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A Day Out At Old Trafford 1977 - We're Better Than Man United

Anyone who has watched Chelsea play at Old Trafford in recent seasons is likely to have had a pretty much hassle-free day, apart from over-zealous stewards and police attempts to keep away fans out of some city centre pubs.

45 years ago today (19th September 1977), Chelsea played at Manchester United but the atmosphere and build up were somewhat different. United fans had a deservedly negative reputation for creating chaos at their away games and attacking those away fans brave enough to travel to Old Trafford. Chelsea had caused a lot of trouble at a number of away games the previous season and the fact that a favourite chant from elements of the Chelsea crowd around that time was “We’re worse than Man United” says quite a lot. Among some of our fans there was definitely a degree of Chelsea wanting to prove themselves back in the big time.

In a ludicrous article in the Daily Mirror on 5th May 1977, two days before the Wolves promotion game, two young Chelsea fans gave a hilarious interview where they talked about their membership of the “Shed End Gang” and their leaders Pick-Axe Charlie, Stupid George and Mad Ron. They also claimed that “hundreds of Chelsea fans” went to United away games for a fight e.g. the Norwich game that April. The gullible journalist swallowed this hokum whole and the article stoked the flames of media outrage nicely.

The teams had not met since 1974 as first United, then Chelsea, had been relegated. There had been relatively little trouble, that I was aware of, at Chelsea’s two League away games so far that season (West Bromwich and Ipswich) but the same could not be said of United. After that West Bromwich away game, My friend and I were unfortunate to be in New Street station which was full of United fans who had just caused no end of trouble at Birmingham City and were making it clear what they were going to do to Chelsea fans in a few weeks. Most Chelsea fans were on direct special trains from Smethwick to London so the police could try and avoid clashes with United fans, but for some reason we were not going back to London so had to stand and listen to this stuff for ages.

Three days before playing Chelsea, United (the FA Cup holders and considered a realistic bet to win the League) had played a Cup Winners Cup tie in St Etienne and their fans had fought continually with police and rival fans. This got the press predicting various types of carnage for the Saturday.

Chelsea ran two special trains. This was the first season where club membership was necessary to travel on the specials and get tickets for all-ticket games. This game was always going to be all-ticket – The People the following day reckoned Chelsea fans were “supposedly banned,” but there was no ban. After the Derby home game the previous Saturday, I queued at the ticket office (cabin) on Stamford Bridge forecourt for a train and match ticket for my first visit to Old Trafford. My friend was already going to be up North, so I just got a match ticket for him, and he would try and blag it onto the special back. I remember thinking the queue did not seem that big and wondering what sort of turnout there would be the following week. In the end, according to Daily Mirror around 1,000 fans went on the two specials.

The specials were dry (a legacy of the previous season’s excesses) but onboard there were some very mouthy young fans banging on about ‘all needing to fight’ when we got there (not what I wanted to hear). I remember the train (including the mouthy ones) getting quiet as we pulled into Warwick Road, and I am sure I wasn’t the only person nervous about what awaited us. For reasons I cannot remember it was a 15.30 kick off and the police ensured that we arrived deliberately late, so I guess it was about 15.00 by the time we got off the train. There was a huge police escort waiting for the two train loads, but United fans were still hanging round shouting threats. My friend was waiting for the escort as we left the station, having had quite an uncomfortable ‘head down’ time waiting with some of the local charmers.

We were slowly marched past the cricket ground and up to the ground, but at the turnstiles small fights broke out as rogue United fans lashed out at Chelsea fans as they waited to go in. Their young fans primary fashion code at that time seemed to be Rod Stewart feather haircut, denim jacket with tartan trimming, flared jeans and DM’s. A lot of them looked like the Bay City Rollers.

As we entered the Scoreboard End terracing a couple of minutes late, with fences to the front and sides of us, Chelsea immediately scored through Bill Garner, and I remember dancing down the steps in celebration. Loads of Chelsea fans missed the goal, but our end eventually became pretty crowded.

Reading newspaper reports of the game, much of the remaining 88 minutes resembled The Alamo on a difficult day as a driven United team containing Coppell, Hill and Pearson ran Chelsea ragged but just couldn’t score while the 3,000 or so Chelsea fans (I am not sure of the exact number) bellowed support for their battling heroes. The final whistle meant a famous 1-0 victory and much joyous chanting. Chelsea had not started the season well and an away win, especially somewhere like Old Trafford, was both unexpected and welcome.

We were kept in for ages (probably about an hour) and could hear the United fans outside chanting (predictably) “You’re gonna get your fu**ing heads kicked in” as the police presumably tried to clear a route for us back to the station. Occasionally lone United fans would run onto the home terracing nearby, make various gestures and run out. All in all, there was some apprehension as we finally left the ground and entered the forecourt.

The massive police presence had the United fans kept well back, though those Chelsea fans who had to leave the escort to return to cars and coaches may well have had a hard time. Talking of coaches, according to the following weeks Daily Mirror, some hours after the game a coach load of 49 Chelsea fans were arrested after wrecking a Wythenshawe pub and 15 were later charged with affray.

According to the Daily Mirror the following Monday, Chelsea fans were ambushed as we were escorted to the station. That was nonsense, there was no ambush, but it was not for want of trying. The escort gradually made its way back to Warwick Road, the police repelling a couple of charges from the left by groups of United fans. We also got the odd stone thrown at us, a taste of what was to come. On the third charge, near the station, a number of Chelsea fans had had enough and broke through police lines with a roar and scattered the surprised mob of United fans. We kept going, trying to reach the station as quickly as possible. Eventually the police rounded everyone up again and put us on the trains. My friend did not have train a ticket, but in the chaos had no problem getting on my train.

Before we left the station, the police went down our train, pulled down all the blinds and told us to get down. Sure enough, not long after the train pulled out of the station, a long volley of stones and bricks began. This happened sporadically for several miles and a number of windows were broken, until the police came through again and said we could sit on our seats and pull up the blinds. Looking back, it is amazing nobody appeared to get badly hurt, but it is not in any way a pleasant experience (though one I was forced to repeat a few times in the following years).

We eventually got back to Euston and headed home after a momentous day. Even now, whenever we play United away, the name Bill Garner will come up. He was a bit of a lump, and probably not worth the money we paid Southend for him, but that day he became an all-time hero of ours.

Different times, certainly, but a momentous and unforgettable day. And a rare away win.

This is an edited version of a piece Tim wrote a decade or so back for a now-defunct Chelsea website.

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