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I’m Afraid We Don’t Have A Shirt Quite Big Enough, Dr Kissinger

It was December 1976. Off the pitch, they were real dog days for Chelsea FC. A financial morass, years in the making, was sufficiently deep that collection buckets at home games and on away specials were used as part of the supporter-led Cash For Chelsea initiative, raising desperately needed funds to help keep the club going. This nightmare scenario meant manager Eddie McCreadie had no money to spend on players, relying instead on a group of homegrown youngsters, augmented by a few veterans, to negotiate the club back into Division One, which the club had ignominiously left two seasons earlier. Those self-same players offered to take a pay cut to help the club, an extraordinarily selfless gesture given they were hardly on massive salaries to start with.

On the pitch, the situation was much, much brighter. Led by midfield general Ray Wilkins, only twenty but already capped by England, McCreadie’s side had topped Division Two since late September despite fielding a regular starting line-up featuring nine youngsters. Only veteran Peter Bonetti remained from the glory days at the start of the decade (fellow long-time loyalist Ron Harris was the regular substitute) and centre-back David Hay was the only starter to cost a transfer fee.

The supporters were behind the players to an extraordinary extent, one I have not seen since. That was my first season regularly watching Chelsea and the spine-tingling volume and passion of our support, particularly away, was in retrospect astonishing. I know there was a similar feeling about John Neal’s 1983/84 team, but McCreadie’s side were homegrown, the club was in very real danger of going bust and the backs-to-the-wall spirit of both team and support is probably unique in Chelsea’s history.

Wolves visit to Stamford Bridge on 11th December promised to be a crucial game in determining how the season went for both sides. The visitors were fourth but, along with their hosts, two of the favourites for promotion.

Defeat at Sheffield United and a hard-fought draw at Southampton represented a slight blip, so Chelsea went into the game needing a bit of a lift, though they had a superb run of nine home wins in a row to boost confidence.

The match programme, remarkably, included an advert for the first British punk single, ‘New Rose’ by The Damned. The game was a week after the Bill Grundy affair, when the Sex Pistols achieved instant notoriety on live TV, so the 'must we fling this filth at our pop kids?' punk moral panic was in full swing. The match programme also included a list of club shop items purchasable by mail order. These included ‘Chelsea team shirts’, which only went up to size 38”. Obviously fewer supporters possessed a ‘fuller figure’ in those days.

Not your normal late 1976 match programme ad

Unexpected visitors to the Director’s Box that day were ex-goalkeeper and US Secretary Of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, quite literally one of the most famous men in the world at that point and in the UK for talks on Rhodesia, and UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Crosland. A step down from Raquel Welch’s appearance a few years back, possibly, but enough to get pictures of Kissinger, Chelsea Chairman Brian Mears and his wife June in a number of national newspapers.

An eclectic director's box including Henry Kissinger, front right, and Anthony Crosland, back right

Chelsea ran out in front of 36,137 expectant spectators though, remembering how packed The Shed was, and looking at the footage, that seems a surprisingly small total. They lined up :- Bonetti; Locke, Wicks, Hay, G. Wilkins; Britton, Lewington, R. Wilkins, Stanley; Finnieston, Swain. Sub. Harris.

The visitors had been defeated just once in their last six visits to Stamford Bridge and included in their side regular thorns-in-Chelsea’s-side John Richards and Kenny Hibbitt. The game was shown on London Weekend Television and, even nearly half a century on, makes compelling viewing. Highlights can be seen here. There seem to be a sad lack of action photographs from that day available.

The pitch was part-frozen, part-soft, which hardly helped the players, and both penalty areas were heavily sanded. Leading scorer Steve Finnieston hit the post before Richards, almost inevitably, put Wolves ahead after 17 minutes. Ray Wilkins headed an equaliser minutes later after a dreadful defensive mix-up.

Ray Wilkins heads the equaliser from a couple of feet out

Alan Sunderland had a goal for the visitors ruled out for offside before Bobby Gould, within a few years No.2 to manager Geoff Hurst at Chelsea, put Wolves in front before half-time. When Richards headed his second with 20 minutes to go it looked as though the home run had come to a dismal end. Chelsea turned up the pressure, attacking with ‘such committed finesse that defeat would have been a devastating injustice’ according to Julie Welch in The Observer. The crowd remained behind them, and after Ray Lewington had hit the post Ian Britton, the smallest man on the pitch, headed home a Ray Wilkins corner with ten minutes to go.

The home side cranked up the pressure even more, the support got even more raucous and urgent and six minutes later, amid frenzied noise, Finnieston equalised from almost on the line (accidentally with his arm, he admitted later) after keeper Gary Pearce, nursing a damaged finger, pushed a Garry Stanley header onto the bar following another Wilkins corner. Cue absolute bedlam among the home support and joyous celebration among the players.

Ken Swain celebrates Steve Finnieston's equaliser

Despite frantic urgings by the crowd, a winner was not forthcoming, but, in the circumstances the draw was very welcome and duly celebrated, the home support drifting down to the tube queue happy. Although a point had been dropped, the psychological effect of coming back against one of the best sides in the division, and the never-say-die spirit demonstrated, could not be underestimated. As a relieved McCreadie commented ‘my lads just don’t know when to lie down’. He also presciently felt that Wolves ‘are the best side we have played this season, but they are not as good as we are. They have got nothing to worry about – they will go back to the First Division with us’. The home record was safe and, in the end, the team went through the League season without a home defeat, on their way to promotion. A promotion that was sealed, ironically, at Molineux the following May, when Wolves clinched the title.

45 years on, many Chelsea supporters lucky enough to watch that side that season still feel a special bond with those players, as the 2017 book launch for ‘Eddie Mac, Eddie Mac’, featuring McCreadie and most of his squad, so poignantly proved. There were a number of epic games that momentous season but, of the home ones, that was arguably the best.

Tim Rolls has written three books covering Chelsea’s history from 1961-75. They are available on eBay and Amazon, as well as from the cfcuk stall before home matches

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