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HAMBURGERS? SHAMBURGERS!; Cup favourites and the giantkillers - what it's really like watching them VIP style; By COLIN WILLS who paid pounds 316 down at The Bridge .By IAN HYLAND It cost him just pounds 15 at Saltergate.

As you walk to your champagne lunch you get a whiff of football the way it used to be.

Near the main gate at Chelsea, a smell of hamburgers and onions wafts towards you, and in your mind you can see all the burgers you've ever had at all the matches you've ever been to, the colour of pink carpet tiles but not quite so tasty.

But I've got bigger fish to fry. Salmon to be precise, in a plush restaurant under the stand, 100 yards and a world away from where the early punters, the life and soul of the club, wrap their purchases in paper napkins and try to stop the mustard dribbling on their shirts.

But I'm a New Fan, a corporate fan, the sort Chelsea, like every other top club, are courting these days. Hamburgers? Shamburgers! For pounds 316.08 (including VAT) you expect something more than pressed beef. You expect showbiz, lights, Hollywood.

So I head towards lunch on the snob side of the ground. Around me, people mutter things into mobile phones like: "Yeah, well, I'd be looking for another 2k on top of that, okay, ciao."

Tony Banks MP strides by. John Major and Tony Blair are rumoured to be here. Manchester United certainly bring the celebs out.

Two and a half hours before kick-off, my name is checked by a doorman at the entrance to Drakes, the main banqueting suite. I've hardly got my coat off before a glass of champagne is thrust into my hand. Once the level in your glass drops below the half-way point, an attractive young lady rushes up with a bottle of Moet to top it up.

Thus fortified, I go celebrity-hunting. At Kingfisher Travel, the agents in Buckingham Palace Road where I bought my package, I was told Dennis Wise, the Chelsea captain, would hopefully hand us our stand tickets.

I turn to a bloke next to me. "They said Dennis Wise might hand us our tickets."

"That'll be good. I reckon they were the best double act ever."

"Who's that then?"

"Eric Morecambe and Dennis Wise."

I begin to suspect not all my companions are dyed-in-the-wool fans. The conversations are all about how Volvos hold their value and the advantages of buying shares in Railtrack.

As time passes, it dawns on me Dennis Wise is not going to show up. My ticket is handed to me by a Kingfisher rep. But all is not lost. "We're hoping Dennis and Mark Hughes will come up to present a Chelsea shirt after the game," he says. I look out the window for any flying pigs that might be around.

By now I've given up playing "hunt the face." The only recognisable one belongs to veteran commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme.

Ken and I swap football stories. The only trouble is, our tables are ranged along a sort of balcony, below which a couple of hundred Chelsea fans are booing United players on a giant TV screen. The Savoy Grill it isn't.

As we walk to our seats, loudspeaker announcements warn against abusive language. In front of me a group of blokes strike up a defiant chant of "Who the f*** are Man United."

But such raw fanaticism barely touches us corporate guests. We are like Caesars, watching the gladiators below us.

It is a wonderful game. Afterwards we hurry back to Drakes to meet Wise and Hughes.'ve guessed it. "Sorry," says the Kingfisher rep. "Dennis is on the treatment table and Mark can't make it either."

Groans all round. But ready to step into the breach is - who else - Ken Wolstenholme.

Now I find Ken a great companion, but it has to be said for the younger corporate element, with their sons' autograph books bulging in their Armani jacket pockets, he's not exactly `A' list.

For all that, he does a sterling job - what I can hear of it. In the bar below us fans chant: "No surrender to the IRA."

"What a lovely serenade," I say to Ken. "Do you think they've laid it on for our benefit?"

"Laid on?" Ken mutters. "They ought to be laid out if you ask me."

And that is about that. Chelsea drew 1-1. Railtrack rose 11p. No prizes for guessing which was the most important result for some people at Stamford Bridge.

The guests drift away, pounds 300 lighter. As Ken might have said, they think it's all over. And this time they're dead right.

