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England Calling By John King

Peter Osgood was the king of Stamford Bridge. At his peak, he was also the king of English football. Nobody could compare. The likes of Alan Hudson, Tony Currie, Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh, Duncan McKenzie and Charlie George were all gifted English talents, free spirits who played for fun, chipping at the blood-and-sweat dogma of the old order, but Peter Osgood was different. He was bigger and stronger for a start, and, most importantly, he was a centre-forward, a flamboyant number 9 who lead from the front, fighting the cloggers and hatchet men for the right to play his beautiful game. The Shed roared him on and the opposition took the piss, but deep down everyone respected him. Being one of the so-called mavericks meant he also had to contend with a narrow-thinking establishment, an extension of our political elite, that on-going conservative club that crosses party lines and finds the spontaneous creativity of the ordinary Englishman a threat. The Chelsea striker was a special one, long before the term was coined.

Peter Osgood was the star of the greatest Chelsea team ever, a nutty-boy mob that won the FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup in the early Seventies and is still remembered for its flair and Kings Road drinking. Osgood had fine balance and brilliant ball control, and was a deadly finisher with both foot and head. He was up-front and in your face, and really could look after himself. There were no fainting fits when Mike England or Frank McLintock clattered into him, and he would have been bemused by the behaviour of Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba, embarrassed that Chelsea players could hit the ground so easily. You wouldn’t find The King Of Stamford Bridge loaded down with shopping bags either, poncing about in designer labels, showing off his furnishings, sipping at a glass of mineral water. He wasn’t the sort of bloke you’d want to upset, but while he was confident, he was also humble, maybe even vulnerable. He was unique on the pitch, but his importance has as much to do with his character off it, his long-standing love affair with the fans – a connection New Football has lost.

The name Osgood means pagan god. Strange, but true. The thought of a mutton-chopped lookalike doing a Saxon waltz through the Avebury mist, nutmegging the Norman huntsman Norman Hunter, then nutting him when he threatens to bite a leg, is refreshing in these fundamentalist times. Surnames were handed out for a reason, and Peter did his ancestors proud. Even so, he was better known as Ossie – or Ossie The Wizard – by the kids who watched him, and when those children grew up and got fat and shaved their heads Vialli-style and raised families off the M25 and down the Thames Corridor, they turned out to see him in their hundreds, shaking his hand and posing for photos in the same pubs where they are now forced to watch the modern Chelsea on flat-screen TVs, young and old priced out of a Stamford Bridge many of them helped preserve with their Save The Bridge donations, unwanted by successive regimes. These are his people. From start to finish, Ossie was one of the boys.

He made mistakes and some people called him lazy, but for football supporters of a certain age Ossie symbolises a glorious era, a time when Brazil ruled world football with Pele and Jairzinho and the great Dutch and Argentinean sides were emerging, a period when the England team was dull and in decline, yet domestically we had a league packed with flair. The crowds were huge and the football thrilling. In the playgrounds and pubs we knew England could be as good as anyone – if the right players were just given a chance. We wanted Peter Osgood wearing an England shirt. Ossie and Hudson and Bowles and all the rest of the flair men. They would have done us proud. It could have been like watching Brazil.

The football Peter Osgood represents is different to New Football. It is still out there, but at the highest level the money-men have sucked it dry. Ossie’s football is more than a money-making business, more than a game. It has fans, which is short for fanatics, and across the generations these fanatics have been rooted in a terrace culture, itself an expression of society, the football factory, but Maggie Thatcher didn’t believe in society so the terraces where we stood with our fathers and friends were shut down, the great home ends gutted as the top clubs became more and more greedy, parasites and con men leeching away, entrepreneurs bleating on about family entertainment and American values and European sophistication. The Premiership arrived and we were forced to pay a fortune to sit in seats we never wanted, next to people we never knew.

The football Ossie represents isn’t perfect, but Joe Public likes a bit of excitement, the clash of opposites, and for the real fans football is essential, about identity and belonging, the reason teams are named after towns, these places where we live and work and die. Every club has its own character, so Osgood’s Chelsea swaggered the same as Jose Mourinho’s men, and these threads keep passing down through the years, the same as DNA in a family. Football has been called the working-man’s ballet, and not so long ago anyone could squeeze in and watch the biggest, and best, performers – irrespective of age, sex, class, colour. At Chelsea, we drank in English and Irish pubs, sang and clapped along to the boss JA sounds of Harry Johnson, swore and sometimes even fought, but mostly we just had a great, cheap day out, football something to get us through the boring school or working week. Three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon was sacred, kick-off time, right across the country. All you had to do was turn up, through the bad as well as the good times. We froze our bollocks off watching shit football for years, but it was worth it for the company we kept. Loyalty was more important than money and there was a place in the ground for everyone.

