Ahead of tomorrow’s meeting between two of his former clubs, George Graham recalls the exciting couple of years he spent at Chelsea early on in his playing career…
In more recent times it is probably for his work in north London that George Graham is best known, but as an elegant attacker in the 1960s it was at Chelsea where the centre-forward made his name in the game.
Born in North Lanarkshire in Scotland in 1944, Graham’s footballing abilities attracted the attention of scouts south of the border from a young age, and he signed for Aston Villa on his 17th birthday. Then, in the summer of 1964, Chelsea came calling.
‘I’d played a dozen games or so for Aston Villa,’ Graham recounts. ‘I was 19 at the time, a bit young, and I wasn’t breaking into the first team on a regular basis.
‘Tommy Docherty was the manager at Chelsea and he saw me in a youth competition down south where I was representing Scotland. It was a mini World Cup of youth teams and I think England won the whole competition at Wembley.
‘Anyway, he made a bid for me, I think it was £5000. Fortunately for me, when I joined the club the great Bobby Tambling was injured for the beginning of the season, so I managed to get in the team right away and I stayed there more or less for the next couple of years.’
Graham’s impact was instant, netting 13 goals in his first 11 appearances. It was soon apparent Chelsea would be genuine title challengers in 1964/65.
‘What a team. It was amazing to play in it, it really was. It was a very young side. There were about half-a-dozen of us around 19, 20, 21 years of age, but there were truly outstanding players…’
The names roll off Graham’s tongue as though it was yesterday.
‘…Johnny Hollins, Ronny Harris, Terry Venables, the two full-backs were Ken Shellito and Eddie McCreadie, the Cat – Peter Bonetti – in goal.
‘When Bobby got fit again we played three up front. I was the spearhead centre-forward, Barry Bridges was on the right side of me and Bobby on the left. It was fantastic, there were so many chances created.’
Though the title challenge faded away at the end of that season, major silverware was secured for the first time in a decade in the shape of the League Cup. Graham more than played his part in that run to glory, scoring four goals including a fourth-round winner against Swansea City and one in the semi-final second leg against his former club Villa.
He remembers very well McCreadie’s famous slalom solo goal against Leicester at the Bridge in the final, and it was also in that competition that Peter Osgood burst onto the scene with a brace against Workington.
‘He is probably the best 17-year-old I’ve ever seen,’ Graham enthuses. ‘He was a natural. There wasn’t much coaching to be done with him. He was the end product at a young age. He was just different class, the way he dribbled with the ball.’
Osgood’s languid style of play was not too dissimilar from Graham’s, who earned the nickname ‘The Stroller’ for the manner in which he moved around the pitch.
‘I wouldn’t say I was elegant, I’d say slow! I was very fortunate to go into a young outstanding team and I contributed my little piece. I’m trying to be as modest as I can here! But it was a great time at Chelsea then, it really was.’
Another successful season and another run to the FA Cup semi-finals followed in 1965/66, as well as an exciting venture to the last four of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, before much of the team left for pastures new. It was actually a coach Graham had worked with at Chelsea that helped make his mind up when it came to choosing a fresh destination.
‘Dave Sexton was a big influence on me in my career, both at Chelsea and then when he moved on to be first team coach at Arsenal. That appealed to me. Dave was one of the best coaches I worked for. He was phenomenal. And then of course he came back to Chelsea as a manager.
‘I learned a lot from him and throughout my career I was very fortunate to work with so many great coaches: Don Howe, Terry Venables, Sexton. I wasn’t interested in coaching when I was playing, but there must have been a lot of good things in the back of my mind when I came into coaching, especially when I was the youth team boss at Crystal Palace and QPR.’
Another was Docherty, who signed Graham for a second time when in charge of Manchester United.
‘I had a good relationship with Tommy. He was a ‘day and night’ sort of coach. If you played well you were one of the best players in the UK, and if you didn’t play well he’d try to sell you! He was such a character.’
The pair are pictured together on the right celebrating United's Scottish players in 1973.
Graham's time at Old Trafford, he admits, was the worst of his playing career and included an unexpected relegation to England’s second tier.
He then moved into coaching and then management where he enjoyed plenty of success over almost three decades. Now he takes in his football as an observer and he will be casting a keen eye on Sunday’s showpiece fixture.
‘I’ve been very impressed with Chelsea this season. I saw them at Arsenal early in the season and they were very poor. But since then the manager has changed the system from a back four to a back three, and that released the quality players. It gave them a lot of freedom.
‘It’s surprised me a bit having seen that game at Arsenal, but the transformation has been amazing. The manager has done a great job.
‘It’s been great to see Chelsea do well. I always saw the potential there when I was young. It was always going to be a big club if somebody got it right.’