League Cup classic remembered: part one

The Blues have had our fair share of memorable League Cup ties, but perhaps none are more legendary than the three-part epic with Sheffield Wednesday in 1985, which we recall here with the help of former players...

In many ways it was the epic cup tie that defined a Chelsea era. 

It was certainly the cup tie that defined one player’s career and it reinforced one of the team’s biggest rivalries at the time. It stretched over three incident-packed matches and, for any fans who watched on, the story is not one easily forgotten.

John Neal’s Chelsea side were back in the big time and more than holding their own. It was the first season in the top flight after five down below and having crushed Manchester City in the previous round Chelsea were into the quarter-finals of the League Cup. After more than a decade without a Wembley appearance, it truly felt a major final was at last possible.

Firstly the Blues had to overcome Sheffield Wednesday at Stamford Bridge, the side we had been neck-and-neck with throughout most of the preceding promotion season, pipping them to the Second Division title at the last.  

The South Yorkshiremen too were proving more than good enough for the First Division and were in fourth place at turn of the year. The backdrop to our cup clash in early 1985 was the final days of the Miners’ Strike and one of the coldest winters in London for a long time.

Indeed the match had to be postponed from its scheduled date due to the freeze which imposed an unplanned two-week midwinter break. It was played 12 days later on a pitch rendered near-grassless by the methods used to thaw it for a league derby against Arsenal. A 36,000 crowd braved the cold and welcomed Wednesday to the capital city on a Monday night, two days after we had won at Wigan in the FA Cup.

‘The Sheffield Wednesday rivalry came from our first season together as a team and their manager Howard Wilkinson had them really fit,’ remembers our midfielder from three decades ago, Nigel Spackman, speaking to the official Chelsea website.

‘They played long ball, offside and they weren’t attractive to watch but very difficult to play against.’

‘As teams we were very close in the league but we were unbelievably different styles,’ adds Pat Nevin.

‘They were big, strong, robust and we were more attack-minded and more skilful. I used to think of them almost as robots and that is how you ended up getting by them because they did the same things all the time. But they were a good side who got the better of us a couple of times and the rivalry grew, and these cup games nailed it on the head.’

Tickets for Chelsea v Sheffield Wednesday this Sunday are on general sale

The original meeting is the mostly forgotten part of this tale but although not reaching the nerve-shredding heights of the two replays that followed, it was still a very good game.

Wednesday took the lead with a header, equalised before the interval by David Speedie (pictured below). Kerry Dixon, the country’s topscorer with 27 goals at that point, had a penalty saved and Chelsea, having already hit the woodwork twice and had an effort cleared off the line, suffered a repeat of both those events in the final minute. The replay in Yorkshire took place only two days later. 

‘We were disappointed we had to go back to Hillsborough,’ says goalkeeper Eddie Niedzwiecki, ‘and my main recollection from up there was the crowd.

David Speedie came up to me in the warm-up and I said to him did you ever get this at Barnsley (one of his previous clubs) and he said no, did you ever get this at Wrexham! The Kop behind my goal at Sheffield Wednesday was huge and renowned, and their team came at us quickly when the game started and we didn’t match that.’

The attendance was the same size as at the Bridge but with a larger percentage of away fans, despite the short notice. However it was the home support enjoying the night as their team scored two typical headed goals.

‘I don’t remember those but I remember their third - Brian Marwood curled one past me from about 25 yards,’ says Niedzwiecki. ‘Any time when you are a goalkeeper you are disappointed to concede but to concede three in the first half, not much was going right.’

It would have been worse had the referee spotted Mickey Thomas’s retaliatory punch in the goalmouth in response to ceaseless provocation. The Chelsea support close by did not aid with the avoidance of detection when they instantly broke into a ‘There’s only one Mickey Thomas’ song, but the livewire Wales international (pictured below) remained on the pitch. 

‘The first thing our manager John Neal said at half-time was, “I don’t know what you hit him for Mickey, what did he say?”’ recounts Thomas. ‘And then John said to us all, “You’ve got yourself into this mess, now get yourself out”.’

‘Coming off at half-time, we were quite despondent,’ says Niedzwiecki, ‘but what riled us was the Wednesday players were quite buoyant. It was like – Can I score? Can I score? – they thought they had the job done. The boss brought Paul Canoville on.’

Canoville, in his autobiography Black and Blue, describes the dressing room as ‘bedlam’ with the likes of Joey Jones and Joe McLaughlin cajoling their colleagues to a better performance.

