On the 1st July 1977, Chelsea manager and ex-club defender left Stamford Bridge. Having promoted the side to Division One the previous month, he was offered what he considered a derisory pay increase by club chairman Brian Mears. In some ways, as Britain celebrated Virginia Wade’s Wimbledon singles’ title that day it perhaps went unnoticed in the nation’s sporting consciousness.
But for Chelsea fans who had been so supportive of his gradual building of a very young side, it was catastrophic. For the duration of the seventies, Chelsea had been financially hamstrung by the building of their huge stand. It had a grip over the club arguably until Ken Bates arrived in 1982 to reboot the club having bought the blue lion and all associated problems for £1.
McCreadie had been a stalwart left-back who had been at the club from 1963. He had been very much a part of the 1970 FA Cup and ‘71 Cup winning sides and had been a dependable captain in his time as well. Along with Ron Harris whom he would manage and John Dempsey and David Webb, he formed that no-nonsense back four that to summarise succinctly were….shall we say robust.
He looked the part too with unsmiling eyes, a curl of the lip and to top it all in his managerial era, some very dodgy shaded glasses that were popular in Ulster paramilitary circles at the time. That Chelsea side of his though were, and would always be fondly remembered. The unmistakable feature was their youth though experienced punctuation came in the form of veteran goalkeeper Peter Bonetti, (35) defender Ron Harris, and indeed winger Charlie Cooke still made the odd substitute appearance. Scottish international David Hay who had come down from Celtic was the main on-field head in this respect though.
But the young profile came largely from captain Ray Wilkins who at 21 was fairly famous throughout the country from beyond the Second Division as he had held that position for three years. There simply weren’t many 18-year-old captains about in professional football. The team that season that won promotion by and large led the division all the way through, only losing out to Wolves for the top spot. It was a very settled team and it could almost be picked from week to week without fail.
As mentioned Bonetti was in goal and had been around since the early sixties and had over 500 appearances. He had been given a free transfer in the summer of 1975 but was still in harness. The shock of grey hair told a story but he held his own amongst the youngsters. The full-backs Gary Locke and Graham Wilkins had a year or two on some of the others. Both had been around the team since 1972 and Graham was the captain’s older brother and had recovered from a broken leg at Old Trafford in the 1973/74 season. Steve Wicks was a further blond head at centre-half and would have had Hay to keep him right in the other central defender’s role. Club captain and bearded hulk Micky Droy would have stepped in occasionally at centre-back in emergency and if that was not enough, iron reinforcement Ron Harris was more than happy to oblige.
The midfield four of Wilkins, Ian Britton, Garry Stanley, and Ray Lewington was pretty much written in stone. Led by Wilkins who had made his England debut on the Bi-Centennial tour of America in 1976, the combined age of them wouldn’t have made 85 years at the start of the season. They were the footballing edition of the band FREE who were of a similar age to be shifting such heavyweight. Just to maintain the musical link Garry Stanley had a serious likeness to Joe Perry from Aerosmith. Ray Lewington would go on to accompany Roy Hodgson in later years and is the father of Dean who has been with MK Dons for many a year. Ian Britton was only five foot five inches but had all the Scottish spirit needed. Sadly Britton and Wilkins, of course, are no longer with us passing respectively in 2016 and 2018.
Scot Steve Finnieston (22) and Scouser Kenny Swain, a little older at 25 led the attack and for many females were dreamboats in blue. Swain would go on to Aston Villa to win the league and European cup with them though from the right-back position. Locke, Ray Wilkins, and Ray Lewington would not miss a league game that season.
The team played with all the fearlessness you would imagine from a side that age and were well received by the fans and beyond. ‘Beyond’ of course being those that like to see anything that makes London swing which of course are primarily the media but it was not confined there.
The Chelsea side of the late sixties and early seventies were not only successful but had that image of Kings Road playboys rightly or wrongly. Visitors like actress Raquel Welch and supporters from the film world like Dickie Attenborough layered this glamour on the club. And of course, West London was where it all happened. This new young side was like a bit of blue sky for many who had watched Chelsea lose their way somewhat from those days.
The season tended to involve their winning most games by the odd goal pock-marked every now and again by a heavy defeat that tended to come out of the blue for no reason. Defeats to Millwall (3-0), Luton and Charlton both (4-0) were hard but the team never lost to their promotion rivals namely, Forest, Wolves, Bolton and Southampton. Good wins were recorded against Bolton and Forest (both 2-1) and the best match of the season was probably with Wolves on an icy, murky December day with all present enjoying a 3-3 draw. The team was not under particular pressure despite being under a huge financial cloud and McCreadie was an adept master at management.
The goals were well spread. Finnieston (24) and Swain (13) scored just more than half of the 73 and the midfield weighed in 25 league goals which, whilst shy of the ten each the manager had asked of them was none too shabby all the same. A fairly generous 53 league goals were conceded which reflected that tendency to win many matches by the odd goal. The team as it hit April really moved into top gear at Stamford Bridge but there were some bad and indifferent results away from home as the young side tried to deal with the promotional pressure.
Three defeats at Charlton, Fulham, and Burnley tied to the season’s only 0-0 draw at Oldham had the nerves jangling. But those home wins against Blackburn, Luton, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United and finally Hull on May 14 saw them home. They had been promoted though the week earlier following their 1-1 draw at Wolves. That match in Wolverhampton had seen Chelsea fans banned from attending due to hooliganism at Charlton and the nation held its breath as many Londoners were, of course, going to go to see their team promoted.
All was well you might think around SW6 but then came that McCreadie blow. Who knows where he might have taken them and for many football fans it would have been an interesting watch. All through the seventies, Ray Wilkins was the chat of many a journalist as to when not if he would leave to help the club’s debt. He eventually went in the summer of 1979 to Manchester United after Chelsea were relegated after two seasons in the top flight. Many a fan had threatened to immolate his season ticket should the club ever sell Wilkins but by that summer, everyone realised following a relegation they could hold him no longer. He, of course, was to return many years later during the Abramovich era.
McCreadie recently confessed to journalist Jim White from his home in Tennessee how much the departure from the club had hurt him that summer. It would only be 11 days later that Don Revie would leave the England job which was the main sports story of the time. But a year or so ago McCreadie stated how he had been made very welcome at the Cobham training ground by Antonio Conte and the players and a long wound was eased. Eddie McCreadie – Scottish and Chelsea blue.