The King may be dead, but he’s not forgotten
Posted on March 1, 2016
One day in January 1993, my telephone rang at work. “Hello, mate, it’s Peter Osgood here.” I hesitated, gasped and was a little nervous with my reply. “I used to have a poster of you on my bedroom wall,” I uttered. “I hope you still haven’t got it up,” he quipped.
Here was my boyhood hero, Peter Leslie Osgood, born Windsor, February 20 1947, 6ft 1in tall, favourite food steak and chips, calling me on the telephone and talking to me about a sportsman’s dinner. I was, to use a much-used footballing cliché, “over the bloody moon”. “See you Ossie,” I said as the conversation ended, attracting some ribbing for some years to come from those that overheard the call.
Ironically, the day of that call was January 29, 1993, almost 23 years to the day that I saw P.L. Osgood for the first time. My first Chelsea game, Chelsea v Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. It is a moment in time that I have never forgotten. A sort of rite of passage for any football fan.
Osgood had been my idol from about nine years old. At primary school, everyone seemed to support Manchester United. They were the League Champions in 1967 and they had, of course, Georgie Best, who made footballers trendy and aligned to the mood of the time. He was a by-product of the swinging sixties. “Osgood was good, now he’s no good,” was one of the chants I recall from playground antics. Osgood had burst onto the scene in the mid-1960s and broke his leg in 1966. In 1967-68, he was still trying to recapture the form that had him compared to legends such as David Jack and Alfredo Di Stefano.
There was an air of arrogance about “Ossie” that appealed to the young football fan. A swagger and confidence that was as representative of the time as Best’s long hair and his carefree appearance of “shirt outside shorts”. He was the Michael Caine of football, a Flashman-esque character with just a hint of notoriety about him.
In 1968-69, he was still short of his best form, so much so that Chelsea manager Dave Sexton switched him into midfield, giving him the unfamiliar number four jersey. But in 1969-70, it all came right for the “wizard of Oz”.
He formed a devastating partnership with Ian Hutchinson, who effectively replaced the ageing Bobby Tambling. The duo became one of the most feared in the league and really, it was a coupling that lasted just one season, 1969-70.
The time was right for me to pay my first visit to the Bridge. I had an aborted trip a few months earlier when we got as far as South Kensington before hearing that Chelsea’s game with Stoke City had been called off. I was almost in tears. But at last, January 31, 1970 heralded my initiation ceremony. My Dad had persuaded a workmate to take me to the game.
Everything about that day is ingrained in my memory. The journey on the tube – possibly my first ever, invoking a sense of caution when walking up an escalator as a recent news report had recalled how a young girl had got her foot caught and lost a leg – and the smell of cigar smoke rising in the air at the ground. The pre-match music – Love Grows (where my Rosemary goes) by Edison Lighthouse had just gone to number one – and the chanting: “Osgood, Osgood, Osgood, Osgood…born is the king of Stamford Bridge”. Standing beside the players’ tunnel in the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge, you could smell the pre-match wintergreen filtering up from the dressing rooms. It all added to the air of expectation. You also had the chance to see the opposition manager, who more often than not, sat just above the standing area by the tunnel.
It was important for Chelsea that they put on a good show against Sunderland. A week earlier, they had lost 2-5 at home to Leeds United, who had fairly well walloped Sexton’s men and cast a few doubts about the Blues’ ability to keep pace at the top of the table. With Everton and Leeds both going great guns, Chelsea’s best hope of success was the FA Cup and they had a tricky away tie at Crystal Palace coming up in round five. Against Leeds, the error-prone Tommy Hughes had been in goal, but Peter Bonetti was back against Sunderland and Chelsea had their classic line-up in action: Bonetti, Webb, McCreadie, Hollins, Dempsey, Harris, Cooke, Hudson, Osgood, Hutchinson, Houseman. Substitute was Baldwin. Sunderland had a fine keeper in Jim Montgomery, Colin Todd in defence and Dennis Tueart up front, as well as Joe Baker and Bobby Kerr. They were near the foot of the table and relegation bound.
But before Chelsea took a strangehold on the game, Sunderland could have been two goals up. Then Osgood struck with two goals in three minutes. Then first came on 19 minutes when Peter Houseman’s cross was midhandled by the usually reliable Montgomery and Osgood shot high into the net. An easy finish. Then on 22, Charlie Cooke fed Osgood and he sent a swerving shot past the Sunderland keeper.
While the near-40,000 crowd was expecting a deluge of goals, Chelsea seemed to ease-up. In fact, there was some slow hand-clapping for a while as the fans tried to urge them. Joe Baker pulled one back with 20 minutes to go, but Osgood added his third on 78 with a carefully-placed right-foot shot. “Osgood for England,” shouted the Shed End, pleading for Sir Alf Ramsey to include the Chelsea number nine in his forthcoming squad. Three weeks later, “Ossie” made his England debut in Brussels against Belgium, a 3-1 win for the World Champions. Unless something dramatic happened, Osgood would be on the plane for Mexico 1970.
Ossie didn’t get much of a look-in with England, though. Ramsey was never too convinced, always preferring the establishment figure of Geoff Hurst (well, he did score three goals in that final) to the more wayward talent. He made a couple of cameo appearances in the World Cup as substitute and after that, he got one more call-up in 1973. He didn’t have the best of seasons in 1970-71, struggling to find his scoring boots while Spurs’ Martin Chivers became prolific in front of goal. There was this theory that Ramsey always favoured Spurs and West Ham. In 1971-72, Osgood was back to his goalscoring best, but the Chelsea team of that era was starting to fade. March 4, 1972 saw them lose a Football League Cup final they should have won and the momentum that had brought the FA Cup (1970) and European Cup Winners’ Cup (1971) was gone. Osgood, much to the heartbreak of my generation, left the club in 1974 to join Southampton. The spell was over.
We don’t need another hero
In 1993, I finally met my hero. In truth, he couldn’t lose, but I was delighted to learn that he was a decent fellow, brimming with bonhomie and blokeish stories of past glories. Never mind that he pissed in the FA Cup (that makes me smile when I see winners’ drinking out of it), he was still the King of Stamford Bridge. When he left the dinner that evening, he hugged me like an old team-mate. I told him that it meant the world to meet him after all these years, and he kissed me on the forehead! He spent most of his fee buying drinks for all and sundry.
I met “Ossie” on a further two occasions, at a signing ceremony in the City of London of the Chelsea centenary book and then, early in 2006, at a reunion lunch of the 1970 team. By now, he looked grey – I pointed this out at the time to a friend – and was struggling to walk comfortably. Less than two weeks later, he died.
It’s another cliché, but I was as “sick as a parrot” when I heard Osgood had died. Part of my childhood was consigned to the attic that day. I don’t mind admitting it brought a tear to my eye as I watched the footage on TV that evening. I went to his memorial service and as the famous Osgood song echoed (quite literally) around Stamford Bridge that Sunday morning, I had a huge, football-sized lump in my throat. They buried his ashes beneath the penalty spot in the Shed End. He’s still there, checking out every goal. And every year, without fail, I remember January 31 as the day I saw my childhood hero score a hat-trick.