May 7th 1988 – Chelsea 1 Charlton 1
Baldness and relegation. The two main fears of Terry Collier, one of the two great comic characters spearheading the brilliant 1970’s sitcom ‘Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?’ Terry may have been an avowed Chelsea hater but many a Blues fan will have identified with his twin phobias at the time. No Advanced Hair Studio or Roman Abramovich to save the day back then sadly. Happily, modern Chelsea fans are spared the once frequent flirtation with demotion, all those horrible moments of collective, morale sapped numbness as another opposition goal heralded the unmistakable, combined sound of dozens of wooden & plastic seats being angrily & noisily vacated as the less hardy made yet another early exit towards the long, silent trek home via car or Fulham Broadway Station. Contemporary disappointments still abound of course. Fernando Morientes’ second half deal breaker against Monaco in the Champions’ League Semi Final in 2004. The ‘Ghost Goal’ at Anfield the following season. Moscow. Iniesta’s heart breaking equalizer for Barcelona amidst a refereeing disgrace in 2009. The no-show at the FA Cup Final in 2017. The difference is that all these denied Chelsea moments of glory. Tough, but you have still climbed a significant chunk of mountain to get there. Relegation is different. Confirmation that you are crap. I have known that feeling three times. The last, in 1988, was by far the worst. Why? Because it should never have happened.
In 1975 the drop beckoned because the team was (& had been for several years) jaded & severely in need of the footballing equivalent of an enema that Eddie McCreadie subsequently administered. Tommy Docherty had performed a similar trick at Old Trafford after Man Utd’s relegation the year before & Spurs went down the following season. Being relegated was almost fashionable in the mid ’70’s but then so were tartan flares, Platform shoes & Jimmy Savile. In 1979 the team were truly terrible & overseen by the bizarre Danny Blanchflower. After a 6-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest he declared that maybe his team had to learn how to lose before it could learn how to win. Not a theory that would have held much water in the opposition dressing room where Clough & Taylor were in their pomp. You can’t imagine Bill Shankley, Jock Stein, Don Revie, Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho echoing the sentiment at any point in their careers either. Probably because it was utter bollocks. One of the few high points in that dismal season was the signing of Eamonn Bannon, a terrific young midfield player. Before the year was out the club had sold him to Dundee United for less than they had paid Hearts for him in the first place! He shone throughout the ’80’s, & played in the 1986 World Cup for Scotland, while Dundee United reached the European Cup Semi Final in 1984. Still, we had Kevin Hales. Well done Chelsea.
1988 was different. The team had defenders like Steve Clarke, Colin Pates & Tony Dorigo. Pates ended up at Arsenal. Dorigo won the league a few years later at Leeds. Dirty Leeds. Clarkey, legend that he is, hung around long enough to see the sun finally emerge from the clouds at the Bridge. It was a long wait. 1988 Chelsea also had one of the most creative midfielders of his generation in Micky Hazard, a winger with flair & skill in Pat Nevin & strikers with the power & finishing ability of Kerry Dixon & Gordon Durie. Relegation should not ever have been more than a dot on the horizon.
So how & why did play off regulars Charlton come to Stamford Bridge knowing that avoiding defeat to a team that had won only one match in six months would see them lounging on sunbeds listening to S-Express while that year’s relegation trapdoor beckoned for a team that had challenged for the title only two seasons earlier? Well, we all know of the detrimental, long-term effect of smoking on our health & in 1988 fags finally did for Chelsea. Stress & ciggies had led to John Neal being succeeded by John Hollins in 1985. Sad but seemingly not disastrous. Hollins had been a great servant to the club as a player & had served as coach under Neal, who remained at the club as general manager. With his wise counsel only a knock on the door away surely the transition would be seamless?
