Chelsea 1975: The fading blue army

IN APRIL 1975, Chelsea were relegated from the first division. It had been a long-time coming, given two lack-lustre campaigns that saw the break-up of a richly-talented team that had reached three cup finals in as many years and had scarcely been out of the top six since the club returned to the top flight in 1963. The 1973-74 season had ended in complete disarray as two of the club’s prized players, Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson had departed for Southampton and Stoke City respectively. This yielded Chelsea more than half a million pounds, but the giant shadow hanging over the club were the mounting debts from the construction of a new, three-tier grandstand that was supposedly the most modern in football. In other words, very little of that cash was used to build a new Chelsea team. And what money was made available was ill-spent.

In the summer of 1974, Dave Sexton bought David Hay, a versatile player from Celtic who had impressed in Scotland’s World Cup campaign. Hay was more than just decent, but Chelsea were in dire need of charismatic players to fill the gap left by Osgood and Hudson. A cut-price signing in the form of John Sissons, the former West Ham winger, was also added to the squad.


Chelsea struggled from the start of 1974-75 and there was a sense of inevitability that relegation would come at the end of the season. Players like Chris Garland, Bill Garner, Ian Hutchinson, Steve Kember, John Hollins, Ron Harris, Peter Houseman, Charlie Cooke and Peter Bonetti were reminders of the glory days, but without the icing on the cake, Chelsea looked second rate.

Dave Sexton was sacked and the club looked to former winger Frank Blunstone to take over as manager. He was working at Manchester United with ex-Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty but declined the £15,000 a year job at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea clumsily managed the role in-house until the end of the season, with Ron Suart and then Eddie McCreadie taking over.

When McCreadie was installed, the ship was almost sunk. There were three games remaining and Chelsea were one place above the drop zone. Their destiny could still be of their own making, given they had two of their three games at home, but morale was low and no amount of self-assured sound-bites – a great McCreadie trait – could save the club.

P W D L F A Pts
19 Chelsea 39 9 13 17 40 68 31
20 Tottenham 39 11 8 20 46 60 30
21 Luton Town 40 10 10 20 42 63 30
22 Carlisle United 40 11 4 25 42 59 26

The key game, arguably of the next decade, would be Chelsea’s visit to Tottenham on the penultimate Saturday of the season. McCreadie had gambled in his first week in charge, installing 18 year-old Ray “Butch” Wilkins as captain. He also brought in a young, cocky forward named Teddy Maybank. Out went old McCreadie acolytes Hollins and Kember. It was bold and hinted that McCreadie was looking beyond the current season and perhaps a second division promotion bid.

Dispensing with old heads like Hollins may also have been an indication that McCreadie didn’t want to be handling players he used to line up alongside. Chelsea lost 0-2 at Tottenham in the great relegation play-off. In fact, they failed to win the two homes games, drawing 1-1 with both Sheffield United and Everton. It was a depressing tube journey from Fulham Broadway back to central London, but McCreadie, appearing on TV on the following Monday, assured Chelsea fans that promotion would be “ no sweat”.

In August 1975, Stamford Bridge was a tired place, despite its gleaming grandstand, which looked as though a set from a Gerry Anderson show like Thunderbirds or Stingray had been transposed into the middle of an olde worlde village. Nobody really knew what Chelsea’s team would look like in 1975-76, but one thing was clear – the balance of power in London football had shifted. As well as Chelsea’s decline, Tottenham and Arsenal were also going through some soul-searching. Spurs had just stayed up and Arsenal’s Bertie Mee was coming under extreme pressure at Highbury. Queens Park Rangers, now under Dave Sexton, were developing an exciting brand of football that the former Chelsea boss would have loved to have developed at the Bridge. And West Ham had won the FA Cup and were in Europe.


