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Playing Milan in Europe Twice In A Week? How about Three Times In A Month?

With Chelsea in the middle of their two crucial games against AC Milan, older supporters will recall the three epic games played against them 56 years ago.

It was February 1966. Chelsea, buoyed by six straight wins, faced five games in a fortnight including both legs of their Fairs Cup tie against AC Milan and Leeds in the FA Cup. The first, a home game against bottom placed local rivals Fulham produced a 2-1 win, Bobby Tambling and Peter Osgood scoring, and Osgood clearing off the line near the end. Despite the game being a local derby, only 34,200 turned up, leaving large gaps in the Stamford Bridge stands and terraces. Crowds for the next two home games would be significantly higher.

Four days later, Chelsea kicked-off at lunchtime in front of just 11,400 Milanese spectators, because of concerns about evening fog. Even so, kick-off was delayed fifteen minutes because there were queues outside. They battled to a creditable 2-1 defeat in a tough but not dirty game that ended an excellent run of seven straight wins. Amarildo, who scored for Brazil in the 1962 World Cup Final, and the great Gianna Rivera put the hosts two up, and Milan could have scored more, but George Graham headed in John Boyle’s cross for a critical goal in the last minute which set Chelsea up nicely for the return game a week later. It could have been even better, but Balzarini saved Osgood’s injury-time shot. Graham’s was the first goal by an English team in Italy for five years.

Milan inevitably dominated much of the game, but manager Tommy Docherty commented ‘I think we earned our luck.’ The early kick-off meant commuters could read Bernard Joy’s Evening Standard match report on their way home, a piece full of optimism about the second leg.

George Graham grabs his crucial late goal in Milan

Before the return game, the trivial matter of an FA Cup-tie against Leeds United. The 57,800 who got into a house-full Stamford Bridge saw Bobby Tambling score after eight minutes, and Chelsea defend resolutely for the remaining eighty-two minutes. Leeds hit the post twice but could not beat the ever-excellent Peter Bonetti and Chelsea held out.

The Chelsea side was a settled one, and, with a change of luck regarding injuries, were in the middle of a run of nine games with the same first-choice starting eleven :-

Bonetti; Harris, Hinton, Boyle, McCreadie; Hollins, Venables; Bridges, Graham, Osgood, Tambling.

The Milan home programme included colour photographs, the first British club to do so. The price was doubled to 1/- (5p) but the fact that 40,000 were sold shows that for a game of this stature that increase was not a problem for many supporters. Indeed, programme receipts of £2,000 were believed to be a British club record. The club proudly trumpeted this fact in the programme, also mentioning that it won the 1965 Best Programme award from Soccer Star magazine.

There was huge interest in the game, Milan being one of the giants of the European game, and supporter Terry Cassley recalls that ‘it was something special for Chelsea to be playing a team of that stature’ and that ‘it was a privilege to be there that night.’ Again the gates were locked, this time ten minutes before kick-off with 59,500 inside, and thousands were left outside in frustration, as they had been against Leeds. A highly worrying 159 supporters had to receive medical attention from St John’s ambulance staff when a crash barrier collapsed, some having been knocked to the ground, others crushed. Nobody was seriously hurt but it was a real concern and clearly unacceptable that, despite the opening of the new West Stand, such problems were still occurring in the ground.

In those days, almost no club games were all-ticket, regardless of attractiveness. Lockouts created problems for police and stewards and massive frustration for affected supporters, especially for night games where many could not arrive at the ground early after work, and it is surprising the policy was not re-thought, or that the authorities did not intervene. The planned 55,000 capacity had somehow become 60,000, it is unclear exactly how and why, which meant the terraces at both ends were absolutely packed, potentially dangerously so.

Receipts of £21,896 were a record for any Chelsea home game. The impact of the inflated ticket prices can be shown by the fact that the Leeds receipts of £15,831 were a club record for a domestic home game. Chelsea were happy to charge extra for the more attractive European games, when they were not restrained by the unofficial price agreement with other London clubs. The FA archive shows that Chelsea had to ask special permission from the FA for highlights to be shown on ITV and received a fee of £1,000 for the broadcast. The Football League, luddites to the last, banned CCTV coverage, which meant away European games could not be beamed-back to Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea tore at Milan in a terrific atmosphere and were rewarded when Graham headed home Tambling’s corner after ten minutes.

Graham levels the tie on aggregate

Ten minutes later, and with the crowd baying, Osgood scored one of his greatest Chelsea goals, with tremendous control and a blistering left-foot shot. Brief footage of Osgood’s goal here

Peter Osgood's left-foot belter flashes into the top of the net

And he rightly celebrates

Milan, a side of top quality, came back into the game and Sormani pulled a goal back just before half time. The scores were 3-3 on aggregate and, despite Chelsea’s best efforts remained so at the final whistle. Cassley remembers it a game ‘up there with the best I have ever seen Chelsea take part in’ and praises the skill and sportsmanship of both teams.

