Almost 50 years ago, in late 1972, Chelsea were a club in slow decline, a series of often mediocre performances on making the glory of Athens just 18 months earlier seem a long way off. One chance to shine came in the League Cup, with an entirely winnable two-leg Semi-final against Norwich City.
The first-leg, scheduled for Stamford Bridge on 6th December, was called off due to a waterlogged pitch. A quirk of the fixture list meant the Saturday League game was also against The Canaries. Ian Hutchinson started his first game after a torrid 21 months out with injury. Norwich were comfortably beaten 3-1 which raised expectations for the League Cup games ahead. Hutchinson scored twice to great acclaim from the crowd, also demonstrating that his long throw had lost none of its power or accuracy. Bill Garner scored the other goal, Jimmy Bone netting a consolation, beating four men and showing he would need to be watched in the rearranged first-leg the following Wednesday.
Hutchinson admitted he was exhausted in the final half-hour and he hurt his knee, but his return, and the first win in seven League games, gave the club, the crowd, the team and, most importantly, the player a real boost. For the League Cup game, Hutchinson retained his place despite issues with his knee. Norwich, who had won 3-0 at Arsenal in the previous round, were not to be underestimated but given they had lost seven of their ten away League games, Chelsea were clear favourites. Under a ‘Golden Chelsea’ headline, the Daily Mirror reported that the squad were on a £1,000-a-man bonus if they reached Wembley. Even if they lost the Semi-final, £6,000 was to be spread among the first-team squad.
In the event, the warning Bone had given with his goal on the Saturday was not heeded. He and fellow-striker David Cross tore into Chelsea and both scored in the first eleven minutes, silencing the crowd. The central defence was found wanting and a picture of the half-time team talk, given on the pitch, shows a sullen-looking bunch of players listening to Sexton’s team talk. Chelsea created little, Peter Osgood missing a late open goal which would have made the second-leg more interesting.
The Evening Standard headline ‘Sexton’s Sad Men See A Dream Fade’ said it all, the report saying he had ‘never seen the Chelsea players so glum after an important game’. Osgood, clearly shocked, said ‘I’m sick, just sick’ and Sexton admitted ‘we gave them the first goal, but they played well’.
For the second-leg Hutchinson’s knee had not recovered and Tommy Baldwin came in. Chelsea fought hard, Alan Hudson scoring twice, but were 3-2 down, 5-2 down on aggregate, when thick fog suddenly descended. Gary Locke was injured in an incident hidden from the referee by the fog and was carried off. With six minutes to go, and Norwich trying frantically to play on, referee Gordon Hill took the teams off for twenty-seven minutes. The Chelsea support bellowed ‘call it off’ while the teams were off. Hill brought the sides back on for a futile two minutes then abandoned the match. Cue uproar. Chelsea players ‘danced with delight’ as Norwich complained bitterly. The fog cleared fifteen minutes later, and as Sexton told the Evening Standard ‘it was the most bizarre night I can recall in football’. A lucky escape, though whether Chelsea had the wit and ability to make a comeback in the rearranged game, scheduled for the New Year, was another matter.
A New Year, but the same old problem. Injuries. Peter Houseman, Micky Droy, Hutchinson and captain Eddie McCreadie were all out of the rearranged League Cup Semi-final second-leg at Carrow Road, in addition to the cup-tied Garner. Peter Bonetti, Locke, Chris Garland and Steve Kember were only passed fit late on for a game Chelsea had to win by at least two goals to stand any chance of reaching Wembley.
The game was not all-ticket, but over 34,000 filled Carrow Road, for the second time in three weeks. Although Chelsea put everything into the game, in an intensely physical encounter Norwich managed to stop Chelsea playing. Sexton’s men had not given up the ghost until Steve Govier’s second-half goal clinched Norwich’s Wembley place. Try as they might, the Chelsea players could not repair the first-leg damage. Sexton told the Daily Mirror ‘I’m proud of the way my players fought’ but the fact remained they were well beaten over the two legs.
That Semi-final was arguably a defining moment in Chelsea’s early 1970s decline. It was the fourth time in fourteen months they had lost a cup-tie when favourites. It was to be Chelsea’s last Semi-final in a major tournament for twelve years, unthinkable at the time. Supporter Brian Gaches saw it as ‘another nail in the coffin for the great 70’s team, who no longer had that special attacking creativity and flair so often seen a couple of years earlier’.