Sadly not. It would seem that the two men had never really got on. Hollins chose not to knock on the door & an increasingly marginalized Neal was sacked by cuddly Ken Bates after publicly expressing his frustration at being excluded from all important decisions affecting the club he had rehabilitated to such great effect just a few seasons earlier. In the two years leading up to this game Hollins presided over an increasingly unhappy dressing room, stories of malcontent regularly leaking into the press via disgruntled members of the playing staff. If Micky Hazard could not understand why Hollins could substitute his sublime, midfield creativity by playing a centre back like Colin Pates in his place instead (& he was not alone!) then Nigel Clarke of the ‘Daily Mirror’ was always on hand to publish a story on the following day’s back page, usually quoting ‘a source close to the player.’ Who was clearly the player himself. The relentless, poisonous dripping of negative stories to the press seemed frequently inspired by the unwelcome dressing room presence of coach Ernie Whalley, a Hollins appointment quickly laden with a training ground image, fairly or otherwise, akin to that of Windsor Davies’ cartoon like Sergeant Major character in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.’ Whalley was eventually replaced, against the wishes of John Hollins, by former Fulham manager Bobby Campbell in the early part of 1988, following a long, winless run stretching back to the previous October. Hollins’ own unhappy tenure came to an end after a bizarre 4-4 draw at Oxford in March. A three goal lead had been sacrificed in that match. An early two goal lead was squandered in the previous away game at Coventry. Additionally, while Bates was cruising around the Med on his boat, Hollins had attempted to solve the team’s problems by selling Hazard & Kerry Dixon. The return of Bates saw a swift cancellation of these baffling transfers & Hollins found that his ship had also sailed, his penchant for sweat over skill finally trying his chairman’s for once surprisingly deep reservoirs of patience once too often. Campbell predictably stepped into the breach with more than the mildest hint of indecent haste. Unfortunately, the introduction to the dressing room of Bobby’s undoubted enthusiasm & JimmyTarbuck jokebook did little to stem the tide. Hazard’s sublime left foot strike past Peter Shilton secured a win over Derby in April but that remained the only win since a scrappy home victory against Oxford on Halloween. A dismal Bank Holiday 4-1 defeat at West Ham was compounded by a nasty injury to Hazard & so we approached the Charlton game with a proper sense of trepidation. The cigarettes that had damaged John Neal’s heart were finally about to break ours.
It started well, a bright, sunny Spring day & a lively atmosphere with a crowd of 33,000, a more than decent turnout for any club in those post Heysel days. Chelsea took the lead with a penalty from Gordon Durie after he was brought down by a Charlton defender several light years outside the penalty box. Charlton had the lanky, goal shy Carl Leaburn up front. They also had former Spurs lump Paul Miller at centre back & fellow White Hart lane refugee (& future BBC lump) Garth Crooks alongside Leaburn. In midfield they had Steve Mackenzie, scorer of a wonderful FA Cup final goal in 1981 & goalkeeper Bob Bolder had been at Liverpool. They did not want for experience. Nonetheless, the game moved into the second half with a lot of huffing & puffing but not much else going on. And then it happened….
Goals are scored in a split second. All goals. With one exception. This one. It has now spent nigh on 30 years making its tortuous route from Steve Wicks knee into the Chelsea net, because it remains the goal I have most endlessly replayed over in my head. It seemed to take an eternity on the day, as Leaburn’s long throw into the box sparked a scramble that led to aforementioned lump Miller’s unconvincing stab at the ball ricocheting off Wicks, ballooning up in the air, & slowly, agonizingly, making its descent, under the crossbar but over keeper Kevin Hitchcock’s flailing, flapping, giant gloved hand. Not waving but drowning. However long it took, or seemed to take, its final destination was never in doubt. 30,000 of us descended into one of those eerie communal silences. The Charlton fans & players went berserk. I believe Garth Crooks has been dining out on the moment ever since. It certainly looks like it.
The game ends 1-1. There were a lot of 1-1 draws that season. As the match ends a man two seats down from me bursts into tears. I had never seen anyone cry at a football match before. It’s like he knows that the play offs will be futile, that relegation is an inevitability. If so, he is entirely correct. Modern sporting cliché has it that it’s the hope that kills you. That was partially true in 1988. From Durie’s penalty to a resounding win over Blackburn in the play off semi finals, there were always glimmers of hope surfacing before we were nutted by reality. Ultimately though, it was also death by 1-1 draws, John Neal’s fags, the perverse team selections of John Hollins and the knee of Steve Wicks. Poor Wicks, a really good player but not a lucky one, only spared the further ignominy of a transfer to Spurs that summer by a back problem that prematurely ended his career. He remains the only Chelsea player to have appeared in three different relegation seasons while Jose Bosingwa has a Champion’s League winner’s medal. It might take 30 years for those two disparate & desperately unfair facts to sink in too.