Docherty’s Diamonds: the innovative Chelsea side that lit up the early 1960s

Docherty’s Diamonds: the innovative Chelsea side that lit up the early 1960s

When 24 April arrived in 2018, it marked a date that should be recognised and celebrated by the footballing community. It heralded the 90th birthday of a true legend of the game – the one and only Tommy Docherty. Of all the managers who dominated the back pages of the national press in the 1960s, he is the sole survivor.

He has outlived all of his major rivals from those times – Sir Matt Busby, Harry Catterick, Don Revie, Bill Nicholson and Bill Shankly amongst others – yet whilst the achievements of his contemporaries are often extolled, Tommy Docherty’s contribution to the game is unfairly overlooked.

Docherty’s supposed indiscretions – financial, legal and personal – have combined to detract from his legacy when compared to the allegedly high moral standards set by the likes of Busby, Nicholson and Shankly. Yet, in my opinion, he designed the blueprint for the modern manager and nowhere was this more apparent than in the Chelsea team he constructed that thrilled supporters with their innovative, thrilling style of open attacking football that made Stamford Bridge the place to be at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in the first half of the 1960s.

At the start of 1961, Docherty was 32 years old and playing as a wing half for Arsenal. When it became clear that Arsenal were prepared to listen to offers for him, Docherty was insistent that they would be the last club he would ever play for. He had no desire to continue extending his playing career in the lower divisions. For Docherty it was never an option.

His time in football had brought him into contact with some exceptional managers such as Jimmy Hogan, Matt Busby and Ron Greenwood, who had piqued his interest in the tactical development of the game. He was already preparing for the end of his playing career by working with non-league Barnet as a coach two nights per week. He now needed to find the right opportunity. It would be closer than he thought.

Chelsea had won the title at the end of the 1954/55 season for the first time in their history. The side was managed by Ted Drake, the ex-Arsenal and England forward. However, this success was neither consolidated or developed.

Chelsea were invited to participate in the inaugural European Cup as England’s representatives. The club were keen to grab this opportunity but amazingly allowed themselves to be bullied out of participating by the authoritarian and xenophobic Football League secretary Alan Hardaker who stated that “it was not in the best interests of the league”.

It is worth restating that in his time, Hardaker had relocated the headquarters of the national game from Preston to the sleepy township of Lytham St Annes in Lancashire, which did not even have a Football League team. One can only speculate as to how the footballing future of Chelsea would have benefited from their involvement in Europe. The following season they finished 16th and never climbed above 11th place in the following three campaigns. By the end of the 1959/60 season, relegation was avoided by a mere three points.

As the decline in the club’s playing fortunes continued during the 1960/61 season, the Chelsea board decided to make an appointment which was to the change the fortunes of the club in the long term. The Chelsea board were concerned that the manager, Ted Drake, needed an assistant to work more closely with the playing staff. Drake himself appeared to have little direct contact with the team due to “his office being too far away from the training facilities”. In January 1961, the Chelsea board announced that they were looking to appoint a first team coach to work with the manager.

Docherty himself was surprised to read in the Daily Mail that he had asked Arsenal for permission to apply for the Chelsea post. He hadn’t but he decided to pursue the opportunity. Joe Mears, the Chelsea chairman, had approached Walter Winterbottom, the England manager, to ask who he would recommend for the position. He proffered two names; Jimmy Adamson of Burnley and Tommy Docherty.

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In keeping with the traditions of those times, Tommy submitted his hand-written application on Basildon Bond paper. Mears also realised that the club needed to be shaken out of its complacent ways as they were sleepwalking towards an inevitable relegation.

Adamson was involved in helping Burnley to progress in the European Cup so could not be considered. Docherty was called to attend an interview with Mears and three other directors, one of whom was a certain Mr Pratt. He and Docherty were to be at loggerheads in later years. Strangely, the manager, Ted Drake, was not part of the process to appoint his assistant coach. The concept of the Swinging Sixties had yet to establish itself in British society and it was still a period where deference to one’s elders and betters was the prevailing norm.

