The emperors of Athens: how Chelsea won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1971

The emperors of Athens: how Chelsea won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1971

At the end of the 1954/55 season, Chelsea had been crowned champions of England for the first time in their history, and they were invited to participate in the inaugural European Cup tournament that had been created for the following season. It was a unique chance for the Blues to establish themselves as one of the leading teams in Europe.

Chelsea, for reasons that are still not fully understood today, allowed themselves to be bullied by the xenophobic Football League secretary, Alan Hardaker, and complied with his instruction not to compete, allowing Hibernian to take their spot from Scotland. The following season, Manchester United’s Matt Busby was immune to Hardaker’s intransigence and ignored his edict, leading the first English team to play in the competition.

In colluding with Hardaker’s myopia, the Chelsea board had made a catastrophic error of judgement. The opportunity to compete in the original version of the European Cup never materialised again. Within just six seasons they were playing in Division Two and their star striker, Jimmy Greaves, had been whisked off to Italy.

In April 1970, Chelsea had overcome their nemesis and bitter rivals Leeds to claim their first ever FA Cup after a replay. As a result, they would make their debut in the Cup Winners’ Cup. The loyal supporters on the Shed could look forward to a future with unbridled optimism, as could the celebrities set who flaunted their egos at the Bridge. Chelsea were the team of the moment.

The side that triumphed in the final was strengthened by the return of precocious teenage tyro Alan Hudson, who had missed the end of the season through injury, and the addition of the highly-rated winger, Keith Weller. Chelsea had shown themselves to be comfortable when playing European opponents having progressed to the semi-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1965, losing in a playoff to Barcelona. Chelsea had won every domestic honour; it was now time to add a European trophy to the cabinet.

The optimism that greeted the arrival of the 1970/71 season didn’t last long. Chelsea were defeated at home by Everton in the Charity Shield and Manchester United dispatched them from the League Cup in October. The Blues’ supposed title challenge never really materialised and they ended the season in sixth.

Chelsea had been plagued by inconsistency, and star striker Peter Osgood was banned for eight weeks as part of an FA crackdown on betting. To compound their misery, the defence of the FA Cup didn’t progress beyond the fourth round as Manchester City humiliated Chelsea at the Bridge with a crushing 3-0 defeat. The optimism that greeted the arrival of the new season threatened to be replaced by despondency.

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The only trophy left for Chelsea was the Cup Winners’ Cup, and the club were making excellent progress in the tournament as they dispatched Aris Salonika, CSKA Sofia and Club Brugge to claim their place in the semi-finals. The other sides at this stage were Real Madrid, holders Manchester City and PSV Eindhoven. After their disastrous cup debacle, it was perhaps Sod’s law that Chelsea would face their English rivals.

Both sides were decimated by injury problems for the tie. with Chelsea missing goalkeeper Peter Bonetti, Eddie McCreadie, Ian Hutchinson and Osgood. City were lacking their most prolific forwards in Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee, as well as influential midfielder Colin Bell. Dave Sexton, the Chelsea manager, gambled on a new forward pairing of defender David Webb and the relatively unknown South African, Derek Smethurst, who wrote himself into Chelsea folklore by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win.

For the return leg at Maine Road, Chelsea were boosted by the return of Bonetti, while City, although strengthened by the availability of Summerbee, had lost the services of goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, which proved to be decisive. Big Joe’s replacement, the inexperienced Ron Healey, endured a miserable night.

Just before half-time, with City pressing for the opening goal, Chelsea were awarded a free-kick. Keith Weller hadn’t noticed the referee signalling that it was indirect so hit it directly towards the goal. In attempting to make a save, Healey clumsily fumbled the ball into the net to give Chelsea the lead and a decisive away goal. If the ‘keeper had left the shot the goal wouldn’t have counted. Chelsea fans started to believe that their name was written on the cup.

The final was scheduled to be played in Athens at the home of Olympiakos, Karaiskakis Stadium, 19 May 1971. Chelsea’s opponents were the undisputed giants of European football, Real Madrid.

Fortunately for the Blues, Real weren’t the European superpower of the 1950s, but were littered with exceptional talents nonetheless. They narrowly missed out on winning LaLiga to Valencia by just two points but the team was still powered by the fabled members of the “generación ye–ye”, which had dominated the league in the mid-1960s and delivered the 1966 European Cup.

This group of players, which included Amancio, Pirri, Ignacio Zoco, Ramón Grosso and Manuel Velázquez, still carry a mythical status amongst fans of the club today, and were mentored by the legendary Paco Gento, winner of six European Cups and still a first-team regular at 38. Their sobriquet reflects the fact that they were often photographed as a group wearing Beatle mop-top wigs.

Surprisingly, despite Real’s first-class renown, in the days before the mass saturation of football, Chelsea were remarkably unaware of their opponents. John Dempsey later recalled: “We didn’t know an awful lot about their players.” However, given the detailed dossiers that Don Revie compiled on Leeds’ opponents perhaps this was more a reflection on Chelsea and their unwavering focus on themselves.

