AT THE mid-point of the 1977-78 season, FA Cup success and avoiding relegation was all Chelsea could hope for – a far cry from the early 1970s when the Blues, under Dave Sexton, won two trophies and reached three consecutive cup finals.

An over-ambitious rebuilding project contributed to Sexton’s downfall and in 1974, the departure of Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson ripped the heart from the team. Despite receiving half a million pounds from their sale, Chelsea never replaced them. Sexton left just seven months after chairman Brian Mears had backed his manager in the Osgood-Hudson affair, and the club limped-on in 1974-75, eventually appointing Eddie McCreadie. In some ways, making a change with three games to go hinted the board had accepted relegation.

McCreadie, with his shades, slimline cigar and well-groomed appearance, looked very much of his time. He provided motivational soundbites and emphasised his faith in players he had worked with in the reserves by making 18 year-old Ray ‘Butch’ Wilkins his captain.

In 1975-76, Chelsea struggled with consistency in the second division and then came more bad news in the summer of 1976. The club’s relegation and falling gates meant Chelsea’s financial position had become precarious. This made the 1976-77 season vital for their survival, although Steve Finnieston, a member of the squad whose career straddled the Osgood-Hudson era and the crisis, was sceptical about talk of the club going under. “I have always felt there was no way Chelsea would have been allowed to fold.”

The players took a pay cut and promotion was won, thanks to some bright, inventive football. But for the second successive summer, the club made the wrong type of headlines: McCreadie, the architect of promotion, resigned over his personal terms of employment.

Tommy Langley, like most of the squad, was on holiday when the news broke: “We never even got to say goodbye to Eddie. It was a big blow, but we should have been able to handle it because Ken Shellito was his successor, someone we knew so well.”

Chelsea returned to the first division, but found the transition difficult. Finnieston was injured early on and goals were hard to come by. Shellito raided the club’s young talent pool, a decision that brought some temporary relief, notably when the 19-year-old Clive Walker started for the first time.

This was a player whose reputation had been growing. He had scored prolifically in the reserves in 1976-77 and the handful of people who watched Football Combination games had been muttering about “a young lad who scores spectacular goals and runs like an Olympic sprinter”.

Walker inspired a mid-season flourish for Chelsea in 1977-78 just in time for the FA Cup. There was a snag, though, as the third-round draw had paired the Blues with Liverpool, the Football League and European champions, who were formidable in every sense of the word. “We were never in awe of them,” said Finnieston. “We respected them, but we truly believed that on our day we could beat anyone.”

But Chelsea would have to go into the game without their prized asset, England international Wilkins. Ironically, his absence had coincided with Chelsea’s best spell of the season. He was unfit, so Shellito brought in the veteran Charlie Cooke.

Ray Lewington remembers Shellito made a significant tactical change. “We adjusted our game plan. We normally played a diamond formation, but we went slightly more defensive with a 4-4-2 line-up. But we had Clive [Walker] and he proved to be the match winner on the day.”

Liverpool kicked off and looked very assured. Chelsea lacked nothing in energy and were clearly “up for the Cup”. In the 16th minute, Walker threw the ball to Bill Garner, who controlled it and returned it. Walker went past Jones and forced Phil Thompson to flinch and get out of his way. He then unleashed a left-foot drive that completely caught Ray Clemence out. “I am sure Ray misjudged it,” recalls Walker. “The shot had a slight swerve – it was something I did, I almost always hit my shots across the ball and this time, the timing and power were absolutely right.”

Chelsea were still a goal ahead at the interval, but the crowd anticipated a second half onslaught. Five minutes into the restart, though, Chelsea extended their lead, Walker deftly chipping a free-kick into the area, Phil Neal only partially clearing and the substitute Finnieston, who had replaced Cooke, shooting low past Clemence. “Jock was brilliant at finishing in the box and that loose ball was made for him – he hit it so well.”

Within two minutes of that second goal, the game became even more surreal with Chelsea’s third. Ian Britton, scurrying down the flank, slipped past Emlyn Hughes but Neal robbed him with a back pass that lacked power, and the eager Langley nipped in and clipped the ball into the net, over the goalkeeper’s sprawling body. “Phil played it back blind and was made to pay for it. But we knew it wasn’t all over,” said Langley. He believes Liverpool “woke up” after that third goal. David Johnson walked the ball into the net after 60 minutes to make it 3-1, but then Walker added a fourth five minutes later.

Britton sent over a cross that fell onto the chest of Bill Garner. He unselfishly slipped the ball to his left, finding Walker who shot home from close range with his left boot. “I knew that was it, then. There were 25 minutes to go and we were 4-1 ahead. They were not coming back,” said Walker. Liverpool did score again, though, an 81st minute header from Kenny Dalglish. Nobody had foreseen a 4-2 win for Chelsea.

In the next round of the FA Cup in 1978, Chelsea disposed of Burnley 6-2. The fifth-round draw was relatively kind, an away tie at Orient, but after a 0-0 draw, they slipped up at home, losing 2-1. Staying up was the priority and a few weeks later Chelsea beat Liverpool again, this time 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea finished 17th at the end of the season, but a year later went down after an appalling campaign.

On the evening of January 7, 1978, however, Fulham Road was buzzing. On the short walk back to the tube station, shuffling through the papier-mâché of discarded newspapers and police horse dung, Liverpool’s fans were visibly shocked. “No disrespect pal, but shipping four goals to a team like Chelsea is an absolute disgrace.” There was disrespect in his tone and, if only he realised it, theirs really was no disgrace.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA