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Lights Out, Schools Out and (eventually) Preston Are Out

January 1969. After a comfortable 2-0 home win over Carlisle United in Round Three of the FA Cup, Chelsea were drawn away at Division Two side Preston North End in Round Four. Pre-season, Chelsea had been widely seen as serious title contenders, but their League form had been frustratingly inconsistent, with just five home wins in thirteen Division One games. They were in fifth place after defeats to Manchester City and leaders Liverpool, a gaping seven points off fourth place and thirteen off top spot. Hence that Deepdale cup-tie became even more important, in an attempt to salvage something from a season blighted by shock European elimination by DWS Amsterdam and League Cup defeat by Division Two side Derby County.

Around 3,000 travelling supporters made the trip to Lancashire on Saturday 25th January for Chelsea’s first FA Cup-tie at Deepdale since 1908, a crowd of 31,875 paying receipts of £8,542. Chelsea Sup[porters Club ran a remarkable 29 coaches up.

Stewart Houston made a rare Chelsea start, coming in at right-back, Eddie McCreadie moving to the other flank and recent right-back John Hollins reverting to his preferred midfield position. John Dempsey had just joined Chelsea but could not play, despite a bout of flu meaning he had not been cup-tied with Fulham, because in those days new signings were ineligible to appear in the FA Cup for fourteen days.

Chelsea lined up :- Bonetti; McCreadie, Webb, Harris, Houston; Osgood, Hollins, Boyle; Tambling, Birchenall, Cooke. Sub: Houseman.

The result was an uninspiring 0-0 draw though the dominant visitors would have won but for the wonderful goalkeeping of Alan Kelly and a number of missed chances, with a David Webb header being disallowed. Chelsea seemed almost to set up as though happy with a draw and Peter Osgood afterwards commented that ‘our orders were to keep it tight at the back and wait for a break, but we found it easier than we expected.’  

David Webb heads home at Deepdale but the goal is ruled out

The Observer’s ‘Casual Chelsea’ headline spoke volumes as they failed to impose their superiority. They opined that ‘Chelsea needed a sense of urgency, not complacency’ and thought star man Osgood seemed wasted in midfield, though supporter Barry Holmes recalls a superb ‘long, mazy run …which reminded me of his early days before he broke his leg’ but after beating four men he shot just wide. Seven visiting players were hurt in a brutal encounter, including the unfortunate Birchenall who was twice kicked in the head. Osgood collided with Webb and damaged his thigh. Highlights were shown on Match Of The Day, though no footage seems to survive.

Willie Irvine of Preston and a Chelsea posse queue up to talk to Mr Burns

It was generally assumed that the replay four days later would be a straightforward affair for Chelsea. Preston returned 2,000 seat tickets and Chelsea delayed selling them at Stamford Bridge until two hours before kick-off, in an attempt to prevent them falling into the hands of touts.

The game has gone down in club history and is still remembered by those present 55 years later, but not for positive reasons. The only line-up change saw young centre-forward Ian Hutchinson, fresh from scoring twice in the reserves against Tottenham, come into the side for the injured John Boyle, and he duly glanced a header past Kelly after 35 minutes from a Charlie Cooke corner. Alan Birchenall put Chelsea two up early in the second half, firing home after Osgood had flicked on a Bobby Tambling corner.

Hutch (No.9) heads home to give Chelsea the lead. Alas...

With 16 minutes left the home side were dominant and apparently coasting, though Osgood had to limp off to be replaced by Peter Houseman. Then, without warning, the floodlights then suddenly flickered and dimmed. Referee Ken Burns hesitated a moment and waved play on but a minute later the lights down the East Stand side went off, leaving the pitch in semi-darkness. Burns led the teams off to understandable jeers from bemused and frustrated supporters. Shortly afterwards the PA announcer said ‘we are doing what we can to put things right’ so the crowd cheered and hung around but, after a desperate attempt to fix the problem, the match had to be abandoned, hugely frustrating for the 44,239 spectators who had paid £16,142.

The lights go out

The Players leave the pitch

Dave Sexton and Eddie McCreadie make their point to Mr Burns. Preston manager Bobby Seith looks on

Hutchinson’s first senior goal for Chelsea was therefore chalked off. It was also supposedly Peter Bonetti’s 400th first-team game, which would now be the forthcoming visit to Southampton. Rightly incandescent home manager Dave Sexton commented ‘this is terrible luck…in a match that was clearly ours.’ An investigation revealed there had been a fire in the main junction box in the main gate forecourt caused by overheating, damaging cables which were which were understandably irreparable that night. The incident was extremely embarrassing for the club, though a formal FA inquiry did not take place. The fire was apparently discovered by Chelsea secretary John Battersby. Luckily, new fire extinguishers had been delivered that day and soon put the fire out.

The Daily Mirror ran a ‘Chelsea’s Bonus For Lucky 5,000’ headline with Battersby bemoaning the fact that season-ticket-holders would not have to buy replay tickets and that the club would have to contribute the balance to the receipts to ensure Preston and the FA got their proper share. The fault clearly ultimately lay with the club, but shamefully there was no apology, let alone recompense, for the other 39,000 spectators who had paid good money and would have to pay more good money to watch the rearranged tie, assuming they could get there.