Docherty during the interview process cut straight to the chase, showing scant respect for his interrogators. When asked about the shortcomings of the Chelsea defence, he quipped that “a jellyfish has more shape”. When Mr Pratt asked, “Is there anything you are not good at?”, Docherty swiftly responded; “Failure”. Mears liked what he heard. He was looking for somebody to shake Chelsea out of their institutional lethargy and he offered the job to Docherty via a phone call that same evening.

When Docherty arrived home, he reflected on the final question that Mears had put to him: “Do you have ambitions to manage?” Seeing as he was being interviewed for a coaching role, it seemed a strange question. The purpose of the query was to become obvious within seven months.

Meanwhile, Arsenal agreed to release him from his playing contract and, in mid-February , the ‘Doc’ headed for Stamford Bridge. He was looking forward to working with Drake, though the feeling was not mutual. Drake’s first words were telling: “I didn’t want you here, I wanted Vic Buckingham.”

At the end of the 1960/61 season, Chelsea fans were not surprised when Jimmy Greaves left the club to join Italian giants AC Milan for a fee of £80,000. It is frequently forgotten by football fans the impact that he made at Chelsea, such is his association with Tottenham. During his career with the club, he amassed the remarkable record of 124 goals from 157 league games.

Without their premier goalscorer, Chelsea were always going to struggle. Fortunately, Docherty was aware that Chelsea had a talented crop of youngsters on their books. They had won the FA Youth Cup in both 1960 and 1961. Some of these players, such as Peter Bonetti, Ron Harris, Terry Venables, Bert Murray and Bobby Tambling, had already broken through to the first team. Nevertheless, Docherty knew that there was a chasm between achievement at youth level and success in the first team as indicated by the failure of hot prospect Gordon Bolland, who had been the leading scorer with 15 and seven goals in those Youth Cup victories yet only made one first team appearance before being released.

Chelsea made a disastrous start to the 1961/62 campaign, winning just one of their first six matches. After they lost 4-0 away to Blackpool at the end of September, Drake was dismissed. Docherty was asked to take temporary charge, and he was given the job on a permanent basis in January 1962. He was unable to save Chelsea from relegation as they finished bottom of the table with 28 points, conceding 94 goals in the process.

However, he had already started to make changes which would offer the club a much brighter future. Docherty had made Peter Bonetti the first-choice goalkeeper at the age of just 18, replacing the veteran Reg Matthews, and had replaced the ageing Sillett brothers at full-back with youth products Allan Harris and Ken Shellito. In midfield he had handed responsibility to the 17-year-old Terry Venables.

Up front, Bobby Tambling and Barry Bridges, both youth products and still under the age of 20, scored 19 league goals between them. In an equally significant move he recruited Dave Sexton – who was acquiring a reputation as an innovative coach – as his assistant in February.

Despite the relegation, the board maintained their confidence in Docherty and he was convinced that once his rebuilding of the squad had been completed, he would have a side capable of challenging for honours. Towards the end of the season, he completed the signing of the East Stirlingshire full-back Eddie McCreadie for £5,000 and he was to form an essential part of Docherty’s plans. His fellow teammates were not so impressed by his poor eyesight, giving him the moniker Clarence after the cross-eyed lion in the TV series Daktari.

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Docherty had been profoundly influenced by the Brazilian teams that had won the World Cup in both 1958 and 1962. He studied their formation and tactics in depth and he loved the way they used overlapping full-backs to broaden their attacking options, using an innovative 4-3-3 formation. He was confident that he could develop this system with his young, impressionable charges.

He encouraged Bonetti to initiate attacks by throwing the ball out to his teammates rather than lumping it forward. Second division defenders were not familiar with this type of fast, counter-attacking play and struggled to cope.

Chelsea duly made an impressive start to the season to the 1962/63. By Christmas, they were seven points clear at the top with Bridges and Tambling scoring goals for fun, and the new-look defence featuring full-backs Shellito and McCreadie were conceding less than one goal a game. It seemed that nothing could stop the Chelsea juggernaut. Except the weather.

