ON A WING AND A PRAYER

By Kelvin Barker
Nov 14th, 2007

There are few more exhilarating sights, on a football pitch at least, than that of a speedy, skilful winger tearing past his marker at will. Shaun Wright-Phillips’ stellar performance at Wigan last weekend – albeit aided in no small part by the fact that he was being marked by a second-rate left-winger converted, it would appear, into a fifth-rate left-back – did much to keep the supporters interested in a game that was effectively finished as a contest within the first twenty minutes.

In the face of such weak opposition, the diminutive Wright-Phillips was able to display the full array of talent that prompted Jose Mourinho to part with £21m of Roman Abramovich’s vast fortune to prise him away from Manchester City. After two difficult seasons struggling to establish himself, Shaun now looks better placed than ever to finally make his mark at the Bridge.

Of course, Wright-Phillips isn’t the only talented wide-man on the Blues’ staff, with Florent Malouda, Joe Cole and Scott Sinclair completing an impressive quartet of talented wingers vying for two spaces in Avram Grant’s starting line-up. This merry foursome are the latest in a long – if not always illustrious – line of wingers to ply their trade in the famous royal blue shirts of Chelsea Football Club.

I guess I was a bit spoilt, really, because on the day I made my debut amongst the masses on the Stamford Bridge terraces, Chelsea fielded three of the most illustrious wingers of the 1970s in their line-up. On the right was Keith Weller, who would write his name permanently into my own Chelsea history that day by scoring the only goal of the game, and on the opposite flank stood Peter Houseman. Playing in midfield, but still the daddy of the wide boys, was the moustachioed maestro, Charlie Cooke.

Charlie, a genuine wizard of the dribble, was a darling of the Stamford Bridge faithful, who had been signed by Tommy Docherty in April 1966 to replace the departing Terry Venables. The Scot had made his league debut for the club on the opening day of the following season, and quickly endeared himself to the supporters of his new club by scoring a magnificent goal as Chelsea beat the newly-crowned world champions, West Ham United, 2-1 at Upton Park. However, perhaps his most famous moment in a blue shirt came in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay against Leeds United, when he executed a masterful switch in possession with Ian Hutchinson, before dancing forwarded and chipping a delightful ball onto the head of the sprawling Peter Osgood, to bring Chelsea level in a game which would eventually see the famous old trophy clinched for the first time in the club’s history.

Cookie would continue to weave his spell for another two seasons, performing magnificently in the two clashes with Real Madrid in Athens that were required before Ron Harris could get his hands on the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and he was a member of another cup final team a year later, but this time he would collect just a runners-up medal as Stoke City lifted the League Cup at Chelsea’s expense. He moved on to Crystal Palace in September 1972 for what would prove a miserable spell, but returned to the Bridge just 15 months later and was quickly back into his mercurial stride back at his spiritual home, playing an important role in settling the nerves of Eddie McCreadie’s young side during the final few weeks of the successful 1976/77 promotion campaign. Charlie’s final game for the club came in January 1978 when, at the age of 35, he played his part in a memorable 4-2 triumph over European champions Liverpool. That summer he moved to America, where he has been permanently based ever since.

Charlie Cooke celebrated his 65th birthday last month, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. A heavy drinker throughout much of his career, Charlie had to fight back bravely against the demons that he found at the bottom of an empty whisky bottle. He left for America a bitter, troubled man. Nowadays, he is a frequent visitor to these shores, and a popular guest amongst the Stamford Bridge hierarchy and with the supporters. Last December, he made a personal appearance on the CFC UK bookstall prior to the clash with Arsenal, and within seconds of his arrival he had been mobbed by grateful, ageing Blues fans. As the perma-tanned, healthy-looking Scot stood in the Fulham Road swapping pleasantries and signing copies of his autobiography, I remember thinking: ‘I wouldn’t mind looking that good at 64’. And then I remembered that I don’t even look that good now, so there’s not much chance that I will in 22 years’ time.

Sadly, there would be no such happy endings for either of the other two wingers who appeared in the Chelsea line-up on that cold December day when I broke my Stamford Bridge cherry.

