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Peter Houseman’s Sliding Door

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This piece is an edited extract from ‘Sexton For God’ by Tim Rolls, available now on Amazon and eBay.

24th January 1970. Apart from the League Cup win in 1965, Chelsea had not won a trophy since the unexpected League title fifteen years earlier. The curse of inconsistency meant manager Dave Sexton’s side were unlikely to win the League that season, a chastening 5-2 home defeat by Leeds United two weeks earlier, in front of the Match Of the Day cameras, possibly the final nail in their title hopes coffin. What his side, containing a mix of supreme talent, unflinching physicality and relentless endeavour, did seem cut out for was cup success. A mid-October League Cup defeat at Carlisle, where goalkeeper Peter Bonetti was knocked out by a stone, meant that the FA Cup was the only silverware likely to grace the Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet that season.

After a comfortable 3-0 win over Birmingham City in Round Three, Chelsea had been drawn against Burnley in the next round. They had followed up the Leeds humiliation with a superb 3-0 victory at Highbury, tyro midfielder Alan Hudson giving a truly majestic performance eulogised in the press, so the side approached the cup-tie in good spirits. Sexton told The People ‘I was tremendously pleased with the way it went after that Leeds result. The lads worked hard and showed a lot of fight’ and it looked as though that debacle had caused no permanent impact on confidence. Charlie Cooke was not selected as he had not fully recovered from an abscess, so Tommy Baldwin retained his place in an unchanged side – Bonetti; Webb, Dempsey, Harris, McCreadie; Hollins, Hudson, Houseman; Baldwin, Osgood, Hutchinson.

A large crowd was expected for the Burnley game, so the recorded 42,282 attendance, nearly 3,000 less than the Birmingham tie, must have been a massive disappointment to a club hierarchy already thinking about the money needed for potential ground redevelopment. Those that turned up watched a tight first-half, with Burnley’s Brian O’Neil and Ralph Coates dominating midfield, but when John Hollins, with a trademark run and shot, and Peter Osgood put Chelsea two ahead after 69 minutes it seemed as though earlier missed chances would be irrelevant as Round Five beckoned. An inability to keep clean sheets came back to haunt them, however, as midfielder Martin Dobson scored twice in the last ten minutes, taking advantage of shoddy defending, to earn Burnley an unexpected replay three days later. A hugely frustrated Sexton complained ‘we paid the price for non-vigilance. It was careless’.

Hutchinson’s long throws as usual caused chaos, but were twice called foul throws as referee Jack Taylor and his linesmen paid close attention to him. The player blamed it on ‘rigorous scrutiny by television’ by the ever-self-important Jimmy Hill on The Big Match after the Arsenal clash, which pointed out that sometimes he seemed to be illegally lifting his foot.

Chelsea FC Lookback with a clip from the first leg.

The Daily Telegraph felt the result ‘revived the perennial question of Chelsea’s ability to win honours…In the past they have been thwarted by immaturity and an absence of professional aplomb’. Hardly a new criticism. The replay programme thought the Saturday game was a ‘fascinating and thrilling spectacle…a feast of football excitement and skills’ and that Burnley deserved the draw. Supporter Barry Holmes, who was there, felt it quickly ‘went from comfortable to sweaty desperation’.

The winners of the replay were drawn at Tottenham or Crystal Palace. Osgood, who had hit the bar in the first minute, damaged his ankle and had to miss the replay. Ian Hutchinson suffered a groin strain, Eddie McCreadie hurt his shoulder and Baldwin spent Sunday in bed with concussion, but all three were eventually declared fit. Cooke’s craft and ability to slow things down had been missed, so it was fortunate that he was fit to replace Osgood.

32,000 crowded into Turf Moor, including a large contingent from Chelsea, with thousands more locked out. Supporter Bob Ruthven remembers travelling up on one of two special trains. Paul McParlan remembers chaotic scenes outside the ground with so many trying to get in. He reckoned there were well over 3,000 visitors there, excellent for a midweek away trip up North. He remembers that Hutchinson’s throws were greeted with ‘Ooh it’s a corner’ chants from the visiting support.

Chelsea making their commitment very clear, conceded 11 fouls in the first 25 minutes. McParlan, in a piece for the These Football Times website, recalled that this, perhaps unsurprisingly, antagonised the home support, which in turn inspired their favourites. Hudson hit the post but Burnley were on top and Coates, once again top class, scored before half-time, running the game until Ron Harris and McCreadie slowed him by fouling harshly enough for both to be booked.

In the second-half Chelsea started to seize the initiative but Burnley closed down threat after threat. With 18 minutes left Chelsea were 1-0 down and looked to be going out of the cup, their quest for honours that season seemingly over. Peter Houseman, given a free role, then scored a truly magnificent equaliser, running thirty yards with the ball before curling a glorious left-foot drive past Peter Mellor from outside the box. The importance of that goal, and Houseman’s contribution over 120 minutes, cannot be over-stated. The season turned on the equaliser, one of the great Chelsea ‘Sliding Door’ moments.

Hutchinson hit the bar as Burnley began to wilt, but the tie went to extra-time where Chelsea’s superior fitness told, and the home team were left chasing shadows. Baldwin headed Chelsea a 94th minute lead from Houseman’s cross, the hero of the night then sealing the crucial win late on with his second goal. Bob Ruthven recalls ‘What I remember most was the supporters singing a very slow “Chelsea, Chelsea” with each wave merging into one and not quickening up so completely drowning out anything else’. 

A totally-committed 3-1 victory led to a grudging ‘Beefy Chelsea Muscle Through’ Daily Mail headline in what they saw as ‘a grim and graceless game’. Sexton, unsurprisingly, was delighted, especially considering the talismanic Osgood was missing. ‘I couldn’t be more pleased with the way they played’. The Chelsea programme called Houseman’s opener ‘the most important goal he ever scored’ as he bagged the first pair of his career. Houseman, on occasion the butt of crowd frustration but totally trusted by Sexton, won many supporters over that night with his goals, according to McParlan. He remembers that some loyal travellers had to get a local train to Preston to get the midnight train back to London.

In ‘The Working Man’s Ballet’ Alan Hudson thought ‘the fans lifted us’ when they were 1-0 down. That night he felt ‘we showed a combination of the will to win and resilience that was to weld us into a very tough unit’. The boost to the side’s confidence was commented on by Dempsey, who saw the win as a turning point.

The criticality of winning that replay cannot be overstated, as if Chelsea had been eliminated from the FA Cup, the next few years would have looked vastly different. No Wembley. No Old Trafford. No Bruges. No Athens. Arguably the underrated, but ultra-loyal and ultra-consistent, Peter Houseman’s finest hour.

Programme image(s) courtesy of Paul Waterhouse, Bygone Chelsea 1905-99

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