On the day the 2019/20 Premier League season was due to be concluded, we recall final-day drama at Stamford Bridge 40 years ago when a win proved not enough to secure promotion back to the top flight...
Before the current pandemic hit football this Sunday would have been the Premier League’s day of reckoning, when the title is settled, and clubs land on the snakes and ladders of the professional game.
The last match can also be imbued with finality, as match-going supporters might not see their football friends again for a good few months, and departing players wave their farewells to the crowd.
After 19 seasons in the famous royal blue, Ron Harris was about to make the 795th and final appearance before moving to Brentford, and out-of-contract Tommy Langley would move to QPR the same summer. Both players had given everything to the cause while the Blues grappled with financial debt and relegations.
Sometimes, though, decision day can be cruel and deceiving, and that was certainly the case on 3 May 1980 when Oldham Athletic were the visitors for the last hurrah of 1979/80.
There were 28,253 present to see Geoff Hurst’s side thrash the unusually listless Lancastrians 3-0 and end their campaign in third place in Division Two, enough to earn promotion to the top tier after a one-year absence. Some supporters even invaded the pitch at the end to celebrate. That was premature, at best.
‘Two tearaway goals from Clive Walker and a fizzer from Mike Fillery add up to an agonising nine-day wonder for Chelsea,’ was how The People newspaper saw it.
The agony they referred too was the wait for other teams to complete their fixtures. Chelsea had played all 42 games, enough (in the days of two points for a win) to equal Birmingham’s final total of 53, albeit with a worse goal difference, and finish two behind leaders Leicester.
Excited reactions to events unfolding elsewhere had added to an already carnivalesque atmosphere at the Bridge during the Oldham game. This was a day when the fabled fan-with-the-trannie (a portable transistor radio) had come into his or her own, relaying to terrace neighbours each incident from St Andrew’s, where Birmingham hosted Notts County, and Brisbane Road, where the Foxes faced Orient.
A pitch-side phone had also been set up for Hurst’s assistant Bobby Gould so that he could receive updates on the ebbs and flows throughout the match. Leicester scored early and held out to beat the Os 1-0, but dispatches from the second city were far more roller-coaster.
Birmingham raced into a 2-0 lead but were pegged back to 2-2, only to take the lead again before the break. There the scoring paused for almost 20 minutes before County equalised again. One late strike for the visitors would have promoted Chelsea outright.
Sadly, it never came. Annoyingly Sunderland now stood in fourth place, one point shy of the Blues with a superior goal difference and one game remaining, at home to West Ham on 12 May.
Worryingly, though, just two days before their date with the Mackems, the Hammers were due to contest the FA Cup final with Arsenal at Wembley. ‘I’ve always thought well of John Lyall at West Ham,’ Hurst joked. ‘Let’s hope he’s thinking well of me.’
The east enders beat the Gunners to win the cup, and the story goes they were still hungover when they lost 2-0 at Roker Park, consigning Chelsea to another season in Division Two. It would be a further four seasons before the Blues finally returned to the big time.