Despite the current era, Sexton’s Chelsea stand the test of time

IF Chelsea had not got off to a miserable start in 1969-70, they may well have gone much closer to winning the Football League instead of their first FA Cup. Not that the Cup was a consolation, because in 1970, it really meant something and for the Blues, it was their first ever FA Cup triumph. Until 2004-05, the team that overcame Leeds United over two arduous games was widely considered to be the club’s most loved and arguably its most successful line-up.

Any Chelsea fan from that year would be able to reel off the classic team from that period: Bonetti, Webb, McCreadie, Hollins, Dempsey, Harris, Cooke, Hudson, Osgood, Hutchinson and Houseman. Ironically, that wasn’t the team that lifted the Cup. Hudson was injured a few weeks before Wembley and sat out the final. He had been one of the faces of 1969-70 and missing the climax arguably set his career back. Some believe he was never quite the same player after that campaign.

Sexton’s men

Manager Dave Sexton, who took over from the wildly unpredictable Tommy Docherty, had already brought the trustworthy David Webb from Southampton and striker Alan Birchenall from Sheffield United in 1967-68. The following season, he added another defender, Fulham’s John Dempsey, to his squad and pulled off a coup by signing Ian Hutchinson from Southern League Cambridge United. The gangly forward made a claim for a first-team spot in the closing weeks of the season, effectively replacing Chelsea stalwart Bobby Tambling. Sexton had problems with the mercurial Peter Osgood and even tried him out in an unfamiliar midfield role, giving him the number 4 shirt. Hudson had made his debut in 1968-69 but found himself in contention for a starting position as injuries hampered Sexton’s side in the early weeks of 1969-70. In addition, Chelsea could still call on spectacular goalkeeper Peter Bonetti and hard men like Ron Harris and Eddie McCreadie, the workhorse John Hollins and the crowd-pleasing Charlie Cooke. And on the wing there was Peter Houseman, an unsung hero who had found it hard to win over the Stamford Bridge crowd. The 1969-70 season would be his finest.

Slow recovery

Chelsea were invariably slow starters in August and 1969 was no exception, despite ending the previous campaign in good form.  They lost their first two games, both away, at Liverpool and West Ham.  A string of draws did little to convince anyone that Chelsea were title contenders and they managed to win just once in their first nine games. At the end of September, they trounced Arsenal 3-0 and put on a good display. But they were in 10th place and already nine points behind league leaders Everton. If that was a confidence booster  – Arsenal had finished fourth in 1968-69 – a Football League Cup win over Leeds United was a portent of things to come.

By Christmas, Chelsea were in excellent form and Sexton had started to see the partnership of Osgood and Hutchinson reap impressive rewards…and goals. After beating Crystal Palace 5-1 at Selhurst Park, a game in which Osgood scored four times, Chelsea were in third place, but still seven points worse off than Everton.

The Cup that cheers

Such was Chelsea’s mid-term form that Fleet Street predicted they would be a good bet for the FA Cup. With Everton firmly focused on the title and Leeds United barnstorming their way through Europe, Chelsea’s only realistic hope of silverware was the Cup – as long as they avoided Everton and Leeds.

They had gone close in the past – two semi-final defeats in 1965 and 1966, runners-up in 1967 and quarter final exits in 1968 and 1969. There was almost a psychological barrier developing.

But they easily disposed of Birmingham City in round three but a week later, they had a rude awakening when Leeds turned up in London SW6. Don Revie’s men demolished Chelsea mercilessly by 5-2 – after the Blues had led 2-1. If ever there was a game that highlighted the difference between Sexton’s entertaining side and the ruthless efficiency of Leeds, this was it. “Chelsea’s delusions of grandeur disintegrated abruptly at Stamford Bridge,” reported Hugh McIlvaney.