“Keithy, Keithy Weller, Keithy Weller on the wi-ing” was the chant emanating from the Shed End on the day that the former Tottenham and Millwall man scored the goal that would beat Newcastle United with a fierce volley. Signed from the Lions in May of that year, Weller had made a good impression on team-mates and supporters alike as he quickly adapted to his new surroundings, and to a new role, having performed as a midfielder for both his former clubs. A fine brace at Upton Park in just his third game for the club rescued a draw from a match which the Blues had trailed 2-0 at the interval, and a week later he was on the scoresheet again, helping Chelsea to a 2-1 win over Arsenal. Further two-goal performances came in victories at Derby and Blackpool – the latter an incredible 4-3 win, the Seasiders having led 3-0 at half-time – and by Christmas his haul of league goals was into double-figures.

Weller’s form dipped in the New Year, although he finished his one and only full season in SW6 as the club’s top scorer, and as the recipient of a European Cup Winners’ Cup winner’s medal. Nevertheless, Dave Sexton, perhaps displaying early signs of the confusion that would beset the latter part of his managerial tenure, had apparently already lost faith in the man he had spent £100,000 on a year earlier, and his captures of Chris Garland and Steve Kember were a clear signal that Weller would soon be surplus to requirements. Just 16 months after joining the Blues, the Islington-born winger was sold to Leicester City, Chelsea recouping their entire outlay on the player in the process. His departure saddened the supporters, who had been quick to warm to the former Millwall man, but the move would prove to be an unqualified success for Weller, who spent eight happy years at Filbert Street, earning four caps for England in May 1974, and achieving notoriety for once wearing a pair of white tights under his kit during a cup clash with Norwich City on a freezing January day.

After leaving Leicester at the end of the 1970s, Keith Weller moved to the United States to play for the New England Tea Men, before settling across the Atlantic and making a name for himself as a coach of some repute.

Sadly, Weller was diagnosed with leomyofarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in 2002, and struggled to raise the required funds to assist in fighting the disease. Later that year, Leicester City fans raised £40,000 to pay for therapy, and at the end of the 2003/04 season, Weller’s former Leicester team-mate (and ex-Chelsea player) Alan Birchenall raised a further £27,500 on a sponsored run for his old pal. Sadly, though, Keith Weller passed away in November 2004, aged 58.

Peter Houseman – Nobby to his team-mates; Mary to the fans – was the straight man amongst Dave Sexton’s team of cavalier mavericks, and suffered at the hands of the supporters as a direct result. A thoughtful, methodical left-sider who, much like David Beckham in recent years, lacked genuine pace so had to rely on his outstanding ability to curl crosses around advancing defenders, Houseman made his debut for the Blues in December 1963, and got his name on the scoresheet for the first time in just his second game, scoring one of Chelsea’s five as Blackpool were thrashed on Boxing Day. However, such early successes would prove to be somewhat deceptive, and Houseman failed to blossom in the first-team as quickly as had been expected. It eventually took him almost five years to rack up his first fifty league appearances for the club.

Houseman’s real breakthrough came under Dave Sexton in the 1968/69 season, when he made 32 league appearances, but it was throughout the following season that the left-winger truly began to win over his detractors on the terraces. An ever-present throughout the campaign, Houseman scored twice in an FA Cup semi-final thrashing of Watford at White Hart Lane, and was on target again in the Wembley final, his shot squirming under the body of Gary Sprake to give the Blues the first of their two equalisers in the drawn FA Cup Final with Leeds United.

Houseman was in the Chelsea side for both matches in the following season’s European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, and was again in the starting line-up for the 1972 League Cup Final against Stoke City, but as Sexton’s Chelsea began to implode, his form suffered. An experimental move to left-back failed to bear fruit, and at the end of a dismal 1974/75 season which saw the Blues relegated to Division Two, the quiet, likeable Houseman – much-loved by his team-mates in spite of his tendency to shy away from their more rowdy excesses – was sold to Oxford United, for whom he was playing when he and his wife, and another couple, were killed in a road accident in March 1977, leaving six children orphaned. A tribute match – attended by almost 17,000 – was quickly arranged at Stamford Bridge to raise money for the children, and Peter and Gill Houseman’s three boys were all present on the night of the match. Touchingly, 29 years later, Neil Barnett had the pleasure of introducing the same three boys onto the Stamford Bridge pitch during the half-time interval of a clash with Everton, for what was clearly an emotional return to the Bridge for the Housemans, and a truly moving few minutes for those of us who had been there on their desperately sad previous visit.

