I've never been that into football, but living less than a mile away from Stamford Bridge it is hard to ignore the Chelsea fans that pour into the area every week or so for nine months of the year. Over the years I've watched the hoards of Smurfs (as we affectionately call them) traipsing along the road in packs, heading towards the club. Generally they are not the most prepossessing of people - usually sporting shaven heads and bright blue shirts stretched tight over their wobbly bellies (and that's just the kids!). When it's freezing cold and pissing down with rain I vaguely admire their commitment to supporting the team, as I put on the kettle and turn up the heating. But onwards they march! I rarely watch a match, but vaguely follow the team's progress and secretly hope that they win.
And this is partly because I'm a local and you have to support your local team, but mainly because of the parades. They are just so much fun to witness. Normally I open my first floor window and watch from the comfort of my own flat, taking the odd snap or two, but this time was different. Chelsea had won the Champions League for the first time ever; and in fact they are the first London team to do so. They also won the FA cup a fortnight earlier (something they do quite often), so there was quite a lot to celebrate. I even watched the whole of the match, convinced that they wouldn't win, resulting in the poor organisers having to take down the platforms and screens that they'd already set up before the match. Talk about tempting fate! It was a tense match to watch, and it was great that it went right down to the final kick of the ball. Good old Drogba!
The parade was planned for 4pm, but the crowds started to arrive much earlier. Security guards were brought down in coaches from far afield. We went out at about 1pm and chatted to a couple of them. They'd found out that they would be needed after Drogba's final goal, having to leave home at 4am - with 347 of them coming down from Leeds alone. Many more were there, lining the route along the Fulham Road, Hortensia Road and the New King's Road, from the ground to Parsons Green. Despite supporting Leeds, and certainly not Chelsea, they were in good spirits (at least it wasn't Man United, they told us). They stood at 10-20 metre intervals from each other, in roughly the same spots for about 5 or 6 hours, occasionally opening barriers to let people across the road, but otherwise with nothing to do but stand, wait and hope nothing kicked off.
People were out and about selling cup-shaped balloons, t-shirts, horns, and flags, some with dogs dressed for the occasion.
I certainly wasn't the only one out with a camera; the official press photographers were already mingling around, and a big stage was set up for the news teams. They definitely had the best views. The press photographers were allowed to wander in the streets when the rest of us were stuck behind the barriers.
We went back home for a spot of lunch and went back to the front line at about 3pm, wrapped up warm, hoping to secure a good spot and view of the parade and crowds. I took my 70-200mm lens and spent the time before the bus finally arrived snapping away at all the fans that lined the streets.
What amazed me was the variety of types of people. They were the normal architypal Smurfs (the shaven-headed, beer-gutted ones with matching sons) but so many others from different races, ages and types of backgrounds. A big happy melting pot all celebrating Chelsea's historic win.
Across the road was a group of teenage girls who sat on top of a railing, all sporting matching white polo shirts (the Ralph Lauren ones with the BIG logo), and all looking as if it had taken them about 3 hours to put on the nails, the foundation, the fake eyelashes, flatten the hair and choose which enormous handbag to take. I couldn't take my eyes off them!
News helicopters buzzed around in the skies above us. Residents came out onto balconies, roofs and stretched out of windows. People threw celery across the road at each other (apparently a tradition going back to the 1980s, although I'd never heard about it before). People threw celery at the teenage girls. Some fans began to looked a bit bored.
The bus finally arrived just after 5pm and parked about a hundred metres down the road near the press stand on Eel Brook Common; we weren't in the best place. We could still enjoy the atmosphere, though, with all the cheers and flag-waving and horns (it was quite noisy!). I could just see the team buses in the distance.
The team stayed at that spot for a while, making various speeches and cheering, in front of the thousands of fans packed onto Eel Brook Common and down Wandsworth Bridge Road. Eventually the bus set off again, towards us, and I struggled to get my camera over the arms, heads and flags of other supporters. One guy with a Brazilian flag had his arms up obscuring the view, recording the view for his friends on three separate mobile phones.
I probably blocked the view for more people behind me as I struggled on my tiptoes, waving my camera in the bus's direction. Such is life. Eventually the bus reached us, and I was able to capture a very contented-looking Roman Abramovich sitting at the front of the bus. He even looked a little bemused, as did a few of the other team-members, most of whom I didn't recognise! The smiles never left Ashley Cole's and John Terry's faces.
Their view must have been incredible - a wash of blue (and orange security guards) winding down the New King's Road ahead of them, led by mounted policemen, everyone cheering their achievement (apart from the police and the Leeds-supporting security teams!). A second bus ferried what must have been the wives, girlfriends and other family members.
Once the buses had passed, a wall of security people and policemen came down the middle of the road towards us, with the fans packed behind them, pouring from the common. They followed the buses towards Parsons Green, where luxury buses waited to take the team away for more private celebrations.
A few guys standing near us pushed to the front in order to climb over. A woman and her small children next to us began to panic that they'd get crushed so we helped usher them away; no harm done in the end, but I don't think young Maddie had really enjoyed her day out.
We wandered back to the flat, a minute away, stopping to chat to some neighbours who leaned out of their first floor windows, watching the parade from home. It probably won't be repeated for a while - I can't imagine they'll put on another parade next year if they only win the FA cup, but who knows. The supporters will be there in their tens of thousands if they do, without a doubt.
In the evening we went out to see a friend, and the road was empty but for a few security guards taking down the barriers, and endless empty plastic bags blowing around in the wind. We walked down the middle of Wandsworth Bridge Road - probably the only time it'll be closed to traffic. In the morning everything was back to normal, the litter cleared, the roads opened as if nothing had happened.
More photos of the day can be seen on my website.