Meanwhile back in the Cup, Burnley were uncomfortably overcome in round four and two London derbies saw Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers beaten 4-1 and 4-2 respectively. Chelsea were in the last four and the draw was kind – Watford, conquerors of Liverpool, at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane. The other semi was between Leeds and Manchester United. Predictably, Chelsea beat Watford 5-1 but they had to wait three games to find out who they would play, Leeds eventually beating United 1-0. Visions of January 10 1970 and that 5-2 trouncing came flooding back.

Uneasy finale

Chelsea had a flurry of league fixtures to complete before they faced Leeds in the Cup Final. They put on a good show against Manchester United but they also got a little clumsy as their minds, and bodies, were tuned into Wembley.  Everton repeated what Leeds did to Chelsea’s reserve keeper, Tommy Hughes when the champions-elect won 5-2 at Goodison Park. A few days later, Chelsea were dealt another blow when Alan Hudson was injured at West Bromwich Albion, a twisted ankle. With Hudson, “find of the season” now on crutches, Sexton had to contemplate a Wembley line-up without his prodigy. Skipper Ron Harris was also injured, but nobody really expected “Chopper” to miss out.

Who would replace Hudson? Tommy Baldwin and forgotten man Alan Birchenall were both vying for a place, with the former the favourite. Baldwin, who was interesting Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, staked his claim with a goal against Tottenham in the last game before Wembley. Birchenall, who had been pushed out of the pecking order at Chelsea by Hutchinson, would miss out and was soon on his way to Crystal Palace.

Chelsea went to the Cup Final with three league games remaining. They had secured a place in Europe, but had dropped to fourth behind Brian Clough’s Derby. But they had games in hand and were one point behind the Rams.

240 minutes with Leeds

The Daily Mirror used to produce an excellent cup final supplement on the day of the big game. Inside, the newspaper featured caricatures of the finalists. Leeds looked more fearsome than Chelsea: internationals in every position. Chelsea’s capped players included Bonetti, McCreadie, Hollins, Dempsey, Cooke and the prolific Osgood – recently honoured, at long last, in Belgium. Of the Leeds side, only Paul Madeley had not won a cap – yet.

Sexton juggled his line-up and brought in Baldwin – Hudson couldn’t get fit in time for the game. Leeds had to shuffle, too, with Madeley in for Paul Reaney, the England full-back who broke his leg in the run-up to the final.

Leeds had conceded their title to Everton, but they were also chasing the European Cup and still had a semi-final second leg with Celtic to negotiate.

The game, played on an atrocious pitch, should have been Leeds’. They outplayed Chelsea for long periods and only Peter Bonetti prevented Leeds from running up a healthy score. But this Chelsea side could be very resilient at times and each time Leeds scored (Jack Charlton and Mick Jones), they came back to level through Peter Houseman and Ian Hutchinson. Not even extra time could settle it, so the final went to a replay.

This gave time to get Alan Hudson fit, but once again, it was to no avail. Leeds took up where they left off at Wembley in the Old Trafford replay, but Chelsea had a harder edge this time, thanks to switching Harris to full back to take on Eddie Gray and putting Webb in the centre half role. The game was X-certificate material, just watch the DVD to see some of the systematic brutality that took place. Leeds went ahead again, Jones shooting past an injured Bonetti, but Osgood leveled with his 31st of the campaign, a majestic diving header.

Again extra time was called upon and it was left to Webb, so tormented by Gray in the first game, to nudge the ball home from a trademark “Hutchinson hurl”. Leeds were exasperated and beaten. Chelsea just wouldn’t give up. After almost 65 years, they had won the FA Cup!

The real thing

Chelsea strengthened their squad with the acquisition of the coveted Keith Weller from Millwall in the summer. Pundits predicted a serious title bid in 1970-71 but once more, Chelsea lacked the consistency and discipline needed to take on Leeds and co. week-in, week-out. The line-up that won the Cup never played together again – Hutchinson’s career was dogged by injury, Cooke was sent off to Palace in 1972, Bonetti missed large chunks of 1970-71 through injury and illness, Hudson never quite regained the verve of 1970 and Osgood had something of a dry run, not to mention a lengthy suspension. In 1971, however, they reached the European Cup Winners Cup and beat Real Madrid 2-1 after a 1-1 draw. It was Leeds all over again!