At the start of 1963, Britain was in the grip of the worst winter in years, meaning that Chelsea did not play another league game for six weeks. They resumed in late February and proceeded to lose their next five fixtures. Suddenly, Chelsea now found themselves in a pack of teams including Stoke, Sunderland, Leeds and Middlesbrough. They managed to get back to winning ways at home, taking maximum points from five out of six games at the end of March to keep themselves in contention. Promotion would boil down to three key encounters, two of them against their main rivals.

On 11 May, a crowd of over 66,000 packed into the Bridge for the clash with league leaders Stoke. The recently recalled 18-year-old Ron Harris was tasked with man marking the legendary Stanley Matthews. His tackling was so brutal at times that even Chelsea fans started to boo him. The legend of Chopper Harris was born. Matthews had the last laugh, though, Stoke won 1-0.

Chelsea now travelled to Sunderland, who only needed a draw to ensure promotion. Chelsea had lost their last five away league fixtures and Docherty, feeling experience would be the key, recalled both Derek Kevan and Frank Upton to the side. With the game played in a howling wind, Chelsea produced a defensive masterclass to sneak a 1-0 win, the game being broadcast live on BBC Radio. Tommy Harmer scored the winner but the body part he used is still the subject of some debate.

Chelsea now had to win their final fixture at home to Portsmouth, three days later, to ensure a return to the top division. An expectant crowd of 55,000 packed the terraces as Derek Kevan scored after three minutes to pave the way for a convincing 7-0 victory. Bobby Tambling added four to bring his season’s total to 35.

The team scored 81 goals but the defence had improved considerably, only conceding 42 goals compared to 94 the previous season. Ken Jones from the Daily Mirror described it as a “Night of football fantasy that could only happen at Stamford Bridge”. Already the image of ‘Docherty’s Diamonds’ was starting to take hold in the media.

Docherty brought in Marvin Hinton, a defender from Charlton, for £35,000 for his “uncanny knack of reading the game”. Chelsea quickly established themselves as a top five team, just behind the main title contenders. Bonetti, still only 22, was emerging as one of the best goalkeepers in the country. The back four of Shellito, McCreadie, Harris and Mortimore were solid and uncompromising but capable of launching swift counter-attacks. Venables pulled the strings in midfield and Blunstone and Murray provided the crosses for Bridges and Tambling to continue to deliver the goals.

They finished the season in fifth place with Tambling once again leading the way with 27 goals. Fortunately for Docherty, Tambling, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, never considered giving up the game as his contemporary Peter Knowles would in a few years’ time.

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By the start of the 1964/65 season, the Swinging Sixties was starting to take hold, especially in London. The Chelsea team with their predominance of younger, skilful players seemed at one with the prevailing culture. Even Docherty himself seemed to be the epitome of the modern, media savvy manager compared to his rivals.

Busby was 55, Shankly was 51, Catterick and Nicholson were both 45. Don Revie was only 37, but in manner and appearance seemed years older. Docherty at 36, with his sharp suits, American-style haircut and one-line quips seemed from a different planet. As the nearby King’s Road area became a magnet for fashion icons, film stars and musicians, Stamford Bridge started to attract supporters such as Richard Attenborough, Tom Courtenay and Tommy Steele.

Rodney Bewes of Likely Lads fame recalled that most young northern actors who moved to London changed their allegiance to Chelsea. It was the first time that celebrities began to attach themselves to football clubs, and Docherty’s Diamonds were the team to be associated with.

The 1964/65 season was the first occasion that football highlights were to be shown on TV. On Saturday nights, football fans could now watch Match of the Day on BBC 2 and see clubs that previously they had only been able to watch in live action. The BBC realised that they needed some box office attraction to draw in the viewers as only one game could be screened.

Arguably, Docherty and Chelsea were one of the most talked about teams in the press, therefore it was no surprise when Chelsea appeared in three of the first seven programmes, scoring 10 goals and winning all their games, justifying the BBC’s choice. The Blues were becoming the most talked about football club in England, especially with younger and female supporters.

