Anyone remember Chelsea in 1976/77? Penniless, seemingly doomed? Violence at every game? Sexy football? Ray Wilkins with hair? Those were the days… Well, to me as an impressionable 13year old it didn’t get any better.
Apparently, according to many rival fans, Chelsea has no history. Our two successive Premiership titles are undeserved, they say, and no doubt believe it would have been more appropriate if they had been won by teams with tradition, i.e. Liverpool, Man United or Arsenal.
I make no apologies for our good fortune to have been saved from financial oblivion by our Russian benefactor. With debts spiralling out of control we would certainly not have a present, let alone a future, without his deep pockets.
Financial mismanagement is certainly a part of Chelsea’s history. It is thirty years since the club announced debts of £3.4million. Martin Spencer, the Financial Controller, and Chairmen Brian Mears, announced that a moratorium was to be imposed on spending, leaving manager Eddie McCreadie restricted to playing youngsters and experienced professionals already at the club. Fans made a valiant attempt to raise money through a number of sponsorship projects under their Cash for Chelsea scheme. Can you possibly imagine that Chelsea relied heavily on spare cash thrown into empty oil drums at the end of each home game?
Ken Bates, who became Chairman in 1982, was never complimentary about Mears’ efforts to steer the club out of this crippling financial state. In essence they acted in exactly the same way. Having both embarked upon noble and ambitious plans to develop the club they met with huge and potentially disastrous debts that made the club unviable. Their solution to this crisis? Find a rich businessmen with an ego to match the size of his bank balance, cut their losses and never miss an opportunity to criticise the club which they claimed to love so dearly. Mears’ book ‘Chelsea: Football under the blue flag’ is revisionism that would make David Irving look up and take note; Bates has continued to have a dig whenever possible, but did respond to Chelsea’s recent assertions that he was a racist with one of his more memorable retorts, claiming he “hadn’t laughed so much since Ma caught her tits in the mangle”.
Chelsea’s worsening financial plight of 1976 bears no resemblance to the ridiculously wealthy club of today, able to offload unwanted stars, losing millions with each discarded player. Jose Mourinho can pursue any player on the planet, whereas Eddie McCreadie had to work with what he had.
And what wonders did he work, producing a side capable of breathtaking and exhilarating football. The 2nd Division was taken by storm and Chelsea, never out of the top two, gained promotion to the 1st Division, finishing runners-up to Wolves. While the fans achieved notoriety as Chelsea travelled from Blackpool to Plymouth, young captain, Ray ‘Butch’ Wilkins and his team mates continued to win friends and admirers with their swashbuckling style. Even Brian Clough, manager of Nottingham Forest, who were to be promoted in 3rd place, admitted that Chelsea were by far the best team in the division.
The undoubted star of the team was Ray Wilkins. Nicknamed ‘Butch’, Wilkins was imperious in midfield. Made captain in 1975 as Chelsea were defeated 0-2 at Spurs and relegated to the second division, Wilkins’ vision gave the fans and the players the belief that good times were not too far away. Alongside him McCreadie selected Ray Lewington, a Trojan of a player, who did all the legwork giving Wilkins the time and space to mastermind Chelsea’s relentless attacks. Garry Stanley and Ian Britton made up the midfield quartet. Stanley was deceptively powerful and the speed of his shot was measured at 100mph. Britton, sporting a classic 70s sprawling hairstyle, which resembled a giant brillo-pad, was a typically small and darting Scottish winger.
In attack were Kenny Swain, a former amateur and PE teacher, and Steve Finnieston, a Scotsman imaginatively known as Jock. Together they formed one of Chelsea’s most prolific partnerships, Scoring 40 goals between them in all competitions.
This team needed solid and secure protection. The impeccable David Hay partnered Steve Wicks in central defence. Hay had experienced nothing but problems since his transfer from Celtic in 1974, following his impressive performances for Scotland in the World Cup. As he holidayed in Cyprus with his family the island erupted into civil war and he had to be rescued by the armed forces. Relegation in his first season and the club’s depressing financial situation must have left him wondering of the wisdom in his choice of new club. Hay, however, was no quitter. Having won every honour in Scotland and regarded as one of the finest players of his generation he showed his true mettle by providing this young Chelsea team with the experience needed to win matches. He was an excellent role model for the strong and uncompromising Steve Wicks, who was to develop into an outstanding centre half.
At full-back McCreadie opted for Gary Locke and the forever unpopular Graham Wilkins. Ray’s older brother, chosen ahead of Ron Harris, was never appreciated by the fans and every error was highlighted and scrutinised. Locke was his antithesis. A firm favourite who could do no wrong, his committed tackling and overlapping wing-play was a key component of Chelsea’s style.