New Football belongs to glory hunters and slumming yuppies and fake liberals and sightseeing tour groups. It is controlled by clones who pay lip-service to our history, but snigger at raw passion and stereotypes, see more profit in French wine than Australian lager, prefer salmon to Wagon Wheels. They groan and imagine cloth caps and clogs and Doctor Marten boots. We are told we should be thankful they have arrived to educate us, to wipe our noses and erase our crude Anglo-Saxon language. But they need the passion to create the spectacle that makes football more than a sport. Instead they have crushed it, just one example of the disease known as gentrification, the digital manipulation and theft of our culture, whether it’s a street market packed into cubby holes, a centuries-old boozer gutted and turned into a brain-dead gastro-pub, a school or church or meeting hall converted to executive flats, a row of houses extended and manicured and sold on six months later to another set of faceless IT plums. England has to be castrated and regionalised if it is going to fit into a centralised EU state, make no mistake.

The irony is that while the atmosphere has been dumbed down at the big clubs and generations of football fans priced out, Peter Osgood appreciated the excellent football played today, and would loved to have performed on the smooth pitches, would have run riot with the slick boots and lighter balls, never mind the protection referees give today’s individual talents. The cloggers have been turned into heroes by posh lad’s magazines, and while we cheered the hard men of our own teams, the dirtiest examples were no good for the game, their cynicism hacking at the shins of players a hundred times better than they could ever be. The Eighties saw the result of this bullying – the long-ball game dominated and the victory of muscle over craft caused the dramatic collapse in attendances so famously blamed on hooliganism.

That great Chelsea side of the early Seventies included Peter Bonetti, Ron Harris, John Hollins, Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood and Peter Houseman – all six of them home-grown. Better still, Bonetti, Hudson and Houseman were all born within a couple of miles of Stamford Bridge. Only Ron Harris came from outside the West London sprawl. This was not unusual. Today, that local element has been lost. While this is sad, and there is a good case for a local quota to be enforced, there can be no doubt that the large-scale arrival of foreign players in the Nineties helped revive the English game. Ruud Gullit, Luca Vialli, Franco Zola and the rest of the Chelsea brigade lapped up the passion of crowds that had yet to be sanitised. Glenn Hoddle – a man vilified for sharing a religious view that is held by more than half the world’s population – opened the door. These people were pioneers, often coming towards the end of their careers and fancying an adventure. They appreciated the warmth of the people and returned it, careful not to dive or cause offence. Comparing today’s imports with the characters of ten years ago is a non-starter. The motivations and expectations are totally different.

Today, English football is packed with skill, but the spectacle has been wrecked by the social cleansing in the stands. There are plenty of genuine, passionate fans still attending, but their numbers are lower than ever, as tickets become more and more expensive. Football, especially at the highest level, is a show, and the bright, imaginative football of the last ten years means little when it is played in sterile grounds lined with rows of tourists and Johnny Come Latelys and trendy wankers flapping about in club shirts, people who have no interest in the songs or wider culture. They are consumers. Many of these muppets have never heard of Peter Osgood, while George Best is little more than a tabloid drunk.

In his late fifties, Peter Osgood was as imposing as ever. He stood tall, leaning forward at the waist, challenging people to keep up, his ideas sharp and his humour deadly as he drank and socialised and enjoyed life. He was good company. People loved him. He loved them. He was a big fan of Joe Cole and would loved to have played with Zola, saw John Terry as a fine captain and genuine Chelsea boy, raved about Vialli and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. He regarded Bobby Moore as the best footballer he had ever played against. He was articulate and in tune with the modern game, showing none of the bitterness of some of his contemporaries. He famously clashed with Dave Sexton and left Chelsea at the age of twenty-seven, and was honest enough to say he regretted it for the rest of his life. He was Chelsea to the core and should have stayed at the club. Jose Mourinho is more Brian Clough than Dave Sexton, but Ossie and Jose would have done well together. He would have been perfect leading the line, Joe Cole on one side, Robben on the other.

Too many footballers are arrogant, fame crushing personalities limited by sheltered lives, kids mollycoddled from an early age and then pumped up with too much cash. Hero-worship should be saved for nurses, doctors, teachers and all those who help others, the backbone of society. The salaries footballers earn are a disgrace. Reading about another brat and his new car, house, holiday home, makes those paying his wages step back. The players and fans are further apart than ever before. Footballers who gang-bang vulnerable girls need kicking out of their clubs and should be banned from representing their country. There is no excuse. Of course, the football clubs do nothing. Money dismisses morals. There are even retired footballers who look down on the fans and haven’t worked out the true nature of the relationship, their egos so inflated they don’t realise they need us more than we want them. Without the crowd, they are nothing. Peter Osgood, for all his fame and success, understood this.

If England had been managed by a more imaginative man than Alf Ramsey or Don Revie, Peter Osgood would have been as widely regarded as George Best. He won four caps for his country, which is ridiculous. Best, a genius in his own right, played for Northern Ireland, while Ossie was right there on the FA’s doorstep. He was more of a threat. Today, he would win a hundred caps. Ramsey’s side did a job in 1966, but the blueprint lasted too long, this flash of success setting English football back decades.

Peter Osgood was a great example of what the English working man can achieve. He was creative, tough, honest. He was a gentleman. The only players of the last thirty years to come close have been Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney, both of them playing a deeper game, like so many of his gifted contemporaries. Ossie was the man at the front who took on and beat the cynics. He was the leader and he was the king, but he was always one of the people.