It was January 1972. Chelsea had had a mixed season to date, with the shock European elimination by Swedish unknowns Atvidaberg, but after two epic semi-final ties against Tottenham were in the League Cup Final as well as the fourth round of The FA Cup.
Long-time leaders Manchester United were wobbling but still top of the table. For Chelsea to visit Old Trafford and win 1-0 was a significant statement of intent. Alan Hudson and David Webb, both at the top of their games, came in for special praise, as did Peter Osgood, whose winner was the result of a clever Hudson flick. That result knocked United off the top, replaced by Leeds United.
The Fulham Chronicle, often critical of Sexton’s side, saw that display as the ‘finest ninety minutes of glory (from Chelsea) so far this season’. Osgood bullishly told them ‘we are at the stage where we feel we can beat anybody. We feel so good now that we could play (League Cup Semi-finalists) West Ham in the morning and Stoke in the afternoon’. The paper’s words of warning were prescient. ‘I would only plead with Chelsea and Osgood in particular not to get too cocky and over-confident. Players can only be made to look foolish if their predictions go cock-eyed’.
There is no doubt that, at that point, Chelsea were as good as any side in the country on their day. The problem was, that day did not occur regularly enough and Dave Sexton’s side struggled to achieve the degree of consistency and doggedness necessary to produce a sustained title challenge, much to his frustration.
There was no outstanding English side that season, nobody running away with the title. Chelsea were a comparatively lowly ninth in the League, seven points behind Leeds, but table congestion meant that a good run could mean a significant climb up the table. Any of the top ten, down to Liverpool in tenth, had an argument that they could win the trophy if they could put a run together.
The final game that month was against Everton on January 29th. Champions in 1970, the visitors had been in decline ever since, finishing the previous season in fourteenth place. They were now languishing four places below Chelsea and had recently surprised the football world by selling arguably their best player, talismanic midfielder and World Cup winner Alan Ball, to Arsenal.
Bizarrely, there was talk in the papers that Sexton might leave out Steve Kember as he would be ineligible for the League Cup Final in five weeks’ time. In the end, Sexton fielded the eleven who had beaten United seven days earlier. Ian Hutchinson was out injured, sadly so often the case for a hugely brave player. Bonetti; Mulligan, Dempsey, Webb, Harris; Kember, Hollins, Hudson; Cooke, Osgood, Garland. Fit-again Peter Houseman was on the bench.
Everton manager Harry Catterick was away from work with nervous exhaustion, though was expected to return the following week. It later transpired he had had a heart attack, a fact the Everton hierarchy tried to keep quiet, and was away from work for a couple more months. Their side still had two-thirds of the ‘holy trinity’ midfield, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey, as well as England internationals in Gordon West, Keith Newton and Joe Royle, but looked a long way off the team they were two seasons earlier. They lined up :- West; Scott, Kenyon, Hurst, Lyons, K. Newton; Kendall, Harvey, Husband; Royle, Whittle.
The visitors, with no away win in sixteen months, set out to get a point on a heavily sanded pitch and for 45 minutes it looked like they might succeed, as Chelsea dominated but could not break through. That was put right as within the first ten minutes of the second half Chelsea scored three times.
Osgood heads the first past Gordon West
Osgood superbly headed home a Cooke cross. Roger Kenyon then brought down Osgood and Hollins hammered home the resultant penalty. John Dempsey headed the third from Hudson’s centre as a happy 38,558 crowd chanted, correctly, ‘easy, easy’.
Dempsey heads the third
Osgood and a ball boy celebrate, West wonders where his defence are
Chelsea were imperious, the hapless visitors were chasing shadows and it was no surprise when Osgood netted the fourth, his second, with fifteen minutes left when Hollins won the ball off Harvey and played him a superb through ball. Kember and Hudson missed chances to add to the score as the hosts eased off towards the end. Late on, David Webb brilliantly headed a Husband shot off the line in the only real visiting attempt on goal.
This was one of those glorious days when Osgood, Alan Hudson and Charlie Cooke were all at the top of their game (even the Liverpool Echo talked about their ‘high skill’) and, frankly, a much better side than Everton would have struggled to stay with them. In addition the defence were rock solid and John Hollins, Chris Garland and Kember all worked tirelessly. The latter pair had joined the club earlier in the season and were starting to establish themselves. The Daily Mail praised the workrate of the entire side, arguing ‘there’s not a slacker in the side’. If Sexton had managed to get the whole side working so hard then that, allied to the undoubted talent in the ranks, really did give optimism about the times ahead if it could be maintained.