McCreadie was always going to be given the benefit of the doubt by the Chelsea faithful. With his “Cossack”-sprayed hair, dark glasses and cheroot, he resembled a character from “Starsky & Hutch”. He claimed that Chelsea had the “best batch of kids in the country” when he referred to the young players at his disposal. In hindsight, this was more wishful thinking than reality. Nobody could deny, however, that Ray Wilkins was a flourishing talent, but the hopes of the club were being placed upon an 18 year-old. When Chelsea lined-up at the start of their first second division campaign since 1963 at Sunderland, this was the team:

 Player  Pos  Age  Source Apps. Pre- 75-76 Debut
Steve Sherwood Goal 21 Juniors 4 January 1972
Graham Wilkins FB 20 Juniors 6 December 1972
John Sparrow FB 18 Juniors 20 March 1974
Garry Stanley M 21 Juniors 0
Micky Droy CB 24 Slough Town 76 February 1971
John Dempsey CB 29 Fulham 144 February 1969
Ian Britton M 21 Juniors 46 December 1972
Ray Wilkins M 18 Juniors 24 October 1973
Teddy Maybank A 18 Juniors 3 April 1975
Bill Garner A 27 Southend United 61 September 1972
Charlie Cooke M 32 Crystal Palace 278 May 1966
Kenny Swain Sub 23 Wycombe Wands. 7 March 1974

The average age was under 25. Chelsea lost their opening game, but two wins at Stamford Bridge by 3-1, against Oxford United and Carlisle United were promising. But it was soon clear that Chelsea didn’t have the experience or the balance to mount a promotion campaign. While Ray Wilkins had the vision and, to quote that Italian footballing “rainmaker”, Gigi Peronace, “fantasy” in his play, you could see his occasional frustration as his team-mates failed to move in sync with him.

Chelsea’s evaporating promotion hopes were reflected in the home form and the attendances that went with it. Chelsea won five of their 11 league fixtures at Stamford Bridge leading up the new year and the average gate was barely 20,000. If the alarm bells were not ringing on the terraces, they certainly were in the boardroom, because it was well known the club needed 30,000 to break even.

Every week seemed to bring a new low, or at least confirmation of the club’s new surroundings. York, Nottingham Forest, Bristol City, Bolton, Plymouth and Charlton all came away from London SW6 with points, while on the road, Chelsea’s form was also in need of improvement. Oldham Athletic, Fulham, Luton and Southampton all inflicted defeat upon McCreadie’s side, and with each loss, cries of “Osgood, Osgood….” and even “Sexton, Sexton”, could be heard.

McCreadie still had utmost belief in his “Kids” and claimed that when they returned to the first division, they would “terrorrise” football. But the only thing about Chelsea that was “terrorising” was the unsavoury element among the fans on some away trips. To some extent, it was the 1975-76 season that built a reputation.

At one point, people did start to question whether the talk about Chelsea’s great youth policy and a generation of players that could dominate football was just that. McCreadie was certainly more Docherty than Sexton but the bookies clearly believed it too – Chelsea were 4-1 favourites from the start, although by December, it was becoming clear that it was not going to happen.

Taking shape

Not many of the class of 1975 became top players and some had been kicking around the club for a few seasons. Sherwood was soon dropped to make way for Peter Bonetti, who returned from the US to help steady things. Graham Wilkins and John Sparrow were never more than average defenders, indeed the former suffered greatly from being “bro of Butch”. Ian Britton was a busy and loyal Chelsea man but disappeared from view when he left the club. Maybank was soon dispensed with, making way for another player who had been sitting in the shadows for a few years, Steve Finnieston. After an excellent season in 1976-77, Chelsea let “Super Jock” go in 1978 and his career went nowhere, largely due to injury. Gary Locke was another player like Britton who enjoyed a long Chelsea career. The real successes of the Chelsea side were Ray Wilkins, Kenny Swain and Steve Wicks, all of whom were sold to help bolster the bank account. Garry Stanley, who had to wait so long for recognition at the club, was also sold for a sizeable fee, but he had lost his way at Chelsea by that time.

Chelsea finished a very tepid mid-table in the second division in 1975-76 but their form in the last few weeks suggested better times. In the summer of 1976, though, there was a huge bombshell as Brian Mears, the club’s increasingly forlorn-looking chairman, revealed the extent of the club’s financial position. Chelsea were almost finished – promotion would have to be won in 1976-77.

