Yesterday, the official Chelsea website began celebrating the 25th anniversary of a vital season in the club’s history by telling the story of the Second Division Championship win in 1988/89.
Having been relegated the season before and got off to a sticky start in the quest to return to the top flight, Part One recalled those early weeks with an upturn in fortunes coming in a win at Leeds.
In Part Two today, the rise up the league table continues unabated through winter with reinforcements brought in before we take on our closest challenges on their turf up north…
Chelsea’s first victory at Leeds for over quarter of a century and first in the 1988/89 campaign had come on the final weekend of September. It was the seventh game of the season.
Although there was a stumble out of the League Cup against lower division Scunthorpe, Bobby Campbell’s side went through October with five wins, one draw and one defeat in the league, at Hull, and with four goals put past Oldham on their notoriously difficult plastic pitch and five past Plymouth.
The defeat on Humberside proved to be the last in the league for nearly sixth months, a run of 27 games unbeaten.
One of the surest signs that this was a team with the character and the ability to dominate the division came away at Stoke in early December. Peter Nicholas was sent off only five minutes into the game yet we still ran out 3-0 winners.
A big Friday evening win at Birmingham placed us back at the top of the table at last and on New Year’s Eve we hosted West Brom who were second but level on points. The Blues were losing 1-0 with only a minute left on the clock until one of the season’s most lethal weapons was unleashed – the Graham Roberts penalty.
The spot-kick he buried into the north end net was one of 12 penalties the defender scored out of an impressive goal total of 17 for the season.
‘He could handle the pressure of taking the penalties because he had played at Tottenham and Rangers, and for England, and Chelsea are a big club too and he could carry the expectation of the fans,’ says Campbell.
‘He was ice cold. People said he was a big hard man but he had good feet, he could nip in and flick the ball around and control it, and if my life depended on someone taking penalties then I would choose him.’
It is testament to how well Roberts (pictured below) did with his accuracy from 12 yards and juggernaut-like tackling that this former Tottenham favourite was voted Chelsea Player of the Year by the fans at the season’s end.
To win so many penalties, it helped to have nippy attacking players such as Gordon Durie, Kevin Wilson, Kevin McAllister, who was asked to take on the mantle left by fellow Scottish winger Pat Nevin, and Clive Wilson, not to mention flying full-backs Tony Dorigo and Steve Clarke.
Campbell often managed to accommodate in the same side three players who were generally regarded as central strikers in Durie, Kevin Wilson and the previously prolific Dixon.
‘Basically I didn’t play wide,’ explains Dixon. ‘It was me down the centre and one either side, but Kevin would also get in the box and he got a few goals that year, as did ‘Jukebox’ Durie, and because of that, I was more prepared to go out wide sometimes and I actually found that certainly down the right side, I could be quite effective crossing at times. I still had some pace and I started to put a decent ball in and certainly Willo got a few goals out of it.’
Importantly, Dixon, whose large goal hauls for Chelsea had won him a place in the England 1986 World Cup squad, rediscovered his scoring boots in 1988/89 having fallen away as the Blues descended the First Division.
He netted 28 goals, of which 25 came in the league, and carried his form back into the top flight the next year to the degree that England manager Bobby Robson told him he almost made the Italia ’90 squad. By the end of the promotion season he was just a hat-trick short of Peter Osgood and Roy Bentley’s then-second-highest 150 goals for the club, and had signed a new three-year contract.
Durie, despite typical interruptions for injury, scored 17 goals that year and Kevin Wilson added 13 to the league total. Five of Durie’s came in a single game (pictured below) – at Walsall in the February when the home side were beaten 7-0, a club record away league win.
‘I remember we were walking towards their home end when we left the pitch at the end of the game, and their fans clapped us off,’ says midfielder John Bumstead.
Dixon was injured that day so the no. 9 shirt was worn by mid-season signing Dave Mitchell. He didn’t score that game, nor in any of his seven subsequent Chelsea appearances. It wasn’t a good season for everyone in blue.
