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European Glory In Athens - 53 years ago today

The Build Up

After beating Manchester City 1-0 both home and away in the Cup-Winners’ Cup semi-final, Chelsea’s mind turned to the final on Wednesday 19th May in Athens. Opponents were Real Madrid side who had knocked out PSV Eindhoven in the semi-final but had struggled to beat Second Division side Cardiff City in the Quarter-Final, losing at Ninian Park before recovering at the Bernabeu to squeeze through 2-1 on aggregate. Real’s European record was remarkable, having won the first five European Cups from 1956 to 1960, but they had not won a European trophy for five years.

Chelsea had one League game three days after winning 1-0 at City in the second-leg. A 0-0 draw at Ipswich Town was a satisfactory end to the season, a final League place of sixth less so. This comparatively lowly position meant Chelsea therefore needed to win in Athens to qualify for Europe the following season, crucial for the revenue it would generate to help pay for the new East Stand. Real, also, needed to win to qualify for Europe, unthinkable a few seasons earlier. Real manager Miguel Munoz, who as a player had won the European Cup twice, watched the Ipswich game, though he will have learned comparatively little as Chelsea were, unsurprisingly, hardly firing on all cylinders.

The side now had an eighteen-day break to recover from the 58 games they had already played that season and then plan and train for the task ahead. They played in the 2-1 defeat against Standard Liege in Peter Bonetti’s testimonial four days later where talismanic striker Peter Osgood damaged an ankle, making him a potential doubt for the final a fortnight hence. John Hollins, too, was struggling for fitness with an injured knee, so these were two crucial players whose availability Manager Dave Sexton would have to sweat on, and hope trainer Harry Medhurst could work his magic. Munoz also attended this game but, again, may not have learned much.

Eddie McCreadie, who had missed much of the season injured, was also a doubt. There were also slight concerns about Alan Hudson, who had a twisted ankle, and John Dempsey. After Hudson missed the previous season’s FA Cup Final through injury, to lose out again would be unthinkable, but both he and Dempsey were expected to be fit, and so it proved. This was in addition to long-term injury absentee Ian Hutchinson, sadly already written off for the game.

Another testimonial played on 11th May, eight days before the final, this time a 3-2 defeat at Millwall for trainer Jack Blackman, passed without further injury. Four days before the game Osgood was passed fit to play. Hollins was still a doubt but reported improvement.

Sexton spent three days in Athens sorting out accommodation and checking out the stadium and pitch, which he described as ‘quite good. Better than I expected’. After the dreadful Aris Salonika playing surface eight months earlier, he must have feared the worst. He also flew to Madrid to watch Real play Scottish side St. Johnstone in a friendly.

If Hollins was fit to start, Sexton’s main selection dilemma was who played in goal. The experienced, ultra-dependable Peter Bonetti or young John Phillips who had covered so capably when Bonetti was ill.

Chelsea flew out on the Tuesday, the flight held up for an hour when all the baggage was unloaded from the plane, after a bomb scare when a passenger could not be traced. When they landed in Athens, they were greeted by a roar from an advance guard of Chelsea supporters waving banners and flags, chanting ‘We’re only here for the cup’.

The Kensington Post estimated that around 5,000 Chelsea supporters travelled out, of whom around 2,000 flew out with 4S Sport. Over 1,000 flew out from Luton on the day of the game, with one of those flights delayed twice, though in the end everyone got there on time. Some were booked to fly back on Thursday, the day after the game, and paid £36. Others went for a week, were not booked to fly back till the Sunday and paid £47. There were expected to be less than 2,000 Spaniards in a sell-out 45,000 crowd.

Supporters at Luton airport about to board their Athens flight

Those supporters unable to travel out were shocked when the FA vetoed the game being shown on live TV because, absurdly, the game clashed with an England v Wales game. ITV bid for the game but were rebuffed, ironically showing instead ‘I Spy: Night Train To Madrid’. As the Kensington Post pointed out, surely the relevant authorities could have liaised over the issue and the England game moved, or the rule waived, especially when it became clear that either Chelsea or Manchester City would be in the final. BBC were showing football highlights that night, but of the England game, not the action in Athens. An attempt to show the game live in West London cinemas was rebuffed by the same blinkered FA suits. In the end, the only way to follow the action was to listen to BBC Radio London with commentary by Michael Field with summariser Albert Sewell, Chelsea programme editor and later Match Of The Day statistical expect.