In those days there was no extra-time and no away goals rule. Milan won a toss-up for the play-off venue, so the play-off was set for a fortnight later, in Milan, three days before the Shrewsbury cup-tie. The fixtures were certainly coming thick and fast.

After the Cup excitement, normality returned in the shape of a turgid 0-0 draw with an Arsenal side who played with nine men behind the ball. Four home games in ten days took their toll on Chelsea’s support and only 20,800 turned out three days later to watch a 3-2 win over Sunderland. Chelsea were still twelve points behind leaders Liverpool, in sixth place, but had four games in hand. Osgood, understandably, was looking tired and was offered a four-day holiday by the club, which he turned down. A programme letter urged supporters ‘who are prepared to chant and sing throughout the game (to) come and help us at the Fulham Road End.’ Many happily did just that.

Four days later the relentless schedule was arguably partially responsible for a lacklustre 2-1 defeat at Everton. The Sunday People wondered whether the heavy programme was taking its toll. If this was indeed the case, this was not a good time, with the play-off against Milan four days later. What needs to be borne in mind in these days of multiple substitutes is that those selected played for ninety minutes unless injured, and there were no substitutes in European football apart from goalkeepers. The unending schedule must indeed have exhausted the players, and it was just as well that Chelsea had chosen not to defend the League Cup that season.

Docherty was incandescent about his team’s ‘pathetic display’ at Goodison Park and made it clear he was going to take appropriate action. It soon became clear who was going to carry the can and the relationship between Docherty and ex-captain Terry Venables, already rocky, duly and publicly fell apart. Docherty told Venables he would not be playing in Milan that Wednesday and transfer-listed him. In ‘Docherty – Living Legend of Football’ he was unequivocal and unrepentant. ‘Venables started to set himself up as something of a dressing-room spokesman and started to challenge my authority in training.’ Venables later observed that the manager ‘saw me as a bit of a danger, a bit of a threat.’ Chairman Joe Mears was ‘saddened’ but backed Docherty. Venables’ replacement was Bert Murray, who had spent much of the past few months in the reserves, with occasional stints as first team substitute.

The form of Osgood and Graham, and the tightness of his defence, was such that Docherty approached the game with a degree of confidence. The reward for the winners was a tie against TSV Munich 1860, beaten by West Ham in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final the previous season.

The hosts were missing Rivera and top-class German full-back Karl Schnellinger, but for an evening game 30,620 turned out and saw an early goal by Barry Bridges, after a neat passing movement. Chelsea hung on until, just as they thought they had done enough, Milan equalised just before the end of normal time when Fortunato headed home a corner, despite angry claims that it should have been a goal-kick. It was a bitter blow for a heroic Chelsea side. The Evening Standard reported how ‘angry hero’ Boyle, incensed by a foul on Bonetti, ran himself into the ground, and passed out with exhaustion at the end.

Barry Bridges puts Chelsea ahead in the play-off

Extra time could not break the deadlock, and the exhausted Chelsea side deserved enormous credit for keeping their heads and achieving a superb away result in such a crucial game. The tie had to be decided on the toss of a coin, there being no penalty shoot-outs in those days. According to the Daily Mirror, Ron Harris asked an interpreter which way he should call. No matter what his rationale, he called correctly and a furiously celebrating, if fortunate, Chelsea team were in the quarter-finals.

Ron Harris calls correctly and Chelsea go through

The Daily Telegraph felt that ‘justice was unquestionably done’ and that Chelsea had been the better side over the three games. English players like Marvin Hinton, John Hollins, Tambling, Bridges and Osgood had proved they could match, or better, players likely to play a part in the forthcoming World Cup and it remains a regret that none made Alf Ramsey’s final World Cup 22.

Brief footage of the play-off game goals can be found here. The footage shows a small band of Chelsea supporters celebrating with balloons after Bridges' goal.

Tired but happy, the squad flew back to London, knowing that less than three days later they had the FA Cup tie against Shrewsbury Town. Tough fixture schedules are nothing new. Chelsea eventually reached the semi-finals where a tired and fractious side lost 5-0 in a play-off in Barcelona. By that autumn the side had been split asunder with Venables, Bridges, Murray and Graham all departing as Docherty rebuilt his side. For many supporters from that era the Milan home game remains a sparking memory and a testament to that much-loved side.

This is a expanded extract from ‘Diamonds, Dynamos and Devils’ by Tim Rolls, covering the seven tempestuous years of Docherty’s reign at Chelsea.

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