The Peter Houseman tribute match was a good-natured spat between the current Chelsea side – Eddie McCreadie’s promotion-bound youngsters – and a 1970 XI. With a certain irony, the star of the show was a young, blond winger who hailed from Houseman’s adopted hometown of Oxford: Clive Walker.

Walker, a true pace-merchant, made his league debut at Oldham later that season, before exploding onto the scene the following winter. As Chelsea made a difficult return to the top-flight following relegation two years previously, Clive scored twice in just his second start for the first team as the Blues beat Wolves 3-1 at Molineux, before famously giving future Chelsea hero Joey Jones a torrid time as European champions Liverpool were eliminated from the FA Cup in January 1978, Walker scoring twice in a magnificent 4-2 victory at Stamford Bridge.

With his electrifying pace and a shock of bright blond hair trailing behind him, the sight of Clive Walker marauding down Chelsea’s left-flank did much to warm the hearts of the supporters during some very dark days in the late-70s and early-80s, but the truth is that he was frustratingly inconsistent, and frequently became acquainted with the substitute’s bench when his respective managers became exasperated by his inability to maintain the high standards of which he was capable. He was, however, the perfect player to have in reserve, as he showed when he came off the Stamford Bridge bench against Bolton Wanderers in October 1978, and turned a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 victory, all within the space of the last 15 minutes.

Walker was destined to play the majority of his Chelsea career in the old Second Division, where he occasionally dazzled, but all too frequently disappointed. He had a brief spell as captain under Geoff Hurst, who also moved him into a striking role alongside burly target-man Colin Lee, and for a while the two formed a useful partnership. Perhaps his entire Chelsea career was encapsulated within the space of 48 hours in early-January 1980, when on the Saturday he ran riot against table-topping Newcastle, scoring a dazzling goal and tormenting the Magpies defence throughout as the Blues won 4-0 to replace the visitors at the top of the pile; but on the following Monday, Clive was the main culprit on a freezing night as chances went begging, and league newcomers Wigan Athletic stole a 1-0 win to send Hurst’s team out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle.

Increasingly disinterested, Walker found himself regularly at odds with John Neal – Hurst’s replacement in the managerial hot-seat – and was rarely certain of his place in the side throughout Neal’s first two seasons in charge. However, the manager recalled Clive for the nail-biting conclusion to the 1982/83 season, and it was the enigmatic winger who fired the spectacular goal at Bolton Wanderers that saved Chelsea from an unthinkable relegation to Division Three. That goal, coming as it did at the end of a season throughout which Walker had performed miserably, saved the player from joining the likes of Gary Chivers and Alan Mayes on the extensive list of players shown the door by Neal at the end of the campaign. In fact, despite a remarkable influx of talent into his team in the summer of 1983, Neal gave Walker an opportunity to impress at the start of the new season, and the 26-year-old winger responded in style. He was on the scoresheet as Derby County were swept aside 5-0 on the opening day, and was at his creative best in the following games at Gillingham and Brighton, setting up goals for Kerry Dixon in both. His final goal at Stamford Bridge came in a 2-1 victory over Cambridge United in September – a stunning strike – and his last goal for the club arrived a week later, a brave header in a 2-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday.

Clive was on the receiving end of a painful clump from Wednesday’s goalkeeper, Martin Hodge, as he scored his goal at Hillsborough, and a week later he was the recipient of a stray elbow from Middlesbrough’s former Chelsea reserve Paul Ward, which left him with a broken jaw. His absence gave John Neal the opportunity to field a young Scottish winger by the name of Pat Nevin, and there was no way back for Clive after that.

Clive Walker moved to Sunderland in July 1984, for whom he famously scored a hat-trick against Manchester United and, perhaps infamously, fired a brace in a League Cup semi-final to send the Wearsiders to Wembley at the expense of his former employers. His reaction to scoring his second goal – a run to the West Stand followed by a goading gesture aimed at his former admirers – sparked unruly scenes at the Bridge that night, and it took the intervention of Joey Jones to protect Walker from a burly Chelsea fan who took exception to his goal celebration, and chased him across the pitch angrily! Sunderland lost the final to Norwich City in a match that saw the inconsistent former Chelsea winger make history by becoming the first player to ever miss a penalty in a Wembley cup final.