Chelsea supporters flying with 4S Sports to Athens

Because Panathinaikos were playing Ajax in the European Cup Final at Wembley a fortnight later, the Greek press asked locals to support Chelsea, hoping for reciprocity at Wembley. Madrid officials protested about this but as Sexton pointed out, neutrals often tended to support the team who entertained and impressed them more.

A group of Chelsea supporters enjoy the sights of Athens

Hollins passed a rigorous fitness test on the Monday, including a series of block tackles and slide tackles by assistant manager Ron Suart, and was declared fit to play by Medhurst. McCreadie, expected to be a substitute, was out with a broken nose suffered after a collision with Webb in training, but Osgood, Dempsey and Hudson were also fit to start. As expected, Bonetti was picked ahead of Phillips .In the absence of Hutchinson, Sexton resisted the temptation to start with hardworking forward Tommy Baldwin. The party visited the Karaiskakis Stadium the night before the game, not to train but just to inspect the pitch.

The Final – Glory Snatched Away

Chelsea lined up :- Bonetti; Boyle, Webb, Dempsey, Harris; Hollins, Hudson, Cooke; Weller, Osgood, Houseman. Substitutes: Phillips, Mulligan, Hinton, Baldwin, Smethurst.

Real included legendary 39-year-old winger Gento, a star of their five consecutive European Cup wins, as well as renowned and highly dangerous forward stars Pirri and Amancio. The English football press thought Chelsea would have too much energy and skill for their opponents, many of whom were at the veteran stage, their average age being 30, four years older than their opponents. Sexton had predicted a 2-1 victory for his side, who started strongly, urged on by their travelling thousands. Brief match highlights here

It fairly quickly became clear that the skills of Amancio, Velasquez, Zoco and Gento were causing Chelsea problems and that Hollins and Osgood were affected by the injuries they were carrying. The English side fought hard, winger cum midfielder Charlie Cooke became increasingly influential and their efforts were rewarded after 56 minutes when Osgood, who had had a quiet game to that point, controlled a rebounded Boyle pass, turned, and fired the ball left-footed past Borja. He celebrated by doing a somersault, and Boyle ran jubilantly down the pitch, fists clenched above his head. The English side were in total control but Keith Weller and Osgood, twice, missed good chances to wrap the game up.

Zoco and Fleitas missed chances, and it looked as though Chelsea had held out. Osgood’s slightly wrenched his other ankle, so he was replaced by the ever-hard-working Baldwin with two minutes to go. As the last seconds of normal time approached, the trophy was brought pitch-side, the Royal Guard ready for the presentation. Real played one last desperate ball forward, Dempsey agonizingly mis-controlled it and the ball went to Zoco, who fired home, just before Mr. Scheurer was ready to blow the final whistle. There were protestations that Zoco was offside, and indeed the linesman flagged, but nothing came of it. There was also, post-match, a complaint by official EUFA commissioner Barcs, who said that the equaliser had been scored two minutes after the end of time allowed for injury, but to no avail. Ironically, Mr. Barcs had been at the 1954 Chelsea v Red Banner friendly in his role as Hungarian FA President.

Chelsea’s disbelieving players, ten seconds from glory in a game they had controlled and thoroughly deserved to win, had to face extra-time. The Daily Mirror ‘Real Shock For Chelsea’ headline said it all. In the circumstances they did well to hold out as a revitalised Real stepped things up, Bonetti was called into action to save from Pirri and David Webb twice cleared off the line. Chelsea did not lie down, Dempsey had a header blocked and Weller shot just wide but, in the end, they had to play out time to ensure a replay. Bonetti, Webb and John Boyle were lauded for their extra-time heroics, earning their team a replay.

Sexton was bitterly disappointed but philosophical, pointing out his side had benefited from last-minute goals in the past. He said that they were surprised how well Real played, especially before half-time, and was proud his players did not wilt in extra-time after the late goal, given that they had worked themselves into the ground in 90 minutes and were not used to the heat and humidity. He praised Webb in particular, as did the Greek press, where he was dubbed Chelsea’s ‘trojan horse’. The manager told the Daily Express ‘they (the players) were really up against it in the last half-hour, but I felt they held out magnificently…They are ready to go’.

There was some criticism of Chelsea’s lack of flair and skill, Cooke excepted (Hudson had a relatively quiet night), but the team’s resilience was praised. Cooke was arguably Chelsea’s best player, and his influence should have helped his side to victory. The game was relatively clean, though Harris was booked.

