SO NEAR BUT SO, SO FAR
Ray “Butch” Wilkins left us for Man Utd during the summer. Supporters in my age group had grown up with him and had looked to him for the deliverance of trophies to the bridge. It was sad that he had gone, it had looked like he would stay but the money finally lured him. We that still hung on to the belief that Chelsea were the best team in entire universe were shocked when he left us. If Chelsea were to return to the first division we were going to need players of his quality, we knew that he could have been happy in division two and helped Chelsea back again. His departure was a black day in Chelsea’s history. This was the first time (with the possible exception of J. Geaves) that Chelsea had sold a player because he was wanted to move to a club where he could develop his career and be successful at a higher level. This was the dawn of a new era in football, up to then most teams had been able to hold on to a couple of star players. But now the big money was on its way in and football was changing. SAD. Had Wilkins stayed at Chelsea we could have made magic together, returned to the first division and won it, taken over the football world.
I attended the pre-season games in London, in those days we always competed in the pre-season Anglo-Italian cup, not that we ever qualified to play an Italian side though. We usually just played Fulham and Norwich for some strange reason. Geoff Hurst and Bobby Gould had arrived to take over Chelsea and despite Wilkins’ departure there was still an abundance of hope at Chelsea that we would regain top league status at the first attempt. We had gone up in such style back in 77 that most people were guessing how many goals we would let in all season on one hand and the number of matches we would lose on less than one finger. Needless to say it didn’t quite turn out like that …
The first game of the new season proper was at home to Sunderland. There was an incident in that game that sums up the entire season for us. It was still 0-0 when with just minutes to go Mickey Droy was sent up from centre back to centre forward. He connected his head to a cross and sent the ball spinning towards goal. The ever-energetic Tommy Langley ran in to make sure of things attempting to slide the ball in with his outstretched foot. The ball just missed Langley’s boot and hit the post; it bounced out to the exact spot where Langley had been before he lunged. Had he stayed on his feet it would have been Wham! and we would have won 1-0. The final whistle went within seconds of this incident, which was to have-far reaching ironic consequences on the eventual outcome of the season. With that behind us we travelled to West Ham on the Monday night, this was my first ever visit to Upton Park. During the last few trips to away games the previous season Chelsea fans were saying how much they were looking forward to going to West Ham again. It was explained to me that going to West Ham like going to QPR. In those days when Chelsea played at QPR there were no QPR fans there. Evidently QPR home fans were Chelsea fans that did not attend away matches. I had been to QPR with Chelsea and had stood in the uncovered end opposite “THE LOFT”. I remember being surprised that Chelsea fans were in both ends and both sides. It wasn’t a case of “taking” the end from the home team, there was no question of violence. The police did not have to segregate the two groups of supporters as only Chelsea fans turned up. I had no reason to doubt what I had been told so I proudly wore my blue and white scarf to Upton Park. The funny looks started as soon as I boarded the evening district line train, which then filled up with more claret and blue at every stop.
Someone behind me whispered Psst.. I am Chelsea, cover it up, I turned to ask where all the Chelsea fans where but failed to see who my invisible ally was. My heels and the backs of my shins were kicked as I walked up the steps at Upton Park tube station. I could not believe my eyes, there was not a blue scarf in site. A policeman spotted me at the station exit and pulled me aside, he said I was either stupid or on a suicide mission. He suggested I threw my scarf away, I refused. He radioed for assistance and four police horses came through the crowd. I was then given a private escort to the ground, I had police horses to the left, right, front and rear of me. The policemen had their batons drawn to deter West Ham fans. I felt safe enough and was sure that the West Ham fans were outside because there were too many Chelsea fans inside. I entered the ground through the visitors’ turnstiles, but to enter the Chelsea bit you then had to go up some steps. There were more police here, asking fans question before letting them past. They were also surprised I was wearing colours. So I got in to the Chelsea bit which was a very small part of the terracing near the corner flag. Before the match there were numerous attempts by the West Ham fans to enter our area. They jumped over fences and walls and came across the pitch, the siege was on. The valiant police foiled every attempt. In actual fact there were very few of us who stood there, mainly women, girls or middle age fans with children. I have since learned that most of our, shall we say “boys”, were dotted around the ground in 2’s and 3’s: such was the fear of West Ham in those days. For someone like me who hated the violence I just could not understand why more was not done to stop this kind of happening. The fans that attempted to get in to our terracing should have at least been ejected from the ground.