‘Dave Mitchell was an Australian lad and a good player,’ says Campbell. ‘He played in Holland for Feyenoord and over there he was one of the best, and I went and bought him but he was an example of someone who could not cope with the pressure of what it is to be a Chelsea player.
‘I played three strikers because I liked good footballers and I thought if you give the opposition more problems than they give you then you have a start. It’s even better if you have defenders who can defend but also have the ability to create from the back, and people talk these days about full-backs going forward but I had two in Tony Dorigo (pictured right) and Stevie Clarke who went forward all the time.’
Two games before that thrashing of Walsall, an important change had taken place at the back. Kevin Hitchcock started the season in goal but suffered injury and shared the gloves with young Welsh keeper Roger Freestone.
‘When I first came in as coach the previous season I said to John Hollins we are a bit thin on the ground for goalkeepers. We had a boy called Perry Digweed who I had put in the first team at Fulham when he was 16 and I knew he was a good player, but he wasn’t our player, he was on loan from Brighton and they wanted him back.
‘So I got Kevin Hitchcock in and he did a great job for us. Roger Freestone was a good lad, a good goalkeeper but with all due respect he wasn’t quality enough to hold a place down in the First Division which is where I thought we were going.
‘We went up north for a game one day and on the bus coming back I bought Dave Beasant from Newcastle. We paid a lot of money for him but he was the best around that we could get. He was another one like Graham Roberts, he was good in the club and they knew their way around – they were men.’
Only a few months earlier, Beasant had been one of the heroes of Wimbledon’s unlikely FA Cup final win and on the back of that, Newcastle made him English football’s most expensive keeper. But then the Tyneside club hit financial problems and sold the 29-year-old down a division to Chelsea. The £725,000 we paid for the 29-year-old was at that point a club record outlay.
‘I want to be a First Division player and I want to be on that stage with Chelsea,’ Beasant said soon after signing.
‘As soon as I came here I knew things were right, I had an immediate understanding with the defence. They have a lot of experience and they play as a unit.’
It was not a season for blooding young players, that would come quite extensively a couple of seasons later, but one did breakthrough in this Second Division year – 18-year-old centre-back/midfielder David Lee.
He scored as a sub on his debut, one of four goals in 20 league games that year, as well quickly acquiring a nickname from the crowd – Rodney Trotter, after lookalike character in huge TV sitcom hit at the time, Only Fools and Horses.
On 18 March and riding the crest of our unbeaten wave, Chelsea travelled to Maine Road to take on Manchester City who were one point ahead at the top of the table having played a game more.
In front of a 40,000 crowd, we were 2-0 up by half-time with the lead then extended by what was the iconic moment of the whole season.
‘It is funny because every year I get reminded about that goal,’ says Dorigo, the scorer, ‘and it was brilliant because City were doing very well that year as well, our biggest rivals, and we went up to their place and similar to this season, Chelsea played fantastically well.
‘I’d already put one in that game at the near post from a corner,’ recalls Dixon (pictured above). ‘When we broke from another corner, Dorigo ran over half the length of the pitch with the ball and went round the keeper to put us 3-0 up.
‘It was an unbelievable goal,’ adds Campbell. ‘Tony just kept going and he scored some important goals for us.’
‘Man City came back to 3-2 but was anyone worried?’ smiles Dorigo. ‘It wasn’t a problem. That win kind of cemented that it was going to be our year. We had some very good players and we knew we were the favourites, but you still have to do it and we did thank goodness.
‘Our support was incredible that day and that sticks in my mind clearly, because we would go up to these grounds in the north and to get that kind of backing always really helped.’
‘We used to take away five, six or seven thousand people to these Second Division games – unbelievable!’ agrees Campbell.
–In the final part tomorrow, the game promotion was won against familiar opposition is recalled.