You Just Can’t Ban A Chelsea Fan – Eddie McCreadie’s Blue & White Army (Part 2)
I have read accounts of this day, and the build up, that differ slightly from mine, perhaps unsurprising given that it was over 34 years ago. This is as I remember it, assisted slightly by two of those I was there with, The Driver and The Curator.
Saturday 7th May 1977. A key date in my own Chelsea history and from a strictly personal point of view, part of probably the best weekend ever. A point at table-topping Wolves would mean promotion back to the First Division after two seasons. Chelsea were in severe financial trouble, and needed gates of 40,000 to break even, so promotion was essential. Some of the talented young players, especially charismatic captain Ray Wilkins, already an England international, would almost certainly leave if promotion was not achieved. So, no pressure then.
Wolves had been promoted the previous week and needed a point for the title whereas Chelsea needed to win to keep slight championship chances alive. All in all, as tough a challenge as Chelsea could have had and clearly one which their thousands of loyal away fans would eagerly queue at Stamford Bridge to buy tickets for. Well, they would except for a slight hitch.
Following serious incidents at a number of away games that season, including Cardiff and Charlton, the Minister of Sport, Denis Howell, decided the Wolves game should be all-ticket with none on sale to Chelsea fans apart from a very small number of seats to season ticket holders. (According to a letter in the Hull programme the next week, it was also decided that fans should be banned from away games in Division One, though was clearly overturned as there were thousands of us at The Hawthorns the first day of the following season).
The Chelsea v Sheffield United programme the week before made the perhaps naive request that “IF YOU HAVEN’T GOT A TICKET DO NOT TRAVEL NEXT SATURDAY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES” (their capitals). They also regretted that “we shall not be organising a rail special to Wolverhampton”. Those making these blindly optimistic statements must surely have realised Chelsea fans were a resourceful lot, and a ban was not going to prevent thousands of fans, including ourselves, making sure we were at Molineux.
As it happened, and the club/police/Wolves must have anticipated, a major and extremely successful ticket buying operation had already swung into action among Chelsea fans. We had a friend of a friend in Wolverhampton who got seven tickets for us on the South Bank, the normal ‘away’ terrace. On the special train to Burnley two weeks before (for a depressing 1-0 defeat), two guys went through the carriages taking orders for Wolves tickets. One of these two guys was a well-known Chelsea face and they were 100% confident of getting as many tickets as were required. As we already had a source of tickets we didn’t take up their offer but loads of fans did. I can’t remember how the tickets were supposed to get to the purchasers and whether a ‘premium’ was charged, but unless the scheme was a major scam (and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as the guys organising it were clearly hardcore Chelsea) it was a highly effective way of getting tickets to away travellers. In the Nell Gwynne before the Sheffield United game the chant “We’re all pi**ed up and we’re going to Molineux” was heard so we knew we wouldn’t exactly be alone.
It became clear that Wolves Box Office were not stopping Londoners buying tickets, or multiple tickets being sold to individuals. Given this, and the fact that touts were selling fistfuls of Wolves tickets outside the Sheffield United home game, our expectation was that maybe 2,000 Chelsea fans would have tickets for the game. Whether we’d get in was another matter as there was a fear the police might turn Chelsea fans away (though in retrospect that would have caused a huge problem outside the ground and in town so was never going to happen).
We took two car loads up from Canterbury, our car going up the night before and staying with the family of one of our group outside town. The following day we went to a pub on the outskirts for lunch and a few beers then drove to Molineux early and parked up. We were worried we might get turned away at the ground as Chelsea fans, so the seven of us broke up into smaller groups. At a number of away games that season I wore the classic red and green away scarf but for that one it was left at home.
As we crossed the main road to go to the ground, to our right was an amazing sight. What was clearly at least a train load of Chelsea fans singing their heads off, being heavily escorted to the ground. It later turned out that British Rail and the police had accepted the inevitable and laid on two special trains on the day, in an attempt to control travelling fans. We were searched, but not challenged, by police as we entered the ground and went onto the South Bank terrace, and we didn’t see anyone being stopped from entering. We were in the ground quite early and it wasn’t clear immediately how many Chelsea fans were in the end, and where they were. The police were very sensibly attempting segregation and we were eventually directed through a line of police to the far side (to the right as you look from the pitch) where the Chelsea fans were being congregated.
There were so many Chelsea fans entering the South Bank the police lines kept having to move across to give them all room – they obviously didn’t know how many to expect. We kept well away from the police line and although it was clear there was some trouble as Chelsea fans entering the ground were filtering through Wolves fans to get to our section, it wasn’t obvious to us exactly how much. The Chelsea section ended up being enormous and a Wolves fan later told me he thought there were 6-7,000 Chelsea there, but obviously it is very difficult to be exact. There’s a photograph in the following weeks Hull programme which in the background shows a line of police right down the middle of the South Bank.
No matter what the number, it was an unbelievable turnout given that Chelsea were banned and tickets were not being sold on the day, and the result of a determined and widespread push to get hold of tickets. In the end, the crowd was 33,465, which, given that Wolves got 50,000 for a cup tie v Leeds six weeks earlier, was well below capacity. It is interesting to think exactly how many Chelsea fans would have gone, or tried to get tickets, if the ban had not been in place. 12,000? 15,000?
