For many British football fans like me, the close season, that ten-week gap between the FA Cup final in May and the new season’s start in August, stretches like an eternity. Of course, there’s cricket and Wimbledon, but even these (and I have no desire to provoke cricket aficionados) cannot compensate for the abrupt withdrawal of the football fix. Every four years there is the World Cup, of course, and then two years later the European UEFA championship — and let us not forget the local CONCACAF Gold Cup in June and July this year, which includes Trinidad and Tobago — but even with all these events, it is easy to miss the rituals, the anticipation, the pain, and the occasional pleasure of following your own team.
Yet in recent years the long wait between seasons seems to have shortened, as the phenomenon of the “pre-season” has become more prominent. This is essentially a three- to four-week period before the real games begin, during which clubs play a series of friendly matches. And as football, and in particular the English Premier League, has become a massive global brand, so these games have become a vital part of marketing clubs to audiences around the world. Many matches are televised, but clubs often tour abroad, seeking to raise their profile and increase their fan base. Asia, above all, is viewed as the key market, and hence Manchester United might play Paris Saint-Germain in Seoul, or Arsenal take on Real Madrid in Hong Kong. Sponsorship, TV rights, gambling, and replica shirt sales are all component parts of the lucrative travelling circus.
Unfortunately, history does not record how many shirts were sold or bets placed when two English First Division clubs (the Premier League had yet to be invented) toured the three independent Caribbean nations of Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago and what was still the British colony of Barbados in May and June 1964, fifty-five years ago. Cricket tours were by now commonplace, but this was the first time that top-tier English football clubs had visited the region. It seems that Chelsea, who had finished fifth, and Wolverhampton Wanderers (sixteenth) wanted to combine some exotic sightseeing with a regular schedule of matches — five between themselves and a further six with local sides. That made eleven games in seventeen days: hardly a relaxing holiday, only three weeks after the season had ended. As Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner observed, both clubs had three aims: “Firstly to boost British soccer, secondly to do all they can to help their footballing hosts, thirdly to beat each other.”
Though by no means the billionaire’s plaything of today (the players reportedly earned £9 5s per week), Chelsea were a formidable side managed by the experienced Scotsman Tommy Docherty. In their first match against a Barbados XI, reported Bajan John Fraser, Chelsea “won handsomely, and although our team played to their best, the difference in pace and skill was evident. Lloyd Seale was in goal and had his thumb broken as the pace of a shot from outside the area was so much faster than he had ever experienced.” The result was 7-0. And this pattern continued as Chelsea travelled through Trinidad (5-0) and the Jamaican parish of St James (15-0). Only against a stronger Jamaican national team did they concede a goal (4-1).
Wolves had a similarly easy time against Trinidad, in what wolvesheroes.com describes as “a 4-0 win in a downpour which left the pitch treacherous and the uncovered 12,000 crowd thoroughly soaked.” They then beat Jamaica 8-4 in an entertaining encounter. As for the all-English matches, Chelsea won three and Wolves two, with a cumulative score of 11-9 to Chelsea.
The final leg of the tour was in “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Haiti, where the two English clubs competed with the national side in the grandly named Tournoi Angleterre-Haiti, sponsored by Dubonnet, French importer of bitter oranges from Haiti for its famous aperitif. Here things were altogether less straightforward for the English visitors, as they faced a team that was emerging as one of the leading forces within CONCACAF. Wolves managed a 1-1 draw in front of a crowd of 13,000 in Port-au-Prince, and then lost 2-0 to Chelsea. Wolvesheroes.com recalls, “What with a spectacular downpour and the sight of even the groundsmen carrying revolvers, Wolves’ players weren’t sorry to leave the island!” Chelsea fared even worse against Haiti, losing 2-1 in a match that was abandoned in the sixty-eighth minute due to a torrential tropical downpour.
Both squads arrived safely back in London on 9 June, and the tour was promptly forgotten. Wolves’ manager Stan Cullis dismissively described the football as “variable,” and most of the players showed little enthusiasm for their experience. But the tour did have other, more long-lasting repercussions. Keith Boyce, who harboured footballing aspirations, was part of the Barbados team that was thrashed 7-0 by Chelsea. Quite sensibly, he decided to abandon any such plans and turn his attention to cricket. He went on to play twenty-one Tests and eight One-Day Internationals for the West Indies as an all-rounder.
One of the more bizarre incidents occurred off the pitch, as recalled by Wolves and England striker Ray Crawford in his 2007 autobiography. “I was drinking a long rum and Coke one evening in the bar of the hotel both teams were staying at, when Docherty came over for a chat. He didn’t beat about the bush before asking if I would like to join Chelsea, adding that he would throw Barry Bridges in as part-exchange.” Now this, in today’s football parlance, is known as “tapping up,” and is severely frowned upon and punished by the sport’s governing body, FIFA. (Coincidentally, Chelsea were implicated in two tapping-up cases in 2005 and 2009.) To his credit, Crawford replied that he was flattered but declined the offer, citing loyalty to Wolves and Stan Cullis.
He may well have come to regret his integrity, since Cullis was surprisingly sacked in September 1964 after sixteen years in charge. Wolves were duly relegated, while Chelsea finished the 1964–65 season in third place, qualifying for the European Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Crawford moved to nearby West Bromwich Albion in January 1965.
As luck — or misfortune — would have it, Wolves’ opening game of that new season was at home . . . against Chelsea. They lost 3-0. With a start like that, Wolves supporters may have reasonably concluded that perhaps the close season does sometimes have its advantages.