Hollins’s knee problem meant he had to limp off for Paddy Mulligan at half-time in extra-time, Boyle moving very effectively into midfield, and was seen as very unlikely to make the replay, which was scheduled for the Friday, 48 hours later. Osgood was expected to be fit and knocks to Weller, Alan Hudson and Peter Houseman were not felt to be serious enough for them to miss the chance to put things right, but a Dempsey ankle injury was a worry.

England drew 0-0 with Wales in a dreadful game castigated in the papers and the loudest cheer all night was when Osgood’s goal was announced. Whether this made a point to the suits sitting high up in Wembley is not recorded.

The Replay Build-Up

The Daily Mail featured 14-year-old schoolboy Piers Fletcher, who saved up his paper round money to obtain the £39 necessary for flights, two nights in a hotel and a match ticket. Unfortunately he, like many of the other supporters, was booked to fly home before the replay and inflexible international rules meant that the date and time of cut-price charter flights must not be altered. Supporter Derek Glasspool, 27, was interviewed spoke for thousands of supporters when he said, ‘we are all heartbroken’. Some of the players sportingly went to the airport to see the dejected charter flight passengers off.

Many did reluctantly return home on the Thursday, though others, with nowhere to stay and fast-reducing money, stayed out in Greece regardless, sleeping on the beach and worrying later about how to get home. The Guardian reckoned only 30 or so were stranded in that way, but anecdotally the figure was probably a fair bit higher. Around 400 were booked on the longer trips so were ok, and others flew independently or, in some cases, drove or even hitchhiked, so possibly had more flexibility.

The team tried to relax on the Thursday, to rest, recuperate, and get over the previous night’s massive disappointment, in preparation for the following night. The players knew they had the beating of Real, but it remained to be seen what impact the late, late goal concession would have on morale and belief. Some players went shopping, others spent time with their wives, Baldwin, Cooke and Osgood sat by the hotel pool and drank, but one way or another the team put the draw out of their minds as Sexton worked to transform regret and frustration into burning desire.

If Dempsey’s troublesome ankle did not respond to treatment, then Marvin Hinton would have replaced him but in the end all of the players who were having treatment, including Osgood, were passed fit to play by Harry Medhurst, with one sad exception. A pain-killing jab was unsuccessful in enabling Hollins to play, giving the manager a dilemma as the injured midfielder’s spirit, ability and boundless energy was so fundamental to his team’s style of play. He could do what he did towards the end of the first game - bring in Mulligan at full-back and push Boyle up into midfield, a role he was experienced and highly competent in. The alternative was to bring in Baldwin, with Osgood moving back into midfield.

BBC1 showed the replay live, to the relief of those who had stayed at home and those forced to go home after the Wednesday game. The coverage replaced the superlatively unfunny ‘Me Mammy’ with Milo O’Shea. The injured Hollins was recruited to give the BBC TV audience a Chelsea perspective, but doing summarising work was small consolation for a man who had been such a key figure in Chelsea’s progression to the final. It was announced that if the tie were level after extra-time, the winners would be decided on penalties. Only 24,000 attended the replay, compared with the 45,000 who had been there on the Wednesday, including maybe 1,000 Chelsea supporters. Amancio opined before the replay ‘If we stop Cooke, we will win’ and manager Munoz made a similar point, forgetting that the likes of Hudson and Osgood were also proven matchwinners.

The Evening Standard felt that Chelsea were confident and Cooke, in the past not always the most disciplined of players, talked about the team’s willingness, under Sexton, ‘to get our heads down…working to get a result’ and felt that, though Real undoubtedly had players with great talent, Chelsea’s application and hard work would see them through. Chelsea had stepped up when it mattered in the FA Cup Final replay the previous year to pick up the trophy, and those supporters who had stayed out in Greece, and the hordes watching on TV, desperately hoped they could repeat the performance.

The Replay – Re-Demp-Tion

In the end Sexton, perhaps surprisingly, brought Baldwin into the side to play upfront, thereby presumably telling Osgood to play deeper. Many had assumed Sexton would want Boyle in midfield, as the closest replacement for Hollins. Osgood moving back would increase the creativity but potentially reduce the dynamism and bite. Giant reserve defender Micky Droy took Baldwin’s place on the bench. It was desperately hoped that Osgood could last the full game, something he had failed to do in his last four games. Pirri played in plaster for Real after breaking his hand in a collision with Bonetti in the first game.

Commenting on his team’s midfield, Sexton pointed out that the wingers (Weller and Houseman) would be expected to drop back and defend as required. Baldwin understandably was ‘over the moon’ at his inclusion, after a difficult and frustrating season where he was in and out of the side.