I decided this was one game that I did not mind Chelsea losing, West Ham would be able to go home happy. But Chelsea never do quite what you want them to do. After 6 minutes we had our first shot of the game, Phil Parkes could only parry Walker’s stinging shot into the path of Gary Johnson who banged home the rebound with Chelsea’s 2nd (and as it turned out, last) shot of the game. What followed was the most one-sided display of football I have ever witnessed; West Ham had 29 corners and hit the woodwork 7 times. Petar Barota produced the greatest goal-keeping performance ever in the game of soccer. On the few occasions the ball got past him our defenders cleared the ball off the line. We failed to get the ball out of our own half again in the match after our goal. Somehow we held out and won 1-0; – West Ham fans have probably never been more angry. From our little corner I waved my scarf in joyous glory until I remembered I wanted to get out of East London alive so I tucked my scarf inside my jumper and left the ground in to the night of fear. Huge crowds were building outside the tube station so I decided to wait opposite until things had quietened down a bit. A young fan approached me and whispered that he was Chelsea and he would show me the way to East Ham tube station so we could avoid the chaos and the West Ham fans. Unbeknown to me he took me down a cul-de-sac and when we were out of view of the police he said, “give us your scarf”, he called his mates over who were waiting for me and they all ran at me expecting a fight. I sat down on the pavement and cried my eyes out. They left me alone, as I saw them vanish in the distance a smile came to my lips, “Yes…. It worked,” I said to myself. If you run they will chase you, if you fight them, they will fight you, but if you sit down and cry you will not die. I even managed to hold on to my scarf.
The following Saturday, my hatred of West Ham now ground in forever, we played Wrexham at home, another victory (3-1) and we started to seriously believe that we would be going up come May. Soon after this we went to Newcastle, their fans started to sing “We hate Cockneys”, I joined in, as far as I was concerned West Ham were cockneys as they were from East London. The fact that they thought that we were also Cockneys told to me that these Geordies were really thick. Of course I have since learned that I was equally thick in assuming that all of their fans were Geordies. We lost 2-1; Trevor Aylott scored our goal with a header and Peter Withe got two headers for them. The visitors terracing that Chelsea were given was in the corner of the ground on the uncovered terracing. From where the way out was in two stages, first of all the police made us leave the terracing and then we were kept in a holding area behind a 30-foot wall. Suddenly it started raining; bricks and stones and empty bottles were showering down on us. Newcastle fans were lobbing in anything they could get their hands on. Due to the height of the wall you did not see the various projectiles until they were on their way down. Everyone had their eyes to the sky as bottle followed brick crashing to the ground. You had a split second to dodge the falling missiles. I decided to run back to the terracing which would provide a safe haven as there was another high wall separating the holding area from the terraces. As I got there I saw Chelsea fans being hit by truncheons without warning, the ever-effective police refusing to allow us back on to terracing. We were now trapped in the holding area. I then had another idea and ran back to the outer wall, by leaning up against it I reduced the risk of being hit; the trajectory of the missiles took them over into the middle of the compound.
This continued for about 20 minutes, I presume they stopped when they had nothing left to throw but maybe the police outside had got their act together. You would have thought the police would learn from such occurrences and take preventive action to ensure that this did not happen again. However, a few weeks later Newcastle did the same thing to West Ham, except this time they lobbed in petrol bombs and a West Ham fan was set on fire. The answers as to why measures were never taken are beyond me; this was part of football in those days. The fans had to learn 21 different lessons a season. All the police would have had to do was stop their local fans repeating known acts and methods of violence. Oh, Why couldn’t they stop this happening?
The second round of the league cup was played over two legs and we had been drawn against Plymouth. The away leg was played first and this game was most memorable for the half-time disco, or at least that’s how we always referred to it afterwards. Plymouth’s ground is on top of a hill in a park and the visitors’ end was open, cold and windy. At half time they played records and we all started dancing to them to keep warm. The Chelsea supporters’ formation dancing team (i.e. all of us there that night) bopped about as one to Cliff Richard’s “We don’t talk anymore”. I recall that night in Devon every-time I hear that record. As a matter of fact some 14 years later I was to meet a Brentford fan in Sweden who had also been part of this. Small world! We drew 2-2 thanks to brilliant flick by a young Mickey Fillery, who needs Ray Wilkins?
