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Chelsea v Man U 1967 – Cooke Outshines Best In Cracking Draw

In the late 1960s, the most glamorous side in English football was undoubtedly Thursday’s opponents Manchester United. They filled grounds wherever they went. Irregular home fans were attracted to watch them, United took loads 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 him was massive, especially from those of my dad’s generation, and was evidenced after his recent sad passing. Best was just a phenomenon, by this point more like a pop star than just a magnificent footballer and with a following to match. Law had charisma in spades and a spiky volatility which made him compelling watching. Chelsea had massively talented stars of their own, of course, in Charlie Cooke and Peter Osgood.

For the November 1967 encounter at Stamford Bridge, 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 manager Dave 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’.

That was my second-ever Chelsea game, I was ten and I was unprepared for exactly how big a very big crowd could be. 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 Sexton was appointed to steady the ship, draw the best out of mercurial talents like Osgood and 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 and table-toppers United came to town.

Chelsea claimed they could have sold the 12,000 Stamford Bridge seats three times over, and that may have been an under-estimate. After enthusiasts had entered the ground at previous games without paying via a railway banking, Chelsea tried to stop this happening by covering fences and railings with slow-drying paint.

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. The enormous mass of people on the Fulham Road when we got there at midday, the alarming squeeze both to get in and on the terraces and, most of all, the sheer noise all stay with me 57 years later. I went with my dad and my brother, ending 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 well away from the ground, and then him buying a genuine one outside Stamford Bridge. It was later reported that 50,840 programmes, to the value of £2,542 were sold, which was four times the gate receipts Orient managed for their Division Three game against Bury the same day.

It was no surprise when the gates were locked fifteen minutes before kick-off with the terraces absolutely rammed, but given stadium capacity was officially 60,000 it was something of a surprise when a gate of just 54,712 was announced. Looking at the TV footage, the ground seemed just as crowded as the United games in the following two seasons where the crowds were both over 60,000, and commentator Ken Wolstenholme thought the crowd around that figure as well. Intrepid supporters climbed hoardings at the North Stand end. Many of the United supporters present were grouped under the rickety North Stand and I remember (and it is strange what you do remember) a United fan, red and white scarf aloft, running from the Shed End across the pitch pre-match to join his fellow reds.

In front of a hugely expectant crowd which included FIFA supremo Sir Stanley Rous, Sexton’s side lined up :- Bonetti; Kirkup, Hinton, Harris, McCreadie; Hollins, Boyle, Cooke; Fascione, Baldwin, Osgood. Sub Houseman.

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. Osgood ran from halfway early on, but his lobbed shot was tipped away by Alex Stepney.

The home side took the lead with Tommy Baldwin’s spectacular running header after 20 minutes from a Charlie Cooke cross, following a flowing left wing move started by Peter Bonetti. A magnificent goal.

Tommy Baldwin (front left) heads home superbly

Brian Kidd equalised fifteen minutes later, heading home a Pat Crerand cross after a move begun by a Best back heel.

The game continued to excitingly ebb and flow after half-time. Joe Fascione had a chance to restore Chelsea’s lead but Alex Stepney, ex-Chelsea, made a cracking save. McCreadie flashed the ball invitingly across the goal, but nobody could get on the end of it. Best was about to capitalise on a Marvin Hinton error when the Chelsea defender scythed him down. Osgood, eight yards out, fired straight at Stepney and Best missed a similarly good chance almost immediately afterwards, Bonetti coming to the rescue.

Charlie Cooke had been criticised since his arrival at the club for the occasional lack of an end product. Against United, given a roving role, he 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, and the ‘virtuoso’ Scot’s performance received wide praise. 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. Match Of the Day commentator Ken Wolstenholme felt the Chelsea star was ‘destined to become one of the greats’.

Watching the 45 minutes of TV highlights, available here is fascinating, and a number of things stand out. Plenty of United chants. Chants of ‘Chelsea, Chelsea’ responded to with ‘sh*t’. Osgood, recovered from his broken leg, running gracefully with the ball. The energy and commitment of John Hollins and John Boyle. The running and enthusiasm for receiving the ball of Cooke and the quality of his end-product, particularly his crosses. Chelsea’s slick counter-attacking football. The endeavour and enthusiasm for attack by both sides.

Wolstenholme enthused that the game had surpassed the high pre-match expectations and correctly called it ‘a fantastic match’ and ‘an afternoon to remember’. McIlvanney argued that ‘Chelsea’s superior pace and more animated aggression might easily have left the champions clearly beaten’.

There was a buzz whenever Best got the ball, though he was kept relatively quiet by Ron Harris who was booked after two ‘brutal’ challenges. He was criticised in the press for his physical approach to his marking job, though the mercurial Irish star was roundly, and almost certainly unfairly, booed for supposed play-acting by the home support.

Best looks nervously at his nemesis, Ron Harris

The whole Chelsea team deserved praise, especially given that United won the European Cup six months later with ten of the same players, the only omission being Nobby Stiles, replaced by Francis Burns. Fringe players Kirkup and Fascione were picked out for having achieved a new lease of life under Sexton, and Hollins for driving the team on. It was to be Fascione’s last start for the club, Alan Birchenall arriving from Sheffield United the following week.

Afterwards we stayed where we were for what seemed like ages, but still got caught in a seething mass on Fulham Road. Another memory is leaving the ground and seeing an evening newspaper hoarding referring to United supporters smashing up a train to London, causing £1,000 worth of damage, and a nearby United supporter proudly saying to another ‘that was us’.

Newcastle made a bid for Cooke that very weekend but were understandably firmly rebuffed by Sexton. 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 sixth place and European qualification, unthinkable months earlier.

This is an expanded version of a section of ‘Sexton For God’, covering Chelsea’s history from late 1967 to Athens in 1971, which is available now on eBay and Amazon.

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