CHELSEA fans of the past 15 years will probably not have heard of Ian Britton. He wasn’t one of the Stamford Bridge greats, neither did he win much in the way of silverware in his career. He played during what was Chelsea’s equivalent of an economic downturn – the period from 1973 and 1982 that left few highlights. An era where the club almost went under and crowds diminished to the low five digits.
But 5ft 5in Ian Britton played when few others wanted to turn out for Chelsea. He ran all afternoon, a notable small-step scrurry, arms tucked closely into his side, with his wirey mid-1970s hairstyle bouncing as he ran. He was dependable, energetic and he could score a goal or two. You never noticed him much, but you noticed when he wasn’t in the team.
Britton, who sadly died this week from cancer, was a junior during the club’s golden early 70s cup-winning seasons. He was supposed to be part of the next generation and he did make a good start to his first team career, beginning with his debut on December 30 1972 against Derby County, when he came on as substitute for injury-stricken Ian Hutchinson. The media commented: “This youngster couldn’t match the men around him for skill,but his enthusiasm became infectious”. He went on to set-up Chelsea’s equaliser for Peter Osgood in that game.
Towards the end of 1972-73, he was one of the youngsters that Dave Sexton fielded during a dreadful injury crisis at the club. Britton received good reviews and Sexton singled him out for praise.
But the club’s decline had started a few months earlier on a February afternoon in 1972 at Brisbane Road with Orient beating Chelsea 3-2 in the FA Cup. The first stage of the fall of the house of Brian Mears ended in April 1975 when Chelsea drew 1-1 with Everton at Stamford Bridge, sending Eddie McCreadie’s team down to Division Two. Britton became an important part of Chelsea’s hot-potch and financially restrained squad that attempted to take the club back to the top flight.
In 1975-76, he was one of the few players who came through the campaign with his reputation enhanced. He formed part of a midfield that also included Ray “Butch” Wilkins, Garry Stanley and, eventually, Ray Lewington. He was a big pal of another player from that era, Gary Locke.
The following season, after a summer when the financial state of the club became apparent to the public, Britton performed well and contributed 10 goals in Chelsea’s promotion back to the first division. For such a small lad, he scored a remarkable number of those goals with his head – a surprise nod against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, a far post effort against Burnley, and a similar goal at home to Wolves that helped Chelsea comeback to earn a 3-3 draw in front of Henry Kissinger. He also netted in the final game of the season at home to Hull when the crowd streamed on to celebrate Chelsea’s promotion.
In 1977-78, Britton was switched to a more defensive role by new manager Ken Shellito. He scored just once, and that was a penalty. But he did contribute to a shock 4-2 FA Cup win against Liverpool.
Chelsea returned to the second division in 1979 and Britton became a pivotal figure for a season or so, scoring 10 goals in 1979-80, but he fell out of favour under 1966 World Cup hero Geoff Hurst and never really regained his place. His final appearance for the club was on May 5, 1982 when Chelsea drew 2-2 with Orient at Stamford Bridge in front of just 6,009 people. In the summer of 1982, he joined his home town club, Dundee United.
Britton’s career didn’t end there, however. In 1987, he scored a vital headed goal for Burnley to beat Orient 2-1 and preserve his club’s Football League status. He will be forever remembered at Turf Moor!
And he won’t be forgotten at Chelsea – Blues fans of a certain vintage have always retained a lot of affection for a team that came to the club’s rescue in 1976-77, and Ian Britton was part of that memorable and emotional time.