As soon as we left the ground they turned the floodlights off. The way back to the town was through the dark, unlit park on narrow footpaths and as a thick fog had come down this suddenly became very scary. Shadows were fighting, people were screaming, shouting, crying, I am sure that Chelsea fans were hitting Chelsea fans and Plymouth fans hitting Plymouth fans by mistake. Heck, I even saw what looked like a policeman’s helmet on a shadow hitting another policeman. I managed to avoid the mayhem by dodging from tree to tree, this was fast turning into a season of fear. We then lost the second leg at home and started an incredible record of losing to lesser teams in said trophy.
Twice this season I got in to games late due to bad organisation, Cardiff and Sunderland away. At Sunderland they stopped our special for 45 minutes very near the local Seaburn station because their fans were waiting for us. When we finally got to the ground they only had a couple of turnstiles open for us and it took ages to get in. At Cardiff we arrived on time but they only had one turnstile open for us. There was no police control of this and although I was there an hour before kick-off I could not push myself to the front. Indeed as more and more Chelsea fans arrived also eager to get in before kick-off I was pushed further and further back. We may have all been Chelsea fans but it was every-man for himself. Fifteen minutes before the game I was pretty close but then the Chelsea fans who had been in pubs arrived and I ended up further away from the front that I had been when I first arrived. At both of these games I think they should have held up the kick-off for us. How can you travel hundreds of miles and miss the start because of the rotten service provided by the home club and the local constabulary.
To add insult to injury Sunderland played away to Cardiff on the last Saturday of the season in a game which was of great importance to Chelsea due to Sunderland’s league position. So many Sunderland fans arrived late at Cardiff that they held up the kick-off 15 minutes. This gave Sunderland the advantage of being able to keep up to date with the other games in progress, plus the fact that they got more of their supporters in to support them before kick-off. Inconsistencies such as these plagued our game then, I hope fans are getting a fairer deal now.
At the end of September we lost to Shrewsbury away 3-0 after the most lubricious bus transfer I have ever known. Shrewsbury’s ground backs on to the train station but they were newly promoted and no one had had the time or the foresight to construct a rear station exit. They took us on a 20-minute bus journey around the entire town to the ground. When we finally got to the turnstiles we could see our train in the station less than 50 yards away. In those days Shrewsbury had a contract with a man who owned a rowing boat. When the ball was booted out of the ground into the nearby river (which happened at least once every game) he retrieved it in his boat. Oh boy! did we want promotion?
In the autumn we played West Ham at home and there was a letter in the programme from a Swede named Harri from “Vasteras” who requested Chelsea pen pals. I did not reply, but I want you to remember this for later reference.
The season got better and better, despite a few setbacks we were in the mood for promotion, our away record was quite good anyway.
On December 29th we travelled to Wrexham for Chelsea’s last game of the nineteen-seventies. We lost 2-0, the game stands out because of our eccentric keeper Petar Barota. I have already applauded him for his brilliance at West Ham. In this game he was well positioned for a shot by a Wrexham forward. The ball was going straight at Barota when he decided to dive ! – out of the way of the ball ! When he got up he actually seemed surprised that the ball was in the back of the net. Exactly what he was thinking when he dived we will never know, but it remains one of the most comical goal-keeping errors I have seen.
Our first game of the eighties was away to Luton on New Years Day, we drew 3-3 after an entertaining game. We filled the ground despite the early 11.00 kick-off, most of our supporters came direct from New Year Eve parties. When Micky Fillery put us 1-0 up he became the first player anywhere in the world to score a goal in the 1980’s. There were a few other games that morning but they were all 11.15 kick-offs, and Fillery scored after 7 minutes when parts of this planet were still in the 1970’s.
Then we met Newcastle at home and produced our performance of the season; winning 4-0 in style. Two days after this we played Wigan in the 3rd round of the cup, the original game having been postponed. We were on cloud nine and envisaged a hat full of goals against this team from the bottom league. We lost 1-0, the worst ever result in Chelsea’s cup history.
So now we could concentrate on the league and our consistency improved, we seemed to be finding it. On the first of March we beat Cardiff 1-0, Clive Walker scoring a goal which Geoff Hurst described as “world class”. By the end of March we were four points clear and with only 2 points a win in those days promotion seemed assured.