The game itself was scrappy. Tommy Langley gave Chelsea the lead after 16 minutes and Chelsea hung onto until Wolves equalised with 11 minutes to go. Brief highlights can be found at this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQdxBR2SP-Y . You can see footage of loads of Chelsea fans on the South Bank celebrating the goal, and it is worth remembering that not one of those fans was supposed to be in the ground. The video also shows there were quite a few Chelsea in the seats, which I’d not realised at the time.
At the end of the game, euphoria for everyone, players and fans of both teams. Promotion. First of all a few, then hundreds, then thousands of chanting and celebrating fans of both teams went on the pitch. On the video above you can hear “We all agree, Wolves and Chelsea are magic” right at the end, a song I am prepared to bet has not been heard before or since. Myself and The Curator went on the pitch along with hordes of others and for a while everything was fine, chanting and clapping. Then, sadly, it started to get a bit heavier and sporadic fighting broke out on the pitch and in the corner of the South Bank, so we decided to leave and go back to the car. Leaving the ground there were groups looking for and finding fights, the police not helped at all by the fact that fans of both teams were leaving by the same exit. We had to go under the famous subway, where inevitably bricks were thrown at us (this was a regular occurrence for away fans leaving Molineux at this time). Luckily we weren’t hit and managed to get out of the main crowd and back to the car. There was apparently serious trouble at the station, probably unsurprisingly, and it must have taken ages for all the Chelsea fans to be put on trains out of town.
Amazingly, we drove all the way back to Canterbury before having a drink, but it was a happy group that got back to college, I guess about 11.00. The title would have been nice but promotion was the main thing.
According to the Hull programme the following week, there were an astonishing 111 arrests, mainly from London. The trouble didn’t seem as bad to me as some other away games that season (Forest, Cardiff) but then we didn’t go into town before or afterwards. The Hull programme, possibly slightly missing the point, called for the government to make it an offence to sell tickets above face value (implicitly blaming touting for the problems) and says it proves all-ticket games were not the answer. Given that Chelsea had just formed an official Supporters Club, which you had to join to buy away match and special train tickets, the club clearly realised all-ticket away games were going to happen anyway. My memory of the following season is that all-ticket away games were certainly the norm, but not enforced everywhere. Anyway, every time Chelsea were banned away in the next few years many fans still found ways of getting tickets, almost as a point of honour.
Given the success Chelsea have had over the past 15 years it is often forgotten what a superb achievement promotion (in 2nd place) that season was. A mostly young team of almost exclusively home-grown players performed magnificently against a backdrop of a totally skint club with a real threat of going under. The inexperienced kids were helped by veterans Peter Bonetti, Ron Harris (regular substitute and brought back for last the ten games) and Charlie Cooke (brought back for the last six games) but the regular team of Peter Bonetti; Gary Locke, Steve Wicks, David Hay, Graham Wilkins; Ian Britton, Garry Stanley, Ray Wilkins, Ray Lewington; Ken Swain, Steve Finnieston deserved enormous credit, especially for their attractive football and fighting spirit. Much of the credit of course, should go to the dynamic, decisive and charismatic Eddie McCreadie, whose faith in his young team was amply repaid.
It was my first regular season watching Chelsea home and away and it was a real roller-coaster ride. I’m not a sentimental person but the appearance of any of those eleven players (or squad players such as Mickey Droy, John Sparrow, John Phillips or Tommy Langley) on the pitch at half time with Neil Barnett always brings a lump to my throat.
So, a great Saturday and celebrations continued on the Sunday. On the Monday, however, the other half of the best weekend ever. Off to The Rainbow in Finsbury Park with The Curator for another historic encounter. The Clash, The Jam, The Buzzcocks, Subway Sect & The Prefects on one bill – the biggest punk concert yet. I had seen The Jam a couple of times in tiny venues but never seen The Clash or Buzzcocks. This is a football site so I won’t bang on about it, except to say that 34 years on it is still the best line-up I have ever seen, with an absolutely electric atmosphere (and loads of Ted bouncers to give things an uncomfortable edge), and rounded off a perfect weekend.
Postscript . Back in Division One. No money but with a cracking team that worked so hard for each other, so much to look forward to. Ludicrously, that euphoria was shattered within weeks when what Chairman Brian Mears has blithely called ‘a pay dispute’ with McCreadie led to the latter to walk out during the summer break. The popularly accepted story was that Bobby Campbell, manager of Division Two Fulham, had a company car and McCreadie, who didn’t, understandably wanted parity with his neighbour. Mears wouldn’t give him one due to the club’s financial position so Eddie Mac went. With him seemed to go much of the spirit in the club. Within two years Chelsea had gone through two more managers, many of the young players had moved on and the club had been relegated. Rightly or wrongly, Mears was never forgiven by the fans. It would be 1983 and the days of Dixon, Nevin, Speedie, etc. before things began to look up for Chelsea under a different regime. That, however, is another story. The fact that Eddie Mac (as far as I am aware) has not been back to the club since he walked out is such a shame given what he achieved both as player and manager.
Aside. I have now done three 70/80’s away reminiscence pieces and will be giving them a rest for a while, although I plan to do some more in a couple of months including WBA and Man Utd (both 77/8). I am currently working on some more reflective/analytical pieces – rounding off research on the last days of Tommy Docherty, analysing the number of youth team players who have come through to the 1st team since the late 50’s and also trying to pull together an analysis on Season Ticket inflation since the 60’s. That lot will keep me out of mischief for several weeks. PS If anyone has any memories of supporting Chelsea under The Doc’s reign they’d like to share with me, I’d love to hear from you.