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Only 8,100 see Sexton's Chelsea power to welcome Burnley win

On Saturday Chelsea entertain struggling Burnley. Almost exactly fifty years ago the sides met at Stamford Bridge under quite different circumstances.

It was March 1974. The country, and Chelsea Football Club, were both in chaos. Industrial action led to power shortages which caused the government to impose a three-day week, great if you liked candlelit pubs or reduced school hours, but pretty disastrous for the UK economy. Floodlit football was banned unless clubs had their own electric generators, which Chelsea did not. The lack of a generator, though, was the least of Chelsea’s problems.

Volatile stars Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson had fallen out with manager Dave Sexton once too often and been transfer-listed. Hudson had left for Stoke and, after much speculation as to his destination, Osgood, decrying Chelsea’s ‘lack of ambition’, signed for Southampton on Wednesday 13th March for £275,000.

Chelsea’s form had been hugely disappointing, with two wins in eleven games, and they languished in a deeply concerning 19th place in Division One. The rocketing cost of the new East Stand, late and still incomplete, was also starting to be a massive concern for the Chelsea board. Relegation was unthinkable.

Striker Ian Hutchinson, a hugely effective partner for Osgood a few years earlier but plagued by injury, had until recently been on the transfer list and other squad members, including fellow striker Tommy Baldwin, were unhappy. In the end, though, neither left before the transfer deadline later that week. All in all, Stamford Bridge was not a happy ship, as the press was only too keen to regularly point out.

On the same day as the hugely popular and charismatic Osgood left, his ex-teammates had to play a Wednesday afternoon home game against Burnley, a match rearranged after a postponement the previous month.

Unlike the Preston North End FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge five years earlier, or the QPR away FA Cup replay two months earlier, games also played on weekday afternoons in term time, there was no buzz among supporters sufficient to cause mass truancy and absenteeism, though some certainly did bunk off school. Burnley were a highly respectable eighth in the table and had just beaten Wrexham to reach the FA Cup semi-final. However, an encounter with them had not exactly been the most attractive of fixtures since the Lancastrians stopped being a real footballing power in the land a decade or so earlier.

Given Chelsea's mediocre home form, with just one win in three months, plus what almost amounted to a perfect storm of the afternoon kick-off, the opposition, the economic impact of the widespread industrial unrest and three-day week, the departure of the adored Osgood and the turmoil at the club, nobody was exactly expecting a full house. The actual turnout was a woeful 8,171, the lowest League attendance at Stamford Bridge since 1938 and the smallest for any First Division game for almost eight years. This apathy was a real shock to the increasingly hard-up club, chairman Brian Mears later admitting he had expected 15,000 to turn up.

With Ron Harris out with a groin strain, Sexton gave 16-year-old left back John Sparrow his first-team debut. The side lined up :- Phillips; Locke, Droy, Webb, Sparrow; Hollins, Kember, Cooke, Houseman; Garland, Garner. Sub. Hutchinson.

Burnley’s line-up included two ex-Chelsea players, Colin Waldron and Jim Thomson, as well as debutant goalkeeper Mickey Finn (no, really).

The first half was as devoid of entertainment as it was atmosphere, Chelsea struggling to breakdown a dogged visiting defence. Since Osgood had been left out of the side in the New Year, Bill Garner had been the most regular replacement. It was therefore a significant blow when he was severely concussed just before half-time, was taken off on a stretcher and driven to hospital. On came Hutchinson for his first appearance for the first team since September.

Garland fires in a shot. Note the sparse North Stand crowd

Hutchinson puts himself about

After half-time Chelsea started to get on top, though it was still a slight surprise when Steve Kember gave them a 70th minute lead from Hutchinson’s head down following a John Hollins free-kick. Buoyed by their advantage, the home side pressed and minutes later a cross by Sparrow was headed home by Peter Houseman. A resounding victory was rounded off near the end when Hutchinson fired home and joyously celebrated.

Hutchinson celebrates his goal

Neil Smith, who took the afternoon off school to attend the game and is still a home and away regular half a century later, recalls the game and puts an interesting perspective on different supporter moods.

‘It was a very solemn atmosphere, with news filtering through that Osgood had been sold. I stood in The Shed and some of the lads who had protested outside the ground with the placards when he was originally listed were imploring us to walk out, chanting “Shed, walk out”.

Later there was some friction when Kember scored as he was wearing No.9 (Osgood’s shirt). Some tried to sing ‘you’re not fit to wear that shirt’. But others leapt to his defence as he nearly always put in a shift and obviously was not playing Centre Forward.

Then another suggested that Osgood and Hudson were traitors and had let Sexton down. Just as things were getting heated, Hutch latched onto a through ball and netted like he always did. I think this distracted everyone and the game was nearly done.

I walked back to Earls’ Court with three disgruntled Burnley fans who had made the long journey down and were dismayed at their poor performance’.

The slightly unexpected win sent Chelsea up seven places to twelfth and largely banished relegation fears. The game almost seemed a distraction from the circus of the past couple of months and it was to the credit of the players that they achieved such a resounding victory. Sparrow had a creditable debut and played in the majority of games for the rest of that season. He and Hutchinson, in particular, must have been very pleased with the way things went that afternoon.

That 3-0 victory turned out to be Chelsea’s most comprehensive win of 1974, and indeed they could not match it throughout 1975 either. They only won two of the remaining nine games that season so finished a lowly 17th, just a point above Osgood’s Southampton, who were relegated.

Only eleven Chelsea league crowds since World War Two have been lower than the 8,171 that trickled through the turnstiles that afternoon.


Chelsea's eleven post-war League crowds lower than that Burnley one are listed below.

6009 Orient 81/2

6196 Cambridge U 81/2

6667 Carlisle U 82/3

6747 Walsall 88/9

6903 Bolton W 82/3

6982 Blackburn R 82/3

7050 Leicester C 88/9

7148 Southampton 91/2 (thanks to Terry Miles for spotting this omission)

7223 Barnsley 82/3

7587 Oxford U 88/9

7808 Cambridge U 82/3

Ten of these were in Division Two, only Southampton in 91/2 being a top flight game.

Tim Rolls

That whole 1973/4 season is covered in detail in my book 'Stamford Bridge Is Falling Down' .

Thanks to Chelsea Heritage colleague Neil Smith for his input to this piece. Many of Neil's Chelsea tales feature in 'Where Were You When We Were Shocking'?'. Both of these books are available on Amazon.


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