On Easter Saturday we travelled to Leicester for a crucial match as they were also in the promotion race. This was a tough game, and in the second half the Leicester pressure began to mount. The Chelsea defence was putting up a gallant fight, if we could just weather the storm and get a draw we would be so much nearer promotion. A Leicester corner was sent high into the box, their Larry May jumped up with our Petar Barota, the Leicester player climbed all over our keeper. With Barota incapacitated Larry May was able to head the ball in to the goal. Only a very few optimistic Leicester’s supporters cheered, I think Larry May was the most surprised person in the ground when the referee gave a goal. We lost 1-0. This bad decision had a direct bearing on the eventual outcome of the entire season, these decisions are part of football. Fittingly this is one of best stories and main points from “the missing link” so I will digress a moment. A few weeks before I wrote this (March 1997) Chelsea were awarded a dubious penalty against Leicester in the 117th minute of an FA Cup 5th round replay. Leicester fans moaned about this bad decision by the referee. For me it was payback time, what goes around comes around, we waited 17 years but we had finally got our own back for the 1980 incident. Bad refereeing decisions are part of football, it’s just something you have to accept as a fan.
Back to the story, the day we lost at Leicester all of the other top teams won, and we realised we still had a bit of work left to ensure promotion. On Easter Monday we could only manage a draw against Luton at home and we would now have to win our remaining four games. At Preston the following Saturday we drew 1-1 and were again robbed by a bad decision. Clive Walker had raced through the Preston defence before being pulled down in the box. This happened in front of all the Chelsea fans, but the ref. had not seen anything and waved play on. We won the next home match, but promotion was now touch and go. On the 26th April about 22,000 Chelsea travelled to Swansea for the season’s final away game. We just HAD to win this game. We were transferred by bus as usual from the station. A Chelsea fan was killed on the way to Swansea when he fell out of a 125 into the path of another 125. We received this news from a fat Welsh policeman on the bus, he told us that British rail had found the body at Cardiff. Bristol, Swindon Reading and Paddington. We drew the game 1-1 and were now looking at the results of other teams as much as our own. Four teams contested the three promotion places and any of them could still win the championships! – Sunderland, Birmingham, Leicester and ourselves. We were good enough for promotion, we still had a young developing team, and we all felt sure that they would mature enough for us to be able to hold our own in division one. Hell, we wanted to go to Old Trafford, Goodison Park and Elland Road instead of Gay Meadow and the Meadow Ground. The teams involved each had a solitary game left except for Sunderland who had an extra game to play at home to West Ham after our season had ended.
We played Oldham at home, we demanded a victory, it was one of those “eyes-on-the match, ears-on-the-radio” matches. One of the biggest cheers of the afternoon was when Notts. County took the lead at Birmingham. As I have already said the Sunderland game at Cardiff had started late so they were definitely at an advantage their. All the four teams involved eventually won that afternoon, but I think we made the loudest noise, people for miles around heard our support that afternoon; we won 3-0. The previous Wednesday the siege at Iranian embassy had started (when terrorists took over the building), towards full-time when we all knew that we would probably not be going up an innovative chant started up in the shed. Within seconds, 30 000 of us were singing “We’re gon-na take the Ir-an-i-an em-bas-sy”. Words are always backed up the collective actions of a crowd so after the match a large contingent of Chelsea fans turned up en masse in Kensington looking for the Iranian embassy. Special branch had to be put on special alert and our supporters were driven away by the army – more for their own safety than anything else, those terrorists were armed!
We were now in 3rd spot behind Leicester and Birmingham, and we had all played all of our games. Sunderland had one last remaining game, which was not to be for another nine days, they were to play West Ham two days after the cup final. If Sunderland won they would win the league, if they drew they would go up, but if they lost all our prayers would be answered and it would be “Man U Man U.. here we come”. My concern was that West Ham were in the cup final and that they might not take the game at Sunderland very seriously.
We played Crystal Palace in George Graham’s testimonial on the Monday night and I tried to find someone who thought that we might go up, no-one seemed to think that West Ham were out to do us any favours. The day after this I travelled to Telford for Chelsea’s friendly and witnessed a remarkable touching moment. Geoff Hurst shaking hands with the Telford manager, a certain Mr. Gordon Banks. It was surreal to see these two together at an insignificant end-of-season friendly 14 years after that famous day at Wembley. There were about 20 Chelsea fans there and I recognised a few people from my other little trips to shall we say “silly” matches. Most of them had booked up through the unofficial supporters club whilst I had just taken a train up there from Euston. They were booked through Chester and Crewe, i.e. going North to go South. I had missed this information and opportunity so I shared a taxi back to Wolverhampton with two other guys who shared my predicament from where we just missed the London train. Another taxi as far as Birmingham and we managed to get the last train to London. The fact that Chelsea themselves provided no help, advice, or information about how to get to Telford never bothered me, It should have done.
