Alan Birchenall was at Chelsea for just under three years in the late 1960s, making almost 100 appearances during one of the most exciting periods in our history.
In our latest old boys interview, the former forward remembers the happy times he spent in west London after joining for a club-record fee from Sheffield United in 1967, including his close relationship with the great Peter Osgood, and he also has words on his good friend Gordon Banks who so sadly passed away earlier this week.
But it is at the beginning of his Chelsea story that we start…
Tell us about how you came to sign for Chelsea?
I was a young boy at Sheffield United who played up front with Mick Jones. Don Revie came in for both of us to try and sign us for Leeds, but the boss, John Harris, who used to play for Chelsea, wouldn’t let both of us go. Mick went to Leeds and I was annoyed so put a transfer request in.
One day John Harris called me into his office and said somebody had come in for me, and they were the only club he would let me go to if I wanted to go. So I went to the office at Brammall Lane, and the next time the door opened there was Dave Sexton.
So off I went with Dave for lunch at the Hallam Towers in Sheffield. He had recently been appointed Chelsea manager and he said he wanted me to be his first signing. ‘How much do you think you’re worth?’ he asked me. I said £30,000 or £40,000 but he raised his arm, and kept raising his arm! I got to £70,000 and thought ‘he’s got the wrong player here!’
He said he was prepared to pay £100,000 for me, which was one of the first times that amount had been paid. Of course I was going to sign!
What were your immediate impressions of the club?
Coming from Sheffield United it was an eye-opener! I drove down in a Triumph Spitfire car. It wasn’t really flash but I thought it was! I was travelling down the Fulham Road and I couldn’t find the entrance! I saw this market stall and there was a guy selling fruit and veg. I wound the window down and asked him where Stamford Bridge was.
He looked at me, recognised me and said in a cockney accent: ‘are you that centre-forward we’ve just signed for a hundred grand?’
‘Yes I am!’
‘And you can’t find Stamford Bridge?! How the hell are you going to find the back of the net!’
I was about 100 hundred yards away!
My first training session at Chelsea was on Stamford Bridge’s concrete forecourt in an 8-a-side game. Peter Bonetti pinged the ball to me. I wanted to make a good impression with my first touch but I never touched the ball. The next thing I know I am laying on my back with ‘Chopper’ Harris saying ‘Welcome to Chelsea!’ I didn’t retaliate but he demolished me!
What was Dave Sexton like to work under?
He was the best coach I played under. He was incredible. A lovely bloke as well, maybe a bit too nice to be a manager. Lots of the players were controlling. He had his moments, you couldn’t walk all over him.
He helped me a lot in my game, especially when I first went there. One day, we were at Westminster training and Dave asked me to wait behind and get a bag of balls. Everybody had gone.
So he lined up all the balls by the corner flag, and put another corner flag two yards past the near post on the goal-line. He said I couldn’t go home until I bent the ball in at the near post.
I was confused. I played centre-forward at Sheffield United, I didn’t take corners! I must have been there half-an-hour, the balls were going everywhere, Ossie was waiting for me and he was going ballistic.
I finally got one in, and then it dawned on me it was an extension to Dave’s coaching. It was for my development. He was a genius.
Tell us about some of the most memorable games you were involved in for Chelsea…
I scored on my debut against Sunderland at Roker Park. The biggest disappointment was the 1970 Cup final against Leeds. I had a gashed knee and was out for about two or three months. Ian Hutchinson came into the side and did fantastic. By the time I got myself fit again, the lads picked themselves.
Which team-mates were you closest to during your time here?
Me and Ossie became great friends. I lived in Ascot originally and he lived in Windsor so we used to travel everywhere together.
We used to run around Epsom Downs in pre-season. Once, we went round Tattenham Corner and Dave Sexton was annoyed me and Ossie were always last. He said we would all come back in the afternoon if we were last again the next day.
So we came back and I was running round Tattenham Corner, and I said to Johnny Hollins ‘where’s Ossie?’ All of a sudden we heard ‘paddum, paddum, paddum’ and this horse came flying past us with Ossie on the back shouting ‘I ain’t going to be last today lads!’
He had got his mate from the stables down the road to bring a horse in a horsebox, put it in the trees at the top of Tattenham Corner, and then got on and galloped past us. Dave Sexton had to laugh!
Were there any opposition teams or players you particularly disliked facing and, if so, why?
A lot! You knew people would come through you, whether it was Jackie Charlton, Ron Yates at Liverpool, Dave McKay. You had to shrug your shoulders but that’s why at 73 I am creaking today. Norman Hunter, Billy Bremner, Nobby Stiles. There were no prisoners! You had to just get up.
What about opposition fans, were their intimidating stadiums to play at?
Not really. It was great going to Anfield. I remember Bill Shankly being stood in the doorway next to our dressing room, and as we went past he said ‘alright lads, you’ve come a long way for nothing!’
The old grounds were brilliant. Dave Sexton used to sit up in the loft in the main stand at Stamford Bridge to get a better overall picture of what was going on.
What are your memories of playing against Gordon Banks? You scored three times against him for Chelsea…
I remember Ossie shooting at him once and the ball coming back to me and I dinked it over him. I scored for Sheffield United against him as well in my early years.
Gordon was a good friend of mine from that era, and he played for Leicester [where Birchenall is the matchday host] so came to the games more recently. I remember discussing it with Ossie when we were driving back from a game against Stoke. Scoring against Banksy was like getting an award. He had that status. He was one of the great players.
It's unbelievable, very sad, but you can see the outpouring. The word legend is bandied around but he was simply the best.
How do you look back on your time at Chelsea overall? Is there anything you would change or do differently?
I had three very, very happy years. I wish it could have been longer, but it wasn’t to be for different reasons.
I could have done better, but I enjoyed it. We were in the right place at the right time with the right players. Win, lose or draw, Chelsea were never a bore - on or off the field!