Yesterday, the official Chelsea website told the tale of the first half of the 1962/63 season, marking the 50th anniversary this week of the promotion won at the end of it.
Tommy Docherty’s fresh-faced side had raced into a healthy lead in the old Second Division table by the turn of the year, but found themselves kicking their heels as the second half of the campaign began, due to the infamous ‘Big Freeze’ winter that year…
The sequence of postponed matches due to snow and frozen pitches led to the young manager taking his players off for a warm-weather training camp in a bid to maintain their fitness levels, but as he acknowledges, it was a decision which didn’t pan out how he wished.
‘We went to Malta and it turned out to be a mixed trip because we lost Ken Shellito to injury,’ explains Docherty.
‘We did what we thought was right at the time, but we lost potentially the best right-back in the game for a while, so we can’t say it was a success.’
Though nothing as serious as the knee damage Shellito (pictured above) suffered in a game the following the season, that eventually curtailed his career and prevented his likely inclusion in England’s 1966 side, the flying full-back’s temporary loss did unbalance the team.
With the capital still recovering from the cold snap when Chelsea returned to the UK, four of our next five league matches were played away from home, and with the side failing to pick up a single point from a possible 10 on offer, alarm bells began to sound.
‘We were sailing home before Christmas, but after Boxing Day we were absolutely useless, it was like we were a completely different team,’ says Bobby Tambling. ‘Because the weather in London was so bad our games kept being postponed so we were always playing away from home.
‘I remember losing to both Cardiff City and Swansea City, and in one of the games I missed a penalty. I’d had a golden spell before Christmas where I scored a lot of goals in a very short run of games, but as a striker you do have barren spells, and the more you try the worse it gets.
‘We started picking up results again, although we weren’t as good as we’d been before Christmas.’
His strike partner, Barry Bridges, is uncertain over the reason for the loss of form but says:
‘We went out to Malta, and what happened was that although we were there to train, we did have a good time. We lost five games in a row when we came back and we were really struggling. Was it the weather? Was it because we just switched off? I don’t know.
‘Personally, I think it was because we were a very young side, probably a bit too young, but when you look back it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us.’
On Wednesday 27 March, the Blues welcomed Derby County to Stamford Bridge. The Rams had been struggling for form for much of the campaign and the need for two points, for both sides, was now desperate.
An impressive Chelsea display saw us run out deserved 3-1 winners courtesy of a Tambling brace and a goal by Frank Blunstone. The 19,958 inside the stadium might not have known it at the time, but the result was a turning point in what had already been an eventful season.
Over the next couple of months Docherty’s side were unable to reproduce the brand of football so difficult to stop earlier in the season, but there were enough positive results to leave them in a strong position going into the final few weeks of the campaign.
For supporters, it was undoubtedly a nervy time, but one man was far from anxious.
‘We were having a great season anyway with a very young side, so I thought even if we didn’t get promotion that season we probably would have got it the following year, or the year after that,’ says Docherty. ‘I had every confidence in the squad, it was a smashing team.’
As the season edged towards its conclusion, it was advantage Chelsea. Having played so many away games earlier on due to the adverse weather, four of our final five matches were to be played at the Bridge.
However, after beating Preston and drawing 2-2 against Leeds United, a promotion rival, at the end of April, disaster struck 10 days later when Stoke City, inspired by 48-year-old Stanley Matthews, emerged from west London with both points after a 1-0 win in front of over 60,000 supporters.
Stoke would go on to claim top spot in the table and one of the two promotion places available. Chelsea had two games left to play; Sunderland away, followed by Portsmouth at home. Dropping points was no longer an option if the dreams of returning to the top flight were to become a reality.
Tambling remembers the penultimate game of the season at Sunderland, who only needed a draw for the second promotion place, as if it was yesterday.
‘We had to win the last two matches to gain promotion,’ he reflects. ‘We went up to Sunderland and he [Docherty] put a very strange side out. He put Frank Upton up front, where I don’t think he’d ever played previously, and little Tommy Harmer was playing.
‘The wind during the game was like nothing I’d ever experienced, it was really blowing a gale. It was so bad that you could only kick the ball about 20 yards at a time.
‘We had the wind behind us in the second half, and with the score goalless, I took a corner. Tommy was on the goal-line and the ball went in off a part of his body that I won’t go into detail about, and thankfully we held on for the win.’
Docherty, meanwhile, remembers the passion of both sets of supporters who witnessed a bruising match in the north-east.
‘Alan Brown was their manager at the time and they had a good side,’ he says. ‘They were a rival and it was such a big game supporters were queuing up at 4am to get into Roker Park to see the game. The supporters on both sides were fanatical.
‘We won 1-0, Frank Upton went up for a corner and the ball ended up hitting Tommy Harmer on the private parts and bounced into the net.’
Portsmouth were the visitors to the Bridge on the final day of our extended season, Tuesday 21 May, and our goal average (the forerunner to goal difference) was sufficiently superior to Sunderland’s that any win should be enough. We saved our best for when it mattered most.
Tambling was virtually unplayable, scoring four goals (one pictured above) as the south coast side were blown away on an unforgettable night. The Blues recorded our biggest victory of the season, winning 7-0 to spark jubilant scenes.
‘Derek Kevan was brought in earlier that year, and it’s fair to say he struggled a bit and couldn’t get off the mark,’ recalls the four-goal hero. ‘We scored in the second minute of that last game, and it was Derek who got the goal.
‘When you’re under high pressure and you score early, it’s like a release of energy. We ran them all over the place. We were fired up for the game and eventually won promotion courtesy of goal average.
‘It was a fantastic night for the fans, and a fantastic night for the young players. We all thought it was the start of something big.’
‘Stamford Bridge was packed,’ Docherty remembers. ‘There were over 50,000 supporters inside the stadium and Tambling was absolutely outstanding that night.
‘Alan Brown kept phoning up to find out what the score was, but I think after the fifth goal the phone just stopped ringing.’
It was a fitting end to a campaign which had put supporters through the emotional mill, and time for the party to begin, and Blunstone, who had played an instrumental role over the course of the season, remembers it well.
‘We actually celebrated more in 1963 when we got promoted from the Second Division than when we won the title in 1955,’ says the former winger.
‘When we came off, we couldn’t get off the pitch because there were so many fans on there. I’ve got a photo of me at home, on top of a load of blokes who’d lifted me up.
‘That season we’d been six points clear at Christmas and that was even more in those days, because you only got two points for a win. When we got promotion, we knew we’d done it by winning the last game.’
Docherty (pictured above being lifted) led Chelsea to a third-place finish in the top flight and the League Cup two seasons later. His assistant in 1962/63, Dave Sexton, was in charge by the time the FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup were captured at the start of the 1970s.
Docherty’s subsequent managerial career saw him enjoy spells in charge of the likes of Queens Park Rangers, Manchester United, Porto and Scotland, his home nation.
His spell at Chelsea, though, holds a special place in his heart, and it was a period shaped by that promotion season.
‘It was brilliant because that was my first job as a manager. I’d never managed before so it was strange.
‘I had a brilliant chairman in Joe Mears; if I wanted to buy a player he would always tell me if we could afford it or not but in a positive way, he was always on the ball.
‘He’s the best chairman I ever had and he, like myself, loved Chelsea to bits.’