McCreadie did get it right, but there was some recognition that the old hands like Ron Harris, Bonetti, Cooke and David Hay could play a part. It wasn’t quite “you win nowt with kids”, but the secret to success in football has always been that old cliché, “a blend of youth and experience”.

1977 was only temporary respite for Chelsea. McCreadie left after winning promotion in an argument over a contract and a car. Chelsea seemed to let him go without a fight. They went down again in 1979 and thus began an “era of nothing”. Between 1975 and 1984, Chelsea spent seven years in the old second division. Hard to believe today, isn’t it?


Photo: PA

The spirit of ’77 fades away – Ray Wilkins

APRIL 23 1975. A few days earlier, Ray Wilkins had been appointed captain of Chelsea. The Blues had lost 2-0 at Tottenham and the writing was on the wall. I was in the City of London, having an interview with Barclays Bank and decided to visit Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Sheffield United. It was looking desperate for the club I had supported since I was eight years old.

I walked along Fulham Road from the tube station and saw a youthful, thoughtful-looking man with a kit bag. It was Ray Wilkins. “Good luck tonight, Butch,” I said, trying to give the impression I was on more than nodding terms with the new skipper of the club. “Thanks, son. We’ll do our best,” came the reply. He was barely a year or so older than me.

For the next two seasons, at the least, Ray Wilkins was the hero of Stamford Bridge. An old head on young shoulders, he captained Chelsea to promotion in 1977 before leaving in the summer of 1979 for Manchester United.

Wilkins was the much-needed successor to Peter Osgood as the “king of Stamford Bridge”. The fans chanted the song usually reserved for Ossie, who had left the club just over a year before Wilkins was handed the job to lead Eddie McCreadie’s team of promising youngsters and remainers from the golden age of the early 1970s.

There was no doubt he had talent – vision, accuracy, a hard shot and the ability to take responsibility for his team. In fact, Wilkins had so much of the latter laid upon him that it was a wonder he didn’t buckle under the pressure. It wasn’t just on the field that pressure came, it was also from the boardroom, where the club was sinking under the weight of debt – a financial burden that almost killed Chelsea.

There was a tendency of “give it to Butch” as the team grappled with winning back a place in the first division, seen as a prerequisite for the club’s survival, but McCreadie’s youngsters, despite a few wobbles, won promotion with a style of football that delighted the fans, pushing the average attendance up to a very respectable 31,000.

Chelsea were so proud of Ray Wilkins when he was capped by England, it was symbolic in suggesting talent could still be found in London SW6 – arguably the best home-grown player since Jimmy Greaves, they said – and that the club, which was wallowing in second division mid-table, was still alive and kicking.

In those days, Wilkins was an attacking force, but he didn’t have the pace to continue in that role, especially after a couple of injuries. In 1976-77, a season held in great affection by Chelsea fans of a certain age, Wilkins was outstanding, scoring and creating goals for his team-mates. We all knew, with Chelsea’s huge and crippling debt, he would be on his way at some point.

That came after Chelsea’s limitations on the field had been cruelly exposed in 1978-79, which prompted more speculation that Wilkins might be sold in mid-season to provide the funds needed to rebuild the team and stave off relegation. Chelsea kept hold of their prized asset, but when relegation came, it was accepted that he would not return to the second division.

Manchester United paid £ 850,000 for the 25-year-old, reuniting Wilkins with his old boss at Chelsea, Dave Sexton. Under Sexton, he became a more defensive, cautious player, but then the hopes of the entire team and support base were no longer dependent on him. He was part of a star-studded United team until he departed for AC Milan in 1984.

Winning  84 England caps, Wilkins had an excellent career and it was good to see him return to Chelsea in some capacity. In fact, Carlo Ancelotti revealed that his role was more influential than people might have realised: “Ray is one of those select few, always present, noble in spirit, a real blue-blood, Chelsea flows in his veins … without him we wouldn’t have won a thing.”

Chelsea fans will undoubtedly remember the teenaged, liberated midfielder, sweeping forward, picking out a runner on the flank or coming up behind the frontmen of Finnieston and Swain to take a pot shot from outside the penalty area. He was a genuine, much-appreciated and much-needed talent.

Words: Neil Fredrik Jensen
Photo: PA