It was April 1984. After four grim seasons of misery and disappointment, Chelsea finally looked as though promotion back to Division One should become a reality. John Neal’s wonderfully astute signings the previous summer, including Eddie Niedzwiecki, Joe McLaughlin, Nigel Spackman, Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin allied to club stalwarts like Colin Pates and John Bumstead, had started the season on fire. Despite a few hiccups, they had been at or near the top of the table for most of the season. They were unbeaten in the League for nine games, stretching back to the New Year.
Fulham had missed out on promotion by a point the previous season, amidst great controversy about a last-game defeat at Derby where the referee blew the final whistle early after a pitch invasion. That massive setback seemed to deeply affect them at the start of the season and they were in the relegation zone at Christmas, though they were midtable when they visited Stamford Bridge on April 7th, having lost just one of their previous fifteen League games, so were in decent form. Chelsea had won a spectacular game 5-3 at Craven Cottage the previous October, wonderful entertainment for the packed away end.
Neal’s side went into the home game on 66 points from 34 games, level on points with Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle, though the former had two games in hand. Carlisle were fourth, six points away, so with eight games to go Chelsea were looking a decent bet to go up, though without a huge margin for error. Victory over Fulham, though, was essential to keep pace with the other title contenders. The previous week the spirit in the side was amply demonstrated when they scored three goal in the last ten minutes to turn what looked like a 3-0 spanking into a highly creditable (under the circumstances) 3-3 draw at Cardiff.
The Fulham game was given an edge when midfielder Ray Lewington publicly criticised his old club in the run up to the game, saying they did not deserve to top the table and that Wednesday were the best side in the division. Talk in the papers was of a huge crowd, with chairman Ken Bates enthusing to the Evening Standard about 40,000 turning up, and planning with the police to cope with that crowd.
The papers on the day of the game reported that Colin Pates had been appointed captain as Tony McAndrew had been left out of the side for John Bumstead, who returned to the starting line-up after a lengthy spell out with a back injury.
Neal put out his full-strength line-up :– Niedzwiecki; Lee, Pates, McLaughlin, Jones; Bumstead, Spackman; Nevin, Dixon, Speedie, Thomas.
Fulham lined up :- Peyton; Parker, Hopkins, Gale, Carr; Tempest, Lewington, Houghton; Davies, Coney, Rosenior. Of that side, Lewington had keen a key member of Eddie McCreadie's 1976/77 promotion side and Gerry Peyton, Paul Parker and Gordon Davies would all later play for Chelsea.
In front of 31,947 supporters, the second biggest Stamford Bridge crowd of the season at that point but well below what Bates hoped for, a fired-up Chelsea stormed into the lead in less than a minute through Kerry Dixon, diverting home a Colin Lee shot.
Kerry Dixon opens the scoring in the first minute
Staying on the front foot with ‘angry, aggressive football’, David Speedie volleyed a second after 19 minutes after good work by Mickey Thomas. Bumstead crossed for Dixon to head a third before half-time as a rampant Chelsea embarrassed Malcolm MacDonald’s side. A Thomas shot was deflected home off Pat Nevin, or possibly Fulham defender Paul Parker (reports differed), as Chelsea completely dominated their not-so-noisy neighbours. Speedie, voted Man Of the Match by the Fulham Chronicle, and Joey Jones were both booked as Chelsea’s two spikiest players again demonstrated their 100% commitment.
Assistant manager John Hollins used the scornful comments of Fulham players in his pre-match talk, which apparently culminated with ‘Right, let’s stuff it up them’. A jubilant Speedie afterwards stressed how riled and motivated he and his team-mates had been. He told the Daily Mirror ‘I was determined to ram what they said back in their throats…I just wanted to hurt them…They said we were wide open at the back but they were just hopeless’.
A delighted Neal purred ‘That’s the stuff to give the fans. I don’t think we’ll get the promotion jitters now.’ MacDonald admitted ‘we got our backsides kicked’, calling the first goal ‘a comedy of errors’ and a presumably chastened Lewington observed ‘they just bombed us. In the first 10 minutes it was just incredible. They’ll go up now, there’s no doubt about it.’
Chelsea had now scored 73 goals in 35 league games, the best in the top two divisions. From that point Chelsea won six and drew one of their remaining seven games and won the title on goal difference from Sheffield Wednesday. MacDonald left Fulham that month, the side eventually finishing eleventh. As Chelsea quickly established themselves as a top-six Division One club, Fulham were relegated two seasons later.
That Chelsea side was exciting, swashbuckling and charismatic and the players, and late manager, are still revered by supporters almost forty years later. In six games they scored four or more goals and in total they scored 90 League goals, crucial as they won the title on goal difference.
We are in the unusual position of Fulham being above Chelsea in the table when the sides meet. It is doubtful whether Chelsea can win as comfortably as they did 39 years ago, though with the new blood in the squad who knows? If the new signings gell as effectively and excitingly as those Neal brought in 40 years ago then we are in for an exciting ride...