Peter Houseman was the understated one among the flamboyant stars of the great Chelsea side that captured silverware and hearts in the early 1970s. His immense contribution to the historic success of that team however should be beyond all doubt.
The left winger, the no.11 in Dave Sexton’s thrilling Blues, was also the first to be lost to us – so tragically – in a car crash that was caused by someone else and which also took the life of his wife Sally.
Later this month is the 40th anniversary of that shocking night in Oxfordshire and two of their three sons, Daniel and Matthew, who were orphaned at the ages of six and eight respectively in 1977, are the guests of the club at this Monday night’s match against Manchester United. They will be introduced on the pitch to the crowd at half-time.
Houseman made 343 appearances for Chelsea between 1963 and 1975, including our FA Cup final and Cup Winners’ Cup final triumphs during that period. Alongside him on so many occasions was midfielder John Hollins, and it is to Hollins the official Chelsea website turns for the story of what it was like to be a team-mate of Houseman’s, and what it was that made him so good.
Hollins takes us back to the beginning.
‘When Peter first came into Chelsea as a young lad he was very quiet, you would not have thought he was there,’ he says.
‘He was a local boy, from about 20 minutes away from Stamford Bridge and as well as being very quiet, it looked as though he was always thinking about something, but once he got on that field he was a really forceful person. He was like an explosion.’
Houseman was the epitome of the winger who liked to stay out wide, as evidenced by his 39 goals – a rate of close to one every nine games. Instead he made countless goals for others.
‘Whenever he got wide and whenever he was one on one, he would always deliver a ball to the near post or far post,’ recalls Hollins. ‘Both Peter Osgood and Ian Hutchinson would say the person who most supplied them was Peter Houseman. He was the deliverer of all those crosses.
‘He could bring the ball inside on his right foot but that left foot was his main weapon, taking the ball to the defender and then taking it out a little bit wider and then just whipping it around the player.
‘A touch of pace was his secret weapon. He looked as though he was just ambling along but he would be looking at the defender’s feet and positioning, and then there would be the quick touch of the ball past him and by the time the guy had thought about it, the ball was on its way into the box. The delivery was perfect nine times out of 10.
‘Peter would work that left-hand side of the pitch and he never looked as if he got tired. We were lucky with that team that won the FA Cup in that not many of us really got exhausted. We were always where we should be, trying to supply the big lads up front. Peter was one of us doing that but as soon as the game was finished, he would go home, that was his job done.
‘He was dedicated to the game and dedicated to his wife and family. On occasions he would have a few beers and a little bit of a different person came out, but in the nicest possible way. We used to call him Nobby, I don’t know why, and he was a great person to have in your team. Anybody you asked in that team who they wanted as a team-mate, it would be Peter Houseman without a shadow of a doubt.’
Given the clear fondness for the person and huge respect for the player there was in the dressing room, one of the most surprising aspects of Peter Houseman’s Chelsea tale is that for a prolonged part of it he was unpopular with a significant portion of the crowd. He voiced his bafflement with this on the odd occasion and some think his lack of flash among highly fashionable team-mates with flair to spare was contributory.
‘The job that Peter was doing was the correct one,’ emphasises Hollins. ‘He would run back as well and work hard but he looked as though he was, not lazy, but drifting into the game.
‘The Chelsea supporters did take to him in the end. I think every time Peter Osgood was asked about Peter he said, “I am telling you, he is the best”.
‘Maybe that word got about as sooner or later the criticism disappeared. He just supplied the forwards and he was very good at it.’
It took time for the young Houseman to establish himself in the side but a major game came at the start of the 1968/69 season when Manchester United, in only their third home game since being crowned European champions, were beaten 4-0 by Chelsea with Houseman starring. He was involved in three of the goals.
The following season both he and Hollins played every game and the FA Cup was lifted for the first time. In a replay at Burnley, Sexton’s team were going out until Houseman sent the game into extra-time where he then made the second goal and scored the third. He netted in the next round too and twice in a semi-final thrashing of Watford at White Hart Lane.
‘Peter showed his strength on the physical side that day because that pitch was atrocious, they would call it off nowadays,’ says Hollins. ‘He ploughed his way through the field and still gave us the quality we needed to get through to the final.’
There, at Wembley on another poor pitch, half-time was close with Leeds winning 1-0 when Houseman tried his luck with a shot.
‘The goal was a bit of a freak, it bounced just in front of Gary Sprake and went in but when he scored, Peter just stood there, he did not run off. I can remember his face, it was as if to say “there you are supporters, that is what I can do”.
‘We went in at half-time and we had belief. We thought let’s have a breather and get stuck into them again.’
That match finished 2-2 with the Blues triumphant at Old Trafford in the replay, as we were in Greece a year later in another final that went to two games. Houseman played in both as the European Cup Winners’ Cup was denied to Real Madrid. It was Chelsea's first European trophy.
Houseman’s FA Cup semi-final and final goals can be watched in the video below, as can a good example against Man United of his typical crossing from the left.
Both he and Hollins moved on from Chelsea in 1975 and the latter can remember hearing the terrible news two years later.
‘It was devastating. No one could believe it. So young [he was 31], with a lovely wife and lovely kids. He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met and I could not believe that it happened, leaving his children bewildered. It must have been terrible for them.’
A benefit match was held at Stamford Bridge between a 1970 and a 1977 Chelsea side and for years after there were collections at Christmas at the stadium for his sons.
Hollins thinks ahead to this Monday’s game when they will be at Bridge.
‘It is fitting it is a big FA Cup game,’ he says, ‘and playing against Man United, I am sure Peter will be looking at it thinking I used to take them on, and give them a little bit of a thrashing!’