‘John Neal knew we were upset and sorting it out so he left that alone and went over the set-pieces with Pat and Kerry,’ he reports.

‘It happened now and again that we would concede a few goals,’ points out Nevin. ‘We were an open side and I remember going 3-0 down at Cardiff the season before and still drawing.

Read: Pat Nevin - Assessing the bigger picture

‘We weren’t dreadful against Wednesday but everything went right for them and it wasn’t going right for us, but then Paul came on and got a goal right at the start. My positon was totally different, I was basically centre-midfield for the rest of that game which I loved, I was really free to go wherever and we had so many hard workers. Mickey Thomas was like having two players and Spackers [Spackman] was the same, so we were going to run Wednesday.

‘After that goal went in a bunch of players looked at each other and thought we are going to do them. It is hard to explain why, but we just did.’

Throughout half-time there had been a tremendous show of defiant singing from the Chelsea thousands. That bolstered the belief.

‘It always used to happen, I don’t remember it not happening when we were having a bad time,’ says Nevin. ‘The fans would just sing what looked very inappropriately when we were having a stinker. It was a massive part of getting us back into the game. It is a big old support Sheffield Wednesday have there but this was our fans going berserk.’

‘John Neal, God bless him, made the change at half-time and it was a positive move,’ notes Spackman, ‘and Canners with his pace caused all sorts of problems and we were playing down the hill. When we scored we didn’t think we are going to lose this.’

‘From the restart Joey just launched it from the back towards Kerry,’ Canoville writes in Black and Blue.

‘It was always a case of gambling in case Kerry knocked it on. It fell between me and a central defender and I nicked it off the boy’s foot. The left-foot shot bounced just in front of the keeper and gave him no chance. Eleven seconds after kick-off Wednesday were pegged back to 3-1.’  

It was soon 3-2. ‘Kerry Dixon took that goal awfully well,’ the commentator was later heard to say on the TV highlights.  

Thomas takes up the story.

‘Those two goals gave us the momentum and they just disintegrated really. For the equaliser, because I knew Pat so well and he had a great footballing brain and he could see things, that’s why I kept on running when he was attacking with ball. I didn’t really need to shout for it because he knew where I was and played it back into my path and I just struck it into the top corner.’

For Canoville, what was the pinnacle of his career on the pitch was also the night he met his father for the first time in 21 years, although not until after the final whistle. They were both in the stadium though and Canoville’s arm in the air at the end of the match was to acknowledge that fact. It was the young winger who put his side 4-3 ahead with 85 minutes played.

‘I knew Kerry liked to take the ball for himself, like all great goalscorers, but I was completely unmarked and running towards the penalty area,’ was Canoville’s recollection. ‘It must have been eight times I called, I was sure he’d look for some angle to shoot for himself, but he passed to me.

‘As it crossed the line I was thinking “Oh my God! This is the winner”.’

The scenes in the away supporters end were incredible and the perfect cup drama was almost complete, but there was one more twist. Inside the final seconds of normal time, Wednesday full-back Mel Sterland was charging into the Chelsea area with the ball but seemingly running out of space when our left-back Doug Rougvie tripped him. 

‘Doug claims to this day it was me giving the ball away that led to him being caught out of position,’ says Nevin.

‘I wanted to say something to Doug after the foul,’ adds Thomas, ‘because I was going to be able to make a challenge, but obviously we all make mistakes.’

Only Niedzwiecki stood between Wilkinson’s side and 4-4.

‘I had faced Mel Sterland before and seen a number of his penalties and kept telling myself to stand up because he had hit quite a few down the middle, but as any goalkeeper will tell you it is easier said than done. Unfortunately he put it straight down the middle and it nipped my toe.’

Our Welsh international goalkeeper did play an important part in keeping the score the same in the extra-time that followed, but both teams were by now well and truly drained.

‘Doug giving away the penalty kind of didn’t matter when we were back the dressing room because we had been 3-0 down and got a draw, and they were coming back to our place,’ says Nevin.

Yes, there was disappointment that one of the greatest fight-backs in Chelsea history had not resulted in a win and a place in the semi-finals, but all’s well that ends well and had the team not let the 4-3 lead slip, Stamford Bridge would have been denied another night of high drama.

- Visit again tomorrow for Part Two and the story of the second replay.  

Tickets for our Carabao Cup semi-final second leg against Tottenham on Thursday are sold out in non-hospitality areas, but you can be at the Bridge on Sunday when we meet Sheffield Wednesday again, this time in the FA Cup. Click for more information. 

A version of this article first appeared in 2015.

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