The hands of Godden

With the Blues preparing for a pivotal meeting with Manchester United in the race for a top-four place, we look back at one of the most remarkable performances by a Chelsea player at the Theatre of Dreams.

Among the many actions which take place on a football field, penalty kicks are among the most predictable.

The odds are, unsurprisingly for a free shot at goal from 12 yards, stacked heavily in favour of the taker. So much, in fact, that in the Premier League era, which began in 1992, if a goalkeeper saves more than one of every 10 penalties faced in the English top flight he can consider himself to be performing above average.

All of this makes the performance of Blues goalkeeper Tony Godden at Old Trafford in September 1986 all the more remarkable.

Only three keepers in the history of the club have ever achieved the rare feat of saving two penalties in the same game, the first two of which took place within 30 years of the club’s formation: Willie Foulke against Burslem Port Vale in 1906 and John Jackson versus West Brom in 1935.

Over half a century passed before the next instance, but this time there was a difference – two penalties were kept out in as many minutes, an astonishing occurrence which, outside of a penalty shoot-out, you’d surely be hard pressed to find many examples of.

The Hand of God? No – the hands of Godden.

Unless you were a Blues fan in the mid-Eighties, the goalkeeper’s name may well have escaped you. During his one-year spell in London, which began with a stint on loan from West Bromwich Albion, Godden appeared only 38 times as regular first-choice Eddie Niedzwiecki fought against the knee injury which would eventually end his playing career.

'I came at the end of the season before, on deadline day, and then I got in the side more or less straight away,' he said. 'I was in constant contact over the summer with John Hollins, who was the manager, and then I signed permanently.'

During Godden’s final days at the Hawthorns, former Baggies manager Ron Atkinson, who had by now taken charge at Manchester United, was linked with a move for the goalkeeper whose career he had helped get off the ground. Instead, he opted to sign Chris Turner – and it was a decision he would live to regret when his old charge was part of the Chelsea side which travelled up to Old Trafford to conclude the weekend’s fixtures at the end of September 1986.

Sunday afternoon matches might be a regular part of modern football, but back in the mid-Eighties they were still something of a rarity. Having dented United’s title hopes at the end of the previous season with a 2-1 win at the Red Devils’ home, our next visit was selected for television coverage on the Big Match Live as viewers tucked into their Sunday roast.

Having scored twice at Old Trafford in April, Kerry Dixon got in on the act once again after only two minutes. A lofted through-ball from Nigel Spackman sent the Blues’ third-highest goalscorer of all time scampering through on goal and his early half-volley from the edge of the box rocketed past Turner.

The real hero of the day was about to emerge, however, as the home side launched attack after attack on the Chelsea goal.

A week earlier, Godden had been struggling with a back injury against Nottingham Forest; a few unkind observers noted it may have been caused by the regularity with which he was required to pick the ball out of the back of the net in a 6-2 thrashing at the Bridge as both Gary Birtles and Neil Webb scored hat-tricks. Now he was enjoying the game of his life.

'It was one of the first live Sunday games, so obviously it was a massive day for us,' he said. 'After Kerry scored, for the remaining 88 minutes it was like the Alamo! But I just had one of those purple days where everything went for me.

'They absolutely murdered us the whole game and I must have made six or seven of the best saves of my career. Saving the penalties was the least of it – I’m most proud of my punching, catching and kicking because we were pummelled by their attacks. It was my perfect day.'

Great goalkeeping performances aren’t remembered decades later without something extraordinary attached to them, though, and Godden certainly provided that in the space of two second-half minutes. Mind you, the referee, Robert Courtney, offered more than a helping hand with that.

The first penalty was as soft as they come, seemingly awarded for a nudge by Godden himself, and confusion reigned as the ball ended up in the back of the net just as the referee pointed to the spot.

Jesper Olsen had scored with a spot-kick in the aforementioned game between the sides earlier that year and his manager had recently voiced the opinion that 'there wasn’t a better penalty-taker in the world'. However, having only been on for little more than a minute, his first touch was a forgettable one; tamely struck to the goalkeeper’s left, Godden had little difficulty turning it behind.

One iffy penalty award in front of the Stretford End may have been forgiveable by those of a Blue persuasion, but when the ref pointed to the spot again only moments later for an alleged indiscretion by John McNaught on Olsen, serious questions may well have been asked had it not been for another timely intervention by Godden.

This time, up stepped Gordon Strachan to take hold of the ball. The flame-haired midfielder, who subsequently proved to be a wily character during his managerial career, warned the referee of Godden’s early movement off his line for the previous spot-kick. Perhaps he would have been better off focusing on the task at hand, although a far cleaner effort than Olsen’s was brilliantly palmed away by the hero of the hour, this time to his opposite side.

In an interview which appeared in the matchday programme a week later, the goalkeeper revealed that he had done his homework on the potential penalty-takers.

'We have a little chat about it before each game,” he said. 'With Olsen, I knew he wasn’t going to hit it hard, so I decided to wait. With the second kick, I felt Strachan under pressure and would blast his shot. It was just lucky that I just chose to dive the right way.'

Perhaps an even better save was to follow with just two minutes remaining as he kept out a fierce header by Frank Stapleton and, as the final whistle blew, Doug Rougvie grabbed hold of the ball and placed it into the arms of his goalkeeper. If a hat-trick is worthy of taking home the match-ball then two penalty saves certainly falls into that category, too.

'What a game Tony had,' wrote captain Colin Pates in his next set of programme notes. 'The way he was playing we just knew he couldn’t be beaten.'

The Blues, too, must have felt unbeatable at the home of one of English football’s leading lights. That result preserved our fine record at Old Trafford, making it 13 games unbeaten at the ground since a 4-1 defeat in 1966.

'Obviously it was my best game for Chelsea,' said Godden. 'It was a match where everything went right for me. The penalty saves are what everyone remembers, but I thought it was one of the best games I ever played.'

Godden’s performance also had far-reaching consequences for English football. Just over a month later, Atkinson was relieved of his duties at Manchester United. His replacement? Alex Ferguson.

'Ron is a smashing bloke, one of the best managers I worked for,' added Godden. ‘But I think he always blames me for getting him the sack! I said at the time that I think he was umming and ahhing whether to sign me for Man U before I joined Chelsea permanently. Obviously he didn't go down that route, but I think it would always have been Chelsea anyway with me being a Chelsea fan.

'I lived just down the road in Kent and supported them as a kid, so it was my club and all my family’s club. My brothers and cousins all supported Chelsea, so it was a big deal when I signed for them – and extra pressure to get hold of tickets for everybody! I enjoyed my time at Chelsea immensely and always had a good rapport with the fans.'

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