The scheduling of our Europa League fixtures has thrown up a historical quirk: we will play our first ever group stage game in this competition in Thessaloniki, the very same city where our maiden Cup Winners’ Cup campaign began, 48 years ago.
PAOK Salonika are our opponents in Greece tomorrow, whereas in 1970 Dave Sexton’s side overcame PAOK's great rivals, Aris Salonika, to kick-start what would prove a triumphant first journey in the Cup Winners’ Cup.
The prestigious competition, first contested in 1960, allowed the domestic cup winners of each European country the chance to challenge for a continental prize. So following our FA Cup success in 1970, we entered at the first round stage the following season, joined by 30 other cup winners as well as the holders, Manchester City.
We drew Aris Salonika, conquerors of city rivals PAOK in the Greek Cup final earlier that year, with the first leg to be played in northern Greece on 16 September 1970.
Manager Sexton and his players flew out the day before the game, a routine that remained in place right up until the final, also held in Greece. Irish defender Paddy Mulligan was a member of the touring party.
‘I had played in European competitions for Shamrock Rovers, but for a lot of the lads playing in Europe at club level was a new experience and I remember some being a little fearful of what to expect,’ Mulligan recalls.
‘But at the same time, to leave Stamford Bridge, go to the airport and get on the flight – it was so exciting to be playing in Europe, it was fabulous.’
A crowd of 50,000 welcomed the teams at the Charilaou Ground in the south of the city, and onto a poor playing surface to make life uncomfortable for the Blues. The rutted, bumpy desert of a pitch was described by the visiting English journalists, including Peter Batt of The Sun, as the worst they had ever seen: ‘The proceedings bore so little resemblance to football as we know it that it must go down as a Greek farce’.
Aris’s tactics were simple, as Ken Jones wrote in the Daily Mirror: ‘Their desire to win by any means, and the cynicism they show in defence, puts them in the same category as the Argentinians.’ The journalist added that it was notable every Chelsea player wore shinpads. They certainly came in handy as the tackles flew in.
It was one such mistimed challenge that presented Peter Osgood with the chance to open the scoring on the half-hour, Mulligan the man brought down inside the box. Our star striker had to wait for over five minutes as the hosts protested the decision and kept the ball from Osgood, who saw his effort saved when play eventually resumed.
‘They set out to put me off with delaying tactics and succeeded, but I still ought to have scored,’ Osgood mused after the game.
The miss was compounded barely a minute later by the sending off of John Dempsey for violent conduct. There are conflicting reports on Dempsey’s involvement in the incident, with the Hungarian referee declaring he had kicked the Aris striker Alexiades, who himself said he had been punched. To this day, Dempsey maintains his innocence, but whatever happened the Blues would have to play the final 55 a man light.
Early in the second half, the 11 men of Aris went ahead after Peter Bonetti couldn’t fully deal with an awkward cross, palming it against the crossbar and into the path of Alexiades, who couldn’t miss.
Chelsea kept going, though, and with 15 minutes remaining deservedly equalised. A flowing move, initiated by Charlie Cooke, culminated in a powerful volleyed finish from Ian Hutchinson after Osgood had cushioned the ball into his path.
‘They knew we were a passing team who liked to get the ball down and play, and they tried to nullify that,’ says Mulligan. ‘That is just the way that it was.
‘We knew that, we knew every obstacle was going to be in the way, we knew the crowd were going to be against us, and we knew the referee might give some ropey decisions.
‘But the ball was ours to have if we wanted it badly enough, and that’s what we did that night. Any time you went away from home and didn’t get beat was a good result, especially in Greece where football was on the up. Panathanaikos reached the European Cup final that season.’
In Thessaloniki, Chelsea’s path to the Cup Winners’ Cup final had begun in dramatic fashion. But when the teams reconvened in London a fortnight later, Chelsea made light work of Aris on the green, green grass of Stamford Bridge. The 5-1 win included braces for Hutchinson and John Hollins.
After the second leg, Aris’s president Nicolas Kambinas told our chairman Brian Mears: ‘Chelsea played so well that we are certain we shall see you in Greece again this season – for the final in Athens in May. If you do reach the final, you can be assured of our support.’
The president’s premonition proved correct as the Blues progressed past CSKA Sofia, Bruges and Man City to set up a date with Real Madrid in the final. We needed two bites of the cherry to edge out the Spanish giants after a replay, and round off a wonderful European campaign in the same country that it had begun.