Club historian Rick Glanvill remembers when Johan Cruyff, the best Ajax player of all time, graced the Stamford Bridge turf and wowed the west London masses in the process...
A Tuesday evening in late September 1978 brought a flavour of United States sport's razzle-dazzle to the Fulham Road and almost 40,000 turned out – the largest attendance so far that season at Stamford Bridge. However, it was left to the Thurrock Drum and Trumpet Corp to provide a very English take on American pre-match ‘razzamatazz’, giving an indication of how, for the cash-strapped hosts, this was more a money-spinner than a game-changer.
Ever since funding the new East Stand span out of control, Chelsea had been in financial peril. High-salaried players left, relegation was followed by promotion, but looked possible again. The board looked for creative ways to generate desperately needed funds, and a glamorous game between Ken Shellito’s callow kids and the appearance of the star-studded New York Cosmos was one of their successes.
The Cosmos’ roster was out of this world, peppered with veteran World Cup icons such as Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer, his Brazil counterpart Carlos Alberto, and, the biggest draw of all, Ajax, Barcelona and Holland legend Johan Cruyff. The Netherlander was not a Cosmos player as such, but contracted to play three international friendlies, of which this was one.
In the end Alberto did not figure against Ray Wilkins and company, but along with the more statuesque but stylish German, Cruyff exhibited his skills all over the field. It was arguably the best performance by any Netherlander on the SW6 pitch until the arrival of Ruud Gullit 17 years later. The attacking midfielder had scored for Ajax in a pre-season friendly in Amsterdam back in July 1970, another 1-1 draw with Ian Hutchinson netting for the Blues. Finally seeing him at the Bridge was sensational (he played again at the Bridge in another friendly in 1981, pictured top).
Chelsea’s young team contributed too. In fact, only a goal from former Manchester City striker Dennis Tueart – one of the more prosaic Cosmos players – separated the two sides, and Wilkins equalised – to the delight of the multitude. The result was a diplomatic 1-1 draw, and a great night for the club all round.
The aftermath was more embarrassing, as the club’s attempts to recruit Cruyff were hyped-up after his stellar cameo. Such a move was a Blues tradition – the club was always linked with crowd-pleasing high-profile signings, from Willie Foulke and Vivian Woodward, through ‘10-goal’ Joe Payne and Hughie Gallacher, to Tommy Lawton and Tony Hateley.
Now chairman Brian Mears appeared on Brian Moore’s ‘The Big Match’ to discuss how he was determined to make the three-time Ballon d’Or winner, a free agent, a regular fixture at the Bridge. The story generated column inches, and eventually a reporter asked Cruyff how close he was to the west London move. He responded as if a move, to Chelsea of all clubs, was absolutely out of the question, and that was that. There would be no Cruyff turns in royal blue after all.