Foot In Both Camps: Tommy Langley

Tommy Langley played for both Chelsea and this weekend's opponent Wolves, and scored his fair share of goals in our past meetings, including a 1977 special...

Chelsea head to Wolverhampton this weekend hoping for more than a 1-1 draw, but 40 years ago that result was a significant success for our young team of the time and its teenage centre-forward Tommy Langley.

The point won at Molineux in what was the penultimate game of the 1976/77 season meant promotion back to the top flight two years after relegation. The draw also took Wolves up with us.

It was Langley who opened the scoring that day in May, and speaking to the official Chelsea website this week, he unsurprisingly confirms he remembers the occasion well.

‘Steve Finnieston and Kenny Swain had pretty much done the job in attack already that season but [manager] Eddie McCreadie decided to change it a bit for the last few games of the season and brought me in.

‘The Chelsea fans were banned from that game because of earlier trouble but I think that made even more of them determined to be in the ground. There were thousands and we had big support.

‘It was early in the game when Ray Wilkins played a great pass forward to me, as he did on so many occasions, and I managed to get my boot on it. I didn’t strike it the cleanest but Gary Pierce was in goal who was a good friend of mine, and I think it caught him by surprise a bit and went in.’ 

Wolves equalised late on ensuring it would be they rather than Chelsea who were Second Division champions that season with us runners-up. That was no major disappointment Langley says. For this largely home-grown and inexperienced side who were pulling the club upwards in a time of extreme financial strife, it was all about getting back into the big time.

‘The financial crisis was not something we were that concerned about, we just had to get the job done on the football pitch and obviously we did that, and it was a really good day,’ he says.

Langley was a boyhood Chelsea fan who made his debut in November 1974 as a 16-year-old. He was and remains our third-youngest debutant. On his second appearance he scored the first of the 43 goals he netted during a 152-game career for the Blues.  

It was later that season, after the team without him suffered the ignominy of a 7-1 defeat at Wolves, that he was given his first run in the side. The Black Country club appear time and again in Langley’s story, and not only when he later played for them in the mid-1980s.

‘Even when I was at Aldershot towards the end of my career we beat Wolves in the first year of the promotion play-offs,’ he points out. ‘Unfortunately I did not play as I got a smack in the ribs, but it is weird because there have been a few significant games against them.’

The first season back in Division One with Chelsea, Langley scored in both an away win and home draw against Wolves. The teams finished level on points, four above the drop zone. Then in 1978/79 he was at it again.

‘I scored a really good goal there in the second game of the season and we won 1-0,’ he recalls.

‘I smashed one in from 25 yards and I remember that goal to this day because it was a really good strike from a long way out and even from that angle I tried to give the goalkeeper the eyes. I whipped it across and it went in the top left-hand corner, and we held on for the 1-0.’

Langley also netted in the meeting at Stamford Bridge but although he ended the season topscorer on 16 goals, Chelsea dropped back down to Division Two where we would stay for five years. Given the club was also fighting a battle for our very existence, was there anything that could have prevented relegation?

‘Yes, Roman Abramovich turning up a bit earlier!’ Langley laughs.

‘We weren’t well funded and we had to sell some of the players like Ray Wilkins who were the backbone and the quality of the side, and when you start doing that you know there is only one way to go.

‘We were having meetings with Martin Spencer [a financial expert brought in to try to stave off bankruptcy] and as footballers we should not really have known what was going on but they made us aware. It was sad and it was not a great time for the club but the support from the fans was always there, and at the end of the day, you just get on with it because it is your job and your love.’

A good indication of the predicament is that QPR’s purchase of our main striker when Langley moved there in 1980 raised few eyebrows. By 1984 he was playing for Wolves.

‘Tommy Docherty had taken over there but it was a club a little bit in disarray,’ he recalls. ‘We drew 2-2 and I scored the first goal in my first game so it was a good start but they were like a lot of clubs at that time. They were having a tough time financially and it was a shame because Wolves is a big club with a big fanbase and nice stadium.

‘I was living in digs that had no heating in winter and it was the little things they couldn’t do at that time, the things they cut out, that make a difference. I was living badly and it reflected in my performances. The team didn’t play very well but there were some decent players there and had the club been better run at that time then I think I would have done better.’

Langley will be in one of his regular present-day roles as part of the Chelsea TV team covering tomorrow’s game in the ‘Wherever They May Be’ show. He anticipates an intriguing contest between his two former sides. 

‘Wolves were beaten this week by Wigan and they have probably had one eye on playing us, but if we go there with a similar team to the previous two rounds, you hope they would be better than Wolves.

‘Wolves will be buoyed by that result against Liverpool and there will be no fear as no one expects them to win, but they have had their cup shock, they are playing against a team who are eight-points clear in the Premier League and you would hope our quality comes through.’

And if the team Antonio Conte field compares with the ones selected against Peterborough and Brentford, it will mean more opportunities for players who are following the journey Langley made through the Chelsea youth system to the first team in the 1970s.

‘It’s lovely to see some of the boys playing, the Chelsea fans love one of their own coming through,’ he notes, ‘and we are in the semi of the FA Youth Cup again so there is another group of talented boys there. I have been watching the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ola Aina coming through the system and they have an opportunity this season to showcase themselves. If they grasp it then good luck to them.’