Docherty was conscious of the need to give the Chelsea kit a more contemporary feel. He introduced a new strip which featured streamlined blue shirts and shorts with white stockings, adding numbers to the players’ shorts. He also made Bonetti the first English goalkeeper to wear an all-green ensemble, which prompted a fan on the Kop to shout out, “He looks like a bowl of pea soup.”

Instead of the traditional team photos, he invited the press to take action shots of his players in training. Docherty was creating the image of a ‘with-it’ club who any aspiring player would wish to join.

Docherty reasoned that his team was now prepared to make a serious challenge for honours. He added George Graham from Aston Villa to the side, youngsters such as John Boyle, John Hollins and Peter Houseman were handed first team opportunities, and a 17-year-old Peter Osgood was handed his debut in December.

The average age of the side was 22 by this point. Chelsea made an electrifying start to the season, winning seven of their first 10 games and drawing the other three. It became apparent that the title race was to be between three teams – Chelsea, Manchester United and the newly promoted Leeds. At the end of February, Chelsea led the way, two points ahead of Leeds and six points ahead of United with 11 games remaining.

Chelsea entered March still in with a chance of winning an incredible three trophies. The first was the League Cup final. Just like José Mourinho, Docherty knew the importance of winning that first trophy. At the time, the League Cup was not held in high regard by either the clubs or their fans. Participation was not compulsory, so teams such as Liverpool and Manchester United did not compete.

The final was a two-legged affair. On 15 March, just two days after they had lost a crucial league fixture away to Manchester United, Chelsea faced Leicester in the first leg. A meagre crowd of just over 20,000 occupied Stamford Bridge. Barry Bridges had picked up a knock and was unable to play. Most fans thought that Osgood was the obvious replacement. Except, he wasn’t.

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In an incredible gamble, Docherty opted to pick his left-back, Eddie McCreadie, as his main striker, a man who had scored just two goals in over a hundred games for the club. However, Docherty was aware that McCreadie had sometimes played up front for his previous club East Stirlingshire. Osgood was not best pleased.

One quality every manager needs is luck and Docherty had it for this game. With the game tied at 2-2 and the clock ticking down, McCreadie outpaced the chasing Leicester defenders to coolly slot the ball past Gordon Banks for the winner. The defender described it as one of the best goals ever seen at Stamford Bridge. Sadly, with no television cameras present, we have to take his word for this.

Three weeks later, Docherty selected John Boyle instead of the more creative George Graham to reinforce the defence as Chelsea held on for a 0-0 draw at Leicester, which gave the Blues the cup. It was Chelsea’s first trophy in 10 years. Of the team that played at Leicester, seven players – Bonetti, Harris, Murray, Boyle, Bridges, Tambling and Venables – had progressed from the youth ranks. The future looked bright.

Nine days earlier, however, any dreams of the treble had been shattered. Chelsea were strongly fancied to beat Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. Bill Shankly, one of the few managers of that era who could use motivational psychology to better effect than Docherty, stormed into the Liverpool changing room with a copy of a mock brochure for the FA Cup final that Venables had made for his Chelsea teammates.

Shankly fumed, “This cocky lot think they’re in the final already,” and pinned it to the wall. Suitably riled and angered, Liverpool proceeded to dominate the game and gained a 2-0 victory. Docherty claimed his players were “nervous” and “didn’t have enough experience”. He was probably right.

This lack of experience was starting to catch up with the Diamonds. They won only one of their next six league fixtures but with two games remaining they were still in with a chance of the title, if either Leeds or Manchester United were to slip up. After losing to Liverpool at Anfield on Easter Monday, Chelsea would have to win their two final fixtures away to Burnley and Blackpool.

With the next game five days away, Docherty made the momentous decision not to return to London. Instead, he arranged for the team to spend the rest of the week at the Norbreck Hydro hotel in Blackpool. Docherty intended to use this base as a training camp to prepare for the next game. Nevertheless, a week is a long time for a group of young athletes to spend cooped up in a hotel room and perhaps Docherty should have realised this.

The manager had expected his proteges to adhere to his curfew but on Wednesday night, a group of eight players – captain Venables, Bridges, Graham, McCreadie, Hollins, Murray, Hinton and Fascione – sneaked out of the hotel and returned via a fire escape in the early hours. Docherty felt let down by his players, especially Venables.

