull between would-be readers. "With social media – Twitter, in particular – we get a lot of fans from the global fanbase. We've had groups from Sweden, Belgium, Norway, America. They come here, because this is part of the day for them. "The fanzine has got a big following, as have the books. All of that, for them, is like: 'We've gotta have some of that.'"
The fanzine movement, with all its anarchic tendencies, is a fundamental part of match day for football fans across the country, not least at Chelsea. "It's really part of the fabric of the club now,' says Mark. "I've been doing this for so long [that it is my match day ritual]. It keeps me out of the pub… I think I'm one of the only people who doesn't roll in drunk after I've been to a home game."
Having been to his first Chelsea match in 1972, Mark has seen the area around Stamford Bridge change over the years. Dozens of pubs have shut down, including those which, back in the 1970s and 80s, were often frequented by players directly after games.
"Because so many pubs have closed, you get a lot more people who all come down here, stand around and talk about the match," he says. In agreement is Mark Meehan, former editor of the Chelsea Independent fanzine. "It's a fantastic area now. It was a fantastic area then, but go back 30 years and probably a higher proportion of residents would have been Chelsea fans," he says.
"Like many London clubs, a lot of our fanbase have moved further out and now commute in to games… house prices, it's like everywhere. These streets 30 years ago, or even going back 50 years ago, would have been full of local working-class Chelsea fans. It's a different area now."
In that sense, match day rituals and the physical space around Stamford Bridge have been subtly transformed over time. Chelsea has its contradictions, like every club, as articulated by Kevin, who has been a supporter since 1971. "Chelsea always had a mixture of working-class and middle-class fans," he says. "There are working-class estates around and about, but ultimately Chelsea is in a fairly well-to-do area. I suppose that's reflected in the pubs and where you go [before the game]."
Kevin remembers a time when the match day experience could be a lot more intimidating, in the 70s and 80s, when Chelsea struggled with some of the worst aspects of British hooliganism. He remembers feeling "petrified" at his first game as a kid – a Tottenham match he was taken to by his uncle – while he admits: "In the 80s there were quite a lot of troubles, especially at Chelsea, which was one of the worst really."
Walking past the eight-sided chapel in the middle of Brompton cemetery, a familiar landmark for the many Chelsea fans who walk through the Victorian graveyard to get to Stamford Bridge, the hush among the headstones could not be much further removed from the atmosphere in those days. "This route to the ground is quite historic," says Kevin. "I suppose it's a peaceful walk, a calm-before-the-storm sort of thing."
Kevin used to run a paper round so he could afford the £2 entry fee to Stamford Bridge. "Another thing I remember about those days was how packed the tubes were," he says. "I remember being crushed in like sardines, and then, when you came out and you walked up to the ground, everyone was together, it was just huge. It's much more relaxed nowadays."
For fans who don't have a family connection to their club, the match day ritual is just as significant. With a dad who supports Manchester United and a mum who supports Spurs, Charlotte has been a lone Chelsea fan since she was eight years old. For her, the hours before the game revolve heavily around a shirt collection which goes back to the classic late-90s strips sponsored by Autoglass. "I tend to go home before a game and make sure that I've got something Chelsea on," she says. "I've got so many shirts… it's a key part of my day, really – a really big part. I don't think I could ever get through them all in one season, I've got too many."
While many fans meet in the bars and pubs around Stamford Bridge and race the clock to get to their seats before the first whistle, Charlotte always tries to get into the ground at least half an hour before kick-off. "I like to chill in my seat, maybe watch the warm-up, get ready, basically," she says. Sitting in the West Stand, there's a social function to getting to the ground early. "I sit on my own and I'm happy to do that. I chat to so many random people."
Compared to the grounds of other top clubs in Europe, Stamford Bridge has a meagre capacity, at just over 41,000. At several points, Chelsea fans have been forced to contemplate the idea of moving away, with the club launching various plans, ranging from building a new stadium inside Battersea Power Station to a redevelopment on the current site, which would require them to spend several years away from home. "It's one problem Chelsea have," says Kevin. "They have this ground, and it's right in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in the world."
While most fans recognise the financial arguments behind expansion, the thought of moving elsewhere and sweeping away all those little rituals is anathema to many. "It's such a strange concept to move your stadium," says Fred. "One-hundred percent, we don't want to move," adds Sophia. "Of course, they can say we could get a big stadium with a spanking capacity in Battersea, but it wouldn't be the same. [Stamford Bridge] has got its heritage."
Thanks to an "unfavourable investment climate" – thought to refer to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's visa issues – plans to redevelop the stadium are currently on hold. Many clubs have struggled with the existential challenge of leaving home, not least old rivals West Ham, whose move to the London Stadium in Stratford has led to much soul-searching, or Tottenham during their itinerant spell at Wembley. The family get-togethers, the fanzine stalls, the walks to the ground, the rites and superstitions: these are the intangibles which give football meaning and can so easily be disrupted or lost altogether.
Charlotte recalls times she has watched European finals and FA Cup wins in the pubs around Stamford Bridge – pints flying through the air, fans swinging from light fittings – just to be near to the ground and to feel some of that same aura.
"I love it," she says solemnly. "The area… it does hold memories."