Monday, 14 May 2018

1987/88 play-offs: Chelsea v Middlesbrough

It hasn’t always been a case of winning titles and triumphing in Europe for Chelsea. There was a time when the club were playing in a rundown stadium, with property developers lurking, and just staying in the top flight was a challenge in its own right. The 1987/88 season was a prime example of the down side of supporting the West London club. And people say Chelsea have no history.

There was a lot of fighting at the club during a turbulent 1987/88 season. Constant rows between manager John Hollins and many of his key players led to Chelsea dominating the back pages, broken crests a constant theme. And when the club eventually plunged through the trapdoor to Division Two, the supporters definitely went down fighting.

How had it come to this? Sitting in sixth at the end of October, few would have foreseen the trouble that awaited. But there was plenty of unrest in the camp regarding the training techniques adopted by Hollins and his assistant Ernie Walley. Months went by without a Chelsea victory; a staggering 21 league matches spanning 161 days to be precise. You could not keep the crisis club out of the papers.

When Walley was dismissed by Chairman Ken Bates in February 1988, without the consent of Hollins, the writing was on the wall for the manager. This became even more apparent when Bobby Campbell was appointed as Walley’s successor, reportedly against the wishes of Hollins. Rumours then circulated that Hollins had been informed that his contract would not be renewed in the summer.

Apparently in limbo, Hollins clung on to his job with the speculation enveloping him like a grey cloud. Eventually, he was put out of his misery in March, as Campbell stepped in on a caretaker basis. With Portsmouth, Watford, and Oxford United ultimately doomed for relegation, the rest of the campaign became a straight battle between Chelsea and Charlton Athletic to avoid the dreaded 18th place.

With the 21-team First Division being reduced by a club at the end of the season, the team finishing in 18th were set to join three clubs from Division Two in the relegation/promotion play-offs. A long awaited win in April boosted Chelsea’s survival bid, but Lennie Lawrence’s Charlton were starting to build a reputation as escape artists.

All roads led to a tension-filled afternoon at Stamford Bridge on the last day of the regular season. Needing to beat Charlton to avoid the play-offs, Chelsea could only draw, and would now take on Blackburn in the two-legged play-off semi-final. Campbell was promptly rewarded with a two-year contract, could now concentrate on the task of keeping Chelsea out of Division Two.

Urged on by 5,000 supporters who made the trip to Ewood Park, Chelsea’s 2-0 win gave them one foot in the two-legged final – no Wembley play-off finals until 1990 – and with Campbell declaring that his team would not sit on their lead, the job was finished three days later with an emphatic 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge. “This was our best performance since I arrived here,” Campbell proudly stated, although there wasn’t much competition in that regard.

Chelsea's opponents in the final would be Middlesbrough. Managed by Bruce Rioch, the club had come back from the brink of extinction just two years earlier and had only missed out on promotion to Aston Villa on goals scored. With the likes of Tony Mowbray, Bernie Slaven, and Stuart Ripley in their ranks, Boro had taken reigning champions Everton to three matches in the FA Cup earlier in the season. Chelsea knew they had a fight on their hands.

The undoubted star of the team was Gary Pallister. After making his England debut against Hungary in April, the 22-year-old centre back was linked with moves to Manchester United and Liverpool. Missing out on England's friendlies against Scotland, Colombia and Switzerland due to the play-offs, it looked inevitable that Pallister would be plying his trade elsewhere if Boro failed to go up.

A 3-2 aggregate win over Bradford, achieved in extra-time at Ayresome Park, set up the final, with Rioch adamant that all the pressure was on Chelsea. “They've got everything riding on these two games and perhaps the thought of it may just get to one or two or their players.” Certainly, from a financial perspective, the prospect of relegation looked bleak for Chelsea; Bates estimated it would cost the club £1 million, and would greatly impact the Save the Bridge campaign he was involved in.

Winning the first leg 2-0, Middlesbrough had a few people to be thankful towards. Kerry Dixon, struggling during a season in which he had been linked with a move to Arsenal, woefully missed the target after fine work from winger Pat Nevin; Gordon Durie would be denied by keeper Stephen Pears; Kevin Hitchcock, on the other hand, made a bad judgement call for Trevor Senior’s opener.

Previously rejected by Campbell at Portsmouth, and after an ill-fated spell at Watford earlier in the season, Senior had more reason to celebrate than most. And when he set up Slaven for the crucial second goal after 81 minutes, Chelsea’s nightmare was becoming a reality.

Slaven’s strike did not go down too well during a live screening of the match in the Hammersmith Odeon, with two men hospitalised after celebrating Boro’s second. Unfortunately, it was a sign of things to come. Chelsea defender Steve Wicks, talking about the atmosphere at Ayresome Park, indicated what Boro could expect three days later. “I don't think it was too hostile, but Middlesbrough will find out exactly what that word means when they come to Stamford Bridge.”

Chelsea’s 1-0 win was largely forgotten in the aftermath. With 102 arrests (including 99 Chelsea fans) and 25 policemen injured, football was again in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Taunted by some Middlesbrough fans after the final whistle, Chelsea followers flooded out of The Shed in response. The police, slow to react, would have to bring out the horses, as bottles and stones rained down.

Bates blamed the lack of a police cordon around the pitch, with Chief Superintendent Eamonn Sheridan hitting back, informing the press that the responsibility of the perimeter always sat with the club. Either way, the images of rioting fans on television screens across Europe hardly helped the cause for English clubs returning to European competitions.

“The scum that soil the name of Chelsea have ensured that the half open door to Europe is certain to be slammed in the faces of English clubs,” Ian Gibb wrote in the Daily Mirror. Manchester United Chairman Martin Edwards was also critical, as was FA Chairman Bert Millichip. Tory MP John Carlisle went all Corporal Jones regarding the hooligans: “A few bayonets up the fans’ backsides could help.”

Chelsea were later fined £75,000 and ordered to close their terracing for the first six matches of the following season, a fitting end to a disastrous season for the club. But they would bounce back in emphatic style; 99 points and just five defeats saw Chelsea crowned Division Two champions. Perhaps if a certain Mr Abramovich had not turned up in 2003, then this achievement might not have been hidden away in the ‘Other’ section of the club website trophy cabinet.

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