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The Bleus’ major headache concerned who was going to score their goals, which had been the problem all season. Osgood had managed just five league goals, the same as midfielder John Hollins. The absence of Ian Hutchinson, an avid collector of foreign coins according to Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, who had missed most of the season through injury, had dented the side’s scoring capability. In particular they lost the threat of his potent long throws, which had been so decisive in the FA Cup final replay. Fortunately, summer signing Keith Weller provided 13 goals during the campaign to justify his acquisition.

Over 4,000 Chelsea fans made the journey to Athens to form part of a 45,000-strong crowd. The match was also shown live on BBC, a luxury which had been denied to followers of Manchester City when they won the competition the year before.

As Greece had been under the control of a military junta since 1967, both sides were paraded around the athletics track by flanks of soldiers before entering the pitch. Some accounts state that Chelsea had come to an arrangement with the local Greek fans that they would support Panathinaikos in the European Cup final at Wembley later that month if they got behind the Blues in Athens.

Maybe the locals chose to back Chelsea as a protest against their corrupt and violent Greek generals, given that Spain was also under the control of a similar regime headed by General Franco? Unlike Chelsea, the Real team waved a Greek flag before the match,  which might have been viewed as a sign of solidarity with the junta.

Chelsea, with Charlie Cooke in dazzling form, dominated the first half without creating any clear-cut chances. Eleven minutes into the second half, John Boyle crossed and the ball ricocheted off a Real defender. Osgood then buried the rebound into the corner of the net and proceeded to celebrate with an impromptu head over heels display.

Osgood had only been able to play after a series of cortisone injections in his knee, which meant he was unable to last the whole match, but the gamble worked. Real, with Pirri starting to become influential in the match, hunted keenly for an equaliser, creating several chances, but the goal wouldn’t come.

With barely a minute remaining, the Chelsea fans and players could see the trophy with blue and white ribbons being transported to the side of the pitch. Before the final whistle could be blown, however, John Dempsey made a complete hash of a clearance and Zoco, who had been unwittingly played onside, volleyed the ball into the net. Chelsea had somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Dempsey was inconsolable, sure his mistake had cost Chelsea the cup. He was correct.

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The momentum was now with Real, who created several opportunities to finish the game off in extra-time, but some stout defending and a series of extraordinary saves from Bonetti, who justified the manager’s decision to recall him after a bout of pneumonia, ensured that Chelsea held on for a draw. Most commentators and Chelsea fans felt they had been lucky to hold on. Perhaps their name was still on the cup after all.

Although penalty shootouts had been used for the first time that season in the Cup Winners’ Cup, with Honvéd beating Aberdeen in an earlier round, no such arrangement was in place for the final itself. It soon became apparent the UEFA hadn’t even considered the possibility of the need for a replay as no previous final had ever required one. After a flurry of bureaucratic activity, it was decided to host the replay just 48 hours later in the same venue.

This caused various issues for the Chelsea fans, who had travelled out on package deals costing £30, approximately £400 in today’s prices. Frantic phone calls were made to employers and families back in England to extend their stay. Most fans had scant resources left to finance an extended sojourn in the Greek capital but, amazingly, several Greek hoteliers let supporters stay on in their accommodation at reduced rates or even for free.

Many resorted to sleeping on the beaches, so soaring temperatures of up to 90 degrees were a blessing. Some were even allowed to kip in the local bars, courtesy of generous Greek hosts. For many fans, it was never an issue – they were going to stay to support the team. For one player, it was a problem. John Hollins was due to be best man at a wedding that day and his mother insisted he return home.

Sexton garnered a reputation as a strict taskmaster over the years but with Chelsea now having two extra days in Athens, he realised a different approach was needed. He gathered the players and told them that he wasn’t going to put any restrictions on them; they were free to spend the Thursday however they wished. This was music to the ears of a certain trio – Osgood, Cooke and Baldwin – who immediately headed off in a taxi at 11am to the poolside bar at the Athens Hilton. After changing into shorts and flip-flops, rum punches, cocktails and bottles of Greek beers were now the order of the day.

Later that afternoon, Alan Hudson, who wasn’t exactly renowned for his abstinence, headed to the hotel on his way back from a visit to the local flea market and was flabbergasted by the sight that greeted him: “They were downing these tropical punches like they were on an end of season tour.” Hudson voiced his concern, pointing out that they were playing their most important game of the season the next day and that three of them were legless.

Osgood invited Hudson to join them for a drink. It was one of the few occasions in his life that he turned down such an offer. Osgood, noting his teammate’s concern, calmly said: “You go home and have an early night, you’ve got to do the running for me tomorrow … leave it to me, I will win the game for us.”

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At the time, Osgood had been revealed to be the object of desire for 1960s sex symbol, Raquel Welch. No wonder he felt that nothing was beyond him. After a bender that had lasted nearly 10 hours, Baldwin, Cooke and Osgood eventually clambered back to the team hotel at nine in the evening; evidently not the best preparation for the final the following day. Hudson later reflected: “It was the most frightening confidence … but he had done it time and time again. Nothing fazed him.”

