A legendary evening at Maine Road 35 years ago is recalled by club historian Rick Glanvill ahead of our latest trip to Manchester, and on the anniversary of the passing of our manager back then, John Neal...
Friday 7.15pm kick-offs will not figure too highly in the folklore of many other clubs’ supporters, but then the 1983/84 campaign was anything but ordinary for Chelsea fans.
It was a season where the club rediscovered its swagger and style, and finally broke out of the Division Two dungeon after a five-year incarceration. The Friday night match was at Maine Road on 4 May, towards the season’s close, and John Neal knew a return to the big time was already secured, whatever fifth-placed Manchester City did.
It was a huge turnaround for the amiable north-easterner, who endured placards and chants urging his removal at the Bridge the previous spring as the Blues narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier for the first time.
Throughout the 1983/84 campaign the same fans had been in party mode, and Ken Bates promised a party in Cottonopolis’s Grand Hotel as a thank you for the huge and exuberant throng from all over the country who had pushed Neal’s men to succeed. There were at least 4,000 among the 21,000 crowd at Maine Road, and four coachloads would be catered for at the hotel later.
The reason for the unusual start time was that the game was selected for live coverage by the BBC, who had signed a deal with the Football League, then sponsored by Canon, at the start of the season. So it was that Jimmy Hill introduced Match of the Day Live’s first ever delve into Division Two on BBC One at 7.10pm.
Commentator Alan Parry described a decent first half with City, outsiders to clinch the third promotion spot, giving as good as they got. Chelsea, clad in all-yellow and unchanged for the sixth game in a row, rose to a higher level after the break, with Paul Canoville introduced for the second half.
The winger’s dancing feet played a big part in Kerry Dixon’s headed goal from David Speedie’s cross. Just before that, viewers had feasted their eyes on a splendid solo effort from Pat Nevin, who cutely finished a jinking run with a drive across goalkeeper Alex Williams.
‘You can see why Chelsea are going up,’ commented City boss Billy McNeill afterwards. ‘They compete right up to the final whistle.’ The same could be said of Blues fans celebrating at the Grand. ‘A typical Chelsea affair,’ Bates (pictured top) later wrote. ‘Lots of good humour, singing, and dancing.’