Because the floodlights could not be guaranteed to work, the rearranged game was duly scheduled for 15.00 the following Monday afternoon, meaning many supporters would in theory be unable to attend. In theory.

February started with a trip to Southampton followed, 48 hours later, by the rearranged Preston replay. Boyle, Cooke, Osgood, Houseman and Tommy Baldwin were all injured for the Southampton game and doubtful for the cup-tie. Dempsey made his debut, and 20-year-old Hutchinson made his first appearance since October, the abandoned Preston replay not appearing in the record books, though Sexton had praised his performance that day. Also making his Chelsea first-team debut at The Dell was hugely-promising 17-year-old midfielder Alan Hudson. Chelsea found themselves 3-0 down at half-time, eventually lucky to escape with a humiliating 5-0 defeat after 90 minutes of disjointed ineptitude. The Daily Telegraph thought Hudson showed confidence and control on his debut, and felt sympathy for him, for making it in ‘such a mass of mediocrity.’ Not ideal preparation for the replay two days later.

Hutchinson suffered bad bruising to both of his kidneys and his hip after a sustained hammering from the notoriously physical Southampton defence and hence missed the Preston replay. After fitness tests, Osgood, Boyle, Webb and Cooke all came in for another momentous cup-tie as Chelsea started with the same line-up as for the Deepdale game nine days earlier.

36,522 supporters turned out paying £12,995, an excellent attendance considering the Monday afternoon kick-off time, indicating heroic levels of absenteeism and truancy. It was a ‘surreal’ time to play a game, according to supporter Terry Cassley. Presumably, a range of excuses were given for those absent from work or school for the afternoon. Brian Gaches, who missed school for the match, remembers a ‘24 hour stomach upset’ sweeping across West London. Chelsea were obviously favourites, but confidence must have been knocked back by the debacle at Southampton. Despite their undeserved financial windfall, the club economised on seat ticket costs by overprinting ‘FA Cup’ on unused League Cup Round Four tickets.

The hosts, despite their clear superiority in the aborted replay, looked a long way below par. Preston took the lead after 15 minutes through a Gerry Ingram header and looked fairly comfortable as the game wore on, though Tambling missed a golden chance to equalise just after the interval. Archie Gemmill hit the bar for Preston after 75 minutes and a subdued crowd of truants and absentees watched with mounting concern as the favourites dithered and floundered. Webb and Osgood were thrown up front but to little avail and it seemed like a major shock was about to occur.

As the ninety minutes were up, sections of the home support had started drifting away in bitter disappointment, but Chelsea never gave up, and with the referee continually looking at his watch, Boyle had a back-heel hacked desperately off the line. From the resultant throw-in into a packed penalty area, the indefatigable Webb headed an Osgood flick-on in for an oh-so-late an equaliser, receiving a black eye for his pains. Cue bedlam.

David Webb (No.5) and team mates celebrate his equaliser. The Preston players cannot believe it.

Sixty seconds later and with the exultant crowd anticipating extra-time, Chelsea won the ball after the kick-off, Birchenall hit a cross shot which Kelly parried to Cooke who hit home an unlikely, and probably undeserved, winner. Cue even greater bedlam. Preston were utterly mortified, Chelsea’s players jubilant, supporters mobbing them in disbelieving celebration. A mightily relieved Sexton commented ‘I came down from my seat upstairs to the touchline just in time to see those goals go in, but I had just about given up hope.’ The final whistle blew very shortly afterwards, prompting another euphoric pitch invasion.

Cooke fires home the ultra-late winner

The winner from another angle

Osgood was extremely grateful to the supporters. ‘The fans kept us going more than anything else during those desperate closing minutes. Without their help, I doubt if we would have made it.’ Supporter Barry Holmes remembers leaving his spot in The Shed to return to work after 90 minutes, missing Webb’s equaliser. He, and hordes of other departees, rushed back just in time for Cooke’s winner, though in the chaos of some spectators leaving at the same time, he missed the goal itself. Brian Gaches remembers car horns sounding up North End Road after the win in celebration, and there were complaints on the front page of the Fulham Chronicle from shopkeepers about exuberant youths causing disturbances on North End Road post-match.

There was a reckoning for some. At least one young supporter was caned at school the following day for truancy, and others were put into detention or received other punishments.

The Guardian front page reported how BBC reporter Douglas Cameron, working for Radio Four’s ‘South East’ news magazine programme, asked supporters leaving Stamford Bridge how they had managed to get time off work on a Monday, somewhat pompously querying ‘the morality of taking time off without permission in view of the country’s economic state.’ A couple of youths apparently took exception to this slightly provocative line of questioning, confronted the reporter, shoved him hard into a fence and stole his tapes. Police investigations into the incident were unsuccessful. Cameron did not let the matter affect him unduly, going on to broadcast on LBC for over thirty years and being awarded an MBE.

A hugely relieved Chelsea had got out of jail and had five days to recover before the next round at home against Stoke City, a game they won 3-2. More than half a century later, supporters still talk about the floodlight failure and the desperately late comeback. Hopefully, Saturday’s game will be a more straightforward affair, though I would not count on it.

This article is an expanded version of an extract from ‘Sexton For God’ by Tim Rolls, available on eBay and Amazon.

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