Tim Rolls reflects on past encounters with Manchester United.
In the late 1960s, the most glamorous side in English football was undoubtedly Manchester United. League winners and European Champions. They filled grounds wherever they went. Irregular home fans were attracted to watch them, United took plenty of supporters with them wherever they went and there were also a vast number of interested neutrals. The lure of greats Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and, particularly, George Best was just enormous. I was lucky enough to attend three Chelsea v United games at Stamford Bridge with my dad and brother during that period, and each game stays with me over half a century later. My dad wasn’t that bothered about going to football but was definitely keen to watch United’s stars, particularly Munich-survivor, World Cup winner and footballing gentleman Charlton. The genuine national affection for Charlton was massive, especially from those of my dad’s generation, and is perhaps under-recognised today. Best was just a phenomenon, more like a pop star than a footballer and with a following to match.
Chelsea had endured a torrid start to the 1967/68 season, including a 6-2 home defeat by Southampton and a 7-0 hammering at Leeds. Manager Tommy Docherty had departed in tempestuous circumstances and the phlegmatic, thoughtful Dave Sexton was appointed to steady the ship, get the best out of mercurial talents like Peter Osgood and Charlie Cooke and get the side away from the relegation zone as quickly as possible. By late November results had started to improve but the side were still only in 18th place when champions Manchester United came to town.
Law was out injured but Charlton and Best were playing, helping guarantee a huge attendance regardless of Chelsea’s mediocre position. Interviewed by the Daily Mail a bullish Sexton emphasised ‘I believe in a positive approach to these games. I would not destroy the shape and style of my side to counter what someone else is planning. That is the negative way, the way of people who haven’t confidence in their players. There will be a lot of good players on this pitch. They’ll have to think about Osgood and Cooke just as much as we will about Best and Charlton’.
The club reckoned they could have sold the 12,000 Stamford Bridge seats three times over. Chelsea tried to stop supporters climbing into the game by covering fences and railings with non-drying paint. Stadium capacity was officially 60,000 so it was something of a surprise when the gates were locked well before kick-off with the terraces absolutely rammed, with just 54,712 supposedly inside. Supporter Brian Gaches remembers the crush in an uncontrolled seething mass on the concourse outside The Shed turnstiles at this match. Clubs, and not just Chelsea, took crowd safety less seriously in those days. This was my second Chelsea match (I was ten) and the enormous mass of people on the Fulham Road at midday, the squeeze both to get in and on the terraces and, most of all, the sheer noise all stay with me 54 years later. I went with my dad and my brother, we got there at midday and ended up in the East Stand enclosure because my dad was worried about the crush in The Shed.
I remember talking my dad into buying a pirate programme away from the ground, and then buying a genuine one outside Stamford Bridge
The game, a cracking match between two enterprising sides in an electrifying atmosphere, ended a 1-1 draw, and both teams were praised for their performances. Baldwin’s spectacular header following a flowing move was enjoyed by millions on Match Of The Day, Brian Kidd equalising before half-time.
Charlie Cooke, given a roving role, gave a display that Hugh McIlvanney, in The Observer, felt was his finest and most effective at Stamford Bridge to date, overshadowing even the impressive Osgood. The People headline ‘Swinging Osgood Knocks Best Off Top Spot’ emphasised neatly how the pair were the most glamorous figures in English football at that time. Afterwards we stayed where we were for ages, still got caught in a seething mass on Fulham Road and ended up walking to Hammersmith.
McIlvanney argued that ‘Chelsea’s superior pace and more animated aggression might easily have left the champions clearly beaten’. United’s main threat, Best, endured the close attentions of Ron Harris who was booked. Best was booed for supposed play-acting but had to endure ‘the recurring cruelty of Harris’s fouls’. The whole team deserved praise. Fringe players Joe Kirkup and Fascione were picked out for having achieved a new lease of life under Sexton, and Hollins for driving the team on. Although still 18th in the table, the mood around the club was increasingly positive. Supporter Geoff Kimber thought that game a turning point in the season, an impressive display the prelude to brighter times ahead. Laudably, Sexton’s efforts produced an end-of-season 6th place and European qualification, unthinkable months earlier.
Sixteen months later, in early March 1969, supporter morale was at a low after an unexpected and crushing home 6th Round FA Cup defeat by West Bromwich. Only 19,856 watched a home game against Stoke City four days later. That woeful crowd showed that the core support was maybe a lot less than the club, keen to redevelop the ground, cared to think. Regardless, the forthcoming visit of Manchester United meant another guaranteed packed ground, despite United going into the match in 17th place, underachievement for a team that had won the title and the European Cup in the previous two seasons.
Due to a clash with the League Cup Final between Arsenal and Swindon Town that day, all other games in London that weekend were moved to the Friday night, but it is hard to see why, unless a lot of London supporters were likely recipients of Wembley tickets, as the final was not being live on television.
The Stamford Bridge gates were closed at 14.40, with 60,436 packed in, Chelsea’s largest Stamford Bridge crowd since the visit of Liverpool four seasons earlier, when both were active title contenders. It made the closed gates the previous season, with under 55,000 inside, even more remarkable. An estimated 10,000 were locked out. Osgood returned, having only been on the bench against Coventry the previous week, but it was Alan Birchenall, not newcomer Ian Hutchinson, who was omitted to accommodate him, ending a run of 54 consecutive appearances. In a rousing encounter on a desperately muddy pitch, Webb gave Chelsea an immediate lead, his seventh goal since Christmas, and Hutchinson doubled it after an excellent cross by John Boyle and a one-two with Bobby Tambling.
Steve James pulled one back before half-time, but Tambling scored a superb third, nonchalantly jogging back to the halfway line afterwards. Denis Law’s penalty was mere consolation as Chelsea deservedly saw the game out for a magnificent 3-2 victory, their fifth League win in a row and again enjoyed by millions watching Match Of The Day. United’s defence struggled to cope with Hutchinson’s power, Tambling’s speed and Peter Houseman’s control and, at the back, David Webb and Harris’s physicality and diligence kept Law and Best relatively quiet. John Dempsey and Law had a proper set-to that, fortunately for them, was seen neither by referee George McCabe or the BBC cameras.
The press picked up on the fact that Hutchinson, in only his seventh start, was still part-time, as, amazingly, he was working as an apprentice engineer half the week. His cost, a ludicrous £2,500, would be doubled when he made ten appearances and an extra £2,500 added if he won an Under-23 cap, as seemed increasingly likely. ‘I don’t bother about who I’m up against, just on concentrating on the job I’ve got to do’ was his admirably calm perception. He was praised by United’s England star Nobby Stiles and described, accurately, as the ‘bargain buy of the season’ by the Sunday Mirror. The Kensington News headline ‘Hutchinson Swagger Stuns United’ spoke volumes. A star was born.
Footage of that game here: https://youtu.be/UFzuxwjU67U
Fast-forward a year and the club were in a very good place. A 5-1 semi-final thrashing of Watford meant that an FA Cup Final loomed against Leeds or Manchester United. Attention turned to the visit by United the following Saturday, a potential Wembley rehearsal. Osgood had recovered from illness so returned in place of Tambling. With the exception of Marvin Hinton (‘one of the good reserves Chelsea have in store’ according to ITV commentator Brian Moore) replacing the suspended Eddie McCreadie, a full-strength Chelsea side turned out.
Best told the Daily Mail he was looking forward to playing at Stamford Bridge ‘A visit to take on Chelsea has usually meant a good game for me’. Harris had a different perspective. ‘George Best used to score goals against Chelsea until I started marking him’. The Mail felt the captain had ‘this season shown himself without equal in the destructive art of tight marking, sharp tackling and defensive covering’. Harris explained his approach. ‘My game is based on doing to other players the sort of things I never like having done to myself…I shall spend the game getting as close to him as possible to stop him turning with the ball to face me and dictating the game to me’.
There was already a 100 yard queue on Fulham Road at 09.00 and 61,479 squeezed in. Another 15,000 were locked out when the gates were closed at 14.15, a remarkable crowd and one not equalled at The Bridge since. The numbers outside were so vast, United’s team coach could enter the concourse behind The Shed. As in the two previous years, we were there for midday and in the enclosure in good time.
Hutchinson scored twice early on, the second a wonderful diving header from a Houseman cross in a brilliant counter-attack, and though Willie Morgan pulled one back towards the end, Chelsea, who had three goals disallowed by referee Maurice Fussey, held on for a 2-1 win against opponents who had not lost in 18 matches. The Sunday Mirror headline ‘United Flop As Chelsea Coast Home’ spoke volumes. Harris and Co stood firm at the back, United’s defence really struggled against the Osgood/Hutchinson striking partnership and watching the highlights 50 years on, the languid control and effortless passing of Osgood stands out.
Footage of that game here: https://youtu.be/6EFyAq-_o_Q
As readers will be well aware, in the end it was Leeds that Chelsea met, and eventually beat, in the FA Cup Final. United went into a period of relative decline but could still draw very large crowds to Stamford Bridge and continued to do so, even when Chelsea’s average crowds were below 25,000, until the time in the 2000’s when sell-outs at the Bridge became a regular occurrence, not a couple-of-times-a-season event.
To many of my generation United is still the biggest home game of the season. The chaos outside Stamford Bridge may have gone, the surging Shed may have gone, Best, Osgood, Houseman and Hutchinson may no longer be with us (RIP) but the passion remains. Roll on Sunday.
These games are all featured in Tim’s new book ‘Sexton For God’ which covers the eventful and successful 1967-71 period in Chelsea’s history, available now on Amazon and eBay.
Thanks to James for the YouTube links.