Chelsea started with a different formation, a 4-2-4, to that expected when the team was announced, presumably surprising their opponents. Osgood, often an isolated figure on the Wednesday, partnered Baldwin up front, with Weller and Houseman wide. Cooke therefore played more of a midfield role than many anticipated, alongside Hudson. Chelsea started sharply, Hudson, Cooke, Houseman and Weller all working hard, determined not to give the Real midfielders Pirri and Velazquez the space and time they enjoyed at times in the previous game. Baldwin gave his usual wholehearted performance, allowing Osgood the freedom to roam and try and exploit gaps in the Real defence.

Brief replay highlights here

Chelsea were quicker and more competitive, controlling the game and missing a couple of early chances through Osgood and Weller. They nearly paid for it when Harris brought down Amancio in the area, but referee Mr Buheli waved play on. Harris fouled the same player again, but the referee was once more uninterested. To balance things out, Hudson was knocked over by goalkeeper Borja but, once again, the referee took no action.

When Sexton’s side scored after 31 minutes, on the balance of play it was well deserved. A Houseman corner was headed by Dempsey and punched out by Borja, under pressure from Webb, back to the Irishman, who hammered a volley that flew straight back past him and into the net. It was only the centre-back’s fifth Chelsea goals in 105 appearances, and what a time to score it and banish memories of his last-second error in the first game.

Six minutes later, gloriously for those supporters who had stayed out in Athens and the millions watching at home, the score was 2-0. Harris passed to Baldwin who gave it to Osgood. He sent a posse of defenders the wrong way and superbly fired the ball home from the edge of the penalty area through a narrow gap. Two-up, Chelsea just needed to continue as they had been playing and the cup would be theirs. Cooke, fouled by Grosso, retaliated and there was a melee in the middle of the pitch, but events of this kind were rare, despite the stakes being so high.

Osgood celebrates his replay goal

Real started pressing more after half-time, unsurprisingly, and it was all hands to the tiller at times. Osgood did his share at the back when necessary but was clearly tiring. However, with the inexperienced Derek Smethurst the only forward on the bench, Sexton held on replacing him. Smethurst had done very well when called on that season, with five goals in sixteen appearances, but it would still be a major step up for him. How Sexton must have wished he had the workhorse Hutchinson in his side. Osgood did not watch the remainder of the game from the bench, instead heading to the dressing room for a shower.

The dynamic was changing, Real were seeing more of the ball and it was no shock when, with fifteen minutes left, Fleitas pulled a goal back for them after an excellent run, beating Bonetti at the near post. Sexton immediately brought on Smethurst for the exhausted Osgood, who had led the line heroically but was basically shattered as well as suffering pain in both ankles, Gento, dropped after the first game, went on for Real as they stepped up the pressure. Amancio’s shot was half-saved by Bonetti, Webb clearing as the ball spun back towards the striker who was poised to net the rebound, and Zoco’s header was superbly saved by Bonetti, but keeper and defence held firm until Mr Buheli blew the final whistle.

Delirious Chelsea supporters celebrate on the pitch, including Malcolm Carle, still a home and away regular

Jubilant, flag-waving Chelsea supporters immediately invaded the pitch and they, and other travelling Blues, joined the victorious players on a prolonged, euphoric lap of honour, waving the trophy they had worked so hard for. Sexton’s side had done it, holding on and banishing the bleak memories of 48 hours earlier. They had brought home Chelsea’s first European trophy, defeated the mighty Real Madrid and, by winning, qualified for the following season’s competition.

Boyle and Harris with the cup

Harris chaired by jubilant team-mates

The Aftermath

The whole side deserved enormous credit. Bonetti, as ever, was a top-class mix of dependability and agility. The defence was resolute, the tenacity of Boyle and Harris, Webb’s never-say-die spirit and Dempsey’s calmness were all so important. Cooke’s ability to run with the ball, Baldwin’s unquenchable appetite for hard work, Hudson’s skills, the hard work of Weller and Houseman, the drive of Osgood all played their crucial part, the absence of Hollins not felt as much as was feared, and enormous compliment to the players and to Sexton’s faith in the side, and formation, he selected. Chelsea were given thirteen medals. Twelve went to those who played in the replay with the final one destined for Hollins, who had played 56 games that season and done so much to get the side to Athens. This was very unlucky for Mulligan, who was substitute in the first game.