Showing a streak of impetuosity which was to characterise his career, Docherty put all eight players on the first train back to London the following morning. A more experienced and pragmatic manager might have dealt with the situation in a more measured fashion and issued any subsequent sanctions internally. Docherty was not yet that man. His authority had been challenged and his trust had been broken. He later told reporters: “I lay down the rules and if the players break them, they must take the consequences.”

Chelsea were once again front-page news but for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately, Joe Mears backed Docherty’s decision, but many football commentators felt the manager’s actions had been excessive. Fielding a team with eight reserve players, Chelsea lost 6-2 away to Burnley. The title challenge was over. Chelsea finished third in the table, five points behind United. The relationship between Docherty and his Diamonds was never the same again.

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However, finishing third in the table meant that Chelsea would be playing in Europe for the first time in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Once again, Docherty showed that he was prepared to make controversial decisions when he dropped Bridges, the club’s leading scorer, in favour of the untried and untested Peter Osgood. It was to be an inspired move as Osgood’s dazzling displays won over the crowd and, by the end of the season, Bridges was on his way to Birmingham City.

The cup campaigns were the highlight of the season. In the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, Chelsea overcame strong opposition such as Italian giants Roma and AC Milan and top West German side 1860 Munich to reach the semi-finals. In the FA Cup, Chelsea were once again to appear in another semi, and once again it was to be at Villa Park.

Chelsea were overwhelming favourites to beat relegation-threatened Sheffield Wednesday but on a quagmire of a pitch, Chelsea’s short passing game proved to be ineffective and they lost 2-0. Earlier in the season, Docherty had responded to Jimmy McCalliog’s demands for a first team opportunity by placing him on the transfer list. He had the last laugh by scoring the decisive second goal for the Sheffield side. Chelsea had now not appeared in an FA Cup final since 1915.

Four days later, Chelsea travelled to Spain to face Barcelona in a semi-final clash and were relieved to come home with only a two-goal deficit. The return leg at Stamford Bridge attracted a crowd of over 40,000. Docherty dropped his captain Venables in favour of new signing Charlie Cooke.

Once again, the gamble worked as Cooke’s deflected shot led to Chelsea’s first goal and a mistake by Barça keeper Miguel Reina, father of Pepe, led to Chelsea winning 2-0. As the sides were level on aggregate, the captains tossed a coin to decide who would have home advantage for the decider. Barcelona called correctly. It proved to be decisive as they won 5-0.

Some might have viewed a final league placing of fifth and two semi-final appearances as a successful season, particularly given the acrimonious relationship between manager and captain, Venables. Docherty didn’t and he decided to make more changes. Venables was sold to rivals Tottenham, Graham was transferred to Arsenal and Bridges left for Birmingham with Murray. Significantly all four had been involved in the Blackpool incident.

During the summer, Bonetti, McCreadie and Tambling also put in transfer requests. New signings were brought in, which included Charlie Cooke from Dundee, Tommy Baldwin from Arsenal and Joe Kirkup from West Ham. Millwall keeper Alex Stepney was added, allegedly to put Bonetti in his place, and Docherty claimed he was going to alternate them in matches, Behind the scenes, however, Docherty was to suffer a crucial blow as Joe Mears, the chairman and the manager’s greatest ally, died suddenly from a heart attack. Things were never going to be the same.

Docherty may have removed those players who were challenging his authority, but these outgoings undoubtedly weakened the team. Charles Pratt, who had clashed with Docherty as far back as his initial interview for the manger’s job, succeeded Mears as the new chairman and had resolved that Docherty’s tempestuous side would no longer be tolerated.

One of his first actions was to stop the transfer of Bonetti to West Ham, which Docherty had sanctioned. Instead, he sold Stepney to Manchester United against Docherty’s wishes. In doing so, in the space of four months, Stepney twice broke the record transfer fee for a goalkeeper.

