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Harris's Only Dismissal Mars Win In Goldstone Brawl

In January 1973 Chelsea were a side, and a club, under pressure. A chastening 3-0 aggregate defeat to Second Division Norwich City in the League Cup semi-final was coupled with a disappointing eighth place in Division One, a massive fourteen points behind leaders Liverpool.

They had drawn Wednesday night’s opponents Brighton and Hove Albion away in the FA Cup and were sixth favourites for the competition at 16-1, in their only realistic chance of winning a trophy. Reaching the last sixteen eight times in the past ten seasons meant Chelsea could approach the competition with a degree of confidence, but going into the game Chelsea had won just one of their last ten games, their worst run under manager Dave Sexton and star striker Peter Osgood had scored just once in eight games. Brighton were in even worse shape, with ten successive defeats and marooned five points clear at the bottom of Division Two. Chelsea were expected to win comfortably and were well rested, the previous week's game at Manchester City called off due to fog.

When the clubs met in the 1967 competition, the Goldstone Ground was packed with 35,000 present but this time there were only 29,200 in the ground, with supporters able to pay on the gate, and the Evening Standard reported that Chelsea had sent back 3,000 tickets.

An ambitious stadium redevelopment programme was under way at Chelsea. A three-tier East Stand was already under construction, and it was not entirely clear where the money to pay for it would come from. On the day of the game, a Daily Mail back page article put the club’s off-pitch issues on the line and made it clear the imperative of a financially rewarding cup run, a situation Sexton was all too aware of. They reported that ‘Chelsea travel to Brighton to face the climax of a crisis...Defeat would be little short of a financial disaster for Chelsea in the season in which they have launched the building of a £5 million superstadium at Stamford Bridge. The clatter of £50-£100,000 into the coffers from a run to Wembley would be very welcome’.

Injuries deprived Sexton of Peter Bonetti, Eddie McCreadie, Micky Droy, Ian Hutchinson and Peter Houseman. His side lined up in red shirts :- Phillips; Locke, Dempsey, Webb, Harris; Hollins, Hudson, Kember; Baldwin, Osgood, Garner.

In 1967 John Boyle had been sent off for Chelsea and another fiery encounter was anticipated. What nobody expected was just how fiery it would turn out.

Within ten seconds the visitors had the ball in the net, but Bill Garner’s drive was disallowed, presumably for a foul on keeper Brian Powney. Brighton then missed a couple of chances and Osgood, Garner and Steve Kember went close before, on the quarter-hour, Alan Hudson’s free-kick was converted on the volley by Osgood, the defence appealing in vain for offside.

Home midfielder Eddie Spearritt was booked for a bad tackle on Hudson and Chelsea were generally in control of play. John Hollins and Kember both had chances to double the lead and on the hour the pressure told when Osgood smartly volleyed home his second goal from a Tommy Baldwin cross. It seemed as though Chelsea would comfortably see the game out, indeed, no more goals were scored. There was, however, certainly no shortage of incident as the game descended into ‘Seventeen Minutes Of Madness’.

After 73 minutes, Ron Harris was sent off for allegedly hitting Spearritt in the mouth off the ball, though he furiously denied it, and indeed still does. He complained to the Daily Mail ‘I know I’ve been in trouble before, but only for dangerous tackles and tackling from behind. I’ve never chinned anyone or anything like that. That’s not me … I didn’t hit Spearritt. He made it look bad’. Sexton backed him up, opining ‘I felt Spearritt violently over-reacted’ and ‘there could have been a bit of acting’. It was, perhaps surprisingly, Harris’s first sending off in England, and he made it clear he intended to appeal.

Harris Trudges Off

All sense of self-discipline left a number of the players, on both sides. Brighton full-back George Ley fouled Baldwin and, when Osgood remonstrated, punched him in the face. Osgood’s comment to the Daily Mirror later hardly covered him in glory. ‘What incensed me was his tackle on Tommy. I went over to him and got a punch in the mouth. I shouldn’t have gone down really. It didn’t hurt all that much and, after all, we are all in this game together’. Ley left for an early bath and Osgood was booked. The latter then wound up the home support by trudging off as though dismissed, then spinning round and walking back onto the pitch laughing. Given the excellence of his two goals, and his all-round performance, this mockery was probably the last straw for Brighton supporters.

Baldwin had a late goal bafflingly disallowed after an excellent move involving Osgood and Garner. Despite the dismissals, the on-pitch feuding continued unabated. In the end, as well as the two dismissals there were five bookings (including Osgood, Kember and David Webb), a count almost unheard of fifty years ago. When the final whistle brought an end to the incidents, referee Peter Reeves and his linesmen required protection from six policemen as they left the pitch.

In terms of the result, Chelsea went through to Round Four fairly comfortably, where they were drawn to face Ipswich Town. They certainly deserved to win, and the likes of man-of-the-match Osgood, Hudson and Garner gave strong performances, but all the headlines were about the on-pitch indiscipline, ‘Chelsea In Brawl’ and ‘Harris Bust-Up’ being typical.

Brief match highlights from The Big Match can be found here  and longer footage of the whole programme here Harris was suspended for three matches, later reduced to two on appeal. Sadly, those were against Arsenal in the FA Cup Sixth Round, Chelsea losing the replay 2-1. That controversial Brighton incident remains his only dismissal for the club in a competitive game (he was sent off twice in overseas friendlies).

Brighton were duly relegated, Chelsea finished twelfth. Their next trip to Brighton was a lively affair in September 1983 en route to promotion, but that is another story…

Tim Rolls.

This is an expanded version of an extract from 'Stamford Bridge Is Falling Down', available on eBay and Amazon.

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