Any Blues fan worth their salt will know why Peter Osgood is one of our all-time greats: the FA Cup final diving header, conquering Real Madrid et al. But how did this gangly teenager from Windsor become the King of Stamford Bridge? On the 15th anniversary of his sudden passing, we look back at the early years of his incredible Chelsea career.
Only one man has ever been crowned the King of Stamford Bridge, but what was it about Peter Osgood that elevated him above his peers to such illustrious standing within the football club?
It’s clear he was blessed with immense talent on a football field. As his old manager Tommy Docherty, who we sadly lost at the end of 2020, put it, in typically jocular fashion, ‘He was great in the air and had two great feet. He was quick, skilful and brave. But he didn't have a lot after that.’
What Doc didn’t add was that, compared to some of the other legendary strikers who have graced this football club, Osgood didn’t score the most goals; others could certainly claim to be more skilful; some led the team to the highest honours in the club game. None, however, connected with the supporters quite like Ossie. A Chelsea career which produced 150 goals across 380 appearances was accompanied by many more tales away from the football field.
Plenty of those stories have been told time and time again. Instead, we’re focusing on the lesser told tales from the beginning of this Chelsea legend's career and how those early experiences, particularly under Docherty, shaped a career and a life which touched so many Blues supporters along the way.
Osgood always seemed destined for a career at the top level of sport. He was an all-rounder as a kid, representing Dedworth Secondary Modern at football, cricket, basketball and tennis. But when he left school at 15 to work in an office in Slough, soon to become a bricklayer working alongside his father, his football dream seemed to be slipping away.
Though he was excelling for local sides Spital Old Boys and Windsor Corinthians – turning out for one on the Saturday and the other the following morning – and trial opportunities arose with Reading and Arsenal, the side he had followed as a boy, it wasn't until his uncle Bob wrote to Chelsea that he gave himself a chance. With the words of Bob ringing in his ears – ‘Come on now, you can’t let me down’ – he grasped it with both hands.
Dickie Foss, the former Blues half-back and the man running what was already being talked about in football circles as one of the finest youth set-ups in the land, took all of 30 minutes to make his mind up.
‘You had natural ability,’ he told Osgood. ‘You moved well, hit the ball with both feet instinctively. It was the way you played the ball rather than what you did it with it that impressed me.’
Funnily enough, his early performances in the youth and reserve sides were also met with approval by a man whose Chelsea goal tally he would later go on to equal: Roy Bentley.
‘His father was working at Buckingham Palace,’ recalled the man who captained Chelsea to our first championship in 1955. ‘And I was talking to him about this up and coming footballer, not knowing he was Peter's father. I used to go and watch the youngsters and you didn’t need to know much to see he had something, and I knew he was going to be great.’
Only 10 months later The Man From Uncle – as his new team-mates wryly dubbed him – had stepped up into the first team, just the latest diamond to be shine under Docherty's infectiously enthusiastic management.
‘I’ve always been a great believer that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,’ said the Doc, years later, when evaluating Osgood. ‘People said to me, “He’s a good player but he’s got no experience.” You can’t just say to a player here’s five years’ experience, though. He’s got to go and play; good and bad, have setbacks and so on.
‘We had a wealth of talent, and I thought, “What are they playing in the youth team for? They’re too good for the youth team.” So, I started bringing them into the first team.’
Doc was repaid by Ossie netting twice on his debut in a League Cup tie against Workington. The next morning the 17-year-old bought a copy of each newspaper to begin his first scrapbook.
Although he had to wait for another chance, with the Blues going for glory in all three domestic competitions right up until the final weeks of the 1964/65 season, England came calling and handed him a call-up for a youth tournament dubbed 'the little World Cup'. Ossie was named as the best player in the competition, despite England losing the final to East Germany.
Without his young charge having so much has graced the turf in a First Division match, Docherty was already tipping him for the top.
‘I’d like to bet you fellows a year’s wages that my centre-forward Peter Osgood could, if he tried a little harder, be England’s centre-forward for the 1966 World Cup,’ he told the assembled hacks ahead of the new season.
His big chance to impress Alf Ramsey came in a practice match for the Three Lions – against his Chelsea team-mates! Looking for a tune up ahead of their match against Wales, but without the services of centre-forward Alan Peacock, Ossie was 'loaned' to England. He duly found the back of the net not once, but twice, and clearly enjoyed getting one over on his mate Peter Bonetti between the sticks for the Blues. ‘Pick that one out, Catty,’ he exclaimed after netting his second.
It wasn't long before he was given an extended run in Chelsea’s starting line-up at the expense of crowd favourite Barry Bridges, who had been involved in the infamous Blackpool incident the previous season and was soon to be heading for the exit door. Docherty, famously, had told Osgood not to panic if things didn’t start off according to plan – no matter what, he would be given a 10-game run to show his worth.
After a slow start, he scored a wonder goal in the snow at Villa Park, beating four men and hammering home from a tight angle. Others were beginning to stand up and take notice.
With the Blues enjoying an extended run in Europe for the first time, seeing off Italian giants Roma and AC Milan, envious glances were being cast from Serie A. Milan manager Nils Liedolhm, one of the all-time greats, predicted that Osgood would be ‘the star of England’s national side’. Soon, the club were in receipt of, as Ossie put it, a ‘gigantic offer’ from an Italian club.
He had grown up idolising Jimmy Greaves and, perhaps wary of following his hero's ill-fated decision to leave Chelsea to chase the lira, the idea wasn't even entertained. Besides, the club had just helped him celebrate his 19th birthday by giving him a house near Twickenham.
Before his teenage years were out, however, fate was to deal Osgood a cruel hand. In the space of 18 months he had gone from being paid £10 as a bricklayer to being rated as one of English football’s brightest talents, but his career soon lay in tatters.
A broken leg, suffered in a challenge with Blackpool's Emlyn Hughes, was to rule him out of the game for a year. As well as the physical scars left by such an injury, the manner of the break affected him mentally.
Watching footage of Osgood pre- and post-injury is akin to comparing two different players. In one clip from a game at Anfield, the speed and grace with which this gangly centre-forward bursts through banks of midfielders and defenders is startling; after his comeback, he had lost not one, but maybe even two yards of pace, noticeably filling himself out in order to deal with the bruising centre-halves he faced on a weekly basis.
As any great player should, he adapted. After a spell in midfield during the 1968/69 season, his now legendary strike partnership with Ian Hutchinson was struck up in the following campaign.
For every yard of pace he had lost on the ground, he regained it in his head, aided by a velcro-like first touch and preying on the apprehension of defenders who perhaps began to think twice about giving a clump to a bloke who was now well versed in the dark arts of the game.
FA Cup glory, of course, was to follow and Osgood was a scorer in every round – a feat which hasn't been achieved since – before he led us to European silverware in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Nobody could touch him as the King of Stamford Bridge.
By Richard Godden