Illustration: Miki Lowe


A Pint of Plane

Following a famous footballers’ binge.

On 13 September 2001, Chelsea were due to play a UEFA Cup first round home fixture against Bulgarian outfit PFC Levski Sofia. Unfortunately, due to geopolitical events two days prior, that week’s Champions League and UEFA Cup fixtures were respectfully called off. This left Chelsea players with a rare day to themselves on 12 September. How would you fill a free 24 hours as an elite athlete? A spot of golf? A day with the family? For John Terry and Frank Lampard – newly signed from West Ham after his uncle and father were sacked by the east London club – it was a chaotic five-hour booze binge in the shadow of Heathrow Airport; stripping, laughing and vomiting in front of stranded and grieving Americans trying to come to terms with the deadliest terror attack in human history.

Having spent that afternoon crawling the drinking establishments of Harlington, the strange sort-of-village just north of Terminal 3, the pair – plus fellow Chelsea youngster Jody Morris, ex-Blue Frank Sinclair, and 2005 Champions League semi-final bottler Eiður Guðjohnsen – ended up at the Heathrow Posthouse hotel and, according to the then-Posthouse manager Antonio Parisini, ‘were causing lots of noise and knocking things over in the bar and upsetting everyone’. They were, he went on to say, ‘really drunk’, and turned what was already an unbelievably traumatic experience for our-cousins-across-the-pond into a Boschian nightmare. They finally found themselves in a nearby bowling alley where, according to an unnamed worker speaking to News of the World, ‘virtually all of the players were sliding down the lanes head first.’

I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Terry and Lampard; to find out just how much fun one can have boozing in the ‘burbs surrounding the fourth-­busiest airport in the world. Which was how I found myself standing outside Captain Morgan’s, a peculiar, pirate-themed shop conversion pub in Hayes one Friday afternoon in May. Of the three pubs that JT and Lamps graced with their disreputable presence back in 2001, in fitting London fashion only one remains, and so to get into the boorish mindset of our brave boys it was felt necessary to consume five to six pints of Eurofizz in a few non-canonical grogholes before we joined up with their route just south of the M4.

On September 12th 2001, having left Chelsea’s training ground (then located on Harlington’s Sipson Lane), and with the next day’s session called off, the group decided to whet their whistles in The White Hart. Today, it seems an incongruous choice of first pub for a bender: located just off the the high street, set back behind the plane trees and under a sky full of possibility, it’s the epitome of the dull Outer London boozer, the kind seen from Hornchurch to Harrow to Enfield to Epsom: a sort of country pub, much more like a restaurant, and with a generous garden teeming with naff rattan furniture shaped uncomfortably into vague Le Corbusier forms. It’s the archetypal Live Laugh Love hooch-hole for the newly middle-class, a place where forty-something men in polo shirts can drink pink gin out of balloon glasses while their bored kids idly pick at a halloumi burger from the vegetarian menu they introduced in 2013. The Viper Room it is not, which is perhaps why our bawdy ragazzi only lasted an hour here before moving on to the next establishment.

At 3:30pm the tipsy troupe traipsed into The Red Lion, a charming mid-19th century pub located on an entirely forgettable roundabout. It’s here where things went south, as the landlord back in 2001, Joe O’Brien, revealed. ‘The whole group was out of order’, he told News of the World. ‘They’d had well enough to drink, so I asked them to leave. They were upsetting other people in the bar.’ So far, so south-west London. But according to locals present, the five amigos knocked back the Stellas, threw peanuts, and swore at O’Brien and his customers. ‘When they got outside’ continued one punter, ‘they stripped one other lad who was with them – he wasn’t a player – and left him naked at a bus stop.’ The Red Lion shut a little over 12 years ago, with the owners’ plans to convert the building into flats rejected by Hillingdon Borough Council. Since then the building has been plagued by squatters, fires, and the complaints of Nextdoor’s angriest posters. When we walked past it was glistening in the sun, a fading reminder of when the villages surrounding the capital’s main airport were a hub of life and community outside of aviation.