Our promotion hopes had me in a quandary all week, was this season to count for nothing after all the hard work that had gone in to it and all the hope and belief that we had about Chelsea’s return to the first ?
West Ham won the cup 1-0 with Trevor Brooking scoring a rare header in the 6th minute. On Match Of The Day that night they showed the West Ham team half-drunk celebrating the cup win. I was shocked that this was allowed to go on; within 48 hours they were to play the most important match of the season from our vantage-point. I was devastated on the Sunday to see the West Ham celebrations through East London, that should have been postponed until after the Sunderland match.
Sometime over this weekend I had decided to go to see this match. I just couldn’t bare to be at home not knowing what was going on at Roker Park. I decided to go and see for myself, so I would be able to see it and someday tell it like it was. After seeing the scenes on the TV I was sure that West Ham would be taking about 7000 fans up to Sunderland. The West Ham fans that I knew had always boasted how many fans they took to away games.
Unfortunately the 13th of May just happened to be the day that British Rail launched a new timetable. Remember this, avoid travelling on the first day of any major new timetable. Despite leaving in good time I arrived with only minutes to spare before kick-off. All the turnstiles were shutting, I walked around the ground looking for a way in. I contemplated going in to the visitors’ entrance, but could not bring myself to stand with the West Ham fans after the events of the previous summer. Some woman was charging entrance to her house as it overlooked the ground, but my accent would have given me away so I did not risk it. By the way you can still see that house today when Sunderland are on box; to the right of the Roker End as you see it behind the corner flag. So I walked around a bit more and suddenly a turnstile near me re-opened, they had decided to squeeze a few more in, and I made it. I had missed the first few minutes but I was in. Squeezing my way up in to the end opposite the Roker end I realised that I had joined the Sunderland promotion party. All thoughts of me cheering a possible West Ham goal disappeared, I wanted to see next season’s games whichever league we would be in!
There were over 50 000 Sunderland fans who were all demanding their teams’ success. I then remembered that I had seen a few West Ham fans on the way up, where were they ? After scanning the ground I could just make out a small section of the crowd not waving red and white scarves. Fewer than 25 West Ham fans had bothered to make the journey north. Disgraceful! West Ham did not look anything like the team that had just won the cup, well maybe they did, if that means looking like you have just been out on the razzle for 2 days straight. Then I realised that West Ham players were talking to Pop Robson and it dawned on me, one of the most popular players at Sunderland had just left West Ham were he was also well liked. The only West Ham player that had not played with Pop Robson was the famous West Ham penalty taker (Please help me with his name). He played fullback and had a cracking shot. Anyway, he was actually having a good game. He made a brilliant run and cracked a shot against the bar. Immediately the West Ham manager jumped up to make his substitution (Only one allowed in those days). I was sure they were going to pull off this other guy who had been hobbling around with cramp for 20 minutes. Imagine my surprise when they pull off this kid who had just hit the bar. There was no other reason to pull him off than to make it even easier for Sunderland to win. The West Ham fans sat down with their backs to the pitch singing “We hate football”. Two days after winning the cup and they “HATE”, football. Crazy! Needless to say Sunderland were able to win this match, 2-0 and with that Chelsea were banished to yet another year in the second.
On the night train home from Sunderland I could not sleep. The thoughts of an entire season went through my mind. I recalled how near we had come but in the end how far we were. At first I blamed us missing out on the incidents at Leicester and Preston as they were fresh in my mind. And then my memory strained back to that first day of the season, at home to Sunderland when we had been so close to scoring in the last minute. If that had gone in we would have had a point more and Sunderland a point less, and that would have been enough, that’s how close things were.
By the time my night train was pulling in to Kings Cross my thoughts were already on the next season, we would definitely go up then. We had been good enough this season, so next season we’ll walk it, we’ll even do a unique double by winning Division Two and the FA Cup.
Footnote: Birmingham went up in third spot, we finished 4th. During the course of the following season it was announced that 3 points a win would be introduced. It was pointed out that had this system been in force during season 1979-1980 there would have only been one change to the promotions and relegations throughout the entire league. Namely that Chelsea would have been promoted instead of Birmingham. Thanks for telling us FA.
Produced with permission of the author of the Missing Link website. More tomorrow … Come on you Chelsea lets score ..?