PIE AND A PUNCH-UP FOR PEANUTS! "WHAT, fifteen? One-five?" I said.

"Fifteen," she answered.

"And for that I get the lot - seat in the stand, entry to the executive lounge, meet the players?"

"That's right, duck, and a programme."

"I'll take it," I yelled.

"Right. That'll be pounds 15. Pick your ticket up about 1.30."

Fifteen quid for the full works at Chesterfield's Saltergate - the ground where mighty Nottingham Forest had fallen seven days earlier, the ground where I stood as a spotty teenager and cheered on my heroes. And they were letting me in the Executive Club! I never knew they had one, but it was hidden under the stand all the time.

I got to the ground at 1.25 - best be early, I thought, avoid the queues - and picked up the ticket from the charming club secretary, Nicola. "I've written Executive Club on the back and signed it, so you shouldn't have any problems," she promised.

The club wasn't open yet so I bought a shirt (pounds 32.99) and chatted to the Plymouth fans. Both of them were going to demonstrate when their chairmen arrived. And they did. He came in his big car and the fans duly shouted "McCauley Out".

"Are you the chairman?" a steward asked. "How'd you guess?" McCauley said, and in he went.

This was not the last confrontation of the day, but more of that later. The VIP had just turned up. Last week Chancellor Ken Clarke, this week Bruce Grobbelaar, Plymouth's keeper. He walked in carrying a ghetto-blaster. "It's for the players," he said.


Kick-off time approached so I made my way to the Members' entrance. "I'm with the press but today I've got an Executive Pass," I proudly announced to the moustachioed steward. Any thoughts of northern brotherhood disappeared with his reply: "Stand's full, tha'll ave to sit in t'Press Box." He was adamant.

But by kick-off I'd found a seat in the stand. "Probably a season ticket- holder who's died," someone suggested. If so he's probably more comfortable than I was. Wood is hard on the bottom and when there's no legroom it's even worse. I looked at the terraces full of spotty youths and wished I was there.

Still, only 45 minutes till I made it into the Exec Club. The smell of burgers and Bovril was enticing, but I was hanging on for my free buffet.

I reached the door and the doorman checked my pass. "Nicola's signed it," I said. Eventually he let me in and I was confronted by a second doorman, who said: "Have you got a pass?" to which the first replied: "I wouldn't have let him in if he 'adn't, would I?" Comedy double act over, I was in.

Formica walls, a bar at one end and a TV in the corner. Welcome to Chesterfield's Executive Lounge. Through the smoke I spotted the tea urn and was given a mug with sugar (I don't take it) by a woman who I swear used to go to my church.

A friendly local directed me to the buffet and I feasted on cheese and ham sandwiches, pork pie, sausage rolls and cheesy pineapple sticks.

Fully fed, I made my way back to the stand through the secret exit. `Moustache' was on duty and when he saw me his face was a picture. "How did you get in there? It's not for press, it's for members," he spluttered.

"With this - all right?" I said, flashing my Nicola-signed pass. He seethed, but what could he say? I realised I've been living down south too long and must look like a soft jessie. Luckily I got chatting to the club DJ, who told me the fans were a bit fed up with national papers suddenly taking an interest because the team were doing so well.

Not this time, they weren't. Maybe their minds were on today's Cup quarter- final against Wrexham. They were 2-0 down after 70 minutes, but with three minutes left Chesterfield scored. Time to get excited. Unfortunately the players got a bit too excited - there was a 19-man punch-up and the ref sent off four players.

I decided to skip drinks with the players in the Executive Club. I'd have been surprised if it was open after the dust-up.

It didn't spoil my day, though. As I walked back to me mam's, still clutching the change from my pounds 20 note, I thought how much it would cost for a ringside seat at one of Don King's specials. At least a grand...but I got to see a multiple punch-up, executively, for just pounds 15.

And I bet you don't get pork pie and pickle at Madison Square Garden.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Wills, Colin; Hyland, Ian
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 9, 1997
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