It was alleged that following their Red Lion exit, the group – by now absolutely steaming and urinating in the street, according to some eyewitnesses – tried to get into The Wheatsheaf, but were turned away by the landlord. The Wheatsheaf closed in 2023, having spent several years opening and then shutting again as various forms of gaff. By this point in our two mile stroll south, I’d completely forgotten about this pub, and walking past you’d never have even known it was there. So onwards we marched, bladders slowly creaking under the pressure of relentless pints, with only one target in sight. The Posthouse – which, following a series of quick takeovers first from The InterContinental Hotel Group, and culminating in the snappily named ‘Redefine BDL Hotels’ group, now operates as a Best Western.

The Ariel Hotel, as it was known when it was designed back in 1960 by architects Russell Diplock & Associates, dominates the skyline of the approach down Harlington’s High Street towards Heathrow. It’s genuinely impressive – a circular doughnut of sixties modernism; the sort of architecture that you now find in every underfunded provincial town centre, but that at the time felt like the future. We walked in, ordered a pint, and sat down in the soporific lobby.

It was here, back in 2001, where one of the gang exposed themselves to a group of American tourists. Over to barmaid Tracey King: ‘They were swearing a lot, upsetting people, and one of them pulled his underwear down at least three times. I could see it all, and the restaurant was packed. One of the players downed a pint of lager and then vomited it back all over the floor’. I considered this as I looked at the bar’s handful of quiet guests. A young Eastern European family. A businessman sat alone, nursing a Peroni and checking his emails. Was it in that dimly lit, half-closed dining section that a member of the gang paraded his dong around, while news footage showed crying firemen and blackened ruins? Was it at that pristine bar where Morris and Sinclair tried to chat up a pair of ululating women? It was hard to imagine anything even vaguely outré happening in this sterile, silent foyer. It was clear that we needed to up the ante. We needed to get to our heroes’ final destination. We finished our drinks, and walked out into the night.

We took a left and there it was: the Airport Bowl, long and low against the clear evening sky, in surely one of the most American edge city scenes in the whole of London. Almost everywhere within the capital’s boundaries is walkable, but there’s no place quite so inhospitable to pedestrians than the perimeter of Heathrow. Here, the car is king, and at Airport Bowl they were all parked outside like an Idaho drive-thru. We walked in.

‘Can I see your ID?’ asked a young bouncer, perched on a swivel stool behind a mounted touch screen, like some kind of inimical Chris Tarrant.

‘I’ve got mine, but my friend hasn’t got his. He’s 35.’ I replied.

‘Sorry, but we can’t let anyone in without ID after 9pm.’‘But it’s only 9.06pm.’

‘That’s after 9pm.’ I wondered if this draconian door policy was introduced after that September afternoon in 2001. Our mission had fallen at the last hurdle. Dejected, we headed home.

The Sunday after our attempt to take the Airport Bowl I woke up and decided I simply had to finish what I started. So, at midday on the final day of the Premier League season, I made the 86-minute trip west once again. This time, in the blazing sunshine, the entrance was unguarded, and I strolled right in. The previous Friday’s ID issues seemed like a fever dream. Could it really be this easy to get everything you ever wanted? Could it really be this easy to get into the Airport Bowl?

Inside I found perfection. Everywhere else I’d visited on my Chelsea odyssey had been touched by the hands of time; either destroyed completely or shaped beyond recognition by the bland trappings of modernity. But at the Airport Bowl I was back in 2001. This was Old London. Suddenly I was there, watching Terry down pints and Frank Sinclair almost decapitate himself in the lane’s mechanisms. Here, amongst the neon arcades, children’s bowling tournament, and cheap four-pint pitchers, it all made sense – I could finally understand how five bored footballers could have done what they did.

In an age of performance optimisation; of nutritionists, brain sensors and hyperbaric chambers, the party-loving baller is something of a dying breed. Sure, there are the off-season lads’ trips to O Beach for the younger players – all sculpted abs by the poolside, and papped kisses with influencers. For the older heads, there are the sordid extra-marital affairs, humiliatingly played out on tabloid front pages. But in a post-Cristiano Ronaldo world, there’s undoubtedly a greater emphasis on getting your head down, keeping your mouth shut, and squeezing out that last two percent on the pitch. It’s what makes Jack Grealish’s summertime celebrations such a joy to watch, and JT and Lamps’ boozy excursion still such a riveting tale.

For their part, the group apologised to everyone involved, and denied some of the fruitier allegations. Terry and Lampard went on to become two of their generation’s finest players. But that afternoon’s legend lives on, an incredulous reminder of a simpler era of football – and of England itself.

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