In goal was the Peter Bonetti. Nicknamed ‘The Cat’, he had almost left the club on a free transfer in 1975, but following injuries to John Phillips and Steve Sherwood, Bonetti was recalled. He didn’t let his manager down, turning in some spectacular performances 17 years after his debut.
Anyone who remembers watching this team play will tell you that, as brilliant as they could be, there was always the possibility of a heavy and embarrassing defeat. They were truly one of the great unpredictable Chelsea sides. Three victories and one draw from the first four games were followed by a humiliating 0-3 defeat against Millwall at the Den. The goals were scored before the half-hour. The defensive errors did not go unpunished by McCreadie. Micky Droy did not play again for eighteen matches.
Luton Town thrashed Chelsea 0-4 at Kenilworth Road. This was sandwiched between our 2-0 victory over Fulham in front of 55,000 at the Bridge and our impressive 5-1 rout of Hereford. The Cottagers fielded Bobby Moore and George Best in the side. Hereford boasted the newly honoured Terry Paine, MBE, the then record appearance maker in the Football League.
Charlton Athletic provided the final upset of the season. On Easter Monday they were 4-0 victors over Chelsea at the Valley. This was a spectacularly inept performance, sparking violence and vandalism on such a huge scale that the Minister for Sport, Dennis Howell MP, ordered that all Chelsea fans were to be banned indefinitely from attending away matches.
These results, together with the hooligan following, the chronic financial status and the home grown team (23 out of 30 professionals began as juniors) bear little resemblance to the Chelsea of today. It is difficult to imagine Jose Mourinho presiding over a team that could lose so heavily or one that had so few internationals. Similarly, he would not have used Ron Harris as a half-time substitute for the injured Steve Finnieston in the game at the Den. Harris was playing his second game of the day having already featured in the Reserve team victory over Palace in the morning.
The club ignored the violence off the pitch until the Government forced it to accept some responsibility, resulting in the formation of the Official Supporters Club. A regrettable feature of every away game was Chelsea fans infiltrating the home end with the intention of causing mayhem when a goal was conceded. Predictable as this was, no action was taken until the last few games of the season. At Stamford Bridge, visiting supporters were treated to choruses of ‘It’s a long way to Fulham Broadway’ or ‘You’re Going Home In A Wooden Overcoat’ before they had to make an unprotected dash down the Fulham Road, avoiding the awaiting Chelsea fans who wanted to give them something to remember their visit by.
Would any of McCreadie’s men have made it into a title-winning team? Ray Wilkins would have provided Robben and Joe Cole with endless cross-field balls to set them free. Gary Locke’s style would complement Ashley Cole, giving the forwards equally good service from both fullbacks. Was Ray Lewington the Claude Makelele of his day? David Hay had undoubted class and Jose would love another centre half who can pass as well as tackle. Bonetti, in his prime, was one of England’s finest goalkeepers and would surely not look out of place in the current side.
Frank Milford, the club’s Commercial manager was a visionary and succeeded in bringing much sponsorship to Chelsea. He foresaw the developments needed for clubs to survive and predicted the changes in shirt sponsorship and television deals. Alas, he was working with a board of directors firmly rooted in the past. One can only imagine how he would have faired working with Peter Kenyon who, let’s face it, has it easy in comparison.
What of the ultimate comparison: McCreadie versus Mourinho? The former was once our most capped player and served the club with distinction on and off the field. The latter’s playing career amounted to very little but is undoubtedly one of the finest coaches of his generation. He built a team of European champions with little resources and has turned Chelsea into a team of high quality, finally banishing the old unpredictability. McCreadie, however, never got the chance to test his ability in the first division. The contractual dispute that spelled the end of his reign is something that may easily happen to Mourinho. Like McCreadie he is not one to be taken for granted and the board will do well to remember this come the end of the season.
To finish on a lighter note, what of the club programme alongside the current matchday magazine? In 1976 it amounted to little more than a parish newsletter with only the good news being printed. The front cover, a close up of the club badge, remained the same throughout the season. It contained little or no comment and relied heavily on advertising. Ratcliff Tailifts were featured in most programmes. They had a team photo superimposed onto one of the rear end of a truck. Can’t see that one being used this season! And the 43,718 who witnessed Chelsea’s final home game against Hull City were, no doubt, relieved to read that N Mitchell of Guildford, who had lost his glasses while celebrating our winner against Forest, found them in the club office after they had been handed in. This prompted him to declare that this proves ‘that we do have true supporters in The Shed’.
It was a magical season for me and possibly you. However, much has changed, mostly for the better. Thirty tears ago we were hated because of our hooligan fans. Now it’s because we have a superb team. Which way round would you rather have it?