Despite all this, Chelsea made a brilliant start to the 1966/67 campaign, remaining undefeated in their first 11 games. Osgood, arguably the last of the Docherty Diamonds, was in the form of his life but his season was brought to an end when Emlyn Hughes broke his leg in a challenge at Blackpool which ended his season. If it had not been for the swift intervention of the Chelsea club doctor it could have finished Osgood’s career.

Charlie Cooke was also thrilling fans with his array of skills but he was an individual, not a team player like Venables. Docherty, to the bewilderment of many at Chelsea, bought the tall centre forward Tony Hateley to replace Osgood from Aston Villa, but later Docherty reflected that he had been “the worst signing of my career”.

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Once again, the FA Cup proved to be Chelsea’s salvation. They defeated Leeds in highly controversial circumstances in yet another semi-final at Villa Park with their opponents having a late equaliser disallowed. Chelsea were to face Tottenham and Venables in the first ever all-London final.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the final, the Chelsea players became involved in an unsavoury dispute over bonuses, which were far below what the Tottenham team were receiving, and they were also unhappy over their ticket allocation. It was accepted practice at the time that players would earn extra cash by selling their tickets to touts such as the notorious Stan Flashman.

Docherty threatened action against any player who was caught doing this. Sadly, as he said this, the groundsman came in and said “Here’s your bag Tommy.” It was stuffed with cash; the team drew their own conclusions. The players threatened to go on strike and the matter was only resolved on the morning of the final itself. It was hardly the best preparation for such an important game. Pratt, the Chairman, was furious with both the players and Docherty.

Chelsea were outplayed in the final and the 2-1 scoreline flattered them. Venables took control of midfield and the entire Chelsea side appeared to have been overcome with nerves. Afterwards, several Chelsea players laid the blame at Docherty’s door, claiming that his change of tactics prevented them from playing their normal game. Pratt listened with intent.

Chelsea undertook a pre-season tour to Bermuda which showed Docherty at his most volatile. Whilst there, Docherty shouted his mouth off once too often to the referee and to officials of the local association. They reported Docherty’s conduct to the footballing authorities in England. The FA took time to deal with the matter, not convening until mid- October.

Meanwhile, Chelsea’s league form was causing concern as they were languishing in 19th position and had been knocked out of the League Cup by Second Division Middlesbrough.
Docherty turned up at Stamford Bridge for training to discover that the Football Association had banned him from all football for a month. Pratt ordered him to attend an emergency board meeting that afternoon. Knowing his dismissal was imminent, Docherty, not wanting to give Pratt his moment of pleasure, asked to be momentarily excused. He returned with a crate of champagne and said: “I knew what was going to happen. Say no more Mr Pratt. Have a drink instead. I resign.”

No manager before or since has dealt with their dismissal in such a fashion. It was typical Docherty and arguably the most fitting way to end his time at the club. Ironically, if he had tried harder to get along with Pratt, he would have only had to bear his interfering for a few months longer. Pratt died in March 1968.

Tommy Docherty took over a club heading towards obscurity in 1961. He led them to promotion in 1963, won the League Cup in 1965, reached an FA Cup semi-final and finished third in the League. The next season, the team ended in fifth position, played in another two semis, in the FA Cup and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. In his final season he guided Chelsea to their first cup final in 52 years. He increased Chelsea’s average home attendance from 27,000 to 37,000 at a time when attendances were declining nationally. During his time at the Bridge, Docherty spent £615,750 but recouped £776,000 – a surplus of £160,250 – illustrating what a canny operator he was.

He put Chelsea on the map and was brimful of innovative ideas. He held open days for fans and secured front page coverage for a club which had previously been too easy to ignore. He was a driven manager with a fastidious attention to detail who was years ahead of his time in embracing sports psychology and media manipulation. Docherty at Chelsea was a manager of substantial talent and vision. After his resignation, one supporter paid for a death notice in The Times: ‘In Memoriam, Chelsea Football Club, which died Oct. 6 1967, after 5 proud and glorious years.’

Brian Mears, the son of Joe Mears and a Chelsea chairman himself, said in his memoir in 2001 that Tommy Docherty deserved his own statue at Chelsea for his achievements. One day, he may finally get the tribute his success at Chelsea deserves.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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