Renowned Chelsea author Kelvin Barker remembers Christmas and New Year 1988. Chelsea climbed into second spot as a result of the win at Stoke, just a point below Watford, but also only two points above fifth-placed Portsmouth, the next visitors to the Bridge.
In fact, just three points separated the entire top six as the battle for promotion appeared to be shaping up nicely for a titanic post-Christmas squabble. At that moment, there was no realistic prospect of any one team breaking clear. Portsmouth brought their usual impressive following up from the South Coast which helped lift the Stamford Bridge attendance figure above 20,000 for the first time that season. The majority of the crowd were in raptures early on, however, when Kerry Dixon bundled the ball over the line after David Lee’s header from a Gordon Durie long-throw had come back off the post; and when Durie cut in from the left to curl a sumptuous second past Pompey’s Alan Knight, it appeared to be game over. Portsmouth battled back impressively, though, with ‘battled’ being the operative word. Aggressive to the point of nasty – Alan Ball’s side included famed scrappers Martin Kuhl, Kevin Ball and Kevin Dillon – they turned up the heat, and Dillon was lucky to avoid a red card when he and Paul Hardyman both manhandled the referee, Keith Hackett, as they somewhat optimistically claimed a goal after Hardyman’s header bounced away after hitting the underside of the crossbar. While the two players continued to protest, former England winger Mark Chamberlain sent over a cross from the right wing that was headed in at the near post by Oliver Hardy lookalike, Mick Quinn. A goal to the good at half-time, the Blues lost Durie to yet another injury within minutes of the restart; and having also lost the momentum they carried throughout the majority of the first period, suddenly found themselves behind in the game as Kuhl and Ball both scored to turn the game on its head. It eventually fell to Kevin Wilson, finally becoming an integral member of the Chelsea strike force, to salvage a point when he lobbed Knight perfectly after being sent clear by Tony Dorigo’s clever pass.
A 4-1 win at St Andrews – Dixon and Durie each bagging a brace against bottom team Birmingham City – sent Chelsea to the top of the table on the Friday before Christmas, although Blackburn Rovers leapfrogged them into top spot the following day. With the Blues flourishing in the promotion places, Bobby Campbell sought to strengthen his goal options with the purchase of a striker from non-League Hendon. The two clubs had agreed a £30,000 fee but the transfer hinged on the player himself, who wanted some assurances before giving up his job as a British Aerospace engineer. Had Campbell promised him a place in his side ahead of Dixon or Durie, he would have joined; however, the Chelsea boss would make no such promise, so Iain Dowie slipped through the Blues’ fingers and signed for Luton Town instead. Damn!
Chelsea cemented their position in the promotion race over a successful Christmas period. A 3-0 triumph over Ipswich Town on Boxing Day, which sent the Blues back to the top of the table, was followed by a New Year’s Eve visit from West Bromwich Albion, now sitting just behind Chelsea on goal difference. Albion’s rise had been as unexpected as it was impressive; and it had earned their player/manager, Brian Talbot, many plaudits as he started out on what would prove to be a long managerial career. The visitors started brightly and took an early lead when left-winger Colin Anderson scored from close range following a corner; and the lead was almost doubled spectacularly in the second-half when their centre-forward, John Paskin, struck a long-range volley which Roger Freestone gratefully clung onto at the second attempt. With the clock ticking down towards twenty to five, and the travelling supporters already celebrating the victory that would see them end the year on top of the table at Chelsea’s expense, it was an error by the otherwise immaculate Talbot that transformed the mood inside the stadium, and had a major impact on the fortunes of both clubs in the following months. Kevin McCallister, on as a late substitute as the Blues went in search of an equaliser, sent a speculative cross in from the right which skipped up off the turf and, inexplicably, enticed the experienced former England man to stick out an arm and concede a penalty. The spot-kick was, as ever, slotted home efficiently by the calmest man in the stadium: Graham Roberts. The final whistle followed immediately behind – a relieved Chelsea Football Club ended 1988 at the top of Division Two.
Chelsea slipped to second place two days later when they were overtaken on goal difference by West Brom, despite a 3-2 win at Oxford which saw Kerry Dixon score two more goals, taking his tally for the season to 14 from 22 games. Nevertheless, Campbell continued his search for a back-up forward and, having missed out on signing Dowie, the manager refused to be thwarted in his attempts to sign a striker who couldn’t hit the proverbial cow’s arse with a banjo: Scottish-born, Australian citizen Dave Mitchell was brought in from Dutch club Feyenoord, presumably to give the rest of Division Two a false sense of optimism. Further disappointment followed when Mitchell was given a debut… sorry, that should read further disappointment followed when Mitchell was given a debut in a Simod Cup clash with Nottingham Forest, which the Blues lost 4-1 after extra-time. The Australian did at least have the consolation of being involved in Chelsea’s goal: Kerry Dixon literally had to push him out of the way before he could blast the ball emphatically home. It was Chelsea’s second cup defeat in successive matches, having been surprisingly larruped 4-0 by Barnsley in the FA Cup three days earlier.
Kelvin is the author of Celery! Representing Chelsea in the 1980s