The King of Stamford Bridge
I had been a Chelsea supporter for nearly a year before my father took me to my first game at Stamford Bridge, against West Brom in January 1971. I was hugely looking forward to seeing all the players I had previously seen in action only on the TV – Peter Bonetti, ‘Chopper’ Harris, Charlie Cooke and, especially, the Blues’ star centre forward, Peter Osgood. When the teams were read out over the tannoy, though, the name of Osgood was missing, his place at number nine being taken by somebody I’d never heard of before, Derek Smethurst. What a letdown! This was a bit like going to the National Theatre to see Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet only to find that the part of the Prince of the Denmark would be played by a unknown understudy or, even worse, Dean Gaffney. Despite scoring in a 4-1 win over the Baggies, Smethurst got some awful abuse from the Chelsea supporters in the West Stand that day – clearly, I was far from being the only fan who was disappointed by the absence of Ossie, who, a well-informed fan told us, had just been hit with a draconian six-week ban by the FA after collecting three bookings.
Later that season we went to another game and, again, Smethurst was deputising for Osgood, who was injured. So, it wasn’t until my third visit to the Bridge, against Southampton in October 1971, that I got to see Ossie play. Although he didn’t get on the scoresheet in a 3-0 win, Osgood was hugely impressive: strong, commanding in the air but light on his feet, he was very much the focal point of the Blues’ attack, playing clever little one-twos around the edge of the box with the likes of Tommy Baldwin and Alan Hudson, and generally suggesting he might score or set up a goal every time he got the ball. The crowd seemed to sense this too, so whenever Ossie was in possession a murmur of anticipation would spread through the rows of seats around us. What a contrast with the hapless Smethurst, whose often unsuccessful efforts to control the ball merely elicited groans and sighs
A couple of months later I saw my first Osgood goal – two, in fact, in a 4-0 stuffing of Everton, league champions just a couple of years earlier. The whole team was brilliant that afternoon, Hudson, Cooke and John Hollins running the show in midfield, with Ossie finishing off their slick approach work in clinical style.
He was in a rich vein of form in that 1971/72 season, scoring 31 goals – the same number he managed in our FA Cup-winning campaign in 1970. Amazingly, though, he wasn’t even in the England squad, let alone the team. It didn’t make sense.
Some of the goals Ossie scored for Chelsea were not just international class, they were world class. One I saw at the Bridge against Derby, then reigning league champions, stands out. With just a few minutes left we were trailing 1-0 when Osgood received the ball on the edge of the area with his back to goal. Up against the England defensive duo of Roy McFarland and Colin Todd he hadn’t had the best of days up to that point, and there had been a few grumbles from the crowd about his apparent lack of effort. The whingers and whiners were soon singing a different tune, though, as Ossie sent his marker running off towards the corner flag with a couple of outrageous feints before sharply spinning round to send a low left-shot into the far corner. It was a superb goal, and one that made the shortlist for the ‘Goal of the Season’ on ITV’s The Big Match. In the same season he won Match of the Day’s rather more prestigious award with a stunning left-foot volley against Arsenal in the FA Cup – a strike that is quite often replayed on the big screen at the Bridge before home games.
Goals like these led to a media campaign for Osgood to be recalled to the England team and Sir Alf Ramsey finally saw the light in late 1973, picking the Chelsea striker for the friendly against Italy at Wembley. A neighbour had some spare tickets for the match and invited me and my father along, but it wasn’t a particularly memorable game. England played poorly and Ossie, although producing some stylish touches, didn’t get much of a look in against the massed Italian defence. He never played for his country again and, much worse, soon afterwards left Chelsea for Southampton after falling out with Blues boss Dave Sexton.
Of course, he did return to the Bridge halfway through the miserable 1978/79 season. By then, however, he was some way past his best and it showed, although his technique and ball control were still as faultless as ever. It didn’t help, either, that he was playing in a weak and demoralised team heading inevitably for relegation.
Many years later, I got to meet Peter when I interviewed him for my book, Kings of the King’s Road. It’s often said that you shouldn’t meet your childhood heroes as they invariably fail to match your, perhaps unrealistic, expectations. Well, that certainly wasn’t the case with Ossie. Not only was he an excellent interviewee, answering all my questions honestly and entertainingly, but he was also very generous and considerate, collecting me in his car from the train station and driving me to his golf club where he insisted on paying for our drinks while we chatted about his Chelsea career.
A wonderful performer on the pitch and a great bloke off it, Ossie really was ‘The King of Stamford Bridge’.
Clive Batty’s latest book is The Pocket Book of Chelsea (see http://www.visionsp.co.uk/)