Sexton was understandably absolutely elated. He told the Daily Express ‘We set out to take the initiative…Yes we had to fight for it but in the end, we fought harder than Real….the way our boys never faltered made me proud of them.’ Bernard Joy, in the Evening Standard, felt ‘for an hour Chelsea gave the best displays against the maestros of Madrid that I have seen from a British club.’ He gave especial praise to Hudson and Cooke. Sometimes seen as luxury players, that night they worked their socks off. The superior fitness, after a sixty-match season, enabled them to play two games in 48 hours and never slacken. A superb achievement.

In the moment of great triumph (his greatest, as it turned out), Sexton reflected that ‘our ambition is to win the Football League Championship.’ He thought his side well equipped to do so. His squad strength was certainly impressive, with nineteen different players used in the European campaign. Real manager Munoz complained that Harris’s challenge on Amancio warranted a penalty, but realistically his team were beaten by a fitter, more competitive and more cohesive side.

The press was keen to stress what a great season it had been for London, with Arsenal winning the double and Tottenham Hotspur the League Cup and, indeed, it certainly put paid to Leeds United boss Don Revie’s ‘Southern Softies’ jibe. Chelsea supporters could not care less what other London clubs had done domestically, their team had won a European trophy and won it the hard way. It was, at that point, the greatest night in the club’s 66 year history and, arguably, remained so until Munich 2012.

The victorious players celebrated late and loud in the roof garden bar of the Hilton Hotel. Hugh McIlvanney of The Observer was with them and spoke them as they knocked back Cuba Libre’s, their drink of choice that night. They were unanimous in their praise for, as he pointed out, ‘two utterly contrasting footballers’ Cooke and Webb. McIlvanney put it nicely when he felt Webb did most to save the tie (especially extra-time in the first game and late in the replay), and Cooke did most to win it. Osgood admiringly commented ‘When Chas (Cooke) is in that mood, he is one of the best footballers that ever played.’ McIlvanney closed his article with a pithy observation. ‘Chelsea reminded us in Athens that the highest rewards can still be won by flair and grace and boldness.’ Indeed. Of the fourteen players who played a part in one or both games, seven (Bonetti, Boyle, Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Osgood and Houseman) had all come through the club’s junior system, a wonderful achievement.

The eighteen-man squad got a trophy-winning bonus of £1,500 each, despite the original agreed bonus being just £200. Chairman Brian Mears was happy to pay, partly because it was estimated by the Sunday People that the club would make over £115,000 from the whole European adventure. A delighted Boyle, whose mum went to both games, changed shirts with the legendary Gento, who offered to swap at the replay’s final whistle, and wore it on the lap of honour.

Supporters packed the King’s Road and the Fulham Road as soon as the final whistle went in Athens, the police later praising their behaviour and good spirits. They also filled the fountains in Sloane Square.

The hungover, sleep-lacking squad flew home the following day to a predictably rapturous reception from supporters waiting at Heathrow Airport and were cheered all the way to their civic reception at Fulham Old Town Hall, just down the Fulham Road from Stamford Bridge. After the cup was paraded to packed crowds on an open-top bus and the Chelsea party disappeared into the Town Hall, supporters waited for the team to appear on the balcony. Sadly, Fulham Police head Chief Supt. Henry Porter refused to allow it, worried about a crush similar to that which occurred the previous year at the FA Cup Final celebrations.

Supporters wait for the open-top bus to arrive

Euphoric Chelsea chairman Brian Mears stressed ‘Sexton is the best manager Chelsea ever had.’ He also told mayor Gordon Field ‘This is the second time in 13 months that you have honoured us – and I think we ought to make this an annual fixture’. Unfortunately, it was to be a quarter-century before a similar event was held, though nobody could have foreseen this at the time.

The players enjoy their open-top bus journey

The players inside the Town Hall after the parade

Sexton was at Chelsea another three years, though a declining team and a lack of financial resources to strengthen the squad meant that he did not win any more trophies, and Athens was undoubtedly his finest hour.

This piece is a draft of a chapter in an as-yet-untitled book Tim Rolls is writing on Chelsea in Europe from Moscow Dynamo in 1945 to Athens in 1971. All being well, the book, which features memories of a number of supporters who travelled to Athens, will be out in Spring 2025. Details as to how to purchase it will be publicised nearer the time.

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1 commentaire

Roger Asling
Roger Asling
19 mai 2023

yes ! i was there 4s .had to come home on the thursday because of work though, watched the replay in a pub in the fulham road. very small TV ! in black & white. but did we celebrate hell we did !

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