The comprehensive 4-0 victory, meaning just two defeats in twenty-five games, was seen by the massed viewers of ITV’s The Big Match the following day and, looking at the footage here https://youtu.be/apJn6rK1Hfo , the total dominance of Chelsea, and their ball retention, stand out in their biggest League win of the season. Pundit Jimmy Hill picked out Webb, Kember, Hollins and Osgood for especially praise and talked up the chance of impending honours.
England boss Sir Alf Ramsey clapped Osgood’s second and got a gentle prompt when The Shed sang ‘Webby For England’. The Sun certainly thought Webb worth a call-up, but sadly that never happened, somewhat surprising when you consider that Jeff Blockley won an England cap that year.
Match report headlines focused on one of two issues. A number emphasised just how good the team was. ‘Dempsey’s Tipping A Treble,’ ‘Chelsea Look Good For An Honour’, ‘Here Comes Chelsea’s Jet Set’ and ‘It’s Class Distinction’ being good examples. Another set extolled the virtues of another superb Osgood performance, including ‘Osgood’s Tops With The Boss’, ‘Osgood Gets Up To His Old Tricks’, ‘Dazzling Osgood Slams Everton’ and ‘Ramsey Cheers This Osgood Special’.
The match reports followed the tone of the headlines. Dempsey felt that, apart from trips to Maine Road and Elland Road the remaining League fixtures ‘aren’t too bad’ affirming he thought the side were ‘playing well enough to do it’. ‘It' being the League / FA Cup / League Cup treble. Given Dempsey was considerably less volatile and brash than the likes of Osgood and Hudson, this was praise indeed. The Guardian enthused about the lack of ‘loafers’, considered the side more rounded than in 1970, and thought they ‘are achieving a corporate effort of the kind one usually associates with Liverpool, Leeds or Arsenal’. The Fulham Chronicle, reticent only a week earlier, thought a ‘limitless’ number of trophies could finish up on the boardroom sideboard at the end of the season.
In a fascinating Evening Standard article that week, Bernard Joy eulogised long and hard on why Chelsea would be the Team Of The Seventies. ‘Chelsea, already in their third cup final in three years and joint FA Cup favourites, are geared up to take over as the dominant British club in the Seventies. They have possibly the best squad of players, both in depth and quality, in the country, an awakening ambition and Stamford Bridge is going to be rebuilt at a cost of perhaps £5 million into the finest stadium in London if not Europe’. Optimistic and positive words indeed.
David Webb felt ‘we weren’t a true team when we won the FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. We played in cliques, in fits and starts, we relied on certain players, Cooke, Hudson and Osgood, being on song to lift the whole team. Now everyone pulls their weight … We’ve grown up into a manly side with young people in it and are ready to burst forward. We have so many important players. Hudson, Kember, Garland – all eligible for the Under-23s – who are just beginning their careers. No-one has seen the best of us yet’. Powerful words, and an indicator of the man’s frame of mind.
All good stuff, especially with critical cup-ties on the horizon, and indicative of the feelgood atmosphere in and around the club at that point. More cup success and the Atvidaberg shambles, and early-season struggles in the League, would soon be forgotten.
At this point Chelsea really did look a quality side and, though a genuine title challenge would be tough, given they were still ninth and seven points behind the latest leaders Manchester City with fifteen games left, confidence was very high. There is an argument that, in that period of early 1972 running up to the Orient cup-tie, they were as well regarded, in terms of trophy potential, as any Chelsea side until the Abramovich era. Bolton Wanderers were beaten 3-0 in the FA Cup to set up a derby-tie at Orient, then Leicester dispatched 2-1 in the League.
Sadly, the wheels then came off, and quickly disappeared from view. A shock FA Cup exit at Brisbane Road was followed a week later by outsiders Stoke City winning 2-1 at Wembley to leave Dave Sexton’s men trophyless and, it turned out, with no European football to look forward to the following season. What would not be clear for some time was that the side had peaked and that their displays that January against United and Everton were as good as it was going to get for some considerable time.
At the end of that 1971/72 season Liverpool (a place below Chelsea after the Everton game) finished just a point behind surprise winners Derby County. Everton ended up fifteenth. Chelsea finished seventh, ten points off the title, as the season spluttered out. It was to be thirteen seasons before they finished as high again. More detail about Chelsea's 1971-75 decline can be found in 'Stamford Bridge Is Falling Down' by Tim Rolls, available on eBay and Amazon.