The early-80s brought forth a plethora of Chelsea wingers who had plenty of pace but little control over a football. All too often these players would leave their marker standing, only to send a wild cross ten yards behind the opposition’s goal. Peter Rhoades-Brown, Phil Driver and Paul Canoville can all be included in this group. All three were more than capable of leaving an opponent standing, but were all frequently guilty of – much like Postman Pat when he got stuck in a snowdrift – simply being unable to deliver.

Rhoades-Brown and Driver enjoyed their best spell of form when they were used together by Geoff Hurst to provide the service upon which centre-forward Colin Lee would thrive. Throughout an incredible run of ten wins from twelve games in the autumn of 1980, the two speedy widemen created opportunities at will for Lee and his strike-partner, Clive Walker. Chelsea found the net 28 times in those twelve games, Lee claiming a dozen of those goals for himself, including a magnificent hat-trick as Newcastle United were memorably swept aside 6-0. Driver – the skinniest man ever to grace a football pitch until Peter Crouch arrived on the scene – was in majestic form that day, creating two of Lee’s goals; whilst Rhoades-Brown, sporting a comedy moustache straight out of a cheap Christmas cracker, played a significant part in one of the Blues’ greatest goals of the decade, scored by Gary Chivers. Three weeks after the demolition of Newcastle, Chelsea went to Wrexham and won 4-0 – Driver scoring after a sensational run from his own half. It was happy days all round at the Bridge, but as suddenly and as unexpectedly as that little golden period had arrived, it disappeared. From the start of December onwards, the Blues incredibly failed to score in 19 of their remaining 22 league games. The service from the flanks suddenly dried up, and Rhoades-Brown and Driver went back to being bit part players.

Rhoades-Brown had one more moment of glory in him, when in February 1982 he scored the opening goal in a shock 2-0 FA Cup triumph over a Liverpool side which had again arrived at the Bridge as champions of Europe.

Driver eventually left the Bridge as part of John Neal’s cull in the summer of 1983, and Rhoades-Brown left the following January. Driver returned to Wimbledon, from whom he had joined Chelsea, but had the misfortune to break his leg in a pre-season friendly against the Blues just weeks later. Rhoades-Brown moved to Oxford and became something of a legend at the Manor Ground. He also developed an unfortunate habit of scoring stunning goals against his former club. He remains on the staff at Oxford, and is also a regular in the Chelsea Old Boys team.

Paul Canoville had an altogether different type of obstacle to face when he broke into the Chelsea team: his presence in the side was unwanted by many of the supporters because he was black.

I have previously written a piece about the trials Canoville faced when he made the breakthrough into the first-team, so I won’t go over old ground other than to say that it took him a year to achieve regular first-team status, even though the team was struggling horrifically and was in dire need of a player to excite the supporters. He eventually made his mark with vital goals against Carlisle – a double-strike in a 4-2 victory at the Bridge – and Fulham. The following season, he played a significant part in the Second Division championship win, even scoring a hat-trick in a 6-1 beating of Swansea City, but the match he will always be remembered for is the 4-4 draw with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough in January 1985. Coming on as a substitute for the injured Colin Lee at half-time, with the Blues trailing 3-0, Canners scored after just eleven seconds of the Milk Cup fifth round replay, setting up a magnificent comeback that he completed by scoring the goal that gave Chelsea the lead with just six minutes remaining. Wednesday scraped a draw with a last-minute equaliser, and Canners enhanced his reputation for inconsistency by missing an open goal in the second replay, but that’s all mere detail. Even the blokes who had booed him when he made his debut wanted to hug him that night in South Yorkshire when Chelsea stunned Sheffield Wednesday with a magnificent four-goal salvo.

Paul was sold to Reading in August 1986, but never recovered from a severe knee injury suffered soon after and was forced to retire from the game at the age of 26. Having battled back from two bouts of cancer in recent years, he has recently been welcomed back into the Chelsea fold, serving as a high-profile ambassador for the club’s Kick Racism Out of Football campaign. Mind you, he’d obviously kept himself busy in the intervening years, as he proudly boasts ten children by ten different women!

The summer of 1983 saw the heir to Charlie Cooke’s throne arrive at Stamford Bridge. Pat Nevin was playing part-time for Scottish club Clyde and studying for a degree when John Neal’s assistant, Ian McNeill, made the steal of the century and persuaded the waif-like 19-year-old to give up his studies and move south to join the new, regenerated Chelsea.

