It was early October 1981. Chelsea were spending their third season in the Second Division with a young, workmanlike side and no money to improve it. Home crowds were a worry, only 9,700 turning out to watch a Monday night game with Orient in late September. As a break from the hoped-for promotion push, new manager John Neal’s side faced a daunting two-legged League Cup-tie against Southampton – Kevin Keegan, Alan Ball, Mick Channon and all. They were seventh in the First Division and off the back of a 4-3 win against UEFA Cup holders Ipswich Town, coming back from 3-1 down at half-time. Chelsea had also played an East Anglian side the previous weekend, contriving to lose 1-0 at Cambridge United, but still retaining fifth place in the Second Division.
Chelsea’s recent record in the League Cup was less than impressive. A two-legged defeat by Cardiff City the previous season, by Plymouth Argyle the season before. Not since 1976 had they actually qualified for the third round. They had also been summarily knocked out of the previous season’s FA Cup in the third round at The Dell, 3-1.
The trip there on October 6th was not faced with great confidence by many of the support who filled the away end. The Evening Standard talked about injuries to Mickey Droy, Dennis, Rofe, John Bumstead, Phil Driver and Clive Walker, meaning that Ian Britton, for his first game of the season, and Colin Viljoen were recalled. There was no mention of the fact that regular goalkeeper Petar Borota was suffering from a rib injury.
When we got into the ground the keeper warming up was not Borota, or his normal deputy Bob Iles but a youngster I, and many others in the away end, did not recognise. It was not till the team was announced that it became clear that it was Steve Francis, a 17-year-old youth product, who had only played a few youth games. It turned out Borota was indeed injured and Neal had presumably kept his options open, and the news quiet, till the last possible minute. Having been out shopping, Francis had been phoned at home at midday to be told to report to Stamford Bridge immediately, as both senior keepers were unfit, Iles going down with flu. To be honest he looked even younger than 17 and we were filled with dread at the prospect of what was to come.
The Saints lined up :- Wells; Golac, Watson, Waldron, Holmes; Baker, Ball, Armstrong; Keegan, Channon, Moran.
Chelsea’s weakened side :- Francis; Locke, Pates, Chivers, Hutchings; Viljoen, Fillery, Britton; Rhoades-Brown, Lee, Mayes.
The gap in class seemed obvious before kick-off, but the game itself turned out differently to the way many anticipated. In front of 16,900 spectators, the hosts took a lead when Keegan bundled the ball in after 18 minutes. The Chelsea players were convinced he had used his arm but referee Stephen Bates did not, and gave the goal. Not discouraged by this perceived injustice, the visitors grew back into the game and as it progressed, Peter Wells gradually became the busier keeper. Though Neal admitted afterwards how nervous Francis was at the start, the rookie keeper dealt confidently with the challenges thrown at him.
Debutant Francis organises his defence
In the second-half Chelsea were on top and justice was done after 55 minutes when Mike Fillery hit home an Alan Mayes pass, after clever work by Viljoen. On top for much of the remainder of the game and arguably deserving to win, the visitors were by no means flattered with the draw.
At the end of the game, reported the Daily Mail, hundreds of Chelsea supporters invaded the pitch, chanting Neal’s name. So starved of success, for the travelling hordes the result was certainly worthy of celebration. The second leg was likely to be very tough, though, as Southampton would certain not under-estimate their opponents and would obviously be keen to proceed in the competition.
Francis, the ‘outstanding’ Fillery and the whole team were praised in the press, and the whole club got a lift. Midfielder Fillery was Chelsea’s most talented player in those days, but did not always prove it. That night he did.
The second-leg was not for three weeks. Chelsea beat Wrexham at Stamford Bridge, drew at Leicester and lost at home to Barnsley in that time, with home crowds hovering around the 15,000 mark. Southampton lost 4-2 at home to Sporting Lisbon in the Fairs Cup, which, with their setback against Chelsea, must have given their confidence a jolt as they faced the second leg but increased their determination to go through.
The return game was the biggest occasion at Stamford Bridge since relegation in 1979. My friends and I actually got to the ground a bit early, something you rarely needed to do in those days. 27,370 turned out on a night of heavy winds, the best crowd at Stamford Bridge so far that season by 7,300, the vast majority there to cheer on The Blues. It showed the latent support was certainly there if only the club could have a modicum of success.
Fit-again Borota and Bumstead had come back into the home side since the first-leg for Francis and Britton Britton and Clive Walker, out of favour for over a month, recalled for Mayes. Ball was missing for Southampton.
On a wet pitch, Chelsea started on top, with Walker and Peter Rhodes-Brown impressing, but just before the half-hour Gary Locke had to go off with a fractured cheekbone after colliding with Channon. He was replaced by Droy, with Gary Chivers switching to right-back. A minute later, Walker headed home a Viljoen free-kick, a goal greeted with the biggest roar heard at the Bridge for some time.
Walker gives Chelsea the lead...
... And duly celebrates
After half-time Southampton’s quality began to show through and, after Chelsea battled bravely to hold onto their lead, five minutes from the end Steve Moran equalised after Channon headed the ball back from a position the Chelsea players were convinced was behind the touchline.
The supporters rallied behind the team as extra-time started and after 95 minutes Fillery headed home a Walker cross, the trigger for wild terrace celebrations. The team deservedly hung on for a famous victory (all things are relative) as an ‘ecstatic’ crowd celebrated with a euphoric pitch invasion. The biggest attendance of the season so far saw the best performance of the season so far. It was to Neal’s enormous credit that his side thoroughly earned their two-legged victory. This game must have brought home to him exactly what a successful side could do in terms of creating an atmosphere at Stamford Bridge.
The talented if enigmatic Fillery again impressed, and it is a regret that he never really fulfilled his potential at Chelsea, moved on to QPR for £200,000 in the summer of 1983 when Neal brought in a host of new players who almost overnight transformed the fortunes of the club. Neal was also impressed by the recalled Walker, praising his attitude and hard work.
It would be nice to recall that Chelsea used the impetus from that win against top opposition to push on. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Far from it. Three days later they travelled to Rotherham where the same side that finished against Southampton (Locke needing an operation on his cheekbone) contrived to lose 6-0 at Rotherham, arguably the worst league result in the club's history. They could keep Channon and Keegan quiet but somehow let journeyman Rod Fern score a hat-trick. Ten days after that, they were unceremoniously dumped out of the League Cup 4-2 at Fourth Division Wigan.
Chelsea finished the season in a mediocre 12th place, though there was huge consolation in beating European Champions Liverpool 2-0 in the FA Cup Fifth Round before going out 2-3 in the Quarter-Final to Tottenham at a highly-charged Stamford Bridge. The average home League crowd that season was a mere 13,100, and the highest was just 20,000 (early in the season, against Watford).
Ken Bates bought the club in April 1982. What was clear to all, and most definitely to Bates, was that if the team performed the crowds would return. A classic case of a sleeping giant. It took until late 1983, after the die-hards endured the appalling 1982-83 season which nearly culminated in relegation to Division Three, but return the crowds did.
Next weekend’s game will be less of an occasion and the pressure will certainly be on Chelsea, who apart from James Ward-Prowse, will have the class players on view in their side. Very different from 40 years ago.