It all started to go wrong in 1971-72. A poor start saw Sexton transfer-list Osgood, much to the disgust of Chelsea regulars, but by mid-season, he was back to his 1970 form and Chelsea were climbing the table, playing some great football once more. They reached the Football League Cup final after a titanic struggle with Tottenham in the semi-final but were beaten, surprisingly, by Stoke City. A week earlier, they had been knocked-out of the FA Cup by Orient, after leading 2-0. League form, which had been building nicely and hinted at claiming a place in Europe again, became inconsistent and they finished seventh.

It is not exaggerating to say that from February 26 1972, life was never the same for Chelsea. In that close season, they unveiled a ground redevelopment plan that was ambitious, far-sighted and expensive. But the macroeconomic environment (words that were not used in 1972) went against them – the age of strikes, power-cuts, three-day weeks – and Chelsea found themselves strapped for cash. By 1974, the two cup wins were a memory and the team of Ossie, Hudson, Cooke and Chopper had largely imploded. They were relegated in 1974-75 and thus began a decade characterized by financial crisis, relegations and off-field problems.


Can the side of the Sexton era be compared to more recent and more successful Chelsea teams? And could that team have had a crack at the League Championship? In truth, they were a cup side, a team that could raise its game on a one-off basis but not sustain their form for long periods. Between 1964 and 1972, Chelsea finished outside the top six just twice, reached eight semi-finals and five finals, winning three. While they could beat the best at times, they could also lose to the most average teams, especially away from home. There was, needless to say, an element of self-destruction about them.

There’s no doubt that the 1970 side was the club’s best of that era, but Sexton’s record in the transfer market warrants some investigation. Chelsea never pulled off a coup in the market in the days when they could afford it – they were the second or third best supported club in this period.  Players like Weller (after an initial burst of goals), Chris Garland, Steve Kember and Bill Garner were never comparable to players at some of the leading clubs, although only Garner was seriously out of his depth. Chelsea were never quite in the same league as Leeds, Liverpool and Arsenal and Sexton was certainly no Clough. He was a progressive coach, a purist and a decent fellow who deserves credit for winning two major prizes. He got the best out of his team for a while, until it all went horribly wrong….on and off the field of play.

“When I see people drinking out of the FA Cup after they have won it, I think about what we did in that tin pot after we beat Leeds, and it makes me smile,” – Peter Osgood, 1993

This article is dedicated to the members of the 1970 team that are no longer with us: Peter Houseman (1945-1977); Ian Hutchinson (1948-2002); Peter Osgood (1947-2006); and of course, Dave Sexton (1930-2012).


One thought on “Despite the current era, Sexton’s Chelsea stand the test of time

  1. That was a fascinating read – thank you. 1969/70 was my first season as a regularly attending young football fan with Orient FC, who got promoted from the Third Division just as Chelsea found their way to Wembley. There were a couple of links between the respective clubs, in the shape of former employees Sexton and Webb, and I enjoyed Chelsea’s cup success, especially as they played the game with so much technical skill and panache. I had little idea back then of the friction between Sexton and the likes of Osgood and Hudson, but with the benefit of hindsight it now seems rather incredible that the team achieved so much in spite of it. I also didn’t know how significant the month of February 1972 was for Chelsea, because for me it was all about my team’s shock achievement in the most memorable game of football I’ve ever seen at muddy Brisbane Road. Most remarkable of all perhaps for me is that I’ve recently read how outstanding Osgood had been as a young player, prior to his leg being broken in 1966. For me, he was always a high class, gifted and stylish player, albeit at the very highest level for probably a rather shorter period of time, injuries notwithstanding, than he ought to have been. But, like everything else that we enjoy, we should be grateful for what we get because it won’t last forever.

    Once again, this was great stuff and it brought back some lovely memories for me in my favourite era for football.

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