Clive Walker’s fine form at the start of the 1983/84 campaign left Pat waiting patiently to make his breakthrough, but after Walker suffered his broken jaw, the little Scot stepped in and, quite simply, had a breathtaking impact on his new club. An outstanding performance in a 5-3 win over neighbours Fulham at a sodden Craven Cottage saw Pat score his first goal and create another immaculately for Colin Lee, but it was a month later, during a clash with Newcastle at Stamford Bridge, that the realisation dawned on the supporters that the skinny kid in the number seven shirt was something very special indeed. Nobody present that day will forget the sight of young Master Nevin collecting the ball on the edge of his own penalty area, dancing past numerous challenges with the ball seemingly glued to his feet, and sending in a cross that just failed to result in one of the greatest goals of all time.

Pat scored 14 goals that season, as the new Chelsea pipped Sheffield Wednesday to the Division Two title. He also won the first of his two Player of the Year awards from a set of supporters who had simply fallen in love with this genius who as a throwback to what many had believed was a bygone era.

The following season, Pat made his mark on the top-flight, finding the net seven times in all competitions, including a stupendous overhead kick in an FA Cup clash with Wigan Athletic. It wasn’t all glory in the cups, though: Pat’s penalty in a Milk Cup match against Manchester City was surely the worst spot-kick ever seen at Stamford Bridge! Nevertheless, he sparkled amongst the big boys, and Kerry Dixon was quick to acknowledge that many of his 36 goals that season would not have been possible without the wizardry of Nevin.

Like so many other players of the time, Pat suffered at the hands of John Hollins – a man he has always retained the utmost respect for – and his pragmatic coach, Ernie Walley. He received his second Player of the Year award at the end of the 1986/87 season, but it was a poor campaign for the club, and a year later they were relegated. Contrary to the official line which emanated from Stamford Bridge’s corridors of power at the time, Pat did not want to leave Chelsea, preferring to knuckle down and work to get the club back where it belonged. However, Ken Bates and his new manager, Bobby Campbell, had other ideas, and they decided to cash in on their prize asset, selling him to Everton for a tribunal-set fee of £925,000. On a personal note, Pat sits alongside Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola in my all-time top-three Chelsea players, and I can pay him no bigger compliment than that.

Nevin’s departure – allied to that of Roy Wegerle, a supremely talented player who could play either on the flanks or through the middle – left just Kevin McCallister as the only genuine winger in the Chelsea ranks. The last player to be signed by John Neal before he made way for John Hollins, the former Falkirk player served the club well, but in five seasons at Stamford Bridge, was rarely assured of a place in the team.

The comparisons with his equally diminutive compatriot, Nevin, were inevitable, and when McCallister made an eye-catching debut at home to Southampton, a cheesy chant of ‘We all agree, Kevin and Nevin are magic’ drifted out from the Shed End. But the comparisons were unfair on McCallister, who never possessed the niceties of Nevin’s game, and relied more on his pace and a bustling action which would occasionally unnerve defenders.

Despite an impressive showing on the wide expanses of the Wembley pitch during the 1986 Full Members Cup win over Manchester City, it wasn’t until the promotion campaign of 1988/89 that McCallister truly made his mark in the team, the tiny Scot making 36 league appearances and finding the net six times. It would have been seven had his perfectly legitimate goal at Leicester in April not been ruled out on a day of highly-dubious refereeing decisions, as the Blues sought unsuccessfully to clinch promotion at Filbert Street. Promotion was eventually sealed a week later, but the move back into the top division would effectively sound the death-knell for his Chelsea career, as he struggled again to make his mark amongst the country’s elite, and after failing to convince Bobby Campbell that he was the man for the job, McCallister returned to Falkirk in the summer of 1991.

The Nineties and the Noughties brought further influxes of wide boys to SW6. Dennis Wise was signed as a winger but only excelled once he moved into midfield, whilst Graeme Le Saux converted from left-back to left-wing to spectacular effect. One thing is for sure: from David Hopkin to Damien Duff, Michael Gilkes to Arjen Robben, Chelsea have rarely been short of players to fill the wide berths at the Bridge.

Here’s hoping the current quartet will eventually prove to be the best of the lot.

Kelvin Barker is the author of the excellent book; ‘Celery! – Representing Chelsea in the 1980s’ – Kelvin’s story of supporting Chelsea during the most turbulent of decades, both on and off the pitch. You can pick up a copy from www.cfclegends.co.uk

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