Dismal Chelsea Collapse As Wolves hit Seven
In Chelsea’s 118-year history there are a few heavy defeats that linger. 7-0 at Leeds. 7-0 at Forest. 6-0 at Rotherham. Another was a 7-1 thrashing at Molineux that stays with travelling supporters nearly 50 years later.
It was March 1975. Chelsea were in real trouble, both on and off the pitch. The financial clouds surrounding the now-open East Stand were ever-darkening. Worse, the season spluttered along, relegation an ever-present threat, something that would be disastrous for the club financially. Gates were already well below the break-even attendance of 35,000 and a spell in Division Two would inevitably make this situation even bleaker. Four points above the drop zone was not sufficient cushion should the side continue with their recent form of two wins in nine League games, the latest result a 2-1 home defeat to Derby County, a side en route to their second title in four seasons.
Chris Garland was sold to relegation rivals Leicester City for what he cost four years earlier, £100,000. Peter Bonetti, having played only eight League games that season, was given a free transfer, though continued to play for the reserves for the rest of the season before heading off to play for St. Louis Stars in the United States. However, the income from Garland’s sale was not used to buy goalkeeper Bryan King from Millwall, as many assumed would be the case, but was banked. Chelsea spent precisely nothing that season after the summer purchases of David Hay and John Sissons. Chairman Brian Mears observed ‘We had a great team and we needed the ground facilities to go with it. Now we have the stand, we need the team to go with it.’ With no money to spend, there was optimism about a wave of youngsters coming through the club system, led by midfielder Ray Wilkins, but it was debatable whether they, plus the remnants of the old guard, would be able to keep the club in Division One.
Unable to improve his squad, and with Hay suspended, manager Ron Suart, promoted from coach after Dave Sexton was sacked six months earlier, tried to make the best of it for the trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers, just two points and two positions above seventeenth-place Chelsea. He paired John Dempsey, who had not started a first-team game since January after an ankle operation, with Ron Harris at centre-back, bringing back Bill Garner for the departed Garland up front and keeping a frustrated Steve Kember, captain earlier that season, on the bench.
Chelsea lined up:- Phillips; Locke, Dempsey, Harris, Sparrow; Hollins, Britton, Wilkins, Cooke; Finnieston, Garner. Sub. Kember. A mix of youth and experience but desperately low on confidence.
Wolves gave midfielder Willie Carr his debut after his signing from Coventry City for a bargain £80,000. Carr had a debut to remember, and the 21,649 crowd would not easily forget it, either. The visitors started badly and got worse, and could have been more than 3-1 down at half-time as Richards, Carr and Ken Hibbitt all netted. Garner had made the score 2-1, heading home a Charlie Cooke free-kick, but nobody present can seriously have thought a comeback was on.
After Steve Finnieston shot just over the bar, normal service was resumed after half-time. Wolves scored four more in an embarrassingly easy victory as Chelsea basically collapsed. After the interval Mike Bailey (his first League goal for four seasons), Steve Kindon, Richards and Dave Wagstaffe all beat a beleaguered Phillips. Ian Britton hit the bar for the demoralised visitors but that was as good as it got.
Carr ran the game as he wished, the ‘Sad Chelsea In A Carr-Crash’ Daily Mirror headline speaking volumes. Chelsea had no answer to the power and running of Kindon, who had a hand in six of the goals. Wagstaffe tormented Gary Locke. Harris’ lack of pace was cruelly exposed. Dempsey did not appear match fit. John Richards gave his usual highly effective display against a ‘miserably inept’ Chelsea and the visitors, a ‘shambling nonentity’ according to the mocking Birmingham Daily Post, were utterly humiliated. A bemused Hibbitt exclaimed to the Daily Mirror 'I have never found scoring so easy against any Chelsea team. It was like driving a bus down the M1'. The News Of The World ratings gave the whole Chelsea team 5 (out of 10), with Britton getting a team-best 6 for his unstinting effort.
After a 7-1 defeat, Chelsea’s biggest for over seven years, and the biggest loss suffered by any side in Division One that season, a ‘dazed’ Ron Suart left the ‘grave-like silence’ of the away dressing room and spoke to the Sunday People. He praised Carr and Kindon and explained ‘everything they hit went in, everything went against us…but you can’t make excuses’. He defended Phillips and told the Daily Mirror 'I am not trying to whitewash Saturday's defeat. It was a blow to our pride. But we have been playing well, and to make wholesale changes would not solve any problems'. I am not sure those Chelsea supporters who witnessed the fiasco at Molineux would have agreed with Suart’s ‘we have been playing well’ claim.
The Sunday People felt Chelsea finished almost like a rabble. The travelling support taunted Phillips, who had little chance with five of the goals, with ‘bring back The Cat’ but he was clearly not solely to blame, was given little or no protection and the problem was rather deeper. Whether Chelsea’s planning was revised, to consider the impact of the arrival at Molineux of Carr on Wolves’ tactics, is not clear. Certainly, attempts to play an offside trap were doomed to failure given Kindon’s pace.
Suart’s claim to the Sunday Mirror that he ‘was pleased with the way the lads did not let their heads drop’ did not exactly chime with most of the match reports, but he was undoubtedly right to focus, at least publicly, on and supposed positives he could find, with a relegation battle looming.
Supporter Richard Pigden remembers the day vividly, including an encounter with legendary Blues supporter Mick Greenaway. “This was only my second away game outside of London. Every time Steve Kindon got the ball it looked like Wolves would score, he absolutely ran riot. When we got back to the train station I think we were all in shock, we had made quite a bit of noise on the way back but it went pretty quiet once we were inside Wolverhampton station. My most vivid memory was of Greenaway walking up and down the station platform, then up and down the aisle once we got on the train muttering ‘Seven ****ing one’ over and over again. Luckily we were not on Match Of The Day or The Big Match”.
Supporter Howard Sole tells another tale about that journey home. “I was on the service train back to Euston with quite a good away following as one would expect from a trip to Wolves. The train stopped at Birmingham New Street, and Peter Osgood and another Southampton player got on, they had just lost 3-0 at Aston Villa. News of his presence on board spread like wildfire all down the train. When we arrived back in London, whilst walking up the ramp from the platform to the ticket barrier line, Ossie was surrounded by a good number of fans chanting his name. As he went through the barrier he was lifted up in the air and carried part way across the concourse. I can remember that whilst he was in the air he was waving his arms about and requesting to be put down”. Gone but clearly not forgotten.
Suart, under real pressure, promised no panic changes but had just three days to lift the spirits of his stunned team before a visit to QPR, sailing along in tenth place and, for the first time ever, the top team in West London. Suart’s side duly lost 1-0 and the following Saturday were defeated 2-1 at home by Middlesbrough.
Despite replacing Suart with his assistant, Eddie McCreadie with three games to go, after an abject home defeat by Manchester City, Chelsea were unsurprisingly relegated. The financial mess got worse and though the youngsters blossomed and got the team promoted in 1977, many were sold for purely financial reasons as the team went back down in 1979. Bonetti returned to the club that autumn and made 105 more appearances before his departure in 1979, a key member of the 1977 promotion side. Wolves finished the season in twelfth place but were relegated the following year.
This is an expanded version of a section from ‘Stamford Bridge Is Falling Down’, which looks at Chelsea’s on- and off-field decline from 1971-75. Normally, in my pieces for Chelsea Heritage Partnership I try and source a few press photos of Chelsea goals or key incidents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I could not find any.