Sexton made one change for the replay, replacing Hollins with Tommy Baldwin. Unbeknown to Sexton, Hudson was still suffering from the lingering effect of a dead leg from the first game. Determined not to miss another final through injury, he assured Sexton that he was fit, while Osgood needed another cortisone injection to start the match. Real made two changes, with Gento being replaced by Manuel Bueno and Miguel Perez by Sebastián Fleitas.

Due to the unexpected nature of a replay being required, the attendance was more than halved, with a crowd of just over 19,000 present, the Chelsea support noticeably outnumbering the Madrid faithful.

Chelsea stared the livelier of the two sides in the first half, dominating possession and creating several chances on a bone dry playing surface. Real didn’t produce a shot on target until the 30th minute though Chelsea were fortunate to escape the award of a penalty when a pass found Amancio free from his man. He broke into the penalty area but, as he was about to shoot for goal, he was blatantly shoved in the back by Ron Harris and stumbled to the ground. It seemed an obvious penalty, but the referee took no action, much to the fury of the Spanish coaches and the media.

In the space of just six minutes, the destiny of the trophy was decided. On 33 minutes, Charlie Cooke floated in a corner that was met by the head of the villain of Wednesday, John Dempsey. The ‘keeper punched it away but straight to Dempsey, who volleyed it almost instantaneously into the top of the net. With the goal, Dempsey demonstrated why his previous club, Fulham, had sometimes played him as an emergency striker, only losing his place to the new signing Allan Clarke. Chelsea fans watching at home were bemused to see the goal credited to David Webb on their screens.

Six minutes later, the indefatigable Baldwin slipped the ball through to Osgood, taking two defenders with him as he sprinted for the return pass. As space suddenly appeared in front of him. Osgood bent the ball from the edge of the area into the corner via the post. It was a finish that demonstrated the sublime striker at his imperious best. He had also kept his promise to Hudson.

Once again, Osgood had to be replaced as the effects of the cortisone wore off. As Chelsea were getting ready to introduce substitute Smethurst, Fleitas set off on a run and unleashed a stinging shot from the edge of the area that nestled in Bonetti’s goal. The Madrileños redoubled their efforts and started to pile on the pressure.

With just 15 minutes remaining, Chelsea weren’t about to throw the trophy away for a second time, and with the defence well marshalled by Harris and Webb and some excellent saves by Bonetti, they held firm. The whistle blew and Chelsea had won their first ever European title.

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A group of Chelsea fans invaded the pitch to celebrate with their heroes as captain Ron Harris collected the cup. Amidst the euphoria, nobody seemed to have noticed that John Boyle had run straight over to the Madrid bench to ensure he could swap shirts with the legendary Gento.

Chelsea had undoubtedly been the stronger side over both matches and deserved to lift the Cup Winners’ Cup. Before the final, Amancio had stated that they needed to stop Cooke to win. They failed. Hudson shook off the effects of his dead leg and was dominant in midfield, while his counterpart Pirri had sprained his arm and was unable to impose himself as he had in the first game.

Whilst the pre-match shenanigans of the Athens Hilton crew would be frowned upon today, when it mattered most they had all performed to the peak of their abilities. The manager, Dave Sexton also deserved credit for adopting a more attacking formation, changing from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, allowing his team to seize the initiative from the start.

After the match, the team and supporters celebrated together in the environs of the Athens Hilton, where they had arranged to stay after the final. Most of the players were still inebriated as they boarded the plane home the following morning, but that certainly didn’t stop the champagne flowing during the flight.

On arrival in London, the players were genuinely surprised by the number of supporters that were waiting to greet them and, as their open-topped bus departed, celebratory banners appeared to be hanging over every bridge on the M4. The squad went straight to Chelsea Town Hall, for the second time in 12 months, to be presented to thousands of jubilant fans. Blue certainly was the colour.

The future looked bright for Chelsea. The often dour Dave Sexton had managed to keep his team of maverick playboys under his control and had found a system of playing that brought out the best of their individual talents. In 19-year-old Alan Hudson, he had one of the brightest prospects in football, and the likes of Osgood and Harris were still only in their mid-20s.

It was a moment to savour though it’s fair to state that Chelsea’ s first European title – their last for 27 years – never really received the accolades and acclaim it deserved. They were the first English side to defeat the mighty Real Madrid in a European final. Fully enjoying the limelight, Osgood boasted to anyone who would listen to him at the Town Hall reception that Chelsea were set to become the greatest team that London had ever seen. Seeing as Arsenal had just carried off the league and cup double, it was some claim, especially if he had known what hubris was to await him.

Within four years, Hudson and Osgood had been sold and Chelsea had been relegated to Division Two. Nobody could’ve predicted such an outcome, but the decline of the Cup Winners’ Cup champions is another story waiting to be told.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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